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Jaffna: A Medieval Tamil Hindu State

| by Dr. Naresha Duraiswamy

( August 24, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There was a Tamil kingdom in north Sri Lanka that lasted between 350 to 400 years despite the vicissitudes, turbulence and interruptions. The Kingdom of Jaffna developed maritime and commercial influence of some importance in the 1300s of the Common Era (CE). The 1400s CE witnessed external factors at play that led to a relative military decline. There was however a significant cultural efflorescence. The kingdom faced internal dissension and intrigue in the 1500s CE before falling to the Portuguese in 1621. Here is a remarkable story that is often forgotten in today’s historical discourse.

I am indebted to the publications cited in the bibliography below. Particular acknowledgement is due to the seminal work of Professor S. Pathmanathan. I am not a historian by academic background and the narrative below is written strictly in my private and individual capacity.

Historical Background
Three events were pivotal to the start of the Sri Lankan Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna. 1215 CE marked the invasion of Sri Lanka by Magha of Orissa while the year 1270 CE represented the invasion of a Pandyan General from South India by the name of Arya Cakravarti. The year 1310 CE marked the fall of Madurai in South India and the establishment of the Madurai Sultanate. These three incidents helped define the rise of the Jaffna Kingdom.

The South Indian Cholas had previously invaded Sri Lanka in 993 CE and ruled it as a province until 1070 CE. They redemarcated the administrative boundaries within the island, introduced new institutional mechanisms of local-level governance and sponsored a vibrant Tamil Hinduism. Parakrama Pandya of Madurai invaded Sri Lanka in 1212 CE while Chola forces raided the northern districts once again as described in contemporary Sinhalese literary records such as the Sasadavata.

Magha of Orissa invaded Sri Lanka in 1215 CE with an army of Tamils, Malayalees and Kannadigas. That invasion represented a seismic shift in the history of the island in that it smashed centralized authority, destroyed the irrigated rice-based economy and forced the shift of Sinhalese political power to the South West. The resultant political vacuum facilitated the initial stirrings of a unique Tamil Hindu polity in the far north of Sri Lanka. This became the Kingdom of Jaffna.

The Pali chronicle, the Culavamsa, refers to several military garrisons established by Magha in northern Sri Lanka. A medieval Sri Lankan Tamil literary work, the Mattakalappu Maanmiyam describes Magha’s Vira Saiva antecedents and his endowments to the Siva Temple in Trincomalee, his consecration of a Siva temple in Kokkadicholai in Batticaloa and the construction of a third Hindu temple in Tirukovil in Amparai. He settled warrior Vanniyar chiefs in the North and East of the island as documented in another Sinhalese text, the Pujavaliya. The Vanniyars according to Professor K. Indrapala were soldiers, not all of whom were of Tamil origin. The Vanniyars of Puttalam and Batticaloa had Malayalee antecedents while those in Polonnaruwa and Mahiyangana were of tribal Veddah or Sinhalese origin. The Tamil Vanniyar chiefs of Tenna-maravali, Mel-pattu, Muliyaa-valai and Panan-kaamam in the North formed the nucleus of the future Kingdom of Jaffna.

Magha ruled until 1265 CE. A Malay adventurer invaded the island twice thereafter with South Indian mercenary soldiers. Jatavarman Sundara Pandya neutralized that Malay incursion. There were two more Pandyan invasions, the second of which was led by a General named Arya Cakravarti around 1270 CE.
The Pandyan General Arya Cakravarti became the first King of Jaffna in North Sri Lanka. Jaffna owed initial fealty to Madurai while its rulers assumed the title Setu Kavalan or guardians of Rameshwaram. The successor kings were also known as the Arya Cakravarti after the first Pandyan General.
The sack of Madurai in 1310 CE, the establishment of the Madurai Sultanate and the demise of Pandyan power made the Kingdom of Jaffna independent of South Indian suzerainty. It then embarked upon naval expansion, control of the Indo-Ceylon Straits and overseas commerce. The sixty years between 1310 CE and circa 1370 CE were the golden years in Jaffna.

The Nikaya Sangraha and the Rajavaliya, both medieval Sinhalese historical works, describe the Arya Cakravartis of Jaffna as the dominant and foremost power in Sri Lanka during this period. Jaffna levied tribute from the Sinhalese hill country and maritime littoral. The Arya Cakravarti stationed tax collectors in Gampola south of Kandy and in Biyagama just north of Colombo. His ships were berthed in Panadura south of Colombo. The Nikaya Sangraha corroborates the presence of Tamil military garrisons in the Sinhalese west coast. The Rajavaliya mentions that Jaffna controlled 9 ports in the Sinhalese areas and adds that the Sinhalese Kingdom of Gampola fell to Jaffna in 1359.

The North itself was heavily militarized. A garrison dominated Kayts off the west coast of Jaffna. An underground garrison or ‘pilathuvaram’ was constructed in Thondaimannar. Other forts were built in Nallur, Kopay and the northern mainland. Jaffna was a garrison state that sponsored the movement of peoples from Tamil Nadu to the Sri Lankan north in the 1300s CE.

Jaffna endeavored to control the Sinhalese hinterland purely for economic reasons. It intended to monopolize Sri Lankan trade with West Asia in cinnamon, spices and gems. The tax returns on economic activity in the South were also a significant source of revenue.
The Jaffna kingdom controlled the pearl fisheries in the Indo-Ceylon straits as well and monopolized Sri Lanka’s commerce with India. Jaffna controlled Sri Lanka’s overseas trade in pearls, rubies, cinnamon and elephants. Ibn Battuta who visited Sri Lanka in 1344 records 100 ships of varying sizes belonging to the King of Jaffna in transit off the coast of Kerala. The Jaffna trade with Yemen and the Horn of Africa was brisk as witnessed by the recent excavation of 14th century Jaffna Tamil coinage on the East African coast. The vibrant commerce with Ming dynasty China is likewise witnessed in contemporary Chinese porcelain excavated in Jaffna. Kayts was a ship manufacturing center. Elephants were exported to India through Kayts such that subsequent Portuguese records described it as the ‘bay of elephants’. Portuguese travelers similarly described Delft near Jaffna as the ‘isle of cows’ with a flourishing dairy industry while Mannar was the center of the pearl fisheries. This was a vibrant non rice-based economy.
Portuguese archival documents indicate that the Jaffna economy was heavily monetized in contrast to the Sinhalese kingdoms to the south. The king paid his troops, royal officials and temple priests in cash. There were no large land owners nor were there significant endowments of land. It was a predominantly cash economy.

Adiyar-ku-nallaar, a royal official, constructed three reservoirs in Jaffna i.e. the Nayanmaar Kaadu dedicated to the 63 Saivite Hindu saints, Adiyar-ku-nalaan kulam and Aryar Kulam. Another ruler constructed the Yamun-eri with water consecrated from the Yamuna river.

The Fateful Triangle: Vijayanagara, Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte and Jaffna
The Jaffna kingdom however declined militarily in the 1400s CE with the rise of the Sinhalese Kingdom of Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte in the South and the Vijayanagara conquest of Tamil Nadu circa 1370 CE. A Minister of Kerala descent at the Sinhalese court, Vira Alakeswara, challenged the Arya Cakravarti. He killed the Jaffna tax collectors in the Sinhalese south in 1369, razed the Jaffna garrisons on the western seaboard and burnt the ships of the Jaffna king anchored in Panadura. The Arya Cakravarties responded with a second naval and ground invasion as described by the Rajavaliya. The Jaffna military had advanced to the central highlands but this could not be sustained on account of parallel developments in South India.

The contemporary Vijayanagara annexation of Tamil Nadu transformed Jaffna into its tributary state. Jaffna lost its navy, its control over the Indo-Ceylon straits and monopoly of the Indo-Ceylon trade. It lost its commercial reach. Jaffna, once a vibrant maritime kingdom, had become an insular agrarian state. With the rise of Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, the Vanni principalities in the northern mainland were briefly annexed by the Sinhalese confining the Jaffna kingdom to the peninsula, Mannar island and the Mullaitivu coast. In 1450, Kotte went on to even annex Jaffna. While the Arya Cakravarties soon regained control with Vijayanagara support, Jaffna was reduced to a mere principality. A Kannada garrison was based in Jaffna to protect it from further Sinhalese incursions. Krishna Deva Raya of Vijayanagara stationed his navy in Jaffna circa 1500 CE and described himself in inscriptions as ‘Eelam Tirai Konda’.

The Jaffna Kings sponsored a Saivite Tamil Hinduism through the construction of temples, the performance of religious rituals and support for Hindu preceptors such as the Saiva Raja Pandita in the 1300s and Supathidda Munivar in the late 1400s. The latter had prophesized a series of European conquests, a prediction that was inscribed on the walls of the Siva Temple in Trincomalee. The Tamil Hindu almanac or the Vakya Panchangam was first issued by Ramalinga Aiyar in Jaffna in the 1600s. Portuguese travelers counted 500 Hindu temples in the Jaffna peninsula alone. The capital Nallur was flanked by four temples dedicated to Siva, Ganesha, Skanda and Kali. The Jaffna kings made lavish contributions to the Siva temple in Trincomalee that lay outside their jurisdiction. A king used the stone from Trincomalee to extend the Rameshwaram Temple in Tamil Nadu between 1414 and 1417 CE. The famed Tamil Hindu poet, Arunagirinathar, visited Jaffna on pilgrimage circa 1468 CE. Jaffna’s most sacred Hindu place of worship, the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, was commissioned by a Sinhalese ruler circa 1450. The Punjabi Janam Sakhis describe Guru Nanak’s trip and encounter with the King of Jaffna in 1506 CE.

A Tamil academy was established in Jaffna in 1478. Jaffna produced a series of literary works that included three medical treatises on Siddha Ayur Veda i.e. the Jega-raja sekeram, the Para-raja sekeram and the Vaidya cintamani; a work on astronomy i.e. the Jega-raja sekera maalai, historical poems such as the Dakshina Kailasa Puranam that chronicled the history of the Siva temple in Trincomalee, the Kailaya Malai by Muttu Raja that documented the construction of the Siva temple in Nallur, the Vaiya Paadal that described the migrations from the Chola country into northern Sri Lanka, the Para-raja Sekaram Ula and the Koneswar Kalvattu by Kavi Raja Varotayan. Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa was translated from Sanskrit into Tamil by Arasa Kesari. Poets were also invited from South India. The literary manuscripts were preserved in the Royal Library – the Saraswati Maha Alayam in Nallur.

A more enduring legacy of the Jaffna kingdom was a distinct school of jurisprudence, the Tesa-valamai which translates as the ‘law of the land’. While the law was only codified by the Dutch between 1663 and 1707, its origins lie in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Tesa-valamai governed matrimonial rights, the inheritance of property, the sale of land, the lease of land, the mortgage of land, the rights and liabilities of the co-owner, commercial loans, donations, marriage, adoption and guardianship. It ruled on caste and slavery. The legal provisions bear remarkable similarities to the Marumakattayam law of Kerala. Parts of the Tesa-valamai continue to be upheld by the courts of independent Sri Lanka.

The Portuguese conquest

The Portuguese arrived in Ceylon in 1505 CE. They entered into a treaty with the Sinhalese kingdom of Kotte which transferred the administration of Sri Lanka’s west coast to Portugal. Kotte in the interior became a Portuguese vassal state in 1518. A Roman Catholic assumed Kotte’s throne in 1551. The Portuguese annexed Kotte outright in 1597. Sinhalese power retreated to the inaccessible hill country.

Jaffna fell to the Portuguese only in June 1619. The Sri Lankan Tamils revolted in March 1620 and in December 1620. Raghunatha Nayak of Tanjore provided ground troops in support of the Arya Cakravarti claimants. Jaffna also sought the naval assistance of Mana Vikrama, the Samudri of Calicut but the help came too late. The Portuguese had suppressed the revolt in February 1621. The defeat of the Vijayanagara by the Deccan sultanates in 1565 meant that there was no coordinated resistance against the Portuguese by Calicut, Tanjore and Jaffna.

The Sri Lankan Tamils revolted once again in 1628 and in 1629 with help of King Senarat of Kandy. Two nieces of the last Arya Cakravarti had claimed the throne. In June 1658 the Portuguese were driven out by the Dutch. The Portuguese interlude in Jaffna had lasted 37 years, considerably less than the 153 years that Portugal administered Colombo and Sri Lanka’s western sea coast.

Let us not forget this important episode in Sri Lankan history.

S. Pathmanathan: Kingdom of Jaffna: Origins and Early Affiliations: Lake House: Colombo: 1978
S.Pathmanathan: Hindu Temples of Sri Lanka: Kumaran Book House: Colombo: 2006
K. Indrapala: Early Dravidian Settlements in Ceylon and the beginnings of the Kingdom of Jaffna: Unpublished PhD Dissertation: University of London: 1965
C.S. Navaratnam: Tamils and Ceylon: From the Earliest Period up to the end of the Jaffna dynasty, Saiva Prakasa Press: Jaffna: 1958.
Fernao de Queroz: The Spiritual and Temporal Conquest of Ceylon: Government Printer: Colombo: 1930
Tikiri Abeysinghe: Jaffna Under the Portuguese: Stamford Lake: Colombo: 2005
H.W. Tambiah: Laws and Customs of Tamils of Jaffna: Women’s Education and Research Center: Colombo: 2001