Most of the early known history of the far south of the Indian Peninsula is about the rivalries between three clans – the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. The Cholas had their heartland in the Kaveri delta; the Pandyas were further south near Madurai & the Cheras along the Kerala coast. The three clans battled each other for around fifteen centuries from 300 BC to AD 1200.
Ancient Sangam literature is full of northern influences. Far from being Dravidian purists, ancient Tamils credited the sage Agastya, a northerner, with formalizing Tamil grammar. The great Tamil kings similarly took great pride in building linkages with the epics. In other words, the very earliest Tamil texts suggest a people who were very proud of being a part of a wider Indic civilization. Sangam literature celebrates interactions with the rest of the world with descriptions of bustling ports with foreign trade.
Early Tamil movers to Sri Lanka
By the fourth century BC, some Tamil groups began to settle in Northern Sri Lanka. There was already a significant population of settlers from Odisha-Bengal, and the local Vedda population had been sidelined. Several Small kingdoms emerged scattered across the island, but one of them, Anuradhapura seems to have gained prominence due to the backing of Emperor Ashoka. In 177 BC, two Tamil adventurers captured the throne of Anuradhapura and ruled it for twenty years. They would be followed by another Tamil ruler, Ellara, who would rule for forty-four years and earn a reputation for ensuring justice & good governance. Ellara was challenged by Sinhalese ruler Dattagamini. After fifteen years of war, Dattagamini killed Ellara.
Sinhalese vs. Tamils
Later writings would present this moment as the victory of Sinhala son of the soil over a Tamil intruder as well as the consummation of the island’s destiny as a Buddhist nation. But as per historians, this is not how it would have seemed at the time of the events took place. Most of the Sinhalese were not Buddhist at this stage and many of them seem to have sided with Ellara. Far from being so sure about the son of soil in the second century BC, the Tamils & the Sinhalese would have seen themselves and each other as relatively recent immigrants.
We tend to think of the relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka as being the perpetual conflict. This is because we are influenced by the experience of the bloody Tamil separatist movement in the late twentieth century and its brutal suppression. The long history, however, is much more complicated and involves both conflicts & alliances.
Sinhalese and Hindu elements
Sinhalese religion for most of its history was very eclectic & has always included strong Hindu elements. Upulvan or Vishnu is still worshipped by the Sinhalese as the guardian deity of Sri Lanka. And virtually all major Buddhist temples have shrines to Hindu deities. This is even true of the holiest of holies, the Temple of the Tooth in Knady.
(The article is based on the book “The ocean of churn” by Sanjeev Sanyal.)