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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Mudaliyar Rasanayagam’s Ancient Jaffna:A Critical Reading

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Mudaliyar Rasanayagam’s Ancient Jaffna:A Critical Reading

15 April 1989

Front Note: Mudaliyar C.Rasanayagam’s work, Ancient Jaffna (1926) still receives citations in the polemics penned by newspaper correspondents in Sri Lanka. Thus, I feel that it is appropriate to present a review I wrote for this work, in 1989. I have minimally revised the time markers in the original text, for the year 2002.

One of the most quoted, but mis-cited history books in Sri Lanka for the past two decades was Mudaliyar C.Rasanayagam’s work entitled Ancient Jaffna, being a research into the History of Jaffna from very early times to the Portuguese Period. This 390-page book was published in 1926, by Everymans Publishers Ltd, Madras. Due to its cited controversial opinion that ‘the Sinhalese had occupied Jaffna before the Tamils’, it gained popularity among upstart historians as well as racially-biased journalists and politicians.

I also have a 34-page book with the title Jaffna and the Sinhala Heritage (printed by M.D.Gunasena & Co, Colombo, 1984), authored by one E.T.Kannangara, who cites Rasanayagam’s work with selective amnesia. The queries normally raised in an inquisitive Tamil mind are,

(1) Is it true that Rasanayagam wrote about the occupation of Jaffna by Sinhalese ahead of Tamils?

(2) On what substantive evidence, did the author of Ancient Jaffna make this controversial inference?

The 390-page book is divided into eight chapters. These are: (1) The Nagas, (2) The Kalingas, (3) Foreign Trade and Intercourse, (4) Ancient Civilization, (5) Foreign Trade and Intercourse – contd., (6) Sources and Synchronisms, (7) Origin of the Kings of Jaffna, and (8) The Arya Kings of Jaffna.

In the preface, the author described the motives for his work. To quote Rasanayagam, “This little volume is the unexpected result of an attempt to compile a school history of Jaffna. Almost unperceived my reading took me far a field, and led me to conclusions often directly opposed to the views hitherto generally accepted. I have thought it proper therefore to publish some of my studies, in order to have them criticized and corrected before they become parts of a more elaborate work.”

Who had helped the author in this venture? Rasanayagam had acknowledged the counsel of Dr.Paul E.Peiris and Mr.H.W.Codrington ‘for the elucidation of several knotty points which arose from time to time’. P.C.Villavarayan and R.R.Crossette Thambiah had ‘looked through the proofs’ of the book. S.W.Coomaraswamy of Tellippalai had ‘translated most of the Tamil quotations’ from the literature. D.Jayaratne had assisted with an ‘elaborate Index’. Dr.S.Krishnaswamy Aiyangar of Madras University provided a sound Forward to the book.

Sinhalese in Jaffna

The controversial opinion about the presence of Sinhalese in ancient Jaffna appears in the last few pages of the book. In p.384, Rasanayagam mentions,

“That Jaffna was occupied by the Sinhalese earlier than by the Tamils is seen not only in the place names of Jaffna but also in some of the habits and customs of the people. The system of branding cattle with the communal brand by which not only the caste but also the position and the family of the owner could be traced was peculiarly Sinhalese.”

Before castigating Rasanayagam as an anti-Tamil (or pro-Sinhalese) historian, one should try to understand what he had meant by the use of the word ‘Sinhalese’. In pages prior to the chapter in which this controversial opinion appears, Rasanayagam defines the races of Sri Lanka and how they evolved. Many up-start historians and (intellectually challenged) politicians of Sri Lanka failed to read the entire work, before citing Rasanayagam.

Between pages 176 and 180, the author analyses the evidences related to the earliest languages spoken by the people of Ceylon. Twelve excerpts are given below to show whom Rasanayagam considered as ‘Sinhalese’ [Italics are mine.]

(1) “The name Lanka, applied to Ceylon, had not the remotest connection with its people or with the language spoken by them. The name Ilam which was also given to Ceylon, has some affinity with its earlier language Elu. The island must have been called Ilam because Elu was spoken there; or perhaps the language was called Elu because it was spoke in Ilam. The name Ilam was undoubtedly given to Ceylon by the Tamils, her neighbors.” [I presume he meant the South Indian Tamils.]

(2) “As Ceylon afterwards became famous for its gold and its toddy, the word ‘Ilam’ later became a Tamil word to designate gold or toddy metronymically.”

(3) “Elu was only a spoken dialect and had not reached a state of development sufficient to produce any literature in that language. Tamil was, therefore, the Court language. The poets, kings and pundits cultivated it for literary purposes. Tamil continued to be the Court language of Ceylon kings for several centuries. Even after the adoption of Sinhalese in Court, Tamil was not despised as Tamil poets and pundits often flocked to the court of a learned Sinhalese king.”

(4) “Elu, in its imperfect state, could not stand the onslaught of Tamil, Pali and Sanskrit. The first of these languages was introduced into Ceylon at various times by invaders and immigrants. The latter two came in through the introduction of Buddhism.”

(5) “Vijaya and his followers could not have introduced into the island, a new language and imposed it upon the people. They and their descendants would have adopted the language previously spoken in the island.”

(6) “There would have been an amalgamation of the original language with Tamil and the language of the few Kalinga immigrants who arrived in the island, by the time Buddhism was introduced.”

(7) “Upon the introduction of copious Pali and Sanskrit works, a new language came into existence, with a ground work of Elu and Tamil and a superstructure of Pali and Sanskrit.”

(8) “While the process of forming the Sinhalese nation was going on by the continual mixture of the Yakkhas, Nagas, the Tamils and the Kalingas, the Sinhalese language too was growing and expanding.”

(9) “The Sinhalese language, which was in an infantile stage in the 3rd Century BC, as will be seen from the undeveloped phraseology used in the cave inscriptions of that period, took about 1,500 years to reach that degree of development which is necessary for the composition of literary works in that language.”

(10) “Thus it will be seen that the mixed population from Point Pedro to Dondra Head known by the name Sinhalam, with the exception of those living in maritime districts must have, during the early centuries of the Christian era, spoken one language.” [What Rasanayagam means by this sentence is that, 2000 years ago, the ‘mixed population’ would have spoken a language, predominantly based on Tamil. If someone interprets that language as Sinhalese, which would have been in its formative stages, read the next excerpt.]

(11) “With the advent of Vannias who occupied the North Central region of the island in later centuries, ‘the people in the North became estranged from their brethren in the Centre, the South and progressed altogether on Tamil lines, whereas the Sinhalese grew into a new nation absorbing into themselves even the millions of pure Tamils who remained in Central and Southern Ceylon after the Chola power had declined – process which can be witnessed even today in the Western Coast.”

(12) “The difference [between the Tamils and ‘Sinhalese’] must have become accentuated after the downfall of Buddhism in Southern India and after a large number of new Tamil colonists began to settle down in North Ceylon…”

From this thesis of Rasanayagam, it is evident that the author’s definition of ‘Sinhalese’ is different from what the contemporary up-start historians and racist politicians believe in. According to Rasanayagam, (a) Sinhalese as a language is built upon the framework of Tamil language, (b) Sinhalese as an ethnic group, derive their origin from the admixture of Elu-speaking natives (of the island), Tamils and the Kalinga immigrants.

Kalingas, the mariners

Who are the Kalingas? Rasanayagam states in p.50 of the book:

“Kalinga was one of the earliest kingdoms established in the Dekkan by Dravidian tribes and long before the Aryan push… It is a fact well known to all students of the history of Ancient India that the Kalingas were a people who were almost the first among Indian races to cross the seas, not only for commercial enterprise but also for the sake of conquest and colonization. It was they who established the town of Singapura – now called Singapore – in the Straits Settlements, and Indians, from whatever country they may hail, are still known among the Malays as ‘Klings’, a corruption of the term ‘Kalingas’. (It should also be known that even in present Thailand, the tribes known as ‘Klings’ trace their origin to Kalingas of India, viz. Tamils.)

Nagadipa and the Northern Kingdom

Much fuss is made among those who provide concoctions of racist history to the existence of Nagadipa in Jaffna region and the possible evidence for the presence of Sinhalese there in ancient times. Rasanayagam writes, between pages 64 and 66, as follows:

“Devanampiya Tissa ‘erected a vihara at the port of Jambukola in Nagadipa; likewise the Tissamaha Vihara and the Pacina Vihara’ (Mahavansa, chap.xix)…From the time of Devanampiya Tissa to the reign of Mahallaka Naga, a period of about 400 years evoked the admiration of such a hostile author as that of Mahavansa, appears to have taken any special interest as regards the northern principality. The presumption, therefore, is that in those years the northern principality was quite independent and quiet.”

And again, in pages 79 and 80, Rasanayagam writes:

“In spite of the reticence of the Mahavansa, very probably intentional, it will be clearly seen that for a thousand years after the advent of Vijaya, the principality in the North existed undisturbed, while the Central power at Anuradhapura passed through several changes of dynasties and several storms of conquest; first by mere alliance, and then by acquiring control over their neighbors, the kings of the North saw to it that they had no serious difficulties to contend with, and hence their continual reign for such a long period.”

The best chapters

Of the eight chapters, the two on foreign trade and intercourse by ancient Tamils in Eelam, I consider as written with exceptional merit. These two were (as the author had mentioned in his preface) ‘read before the Ceylon branch of the Royal Asiatic Society’, under the titles, ‘The Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna and the Early Greek Writers’ and ‘The identification of the Port of Kalah’. In these two chapters, Rasanayagam traces the evidence for the prosperity of ancient Eelam, as described in the authoritative works of Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) and Ptolemy (AD 2nd century).

On page 128 of the book, based on the numismatic evidences found in Kantharodai, Rasanayagam infers that, “300 years, extending from 50 BC to AD 250, as the glorious period of prosperity of this country [Eelam] which synchronises with the Augustan age of Tamil literature under the patronage of the third sangam of Madura.”

The writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes (AD 6th century) and Marco Polo (1254-1323) on the northern territory of Ceylon have also been interestingly analysed by Rasanayagam. Marco Polo’s descriptions of the 13th century Eelam demands a more elaborate study than provided by Rasanayagam, and it will be dealt with in a later article.

Vijaya Bahu’s Jaffna Connection

Recently, the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera has been quoted as saying, “Under the leadership of Vijaya Bahu, I think of how our ancestors defeated the powerful Chola empire.” [Tamil Times, Dec.1988] If this attribution is true, I could only say that Wijeweera hasn’t studied the medieval history of Ceylon in detail and hasn’t read Mahavansa at all.

Rasanayagam, in pages 277-278 of his book, reveals the matrimonial connections Vijaya Bahu had with Jaffna kingdom, from the verses of Mahavansa. To quote,

“Vijaya Bahu (AD 1054-1109) being, ‘desirous to prolong and establish his race sent forth and brought a princess of exceeding beauty and delicate form born of the race of the kings of Kalinga whose name was Tilakasundari and anointed her as his queen.’ (Mahavansa, chap.59, vv.29-30)…The princess and her kinsmen might have come from Sinhapura, the Singai Nagar of Jaffna…In the 19th year of his regin, Vijaya Bahu, in order to put down certain rebels in the Rohana and Malaya countries, ‘sent into the field an Officer of his wife’s brother’s race’ (Mahavansa, chap.59, vv.18-21).”

Rasanayagam continues, “If the translation in the Mahavansa is correct, it clearly shows that his wife’s brother was a ruling prince and if our surmise is correct he must have been the king of Jaffna. Vikrama Bahu, the son of Vijaya Bahu, appears to have been a follower of Hinduism, his mother’s religion, for he despoiled the viharas and allowed his Tamil soldiers to dwell in them. The priests therefore removed the Tooth Relic and went to Rohana (Mahavansa, chap.61, vv.54-65)”. Vikrama Bahu reigned between AD 1121 and 1131.

Buddhistic bias of Mahavansa

In many instances, Rasanayagam emphasizes the ‘unreliability of the Mahavansa as a historical narrative’, due to its Buddhistic bias. Just two examples from his book are given below.

(1) “The author of the Mahavansa, in his attempt to ignore the importance of the Northern kingdom and the part it played in the history of Ceylon from the 12th to the 15th century, has in several instances, unconsciously revealed the truth. The suppression of these facts was obviously intentional and he had to turn and twist facts to suit his own purpose…” (pp.311-312).

(2) “The author of the Mahavansa who allots several chapters to the reign of Parakrama Bahu disposes of the reigns of Nissanka Malla and his successors in a few verses, although the glories of some of them, in spite of all their troubles and strife, are well enough indicated in their inscriptions. They seem to have been passed over because of their leanings towards Hinduism, although they really were exceptionally tolerant.” (p.324).

Rasanayagam’s class bias

Brief mention should be made on the class bias of some of the views expressed by Rasanayagam. One should not overlook the prevailing social atmosphere in Jaffna 75 years ago. Belonging to the elite class, Rasanayagam had commented somewhat derisively on some of the so-called lower castes of the Jaffna society, between pages 383 and 384 of the book. It is irrelevant and inappropriate to dwell on this hypocrisy in the 21st century and the author can be excused for his idiosyncrasy.


Despite the frivolity of Rasanayagam’s derivation of the origin of some castes in medieval Jaffna, after reading the book Ancient Jaffna, one gets the impression that it provides a scholastic history of Eelam and the ancient Tamils. Unfortunately the up-start historians and racist politicians (as one would expect) quote Rasanayagam out of context to suit their fancy, without reading even a chapter of his book.


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