Know the Etymology: 141
Place Name of the Day: Monday, 14 December 2009


Sinhala / Chingka'lam / Ceylon

ஸிங்ஹல / சிங்களம் / ஸிலோன்
Siṅhala / Ciṅkaḷam / Ceylon

See+a'la > Seeha'la > Sinhala

The red tract of land

Seeha'la (adjective) Found written in a Prakrit inscription dateable to 2nd or 3rd century CE. This is the earliest known evidence for the prevalence of this name for the island now called Sri Lanka (Nagarjunakonda inscription, Epigraphia Indica XX p 1-37); Chaiy-a'lan: Probably a person from Chaiy-a'lam (See-a'lam / Chingka'lam), Tamil Brahmi inscription, dated to c. 1st century CE, found at Muththuppaddi, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu (Mahadevan 2003, p 396); Saimha'la: Name of the island in a Sanskrit inscription of 4th century CE (Corpus Inscriptions Indicarum III, 1888 p 8); Simha'la: Sanskrit form of the name for the island found in Mahabharata, an 8th century CE inscription found in Java and some 9th century CE Sanskrit literature; Chingka'lam: Equated with Eezham (Tamil, Cheanthan Thivaakaram Nika'ndu 5:128, C. 8th century CE); listed as a place along with other places (Tamil inscription 921CE, Glossary of Tamil Inscriptions); Chingka'la Meykaappaan: The bodyguard came from Chingka'lam, Ulalur inscription of Pallava Nandivarman II, 8th century CE (T.V.Mahalingam, 1988 p 330); Chingka'lar: People of Chingka'lam (Tamil, Kalingkaththup-para'ni, 12th century CE); Salike: (Ptolemy, Greek, 2nd century CE, comes as a place name probably meaning ‘the island of Salai); Sele, Siele: Sele-diba and Siele-diba come as variants of place name for the island (Greek, Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th Century CE); Seren-dib: Arab version of Sele-diba (L / R interchange, 8th century CE); Seilan: Italian traveller Marcopolo's reference to the island (1292 CE); Seyllao, Ceilao, Ceylao: Portuguese versions of the name for the island (16th century CE); Ceilon, Ceylon: Name of the island in Dutch, the latter was continued by the British; Si / Chi, Che, Chea, Chey, Cheyya: Adjective forms and root word, meaning red, red-coloured etc. (Tamil and Dravidian languages, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 1931); A'lam: (noun, A'la adjective) Tract of land, coastal land (Tamil, other Dravidian languages, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 299); A'lakkar: Coastal tract of land (A'la+ekkar; A'la: coastal; Ekkar: dunes; Tamil, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 299, 770); A'lavan, A'laththi: Masculine and feminine terms for a person hailing from A'lam (maritime tract), DED 299; Kera'la: Adjective of Keara'lam, found in Asoka’s inscription dated to 3rd century BCE, for the Cheara country or today’s Keara'laa. Cheara /Chaaral+a'lam, meaning ‘the hilly tract’, synonym of Malai-a'lam > Malayaa'lam; Tambapa'n'ni: Tampa+va'n'ni; The name of the island found in Prakrit inscription of Asoka dated to 3rd century BCE, meaning the copper-coloured (land); Taprobane: The Greek form of Prakrit Tambapa'n'ni, found in early Greaco-Roman literature. Cosmas of 6th century CE says that Taprobane is Greek name for what the Indians call Siele-diba.


Today, almost everybody seems to have taken it for granted that the word Sinhala stands for a particular ethnicity in the island and for the language they speak.

An irrational mythology fabricated at a later time when the original etymology was lost, that Sinhala means descendants of a lion (Siṅha) and thus means the ‘lion race’ has pervaded the minds and hearts of the people for centuries.

Most of the ethno-national identities of South Asia have in fact originated primarily from geographical identities. Such identities later stood for who ever inhabited those lands and eventually stood for the languages evolved in those lands. (Identities of classical languages don't come under this pattern)

For examples note terms like Paagnchaala /Panjab (land in between five rivers), Karu-naadu / Karnāṭakā / Kannada (country of black tract of land); Malayaa'lam / Malai-a'lam (hilly tract of land) etc.

The Sinhala identity is not an exception and there is no unambiguous evidence that the word either stood for ethnicity or language in the early usages of the word.

On the contrary, early evidences of usage and etymology strongly suggest that the term was geographical in origin and was more or less the same in meaning to Tambapa'n'ni in Prakrit and Eezham in Tamil.

The earliest available written form of the word is Seeha'la.

This form of the word, as an adjective, comes in the context of a phrase Seeha'la Vihaara (Sri Lankan monastery) and is found in a Prakrit inscription dateable to 2nd-3rd century CE, from Nagarjunakonda, of Andra Predesh, South India.

Seeha'la is the conjunction of the two components See and A'la linked by typical Prakrit conjunction phoneme H. In Dravidian it should become Seeya'la or See'la.

The obvious meaning of the word in Dravidian is ‘red tract of land.’ (See table)

A comparison of this meaning derived for Seeha'la with the meaning of another early Prakrit name for the island, i.e., Tamba-pa'n'ni (Tampa-va'n'ni: copper-coloured land), would tell that Seeha'la and Tampapa'n'ni of 3rd century BCE Asokan inscription were actually synonyms in Dravidian and Prakrit. Note that the Tamil word Chempu for copper is due to the reddish colour of the metal.

An interesting Tamil Brahmi inscription dated to c. 1st century CE, found in Muthtuppaddi, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, comes out with a name of a person as Chaiy-a'lan of Vinthai-oor (I Mahadevan, 2003).

"Vinthai-oor chaiy-a'lan kaviy"
விந்தை-ஊர் சைய்-அளன் கவிய்

The text of the inscription means 'The cave [is the gift] of Chaiy-a'lan of Vinthai-oor." (Kaviy: cave; Chaiy / chey: red)

For the word Chaiy-a'lan, other than giving the meaning Chingka'lan (a person from Chingka'lam), Mahadevan tends to interpret Chaiy as Sahyadri mountain and a'lan as a nominal suffix. He also writes on Chaiy indicating 'lion lineage' (Early Tamil Epigraphy, 2003, p 587).

But, considering the way the word was spelt in split form, and considering parallels discussed in this column, the stronger possibility is that the word Chaiy-a'lan meant a person from Chai-a'lam, the red tract of land (the island under discussion).

If so, this evidence in Tamil is not only earlier than Seeha'la found in the Prakrit inscription of Nagarjunakonda, but also explains the Dravidian etymology and geographical origins of the name in a clear way.

In this context, also note that another early name of the island Eezham has a meaning ‘gold’ in old Tamil, and the name too could have originated from the colour of the earth.

Large tracts of the island of Sri Lanka are in fact reddish or brownish in colour.

Significantly, the earliest Tamil lexicon Cheanthan Thivaakaram of 8th century CE, equates Chingka'lam with Eezham in a geographical sense and there is no connotation of ethnicity or language.

Another comparison that can be drawn out here is the adjective Kera'la found in the Prakrit phrase Kerala-puto of Asoka’s inscriptions of 3rd century BCE. Keara'la is the Prakrit form of Cheara-a'lam (K/CH interchange). Chaaral / Cheara means hill-range and Cheara-a'lam means the tract of hill-range (the land of Western Ghats). It is a synonym of another Dravidian word Malai-a'lam > Malayaa'lam (Malai: hill, mountain).

Seeha'la was Sanskritised as Saimha'la and Sinha'la in Sanskrit usages of later period. The word form found in the Mahabharata text available today doesn’t mean much in fixing dates. Sankritisation and Prakritisation were never a one-way process. Contrary to popular beliefs, many words found in Sanskrit diction are Sanskritised derivations of non-Sanskrit words than vice versa. Sanskrit influence can also be seen in the 8th century Tamil form Chingka'lam.

When the original etymology was lost, Buddhist chronicles Dīpavaṅsa and Mahāvaṅsa of the 5th century CE probably conflated words and beliefs to create the myth of the ‘lion race.’ Yet, etymologically there is no explanation how Siṅha could become Siṅhala to stand for people or ethnicity.

Siṅha'la as an adjective standing for people from the island of Sinha'la was a secondary meaning. By 12th century CE, Tamil references added the suffix ‘R’ to the word and made it Chingka'lar to mean people.

Until 9th-10th century CE, there is no reference in literature or inscriptions about Sinhala language. Identifiable Sinhala language of literary status appears with Sigiri Graffiti of 9th century CE. Even when the language evolved with an identity to call it self by a name around 10th century CE, it was referred to as He'la-basa (K. Indrapala cites Dhambiyā-aṭuvā gæṭapadaya). The word Sinhala standing for the language was a much later development.

The geographical term See-a'la with an addition of Dīpa / Diba / Diva / Dīv / Dib etc to mean island, was extensively used by Graeco-Romans, Arabs and other Westerners as Siele-diba, Sele-diba, Seren-dib etc., to finally become Ceilao /Ceylao in Portuguese times and to become Ceylon under the Dutch and the English.

While the word Sinhala is exclusively understood today in terms of ethnicity and language, note that the derivate Ceylon retained the geographical meaning.

In the context of the historically constructed belief of ‘Aryan’ origins for Sinhala ethnicity, it may sound an irony that the very etymology of Sinhala is linguistically Dravidian (not necessarily Tamil), but sensible alternative etymological explanation is not traceable through Indo-Aryan.

The writer has no claims of absolute explanation, but taking the word Sinhala as originally meaning an ethnicity in the island doesn’t seem to have logical validity in view of the word’s early usages.

Even as late as early 20th century, the Tamil poet Bharathi used the word in a geographical sense as Chingka'lath-theevu.

The terms Eezham, He'la, E'lu etc and whether they have any connections with Seeha'la will be discussed in a subsequent column.

Related Place names:

Keara’laa: This modern name for the southern state in India has been taken from the Prakrit version of the geographical identity found in the Asoka's inscription of 3rd century BCE. Asoka's inscription refers to the ruler of the country as Kerala-puto an obvious translation of Cheara-maan (Cheara-makan) of the Tamil / Malayalam references. CH and K are interchangeable in South Asian languages, even within Dravidian languages (noticeable between Tamil and Kannada).

Keara'la as an adjective has to be compared with terms Chearalan, Chearal, and Chearal-aathan, used for the rulers of the territory in Changkam literature.

Cheara-a'lam means the tract of the hill range. (Cheara / Chaaral: hill range). The country and the ruler received their names from the geography. Compare the terms with Malaiyamaan (Malai-mahan; Malai: hill), a synonym of Chearamaan in Tamil / Malayalam.

Puththa'lam: (Puthu-a'lam): The new tract of land. The entire Katpiddi Peninsula off Puththa'lam is a new tract of land formed by accumulation of sand deposits and this is a landscape still emerging from the sea to this day. Puththa'lam is the headquarters of the North Western Province of Sri Lanka.

First published: Monday, 14 December 2009, 21:19

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