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Regarding Thamilians and Inscriptions

| by Gam Vaesiya

( August 18, 2012, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) Mr Sivakumaran has published an article entitled "Thamilians and Inscriptions" in Mr. D. B. S. jeyraj's column, and also in the `midweek review' of the Island, 15th August. The article is said to summarizes material appearing in the Sunday Thinakkural of July 01, 2012, by a writer using the pen-name `Vaakarai Vaanan'.

Tamil women in Mullaitivu, north-east Sri Lanka. Locals say the wait for justice and reconciliation continues. Photograph: Ishara S Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images
Mr Sivakumaran had, on an earlier occasion too, summarized similar material where the same writer (Vaakarai Vaanan) had given an account of the history of Thamilians in Lanka, within a point of view different from the standard history of Lanka that may be found in, say, the writings of eminent historians. While the classic ``History of Ceylon'' published by Paranawithana and Nicholas is well known, we have other works by Arasaratnam, K. M. de Silva, and more recently, Leslie Goonawardene and Karthigesu Indrapala.

The consensus of recent opinion seems to point to the following conclusions:

(a) that language should not be equated with race (b) the linguistic or tribal composition of Lanka in the pre-Asokan period is subject to great uncertainty (c) a form of southern Prakrit known as `Elu' seems to have been prevalent in Lanka, and was close to Asokan Brahmi. Another southern Parkrit, called Tamil-Parkrit by Mahadevan is also close to Elu-prakrit. (c) The Nagas, and Yakshas of Lanka were also probably known as Helas or Ilas. These were various tribes that lived not only in Lanka, but also in the Indian continent. In fact, the Nagas were well represented both as North Indian and south Indian people. Their cities (e.g., with names like Nagpur) still survive, often under closely similar names (e.g., Nallur). Other little-known North Indian groups like the Kirats (c.f., discussed by RayChaaudri), as well as middle-eastern and austrolasian sea-farers would have found their way to Lanka, given Lanka's position on the sea routes.

I checked the Tinakkural Tamil-language article, and I did not find any inscriptional citations given there that would require us to abandon the standard position and take up Mr. Vaakarai Vaanan's views which are more in line with the histories written under the politics of Tamil militancy. The number of inscriptions in Tamil is miniscule in comparison to what is available in Elu-Sinhala. This particularly so if we examine the early period (say, prior to the 5th century CE) ; the pauacity of inscriptions in tamil is sometimes explained by nationalists that they are yet to be discovered. In our view, the frequency of observation of inscriptions is roughly proportional to the populations of speakers of each language. This confirms the standard view that that have always been some speakers of Tamil Prakrit in Lanka from the earliest times, while the majority used Elu-Prakrit that evoled into modern Sinhala.

Michael Roberts, a well-known historian and Rhodes Scholar has documented (see Journal of South Asian Studies, n.s., Vol.XXVII, no.1, April 2004) how the more empirical, scholarly historiography was distorted from 1970 onwards to support the political claims of the `exclusive Tamil homeland' policy launched by the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi in 1949. That policy was reaffirmed in the so-called Vaddukkoddai resolution in 1976. Ironically, Vaddukkoddai was an ancient garrison town, known as Batakotte, where `Bhata' means `soldiers' and 'Kotte' is `fort', in Sinhala . This Sinhalese place name was used even as late as 1900. The place name `Vaakarai', used in the pen-name of the Tinakkural writer is also an old Sinhala name which means `windy (Vaa) shore (Kara) ; and indeed this location is aptly described by that name.

According to the Tamil epigraphist Iravathu Mahadevan, the ethnic identity of Tamils (and probabaly even Sinhalese) crystalized only during the Sangam period. Contrary to the view expressed by Vaakarai Vaanan, no reputed Tamil literary historian dates the Sangam period to be anything older than the first century BC with the certainty expressed in Sivakumaran's article. That is, although various forms of protoTamil-Prakrit , Elu-Prakrit etc., were spoken by many Ila tribes, they did not identify themselves as ethnic groups. Thus, if we follow Mahadevan and other historians, the emergence of `Tamils' as an ethnic group could be dated to about the first century BCE, or later. This dating is consistent with the appearance of the word 'dameda', or 'damela' in the Pali chornicles, as well as in the stone inscription in Nagarjuna-kanda, Inda, discussed by J. Ph. Vogel. They are also consistent with the fact that the Asokan inscriptions circa third century BCE do not refer to a`Tamilaham'.

What does the name `Damila', Dameda or Dravida mean? Karthigesu Indrapala (in his book `Evolution of an ethnic Identity') points out that names are given to ethnic groups or tribes by others referring to them. The Northern Indian writers (i.e., writing in Sanskrit) referred to the tribes south of the Vindhya mountains as the `Dakkina', 'dammina' and or `damila' region.

Could it also be that the name comes from `Thak-ila', the southern Ilas? Thus the name `Damila' refers to a geographic location, in much the same way that we refer to the people of the `middle-east'. Indeed, the `Hathigumpa' inscription of the Kalinga King Khaaravela of the 1st century BCE referes to a confederacy or region of `Tramira samghata' (Sanskrit word `samghata' means closely located). Thus, while the name 'damila' was already used by outsiders to refer to `southern tribes', it is finally used by Tamils themselves only in the Tolkappiyam, a Tamil grammar of the 1st century CE.

The rigid caste system imposed by Hinduism also prevented the rise of a strong ethnic identity, since the upper castes of different tribes inter-married with the castes matched, while being `Tamil' was much less important. Thus southern kings preferred fair-skinned consorts from North India who were not Tamils, but they had to be of the Kshatriya caste. If we take the Mahavamsa story at its face value, when Vijaya rejected the brown-skinned `Ku-veni', and sent for a fair-skinned princes from Madurai, it is documented that this queen was a North Indian with kinship to the Sakyans! In fact, not only the queens, but even the early rulers of the nascent south Indian kingdoms were Guptas from North India. Their officials were known as `Mudraadari (bearers of the official seal)', that transformed into the officious `mudali' or `mudliyars' of today.

There is reason to believe that the sense of ethnic identity appeared earlier in societies where the caste restrictions were weaker. In Sri Lanka, Buddhism reduced the power of the caste system, and had a unifying influence among the Elu-speaking people who expressed their identity through epic historical poems written Pali. Even in modern times, it is the caste problem which creates divisions between the `Batticaloa Tamils, the `Estate Tamils', and the Jaffna Tamils. Within Jaffna society too, we have a fractured, hierarchical community of masters and oppressed whose very presence is regarded as polluting by the masters.

Mr. Vaanan had listed the names of many historians ("Thomas Burrow, Romila Thapar, ... K.Indrapaala, etc.), most of them would no longer subscribe to the discredited `Aryan' hypothesis. So, where is the evidence for Mr. Vaakari Vaanan's claims that " the indigenous Dravidians who lived in northern India were chased out by the Aryans" and was therefor called 'Damila'.? We are unable to find such an etymological analysis for the word `Damila', or 'Dramila.

The point to recognize is that Lanka always had a small population of proto-Damila speaking people, and a larger population of Elu speaking people. Just as the proto-Damila speakers developed a Tamil ethnic consciousness around the first century BCE, the Elu-speaking people developed their Sinhala `ethnic consciousness too, probably around the same time. Once might look at Celts, Normans, and Anglo-Saxons in England, slowly merging into a mongrel (i.e., mixed) ethnic group which began to take a misplaced pride in its `purity' as the English race. The same type of misplaced consciousness occurs in many `ethnic groups', and this often leads to a rewriting of history for narrow political reasons.

It took centuries of wars for the European nations to give up their individual nationalisms in exchange for the European identity. In Sri lanka too, after 40 years of strife, it is high time to recognize that those of us living today have little or no genealogical links with the Ila or Hela people of the second century BCE who may have lived here, and that we are all mongrels who share a common gene pool.

I hope Mr. Sivakumaran would be the kind intermediary and transmit his Tamil summary of this article to Thinakkural.

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