A comment on "some findings in the Ampara district"


by Gam Veddah

Mr. K. S. Sivakumaran (KSS) has drawn attention (The Island, 29th February) to the writings of the Thinakkural writer ‘Vaakarai Vaanan’ (VV) regarding the Ampara district. Mr. Sivakumaran is reporting what VV has written without claiming that "all what VV has given is factually proved correct". This reticence is prudent since  ‘facts’ become more and more misty as we go back in time.

According to VV,"the Chinese word for a boat is `Samban’. It was because such a boat anchored in one of the ports in the east, that port was called `Samban Thurai’ and later corrupted as Sammanthurai. Before the 10th century B C, the Thamilians traded with other countries from this port."

 The Chinese word for `boat’ is `chuan’, or words derived from the old-chinese form `zhou’.  ‘Samban’ has more often been attributed to Arabic. Thus `Hambanthota’ has been erroneously claimed to be ‘sampan-thota’. In fact (The Island article, 31st January, 2011) that name is more likely to be from ‘hak-baan-thota’. Conch (Sinhala Hak, Sanskrit: Sankha, English: Chank) fishing was a very important tradition there.  The same is true of the whole south-eastern shore even today.  In 1998, some 260,000kg of sea cucumber, 796,000kg of chanks (conchs), and 11,400kg of molluscs were exported from Sri Lanka. The Pali texts refer to the use of conchs in ritual, battle and trade. Thus `Samanthurai’ could imply a name like ‘sankanthota’, derived from its conch-shell fishery. An alternative account relating to Saman deviyo (God saman) has also been recorded.

It is interesting to note that VV is quite certain that "Thamilians have lived in the region more than 2000 years ago", even though the ethnic name `Tamil’ and ethnic distinctions did not appear that early. The celebrated Tamil epigraphist Eravathu Mahadevan believes that the linguistic identity came with the `Sangam era’. Prior to that, the word `Dravida’(dameda and damila) signified a location, i.e., `southern’, somewhat as `middle-east’ signifies a geographic location (and not yet `Arabia’). The early form of Brahmi, referred to as `Tamil Brahmi’ signifies a `southern’ Brahmi, close to Asokan Brahmi.  The Asokan Rock Edict No. III, dated to be  ~258 B.C refers to the  countries `Cola, Pandya, and Tambapanni’.  There is no reference to a Tamilakam in these early inscriptions.  Karthigesu Indrapala, in his book The evolution of an Ethnic Identity (2006) states that  "the ethnic labels such as ‘Dameda’, ‘Ila’ and ‘Barata’, ... no doubt had features that distinguished them from one another ... It is unlikely that at that state language was a distinguishing feature" (p22-23).

However, VV claims that `the archaeological artifacts and inscriptions prove this. He quotes Prof Karthigesu Indrapala: `In many places the north of Kumbukkan Oya there had been discovered red clay tiles that belonged to the Iron Age. Even along the eastern seaboard in Paanama reddish tiles were found. In the 1920s in Oakanda there were seen signs of large stone burial grounds. These prove that during the period of Iron Age, this region was subject to South Indian influence. Further connecting with old Brahmi inscriptions in the East, one could search for the settlements of people there". However, even the Brahmi inscription at Kuddavila, which says Dameda Tisaya lena, clearly means ‘cave (lena)  in the southern (dameda)  direction (tisaya -> disava)’, and not a bizarre reference to a Tamil lady named ‘Tisaya in a cave’.  The word `dameda’ had probability no ethnic meaning at the time of the Kuddavila inscription.

Another assertion found in VV’s article is that the Naga people were ‘Tamils’. There were Naga-worshipping tribes even in North India (c.f., Nagpur), and hence they were not confined to the `dravidian’ (i.e., south of the Vindhya mountain) region. The God of the Nagas, (Naka or Natha) has been assimilated to Buddhism as a ‘Bodhisatva’, and into Hinduism as well. Indeed, the Nallur of today was Nagpur transformed to ‘Nakur’ and ‘Nallur’. The word `ur’, cognate with `pur’ is used in old Tamil for the word `town’.

Another ancient people of the ancient texts are the `Yakkas’. Some  Tamil nationalists claim the Yakkas as Tamils, while the Sinhala nationalists claim them as theirs. In contrast, the Indian historian Choudry claims that they are ‘Kirat’ people from North india!  The southern Nagas were brown coloured people, while Yakkas with a Kirat (or other northern) lineage were fair-skinned. This means that the inhabitants of the land had a wide range of skin colours. In fact, `Kuveni’, the Yakka princess of the Vijaya legend would have been brown, since `ku-veni’ literally means brown coloured. The Yakkas, like the Kirats, probably spread into the hills as well, and  the hill dwellers became the Malechchas (Sanskrit), a word linked to the Elu-Prakrit form malaya for ‘hills’.

The article by VV proposes Tamil origins for place names like `Amparai (Ambaragama, c.f, Chulavamsa)’, `Addalaich Chenai’ (Addarahena)" `sainthamaruthu’ (Rahathgala, 7th century CE Buddhist ruins), and presumably Aru-gam bay (Aruna-gama) etc., and even assumes that these names existed as such in the pre-sangam period! One may equally claim that the name `Vaddukoddai’ (Batakotte) existed in the pre-Asokan era!

Many place names could be linked to old Tamil, or even more easily to Pali and Sanskrit etymologies, (see, http://dh-web.org/place.names). However, this is a poor guide to the ethnic structure of the island 20 centuries ago. In our view,  ethnic identities like ‘Tamil’, ‘Sinhalese’, ‘Kera’,  `Bangala’ etc., has simply not yet evolved. They become better established by the 5th century, when the Mahavamsa was written.  Even then, wars were waged across ethnicities, with Pandyans, Cholas, Maghas, as well as  Ruhuna, Mayarata and Rajarata fighting one another.

Lanka today has a rich tapestry of cultures that should teach us to avoid mono-ethnic blindness.

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