The case for original place names in Sri Lanka, in each language.

By Gam Vaesiya

(April 05, Ontario, Canada , Sri Lanka Guardian) A number of articles have appeared in the recent past, in several newspapers and in Internet blogs, discussing the `"pros and cons" of reverting to the original place names of the country. The blog-sites of the Sri Lanka newspapers had iscussed Place names in the North and re-featured an old article by Horsburgh.More recently, Upali Jayasekera (UJ), Austin Davis, and most recently Mr. S. Abewickrema and Mr. P. A. G. Henry have written about traditional place names in the opinion columns of the Island.

Mr. Abewickrema also wrote in the Island and contends that continued use of anglicized names like Negambo, Trincomalee, or tolerating post boxes with the "George Rex" emblem (see image) are "Colonial relics" that we should do without. Mr. Henry states that "If we try to replace the anglicized names of our popular destinations like Kandy, Negombo, Galle etc with their historical names as suggested by UJ and transliterate them into English, it is likely to create unnecessary confusion specially among foreigners". Meanwhile Austin Davis fears that a segment of history would be obliterated.

Multiplicity of English transliterations of place-names.

Sri Lanka's history has woven itself into a rich tapestry since the time of the ancient sea routes and the silk route which called on Mahatheetha (Mannar) and connected ancient Europe with the far East. Thus contemporary Sri Lanka has place names which contain roots derived from Elu, Pali, Sanskrit, Sinhala, Tamil, Malayalam, Portuguese, Dutch and English names. Some names have arisen due to the inability of the invader to accurately sound a local name. Thus a name may have a variety of different spellings in English. Tamil names are even more daunting than Sinhala place names. Thus a town near Madakalapuwa, known in Sinhala as "Kirala weva", and "Iralaikkulam" in Tamil gets anglicized into "Irallaikulam" and "Eeralaakulam" as well. This is not an exception, but is quite typical of the problem. The politically famous Vadukoddai has at least five anglicized avatars, viz., "Vadukoddai, Vaddukoddai, Vaddukkodai, Vaddukkodai, Vaddukoddei". Even in 1900, older residents of Vadukoddai knew the original place name to be Batakotte, which even figured in the name of the American seminary which existed at the present site of Jaffna College. The sinhala place-name testifies to its use as a garrison town even during the times of the Portuguese historian de Queyroz. A detailed study of the traditional place names of Sri Lanka has been published in print as a book, as well as in on-line format (see for example, which may be accessed by clicking (Click here)).

Clearly then, Mr. Henry's belief that using English names would alleviate possible confusion is based on his focusing on a few well known locations like Colombo, Galle and Kandy. A systematic officially recognized English transliteration of the Sinhala and Tamil place names is a crying need that should be addressed by the official-maps unit of the government. That is, we need to replace the multiple forms of English spelling of a place name like Vadukoddai (Batakotte) by a unique rendering.

Our Rich Historical Tapestry

However, that does NOT mean that we throw out the usage in several languages that we have inherited as part of our rich historical tapestry. Thus Alimankada is known as Elephant Pass in English, and Anaiyiravu in Tamil. An old Sinhala prakrit name like Rana-madu becomes Iraanamadu in Tamil, in conformity with the grammatical demands of the Tolkappian, where consonants like "R" are decorated with a preceding vowel "I", in this case. The Mahavamsa clearly lists names of sea ports like Meepathota (Madupadathitha), which were directly rendered into Iluppaikadavai by the Kalinga-Magha forces, and today rendered by a variety of spellings like " Illuppakadavai, Illupaikadavai".

The solution to this multi-lingual place-names is simple. Let the Sinhala writers, journalists and Sinhala speakers (i.e., some 75% of the population) use the traditional place names which are available for almost all place names through out the island. Similarly, let the Tamil counterparts (i.e., some 10-15%) use the Tamil name if available. The English writers could use the
English name, with the Sinhala or Tamil name in parenthesis. This is already a well established formula. Thus the place-name Brussels becomes Bruxelle when writing in French, Bru(mlaut)ssel in German, and Bruselas is Spanish.

It is time to save the British historical legacy

As for the "colonial signs" like the post boxes of the British era (see attached image), the government must catalogue them, protect them, and make every endeavor to
display them in situ. If that is impossible, the object can be removed and displayed in a local museum. They are extremely valuable, irreplaceable tourist attractions, as some of them are a century old and still in excellent shape.

Some of the older people may have lived under the British Raj, and may fail to think these objects as historical. However, it time now to recognize that the British Era is a part of history, and we need to take active steps to safeguard its historical artifacts which are fast disappearing as old buildings, road names, old bridges, traffic roundabouts, culverts etc., are "renovated", "modernized" and lost for ever. Howmany quaint old iron bridges have we lost for the modern pre-stressed concrete ones?

I also attach herewith a "limestone" bridge from the Bibila area, built in 1872 by the 10th Division Pioneers Engineering Corps (see image). This is a unique engineering construction from the 19th century, which should also be preserved at all costs, rather than demolished in the name of road modernization. If road modernization is needed, the new road should pass along side this bride, and mark off the ancient bridge as a historical site.