Part-3 of this series dealt with the North Indian origins of the Sinhalas, which more or less coincides with the prevailing notion among islanders of their “Aryan” ancestry. Let’s explore this belief, shall we? A drama typically unfolds with the Dramatis Personae. Why should we be typical? I’ll tee off with who this post is not about.
- The North Indian immigrants were not the 1st inhabitants of Srilanka. That credit goes to the cave dwelling Balangodas: their remains are at least 34,000 years old.
- The present-day aborigines of Srilanka, the Veddas – or Wanniyala Etto as they call themselves – may have called the island their home from 18,000 BC.
- The Burghers are the descendants of European settlers that married locals. Yet another community in Srilanka has an equally eclectic mix of genes – the Colombo Chetties. Both these groups are neither Sinhala nor Tamil.
This post is not about any of them.
When the new nation was established, many villages were founded as more land became arable. Sinhala kings needed people to perform certain specialized caste based jobs, such as weaving, jaggery making or toddy tapping. Further, they recruited mercenaries for their army. The fledgling nation had occupations that no one could neatly fit into – such as peeling cinnamon trees, native to the island. Migrant groups moved to Srilanka to fit into these niches.
Where did the kings turn to for such skilled & unskilled workers? The Eastern Seaboard of India, the Coromandel Coast, is an easy boat ride away from Srilanka. Why go elsewhere, when you could hire from the 4 Southern states? And that’s exactly what the kings did.
Enter the South Indians
It should be noted here that the Sinhala caste system is closer to the Jati system, than the Sanskrit Varna system. Quiet a few Sinhala castes are composed of South Indians & their descendants, who came over several centuries – sometimes for trade or as the soldiers of the presiding Sinhala, Pandya or Chola kings.
Continued Marriage alliances of Sinhala kings with their South Indian counterparts could only have bolstered migrations further. As late as the 18th century CE, the Sinhala rulers of Kandy preferred to marry women from the Telugu Nayaks ruling Tamil Nadu. This led to an interesting situation: the last rulers of Srilanka were Nayaks from the Balija/Kapu community. Of course, they converted to Buddhism & played an important role in the religious revivals in Srilanka.
In this post, let’s see how 3 important, influential & upwardly mobile communities in Srilanka, known as the voices of strident Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, can trace their ancestry to South India.
Sinhalisation is the slow but sure process of assimilation, of migrant, minority communities into the Sinhala Buddhist fabric. In a sense, this means that a particular language, ethnicity & religion are deemed superior to all others, that other groups relinquish their identity to become more acceptable to the majority.
Salagama, Durava & Karava: these 3 castes were originally accorded a low status. But, they became prosperous during the colonial period. Many of them shed their caste-based jobs & occupied high positions – thus recalibrating themselves only just below the Govigamas, the most dominant caste in Srilanka.
Salagama (AKA Chaliya) is a caste of cinnamon peelers in the Southern coastal areas of Sri Lanka. They were also associated with cinnamon cultivation & in Kandy, with weaving. Noted cricketer Lasith Malinga is a Salagama.
Chaliya or Saliya is a caste of weavers in Northern Kerala & Southern Karnataka. It seems possible that the Sinhala kings sought skilled weavers to setup shop at various periods. Saliyas from Kerala & Karnataka moved in waves. And some of them moved onto cinnamon peeling.
Durava or Chanda is a toddy tapping caste, that initially moved to the Southern Coast of Srilanka. Their hereditary role is coconut or palm tree climbing. It is believed that they descended from the Nadars of Tamil Nadu & the Ezhavas of Kerala. Many of them also functioned as mercenaries & soldiers for the Sinhala kings.
Its worth noting that the term “Chanda” is very similar to “Sanar”, another name for the Nadar community in Tamil Nadu. The Duravas take great pains to deny their connections with South India & with toddy tapping, which in their eyes is a demeaning profession.
According to the Durava revisionists, their ancestors took up toddy tapping only because they owned the land themselves. Or, they did it for their Durava brethren that owned large coconut groves. Toddy tappers, them – Oh, sacrilege! They also claim that they are a community devoted to martial arts, which was well connected with the aristocracy. Their role as soldiers for the Sinhala kings probably explains their contacts with the royals.
Karavas – The Negombo Story
Along the Eastern sea-board of India, predominantly in the states of Tamil Nadu & Andhra Pradesh, a community of fisher-folks called “Karayar” live. A long time back, they moved to the South-Western coast of Srilanka.
In due course of time, their caste name morphed to “Karava”. Most of them are either Christians or Buddhists & consider themselves ethnic Sinhalas. Traditionally associated with fishing & boat-building, they also performed the roles of mercenaries to local kings.
Let’s focus on 2 districts in Srilanka: Gampaha & Puttalam, that abuts it. The Tamils – fishermen included – in Puttalam are known as Negombo Tamils. But the fishermen in Gampaha are Sinhala. Interestingly enough, the Karava in Gampaha are bilingual. While they speak Sinhala with the fluency of natives, they also speak an unusual dialect of Tamil – the “Negombo Fishermen’s Tamil”. This dialect is an admixture of Tamil & Colloquial Sinhala.
Elsewhere in Srilanka, the Karavas to the South of Colombo speak only Sinhala, though.
So, with the Karava caste, one can see Sinhalisation – akin to the coalescing of matter after the big bang – in progress, right before our eyes. In due course of time, one can expect the Negombo Tamil dialect to disappear, cutting the umbilical cord forever between the Karava & South India.
The Dance of Ingratiation
For their Sinhalisation to be complete, these 3 communities had to either forge an “Aryan” identity for their group, trace their ancestry to the pre-Indian aborigines of the island or claim royal or high-caste roots. They had to relinquish their “plain” South Indian roots, to ingratiate themselves to the Sinhala majority.
♣♣♣ The Salagamas are keen to establish their upper caste Aryan roots. To strengthen their claims, their surnames use the “Muni” suffix which – surprise, surprise – is the Sinhala word for Brahmins. Or, they go all out & use the family name “Nanedri”: a possible corruption of “Namboodiri”, the most common surname of Kerala Brahmins.
Here are a couple of legends, supposedly historical, to bolster the claims of the Salagamas.
King Bhuvaneka Bahu II ran into a small hitch while crowning his son, Prince Wathimi. The Prince’s mother was rumored to be a Muslim. This incensed the monks & they refused to perform the Coronation. The King flexed his royal muscles & imported Namboodiri Brahmins from Kerala to perform the ceremony. Their descendants mixed with weavers & soldiers from Kerala – and formed the “Salagama” caste.
Alternately, some claim that King Vijayabahu I implored the Saligrama Brahmins to manage his cinnamon plantations.
♣♣♣ Instead of claiming “Pure Aryan” ancestors, Duravas have declared they are the descendants of the elusive Nagas – who are mentioned in legends as one of the original inhabitants of Srilanka.
Some claim that since the word “Durava” has no meaning in Sinhala, it must have originated from “Durai” – which means “Headman” in Tamil. Some colonial records have noted that the Durava were “Palanquin Bearers” from Tamil Nadu & the Malabar coast. How & when Headmen started toting palanquins is left rather vague 🙂
♣♣♣ In an attempt to assimilate further with the majority Sinhalas, the Karava have Aryanized their caste name to “Kuru Kulam”. They even claim that the Coromandel Coast is the Anglicized version of Sanskrit “Kuru Mandalam” – Land of the Kurus. This helps them deny their South Indian origins & to claim North Indian Kshatriya roots.
The aim of this post is to question the wisdom of assuming that the Sinhalas are a product of inter-marriage between North Indians & the aborigines of Srilanka. It is ridiculous to assume that batches of people from Orissa, Bengal & Gujarat moved to Srilanka – while those from the much closer 4 Southern states did not. The migration history of Indians to Srilanka – and vice versa – is considerably more complex than that.
What then is the Sinhala identity? Is it correct to assume that they are a mono-ethnic community? If the present day Srilankans have measurable doses of Vedda, North Indian & South Indian blood – what about the ethnic mix of South Indians? Or for that matter, Srilankan Tamils?
It would be interesting to see what a scientific genetic study of these 3 groups would find. After 2500 years of shared history & intermingling, we will find that – there are too many genetic variations within each group. Would we also find that there are little or no appreciable differences between these groups?
That would make the Srilankan ethnic conflict the South Asian equivalent of the Hutu – Tutsi rebellion in Rwanda. What a terrible revelation that would be.