Eminent historians including Professor K.M. de Silva who wrote a research paper in 1995 specifically addressing the subject have comprehensively debunked the Tamils’ homeland concept.
by Rohana R. Wasala
Misrepresentation and distortion of history by colonialists and separatists
The independence or dominion status that Sri Lanka (then Ceylon to foreigners) was granted by the departing British colonials was not more than a hangover from the British imperialism of the previous one and a half centuries (1798-1948) until real independence was realised through the constitutional change of 1972. The promulgation of the republican constitution in that year was arguably the first most momentous event in post-independence Sri Lanka, because it definitively reversed the total loss of independence of the country of Sinhale that happened in 1815 with the deposition of Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe the king of Kandy (1798-1815).
|The last King of Sri Lanka, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha captured here 18 February 1815|
The small minority of aging Tamil separatist leaders do not like to accept this palpable truth. They hang on to the facile and factless two nation or two countries generalization incorporated in the Cleghorn Minute of 1799 (which had been prompted by administrative convenience with hardly any regard for the facts of history, based entirely on the then existing demography of the region. Hugh Cleghorn was the colonial secretary; he must have been familiar with the efficacy of the imperial divide and rule strategy (which made potential allies against the invader turn against each other). Chief justice Alexander Johnstone twenty-eight years later (in 1827) was guilty of an even more outrageous falsehood; he thought it reasonable, on casual observation, to assume that Tamils had inhabited the north and east provinces “at the period of their greatest agricultural prosperity” (as claimed in a paper presented at an Eelam promotion London seminar in 1992). This erroneous assumption by that servant of the British empire carelessly attributed the unparalleled achievements of the well known hydrological/hydraulic civilization of the Sinhalese that flourished in the Dry Zone from at least 5th century BCE to 13th century CE to Tamils! (It was Magha of Kalinga’s invasion at the beginning of the 13th century that put an effective end to that period not only of agricultural prosperity, but booming trade with neighbouring countries, achieved by the Sinhalese. Tens of thousands of large and small water reservoirs or wewas (Sinhala)/wapi (Pali) and irrigation channels, whose exquisite engineering sophistication still amazes the world, dot the island and serve the nation, by enabling the cultivation of paddy in two seasons unhindered by the annual occurrence of rainless months. Latest archaeological finds in the hilly Walapane district indicate that the concept of storing water by damming streams pre-existed even the construction of artificial lakes (wewas) by kings Abhaya and Pandukabhaya in Anuradhapura in the 5th century BCE, where water reservoir building has traditionally been thought to have originated.
Concept of a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka debunked
Eminent historians including Professor K.M. de Silva who wrote a research paper in 1995 specifically addressing the subject have comprehensively debunked the Tamils’ homeland concept. There is absolutely no historical evidence to justify the claim that Tamils had total control over the vast area that now constitutes the north-eastern region. The nearest the Tamils got to that was when they established themselves in the Jaffna peninsula in the north and some areas adjacent to it in the south in the Vanni (vana means jungle or forest in Sinhala) district for about three centuries between the 13th and 16th centuries (i.e., following the defeat and escape of invader Magha of Kalinga that put an end to his tyrannous occupation of twenty-one years, 1215-1236 CE).
The truth: A history of foreign invasions and dogged resistance from native Sinhalese
By the time of the beginning of the European involvement in Sri Lanka with the arrival of the Portuguese at the dawn of the 16th century, the island had survived seventeen armed Dravidian invasions from South India, the first of which happened in 230 BCE (i.e., horse traders Sena and Guttika’s usurpation of the throne in Anuradhapura; the two ‘reigned righteously for twenty-two years’ as the Buddhist bhikkhu Mahanama Thera, the Mahavansa author, says in Chapter XXI, without any trace of anger or vengeful thoughts). There is no doubt that these invasions and later European interferences and interventions in the internal affairs of the island were primarily triggered by exclusive trade interests, rather than political or territorial ambitions of imperial powers. Dravidians had occupied and ruled parts of the north and east of the country intermittently for about 300 years of the first 2000 years of its 2500 year recorded history. King Vijayabahu I (prince Keerthi born c. 1039) ) reigned from 1055 to 1110. He expelled the Chola invaders who were occupying parts in the north of the country after a seventeen year struggle and brought the island ‘under one canopy’ as under Dutugemunu (161-137 BCE) before him. South Indian invasions again came after Vijayabahu’s death during the rule of his weaker successors, until his grandson Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) beat the invaders back and unified the country once again. This monarch who took great interest in the economic and cultural development of the country was so powerful that he even invaded South India and Burma (modern Myanmar) to ensure the free flow of trade between the island and neighbouring states.
Kalinga Magha invasion
Kalinga Magha’s invasion of Sinhale in the first half of the 13th century (1215-1236) took place at a particularly unstable period of royal disputes caused by rivalries and intrigues between pretenders to the throne, which had led, as can be guessed, to much internecine feuding and violence, disorder and anarchy, that attracted hostile foreign adventurers. Those ‘wicked and cruel and grievous deeds that the inhabitants of Lanka had done’ (as admitted by the Mahavansa author, would have seemed, at least in the marauder Kalinga Magha’s eyes, to extenuate the enormity of the cruel excesses committed by him on his Sinhala victims. About invader Kalinga Magha, Chapter LXXX of the Mahavansa (continued in the form of Culavansa) says (The author monk’s language does not reflect the actual economic, political and military background to this event) :
“And it came to pass that, because of some wicked and cruel and grievous deeds that the inhabitants of Lanka had done, the gods who had been placed in different parts thereof to watch over them and to protect them cared no longer for the country, and looked not any more after their safety. Thereupon a certain wicked prince of the Kalinga race, Magha by name, invaded the country at the head of twenty thousand strong men from Kalinga and took possession of the island of Lanka. And he was a follower of false faiths, and had a mind only to do mischief…” (quoted from Mudaliyar L.C. Wijesinghe translation/1889). (Note again the detached, equanimous tone of the monk author – it’s a monk of a later age who composed this Culavansa part of the Mahavansa.) The Magha invasion dealt a near death blow to the historic hydraulic engineering based civilization of the Sinhalese in the dry zone, which arguably had reached its apogee under Parakramabahu I. After twenty-one year occupation of the Lanka kingdom, Magha was beaten and driven away by the Sinhalese; apparently he did not return to his country Kalinga unlike earlier invaders, but stayed on in the north and started ruling there.
After this fortuitous disintegration of the country of Sinhale, there appeared in its southern part, several Sinhalese kingdoms, including the Kandyan kingdom in the central interior, which remained independent until 1815. However, the idea of one country one state seems to have survived the post-Magha division of the country; the division was something that was not psychologically accepted by the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese kingdom that emerged the most powerful at any time laid claim to lordship over the whole of the island, at least in principle. No authority I have read has articulated this conception of the land of the Sinhalese (Tri Sinhale) as a single sovereign nation, cherished by them over the millennia, better than the distinguished former professor of anthropology Gananath Obesekere of the University of Princeton:
In his 2017 book “The Doomed King: A Requiem for Sri Vikrama Rajasinha”, he writes: “….. all Sri Lankan kings believed that the ‘nation’ as a whole constituted an entity known as Tri Sinhala (the three parts of the Sinhala land)………….. Tri Sinhala refers to the division of the nation into three broad semi-independent regions in a kind of loose unity: Rajarata or Pihitirata in the north, part of the ancient kingdom; Maya, the western part; and Ruhuna, the very south and east. In that conception foreign invaders were there on sufferance and it is the duty of kings to redeem that historic unity…”.
In this book, Obesekere paints “a positive vision of the king using both British and Sinhala sources until his final capture and banishment…”. He thinks that the king was depicted by the intriguing British as a brutal tyrant who committed cruel excesses against his own people that he suspected of disloyalty, and who thus caused resentment and disaffection among his subjects. This was to justify their own aggressive designs on the kingdom. In reality, Sri Vikrama was ruling as a good king amidst many challenges he had to face because of the treachery of the Kandyan aristocrats engaged in intrigues with the prowling British. The researcher calls Sri Vikrama a ‘doomed king’ because the dream of Sri Lankan kings of restoring the unity of the nation (mentioned above) which he also must have entertained had become unrealistic and futile when the maritime provinces were conquered by the Portuguese and the Dutch, especially after the British turned them into a crown colony under the British empire in 1798. The king was doomed to be removed sooner or later, for they would not have allowed the Kandyan kingdom to be independent, posing a threat to their overlordship. Both governor Thomas Maitland (1805-1811) and the spying intermediary between the Kandyans and the British in Colombo John D’Oyly knew that the Kandyan kings claimed the whole of the island as their legitimate right (p.53). So, what was ceded to the British in 1815 was the whole of the land of Sinhale. That, I think, is the reason why Obesekere says that probably the deposition of king Sri Vikrama was the most momentous event in Sri Lankan history (i.e., the complete loss of independence for the first time in its over 2500 year recorded history).
(Incidentally, separatists make much of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha being allegedly a Malabar/Tamil. That is a fallacy, too. He was not a Tamil at all. He belonged to the Telegu speaking Nayaka dynasty who had come to Tamil Nadu from the north to rule there (hence called the Vadugas or northerners; they were a warrior class who had come from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka) ; they were not Tamil themselves. The Kandyan kings maintained relations with the Vadugas. In the Kandy royal court, Sinhala, Telegu, and of course Tamil were used. But most ordinary Kandyan Sinhaese were ignorant of Telegu; neither did they understand these fine distinctions. They revered the Nayaka kings including Sri Vikrama as Sinhala Buddhist kings, though they knew that they were not Sinhalese by blood, and though they thought they were Tamil. As Obesekere says, those Kandyan Sinhalese labelled even the Portuguese as Tamils! Sri Vikrama was consecrated as a Buddhist king to rule over the kingdom of Sinhale. He was crowned king not because he was a Tamil or a Vaduga, but because he was the legitimate heir to the Sinhale throne according to the rules of succession of the time.)
The last native sovereign to unify the whole of Lanka after the breaking away of parts of the kingdom caused by the Kalinga Magha invasion of the 13th century was Parakramabahu VI of the 15th century (1412-1467). He was able to do this by 1450, having conquered the northern Jaffna kingdom. However, following his death ten years later, Jaffna and Kandy broke away again. When the Portuguese made their initial moves, the kingdom of Sitawaka was the most powerful of the Sinhalese kingdoms. Despite the vicissitudes of fortunes of history over millennia the Sinhalese never gave up their sovereign claim to the whole of the island. From 1505 to 1815, the European imperial powers – the Portuguese, Dutch, and English – separately occupied the maritime provinces, while the Sinhale kingdom was reduced to the hilly interior of the island (the Kandyan kingdom), which still occupied more geographical territory than the invaders, with free access to the Trincomalee and Batticaloa harbours in the East.
The Portuguese were in Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1658, in which year they departed permanently, giving way to the Dutch. Until about 1530, Portuguese involvement in the country was limited to trade. But it became more determined and more menacing following the death of king Bhuvanekabahu VII of Kotte in 1551. The Dutch were already dominating by 1640. But their power gradually declined. The Dutch occupied territories were ceded to the British in 1796. The British overcame the entrenched Kandyan resistance through intrigue in 1815, and brought Ceylon under one rule/the British empire, having thus subjugated the whole of the land of Sinhale as a single entity. It was this unified country that was granted independence from foreign domination in 1948, at least nominally.
Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976
The so-called Vaddukoddai Resolution unanimously passed and adopted at the first National Convention of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) held under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam MP Kankesanturai in May 1976 resolved primarily that “the restoration and reconstitution of the (alleged) “Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self determination inherent to every nation, has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country”. It was based on a completely questionable reading of history, which arbitrarily and erroneously claimed that “the Sinhalese and Tamil nations have divided the possession of Ceylon, the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior of the country in its Southern and Western parts from the river Walawe to that of Chilaw and the Tamils possessing the Northern and Eastern districts…..and …..that the Tamil Kingdom was overthrown in war and conquered by the Portuguese in 1619, and from them by the Dutch and the British in turn, independent of the Sinhalese Kingdoms…… The British colonialists joined the Tamil and Sinhalese Kingdoms for purposes of administrative convenience on the recommendation of the Colebrooke Commission in 1833…”. It directed “the Action Committee of the Tamil United Liberation Front to formulate a plan of action and launch without undue delay the struggle for winning the sovereignty and freedom of the Tamil Nation, and called upon “the Tamil Nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully into the sacred fight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign state of Tamil Eelam is reached”.
The reality behind the Portuguese conquest of Jaffna in the early 17th century does not support the implicit claim in the Vaddukoddai Resolution that a significant Tamil kingdom was then in existence there. The truth was that the Portuguese defeated the Pandyan ruler who had been placed in power there and who was maintained by a mercenary army from Tanjore. When he lost to the Portuguese, that army left, and most of the inhabitants with them. Jaffna was almost totally emptied of its small population. The Portuguese had to import several thousand coolies from south India to work on their tobacco plantations. Even the few thousands made the place congested, which prompted the Dutch governor of the time to remark how overpopulated it was in as given in ‘Memoirs of Recloff Van Geons’ (December 26, 1663, translated by Reimers): “Jaffna was so full of people that they were on each other’s way, on which account the country was too small to feed…..”.
The historically unsupportable wild demands of the Eelamists involved more than one third of the geographical territory of the country including particularly the ancient city of Anuradhapura, that had remained the seat of government of Sinhale for more than one thousand five hundred years, and also the eastern province the very bedrock of the unique hydrological civilization of the Sinhalese that made them world renowned, and in addition to this, two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline, and hence two thirds of its territorial waters! All this for just 11% of the population!
Task assigned to Tamil intellectuals by the separatists
The leaders of the then fast militarizing separatist movement assigned a special task to the Tamil academics and intellectuals, and harassed those who didn’t agree with them. This was for them to provide theoretical and ideological support through their learning and superior intellect, particularly to convince the powerful international players in world politics of the alleged justness of their cause. Since the established facts were otherwise, they had to fabricate lies, which they started asserting with increasing vehemence.
Even Karthigesu Indrapala was compelled to virtually recant the conclusions that he provided much scientific evidence to support in his 1965 PhD thesis, that had proved that Tamil history in Sri Lanka began only in the 12th century CE. So he came out with “The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka” (2005), which favoured the separatist cause. Stanley Tambiah of Harvard university (who had graduated from the then University of Ceylon before attending Cornell University for his postgraduate studies in the early 1950s), a social anthropologist, wrote ‘Buddhism Betrayed: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka’ in 1992. It was a shockingly shallow work of a biased academic (I regret having to use that oxymoron in this context) that was designed to feed the anti-Sinhala Buddhist misinformation drive of the separatists. The title itself is gravely misleading. There has never been any violence committed by Buddhists on religious minorities. There was no connection between Buddhism and violence in Sri Lanka. It was all politics. It is unfortunate that no politician in the country has thought about setting the record straight in this regard. No worthwhile Sri Lankan academic has attempted to answer this pseudo work of scholarship, probably because it is not worth their attention.
Tamil youth misled
The misguided Tamil youth formed themselves into several separatist groups and after years of internecine clashes among them, the most violent LTTE got rid of all rival formations by killing off their leaders and emerged victorious. Its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was from the downtrodden fisher caste in the caste-ridden Jaffna society. It is a fact that Tamils, especially Tamils in the north and east, actually suffer from the Hindu caste discrimination, and not from non-existent Sinhala majoritatianism. Caste-free Tamil intellectuals of today, because they are correctly informed through their scholarship, and are intelligent enough to know fact from fiction, know the truth about the justness or otherwise of the separatist cause that they are now promoting through academic misinformation about everything that is important for the survival of the Sinhalese with their essentially Buddhist cultural traditions and practices, and for the preservation of the records of their ancient history and the rich archaeological heritage.
Ironically, while it is being demonstrated that America’s policy of intervening in other countries is disastrous folly as in the case of Afghanistan, TNA MP MA Sumanthiran was reported (The Island/August 27, 2021) as having called for American mediation in Sri Lanka for resolving alleged issues faced by Tamils in the North and East of the country. He pointed out that pushing this during Michelle Bachelet’s tenure as High Commissioner for Human Rights was advantageous for them. R. Sampanthan had earlier urged American ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz to get involved in getting the Sri Lankan government to fix the so-called issues affecting the Tamils in the North and East, and that those two provinces should be merged and administered by the ‘Tamil people’. The TNA was asking for a meeting with the president to discuss the implementation of the UN recommendations passed in respect of Sri Lanka during the previous sessions. This is racism taking refuge in supranationalism, for baiting nationalism.
Greatest achievement of the Sinhalese
To my mind, the greatest single achievement of the Sinhalese is their having remained a single sovereign nation with the same linguistic (Sinhala) and cultural (Buddhist) identity intact for over twenty-three centuries in the face of so many devastating onslaughts mounted throughout that long period not only on its sovereign independence but its very survival by South Indian and then European invaders (during the initial 2000 years and the last 500 years, respectively). These ever-present threats to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, unity, security, and economic wellbeing, mainly caused by the fact of its geostrategically important location, have not ceased yet.
Potential for Sri Lankan national unity
It is internal divisions that encourage external attacks on our independence. The greatest potential for national unity, in my view, comes from the easy religio-cultural symbiosis between the Tamil Hindus and the Sinhala Buddhists. Since the last mentioned circumstance above – geographic location – cannot be changed by any means, it must be accepted as an unalterable physical reality in a nationally proactive spirit, not as a curse, but as a blessing. It is up to the youth of the country of diverse ethnic backgrounds untainted by historical baggages to take up this challenge and forge ahead as one sovereign nation without allowing foreign powers to walk over us, as they have done over the last seventy three years. I wrote this long essay, not to stoke fires of racial hatred, but to douse them by ascertaining the truth about our past as far as possible, which will enable us to see our way forward more clearly.