The Tamils are a Dravidian people from southern India. It is not known when they first arrived in Sri Lanka. It seems plausible that Tamil fishermen and mariners arrived at a very early date because the southern Indian homeland of the Tamils is so close to northern Sri Lanka (only about 32 kilometers away).

Because the Mahavamsa is essentially a chronicle of the early Sinhalese-Buddhist royalty on the island, it does not provide information on the island's early ethnic distributions. There is, for instance, only scant evidence as to when the first Tamil settlements were established. Tamil literary sources, however, speak of active trading centers in southern India as early as the third century B.C. and it is probable that these centers had at least some contact with settlements in northern Sri Lanka. There is some debate among historians as to whether settlement by Indo-Aryan speakers preceded settlement by Dravidian-speaking Tamils, but there is no dispute over the fact that Sri Lanka, from its earliest recorded history, was a multiethnic society. Evidence suggests that during the early centuries of Sri Lankan history there was considerable harmony between the Sinhalese and Tamils. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The peace and stability of the island were first significantly affected around 237 B.C. when two adventurers from southern India, Sena and Guttika, usurped the Sinhalese throne at Anuradhapura. Their combined twenty-two-year rule marked the first time Sri Lanka was ruled by Tamils. The two were subsequently murdered, and the Sinhalese royal dynasty was restored. In 145 B.C., a Tamil general named Elara, of the Chola dynasty (which ruled much of India from the ninth to twelfth centuries A.D.), took over the throne at Anuradhapura and ruled for forty-four years. A Sinhalese king, Dutthagamani (or Duttugemunu), waged a fifteen-year campaign against the Tamil monarch and finally deposed him.

There is evidence that Buddhist Tamil traders established settlements in northern Sri Lanka during the classic Sinhalese dry zone civilizations that extended for the A.D. 1st century to the 12th century.

Ancient Tamils in Sri Lanka

Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar wrote: “In ancient times Ceylon was divided into four provinces, Nagadipa in the North, Kalyani in the South West, Rohana in the South East and Malaya in the Centre. Mediaeval ceylon consisted of three Ratas or countries: The first was Pihiti or Rajarata, the King's country which almost coincided with the ancient Nagadipa and was situated roughly above the Dedura Oya and Mavaliganga: the second was Mya or Mahaya Rata, the country of the Sub-king which was to the south of the Deduru Oya as far as kaluganga and the third was Ruhuna extending all over the East and South of the Island as cut off by the Kaluganga and Mavaliganga. We have seen in the last Chapter, that the inhabitants of Nagadipa were never fully reconciled to the new belief which came to the firmly established under Devanampiya Tissa (247 - 207 B. C.) In their heart of hearts they clung to their old religion and had constant communication with the Tamils of the main land who were often found in their midst as merchants adn dealers. They ever nurtured a spirit of revolt and were only tooo ready to stretch out a helping hand to any adventurer who would attmpt to curb the sovereign power of the Sinhalese. An occasion sooon prosented itself. [Source: Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar O.M.I.]

When Suratassa was regning at Anuradhapura the two Tamils Sena and Guttaka "sons of a freighter who brought horse hither" conquered the king "at the head of a great army." They wer evidently from South India and were in the Island as dealers in horses like many other merchants who frequented the country. Where they raised their "great army" we are not told. If that army was not formed of the local Tamils, the latter certainly approved the two Indians seizing the Sinhalese throne. The Mahavamsa itself has but praise for the Tamil rulers. It says that the two brothers "reigned both together for twenty two years justly."(Mahavamsa Chapter 21) ( B.C.237 - 215) If the usurpers had brought their army from India the chances are that a considerable acession would have been made to the Tamils of the North.

Friction Between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka

Dutthagamani is the outstanding hero of the Mahavamsa, and his war against Elara is sometimes depicted in contemporary accounts as a major racial confrontation between Tamils and Sinhalese. A less biased and more factual interpretation, according to Sri Lankan historian K.M. de Silva, must take into consideration the large reserve of support Elara had among the Sinhalese. Furthermore, another Sri Lankan historian, Sinnappah Arasaratnam, argues that the war was a dynastic struggle that was purely political in nature. As a result of Dutthagamani's victory, Anuradhapura became the locus of power on the island. Arasaratnam suggests the conflict recorded in the Mahavamsa marked the beginning of Sinhalese nationalism and that Dutthagamani's victory is commonly interpreted as a confirmation that the island was a preserve for the Sinhalese and Buddhism. The historian maintains that the story is still capable of stirring the religio-communal passions of the Sinhalese. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Tamil threat to the Sinhalese Buddhist kingdoms had become very real in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. Three Hindu empires in southern India — the Pandya, Pallava, and Chola — were becoming more assertive. The Sinhalese perception of this threat intensified because in India, Buddhism — vulnerable to pressure and absorption by Hinduism — had already receded. Tamil ethnic and religious consciousness also matured during this period. In terms of culture, language, and religion, the Tamils had identified themselves as Dravidian, Tamil, and Hindu, respectively.

Another Sinhalese king praised in the Mahavamsa is Dhatusena (459-77), who, in the fifth century A.D., liberated Anuradhapura from a quarter- century of Pandyan rule. The king was also honored as a generous patron of Buddhism and as a builder of water storage tanks. Dhatusena was killed by his son, Kasyapa (477-95), who is regarded as a great villain in Sri Lankan history. In fear of retribution from his exiled brother, the parricide moved the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, a fortress and palace perched on a monolithic rock 180 meters high. Although the capital was returned to Anuradhapura after Kasyapa was dethroned, Sigiriya is an architectural and engineering fete displayed in an inaccessible redoubt. The rock fortress eventually fell to Kasyapa's brother, who received help from an army of Indian mercenaries.

Sinhalese Under Tamil Rule in Sri Lanka

Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar wrote: “ As pointed out by Tennent, there was a reason for the Sinhalese themselves to acquese in the rule of this country by Tamil from India which was so often repeated in the course of as many as fifteen centuries. 'I' had reason was the intimate relation which orginally existed between Tamils and the Sinhalese. "Vijaya himself was connected by maternal descent with the king of Kalinga, now known as the Northern Circars; his second wife was the daughter of the king of Pandya, and the ladies who accompanied her to Ceylon were given in marriage to his ministers and officers. (Tennent Ceylon I. 394-5) Brito adds these interesting details: [Source: Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar O.M.I.]

“ The Pandiyan sent out his own mainden daughter with 699 maindens chosen from among his nobility. These 700 ladie landed with their retinue safely at Cottiar. (Cassie Chetty's Gazetteer). The princes was attended by a personal staff of 18 officers of state, 75 menial servants (being house-keepers, elephant-keepers and charioteers), besides numerous slaves. It may reasonably be assumed that eac of these 18 officers was accompanied by his wives and childere, his men-servants and maid-servants and his male-slaves and female-slaves. in like manner each of the 699 noble maidens was accompanied by attendants, servants and slaves, of both sexes. And there were also numbers of families of each of the five sorts of tradesmen who came to Ceylon on this occasion. (Rajavali p. 175, Tennent I 458).

“These facts swell the number of the original Tamil colonists to at least twently times that the Magadhi settlers. And it must be borne in mind that the way once made for these colonists was kept open by a communication which Vijaya carried on with Madura during his whole reign of 38 years. He sent pearls and chanks to his father-in-law from time to tiem of the annual value of two lakhs. Such a communication could not have failed to lead to a continual influx of the Tamils from the continent in his and the succeeding reigns.(Yalpana-Vaipava-malai, p. iv) "Intimate intercourse and consanguinity, were thus established from the remotest period. Adventurers from the opposite coast were encouraged by the previous settlers".


Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar wrote: “Such a reason might have naturally suggested itself to Elalan or Elara "a damila of noble descent" from the Chola country who, only ten years after Asela the Sinhalese Successor of Sena and Gultaka was in power, landed at Mahavatutota near Trincomalee with a large army and seized the throne. He reigned forty-four years over the entire Nagadipa or Rajarata, compelling the chieftains of Rohuna and Maya to acknowledge his supremacy and pay him tribute, "He reigned with even justice towards friend and foe" says the Mahavamsa which goes on adding some instances of his absolutely impartial justice: As the head of his bed he had a bell hung up with a long rope so that those who desired a judgement at law might ring it. the king had only one son and one daughter. [Source: Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar O.M.I.]

“When once the son of the ruler was going in a car to the Tissa-tank, he killed unintentionally a young calf lying on the road with the mother cow, by driving the wheel over its neck. The cow came and dragged at the bell in bitterness of heart; and the king caused his son's head to be sereved (from his body) with that same whell." Let us remark that this is a stock incident related in Tamil literature about the mythical Chola king Manu. After relating some other wonderful achievements in his life the Buddhist annalist says about the pious Hindu: "Only because he freed himself from the guilt of walking in the path of evil did this (monarch), though he had not put aside false beliefs, gain such miraculous power; how should not then an understanding man, establised in pure belief, renounce here the guilt of walking in the path of evil?" Of Elalan the Pujavaliya adds that he establisehd thirty two fortresses in Rajarata and employed twenty great champions.(Extracts from the Pujavaliya by Mudlyar B. Gunasekara, p. 15) But the allegation that the inhabitants of his realm began to practise their old religion openly. The Rajavaliya also seems to voice the sentiments of some bigots when it affirms that Elalan "reigned wickedly."(refer to page 7 of this chapter) ( B.C. 205 - 161)

“When Dutthagamani had slain Elalan in single combat and ascended the throne, Bhalluka the latter's nephew arrived from India with a following of 60,000 men at arms (or 30,00 according to the Rajavaliya) in response to his uncle's invitain. Learning that Elalan was no more he made a bid for the throne himself, but was defiated and killed.(Mahavamsa XXV, 77-97) That all his army was slain is doubtless an exaggeration by the Buddhist Chronicles. It is more probable that those who excaped with their lives found an asylum among their kinsmen of the Northern country.”

Tamil Conquests of Sinhalese Lands

Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar wrote: “The Rajavaliya mentions a more successful invasion in B.C. 103. "Seven Tamils landed on the Island of Lanks bringing with them 7000 men from the Soli country and drove out king Valagambahu. One of the seven Tamil having pursued the king, caried off his chief queen; another of them carried off the dish from which the Buddha used to eat. The remaining five Tamils succeeded one another and reigned 14 years."(Rajavaliya p.44) [Source: Nallur Swami S. Gnana Prakasar O.M.I.]

“That same Chronicle records that during the reign of Vankanasika Tissa (A.D. 110-113) a Chola king made a predatory descent on Ceylon and carried away 12,000 Sinhalese as slaves to work on the embankment of the Kavery. Gajabahu 1, the son and the successor of the Sinhalese king, avenged the outrage by invading the Chola country and bringing to Ceylon a large multitude of Cholas together with the redeemed captives. The Cholian Tamils are said to have been establised in a number of villages of the Alutkuru Korale where they lost theri identity among the Sinahalese inhabitants. (Ibit pp. 44-49) This is one of the many instances of infusing fresh Tamil blood into the Sinhalese people. It is also of interest to note that Gajabahu brought with him a jewelled anklet of the Goddess Pattini whose worship he introduced in Ceylon. He is also said to have brought back the bowl relic of the Buddha carried away in the days of king Valagambahu.(Cf. R. A. S., C. B. Vol. XIII, pp. 144-149. The Cilappatikaram mentions the visit to India of a Gajabahu king of Ceylon but on a friendly mission)

“Anuradhapura was again taken by Pandu and five other Tamil chiefs from India in A.D. 436. All Shnhalese noble families fled to Rohana beyond the Mahavali-ganga. The entire land of Rajarata was under Tamil rule for twenty seven years. Five of the invaders occupied the throne one after another, when, Dhatu Sena was able to overpower them at last. With regared to this Singhalese king's reign Tennent remarks: "Dhatu Sena, after his vicotry, seems to have made an attempt, though an ineffectual one, to revese the police that had operated under his predecessors as an incentive to the immigration of Malabars; settlement and intermarriages had been all along encouraged and even during the recent usurpation, many Sinhalese families of rank had formed connections with the Damilos. The schisms among the Buddhist themselves, tending as they did to engraft Brahmanicalrites upon the doctrines of the purer faith, seem to have promoted and matured the intimacy between the two people; some of the Sinhalese king erected temples to the gods of the Hindus, and the promoters of the Wytulian heresy found a refuge from persecution amongst their sympathisers in the Dekkan."(Tennent I, 397-8)

“If we may believe the Vaipava-malai's statement about Kulak-kodan's visit to Trincomalee, it was probably during the Tamil rule of this period that the Vanniyas from india began to colonize the country between Trinocomalee and Mantota. The Tamil history mentions the correct date of king Pandu as Saka 358 which works out as A.D. 436. He is made to reign at Anuradhapura, another correct details. At Trincomalee Kulakkoddu-maharaja repaired the ruined Konesar temple and sending for the Vanniyar from the coast of India put them in charge of the temple and the lands he had alotted for its supports. Here Mailvakana-pulavar relates many legendary accounts taken doubtless from the Konesar Kalveddu and the Vijaya (Vaipava-malai p. 4-8) but the central fact of the Vanniyas being connected with the Konesar temple seems historical. In India they were a fighting caste. Probably large contingents of them had accompanied the Tamil invaders at various times and remained behind. Later, they set themselves up as petty chiefs in various parts of the north, some of them becoming or begin nominated as managers of the temple of Trincomalee. The Vaipava-malai also speaks of their Increasing in number and power in course of time. And the name and date of the king of rank of Atikaris are correctely given as Aggrabodhi (the first of the name) in the year 515, Saka year, which is A. D. 593. This is another purple patch in an otherwise confused medley of facts and legends.

Another invasion claimed by the Pallava Narasimhavarman (His grandfather Simha Vishna also claimed in one of his inscriptions to hav vanquishd the Sinhala king: Dubreuil: Pallavas p. 73) (630-668) but actually by Manavamma with the help of that Pallava king is noteworthy as having brought fresh accession to the Tamils in Ceylon. He was the son of Kasyapa 11 but was excluded from regal power by Dhathopatissa 11 who ascended the throne (664). Manavamma fled to India and took service under Narasimhavarman and was present at the battle of Vatapi in which thi monarch defeated Pulakasan 11 in 642. Now manavamma retuned to Ceylon with an army furnished by Narasimhavarman and succeeded in taking Anuradhapura but had soon to return to this patron for further help. Invading Ceylon after the reign of three of its kings "he raised the imperial banner of sovereignty over all lanka."(Mahavamsa Ch. XLVII) (671-726)

The story of Ukkairasingan in the Vaipava-malai looks like a travesty of Manavamma's first taking possession of the north and the southe of Ceylon. In spite of many a wild fancy it gives a date for his inbasion which makes the store likely to be based on some historical fact. Advocate Britto, the translator of the Vaipava-malai into English has a note about this in an unpulished work entitled Viruttiyam. It says "In Knighton (p.111) we read: There was a scion, Mahalaipamu, of the royal blood of Ceylon, who having obtained aid from an Indian king named Narasinha, invaded Ceylon, but was defeated. Repairing again to his patron, he obtained a large force, by means of which he was completely successful. And he ascended the throne in A.D. 72 The Saka years 717 of the Vaipava-malai is evidently a mistake for A.D. 717. The author of the Vaipava-malai lived in jaffna during the Dutch period and collected his materials, as he says in his preface, from other authors some of whom probably gave thier dates in A.D., and not in Saka. Accustomed to use the Saka year, the author sometimes adds the word Saka to the Christian year without first altering the Christian year to correspond with the Saka year. Sometimes he adds the number 78 o the Christian year, intending to subtract that number in order to reduce the Christian to the Saka year. This is an instance in which he adds the word Saka to the Christian year. If it is so,k there is still a difference of three years. That difference is not great. Nor is it unaccountable. It may be that 717 A.D. is the year of the first and unsuccessful attmpt, while 720 is the year of the conquest. According to the Sinhalese account Narasinkan is the name of the patron of the conqueror, According to the Tamil account, that same is the name of the Conqueror's son and successor.

South-India-Based Tamil Kingdoms in Sri Lanka

In the seventh century A.D., Tamil influence became firmly embedded in the island's culture when Sinhalese Prince Manavamma seized the throne with Pallava assistance. The dynasty that Manavamma established was heavily indebted to Pallava patronage and continued for almost three centuries. During this time, Pallava influence extended to architecture and sculpture, both of which bear noticeable Hindu motifs. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By the middle of the ninth century, the Pandyans had risen to a position of ascendancy in southern India, invaded northern Sri Lanka, and sacked Anuradhapura. The Pandyans demanded an indemnity as a price for their withdrawal. Shortly after the Pandyan departure, however, the Sinhalese invaded Pandya in support of a rival prince, and the Indian city of Madurai was sacked in the process.

In the tenth century, the Sinhalese again sent an invading army to India, this time to aid the Pandyan king against the Cholas. The Pandyan king was defeated and fled to Sri Lanka, carrying with him the royal insignia. The Chola, initially under Rajaraja the Great (A.D 985-1018), were impatient to recapture the royal insignia; they sacked Anuradhapura in A.D. 993 and annexed Rajarata — the heartland of the Sinhalese kingdom — to the Chola Empire. King Mahinda V, the last of the Sinhalese monarchs to rule from Anuradhapura, fled to Rohana, where he reigned until 1017, when the Chola took him prisoner. He subsequently died in India in 1029.

Under the rule of Rajaraja's son, Rajendra (1018-35), the Chola Empire grew stronger, to the extent that it posed a threat to states as far away as the empire of Sri Vijaya in modern Malaysia and Sumatra in Indonesia. For seventy-five years, Sri Lanka was ruled directly as a Chola province. During this period, Hinduism flourished, and Buddhism received a serious setback. After the destruction of Anuradhapura, the Chola set up their capital farther to the southeast, at Polonnaruwa, a strategically defensible location near the Mahaweli Ganga, a river that offered good protection against potential invaders from the southern Sinhalese kingdom of Ruhunu. When the Sinhalese kings regained their dominance, they chose not to reestablish themselves at Anuradhapura because Polonnaruwa offered better geographical security from any future invasions from southern India. The area surrounding the new capital already had a well- developed irrigation system and a number of water storage tanks in the vicinity, including the great Minneriya Tank and its feeder canals built by King Mahasena (A.D. 274-301), the last of the Sinhalese monarchs mentioned in the Mahavamsa.

Tamil Kingdom in Northern Sri Lanka

After the Sinhalese empires collapsed in the 13th century the Tamils established a Hindu kingdom in the north in the Jaffna peninsula. There a Hindu king and a palace. In the 16th century the Tamils started getting the upper hand against the Sinhalese , and civil war left the land ravaged and the dams and canals destroyed.

During the thirteenth century, the declining Sinhalese kingdom faced threats of invasion from India and the expanding Tamil kingdom of northern Sri Lanka. Taking advantage of Sinhalese weakness, the Tamils secured control of the valuable pearl fisheries around Jaffna Peninsula. During this time, the vast stretches of jungle that cover north-central Sri Lanka separated the Tamils and the Sinhalese. This geographical separation had important psychological and cultural implications. The Tamils in the north developed a more distinct and confident culture, backed by a resurgent Hinduism that looked to the traditions of southern India for its inspiration. Conversely, the Sinhalese were increasingly restricted to the southern and central area of the island and were fearful of the more numerous Tamils on the Indian mainland. The fact that the Hindu kingdom at Jaffna was expending most of its military resources resisting the advances of the expansionist Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1565) in India enhanced the Sinhalese ability to resist further Tamil encroachments. Some historians maintain that it was the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century that prevented the island from being overrun by south Indians.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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