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Revising the place names of Sri Lanka

Places had names in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka .D.G.A. Perera says that the Sinhala nomenclature was precise and meaningful. Some of the places mentioned in ancient and medieval historical documents have been identified and geographical locations supplied for some of the ancient place names. Trincomalee was Gokanna tittha, Malvatu oya was Kadamba nadi and Polonnaruwa was Pulatthi nagara. Natural landmarks such as wewas and trees were used for place names. Several of these place names are in use today. ‘Ambepussa ‘and ‘Bulathsinhala’ derive their names from trees and plants. D.G.A.Perera says there would have been a mango tree with a puswela climbing up it at Ambepussa, acting as a landmark.

Under British rule, the place names of Sri Lanka underwent drastic changes. Names got anglicised. D.G.A. Perera says Colombo is the anglicised version of the Tamil ‘Colompu’. ‘Chilaw’ is from the Tamil ‘Chilavattai’ deriving from the Sinhala ‘Halawatha.’ ‘Arunagama’ became ‘Arugam bay’. Some places got entirely new names. Madakalapuva became Batticaloa, Uruthota became Kayts and Batalegala became Bible rock. The Sinhala names of the lands converted to tea and rubber estates were replaced by western names such as Carolina and Norwood. The estate Tamils coined Tamil names for these estates. Ferguson Directory recorded both sets of names and the Sinhala names vanished.

Incorrect explanations are now offered for contemporary place names. D.G.A. Perera says that Hambantota is not derived from ‘Sampan’. ‘Hamban’ in Sinhala means ‘a pair of skins’. Saddharmaratnavaliya refers to a ‘hambana’, a small, swift sailing craft which could be launched with one foot place on the bank. Perera suggests that the original hambana would have been a conveyance used for crossing waterways, made by lashing together two inflated skins. He notes that there is a Hambantota oya near Norwood estate, where travellers would have had to travel by a hambana. He also notes that some of the names currently in use such as ‘Digampataha’ are incorrect. ‘Pataha’ is a stretch of open land covered with grasses like mana and illuk. ‘Digana ‘is the name given to a long strip of flat uncultivated land, bordering a stretch of paddy fields.

The public have noted with concern that the place names of the north and east, as shown in the official maps of Sri Lanka, issued by the Survey Department, are Tamil names. It has been alleged that this was done by Tamil surveyors working under Tamil Surveyors General. This matter has been researched. When you go to "www.geocities.com/place.names.barelist.html" there is a list of 920 Tamil place names with the original Sinhala names. A map of north-east Sri Lanka carrying Sinhala and Tamil place names can be found at "www.geocities.com/place.names/sri lanka."

These Tamil names fall into several patterns. Many of them are mildly Tamilised versions of Sinhala names and the original Sinhala word is clearly visible. Iranamadu is derived from Ranamaduva, Kokuvil from Kokavila, Oluvil from Oluvila, Omantai from Omanda, Mavil aru from Mahavil Ara, Pavatkulam from Pavatta veva, Sampur from Somapura and Silavaturai from Salavathara .There is also Valikamam from Valukagama, Chunnakam from Hunugama and Sammanthurai from Samanthota. Some of these changes appear to have taken place in the 20th century. J.W.Bennet. refers to Nilaveli as Nilvelle in his book ‘Ceylon and its capabilities’ (1843)

Place names like Mattakalapu are direct borrowings from Sinhala. Mattakalapu derives from the Sinhala Madakalapuwa. The Tamil version should be ‘Chattakuli’. Tamil speakers substitute "G" for "K "so Gantale became Kantalai and Gala amuna became Kalmunai. In Tirukonamalai ‘malai’ means hill, ‘kona’ comes from Gokanna. Some names were distortions of the Sinhala names. Athuruvella became Atchuveli, Kadurugoda became Kantharodai, Puranthenna became Paranthan, Ransirimalee became Tantirimalai, Thalava became Chalai and Veheragala became Verugal.

Some Tamil names differ radically from the Sinhala. Batakotte became Vadukkodai, Jambukolapatuna became Sambilithurai, Kumbakuliya became Chundikuli, Malvatu oya became Aruvi aru, Mooladoova became Mullaitivu, Ranpariththa became Pomparippu and Siyambalaveva became Puliyankulam. Sometimes the Tamilised version turns into a howler. Sangaman kanda became Sangamankandy. Kanjikudichchi aru derives from the Sinhala Kandi kadiccha Ara. This river initially had two bunds (kandi) built across it and these had breached.

There is now a spontaneous move towards the revival of the original Sinhala names. Bible rock is again Batalegala, Thoppikal is Thoppigala and Pottuvil is Pothuvila. Commentators say that it is now necessary to have an official list of all place names in the island.

The writings of J.W. Bennett, K.N.O. Dharmadasa, P.A.T. Gunasinghe and D.G.A. Perera were used for this essay.

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