The Sinhalese Occupation of Jaffna

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The following essay was published in the Jaffna College MISCELLANY First Term, 1913 and has been witten by S. W. Coomarasawamy.

PLATE V : Fragments of Large Buddha at Kantarodai
PLATE V : Fragments of Large Buddha at Kantarodai

The ancient history of Jaffna is shrouded in obscurity, We know practically nothing either of its original inhabitants or of those who occupied it before the Tamils. Our historians do not furnish us with any reliable and clear information about the state of the country before the arrival there of the blind minstrel Yal-panan. Hence is the prevalent impression that what was bestowed on blind Vanan by the king of Lanka whom he approached for gifts, was but a sandy waste.g

This is countenanced by the old Tamil names of Jaffna viz., manal-tidal (the sand-hill) or manatti (the sands) and Erumai-mullai-tivu (the island overgrown with the shrub called erumai-mullai), as well as by the Sinhalese Weligama and Weligampattu (the sandy village).

Fortunately, however, there is an authentic history of Jaffna, preserved in places—names all over the peninsula,—which helps us to dispel the mist of false impressions. Such names as:—

Mirisuvil (Sin. Miriswila — the chilly or pepper field.)
Pannalai (Sin. Pan-ely—the canal or rivulet abounding in rushes.)
Elalai (Sin. Ehele-ela—the canal abounding in ehela trees.)
Talalai (Sin. Tal-ela—etal—the palmyra palm)
Natantanai (Sin. Naran-deniya—the orange land)
Mallagam (Sin. Malla-gama—the wrestler’s village)
Chunnagam (Sin. Sunna-gama or Hunnagama—the lime-burner’s village.)
Polwattai (Sin. Polwatte—the coconut garden)
Kelwattai (Sin. Kehel-watte — the banana garden)
Malwattai (Sin Mai- watte—the flower garden)
Pokkcnai (Sin. Pokuna—the pond or pool)

are an unmistakable proof that Jaffna was once inhabited by the Sinhalese, and that the land was not a mere waste when the Tamils came in possession of it. The island of Ceylon, or Sinhala as it was known to the ancient Indians, was inhabited several centuries before the Christian era. Even at such a remote age as that of the Maha Bharata War, the island of Sinhala was a Kingdom. The Sanskrit Maha Bharata maker mentions ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Kings of Sinhalas’ in Saba Parva, of ‘Chiefs of the Sinhalas’ in Dyata Parva and of the aboriginal tribes of Lanka in Vana Parva. It is therefore not surprising, but highly probable, that, at such a late period as that of Yalpanan, the northern part of Ceylon was occupied by the Sinhalese people, and converted into hamlets, gamas, fields, gardens and walawas (houses and compounds of chiefs.)

Moreover, if, as Prof. Keane says in his ‘Living Races of Mankind/ Adam’s Bridge was the means of communication in ancient times between India and Ceylon, Jaffna would undoubtedly have been colonised at an early stage of the immigration of primitive races. The following extract from the Vaipava-malai, as translated by the late Mr. Brito, fully bears out the above view:-—

“These new colonists and the Sinhalese natives he (the minstrel) treated alike . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  the Sinhalese and Tamils were jealous of each other and fought for supremacy”

But the author of the “Tamil Plutarch,” would have us believe that the peninsula was ‘then uninhabited and covered with jungle’ and that Yalpana Nayanar “had it cleared

In his Census Report 1911, Mr. E. B. Denham adduces several reasons to prove that Jaffna was inhabited before Yal-panan arrived. These, and his remarks are well worth quoting at length:—

(a) “According to the “Yal-pana Vaipava Malai.” or History of Jaffna from which Cassie Chettty appears to have derived his account, there were at least two famous temples, one at Maviddapuram, dedicated to Kandaswamy and the other called the Tiru-Tambaleswara Kovil at Keerimalai before  Jaffna was gifted to the minstrel.

(b) The traces of a previous Sinhalese occupation of Jaffna are shewn in:—

  1. Names of places e. g. Kodikamam (Godigamua) Kokkuvil (Kokkawila). Pannakam (Pannagama) Valikamam (Weligam?). Why should not Jaffna have been called Weligama the sandy village? It is practically included now in the four divisions of Valikamam.
  2.  Names of persons ending in appu e. g. Kandappu, Sinnappu. The Tamil form is appa. The termination appu is not inflected like other Tamil words ending in short u. Foreign words in u do not drop the u in inflection,
  3. About the year 1902 Buddhist images were unearthed at Kottiyawatte (a Sinhalese name) near Chunnagam (Hunnagama?) Images of Buddha have also been discovered in the Mannar District
  4. It is said that the Jaffnese formerly grew their hair like the Sinhalese and traces of this custom are still found in interior villages. The existence of Naga shrines in the Jaffna peninsula pointing to the early prevalence of snake-worship, e. g. the shrine of Nagammal at Nayinaitivu, where there is a large stone visible above the surface of the sea, round which there is an image of a coiled serpent. It is further noteworthy that the festival at this shrine is held on the Buddhist Esala Poya day.”

With due deference to the learned Superintendent of Census who has displayed in his Report a wealth of antiquarian research, it may here be pointed out that appu in Kandappu and Sinnappu is identical with the form appu which the Tamils of Jaffna ordinarily employ to denote the father.  The final u in this word as well as in the proper names Mayilu, Tambu, Ponnu, Muttu, Ramu, Velu etc, discloses the growing endency of the mass of Jaffnese to avoid the regular masculine and feminine terminations where politeness of ex pression is aimed at. To the same cause do such unclassical and ungrammatical forms as ava, iva, uva, vanta, pona, appa, aiya, amma, and akka owe their existence.

It may further be observed that modified forms like appu (father), Murugu, Murugesu, Kiddu, Muttu, Tampu &c do not drop their final short u in inflexion. A reference to the Tamil records of the Dutch period would shew that the forms Sinnappu, Kandappu were then unknown. The regular appan was not then maimed and twisted.

In addition to the points enumerated above in support of the Sinhalese occupation of Jaffna may be mentioned the following:—

(a) The system of branding cattle with marks known as patti-kuri (fold-marks), designating the castes of the owners, appears to be unknown in Southern India. It is evidently a Sinhalese invention which the Jaffna Tamils have imitated.

(b) There are several gardens in Jaffna bearing the name of Puttar kovil (Buddhist temple)

(c) There occur in the speech of the Jaffnese a few words which are traceable to a Sinhalese source, namely, kokkai (Sinhalese kekka), ikkiri (a kind of thorny shrub) kamam (a field or farm), valavu (a dwelling house and compound) &c.
(d) In the Sinhalese Nampota which is a list of important places in the island (probably from a Buddhist point of view) compiled during the reign of one of the early Sinhalese kings, the following passage occurs:—

  • Demalapattana Mehe (The Tamil town here)
  • Nagakovila (Nagarkovil)
  • Kadufttgodayiharaya (Kantarodai? Vihare)
  • Mailagama (Mallakam)
  • Miniwangamuwiiiaraya (Veemanhama? vihare)
  • Tannidiwayina (Delft?)
  • Agnidiwayina (Analaitivu) agni—anal
  • Nagadiwayina (Nainativu) Sinhalese nayi-cobras
  • Ptiwangtidiwayina (Punkuditivu)
  • Karadiwayina (Karaitivu)
PLATE II : : Stone Finials from Kantarodai
PLATE II : : Stone Finials from Kantarodai
source : Nagadipa and Buddhist Remains of Jaffna by P.E Pieris and D. Litt. in the “Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland” Vol. 26, No. 70, Part I. (1917), Published by: Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka (RASSL)