Eelam (Sri Lanka): Early Political History

Posted on 06/01/2012


The island known to Tamils as Eelam (and known under British rule as Ceylon and under Sinhala rule as Sri Lanka) is about 25,000 square miles in extent, situated about twenty miles from the southern extremity of the Indian sub-continent.

About one fifth of the island’s population of 17 million, are Tamils and somewhat less than three quarters are Sinhalese. The Tamils reside largely in the north and the east and on the plantations in the central hills, whilst the Sinhalese reside in the south, west and in the centre as well. The area of the Tamil homeland in the north-east is around 7,500 square miles. A large number of Tamils are Hindus, some are Christians and the overwhelming majority of the Sinhala people are Buddhists.

The Tamils are an ancient people. Their history had its beginnings in the rich alluvial plains near the southern extremity of peninsular India which then included the land mass known as the island of Sri Lanka today. The plant and animal life (including the presence of elephants) in the island evidence the earlier land connection with the Indian sub continent. So too do satellite photographs which show the submerged ‘land bridge’ between Dhanuskodi in the south east of the sub-continent and Mannar in the north west of the island. It is estimated that it was during the period 6000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. that the island separated from the Indian sub continent – and that too by a narrow strip of shallow water.

The Sinhala people trace their origins in the island to the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India, around 500 B.C. and the Mahavamsa, the Sinhala chronicle of a later period (6th Century A.D.) records that Prince Vijaya arrived on the island on the same day that the Buddha attained Enlightenment in India. Here, the words of the Sinhala historian and Cambridge scholar, Paul Peiris represent an influential and common sense point of view:

“… it stands to reason that a country which was only thirty miles from India and which would have been seen by Indian fisherman every morning as they sailed out to catch their fish, would have been occupied as soon as the continent was peopled by men who understood how to sail…  Long before the arrival of Prince Vijaya, there were in Sri Lanka five recognised isvarams of Siva which claimed and received the adoration of all India. These were Tiruketeeswaram near Mahatitha; Munneswaram dominating Salawatte and the pearl fishery; Tondeswaram near Mantota; Tirkoneswaram near the great bay of Kottiyar and Nakuleswaram near Kankesanturai. (Paul E. Pieris: Nagadipa and Buddhist Remains in Jaffna : Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch Vol.28)

The early political history of the people of Eelam, in the centuries before the advent of the European powers, is largely a chronicle of the rise and fall of individual kingdoms. When the Portuguese landed on the island in 1505 there was not one, but three kingdoms viz the Tamil Jaffna Kingdom, the Sinhala Kotte Kingdom and the Sinhala Kandyan Kingdom.

The Jaffna Kingdom was captured by the Portuguese when the king of Jaffna was defeated in 1619. The Portuguese ruled the Jaffna Kingdom from 1619 to 1658. The Dutch who captured the Jaffna Kingdom from the Portuguese ruled till 1795 and the British till 1948.

Even when the island was ruled by the Portuguese and the Dutch, the Tamil homeland in the North and the East was administered as an entity separate from the rest of the country. In 1833, the British amalgamated the north and east with the rest of the island for administrative convenience.

“Two different nations, from a very ancient period, have divided between them the possession of the Island: the Sinhalese inhabiting the interior in its Southern and western parts from the river Wallouwe to Chilaw, and the Malabars (Tamils) who possess the Northern and Eastern Districts. These two nations differ entirely in their religion, language and manners.” (Sir Hugh Cleghorn, British Colonial Secretary, June 1879)