Sunday, June 23, 2024

Low-caste Malabaris pretending to be high-caste Jaffna Tamils


The year 1505 is a memorable date etched in the minds of those who know anything about the history of Sri Lanka. It is the year in which the Portuguese arrived and opened a new chapter in the history of the nation. But hardly anyone remembers 1215 – the year in which the Malabaris of South India invaded Jaffna and paved the path for changing the history of the peninsula.

A new history of the Tamils began to unravel in the Northern peninsula of Sri Lanka when the island was invaded by the Malabaris in 1215. It is a date under-played and under-reported in the history of the nation. Even the Tamils of Jaffna do not make a fuss about this date because it blasts their myth of Tamils occupying the nation from “the dawn of time”, as stated in their famous political manifesto, the Vadukoddai Resolution.

The importance of 1215 is in the fact that it is the first year in the history of the Tamils of Jaffna. There was no permanent settlement or Tamil kingdom before that. It is the year in which the ancestors of modern Tamils in Jaffna first set foot in Sri Lanka to settle down and make it their permanent home. Jaffna Tamils of today came from the womb of the Malabaris who invaded Sri Lanka in 1215. As new migrants their antecedents do not run beyond 1215 into the classical Sinhala-Buddhist era when the Chola colonialists and other political adventurers ruled Sri Lankan for brief intervals. That was a different period with no connection to Jaffna as the “homeland” of Tamils. It was separated not only by time but also by geography and history.

Exclusive ethnic enclave

Arumuka Navalar

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam


For instance, the oldest archaeological finds of burial urns in Ponparippu are in the mainland and not in the peninsula. Jaffna owes its existence as an exclusive ethnic enclave to the year 1215 when the Malabari invaders opened the gates for the other Malabaris to flood Jaffna and become permanent settlers. It was in 1215 that the Jaffna Tamils began to make a history of their own. The fact that there were Tamils in other parts of the island doesn’t entitle the Jaffna Tamils to a heritage dating back to pre-Christian times.

There is no connectivity between the new migrants who came from Malabar and the old Tamil settlers. They are as far apart as the Jaffna Tamils are from the Indian Tamils in the estates. Just as much as the Indian Tamils can claim their heritage from the 19th century, the Jaffna Tamils can claim a history that starts only from 1215 and not from pre-Christian times.

The arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 had a far less impact than the invasion of the Malabaris 1215. The Portuguese introduced Catholicism, the baila culture and trade with the West on a mass scale – all of which changed the culture of the nation marginally. Its 114-year occupation (1505 – 1619) did not lead to the creation of a sizeable enclave of Portuguese which accumulated political power to make extreme ethnic demands.

The Western colonisers were only temporary occupiers, but not permanent settlers. Nor did they aim to change the demography of the colonised domain into ethnic enclaves packed with their compatriots. Their aim essentially was to exploit the resources for profit. But the Malabari invasion of 1215 was aimed at making of Jaffna a permanent colony for Malabari settlers. It is their invasion and subsequent importing of Malabaris on a mass scale that changed the demography of Jaffna into a Vellala colony.

The mass migration of Malabaris who contributed to the making of modern Jaffna has not received the attention it deserves. The Malabaris are the last invaders who came from South India. Unlike the other previous invaders from South India, they decided to settle down as colonists in Jaffna. This separates the Malabaris from previous migrants from South India.

They were an entirely new category of migrants with no historical links to previous Tamil-speaking migrants. In settling down as colonists, the invading Malabaris began a new history not connected to other Tamils who came before as merchants, mercenaries, marauders, and political adventurers. It was the Malabari invaders in post-1215 period, who increased the Tamil-speaking population to a dominant demographic position in the peninsula. It is the flooding of Jaffna with the Malabari Vellalas that made it a homeland for the Vellalas.

“Homeland” concept

The “homeland” concept of modern-day Jaffna Tamils began with the Malabari settlers. As direct descendants of the Malabaris who had given up the idea of going back to their homes in Malabar, the “homeland” concept developed firmly in the minds of the colonisers. They eventually became Jaffna Tamils with the rise of the new Tamil consciousness created by Arumuka Navalar, the Vellala guru in the 19th century.

As new settlers, with nowhere else to go, the necessity of making Jaffna their “homeland” gathered a political momentum. It dominated the consciousness of the homeless Malabaris. Because they came with the idea of settling down the “homeland” concept turned into a compulsive ideology. They came in large numbers, wave after wave, and paved the path for the establishment of a permanent settlement for the new colonists. The Dutch colonisers too engaged in importing Malabaris for cheap labour. These migratory waves strengthened the power of the Vellalas.

The Vellala factor that dominates modern Jaffna came with the Malabaris. The Malabaris were the Sudra Vellalas, lowest-caste in the classical social hierarchy of India. It is the continuous flood of Malabari migrants that turned Jaffna into a colony dominated by the Sudra Vellalas. The other three high castes – Brahmins, (priests/intellectuals), Kshatriya (warriors) and Vaisyas (merchants) – stayed behind because the Indian sastras (holy texts) forbade high castes to leave the shores of India. The low-caste Sudra Vellalas came in waves after the first invasion in 1215.

The influx of Sudra Vellalas swelled the ranks of the demographically miniscule Tamil community in Jaffna. Jaffna then was a multi-ethnic territory shared by the Sinhala-Buddhists and the Muslims. There was a numerically formidable community of Sinhala-Buddhists in Jaffna. It was the flooding of Jaffna with the low-caste Malabaris that led to the rise and dominance of the Vellalas in Jaffna. The (1) increased migratory waves of Malabaris and (2) the subsequent ethnic cleansing of the peninsula by the Jaffna kings of the Buddhists and Muslims tilted the demographic balance in favour of the Vellalas.

It is these two factors that led to the creation of near a mono-ethnic enclave of Jaffna dominated by the Vellalas. The Jaffnaites of today are not the direct descendants of the Tamils who came in the first pre-Christian Mesolithic wave, or later with the imperialist invaders of the Chola period. Contemporary Jaffna, which the Tamils call their “homeland”, was populated by the Malabaris who came in migratory waves from Malabar in the post-1215 invasion.

Missing Brahmins

Today, the Vellalas stand as the majority in Jaffna, nearly 52 percent. The Vellala caste increased rapidly “from 37 percent of the population of Jaffna in early nineteenth century to over 50 percent today” indicates that people of other castes were incorporated into the caste system of the Vellalas. (The Ambivalence of Freedom: Slaves in Jaffna, Sri Lanka in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Nira Wickramasinghe and Alicia Schrikker, in the Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 78. No.3, (August) 2019).

For instance, the Madapallis, a caste that was competing for supremacy in the caste hierarchy, merged with the Vellalas in time and virtually disappeared from the existential demographic map. Besides, Hindu Jaffna was a land without the Brahmins – the priest/intellectual caste that stood at the peak of the Hindu caste hierarchy of India. It is the Vellalas that stepped in as the substitute for the missing Brahmins at the top. This made Jaffna a mediocre copy of the classical Hindu society of India.

Hindu society without the Brahmins was like the Roman Catholics without the Pope who derives his sanctity from St. Peter, the original founder of the Catholic Church. There is sanctity and legitimacy in coming down directly from the original sacred source. In other words, Vellalaism manufactured in the 13th century lacked the essential sacred ingredient that made ancient Brahmanism the divinely ordained authority in India.

Vellalaism lacked authenticity and sanctity of Brahmanism. However, amidst all the contributory strands that led to rise of the Vellalas as the dominant force in Jaffna, the major factor that pushed the Vellalas to the top was the flooding of the Jaffna with the low-caste Vellala colonisers from Malabar.

The Malabari demographics made them the formidable force initially. The political power acquired later made it the dominant force. The evidence makes it clear that despite the boasting of the high status of the Vellalas, mainly with fake historical claims of sanctity drawn from antiquity, they are, by and large, the remnants of the low-caste Malabaris from South India. In short, the high caste Vellalas of Jaffna are the low-caste Malabaris from India.

When the Malabaris invaded Jaffna in 1215, it was occupied by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims. The massive migratory waves of the Sudra Vellalas that came subsequently enabled them to outnumber the coeval communities. Until the arrival of the Malabaris, Jaffna was a multi-ethnic society. The invader, Magha Kalinga, became the first king of Jaffna in 1215. It was the Malabari invasions that paved the way to make Jaffna a near mono-ethnic community. It is the descendants of the migrant Malabaris that constitute the majority in Jaffna today.

They were known as Malabaris during the Dutch and the early British periods. Even Hugh Cleghorn, whom the Tamils quote often, referred to the Tamils as Malabaris. The Malabaris were also imported by the Dutch for cheap labour like the way the British imported new waves of indentured labour from South India – Tamils who are not connected to the other Tamils of Sri Lanka except in the use of the Tamil language.

The first permanent settlement of the Tamils began with the invaders from Malabar occupying Jaffna, says Prof. K. Indrapala, the first Professor of History of Jaffna University. This makes the contemporary Jaffnaites the direct descendants of the Malabaris who invaded the North after 1215. They have no links to the early Tamil migrants who came in the pre-historic Mesolithic wave, or later as Chola invaders.

Those migrants either went back to India, or settled down in small merchant colonies in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Mannar, or assimilated with the Sinhalese. They did not settle down in Jaffna as their homeland. If they considered Jaffna their homeland, they would not have settled down outside Jaffna.

Early settlers

The early Tamil settlements of the Mesolithic and the post-Chola periods were below the neck of Jaffna. The early settlers in the mainland were merchants, mercenaries, marauders and political adventurers. Prof. Indrapala labels the two early usurpers Sena and Guttika and Elara as “political adventurers”. (p. 46 – Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XIII, 1969)

Clearly, Jaffna became a “homeland” for the Tamils only after Magha Kalinga invaded Sri Lanka in 1215 and made it a colony for the Malabaris to settle down. Jaffna was not the “homeland” from “the dawn of time” as the Tamils would like to imagine. Yalapana Vaipava Malai ((YVM) — a historical garland) mentions the numerous waves of Vellala migrants from South India to Jaffna. Before Jaffna was invaded by the Malabaris, it was shared as a common territory both by the Tamils and the Sinhalese.

The prominent presence of Sinhala-Buddhists in Jaffna is known by the numerous Sinhala place-names, says Prof. Indrapala. The presence of the Sinhala-Buddhists must have been significant because YVM mentions a few inter-ethnic clashes between the two major communities. Mylvakanam, the historian, also mentioned the Sinhala-Buddhist rebelling against the Tamil kings. This indicates that there must have been a substantial concentration of Sinhala-Buddhists in Jaffna. Later the Jaffna kings ethnically cleansed Jaffna by forcibly dislodging the Sinhala-Buddhists.

The “insane fury” of Sankili (p. 33 — YVM) turned towards the Sinhala-Buddhists after he exterminated the Tamil Catholics in Mannar in 1544. After expelling the Sinhala-Buddhists, the Tamil “insane fury” turned against the Muslims. Jaffna became a mono-ethnic enclave only after the ethnic cleansing of successive Tamil kings. It is this ethnically cleansed Jaffna that the Jaffnaites call their “homeland” now.

Jaffna was the “homeland” of all communities before the ethnic cleansing. After the ethnic cleansing they claimed it to be a mono-ethnic “homeland” of only the Tamils. It is the mono-ethnic political agenda of the Vellalas that leads them to rewrite the history of Jaffna. For instance, they ignore the known facts of history and pretend that they are the descendants of the Tamils that came with Mesolithic or Chola waves of migration. In recent time, they have engaged indefatigably in manufacturing history to claim an antiquity running back to the “dawn of time” when the known facts date their origin to 1215.

Complex issue

The time when the Tamils arrived first is a complex issue that is lost in the mists of time. But what is indisputable is that the modern-day Tamils of Jaffna are the descendants of the Malabaris who are not connected in any way to the early Tamil settlers in the mainland, below the neck of Jaffna. In reality, Jaffna today is occupied mainly by the Tamil-speaking Malabaris who flooded Jaffna in the post-1215 invasion and settled down to make it their home. The descendants of these Malabari settlers are far distant from the original Tamils who settled down in the Mesolithic and post-Chola periods.

They are as far apart as the Indian Tamils in hills are to the Tamils of Jaffna. Just as much as Jaffnaites of today are historically, culturally and politically separate from the Tamils of the hill country Indians, the Malabaris who migrated in the 13th and 14th centuries have no links to the early Tamil settlers who domiciled in the mainland. The Malabaris are an entirely different wave of Indians, some of whom were imported by the Dutch like the way the British imported indentured labour from South India.

The different waves of migration from South India, though they all spoke Tamil, did not lead to the consolidation of the migrants into one solid front. The Tamils who came in the classical Sinhala-Buddhist era, the Malabaris who came after the invasion of 1215 and the indentured labour imported by the British are three different waves of migration not linked to each other. To begin with they came at different periods in time and settled down in different regions creating their own cultures. Their cultural differences separated them into different political units, each with their specific needs and interests.

They failed even to form a cohesive front that would link them organically into a formidable common force. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, realising the necessity to confront the majority Sinhalese with large numbers, launched the iyakkum (movement) of the Thamil Payasam Makkal (the Tamil-speaking people). But it collapsed as the Vellala political agenda clashed with the interest of the other Tamil-speaking Muslims and Indians. Besides, the regional differences, that generated different interests, motivations, and objectives, were far stronger than the Tamil language that linked them.

Other than language, the Malabaris, who later became Jaffna Tamils in the 19th century, adopted an ethnic arrogance that looked down upon all the other Tamil-speaking people. This includes the Batticaloa Tamils who are territorially in the Eastern part of Tamil Eelam. Chelvanayakam referred to them superciliously as “the trousered people of Batticoloa”. (p. 32 – S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947- 1977, A Political Biography by A. J. Wilson.)


The arrogance of the low-caste Malabaris who later became the high-caste Vellalas knew no limits. They went all out to grab the leadership of the proposed pan-Tamil movement which failed because its political agenda was driven by Vellala arrogance and interests. The idea of the Iyakkam was to unite the Tamil-speaking people against the Sinhalese. But the political agenda consisted mainly that of Vellala issues.

They were muscling in to dominate the Iyakkam which did not appeal to the other Tamil-speaking Indian estate and Muslim leaders. Even the Vadukoddai War (a.k.a. “Eelam War”) cracked wide open and foundered eventually on the regional differences between Karuna Amman of the Eastern and Velupillai Prabhakaran of the Northern Province – the arrogant king makers.

A close scrutiny of Northern politics will reveal that it has failed repeatedly because they had pursued intransigent and arrogant politics. G. G. Ponnamabalam, representing 11 percent of Tamils, insisted on getting 50 percent of power when he was given 45 percent. Velupillai Prabhakaran who was given maximum power, with international guarantees, rejected all offers insisting on 100 percent of power.

His “insane fury” (YVM) made him believe that he possessed invincible power to achieve all what he wants. It is the Tamil people that eventually paid for the intransigence and arrogance of their leaders. They went down the wrong track mainly by misreading their history. They still continue to believe in a glorified history that is not there. Theirs is an eternal struggle to overcome the inferiority of their mediocre history. The perennial agony in their psyche is caused by their inability to forget their inglorious origins: they can’t accept the historical fact that they are the low-caste Malabaris who are pretending to be high-caste Vellalas. It has made them “congenital idiots”. (Prof. Kumar David).

The fundamental flaw in the Vellala political culture is that they are intransigently dressed in Emperor’s clothes, refusing to accept the prediction of the revered Tamil prophet Supathidda-muni who told the Jaffna King: “The sovereignty (which has gone to the Portuguese, Dutch and British) will never again come back to your descendants.” (p. 29 – Yalapana Vaipava Malai, translated by C. Brito, 1879.)

Isn’t it time for the misguided Vellalas to come out of their delusional diadem and face the grim realities of history?

Source: www.sundayobserver.lk

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