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).