Monday, August 20, 2012

K. Indrapala, a story of a regressive evolution.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Why did Professor K. Indrapala write his 2005 book, ‘The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity’? Some people suggest external duress (Nalin De Silva; ‘he became a prisoner of the LTTE’) while some allege duress exerted by the subconscious. Michael Roberts, an old Peradeniya colleague of Indrapala said; “knowing Indrapala's history and the recluse position he adopted after criticism in the 1970s I believe he is trying to reclaim his Tamilness as a final swan song in old age”.

Two critical decisions made by the author at the inception of the writing enterprise, make Indrapala: 2005 extremely vulnerable. It’s these decisions that enable the central premise of the book.

Migratory impulses from various parts of India, electrified the Mesolithic base population languishing in the pre historic Lankan cauldron, causing it to metamorphose. This is well known. The world and his grandmother used to believe that it metamorphosed into a single language based identity leaving behind an un-metamorphosed residue, which eventually became the ‘veddas’. Then Indrapala: 2005 came along and posited two language based identities resulting from the metamorphosis. And now? The world and his grandmother retain the single brand evolution theory; “In brief, proto-Sinhala-becoming-Sinhala appears to have been the most widespread speech form for much of the first millennium CE. The recent book by K. Indrapala, … does not undermine this verdict, despite its convolutions.”- (Blunders in Tigerland: Michael Roberts: 2007).

What are the two decisions K. Indrapala made, which render his book ultimately impact less, create duress doubts and lay him open not so much to peer reproach but (more terribly) to peer pity? The first (and the most critical) decision was to suppress a body of evidence that would have shown that the process of assimilation and acculturation that occurred in the rest of the island during the early historic period, giving birth to the unmentionable (aka Sinhalese) identity went on unchecked even in the northern extremities of Lanka (Probably because an island is a unifier). The second critical decision was to suppress Sigiriya (not easy, it being fairly large).

The first suppression involves a body of evidence, which K. Indrapala himself had a hand in highlighting in 1965, though the provenance of the knowledge can be traced nearly four decades back to H. W. Codrington. “The place-names in the peninsula indicate that it was held by Sinhala inhabitants at no very remote date” was how he expressed it in Short history of Ceylon, 1926. How Indrapala expressed it in his PhD thesis was strikingly similar.
“…We refer to the toponymic evidence which unmistakably points to the presence of Sinhala settlers in the peninsula before Tamils settled there. In an area of only about nine hundred square miles covered by this peninsula, there occur over a thousand Sinhalese place names which have survived in a Tamil garb.

The Yalppana-vaipava-malai, the Tamil chronicle of Jaffna, confirms this when it states that there were Sinhalese people in Jaffna at the time of the first Tamil colonization of the area. Secondly, the survival of Sinhalese elements on the local nomenclature indicates a slow and peaceful penetration of Tamils in the area rather than violent occupation. This is in contrast with the evidence of the place names of the North Central Province, where Sinhalese names have been largely replaced by Tamil names. The large percentage of Sinhalese element and the occurrence of Sinhala and Tamil compounds in the place names of Jaffna point to a long survival of the Sinhala population and an intimate intercourse between them and the Tamils. This is also, borne out by the retention of some territorial names, like Valikamam (Sinh. Valigama) and Maracci (Maracci-rata), which points to the retention of the old territorial divisions and tell strongly against wholesale extermination or displacement of the Sinhalese population.”

Indrapala: 2005 deals with this by ignoring it, in the hope that it will maybe go away. That it is a shabby and undignified thing to sneak away, seems to have jarred on his conscience, though not to the extent of motivating a frank and direct tackle of the issue. Buried in an end note (75 of Chapter 6), there is what seems like a mumbled recanting attempt;
“The survival of the word kamam (Pali, gama, village) as a suffix in some place names may further indicate the influence of Pali when Buddhism was a dominant religion in Jaffna. It may well be that this reflects a different Prakrit influence from that seen in the Brahmi inscriptions of the South where the word gama occurs. Such an influence may have come from Andhra, which region seems to have been a source of Buddhist influence in Jaffna. Early inscriptions from Amaravati, in Andhra, have place names ending in gama…”

Recent (17th century) maps of Jaffna in Sri Lanka, also have place names ending in gama (Welligamo, Vimangamo, Lilagamo, etc). Ditto place names ending in watte (Cottiewatte, Malwattoe), moene (Nagamoene), oya (Naloer), pale (Mepale), palle (Pollopalle, Alipalle), pola (Walewitakepoelo), goda (Tangode). In other words, Sinhala place names not yet clad in Tamil garb. This Dutch map sits in Nationaal Archief, Netherlands accessible on, a silent testimony to ancient period historian Indrapala’s lack of holistic knowledge, possibly due to period fixation. Portuguese records also mention ‘Colombagam ferry’, ‘aliyas’ (elephants) and ‘kuruwe vidanes’ (elephant handlers) in Jaffna. That the major Jaffnese territorial division Valikamam was still Welligamo in the17th century seems to have been news to Indrapala: 1965 as well. This may indicate not suppression but a genuine blind spot. Such blind spots about Dutch and Portuguese periods are far from uncommon.

How Indrapala: 2005 has swept under the carpet, Sigiriya, with graffiti inscribed by the un-orchestrated visitor flow from all over the island in the 10th, 9th, 8th centuries, representing valuable data on the language based identities in Sri Lanka is a story for my next installment.


  1. language replacement, not race replacement

  2. It is highly likely that my ancestors were Buddhist and spoke Hela prior to the Chola invasion. After that they were gradually Tamilised. Parakramabahu's 12th century Tamil inscription from Jaffna is addressed to the locals, not to foreigners.

    Despite being indigenous to the island and speaking Tamil for close to a millennium in the North, the majority of Sinhalese believed it was fine to force 'Sinhala only' in 1956.

    This irrational fear that Buddhism and the Sinhalese are under threat from Tamils needs to stop. The last real threat to Buddhism was 800 years ago (Magha of Kalinga). We live in a different era now.

    Can you imagine how great SL would have been if we did not fight each other? We are blood relatives with a common ancestry and heritage (I regard the Buddhist heritage as mine, and personally have greatly benefitted from Buddhist meditation).

    Darshanie, no history book in the south would dare teach the truth that we share a common ancestry for over 3000 years (a fact that should be uniting us). That suppression is far more regressive, evil and damaging than anything Indrapala has ever written.