Many renowned Sinhalese and Tamil Historians Archaeologists Anthropologists and Linguistic Scholars as well as Indian, American and British Scholars have engaged in research, on the ancient history of Sri Lanka for more than 30 years, conducting Archaeological excavations.
These excavations were carried out in various parts of Sri Lanka and their findings published. However, some excavations have been suspended while, in other cases, the findings have not been released. In particular, there are many instances where excavations in the northern regions of Sri Lanka were suspended and the findings withheld. However, unbiased and honest historians have openly published the findings of their studies on this subject.
Many facts related to the ancient history of Sri Lanka and its ancient people have been brought to light on the basis of archaeological evidence from excavations. But, various difficulties have arisen in regard to understanding the early Stone Age people, their antiquity and their race. Nevertheless, the scholars referred to above generally accept that the ancient people of Sri Lanka belonged to the Dravidian Language family and followed the Dravidian (Megalithic) culture of 'Urn Burials'. The findings of these scholars also show that there was a strong similarity between the ancient people of Sri Lanka and those of India, particularly from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Kannada and the Andhra regions in South India where Dravidian languages are spoken.
Geologists and archaeologists are of the general opinion that as the result of a natural calamity Sri Lanka broke off from the Indian landmass and became an island many thousands of years ago. Therefore the ancient people of South India and Sri Lanka were of the same ethnic stock. This has been further established by findings relating to their culture, language and religion that show that the people of these two regions were closely connected.
In short, it emerges that the ancient people of Sri Lanka belonged to the Dravidian family and spoke Tamil, one of the ancient languages of the Dravidian language family. However, Pali and Sinhalese historical records and literature claim that the ancient people of Sri Lanka belonged to the Aryan language family and spoke Sinhalese, an Aryan language and that they came from North India. To date no archaeological evidence has been found to support these theories.
Sinhalese historians based their theories that the ancient people of Sri Lanka were Sinhalese largely on historical records found in the Deepavamsa and Mahavamsa Buddhist chronicles written in the fourth and filth centuries A.D. and on ancient stone inscriptions written in the North Indian languages of Pali and Sanskrit. These historians are particularly inclined to use the Mahavamsa. written in the fifth century A.D., as a main source. The Mahavamsa begins with the historical legend of Vijaya who was deported from North India and arrived in Sri Lanka in the fifth century BC.
In addition, the Mahavamsa also speaks of the three visits of Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka and the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by the Buddhist mission sent to Sri Lanka by the Maurya Emperor Asoka in the third century BC. This mission was led by his son and Buddhist priest Mahinda. The records of the Mahavamsa along with other historical documents and writings also tell of Devanampiya Tissa, the king of the Anuradapura Kingdom, who embraced Buddhism in the same period.
These accounts have naturally led historians in general to consider that the history of Sri Lanka begins with the third century BC. However, there is no reliable historical evidence of the arrival of Vijaya and his associates in the fifth century BC or of his rule in Sri Lanka. It is possible to infer that, Mahanama, the author of the Mahavamsa, witnessed the decline and disorientation of Buddhism in India during the fifth century BC. Due to his devotion to Buddhism and desire to consolidate this religion in Sri Lanka he decided to write the Mahavamsa. It is also possible that he began his chronicle with the legend of Vijaya with the sole purpose of linking Buddhism with its relationship to North Indian languages as a means to achieve his goals.
The important fact that must be considered in this context is that Saivaism was firmly established in Sri Lanka long before the arrival of Buddhism on the island. The kings of the Anuradapura Kingdom had been Saivaites before the advent of Buddhism. Besides, the Kingdom of Anuradapura was a well developed and strong kingdom in the third century BC, a status that would have required centuries to attain. Would it have been possible for Vijaya who arrived in Sri Lanka only in the fifth century BC to start from scratch and build up such a full-fledged kingdom in Anuradapura? It is apparent that the Kingdom of Anuradapura originated and gradually developed into a strong kingdom through many centuries and that the people who established the kingdom were Tamils of the Dravidian family. Tamil culture and Saiva religion were practiced in ancient Sri Lanka as Tamils were the ancient people of Sri Lanka, a fact established by the archaeological evidence that has come to light.
The culture, language, and religion of an ethnic people are the most significant factors determining their unique identity. Archaeological evidence shows that the ancient Dravidian people of ancient Sri Lanka, influenced by the arrival of Buddhism and the North Indian languages associated with it, gradually embraced Buddhism, its cultural traditions and the languages related to it.
For instance, archaeological findings prove that Buddhism enjoyed an influential status as the religion of the people in the traditional Tamil regions in the north, east and northwest parts of Sri Lanka, during the first two centuries BC. Would it be right to call these people Sinhalese on the basis that Buddhism was their religion in the early historical period? Archaeological studies clearly reveal that Dravidian people were living in the Puttalam and Negombo areas in the northwest region of Sri Lanka from ancient times.
However, the majority of these people, due to socio-economic activities and transitions over the past 150 years, have become Sinhalese and now speak the Sinhalese language. Besides, the majority of Saivites in the Jaffna peninsula were converted to Catholicism during the foreign rule of the Portuguese invaders. Another interesting instance in this context is the fact that the descendents of two significant Chetty families who migrated to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu five generations ago became fervent Buddhist Sinhala nationalists, Prime Ministers and Presidents in Sri Lanka.
It can be surmised from these matters that this same process of assimilation was a common phenomenon experienced throughout ancient Sri Lanka. The history of Sri Lanka, from the third century A.D. to the ninth century A.D., is permeated with the influence of Buddhism and Buddhist culture. This includes from early historical times, the intrusion of Pali and Sanskrit languages and their spread among the ancient Tamils of Sri Lanka and their Dravidian culture, as well as the origin of the Sinhalese language from Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil languages. The younger generation is left with the task of engaging with history and scientific methods to subject this historical period to deep and unbiased studies and write its history with intellectual integrity. When taking up this task, they should strive to find a fitting solution to the ethnic issue that has become an infested sore in Sri Lanka.
Two significant events took place in Sri Lanka following the tenth century A.D. in the wake of the Cola domination of Sri Lanka. The first is that the people who identified themselves as Sinhalese shifted their seats of rule from the ancient kingdoms of Anuradapura and Polanaruwa towards South Sri Lanka. The second was the Tamils moved their ruling structures from these same regions to the north and east of the island.
Consequently, the ancient kingdoms of Anuradapura and Polanaruwa, abandoned by both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, were engulfed by the jungle that temporarily separated the two ethnic groups for the next four or five centuries. As a result, the Sinhalese developed into a separate ethnic people with their distinct Buddhist religion and culture and Sinhalese language while the Tamils, in their traditional regions in the north, east and northwest of Sri Lanka began to establish their kingdoms under the newly risen Jaffna Kingdom, maintaining their distinct Tamil language, culture and Saiva religion.
This situation did not last long. The Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms declined and eventually succumbed to the Portuguese invaders. The Kingdom of Kandy, however, retained its sovereignty and resisted capture by the Portuguese. The Tamils lost their kingdom forever as a result of Portuguese invasion, and the foreign Catholic religion was forcibly thrust on them. Many were obliged to relinquish their Saiva religion and follow Catholicism and its culture. Above all, they were impoverished by wholesale Portuguese exploitation of their economic resources. This situation allowed the Portuguese to amass great wealth.
The Tamils lost their sovereignty, religion, economic infrastructure and wealth and were reduced to slaves in their own land. It is a bitter historical truth that it was not only the Portuguese who were responsible for this state of affairs but also the competitiveness, jealousy, lack of co-operation and patriotism among the Tamils as well as the evil dowry system and social disparities that existed among them.
This same situation has continued from the time the Tamils and Tamil regions became enslaved to the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. It is unlikely this situation can be changed until the Tamil politicians and officials truly realise the gravity of the situation and apply themselves sincerely to solving these urgent problems. These are the people who have to decide whether or not the Tamils are to continue living as slaves and refugees.
The Dutch, who succeeded the Portuguese, dominated Sri Lanka for 150 years and also amassed wealth by unscrupulous means. They exploited the Tamils and their regions just as the Portuguese did. The Portuguese could be said to have sucked the blood of the Tamils but the Dutch did not stop there but consumed their flesh also. This further reduced the Tamils to utter poverty. The Dutch spread Protestantism, their new brand of Christianity among the forcibly converted Tamil Catholics in the Jaffna peninsula. Dutch documents provide sufficient proof that the Tamils, already afflicted by Portuguese occupation and atrocities, were further severely affected by intense Dutch exploitation of their economic resources along with their religious activities to promote Protestantism among them.
The forced indoctrination of their respective religions and the introduction of western culture to the Tamils in the Jaffna peninsula by the foreign invaders from Portugal and the Netherlands were their sole contributions to the Tamils and their regions, the impact of which is evident even in the present day. However, the Christian missionaries, both Portuguese and Dutch, established schools in the peninsula to impart religious education in addition to a range of basic subjects. Tamil society, for the first time, was exposed to an organised system of education along western principles. It cannot be denied that this experience prepared them for the modern educational methods of the British colonial rule and enabled them to adapt to the judicial, administrative and economic infrastructure of the British.