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Deciphering the Vanniyas; a people out of the box

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 8:00 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 13 October 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

During the twilight of the Vanniyas, that is, the latter half of the 19th century, the last remaining representatives of that identity were found eking out a living in several villages of Nuvarakalaviya (North Central province) and Northern province (mainly around Vavuniya in Kurunthankulam and Nochcikulam or Chinna Cheddikulam). They were living, breathing fossils of a species of people that have entered case studies of modern historiography as exemplifiers of the incorporating drives of the pre-modern Lankan state. “Thus, in Sinhale on the one hand there existed an incorporative tolerance that a) permitted immigrant bodies to settle in the Vanni and the Eastern Province…”-(Michael Roberts, “Prejudice and Hate in Pluralist Settings: The Kingdom of Kandy”, 2000).

“The case presents a fascinating study of a people originating from different immigrant cultures who were compelled by circumstances and the office and responsibilities they accepted, to assimilate into another culture.”- (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[i]”-Full Text)

To get back to these late 19th century representatives of the Vanniya twilight, certain signature features set them apart. They claimed themselves to be Sinhalese, but preserved a tradition of being “descendants of certain Tamils who came over from the continent in the time of Raja Sen, who granted to each extensive tracts of land[ii]”-(A. Brodie, J.R.A.S (C.B) Vol III, 1856). Theirs was a distinct caste the membership of which had dwindled in this twilight, to a few villages in the Northern and North Central provinces.  This was the “Wanni caste”, which was “not general over the Island and which is superior to that which is elsewhere considered the highest.”- (Brodie, op.cit). Nevertheless, they had “no money and cannot buy land” and was “entirely dependent on hunting and occasional chena cultivation”- (S. Fowler, Diary of 3rd May 1887). “They still use the primitive bow and arrow and are well acquainted with the most remote jungles through which they wander in search of honey and game. There are some peculiarities in their dialect, which with their mode of life, suggest relationship with the Veddah, but they altogether repudiate the idea”-(Fowler, op.cit).

This leaves a question however. The general tendency, which had been well underway in the Wanni by the time British administrators observed it in the 19th century was the Tamilisation of the Sinhalese of the Wanni. J.P Lewis (Manual of the Vanni Districts, p102) observed; “Living among Tamils, the Sinhalese of the Vanni had to some extent begun to copy their customs”. The effects the Wanni demography wrought on the Wanni Sinhalese were graphically described by an anonymous writer of the 19th century (The Vanni, MLR & NQC, II, No. 5, May 1894); “They have adopted the Tamil system of personal names, thus a man has his father’s name prefixed to his own and does not take his name from the village or family he belongs to or the land he owns, as is the common Sinhalese custom elsewhere. Many of their names, too, are Tamil in a Sinhalese shape. The older generation have taken to wearing earrings, but this practice has been discouraged by the present Sinhalese headmen. The Sinhalese villagers have as much faith in the Hindu god Pillaiyar (Ganesa) as have the Tamil villagers whose favourite god he is…As regards dress the Sinhalese keep generally to their own customs, but they often wear the Jaffna cloth (chayaveddi) and fasten the handkerchief on their heads after the Tamil manner.” Incidentally one can’t help noticing how similar these effects are in essence to those operating on the Sinhalese villagers of Kaddukulam Pattu West in the Trincomalee District in the 1890s (as observed in Lushington[iii], 1898, p.17).

Given that boundary crossing in the Wanni was observable in the 19th century occurring in a certain direction and this direction was from Sinhalese to Tamil, how came these Vanniyas to identify themselves as Sinhalese while preserving traditions of a Tamil descent? This was clearly going against the ethnologic tide of the common lot of the Wanni. Unless…the Vanniyas, as the ruling lineages, were above the common lot and followed a different trajectory. The ethnic identification of the ruling lineages of pre-modern Lanka presents some interesting features. The Nayakkars, those well known Telugu dynasts were represented as Sinhalese by their contemporary commenters. Although Leslie Gunawardana’s conceptualization of ‘Sinhalaness’ has been proven dodgy, he gives a surprisingly lucid summarization of this Sinhalization tendency in “Colonialism, Ethnicity and the Construction of the Past; The Changing ‘Ethnic Identity’ of the Last Four Kings of the Kandyan Kingdom”.

“In fact, writers from the period of the Kandyan kingdom simply see dynastic continuity between the Nayakkars and their predecessors; they had no reservations about referring to the Nayakkars as ‘Sinhala’ kings. In the Sri Lankan chronicle Culavamsa Kirtisri Rajasimha is referred to as ‘the Sinhala king’ (sihaladhipo), ‘the Sinhala lord of correct beliefs’ (sammaditthikasihaladhipati) and ‘our Sinhala king’ (amhakam sihalindo)…Seneviratne and Meyer have correctly drawn attention to the significance of the evidence in the Culavamsa. (Meyer 1991; Seneviratne[iv] 1978: 177-87). The manner in which the Nayakkar king is presented in the chronicle may suggest that these kings consciously sought to cultivate this identity. On the other hand, it would appear that the authors themselves did not hesitate to present them in this manner. What did the term ‘Sinhala king’ signify in this late medieval construction of the Sinhala identity? One possible interpretation is that the Nayakkars were called ‘Sinhala kings’ on account of their being ‘kings of the Sinhala people’, the underlying presumption being that the people of Kandy would not have accepted the Nayakkars as being Sinhala. On linguistic grounds it could be argued that terms such as sihaladhipa and sihaladhipati had been formed through the elision of the genitive plural ending of the term sihalanam, which would mean ‘of the Sihalas.’ In a poetic work such as the Culavamsa the needs of metrical construction could lead to instances of such elision. However, the term amhakam sihalindo meaning ‘our Sihala king,’ does not lend itself easily to such an explanation, and seems to suggest that the ruler himself was considered to be Sihala. One means of resolving this difficulty would be to examine how the Nayakkar rulers were described in prose works where special requirements of metrical construction did not operate. In this respect, the Narendra-caritavalokana-pradipika is a very important source, not only because it is a prose work but also because it is written in the Sinhala language. In this chronicle written after the fall of the Kandyan kingdom, a Buddhist monk from a rural setting is found referring to the Nayakkars as Sinhala rulers. Writing in 1834, Yatanvala Sirisunanda refers to Kirtisri as simhala maharajanan and to Srivikrama Rajasimha, the last king, as simhala maharajatuma, terms which literally mean ‘the great Sinhala king’…”

Still, it’s not certain if the tendencies that applied to kingly dynasts of the centre also operated over the princely dynasts of the peripheries like the Vanniyas. Also, calling a Nayakkar dynast Sinhala could have been a positioning device and an expression of an aspiration rather than a genuine ethnological descriptor. Positioning devices and expressions of aspirations however do become internalized into the language over time and get transformed into genuine descriptive terms. However the case may have been regarding the Vanniyas, Henry Parker, an irrigation engineer who was a sort of a Western Paranavitana on account of his vast knowledge of all periods of the history of Lanka had this to say about the matter; “So far as the language is concerned, it may be concluded that the Vanniyas are, as they state, Sinhalese taking into consideration that they are found only in or near the northern borders of the Kandyan kingdom, that they speak Tamil, and that some of them have Tamil names, and also remembering the peculiarities which I have given regarding their religion it may be further inferred that as their name would seem to indicate, they are remnants of the ancient Sinhalese inhabitants of what is now the Northern Province…”- (Taprobanian, Feb. 1887).

Parker failed to pick up the clue of the Vanniya tradition about the decent from continental Tamils who were given land by ‘Raja Sen’. But then Parker hadn’t the advantages of Hugh Nevill, who was at this time in the process of collecting a hoard of palm leaf manuscripts of Vittipot, Bandaravaliyas, Kadaimpot and other tracts containing the Sinhalese folk historical tradition relating to the origin, doings and dynasties of Vanniyas.  This Hugh Nevill collection now in the British Library remained a closed book to practically every scholar, who has so far commented on the Vanniyas, from Geiger to Paranavitana and from Pathmanathan to Indrapala until D. G. B de Silva came out[v] with his pioneering research article in 1996.

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



[i] 1996: JRASSL, (New Series) Vol. XLI Special Number. (Published in 1998)- (Full Text)


[ii] “It is significant that in the late thirteenth century some of the Sinhala kings appear to have induced a few immigrant chiefs to move across from southern India in order to re-settle specific districts that had been abandoned. The Malavara dignitaries, for instance, are described in one of the documents as having “cleared the jungle when there was no one else” (D G B de Silva 1996: 158, 172-73, 177). The Sinhala kings granted them land rights to these areas or, alternatively, responded to requests for land in this manner.12 Parakrama Bahu II (1236-70), in particular, pursued a programme of irrigation works and resettlement that attempted to recover the Nuvarakalaviya and Tamankaduva regions so that this migratory influx seems to have been linked with such policies. ”- (Sinhala consciousness in the Kandyan period, 1590s to 1815, Michael Roberts, 2004, p74)

Also “One should not forget that in the context of depopulation, the kings of Sinhale in the Kotte period actually brought in immigrants from Bengal and southern India to settle parts of their territory (C R de Silva 1972:93). Also see D G B de Silva 1996 and chapter 5 above.”—[Michael Roberts op.cit pg 234 (fn 20)]-



[iii] This is a report on the Trincomalee District of 1890s, which is partly quoted in “An appraisal of the concept of a traditional Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka” –(Gerald H. Peiris, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol.IX, No.1, January1991). A fuller quote is given below;

“Of this nature are matters concerning the group of Sinhalese villages in the north-west of the (Trincomalee) district lying in the western division of the Kaddukulam pattu.

This part of the district is inhabited by Sinhalese villagers of Kandyan descent forming an outlying community which is, I fear, rapidly dying out or becoming effaced. The district is most interesting, being dotted over by numerous village tanks, some of which are restored and others abandoned. The villagers retain many of the primitive customs of the Kandyans , but they are rapidly becoming Tamilized, which is a great pity. They intermarry with Tamils, and many of them speak Tamil as well as they speak Sinhalese. Even the Government schoolmaster is Tamil, and only that language is taught in the only school, and unfortunately in some cases the Sinhalese villages have been bought out by Tamils, who now own all the paddy lands of some villages. The Sinhalese have even given up their patronymics and have adopted the Tamil custom of prefixing the father’s name instead of the usual patronymic, and even the names of the villagers are assuming a Tamil dress. This is perhaps not to be wondered at when the interpreters of the court and the Kachcheri, the petition-drawers, and all through whom the villagers have access to government officials can speak nothing but Tamil. I must say I regard this as a great misfortune. I should like to see a strong Sinhalese headman acquainted with English appointed as Chief Headman of the district, and I should like to see the Tamil school abolished. However, the most important assistance which can, and ought to, be rendered to these villagers would be the restoration of their village tanks. This would render them independent of the Tamils, and make them less likely to abandon their villages or to sell their lands to Tamils”


[iv] H.L Seneviratne is meant here.


[v] This article (Full Text) is the published text of a memorial lecture on Hugh Nevill delivered by D.G.B de Silva in 1995-1996, the sesquicentennial of RAS(SL). Hugh Nevill was the Honorary Joint Secretary of the Society during 1868-1869.



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