Know the Etymology: 61
Place Name of the Day: Tuesday, 28 August 2007




The village of Champu reed

Champu Also, Champai, Champuk-koarai (Tamil); Cha'npu (Chankgam Tamil); Jampu (Telugu); Jondu (Kannada); Hambu-pan (Sinhala); A reed or sedge, Cattail, Reedmace, Bulrush (English); Cumbangi (English, from Australian aborigine language); Typha augustifolia
Oor Village

Champu (Typha augustifolia) is a reed or sedge that grows in pools of stagnant water or along the fringes of tanks, lakes and reservoirs. It is known for it luxuriant growth and is widely found in Sri Lanka.

Typha augustifolia
The tall reed called Champu (Typha augustifolia), photographed in Vanni [Photo: TamilNet]
Since it is a tall reed, it can grow even in fairly deep waters. It is adapted to salinity and can also be found in swamps and salty marshes.

It prevents coastal erosion and provides nestling for water birds and other aquatic life.

The Champu reed can be easily identified from its cylindrical and rod-like flowers. The upper half of the flower is the male part and the lower is the female part. The male part withers, leaving a thickened female part of seeds.

In some parts of the world, the reed and its flowers are considered edible.

The reed is used for thatching and to make coarse baskets and mats.

Champan-koodu or Champan-koodai is a basket and Champaik-kongkaa'ni is a hood to cover head and shoulders, made of this reed.

Champaik-koazhi, a water bird mentioned in the early Tamil lexicons, is said to eat the flowers of the reed.

Cha'npu is the name of a reed grass found in the Changkam diction, which is equated with Champu reed. Cha'npai is a place name referred to in Ma'nimeakalai, which was probably connected to the Cha'npu reed. It was one of the names of Cheerkaazhi, situated in the estuary of Kaaveari.

Also note the following relevant usages in the old lexicons: Champaram (water), Chammaddi (Che'ndu - mace) and Chaappai (reed-mat).

Champu flowers
Champu flowers [Courtesy:]
The reed is known by names such as Cattail, Reedmace and Bulrush in English. It is some times identified as Elephant Grass. Another English name for the reed, Cumbungi is said to be from Australian aborigine language, which seems to have some affinity with the Tamil term.

Equivalent Sinhala name for Champu is Hambu-pan. It has been often pointed out in these columns that CH or S of Tamil and H of Sinhala are interchangeable phonemes. Pan is a general word of Prakrit origins for leaves, reed etc., but also means Bulrush in Sinhala. The word is also used in Sri Lankan Tamil for another kind of reed used in making mats.

The place Champoor is part of the estuary, where the Mahaveli River enters the Koddiyaara Bay of Trincomalee. Obviously it is a locale to be found with the Champu reed.

Champu flower
The withering of Champu flower [Courtesy:]
The suffix of the place name 'Oor' is considered to be a proto-Dravidian word of much antiquity, meaning village. The distribution of this term in the place names of South Asia and beyond is often taken as evidence by linguists to trace Dravidian connections.

Champoor is a GS area in the Moothoor division of Trincomalee district.

The Champu reed has rendered name to several places in Sri Lanka. They are localities of water resources or marshes. Champan and Chempan are variations of Champu. The ‘an' suffix is typical in Sri Lankan Tamil for names of inferior class (A:h'ri'nai). Some examples of place names are given here:

Champuk-kea'ni: The constructed pond of Champu reed. A village in the Ka'luvankea'ni GS area of the Ea'raavoorppattu division of Batticaloa district

Champuk-ku'lam: The tank of Champu reed. A village in the Kalmadunakar GS area of the Ka'ndaava'lai division of Ki'linochchi district

Champu-nakar: The settlement of Champu reed. It is a settlement or colony in the Addaa'laichcheanai No 5 GS area of the Addaa'laichcheanai division of Ampaa'rai district. The Nakar suffix was substituted recently, in line with the trend of modifying old names.

Champan-ku'lam: The tank of Champu reed. A village in the Kokkuththoduvaay South GS area of the Karaithuraippattu division of Mullaiththeevu district

Champan-pu'liyang-ku'lam: The tank of Champu reed in the locality of Tamarind trees. The Pu'liyangku'lam is differentiated from other Pu'liyangku'lams by pointing to the presence of Champu reeds. It is a village in the Chi'ru Ka'ndal GS area of the Naanaaddaan division of Mannaar district

Champan-kaddaikkaadu: The small jungle or jungle of short trees (probably a marsh) of Champu reed: The place name differentiates other Kaddaikaadu from this one. A village in the Ilakadippiddi GS area of the Naanaaddaan division of Mannaar district

Chempan-ku'ndu: The water hole of Champu reed. A village in the Pa'l'likkudaa GS area of the Poonakari division of Ki'linochchi district

Chempan-ku'lam: The tank of Champu reed. A village in the Gnaani Madam GS area of the Poonakari division of Ki'linochchi district

Chempan-vaddai: The patch of paddy field in the locality of Champu reed. A village in the Udangkaa GS area of the Chammaanthu'rai division of Ampaa'rai district

Hambe-gamuva: The village of Champu reed. A village in the Thanamalvila GS area of the Monaragala division of Badulla district

Hampan-tota: The port frequented by Malay or Javanese ships called Champan, known in Sinhala as Hamban or the port of the locality of Champu reed vegetation. It is a district head quarters in the Southern Province.

A note on Champuth-thu'rai / Champil-thu'rai / Champilith-thu'rai and the ancient harbour of Jambuko'la Paṭṭana:

According to Mahavamsa, the Asokan emissary, bringing a branch of the sacred Bo tree, landed at a port in Northern Sri Lanka called Jambuko'la Paṭṭana. It was also named as Ko'lapaṭṭana in another early Pali literature Milindapagnha. To commemorate, Buddhist establishments were built at that place later. The place was a major harbour of Sri Lanka to sail to eastern parts of India. (K. Indrapala)

We do not know whether the name mentioned in the Buddhist literature was the original one, or a Tamil name rendered into Pali. But, as K. Indrapala has pointed out, the suffix Paṭṭana in the place name is a clear indication for the Dravidian element in the Place name. (Paddinam is coastal town or port in Tamil)

In the last century, some scholars identified that port with a locality called Champuth-thu'rai / Champil-thu'rai / Champilith-thu'rai along the northern coastline of the Jaffna peninsula, between Punnaalai and Maathakal.

The identification was based on the following premises:

  • The place name Champuth-thu'rai (Thu'rai is port or harbour in Tamil) was taken as a Tamilized form of Jambu-ko'la, which according to the interpreters meant a place of Jambu (Eugenia jambolana) trees.

  • The presence of Buddhist remains in an adjacent locality known as Thisai-mazhuvai or Kaaddup-pulam.

  • Another place name Thiruvadi-nilai for the Champuth-thu'rai locality, which literally means ‘the place of the footprints'. A rock with footprints is said to exist in the sea.

  • The location of Champuth-thurai at a northern point of the peninsula, facing the Palk Bay, by the mouth of a now-silted channel into the Jaffna lagoon, suggest the possibility for an ancient harbour.

The identification based on conjectures caused several recent myths about places and place names around the locality.

Champuththu'rai to the knowledge of the folk of the locality is a place of Champu reed. Champil and Champili are variants that usually come in compound words. Thoompil-piddi or Thoompilip-piddi on the west and Champil-thu'rai or Champilith-thu'rai on the east are the two points on either side of the mouth of the channel, leading into the Jaffna lagoon from the Palk Bay.

It should also be noted here that the Telugu cognate for Champu reed is Jampu.

Whether the present Champuththu'rai and the location of the ancient harbour are the same or not, it is certain that a major entrepot, known in its Pali version as Jambuko'la Paṭṭana, existed in northern Sri Lanka at least at the time of the said Pali chronicles. But, taking Champuththurai as the Tamilized form of Jambuko'la Paṭṭana and rendering a meaning connected to Jambu trees need not be foregone conclusions.

Typha augustifolia
Champu (Typha augustifolia): Stalks showing the female part of the flowers. Note the trace of the dissapeared male part in a flower and a source of water in the background. Photographed in Vanni. [Photo: TamilNet]
Typha augustifolia
A glade of Champu reed (Typha augustifolia), photographed in Vanni [Photo: TamilNet]

First published: Tuesday, 28 August 2007, 01:00

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