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’.