The Megalithic Culture

The Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka belonging to the third century B.C., having close affinity with the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions of South India, together with the fact of the similarity of clan names found both in the earliest written records of Sri Lanka and in the ancient Tamil Classics suggest “a common ethnicity between Sri Lanka and extreme peninsular India”. The Megalithic culture of Sri Lanka was, however, “a full-fledged and integral part of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, common to both Sinhalese and Tamil”

Pottery and a seal found at Anaikoddai and other material found at Kalapumi, Karainagar and Kantarodai establish beyond doubt that there were permanent settlements in the Jaffna Peninsula – at least in the third century BC. if not earlier.

The Brahmi scripts, found at Anaikoddai (and Kantarodai), assigned to third century B.C., occur “along with what could be assumed to be a previous system of writing”. This suggests that the “Megalithic culture arrived in Jaffna in the protohistoric times, and caused the emergence of rudimentary settlements and continued into the early historic times marked by urbanization”.

Jaffna may have offered itself as a habitat for Megalithic people for the following reasons:

  1. Jaffna was a region of scrubs which could have been easily cleared by tools discovered by the developing iron technology
  2. There was fresh water at low depth and the place abounded with natural ponds.
  3. The rain-flooded silt stretches and the taravai grasslands were suitable for farming and pasturing respectively.
  4. The lagoons and flood outlets were also conducive for settlements.

The earliest inhabitants of Jaffna were culturally “affiliated” to South India, spoke in a proto-dravidian language, and practiced a religion “similar to that of the Megalithic south India”; a statuette of Lakshmi, a Hindu goddess, is said to have been found at Anaikoddai.’

Even though it cannot be maintained categorically as the Tamil Tradition claims that the Nagars were the aboriginal inhabitants of Jaffna, one cannot easily dismiss the existence of a people in a region called Naganadu or Nagativu, mentioned, among others, by the Greek geographer Ptolemy. Cilappathikaram and Manimekalai, the twin classical Epics of the Tamils, mention Naganadu’s relations with Kavirippaddinam and a Chola prince respectively. The Pali chronicles of Sri Lanka relate the story of a quarrel between two rulers of Nagadipa. A gold plate belonging to the fifth century AD. mentions Jaffna as Nagadiva (Nagativu) and states that its regional ruler constructed a Buddhist vihara.’ The Tamil historiographical works of the Middle Ages mention gatiramalai near Kantarodai as the capital of a ruling dynasty before the establishment of the Kindgom of Jaffna around the mid thirteenth century AD. It is then reasonable to assume that in the Peninsula there was a “city-state” in the early Christian era in parallel with “various rulini dynasties in different parts of Sri Lanka before the development Anuradhapura hegemony”.

Indeed, many similarities between the inhabitants of Nagadipa, called the Nagars and the Tamils of Jaffna have prompted some scholars to propound that the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka are the “lineal descendants” of the Naga people.P According to others, however, our knowledge of these earlier inhabitants is still very “hazy” and hence nothing definite can be said about them. But the weight of scholarly opinion is on the side of those who identify Jaffna with Nagadipa or Nagativu. According to one authority, “Nagadipa, the original name of the island of Jaffna is perhaps derived from the Nagas”. According to another, there “can be no doubt that the earliest commercial intercourse of the Greek and the Romans with Ceylon was confined to the northern and northwestern ports” Indeed, one of the ports on the seaboard of the Peninsula. Jambutturai, is thought to be Jambukola from where envoys of Devanampiya Tissa (247-207B.C.) embarked with gifts to Emperor Asoka. According to A.C. Bouquet, the “proto-Dravidians” who were the dwellers in the Indus Valley and who were believers in nagas or snake-spirits had entered India and Sri Lanka at a very early age.

It is plausible that a common Megalithic cultural stratum in South India caused major cultural formations of Tamil, Kannada, Telugul Malayalam, Tulu, etc., other lesser formations such as the ancient Tamil fivefold social divisions based on the relationship between man and his environment, and “the development of Sinhala and Tamil formations in the Island of Sri Lanka… In the later centuries, the Sinhala- Buddhist formation developed into a major formation on par with other major formations of south India, whereas the Jaffna Tamil formation remained as a lesser formation.” It should be noted, however, that the Jaffna Tamil identity, and indeed the Northern Sri Lankan identity, was distinct from the South Indian Tamil and Sri Lankan Sinhalese formations.

On a wider background: it may be useful to point out that it is the considered opinion of many that there were definitely influential Tamils in the North of Sri Lanka at least two hundred years before the Christian era.

Sinhalese tradition records a number of Tamil invasions from South India. In the second century BC., two Tamils, Sena and Guttaka, are credited to have assumed power over the northern portion of the Island (177-155 BC.). Another Tamil of “noble descent” from the Chola country Elara or Ellalan, seized the throne of the Sinhalese king at Anuradhapura and ruled a great part of the Island for 44 years at least as the “supreme ruler of the northern plain”, if not the “ruler of a united kingdom”. The defeat of this Tamil ruler at the hand of the Sinhalese Dutthagamini is regarded by some as the “first war of liberation against foreigners”. In the first century BC, seven Tamil chiefs, probably from the Pandya kingdom captured the northern part of the Island and administered it for fourteen years. (89-77 BC.)

The evolution of Megalithic settlements in Jaffna saw the birth of a principality in the first century BC. Kantarodai emerged “as an urbanized central place” which perhaps controlled the other settlements of Peninsula not only politically, but economically and culturally as well. It had the “widest and the richest early settlement” and was “situated in the most potential agricultural strip of the Peninsula”. Ten sites, located mostly along the sea routes, have been identified as belonging to this phase of development and “many of these fresh settlements arose without agricultural hinterland” indicating that these settlements “had become specialized and interdependent in their activities”.

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