The language of the lion: Tracing the history of Sinhala, its complicated relationship with Tamil in Sri Lanka

There are as many points of convergence between Sinhala and Tamil, as there are of variance. In admitting the truth of this crucial fact and acting on it perhaps lies the future of Sri Lanka.

Karthik Venkatesh February 04, 2021 09:59:45 IST
The language of the lion: Tracing the history of Sinhala, its complicated relationship with Tamil in Sri Lanka

The formation of the modern nation state has defined world politics for the last couple of centuries. The origins of this idea in 18th-19th century Europe saw the coming-together of litterateurs, royalty, military generals, cultural theorists, and lastly, the public who made the discourse that these high-minded individuals floated, their own and gave of themselves to birth the nation.

The South Asian history of nation state formation, which has been a 20th-century affair intricately linked with colonialism, has been an arduous one, given the region’s diversities and the lack of a common ground for people to converge on and agree on a shared view of nationhood. The histories of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh all reflect these struggles.

Sri Lanka, which celebrates its 73rd Independence Day today, has had a rougher ride than most. Critical to the formation of the Sri Lankan identity has been Sinhala, the language that close to 75 percent of its population (1.6 crores of a population of 2.1 crore) speaks. More than any other South Asian language, perhaps, Sinhala is closely tied to a religion — in this case, Buddhism. Equally, ‘racial’ ideas too are critical in this context, and all of these aspects reflect in its history, its mythology and the events that define its modern-day journey.

Ancient beginnings

Historians say that the term ‘Sihala’ (lion in Pali) is first encountered in the Dipavamsa (fourth-fifth century CE). In this epic, the term occurs only once, in this verse:

Lanka dipo ayam ahu sihena sihalaiti

(The island of Lanka was known as ‘Sihala’ on account of the lion.)

The Dipavamsa describes the Buddhists resident in the island as Sinhalas, arguably, for the first time. This, it appears, is to distinguish them from the other group of people also resident on the island at that time — the Tamil-speaking Hindus. A binary had thus been created — Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil-Hindu.

This narrative is further bolstered in the Mahavamsa, the foundational epic of Sri Lanka, which occupies a place in the island more or less similar to the Mahabharata and Ramayana in popular Indian discourse, composed by Mahanama Thero, a sixth century CE Buddhist monk. The Mahavamsa is written in Pali, the ancient Prakrit tongue which was the Buddha’s chosen tongue of discourse.

Among the many stories germane to the Mahavamsa’s narrative is the one of Dutugemunu (sometimes Dutugamunu or Dutthagamani), the second century BCE Lankan king who fights a war against Elara (sometimes, Ellalan) the Hindu Tamil Chola king who had conquered Anuradhapura. Dutugemunu overpowers Elara and thus, in the telling of the epic, claims the island for the Sinhalas and Buddhism.

The language of the lion Tracing the history of Sinhala its complicated relationship with Tamil in Sri Lanka

(Left) Dutugemunu and (Right) Elara. Images via Wikimedia Commons

Undoubtedly, Dutugemunu is a historical figure, but one about whom it is difficult to separate myth from reality. For instance, was Dutugemunu exclusively Sinhalese as is claimed? Some scholars dispute this citing some of his Tamil antecedents. Was his conflict with Elara a clash of religions? The evidence appears to be contradictory. There appear to have been Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists fighting on both sides, even from the same family in some recorded instances. But the Mahavamsa narrative has given this story a certain slant and that informs the view of people up to the present day.

The Mahavamsa goes even further back in time to unearth the supposed origin of the Sinhalese people. It traces their origin to the mythical Prince Vijaya who in 483 BCE, in fact on the very day that the Buddha passed on, washed up on the shores of the island. Vijaya was a prince from Vanga (present-day Bengal) who had been exiled on account of his evil nature. Accompanying Vijaya were 700 of his errant followers. In Sri Lanka, Vijaya transformed into an able king and ruled over the local Yakkhas who already lived throughout the island.

Vijaya’s origins, which went back to the Bengal area, meant that his linguistic origins were likely Indo-Aryan and this is a critical point of note.

Vijaya was the eldest son of a brother and sister, who were in turn the children of a human princess and a lion, which is why the lion has come to be the symbol of the Sinhalese and figures prominently on the Sri Lankan flag. Given the importance of Buddhism to the entire narrative, it is critical to note that the tales of the Mahavamsa notwithstanding, historical sources trace the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka to Prince Mahinda, the son of Asoka, around 260-250 BCE. Mahinda was accompanied by his sister, Sanghamitra, who also brought with her a sapling of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained salvation.

The Buddhist Unduvapa Poya festival is observed in Sri Lanka on the full moon of December to commemorate Sanghamitra’s arrival. Mahinda met and convinced Devanampiya Tissa, the Sinhalese king, a direct descendant of Vijaya’s brother, to adopt Buddhism.

Sinhalese identity rests on the language’s Indo-Aryan origins (descended as it is from Pali) and the fact that the island of Sri Lanka is perceived as the only remaining home of Buddhism on the sub-continent, where the faith was born. The Sinhalese style themselves ‘Aryans’ (a term they use in a racial context, though it is really a linguistic term) as opposed to the Tamils who are Dravidians. This informs their sensibilities, which are also deeply affected by the history of the island in the past 500 years.

While most Sinhalese are Buddhists (there is a small but prominent Christian Sinhalese minority), writers on Sri Lanka have observed that the Sinhalese do worship deities similar to Kannagi and Murugan, both of whom are popular among the Tamils. Hence, their Buddhism is clearly influenced by elements from the adjacent culture.

The development of the modern Sinhalese identity

The island of Sri Lanka has a colonial history dating back to the early 16th century when the Portuguese first captured sections of the island. The Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch in the mid-17th century. In 1815, the British captured the entire island and from 1833, they began administering the island from Colombo. The Tamils, who were largely predominant in the northern part of the island had remained a distinct community from ancient times. During the period of British rule, they began migrating to the Sinhalese-dominated areas of the south, but retained their culturally distinct characteristics. Owing to their better education, they were soon better represented in government services, a fact that the Sinhalese resented.

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) led a Buddhist revival movement that sought to give the Sinhalese community confidence and pride in their ancient history and origins. A Sinhalese nationalism thus took birth that claimed the entire island for the Sinhalese and sought to oust the Tamils. Dharmapala, unlike some of his more Catholic counterparts in other British South Asian colonies like India or Burma, was not a unifier and often referred to the Tamils as ‘hadi Demalu’ (the dirty Tamils). This strain of Sinhalese nationalism ensured that the anti-colonial struggle in Sri Lanka was a fractured one with both communities jostling for concessions from the British and often backstabbing each other.

The language of the lion Tracing the history of Sinhala its complicated relationship with Tamil in Sri Lanka

Anagarika Dharmapala. Wikimedia Commons

Post World War II, the British began to renounce their colonial possessions in Asia, and Sri Lanka became independent on 4 February 1948. The early governments saw both Sinhala and Tamil participation, and in the first flush of freedom, it was expected that greater unity lay ahead.

In 1956, the SWRD Bandaranaike government, that was overtly pro-Sinhalese, in fulfillment of one of its key electoral promises oversaw the passage of the Sinhala Only Act. This act replaced English as the official language of Ceylon (the name Sri Lanka adopted in 1972) with Sinhala. The act failed to give official recognition to Tamil, the other major language of the island.

The language of the lion Tracing the history of Sinhala its complicated relationship with Tamil in Sri Lanka

SWRD Bandaranaike. Wikimedia Commons

Depending on which side of the linguistic divide one stood, it was either the last act or the first act in a saga that went back close to 2500 years.

This set into motion the series of events that led to the widening of the rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils and culminated in the Sri Lankan Civil War that raged from 1983 to 2009 and claimed the lives of thousands of people on both sides, including many political leaders.

That Sinhala and Tamil are posited as polar opposites (Aryan and Dravidian, Buddhist and Hindu) is unfortunate. Co-existing as they have been on the island for much of recorded history, the languages have undoubtedly influenced each other. The Sinhalese script is derived from Brahmi, the meta-script of the sub-continent and is related to the Grantha and Kadamba script, which also have deep connections with Tamil.

There are as many points of convergence between the tongues, as there are of variance. In admitting the truth of this crucial fact and acting on it perhaps lies the future of Sri Lanka.

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