The Real History of Srilanka – Part 3

As we saw in Part-1, the earliest Srilankan Tamils moved out of India 2,200 years back.  Why is India  entangled in their affairs now? I was struggling to come up with a germane reason. Tell me, how much longer should we consider these people Indian?

It is amazing that not a single politician or rabble-rousing movie star has asked this pertinent question: Who are the Sinhalas? They couldn’t have spontaneously sprung from ether, right?

Please hop into a time-machine with me, as we travel to the Indian subcontinent, after the early Iron Age. Around 1000 BC, iron age settlements appeared suddenly in Srilanka – roughly 200 years after the Aryans inhabited the Gangetic plains in India. It seems reasonable to assume that people from nearby India introduced it to the island.

I’m about to plunge you into the ice-cold, murky depths of history. But first, let me regale you with a story.

Back to Mahavamsa

I briefly mentioned the Pali chronicle “Mahavamsa” in Part-1. The narrative starts at 6th Century BC with a bang with Prince Vijaya landing near Mannar in Srilanka with 700 followers.

Prince Vijaya’s birth is steeped in legend. The King of Vanga (Bengal) married the Queen of Kalinga (Orissa). In due course of time, the queen gave birth to a daughter, Suppa Devi. When the young princess became a lovely maiden, she was raped by a lion. If that seems outlandish, a more likely explanation could be – she was abducted & raped by a man named Sinha (which means “Lion” in Sanskrit).

The unlikely pair begot a son, Sinha Bahu & a daughter, Sinha Sivali. The 3 of them lived unhappily with the lion, in a cave. The lion kept the mouth of the cave closed, with a huge boulder. One fine day, Sinha Bahu killed his father, the lion & liberated his mother & sister. After their escape, Sinha Bahu married his sister. Pause your protracted groaning, there’s more. Prince Vijaya is the product of their, ah, union.

Vijaya hung out with a rather unsavory coterie. His gang indulged in such evil & violent deeds, that the citizens started clamoring for his head. His father, the King, was forced to exile him to a distant land – but only after shaving half of his head to humiliate him. And thus, Vijaya landed in Srilanka with his band of mischief makers.

His arrival is dated around Gautama Buddha’s death, but that is probably an insertion by the monks, to add divine significance to the arrival of a wayward prince. Srilanka was already populated by terrible Yakkas (Yakshas in Sanskrit, loosely translated, Demons in English). They sent their representative Yakkini Kuveni, a scary female, to finish off the interlopers. Big mistake. Young Kuveni fell head over heels in love with the dashing prince & betrayed her people.

With her help, Vijaya & his followers victoriously slew as many Yakkas as they could find. And the prince became the King of Srilanka. But now, the uncivilized Yakkini Kuveni wasn’t good enough for him. He had his heart set on marrying a fair damsel of royal descent – the comely Pandya princess from Madurai, to be precise. So, he promptly dumped Kuveni – she was simply beneath his station in life.

Vijaya lived happily ever after with his blue-blooded wife. As for the heart-broken Kuveni, she threw herself off a cliff & died. Rape, Incest, Patricide, Exile, Violence, Abandoning, Traitors – not a Moral Science lesson,  but the stuff that legends are made of. And as with all legends, it isn’t entirely a figment of imagination.

Linguistic Evidence

Before we get any further, we should understand this: Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan language, which means it is an Indic language based on Sanskrit. Ancient Buddhist canons are written in Pali, an archaic language that is not spoken. Spoken Sinhala is a watered down version of Pali, with many loan words from Tamil & Portuguese.

What is the origin of Pali then? Let’s weave through the tangled web of centuries & arrive at the dawn of Buddhism & Jainism. Sanskrit was the language of the Priests & its purity was guarded jealously. Most of the people spoke a vernacular based on Sanskrit – they called it “Prakrit”. Such a lowly language was deemed unfit for Kings & Priests, of course.

India being a large country, there were 3 main regional dialects of Prakrit – Maharashtri (South West), Sauraseni (West) & Magadhi (East). And beyond the confines of India, in Afghanistan, a 4th dialect, Gandhari, was spoken. If there were 4 main dialects, what is “Standard Prakrit”? Scholars opine that it was Ardha Magadhi, the language used by Emperor Ashoka in all his edicts & the language used by many Jain & Buddhist canons.

Modern Indic languages trace their ancestry to 1 of these Prakrits. Thus, Bengali & Oriya to name a few, rose from Magadhi. Hindi, Gujarati & Punjabi evolved from Sauraseni. Why do we need to know all this? Because, Pali is very similar to Ardha Magadhi. Similar or same. This is not surprising, since Ardha Magadhi was the language of choice for Buddhist monks in India.

If the legend of Vijaya is true, the ancestors of modern Sinhalas came from Bengal & Orissa. So, we can expect Sinhala to be a daughter of Magadhi. Interestingly enough, this is only partly correct. A close analysis of Sinhala is disconcerting: For it has 2 substratum Prakrits: Eastern. And Western.

Interpreting the Evidence

The received wisdom in Srilanka is that, the Sinhalas are the descendants of settlers from North India, notably Orissa & Bengal. In that sense, their conflict with the Srilankan Tamils mirrors the 20th century tussle between  North Indians &  South Indians.

According to Mahavamsa, Sinha Bahu – the father of Prince Vijaya – established a city called “Sinhapura” in Kalinga. There is a strong likelihood that this city was in fact located – not in Orissa – but in North West Punjab, near Upper Indus, plumb in the middle of the ancient Gandhara territory. Yet another Sinhapura is in Kathiawar in Gujarat.

Historic proofs show that Indo-Aryan speaking Kambojas moved from their lands in the Upper Indus to modern Gujarat. They then migrated to Srilanka by sea. Prince Vijaya’s legend may be true, but only if we assume he moved from  Western India. As if to muddy the water some more, scholars think that Sinhapura may be a city in Kalinga.

Nevertheless, Indo-Aryans from Gujarat moved to Srilanka in a wave. Since the Sinhala royalty married the scions of the Kalinga kingdom on a regular basis, people migrated aplenty from Orissa. This accounts for the the Eastern & Western substrates in Sinhala.

Incidentally, Sinhala is written in the Brahmi script. The influence of the Kadamba script, from which Kannada & Telugu scripts were derived, is also discernible. Oriya, on the other hand, is based on the closely related Kalinga script.

But, is that the complete picture? How accurate is the received wisdom of the Sinhalas? Is the ethnic strife in Srilanka, a rehash of the age-old Aryan – Dravidian conflict? That is the subject of another post.

Summing Up

While Mahavamsa may include legends, it seems fairly certain that Indo-Aryans migrated to Srilanka during the Iron Age. Srilanka was already inhabited by – shall we say aborigines, to keep things simple? The migrants mixed with the locals. Mannar & Anuradhapura were part of a busy trade route, so many waves of immigrants, primarily from India, would have made Srilanka their home.

The Sinhala royal family preferred to marry the scions of the Kalingas & the Pandyas. This would have bolstered bi-lateral trade. People move en masse for trade & religion, not necessarily during invasions. Such movement of people is usually in both directions – as in, Srilankans would have moved to India in waves too, over the centuries.

Sinhalas are an Indo-Aryan speaking people, that use an Indian script, follow Buddhism – an Indian religion, embrace the insidious caste system & live in a land that is 15 miles from India’s Eastern seaboard. Their ancestors moved from India in waves over several centuries, to colonize Srilanka. And I haven’t even started talking about their art forms, food & attire. If Srilankan Tamils are “People of Indian Origin” – What do you call Sinhalas then, chopped liver?

My aim is not to spread Pan-Indian Nationalism & erase Srilanka’s national pride. For, it is an unusual culture. An Indo-Aryan speaking country, right next to the threatening bulk of Dravidian speaking South India. A Buddhist country, situated right next to a vast & vociferous Hindu country. Amidst it all, they’ve developed & fostered a unique identity all their own.

I’m merely asking Indians to shed their paranoia & think about our neighbors the Sinhalas, with whom we share our heritage. Perhaps then, we’ll start seeing them for what they are – a nation ravaged by civil war & terrorism, whose citizens simply want to lead a normal life.

Check out my next post on the Real History of Srilanka – I’ll post it after a few days.


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    Mind blowing. More after I assimilate this post

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    Vamsi – Thanks for your comment. I look FW to your observations.

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    I have been a regular visitor to your site though I have not commented. Your posts are well researched and very readable. Sri Lankan history is quite interesting indeed. I hope your post attracts wider reading. It is sad to see the way Sinhalese are painted in gory colors by chauvinistic Tamil Nadu politicians. Only if they get to know the real history…

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    I’m enlightened. Once again, I’m convinced that us South Asians are probably the most (dare I say??) “impure race” on the face of this planet, as opposed to that claimed by the so-called race and caste puritans. History, science and even mythology confirms this!

    Good post. Keep it up.

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    Krishnan – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    In all fairness, the Sinhalas did some atrocious things to Tamils in retaliation & so far I haven’t written about that. But all that happened later, much later – After our beloved LTTE seized center-stage. I haven’t come to that part of the civil war yet.

    But, it is indeed wrong to paint them as the villains & the Tamils as the heroes in this civil war saga.

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    Vishnu – Thanks for your comment.

    You are right, we are all Mutts, not pure breeds 🙂 And I’d rather have an eclectic heritage, than be a boring, staid, pure-blood. If we review the history of many states in India, I think we’ll uncover something similar.

    Many people in ancient countries may be like us, though.

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    Agree, It took me a long time to realize that my being patriotic beyond a point was actually making me pre-judiced and narrow-minded. It is taking me effort to look people beyond Indian boundaries as humans with their own issues.

    One of closest pals in college was ex-LTTE, he was 25 when we were in college. He had got admission under special quota. He had really interesting or eye-opening experiences to share. Will share some in your following posts.

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    Kumaran – Thanks for your comment.

    Your introspection & how it led you to change yourself is refreshing. Many people mistake narrow-mindedness for patriotism. Patriotism doesn’t mean we’ll side with our country, no matter what it does.

    It will be interesting to hear your friend’s views, though that will only be 1 side of the story. I’m glad to see “ex” prefixing “LTTE”. Befriending him was a bold & unusual step, I think.

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    got it and brilliant write-up. i understand that sri lankans have many attributes to be hated from indians and tamilians. i was little worried about ramayanam’s projection of ravana as srilakan and he was the main villain. there itself we started preach hate against lankans. i have many north indian friends, as you know they are very much emotionally involved with our epics, some time i felt some negative perception from them about lankans, that they are very tough and rough and some kind of villains, irony is some still believe that tamilians in tamil nadu came from srilanka. i can compare that with some christian’s anti-semantic because jews killed jesus. it is good example of one should not take the epics literally.

    i and my mom always wondered why we couldn’t picked up sinhala as we picked up some hindi by just watching ramayana and mahabharata, but we watched srilankan television for 8-10 years, before we got indian tv singal in our area. the answer is here, because it was very old language derived from very unpopular dialects, obviously very tough for tamil speakers to pick it up by just watching/listening. in subcontinent, we have 1 million religion, 1 million language, 1 million states, 1 million castes, etc..etc…if we start hating people based on that we can’t grow and achieve what west achieved even after 1 million years, it is okay to have DISAGREEMENTS but it is not okay to have FIGHTS based on small disagreements. talking and more talking will definitely help us to resolve any issues, if not just ignore it and live side by side peacefully.

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    Very cool post and well written. Learnt a lot from this post and the legend of Vijaya was hilarious to read.

    Why stop with Sinhala’s being of Indian origin. Let us step back 60,000 years and then we are ALL of African origin with our own cultural and linguistic differences. Perhaps then all the strife in the world will come to an end!!

    And yes – call me an optimist.


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    I agree with Ganesh.
    Reccommended viewing material: “Journey of Man” on National Geographic.

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    Subba – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, North Indians take Ramayan, Ram & Sita more seriously than South Indians. Our family worships Perumal (Lord Balaji) & Shri Krishna. Ram wasn’t taken seriously, though we had his pictures in the Pooja room. In fact as kids, we couldn’t stand Ram or Sita & admired Lakshman & Ravan.

    Historians have questioned our assumption on whether the Ramayan happened in India & Srilanka. They place the epic slightly more to the West of where we assume it happened. But, that’s the subject of a different post.

    It is interesting that you couldn’t pick up Sinhala by watching TV programs. I’m sure you’ll pick up Sinhala easily if you move to Srilanka. Exposure to Hindi, for a person living in India, is considerably high. We listen to Hindi songs, we eat food that has Hindi names & Sanskrit, the base of Hindi, has loaned many, many words to Tamil (& vice versa).

    And I agree. If we have disagreements, we should try peaceful means & try to understand the other party’s perspective. Violence seldom achieves our objectives.

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    Ganesh – Thanks for your comment.

    Good point about our African origin 🙂 But, all of us have diverged significantly from the original stock. We don’t even look alike. So, it will be very difficult for people to find common ground (shared heritage) on which to resolve conflicts.

    Whereas, Tamils & Sinhalas started migrating to Srilanka roughly around the same time-frame. The feeling of “us” VS “them” might diminish if we see their script, clothes, food etc. And realize how similar it is to ours. This may result in some of the walls we have erected between us to crumble.

    But, I share your dream. Why do we resort to violence to solve our problems? It is so stupid.

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    Vishnu – Thanks. Yes, we are aware of the Genography project. I’ll briefly mention these migrations when I write about the native people of Srilanka.

    There was a detailed series on the Real History of India in this blog in early 2008. Here’s the link to the 1st post in that series:

    Sukumar Rajagopal wrote those posts. That series generated a lot of discussions about Mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosomal variations etc – and how it can be used to trace migrations.

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    It is interesting how translation errors creep up in the epics – sinha becomes a lion! The derivation of the Sinhala language to Pali is brilliant. I have often wondered why Buddha/Mahavira preached in Ardha Magadhi but the canons are in Pali. Your post has made the language origins of most North Indian languages crystal clear.

    Excellent post Priya. Well done.

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    Sukumar – Thanks for your comment & kind words.

    Yes, the translation or interpretation errors are sometimes hilarious. Such errors can also creep in when tales are spread orally.

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    Amazing post. I am from Bihar, have lived in Orissa as well and currently call Chennai as my home. This really ads to my knowledge and I thank you for that.

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    Need a clarification. You mentioned Ancient Buddhist canons are written in Pali, an archaic language that is not spoken. Spoken Sinhala is a watered down version of Pali, with many loan words from Tamil & Portuguese..

    If pali is not a spoken language, how can spoken Sinahalese be derived from it? Maybe, I am missing something.



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    Rajesh – Thanks for your comment.

    Living in different places enriches us & builds tolerance. Orissa must indeed be a very interesting place. Plan to visit it sometime.

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    Ganesh – Pali is close to Ardha Magadhi. “Ardha” means “Half” in Sanskrit. Standard Prakrit had some aspects of the Eastern dialect & some of the Western dialects. Which is similar to Sinhala. So, Sinhala appears to be a diluted version of Pali.

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    Great post Priya. Totally enjoyed reading it. Especially the legend of Vijaya was like watching a movie.

    I was just curious about this. It is the first time I am hearing of incest in a legend. Do any other stories or legends of other countries have incest too?

    Also, the origin of North Indian languages was very clear. I don’t know much about origin of languages. Is Dravidian family of languages originated in India?

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    Saraswathi – Thanks for your comment.

    I love reading the “Mahavamsa” & the “Bible”. Both span several centuries & that’s fascinating.

    Regarding incest in myths: I’ll tread carefully. Please read about Lot & his daughters in the Old Testament. Genesis 19:31-36. Or, please read Oedipus, written by Sophocles.

    Please note that Sanskrit is an Indo-European language & Proto Indo-European did not originate in India. There is no proof that any non-Indic language is related to Proto Dravidian. We probably need more data, before we can say where it originated.

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    Thanks for the suggestions. I have never read the Bible. After your comment, I am interested to read it.

    Do all the South Indian languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam belong to the Dravidian family? If so, why is the nature of Telugu and Kannada similar and that of Tamil & Malayalam similar? Are there branches in the Dravidian languages?

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    Saraswathi – Many tribal languages in North & Central India are also Dravidian.

    Kannada & Telugu are similar? I disagree. Street Kannada is so similar to Tamil, that its the easiest language for a native Tamil speaker to understand. Malayalam is heavy on nasals & the intonation is very different. After a few days in Karnataka, I can pick up enough broken Kannada to get along.

    Literary/Formal Kannada may be very similar to Telugu, almost the same. The “High” form of those languages is a Mani-Pravala – local language mixed heavily with Sanskrit.

    Whereas Malayalam split from Tamil very recently – but it still uses more Sanskrit than Tamil. Telugu is the most different from Tamil, of all South Indian languages.

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    Thanks for the detailed information. I learnt Kannada at school from 1st to 4th std and then when I came to Hyd, the script was almost same. So it was very easy for me to pick up Telugu. That’s why I was thinking Kannada and Telugu are similar. I can understand about the street version of Kannada.

    I agree when you say Telugu is most different from Tamil.

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    Priya –

    Excellent edification on the history of srilanka…very good narrative. Your article on the history of srilanka really enthused me to dig further.Here is what I got…thought you would be really interested to read this –

    I was fortunate enough to stumble upon one of the earliest edition ( circa 1797 AD ) of a journal written by Capt Robert Percival [ Thanks to Google’s thirst to digitize the world 🙂 ]

    I believe Capt. Robert Percival was leading an embassy ,tasked to serve/wait upon the then king of candy [ possibly Rajadhi Rajasinha/ Vikrama Rajasinha ??– Ref: ]

    The journal is an elaborate account on Srilanka in 1797 AD. Talks about the people, the society, their customs and also alludes some references to its history( mainly Portugese & Dutch colonial times )

    He talks about 2 distinct races of inhabitants – Bedas/Vaddahs –who occupied the northern parts of Ceylon , I believe they are the aboriginal natives of srilanka & the cinglese( aka Sinhalese ) occupied the rest of the island.

    In the journal, his authentic account of history- as he claims it , dates back only from 1505 AD ,with the arrival of portugese –under Almyeda. Apparently he befriended the king of Ceylon on the pretext of helping him defend against the Arabs – [Not sure if the Arab referred are indeed the Mughals from India ].

    He has a chapter dedicated on the divisions of the society..just like you have mentioned , the top guns during the british rule were Tamils – moodeliers ( mudaliars ?? ) , who were the district magistrates governing the Sinhalese and are the “loyal & affable” servants of the british. They were mainly responsible for tax collection.

    However, I couldn’t understand the following quote from the journal –

    The nobles or Mahondrews, from among whom the Moodeliers are chosen,form a particular cast completely distinct from the others..Not sure who else come under the Mahondrews.

    He has dedicated one whole chapter on how pearl fishing(Muthu Kuzhiyal ) was done alongside the bay of condatchy( west-bay of srilanka). Couldn’t complete the entire book , but thought I would share this first.

    I learnt a lot on Srilanka in the last few days than I ever did in the past !! .Thanks for generating my interest 🙂

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    Saraswathi – Thanks. Yes, both Kannada & Telugu are written in the Kadamba script.

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    Rajesh – Thanks for your comment.

    Thanks for sharing Captain Percival’s account. Europeans of that day & age discounted liberally most of the recorded history of Asians. It is not surprising that Percival chose to believe a fellow European.

    Having said that, “The Mahavamsa” was put together by the Buddhist monks. There’s a distinct possibility that their perceptions & biases colored the narratives.

    I’ll be writing about the Veddahs in a separate post. Mughals were from Persia. Arabs have been trading with South India & Srilanka for a long time. Their descendants are called “Moors” in Srilanka & “Moplahs” in Kerala.

    The British created a new caste in Srilanka – Mudaliars. The quoted lines are about that. In a separate post, I plan to write some more about the Castes in Srilanka.

    I’m glad you liked the post & learning a lot about Srilanka now.

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    pk.karthik said November 25, 2008, 6:07 pm:

    Awesome Priya :reallly good analysis on Sinhala language ….King Vijaya’s story is an interesting myth.

    With respect to incest the greek and egyptian mythology are filled with stories….I think Zeus and Hera are siblings as well as spouses….Cleoptra married 2 of her brothers i guess Ptolmey 13 and 14.

    I dont agree on the Telugu and Kannada part Priya.These languages split between 9 CE and 14 CE.

    Nanyya is supposed to the pioneed in Telugu literature,we have separate literature only post him,

    The reason why street Kannada of Bangalore is similar to Tamil is due to fact that Bangalore has a Tamil population of 30 %.As you rightly said a native tamil speaker can pick up terms…but when I went to Hassan I could not understand a word they spoke but my Telugu friends were able to communicate.

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    Karthik – Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, you are right about Zeus & Hera. They were siblings that got married. Cleopatra was a queen of Egypt & not a mythological figure. The custom of the royals in Egypt at that time was to marry within the family.

    An important reason I mentioned that Kannada is close to Tamil is because, both are South Dravidian languages. Whereas, Telugu split a lot earlier from the Tamil branch & it is classified as a Central Dravidian language. So, Kannada is closer to Tamil than to Telugu, since both belong to the same branch of the Dravidian family – Proto-South Dravidian.

    It is an interesting point you make about Kannada in Hassan. Many speakers of Tamil will find Nagercoil Tamil very difficult to grasp. Malayalam speakers may have better luck in understanding it. Such is the problem in comparing dialects. Perhaps I should just state that “standard” Kannada – as opposed to classical Kannada – is closer to Tamil than standard Telugu.

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