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Who is the indigenous Sri Lankan?

Historians contend SL has been multi-ethnic, multi-cultural from prehistoric times, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jan 30, 2006 18:21 IST

One of the most contentious issues in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is the question of indigenousness.

Which community is indigenous and which is not? Are the Sinhalas the only indigenous people or the first to arrive in the island?

In other words, are the Tamils outsiders or later entrants?

Is Sri Lanka a multi-ethnic country or is it essentially a Sinhala country with the other groups being a mere historical add on?

When the conflict between the majority Sinhalas and the minority Tamils became the central issue in post-independence Sri Lankan politics, both sides used "history" to buttress their respective cases.

Influenced by the colonial historiography of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Sinhalas declared that they were indigenous to the island, and that the Tamils were invaders from South India.

They said that the Sinhalas were Aryans from North India and the Tamils were Dravidians from South India.

The Tamils, on the other hand, argued that they were indigenous, with the North and the East as their traditional homeland.

They also contended that they were part and parcel of the ancient Tamil culture of South India and had little or nothing to do with the Sinhalas who lived in the rest of the island.

But renowned Sri Lankan historians and archeologists like K Indrapala, Siran Deraniyagala, Leslie Gunawardena and Sudarshan Seneviratne, contend that Sri Lanka has been multi-ethnic and multi-cultural from prehistoric times.

They add that both the Sinhalas and the Tamils are from the same South Indian-Sri Lankan (SISL) gene pool.

They reject the mass migration or invasion theory so popular among colonial and post-colonial historians.

They say that people, cultures, languages, religions, artifacts and technologies moved in small ways from place to place over long periods of time.

And these movements have not always been in one direction, as many seem to think.

Sure, there have been invasions, but invasions have not been the dominant mode of movement, they say.

Trade, cultural, religious and political movements and linkages have played a more important role in social transformation than military conquests or mass migration.

Sri Lankan and Indian historians like Romila Thapar also reject the theory of the displacement or annihilation of local populations by foreign ethnic groups.

There has been "language replacement" but rarely ever physical annihilation or replacement of populations, they say.

In his seminal work, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils of Sri Lanka: C 300 BCE to C 1200 BCE (The South Asian Studies Centre, Sydney 2005, Prof K Indrapala says the present-day territories of Sri Lanka and South India comprised a single region in which the pre-historic ancestors of the modern Sri Lankans and South Indians roamed freely with the sea dividing the two land masses acting as a unifier rather than a divider.

The Tamils have been in the island of Sri Lanka since long.

"The earliest inscriptions and the early Pali chronicles attest to the presence of the Tamils (Damedas/Damelas) in the EIA (Early Iron Age)," says Indrapala.

"The Demedas in Sri Lanka in the centuries BCE (Before Common Era or AD) need not, therefore, be considered as outsiders." Indrapala says.

The Ila (or Hela or Sila as the ancient Sri Lankan inhabitants were known) moved back and forth between Sri Lanka and South India just as the Demeda or Demela (Tamils) did.

"The idea of looking upon the Demedas as aliens was surely not prevalent in the Early Historical Period (EHP).

The earliest extant chronicle of the island, namely, the Dipavamsa, does not refer to the Damila rulers of Anuradhpura (Sena and Guttaka) in its list as invaders. Nor does the Mahawamsa, the most important ancient Sinhala chronicle.

The Mahawamsa describes Sena and Guttaka as 'sons of a horse-freighter' (assanaavikaputta)."

Sena and Guttaka, who had conquered Anruradhpura and ruled it for 22 years, were described in the Mahavamsa as having ruled "justly" Indrapala points out.

Duttagamini-Elara conflict

The account of the armed conflict between the Sinhala hero, Duttagamini, and the Tamil prince, Elara, in the Mahawamsa, has formed the basis of 20th century perception of the relations between the Sinhalas and the Tamils in ancient Sri Lanka.

But Indrapala and other modern historians consider this interpretation invalid.

They point out that the Mahawamsa had portrayed Elara as a just ruler who was admired greatly by Duttagamini.

The latter had noted that Elara was a protector of Buddhism, and admired him for being just to friend and foe alike.

Duttagamini even built a memorial for Elara and asked Sinhala Buddhists to worship at it.

"The idea that the Demela were foreign intruders and the Hela fought to liberate their people is nonsensical," Indrapala concludes.

Cultural and political symbiosis

Sinhala and Tamils kings of Sri Lanka and South India cooperated in peace and war.

It was not uncommon for a Sinhala king of Anuradhapura to seek the help of a Tamil prince in South India in war or to gain a throne.

Sinhala kings routinely recruited Tamil mercenaries from South India. Many of these settled down in the island.

Likewise, Sinhala princes aligned with Tamil Nadu rulers in their internecine wars.

In the reign of the Sinhala king Sena II (853-887) a Sinhala army sided with the Pallavas and defeated the Pandya king.

The Sinhala king placed his favourite Pandya prince on the throne in Madurai.

Later, after the ascendancy of the Cholas, the Sinhala kings sided with the Pandyas to contain the aggressive Cholas.

In times of peace, the Sinhalas of Sri Lanka and the South Indian Tamils cooperated in a variety of activities including the building of the irrigation tanks in Anuradhapura and Trincomalee.

Leslie Gunawardane has written extensively on SISL cooperation in irrigation works.

Tamil soldiers helped construct irrigation tanks in Anuradhapura and Trincomalee areas.

Tamil merchants in Sri Lanka contributed their mite to the building of these facilities.

Earlier, Megalithic folk from South India had brought to Sri Lanka the domesticated rice plant and taught Sri Lankans the use of iron.