Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Selected Writings - Dr. Alvappillai Velupillai

Pandya Rule at the Beginning of Ancient Lankan History

26 July 2006

"The last four kings in the Mahavamsa from 1739 to 1815 were Nayakkar princes who were referred to as Vaduka Tamils in Sinhala records. They claimed descent from Telugus (Telugu is another Dravidian language) but spoke Tamil language when they were ruling southern Tamilnadu from Mathurai. Some Sinhala chiefs wanted to dislodge the Nayakkar and become kings themselves but they could neither agree among themselves nor get sufficient popular support. The British who established their domination over the maritime provinces of the island by 1798 exploited the ambition of the Sinhala chiefs to make them traitors to their king. Wikrema Rajasinghe alias Kannusamy, the last Lankan/Tamil king, was made a prisoner and exiled to India. The treacherous Sinhala chiefs gained nothing. The whole of the island of Lanka became a British colony for 133 years. Could modern day Sinhala politicians learn any lesson from this history?"

How does one write the history of a country? If one ethnic religious community in a country has a record of its past, it should be utilized as an important source. How the other community or communities which live in the same country view that record is also important to assess the historical value of that past record.

Archaeological explorations and epigraphy are much more important than past records referring to events which happened many centuries earlier. Foreign notices also provide an important source which could help in reconstructing a balanced view of history of the country. It is also important to study the history and developments in the region, the geographical location of the country, its position on trade routes, etc.

Does Sri Lanka have a history in that sense? I am amused when some Sinhala chauvinists say that liberals and progressives advocating the restructuring of the multiethnic and multicultural Lanka are wrong because they don’t know the history of Lanka. According to the understanding of the author of this article (referred to as ‘this author’ subsequently), it is the Sinhala chauvinists who have been misled by a biased and distorted account of the history of this island.

There is no balanced and well-researched history of ancient Lanka, partly because of the paucity of sources, partly because findings from ancient South Indian sources have not been correlated and integrated, and partly because archaeology and epigraphy of ancient Lanka have not been given primacy as sources but have been interpreted in the light of the Mahavamsa, a chronicle written with a very narrow vision many centuries later.

Professor S. Paranavitana, an Archaeological Commissioner, was a dominating figure in archaeology, epigraphy, and ancient history of Lanka for more than fifty years during the last century. As he was writing and publishing over such a long period, he was seen to be influenced by modern ideas occasionally. But such instances were very few and exceptional.

For him, the Mahavamsa was almost like a bible to the Christians. Instead of giving primacy to archaeology and epigraphy, and supplementing his findings with material from the Mahavamsa, he was trying his best to interpret archaeology and epigraphy in the light of the Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa has been trying to minimize the South Indian component of the Lankan culture, adopting an anti-Tamil attitude and trying to maximize the North Indian component of Lankan culture.

On his retirement as Archaeological Commissioner, he was appointed as Professor of Archaeology in the University of Ceylon (the only university in Lanka at that time) for a short period. The University of Ceylon had a project for publishing an authoritative history of the country and Prof. Paranavitana functioned as its editor. He was adopting the Mahavamsa as his guide, especially for the early period of Lankan history. He himself admitted that he had rejected some portions of a Tamil contributor to the volume on the ancient period of Lankan history, because those portions didn’t fit into what he considered Lankan history.

Archeology and ancient Brahmi inscriptions presented difficult problems for him which he could not explain from his reading of the Mahavamsa. A number of archaeological sites which are associated with megalithic culture of Dravidian South India have been located in explorations in different parts of South India. Finding no clue from the Mahavamsa, he refused to give those findings their due importance as he had to accept that ancient South India and Lanka had shared the same culture; instead he explained them away as over-flows from South India.

Ancient inscriptions of Lanka had been written in Prakrit language and Brahmi script. Even though Brahmi script had been used throughout South Asia from Asokan times, it had regional variations. In addition, South Indian Brahmi needed special characters to write some special letters of Dravidian, especially Tamil. Early Brahmi inscriptions of Lanka have all the symbols of south Indian Brahmi. Paranavitana, believing the Mahavamsa version of the story, was very ingenuous in trying to argue that the early Brahmi script of Lanka was following the north Indian version of Brahmi.

Even though some Sinhala language and archaeology scholars like Prof. P.E.E. Fernando, a Professor of Sinhala language from University of Ceylon/ Peradeniya and Dr. W.S. Karunaratna, one time colleague and successor to Paranavitana as Archaelogical Commissioner have pointed out the closeness between south Indian Brahmi and early Lankan Brahmi, Paranavitana refused to accept the obvious to the end of his life.

Paranavitana remained so influential that Dr.W.S.Karunaratna could publish his Cambridge University doctoral thesis as a publication of the Archaeology Department only after Paranavitana’s death. This author has read a research paper entitled, 'Commonness in early Palaeography of Tamilnadu and early Sri Lanka’, which was later published in Proceedings and Transactions of the Fifth International Association of Tamil Research, 1981.

The early Brahmi inscriptions of Lanka are in Prakrit language like other contemporary inscriptions of South Asia, excluding ancient Tamilakam but they have so many words which are not found in Prakrit or Sanskrit in other parts of South Asia. A considerable number of them appear to be Tamil terms and they could be easily explained as Tamil terms, drawing comparable material from ancient Tamil Sangam literature as well as ancient Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. Paranavitana was very ingenuous in trying to derive all these words from some Sanskrit or Prakrit forms.

On the point of language, no Sinhala scholar has pointed out the Tamil influence in ancient Brahmi inscriptions partly because they are not competent in classical Tamil and partly because they cannot look beyond the Mahavamsa. This author has published a research paper in two parts, entitled ‘ Tamil influence in ancient Sri Lanka, with special reference to early Brahmi inscriptions’ in Journal of Tamil Studies, 1979 and 1980.

Dr. S.K. Sittampalam, Professor of History and Archaeology of Jaffna University, has also important publications pointing to ancient Lanka forming a part of ancient South Indian cultural region in so many ways. In 2003, Iravatham Mahadevan has published ‘Early Tamil Epigraphy’, which has been included in the prestigious Harvard Oriental Series, where he points out the occurrence of all the special sounds of early Tamil Brahmi letters among early Lankan Brahmi inscriptions.

This author has been waiting for twenty five years to explain how Tamil influence could have been so strong in ancient Lankan history. But till now, it was not possible to explain how so much Tamil influence could be seen in Lankan Brahmi inscriptions because the Mahavamsa and other related chronicles relate the ancient history of the island in such a way that it is not possible to envisage how Tamil influence could have been so strong. Even though this author was skeptical about the claims of the Mahavamsa, he himself could not point out that the Mahavamsa contained distortions and misrepresentations.

Recent developments in Lanka has given the author a clue. The lesson that I learned is that reality could be very different from what it is declared to be. Sinhala chauvinism under the leadership of the JVP and JHU could twist and turn anything. Outward demonization of the LTTE, implying demonization of Tamil nationalism by the State and by Sinhala chauvinists seems to be so complete that the just cause of the long suffering and long struggling Tamils, have been out of international focus.

Mahinda Rajapakse has campaigned on the Sinhala chauvinist election platform, closing all doors for a just peace settlement to the Tamils but he appeals to the international community for help to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table. It is almost four years now after the signing of the Cease-Fire Agreement between the government and the LTTE. The government has still not implemented some of the key provisions of that Agreement The security forces continue to occupy houses, schools and fertile cultivated lands of many thousands of Tamil civilians who continue to languish in many makeshift temporary shelters for years. There was a Tamil Resurgence movement among the Northeast Tamils and there was a popular campaign demanding the implementation of the key provision of the CFA, especially the one referring to the resettling of the Tamils .

Rajapakse has appointed well-known Sinhala chauvinists, who have been clamouring for war as the final solution to the ethnic conflict, to the top posts in defense and security. Along with para-military forces, who are paid and armed by military intelligence, they are letting loose a reign of terror partly on Tamil nationalists and LTTE supporters and partly on innocent Tamil civilians in the Northeast. The aim seems to be total silencing of the Tamils forever.

But government spokesmen, like Prasad Samarasinghe, Keheliye Rambukwelle, Gothabhaya Rajapakse, Chandra Fernando, Sarath Fonseka and Kotakadeniya do not bother even for a moment to check or investigate any violent act against Tamils. According to them, the armed forces maintain such high discipline, there are no para-military groups in government held area in the Northeast, Vigneswaran must have been killed by his Tamil political rivals, six youth in Trincomalee beach died because the bomb they were carrying exploded, Tamil civilians in Mannar and Kayts killed because they were friendly with the armed forces, some Tamil youth came in one three- wheeler at Nelliadi and attacked an army check-point, so an army person opened fire and killed them all, etc., etc.

Most of Sinhala-controlled media also seem to echo what their government dishes out. This is how State and most of Sinhala-controlled media report matters; they don’t care that all these can be found to be lies in independent investigations. The recent ban imposed by Canada and the European Union on the LTTE, taking seriously the biased and partisan account of the government versions of the situation, seems to have encouraged the government that they could do anything to the Tamils, say anything about the Tamils and get away from them with impunity. The State media and most of the Sinhala- owned media are united in putting forward anti-Tamil and anti-LTTE versions, without caring for the facts. So much of misrepresentation and distortion are seen in their quest to preserve Sinhala Buddhist hegemony that this could be a reflection of a Sinhala character trait.

The author started looking carefully into the Mahavamsa to see whether there could have been misrepresentations and distortions. The Mahavamsa could have been using a code which should be broken if one wants to be sure of facts. Modern critical scholars have already pointed out that there were certain shortcomings in the narration of the Mahavamsa as most probably there were no written records before the introduction of Buddhism in Tissa’s reign and the story before that period might be recollecting vague memories.

Let us begin with Vijaya, who starts the Sinhala royal lineage. According to the Mahavamsa, he wanted to marry into a royal family and sent pearls and gems to the Pandya king to ask for a princess for himself and women for his followers. The Pandya king obliged.

Paranavitana and his followers find this statement of the Mahavamsa very uncomfortable. They have taken pains to argue that even though the people of the Pandya kingdom might have been Tamil, the Pandya dynasty could have been a north Indian ksatriya dynasty, as they don’t want to accept that even from the beginning of the historical period, Tamils could have been an important element in Lankan population.

The Mahavamsa also says that Vijaya continued to send pearls and gems to the Pandya king. This seems to be a euphemism for Vijaya being a vassal of the Pandya king. The reason given in the Mahavamsa for Vijaya opting for a Pandya marriage alliance also appears to be inappropriate. Vijaya seems to have been influenced by a feeling of insecurity. Vijaya established his kingdom in the backyard of south India, which was Dravidian speaking. The three kingdoms closest to Lanka- Kerala, Chola and Pandya - were Tamil speaking. Vijaya also wanted to be an ally of the Pandya because then only exploitation of pearl fishery resources in the Gulf of Mannar could be smooth.

According to the Mahavamsa, Vijaya and his Pandya queen had no issue. Their successor was Pandu- Vasudeva. Was he a Pandya? That was most likely, as either her brother or her nephew must have been the next in line. Mahavamsa seems to have spun a story to hide this fact. According to the Mahavamsa, Vijaya sent a message to his brother king in Bengal to come and take over the kinship of Lanka and the latter sent one of his sons. Mahavamsa claims that Pandu Vasudeva was Vijaya’s nephew. This appears very unlikely. Did Vijaya keep contact with his family which exiled him and his followers as good riddance? Could Vijaya’s brother send his young son to live among evil people so far away? Why did Vijaya not marry into a family in Bengal and instead chose a Pandya princess? As Vijaya had a large number of siblings, he could have married even a sister, following on the example set up by his father. Who really succeeded Vijaya must have been Vijaya’s queen’s nephew, who was a Pandya.

There is no mention in the Mahavamsa of Pandu Vasudeva sending annual presents to the Pandyas as he himself was a Pandya. This Pandu/Pandya connection was very bothersome to the author of the Mahavamsa, as the grandson of this king was also calling himself a Pandu-k-Abhaya, again pointing to their Pandya lineage. The Mahavamsa author had to create another folder and another story to hide this Pandu/Pandya connection.

He created another Pandu and connected him to the Buddha’s Sakya lineage so that Buddhist connection to the Sinhala royal family also gets strengthened among incredulous Sinhala Buddhists. There was a Sakya Pandu who was pushed out of his tribal area by the Kosala king to the Gangetic valley where he set up his rule. His daughter was so much sought after by other kings that he exiled her in a boat as he was not willing to accept any one of them as a suitor for his daughter. When his daughter accidentally landed in Lanka, her brothers welcomed her. The Mahavamsa does not say why and how her brothers came to Lanka. Was Lanka Buddhist at that time? As the Buddha’s three visits to the island should be dismissed as fiction, Sakya Pandu’s story appears to be another fiction, invented just to explain away this inconvenient Pandu/Pandya connection. If there is any truth in this story, all the Sinhala Buddhist kings might have been claiming that they were Pandus. Dutthagamini, who is referred to as the greatest hero of the Sinhala Buddhists, might have proudly declared himself a Pandu.

The Mahavamsa itself has inadvertently mentioned a fact which helps to place Pandu-k-Abhaya as a Tamil king. It was this king who was associated with building up Anuradhapura as an urban area. According to the Mahavamsa, he was the first king to build an irrigation work which was named in the Mahavamsa as a kulama, a Tamil word. This strengthens this author’s argument that the Pandus were indeed Pandyas.

The Mahavamsa also mentions that Pandu-k-Abhaya patronized a Jain monk and provided a lodging for him. In ancient Tamilakam, it was only in the Pandya kingdom that the Jains seems to have received patronage. It is still not clear how ancient Tamil Brahmi script came into being; but all ancient stone inscriptions in the ancient Pandya kingdom deal with donation of cave lodgings to Jain monks. This is also proof that that the Pandu kings mentioned in the Mahavamsa refer to connection with the Pandya kingdom. It is also interesting to note here that according to the Mahavamsa, a great grandson of Sakya Pandu, patronized Jainism but not Buddhism. Probably Sakya Pandu’s descendents in Lanka have not heard of the Buddha or of the Buddhist monks!

It is in this light that we have to look at references to Eelam in ancient Tamil Brahmi inscriptions and Sangam literature. According to a Tamil Brahmi inscription, a man from Eelam is said to have established a cave-dwelling for Jain monks, on a hill adjoining Mathurai. This indicates that provision of lodging for Jain monks in Anuradhapura by Pandu-k-Abhaya was functional and Jains were moving about between Lanka and the Pandya kingdom as the rulers were closely connected. In the Sangam Eight Anthologies, there was a Tamil poet with the name Puthan Thevanar, connected with Eelam and then with Eelam and Mathurai. He must have come from Eelam to Mathurai and then became a permanent resident there. Pattinappalai, also a Sangam text, mentions the import of food from Eelam at the port city of Kavirippumpattinam. Unfortunately the name of the food item is not specified. All these indicate that the Mahavamsa gives only a partisan and incomplete account with a considerable amount of distortion and misrepresentation.

According to the Mahavamsa, there were only two Pandu kings. But it appears highly improbable. There must have been many Pandu kings but facts were probably not available when the Mahavamsa was composed. Pandu-k-Abhaya is said to have become king when he was thirty seven years old and ruled for seventy years. According to the Mahavamsa, Devanampiya Tissa’s father was king Mutasiva. Mutasiva is said to have ruled for sixty years.

 The Mahavamsa could have been correct to say that Mutasiva took his name from his mother’s lineage as his father’s lineage was Pandu. The Mahavamsa claims that Pandu-k-Abhaya and Mutasiva, father and son, ruled for one hundred and thirty years. According to the Mahavamsa, Pandu-k-Abhaya married Suvannapali, Mutasiva’s mother when he was quite young. That means Mutasiva must have been born before his father’s reign started. Then we have to take it that both father and son lived for more than one hundred years each. One has to be very incredulous to believe in such fiction. Considering the normal human span, there should have been at least three Pandu/Pandya rulers in addition between this father and son.

Mutasiva and Tissa giving up the Pandu prefix seems to denote the Sinhalas trying to assert their independence from the Pandu/Pandya domination. They had a chance of forming an alliance with a north Indian kingdom. About the time of Mutasiva, the Mauryan empire, the most extensive Indian empire before the British Indian empire, was becoming very powerful in India. During Asoka’s reign, the Mauryan empire, having its capital city of Pataliputra in Bihar, extended to the northern borders of ancient Tamil land. Mutasiva must have felt confident about disowning Pandu/Pandya connection and asserting his independence, with the help of another Indian ally. Tissa, his son, according to the Mahavamsa, sent valuable presents to Asoka, his friend. Asoka, in turn, is said to have accepted them, sent back some presents and asked Tissa to undergo another coronation and to accept his religion of Buddhism, taking also Asoka’s title of Devanampiya.

This description seems to be an euphemism for Tissa sending tribute to Asoka and Asoka accepting Tissa as a vassal. Tissa underwent his second coronation with the new title and soon became a Buddhist also. It is important to note here that Tissa did not take up the Pandu prefix. If it had any connection to Sakya Pandu of the Buddha’s tribe, as claimed by the Mahavamsa, Tissa and his Sinhala Buddhist successors must have been eager to assume it.

The Mauryan Buddhist empire could not give Lanka long term security. The Mauryan Buddhist dynasty was overthrown and Sunga Hindu dynasty came to power. This empire disintegrated. It was during this period that Tamils came to power in Lanka twice. From the way Mahavamsa describes them, one can say that they were Tamil adventurers. The Mahavamsa itself admits that the Buddhists did not suffer at the hands of those early Tamil rulers. It became difficult for the Sinhalas to dislodge Elara, who was extremely just and benign, even according to the Mahavamsa. When one peruses the long list of Sinhala kings, there was none who could equal Elara. Dutthagamani from Ruhuna had to mobilize Buddhism behind him to fight against the non-Buddhist Tamil Elara whose rule was found to be acceptable to people of north Lanka for nearly half a century (44 years).

The Sinhala element in Lanka seems to have felt a sense of insecurity from the very beginning. They claimed to be of north Indian origin but they were a despised lot in north India at least at the beginning. When they landed in Lanka, they seemed to have exploited the indigenous population, by living with the indigenous women and killing off the others who might oppose them. They came face to face with the Pandyas who were sharing the extremely profitable pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar.

They seemed to secure themselves by making marriage alliances with South Indian women. In order to gain respectability with the Pandyas, they turned treacherous to the indigenous women who were living with them and drove them and their children out to the jungle. It is amazing how the Sinhalas could claim to be bhumiputras (sons of the soil) when they appear to have committed a genocide of the earlier inhabitants of the island. According to archaeological evidence, human beings were living in the island for thousands of years. If the Sinhalas claim that they were the descendents of the indigenous people, they should accept that the Mahavamsa is a fiction. In fairness to the Mahavamsa, it should be mentioned that it admits that Vijaya gave up his evil ways, after his marriage to the Pandya princess. Tamil culture must have exerted its influence. Unfortunately, these evil ways continue in the genes of a substantial number of their descendents even now.

Sri Lanka seems to have had different names in ancient times. No documents- neither Lankan inscriptions nor Indian inscriptions nor foreign notices – mention the names of Lanka and Sihala/Sinhala before the beginning of the Common era. Asoka, claimed to be so close to Lanka by later Lankan chronicles, has never mentioned the name Lanka, even when he had referred to the island. When he was mentioning his border states in the south, he was mentioning in his Prakrit inscription, the Tamil states and Tambapanni. Tambapanni is the equivalent to Tamraparni in Sanskrit. Tamraparni is the name of a river in southern Pandya kingdom, which flows into the sea in the Gulf of Mannar.

The Pandyas had a second capital at Korkai, at the mouth of the Tamraparni river. Very close to Korkai, a megalithic cultural site, associated with Dravidian culture at Adiccanallur have yielded On the opposite coast of the latter-day Lanka, archaeologists have come across Pomparippu, located between Puttalam and Mannar, which also has yielded megalithic cultural artifacts. Tambapanni must have been the name of this settlement at one time. Later the whole island must have been referred to as Tambapanni. The Mahavamsa mentions that Vijaya and his followers came to Tambapanni but it does not give much importance to this name probably because it wanted to belittle the Pandya influence over ancient Lanka. In this connection it is important to note that Greek notices gave this island the name of Tabrobane, a variant form of Tambapanni. All these facts point to strong Pandya influence in Lanka for many generations at the beginning of Lankan history.

It is often said that history repeats itself. In the eighteenth century, The Sinhala kings in Kandy maintained their independence but the Dutch controlled the maritime areas of the island and imposed restrictions on foreign trade of the Kandyan kingdom. The Sinhala kings established marriage alliances with Nayakkar dynasty then ruling in Mathurai, the capital of the earlier Pandyas. The Sinhala royal line had no legitimate successor in 1739.

The last four kings in the Mahavamsa from 1739 to 1815 were Nayakkar princes who were referred to as Vaduka Tamils in Sinhala records. They claimed descent from Telugus (Telugu is another Dravidian language) but spoke Tamil language when they were ruling southern Tamilnadu from Mathurai. Some Sinhala chiefs wanted to dislodge the Nayakkar and become kings themselves but they could neither agree among themselves nor get sufficient popular support. The British who established their domination over the maritime provinces of the island by 1798 exploited the ambition of the Sinhala chiefs to make them traitors to their king. Wikrema Rajasinghe alias Kannusamy, the last Lankan/Tamil king, was made a prisoner and exiled to India. The treacherous Sinhala chiefs gained nothing. The whole of the island of Lanka became a British colony for 133 years. Could modern day Sinhala politicians learn any lesson from this history?


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