Communal claims on common land

Power sharing in Sri Lanka is about drawing up constitutional title deeds to enshrine communal claims on a common territory. Consequent to this local twist, there are many barriers to power sharing in Sri Lanka, including the wide, nonexclusive dissemination of knowledge. Knowledge diffusion is mainly via Sri Lankan dialogues. The following dialogue had the following catalyst;  

‘The Kokila Sandesaya narrates the longest of the journeys from the southernmost point on the island, Devinuwara (Dondra) to its northernmost city, Yapa Patuna (Jaffna). It names seventy-two places along the journey. Some of the Sinhala place-names on the northern leg of the journey are no longer identifiable, because these areas are now home to a mainly Tamil population.’

 (Pieris, Anoma (2010) ‘Avian Geographies: An Inquiry into Nationalist Consciousness in Medieval Lanka’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33: 3, 336 — 362)
‘I have mailed you that article by Anoma Pieris’.

 ‘She is the granddaughter of G. C. Mendis isn’t she?’  
‘Yes. She is at Uni of Melbourne. Thought the bit about the northern leg of the journey might interest you’.  
‘That the 15th century Kokila Sandesaya should list Sinhala place names on its northern leg!  Hardly a revelation. Take a look at that 17th century Dutch map; Kaart van Jaffanapatnam en onderhoorige landen en eilanden (Map of Jaffanapatnam countries and islands and dependencies). The manuscript is in the Nationaal Archief, Netherlands, but you can get a fairly large view at Certain browsers let you translate the web page into English. Get it full screen and start spotting the Sinhala place names.

 The first name to hit you is Welligamo. As one of the four main divisions of Jaffanapatnam, it’s written larger. No big news there. Everyone knows about Valikamam and Weligama, but everyone may not know the transition happened post 17th century. The real revelations are the smaller print locations; Cottiewatte, Watane, Vimangamo, Walandale, Lilagamo, Tangode, Tambale, Batecotte, Anecotte, Naloer(Nal oya), Oergavature, Nagamoene, Tambegamo, Coylacandy (Kohila Kanda), Mepale, Pollopalle, Alipalle, Malwattoe, Anungay, Walewitakepoelo, etc. etc. These are just the ones that stand out without ambiguity to my naked eye on the computer screen. I’d love to have someone with an eye for handwritten script and etymological expertise subject the manuscript to a magnifying glass.

 And yet, in essence all this is old news. H. W. Codrington for one would have yawned. (The place-names in the peninsula indicate that it was held by Sinhala inhabitants at no very remote date, …- Chapter VI, Short history of Ceylon, 1926). I imagine he yawned from The Great Beyond in 1965, when the PhD student K. Indrapala highlighted “the toponymic evidence involving over a thousand place names of distinctly Sinhalese origin ‘in Tamil garb’” presented by the Jaffna peninsula. But then most people are not Codrington. For one thing, primary evidence such as the Kokila Sandesaya and the 17th century map impacts like a bullet between the eyes, while pronouncements by an expert, however respected, merely wait politely by your head for admittance. You can either take it or dismiss it as personal whim or idiosyncrasy of the expert. D. B. S Jeyaraj for example, responding to someone’s web comment about place name evidence went, “oh place names? But that PhD thesis has been superseded now by the Indrapala 2005”. It’s nothing of the kind. 2005 Indrapala merely maintains an undignified and deafening silence about the whole place names motif.

 I am pretty sure that even scholars specialized on 17th century Lanka would find Sinhalese place names in 17th century Jaffna a trifle odd. On a purely academic, bloodless level, they may know of the distinctly Sinhalese origin place names in Tamil garb thingy, but in their minds the ‘garbing date’ would be long, long ago; the mid 13th century or the 14th century at the latest. There is this surgical deadline drawn in the time stream of Lanka. By 14th century latest, all Sinhalese place names in Jaffna should be decently covered in Tamil garb, all surviving Sinhalese populations should neatly die by assimilation. A clean amputation followed by cauterization. A definite closure to the Sinhalese chapter of the peninsular.

 ‘Why don’t you write an article about these things?’
‘But the people know these things! And I wrote an article, I said; “While a Chechen may have much to celebrate in his historically entrenched, uniform and consistent association with Chechnya, I hold that he is also poorer because he is deprived of the experience of being part of a region with diverse and multi-cultural associations, such as our Northern Province. He will never know the experience of living in a land whose identity exists in layers, where the earlier layer still peeks through the current layer as enticingly as a camisole does through a sheer blouse.”’  

 ‘Hmm..I don’t remember this.’
‘You aren’t supposed to forget!’
‘But, do the Colombo intellectual elite know?’
‘Shall we take a specific example, as not to offend any genuinely intelligent intellectual elite? My example is an intellect like a train. A train may be fast or slow but it is not truly mobile. It has to run on a fixed rail. It has to pass promising pathways without turning into them. Supposing that such an intellect comes across the devolution diamond in the course of its reading? In those books, the diamond would be presented in an ideal setting; an Ethnic Other, a Territory, a historically entrenched and exclusively predominant Association. Supposing that just like a train, this intellect is also relentless, maybe to compensate for its limited mobility? It cares little what kind of setting actually exists over here for this diamond. If it’s not here, it must be imagined into being. Mind over matter. Power of

suggestion.  And that’s what Dayan Jayatilleke was doing in 13/06/2010 Lakbima, when he conjured for the masses, a Lanka that had Ethnic Other areas since 2nd century B.C. with concessions being made even then to the cultural otherness of ‘those’ areas; Dutugemunu appointing a ethnic other Yuvaraj after the war to administer ‘those’ areas.’  
[The author can be reached at and her work is posted in]

Written by  Darshanie Ratnawalli   Sunday, 01 July 2012

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