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The Vanniyas of Sri Lanka Vs Vanniyas of South India

by ratnawalli - March 25, 2014 at 10:39 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 08 December 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

I got a query from Tissa Devendra regarding my previous piece, “Memories of the Vanni, Vaddas and Vanniyas”. “Do you mean to say that the Vanni was peopled by a slow influx of Vanniyar caste infiltrators from South India?” he asked. I told him that it’s simplistic to imagine Sri Lanka as a setting where South Indian concepts and conditions get duplicated en mass as if traced by carbon paper. There were in-migrations orchestrated by the medieval central Sinhala states that claimed suzerainty or chakravarthihood over the whole country[i]. But these migrations were from diverse milieus in South India and also Bengal. The key word is “diverse cultural milieus” of South India.


None of the immigrant groups from South India given in the Sinhalese folk historical tradition as appointees to chieftaincies in the Wanni of Lanka can be identified as belonging to the group called Vanniyar mentioned in South Indian records from the 10th/11th century onwards[ii]. The Malavaras, lovingly mentioned in the relevant Hugh Nevill manuscript (Or 6606-182)[iii] as “the first possessors of the very own Wanni kingdom belonging to this Lanka”, are not of South Indian Vanniyar stock. Instead they are “chiefs of certain hill-tribes in the Karnata and Tamil areas of South India” whose warlike habits secured them many mentions in “the Pandya records of the thirteenth century in South India”( Indrapala 1965 thesis p296). The Malavara chieftains are also listed in the Sri Lankan Tamil tradition (in the “Vaiyapatal” and the “Vaiya”) among the more important colonists of Jaffna-(ibid).


Nor do the chieftains of Ariya Vamsa who are immortalized in the Vanni Puvata (Or 6606-139) as having received lands in the Puttalama, Munnessara, Jaffna, and a number of villages in Nuvarakalaviya(D.G.B 1996[iv]Full Text)  seem to be of the Vanniyar kula of South India. Ariya Vamsa is not an appellation carrying associations with the Vanniyar group of South India.


Another group, which stands outside of the Vanniyar of South India, but became Vanniyas of Lanka were the Mukkuvas. A copperplate grant of Bhuvanekabahu VII in Sinhalese dated to 1544 A.D refers to a Navaratna Vanniya of Lunuvila, a mukkuva chieftain of the Puttalam region (Indrapala 1970: S. Casie Chetty, Ceylon Gazetteer, 1834, p190-191).


And yet the connection seems undeniable. It can’t be co-incidence which gave Vanniyas, Vannivaru, Wannins, the Wanniya (closed vowel), and Wanniyalettho to Sri Lanka and Vanniyars, Vanniya-ma-devans, Vanniya-perumals, Vanniya-nayans (lord of the Vanniya), Vanniyapparrus (Vanniya holding) and Vanno samantha bhumipo (a Vanni ruler) to South India[v]. At the same time, the differences of context between the vanniyas of the two regions also seem undeniable. The Vanniyas of South India lack a Wanni. They are like cowboys in a country without cows. South India (unlike Sri Lanka) does not have an easily understood, almost colloquial term in a local language; “wanniya” (closed vowel) denoting a forested geography in which “wanantharaya” (jungle) is implicit, ingrained and irretrievably welded. So much is this lack that the South Indian tradition has to painstakingly derive the word “vanni” from “vahni” (fire).


According to the South Indian “Tamil work Cilai-elupattu, probably composed in the period of the Vijayanagar empire (14th-16th century)” the Vanniyar “belonged to the Agni kula”- (Indrapala 1970). “This association with the Agni-kula (fire –family or caste), in S. Gnanapragasar’s opinion, is a theory born of the similarity between vahni (fire) and vanni. In fact there is a legend among the Vanniyar caste of North Arcot (Tamilnadu State) which illustrates the derivation of their name from vahni.”- (ibid) “Thus we find in the literature and tradition of South India the origin of the Vanniyar being associated with fire or the Agni-kula. The derivation of their name from vahni, therefore seems to be plausible but is not very convincing. As Gnanapragasar has suggested, this association may represent a later attempt to derive the name from vahni. Even if we allow the association with the Agni-kula as plausible, it is difficult to explain why their name was derived from a rarer word like vahni instead of the more common agni”.-(ibid)


Another contextual difference is that in South India the Vanniyar are only a tribe, group or a clan, while in Sri Lanka Vanniya becomes an administrative office/title under which diverse lineages were encompassed. In Sri Lanka too the Vanniyas became a caste, but only later due to the occupational reason of having held vanniyaships in the wanni of Lanka.


Perhaps the single most unexplained jarring note in the conceptual link between the Vanniyas of South India and Sri Lanka is provided by the Vaddas who inconveniently bear the name wanniyalettho. Perhaps they offer the most compelling reason to conclude that Wanniya (closed vowel) is an indigenous concept which stretched to embrace and perhaps name the chieftaincies that sprang up to rule it. And yet perhaps…the Vaddas too may have borrowed that name from a concept that migrated to Sri Lanka from South India. And if you think Vaddas lack the verve to be concept borrowers, think about how they appropriated the origin myth of the Sinhalese and made Kuveni their ancestress.


According to G.C. Mendis (The Pali Chronicles of Sri Lanka: ed. 1996[vi], p71) “the Vijaya Legend, according to evidence available, is not a historical account. Its value lies in the fact that it is a literary work, an epic poem, a product of the mind” of the scholarly monks who wrote the chronicles. “The story of Kuveni is clearly derived from the Valahassa Jataka which seems to have influenced also the story of Simhala in the Divyadana”.


When G. C Mendis worked out the above hypothesis, did a question bang against the wall of his subconscious, as to how the Vaddas of Lanka came to own Kuveni and her unhappy love story which was a product of the mind of scholarly monks? Did he adequately consider all the steps in the pathway which led from the minds of the monks to the minds of the Vaddas?  Was it from the minds of the monks to the myth pool of the Sinhalese and from there to the myth-pool of Vaddas? Did G. C Mendis perhaps pause to consider that the Vaddas and the Sinhalese may have been bathing in a common myth-pool and this may be where the scholar monks got it? I bet not. I bet for Mendis too, the Vaddas were invisible. As invisible as they were to all the scholars who tried to derive the word “wanni” without giving a thought to the wanniyaletthos.


The Vaddas were far from invisible though. Take a look at the picture. It’s a VOC Map “Nieuwe Kaart Van Het Eyland Ceylon, Francoise Valentyn, J. van Braam et G.onder.de Linden” (1724-1726)[vii]. You will see the Vadda land (Het Land Der Weddas) and the Vanniya land (Het Land Der Wannias) existing side by side. You will also see that the land of the Vaddas covers the area corresponding to almost the whole district of modern Mulathivu north of Trincomally.


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


[i] Let me mention a few glimpses of this equation between the Chakravartis or Suzerains of the centre and rulers of peripheries such as Jaffna:-

1)    The fourteenth century Medavala inscription (1961, The Arya Kingdom of North Ceylon JRASCB Vol. VII (New Series) Part 2) records a treaty between Vikramabahu III (1357-74 AD) and Marttandam, the Aryachakravarti ruler of Jaffna. The de-facto power advantage is obviously with Marttandam whose tax/tribute collectors, Vikramabahu has agreed to allow in his domains. And yet, the concept of suzerainty is explicit in the treaty, where “Martandam remains a “perumal” in contrast with the “Chakravarti Svamin,” that is, Vikramabahu (Paranavitana 1961; Somaratna 1975: 41-48). This is a telling sign of the symbolic hierarchies that organise overlordship and political authority.” –(Michael Roberts:2012).

2)    According to the lights of Phillipus Baldaeus it was from the Emperor Senarat that the Portuguese wrested Jaffna. He informs us (A True and exact Description of the Great Island of Ceylon: 1672; Pieter Brohier[i] translation; Ch.44, p316) that the Kingdom of Jafnapatan “remained under the Portugezen sway for upwards of 40 years, wrested from the Emperor by Philippo d’Olivero when he defeated the Cingalezen forces near Achiavelli by the great pagode…”

3)    Fernao de Queyroz too in “The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon” paints a clear picture of suzerainty. See Book I, Ch.7, p49(S.G. Perera translation)

“Of these the first that tried to free himself from the subjection to the king of Cota was Ariaxaca Varti, who being naturally proud and not brooking haughtiness of the officers of that king, took the life of the one that governed there, and the king of Ceylon preparing to punish him, they say, he went to meet him at Ceytavaca and took him some verses wherein he so flattered him with praises of him and his ancestors that he left him completely vainglorious and satisfied, and the verses being helped by a goodly present, he not only made him desist from war, but also obtained Olas from him (what we should call Provisions) and the title of King of Jafanapataõ, which his successors preserved paying in acknowledgment only some tribute; and because this was the beginning of their greatness, his descendants from the name Aria, were called Ariavance, which means, the generation of Aria”

There is another telling line about Sitavaka Rajasinha tucked away in Book 3, Chapter 12, p 469;

“On the death of Raju, whom the whole of Ceylon including Jafanapatao and the furthest of the Highlands obeyed…”


[ii] The earliest South Indian mention is the word “vanniya parru” occurring in the “inscription No. 556 of 1919, which appears to belong to the time of Rajaraja I (985-1014)”.-(K. Indrapala, “The Origin Of The Tamil Vanni Chieftaincies Of Ceylon”, Journal of the Humanities, July, 1970, Vol 1, No 2)


[iii]Vanni Bandara Vitti Potak: Rate Attange Niti kandaya


[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


[v] See The Origin Of The Tamil Vanni Chieftaincies Of Ceylon”, Journal of the Humanities, July, 1970, Vol 1, No 2

[vi] This is a 1996 book which collects various articles by G.C. Mendis published in different journals.


[vii] I have cropped the map which appears on this article. Download the full map here.



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