Lankan place name in historical perspective

"Any country's toponymy consists of various layers" (Encylopaedia Britannica). Sri Lanka too has a few pre-Vijayan place names. The post-Vijayan layer is for the greater part of Sinhala origin, with a few Sanskrit names like Anuradhapura, Vjitapura, during the early period. After the 10th century, we encounter a Tamil layer, and after the 16th a Portuguese, Dutch and English layer too. Therefore, the understanding of the meanings of place names in these different contexts becomes important for historical reasons too.

Recent efforts by one contributor to The Island to analyse Kolamba (or Colombo) as a product of the Dutch layer falls short of arriving at the true meaning as the name existed in the pre Portuguese period also, and before that, during the Sinhala one. The Dutch using the dove or "columba" in their court of arms for the city, only goes to show that they were trying to appropriate for their period of rule, an existing place name from a previous layer. The same applies to the picture of a cock (gallus) in the Dutch court of arms for Galle. The slightly variable Sinhala forms of these places have been in use in this island long before the first Europeans arrived.

The Kokila Sandesaya (c. 1460 AC.) has recorded a tradition that tried to associate a place called Tammennawetiya or the Ridge of Tammenna plants (Mischodon zeylanica) in the Puttalam district, with Kuveni, and the landing place of Vijaya in the 6th century BC. This ignores the contradiction posed by the fact that the place so named is too far from the seacoast to have been a landing place for coast hugging sailing ships (that would also have had to sail across the Indian Ocean to arrive there). Some ruins that have been found on the banks of the Mi Oya have been marked as "Kuveni Nuwara" (not a historical concept) in Survey Dept maps drawn up during the middle part of the 20th century. The more recently prepared metric scale maps have gone a step further by marking a place close to Tabbowa as "Tambapanniya"!

The fact that Sinhala texts refer to Tambapanniya as 'Tammennewa' or the place where the Tammenna plants (with their copper-coloured leaves,) were found to be growing in profusion, has led to a further confusion. There are no less than 40 places either called 'Tammennewa' or having Tammenna as a part of their names marked in maps. Places with the identical name are spread over a wide area in the island. Hence, the substitution of Tammennewa for Tambapanniya has become a very unfortunate mistake.

The ancient Sinhala settlers also tried to appropriate for themselves the preVijayan place names like Tamraparni (Tambapanni) and Nagadipa, by recourse to the harmless, though fictitious, folk etymology that the compilers of the chronicles have recorded. The fictitious nature of the meaning, "Red Hands," given to the name Tambapanni was remarked upon by a great Sinhala scholar in the 10th century, namely King Kassapa V. In the ‘Dhampiyaatuva Getapadaya,’ he pointed out that to have the meaning 'Red-hands' the name should have been written as ‘Tamba-paani’ and not ‘Tamba-panni’ for it is 'paani' that can mean 'hands'. (Here the word 'panni' appears to be the precursor of the term ‘paaneeya’ meaning 'potable' or 'good for drinking'.)

How valid that scholar's criticism was, can be seen from the fact that there is yet another ancient place name called Tamraparni in South India to which the meaning recorded in our chronicles does not match. The former was the name of a pond, also called 'Tamben-vila', where Vijaya is said to have built his first city and the latter the name of a river on the opposite coast. Both places are said to have been watering points for ships from pre-Vijayan times. Jataka stories confirm the pond at Tambapanni. This leads us to the fact that the meaning of the first part of these two names is likely to be from Sanskrit, 'Taamara' meaning 'water' (and not Pali tamba or Sanskrit taamra, meaning 'copper-coloured').

Further confirmation of this meaning is found in the recorded local tradition in Jaffna, that Vijaya founded Tambapanni city near the fresh-water pond now called Keerimale, on the northern coast of Nagadipa or the Jaffna peninsula. This is said to be the place where the ancient coast-hugging ships landed to take in water and firewood, in pre-historic times when only Yakkha tribes had inhabited the place (e.g. like those mentioned in the Valahassa Jataka).

After Nagadipa came to be called Tambapanni, since the advent of Vijaya and his followers, the place came to be referred to as Yahapane (from 'Yaha' meaning 'Good' and 'Pan' meaning water in Sinhala). Similarly, the name Yapapatuna meant "The Port of Call for Good Water". When the Tamil name of this peninsula is derived from Yaan(am), which is Tamil for 'ship' and paanam (drinking water), Yalpanam also means 'Good Water' for ships that called over at that famous pond. Hence it can be construed that the real meaning of Tambapanni was 'Good Water." Further confirmation of this meaning is to be found in the still current Tamil name 'Nallatanni-toduvai' (Cross-over to 'Good Water’) for the narrow causeway connecting Jaffna peninsula to the main part of the island in the South.

After making this 'crossover' (totuva in Sinhala) to the peninsula one lands at Chempiyanpattu division. This name is most likely to be from Tamil Chem meaning ‘excellent,' payam meaning 'drinking water' and pattu, an administrative division. Hence, this could be the Tambapanni-pattuva of the Rajarata, mentioned in the ‘Kadayim-potha’ of the 14th century.

The foregoing arguments are from a paper presented by this writer at the Eleventh Conference of the International Association of the Historians of Asia (IAHA) held in 1988. They were recounted here to show how a systematic approach to the analysis of a place name can lead to a great deal of corroborating evidence from the meaning of other place names in a historical context.

Officers of the British C.C.S. like B. Horsburgh, J.P. Lewis, R. W. levers, and H. W. Codrington also followed an analytical approach to the interpretation of local place names from a historical perspective. Horsburgh was interested in the place names of Jaffna from a historical standpoint. His article "Sinhalese Place Names in the Jaffna Peninsula" appeared in The Ceylon Antiquary (Vol. II, Part I) in the early part of the 20th century.

He starts off by saying that he was told 'on good authority' that there is no written record of any kind 'shewing a Sinhalese occupation of Jaffna Peninsula antecedent to the Tamil period.' He found a "History of Jaffna" by one Mootootamby Pillay, which stated that the possessors of the country before the Tamils' were "Nagas," who were "a caste of men" though no authority for that statement had been given. Even the Mahavamsa speaks of Nagas only once, and that in relation to a visit of the Buddha. After that, the word Naga appears in history mostly as a proper name of men.

The reason why the Jaffna peninsula was referred to as Nagadipa in prehistoric times can be found in an observation made by another Englishman, Sir Emerson Tennent. He says that before the Englishmen cut down the Tal or 'Palmyra' palms to make way for coconut estates, the whole peninsula was invaded by elephants that were fond of eating the ripe Tal fruits. He also says that all the elephant herds in the Vanni districts crossed over to Jaffna at a place, which has been appropriately named "Elephant Pass" (Ali Mankada), due to this seasonal migration of elephants. This seasonal migration would have been there from the beginning of time. At that season, the whole peninsula was infested with wild elephants. That is how the export of elephants from the Jaffna peninsula formed a part of its traditional economy. Even the tribute that the Jaffna sub-kingdom sent to the emperor of Kotte was in the form of tuskers.

This observed fact provides the clue to the plausible explanation of the ancient name 'Nagadipa' for Jaffna peninsula confirmed as such by its mention in the 'Vallipuram' gold plate inscription of King Vasabha of the first century AC. The word 'naga' carries the meaning "elephant" in Sinhala, Tamil, Pali and Sanskrit also. Hence, Nagadipa could have easily meant 'the peninsula infested by elephants.' Hence, the "Nagas" who were said to be "a caste of men" that seems to have walked on four legs after all! This etymology for the name Nagadipa had not been provided before the present writer put the pieces together -by using that clue supplied by the famous English writer.

Coming back to the historical aspect of place names, Horsburgh says: "That the Sinhalese occupied the northern portion of the mainland, which is now Tamil country, there is ample evidence carved in stone all over the Mannar and Mullaitivu districts, but the fact that they were settled also in the Jaffna peninsula before the Tamils came, depends for its proof mainly on the evidence furnished by place names that they have left behind them, corroborated by a few stone relics that have been found." (Note: "few stone relics" because no igneous rocks are found there and the few that have been found had to be carried there from the mainland.)

"One of the most common endings of Sinhalese place names is gama or gamuwa, meaning village. The Tamil form of this is ‘kamam’ as is shewn by existing places in the Sinhalese country which have also Tamil names, e.g., Katirkarnam for Kataragama. Therefore, Horsburgh says: "I am ..., of opinion that, where kamam is found in place names of the Jaffna peninsula, it is a Tamilized form of gama; because the Tamil word kamam is not used by the Tamils of the peninsula, and is found only in place names which there is every reason to believe are of Sinhalese origin."

He then proceeds to give examples for this. "Valikamam is undoubtedly the Sinhalese name Weligama or "sandy village." He also says that it has no meaning in Tamil. "Vimankamam also has no meaning in Tamil," whether we take Viman as "fearfulness or as the name of the son of Pandu." However, we can say now that it means "Biyagama" (Fearful Village) in Sinhala, for it was right in the path of invading armies from India. "Kodikamam, there can be little doubt, is from Sinhalese Godigama or Godigamuwa". (No Sinhala scholar has so far given the meaning of 'godi' in this context, because he would have needed to scour all literary sources ranging back to the 2nd century BC to find the meaning of that word.)

Another interesting conclusion reached by Horsburgh is that the Tamil word "vil" or "villu" for pond "is, I think, merely a form of the Sinhalese word." We have stated above that the origin of the Sinhala name for Jaffna is from 'Yahapan' or 'good water.' Horsburgh also says: 'My own opinion is that the original Sinhalese name for Jaffna was "Yapane", the conversion of which into Tamil "Yalpanam" is quite on the lines of other similar conversions about which no doubt can be admitted.'

He discards the Tamil fable that the name Yalppanam is made up of two Tamil words, yal, ("lute") and panar, the name of the caste of lute players-the combined word, meaning "the town or village or place of the lute player." He then gives his reason for discarding that bit of folk etymology thus: 'in such a compound it is clear that if panam is given the meaning of "the place of the player" the yal ("lute") is redundant and unnecessary, because the literal meaning of the compound word is "the place of the lute player on the lute."

"It requires very little critical faculty to decide that such a story is pure myth, which has grown up round a name of which it suggests some explanation, though anything but the true one."

Horsburgh's article is very interesting, though too long to recount here in detail. However, it is important for two reasons. First, it is one of the early attempts to systematically analyse the meaning of local place names. And second, it marked the beginning of a series of responses in the form of similar attempts to decipher the meaning of place names in Jaffna and the Vanni areas. The immediate response to it was from Rev. S. Gnana Prakasar O.M.I. We shall quote only his opening paragraph here.

'Mr. Horsburgh's article on "Sinhalese Place Names in the Jaffna Peninsula," places beyond doubt the fact of "a Sinhalese occupation of the Jaffna Peninsula antecedent to the Tamil period." The list of place names given by the learned writer can be considerably augmented if we include the evidently Sinhalese names of smaller village divisions (kurichchi) and those of particular fields and gardens. These indicate, even more unmistakably than the names of larger divisions of land, that the Sinhalese knew the country intimately, which fact presupposes occupation for a long time'. (Please note that words written in Sinhala and Tamil characters in these quotations had to be left out because our newsprint is still not geared to cope with that important aspect in the discussion of place names.)

It is very encouraging to see that after the present writer's articles on Hambantota and Ambepussa appeared in The Island, there have been many responses by writers like Dr. J. Moonamale, the renowned historian and writer Durand Appuhamy, my longstanding friend and one time colleague, Bandu de Silva, as well as A. G. Abeysiriwardhana, G.A.D. Sirimal and others. They are all congratulated for taking an interest in local place names. My thanks to them are also on behalf of all patrons of the excellent reading material provided by The Island, and its unbiased editorials that boldly summarize and recount current events in a manner that they will become a veritable treasury for future writers of the history of our times.

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