Origins or the deep insecurities of our murky past


Some Sri Lankans think our forefathers/mothers dropped out of the sky straight into this tear-drop island, or at least landed here on a magic silk carpet, 1001 Arabian Nights style. Others find it reasonable enough to assume that our ancestors found their way by canoe, raft or boat from the closest landmass, which is India. Yet others believe that we evolved from the Veddahs, an aboriginal people related to those in Andaman Islands or even Australia. Perhaps that is why some of us are so determined these days to get to Aussieland by air or by sea.

Alike or different?

The problem is, of course, that at the end of the day, we all look pretty similar. A STF member turned tuktuk driver once admitted that the reason that it was so difficult to win the war raging in the Vanni was that it was really tricky to know who the enemy was in the thickness and darkness of the jungle where everyone was undercover. To make matters worse, the LTTE sometimes wore army fatigues, so it was not very clear whether one was shooting a rebel or one of yours, he lamented. In a similar vein, several Colombo friends bantered that they always had their stick-on pottu handy when it mattered to reveal themselves as Tamil women.

You all know those Sinhalese who try to explain to their foreign friends that they are fair and Tamils are dark. One foreign friend who is more perceptive than others and is also a cricket fan asks: “Well, what about Sanath Jayasuriya?” And of course, the Sinhalese friend of this foreign friend has to concede that Sanath (as much as you and I) could pass for either Tamil or Sinhalese, or perhaps just as easily as a member of the Zimbabwean cricket team.

This eureka moment contrasts with the view of certain others who believe that we all look quite different from one another. George Bernard Shaw evidently flattered us by declaring that “Ceylon is the cradle of the human race because everyone there looks an original”. Giving credence to the belief that our ancestors were deposited by some aliens on this tear-drop island, perhaps the dregs of an experiment gone horribly wrong or amazingly right since every individual turned out unique – a veritable Noah’s homo sapiens sapiens ark.

Genetics and the ANI/ASI cocktail

Sinhalese are an Aryan people and Tamils are a Dravidian people, right? That’s what our history books taught us. Wrong. Sinhalese is an “Indo-Aryan” (nowadays more commonly known as an “Indo-European”) language, and Tamil a “Dravidian” language. Both types of languages are spoken by hybrid peoples, the progeny of intermingling between Central/East Asian groups (who migrated via North India) and local groups in the rest of the sub-continent, including the South. Moreover, Dravidian languages had a considerable influence on the structures and etymology of Indo-European languages all over the sub-continent, Sinhalese being no exception.

According to new genetic studies, the modern population of India is considered to be a sort of post-neolithic cocktail (or achcharu if you are non-alcoholic) of two once genetically distinct groups “Ancestral North Indians” (ANIs) and “Ancestral South Indians” (ASIs).  Controversy surrounds the ratio of ANI to ASI, since some groups are considered to have more of one or the other set of genetic traits, confirming age-old prejudices, according to critics.

So next time you want to have that Sinhalese-Tamil origins fight, why don’t you just call each other ANIs and ASIs? However, keep in mind that ASIs and ANIs were already mixed up even before the Orissan, Bengali or Gujarati Vijaya ever set foot on the island. And what did the noble ANI/ASI prince do once he got here? First, he got the Veddah princess Kuveni, whom for argument’s sake we will imagine as an ASI (as apparently Andaman islanders are), pregnant. Then he, the ungrateful male chauvinist wretch, sent her back to her people – for which the rural dwellers on the island, who are still immersed in myth and legend, believe that she cursed him and his lineage forever. He then married a Tamil princess from Madurai, with all pomp and pageantry, a daughter of “royal blood” who could only have been an ANI/ASI. So the Sinhalese and Tamils who ended up in the island, including those in the northern Jaffna kingdom, continued to maintain the “made in India” ASI/ANI cocktail. Be Indian, buy Indian – including your brides and bridegrooms.

The warriors of the Deep South

We all know the Deep South as the stronghold of the Sinhalese – the home of brave warriors from the time of Dutugemunu. The interior of this land is inhabited by the goigama, the farmer caste of the Sinhalese, the ANI/ASI descendants of Vijaya. You also know those Sinhalese who tell their foreign friends, Sri Lanka is not like India – caste is not important to us. Go tell that to the members of the so-called “lower castes” who continue to suffer indignities in their everyday lives in rural areas.

According to the 1901 census (in which caste, referred to as “nationality”, was still a category; the British replaced it by “race” afterwards, thus partly responsible for all the trouble that this later created), the goigama were around half of the Sinhalese population of the country – similar to the Tamil farmer caste, vellalar, who were rougly half of the Tamil population. In the larger scheme of the Indian caste system, both belong to the shudra, an insignificant third from the top, after brahmins and kshatriyas. Sri Lanka is somewhat unique that this “menial” shudra sub-caste (this status, of course, hotly contested by both the vellalars and the goigama) is the majority and dominant over all others (and therefore it’s easy to strut around saying caste is not important), who are considered their service castes. Even the radala or the nobility were considered a sub-caste of the farmers – hence the expression, “If you wash the mud off a farmer, he is fit to be king”. An alternative, more positive way of looking at this is that the caste system of Sri Lanka emerged considerably more egalitarian than India’s, giving prominence to those who owned and worked the land, the producers of food, rather than to those who spent their lives uttering mantras or fighting each other with their swords.

The coastal and more prosperous areas of the Deep South have at least since medieval times been inhabited by the so-called KSDs, karawa-salagama-durawa – once fishers/seafaring traders, toddy-tappers and cinnamon peelers, some of whose members became skilled crafts people and the entrepreneurial elite of the island, seizing the economic opportunities afforded during British colonial times. The nobodies who became somebodies. But surprise, surprise – historical records reveal that the karawa and durawa come mostly from what is today’s Tamil Nadu while the salagama are mostly from what is today’s Kerala. A second smaller fisher caste, the mukkuvars, are likely to be from both present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. At any rate, all the castes in Sri Lanka are post-neolithic and can safely be assumed to be part of the ANI/ASI achcharu.

The coastal groups, including some of the goigama, later intermingled with the Moors (who came here via South India and thus picked up their dose of ANI/ASI), Portuguese and Dutch, as well as the Malays/Javanese brought by the Dutch from Indonesia and the Kaffirs, brought by the Portuguese from Mozambique.  The latter two groups, although small, made an indelible imprint on our culture by giving us our national dessert, watalappan, and our national party music, the baila, respectively. In case I forget, there were also those Malay/Indonesian peoples who stopped over centuries earlier on their way to Maldives and Madagascar and decided to stay. Even the Jaffna kingdom was ruled by a Malay prince at one time.

Caught in the middle of it all

The karawa (in Sinhalese) or karaiyar  (in Tamil), appear to have landed first on the west coast in different waves of migration from the medieval period onwards (or perhaps earlier), most likely looking for better fishing grounds. As do modern day karaiyar from Tamil Nadu on their trawlers, causing tensions in Indo-Sri Lanka foreign relations. Those who went South became Sinhalese-speaking and by the 20th century had become staunch Sinhalese (Buddhist or Catholic) in their identity. As they became richer, they also became pretentious and claimed an ancient kshatriya origin as the kaurava warriors of the Mahabharata, concealing their humble beginnings as fishers – an honest, skilful and necessary trade in an island surrounded by ocean. Those who went North and East remained Tamil-speaking and became staunch Tamil Hindus in their identity.

Those who stayed in the west, in the Negombo-Chilaw area, became perfectly bilingual Sinhalese-Tamil speakers and maintained a dual identity, converting to Catholicism during Portuguese times. Until the conflict they were known to speak a type of dialect “andara demala” (half Tamil) at home while their church service was in Sinhalese. When two women quarrelled over the fence, they flung a liberal mix of Sinhalese and Tamil epithets at each other. By the end of the 20th century however, the conflict had polarized ethnic communities so much that these bilingual, dual identity karawa/karaiyar of Negombo-Chilaw had become Sinhalized almost overnight, their children now speaking only Sinhalese.

The karawa/karaiyar is one of the castes that straddle the Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic divide. It also straddles three religions of the island – Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. Prabhakaran, as is known to some, was born to the karaiyar caste. It is an ironic twist of history that a member of this caste, which potentially could have become a multicultural bridge to understanding, launched one of the bloodiest wars in the island’s history.  Picture a Tamil rebel and a Sinhalese soldier from the karawa/karaiyar caste, facing each other in the Vanni jungle – not knowing whether he was one of theirs or not.

Moving beyond the Aryan/Dravidian/caste baggage

Unfortunately, the deep insecurities around Aryan and Dravidian identities, as well as those of caste, is part of the baggage carried by our sexagenarian, septuagenarian and octogenarian politicians, who insist tooth and nail on clinging on to the leadership of all major political parties. This is not a generation that is savvy with the internet or keeps up with modern historical, genetic, linguistic or anthropological debates. It is easy to belittle one another if you continue to think of yourself as a Dravidian Tamil or Aryan Sinhalese, with irreconcilable differences. If you were a part of a post-neolithic ASI/ANI achcharu, would you still find someone to hate or discriminate against? You could argue, I have more ASI or more ANI.  Either way, you would end up hating part of yourself.

At least seven young parliamentarians from the UPFA, UNP, ACMC and TNA have figured out the futility of barking up wrong trees. They have recently departed from partisan orthodoxy and declared that peace matters, and only with reconciliation. As one important step, they have called a stop to any more victory celebrations – an event, which did not receive much publicity in the media focusing on discord. Imagine two brothers who fought over their patrimony so fiercely that one drew his sword and killed the other. Imagine then that instead of mourning and repenting his brother’s death at an anguished funeral with the honour due to his brother, the surviving brother threw a party with milk rice, kevum and firecrackers for all his neighbours. Unfortunately, this is not mere imagination. Triumphalism has become a way of life for some.

A popular singer from another sun-kissed island once sang, “Don’t forget your history. Know your destiny”. Perhaps we can start with the deep insecurities of an island people, intermingling at the crossroads of migrations, trade and culture, and figure out how to move beyond our murky past.


Bird of Passage corresponds every other week exclusively with iSrilankans.


  1. Thanks..That was enlightening.

  2. Thayalan says:


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