Revealing the hidden history of Jaffna | Sunday Observer
Opinion: Reply to C. V. Wigneswaran’s attack on Prof. G. L. Peiris – Part 3

Revealing the hidden history of Jaffna

24 October, 2021

All Sri Lankans are descendants of migrants. We are a nation of migrants. Even the Jaffnaites who claim to be descendants of Tamils who arrived in pre-historic times filled the Northern strip of land, which they called their sacred homeland, with South Indian migrants only in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were known as Malabaris since they came from Malabar, not Tamils.

They had no links to the “Demalas” mentioned in the Mahavamsa. The “Demalas” cited in the Mahavamsa lived in the ancient and middle ages. That stream dried out. They either integrated with the Sinhalese or went back to India. The stragglers who stayed behind did not organise themselves into a political unit to establish a separate state or civilisation of their own. Left to themselves, without any military support from South India, they coexisted with the majority Sinhalese as peaceful citizens. Besides, they were numerically insignificant, without any power to challenge might of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. 

What is of historical significance is that the first Jaffna kingdom was established not by indigenous Tamils, but by the invading forces of Kalinga Magha in 1215. The Malabaris migrated in waves in the 12th and 13th centuries and colonised the territory occupied mainly by the Sinhala-Buddhists. The Jaffna Tamils of today are descendants of the Malabaris who migrated during this time from South India. They are not the “Demalas” of ancient and middle ages who could lay claims based on their historical connections from “the dawn of time” (Vadukoddai Resolution).

The Jaffna Tamils of today are descendants of Dravidian imperialists who invaded the Northern strip and colonised the Sinhala-Buddhist territory. The “insane fury” of the occupying forces drove the Sinhala-Buddhists out of the Jaffna, after they had massacred the Catholics first. The Jaffna Tamils of today are descendants of the Dravidian invaders who colonised Jaffna. The ethnical cleansing of Jaffna to make it a Tamil colony is recorded in Yalpana Vaipava Malai, the mini history written during the Dutch period.


History of Jaffna as a separate political entity began with the influx of new Malabaris from South India. The numerical strength of Tamils increased after the new waves of Malabari migration flooded Jaffna. Jaffna was created by the South Indian invaders and not by the descendants of the original Tamils who settled down in ancient and middle ages.

In the late British period, after the Tamil revival led by Arumuka Navalar and C.W. Thamotherampillai, the new English-speaking Vellala elite dropped the Malabari connection and became Tamils, proud of their new identity derived mainly from the purity of the Tamil language preserved in Jaffna. These new Tamils of Jaffna, in fact, resisted the South Indian influences and pressured Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to ban the import of cheap Indian magazines, literature and films as they were polluting the pure Tamil culture of Jaffna.

When Kalinga Magha invaded Jaffna with his imperialist forces and established his colony in Jaffna, he opened the gates for Malabari migration. Yalpana Vaipava Malai states that they came in waves. They had no connection to the indigenous Tamils who had descended from the ancient and medieval Tamils domiciled in Sri Lanka. That line had petered out.

They had no links to the “Demalas” mentioned in the Mahavamsa. Kalinga Magha’s invaders established a colony of the occupying forces with no historical connections to the Tamils who settled down in historical times. Consequently, present day Jaffna is saturated with the descendants of the Malabari colonialists and not those of the historic “Demalas” mentioned in the Mahavamsa. The Malabari descendants and the Mahavamsa descendants are two separate streams who migrated in two different periods. Unlike the “Demalas” in the Mahavamsa who came as invaders, marauders, merchants and mercenaries, the Malabaris came as colonisers or as slaves to the earlier Sudra Vellala settlers domiciled in the Jaffna kingdom.

There is no unbroken continuity of one segueing into the other, or passing its heritage to the other. The Jaffna Malabaris who make modern Jaffna were not there to receive the heritage, if any, of the Mahavamsa “Demalas” who were active participants in Sinhala-Buddhist history, either as adversaries or as domiciled citizens. They belong to the ancient and middle ages. The modern Jaffnaites, the direct descendants of Malabaris, belong to the post-12th century colonisers with no connection to the early Tamil settlers.

The “Demalas” in the Mahavamsa came as itinerant explorers. They went back home after their jobs or adventures were over.  They did not come en masse as permanent settlers. The Malabaris, or the modern Jaffnaites, came in 12th and 13th centuries solely with the idea of colonising and making the Northern strip their home.

Historical reality

The geographical proximity to India made it the natural and the easiest location for the Malabari migrants to hop across. The short 20 km Palk Straits makes it a breeze to cross over. In reality, the Tamils began to make a history of their own only after the Malabaris settled down in the 12th and 13th centuries. Tamil historian K. Indrapala wrote his first thesis on the history of the Tamils based on this historical reality. But he had to recant it as it did not fit into the political agenda of Tamil separatists who needed a history going beyond the 12 the century to “the dawn of time” (Vadukoddai Resolution) to boost their political claims.

The history of those who claim to be Tamils later began with the Malabari waves of migration from South India. It is this mass migration that makes Jaffna the haven of the Sudra Vellalas, the lowest caste in the classical caste hierarchy of India. They gained numerical and political strength with the influx of the Malabaris. Recruiting the poverty-stricken Malabaris was cheap for the Vellala tobacco planters and the Dutch masters. Besides, the Sudra Malabaris were not restrained by religious taboos. The other three higher castes – Brahmins, Kshatriya and Vaisya – did not cross over because Hinduism tabooed the crossing of seas.

The elite of India adhered faithfully to their religious code and stayed at home. It was the Sudra Vellalas, the lowest caste, that came over to Jaffna. This explains the dominance of the Vellalas who form the majority in the peninsula. Their numerical strength has given them political power to be in command from the beginning. Consequently, the feudal casteist politics of the Vellalas came to be the most powerful force in Jaffna. The story of how the lowest caste became the highest in Jaffna is another saga.

The combination of linguistic and mono-ethnic politics with traditional casteism steeped in Saivism was the standard Jaffna socio-political recipe that produced Vellalaism – a unique political dish that was the staple diet of the ruling Vellala elite. Vellalaism was sold in the Jaffna political market as the best diet for the survival and success of the Tamils. In the political market, it triumphed over all other products. Ideologies of liberalism, socialism, or any other ideology based on humanism could not get even a toehold against the overwhelming forces of Vellalaism which crushed rivals with ease. 

Sudra Vellalas

As the dominant force in peninsular politics, the decisions and actions of the Sudra Vellalas determined the political consequences which flowed collectively to make the post-independent history Jaffna. As the ruling masters of Jaffna, it was the Sudra Vellalas who made history and subsequently wrote it, describing it as the history of the Tamils. This was inevitable because no other caste /community had the power or the space to play any significant part in the decision-making process at the highest, or even the middle level in Jaffna – both of which were dominated by the Sudra Vellalas.

It is a misnomer to label the politics of the North as Tamil politics when a sizeable segment of the minority Tamils were ostracised and kept out of the political process. The Jaffna political landscape was dominated and determined exclusively by the Sudra Vellalas, leaving the non-Vellala Tamils out of the picture, which makes the politics of the North “Vellala politics” and not “Tamil politics”.

Some of the non-Vellala Tamils who were ostracised were not even recognised as Tamils. So how could it be “Tamil politics” when the Tamils ostracised from Tamil society had no part in the decision-making process of the Vellalas who ruled Jaffna? From the Dutch period, when the Sudra Vellalas consolidated their power under Thesawalamai as the overlords, Jaffna remained as the land of the Sudra Vellalas, by the Sudra Vellalas, for the Sudra Vellalas.

Armed with the political power they wielded, the Vellalas succeeded in grabbing total power into their hands and running Jaffna according to their norms. But the absence of a priest caste like the Brahmins at the top left a huge vacuum in the Jaffna Hindu caste hierarchy. The vacuum was filled by Arumuka Navalar, the dynamic Hindu revisionist, who elevated the Sudra Vellalas, the lowest, to the highest social level of Brahmins of Jaffna. His revision of Saivism resulted ultimately in placing the Sudra Vellalas in the highest rung of the caste hierarchy of Jaffna. In the absence of the Brahmins, the lowest became the highest. When the lowest rose to the highest rung, the power generated by religious authority elevated secular Sudra Vellalas to be the equivalent of the Brahmins – a divine force.

Navalar’s act of ritually anointing Vellalas as the equivalent of Brahmins inflated the Sudra Vellala egos with an unwarranted sense of superiority. To be anointed as the Brahmins of Jaffna was the highest social status achievable in the casteist hierarchy. Later, the Sudra Vellalas reciprocated by elevating Arumuka Navalar, the Hindu/Tamil revivalist, to the level of an iconic religious guru of Jaffna. He became a revered hero of the Vellalas, though the low castes rejected him. When his statue was taken round Jaffna in 1968 by the high-caste Vellalas, the protesting low-castes stoned the statue and “the Sinhala-Buddhist state” had to send its Police to save the face of the Vellalas.

Religious sanctity

Vellala political power was reinforced with religious sanctity when revised Saivism of Navalar elevated Vellalaism to the peak of the casteist hierarchy. Vellalaism became a part of the divinely ordained social order. Like Saivism, the authority of Vellalaism could not be questioned. To question the authority of Vellalism was to question the divinely ordained casteist hierarchy.

In India, Hinduism made Brahmanism a divine force. In the absence of the Brahminism in Jaffna, the revised Vellalaism of Navalar placed the Vellalas as the equals of the Brahmins -- a formidable force.  In short, the religious act of Arumuka Navalar, the revered Hindu theologian/priest of the dominant Sudra Vellalas of Jaffna, turned into a political act that empowered the Vellalas to rule Jaffna with divine authority. Invigorated by their belief in caste superiority, the Sudra Vellalas assumed that they were the divinely ordained rulers of Jaffna.

They came to believe that they were not merely the secular heads under Thesawalamai, but also the religious heads under revised Saivism of Arumuka Navalar. Besides, they owned the temples and could dictate terms to the low-castes. Deluded by the arrogance of caste superiority and political power, they assumed that they were born to rule. It was Navalar who white-washed the Sudra Vellalas with caste purity, blessing them with the power to rule from the peak of the social hierarchy. This made the Vellalas the mightiest force in peninsula politics.

“The Vellala dominance of Tamil society is complete,” wrote Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole. (p. 45,  Heritage Histories, A Reassessment of Arumuga Navalar, a.k.a. Candar Arumuganavan, Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, Thesam Publications, U.K.). Vellala laws, customs rituals, norms controlled every aspect of Jaffna society from the womb to the tomb. Besides, they monopolised power in Jaffna because they were in control of all the levers of the commanding heights of politics, administration and religious institutions. Land, temples, plum jobs in the administration, schools, professions were in the hands of the Vellalas.

Sankili cult

It was their abuse of power from these commanding positions that turned them into a fascist oppressive force. They took to the pervasive Sankili cult of violence like duck to water and pursued power ruthlessly. The power struggle of the Vellalas to retain their grip on Jaffna made them the cruellest ruling caste/class, determining the life of Jaffnaites from the womb to the tomb. At the core of major political clashes, whether with the low-castes in the colonial and feudal times, or colonial rulers (Modely Tambi’s rebellion against the Dutch), or the post-colonial rulers in the South, the clashes were essentially with the Vellalas. Their omnipresent power was ineluctable. Its overwhelming pressures forced even the Churches to succumb to its demands. To preserve the superior status of the Vellalas, the Churches allotted the front pews to the Vellalas and the rear pews to the low-castes.

Sudra Vellala politics centred on the fear of them losing their power over the low-caste minority in Jaffna in feudal and colonial times first, and then losing power to the Sinhalese majority in the South in the post-independent era. It is the power of the Sudra Vellalas that was under threat, not that of the Tamils, or the Tamil-speaking people. All demands were framed and pursued intransigently to its bitter end – political strategy that has boomeranged on them. Their relentless pursuit of the politics of the Vadukoddai Resolution – the ultimate political manifesto of the Sudra Vellalas -- ended in Nandikadal. It is their aggressive and excessive demands that bedevilled North-South relations.

Historian Dr. G. C. Mendis wrote: “The real problem arose not because the Sinhalese were not prepared to compromise, but were not prepared to concede as much as the Tamils demanded.” (p.12 – Journal of the Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol XI, 1967.) A typical example of Vellala extremism is G. G. Ponnambalam’s “50-50” demand. It is insane extremism for a minority of 11 percent to demand 50 percent of power at the centre. In response, the Sinhalese offered 45 percent to the Tamils which was rejected by Ponnmbalam who refused to budge from his 50 percent demand. This validates Dr. Mendis’s political assessment. Tamil political judgments released the mistake of not taking the offer of 45 percent. But it is the Sinhala-Buddhists who are blamed for not giving into the Tamils.

Mono-ethnic extremism

The Vellalas disguised their sectarian mono-ethnic extremism as ethnic issues affecting the entire Tamil-speaking community. But their contempt for the rest of the Tamil-speaking communities – the low-castes, the Batticaloa Tamils, and the Indian Tamils – is well documented. Their mythical history tracing their origins to the “dawn of time” gave them the illusion of being the founders of the nation.

The arbitrary and unwarranted elevation of the Sudra caste to the level of Brahmins gave them a false sense of superiority. The disproportionate share of government jobs filled them with the illusion of being intellectual geniuses. Their minds were saturated with concoctions of fabricated political myths. The Vellala arrogance and their sense of superiority came out of myths fabricated by their perverted imagination.

Even the colonial masters recognised the Vellalas as the leading political force. They were consulted and accommodated as far as possible to keep the natives quiet. For instance, when the Dutch codified the laws and customs of Jaffna, they consulted the 12 Vellala mudliyars. It was with their consent that Thesawalamai came into force as the law of Jaffna – an act that legalised Tamil slavery.

Besides, after the riots of Modeli Tamby – the Vellala rebel who rioted against the Dutch for not giving the job of canakepulle in the Dutch administration to a Vellala – the Dutch tilted the proportion of government jobs in favour of the Vellalas, playing down the claims of their rivals, the Madapallis. With legalised slavery, the Vellalas had all the powers and privileges of feudal casteism to rule Jaffna with an iron-fist suppressing and oppressing the low-caste Tamils. They were ostracised and kept aloof, outside Tamil society, as the virtual enemies of the Vellalas.

Before the Vellalas turned against the South, the Vellalas were engaged in a low-intensity battles with the low-castes who were sporadically resisting Vellala oppression. The low-castes did not have the organised power to challenge the Vellalas. The fascist Vellalas, however, used all the power they had to keep the low-castes in the caste-assigned place.  “The Vellalas,” wrote Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, “dominate intellectual life. They control what is taught in schools. ….. The Vellala dominance of Tamil society is complete. ….. When Vellalas dominate intellectual life, it is natural for them to twist history. It is the human condition to not accept anything negative about ourselves….” P. 45-46, Heritage Histories, A Reassessment of Arumuga Navalar, a.k.a. Canda Arumuganavan, Thesam Publications, UK.)

North-South relations

It is the politics of the Sudra Vellalas that over-determined the overall politics of the peninsula. They used the power they derived from their dominance of Jaffna to determine the North-South relations. Their power and arrogance spilled over from the North into the rest of the nation, ruining all possibilities of peaceful co-existence. What was presented to the world as demands of the Tamils was nothing but the demands of the Vellalas.

The Vadukoddai Resolution which declared war against the nation in urging the Tamil youth to take up arms until they achieved Eelam was purely a Vellala demand. The upper-caste Tamils were expecting the low-caste Tamil to pull out their political chestnuts from the fire. The Vellalas were hoping to ride into power on the backs of the low-castes. So, they backed the “Vadukoddai War” (a.k.a. “Eelam War”) to the hilt.

Weaponising the Tamil youth was the last card they played to win power for themselves. The ageing Vellala leadership did not fight.

They either sat comfortably in the Parliamentary seats in the Sinhala-Buddhist South or migrated overseas and financed their war hoping to come back to rule Jaffna once again according to their agenda. It all ended in Nandikadal.

With the decline of casteist Vellalaism as a legitimate ideology to sustain their grip on power, Hinduism and the Tamil language became the most formidable forces of Jaffna. It is these two factors that bonded all layers of the fragmented Tamil communities together. The identity of the Jaffna Tamil is woven around these two ideologies. Prof. S. Pathmanathan says that “the Hindu tradition, along with the Tamil language, forms the basis of the Tamil identity.” (Quoted by Prof Ratnajeeevan H. Hoole in p. 28 of Nethra Ibid).

These two forces were hijacked by the Vellalas when they realised that casteism, the divinely ordained order, was losing its power to sustain them in power. But power did not slip out of the Vellalas until the arrival of Velupillai Prabhakaran. In the same page Prof. Ratnajeeevan Hoole says that “the belief of the many Tamils (is that) unless one is a Saivite, he is not a Tamil and unless one is a Vellala, he is nothing.”


The Vellalas continued to exploit both Hinduism and language to maintain their dominant place in politics. They have not offered any other liberal, democratic, socialist to the Tamil electorate. They succeeded in surviving as a caste elite under Hinduism in feudal and colonial times. But modernity undermined casteism as a political force.

As the force of casteism declined in the 20th century, the Vellalas turned to language for political survival. The use of the Tamil language became the most explosive issue in national politics because the Tamils found it to be the most unifying force of Tamils cutting across caste divisions. It even appealed to the Westernised Sinhalese and the English-speaking elite in Muslim and Burgher communities.

But it was the Tamils who, in the absence of any progressive political program, went all out to exploit the language issue. It was also an issue confined mainly to the elitist Vellalas in the professions. It was not an issue that affected the Tamil traders because those running shops communicated without any difficulties with the Sinhala customers.

It was not an issue that affected Tamils who had settled in the South to live in Sinhalese neighbourhoods. As neighbours, the Muslims and the Tamils communicated with the Sinhalese without any linguistic problems. It was not an issue at the highest elitist level because they communicated with each other mainly in English, with Sinhalese thrown in.  So, language was not really a divisive issue that threw communities apart. It was really a class issue that brought the elite of all communities together against the use of Sinhalese.

The dead hand of history lies heavily on the present and there is no way of escaping it unless you are prepared to renounce the past. The politics of the past comes down in many forms.

It is the distorted history that wreaks havoc on the present. The Tamils became the victims of their distorted history. It is their fake history that led them all the way to Nandikadal. Their inflated arrogance blinded them to the grim realities of history.

Historical legitimacy

The alien Malabris who became Tamils of Jaffna believed that they were even superior to the Brahmins. The Jaffnaites thirst for history is to cover up their Malabari origins. So, they skip the Malabari invasion, which does not give them any historical legitimacy, and leap to “the dawn of time” to claim nebulous historical legitimacy. Even within Jaffna, the ruling Vellalas had to cling on to casteism to claim legitimacy. The manufacture of history became a huge industry in the post-independent era because the Jaffnaites were desperately in need of some sort of history, or anything that sounds like history, to legitimise their bogus claims.

C.V. Wigneswaran has suggested the formation of a Commission to probe and “write a true history of this country.” His idea of a “true history” is one that confirms his beliefs of Tamil superiority. According to his gospel, history was made by the Tamils and the Sinhala-Buddhists had hijacked it by Sinhalacising the names of the kings and places who made and wrote history.

For instance, he says, the Sinhalese had rechristened Devanampiya Theesan as Devanampiya Tissa. This is what Tamils did to Bata Kotte. They changed it into Vadukoddai. In his history, he changes Dutugemunu to Dushta Kaamini, a Tamil Buddhist. He is hoping that a new commission will write history according to his version.

The Tamils have two universities and not a single has produced a history of Jaffna – a project that should have been prioritised by any one of them since history is at the heart of the burning politics of the day. 

They, however, cannot produce a history because they do not know how to hide the inhuman Sankili cult of Tamil history. Besides, an objective history will not substantiate their claim for a separate state. The only way out for the Tamil separatists is to rewrite a history that would fit into their political agenda. This is why Wigneswaran wants a commission to produce his version of history.

New history

It is time that the Tamil intellectuals realised that history is unforgiving. They cannot liberate their Tamil people by distorting reality. For instance, the history they wrote in Vadukoddai in May 14, 1976 did not redeem them because it was fake. It ended in Nandikadal. The time has come for them to write a new history of Jaffna acknowledging the truth. They can begin by asking a fundamental question vital for the peaceful coexistence of all communities: Why did Jaffna fail to produce a democratic, liberal and humane society that blessed all Tamils with dignity, justice and equality? Also, there is another simple question that Wigneswaran has to answer to sustain his thesis of Tamil superiority: If the Tamils came first and if the Tamil language was here before Sinhalese, why did the Tamil language go down and why did Tamil history decline making Sinhalese the superior force in history? Those who triumph in history are superior to those who lose or come second.

All of Sri Lankan history prove that the Sinhala-Buddhists triumphed all the way. For instance, the Sinhala-Buddhists triumphed in building a tolerant, liberal democratic society though with infirmities. They even fought the longest war within a democratic framework. The Tamils of Jaffna never in their history built a democratic, liberal and tolerant society.

On the contrary, their war was fought under the ruthless leadership of a Tamil Pol Pot who killed more Tamils than the others.

It is the inability of Tamils to read and understand history that led them to Nandikadal. The hard lesson to be learnt from Nandikadal is that those who fail to read and understand history will end up in more Nandkadals.