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Aleas, Kuruwe Vidanes and the Vanniyalettho The secret history of Jaffna and the Vanni

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 9:35 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 10 November 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The Vanni was the source of elephants to the Kingdom of Jaffna and elephants were Crown Property. By issuing a proclamation dated Lisbon, 3rd Jan., 1612, the King of Portugal had let the natives know that he had cottoned on to that and no one therefore should mess with Crown Property, which right now meant his property. ” Whereas I have learnt that the elephants in the Island of Ceilao are and always have been from ancient times the property of the Crown,…”-(The Kingdom Of Jafanapatam 1645 Being An Account Of Its Administrative Organisation As Derived From The Portuguese Archives, P. E. Pieris, 22-23)


While managing their newly acquired crown property, elephantine and otherwise, there accrued to the Portuguese, a wealth of information, which reveals to us, the modern observers, the threads of cohesion[i] between the centre and periphery of the pre-colonial Lankan state. We learn for example that one such thread had created synergy in the realms of Lanka with regards to elephants and bequeathed the office of Kuruwe Vidane to the Kingdom of Jaffna, a territory which by the 17th century was covered by a diaphanous Tamil garb, through which the Sinhalese inner garment showed much plainer than it does now.

In Jafanapatam, the officer who supervised the collection of the elephants due to the Crown was called Kuruwe Vidane. This information comes to us courtesy of the “Copy of the Foral of the Kingdom of Jafanapatam and the Vany” as well as of the “Island of Manar and of Mantota”, a manuscript in the archives of Portugal, which is the basis for P.E Pieris’s work op.cit. This Vidane do Curo or Kuruwe Vidane, as P.E. Pieris explains in page 64, endnote 50, “is a Sinhalese title, the Kuruwa being the Elephant Department. In later times the officer was called Kuruwe Mudaliyar. The office was in existence within living memory.” (The living memory of the 1920s is meant).


According to the Foral, the Kuruwe Vidane received areatane from the Bellales (Vellalas), who were not hunters, “both for his maintenance and for the expenses of the elephant catchers.”- (P.E, op.cit. 25-26). More importantly for our ‘threads of cohesion’ trip, the Kuruwe Vidane of Jaffna “was also allowed the areatane of the village Changatarvael.”- (ibid). The name Changatarvael “signifies “the rice field of the Buddhist priests.” Changatar represents the Sinhalese Sanghaya, Buddhist priest, and the word is used by Ribeiro.”- (P.E. op.cit. p64, endnote 54). Also according to the Foral, the Recebedor at Manar was authorized to incur the expenditure of two Kurunayakas (the traditional Sinhalese word for elephant caretaker, rendered in the Portuguese as “cornax”) for a tusker of certain size and one Kurunayaka for an alea. – (P.E. op.cit. p31-32 and endnote 63 in p65).


Another group of people who entered the Jafanapatam-Vanni-Mannar-Mantota Foral by having dealings with “aleas” (throughout the Foral, this Sinhalese word is used for elephants without tusks) was the “Patangatins” of Manar. This word (as P.E. explains in endnote 55, p65) is the “Sinhalese Patabenda, usually applied to headmen of the Fisher caste”. These people had been given the village Pembathy “as an emphyteuta” by the native kings of Jafanapatam and by the Portuguese too “this was confirmed on the Patangatin Mor Thome de Mello, the heir of the last holder, on condition of his supplying yearly an alea of not less than four covados.”- (P.E. op.cit. 26).


That the tusk-less elephants captured in the Vanni and brought to the Jaffna peninsula through Alimankada were known there as “aleas” is not really strange. The elephant trade would have acted as a unifier throughout the pre-colonial island. The strange thing is the washermen of Jaffna. According to the Foral they are known as “mainatos”. The “mainatos”, decrees the Foral, are forbidden to wash any cloth, which has not received the official stamp, with which earlier the native Kings and now the Portuguese marked all cloth traded within Jaffna. What even P.E. finds strange about the Jaffna “mainatos” is “to find this word still used in the Kurunegala District, where it is sometimes employed as a proper name among washermen”.(p63, endnote 32).


We come now to the piece of evidence in the Jaffna-Vani-Manar-Mantota Foral that seems (to me) to be the most evocative proof that the threads of cohesion that bound the peripheries like Jaffna and Vanni to the centre of the pre-modern, pre-colonial Lankan State grew from a common bedrock. According to the Foral;


“In the time of the native Kings the inhabitants of Pachchilapalai and Illidematual used to go to the Vanni to cultivate camas there and would pay to the renters from ten to twenty lachas of foodstuffs for each cama, in accordance with its size.-(p15, P.E, op.cit). As P.E. explains (in endnote 39, p63), ‘cama’ is the “Sin. Gama, Sansk. grama. The highest cultivator among the Tamils is still the kamakaran” while lacha is the “Sinhalese Laha. Like the Sinhalese word this is used as a measure not only of capacity, but also of superficies…”


The Foral also reveals that certain functionaries of the Vanni districts, where the elephant Hunt was held, insisted on charging “Juncao” (According to P.E, endnote 59, p65: “This word seems to be the Sinhalese Hungam, imposts collected on the borders of towns.”). This interesting because the excuse these functionaries (the foreiro on one bank and the foreiro of Muliature and Valanculy on the other bank of the Parangali river ferry) gave for the charging of this “Juncao” was that it had been paid under the native kings.-(P.E., p27)


The Vanni is an area where threads of cohesion run thick and fast. The Sitavaka Hatana, a contemporary (16th Century) eulogy to Mayadunne and Rajasinha I describes how “The “vaddan” and “vannilayo” were among the forces of Rajasinha I of Sitavaka (SH 1999:v.565);”- (Michael Roberts, 2004, Sin. Con[ii]., pg. 74-75). The Rajasinha Hatana  (“composed about 1638 by an unknown author or authors and edited by Somaratna in 1968”-[Roberts, op.cit., p116]) in verse 249 describes how Rajasinha II in preparing for battle against the Portuguese in 1638 (RH is dated around 1638 because it ends with the recovery of Baticaloa from the Portuguese- C. R de Silva 1983:16), assembled forces from “Ratdala, Kitulana, Yala, Panama and Magampura; from Wellawaya, Palugama and Tirukkovila; from the Vadipattu, Kottiyarama and Mathota; and from many a land of the famed Vanniyas”-(Last line of the verse goes; “Nit dula wanninge noyek ratinuth sen awu eka vita”)

The foot-print of the Vaddas in the Vanni and Vanniya heritage has been strangely forgotten by most modern scholars who have explored the Vanni cultural space with a pen. This is very conspicuous in the works of Indrapala (1970) and Pathmanathan (1972). A complex combination of factors including ignorance, dishonesty, lack of political clout in the vaddas and the inadequacy of the sources used could have been responsible for this selective blindness. This blindness is preposterous considering that the Vaddas prominently display the lineage term, “Vanniyalattho” in their names.

In the Vanni Puvata (Or 6606 (139), Hugh Nevill Collection), which details the settlement of the immigrant chieftains of “Ariya-Vamsa” from Madura, in Nuvara Kalaviya, the north western littoral and in the Jaffna peninsula, there is a very evocative declaration. “Me Sinhala rajjema hitagena Vannikam kala ayaval nam vadi-peruven pavatimayi datayutuy”-(those who were indigenous to this Sinhala country and held Vanni chieftaincies were the descendants of the vadi clan or the vadi lands). This is the Sinhalese folk historical tradition making a “differentiation between the genealogies of those chieftains who came from overseas and those of indigenous origin” – (D. G.B[iii] de Silva: 1996[iv]Full Text)

@ http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/  and rathnawalli@gmail.com



[i] I invite you dear readers, to take this “threads of cohesion trip” with me by reading “Into The Vanni And Jaffna Of The 17th Century”  followed by “Deciphering The Vanniyas; A People Out Of The Box”. They are the first two episodes of my “Threads of Cohesion Series”. The present article is the third. There’s more to come.


[iii] Today I received a mail from D. G.B about the present article in The Nation. I reproduce a part of it below;

“Dear Dasrhani,

Thank you for your article on the Vanni in today’s Nation (10 Nov).This is an aspect I had omitted in my article on the Vanni in JRAS – I mean the Portuguese connection with Vanni. This was because the basis
for the article, The Hugh Nevill Commemoration Oration by me at RAS was done in a hurry. I did not have even two weeks notice from the President to deliver that Lecture and I did not have computer
facilities then.  Consequently, I had to put my notes of research done at the British Library in London into some shape quickly. The Portuguese -times part was not there. Though I had looked at the Jaffna Floral in Lisbon I could not find my notes. Nor could I check whether former Director of Archives, Haris de Silva had micro-filmed them. (I arranged funds from UNESCO to micro-film some of the Portuguese documents..You might as well follow this up and see if these are available).

You have really surfaced some very useful information. (The sting is absent though! Remember no jam for Sitrampalam!). There is more you can do. I wanted to fill this void in my Vanni article about the
Portuguese period but never got down to it. I wanted to do this as a revision to my article in JRAS. which was very badly edited and proofs not shown to me). Now it is too late for me.”




[iv] D. G. B de Silva, “New Light On Vanniyas And Their Chieftaincies Based On Folk Historical Tradition As Found In Palm-Leaf Mss. In The Hugh Nevill Collection, 1996: JRASSL, (New Series) Vol. XLI Special Number. (Published in 1998) – (Full Text)



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