Sinhalese: A Nation Comfortable in Isolation – Part 1

Is Sinhalese Different from Dravidians?

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Ajantha Cave Mural, Cave 17- Vijaya’s Arrival in Lanka [ Special Arrangement]

According to Mahawamsa, the primary historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Sinhala race has a lion ancestry. Suppadevi, the daughter of King Vanga Desha, was kidnapped by a lion, and they lived in a cave in a forest of the Lala region and gave birth to 2 children (Singha Sewalee and Singha Bahu). When Singha Bahu was grown, he escaped from the lion and came to the ancestral kingdom with his mother and sister. Later he moved to his birth area and established a new kingdom called ‘Sinha Pura’ and was crowned and named ’King Sinha Bahu’’. Prince Wijaya was the son of King Sinha Bahu.  Due to the notorious behaviour, Prince Vijaya and his followers embarked on a ship and were exiled by king Sinha Bahu. After some time, they landed in Thamraparni (Mannar), in Lanka. According to the above chronicle, the Lord Buddha passed away in North India on the day Prince Vijaya landed in Lanka.

Subsequently, Prince Vijaya married kuveni, the then-reigning Queen of the country. She belongs to the Yakkas Clan/ tribe, apparently the dominant clan of the day in Lanka. With the assistance of kuveni, Vijaya defeated the Yakkas’ power and became the first whole Island king of Lanka. Other clans/tribes could have assimilated with the Vijaya’s Kingdom. According to Mahawamsa, Sinhala Nation (Sinhala Jathiya) is descending from King Vijaya and his followers. Based on this story and human classification done by western scientists in the 18th century, another notion has been developed to say that Sinhalese are of Indo-Aryan origin, assuming that Vijaya is from Indo- Aryan origin and Sinhalese are decedents of them.  According to this Human race classification, Dravidians were considered a different ethnolinguistic group outside the Indo-Aryan family. This notion has created many negative impacts on Sinhalese in the recent past, mainly causing artificial segregation from South Indian Geopolitical reality, significantly distancing from Tamils and the wider ethnolinguistic group of Dravidians, which will be discussed later.

If the above story developed by Lankan chronicles and subsequent additions by western human race classifications is substantially true, the following are the possible realities, inferences, and occurrences.

(a)The ‘Lion’ in this story could not be an animal, but a beastly outlaw called ‘Lion’ like Robin Hood or Uthuwankande Saradial, who used to rob traders and live in the jungle.

(b)  The departure/expulsion of Vijaya should have happened from Bengal, Orissa, or any other coastal area in India as a ship has been used.

(c) If the Ship was floating/sailing without a definite idea of the exact destination, considering the wind direction and the proximity, the ship should have been standard in Andrapradesh, Tamil Nadu, or any other place of mainland India.

(d) If the ship had been further floated towards Lanka, it should have standard /sailed into Trincomalee, Kirinda, Hambantota, Godawaya, Galle, Beruwala, or any other place along the East or South coast, considering the wind direction and the proximity.

(e)  Getting stranded in Thamraparni (Mannar) by going around Lanka Island towards the north, against the wind direction of these months, is the least possibility.

(f) Instead of anchoring/getting stranded at any of the convenient ports/coasts mentioned above, they would have planned to reach Thamraparni port (Mannar) because it was the Capital Region of Queen Kuveni, the queen of the relatively powerful Yakkas Kingdom of the day.

(g) The most probable scenario is that King Sinhabahu could have planned to invade Lanka, which was then politically disorganised. He could have sent an army headed by his mischievous sun Vijaya for this planned errand.

(h)Considering the wind direction from the Bay of Bengal, Vijaya’s army would have departed in the First Inter Monsoon (March-April) to reach the southern sea of Lanka and use the very early part of Southwest Monsoon sail to Thambapanni on Vesak Full Moon Day.

(i) It is widely accepted that one Mural at Ajantha Caves elaborates on Prince Vijaya’s arrival in Lanka. If that is the case, said mural doesn’t give any impression of sending into exile or a miserable stranding in Thamraparni.  It looks like a well-armed and well-organized march comprising ‘Chathrangani Sena’ [Eth (elephants), Us (horses), Riya (carts), Pabala (pedestrian)]. It gives an impression of a well-planned invasion.

(j) By examining various stories in Mahawamsa, including the perception of 3 visits of Lord Buddha to Lanka, it can be assumed that Lanka had been ruled during this period by several clans/tribes of Yakkas, Nagas, Rakshas, etc. After defeating Yakkas, Vijaya may have unified the whole of Lanka and become ‘All Island King’.

(k) In honour of Prince Vijaya’s parents and grandparents, the new kingdom would have been named ‘Sinha-Desha’ (land of the Singha Clan). It is logical to assume that way, as his father’s new kingdom was also called “Sinha Pura.”

(l)The name Sinha -Desha may have changed from time to time according to various writers as Sinhala- Desha, Sihala- Desha, Sinhala- Deepa, Hela Diva, Helaya, etc. and colloquially as ‘Sinhale’ or ‘Helaya’. Also, it is essential to note that before the British period, it was called ‘Sinhale,’ and the chieftain of the county handed over a country called ‘Sinhale’ to the British.

(m) People who lived in ‘Sinhale’ could have been known as ‘Sinhala people’ or ‘Sinhalayo,’ and the language they spoke could have been called ‘Sinhala’ language or ‘Hela Basa’, which is like France, French people and French language or Germany, German people, and German language.

(n) Mahawamasa gives the impression that Vijaya and his followers are a Sinhala people who came from Singapura and accidentally landed in Lanka and settled down here and formed a new regime and a new nation called Sinhala. This is like the case of English people going from England and settling in Australia or New Zeeland. If the story is so, Singapura, the motherland of Sinhalese, should have been a vast Sinhala state in modern India, like the English people in England. But even a single native Sinhala person cannot be found anywhere in India today. As there is a significant Tamil population in India (Tamil Nadu), it can assume that the Tamils of Lanka have come from nearby Tamil Nadu in India. Since there is no native Sinhalese anywhere in India, it is impossible to believe that Sinhalese are a group of migrants from India. It seems like a mythical story.

(o) According to Mahawamsa, Load Buddha had three visits to Lanka, and the first visit was nine months after the attainment of Buddhahood. The Lord Buddha may have placed a high priority on Lanka as it was a human settlement with a rich culture, like the Buddhist Region in India.

(p)According to Mahawamsa and contemporary Indian Epics, Lanka was occupied by tribal groups or clans called ‘Yakkas, Nagas, Devas, and Rakshas. They could be aborigines, immigrants, or a mixture of aborigines and immigrants from the Dravidian Ethnolinguistic cluster of South India, including Tamils. Probably, the Nagas could be the migrants of Tamil origin who came as traders or fishermen because the snake (Naga) is very much related to Tamil culture. The above tribal names would have come according to their jobs and religious traditions.

(q) Most probably, after the establishment of Vijaya’s kingdom, most ethnic groups, tribes, and clans would have accepted the new colonial ruler and gradually assimilated into one nation called “Sinhala,” including the Vijaya’s Royal Clan.

(r) Perhaps the Veddas, who remain still with a separate identity, maybe the decedents who did not wish to assimilate with the new Sinhala Nation formed by Vijaya. Similarly, some hardcore Tamils (Dravidians), who lived before Vijaya’s arrival, may have maintained a separate identity without assimilating into the new nation formed by Vijaya.

(s) There is no debate about the fact that Sri Lankan Tamils are of South Indian origin. There is no significant difference between Tamil Nadu Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils. Their traditions, customs, language, and religion are similar, and the relationship between the two groups remains uninterrupted throughout history.

(t) If Sinhalese have come from Odessa or any other Sinhala state in India, they should have maintained a cultural and political relationship with that state like the Tamils do. Under this scenario, it is logical to assume that Sinhalese had not come from any other part of the world. Vijaya, the Indian invader, formed a new nation called ‘Sinhala’ by integrating or assimilating his followers and spouses with all community groups living in Lanka at that time. Since then, immigrants from the Indian sub-continent could have been assimilated with the leading ethnic group called ‘Sinhala.’ Sinhala Language may have evolved by mixing with native languages used by Yakkas, Nagas, Devas, and Rakshas with the languages used by Odessa and other Indian invaders, and subsequently Pali and Sanskrit, mainly for written language.

Concept of Aryans

(a) Accepting the human race Classification done by the modern western scholars/ scientists, who were interested in oriental studies in the 18th century, supports the assumption that Vijaya and his followers came from present Odessa/ Bengal and are also Indo-Aryans. Therefore, a notion has been built to say that Sinhalese, the decedents of Vijaya, are also Indo-Aryans. The Indo-Aryan concept was developed in the 18th Century. Therefore, the Aryan concept of Sinhalese may have developed since the 18th century.

(b) All scientific studies by Indian and other international scholars agree that there is a significant relationship between Sinhalese, Bengalis, and South Indian Tamils. Further, there is a significant genetic relationship between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese compared to other south Asian ethnicities. Also, a study by G.K. Kshatriya in 1995 assessing the ‘Genetic Affinities of the Sri Lankan population has found that a significant genetic contribution has come from South India, the Bengali, and Vedda populations. Also, according to these scientific studies, Odessa people are genetically closer to Dravidians than Aryans. According to the above analysis, Vijaya and the group could be a mixture of Aryans and Dravidians.

(c) Further, if Vijaya and his followers were Indo-Aryans, they may not have gone to Pandu King in Madurai (the Tamil country) to bring the queen and wives for the followers. In any case, even if we accept that Sinhalese are decedents of Vijaya of the Aryan race, by marriages mentioned above, their second generation, the ‘Sinhalese,’ should be a crossbreed of 50: 50 with Dravidians and Indo- Aryans. If Vijaya and their followers were crossbreeds of Dravidian and Indo- Aryans, the genetic contribution from Tamils to Sinhalese could be much higher than 50 per cent. According to various anthropological studies done by Indian and international scholars, it is rational to accept that Sinhalese are a cross bread of Vijaya and his group, Veddas and other Indigenous tribes, and Tamil and other South Indian immigrants.  As such, genetically, Sinhalese are much closer to Tamils than Indo-Aryans, while the genetic difference between Sinhala and Tamil could be negligible.

(d) According to the human physical features (body complexion etc.) and cultural and social behaviours, Sinhalese are closer to Dravidians, mainly Tamils, than North Indians. If Tamils and Sinhalese are in the same type of costumes, immediately, both look alike and are represented by the same hues of brown pigmentation varying degrees from very dark brown to light brown.  Even many Sinhala surnames and first names are Similar to Tamil names, i.e., Weerasinghe (Sinhala), Weerasingham(Tamil), Rajasinghe(Sinhala), Rajasingham (Tamil), Gooneratne (Sinhala), Gunaratnam (Tamil) and first names like Ranjani, Padmini, and Seetha. etc., are used commonly by Tamil as well as Sinhala women.

(e) The Sinhala language also may have evolved as a mixture of languages used by those communities and more significant influence from Indo –Aryan languages. Also, it is essential to note that the shape of the Sinhala script is different from the scripts of Indo-Aryan languages but much closer to the Tamil script because both are round shapes. Under this scenario, ‘Sinhala’ is a unique language and a nation that evolved within the Island of Lanka with a mixture of indigenous people and migrants from different parts of India (Indo-Aryans and Dravidians).

Tamil Population in Lanka

As discussed before, intermittent immigrants from South India may have assimilated to the Sinhala nation, which Vijaya established in the 6th BC. However, from the 3rd century BC to the 10th century AD, many Tamil invaders ruled the northern part of Lanka intermittently for short and long periods. Even after defeating those invaders, some of their followers would have remained under Tamil identity without assimilating into the Sinhala nation, as their numbers were significantly large and were economically and politically powerful. Further, in the 10th Century AD, the Cholas Emperor invaded Lanka, absorbed Lanka as a province of the large Cholas Empire, and ruled for 78 years. Many Tamils who came during this period as rulers, administrators, trades, and service providers may not have returned to India after defeating Cholas in 1070. Due to the superiority complex of colonial masters, they may not have assimilated with the Sinhala nation. During this period, Sinhalese could have been side-lined, discriminated against, and outcasted by ruling Cholas elites. Also, due to Cholas’s political and socio-economic domination over a long period, the Sinhalese people who lived in the northern part of the country may have converted to Hinduism and gotten used to the Tamil language.  If that were the case, present low-cast and untouchable Tamils would have been the outcasted Sinhalese who lived in the North before the Cholas invasion. Though some Sinhalese resent the Northern Tamils today, most could be originally Sinhalese.

Many Buddhist and Sinhala Archaeological ruins have been found in the North and East than in the present-day Sinhala Buddhist Settlements. One can hardly find archaeological evidence of Hindu Tamil Culture in the present-day Tamil settlements. No substantial archaeological remains are evidence of the Tamil homeland in the North or East before the 11th century, and those belong to Sinhala Buddhist culture. Those Archaeological sites may have been constructed by Sinhala Buddhists who lived in those areas but seems to be converted to Tamil Hinduism after the Cholas invasion. If those areas were original Tamil Hindu settlements, there was no reason for them to construct Buddhist temples and use Sinhala inscriptions related to Sinhala Buddhist culture. Another possibility is that the Tamils in the North and East could have been Buddhist but converted to Hinduism after the invasion by the Cholas.   In that case, Buddhist Archaeological sites in the North and east could be a heritage of Tamils who converted to Hinduism during the Chola Regime. In that case, those archaeological sites could be a heritage of the Tamils. But that possibility is doubtful as most inscriptions in those areas are in the ancient Sinhala language. The most probable scenario is that most Sinhala people who lived in the North and East would have migrated to safer places after the Cholas innovation. Those who could not afford to relocate and were willing to accept the new colonial masters may have remained and converted to Tamil Hinduism. In that case, archaeological ruins in those areas may be a heritage of Sinhala and Tamil communities. And there should not be competition for heritage and preserving is a responsibility for both.

To be continued

Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

1 Comment

  1. This person has mixed up what is said in Mahavamsa, what orientalists said about Sri Lankan history and the Dravidian ideology. We have to understand that Dravidian people and South Indian people are two different things. The idea of a Dravidian people is a hypothesis brought by Orientalists in the 19th century. Most of the claims on the antiquity of Tamil language and a Dravidian people are assumptions based on a hypothesis. The writer should read what Prof. Sudarshana Seneviratne has stated about the problems surrdounding Tamil identity.

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