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Sri Lankan History and the Tamil Problem

by J.L. Devananda

(June 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Many renowned Sinhalese and Tamil Historians, Archaeologists, Geologists, Epigraphists, Genealogists, Anthropologists, etymologists and Linguistic Scholars as well as Indian, American and British Scholars have engaged in research, on the ancient history of Sri Lanka for more than 30 years, conducting Archaeological excavations. The latest Archeological and Genealogical discoveries in Sri Lanka using modern technology show that not only the Flora and Fauna but the people of South India and Sri Lanka are of the same stock.

On the basis of archaeological evidence from excavations, the geologists and archaeologists are of the opinion that as the result of a natural calamity Sri Lanka broke off from the Indian landmass and became an island many thousands of years ago. This has been further established by findings relating to their culture, language and religion that show that the people of these two regions were closely connected. Nevertheless, the modern archeologists and historians accept that the ancient people of Sri Lanka belonged to the Dravidian Language family and followed the Dravidian (Megalithic) culture of 'Urn Burials'. The findings also show that there was a strong similarity between the ancient people of Sri Lanka and those of South India.

However, Pali and Sinhalese historical records and literature claim that the ancient people of Sri Lanka belonged to the Aryan language family and spoke Sinhalese, an Aryan language and that they came from North India. To date no archaeological evidence has been found to support these theories. The early European and Sinhalese historians and Pali scholars based their theories that the ancient people of Sri Lanka were Sinhalese largely on historical records found in the Deepavamsa and Mahavamsa Pali (Buddhist) chronicles written in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. and on ancient stone inscriptions written in the North Indian languages of Pali and Sanskrit. These historians are particularly inclined to use the Deepavamsa and Mahavamsa written in the fourth and fifth century A.D. by the Mahavihara monks as the main source. The Mahavamsa begins with the historical legend of Vijaya who was deported from North India and arrived in Sri Lanka in the fifth century BC. In addition, the Mahavamsa also speaks of the three visits of Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka and the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by the Buddhist mission sent to Sri Lanka by the Maurya Emperor Asoka in the third century BC. This mission was led by his son and Buddhist priest Mahinda. The records of the Mahavamsa along with other historical documents and writings also tell of Devanampiya Tissa, the king of the Anuradapura Kingdom, who embraced Buddhism in the same period.

These accounts have naturally led the early historians and archeologists to consider that the history of Sri Lanka begins with the third century BC. However, there is no reliable historical evidence of the arrival of Vijaya and his associates in the fifth century BC or of his rule in Sri Lanka. It is possible to infer that, the Mahavihara monks including Ven. Mahanama, the author of the Mahavamsa, witnessed the decline and disorientation of Buddhism in India (especially South India) during the fourth and fifth century BC. Due to their devotion to Buddhism and desire to consolidate this religion in Sri Lanka they decided to write the Pali chronicles. It is also possible that Ven. Mahanama began his chronicle with the legend of Vijaya with the sole purpose of linking Buddhism with its relationship to North Indian languages as a means to achieve his goals.

The important fact that must be considered in this context is that Saivaism was firmly established in Sri Lanka long before the arrival of Buddhism on the island. The kings of the Anuradapura Kingdom had been Saivaites before the advent of Buddhism. Besides, the Kingdom of Anuradapura was a well developed and strong kingdom in the third century BC, a status that would have required centuries to attain. Would it have been possible for Vijaya who arrived in Sri Lanka only in the fifth century BC to start from scratch and build up such a full-fledged kingdom in Anuradapura? It is apparent that the Kingdom of Anuradapura originated and gradually developed into a strong kingdom through many centuries and that the people who established the kingdom were Tamils of the Dravidian family. Tamil culture and Saiva religion were practiced in ancient Sri Lanka as Tamils were the ancient people of Sri Lanka, a fact established by the archaeological evidence that has come to light.

The culture, language, and religion of an ethnic people are the most significant factors determining their unique identity. Archaeological evidence shows that the ancient Dravidian people of ancient Sri Lanka, influenced by the arrival of Buddhism and the North Indian languages associated with it, gradually embraced Buddhism, its cultural traditions and the languages related to it. For instance, archaeological findings prove that Buddhism enjoyed an influential status as the religion of the people in the traditional Tamil regions in the north, east and northwest parts of Sri Lanka, during the first two centuries BC. Would it be right to call these people Sinhalese on the basis that Buddhism was their religion in the early historical period? The history of Sri Lanka, from the third century A.D. to the ninth century A.D., is permeated with the influence of Buddhism and Buddhist culture. This includes from early historical times, the intrusion of Pali and Sanskrit languages and their spread among the ancient Tamils of Sri Lanka and their Dravidian culture, as well as the origin of the new language from Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil languages known as Helu/Sinhala.

Two significant events took place in Sri Lanka following the tenth century A.D. in the wake of the Cola domination of Sri Lanka. The first is that the people who identified themselves as Sinhalese shifted their seats of rule from the ancient kingdoms of Anuradapura and Polanaruwa towards South Sri Lanka. The second was the Tamils moved their ruling structures from these same regions to the north and east of the island.

Consequently, the ancient kingdoms of Anuradapura and Polanaruwa, abandoned by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, were engulfed by the jungle that temporarily separated the two ethnic groups for the next four or five centuries. As a result, the Sinhalese developed into a separate ethnic people with their distinct Buddhist religion and culture and Sinhalese language and established their Southern kingdom at Kotte, while the Tamils, in their traditional regions in the north, east and northwest of Sri Lanka began to establish their kingdoms under the newly risen Jaffna Kingdom, maintaining their distinct Tamil language, culture and Saiva religion while the Kingdom of Kandy in the hill country remained common to both Sinhalese and Tamils.

This situation did not last long. The Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms declined and eventually succumbed to the Portuguese invaders. The Kingdom of Kandy, however, retained its sovereignty and resisted capture by the Portuguese. The Tamils lost their kingdom forever as a result of Portuguese invasion, and the foreign Catholic religion was forcibly thrust on them.

The Tamils lost their sovereignty, religion, economic infrastructure and wealth and were reduced to slaves in their own land. It is a bitter historical truth that it was not only the Portuguese, Dutch and the British who were responsible for this state of affairs but also the competitiveness, superiority complex, disunity, jealousy, lack of co-operation and patriotism among the Sri Lankan Tamils. It is unlikely this situation can be changed until the Tamil politicians and officials truly realize the gravity of the situation and apply themselves sincerely to solving these urgent problems which still exists within the Tamil community. The unity and solidarity among the Tamils (North, East, Upcountry, Colombo) is the number one priority. These people (leaders) have to decide whether or not the Tamils are to continue living as slaves and refugees.

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