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Tuesday February 27th, 2024

Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka: A study in historical expedience

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ECONOMYNEXT – The historicity of Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka has not been a subject that has captured the public imagination to the extent that it perhaps deserves, at least in the south, though President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent remarks on the matter may have sparked fresh interest.

According to Prof G P V Somaratne, former Head of the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Colombo, the ancient history of Buddhism among Tamils in Sri Lanka has been entangled with prejudices associated with the more recent ethnic dispute between the Sinhalese and Tamils.

In a paper he published titled ‘Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka’, Somaratne notes that a number of Buddhist archaeological sites in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces have given rise to controversial claims and have been subject to a politicised interpretation with the escalation of the conflict.

“Both groups argue with an agenda to promote the claims of their side, overstepping the boundaries of academic impartiality,” the academic writes.

According to Somaratne, archaeologists including a prominent Buddhist monk who famously dabbles in archaeology have attempted to ascribe a Sinhala Buddhist origin to certain archaeological discoveries made in the Tamil-dominated provinces, while other scholars have interpreted a wholly Tamil heritage or Tamil ownership of Buddhist ruins found in the two provinces.

“There are writers who claim the entire island as the heritage of Tamils while there are others who claim the island as Sinhala Buddhist heritage. Even scholars of international fame have fallen into this pit,” writes Somaratne.

The scholar argues that in the wake of the British census, ideas of ethnic division became more deeply entrenched in Sri Lankan society which had otherwise enjoyed relatively cordial relations between Sinhalese and Tamils in times of peace over the centuries. “Religious differences generally did not add fire to the ethnic tensions,” he writes, adding that during the Dutch period racial distinctions between the two communities were largely unseen in contrast to the sharper caste divisions.

“The conflict about the discovery of Buddhist sites in the North and East in Sri Lanka emanates from the attempt to identify religion and ethnicity as two sides of the same coin,” he says.

Somaratne’s paper, which provides exhaustive examples of Tamil Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and a detailed account of Tamil Buddhism’s origin in Tamil Nadu, its evolution and expansion into northern Sri Lanka and its historiography, can be found here.

An argument put forward by Somaratne in the paper is that both Sinhalese and Tamils, including certain scholars, are hesitant to acknowledge the historicity of Tamil Buddhism for their own politically motivated reasons.

“Some Sinhala Buddhist scholars have assumed that the presence of Buddhist archaeological sites in the North and Eastern Provinces, where Tamils live today, would prove the presence of Sinhalese there. The impression among the Sinhalese Buddhists is that Buddhism in Sri Lanka is exclusively for the Sinhalese.

“In this assumption there seems to be an unwillingness to accept that Tamils too were Buddhists in a bygone era,” he writes.

On the other hand, says Somaratne, Tamil speakers who now occupy these lands are also “uneasy” about the discovery of Buddhist sites due to fears populist Sinhala politicians using it for their own political gains.

“A Buddhist past is unpleasant to many Tamils today. Thus they are reluctant to admit the reality that their ancestors had been Buddhists in the past. Today most Tamils in Sri Lanka are Hindu or Christian. Modern researchers on the Sinhala as well as the Tamil side work on an agenda to prove that their side of the story is true,” the professor writes.

It is against this backdrop that President Wickremesinghe publicly acknowledged the historicity of Tamil Buddhism in the island nation. The president’s remarks were welcomed by, among others, opposition MP Mano Ganesan who said recognising Tamil Buddhism as historical fact is “the key to many deadlocks”.

Wickremesinghe made his comment in what appeared to be a heated exchange of words with Director General of the Department of Archaeology Prof Anura Manatunga who resigned on Monday June 12 after a video recording of the exchange went viral on social media. The presidential talking-to occurred at a meeting with archaeology department officials and a number of opposition MPs from Tamil constituencies regarding land acquisition by the department in the country’s north and east allegedly under the pretext of preserving heritage sites.

The Department of Archaeology has been at the centre of a controversy going back some years over alleged acquisition of land that critics claim rightfully belongs to Tamil-speaking residents of the areas marked as sites of archaeological importance.

Historian Dr Shamara Wettimuny speaking to EconomyNext on Tuesday June 13 noted that the modern scientific investigation into various archaeological sites in Sri Lanka has roots in the British colonial period.

According to Wettimuny, the origins of the Department of Archaeology can be traced back to British interventions in the 19th century when, in 1858, an Archaeological Commission was appointed by the then Governor to investigate ancient monuments in Anuradhapura, with more state funds directed towards excavation and restoration over time. In 1890, H C P Bell was appointed the first Archaeological Commissioner, the equivalent of the present day Director General of the Archaeology Department.

“The study of the island’s historical sites was not done for the sake of knowledge production alone. Instead, as Pradeep Jeganathan has observed, ‘knowledge of history was quite central in [colonisation] efforts; to know the ‘past’ was to control the ‘present’,” said Wettimuny.

“That applied very much to the British interest in archaeology and indeed, to the post-colonial Sri Lankan state. Nevertheless, the British appeared to prioritise, archaeologically speaking, a Sinhala-Buddhist narrative of Sri Lankan history,” she said.

This colonial legacy of giving pride of place to a Sinhala Buddhist narrative of the island nation’s history, Wettimuny believes, continues to this day.

“A glance at the Department of Archaeology’s official emblem today will leave the curious in no uncertainty about what type of historical site is given state support, often at the expense of other archaeological sites,” she said.

As noted by Prof Somaratne in his widely shared paper, the ambitions of two historically based ethnicities in the new Sri Lankan nation clash, contributing to the conflicting narratives on Tamil Buddhism and its history.

“It is well known that history and archaeology have been put to political uses in nation-building programmes. During the period of politicisation of the Sinhala Buddhist nation, Anuradhapura came to be shaped by a new nationalist consciousness. This view was that the Sinhala Buddhist nation is a historically homogeneous and consistent entity. The purpose of this interpretation of history would assert connections with the past within an imagined history of Sinhala as well as Tamil ethnic groups. This has led to the rise of perilous nationalism (Nissan 1989:64). Both sides are not really interested in the true facts of history as their aim is to use the name of history for present-day needs,” he writes.

According to the academic, Tamil analysts of Buddhist history of Jaffna, too, have used it for political purposes. One has to understand the perception of the history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka in the context of the history of all Sri Lanka by the ownership of the Sinhalese, he argues, noting that their presentation of history is to show that they have a right to be in what they perceive to be their homeland.

“They wish to show that they have a right to exist in this land. They seem to feel that the Sinhalese have stolen their history. In order to protect their rights, they use history as one weapon in their defence.

“Since the Tamils attempt to prove their right to exist and their right to be there, then the purpose of historical claims of Buddhist heritage in Jaffna is to prove that point. They want to justify their present homeland, whether Buddhist or Hindu, with the interpretation of historical facts amidst the attempts of Sinhala Buddhists to subsume them under a dominant majority with the help of democratic governmental apparatus,” Somaratne writes in conclusion. (Colombo/Jun13/2023)

Comments (11)

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  1. Veluppillai Thangavelu says:

    Buddhism spread to Tamil Nadu probably during the rule of Emperor Asoka (304 – 232 BCE). Buddhism was the dominant religion along with Jainism up to the 7th – 9th century. After the rise of Saivite religion Buddhism and Jainism completely vanished by the 10th century. Some Tamil Buddhists to escape prosecution migrated to Northeast. The Manimekalai is 100% a Mahayana Buddhist epic written in Tamil. Even during the Sankam period there were poets with Buddhist names. So Buddhism is not an alien religion to Tamils. Because of the display of Sinhalese – Buddhist militancy by Buddhist monks Tamils have come to hate everything Buddhist. The assault on places of Hindu worship is a new phenomena unheard before. As for Hindus they consider Buddha as another avatar of Lord Krishna/Thirumal. In fact Buddha himself is a Hindu and his teachings reflect Hindu philosophy like the 5 precepts prescribed for lay Buddhists. Only mentally de-ranged people will fight over religion which is only a belief system. No one religion is superior to another.

    1. Don Pathiraja says:

      I respect your comments

  2. Silva D says:

    Based on the information available to me, I am not aware of any Tamil leaders who refute the historical existence of Tamil Buddhism as an integral part of the vibrant history of Sri Lankan Tamils. It is important to note that the Tamil Buddhist community also underwent a process of Sinhalization, where their cultural identity and practices were influenced by Sinhalese culture. It is fascinating to observe that many individuals of Sinhalese descent appear to have forgotten their own ancestral Tamil heritage.

    1. Fonseka says:

      Correct as the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese populations, found similar genetic backgrounds for both ethnic groups, with little genetic flow from other neighboring Asian population groups

  3. Lester says:

    There are no Tamil Buddhists and there are no Sinhalese Hindus. Sinhalese cannot understand the Tamil language, and Tamils cannot understand the Sinhala language. This proves that these two communities have an entirely different history. Tamils are Dravidians who trace their history to Africa, while Sinhalese are Aryans, descended from people in Orissa (Bengal).

    1. Dr P Thilakawardhana says:

      Exactly, Shall we put all these tassels and be in the present and move to the future?

    2. Fonseka says:

      The most uneducated comment I have seen from @Lester.
      A genetic admixture study found Sinhalese to have a higher contribution from Indian Tamils (69.86% +/- 0.61), compared with the Bengalis (25.41% +/- 0.51). Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese on the island share a common gene pool of 55%.

      1. Lester says:

        Correlation does not imply causation. Humans and chimpanzees share 98.8% per cent of their DNA. Does it mean humans are chimpanzees?

  4. Rajasingham says:

    I would disagree with some of the points made by Velupillai Thangavelu. Buddhism was never dominant in the Tamil land although it had its Tamil literature and grammar. It tended to be urban rather than rural, and an intellectual school rather than a mass belief system. The Kalabhra interregnum sponsored Buddhism in the Tamil land but that dynasty was never accepted as a sponsor of high Tamil culture.

    A more important point to make and one unrelated to his observation is that archaeology in Sri Lanka is not exclusively Buddhist. It’s also Tamil Hindu. Zheng He, the medieval Chinese admiral, left a trilingual inscription in Galle in Chinese, Tamil and Persian, the Tamil segment being a veneration of Vishnu, who incidentally had his Temple in Dondra manned by Tamil priests and sponsored by Tamil merchants with autonomy provided by no other than Parakrama Bahu II. There are countless other examples in Mantai, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa and Jaffna.

  5. jay says:

    Several pieces of evidence prove the existence of Tamil language speakers who practised Buddhism or respected Buddhist places of worship in both India and Sri Lanka. The most vital example from Sri Lanka is the Tamil language inscriptions belonging to the Chola era that have been found in Welgam Vihara in Trincomalee. These Tamil inscriptions were put by Chola army mercenaries and there are internal evidences in the inscriptions to suggest that they were domiciled in Tamil Nadu. Also, the poojas conducted by them in the Velgam Vehera are more Hindu in Character than Buddhist. The second piece of evidence comes from a single Tamil inscription, again one belongs to the Chola era, where a Buddhist from TN had visited and worshipped Anuradhapura Buddhist temples. Other than that there is no other evidence to suggest any presence of Tamil Buddhists on the island. The majority of the Tamil inscriptions found in SL are Hindu in character.

    In Tamil Nadu, there is evidence to suggest that Buddhism did exist in that part of India. Tamil works like Virasoliyam is said to be written within a Buddhist background. Many Buddhist artefacts have been found in TN. But there is no evidence to suggest that Buddhism was a major religion of the Tamils. Going by the archaeological evidence, it seems Jainism was more common among the ancient people in what is today TN than Buddhism.

  6. Wasantha Punchihewa says:

    I can not understand the reason why ? the people of Tamil Nadu and that of Sri Lanka claim to have roots to Tamil and or Dravidian origins speak ideally the same language “Tamil “, in spite of a clear geographical barrier. Moreover dissimilarities in the languages of peoples or Dravidian origins inhabiting states immediately next to and close by states, with out such well demarcated geographical barriers speak derivatives of Tamil. My interpretation is that the so called Tamil people of Ceylon are the ones brought by British and the illegal immigrants seeking greener pastures during those colonial days and nearly for two decades after independence (and even now). So having come here adopt to the new habitat and flourish or get back to the original habitat now becoming greener than wasting time in developing mythical stories, spreading lies and creating problems.

View all comments (11)

Comments (11)

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Veluppillai Thangavelu says:

    Buddhism spread to Tamil Nadu probably during the rule of Emperor Asoka (304 – 232 BCE). Buddhism was the dominant religion along with Jainism up to the 7th – 9th century. After the rise of Saivite religion Buddhism and Jainism completely vanished by the 10th century. Some Tamil Buddhists to escape prosecution migrated to Northeast. The Manimekalai is 100% a Mahayana Buddhist epic written in Tamil. Even during the Sankam period there were poets with Buddhist names. So Buddhism is not an alien religion to Tamils. Because of the display of Sinhalese – Buddhist militancy by Buddhist monks Tamils have come to hate everything Buddhist. The assault on places of Hindu worship is a new phenomena unheard before. As for Hindus they consider Buddha as another avatar of Lord Krishna/Thirumal. In fact Buddha himself is a Hindu and his teachings reflect Hindu philosophy like the 5 precepts prescribed for lay Buddhists. Only mentally de-ranged people will fight over religion which is only a belief system. No one religion is superior to another.

    1. Don Pathiraja says:

      I respect your comments

  2. Silva D says:

    Based on the information available to me, I am not aware of any Tamil leaders who refute the historical existence of Tamil Buddhism as an integral part of the vibrant history of Sri Lankan Tamils. It is important to note that the Tamil Buddhist community also underwent a process of Sinhalization, where their cultural identity and practices were influenced by Sinhalese culture. It is fascinating to observe that many individuals of Sinhalese descent appear to have forgotten their own ancestral Tamil heritage.

    1. Fonseka says:

      Correct as the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese populations, found similar genetic backgrounds for both ethnic groups, with little genetic flow from other neighboring Asian population groups

  3. Lester says:

    There are no Tamil Buddhists and there are no Sinhalese Hindus. Sinhalese cannot understand the Tamil language, and Tamils cannot understand the Sinhala language. This proves that these two communities have an entirely different history. Tamils are Dravidians who trace their history to Africa, while Sinhalese are Aryans, descended from people in Orissa (Bengal).

    1. Dr P Thilakawardhana says:

      Exactly, Shall we put all these tassels and be in the present and move to the future?

    2. Fonseka says:

      The most uneducated comment I have seen from @Lester.
      A genetic admixture study found Sinhalese to have a higher contribution from Indian Tamils (69.86% +/- 0.61), compared with the Bengalis (25.41% +/- 0.51). Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese on the island share a common gene pool of 55%.

      1. Lester says:

        Correlation does not imply causation. Humans and chimpanzees share 98.8% per cent of their DNA. Does it mean humans are chimpanzees?

  4. Rajasingham says:

    I would disagree with some of the points made by Velupillai Thangavelu. Buddhism was never dominant in the Tamil land although it had its Tamil literature and grammar. It tended to be urban rather than rural, and an intellectual school rather than a mass belief system. The Kalabhra interregnum sponsored Buddhism in the Tamil land but that dynasty was never accepted as a sponsor of high Tamil culture.

    A more important point to make and one unrelated to his observation is that archaeology in Sri Lanka is not exclusively Buddhist. It’s also Tamil Hindu. Zheng He, the medieval Chinese admiral, left a trilingual inscription in Galle in Chinese, Tamil and Persian, the Tamil segment being a veneration of Vishnu, who incidentally had his Temple in Dondra manned by Tamil priests and sponsored by Tamil merchants with autonomy provided by no other than Parakrama Bahu II. There are countless other examples in Mantai, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Polonnaruwa and Jaffna.

  5. jay says:

    Several pieces of evidence prove the existence of Tamil language speakers who practised Buddhism or respected Buddhist places of worship in both India and Sri Lanka. The most vital example from Sri Lanka is the Tamil language inscriptions belonging to the Chola era that have been found in Welgam Vihara in Trincomalee. These Tamil inscriptions were put by Chola army mercenaries and there are internal evidences in the inscriptions to suggest that they were domiciled in Tamil Nadu. Also, the poojas conducted by them in the Velgam Vehera are more Hindu in Character than Buddhist. The second piece of evidence comes from a single Tamil inscription, again one belongs to the Chola era, where a Buddhist from TN had visited and worshipped Anuradhapura Buddhist temples. Other than that there is no other evidence to suggest any presence of Tamil Buddhists on the island. The majority of the Tamil inscriptions found in SL are Hindu in character.

    In Tamil Nadu, there is evidence to suggest that Buddhism did exist in that part of India. Tamil works like Virasoliyam is said to be written within a Buddhist background. Many Buddhist artefacts have been found in TN. But there is no evidence to suggest that Buddhism was a major religion of the Tamils. Going by the archaeological evidence, it seems Jainism was more common among the ancient people in what is today TN than Buddhism.

  6. Wasantha Punchihewa says:

    I can not understand the reason why ? the people of Tamil Nadu and that of Sri Lanka claim to have roots to Tamil and or Dravidian origins speak ideally the same language “Tamil “, in spite of a clear geographical barrier. Moreover dissimilarities in the languages of peoples or Dravidian origins inhabiting states immediately next to and close by states, with out such well demarcated geographical barriers speak derivatives of Tamil. My interpretation is that the so called Tamil people of Ceylon are the ones brought by British and the illegal immigrants seeking greener pastures during those colonial days and nearly for two decades after independence (and even now). So having come here adopt to the new habitat and flourish or get back to the original habitat now becoming greener than wasting time in developing mythical stories, spreading lies and creating problems.

Sri Lanka president appoints Supreme Court-faulted official as police chief after CC clearance

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed Deshbandu Tennakoon as the 36th Inspector General of Police (IGP) of the country after the Constitutional Council (CC) cleared the official who along with three other police officers were asked by the Supreme Court to compensate 2 million rupees in a fundamental rights case last year.

“President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed Deshbandu Tennakoon as the IGP in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution,” the President’s Media Division (PMD) said.

The island nation’s Supreme Court on December 14 ordered Tennakoon when he was the Acting IGP and three other officials to pay a compensation of 500,000 rupees each for the violation of the fundamental rights of an individual.

The Supreme Court also instructed the Police Commission to take disciplinary action against the said Police officers after it considered the petition filed by W. Ranjith Sumangala who had accused the Police officers of violating his fundamental rights during his detention at Mirihana Police Station in 2011.

The Supreme Court held that the four police officers violated the fundamental rights of the petitioner by his illegal arrest, detention and subjection to torture at the Mirihana Police Station, which was under the supervision of Tennakoon at the time of the arrest.

President’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake presented the official appointment letter to Tennakoon on Monday (26) at the Presidential Secretariat.

When Tennakoon was asked over if the Supreme Court decision would have an impact on his appointment as the IGP last week, he declined to comment, saying that it was a Supreme Court matter and he does not want to say anything about it.

Tennakoon was also criticized by Colombo Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith when he was appointed as the Acting IGP citing allegations against him related to security lapses leading up to the Easter Sunday attacks which killed at least 269 in April 2019.

However, Tennakoon rejected the allegations. (Colombo/Feb 26/2024)

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No water tariff hike in Sri Lanka this year: Minister

Millennium Challenge Corporation Photo.

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s planned water tariff formula is ready, and the government will implement it this year only if the formula’s tariff is lower than the current price, Water Supply Minister Jeevan Thondaman said.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government has been implementing IMF-led pricing policies on utilities and the Water Supply Ministry has already come up with a formula.

“There is a water tariff formula in place right now and we are waiting for it to be drafted and seek approval from the cabinet,” Thondaman told reporters at a media briefing in Colombo on Monday.

“Once this water tariff formula is in place, there will be an annual revision with an option of biannual review.

The formula has been developed with the help of the Asian Development Bank. The formula includes electricity and exchange rate among many others as components like the fuel formula.

The National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWS&DB) increased the water tariff in August 2023, claiming that the operating cost had been increased owing to high interest payment for bank loans and increased electricity prices.

The last year revision saw the consumers paying 30-50 percent increase from the existing water bill.

Minister Thondaman said he will implement the new formula this year only if there is a reduction.

TARIFF CUT WILL BE IMPLEMENTED 

“We will have to wait to see what the formula is. If the formula shows us there needs to be a reduction in the water tariff, we can implement it. But if there is an increase, why should we burden the people when we are on a road to recovery?” he said.

He said a group of experts including University Professors are working on the formula and the numbers.

“Once they come with the number, we will have to take a decision on whether we are going to impose on the people or not,” he said.

“We have already spoken to the Asian Development Bank and informed them we have established the formula. But according to the ADB requirement of this policy-based loan, the implementation period is only in 2025.”

“But right now, you want to take the approval for the formula for sustainability.”

The Energy Ministry is considering a drastic slash in electricity tariff soon. Thondaman said the exact numbers will be decided on after the finalized electricity tariff.

However, he said that as per the formula, there has to be a up to 10 percent increase in the water tariff as of now.

“Given the current formula set up, there must be around a 9-10 percent increase. It was actually at 14 percent. What we have done is since it is at 14 percent, we also did a calculation to see how we can do a cost cutting,” he said.

“So, despite our cost cutting measures, there will be an increase of 9 or 10 percent. But we will not be imposing it as of now because this year is meant to be policy sector reforms. Next year is meant to be the implementation.”

“As per August 2023 water tariff hike, we are able to come close to sustainable. So right now, there is no issue in the water sector. But a formula eventually needs to be established.” (Colombo/Feb 26/2024)

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Sri Lanka rupee closes at 310.80/311.00 to the US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed at 310.80/311.00 to the US dollar Monday, from 310.95/311.05 on Thursday, dealers said.

Bond yields were down.

A bond maturing on 01.02.2026 closed stable at 10.60/80 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2027 closed at 11.80/90 percent down from 11.90/12.05 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.03.2028 closed at 12.00/12.15 percent down from 12.10/25 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.07.2029 closed at 12.20/70 percent from 12.20/95 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2030 closed at 12.30/70 percent down from 12.40/95 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2031 closed at 12.60/80 percent from 12.45/13.00 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2032 closed at 12.50/90 percent from 12.50/13.30 percent. (Colombo/Feb26/2024)

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