Sri Lanka—formerly Ceylon, in English, and Serendib in Arabic (which gave rise to the word serendipity)—is commonly referred to as the “pearl of the orient” due to its beauty and wealth of natural resources, flora and fauna. Today, it is a land torn apart by hatred: racist government policies, ethnic cleansing, and terror war just ended albeit continuing in the form of incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Tamil people in the north. A key reason for this brutal hatred is the dispute over whether a minority of its people, the Tamils, should have: equal rights with the majority Sinhalese, and if this is denied (as will be shown it has), should they have the right to their own autonomous territory.
Sri Lanka’s first aborigines with continuous lineage are the Tamil people. It is not precisely known when they came to the island, but perhaps as many as 5000 years ago. Archaeologists date the first humans in Sri Lanka to some 34,000 years. Scientists call them Balangoda people, the name of the location where artifacts were found. These hunting-gathering cave dwellers have no current lineage.
Tamils were also known as proto-Elamites or Ela. These people in Sri Lanka call themselves Eelam Tamils, meaning “earthly people”. Tamils speak a Dravidian language, which has no ties to other language families. It was, perhaps, associated with Scythians and Urals. The Dravidian language and Tamils originated, perhaps, from Sumer and Ur: the “cradle of the first civilization”, now Iran. The Sumer and Tamils formed the first language of proto-grams on clay tablets. Tamil inscriptions and literature are at least 2500 years old. Today, 100 to 200 million people speak Tamil.1
The Christian Bible refers to Elam as “maritime nations in various lands, each with a separate language”. (Genesis 10) In the myth of Noah’s Ark, Elam was thought to be a descendant of one of Noah’s three sons on the ark. (Genesis 5-9) Tamils were the first to use the wheel for transportation. They traveled to India and the island Sri Lanka, which had been connected to India. The first known manuscripts in India were written in Tamil. Other Tamil inscriptions have been found in Egypt and Thailand.
About 2500 years ago, the first Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka from India. This was hundreds of years after Tamils were settled in the kingdom in the north at Jaffna (Yazhpanam). Sinhalese is, perhaps, a term originating from King Vijayan, who was expelled from the kingdom of Sinhapura in India and arrived in Sri Lanka 543 BC. He and his people engaged in combat with the Tamil aborigines. They established the Kandi and Kottai kingdoms in the central and southern areas.
The Sinhalese are among many ethnic groups who speak an Indo-Aryan language, Pali, believed to have developed in Sindh, Gujarat and Bengal areas about 3000 years ago. They early became practitioners of Buddhism, an off-shot of Hinduism, which is the religion that most Tamils adopted. Buddhism was created by the prince, Siddhartha Gautama, in the 6th century BC. Most Sinhalese adopted Buddhism but some were converted to Christianity, which was first introduced by traders from Syria, in the 1st or 2nd century after Christ.
The Sinhalese and Tamils have distinct ethnic backgrounds, languages and religions. The vast majority of both peoples has always lived in separate regions of Sri Lanka and they have often been at war. The Sinhalese adopted the chauvinistic attitude that their language and religion were the only true ones and they must reign throughout Sri Lanka. All other religions were alien. This notion seems to have originated, or been fortified, by the historical poem Mahavamsa (“Great Chronicle”) written in Pali by the Buddhist monk Mahatera Mahanama. It covers nearly one thousand years of Sinhalese kingdom history in Sri Lanka.
Sinhalese maintain that Sri Lanka must be a Buddhist nation because, they claim, it has been so throughout history—although they count the beginning of national history with Mahanama’s account of the first Sinhalese kingdom of Vijaya, in 543 BC. The fact that Tamil Eelams had kingdoms in Sri Lanka for many hundreds of years is ignored.
When the first Europeans, Portuguese traders, landed in Sri Lanka, in 1505, they encountered three native kingdoms: two Sinhalese kingdoms at Kottai and Kandi, and the Tamils in Jaffna peninsula. Although the Portuguese were traders, they brought fire power and eventually seized power militarily from the Kottai kingdom. Despite their superior weaponry, it took them decades to defeat the kingdoms at Jaffna and Kandi, yet resistance remained throughout Portuguese occupation. The Portuguese named the island Ceilão, which the English later transliterated as Ceylon.
In 1658, Dutch invaders arrived. The Dutch United East India Company sided with the Kandi resistance to defeat the Portuguese. But when the natives realized the Dutch sought total control, the Kandians organized guerilla warfare. In 1766, the Dutch took sovereignty over the entire coastline but not the entire island where some Tamils and Sinhalese remained independent.
In 1795, the British landed and kicked out the Dutch within a year. They realized there were two separate nations of natives. In June 1796, the British Colonial Secretary, Sir Hugh Cleghorn wrote to his government:
“Two different nations, from a very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the Island: the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior in its southern and western parts from the river Wallouwe to Chilaw, and the Malabars (Tamils) who possess the northern and eastern districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners.”
It took the Brits a generation to defeat resisting natives. In 1811, they defeated Bandara Vanniyan and his guerrilla resisters in the Tamil Vanni territory. In 1815, the British finally captured the last of the Kandyan kingdom.
The European invaders were only interested in the riches they could steal. They converted the peasant based agricultural economy into an export one. The island was rich in cinnamon and other spices, coconuts and graphite. English colonialists converted much of the land into tea, coffee and rubber plantations.
Religion was used by the colonialists to dominate and pacify the natives. The Portuguese spread Catholicism in an organized manner. Some Tamils and some Sinhalese converted or were forced to convert. Both the Dutch and English continued the process with their Protestant missionaries, yet most natives held onto their beliefs in either Buddhism or Hinduism. Islamism was also introduced by Arab traders.
“Sri Lanka as British-ruled Ceylon was subjected to a classic divide-and-rule,” wrote John Pilger.
The English had to have their tea so they created tea plantations in the mountainous regions, especially in the center of the country where Sinhalese lived. But Sinhalese would not work them so the Brits “brought Tamils from India as virtual slave labor while building an educated Tamil middle-class to run the colony,” continued Pilger.2 Only a few indigenous Tamils, however, ran anything, but some educated ones took the opportunity to sit on top of the bottom castes.
A hierarchy of “races”, classes and castes was perpetrated among native ethnic groups and new arrivals. In the mid-1800s, English and German scholars adopted an ideology of superiority first based on language and then on race. The English viewed Sinhalese as cousins in the large Aryan family. Brits (and Germans) were the “superior” white Aryans; the Sinhalese lesser Indo-Aryans, and Tamils were the colonized proletariat, the “black inferior race.” This fit in nicely with the Sinhalese elite notion of superiority, based on their precious book of mythology, Mahavamsa. In the 1870s, a German scholar, Max Muller, writing about language origins, especially Indo-Aryan, first coined the term “Aryan race”—something he later regretted.3
Europeans took it for granted that Greek and Latin were superior languages, and they saw affinities with Sanskrit, from which Sinhalese is derived. Given this identity, it was easier for the colonialists to drive a wedge deeper between the indigenous peoples, and all the more so by allowing Sinhalese to own land without having to work the British tea and rubber plantations in the center of the country. The Brits left the aboriginal Tamils stay in their homeland in the north and east, but brought between 800,000 and 1.5 million Tamils from India to work the fields; nearly one-fourth died in route. It is estimated that 70,000 Tamil Nadu died on route in the 1840s. Their story parallels that of Africans forced into slavery and brought to the Americas.
Ironically, it was protestant missionaries who contributed greatly to the development of political awareness among Tamils in the north and east, and led to a revival of the Hindu faith as a reaction against Christian domination. We find many examples of this in modern history, such as the increasing interest among Arabs in practicing strict Islamic customs, including separate gender rules, as a reaction to the invasions and occupations of Western imperialism in the Middle-East. Something similar is occurring in Palestine in response to the apartheid enforced by Zionist Jews.
Led by revivalist Arumuga Navalar in the mid-1800s, Tamils in the north and east built their own schools, temples, associations and presses. Literacy was used to spread Hinduism and its principles. Tamils published their own literature and newspapers to counter the ideology-religion of the missionaries. Tamils thought confidently of themselves as a community, thus lending to the legitimacy of their later assertion of the necessity to be treated equally with the Sinhalese or be granted—or take—their own autonomy as Eelam Tamils.
For some of the time that Britain ruled the island different colonial governors recognized equality of the native peoples, yet played one against the other. In 1833, the British mandated the administrative unification of the country while incorporating the different native administrative structures that existed earlier. The new legislative council was composed of three Europeans and one representative from the Sinhalese, the Ceylon Tamils and the Burghers—a Euro-Asian minority, Creole descendants of European colonialists who spoke a mixture of Indo-Portuguese. They had been converted to Protestantism.
Tamil laborers brought from India had no say nor did the few Arab Muslims. Racist Sinhalese massacred many in 1915. In 1930, another hard-working minority, Malayali plantation workers, were attacked by Sinhalese and most fled back to Kerala.
In 1921, the colonialists altered the legislative council so that Sinhalese acquired 13 seats to three for the Tamils. From here on out, Tamils developed a communal consciousness as a minority. In 1931, the Brits changed the rules again by incorporating the notion of universal franchise—one man one vote including for castes. Most Sinhalese opposed this progressive measure, seeking to maintain classes and castes while agreeing to part of the rule allowing them, as the majority, to have a decisive say over the minority Tamils. The issue of representative power-sharing, and not the structure of government, was used by nationalists of both communities to create an escalating inter-ethnic rivalry, which has been the dominant trend since.
Britain’s vacillating ruling strategy throughout their 150 year domination led to sporadic episodes of violence between Sinhalese and Tamils, often expressed as religious conflicts between Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. More often than not, it was Buddhists who first attacked other ethnic peoples who held other faiths. The Brits often held police on the sidelines.
In the 1930s, and especially during World War II, Sinhalese and Tamils spoke out for independence. Various left-wing parties and coalitions arose, and some conservative groupings as well. Many natives hoped for a German victory over the hated English colonialists.
Tamils struggled to have their language placed on equal terms with Sinhalese, and replace English as the official language. Some Sinhalese leaders agreed but many did not. In 1939, a Tamil leader, G.G. Ponnambalam, spoke against the common Sinhalese notion, taken from the Mahavamsa, that their language should be the only official language and Buddhism the only official religion. Angry at the speech, Sinhalese mobs bashed and killed many Tamils. This time the British stopped the riots, but the roots to the upcoming 26-year long civil war had been laid.
Once WW II ended, the British Empire realized it had to give in to so many native peoples struggling for sovereignty. India won dominion status in 1947, a slight reform until full independence in 1950. The civil disobedience movement led by Mahatma Gandhi had succeeded yet he was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948. Gandhi sought unity among all Indians, but most Muslims wanted their own State after colonialism. Many Muslims were killed in riots; many lost their homes. Gandhi believed it morally correct for India to compensate them with finances. Many Hindu nationalists opposed this, and it led to his murder.
Great numbers of Hindus in India discriminated against non-Hindus just as Buddhist Sinhalese discriminate against Hindus and Muslims. The percentage of Tamils in Sri Lanka has been reduced from 30% to 12.6%. Tens of thousands have been murdered before and during the recent war, and as many as one million have fled the country, part of a massive Diaspora, like the Jews.4
- This condensed history is gleaned from many sources: author Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan; Latin American Friendship Association, Tamilnadu, India; Wikipedia: many articles about Tamil Eelam, Sri Lanka and their histories, religions and languages; Tamilnation.org and many other sections in this comprehensive Tamil self-determination website. I am uncertain about the exactitude of origins, who came first, specific dates, or how to determine linguistic lineages. The record is unclear. But what is clear is that Sinhalese have judged and treated Tamils as inferior beings. [↩]
- John Pilger, “Distant Voices, Desperate Lives,” New Statesman, May 13, 2009. [↩]
- See chapter 13. “Understanding the Aryan Theory,” by Marisa Angell, a Usamerican Jew. The chapter is part of Culture and Politics of Identity in Sri Lanka, edited by Mithran Tiruchelvam and Dattathreya C.S., published by International Center for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1998. [↩]
- Current population statistics of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka—so named since 1978—show a population of 21 million people. 74% (15 million) Sinhalese; 12.6% (2.5 million) Tamil; 7.4% (1.5 million) Moors; 5.2% (1 million) Indian Tamil. 93% of Sinhalese are Buddhists, and the remainder Christian. 60% Tamils are Hindus, 28% are Muslim and 12% Christian. [↩]