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Tamilnation > Library > Eelam Section > The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, The Tamils in  Sri Lanka: C 300 BCE to 1200 CE - Dr. K. Indrapala

TAMIL NATION LIBRARY: Eelam

Book Review by Parasakthy Sundharalingam:

"What I have stated is what was already there, what some respected scholars have said, what many have forgotten, what some have chosen to ignore." Dr. K. Indrapala

The latter part of the 20th century saw how modern archeological techniques and methods have changed and are changing the course of History. As more and more archeological evidences are unearthed, the story of man continues to be reconstructed.

After many years of dedicated research, Prof. Indrapala reviews many of his earlier findings in the light of new discoveries in archeology, epigraphy and numismatics in Sri Lanka and South India , in his book – The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, the Tamils in Sri Lanka C 300 BCE to 1200 CE. He says:

In times of human conflict, whether communal, national or international, History together with its sister discipline of Archeology is always among the first causalities.

The importance of this statement is felt, when he quotes the latest report (February, 2005) of an archeological find, an urn, with writing in a very rudimentary Tamil – Brahmi Script – belonging to 500 BC, unearthed at Adichchanallur in the Thirunelvely District in South India. (A report that reached him after his work had been handed over to the publishers). “As long as excavation work remains undone, much that is relevant to our study, will be wanting”, were his words in his thesis published forty years ago in 1965. He continues to re-iterate this in this book, “The thesis was completed in the early 60s. Needless to say that dissertation is now completely out of date”.

Dr. Indrapala’s dedicated research during these forty odd years throws light on many issues of the country’s past history, some hitherto misconstrued – to quote his words:

This book is concerned with the Tamils who lived in Sri Lanka in the early centuries of its history and with the evolution of an ethnic community speaking the Tamil language in the Northern, North Western and Eastern regions of the island, whose descendents in modern times perceive themselves as an ethnic identity that is different from the Tamils of South India, as well as other groups in Sri Lanka.

He continues,

… Historians have tended to base their writings on the assumption that the people of the Island at the dawn of history were Sinhalese and that at a later time; the Tamils and other communities came to share the country. Sri Lankan historiography of the 19th and the early 20th century is responsible for this over simplification of the ancient history of Sri Lanka .

Further the historian in him says:

My aim here is to explore the past in order to understand how the Tamils of Sri Lanka (as well as the Sinhalese) came to be what they are. Their political claims that led to the current conflict are to be judged in terms of accepted universal Human Rights and not in terms of their past in the Island. The deeper one delves into Sri Lankan history, the more will one find how much the Tamils and Sinhalese have shared history and culture and common descent. .... .... ....

... ... ... This book is written for the purpose of drawing attention to some of the important aspects of Sri Lanka ’s past. It is written for the Sri Lankan audience, and for this reason detailed notes and quotations have been included, as articles in International Journals as well as foreign publications are not easily accessible to the average reader. …

He rejects the colonial historical writings that identified the Sinhalese with the Aryans and the Tamils with the Dravidians, and thereby nullifies the ‘purity’ of races.

It is fascinating how the eight chapters in the book are titled – from ancient times to 1200 AD - showing the birth, growth, and development of the two ethnic groups.

1. The Common Gene Pool
2. Conception and Birth
3. Imaginary Ancestors
4. Two Little Siblings
5. Growing up
6. Emerging Personalities
7. Reaching Adulthood
8. The Joint Achievers

According to the above chapters, the Tamils and Sinhalese have descended from common ancestors and through a process of language replacement (a theory popularized by archeologist Renfrew) the ‘North Indian Prakrit dialects spread among the vast majority of the people paving the way for the evolution of the Sinhala language, while Tamil became the language of the North, North West, and East of the Island leading to the emergence of Sri Lankan Tamil.’ Both could not have happened simultaneously - Tamil is an ancient language with a rich literature by the time the North Indian Prakrit dialects spread in the country. Therefore it is the older of the two – this should have been emphasised.

The last chapter aptly titled ‘Joint Achievers’ clears many a historical misconception. The author proves the harmonious relationship that existed between the Tamils and the Sinhalese during the Polannaruwa Period (11th and 12th century) when they jointly achieved great heights in architecture, sculpture, hydraulic engineering, trade, literature, and the fine arts. According to him, “The reign of Vijayabahu ushered in a period of remarkable partnership between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. And there is no room for interpreting the war against the Colas as a Sinhalese-Tamil conflict."

It is interesting to read about the very close relations that had existed between Tamil Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhism from very early times and the benevolent religious policy of the Cola Emperors for the Tamil contribution of Buddhism in the Island . There is evidence to show that Tamil was taught at all the Pirivinas and Buddhist monks were very well versed in both Tamil and Sinhala. The author continues to explain how at a much later period when Saivaism became the religion of the Tamils and Buddhism of the Sinhalese, religion, in addition to language, became a marker of ethnic identity.

While tracing the growth of the two ethnic groups he concludes,

A complete bifurcation of the Island into Tamil speaking and Sinhala speaking areas would have taken place only after 1200, especially with the fall of Polannaruwa and the establishment of a new centre of Sinhalese power in the South West. …

In this book, the narration of the historical development leading to the emergence of two separate ethnic identities ends in 1200. But the story does not end there – the dawn of the 13th century marks the beginning of the political separation of the two groups

‘The manner in which history is being “used” in fighting contemporary issues is a matter for concern’, is this historian’s regret.

He quotes historian Hobsbawn,

It is very important for historians to remember their responsibility, which is above all to stand aside from the passions of identity politics even if we feel them also – after all we are human beings too. …

It would be appropriate to quote the author’s words at the concluding passage of the book.

"Anyone turning such a fascinating story of ethnic interaction in a hospitable Island with an exceptionally long record of human habitation into a woeful tale of communal conflict and confrontation is surely misinterpreting history for whatever purposes it be."

Prof. Indrapala’s book has come at a critical period in the history of Sri Lanka , when the two ethnic groups are at the ‘parting of ways’. Is it a harbinger of peace or has it arrived rather late?
 

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