It was a moving performance. The lutist’s fingers caressingly plucked the strings and the ensuing melody coupled with his melancholic and clear voice produced a song that was sweet and almost celestial. The entire royal court was in rapture. The King was so captivated by the musical performance of the lutist that he rewarded him generously: the entire region of Jaffna was donated to him. Though the land was barren and arid, gardens and groves arose as a result of the hard work put in by the lutist. In order to develop it, he brought his relatives from India as settlers.
Thus began the history of Jaffna.
The name Jaffna is the Europeanized form of the original Tamil name Yazhppanam. Yazh means lute and Yazhppadi or Yahppanan is “one whose occupation and caste-duty is to play on the lute”. Yazhppanam means, thus, the land of the lutist.
One need not wonder that there exist many variations of this legend. One version places the event in the remote past of the Ramayana epoch. After the death of Ravana, the defeated the King of the resplendent Island called Lanka, Rama conferred the title of the King on Vibhishana, a brother of Ravana. It was from Vibhishana that a Yazhppadi or lutist who was serving at the royal court received the waste tract of land called Jaffna, then known as Manaltidal. The lutist brought a thousand families from India and settled them there. He also went to the city of Madura in Northern India and brought with him a son of Kulaketu, a relative of Rama’s father, to become the ruler of the new colony. This event is said to have occurred in 101 B.C. The new King was called Vijaya Kulankaic Cakkaravarti.
Another version names the lutist as the blind minstrel Virarakavan. This name was probably borrowed from historical records according to which a Tamil poet by this name visited the court of the King of Jaffna in the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
According to yet another version, the King who donated the northern region was Vararasasinghan, the first ruler of the Island.
Scholars have differed in their interpretation and evaluation of the above legend. Swami Gnana Prakasar maintained that the “story of the Yalppadi is to be abandoned root and branch.” According to him Yazhppanam is derived from the Sinhalese word yapa-ne, meaning good (yapa) village (ne) and corresponds to the Tamil name Nallur, which was the capital of Tamil Kingdom.
S. Pathmanathan, author of The Kingdom of Jaffna, while dismissing the “account of Yalppanan in its developed form” as “nothing more than a legend”, documents that “tradition claims that the northern peninsula derived its name from Yalppanan”.
M.D. Raghavan, an Indian scholar and author of many books on Sri Lanka, views the story sympathetically and states, regarding the derivation of the name Yazhppanam, that the “most simple and the most direct is the derivation from Yalpanan, the panan minstrel with the yal”.
The bone of contention seems to be obviously the origin of the name Yazhppanam. Swami Gnana Prakasar argued that the “name Jaffna, now designating the entire peninsula, was first given to the new town in Nallur in the 17th century”, and that the earliest mention of it is in the Sinhalese literary works of Selalihini Sandesya and Kokila Sandesya belonging to the seventeenth century A.D.
M. D. Raghavan contended that Yazhppanam, under the name of Yapapatna, was referred to in the Sinhalese work Kokila Sandesya, a Sandesya Kavya belonging to the mid-fifteenth century. The verse in question is:
Graced with stately buildings
Emblazened with golden flags;
Gems and stones shedding brilliance transplendent,
In charm and splendor, vying with Vaishravana’s city,