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The Sri Lankan Tamils

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, island republic in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of India, is also a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Sri Lanka is separated from India by the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar. Lying between the two nations is a chain of tiny islands known as Adam's Bridge. Sri Lanka is somewhat pear-shaped, with its apex in the north. The greatest length from north to south is about 440 km (about 273 mi); the greatest width is about 220 km (about 137 mi). The total area of Sri Lanka is 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq mi). The administrative capital of Sri Lanka is Sri Jayawardhanapura (Kotte); and Colombo is the largest city.


According to Hindu legend the greater part of Sri Lanka was conquered in prehistoric times by Ramachandra, the seventh incarnation of the supreme deity Vishnu. The written history of the country begins with the chronicle known as the Mahavamsa. This work was started in the 6th century AD and provides a virtually unbroken narrative up to 1815. The Mahavamsa was compiled by a succession of Buddhist monks. Because it often aims to glorify or to degrade certain periods or reigns, it is not a wholly reliable source despite its wealth of historical material.

The Mahavamsa relates that the island was conquered in 504 BC by Vijaya, a Hindu prince from northeast India. After subjugating the aboriginal inhabitants, a people now known as Veddas, Vijaya married a native princess, encouraged emigration from the mainland, and made himself ruler of the entire island. However, the realm (called Sinhala after Vijaya's patrimonial name) that was inherited by his successors consisted of the arid region lying to the north of the south-central mountain system.

Members of the dynasty founded by Vijaya reigned over Sinhala for several centuries. During this period, and particularly after the adoption in the 3rd century BC of Buddhism as the national religion, the Sinhalese created a highly developed civilization. Extant evidence of their engineering skill and architectural achievements includes remnants of vast irrigation projects, many ruined cities, notably the ancient capital Anuradhapura, and numerous ruined shrines called dagobas.

Foreign Control

The Cholas , were a Tamil-speaking people of south India, founders of a dynasty that dominated the area from the 10th to the 13th century. The Chola Kingdom, in what is now Tamil Nadu State, probably existed as early as the 1st century AD, but its prominence dates from the mid-9th century, when it began conquering neighboring territories. Rajendra I (reigned 1016-44), the greatest of the Chola kings, ruled Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Sri Lanka. He campaigned as far north as the Ganges River and sent naval expeditions to Burma and the Malay Peninsula. Kulottunga I (reigned 1070-1122) united the Chola domains with those of the Eastern Chalukyas in Andhra Pradesh, forming the Chalukya-Chola dynasty. It declined after 1200, finally dying out in 1279.

From the late 3rd century AD to the middle of the 12th century, Sinhala (Ceylon) was dominated by Tamil kings and by a succession of invaders from southern India. Native princes regained power briefly in the late 12th century and again in the 13th century. From 1408 to 1438 Chinese forces occupied the island of Sinhala, which had been partitioned into a number of petty kingdoms.

The Tamils

Tamil speakers make up the majority of the population of Tamil Nadu state and also inhabit parts of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh states, all situated in the southernmost third of India. Emigrant Tamil may be found in some parts of the Malagasy Republic, the Malay Peninsula, Myanmar (Burma), Indochina, Thailand, eastern Africa, South Africa, the Fiji and Mauritius islands, and the West Indies.

The Tamil area in India is a centre of traditional Hinduism. Tamil schools of personal religious devotion (bhakti) have long been important in Hinduism, being enshrined in a literature dating back to the 6th century AD. Buddhism and Jainism were widespread among the Tamil in the early Christian era, and these religions' literatures predate the early bhakti literature in the Tamil area. Although the present-day Tamil are mostly Hindus, there are Christians, Muslims, and Jains among them. In the recent past, the Tamil area was also the home of the Dravidian movement that calls for the desanskritization and debrahmanization of

Tamil culture, language, and literature.

The Tamil have a long history of achievement; sea travel, city life, and commerce seem to have developed early among them. Tamil trade with the ancient Greeks and Romans is verified by literary, linguistic, and archaeological evidence. The Tamil have the oldest cultivated Dravidian language, and their rich literary tradition extends back to the early Christian era.

The Chera, Chola, Pandya, and Pallava dynasties ruled over the Tamil area before the Vijayanagar empire extended its hegemony in the 14th century, and these earlier dynasties produced many great kingdoms. Under them the Tamil people built great temples, irrigation tanks, dams, and roads, and they played an important role in the transmission of Indian culture to Southeast Asia.

The Chola, for example, were known for their naval power and brought the Malay kingdom of Sri Vijaya under their suzerainty in AD 1025. Though the Tamil area was integrated culturally with the rest of India for a long time, politically it was for most of the time a separate entity until the advent of British rule in India.

The Sri Lankan Tamils

The Tamil in Sri Lanka today are of various groups and castes, and belong mostly to the Hindu religion. The Ceylon Tamil, constituting approximately half of them, are concentrated in the northern part of the island. They are relatively well-educated, and many of them hold clerical and professional positions. The so-called Indian Tamil of Sri Lanka were brought there by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries as workers on the tea estates, and they have been regarded as foreigners by the other ethnic groups. The Ceylon and Indian Tamil are organized under different caste systems and have little social intercourse with each other.

Ethnic, religious, and linguistic distinctions in Sri Lanka are essentially the same. Three ethnic groups--Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim--make up more than 99 percent of the country's population, with Sinhalese alone accounting for nearly three-fourths of the people. Tamil segment comprises two groups, viz; Sri Lankan Tamils (long-settled descendants from southeastern India) and Indian Tamils (recent immigrants from southeastern India, most of whom were migrant workers brought to Sri Lanka under British rule). Slightly more than one-eighth of the total population belongs to the former group. (immigrants from western India), and Veddas (regarded as the aboriginal inhabitants of the country) total less than 1 percent of the population.

The Sinhalese constitute the majority in the southern, western, central, and north-central parts of the country. In the rural areas of the Wet Zone lowlands, they account for more than 95 percent of the population. The foremost concentration of the Sri Lankan Tamils lies in Jaffna Peninsula and in the adjacent districts of the northern lowlands. Smaller agglomerations of this group are also found along the eastern littoral where their settlements are juxtaposed with those of the Muslims.

The Indian Tamils, the vast majority of whom are plantation workers, live in large numbers in the higher areas of the Central Highlands.

While the mother tongue of the Sinhalese is Sinhala--an Indo-Aryan language--the Tamils speak the Dravidian language Tamil.

Jaffna, in the North of the Island has always been the region of Tamil majority and uswed to be the capital of the ancient Tamil kingdoms. The social organization which evolved in this peninsular is very much akin to the Tamil districts of South India. The landowning cultivators, or Vellala, were the pivot of the social structure and also the holders of political and economic power. A number of lesser castes stood in varying degrees of service relationships to the Vellala. Hindu institutions were supported by the king and the people and were strengthened by the influx of Brahmans. Brahmanic temples sprang up in many parts of Jaffna and rituals and public worship were regularly held. The Tamil language struck firm roots in the island and became one of its indigenous lenguages. Tamil literary culture was fostered by the support of the Jaffna Kings and was enriched by the constant contact with South India, yet it developed an individuality in idiom and speech and acquired some linguistic characteristics that distinguished it from its South Indian parent.

The influence of Hinduism has given rise to many famous temples, viz; Thiruketheeswaran in Mannar, Koneswaran in Trincomalee, and Munneswaram in Chilaw. Hindu's celebrate Thai Pongal, Maha Sivarathri, Deepawali, and Hindu New Year, as specuial festive occasions. Fridays are venerated as special holy days and they attend special services at the Temples. Customs of marriage and other social events differ amongst the Tamils based on whether they are Hindus or converted Christians.

The Tamils have contributed to the welfare of the country from time immemorial and many famous Tamil scholars, professionals, and businessmen, have been involved in the struggle for freedom from the Colonial powers. Many Tamils have also held esteemed office in the Legislative assembly and other high political altars, both under foreign colonial rule and even after the granting of independence.