Getting to know the Sri LankanTamils

What do the terms ‘Eelam’ and ‘Ilankai’ mean?  

By Prof. Karthigesu Sivathamby

An island with only 270 miles land stretch between its Northern and the Southern borders and 140 miles stretch between its Eastern and the western points has had to engage itself for over 30 years in an intensively fought war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, with the Muslims getting badly affected too.

The irony of the situation becomes all the more pronounced when one notices the fact that there is a need for a mediation by a third country to enable the contending parties to speak to each other.

The tragedy of this alienation between the major communities of the country becomes all the more striking when one contrasts this with what is happening in India, geographically described as a sub-continent. The post British period in India has seen the partition of India and the formation of Pakistan as a separate country on the eve of its Independence (1947).

This has been a bitter lesson which the Indians could not forget, this, perhaps has been the compelling reason for India to work out a unity among linguistically diverse groups as the Sikhs on one hand and the Malayalies (Keralists) on the other.

Reality of the “divide”

The Sri Lankan situation demands close attention. And one has to accept the reality of the “divide” but, more importantly, inquire into how this divide had occurred and has grown to these proportions.

The stark truth is that there has been no genuine effort taken to understand each other; Worse still there has been a number of misrepresentations of history so much so the history of this country has become a major factor in this alienation between the communities.

However in recent times there is a welcome trend to speak of Sri Lanka as a multicultural country. This multiculturalism has been recently emphasised by no less a person than the Mahanayake of the Malwatta Chapter.

Even a cursory glance at the history of this country from about the mid 19th century and especially the history since the political independence of this country (1948) will reveal that the concept of a national integration has been totally absent and the first time it had been used in official circles was after the Ceasesfire Agreement in 2002. From this date onwards the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs has the additional appellation “National Integration”.

At this time when a genuine effort is being made to resolve the ethnic conflict it would be helpful to know how deeply the non Sinhala ethnic groups consider themselves as Sri Lankans, with essence of inseparable attachment to this island.

It will be the aim of this series to know the Sri Lankan Tamils are deeply committed to this country and to their cultural identity. It is not a history parallel to that of the Sinhalese but a complementary one with deep cultural affinities with the Sinhalese and with Buddhism.

Speaking of history, it may not be out of place to go into how these inter-ethnic differences have become so sharp and deep. The immediate response on the part of many to point the fingers at what is taken as the history of this country.

It’s a well-known fact that it’s the historiography that determines what is written as “history”. In the manner the history of this country has been presented there is a focus on the Sinhala-Buddhist aspect. The historians of ancient and medieval Sri Lanka have indicated the necessity for this focus. An analysis of especially the 20th century writings on Sri Lankan history reveals the truth that the concept of colonialism has not been taken into Sri Lankan historiographical thinking.

This needs some explanation. This island has been under colonial subjugation since the beginning of 16th century. Today there is a tendency to highlight only the Britania Adhirajavadaya, but there has been the colonialist rules of the Portuguese and the Dutch from about 1521-1796 over the maritime regions.

[Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby]

The impact of the Portuguese rule and the Dutch rule had created an unprecedented religo-cultural dislocation. In fact the British rule was more lenient than the Portuguese and Dutch rules.

This colonial impact has determined our view of the pre-colonial period. The pre-colonial period was understandably seen as one championing the indigenous cultural traditions. If one takes into count the historiography of the Buddhist historical writings of the pre-colonial era one can easily understand how the ethnocentric histories were conceived and written.

This is not the place to go into the details of the evolution of this historiography but we should remind ourselves of the ideological response of the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese to Christianisation and modernisation in the 19th century.

Muslim identity

A review of the history of the 19th century Sri Lanka reveals that after 1833 when the efforts towards the structuring of the British rule was taking place with the active support of the education provided by the Protestant missionaries the indigenous religio-cultural groups began to assert their individualities without disturbing the overall British colonialist supremacy.

It is interesting to note that the first move towards such a religio-cultural assertion was undertaken among the high cast Hindu-Tamils in Jaffna. Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879) highlighted the Saiva-Tamil integrality. The intensity of the missionary education activities was felt more in Jaffna than in the other parts of the island. There was also the interaction with Tamil Nadu.

Around the 1870s Sidee Lebbe of Kandy through his Journal “Muslim nesan” argued the need for the preservation of the Muslim identity through Islam and Arabic.

On the Buddhist front responses to Christianisation had been there earlier too but the movement for religio-cultural identity of the Sinhala-Buddhists was given full politico-cultural expressions by Anagarika Dharmapala in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Thus, the three major communities opted for an internal religio-cultural exclusivism within British colonial rule.

It was around this time that the process of politicisation started. The indigenous participation in the legislative process of the colony was founded on the basis of communal representation, that is, there were members appointed to represent interests of up country Sinhalese, low country Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims.

Sri Lanka’s entry to representative politics began to solidify itself. The adult suffrage given in early 1930s was consciously used to consolidate the underline religio-cultural exclusivisms of the different communities.

The process of the politicisation led to the take over of majoritarianism, a concept that the British system of administration had introduced to us.

The evolution of Sinhala nationalism and its take over of the majoritarian concept known through the British parliamentary tradition became the corner-stone of Sri Lankan politics.

The Marxist intervention with its notions of class did not go down into the Sri Lankan soil and the main Marxist parties accepted populist nationalism as politico-social progress.

The efforts of Sinhala nationalism to define itself in terms of language and religion led to Tamil responses based on language and not much on religion. It is an irony of history that the efforts of the first independent government in Sri Lanka to define the citizenship of this country led to the formation of the Federal Party in the year after the Independence (1949).


Thus the difference began to snow-ball and mutual distrust provided the speed for the snow-balling. The 1972 constitution, ironically enough the handy work of one of the greatest Marxist intellectuals of this country, Dr. Colvin R. De Silva had no constitutional reference to the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

The Federal Party now became the advocate for an independent Tamil state. Again the greatest irony was that the pronouncement was made by a man who firmly believed in non violence – S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. The political downhill trend soon led to the emergence of Tamil militant youth movements.

They took Tamil Eelam as an apriori assumption. The ensuing war was inevitable. Here again the tragedy was that the war which was aimed at the Tamil militants began to destroy Tamil lives and property.

The lack of understanding if not the misunderstanding was by this time complete.

The country now begins to realise how its future lies in its compositeness, and at this point of time it is important for the Sri Lankan Tamils to let know their fellow countrymen, their commitment to Sri Lanka as the land of their birth and their future.

At least in the English media, ever since the late Mervyn de Silva with his characteristic journalistic flourish called the Tiger led combat struggle against the state as ‘Eelam war’ the term eelam has gained an ominous significance to the Sinhala reader.

In the minds of the Sinhala people, this word denotes separatism and is associated with L.T.T.E. attacks. The role of the mainstream Sinhala media in creating suspicion in the minds of the Sinhala people has been substantial.

The absence of an institution which would help enable the fostering of understanding between the communities has only worsened the situation and it’s also true that there had been no effort on the part of the Sri Lankan Tamils to communicate to the Sinhalese the real meaning of the terms they use.

It is true that in the separatist demand made by all the militant organization the term Eelam is there, but it is a compound term with the qualifying word Tamil. Thus, the term is Tamil Eelam. In fact, TELO stands for Thamil Eelam Liberation Organization and the short in form L.T.T.E. stands for Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam.

The operative part is Thamil Eelam and it means the Tamil part of Eelam. The term Eelam is a synonym for Sri Lanka and has been in use in Tamil literature right from the Cankam Period dating as far back as 200 B.C. to circa 250 A.D. Pattinapalai a long poem of the Cankam period on Karikala the chola king refers to the various imports piled up at the Pukar harbour.

Two of the commodities identified are ‘Eelathu Unavu’, ‘Kalakathu Akkaam’ the first one means food from Sri Lanka, and the latter refers to products from Kaalakam (kedah). We do not know what the foodstuffs that were send from Sri Lanka to the southeastern harbour city of Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil- Brahmi inscriptions refer to an ‘Eelathu Kutumbikan’ meaning a householder from Eelam. Kutumbikan is the Tamil word for ‘gihi’ and here for refers to a Buddhist. Incidentally, this reference indicates that there has been a free flow of Buddhist from Sri Lanka into Tamil Nadu and vice-versa.

Later day Tamil inscriptions especially one from the chola period refers to ‘Sinhalar Eella Mandilams’ meaning the Eela regional unit of the Sinhalese. It is quite clear that the Sinhalese themselves had been associated with Eelam. It is a known fact Eelam constituted an administrative unit during the chola period 1017 to 1070 A.D.

The term Eelam has cultural connotations and the first poet from Sri Lanka participating in the cankam poetic gatherings was a poet call Eellathu Putan Thevan.

To this day Sri Lankan Tamil literature is referred to as Eelathu Ilakkiyam the contribution of the Muslims and Up-Country Tamils falls within the Tamil literature of Eelam. The Muslims are equally proud of the term as the Tamils are. Especially when the reference is made to Sri Lankan Tamil Literature.

It may come as a big shock to many to know of the etymology of the term Eelam. It is the opinion of learned Tamil scholars like the late Professor Kanapathipillai, that the term Eelam must have been derived from ‘Hela’. Thus in real terms eelam is an integral part of the helaurumaya (The hela heritage).

When after the 1972 constitution, the Federal Party was pushed toward the formation of Tamil united front and towards the declaration of a separate Tamil country, the term Tamil Eelam was not very much in vogue.

It was the Tamil militants who popularized the term Thamil Eelam. Unfortunately, only the word Eelam is retained of this compound form, and this very word itself is now taken to mean a separate Tamil country. Given the long presence of the Tamils in this country and their devotion to this island as their motherland has invariably led to the use of the term Eelam to denote the entire island.

The Tamil word for Sri Lanka is ILANKAI. It is the Tamilicised form of the word Lanka. In Tamil language there has been no tradition for “LA” to be the initial sound in a word. Thus, the vowel sound E comes first and the word is pronounced as Illankai.

This term it is quite old. Cilapathikaram the Tamil epic that deals with the history of the Kannaki, the Pattini venerated in the Sinhala Buddhist tradition narrates how Gajabahu brought the Pattini cult to Sri Lanka.

The famous line in cilapathikaram runs as follows ‘Kadal chool illankai kayavahu venthan’ the word illankai is used here to refer to Sri Lanka. Cilapathikaram today is generally taken as a work belonging to 5th century A.D. thus the term illankai too has been invoked to refers to the island.

In geography and history, the Tamil word used is illankai. It was this wide usage of the term illankai and understanding of its common origin that led to the approval of the term illankai in all the official documents. In fact, it could be argued that it was this welcome degree of understanding that enables the Tamils to identify themselves with this island as their country. The constitution of the day accepted the usage of this term.

However in recent times there is a demand to use the term Sri Lanka only and leaving out the term illankai. The insistence of this usage has led to an interesting situation in which the Tamils when they wish to refer to the Sinhala government call it the Sri Lankan state and the security forces two are refered to as Sri Lankan state forces. The implication is quite clear that these institutions have nothing to do with the Tamils.

If we have to develop a sense of understanding between the communities, it is important that the cultures of the other group are recognized and respected.

The deprivation of the use of the term Eelam/Illankai for Sri Lanka would only foster a sense of alienation from this island and anyone who wants a peace full settlement would understand the Sri Lankan Tamil psyche. It is wrong to impute meanings, which do not exist. [Courtesy: Sunday Observer]
[TamilWeek, Apr 2, 2006]

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Print this page