Tuesday, June 25, 2024

About Jaffna -

Early Yarlpanam - A brief history


It is not the intention of this article to trace the history of Jaffna Tamils in full but a little history will help to understand the evolution of the Tamils.

Yarlpanam is believed to have got its name from Yarl and Panam meaning the land of the Yarl or Veenai, a musical instrument; derived from the myth that this land was received by a Yarl player as a Royal grant in appreciation of his musical performance.

We have a fair understanding of the past 2500 years of Sri Lankan history from the written account of the history of Sri Lanka called Mahavamsa which is a documentation of events that took place but compiled by hearsay. Unlike the Sinhalese whose ancient chronicles like Mahavamsa give the myth about their origin, Tamils do not possess any such comparable literature. The earliest local Tamil chronicles on Jaffna were composed in the Middle Ages titled Yarlpana Vaipava Malai which was compiled in 1736AD and this work depended on earlier writings and confusions on chronology and genealogy exist in that no specific contributions of any king is recorded although kings ruled Yarlpanam until about 1450.

However, the following conclusions based on the excavations conducted between 1980 and 1983 were made.

"The first inhabitants of Sri Lanka might have migrated through a land bridge that linked up the North-western Sri Lanka to South-eastern Tamil Nadu in India. This land connection physically existed till 7000BC. Scholars have maintained that man did not evolve in Ceylon but arrived in the island from the main continent of India. The close proximity of Jaffna peninsula to South India must have prompted periodic migration from the subcontinent to the northern coastal areas of Sri Lanka. In the course of the centuries South Indians came to Sri Lanka either as successful traders, seamen, soldiers, artisans or refugees fleeing from political upheavals in the mainland. Jaffna was not the first habitat of the earliest migrants but an earlier phase was found very close to the peninsula but not inside it. The earliest inhabitants of Jaffna were Megalithic people."

The Megalithic culture of Sri Lanka was "a fully-fledged and integral part of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka common to both Sinhalese and Tamils". The earliest inhabitants of Jaffna were culturally affiliated to South India, spoke in a pro-Dravidian language and practised religion similar to that of Megalithic South India. The Tamil tradition claims that the Nagars were the aboriginal inhabitants of Jaffna and this cannot be disproved. In fact there were many similarities between the inhabitants of Nagadipa called Nagars and the Tamils of Jaffna. It is the considered opinion of many that there were definitely influential Tamils in the North of Sri Lanka at least 200 years before the Christian era.

Tamil kings from South India occupied northern, eastern and western provinces in Ceylon from about 3rd to 13thcentury AD. The Jaffna Kingdom was also known as the Kingdom of Arya Chakaravarti as the kings in Jaffna were descendents of Arya Chakaravarti, a chieftain from Pandyan kingdom. The centre of power of North Kingdom was the Jaffna peninsula. In the 15th Century there was a brief rule by Sinhalese for about 17 years till Tamil king reconquered his kingdom with the help of Tamil military chiefs from South India.

The settlers in Jaffna before the 11thCentury are said to have come from Kerala (Malabar) and the immigrants in Chola period came from the east part of India. In many ways the period from early days to the 16thcentury may be characterised as Golden Age of Tamils of Jaffna, the capital of which was Nallur. The kings resided in Kopay and ruled the entire peninsula, neighbouring islands and the island of Mannar. Other territories in the North and east were administered by chiefs called Vanniyars.

The king was usually succeeded by his eldest son. The provincial administrators were called Adikaris and the Mudaliars who functioned as judges and interpreters of the law and custom of the land. Kankanis or superintendents and Kanakkapillais or accountants came next in line and they maintained accounts. Maniam was the chief of larger territorial units or villages. He was assisted by Mudaliars who in turn was assisted by Udaiars. They were the custodian of law and order and gave assistance to collection of revenues in that area. The village headman called Adappanaar collected taxes and was responsible for maintenance of order in his unit. All the officers had an audience with the king twice a year. All the citizens of the kingdom with the exception of the old and infirm had to perform certain community services called Uliyam and this was a means of mobilising resources for works of public utility. Perhaps various caste systems came into existence from the services they provided. During this period the Tamils of the North began to develop distinctive social and cultural traditions of their own which were later collected and called Thesavalamai or Nadduvalamai in Yarlpanam.

Jaffna developed into a major trading centre due to the imaginative efforts if the rulers; pearl fishing in Mannar, dying and weaving, industries involving palmyrah leaves and fibres, silk worm was reared for weaving silk clothes and so on. Kayts became a centre for ship building and ship repairs. Elephants from Vanni region were exported from Jaffna to India.

Saivaism was the official religion of the kingdom and Nallur Kandaswamy temple was the royal temple. A temple would be in the centre of a village and it was accepted that no one should live in a place where there is no temple. Temples built during this period had expensively sculptured tower called Kopuram at their entrance. In the field of education, temple schools and village schools imparted a basic education. Study of astrology and medicine called Siddha flourished.

All in all before the conquest of Jaffna by the Portuguese the Tamils of the North with their centre in the Jaffna Peninsula were living in a well defined area which they had carved out as their permanent home. To bolster their identity they had developed distinctive structures, economic institutions and a way of life which they could call their own.

Portuguese conquest

The demise of independent Kingdom of Jaffna and colonial rule came into existence by the conquest of Portuguese in 1620 having conquered the Sinhalese Kingdom in 1505.The last Tamil king to rule Jaffna was Sankilian II, who was captured by the Portuguese in 1620 and Jaffna became a part of Portugal's Overseas Empire. Portuguese discovered the strategic importance of Jaffna in the control of trade and this led to the capture of Jaffna.

The main contribution of the Portuguese in Jaffna was the introduction of Roman Catholicism and the church became a powerful and influential force in the life of Tamils in the peninsula. At the same time they destroyed quite a number of Hindu temples and introduced many other measures against Hindus. There was en masse conversion of Jaffna Tamils to Catholicism and the reason for this was the Jaffna people were non aggressive, non militarised and leaderless. Sankilian with other surviving members of the Royal family were taken to Goa where Sankilian was hanged. The remaining captives were made to become monks and thus their celibacy avoided the production of further claimants to the Jaffna throne. Although Portuguese attempted to eliminate the Jaffna Royal family through celibacy, a number of families of Sri Lankan Tamil origin claim descent from the royal family today.

In sharp contrasts to the number of forts they built in the South, they built only two, one in Jaffna and another at Kayts. The Portuguese rule ruined Jaffna and burdened the peasant as he had to pay heavy taxes. In the absence of possibility of waging war or revolting, the only option for the people was to migrate to the Vanni jungles and to India. With the conquest of the Dutch, the refugees not only returned but also shed Catholicism and reverted to Hinduism en masse. Some took the protestant religion. Only those in coastal areas in the Jaffna peninsula saw Catholicism as a liberating path and stuck to it.

Dutch conquest

After arriving in Sri Lanka in 1602, the Dutch captured Mannar in 1658. From there they crossed over to the Jaffna Peninsula where the Portuguese surrendered in June 24th. The Dutch quickly got down to business repairing tanks and wells and developing many industries. A land register was started and system of land revenue was fixed. The customary laws of Jaffna called Thesavalamai was codified and promulgated. They also interpreted indigenous caste system in line with the Roman and Dutch definitions of slavery. The famous Dutch fort in Jaffna was built. Dutch names were given to various places and Delft is one of them. They were harsh towards the Roman Catholics and suppressed the church using all their means. Like the Portuguese the Dutch also ruled Jaffna as a separate entity without amalgamating it with the Sinhalese areas.

British Colonisation

After an abrupt end of the Dutch rule, the country fell into the hands of the British in 1796 and by the Treaty of Amiens the British took over Ceylon in 1802. The British maintained the separate entity of the Tamils until 1833 at which year they unified the Tamil and Sinhalese regions for the purpose of administration. It is an assertion that throughout the British colonial period, the Sinhalese and the Tamils remained equal in their subordination to the British.

The British introduced free education and people of Jaffna benefitted most from this. The Tamils were able to enter civil, clerical and professional services and when the country was granted independence in 1948, the Tamils from the north occupied around 30 percent of all posts available in the Government services and the University of Ceylon.

During the first four decades of British rule, freedom of religion and worship was introduced and this was very much appreciated by the Tamils. Slavery was abolished in 1844 but change in legal status brought no meaningful changes to the low caste people. But more threatening move was the conversion campaign by the Christian missionaries who built within Jaffna the finest English language schools to be found in Asia in the 19th century.

In response to this tide of conversions, Arumuga Navalar (1822 to 1879), a Hindu religious leader reformed Hinduism and omitted in his texts many practices which Christian missionaries criticized as ‘barbaric' such as animal sacrifices. Irrespective of resentment by some, his reformed Hinduism gave educated Hindus an access to a textual tradition of Saivaism, Saiva Siddhantham that gave them pride by their religious traditions. Arumuga Navalar being a pioneer of religious reforms in the Jaffna Hindu society, wrote many Hindu religious books, developed modern Tamil prose, translated the Bible into Tamil, and he was an outstanding orator. Benefitting from the missionaries English language schools many Tamils turned away from agriculture towards Government employment in a rapidly expanding British colonial empire. With family support of educational achievement, people quickly took up rigorous studies that led to them becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers and take up other similar professions.

Certain events after the independence from the British in 1948 have made such an impact on both Sinhalese and Tamils psychologically that it has become impossible for both communities to live together as free and equal citizens. Proclamation of Sinhala as the official language of Sri Lanka, the planned colonisation with Sinhalese settlers of areas considered to be the Tamil homeland, the introduction of a quota system for University admissions, riots against Tamils living in Sinhala areas and militarisation of North and East by successive governments among others have contributed to this disagreement. The young Tamils of Jaffna who felt the brunt of discrimination, deprivation of language rights and indignity of living as aliens in their own country, led to armed struggle for liberation. This was followed by exodus of large number of Jaffna Tamils to foreign countries in search of peaceful existence and no doubt they are doing pretty well of course.

Tamil speaking communities

There are two groups of Tamil speaking communities in Sri Lanka - Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils. Sri Lankan Tamils also called Ceylon Tamils are direct descendents of Tamils of ancient Jaffna Kingdom and the Indian Tamils are descendents of labourers brought from Tamilnadu in India in the 19th Century by the British to work on the tea plantations. A significant Tamil speaking Muslim population exists and they do not identify as ethnic Tamils and are listed as a separate ethnic group in official statistics.

Most Sri Lankan Tamils live in North and Eastern provinces and in Colombo and most Indian Tamils live in the highlands. Both these groups were separate communities until 1980 when greater sense of unity arose between the communities.

Regional Groups

Sri Lankan Tamils fall into three groups based on regional distribution, dialects, and culture. They are Negombo Tamils, Eastern Tamils and Jaffna or Northern Tamils.

Negombo Tamils are distinguished from other groups by their dialects and some aspects of customary laws. Most Negombo Tamils have assimilated into Sinhalese ethnic group.

Eastern Tamils live in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai districts. Their history and traditions are inspired by local legends, native literature and colonial documents. The eastern Tamil caste hierarchy is dominated by the Mukkuva laws, the main feature of which is the Kudi (குடி) system which is related to matrimonial alliances. Kudi means house or settlement and the system was known to the folk there as kudivali (குடிவழி) or clan lineage. Every individual whether man or woman belongs not to the clan of his or her father but to that of their mother. Even though the child will take his father's name he belongs to Kudi of his mother. No one is allowed to marry within his or her Kudi.

The Tamils of Trincomalee district have a different social customs from those of Batticaloa due to the influence of the Jaffna Kingdom in the North. The indigenous Veddha (வேடுவர்) people of the East also could speak Tamil and have got assimilated into the Eastern Tamils caste structure.

The Northern Tamil society are generally categorised into two groups: one from the Jaffna peninsula itself and the other from the Vanni district. The Jaffna society has caste divisions with social dominance attained by Vellarar. Historically the Vellarar were involved in agriculture using the services of other castes - Nalavar, Parayar, Vannar, and Ambattar. Others like Karaiyar remained outside the agriculture based system. The caste of temple priests called Iyars were held in high esteem.

People in the Vanni district considered themselves as separate from Tamils of the Jaffna peninsula but they did intermarry. Most of the married couples move to live in the Vanni district because of availability of land. Northern Tamils follow customary laws known as Thesavalamai codified during Dutch period.


80 percent of Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus who followed Siva sect. There were Roman Catholics who were converted after the Portuguese conquest of Jaffna kingdom, minority of Protestants due to missionary effort in the 18th century. Also you find Pentecostal and other churches like Jehovah Witness.

Language and dialects

Sri Lankan Tamil dialects are distinct from the dialects of Tamil Nadu and Kerala states of India. They are classified into three groups - Negombo Tamil, Batticaloa Tamil and Jaffna Tamil.

The Negombo Tamil dialect is used by bilingual fisherman in the Negombo area. This dialect has undergone considerable convergence with spoken Sinhala. The Batticaloa Tamil dialect is shared between Tamils, Veddhas and Muslims. Batticaloa Tamil dialect has preserved several ancient features. It has also its own vocabulary and retains words that are unique to Malayalam, a language spoken in Kerala. The Tamil dialect spoken in Trincomalee has many similarities with the Jaffna Tamil dialect.

The Jaffna dialect is the oldest and closest to old Tamil. The long physical isolation of Tamils of Jaffna has lead to the preservation of ancient features of old Tamil. The ordinary speech is closely related to classical Tamil. Although Jaffna Tamil is frequently mistaken for Malayalam by native Indian Tamil speakers, both Jaffna Tamil and Indian Tamil dialects are mutually understandable.


The cuisine of Sri Lanka Tamils was influenced by that of India as well as colonialists and foreign traders. Rice is the usual daily meal with spicy curries for lunch and dinner. String hoppers and Pittu are other favourite dishes. The ordinary people made sure that they ate good healthy diet three times a day.

Jaffna as a peninsula has an abundance of seafood such as crabs, prawns and fish and normally available in plenty and fresh. Most home gardens produce variety of vegetables and coconut is much used to make curries and other things. Palmyrah palm forms an intrinsic part of life and cuisine of northern region.

Related articles - Please read: Yarlpanam Today, Introduction