Sri Lanka’s forgotten links with Kerala

Sri Lanka’s forgotten links with Kerala

By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror

Colombo, October 29: Generally speaking, when people and politicians in Sri Lanka and India talk about India-Sri Lanka cultural and historical ties, only Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Bihar and Odisha are mentioned.

Tamil Nadu is linked to Tamil-speaking North Sri Lanka, and Bengal-Bihar and Odisha are linked to the Sinhalese-speaking South Lanka.

But an area in India which is linked to both the Tamil-speaking North and the Sinhalese-speaking South, is Kerala. But this is hardly mentioned.

Kerala’s links with both the Tamils and the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka have been obliterated by political expediency, with the Lankan Tamils wanting to link up with Tamil Nadu (where there is sympathy for their cause) and the Sinhalese wanting to reach out to North India and the Central Indian government in New Delhi, by stressing their relations with North India from where came their religion, Buddhism, and their highly Sanskritized language, Sinhala, came.

If Kerala comes into the picture at all, it is only when the subject is landscape, dress or food, where the similarity is striking. But as former Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Nirupama Rao says, the matrilineal system,  temple art and temple observances, bind Keralites with North Lankan Tamils.

“The houses in Jaffna are modeled in Kerala style. The renowned Kandy Perehera has a lot of similarities with the Trissur Pooram festival. The influence of Kerala could be seen in Kandyan dance as well,” she says.

According to the Lankan social anthropologist, Dr Gananath Obeysekere of Princeton University, at least a part of what is thought to have come from Tamil Nadu, may have come from Kerala, because in ancient times, the Tamil country comprised what is now Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The Chera or Kerala kings were powerful influences in the Tamil country in India from pre-Christian times to about the 3rd century AD.

The influence of the Cholas of the Western Coromandel coast in Tamil Nadu on Sri Lanka  became pronounced only from the 10th century AD onwards, Obeysekere says.

In his 2004 monograph: The Matrilineal East Coast, Circa 1968 Obeysekere looks at the Sri Lanka-Kerala link through the “Pattini” cult and the matrilineal system. In the Pattini cult, the deity Kannagi is worshipped as the Mother Goddess, and in the matrilineal system, inheritance and residential patterns follow the female line. Both the Pattini cult and the matrilineal system  came from the Chera or Kerala area.

The Pattini cult is found throughout Sinhala society in South Sri Lanka and in the Tamil areas of Batticaloa and Amparai on the South-Eastern coast.

The matrilineal system is the norm in Tamil and Muslim societies in East Sri Lanka. According to Dr Obeysekere, the matrilineal system existed in the Sinhala-speaking South also, but was supplanted by the patrilineal system.

Line up of caparisoned in the Kandy Perehera in Sri Lanka

Pattini cult

The story of Pattini or Kannagi is found in the 3rd century AD Tamil classic “Silapadikaram” located in the Chera or Kerala country. The heroine of the story, Kannagi, in a rage over the wrongful execution of her innocent husband, Kovalan, plucked out her breast and threw it into the city of Madurai which then burst into flames and was destroyed.

Kannagi’s fidelity towards her husband and her fight for justice elevated her to the position of an “Amman” or Goddess, and a powerful one at that.

Vanchi, which the Silapadikaram mentions as the ancient capital of the Cheras, was then a popular center of trade with West Asia. Its trade was in the hands of people who followed heterodox religions like Buddhism and Jainism. And Silapadikaram, a Jain classic, was written by a Jain ascetic, Ilango Adigal.

Dr Obeysekere says that it was the Tamil-speaking Kerala Buddhist traders and other immigrants from the Vanchi area, who brought the Pattini cult to Sri Lanka. He points out that according to Lankan mythology, the Pattini cult was founded by King Seraman (the King of Kerala).

In Lanka, the cult was given high status when two trader families of Kerala origin, namely, the Mehenavaras and the Alagakonaras began to dominate the Western and Central parts of the island from the middle of the 14th century onwards. And as per an inscription dated 1344, the Alagakonaras had come from Vanchi around the year 1100.

The Pattini cult spread in Sri Lanka with the increase in the power of the Alagakonaras and the Mehenevaras who had started of as court officials. The Mehenavaras were influential in Dadigama and Gampola (near Kandy), while the Alagakonaras established themselves in Raigama and controlled the ports of Beruwela, Devundara and Weligama, on the Southern and South Western coasts.

Decorated elephants lead the procession in the Trissur Pooram festival in Kerala

According to Ibn Batuta, in 1344, the Alagakonaras controlled the area now covered by the Western, Sabaragamuwa and Southern Provinces.

Because the two leading families from Kerala were Buddhists, they elevated Pattini to a Bodhisattva (a Buddha in the making).

It is noteworthy that Pattini is the only female Bodhisattva in the Sri Lankan Buddhist pantheon. She was also made a guardian deity of Sri Lanka.

Pattini was formally recognized as a Goddess in Sri Lanka during the reign of Parakramabahu VI, in the 15th century. Interestingly, the king was related to the Mehenavara family.

Although originally a Tamil cult, Pattini worship is not found in all parts of Tamil-speaking Sri Lanka. It is a peculiarity of the Sinhalese and the Eastern Province Tamils, Obeysekere observes. In South India also, the Pattini cult is found only in present-day Kerala. There is only one Pattini temple in Tamil Nadu, though the anti-Sanskritic Dravidian movement there tried to revive the Pattini-cult.

A strong Kerala influence is evident even today among all the peoples of the Batticaloa and Amparai districts, whether they are Tamils or Muslims. Their social formations and their Tamil speech show a Kerala origin.

A comparison of social institutions between Kerala and South East Sri Lanka shows that the Tamils and Muslims of Batticaloa and Amparai districts had migrated from Northern Kerala, says Dr Obeysekere.

Matrilineal descent (tracing one’s descent through the mother) and the matrilineal clan, are the dominant modes of social organization among the Hindus and Muslims of North Kerala and Eastern Lanka, where the matrilineal clan is  called “kudi”.

Obeysekere notes that  Tamil and Muslim women of Batticaloa get a two-thirds share of the familial estate as dowry on marriage, showing the pre-eminent place of woman in these societies.

The other institution that the matrilineal Keralites and the Eastern Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims share is “uxorilocal” residence. Under this system, the man lives in his wife’s residence.

Matrilineal descent groups come into play in worship in Eastern Sri Lanka. In temples and mosques, particular matrilineal clans elect the chief, called the Vannakar in the case of the Hindu temples, and Maraikkar in the case of mosques. Among the Hindus, the clans have particular roles in the rituals connected with Pattini worship.

Since the Goddess cults in South India are associated with curing of diseases and resistance to pestilence, the Pattini cult in Sri Lanka is also associated with these. Because of this, in the past, Muslims and Sinhalas also participated in the “cooling” rituals of the Pattini cult, Dr Obeysekere says.

The Sinhala elite of the Bintanna-Aluthnuwara area had marriage ties with the Mukkuvars, the dominant Tamil caste in the East who were migrants from Kerala.

(The featured image at the top shows a Sinhalese Pattini Devalaya in South Sri Lanka)


One Response to "Sri Lanka’s forgotten links with Kerala"

  1. Udaya Herath
    Udaya Herath   October 31, 2018 at 3:51 am

    Kerala peoples are not good.they cunning and hypothetical