Primary Sources for History of the Sri Lankan Tamils: A World-Wide Search MV Publications,
P.O.Box 5317 Chullora, New South Wales, Australia 2190
* indicates link to
bookshop on line, also available at
[See also by the same author -
Sri Lankan Tamil
Nationalism - A Study of its Origins
Tamils in Sri Lanka - A Comprehensive History (C.300 B.C. - 2000
by Ana Pararajasingham at the launch of the book on 24th
December 2005 [see also M.Thanapalasingham -
இடையறாத முயற்சியே தவமெனப்படுவது
Before I begin my review of this publication, I think it is
only appropriate that we reflect on the significance of the
study of history. History as we know is something we all posses
as individuals, as families and as a people. To a large extent,
history defines who we are. It gives us that sense of identity.
It is claimed that if we do not learn from history we are doomed
to relive it- mistakes and all. It was once said of the French
Royal Dynasty, the Bourbons: �They learn nothing and forget
nothing� implying that history, at least to some, had taught
very little. But then I have also heard it said that 'The
present is the past rolled up for action and the past is the
present unrolled for understanding" suggesting that history is a
powerful force in shaping our existence as individuals and as a
people. History as we understand is often the version of a past
that reflects the bias of the historian. Hence that well-known
quote attributed to Winston Churchill that �History is written
by the victors�.
This brings us to Dr Gunasingam�s book
and its significance and relevance to us as a people. The fact
is that a comprehensive historical account of the Tamil people
in the Island of Sri Lanka is yet to be written. True, there are
certain specialised areas, which have been studied in detail by
scholars of the calibre of
Arasaratnam, Pathmanthan and Ragupathy. Then there is
the recent publication
by Dr Indrapala tracing the evolution of a Tamil identity in
the Island of Sri Lanka. Indrapala perhaps comes closest to
meeting this need for a comprehensive account. Having said that
there is no denying that there is much more to be researched,
probed and explored.
As Dr Gunasingam mentions in this
book there are number of reasons for this state of affairs. The
major reason is of course the lack of archaeological studies
carried out in the Tamil homeland. This is largely due to the
restrictions that Tamils faced as a marginalised, persecuted and
discriminated group. This hampered original research being
undertaken. It was also because many of the primary sources that
are invaluable to researchers had been destroyed inadvertently
or deliberately. Some of you may recall that a deliberate
destruction took place within our living memory in 1981 when the
Jaffna Public Library home to many rare manuscripts was burnt
Many of the primary sources relating to our
history are held by our past colonial masters in their libraries
and national archives in Britain, Holland, Portugal and even the
I think it may be worthwhile pondering why colonial
powers tended to capture the history of the people they
conquered by taking away their artefacts, recording and
reinterpreting their history. According to Edward Said, the
Palestinian intellectual, this is the very nature of conquests.
You conquer a people by conquering their history and their past.
In effect you colonise their minds as well as their land. This
is very true when it comes to us-the Tamil people of the Island
of Sri Lanka. Those who have sought to rule over us or have in
fact ruled us have told our history-in their words.
Gunasingam's book is an attempt to rectify this state of affairs
by enabling our history to be researched and recorded from
In his book Dr Gunasingam presents his findings. It
involved locating, identifying and recording the primary
sources. It was surly a challenging task. As a historian and a
librarian, Dr Gunsingam had the unique skill set that enabled
him to carry out this immense and rewarding assignment.
His quest took him to Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, Portugal,
Holland, the UK and the US. He admits that he found it
�extremely difficult to discover particularly useful primary
sources in Tamil Nadu�. In Goa despite difficulties, he had some
success. He found evidence that Cankilli�s daughters were taken
to Goa by the Portuguese and the eldest daughter became a
Catholic and married into the Portuguese Royalty. Dr Gunasingams
says �That Cankilikumaran was taken by the Portuguese to Goa
would now appear to be a historical fact�
itself the author appears to have had some real measure of
success in locating primary sources. These include sources
� Death of Pararasa Sekeran
� Expulsion of the Jaffna
� Religious conversions
� Exodus of the
Jaffna people into the Vanni
� Portuguese settlements in
And many others.
In the National Bibiliotheque in
Lisbon he found original 17th Century maps of Ceylon.
the Netherlands, Dr Gunasingam came across �an enormous quantity
of valuable primary sources relating to Sri Lanka and especially
to Sri Lankan Tamils�. This included an account depicting the
fierce spirit of independence displayed by one of the Vanni
chiefs- Kaila Vanni.
Dr Gunasingam also identified a
significant number of primary sources in Britain at the British
Library in the section allocated to Indian & oriental
collections. At the Bodelian Library in Oxford, he discovered a
doctoral thesis by M H Peter de Silva that sheds light on early
Tamil settlements in the central province.
in Britain involved several other places including the libraries
at the University of Cambridge, Royal Commonwealth Society
Library and the National Archives in London
Gunesingam�s quest had also taken him to Paris Germany and
Switzerland where he located primary sources. In Switzerland for
instance he discovered complete copies of documents from the
International Tamil Archives based in Kandy in Sri Lanka.
Even though the US did not colonise Ceylon, Americans were in
Ceylon to promote the Christian faith among the
locals-particularly the Tamils. In the course of their stay
which was largely in the Jaffna Peninsula considerable amount of
documentation occurred. Many of which, the author discovered in
Of course, Dr Gunasingam�s book is not a mere
catalogue of findings. It is interspaced with history and
anecdotes, which make the book an interesting read as well.
What impressed me most about this book is the dedication and
focus of the author who despite almost insurmountable odds
undertook a mammoth task and succeeded in it.
has been that of a guide to future historians, who, can now be
expected to embark upon the task of recording the authentic
history of the Tamil people in the island of Sri Lanka.
As we Tamils of Eelam stand at the threshold of establishing a
state of our own, Dr Gunasingam has accomplished an enormous
feat to consolidate our national identity as a people.
salute Dr Gunasingam and his enormous drive to accomplish
something of immense national significance. He will and should
be remembered as a pioneer who had paved the way for historians
of the future.
Almost a century ago C W
Thamotharampiilai had cried out in pain concerned that our
heritage was being lost as ancient manuscripts were being
destroyed through neglect.
�Gentlemen are you not
concerned that these manuscripts are wasting away? Do you not
realise that Tamil is your mother? Do you feel proud about not
having a sense of national religious or linguistic pride?
Gunasingam had answered this call by acting with a single-minded
dedication. Let us do our part by buying the book reading it and
most importantly encouraging the next generation to continue
what Gunasingam had begun.