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The 'untouchables' in Jaffna are not Tamils

by Professor Abaya Aryasinghe - Sunday Observer Jan 26 2003


A number of attempts has been made to identify the so-called 'untouchables' in Jaffna. Some critics hold the view that they were of Sinhala origin who were reduced to mere outcaste by the high-class Tamils. Some are of the opinion that those people represent the lowest rung of the Tamil race and that their origin, therefore, is Tamil. The following is yet another attempt to seek a key to solve this question.


It is relevant to examine how and when the Tamils first appear in India. At the time of the advent of the Aryans to Sri Lanka probably in the 6th century BC a people speaking a Dravidian language were not heard of in India. There had been three states namely, Pandya, Cola and Cera in the southern sector of India, in the time of King Asoka. They were later collectively designated as Tamils.


The appearance of a couple of horse-traders in Sri Lanka is referred to in the Mahavamsa in the reign of King Suratissa, brother of King Devanampiya Tissa. The home of thee traders could not have been south India as that land was never known for breeding horses. They may have come from north-western region of India where horses of high breed were available. The very names, Sena and Guttika do not show any linguistic affinity with Tamil.




The reference to Vijaya's espousing a Pandyan princess to replace Kuveni cannot be advanced as a piece of evidence to show the appearance of Tamils during that time. The Pandyans, according to acknowledged scholars were not Tamils in origin.


The words, Dameda Vanija and Dameda Navika appear in a couple of pre-Christian inscriptions in Sri Lanka. The word Dameda here has been interpreted as Dravida or Tamil by some epigraphists. But this meaning is open to question. Dameda is a combination of two words, Dhamma-Adhya simplified to read as Dameda. This combined word could mean 'a trader who had prospered by just means.' By the same token Dameda Navika may mean 'a sailor who earns living by just dealings.'


Until the conquest of Rajarata by Elara no reference to a foreign non-Aryan infiltration to the island is traceable. Elara, though he was branded as a Soli (Cola), was not a person of that ethnic group. There is a school of thought which advocates that Elara was an immigrant of the Kalinga country who was commissioned by powerful Karavela of Kalinga to invade Sri Lanka. Elara was given an army of Malalas who were not Tamils.




The pancadravida headed by Pulahattha ousted King Vattagamini Abhaya at the beginning of the first century BC. They were however defeated after fourteen years and the king restored the throne of Anuradhapura. This was perhaps the only instance where Tamils proper entered our political arena. During this long period of time the Jaffna peninsula (Uttarapassa in the Mahavamsa) was under the undisputed suzerainty of Anuradhapura kings. In the middle of the 1st century AD there appeared a strong man called Vasabha in the Uttarapassa. He belonged to the Lambakarna clan. With his army of Lambakarna followers he marched to Anuradhapura and seized the throne by defeating usurper, Subha.


The history of Lambakarnas in India goes back to the pre-Christian centuries. The account of a warfare between Vidudhabha and the Sakyans in north India throw some light on the origin of the Lambakarnas. The Sakyans had a practice of tearing their ear-lobes to wear ornaments. During the war referred to, a section of the Sakyans, gave up the habit of piercing ear-lobes to hide their identity as a war strategy. Hence there existed to sections of the Sakyans, to wit, one group with the ear-lobes tored and the other with undisturbed ones.


The second preferred the name Lambakarna.


It is not possible, however, to decide whether the local Lambakarnas had any connection with the Indian counterparts.


Our Chronicles mainly the Mahabodhivamsaya bear witness to assert that the Lambakarnas were descendants of Sumitta, a Sakyan prince who came with the Bodhi Tree to this island. The existence of the Lambakarnas in Sri Lanka is vouched for by a few inscriptions.


The Namaluva inscription (2nd century AD) in the Batticaloa district contains the term Lambakarna. The story of three princess who came from Mahiyangana to Anuradhapura in the mid third century AD, according to the Eluattanagalu-vamsaya, were Lambakarnas who later ascended the throne.




The King Vasabha, the first king of the Lambakarna dynasty was a great tank-builder. He built sixteen tanks and a number of canals in various parts of the country. He appointed a minister called Isigiraya to administer Nagadipa and another dignatory, Naga to administer the eastern coastal belt and the neighbouring land.


The local Lambakarnas could be a section of the Sakyans who migrated to this island with King Panduvasudeva, Princess Bhaddhacacana as Theri Sanghamitta, as adverted above. The fact that King Vasabha was a kastriya could be endorsed by the favourable attitude shown to him by the Mahavihara bhikkhus.


The dynasty of Lambakarnas which started with King Vasabha, lasted for about 360 years and ended with the reign of Sotthisena.


The region of Uttarapassa of the Lambakarnas got isolated as their leader and his prominent followers migrated to the capital to shoulder the burden of administration under King Vasabha.


The commoners were confined to their native plots of lands and fields. With the advent of the Colas in the 10th century AD the Lambakarnas were virtually forgotten by the more advanced Sinhala dignitaries and were left at the mercy of the invaders. This unfortunate lot was later branded as untouchables.