'The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity The Tamils 0f Sri
Lanka C 300 BCE to 1200 CE Dr. K. Indrapala!
- Parasakthi Suntharalingam -
"What I have stated is what was already there, what some respected scholars
have said, what many have forgotten, what some have chosen to ignore."- Dr. K.
latter part of the 20th century saw how modern archeological techniques and
methods have changed and are changing the course of History. As more and more
archeological evidences are unearthed, the story of man continues to be
reconstructed. After many years of dedicated research, Prof. Indrapala reviews
many of his earlier findings in the light of new discoveries in archeology,
epigraphy and numismatics in Sri Lanka and South India , in his book – The
Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, the Tamils in Sri Lanka C 300 BCE to 1200 CE.
In times of human conflict, whether communal, national or international, History
together with its sister discipline of Archeology is always among the first
The importance of this statement is felt, when he quotes the latest report
(February, 2005) of an archeological find, an urn, with writing in a very
rudimentary Tamil – Brahmi Script – belonging to 500 BC, unearthed at
Adichchanallur in the Thirunelvely District in South India. (A report that
reached him after his work had been handed over to the publishers). “As long as
excavation work remains undone, much that is relevant to our study, will be
wanting”, were his words in his thesis published forty years ago in 1965. He
continues to re-iterate this in this book, “The thesis was completed in the
early 60s. Needless to say that dissertation is now completely out of date”.
Dr. Indrapala’s dedicated research during these forty odd years throws light on
many issues of the country’s past history, some hitherto misconstrued – to quote
This book is concerned with the Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka in the early
centuries of its history and with the evolution of an ethnic community speaking
the Tamil language in the Northern, North Western and Eastern regions of the
island, whose descendents in modern times perceive themselves as an ethnic
identity that is different from the Tamils of South India, as well as other
groups in Sri Lanka.
He continues, … Historians have tended to base their writings on the assumption
that the people of the Island at the dawn of history were Sinhalese and that at
a later time; the Tamils and other communities came to share the country. Sri
Lankan historiography of the 19th and the early 20th century is responsible for
this over simplification of the ancient history of Sri Lanka .
Further the historian in him says: My aim here is to explore the past in order
to understand how the Tamils of Sri Lanka (as well as the Sinhalese) came to be
what they are. Their political claims that led to the current conflict are to be
judged in terms of accepted universal Human Rights and not in terms of their
past in the Island. The deeper one delves into Sri Lankan history, the more will
one find how much the Tamils and Sinhalese have shared history and culture and
common descent. .... .... ....
... ... ... This book is written for the purpose of drawing attention to some of
the important aspects of Sri Lanka ’s past. It is written for the Sri Lankan
audience, and for this reason detailed notes and quotations have been included,
as articles in International Journals as well as foreign publications are not
easily accessible to the average reader. …
He rejects the colonial historical writings that identified the Sinhalese with
the Aryans and the Tamils with the Dravidians, and thereby nullifies the
‘purity’ of races.
It is fascinating how the eight chapters in the book are titled – from ancient
times to 1200 AD - showing the birth, growth, and development of the two ethnic
1. The Common Gene Pool
2. Conception and Birth
3. Imaginary Ancestors
4. Two Little Siblings
5. Growing up
6. Emerging Personalities
7. Reaching Adulthood
8. The Joint Achievers
According to the above chapters, the Tamils and Sinhalese have descended from
common ancestors and through a process of language replacement (a theory
popularized by archeologist Renfrew) the ‘North Indian Prakrit dialects spread
among the vast majority of the people paving the way for the evolution of the
Sinhala language, while Tamil became the language of the North, North West, and
East of the Island leading to the emergence of Sri Lankan Tamil.’ Both could not
have happened simultaneously - Tamil is an ancient language with a rich
literature by the time the North Indian Prakrit dialects spread in the country.
Therefore it is the older of the two – this should have been emphasised.
The last chapter aptly titled ‘Joint Achievers’ clears many a historical
misconception. The author proves the harmonious relationship that existed
between the Tamils and the Sinhalese during the Polannaruwa Period (11th and
12th century) when they jointly achieved great heights in architecture,
sculpture, hydraulic engineering, trade, literature, and the fine arts.
According to him, “The reign of Vijayabahu ushered in a period of remarkable
partnership between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. And there is no room for
interpreting the war against the Colas as a Sinhalese-Tamil conflict."
It is interesting to read about the very close relations that had existed
between Tamil Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhism from very early times and the
benevolent religious policy of the Cola Emperors for the Tamil contribution of
Buddhism in the Island . There is evidence to show that Tamil was taught at all
the Pirivinas and Buddhist monks were very well versed in both Tamil and
Sinhala. The author continues to explain how at a much later period when
Saivaism became the religion of the Tamils and Buddhism of the Sinhalese,
religion, in addition to language, became a marker of ethnic identity.
While tracing the growth of the two ethnic groups he concludes,
A complete bifurcation of the Island into Tamil speaking and Sinhala speaking
areas would have taken place only after 1200, especially with the fall of
Polannaruwa and the establishment of a new centre of Sinhalese power in the
South West. …
In this book, the narration of the historical development leading to the
emergence of two separate ethnic identities ends in 1200. But the story does not
end there – the dawn of the 13th century marks the beginning of the political
separation of the two groups
‘The manner in which history is being “used” in fighting contemporary issues is
a matter for concern’, is this historian’s regret.
He quotes historian Hobsbawn,
It is very important for historians to remember their responsibility, which is
above all to stand aside from the passions of identity politics even if we feel
them also – after all we are human beings too. …
It would be appropriate to quote the author’s words at the concluding passage of
Anyone turning such a fascinating story of ethnic interaction in a hospitable
Island with an exceptionally long record of human habitation into a woeful tale
of communal conflict and confrontation is surely misinterpreting history for
whatever purposes it be.
Prof. Indrapala’s book has come at a critical period in the history of Sri Lanka
, when the two ethnic groups are at the ‘parting of ways’. Is it A HARBINGER OF
PEACE or has it arrived rather late?