At the moment, there seems to be a lull in the Sri Lankan crisis with the
army apparently in control in Jaffna and the LTTE lying low. Nobody, however,
should deceive themselves that the problem is solved or that the army is finally
in command and the LTTE beaten. More has to happen to effect a solution in Sri
Lanka than just military actions. Still, from the outside, nothing much can be
done but wait and see. In the final event, the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka
have to find a solution among themselves, not one that is imposed from outside.
What we can do, however, is make suggestions and give advice, maybe in the
manner of Bismarck's famous `honest broker'. But what is the place of the
historian in this scenario? How can he give advice? Well, maybe not. That is not
the task of historians. Their task is to elucidate the origins of events, to say
why and how things happened to enable society to take actions on the basis of
this. If, however, we try to do that, several questions arise at once, first,
what is history, and second, what is the meaning of it for different societies.
This is what I want to explore in this paper: what does history mean for the
Tamils of Sri Lanka, and how does this perception influence the conflict and the
shape it takes? I intend to demonstrate in this article that
1) the Tamil perception of history is different from that of the West even if
the definition of history itself is borrowed from there,
2) that the political use of history determines its perception and limits its
3) that wider functions which we assign to history are, for the Tamils,
located elsewhere (we will see where later in the discussion).
Before describing the Tamil perception of history, however, it will be useful
to consider, in some preliminary remarks, some fundamental points about history
and to state somewhat boldly some assumptions about the `Tamil view of history'
which will be substantiated in the latter part of the article.
History: a technical term
History is the relation of the past to the present. The remark made by the
historian E.H. Carr in the 60s
might seem a truism nowadays, but that does not make it less true or less
crucial to the craft. In the meantime, the concept has been polished, extended
and modified, but its basic significance has lost nothing of its power: history
is the link between past, present and, by extension, future. What we see much
more clearly now is the nature of this relationship: from the past that exerts
its influence on the present, we have now come to the present that influences
and shapes the past as well: historical perception extends the present and its
preoccupations into the past and thus sees the past with the eyes of the
The problem to address then is not so much what is history, but how is
history used, to say it with a word by Habermas,
the 'public use of history', to what purposes is it put, by whom, and with which
objectives? The use of history is inseparable from historical research and
To discuss history nearly always also means to compare. This, however,
immediately raises questions about these comparisons:
If one's own history is comparable to that of others, what does that imply? In
the first instance it implies several different histories, that, moreover,
belong to different and distinguishable groups. On the other hand it means that
they show certain common features as well, so that one is able to evaluate them
against a given scale and see how they perform. But what is this given scale
against which history can be compared: one of values, of achievement, of
civilisation, of antiquity?
The second point then is, in what ways is this (my?) history different from
others, in what way does it exclusively belong to me (or to us), in what way can
it enhance my perception of identity, of being myself, of having a place in
the world. And how does one judge the differences? Are they simply neutral
in the sense of 'it takes all kinds to make a world'? Do they show up one's own
sordid traits the more starkly? Or do they tend to enhance the sense of one's
own worth: how much better are we than others?
This is the all-important question: what is the yardstick for measuring the
differences and evaluating them? How and why do we compare? What makes my
history so similar to another history that I consider it the same, but sets if
off from a third one? Who decides about these differences, who draws the
borders? From what common base do we proceed to discover differences, or is it
all 'relative'? Is there a 'common base' at all, or are we all 'incomparable'?
And there also lies the crux of this term 'the use of history': use of
history for precisely what purpose and what function? And above all: who uses
If the basic purpose of the use of history is to give people a place in the
world, something to hold on to, we come immediately up against a contradiction,
because in some cases, history does not seem to be called upon to do this.
Identity - and that means place in the world - are often established by religion
and myth. What use and meaning can history have in this context, since it is
obviously answering a felt need?
History can only establish something above that, which is difficult to
conceptualise, or something more basic: a right to be, a right to exist at
all. Seen in this context, i.e. if we assume that in certain cases identity
precedes history, and if history establishes the legitimation of existence, then
identity, the consciousness of self, looks inward, towards the in-group. Only
after this step historical consciousness can emerge to establish
boundaries, to perceive differences and to stake claims over disputed terrain.
History serves to forge added cohesion. This is a point of view not widely
accepted. But remembering one's past need not necessarily mean antagonism
towards others. What is, however, true, is that historical consciousness
and the conscious use of history are two concepts going beyond mere identity
From 'having a place in the world' and comparisons with other(s') histories
we come to another vital point: whose history is it anyway: Who decides which
history is the definitive one? Why is this acceted or rejected? How can the
diverging histories of different social and political groups be the same or be
merged into one history, distinguishable from other histories? And which one, in
the case of divergence, is the definitive one? Is there a definitive one?
The so-called German Historians' Debate af few years ago is an extreme
example of the eternal question: to whom does history belong, who can
legitimately claim it and who is entitled to write the definitive history? There
seems to be an even more fundamental problem in the Tamil case, namely to prove
the right to be there at all. The Tamils are a numerically large people with a
distinctive culture, literature, language, philosophy and a consciousness of
belonging together, who were, however, seldom or never, unified as one 'nation'
in one state or under one government.
The question is: 'what have they made of this'? One striking factor is that
historically perceived secondary virtues like industriousness, diligence,
economic skill etc. are cited as justifications to claim or retain advantages
and privileges: a stand taken by a people on the defensive, and history is used
as the last line of defence.
We will come back to these questions when discussing Tamil and Sinhalese
history and the perceptions to whom Ceylonese history belong. The possession of
this history is fiercely contested by both groups. At the moment we will content
ourselves with stating that people claim to have the definitive view of history
and thus possess history. All other views are considered wrong or distorted.
This is fairly uncomplicated as long as your history is sufficiently different
from mine to not cover the same areas. But what if your and my history is acted
out on the same terrain? When one and the same history is claimed by several
groups with different interpretations?
History: a Problem of Perception
These are the questions thrown into bold relief by Tamil history in Sri Lanka
and the Tamils' perception of it. Their emphasis on history, historical
precedence, the proof or judgment of history, in short, their perception and use
of history, go to prove not who or what or how they are or how they came to be
there (they know that), but to prove that they have a right to be there, a
right to be. If we start off with this crucial assumption, a lot of things
fall into place, and we can begin to study Tamil historiography in Jaffna from
quite a new angle: The Tamils are trying to recover
their history, thus assuming that somebody has taken it away from them, and this
somebody are the Sinhalese who in turn try to protect their history from
onslaughts and usurpation by the Tamils. Who possesses the history, possesses
the country, possesses the right to rule, the right to exist.
And here we confront the problem mentioned above: whose history is being
recovered? To whom does the history of Ceylon belong? Now we see for the first
time clearly the differences between the Tamil and the Sinhalese perception of
history: Tamil history becomes more and more inclusive, Sinhalese history
is exclusive: the Tamils include all Ceylonese history in their history
which can assume two ways: either the whole Ceylonese history is legitimate
history as that of the two peoples living in the island, or all Ceylonese
history is subsumed under the bracket 'Tamil history'.
For the Sinhalese, on the contrary, only Sinhalese history can be
Ceylonese history, everything else is an intrusion and an assault. Among the
Tamils the inclusion works on the internal as well as on the external level: The
external one can be illustrated with Elara (see below), the internal one with
the filtering down of the term Tamil from only applicable to Vellalars to all
castes. The filtering down of Tamil history creates solidarity among Tamils
against an outgroup who has no Tamil history at all, but it is always a
precarious unity: Indian Tamils and Tamils in India are excluded, geography and
politics play their part. On the other hand, when history filters down, changes
occur, history does not trickle down in a pure form, it gets mixed with the
history from below, and this creates new, and often violent, contradictory,
Having got so far, we can now concentrate on the way history is perceived,
written and used among the Tamils. Of course, the Tamils are not unique in using
history for political ends, on the contrary, peoples in the 19th century who
strove to become nations have had similar problems and used history to prove who
and what they were and where they came from and that they therefore had a right
to nationhood. But that is exactly the point: other peoples proved who and what
they were, but I doubt whether they set out mainly to justify their very
existence: they established existence in history, but not through
history. The small emerging nations in the 19th century said 'we are a great
people, so we have a right to exist as a nation or at least to be recognised as
a nationality', whereas the Tamils say: we are a great people, we have a right
This raises three questions, namely,
1) why have the Tamils to justify their very existence,
2) why by the means of history, and why
3) do they not prove who and what they are by means of history,
as many other groups do?
The answer to the third question is because it is not necessary, and the
answer to the second is because by other means it is not sufficient. Let us try
to answer the first question then by illustration. The Tamils do not need
history to prove who and what they are and how they came to be what they are,
because they confirm their identity by other means, namely, religious, cultural,
literary, social. They are secure as Tamils, and Tamil culture and religion do
not need a state, they are timeless.
To be sure, history (here in the sense of tales of the past) plays a part in
this, but we should not project our theoretical understanding of history or of
historical consciousness onto a culture which perceives these things
differently, and even if these phenomena are historical, they are not perceived
as such by the Tamils. For them to be Tamils, a history of the Tamil
state or the Tamil empire or even the Tamil people is incidental, they feel not
less Tamils because this empire is spurious or because there never might have
been a Tamil state.
This is not vital to their identity as it is to that of the Sinhalese, for
whom the existence of a Buddhist state in time is a precondition of their own
identity. But to prove that they have a right to exist, to be there at all and
then to be there as Tamils, i.e. as Jaffna or Ceylon Tamils, they do
indeed need history, in this case history decisively in the form of history of a
state, and this is an essentially modern phenomenon (see below).
This approach seems to be contradicted by a recent study by Bruce Kapferer on
myths of state, nationhood and violence,
where he propounds the very interesting theory that the mythical understanding
of their past provides a very unique and very historical theory of
history: he claims that the Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of karma is practically the
essence of history and historical theory.
Persuasive as this sounds, I am not sure that it applies to the Tamils in SL, to
say nothing of those in India. For the Sinhalese it might well be true, but for
the Tamils the sources show that if the Tamils had a 'sense of history' it was
only marginally connected with karma (which is an individual, not a group
On the other hand, Kapferer's linking of karma with history is, in my mind, a
stroke of genius which puts paid to many fond theories of the Indians not
'having history': what could be more 'historical' than a theory of constant
development and evolution, where the past always exerts a decisive influence on
the shaping of the present and the future, where present and future are always
predicated on events of the past? But perhaps we approach the problem from the
wrong angle: maybe we should broaden our concept of history. In trying to do
that, we come up with two observations:
1) history as we know it is obviously not vital for the identity of the
2) the concept of what constitutes the past and what constitutes
one's own past is vital.
Yet this concept of what constitutes one's own past differs in the West and
among the Tamils. The problem then is how to define the past: not only is it
largely constructed by us, but the method of construction is quite different in
the East and the West: for the West, it is the (hi)story of relations between
man and man, for the Indians it is the (hi)story of the relations between god
and man: therefore, for being Tamil, no history of state was needed, but to
justify existence, it was. Yet before we rush off to term it all history, we
have to consider what the Tamils themselves perceive as history, as establishing
and proving their existence, and it looks as if only history in the western
sense is seen as being able to do that.
History in the West and in the East: same term, same difference?
Western theories of history and historiography have mainly looked at Europe
and either denied that other people had a 'proper' history at all (or at best an
inferior one), or completely
overlooked them. Seldom has it been acknowledged that history and historiography
might have different meanings for other cultures: for some who are we, for some,
why are we here, how did we come here and why, but for some also, what right
have we to exist? And depending on which of these questions history is expected
to answer, where are answers to the remaining questions to be found: in
religion, culture, myth!?
Here we come up against a seeming contradiction: for the Tamils in the late
19th century, only the past and the history constructed and furnished by the
West were accorded the status of 'history' and 'historical', whereas the past of
the East was termed 'religious' and 'mythical': a definition, at the same time
containing a statement of value, of history coined by the West, but accepted by
the Tamils. Yet the function given to this history was quite different from
that of the West.
If we accept this, we can then deduce the intentions with which 'Tamil
histories' or 'Histories of Jaffna' have been written and the purposes they were
being put to. These purposes, I would argue, are entirely and openly political
and I would add, since all history is political, partisan. And if we look at the
controversies that have raged in this context, we can see that the facts, let
alone their interpretation, are in many case the bone of contention: was there a
kingdom of Jaffna, were there groups like the Tamils and the Sinhalese at all,
who ruled the island, who were the first settlers, even, was there a Vijaya and
if so, who was he, and so on.
This leads on to secondary controversies over the relationship between the
Sinhalese and the Tamils, over the events which brought about immigration,
whether 'ethnic' antagonism concerned the population or only the rulers, and so
on. I am certainly not setting out to decide these controversies one way or the
other, but to point out the direction they took and what were the arguments used
in the debate.
In a recent paper Sudipta Kaviraj mentioned that with the awakening of
historical consciousness and 'national consciousness' in India or Bengal came
the question not who are we, but what can we wreak on the world with our
numbers' because we are Bengalis.
While this certainly applies to the Sinhalese equally, it would apply less to
the Tamils, at least in Sri Lanka: not 'what can we wreak on the world', but
'what can we get out of the world' (because we are Tamils).
Histories instead of stories
At this point, I want to mention a difference in the meaning of the term
'history' in European and Asian languages. Etymologically, neither the Sanskrit
word itihåsa nor the Tamil word VaralåÂu or Carittiram convey the same meaning
as history, which derives from the Greek to see. Both are nearer to the German
in the sense of what has happened: itihasa means 'that which has happened like
that', and both VaralåÂu Carittiram mean 'that which came about, what happened,
the course of events, also the origin of events'. So there is a strong
connection with the question: where do we come from and how and why are we here,
what is our claim to be here? It is a much less 'objective' and detached, one
could perhaps say, a more personalised concept than the Greek 'that which has
Once the Tamils must or want to prove their right to exist, their right to be
there, then the purpose of history is to prove that 'we have always been here,
we have more rights to be in this particular place than anybody else, and we can
prove and justify this with 'historical facts'. It becomes clear then, that the
historical problem and the problem of being there is not at all a general Tamil
problem, but that of a particular group of Tamils: namely those in Sri Lanka.
For the Tamils in India, the problem is there, but it is muted, covered by
the attempts not to prove their right to be there, but to fend off central
attempts to subsume them under a dominant culture and language by claiming the
superiority of the one over the other. It is then sufficient to establish the
equal excellence of Tamil culture to counter this attack (and to establish the
former's antiquity, which in reality means timelessness: Tamil has no beginning
in time, it was always there.)
And while the Indian hierarchy subsumes, but does not destroy, for the Sri
Lanka Tamils, being subsumed under a dominant culture always means immediately
being robbed of their right to be there, of their right to exist, of being
extinguished (probably physically) as persons as well as Tamils.
Therefore, religion, culture, way of life, are not sufficient to prove that
right, and history has to come in. The origin and beginning in time of
Tamil existence on the island has to be fixed and proved to be earlier than that
of the Sinhalese. So the statement is not like in Tamilnadu: Tamil has always
been there, but we Tamils have always been here.
Thus, history in our sense seems not to unite Tamils all over the world,
because they are already united by religion, culture, language, and way of life,
but to divide them into groups, as the Bengalis have been divided into Bangla
Deshis and Bengalis. So are the Tamils divided into Indian Tamils and Jaffna
Tamils. History as history of state, needed to justify existence in the Tamil
case developed strong linkages with nationalism, but linkages that divide rather
than unite: instead of affirming the Tamil identity, nationalism wrenches it
apart, splits it up into all sorts of different Tamil nationalisms.
At this juncture, the question of territory, irrelevant for Tamil identity as
such, becomes vital: the fatherland and the mothertongue. But this was not
always so. It started when the Tamils acquired and accepted the mentioned
western-style historical consciousness. This was a very specific 19th century
phenomenon. It was a view of history propounded predominantly by German scholars
that history was the history of great men and of nations, that civilisations had
their birth, zenith and decline, and that there were 'people without history'
which bore a stigma of 'primitivism' and 'savagery'. To have legitimacy, a
western-style 'great' history was therefore deemed necessary.
Yet while saying this, we must remember that it were western scholars who
fell to discovering the 'past' of Ceylon with a vigour enhanced by the fact that
Ceylon had a unique collecton of historical sources which were considered
'historical' even in the western sense: the chronicles Mahavamsa and Culavamsa.
In contrast to the Indians who were considered to think 'unhistorically', here
was a people that did not do so, and the Mahavamsa was taken as literal truth.
There were no obvious comparable sources existent on the Tamil side. Only much
later was it acknowledged that as far as 'historical' accuracy was concerned,
the formerly spurned Indian and Ceylonese inscriptions might provide firmer
ground than the chronicles.
There was, to be sure, a chronicle on the Tamil side, a compilation from the
beginning of the 18th century, ordered to be collected by a Dutch governor and
based on some older chronicles and traditions, partly extant and partly lost.
Yet it was never considered 'historical' in the way the Mahavamsa was. With
hindsight, this seems rather strange: The Mahavamsa is as full of myth and
superstition as the YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai is thought to be.
And while the Mahavamsa is certainly datable to the 6th century, the
Culavamsa, its successor, had constantly been modified and added on until
British and even our times. The truth of the Mahavamsa could only be verified or
otherwise when one began to check it against South Indian inscriptions. Yet the
YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai was not deemed magnificent enough to stand up beside the
Sinhalese chronicles and the South Indian inscriptions, though the Tamils who
considered it a most reliable source, could and later did prove that not all in
it was pure fiction.
However that may be, history of Ceylon in the 19th century was history of all
Ceylon as the history of the Sinhalese.
Again, this is a departure from the past: the colonial powers had before this
always emphasised that Ceylon was inhabited by different 'races' with different
traditions and rulers: Burnand, Bertolacci, Cleghorn, to name a few.
In the 19th century, however, the 'Aryan' Sinhalese were given pride of place
and the Tamils termed 'immigrants' with a negative connotation of the term.
This view of history did not go unopposed by the Tamils and their European
sympathizers, mainly missionaries who in the 40s of the 19th century began to
challenge the view of the history of Ceylon with the remark that the history of
the Jaffna kingdom had been neglected and should be written.
Most interestingly, it was a Christian Tamil paper that voiced this demand
for the first time, and for a long time, Christians were in the forefront of
Tamil historiography in Jaffna: Casie Chitty, UT, Henry Martin, John and Daniel
Samuel, Christopher Brito, C. Ñå~appirakåcar.
These Christians were most eager to discover the historical roots of the
Tamils. There was a simple reason for this: they could not rely for their
identity on the religious context of the Hindus, on sacred texts like the
sthalapuranas, epics and the Saiva Siddhanta literature, therefore they were
eager to find a non-religious Tamil tradition to justify themselves, their
existence and their identity.
They found it in Tamil, Indian, and Ceylonese history and in the kingdom of
Jaffna which had been a Hindu kingdom, but had also created literary and
scientific works acceptable to all Tamils and had in its resistance to the
Buddhist Sinhala kingdom of the South shown a spirit of autonomy most welcome to
Remarkably, the famous Hindu reformer,
ÅArumuka Nåvalar, who had the fiercest controversies with the Christians
over matters of religion and tried to reform the Saiva religion and ritual and
purge the texts from unacceptable parts, never pronounced on Tamil or Jaffna
history, nor did he doubt the representation of it by these authors. He left
history to the Christians and missionaries, since for his identity it was
In 19th century Jaffna society as a whole history was not needed because
Tamils had other means of identification. They felt a common bond with Tamils in
South India and religious texts sufficed to tell them who they were and where
they came from: their past was their present.
Though in the light of the foregoing discussion we should better say, history
in the western sense of the 19th century was not needed, since the functions
fulfilled by history in the West were taken over by religious and mythical
texts. However, once the Tamils discovered history in the western sense it was
not religious texts proper (as among the Sinhalese) which were used as
historical evidence, but quite different, secular, epical texts, like the KuÂal,
Puranå~ËÂu, Cilappatikåram. Religious texts, like the Sthalapuranams or the
Månikkavåcakam, if they were thought to contain historical information, were
used occasionally, but their primary function was not historical.
Today in popular Tamil attitude the religious texts are often considered
'historically true' and much religious matter still finds its way unquestioned
into historical tracts. But still there is a thin, but visible line between what
is considered a historical text and a religious text. The difference between the
two conceptions of history could simply be that in the West religion has become
subsumed in history and in South India, history is subsumed in religion.
While this might well be the case, we are still plagued by the contradiction
shown above: if we broaden our concept of history as described earlier, we would
have to include in Tamil history a number of texts not hitherto considered as
such by the Tamils themselves, as seen in the example of ÅArumuka
Nåvalar. Historical texts were not deemed necessary for Tamil identity: history
was not necessary, since it served other purposes. To establish identity,
stories of the past were sufficient . Distinctions start to get blurred in
the case of the talapuranams which relate the (hi)story of certain temples,
their gods and founders in time and space, and always in Sri Lanka itself.
These therefore often carry other, historical information. This is especially
true for Trincomalee where the available historical information is tied up in
the Kø~[[perthousand]]car Kalve++u, the story of the Kø~[[perthousand]]car
temple and the history has to be reconstructed from this.
This again proves the point: these talapuranams concern temples located in time
and space, with a definite beginning. The god who causes the temple to be
founded by his appearance has always been there, but chooses this particular
spot to manifest himself.
The fact, however, that the Tamils had secular stories of the past to draw
upon made it easier for the Christians and later for all of them to fashion a
history not tied to religion and therefore to Tamilnadu, but tied to Jaffna and
Ceylon. The contradiction might be solved if we realize that we are caught in a
circular argument: by our concept of history, the Tamils did not need it to
establish their identity, which they found in texts termed unhistorical by the
These unhistorical texts fulfilled historical functions according to western
understanding. But before we term these texts 'historical texts' we have to ask
what function the Tamils assigned to a 'history' as made known to them by the
West itself. And then we can solve the contradiction, since for them, 'history',
a concept itself taken from the West, fulfilled a much narrower function than
for the West. Therefore, while we still may discover historical information in
supposedly 'unhistorical' texts, the Tamils themselves define a historical text
much more rigorously because of the different purpose it serves for them.
The Necessity of History
If the necessity of history was first realized by the Christians, it was seen
with virulence from the last third of the 19th century by the Hindu Tamils, too.
Only a couple of years after ÅArumuka Nåvalar's death and the first translation
of the YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai by Brito into English in 1879, a 'History of
Jaffna' appeared by Ca+acivappi~~ai in 1884. Some years before that, John Samuel
had written one in 1879, of which only the 9th edition of 1927 is available.
A. Muttutampippi~~ai followed with a History in 1912, reprinted several times,
the last time in 1933, and a host of others.
These histories, of Jaffna or of Lanka were written by scholars of different
persuasions, but all with one aim in mind: to vindicate the existence of the
kingdom of Jaffna. At the same time, some scholars already began to critically
examine the available sources. An early example for this is C.Brito, the
translater of the YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai who in an annexe compared this with the
other Tamil chronicles and included a discussion on the origin of the Sinhalese
language which he derived from an original dialect Elu, according to him a
For a later periiod, two names stand out: Fr. S. Gnanaprakasar and C.
Rasanayagam (Råcanåyakam). Both wrote what we would call scholarly historical
works on Jaffna and immediately entered a fierce controversy with each other
over the interpretation of the sources and the evidence. Apart from his
monumental English work 'Ancient Jaffna', Rasanayagam wrote two volumes in Tamil
on the history of Jaffna, from the beginning till the Dutch, and during British
But why was it suddenly important for the Tamils to prove their right to be
in Ceylon, their right to exist there as Tamils, to prove that the kingdom of
Jaffna was not a myth, but a 'historical fact'? Several factors have been made
responsible for this, but we would probably come nearest to a solution if we
examine these 'histories of Jaffna' as sources in themselves to see what they
tell us not about the ancient history of Jaffna but about perceptions of history
and historiography of the times.
In this case, I want to limit myself to the historiography of the 50 years
between roughly 1880 and 1930, give and take a few years each side, since it
seems to me that this was the time Tamil ethnic consciousness was shaped and the
need for history was becoming virulent. Several questions can, in the light of
the foregoing discussion, be addressed to this material to prove or disprove the
points on the perception of history made earlier:
1) what were the conceptions and perceptions of history,
2) how was historical evidence evaluated and used,
3) how does the approach to history and historiography change over time?
History: its content
Immediately we notice a remarkable fact: in all the so-called chronicles,
purportedly outlining the history of Jaffna over several centuries, we find
hardly any dates at all, be they according to the Hindu or the Christian
Only the 'histories' proper that began at the end of the 19th century, attempt
to establish a chronology and thereby existence in time, i.e. legitimate
I assume the Yaalppaana Vaipava Maalai as roughly known in this gathering and
just want to mention that it takes the history of Jaffna until the conquest by
the Portuguese. It has remained the basis for practically all further histories
of Jaffna and is still a valuable source for studies of the kingdom of Jaffna.
Obviously the compiler must have known the Sinhalese chronicles since he mingles
features of Sinhalese history with traits of genuine Jaffna or Tamil tradition.
History: a source of information for somebody
Sataciva's `History of Jaffna' is practically a paraphrase of the YåÒppå^a
Vaipava Målai with a few references to additional sources, the Kailaya Malai,
Vaiya Padal, and the Pararasekara Ula. His account about the founding dynasty of
Jaffna is slightly different in that it was the first king, Singaiyariyan Cola,
who called the general Pandimalavan and his clan. He also stresses the policy of
forced Sinhalese assimilation under Vijayabahu as well as the flourishing of
literature and culture in Jaffna under Pararajasekara, on which the YåÒppå^a
Vaipava Målai puts less emphasis.
He continues the narrative till British times, on the way mentioning the
cruelty and mismanagement of the Dutch and the blessings of British rule in the
shape of educational and professional possibilities. However, this does not make
him blind to the drawbacks as he sees them: a continuous decline of Saivism and
Tamil culture since Portuguese times which the perfidy of Christian missionaries
in converting low castes with false promises does nothing to stop. He already
mentions ÅAÂumuka Nåvalar as the reviver of Tamil culture and religion.
Sataciva's work sets the tone for a host of other histories of Jaffna until
the late 1910s. With few variations, depending on whether the writer takes the
YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai or other chronicles as his main source, the story remains
the same. However, while Cataciva gives at best very shaky dates, now other
writers, the first among them Muttutampippillai (see below), begin to discuss
and work out a chronology. Till 1912, no history of Jaffna mentions Elara as a
Tamil king who has any bearing on the history of Jaffna.. Only histories
that purport to tell the history of Ceylon, mention him and other Tamil
invaders and usurpers with their dates, like the History of Ceylon by an
anonymous Brother of St. Joseph's.
Cataciva does not examine the compatibility of the Tamil chronicles with the
story as it emerges from the Mahavamsa nor indeed that of different episodes in
the chronicles themselves, which clearly clash with each other temporally and
from the point of probability. Nor are the apparent contradiction and animosity
between Tamils of Jaffna and the East ever acknowledged and spelt out: it all
goes into one amalgamation without any questions asked.
It should be stressed at this juncture that the sources from the East itself
like the Konecar Kalvettu or the Mattakalappu Manmiyam, tell the story
differently, and definitely relate the East to the suzerainity of Kandy, albeit
under Tamil viceroys.
The first to try to disentangle these strands in a rudimentary academic
manner in Tamil is Muttutampippillai in 1912. In his study as well, we have most
remarkable variations and a detailed discussion of the sources.
The most interesting fact is that he for the first time mentions Elara as a
Tamil and a Jaffna king and the one whom På~a~ (Kaviviratnam) so charmed with
his yal, that he was given Jaffna as fief. But more important is that he dates
Elara and Ukkiraci[[integral]]ka~ and so the beginning of the Jaffna dynasty
long before Vijaya ever came to Ceylon.
Later authors deduce from this an original rule of Tamils in Jaffna, then a
long Sinhalese interregnum until after the Cola invasion, Tamil kings ruled
again. Like Sataciva, Muttuttampi
stresses the cultural achievements of the Jaffna kings and ends his work with a
prayer to Murukan to reestablish the proper temple pucai. Moreover, he takes
pains to emphasise the close political and cultural relations between South
India and Eelam, mentioning that the latter (i.e. Jaffna and the East) was
always in some form under the rule of the Cola, Cera, Pandya and Pallava kings,
i.e. under Tamil rule. He lets the Jaffna dynasty proper begin with Kulakkottan
in the 9th century.
He works information from the Mahavamsa and the discovery of the inscriptions
into his account and mentions a Tamil marine made up of Mukkuvars and Timilar.
What he has to say about 'clean' and 'unclean' castes is interesting: because
both were separated spatially, there were no contagious diseases in Jaffna
before 1816, when castes were allowed to mingle and live together!
Racanayakam echoes this in the 30s, when he says that it was the 'unclean'
plantation Tamils who on their way through Jaffna brought sickness and disease.
Tales of the oppression under the Dutch and digs at the Sinhalese neglect of
temples are common to all stories, but Muttutampippillai manages to convey a
quite vivid picture of social conditions under the different colonial powers:
people who were forced to marry in secret because of wedding taxes, to discard
their jewelry and fine clothes because of luxury taxes etc., who had to practice
their religion in secret due to religious persecution, etc.
Though he repeatedly refers to the treachery of the Vanniyars, the Vanni is
nevertheless described as a refuge for Tamils from Jaffna from religious and
other persecution and consequently as a region from which primary resistance
against this oppression also originated.
Colonial rule and soft living contributed to today's decline, decadence and
weakness of the Tamils. He calls for a return to the halcyon days of early
settlement and living Saivite religion and praises ÅAÂumuka Nåvalar for
attempting this. He ends his work with an exhortation to learn the joys and
sorrows of one's history, to be proud of and remember the past and dedicates it
to TamiÒttåy, the Tamil mother.
Samuel John's history, written first in 1878, but only available in a reprint
from 1929 with an addendum and preface by his son Daniel, is mainly remarkable
for the latter. The history itself is rather short and follows the usual pattern
with a few variations on the topic of the yal player and the legend of the
Vediyarasan brothers, Tamil merchants who ruled Jaffna together at the time when
merchants came from South India to buy jewels for Kannaki's anklet,
all this before Vijaya ever set foot on the island!
His son takes up the story then and discusses in detail and with frequent
references to Racanayagam's Ancient Jaffna the possible origin of the
Aryachakkravartis, whom his father had considered Cola but whom newer evidence
had shown to be probably Pandyan. He resolves the problem by postulating two
Jaffna kingdoms, one Cola, one Pandya Also, the Sinhalese rebellions and riots
are given much room, with a reference to the Kandy king who refused to
interfere, and the Sinhalese are termed the constant inner enemy until Sankili
finally drove them out and "...made Jaffna safe for the Tamils."
Moreover, Daniel tries to relate the history of Jaffna to the wider Ceylonese
and South Indian context with a marked emphasis on the original Tamilness of
much that passes for Sinhalese history. In contrast to his father, he mentions
Elara as a Jaffna king.
History: a means to an end against somebody
Until the early 1920s the character of the 'histories remains the same: they
are sources of information - many of them were written as school readers - to
provide an audience largely ignorant about their own past with something
to go on with and - to speak with Muttutampippillai - to give them pride in
their past. It was now Hindu writers who took up the story, in contrast to the
early and mid 19th century, when Christians like Simon Casie Chitty
or the UT wrote histories of Jaffna with a view to show its secular character.
As especially Muttuttampi shows, this trend was sought to be reversed when he
stressed the close linkage between the kingdom of Jaffna, Tamil culture, and
religion. This was a topic that
would lead to a heated academic controversy between Christian and Saivite
historians in the 20s and 30s. That history has become a means to an end is
clearest in the reprint of Samuel's history: while his account is still
straightforward and factual, his son Daniel in 1929 brings in all sorts of
secondary arguments and accusations against the perfidy of the Sinhalese. The
frequent reprints of these histories shows their interest for the readership.
But the character of the histories now changes in more fundamental ways. For
one thing, the impact of the cataloguing and deciphering of South Indian
inscriptions by Hultzsch from the epigraphia India finally filtered through, and
Tamil writers had to revise their textbooks in the light of these discoveries.
These years constitute a watershed in that now the mythical details of the
chronicles are no longer taken at face value as literal truth and historical
An examination of these instances begins. In these volumes finally western
historical scholarship has been taken on board. Sinhalese rule in the South was
no longer implicitly assumed, but had to be related somehow to the history of
Jaffna and begins to be perceived as having been hostile: Sinhalese tried to rob
the Tamils of what was due to them: their land, their rule, their culture. In
this light, the expulsions of the Sinhalese and Muslims, merely reported in the
earlier histories, took on a new quality of betrayal and punishment.
The invasion of the Colas, glossed over in most earlier histories, had to be
acknowledged and dealt with accordingly, likewise the invasion of Magha.
Finally, from this time onwards, we see a much closer communication and feedback
between scholars writing in English (mostly for the RAS and academic magazines
and journals) and those writing in Tamil.
There is a mutual acknowledgment of work done in the other language,
sometimes one person writes in both languages like Rasanayagam and
interpretations are influenced by wider contexts and outlooks. And above all:
via the English literature a feedback also came in from the Sinhalese side.
However, beneficial as these should have been for academic debate, they served
in the end to narrow the outlook: the history of the Sinhalese and the greatness
of their civilization had to be granted and it became clear that the history and
separation of the Tamil and Sinhalese were much less clear-cut and more complex
than hitherto assumed.
On the Sinhalese side, the inherent contradictions in their perception of
Tamils and Tamil history in Ceylon emerged with frightening clarity: On the one
hand, they were seen as the vanguard of the Dravidian kingdoms of South India
who had repeatedly invaded Ceylon, and thus as not belonging to the country and
dangerous; on the other hand, when the Ceylon Tamils set out to prove that they
were quite independent politically from the South Indian empires and had their
own state in the shape of the kingdom of Jaffna, this was swiftly denied and
rejected in the most strident terms: it constituted a demand by the Tamils to
have the same right of existence in Ceylon as the Sinhalese, and such a claim
would never do. The only group with an inherent and 'birthright' to Ceylon were
Accordingly, when, in the political climate of the 20s, the Indian connection
became ambiguous, the Tamils began increasingly to feel threatened. History
became their mainstay of legitimation. This led to adventurous and often quite
exaggerated claims to Tamil antiquity and a refabricated and refashioned past:
the date of the establishment of the Aryacakravartti dynasty and the beginning
of Tamil settlement on the island were pushed progressively further back in
time, until one could claim that the Tamils had had empires there centuries
before Vijaya. However, the newly available information led to a sustained
academic discussion among Tamil scholars about Jaffna history and about the
methods of historical research.
Much of the new more stringent methodology for research into Tamil history we
owe to Rasanayagam: he widely examines a wealth of very disparate sources and
evidence not only in Tamil, but across the board: the YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai,
inscriptions, the Mahavamsa, sources from the East which had hitherto been
comparatively neglected: Konecar Kalvettu, Mattakalappu Manmiyam, Greek and
Roman writers, Chinese seafarers.
These, however, are all researched and quoted towards one purpose: to prove
the preponderance of Dravidians and Tamils in Ceylon from ancient times. It
would be going beyond the scope of this paper to even summarize the voluminous
study by Rasanayagam, but I give some of the more important points: while
following the YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai and dating the Aryacakravarttis somewhere
in the 9th century starting with Ukkiraci[[integral]]ka~, he postulates not only
Tamil settlements, but also Tamil, or better Dravidian, rule in Jaffna from time
immemorial and bases the whole history of Ceylon on the assumed equation of the
mythical Nagas with proto-Dravidians who had a splendid kingdom in Nagadipa;
flood myths which are as current in Madurai as in South Ceylon are transposed to
Jaffna, the Sinhalese are called a mixture of indigenous tribes, Aryans and
Dravidians, the word Ilam derives from an ancient Dravidian dialect, Elu, and
the word Ilam is far older than Sinhala, thus proving the antiquity of the
Tamils, the marital and political
relations between the Pandyans of Madurai were in reality those between
Sinhalese and Tamil kings in Jaffna, even under the Cola occupation the viceroys
of Jaffna enjoyed a high degree of independence, all important cultural and
commercial centres mentioned in the ancient literature were situated in the
North, thus making this area the centre of the ancient world.
The confusion in the YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai over a Kandy that could not yet
have existed is solved by postulating that Kandy was confused with the Tamil
Cinkainakar and equally the problem of the lutist who sang at the court of the
Kandy king: this was another, later lutist, not På~a~, and he sang for
Pararacacekaran, not a Kandy king. The confusion, so Rasanayagam, came about
because later Tamil kings were indeed ruling in Kandy (Nayakkars).
This work pursues quite openly the aim to prove that Sinhalese and Tamils are
in reality one, viz. Dravidians, and has therefore quite recently drawn a lot of
flak from Tamil hard-liners (more than 60 years after its publication and after
the author is long since dead and gone!).
The connections between Tamils and Sinhalese are in fact considered much
closer than those between South India and Jaffna. Another point that drew the
criticism of Tamil hard-liners was his assertion that between the 4th and 9th
centuries, there actually was Sinhalese settlement and Sinhalese rule in Jaffna,
and that many place names are of Sinhala origin.
Nallur, too, is a Sinhalese foundation of the rule of Sapumal in the 15th
But however questionable many of Rasanayagam's findings are, to him and to
Gnanaprakasar who refuted many of his claims, has to go the credit to have put
the history of Jaffna and of the SL Tamils on the map of modern academic
research. Scholars like Pathmanathan and Indrapala still have to start with
these two authors even if in the end questioning many of their results.
Racanayakam's Tamil version brings the tale up to British times and gives a
vivid picture of Jaffna in the 19th century, the social, cultural, political and
religious life: strong caste bias and anti-Indian resentment coupled with
cautious praise for British rule.
It is during this time that the religious freedom that came with the British is
lauded, and at the same time we hear of attempts to recover the physical sites
of this religion: old temple lands given to Catholics and Muslims, rebuilding of
the Nallur temple and Tiruketicuvaram, etc. It is astonishing how many of these
efforts were successful.
Nanappirakacar also attributes a very early origin to the Tamils in Ceylon.
For him both groups in Ceylon are thoroughly mixed of Aryans and Dravidians, and
while in the North, Tamils and Sinhalese got mixed, in the South it was
Sinhalese and indigenous tribes. In a work on the early culture and religion of
the Tamils, he stresses against Veluppillai's criticism that he does not want to
denigrate the Tamils or Saivism with some critical remarks, but to research
Tamil history honestly. He
postulates a very early Sinhalese settlement in Jaffna, in fact before the
Tamils, but he is also firmly convinced of the existence of the kingdom of
Jaffna and its greatness.
Veluppillai's history is characterized by harsh attacks on the facticity of
the YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai, Muttutampi's account and Nanappirakacar's history of
Jaffna in the Catholic Guardian.
He has a very precise description of the events after Cankili was defeated by
the Portuguese. At the same time he takes issue with Nanappirakacar who
allegedly sees the Portuguese occupation in much too kindly a light. Though one
should not go to the excesses of condemnation of Muttutampippillai, one cannot
overlook Portuguese wickedness, he says.
As Nanappirakacar says, one has to see history 'objectively'.
He refuses, however, to see the Portuguese destruction of temples as founded on
religious hatred: he agrees with Nanappirakacar that this invariably happens in
wars as it happened among Buddhist and Hindu rulers, nevertheless, the people
lived peacefully together. He
also supports Nanappirakacar in his contention that the famous story of a Dutch
officer who tried to seduce the wife of a Tamil official, which led to all sorts
of treachery, was not a Dutch at all, but a Sinhalese!
Veluppillai ends his account with a detailed account of British rule
mentioning how much better this is than all that has gone before. In an annexe
about place names he tries to trace back all place names in Jaffna to Tamil
roots. He admits, however, that there was for sometime Sinhalese settlement
there, otherwise the Buddhist remnants were inexplicable, since the Tamils were
never Buddhists! Sinhalese was, in fact, a caste name for a Dravidian tribe
which they had long before Vijaya came. The legend of the Yal is traced back to
Ravana's Vina play.
Veluppillai not only gives very detailed descriptions of the different clans
who emigrated to Jaffna and where they settled, but also of the composition of
castes at any one time in Jaffna and biographies of great Tamils from Dutch
times to the present. On the whole, his account is very balanced, but pointed
remarks against the Sinhalese as a people, not as a ruling dynasty, become more
Before we close the description of the historiographical literature over
50-100 years, it would be as well to stress that often the same people who wrote
histories of Jaffna, also wrote general treatises about the 'culture and
religion of the Tamils' (Gnanaprakasar) or about great Tamil poets, philosophers
and writers not confined to Jaffna: the 'Tamil Plutarch' (Chitty).
These treatises deal with a 'Tamilakam' that stretched from the Dekkhan to
Ceylon, comprising the lands of the Colas, Ceras, Pandyas.
The History of Jaffna and the Tamil Culture took place in quite different
geographical realms! For this Tamilakam was a religious and cultural concept,
not tied to an actual geographical area.
This again a proof for the theory discussed above, that history had rather more
limited geographical and social purposes than religion and culture: the former
established a right to be there, the latter confirmed and justified a social
structure: a Vellalar-dominated land-based society where Vellalars were the
lords of the ritual, who existed in India as well as in Jaffna.
History needed geography, religion did so only under certain conditions. In
Nanappirakacar study the 'real' Tamils are basically Vellalars and all other
castes are not. The ideological dilemma created in a more liberal age is solved
in the end by terming everybody a - sort of - Vellalar and thus a Tamil.
This indicates, on the other hand, a certain perception of what a 'Tamil' is or
was: namely only a Vellalar, other castes were excluded from being Tamil! This
has quite interesting implications for the question: who were the Tamils in the
first place and it echos R.A.L.H. Gunewardene's contention in 'The people of the
Lion' that in the beginning Sinhalese was not an ethnic category but a name for
the ruling group, which only later was extended to whatever crawled beneath this
Conclusions: History - a political argument
What does this description of the development of historiography in Jaffna
have to do with the armed struggle? In fact, more than we would assume. We asked
what purpose did history and historiography fulfil, and what was their meaning
for the people concerned? What was meant to be their meaning?
The studies discussed let us see that the purpose and meaning of history
changed visibly in the 50 years under consideration. In 1884 Catacivappillai
wrote a straightforward factual narrative of the kingdom of Jaffna, its
relations with the Colas and the Sinhalese kings. Rebellions and riots were
something that was regrettable but did happen from time to time without
affecting the common people too much.
They concerned the king and the loyalty due or not due to him. By 1925-30 the
history of Jaffna has become that of the dominance of the Tamil kingdom
of Jaffna under a Tamil king over the rest of Ceylon as Rasanayagam would like
to have it and the constant bad-tempered attempts by the Sinhalese and the
Vanniyars to prevent this.
What brought about this change, and what was the purpose of it? The question
is, however, put wrongly, or better, put with reference to the wrong time frame.
Once Jaffna has become a topic in historiography, the other developments
followed somewhat naturally, what we have to ask is, why did Jaffna become a
topic in historiography apart from the rest of Ceylon and apart from South
India? As I described above, this happened precisely towards the end of the 19th
Developments both on the Sinhalese and English sides had to do with this: the
English or the Europeans had first 'discovered' India's and Ceylon's (the
Sinhalese') great past in the pursuance of their own historical research.
And both the Sinhalese and the Tamils realised quickly that to possess a
great and glorious - secular - past was something to be cherished, was something
that enhanced one's prestige in the eyes of the foreign rulers, gained respect
and status. But there was more to it.
To have a past, a history, also seemed to confer certain rights, the right to
a territory, to a language, even to self-rule, gave one legitimacy because it
defined one's place and one's standing in the world. To have a religion, a
secure identity, to even have a language and a great literature suddenly was no
longer enough. It could contribute to one's legitimacy, but could not confer
this legitimacy in itself.
What was demanded was history, existence in time, not myth. This
existence in time had to be firmly tied to Ceylon geographically and politically
to counter the reproach of a derivative existence or of being an outpost of a
powerhungry South Indian empire. But if religion and culture could confer a
sense of identity, this necessary history could only justify one's existence.
This is a use and a meaning of history much more basic than that in Europe,
the purposes of religion and history seem to have been exchanged: for us
religion confers or should confer the right to be, the justification of
existence, and history provides our identity. For the Tamils, it is exactly the
other way round. History justified existence in time. Unlike
Christianity, Saivism in Jaffna could not do that.
That is how theories of European nationalism took hold in Ceylon. The Tamils
in general now found themselves in the situation the Christians had found
themselves in 50 years ago and they fell to discover their history with a
vengeance. But the histories written still were fairly straightforward affairs,
little more than a rehash of the chronicles, at best narratives that took most
of the information given as literal truth, meant, and this is important, for
schools, to instruct the following generation in the country's past.
A Sinhala historical consciousness that equated the mythical Demale enemies
with the Tamils in the North seemed to squeeze out and deny the right of the
Tamils to the country, therefore this right had to be affirmed the more
strongly. However, the straightforward histories, still mixed with myth and
religion, were no longer enough after the turn of the century when a more
academic and paradoxically also more partisan history was demanded.
The new historiography took basically two forms: either the mythical and
irreal content of history was simply dropped, or great efforts were undertaken
to prove how real, natural and 'true' these mythical events were.
This applied to the strange (almost certainly interpolated) prophesy of the
YåÒppå^a Vaipava Målai, to the exceptionally long life of the first
Ca[[integral]]kili (over 100 years), the miraculous escapes of some priests and
their temple idols from religious persecution and the subsequent discovery of
the latter in wells. In more recent years this has been topped by attempts to
separate fact from fiction in the Vijaya myth and other stories by Tamil
The answer why partisan historiography suddenly became so important, has been
given: every time one side 'scored', be it in terms of civilisation, language,
ancient tradition and religion, durability of rule or, most important, length of
stay on the soil of Lanka, the other immediately had to make good this fault.
A competition began for the most glorious history: a competition to emphasise
differences which until now had been completely irrelevant. But it was more than
a competition for history: it was a competition for political status and
privilege, justified with precisely a history which could only prove itself and
endure if it put another history in its place.
During this race, one became painfully aware of the more sordid and inimical
episodes in the life of the two communities, and the hegemonic understanding of
nationalism as an ideology where one nation can only survive if it affirms
itself aggressively against others, ate deep into the flesh of both groups, so
deep, that it became impossible to envisage another, less limiting kind of
nationalism: The English message was found wanting and new concepts and
explanations had to be poured into old images in the vernacular.
What emerged were concepts that might in name resemble the English ones, but
whose content and message differed in vital aspects. Both Tamil and Sinhala were
equipped with a vocabulary that could be drawn upon and used for the
'indigenous' national message. The concept of nationalism 'indigenised', but
this meant that old myths of wars and enemies were also clothed in the
'national' dress. For the masses, the old enemies became new ones.
The episode of Elara, resp. Dutthagamani, related only in the Mahavamsa (with
high regard for Elara) and not extant in Jaffna Tamil folklore, suddenly found
its way into Tamil histories with a twist: to show the perfidy of the Sinhalese.
Episodes of Tamil rule in Ceylon which had never been mentioned in the YåÒppå^a
Vaipava Målai or Tamil folklore because the Tamils in Ceylon did not identify
with South Indian adventurers, became instances of Tamil glory.
In the 20s and 30s, historical and historiographical methodology had become
refined enough to enable scholars to give a fairly coherent picture of the Tamil
kingdom and the processes of Tamil and Sinhala settlement. But the refinement of
these methods did not serve to view the whole history of Ceylon more
dispassionately, but to score off each other more effectively. And so it has
remained to this day. Academic controversies became political controversies.
But why was this 'potlatch' necessary in the first place? In a political
climate where numbers and a 'sons of the soil' ideology counted to establish
legitimacy, history became the only means to fuel and underpin political claims
and demands: on the glorious history of the Tamils, demands for balanced
representation and special privileges were founded and justified. In a climate
where both groups felt insecure and threatened politically, history was used to
ward off this threat and restore safety. Only history could protect the Tamils
from Sinhalese encroachments.
In the end, History is practiced explicitly to further the greater glory of
the Tamils resp. the Sinhalese. Only history as the property of one side could
'create national consciousness, define terms, and fill memory'.
The contradiction: Tamilnadu and Jaffna
But the need for history did more. It disrupted not only the Tamils'
Ceylonese identity, whatever that might have been, but it also severed their
connections with India in a final way. And here we have another dilemma: till
the late 19th century, the Tamils like the Sinhalese had been proud of their
supposed Indian origin.
In fact, the myth of Tamil immigration was first propounded by the YVM, not
by the Mahavamsa that always accepted that Tamils were somewhere lurking around
on the island. Men of religion like ÅAÂumuka Nåvalar et al. felt as much at home
in South India as in Jaffna. But towards the end of the 19th century, a decisive
change occurs. The cultural unity of South India and Tamil Ceylon remained, but
it was superseded and made irrelevant by political divisions.
The 19th century consciousness that India and Jaffna belonged together as one
vanished with the emergence of the kingdom of Jaffna.
Rebels against colonial rule, like ÅAÂumuka Nåvalaars ancestors had shuttled
back and forth between India and Jaffna, and when things became too hot in
Jaffna under colonial rule, they would depart to India, preferably Chidambaram.
But now, ancient Ceylon and ancient India contracted to ancient Jaffna.
How could this strong connection be disrupted so effectively, and at a time,
at that, when research and myth brought to the forefront the fact of extensive
Tamil immigration into Ceylon over centuries? But that was exactly the point: to
justify one's existence in Ceylon, one's right to be there, suddenly it was no
longer enough to have immigrated from India long ago, the exact point in time of
this immigration was made prominent, and there the Tamils felt to be at a
disadvantage to the Sinhalese: Tamil immigration had not only supposedly been
later, but was still going on and was now equated with the immigration of
low-caste, despised Tamil labour from South India.
With these, no self-respecting Jaffna Tamil wanted to have anything to do.
Tamil immigration suddenly became a dirty word. Never mind that the Sinhalese
were themselves immigrants, they were earlier, more civilized, and above all,
Aryans from the North! Therefore, the connections with India had to be
suppressed, to be denied and instead the indigenousness of the Tamils from the
beginning, long before any Sinhalese set foot in the island, to be postulated.
The glory of the Cola conquest looked rather embarrassing when they were
considered invaders and pirates not only by the Sinhalese, but even by the
British. History, therefore, had to look for indigenous history in Jaffna, in
the East, and in the Vanni, and it found what it was looking for. The whole
extraordinariness of this process becomes clear when we consider, that for the
Tamils in India, till today, Tamilakam is the land of the Colas, Ceras, Pandyas,
and to a lesser extent, the Pallavas, three or four dynasties who continuously
fought against each other for supremacy in South India.
But nobody, not even the most rabid Tamilnadu Tamil nationalist has ever
undertaken to claim that one dynasty was more Tamil than the other, or that one
had to be extolled at the expense of the others, or that only one really ruled
the Tamilland, whereas the others were impostors, though some dynasties ruled at
the same time and were often hostile to each other.
On the contrary, all three or all four are considered equally 'Tamil',
equally glorious, and are treated with remarkable impartiality in Tamil
historiography, the fact notwithstanding, that the Cera king ruled over what
today is Kerala. Nor are there, on the other hand, noises of irredentism being
heard to get Kerala 'heim ins Reich' because of its one time Tamil king. These
noises, if they ever amounted to anything, died with the Nam Tamilar movement,
the 'hurray Henrys' of the 50s.
The fact that the famous epic Cilappatikaram takes place in all three Tamil
kingdoms, is mentioned with pride till this day. The Tamil cultural 'nation'
rarely coincided with any one territorial state.
The Tamils did not bother, except for the Ceylon Tamils. For them, history
became an extremely limiting exercise in that it circumscribed and constricted
what Anderson has called the 'pilgrimage' of the civil servant.
For them to be apart from India politically and to claim their own state became
a question of their political and social survival.
And that leads us to the final question, whether, if this was the case, the
Tamils in Ceylon were not really somewhat unique, different from those in India,
the close proximity notwithstanding, whether the undoubted fact of their
political autonomy had not generated a degree of cultural, religious and
linguistic independence as well, but an independence which has become, in the
late 20th century, extremely limiting and downright dangerous.
There have been attempts to reverse this trend: Followers of Arumuka
Nåvalar's religious tradition always saw India and Jaffna as one and unseparated
and stressed the unity. The
dilemma of being torn between South India and Jaffna is most evident in the
writings and ideology of the militants for whom India again became the vanishing
point when things in Jaffna got too hot, in the good old tradition, but who now
have changed their song again and consider themselves as primarily belonging to
Sri Lanka. That is the dilemma of the Jaffna Tamils.
Thus, the close connections to Tamilnadu are more ephemeral than those to
'Tamilakam'. Today we can clearly
say that these cultural, religious and linguistic and, even more vital, social,
independence and distinction exists and existed also in the early 20th century.
The Tamils feel to be a people, not to say a nation, distinct as much from India
as from Sinhalese Sri Lanka. And the militants have gone a step further in their
use of history: it is now not only an instrument of justification, but a weapon
in the militant struggle: ancient means and weapons, ancient violence and
ancient ideologies are used to fight a modern enemy who is, however, seen as
However, the fact that today the Tamils do feel as a nation shows the
dynamism of processes that took place during the 19th century, conscious and
unconscious policies and attitudes, that were innocuous in themselves, but ended
up as two nations divided. Whether it is good or bad, it is too early to say,
but once put in motion, the process could not be reversed. The Angel of History
was pushed forward and destruction piled up before him.
And if a group of people do feel unique and entitled to certain privileges on
account of belonging to this group, all the talk in the world and least of all
'historical proof' will make them abandon this concept as long as its social,
political, cultural and economic advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages.
Therefore, the Ilam Tamils are a nation, and history will always be perceived by
them as judging in their favour. For them,
that is the meaning of history.
1E.H.Carr, What is History, London 1961, p. 22
2Habermas, Jürgen, Vom öffentlichen Gebrauch der
Historie, in: Die Zeit, 7th Nov. 1986.
3The 'Historikerstreit' in Germany of the years
1986-87 is a good case in point: a recovery of national history was attempted
not last by comparing it with the sordid histories of other countries and thus
making it relative. For a summary and discussion of the HS in English see
Australian Journal of Politics and History, Supplementary Edition 1899, esp. the
articles by George G. Iggers, Irmline Veit-Brause, John H. Jensen and Martin
4There seems to be a similarity here with the
Germans who also had to prove their right to exist in decent international
society after the war, but the reasons and the point of departure are so vastly
different that such comparisons are extremely doubtful. Yet, it might be
worthwhile to state here that the Germans, as the Tamils, undertake to justify
their demands or assumptions with secondary virtues neglecting more basic
primary human virtues and rights.
5Kapferer, Bruce, Legends of People, Myths of
State, Violence, Intolerance, and Political Culture in Sri Lanka and Australia,
Washington and London 1988.
6ibid., p. 50.
7To be sure, karma comes into the YVM, as we will
see later, when the decline of the dynasty is attributed to the misdeeds of one
of its members and to the disunity among themselves, but this is probably based
less on the theory of karma than on that of cause and effect in politics also
known in the West.
8For the historical information contained in
'unhistorical' material, Romila Thapar, Epic and History: Tradition, Dissent,
and Politics in India. in: Past and Present 125, 1989, pp. 3-26.
10For a thorough discussion of the historicity of
the kingdom of Jaffna and the historical sources about it see S. Pathmanathan,
The Kingdom of Jaffna, Part I. (circa AD. 1250-1450), Colombo 1978.
11Kaviraj, Sudipta, On the Construction of Colonial
Power: Structure, Discourse, Hegemony. Paper presented at the conference on
Foundations of Imperial Hegemony: Western Education, Public Health and Police in
India and Anglophone Africa, 1859 until Independence. Berlin, 1-3 June 1989,
organised by German Historical Institute, London, p. 14.
12In German, 'story' and 'history' are expressed by
the same word: Geschichte, the differentiation is in the definite or indefinite
article: eine Geschichte = a story, die Geschichte = history
13cf. Kapferer, op. cit., p. 71 and passim.
14One wonders whether that has anything to do with
the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms in 1833 that united the country administratively.
15Burnand and Cleghorn
16As I am here concerned with the Tamil view, I
leave out a detailed discussion of the influence theories of race and the
discovery of the 'Aryan' languages and race may have had in this regard, but
they were and are certainly vital to the Sinhalese view.
17Utaya Tårakai (Morning Star), 16.1.1845ff, the
quote in 25.9.1845, p. 156.
19see p. 14
20A. Cirikantaråca, Tirukø^amalai VaralåÂu
MËlaika~; Akil[[perthousand]]cappi~~ai (1853-1910), Tirukkø~acåla Vaipavam, ed.
by his son AÒakaikkø~, Kokkuvil 1950, with the text of the Kø^[[perthousand]]car
Kalve++u, p. 89-104.
21For this point and the local and universal
existence of the gods cf. Shulman, David Dean, Tamil Temple Myths. Sacrifice and
Divine Marriage in the South Indian Íaiva Tradition, PUP 1980, p. 40ff
22V. Ca+acivappi~~ai, YåÒppå~a Vaipavam (Events in
Jaffna), Madras 1884.
23Muttutampippi~~ai, YåÒppå~a Carittiram (History
of Jaffna), Jaffna 1912, K. Velluppi~~ai, YåÒppå~a Vaipava Kaumuti, Jaffna,
Vasåvila~ 1918, S. John, YåÒppå~a Carittiram, Tellipalai 1909 (3rd
edn. first publ. in 1879), Ila[[integral]]kaic Carittiram (History of Lanka), by
a Brother of St. Josephs's, Colombogam, Jaffna 1907, C. Po~~ucåmippi~~ai,
YåÒppå^a Vaipavam (Events in Jaffna), Jaffna 1927 (2nd ed., first ed. 1916),
Matiya Para~am, YåÒppå~a PËrv[[yen]]ka Vaipavam (Ancient History of Jaffna),
24Christopher Brito, The Yalppana Vaibhava Malai,
or the history of the Kingdom of Jaffna, translated from the Tamil by...,
Colombo 1879, Appendix p. XLV-LIII)
25S. Rasanayagam, Ancient Jaffna, Colombo 1926, C.
Ñå~appirakåcar, OMI, TamiÒi~ PËrvacarittiramum Camayamum (The ancient history
and religion of the Tamils), Jaffna 1912, (first published as a series of
articles in the Jaffna Catholic Guardian).
26For a general discussion of the problems of
historical perception and historiography see Formen der Geschichtsschreibung
(eds. R. Koselleck, H. Lutz and J. Rüsen, Theorie der Geschichte, Beiträge zur
Historik, Band 4, München 1982, esp. Jörn Rüsen, Die vier Typen des historischen
Erzählens, p. 530 and passim, and H.-U. Gumbrecht, "Das in vergangenen Zeiten
Gewesene so gut erzählen, als ob es in der eigenen Welt wäre". Versuch zur
Anthropologie der Geschichtsschreibung, p. 502/03. cf. also George G. Iggers,
op. cit., p. 120-122.
27YåÒppå~a Vaipava Målai (The Garland of Events in
Jaffna), by Mayilvåka~ap Pulavar, with an Appendix by Kula Capanåta~, Colombo
1953. The YVM itself is declaredly made up of older sources and chronicles,
which are partly extant, partly lost: the Kailåya Målai, the Vaiyå På+al, the
C[[perthousand]]karacac[[perthousand]]kara Ulå, and the Tak[[Sigma]]i~a Kailåca
28 cf. Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka. The National
Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle, London 1983, p. 16/17 (not very
convincing) and Paul Jayarajan, Historical Truths of the Legend Relating to
Prince Vijaya. Colombo n.d. (quoted after Kapferer, op. cit., p. 41.
29This is generally considered a reflection of the
Cola invasion and rule in the 10th and 11th centuries.
30Pathmanathan, op.cit.; K. Indrapala, Dravidian
settlements in Ceylon and the beginnings of the Kingdom of Jaffna. Thesis
submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of London 1965
31Brother of St. Josephs's, op.cit. p. 19. He has a
special chapter on the kings of Jaffna, (pp. 88-96) but in these, Elara is not
32cf. C. Po~~ucåmippi~~ai, op.cit., e.g. p.10-12,
p. 20-24, and Matiya Para~am, op.cit., p. 16.
33Muttutampippi~~ai, op.cit., p. 68.
34ibid., p. 8/9
35S. John, op. cit. p. 12, see also the addendum by
his son Daniel from 1909, p. XIX.
36Muttutampippi~~ai, op.cit., p. 39
37C. Råcanåyakam, YåÒppå^ac Carittiram -
ÅA[[integral]]kil[[perthousand]]yar Kålam (British period of the history of
Jaffna), Jaffna 1934, p. 186-88
38Muttutampippi~~ai, op.cit., p. 104/05
39ibid., p. 98, similarly C. Råcanåyakam, op. cit.,
40S. John, op.cit., p. 7
41ibid., Addendum by his son Daniel, p. XXVIII
42S.C. Chitty, On the History of Jaffna. From the
Earliest Period to the Dutch Conquest. JRAS (CB) II, 1847-48, p. 69
43Muttutampippi~~ai, op.cit., p. 134ff.
44Velluppi~~ai, op. cit., p. 79/80 and passim. C.
Ñå~appirakåcar, OMI, YåÒppå~a Vaipava Vimarca~am (A Critical History of Jaffna),
Accuv[[perthousand]]li 1928. The latter work has unfortunately been unavailable
to me till now.It was written with a view to refute some of Rasanayagam's claims
in his Ancient Jaffna, and this generated a rejoinder by
V[[perthousand]]luppi~lai. However, from the extensive quotes in
V[[perthousand]]luppi~~ai and from some other works by Ñå~appirakåcar on the
culture and religion of the Tamils as well as from his articles in the JRAS etc.
we can deduce the drift of his argument.
45S. Rasanayagam, Ancient Jaffna, op. cit., p. 177
46ibid., p. 82ff
47ibid., p. 225/26
48C. Råcanåyakam, YåÒppå^ac Carittiram -
ÅA[[integral]]kil[[perthousand]]yar Kålam , op. cit., p. 97/98 and 113
49ibid., p. 204
50Cuvåmi Ñå~appirakåcar, OMI, YåÒppå~a Vaipava
Vimarca^am. TamiÒacar Ukam. (A Critical History of Jaffna: The Tamil Era).
51C. Ñå~appirakåcar, OMI, TamiÒi~ PËrvacarittiramum
Camayamum , (new edition) Jaffna 1932, p. 68/69 (in answer to
V[[perthousand]]luppi~~ai's and others' criticisms).
52Gnanaprakasar, Sinhala Place Names in the Jaffna
Peninsula, in: Ceylon Antiquary and Literary Register II, 1916-17, p. 167ff, and
idem, The Forgotten Coinage of the Kings of Jaffna, ibid., p. 172
53V[[perthousand]]luppi~~ai, op. cit., p. 20, 41,
50, 57 and passim
54ibid., p. 84-85
55ibid., p. 83
56ibid., p. 104
57ibid., Appendix, p. 15 and 122
58C. Ñå~appirakåcar, OMI, TamiÒi~ PËrvacarittiramum
Camayamum , op. cit., and Simon Casie Chitty, The Tamil Plutarch, Jaffna 1859.
59We can compare this to the concept of the `Ër'
for Tamils in Singapore today, for whom this is not a geographical, but an ideal
place, and even with the Sinhalese concept of India which is twofold: in
political and geographical terms, it is 'India' or 'Bharat', but there is
another, religious concept for India as 'Jambudvip' which is remembered with
reverence and nostalgia in contrast to the strident tones about 'India'. I thank
Mr. Somadasa from the British Library for drawing my attention to this
60For the differences in this concept among Tamils
in India and in Jaffna, see Bryan Pfaffenberger, Caste in Tamil Culture. The
Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka, (Bombay 1982).
61C. Ñå~appirakåcar, op. cit., p. 19-22
62Gunawardene, R.A.L.H., The People of the Lion:
Sinhala Consciousness in History and Historiography. in: Ethnicity and Social
Change in Sri Lanka, Social Scientists Association, (Colombo 1985), p.
63An example for this is Rasanayagam (1870-1940)
who was Gate Mudaliyar and a magistrate in the Jaffna Kaccheri between 1920 and
1929. He wrote his books both before and after retirement. His and other short
biographies can be found in M[[perthousand]]~makka~ Carittiram (Mayn Makkal
Charittiram: Eminent Men's Lives), n.p., n.d. (probably 1930s) and in Ka~apatip
pi~~ai, ÁÒa nå++i~ TamiÒc cu+arma^ika~ (Radiant Tamils of ÁÒam), Colombo 1967,
64e.g. V[[perthousand]]luppi~~ai, op. cit., who
tries to demonstrate why this prophesy must be true. p. 33
65Stürmer, Michael, Geschichte in geschichtslosem
Land, FAZ 25 April 1986, quoted after: "Historikerstreit", Die Dokumentation der
Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der national-sozialistischen
Judenvernichtung. München, Zürich 1987, p. 36.
66For this, see the biographical parts in
Muttutampippillai, op. cit., p. 92/93, 139 and V[[perthousand]]lupi~~ai, op,
cit., p. 120-280
67There is a similarity to the German case here,
but the fact of being a 'Kulturnation' in several states seems to worry the
Tamils far less than the Germans.
68Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities.
Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York 1983,
69(?) ÁÒanå+um Caivamum, in Nå~kåm TamiÒ ViÒå Malar
(Fourth Souvernir of the Tamil Festival), Jaffna 1951, p. 197
70This perception might explain why the Sinhalese
consider all South Indians as 'Tamils' and all Tamils as threatening.