Sunday, December 20, 2009

தமிழுக்கும் அமுதென்று பேர்

It is impossible to begin writing about Tamil language and Tamil literature on the world wide web without paying tribute to the pioneering work of Dr. Bala Swaminathan, Dr.Gnanasekar Swaminathan, Dr. Vijayakumar Sinnathurai and Krishnaswamy Srinivasan, in Canada, Kuppuswamy Kalyanasundaram in Switzerland, Naa. Govindasamy in Singapore,Muthulilan Nedumaran and Sivagurunathan Chinniah in Malaysia, Siddharthan Ramachandramurthi, P.Kumar Mallikarjunan in USA, and Sinniah Ilanko in New Zealand.

Dr. Sundara Pandian, Dr. Meenan Vishnu and C.R. Selvakumar in Canada, amongst others, contributed to the formation of the Soc.Culture.Tamil newsgroup which provided an early electronic forum for discussion on Tamil language, literature and culture. The work of the SCT, and the efforts of Kumar Kumarappan in California, led to the establishment of the first Tamil Chair in North America at the University of California at Berkeley. The efforts of Jeyachandran Kopinath in Norway, also reflect the contribution that the struggle for Tamil Eelam has made to this digital Tamil renaissance.

Amongst non Tamils, the contributions of Dr. Kamil.V. Zvelebil from Czechoslovakia, Thomas Malten in Germany, Peter Schalk at Uppsala University in Sweden, George Hart at the University of California, Berkeley, Harold Schiffman in Pennsylvania and Jean-Luc Chevillard in Paris are significant.

Websites devoted to the teaching of Tamil have also begun to appear. The call for a common standard for Tamil font encoding is a reflection of the felt need to render communication in Tamil easy and simple in this digital age. Efforts at achieving an uniform transliteration scheme have also increased in momentum.

Project Madurai launched by Dr.K. Kalyanasundaram on Thai Pongal Day 1998 is an open and voluntary initiative to collect and publish free electronic editions of ancient tamil literary classics.

Dr.Kalyanasundaram's Tamil Electronic Library is a labour of love and Tamils everywhere will acknowledge his contribution with gratitude. It is perhaps appropriate therefore that this web page on Tamil language and literature should contain a poem by Bharathidasan which Dr.Kalyanasundaram has featured in his web site.

inbathamil.gif (15183 bytes)

In February 1999, the Tamil Nadu government declared its intention to set up an Internet Research Centre and a Tamil Virtual University. In June 1999, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.Karunanidhi announced that the Tamil Virtual University would be headed by Dr.V.C.Kulandaisamy, former Vice Chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University and that work on the Internet Research Centre was progressing well. The University was inaugurated in February 2001 and provides a growing number of Tamil related courses.

The "Pongal-2000" Project is a collaborative undertaking of the Institute of Asian Studies (Madras), the Institute for Indology and Tamil Studies of the University of Cologne and the University of California-Berkeley, and is directed to creating an electronic compilation of Tamil texts - the Online Tamil Lexicon (OTL) - as well as a Tamil Text Thesaurus (TTT). The stock of ready-to-use digitalized Tamil ASCII data consisting now of about 100 Mbytes, will be doubled or tripled during the next four years. This will allow computer access to all major Tamil literary works, classical and modern, via the Internet from anywhere in the world.

Tamil is, perhaps, the oldest living language of India. It is commonly regarded as belonging to the Dravidian group of languages. But, that is not to say that the whole question of the 'Aryan/Dravidian categorisation' of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent is not without controversy.

Kamil.V. Zvelebil, sometime Professor in Tamil Studies at Charles University, Prague writing in 'The Poets and the Powers' in 1973, characterised the Tamils as the 'Greeks of India':

"Tamil is a Dravidian language of South India, spoken by 30,465,442 inhabitants of the State of Madras (Tamil Nadu), by about 2,500,000 in Ceylon, further by Tamil settlers in Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam (about 1 million), East and South Africa (260,000) and elsewhere in the world where the Tamils, 'The Greeks of India', settled as merchants, intellectuals, money lenders, bankers and plantation workers. The earliest literary monuments of the language belong to ca. the 3rd Century B.C...."

The number of first language Tamil speakers in the world is difficult to estimate and this remains an useful (and important) area for further study. Dr. R.E. Asher in 'Descriptive Grammars' (published by Croom Helm) concluded in 1981:

"No accurate figures for the number of Tamil speakers at the time of writing are available. The provisional figure for the whole of India produced by the 1971 census is 37,592,794. A reasonable calculation, based on a projection of population trends, would give between forty-five and forty-six million for India as a whole in 1981, with some forty-three million living in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, which has Madras as its capital and Tamil as its official language. If one assumes four million or so in Sri Lanka (mainly in the north and northeast and classified as Ceylon Tamils, Indian Tamils, Ceylon Moors and Indian Moors), something approaching one million in Malaysia and Singapore, and much smaller minorities in many countries of the-world, including Mauritius, Fiji, Burma, South Africa, some Caribbean states and Great Britain, the total number of Tamil speakers in the world at the present time might well be in the region of fifty million."

That was in 1981. In 1999, the Ethnologue (Languages of the World) estimated the number of first language Tamil speakers in the world at 66 million and the number including second language speakers at 74 million. It reports that Tamil is spoken in Tamil Nadu and neighboring states and also in Bahrain, Fiji, Germany, Malaysia (Peninsular), Mauritius, Netherlands, Qatar, Réunion, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, UAE, United Kingdom.

Tamil ranks 17th amongst the top twenty of the world's most spoken languages.

In scriptual form, Tamil is made up of 247 scripts which comprise of 12 vowels 18 consonants and 1 aytham. It is difficult to fix with certainty the beginnings of Tamil language and literature. Professor S.Vaiyapuri Pillai declares in his well regarded 'History of Tamil Language and Literature':

"Perhaps, it is safe to assume that the Dravidian alphabet was used for literary purposes about the first century A.D... We might naturally expect that the Tamils had an ancient literature of which they might be legitimately proud. Their civilisation is of great antiquity and their ruling dynasties played an important part in the third century B.C."

Madurai Temple
Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple - the seat of the Madurai Tamil Sangams

The earliest literature in Tamil is the Sangam poetry - regarded by many Tamils as the voice of the Tamil nation in its origin.

It consists of anthologies of short lyrics and longer poems. The lyrics are made into eight collections known as Ettu-thokai - the Eight Anthologies. The longer poems are collected under the name of Pattup-pattu - the Ten Idylls.

Although the matter is not free from controversy Professor S.Vaiyapuri Pillai concludes that Sangam literature should not be carried to any date anterior to the second century A.D. and that the period of development of the Sangam works might be put as three centuries and that Tolkapiyam, the early Tamil book on grammar, should also be given a date posterior to that period.

Professor T.P.Meenakshisundaran points out in a paper presented at the first International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies in 1966 at Kuala Lumpur:

"Tolkappiyam is a book on phonolgy, grammar and poetics. Therefore it implies the prior existence of Tamil literature. There is a distinction made therein between literary language and colloquial or non literary language - ceyyul and valakku, thus implying certain literary conventions not only in grammatical forms but also in literary form and subject matter..."

He adds:

"Sangam poetry is unique as group poetry par excellence. It has a personality of its own representing the group mind and the group personality of the Sangam age. Taken as a whole it satisfies all the requirements of great poetry... The folk songs and the proverbs of an age, with their authors unknown, form a unity, as the very expression of the national personality and the language."

"Sangam poetry, though too cultured to be called folk song, consciously creates this universal personality and that is why it has been classified as a separate group in Tamil literature - the really great national poetry, not in the sense of national popularity but in the sense of being the voice of the nation in its origin.

"These remind us of the towering gopuram of Tanjore expressing the aspiring spiritual height of the Chola age, though it is not the handiwork of any one sculpter but the work of a group of artists, each giving expression in rock to a vision of his own. It is therefore necessary to realise the importance of this conception of Sangam literature as a Thogai or anthology or group poetry which lies at the very root of the theory of Sangam poetry." (T.P. Meenakshisundaram, The Theory of Poetry in Tolkappiyam, Collected Papers, Annmalinagar, 1961)

Professor A.L.Basham in Wonder that was India, comments on some other aspects of early Tamil literature:

"Very early Tamils developed the passion for classification which is noticeable in many aspects of ancient Indian learning. Poetry was divided into two main groups: 'internal' (aham) and 'external' (puram). A unique feature of Tamil poetry is the initial rhyme or assonance. This does not appear in the earliest Tamil literature but by the end of the Sangam period it was quite regular. The first syllable or syllables of each couplet must rhyme. This initial assonance, in some poems continued through four or more lines, is never to be found in the poetry of Sanskrit languages, or as far as we know, in that of any other language. Its effect, a little strange at first, rapidly becomes pleasant to the reader, and to the Tamil it is as enjoyable as the end rhyme of Western poetry."

Again V.K.Narayana Menon's comments are not without relevance:

" We know of the immense richness of Tamil classics, dating back to the pre Christian era, of the many epics, anthologies of lyrics, long poems, of the wealth and beauty of Sangam literature, all of which represent the consciousness of a community independent of the main stream of the Aryan cultural pattern, and fully aware of the difference...''

Father Xavier S. Thaninayagam's contributions to Tamil studies have been monumental. His Chelvanayagam Memorial Lecture in 1982 on Research in Tamil Studies: Retrospect and Prospect is essential reading. His comments in Ancient Tamil Literature reflect his diligent research and scholarship -

"...The poetry belonging to the age before and immediately after the composition of Tolkaappiyam has not come down to us. What have reached us are the Ten Idylls (Pattuppaattu) and the Eight Anthologies (Ettuttokai) which are collections of poems composed after Tolkaappiyam by various poets, most of whom belonged to one single epoch. Most of this poetry was composed before the second century A.D.These poems, however, do not exactly belong to a Golden or Augustan Age of Tamil literature as has been supposed. Indications point to their being the efforts of an age when decades of convention were setting limits and marking boundaries to poetic inspiration, and preventing the free and unfettered beat of the poets' wings. Nevertheless, it is a great and spacious age in Tamil literature..."

The Thirukural and the Cilapathikaram belong to the classics of Tamil literature. Kamban's Ramayanam and Sekkilar's Periya Puranam are amongst the masterpieces of the Chola period. And in this century, the contributions of Subramaniya Bharathy infused fresh vigour and helped to transform Tamil into a language not simply of the literati but of the people.

Tamil is a living language and Geetha Ramasamy's website and Dr.Kalyanasundaram's 20th Century Tamil Authors & their Works open windows to modern Tamil writing including those of Sundararamasamy and Kannadasan. And, here, many will agree with Muthulilan Nedumaran's remark:

nedumaran.gif (2588 bytes)

Again, Canadian Tamil writer Navaratnam Giritharan's views will find a persuasive reasonance in the minds of many:

"For me there is no difference between writers from Tamilnadu or from Singapore or from Malaysia or from Sri Lanka. We all belong to one family: Tamil writers family.Tamil writers living in many different parts of the world should feel united. For instance, in Tamilnadu various Tamil writers from various parts write different Tamil; they speak different Tamil. Speaking differently or writing differently doesn't mean they are different. They all belong to the same Tamil writers family. Sri Lankan Tamil literature or 'Pulampeyarnthor Literature' or Singapore Tamil Literature or Malaysian Tamil Literature or Tamilnadu Tamil Literature all should be considered as part of the same Tamil Literature.

Contradictions always exist. They shouldn't be antagonistic, instead they should be friendly.There is a need for a serious literature. There is a need for a children literature. There is a need for magazines like kanaiyazhi or kalachchuvadu. At the same time for 'pamara makkal' there is a need for a news paper like Thinath Thanthi or magazine like Ranee. There is a need for 'Ampulimama' or Kokulam for kids.

If we understood this, there won't be any fighting among various literary groups. The purpose of the literature is for various reasons. It can be a guide; it can be an entertainment;..... it can be useful in various ways. For instance, during my past life, at various stages I was influenced by various writers and writings due to my age and my knowledge. Going through these different stages are necessarry for the growth. As a child no one can expected me to read Kafka. I had to reach certain level before I understood Kafka.

For me, all these different '...lisims' in literature are important and necessary for various reasons. Fighting against each literary concept is not a positive thing to do." Canadian Tamil Literature - V.N.Giritharan

The Roja Muthiah Research Library in Tamil Nadu (and in Chicago on micro film), has been described as "Roja Muthiah's attempt to capture the essence of his people". It contains more than 100,000 rare books as well as journals and newspapers, and thousands of clippings. The range of subject matter includes medicine, folklore, religion, cinema, and women's studies - and materials, such as theater playbills and popular songbooks. Most of the publications date from the later half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

The Jaffna Public Library in Tamil Eelam, which contained more than 95,000 books and journals, including valuable historic manuscripts was burned down by Sinhala police in 1981. It was an act of cultural genocide which served to consolidate the togetherness of the Tamil people - albeit, in pain and anguish. To many thousands of Tamils it served as a Konstradt. Karthigesu Sivathamby has made an authoritative study of Eelam Tamil literature during the past fifty years.

Today, the growing number of websites devoted to Tamil language and literature, are a reflection not only of the deep and sturdy roots of the Tamil language, but also of the growing and deep felt need of Tamils, living everywhere, to go back to those roots - in search of their own identity in an emerging post modern world. Some may give expression to this need in English (because their early education as a result of foreign rule, was largely in English), but Tamil remains a part of their being - and has something to do with the way in which they 'segment' and 'see' the world.

" எமக்கு எம் மொழியைப்போல் வேறொன்றும் இல்லை. எம்மை நாம் அறிவதற்கான மார்க்கமே எமது மொழி. அதுவே யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் என்ற தமிழ் செய்யும் வாழ்விற்கு ஆதாரம். அதுவே எம் உரிமைச் செம் பயிருக்கு வேர். " M.Thanapalasingham on Language & Nation


Ancient Tamil Script at Thanjavur

[to read the Tamil text you may need to download & install a Tamil Unicode font from here - for detailed instructions please also see Tamil Fonts & Software]
".... probably the most significant contribution (of the Tamils) is that of Tamil literature, which still remains to be 'discovered' and enjoyed by the non Tamilians and adopted as an essential and remarkable part of universal heritage. If it is true that liberal education should 'liberate' by demonstrating the cultural values and norms foreign to us, by revealing the relativity of our own values, then the 'discovery' and enjoyment of Tamil literature, and even its teaching ... should find its place in the systems of Western training and instruction in the humanities.." Kamil Zvelebil in The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India
'Tamil, one of the two classical languages of India, is the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past.'A. K. Ramanujan in The Interior Landscape : Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology (1967)
Learning & Teaching Tamil
Google: English - Tamil Online Transliteration
தமிழ் எழுத்துக்கள் - அன்று முதல் இன்று வரை - சா. கணேசன்
Tamil Language in Context
இன்பத் தமிழ் - தமிழுக்கும் அமுதென்று பேர்!
தமிழா, நீ பேசுவது தமிழா - பாடகர்: தேனிசை செல்லப்பா, இயற்றியவர்: காசி ஆனந்தன்]
மொழி என்பது வாழ்க்கை!
The Tamil Language in the Modern World - Albert B Franklin, Journal of Tamil Studies, September 1972 - "It has become increasingly apparent over the last century, that Tamil is indeed one of the world's great languages and that in it is expressed one of the world's great and ancient literatures... more
A Brief Introduction to Tamil Language - கல்தோன்றி மண் தோன்றாக் காலத்தே வாளோடு முன்தோன்றிய மூத்தகுடி."
A Profile of the Thamil Language - A.Thangavelu
தழைக்குமா தமிழ்? - கவிவேந்தர் கா வேழவேந்தன்
Status of Tamil as a Classical Language "...To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. Unlike the other modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements. It is extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich..."
Classical Tamil - Centre of Excellence
விக்சனரி - Tamil Wiktionary
International Symposium on Tamil as a Classical Language, January 2008
Chemmozhi News Letter, March 2007
தமிழ் எங்கள் சமூகத்தின் விளைவுக்கு நீர்... சந்திரலேகா வாமதேவா, 2004
தமிழ்தான் தமிழருக்கு முகவரி! - அக்னிப்புத்திரன்
Tamil Language & Culture: An Introduction - Dr.Kannan
Tamil: An Exotic and Extraordinary Language - Dr. Subhadra Ramachandran
Tamil Language in Context - Dr.Vasu Renganathan, University of Pensylvania
Tamil Language in Wikpedia
UCLA Language Materials: Tamil
Tamil Language - Sinniah Ilanko
Tamil Language at India4World

Discussion Lists

South Asia Literature SASIALIT - discussion of contemporary literature of South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), including works by authors of South Asian origin throughout the world
Forum Hub - Tamil Literature
Eelam_LitArt_Arch a Bilingual (in Tamil/ English) Eelam Literature Forum

Visit the
Tamil Nation Library
books.JPG (12193 bytes)
Dictionaries & Reference & Tamil Language & Literature

Blogs

Na Ganesan Blogspot
Marabilakkiyam Blog
Madhuramozhi Blog
Memory of Asia Palm-Leaf - Tamil Manuscripts

Tamil & The Indus Script

..It was Fr. Henry Heras, the Dravidian from Spain as he proudly called himself, who first declared that the language of the Indus Valley seal inscriptions was proto-Dravidian. His Studies in Proto-Indo-Mediterranean Culture, Volume I (1953) is a classic that gives rare insights. Although experts who tried to decipher the Indus script later have not accepted the particular readings given by Fr. Heras, no reputed scholar has contested his conclusion.

Among those who have tried to decipher the Indus script as proto-Dravidian are Walter A. Fairservis (no more with us now), Asko Parpola, Y.V. Knorozov and Iravatham Mahadevan. Among the eminent archaeologists and philologists who endorse this view are the great Sanskritist Dr. Burrow Bridget and Raymon Allchin (archaeologists) and Kamil V. Zvelebil, one of the foremost Dravidian linguists. The best summary of this issue has been given by Zvelebil in Dravidian Linguistics, An Introduction (Pondicherry Institute of Language and Culture, Pondicherry, 1990). No reasonable person can cavil against his conclusion that "the most probable candidate is and remains some form of Dravidian".

Stanley Wolpert paraphrases this scholarly consensus in a more telling manner in his An Introduction to India (University of California Press, 1991): "We assume from various shreds of evidence that they were proto-Dravidian, possibly using a langu age that was a grandfather of modern Tamil."

Among the numerous attempts made by Tamil-knowing scholars (apart from the doyen among them, I. Mahadevan) to decipher the Indus script from the proto-Dravidian angle, the work of Dr. R. Madhivanan, Chief Editor of the Tamil Etymological Dictionary Proje ct, seems to be based on a sound knowledge of ancient Tamil etymology and grammar (beginning from Tholkappiam) and an awareness of all the proto-historical, archaeological, cultural and anthropological backgrounds of the issue. Madhivanan's work Indus Script - Dravidian (Tamil Sandror Peravai, Chennai, 1995) gives his readings of the seal inscriptions as syllabic representations of names of merchants, chiefs, priests and gods of proto-Tamil vintage. Madhivanan buttresses his reading withth e bio-script metal seal discovered by Indrapala at Anaikottai in Yalpanam with the word Tivu Ko (according to Madhivanan) in Indus Valley script and also in southern Brahmi script; and the Indus script-like cave inscriptions at Keezhavalai on the Villupuram-Thiruvannamalai road in Tamil Nadu.

Scholars such as Parpola and Mahadevan have not accepted the readings of Madhivanan so far. However, there is no gainsaying that attempts to decipher the Indus script cannot ignore the sound linguistic and grammatical parameters set by Madhivanan for decipherment..." - P.Ramanathan from Chennai in a letter to Frontline 19 January 2001

Non Tamils & Tamil

Westerners & the Tamil Language - K. R. Vadivale
European Missionarires and the Study of Dravidian Languages - Albertine Gaur
The Revival of the Hebrew Language - Professor Chaim Rabin
வீரமாமுனிவர் - Father Constantine Joesph Beschi
Reverend G.U.Pope
Jean-Luc Chevillard Current research programs: The Tamil Grammatical Tradition, and The Language of Tevaram
Ziegenbalg, the German who printed the first Tamil text

Tamil French Literary Connections - N.Nandhivarman, 11 November 2007

Tamil & Sanskrit - Professor George Hart
Professor Susumu Ohno (1919-2008), the Japanese Linguist – An Appreciation
The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India - Prof. Dr. Kamil Vaclav Zvelebil - "...probably the most significant contribution (of the Tamils) is that of Tamil literature, which still remains to be "discovered" and enjoyed by the non Tamilians and adopted as an essential and remarkable part of universal heritage. If it is true that liberal education should "liberate" by demonstrating the cultural values and norms foreign to us, by revealing the relativity of our own values, then the "discovery" and enjoyment of Tamil literature, and even its teaching (as a critical part of the teaching of Indian literatures) should find its place in the systems of Western training and instruction in the humanities..."
GRETIL - Göttingen Online Register of Electronic Texts in Tamill
History of Tamil Dictionaries - Harold Schiffman, 1998
Proposal to Create a Tamil Website - University of Pennslyvania - Harold F.Schiffman, 1996
Language Shift in the Tamil Communities of Malaysia and Singapore: the Paradox of Egalitarian Language Policy - Harold F.Schifmann
Tamil Studies in Germany - Thomas Malten
IITS-Institute for Indology and Tamil Studies, Cologne
IITS - Institute for Indology and Tamil Studies (English Version)
Proposed Closure of Tamil Studies in Germany, 14 November 2004
Tamil at Yale University "..Tamil is a language of scholarship as well as pedagogy at Yale. Building on significant student and faculty interest, the Council on South Asian Studies has encouraged Tamil scholarship as an element of the program. Spoken by some eighty million people worldwide today, Tamil is one of the world’s three oldest continuous literary traditions (some 2,000 years) and is a national language in five nation states. Tamilnadu was also involved in the establishment of Yale itself since Elihu Yale had been Governor of Fort St. George at Madras or today’s Chennai, the capital of the state.."
Folklore and Tamil Literary Fiction - Stuart Blackburn

TAMIL LANGUAGE & LITERATURE

"...A language is more than just a means of communication. It is a repository of a community’s collective history and heritage." Kumar Kumarappan on the Endowment of the Tamil Chair at University of California, Berkeley, 2001

"ஒரு மொழி இன்றி ஒரு தேசம் இருக்கமுடியாது... இரண்டாயிரம் ஆண்டுகாலமாகத் தொடர்ச்சியாக மொழிக்கு விழா எடுக்கும், மொழிக்கு சங்கம் அமைக்கும், மொழிக்காகத் தீக்குளிக்கும் தமிழ் மக்களின் தேசியத்தில் மொழியே அதன் உள் மூச்சாகவும் வெளிமூச்சாகவும் இருப்பதில் வியப்பில்லை... தமிழ் அயலிலே வளருகின்றாள் என முடிக்கின்றார் கவிஞர்... இந்தத் தமிழ் அயலை "தமிழ்கூறும் நல்லுலகம் " எனக் கூறுகின்றார் தொல்காப்பியனார்... எமக்கு எம் மொழியைப்போல் வேறொன்றும் இல்லை. எம்மை நாம் அறிவதற்கான மார்க்கமே எமது மொழி. அதுவே யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் என்ற தமிழ் செய்யும் வாழ்விற்கு ஆதாரம். அதுவே எம் உரிமைச் செம் பயிருக்கு வேர். " M.Thanapalasingham on Language & Nation

Friday, December 18, 2009

Know the Etymology: 141
Place Name of the Day: Monday, 14 December 2009


Sinhala / Chingka'lam / Ceylon

ஸிங்ஹல / சிங்களம் / ஸிலோன்
Siṅhala / Ciṅkaḷam / Ceylon


See+a'la > Seeha'la > Sinhala

The red tract of land

Seeha'la (adjective) Found written in a Prakrit inscription dateable to 2nd or 3rd century CE. This is the earliest known evidence for the prevalence of this name for the island now called Sri Lanka; Saimha'la: Name of the island in a Sanskrit inscription of 4th century CE; Simha'la: Sanskrit form of the name for the island found in Mahabharata, an 8th century CE inscription found in Java and some 9th century CE Sanskrit literature; Chingka'lam: Equated with Eezham (Tamil, Cheanthan Thivaakaram Nika'ndu 5:128, C. 8th century CE); listed as a place along with other places (Tamil inscription 921CE, Glossary of Tamil Inscriptions); Chingka'lar: People of Chingka'lam (Tamil, Kalingkaththup-para'ni, 12th century CE); Salike: (Ptolemy, Greek, 2nd century CE, comes as a place name probably meaning ‘the island of Salai); Sele, Siele: Sele-diba and Siele-diba come as variants of place name for the island (Greek, Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th Century CE); Seren-dib: Arab version of Sele-diba (L / R interchange, 8th century CE); Seyllao, Ceilao, Ceylao: Portuguese versions of the name for the island (16th century CE); Ceilon, Ceylon: Name of the island in Dutch, the latter was continued by the British; Si / Chi, Che, Chea: Adjective forms and root word, meaning red, red-coloured etc. (Tamil and Dravidian languages, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 1931); A'lam: (noun, A'la adjective) Tract of land, coastal land (Tamil, other Dravidian languages, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 299); A'lakkar: Coastal tract of land (A'la+ekkar; A'la: coastal; Ekkar: dunes; Tamil, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 299, 770); Kera'la: Adjective of Keara'lam, found in Asoka’s inscription dated to 3rd century BCE, for the Cheara country or today’s Keara'laa. Cheara /Chaaral+a'lam, meaning ‘the hilly tract’, synonym of Malai-a'lam > Malayaa'lam; Tambapa'n'ni: Tampa+va'n'ni; The name of the island found in Prakrit inscription of Asoka dated to 3rd century BCE, meaning the copper-coloured (land); Taprobane: The Greek form of Prakrit Tambapa'n'ni, found in early Greaco-Roman literature. Cosmas of 6th century CE says that Taprobane is Greek name for what the Indians call Siele-diba.


Today, almost everybody seems to have taken it for granted that the word Sinhala stands for a particular ethnicity in the island and for the language they speak.

An irrational mythology fabricated at a later time when the original etymology was lost, that Sinhala means descendants of a lion (Siṅha) and thus means the ‘lion race’ has pervaded the minds and hearts of the people for centuries.

Most of the ethno-national identities of South Asia have in fact originated primarily from geographical identities. Such identities later stood for who ever inhabited those lands and eventually stood for the languages evolved in those lands. (Identities of classical languages don't come under this pattern)

For examples note terms like Paagnchaala /Panjab (land in between five rivers), Karu-naadu / Karnāṭakā / Kannada (country of black tract of land); Malayaa'lam / Malai-a'lam (hilly tract of land) etc.

The Sinhala identity is not an exception and there is no unambiguous evidence that the word either stood for ethnicity or language in the early usages of the word.

On the contrary, early evidences of usage and etymology strongly suggest that the term was geographical in origin and was more or less the same in meaning to Tambapa'n'ni in Prakrit and Eezham in Tamil.

The earliest available written form of the word is Seeha'la.

This form of the word, as an adjective, comes in the context of a phrase Seeha'la Vihaara (Sri Lankan monastery) and is found in a Prakrit inscription dateable to 2nd-3rd century CE, from Nagarjunakonda, of Andra Predesh, South India.

Seeha'la is the conjunction of the two components See and A'la linked by typical Prakrit conjunction phoneme H. In Dravidian it should become Seeya'la or See'la.

The obvious meaning of the word in Dravidian is ‘red tract of land.’ (See table)

A comparison of this meaning derived for Seeha'la with the meaning of another early Prakrit name for the island, i.e., Tamba-pa'n'ni (Tampa-va'n'ni: copper-coloured land), would tell that Seeha'la and Tampapa'n'ni of 3rd century BCE Asokan inscription were actually synonyms in Dravidian and Prakrit. Note that the Tamil word Chempu for copper is due to the reddish colour of the metal.

Also note that another early name of the island Eezham has a meaning ‘gold’ in old Tamil, and the name probably could have originated from the colour of the earth.

Large tracts of the island of Sri Lanka are in fact reddish or brownish in colour.

Interestingly the earliest Tamil lexicon Cheanthan Thivaakaram of 8th century CE, equates Chingka'lam with Eezham in a geographical sense and there is no connotation of ethnicity or language.

Another comparison that can be drawn out here is the adjective Kera'la found in the Prakrit phrase Kerala-puto of Asoka’s inscriptions of 3rd century BCE. Keara'la is the Prakrit form of Cheara-a'lam (K/CH interchange). Chaaral / Cheara means hill-range and Cheara-a'lam means the tract of hill-range (the land of Western Ghats). It is a synonym of another Dravidian word Malai-a'lam > Malayaa'lam (Malai: hill, mountain).

Seeha'la was Sanskritised as Saimha'la and Sinha'la in Sanskrit usages of later period. The word form found in the Mahabharata text available today doesn’t mean much in fixing dates. Sankritisation and Prakritisation were never a one-way process. Contrary to popular beliefs, many words found in Sanskrit diction are Sanskritised derivations of non-Sanskrit words than vice versa. Sanskrit influence can also be seen in the 8th century Tamil form Chingka'lam.

When the original etymology was lost, Buddhist chronicles Dīpavaṅsa and Mahāvaṅsa of the 5th century CE probably conflated words and beliefs to create the myth of the ‘lion race.’ Yet, etymologically there is no explanation how Siṅha could become Siṅhala to stand for people or ethnicity.

Siṅha'la as an adjective standing for people from the island of Sinha'la was a secondary meaning. By 12th century CE, Tamil references added the suffix ‘R’ to the word and made it Chingka'lar to mean people.

Until 9th-10th century CE, there is no reference in literature or inscriptions about Sinhala language. Identifiable Sinhala language of literary status appears with Sigiri Graffiti of 9th century CE. Even when the language evolved with an identity to call it self by a name around 10th century CE, it was referred to as He'la-basa (K. Indrapala cites Dhambiyā-aṭuvā gæṭapadaya). The word Sinhala standing for the language was a much later development.

The geographical term See-a'la with an addition of Dīpa / Diba / Diva / Dīv / Dib etc to mean island, was extensively used by Graeco-Romans, Arabs and other Westerners as Siele-diba, Sele-diba, Seren-dib etc., to finally become Ceilao /Ceylao in Portuguese times and to become Ceylon under the Dutch and the English.

While the word Sinhala is exclusively understood today in terms of ethnicity and language, note that the derivate Ceylon retained the geographical meaning.

In the context of the historically constructed belief of ‘Aryan’ origins for Sinhala ethnicity, it may sound an irony that the very etymology of Sinhala is linguistically Dravidian (not necessarily Tamil), but sensible etymological explanation is not traceable through Indo-Aryan.

The writer has no claims of absolute explanation, but taking the word Sinhala as originally meaning an ethnicity in the island doesn’t seem to have logical validity in view of the word’s early usages.

Even as late as early 20th century, the Tamil poet Bharathi used the word in a geographical sense as Chingka'lath-theevu.

The terms Eezham, He'la, E'lu etc and whether they have any connections with Seeha'la will be discussed in a subsequent column.

Related Place names:

Keara’laa: This modern name for the southern state in India has been taken from the Prakrit version of the geographical identity found in the Asoka's inscription of 3rd century BCE. Asoka's inscription refers to the ruler of the country as Kerala-puto an obvious translation of Cheara-maan (Cheara-makan) of the Tamil / Malayalam references. CH and K are interchangeable in South Asian languages, even within Dravidian languages (noticeable between Tamil and Kannada).

Keara'la as an adjective has to be compared with terms Chearalan, Chearal, and Chearal-aathan, used for the rulers of the territory in Changkam literature.

Cheara-a'lam means the tract of the hill range. (Cheara / Chaaral: hill range). The country and the ruler received their names from the geography. Compare the terms with Malaiyamaan (Malai-mahan; Malai: hill), a synonym of Chearamaan in Tamil / Malayalam.

Puththa'lam: (Puthu-a'lam): The new tract of land. The entire Katpiddi Peninsula off Puththa'lam is a new tract of land formed by accumulation of sand deposits and this is a landscape still emerging from the sea to this day. Puththa'lam is the headquarters of the North Western Province of Sri Lanka.

First published: Monday, 14 December 2009, 21:19

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