Early Jaffna

Scholars who attempt to lift the veil of obscurity that envelops the early (proto -, pre-) history of Jaffna face formidable obstacles: scarcity of literary evidence, very few archaeological findings and biased interpretations of available data.

Unlike the Sinhalese whose ancient chronicles such as the Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa which give the “Sinhalese a myth about their origin, which farfetched as it is, convinced them that they were a people with something special about them”,l the Tamils do not possess any such comparable literature. The earliest local Tamil chronicles on Jaffna were composed in the Middle Ages. A prose work entitled Yazhppana Vaipava Malai was compiled by poet Mayilvakana Pulavar in 1736 A.D. This work depended on earlier writings such as Kailaya Malai, Vaiya Padal, Pararasasekaran Ula and Raja Mural. These, composed not earlier than the fourteenth Century A. D., contain folklore; legends and myths mixed with historical anecdotes.

Mahavamsa and Culavamsa contain references to Tamils but are rather silent on the early history of Jaffna.

tree 001 Early Jaffna References to Tamils of the North which are said to be found in the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, in the ancient Tamil Classics and in the devotional Tamil literature have yet to be critically studied and appraised.

As far as archaeology is concerned, one may mention four rounds of field Works.

Excavations were carried out in 1918 and 1919 at Kantarodai, an ancient capital of Jaffna, and at Vallipuram, a coastal town situated about six kilometers from Point Pedro. Punch-marked coins called puranas that were current in India during the time of Buddha (6th to 5th centuries B.C.) and copper rods – “kohl” sticks that were very similar to the ones Egyptians used to paint with and dating back to 2000 B.C. – were discovered. Sir Paul E. Pieris, who conducted these excavations, expressed his conviction that the Northern part of Sri Lanka was a “flourishing settlement” even before the birth of Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhalese.

Excavations carried out in 1956 and 1957 at Pomparippu, Puttalam, a region intimately connected with the North, have revealed the existence of a culture bearing some resemblance to the South Indian Megalithic culture flourishing in the first millennium B.C. discovered at Adicha Nallur in the Tirunelveli region of Tamil Nadu: striking similarities are to be found in the features of Black and Red Rouletted pottery, in iron implements and in the style of urn burials.

Excavations were carried out in 1970 by a Pennsylvania University Museum team at Kantarodai. Though no burial monuments were found, the team reported the probable existence of a Megalithic stage of development in Jaffna.

Excavations were conducted between 1980 and 1983 which witnessed startling discoveries. The following conclusions are mainly based on these excavations.

  • The first inhabitants of Sri Lanka might have migrated through a landbridge that linked up northwestern Sri Lanka with southeastern Tamil Nadu. This land connection physically existed till 7000 B.C. No wonder, scholars have maintained that “man did not evolve in Ceylon but… arrived in the island from the main continent of India” Besides, the close proximity of Jaffna Peninsula to South India must have prompted periodic migration from the sub continent to the northern coastal areas of Sri Lanka. One could not disagree with the statement of Paul Peiris that “it stands to reason that a country which is only 30 miles from India and which would have been seen by Indian fishermen every morning as they sailed out to catch their fish, would have been occupied as soon as the Continent was peopled by men who understood how to sail”. In point or fact, in the course of the centuries, South Indians came to Sri Lanka either as successful traders, seamen, soldiers, artisans or refugees fleeing from political upheavals in their motherland.

  • Jaffna was not the first habitat of the earliest migrants. A few microlithic (an earlier phase) tools were found at Poonakari and Mannittalai, two points very close to, but not inside, the Peninsula. This may have been due to the absence of microlithic tool material there.”

  • The earliest inhabitants of Jaffna were Megalithic people. This culture had in general the following distinguishing features: tank-irrigated cultivation, developed settlements, a special pottery technique which produced Black and Red Wares, the introduction of iron technology and a certain style of burial chamber. The urbanization “in South India, the rise of earliest kingdoms and chieftaincies in this region and the refinement of the language to the stage of producing the Cankam Tamil Literature were the culmination of the Megalithic culture”.

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