Multilingual signposts Omandtha/Omanthai once againSeptember 25, 2011, 7:24 pm
The place name Omanthai (Tamil), or Omandha (Sinhala) has been debated in a number of articles in your newspaper (10-Sept, 23-Sept, The Island), by Anne Abesekera, Bodhi Dhanapala, and possibly other correspondents. It has also been suggested by Ms. Abesekera that there is a "long-established" English form, based on the "living-memory" of three Jaffna residents.
I also note that the website on place-names that I maintain (http://dh-web.org/place.names/) has been cited in some of this correspondence by Mr. Dhanapala.
Omandtha may have been the gateway to the Vanni since time immemorial, and not just during the LTTE period. The 1982 Annual report of the Deputy Archaeological Commissioner refers to ancient Buddhist ruins in this area. Even the name Vavuniya comes from the old Vannimaava, which means, in Sinhala, the "nimaava" (i.e., end or limit) of the Vanni (i.e., forest).
This is just a brief note to say that there seems to be no well-established English form for Omandtha. Various forms like "Omanthai, Omanthei, Omantei" exist even today in the sign boards, and even the anglicized form "Omant" seems to have been used by the British.
The word "Omanthei" does not have any clear meaning in Tamil or Malayalam as far as this writer is aware of. However, in Sinhala it has a very clear meaning where the "O" means "yonder", as in "Obatawatta", "Okanda" etc., and equivalent to "Akkara" in Tamil. The Sinhala word "manda" is derived from the same Indo-European cognate as "mundane, earthly, muddy", or "manda" in Sanskrit. In Latin, "madeo" means "marsh". The general belief among toponymists is that the Tamil name is a modification of the Sinhala place name "Omandtha".
With the renovation of the Omandtha-Jaffna railroad (destroyed by the LTTE), just the railroad sign has been written to correctly reflect the Sinhala and Tamil names Omantha and Omanthai, instead of the indiscriminate transliterations used by the British. In fact, most renderings of Tamil place names in English suffers from the existence of multiple transliterations. A uniform usage should be proposed by the survey department, respecting our history as well as the multi-lingual cultural sensitivities of modern Sri Lanka, with some 5% Anglophones, 80% Sinhala speakers, and the rest being mostly speakers of Tamil.
Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana