Monday, June 30, 2014

The Vanniyas of Sri Lanka Vs Vanniyas of South India

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 08 December 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

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).

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Memories of the Wanni; the Vaddas and the Vanniyas

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 24 November 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

By Darshanie Ratnawalli
The Vaddas are of course carriers of the name “wanniyalettho”, the present Vadi chieftain being “Uruwarige Wanniyalettho”. 

I will call him Jayaseelan because I can’t recall his name (Preposterous but bear with me). Jayaseelan is a Tamil speaking Vadda who is an ex-LTTE fighter. Sometime after 2009, Sunday Divaina had done a story on Jayaseelan. It had captured a retrospective inner conflict going on within the man. Jayaseelan confessed to asking himself the question, “I am a Vadda. Why did I fight for a separate Tamil state?” However, that was not what made the story stick in my mind. Jayaseelan had a grandfather who, while recounting the history of their community in the area, had let drop, almost casually, that they were Bandara Vannia’s[i] people.

Sharing the Wanni like they did the Vaddas and Vanniyas intermingled in interesting ways. They married each other, transformed into each other, and became “ruler” and the “ruled over” to each other in unidirectional ways with the Vanniyas ruling over bands of Vaddas. They even came to resemble each other in ways that caused certain 19th century British administrators to suspect a relationship[ii] (S. Fowler, Diary of 3rd May 1887).

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

Published in my column in The Nation on Sunday, 10 November 2013 and in Colombo Telegraph on the same date.

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.

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