Colombo, Jaffna, Language

The Tamil Factor: A Semantic Approach


The Tamil factor is best viewed in terms of its impact on language, culture and social institutions in the country.  It is more interesting and rewarding when seen in this perspective than in its political dimension, and less controversial too.

One of the Sinhalese terms that has interested me is ‘walauwa’ which refers both to a place as well as to a social institution.  It comes from the Tamil word ‘valavu’ which denotes a compound or garden, and, by implication, a large house with aristocratic connotations.  My dear friend, the late Mr. Wimaladharma Ellepola lived in his ancestral residence, the Maha Walauwa, Matale and my father’s dear friend, the late Mr. S. Kathiravetpillai, Attorney-at-Law and M.P. Kopay, lived in his ancestral residence, the Maha Valavu, Kopay, thereby metaphorically fusing the nobility of Kandy and Jaffna in a single lofty tradition of semantic and architectural unity in diversity.  The acme of walauwas in the Sinhala social stratum is the ‘wasala walauwa’.  Here the parent term is the Tamil ‘vaasal’, which means an entrance, and derives from the old Tamil word ‘vaayil’.  This in turn originates in the Tamil word for mouth ‘vaay’.  In the Sinhala social hierarchy, the ‘wasala walawa’ would typically be the residence of a ‘mudaliyar’.  But that term also is Tamil ‘mudhaliyar’ being literally ‘the first person’, from ‘mudhal’ meaning ‘first’.  It is related to ‘mudhalali’ a term now pejorised in its usage.  Similar in origin is the Sinhala name ‘muhandiram’.  This derives from the Tamil name ‘muhanthiram’; which originates in the Tamil words ‘muham’ and ‘thiram’ meaning ‘excellent face’.  Likewise the Sinhala ‘aratchi’ derives from the Tamil ‘aaraaychi’, or investigator, originating in the Tamil verb ‘aaray’ to find out.  ‘Kankanam’ related to ‘kangany’ is another Tamil term and means ‘supervision’.  “Aratchi and ‘kankanam’ form part of several Sinhala ‘vasagama’, otherwise ‘vasaham’, names.

The Sinhala ‘nilame’ is a transliteration of the Tamil ‘nilamai’, which means ‘status’ or ‘condition’.  Likewise ‘adigar’ is derived from the Tamil ‘adhikaram’, meaning ‘authority’.  ‘Vidane’ is from ‘vidhanai’.  ‘Dissa’ is from “thissai’.  The Sinhala ‘ge’ names are interesting in denoting the Tamil factor in the architecture of the Sinhala social hierarchy.

The sight of the over-ornate, funeral hearses called ‘ransiviges’ used for conveying Buddhist monks on their last terrestrial journey, reminds me that ‘sivige’ derives from the old Tamil word ‘sivihai’ or ‘palanquin’.  It is now out of use, having been replaced by the other Tamil word ‘pallakku’ from which derives the English word ‘palanquin’.  In Sinhala too, there is the alternative name ‘doliya’.  The golden palanquins’ or ‘ran doliyas’ originally referred to the queens of Kandy, all seven generations of whom, after Dona Catherina, were Nayakkars, who brought up the rear on the last day of the Dalada Perahera, preceded by the King on horseback or carriage and followed by the royal concubines, the ‘yakada doliyas’ in metal palanquins, and finally all the nobility of Kandy and their ladies on foot in all their finery, making a brave show, which, alas, fell into desuetude after the British conquest.

Another Sinhala term ‘mura’ meaning guard duty or watch service is interesting as derived from the Tamil word ‘murai’ meaning ‘duty turn’, and, in the process of transformation, taking on a definitive meaning of its own.  Thus, in Tamil ‘guard duty’ would be ‘murai kaaval’ meaning ‘guard duty by turns’ with ‘kaaval’ meaning ‘guarding’.  In Tamil, a guard would be a ‘kaaval kaaran’, in Sinhala, a guard is a ‘murakaraya’.  Sinhala shows itself a wonderfully agile combine of Tamil words transforming them synergetically to suit its own purpose.  ‘Panivudaya’ meaning ‘message’ is another Sinhala word in the same category.  It is made up of two Tamil words ‘pani’ meaning ‘message’ and ‘vidai’ meaning ‘reply’.  Today both words are out of use, being replaced by ‘thahaval’ meaning ‘message’ and ‘pathil’, meaning ‘reply’.  In Sinhala, however, they are in standard use, as a compound word with, however, a slight variation in meaning.  This symbiotic relationship of the two languages of the two neighbouring peoples deserves deeper study by the savants of both languages.

Where place names are concerned, it is generally acknowledged that all those place names ending ‘kulame’ are derived from ‘kulam’ meaning tank or pond.  There is another Tamil ‘kulam’ meaning class or status, equivalent to the Sinhala ‘kula’, but that is in a different linguistic context.  Several of the wards of Anuradhapura town are ‘kulams’ e.g. Ponnarankulam, Kuruvikkulam, etc.  These would be the names of the Vanni villages established there in the course of time.  Bulankulama which gives its name to a leading Kandyan Sinhala family is derived from the Tamil “Puliyankulam”, ‘puliyam’ referring to the Tamarind tree which grows plentifully in those parts.  I used to teasingly pronounce Wellawatte as “Wellawattai’, ‘Bambalapitiya’ as “Bambalapitti’, and Bandarawela as ‘Bandarawelai’ to my friend Mohan Wijesinghe, who would immediately admonish me.  I was comforted when later my nephew, Chandrahasan Elankovan, who has grown up in India, informed me that a whole number of villages in the Deccan, let alone Tamil Nadu, have names ending with ‘vatththai’, ‘iddi’, ‘valai’ and ‘pokkanai’, similar to Myliddy, Mullaiyavalai and Puliyampokkanai in Jaffna.  It is sad that historical place names e.g. Amparai, which my brother-in-law, Dr. Rudraj Edwards enlightened me, literally means “Alahiya parai” or  ‘Beautiful Mountain’, should have been officially re-named ‘Ampara’ which makes no sense in either language, a case of the cultural vandalism that has afflicted the country since 1956.

On the question of food, I used, as a boy, to think that the typical Tamil dishes were thosai, iddly and vadai, while hoppers, string hoppers and pittu were Sinhala although their Tamil names i.e ‘appam’, ‘idiappam’ and ‘puttu’ were similar.  My father set me right.  He had been born and raised in the old Madras of Presidency days.  He told me that the food made of ‘ulundhu’ or black gram flour was the diet of the Brahmins, while the food made of rice flour was eaten by the other castes.  I then noticed that many of the Colombo ‘Saiva’ eating houses advertised themselves as ‘Brahmin Lodges’.  I came to know that ‘pittu’ is the staple in Andhra Pradesh, where it is referred to as ‘peet’ or even ‘beet’, as Telegu has the letter ‘b’ in its alphabet.  I don’t think I have eaten tastier hoppers than those made of red rice flour on the pavements of the Sinnakadai in Karaiyoor, Jaffna.

As a matter of interest the word rice is generally acknowledged as deriving etymologically from the Tamil ‘arisi’ (see any lexicon).  There is, therefore, ground for inferring that as the Aztecs of Mexico domesticated maize, so did the Tamils domesticate rice.  Anicut’ derives from Tamil ‘anaikattu’; ‘vaavi’ is the Tamil word for man-made lake, and ‘wewa’ derives from it.  The whole of the Deccan is dotted with irrigation lakes of water conducted by canals from river flows diverted by anicuts.  As I noticed when travelling by car in Tamil Nadu, both the major Tamil Nadu rivers, the Vaihai (Pandya) and the Kaveri (Chola), are bone dry.  Their waters have been impounded upstream for irrigation and electricity generation.  The hydraulic system in Lanka is a construct common to innumerable such systems in all of the Deccan.  Topography and climatology being similar, it is there that one has to look for the template.  Lanka is geologically and geophysically an extension of the Deccan.

The defining rice-coconut culture, which marks the Sinhala population settled in the South and Southwestern parts of the country, is reflected in only one other part of the world i.e. Kerala and the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.  Where else is the boiling of milk in a pot till it boils over observed as the start of rituals connected with festivities on auspicious occasions, or a preparation of a meal of rice boiled in coconut milk customarily constitute the central item of the traditional food served on such occasions, not to mention the other sweetmeats fried in coconut oil?  In fact the Tamil name ‘Pongal’ for the festival held on the 15th January each year to mark the entry of the Sun into Capricorn, means ‘the rising of the boiled milk in the pot’ from the verb ‘pongku’ meaning ‘leap up’.  Organically, such rituals can only originate and flourish in lands where coconut and rice co-exist, and enter into every aspect of the life of the people.

The ritualistic and decorative aspects of social life including personal dress, hair styling etc. are another area of great potentiality for observing syntheses between Tamil or, otherwise, South Indian matrices and Sinhala artifacts or products.  The brass lamp is one such.  It is a necessary feature of any social or religious ceremony in Sri Lanka, on the one hand, and Kerala and the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, on the other.  The lamps on both sides are identical in shape and design.  Splendid specimens as tall as 2 metres stand at the central shrines in the great temples of Chidambaram (Tillai) and Madurai.  The manufacture of this brassware in Sri Lanka is traditionally undertaken by a community with ‘ge’ names that denote South Indian origins.  The opening of a coconut flower is an alternative way of declaring open a formal function in Lanka.  But so also is it in Kerala.

The designing of gold and choice of gemstones for jewellery, traditionally red, white and green in colour, disclose another area of identity between Lanka on the one hand, and Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu, on the other.  I remember some years ago that Swarnamahal Jewellers got down some jewellers from Kerala and employed them in the manufacture of some distinctive patterns of plain gold jewellery, in great secrecy.  They were duly displayed in all the Swarnamahal shops, but it didn’t take long for these designs to be copied by others.  This is typical.  The traditional jewellery occupational community resident in the very deep south of the country has long had its men-folk wearing similar lockets on chains round their necks.  Identical lockets are a common feature of the decorative wear of Kerala men.  The traditional set of ‘attiyal’ and ‘padakkam’, and ‘padakkam’ and ‘malai’, and ‘thodu’ worn particularly by Kandyan women, is Tamil in origin, as the names denote.

Those of you who have had the opportunity of reading through or simply glancing at the pages of Ferguson’s ‘Twentieth century Impressions of Ceylon’ would find it a fascinating exposition of upper class life in the Ceylon of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  All the Sinhala ladies (there are no simple women in these pages) are draped in long skirts and full long-sleeve jackets, generally of lace.  All the Tamil ladies are shown wearing the saree, with or without the ‘tail’.  What about the Kandyan ladies?  They are seen faithfully wearing the ‘osariya’.  But it seems, according to a high-ranking Kandyan lady, learned in the law, that the ‘osariya’ is worn in the western districts of Karnataka and the northern districts of Kerala, too.  Of course, the long, frilled lace collar, the puff sleeves of the jacket and the short pleated semi-skirt from the waist to half way down the thigh are the vestiges of the Portuguese court dress Dona Catherina wore customarily from her early years as the ornament of the vice-regal court of Goa.  All the little girls going to ‘daham pasal’ on Sundays in ‘lama sarees’ are dressed in a sartorial tradition stretching back to 17th c. Portugal.    Sinhala culture has always proven supremely versatile.  Together Sinhala and Tamil culture in their synthesis have shown a wonderful synergy.  The choice of the Tamil white cotton ‘vertti’ and collarless long-sleeved white cotton shirt and folded long white cotton scarf round the neck as the official Sinhala national dress, is a striking example.  It is sported by M.P.s, ministers and all senior politicians, beginning with the illustrious J. R. Jayawardene and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, down to their present day successors.

Into this category fall the Kandyan ‘nilame’ costume than which a more conspicuous mix of Portuguese, Dutch and South Indian dress codes cannot be found anywhere else.  It is a case of the ‘demonstration effect’.  I am informed that these kits are provided to present-day grooms by costumiers and jewellers  on loan.  In their desire to be exotic these grooms are donning shoes hand-made in the same material as their ‘hattas’, with pointed up-turned toes, which are notr authentic.  The caste system was so ferociously enforced in Kandy of the kings that no one but the king could wear footwear.  All pictures and photographs of nilames in the old days show them barefooted.

Have you noticed a tendency for a fair cross-section of the vegetables that appear on our tables to be known by names ending in the suffix “kka”?  this nomenclature is derived from the Tamil “kaay” meaning fruit.  Hence, “vattakka” from “vattakkaay’ meaning round fruit, or ‘bandakka’ from ‘vendikkaay’, and ‘murunga’ from ‘murungakkay’ etc..  Then there is ‘hodhi’ from ‘sodhi’, ‘sambol’ from ‘sambal’,, ‘parippu’ from ‘paruppu’, ‘keera’ from ‘keerai’, ‘pani’ from ‘paani’, etc.  The symbiosis of Tamil and Sinhala in every vestige of Sri Lankan life is conspicuous.  It extends from ‘kondai’ the hair knot to ‘pettagamas’ (‘pettahams’) to ‘curry’.  ‘Rice and curry’ is, etymologically Tamil.  In the Wesak period one may note ‘pandal from ‘pandhal’ and ‘thoran’ from ‘thoranam’ and ‘kooduwa’ from ‘koodu’.  The count of such shared words would run into the hundreds, e.g. ‘varipanang’ from ‘varipanam’, ‘podhu’ in both languages, meaning ‘common’ etc.

The Lankans are a polyglot people of races and ethnicities drawn from all parts of India, and from South-east Asia, West Asia and East Africa.  The penetration of the Tamil factor in the language, culture and social institutions of the other ethnicities living in this country has been a synergetic, let alone a synthesizing force, apart from being a fascinating and rewarding field of study.  The country is unique in being the home of such a mosaic of races, religions, languages, ethnicities and caste groups, over so long a period of time, that it is a veritable gold mine of dazzling anthropological prospects for any serious student of history, sociology or linguistics.  Sadly, except for Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy there has been no qualified social scientist who has chosen to tap the enormous potential of this field except Dr. Mrs. Kumari Jayawardena, in her extremely erudite and exciting survey ‘From Nobodies to Somebodies’.

  • Dev

    Wonderful information and beautifully presented –Thank you to E A V Naganathan and GV (for giving him the space for it).

  • sinhala_voice

    There are definitely Tamil influences in Sinhala names especially high order organisational terms….What about Sinhala influences in Tamil are there any…..

    What about the local indigenous culture that existed before the various continental migrations…whether by people movement or technology/educational movement….

    • Athavan

      Do a research and find out if there is any rather than raising pathetic ‘what about and how about’questions

      • Reply

        Why is it a pathetic question? You seem to be angered by the question.

    • Leela

      So what? There are hundreds of Portuguese words that vernacular Sinhala vocabulary has in its day to day use like putuwa, and meese and etc. It also has Dutch and English words as well. Yet each of those colonials have sojourned here only for about 150 years. So, what’s the big deal of using a few Tamil words in the Sinhala language.

      Everyone knows Tamil is Dravidian based and Sinhala is Sanskrit based with Hela and Pali influence. That is why a Sinhala person could pick Hindi (another Sanskrit based language) much easier than Tamil.

      • Burning_Issue


        There is no shame in accepting that Tamil played a big part in developing the Sinhala Language! Sri Lankan Tamil has Sinhala enrichments too. Be a good spot and do not challenge this as many Sinhala Scholars have documented this in the past.

  • oopla

    So very few Sri Lankans know that pittu, idiyappam, appam, achappam( kokis), paniyaram( kavun) are all eaten in South India as well. So many food writers in Sri Lanka like to talk about the malay, portugese, javanese, British, Dutch, chinese influence on Sri Lankan food, Yet South Indian food remains the largest influence on Sri Lankan food.
    Here are Indian recipes that are identical/variations to Sri Lankan ones


    Apart from the savoury rice flour and/or wheat flour pitta in India people eat sweet pitta steamed with jaggery, chura pitta( pittu made out of shark). HIndu temples in Sri Lanka and India makes sweet pittu as offerings( prasadam)


    as with all these recipies, each community, region, sub regions, caste in South India and Sri Lanka have their variations in which these dishes are prepared and the combinations in which it is eaten with other dishes.

  • oopla

    Here is a wonderfull story about pittu I lent in HInduism class in school in Sri lanka.

    Once, the Pandiya King ordered every household in Madurai to offer one person for putting sand on the banks of the river Vaigai to control flood. An old lady, who sold ‘Puttu’ (a kind of rice pudding) to make a living, had none whom she can send for the flood control work. Lord Shiva disguised as a youth approached the old lady with a deal. He will do the work for the lady and in return she has to give him ‘Puttu’ every day and hence the name “Puttukku Mann sumantha thiruthalam” meaning – place (thiruthalam) where Shiva carried (sumantha) sand (mann) for ‘Puttu’. The agreement is, she need not give him the ‘Puttu’ which is in good shape, but only the left-overs. The old lady agreed. But Lord Shiva, with his magical powers, made each of the ‘Puttu’ she cooked as a shapeless unsellable left-over and ate every thing. And worse, he didn’t do any work in the river Vaigai either but he chose to sleep under a tree. The King, who was supervising the work, found the lazy man and beat him at the back with a stick. As per the myth, everyone including the king felt the pain in their back. Then the king came to know that the lazy man is none other than lord Shiva and apologised. Even now, to mark this event, on September 4 of every year, a function is held in the river bank of Arappalayam and ‘Puttu’ is cooked in every household.
    This is from Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam, a 16th century Tamil epic. This was written by Paramjyoti Munivar and describes 64 divine acts of Somasundara Peruman (Lord Shiva of Madurai).

    I am not sure if very many people in sri lanka( muslim, sinhala, christian) communities would have even heard of this due to our segregated syllabuses in Sri Lanka.

  • This is fascinating material. Would you know any source documents / books that I could read to obtain further information? I have “From Nobodies to Somebodies’ and will read it shortly – but I thought it was limited to an analysis of the evolution of the class system.

  • S.R.H. Hoole

    A very interesting and informative piece. Thank you. A brief comment on the old Tamil word ‘sivihai’ or ‘palanquin’ being out of use. It in fact continues in the caste called Chiviaar” who were palanquin bearers. The zealous Saivite kings of Jaffna having organized royal Nallur and surroundings by caste zones (in terms of Agamic Architecture), an area of neighbouring Ariyalai is predominated by Chiviaar. Flowing from caste zones, the word also survives as Chiviyaa Theru (the Street of Chiviaar) like in Parangi Theru, Paraiyaar Theru, Thattaar Theru, Chonahar Theru, Raja Veethi, Kaikulanj Chanthai, etc. The practice goes back at least to the Epic Period of the Tamils (3rd to 5th Centuries AD)when we read in Silappadihaaram that the hero Kovalan was walking along a street on which goldsmiths were not allowed.

  • Jayalath

    Beautiful piece of history which navigated to back in days . It sincerely expose our knit relationship with each other . Isn’t it really great ? We aren’t aliens , we all evolved few million years ago and continuing a journey of endless , in there we face numerous conflicts and crisis for our sole existence , climate and plagues have played a greatest role of our journey , and we defeated them fearlessly and it didn’t stop our journey for a moment in this challenging world .

    Our ancestors faced greatest difficulties to bring us to where we now , therefore we would never fail to obstacles have been lain ahead , as we are different species to all others . We can change and adapt to any circumstance which is our quality . I’m sure we will conquer the world together regardless the difficulties and differences we had faced.

  • oopla

    As a Tamil and Sinhala speaker I find it has more similarities which makes it easier to learn than HIndi or english ..of which I speak both as well. It is ones superiority complex that stops them acknowledging the immediate facts and create an emotional deficiency from learning a language so close to ones own. Until recently lots of Sinhala people with Tamil contact always spoke Tamil swell.

    Let me rest my case.
    Learning a language cannot be ascribed to root of one language in it self.

    grammer, words, syntax, word order, script and its logic all play a part. Thats not to even mention proximity of a certain community through direct interaction and language material ( newspapers, bill boards etc) being part of the visual lands scape shared by two communities.

    There are many words in Sinhala of Tamil origin.- more than Portugese, malay etc.

    Tamil and Sinhala both have Sanskrit loan words which also adds another level of familiarity
    eg; too many.. but to start… sabha- sabai, sala- salai, veedhi- veedhiya etc

    word order
    One of the most difficult things I found when I learnt English was the word order.
    Oya mehe enda- sinhala
    Neengal inge vaango- tamil

    The ordering of the words are exactly the same in tamil and sinhala

    In English if we were to follow this we will have to say

    ‘you here come’
    that goes to the word ordering in Tamil and Sinhala in most cases when making sentences

    The script and its logic
    Sinhala – a i-ayanna – Tamil a- aaana- both when pronounced the same thing.
    aaaa- aaayanna- Tamil – aaa- avenna
    to prolong the sound one adds a bit to the side similar to the way Tamil adds a bit to the right side too- aravu.
    One adds a bit to the left to make it 0yanna. similar to adding a kombu in the front left in Tamil

    The letters are both rounded which makes it easy to amster the Alphabet unlink HIndi or English which has an alphabet even more difrent than the two languages.

    Since I knew tamil and Sinhala i found it easy to spek malayalam too.

  • dingiri

    It is not at all surprising that Sinhala and Tamil have common words. And it is safe to assume that the Sinhalese adopted the words from Tamil rather than the other way around with Sri Lanka coming under an ever increasing influence from Southern India especially from the 10th century onwards. This is not at all extraordinary, considering the proximity of Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu.

    However what is perhaps even more fascinating are the influences that came from much further a field in an age where travel and transportation was much more basic.

    The Indo-Aryan languages are supposed to have spread out from somewhere north of Iran around around 2000 B.C. with Sanskrit, Latin and Greek perhaps the closest to its origin. Sri Lanka in the South-East and Britain in the North West are furthest extremes in the spread of this family of languages. But still, even after more than 4000 years of relative isolation it is uncanny how many common or similar sounding words we have between even English and Sinhala. It cannot be co-incidence that even the most famous western epic the Iliad and the most famous Indic epic, the Ramayana are based on a common theme.

    English/Latin Sinhala Hindi
    1 – unus, una, unum Eka Ek
    2 – duo, duae, Deka, De Do
    3 – tres, tria Thuna,Thri Thin
    4 – quattuor Hatara, Siv Cha
    5 – quinque, penta Paha Panch
    6 – sex, hexa Saya,
    7 – septa,hepta Hath, Sapta
    8 – octo Ata
    9 – novem Navaya, Nava
    10 – decem Dasa
    Man Manu, Manushya
    Navy Navika
    Name Nama Nam
    New Nawa
    Nose Naas
    Eyes Aes
    Mouth Mukha
    Hair Kes
    Mud Mada
    Water Watura,
    Cow Gawa
    Charriot Ratha
    Devine Deva
    Horse Aswa
    Elephant Aliya, Hasthi Hathi
    Asura Mazda (Persian God) Asuras in Mahabaratha, Eswara
    Birch Bhoj
    Door Dora, Doratuwa

    • oopla

      thats gret. The words like asura which you mentiuoned from Sanskrit also exist in Tamil Asuran. A Tamilised Sanskrit. Hence with the common Tamil words in Sinhala and the common Sanskrit words in Sinhala and Tamil ( Ayurveda(m)) it is easier for Tamil and Sinhalese to learn ech other language than any ther else. It is

  • georgethebushpig

    I have to admit I went through a paradigm shift when I first encountered appam and idiappam in India. I was rather young and my first thought was wow! these guys have copied Sri Lankan cooking! It was tubelight moment for me as my Indian friends put me straight on that one!

  • Reality

    It is the same story about Sinhalese boasting about the Hydraulic system in Sri lanka and the moon stone etc. etc. They are the replicas of what you find in India in large scale. Sigiriya frescoes are almost the same as you find in Ajantha.

    If one goes to Mahabalipuram, you can witness even small boys carving statues out of stones with ease!! You will be amazed how a stone is fashioned into exquisite statues in a few hours. But can anyone in Sri Lanka do this? They can’t even make a grinding stone!!!Nadaraja statue is world famous for its exquisite craftsmanship.

    There is nothing which Sri Lanka has that India does not have!! They have everything in large scale. Every single thing you find in Sri Lanka has the Stamp of India in it!! Until the mid sixties or even later Sri Lankan schools had Indian teachers. Even now without Indian technology Sri Lanka cannot exist.

    Tamil is the oldest language among the Dravidian group of languages. Sinhalese evolved with a lot of borrowed words from other Indian languages. Over the years people from South India and from other Indian states came and settled in Sri Lanka and influenced the Sinhala language.

    Sri lankan are only good at falsifying history to boost their ego!!

    • sach

      Hydraulics played a big part in ancient Sinhalese civilization. It served them in agriculture in the dry regions of SL. The works of Hydraulics in SL had been studied and praised by many foreign archeologists. There is no harm in them being proud about it. I don’t know about hydraulic systems in India so I won’t comment on that. Just because there are ancient hydraulic systems elsewhere it doesn’t lessen the respect the ones in SL deserve. Only the jealous would try to do that. Sigiriya frescoes aren’t the same found in Ajanta. It is just that art in SL at that time had been influenced by a school of art prevalent in India at that time.

      Carving stone is a craft and there is no magic in it. Anyone can master it if he wants. You will find many in SL who would do it. But this profession went down in SL because Sinhala society does not have a rigid caste system where a person born in a certain family has to engage in a profession dictated by caste whether he likes it or not. These things go from father to son. In SL people are not kept in an ancient profession by caste. They can always switch to a different one if he wants. As a result stone carving was not preserved as a craft in SL.

      What is the point in saying India has everything SL has? Of course almost every single thing you find in Sri Lanka has the stamp of India. It should be like that no, given the vast size and people of SL having migrated from india. But still SL is not India. And SLns have every right to be proud of their heritage. What makes you think otherwise? Not only SL every country cannot exist without technology. Modern technology is vastly of western origin. Everyone else including india, china have been using western technology.

      So what are you suggesting others to do by stating Tamil is the oldest. [Edited out] Yes Sinhala evolved with many words from other languages. There is no harm in that and that is how many languages are created. We didn’t borrow. Sinhala people have roots in different cultures and whenever they were sinhalized they brought and enriched the sinhala culture and language. What is your animosity with the sinhala language? Is it because you were compelled to learn it? I am sorry for u but I can’t do anything about it.

      Sri Lanka doesn’t need to falsify history. They have recorded their history from ancient times and even recorded history of their neighbor.

      • oopla

        Sinhala Tamil new year. Look no further. The very basis of both the communities in which they arrange time( read year in tis instance) is the same. cant find anything more common than that…

  • georgethebushpig

    As an aside, I visited the Monaragala Viharaya (Rambadagala) a couple of years ago. This is a unique place as it has the largest sitting Buddha statue carved into the rock face. The project was started around 2002. It’s about 20 meters tall. It’s an amazing piece of contemporary stone carving.

    When I visited the site a couple of years ago they were in the process of carving the sirasa (head) of the Budhha and they were kind enough to let me take the elevator up to the top. When I spoke with the stone carvers I was caught by surprise to find out that they were all from India and were either Tamil or Telegu speaking. They were all Hindus however deeply knowledgeable about the elaborate rituals that accompany the carving of Budhha statues. Since they had been in Sri Lanka for some years by then, one of them had even married a local woman. Later on as I spoke with the head priest I found out that the chief architect of the project was an Indian.

    This is just to point out that the interweaving of cultures is not just an historical artifact but a process that continues todate and something that we should celebrate.

    Here’s an interesting video (in Sinhala) of the making of the statue with some interesting ironies that plague current Budhhism in Sri Lanka.


    • oopla

      thanks for that. Indian Tamils and other Indians are intrinsically inked to much of Sri Lankn ( Tamil and Sinhala ) cultures. Once inability to acknowledge that li nk is part of the disaster.

      Look at the saree. There is hardly any sarees made in Sri lanka. The covetted KAnchipuram saree is made in Tamil Nadu which so many of Tamils and Sinhala people like to werar in Sri Lanka.

      How dod these shilpis gained their knowledge . They learnt it from elders and from as a child. They belong to a certain jati or what has become to be known as caste.

      The axiomatic shift to place Buddhism in sharp opposition to HInduism is a modern phenomenon which also gives rise to these problems

      • sach

        There was hardly a cultural conflict in SL. SL is a place where different cultures lived with each other in amity in such a small geographical location for centuries. The Indian link is widely acknowledged in SL among both Sinhalese and Tamils. Your comment tries to show something different. The Sinhalese do acknowledge it and proud about it, but they do not go showcasing it at every opportunity. Sinhalese know they did come here from various parts of India, Sinhala is heavily influenced by ancient Indian languages and that our culture shares many elements with india. Where have Sinhalese rejected this? Ancient SL was the centre of Pali Literature; Indian kings like Asoka do have a hero status in Sinhala culture more than in his land. The earliest part of Indian history was recorded in SL, inside the temples of Matale.
        We know our roots and we are proud we have amalgamated many cultures and developed into a single entity while preserving the essence of many cultures. Not only Indian influence, you would notice Veddha influence in the culture of Sinhala people while it is absent among SL tamil culture. It is because Sinhala culture or our life styles was never a rigid system but was always open to change and new cultural elements. The reason that you see as any lack of acknowledgement is we have been able to invent something new bridging many cultures. I don’t see caste system as a healthy thing in a modern society. It makes you thing certain people are above the others. I am glad that Sinhalese are increasingly leaving their caste mentality. Also Buddhism and Hinduism flourished in SL without any conflict while both religions having differences in their philosophies.

        • confused

          Re: “There was hardly a cultural conflict in SL. SL is a place where different cultures lived with each other in amity in such a small geographical location for centuries”

          I wonder who will believe the above statement. What happened since the mid 1950s up to this minute in Sri Lanka to the minorities is well documented all over the world.

          What is the reason for the STATE ORGANISED POGROMS against the minorities which happened periodically against the unarmed Tamils? If every one lived in amity, why so much killing, torturing, abductions, murders, burning of property and business belonging to minorities took place? Why did the libraries, schools, temples in the Tamil areas got destroyed?

          There was no effort on the part of the government to find the culprits? In some cases the culprits are known, but there was no effort to prosecute them!! No compensation paid to the victims.

          Even now Tamil peoples lands have been forcibly taken from them and being given to thugs from the Majority community. No compensation paid.
          The list of atrocities are endless. Killings, torture, imprisonment without charges, abductions, killings of Tamils are still continuing!!!All this will be denied or ignored and the atrocities will continue!!!

          • sach

            You have a remarkable ability of living according to your name, confused. I was talking about a cultural conflict. The conflict was in a political nature, not cultural. And I was talking about hundreds of years of history not a mere fraction of our history. Tamil culture did flourish in the south even during conflict times. There was no objection to tamil culture or tamil cultural elements in SL. That is why you see Hindu gods inside buddhist temples and even inside buses on the roads, next to buddha images. I am not for the gov and they havent even paid compensation for many sinhala victims as well. It is sheer incompetence and total disregard of its people.

        • oopla

          ‘Indian kings like Asoka do have a hero status in Sinhala culture more than in his land.’
          The Indian flag has got Asokas dharmachakra
          There cannot be more cult status than that.

  • sach

    Fine article. I think it is widely accepted that Sinhala language has a lot of words that have tamil roots. I have read about the things mentioned in the article before. There are many cultural elements that are shared in both the cultures that are not discussed here. There was a bigger cultural exchange between kerala and Sinhalese during the Kandyan period. Our Angampora, dresses, food and even Pattini cult has kerala connections. Sinhala nation did experience several major migrations from time to time. First of the major migrations was from present day Bengal while the second is from Kerala. Many Sinhala people have kerala village names in their ge names. Thank you for this article. It finely shows how open ancient Sinhala people had been to other cultures often embracing different cultural values.

    • georgethebushpig

      Dear Sachs,

      Despite what you write here, your discomfort with Naganathan’s article is palpable. Leela above demonstrates a similar unease. Finding out what is considered to be quintessential Sinhala culture and institutions as being etymological derivations of Tamil can be quite confusing. It would be all the more disconcerting if you perceive Sinhala culture as being radically distinct, especially in relation to Tamil culture.

      The way you interpret Naganathan’s article as being a vindication of the Sinhala people’s openness is an inelegant way of avoiding accepting the more obvious point – that the “distinctiveness” argument forwarded by the Sinhala chauvinists is nothing but a rotten fallacy.

      Continued attempts at trying to define Sri Lanka as only a Sinhala-Buddhist nation is creating a movement to expunge all features that are of Tamil origin from the Sri Lankan identity. Sinhala is defined in only exclusivist terms and as you put it, “inventing something new bridging many cultures”, and hence not requiring acknowledgement. The outcome of this “reimagining” of Sinhala culture, and by extension Sri Lanka, is undermining any potential for reconciliation and the creation of a pluralistic society. Banning the singing of the Sri Lankan national anthem in Tamil, is a classic example of a distorted reimagining of Sri Lanka.

      What Naganathen’s article shows is how the adoption of Tamil words into the Sinhala lexicon have shaped Sinhala culture and its institutions. Acknowledging this requires us to view Sinhala culture as not some distinct entity but a blending with Tamil (something that was obvious in the past but is gradually being eroded). Upon closer examination, what is considered “authentic Sinhala”, turns out to be actually of Tamil origin. This poses a dilemma for the chauvinist as he now has to find something else to support his perception of distinctiveness so that he may continue to legitimize his scheme of exclusion. We don’t need that. What we do need is an unembarrassed acknowledgement and celebration of our commonalities and to marginalise the delusional chauvinists.


      • sach

        Where have I demonstrated any discomfort with the article? I have only rejected some of the claims of the ones who commented here. If you have any problem with what I said there, please try to counter argue. Again where have I showed that I perceive Sinhala culture to be radically distinct? Actually in my comment I have showed how it is not. Please read my comment again. It may be confusing to you that sinhala language sharing a lot from Tamil language but it is not to anyone who can understand how possible it is because both the tamil and sinhala cultures flourished in the same region and especially since sinhala nation experienced many migrations from TN. I guess for a person who grew up thinking indiappa was originally from SL these things are confusing.
        Naganathan’s article mainly describes how modern day sinhala language has been formed with the help from Tamil language. He doesn’t bring a new thesis all are widely accepted and widely available knowledge. That is why I said I had read about it before. I didn’t see how he was trying to disprove a theory of so called sinhala chauvanists. I will tell you first I am not a follower of Gunadasa Amarasekara or Nalin De Silva so it would save you a lot of time. How did you guess that I was trying to safeguard any argument of your sinhala chauvanists. Another tube light moment for you?
        Dont get confused, I am not talking about a Sri Lankan identity. Sri Lanka has a Tamil part in its identity. I am a person who has always been against defining SL as a sinhala buddhist nation. It was the Sinhala identity that I was talking about. Are you trying to say both are the same? If you again read my comments I have acknowledged how Tamil had been used to form sinhala language. You do really have a lot of tube light moments.
        It is you who has extended Sinhala culture to mean Sri Lanka. I was not talking about SL. So how can it be trying to undermine any potential for reconciliation? Where have I tried to reimaging SL? When I said, “something new bridging many cultures” I was talking about Sinhala people. Is it that difficult for you to understand? Also just because I said sinhala people formed something new even after coming from different cultures, how come it is an attempt to show exclusivity?
        Banning the Tamil language national anthem is a stupid and a racist act by the gov. And again how related it is to my comment?
        “What Naganathen’s article shows is how the adoption of Tamil words into the Sinhala lexicon have shaped Sinhala culture and its institutions. “
        Yes the article is showing about the adoption of tamil words into sinhala lexicon and where have I rejected it?
        How come acknowledging the adoption of tamil words into sinhala language makes the sinhala culture not a distinct one. I am not saying we are different in the sense that there is a difference in the cultures like in between American and Japanese. Tamil language heavily did impact the evolvement of the sinhala language but it does not make sinhala culture a total derivative of a tamil culture. As much as there are similarities, there are differences. We do acknowledge the impact of tamil language on sinhala culture. But still we are distinct. Many immigrant sinhala people did come from other parts of India, especially bengal so there is another cultural baggage.
        Are you suggesting that we sinhalese need to think we are truly Tamil and sinhala is a false reimagining of ourselves for the sake of reconciliation? And I do not think that is needed. Anyone can distinguish sinhala and tamil cultures, because they are different.

        • georgethebushpig

          Dear Sach,

          True. I read too much into your responses. My bad. My observations are relevant in light of the resurgent rise of Sinhala chauvinism. They were misdirected at you. Apologies.


  • Appekka

    Such a wonderful article. I believe that it’s extremely likely that closer ties between the Sinhalese and Tamil languages will become more and more apparent with a deeper investigation in to the linguistic roots of both languages – a great topic for a documentary! A recent visit to Kerala also showed vast similarities with Sri Lanka in terms of architecture, dress, habit, and sometimes even language! (if they speak very slowly, I found malayalam to be remarkably similar to Sinhalese and Tamil)

    • oopla

      the kralaconnection to Sri Lanka is so under researched. Love to see more. Even women in Kerala villages wear a reddhe and hate style clothing.
      when did these exchanges take place? was it before or after Malayalam became a separate language from the Tamil or was it whilst it was still a dialect of Tamil. Assume it happened over time due to the proximity along with other parts of SOuth India to Sr Lanka. Love to know

  • confused

    I wonder how you can harass, kill and give unmentionable hardship to a group of people, destroy their cultural identities and expect their culture to survive? The people who practice a culture should survive and live without fear in a country for their culture to survive!!