Getting to know the Sri LankanTamils – What do the terms ‘Eelam’ and ‘Ilankai’ mean?


At least in the English media, ever since the late Mervyn de Silva with his characteristic journalistic flourish called the Tiger led combat struggle against the state as ‘Eelam war’ the term eelam has gained an ominous significance to the Sinhala reader.

In the minds of the Sinhala people, this word denotes separatism and is associated with L.T.T.E. attacks. The role of the mainstream Sinhala media in creating suspicion in the minds of the Sinhala people has been substantial.

The absence of an institution which would help enable the fostering of understanding between the communities has only worsened the situation and it’s also true that there had been no effort on the part of the Sri Lankan Tamils to communicate to the Sinhalese the real meaning of the terms they use.

It is true that in the separatist demand made by all the militant organization the term Eelam is there, but it is a compound term with the qualifying word Tamil. Thus, the term is Tamil Eelam. In fact, TELO stands for Thamil Eelam Liberation Organization and the short in form L.T.T.E. stands for Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam.

The operative part is Thamil Eelam and it means the Tamil part of Eelam. The term Eelam is a synonym for Sri Lanka and has been in use in Tamil literature right from the Cankam Period dating as far back as 200 B.C. to circa 250 A.D. Pattinapalai a long poem of the Cankam period on Karikala the chola king refers to the various imports piled up at the Pukar harbour.

Two of the commodities identified are ‘Eelathu Unavu’, ‘Kalakathu Akkaam’ the first one means food from Sri Lanka, and the latter refers to products from Kaalakam (kedah). We do not know what the foodstuffs that were send from Sri Lanka to the southeastern harbour city of Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil- Brahmi inscriptions refer to an ‘Eelathu Kutumbikan’ meaning a householder from Eelam. Kutumbikan is the Tamil word for ‘gihi’ and here for refers to a Buddhist. Incidentally, this reference indicates that there has been a free flow of Buddhist from Sri Lanka into Tamil Nadu and vice-versa.

Later day Tamil inscriptions especially one from the chola period refers to ‘Sinhalar Eella Mandilams’ meaning the Eela regional unit of the Sinhalese. It is quite clear that the Sinhalese themselves had been associated with Eelam. It is a known fact Eelam constituted an administrative unit during the chola period 1017 to 1070 A.D.

The term Eelam has cultural connotations and the first poet from Sri Lanka participating in the cankam poetic gatherings was a poet call Eellathu Putan Thevan.

To this day Sri Lankan Tamil literature is referred to as Eelathu Ilakkiyam the contribution of the Muslims and Up-Country Tamils falls within the Tamil literature of Eelam. The Muslims are equally proud of the term as the Tamils are. Especially when the reference is made to Sri Lankan Tamil Literature.

It may come as a big shock to many to know of the etymology of the term Eelam. It is the opinion of learned Tamil scholars like the late Professor Kanapathipillai, that the term Eelam must have been derived from ‘Hela’. Thus in real terms eelam is an integral part of the helaurumaya (The hela heritage).

When after the 1972 constitution, the Federal Party was pushed toward the formation of Tamil united front and towards the declaration of a separate Tamil country, the term Tamil Eelam was not very much in vogue.

It was the Tamil militants who popularized the term Thamil Eelam. Unfortunately, only the word Eelam is retained of this compound form, and this very word itself is now taken to mean a separate Tamil country. Given the long presence of the Tamils in this country and their devotion to this island as their motherland has invariably led to the use of the term Eelam to denote the entire island.

The Tamil word for Sri Lanka is ILANKAI. It is the Tamilicised form of the word Lanka. In Tamil language there has been no tradition for “LA” to be the initial sound in a word. Thus, the vowel sound E comes first and the word is pronounced as Illankai.

This term it is quite old. Cilapathikaram the Tamil epic that deals with the history of the Kannaki, the Pattini venerated in the Sinhala Buddhist tradition narrates how Gajabahu brought the Pattini cult to Sri Lanka.

The famous line in cilapathikaram runs as follows ‘Kadal chool illankai kayavahu venthan’ the word illankai is used here to refer to Sri Lanka. Cilapathikaram today is generally taken as a work belonging to 5th century A.D. thus the term illankai too has been invoked to refers to the island.

In geography and history, the Tamil word used is illankai. It was this wide usage of the term illankai and understanding of its common origin that led to the approval of the term illankai in all the official documents. In fact, it could be argued that it was this welcome degree of understanding that enables the Tamils to identify themselves with this island as their country. The constitution of the day accepted the usage of this term.

However in recent times there is a demand to use the term Sri Lanka only and leaving out the term illankai. The insistence of this usage has led to an interesting situation in which the Tamils when they wish to refer to the Sinhala government call it the Sri Lankan state and the security forces two are refered to as Sri Lankan state forces. The implication is quite clear that these institutions have nothing to do with the Tamils.

If we have to develop a sense of understanding between the communities, it is important that the cultures of the other group are recognized and respected.

The deprivation of the use of the term Eelam/Illankai for Sri Lanka would only foster a sense of alienation from this island and anyone who wants a peace full settlement would understand the Sri Lankan Tamil psyche. It is wrong to impute meanings, which do not exist.

By: Karthigesu Sivathamby


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