Jaffnaites have a rather ambivalent attitude towards their history. Either they go over the top to glorify their origins and raise it to an imagined past that never existed, or they withdraw into a shell like the snail unable to face their ignominious and inhuman past.
Their claims to a glorious past are derived mainly from the brief kingdom of Jaffna (1215 – 1619) – the only period they were independent. It failed to produce anything great to crow about. “No original artistic tradition grew in Tamil Ceylon,” wrote Prof. S. Arasaratnam. (p.115 – Ceylon, Prentice Hall, Inc.) Stating that the Tamils did not indulge in any great architectural work, he added, rather apologetically, that culturally, the Tamils of Jaffna considered themselves to be “a part of the Dravidian tradition”. In other words, the Tamils of Jaffna stagnated as mere imitators of the grand Dravidian culture. Jaffna, also, is a land without heroes. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero!” (Bertolt Brecht).
They have, of course, produced (1) Magha of Kalinga, the first Tamil king who destroyed non-Saivite institutions, destroyed Sinhala Buddhists temples, expelling them from Jaffna, and gouged the eyes of dissident Tamils, (2) Sankili who massacred 600 Tamils including babies, and, of course, (3) Prabhakaran who marched to the drums of his two tyrannical predecessors. Going further, even those Tamils who boast about their history have failed to produce a comprehensive history book, according to historian Dr. Murugar Gunasingam.
Writing in 2008, he said: “The most important shortcoming at this time is that no historian, or archaeologist or even social scientist, whether Sinhalese, Tamil or western scholar has written a complete or comprehensive history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.” (p. 14 – Tamils in Sri Lanka, A Comprehensive History (300 B.C. – C. 2000. A. D.)).
This was written to substantiate his claim that he was writing the first comprehensive history of Tamils of Sri Lanka in 2008. Nevertheless, the failure of Jaffna University to produce a history book is pathetic. It was established in 1972. Jaffna is still waiting for an authoritative history from the University of Jaffna which is not likely to happen soon as the pressures of contemporary politics are inhibiting it from producing an authoritative and credible record of its past. It seems that the Jaffna University is stuck because it cannot agree on its past.
It does not know how to present its dark and grim past with warts and all. It is faced with the grim task of writing a history which is haunted by a subhuman culture. Reports claim that the University is surreptitiously editing out any research that present Jaffna in a bad light. In the main, it cannot write a history without acknowledging the dominant role played the Vellalas who ruled Jaffna with a fascist fist. Jaffna belonged to the Vellalas. Not to the oppressed Tamils.
Its history has been written as the history of the Vellalas, marginalising the persecuted low-caste (Panchamar) Tamils. The Panchamar Tamils were suppressed by the Vellalars who wrote a patchy history of Tamils hiding the Vellalar crimes against their fellow-Tamils. No other community leaders of Sri Lanka had ever oppressed, suppressed, persecuted and massacred their own people as the Vellalar rulers of Jaffna.
Even a cursory glance at the history of Jaffna, from Magha (1215) to Velupillai Prabhakaran (1975 – 2009) will reveal that there are no redeeming features in the Tamil political culture. It is a culture that reduced fellow-Tamils into subhuman factotums with no dignity, justice or equality. Sanitising the history of Jaffna to make it look civilised or glorious is not an easy task for the Tamil intellectuals.
For instance, how can they be proud of the fact that the Panchamar Tamils never had the elementary pleasure of occupying a seat in a bus in Jaffna. Panchamar are the five untouchable castes: Nalavar (toddy tappers), Pallar, (agricultural workers), Pariyar, (drummers) Ambattar, (barbers), Vannars (dhobies) and Thurumbars (scavengers).
These Tamils did not have the right to take a seat in a bus in the North. The Panchamar Tamils had to sit on the floor boards. They had to come to the Sinhala-Buddhist South to get a seat in the bus. With a history of denying the basic rights to their fellow-Tamils, it is rather embarrassing for Tamil intellectuals to face their past. Their only alternative has been to hide their history. This explains why Jaffna has not been able to produce a standard book on its history.
It is this subhuman culture that deflates their claim to be legatees of a great culture. The desperate bid of Tamil intellectuals has been to create a past that would make them look great in the eyes of the world. But their abhorrent past makes the Tamil and the pro-Tamil moralists look like a tailor’s plastic dummies with no hair or clothes on to cover their bald nakedness.
They have no respectable history to back up their present political agenda, demanding dignity, justice, and equality. Each time they raise this issue they are faced with a question they can’t answer: how much of dignity, justice and equality did their rulers – from Magha to Prabhakaran – give the Jaffnaites? Take dignity for instance. The only time that all the Tamils enjoyed the dignity and equality is when they came down South. They had the equal right to ride on a seat of a bus only when they came down to travel in “the Sinhala state”?
Most of all, it confirms the fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka never had a sense of history that had inspired them to create an identity of their own until the early 20the century. The Malabari migrants who flooded Jaffna and dominated the landscape from 1215 were drifting between two worlds – one foot in Malabar and other in Jaffna. The birth and growth of Jaffna with the mass migration of Malabaris debunks their claim to be the first occupants of Sri Lanka.
Myths and legends
Dr. Gunasingam’s claim that he has written the first comprehensive history in 2008 confirms that the Tamils had no sense of history. This leads to the conclusion that the Tamils tends to dwell smugly in a multitude of myths and legends than in the realities of history. Besides, how can one measure the greatness of a community which is yet to produce an authoritative history book? According to reports, the Jaffna is inclined more towards hiding than in revealing its history.
Rather late in the day, when the Jaffna Tamils discovered the necessity of history to back their political claim for a separate state, they have discovered the importance of history and they have been labouring tirelessly since then to manufacture a history that fits into their present political agenda.
Tamil intellectuals have been theorising about a past that goes way back in time to the dawn of history to claim territory in Sri Lanka. One of their aims is to prove that they are superior to the Sinhala-Buddhists. But it is rather difficult to validate their manufactured theories about Tamil greatness because the monumental history of Sinhala-Buddhists debunks Tamil concoctions.
Jaffna is Vellalarism. And Vellalarism is peculiar only to Jaffna. But what has Vellalarism done to Jaffna?
What we are left with is the likes of C.V. Wigneswaran crying hoarse about the antiquity of the Tamil language, taking antiquity as a marker of greatness compared to the other languages that came after it. He uses this factor mainly to impress that the Tamil language is far superior to that of the Sinhalese language which flowered in the 5th century.
No one can challenge the antiquity and the great Tamil culture that flourished in South India, the original homeland of the Tamils. But the ultimate test is to find out what the Tamils of Jaffna have contributed to the glory of this ancient language. Basking in the glory of another culture doesn’t make the imitators of that culture great, does it?
Jaffna culture has at all times been a third-rate imitation of the first-rate South Indian culture. The Tamils, in short, did not contribute anything original or creative to the greatness of the Tamil language. The Tamils of Jaffna have been covering up their mediocrity by shining in borrowed feathers.
They had nothing original or creative in them to make a new civilisation like the Sinhalese who gave the world a new language, new culture and a new civilisation. If the Tamils had achieved any greatness on the scale of the Sinhalese they would have been dancing the kavadi until their bottoms fell out of their anatomy into the streets of Toronto, London, Paris and Sydney!
The Tamils of Jaffna latched on to language because they have nothing else to make them feel great. Their empty history is as appalling as their fascist Prabhakaranist politics. Of course, the Tamil language goes way back in time to a few thousand years. (Circa 5th century BCE). Jaffna, however, popped up only in 1215. So, if the Tamil language originated and developed into a great language long before Jaffna was born, what great contribution did Jaffna contribute to the glory of the Tamil language?
Their argument to claim greatness is like that of the descendants of King Rajasingha in South India claiming greatness because their ancestors once were the kings of Sri Lanka. It is a claim that is good enough to massage their egos. But what else is there in it?
The Jaffna Tamils, however, claim that they speak pure Tamil compared to the corrupted spoken Tamil of South India. My Tamil wife used to tell me that the South Indians were fascinated when she replied with an “Om” instead of “Aam”. But these are trivial regional differences which are blown up like balloons filled with empty air.
It is the utility and creative values of a language that make it great than mere antiquity. For instance, English is the international language of aviation. A plane can be landed in any international airport in English but a plane can’t be landed even in Tamil Nadu in Tamil.
Consider also the classics that other languages have produced. Have the Vellalars of Jaffna – they determined the Jaffna culture — produced a single piece of literature worthy of recognition? The outstanding novel, Kanal, (Mirage) was written by a low-caste Turumbar, K. Daniel who exposed the vicious and vile culture of the Vellalars. The Vellalars who dominated the intellectual, social, religious and political
domains of Jaffna failed to produce a vibrant and creative Tamil culture.
Prof. K Indrapala, the first Professor of History of Jaffna University, has confirmed the mediocrity of Jaffna Tamil culture. He wrote:
“The body of Tamil writing which existed in Ceylon prior to the nineteenth century, though considerable in itself, cannot be considered as literature in its own right. The early productions of Ceylon Tamil writers were not distinctive, in that they failed to appear sufficiently different from South Indian Tamil literature, either in subject matter or style, to be called Ceylon Tamil literature. Ceylon Tamil led a second-hand existence on themes that were mainly derived from Sanskrit….Although several poetical works were written in this period, Ceylon Tamil poetry continued to be convention-ridden and monotonous till the second quarter of the twentieth century…..Though several plays were written in this period, their literary quality cannot be rated high. Similarly, the few novels and short stories that were written as a direct result of European influence do not bear the mark of quality…….the writings of the Ceylonese scholars did not exhibit any distinctive characteristics till after the attainment of independence.”(.pp.356- 357, History of Ceylon, Volume Three, 1973).
In other words, whatever achievements there are in Tamil culture of Jaffna evolved only under what the Tamils calls the “Sinhala state”. The Tamil state, run mainly by the dominant political leadership of Vellalars, failed to produce anything original, adding to the glory of the Tamils.
The renowned Tamil savant, Ananda Coomaraswamy, wrote his magisterial monograph on Medieval Sinhala Art. He had nothing to say about the greatness of Tamil art. Can Wigneswaran, the loud-mouth gnat pretending to be a gigantic elephant, cite one worthy or original creation to prove the superiority of the culture of the Tamils of Jaffna?
There is nothing left in the Jaffna Tamil culture for it to be rated as a great creative cultural force that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the world. On the contrary, they will have to hide their head in shame if they dare to take a serious look at the violent and fascist political culture that has ruled Jaffna from their first King Magha. They feel great only because they have been kept in the dark about their sterile and brutal past.
The instinctive response of the Jaffna intellectuals who live in a vacuous and colourless history has been to cover-up the past to make Jaffna look great. And those who have politicised the past of Jaffna have deviated into theoretical factories to manufacture a mountain out of a molehill.
They have failed to critically analyse the internal dynamics that caused Jaffna to stagnate in its own bilge. The main struggle of Tamil intellectuals has been to create a common Tamil identity from the beginning of time. It has taken them only as far as the dead-end of a billabong
Dragging them across time into a dim, distant past has been their means of giving a veneer of greatness to the Tamils of Jaffna. Their main aim is to forget the embarrassing fact that their history began in the 13th century.
As recorded in history, they are a band of Malabaris who migrated in successive mass waves to Jaffna after 1215 with their first King Megha of Kalinga and manufactured a Tamil identity by (1) merging with the remnants of the Tamils who came with the Cholas and other Tamil adventurers and (2) borrowing everything from Dravidian Tamil culture to bond into one cohesive unit.
Ever since their arrival they have lived in the shadow of Dravidian culture. They have produced nothing of their own. The failure of Jaffna to create a new and dynamic culture of their own is the reason why the Jaffnaites latch on to the Tamil language because that is the only historical legacy left to make them look great. The mediocracy of their paltry history makes them look like culturally dismembered eunuchs. They hang on to language dearly because if you take the language out they have nothing to boast about. The empty boast of the Jaffna Tamils is that their dialect is greater than even that of the Dravidians in Tamil Nadu.
But has Jaffna produced anything great on its own? Yes, but what it has produced does not add glory to either Tamil identity or history. Tamils are now shy to admit that the greatest force that came out of Jaffna and determined its culture, history and politics is Vellalarism.
The Tamilness came from Tamil Nadu, but Vellalarism came from the soil of Jaffna. The enormity and the power of Vellalarism that ruled Jaffna throughout its history has not been given due consideration. Jaffna has been dominated by the Vellalars and it is they who defined the overarching contours of its society and history.
All its primary institutions, customs and laws, its hierarchy, rituals, ideologies, births, burials, form of address in speech, dining, worshipping, dressing, seating in churches or buses were determined and enforced by the Vellalars – the overwhelming force that ruled Jaffna from 1215 and through the colonial period to Prabhakaran.
In essence, Jaffna consisted of the Vellalars, by the Vellalars for the Vellalars. The non-Vellalars were there to serve the Vellalar masters. Entire society of Jaffna was structured by the Vellalars for the Vellalars to dominate the peninsula, with all the other castes assigned to lower places in the hierarchy as factotums delegated to serve the Vellalar masters.
The revered Tamil Holy Man of Jaffna, Arumuka Navalar, a caste fanatic, even went as far as anointing the Vellalars as those of the supreme caste even though the Vellalars are the Sudras who came from the feet of Brahma. The non-Vellalars had no say in the making of Jaffna at any time in its history, except in the latter part of the 20th century when the Panchamar and Prabhakaran resisted Vellalarism.
It is against this background that one of the most illuminating studies of the Vellalar caste has come out, Caste and its Multiple Manifestations. Though Western scholars such as Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger and Jane Russell have exposed the horrors behind the “cadjan” curtain of Jaffna, the Sri Lankan intellectuals have refused to recognise the vile Vellalar force that spilled over from the neck of Jaffna into the South in the post-Independent era and ran down like a juggernaut destroying everything in its path.
The Vellalar ideologues exerted maximum pressure to hide the grim realities of their past. For instance, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) which invested millions to track down every bit off evidence that would demonise the Sinhala-Buddhists never once attempted to explore the evils of the Northern society dominated by the Vellalars.
The Vellalar intellectual elite – and the ICES was run by the Vellalar elite – hid the corrosive and destructive Vellalar culture that dehumanised the Tamils and denied them their basic human rights. The violent political fascism inherent in Vellalarism had denied the Tamil people their dignity, justice, equality and liberty from the time of Magha to Prabhakaran.
It has been the most devastating force that warped Jaffna society. The ICES intellectuals and their cohorts in National Peace Council and Centre for Policy Alternative, et al, however, opted to blame the Sinhala-Buddhists of the South for the violence that came down from the North.
Hiding the evils of Jaffna society and glorifying it as a great culture has been mission of the Tamil and anti-Sinhala-Buddhist intellectuals. It needs great courage to challenge the overpowering Tamil establishment. And that is why Selvy Tiruchandran, the daughter of one of the great Tamils, S. Handy Perinbanayagam, should be hailed as a path-breaking intellectual. Her latest book, Caste and its Multiple Manifestations, is a brilliant in-depth study of the casteist forces of Northern Sri Lanka that set fire to the nation.
Perinbanayagam pioneered the first anti-caste movement in the twenties. He was a towering figure of the twenties who challenged the two evils of Jaffna: communalism and casteism. His daughter is following in her father’s pioneering footsteps. This brilliant book will be reviewed next week.