Know the Etymology: 142
Place Name of the Day: Friday, 01 January 2010


Eezham / E'lu / He'la

ஈழம் / எளு / ஹெள
Īḻam / Eḷu / Heḷa

The gold (land)
The land of metal


Eezham Name of the island called Sri Lanka today. In this sense it is found written in Tamil literature and Tamil Brahmi inscription dating back to the dawn of the Common Era (1st century BCE / 1st century CE); Eezham: Name of the country equated with Chingka’lam and another meaning given is gold (Tamil lexicons Cheanthan Thivaakaram of 8th century CE and Pingkalam of 10th century CE, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 550); An additional meaning toddy is given by Choodaama’ni lexicon of 13th century CE; Eezhak-kaasu: Gold coin (comes in Tamil inscriptions dating from 912 CE); Eezha-vi’lakku: A kind of lamp made of Eezham alloy of metal or in the style of Eezham (Comes in Tamil inscriptions dating from 808 CE; Illama: A vein of metal (Sinhala, Clough’s Dictionary); Eezhavar: Name of a community that was climbing coconut and Palmyra palms (comes in Tamil inscriptions dating from 789 CE). The community found in Kerala today traces its origins to the island of Eezham; Heḷa-divi, Heḷa-ṭuva, Heḷa: The He'la Island (Sigiri graffiti, c.8-9th century CE, Dhampiyaa aṭuvaa gæṭapadaya, Sinhala literature, 10th century CE, Clough’s Dictionary); Heḷa-basa, Heḷu: The language of He'la; Dhampiyaa aṭuvaa gæṭapadaya, Sinhala literature, 10th century CE, equated with E'lu or ancient language of Ceylon (Clough’s Sinhala Dictionary); Eḷu: The country of E'lu as in the title of the Sinhala literature Eḷu Bōdhi Vamsa. Also language in later usages; Eḷuwa: The ancient Sinhalese language (Clough’s Sinhala Dictionary); E’lu-dhoo-karaa: (Eḷu dū karā): The land / coast / border of the E’lu Island. The traditional way Maldivians called today’s island of Sri Lanka in their literature and speech (Dhivehi Bas Foi, Maldivian Dictionary).

More details of usage and related words are given at the end of the column and in the re-appraisal of Thirupparangkun'ram Tamil Brahmi inscription of Eezha-kudumpikan Polaalaiyan. Also see the column on Sinhala / Chingka’lam / Ceylon


Among all the names that are currently in use for the island of Sri Lanka, Eezham seems to be the oldest one simultaneously attested by literature as well as epigraphy.

ETE 507 / 55
Estampage of Thirupparangkun'ram inscription: This one-line inscription is given here in two pieces of estampags. Note the vertical line separating two sentences after the 18th character [Image courtesy: Iravatham Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, pp 507]
ETE 390 / 55
The lettering of the Thirupparangkun'ram inscription in Tamil language and Tamil Brahmi writing. This one-line inscription is reproduced here in two lines in the sentence order, as given by Mahadevan. Note the writing Eezha in the 6th and 7th letters of the inscription [Image courtesy: Iravatham Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, pp 390]
Eezham, clearly spelt with the retroflex Ḻ (ZH) peculiar to Tamil, Malayalam and Old Kannada / Telugu, is found in Changkam literature (Paddinappaalai) and in the Thirupparangkun’ram Tamil Brahmi inscription dateable to the dawn of the Common Era, if not earlier.

The writer’s re-appraisal on the interpretation of Thirupparangkun’ram inscription is given at the end of this column.

It is a well-established fact that at least over two thousand years Eezham was in continued use without any change in its form in Tamil usage to denote the entire island.

Another name Tamba-pa’n’ni in Prakrit, so far the earliest definitely dateable name for the island, found in Asoka’s inscription of 3rd century BCE and in Greek records became obsolete later.

The names Seeha’la, Saimha’la, Sinha’la etc, which are yet another set of terms most probably of Dravidian origin and became Ceylon eventually, are two or more centuries late in their epigraphical appearance compared to Eezham.

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ETE 508 / 57
Muththuppaddi Tamil Brahmi inscription of 1st century CE, giving a personal name Chaiy-a'lan [Image courtesy: Iravatham Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, pp 508]
ETE 394 / 57
The lettering of the inscription. Note the name Chaiy-a'lan in the first five letters [Image courtesy: Iravatham Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, pp 394]
If a term Chaiy-a’lan found in a Tamil Brahmi inscription of 1st century CE could be accepted as meaning a person from Chaiy-a’lam and this place is nothing but Seeha’la of the Prakrit inscription of 2nd-3rd century CE, then the origins of the above set of terms could go on par with Eezham in antiquity. (See column on Seeha’la / Chingka’lam / Ceylon)

Such parallel occurrences around the dawn and early centuries of the Common Era make it very clear that Eezham and Seeha’la were parallel names for the island and they are not derivates of one into the other in their formulations.

Some early writers have surmised that the Sanskrit name Saimha’la became Seeha’la in Prakrit and this in turn has become Se’la, He’la, E’lu etc, and Eezham was derived from E’lu.

Even the authors of Dravidian Etymological Dictionary tend to infer this origin for Eezham (DED 550, note the direction of the arrow mark in the entry in the dictionary).

Such etymological conclusions stemming from norms that Sanskrit is always older than Prakrit and Sinhala is an ethnic name of protohistoric origins, do not find support in objective epigraphical or literary evidences and in their chronological order.

Whether the Dravidian term See-a’la / Chai-a’lam (red tract of land) was Prakritised and then Sanskritised or vice versa is the question. If we go by inscriptions it should be the former.

The names Siele, Sele for the island appear for the first time in a Greek work of 6th century CE. The form He’la appears for the first time as an adjective for the geographical identity of the island in 8th century CE Sigiri Graffiti and as an adjective for the name of the language in a 10th century CE Sinhala literature. The form E’lu comes afterwards.

There is no logic in saying that the 2000-years-old word Eezham came form terms that appeared 1000 years later.

On the contrary, the stronger possibility is for He’la and E’lu to be derivates of Eezham.

The initial S / H in Se’la or He’la commonly occurs in Prakritising / Sanskritising Dravidian words, just like the initial addition of A or I or U in Tamilising Sanskrit / Prakrit words.

Also note how the retroflex Ḻ (ZH) is retained in He’la and E’lu as palatal ‘L, compared to alveolar L in Sele and in today’s spelling of Sinhala.

K. Indrapala traces another cognate of Eezham i.e., I’la in the Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka and in Mahavamsa. (The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, 2006, pp 144-145.) The evidences are weak but he makes an interesting point by showing how I’la-Naga of Mahavamsa became E’lun-Na in later literature and thus tracing the development of the word E’lu from I’la.

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Coming to the meaning of the word Eezham, the word was clearly used in a geographical sense in Paddinappaalai. In the Thirupparangkun’ram inscription even though the word is associated with migrant identity it doesn’t go against understanding the word in a geographical sense that the person or his clan had come from the geographical space called Eezham.

Lexicons equate Eezham with Chingka’lam another geographical identity and at the same time give two more meanings, gold and toddy.

Much significance is attached to the omission of the meaning toddy in the earlier lexicons Thivaakaram and Pingkalam and its inclusion in the later lexicon Choodaama’ni. This excludes the possibility of toddy or coconut being the original meaning for the name Eezham. Obviously the meaning toddy got included in the later lexicon because of the specialisation of the migrant community from Eezham in the produce of coconut palm, especially toddy, for centuries.

The meaning gold given in the early Tamil lexicons needs closer scrutiny to get a cue for the origin of the name Eezham. There is another related Tamil word Eekai that stood for gold in the Changkam literature. Yet another related word Eeyam originally meant a variety of metals.

It should be noted here that in Tamil tradition a word Pon for gold meant five metals, gold, silver, copper, iron and lead as found in usages such as Aim-pon – five varieties of gold. Old lexicons also attest to such an idea about gold (Pingkalam, 10:871).

The island of Eezham was well known for metallic ores since distant past. Iron, copper and to some extent gold – three of the five-gold were found in the island.

Gold is found in small quantity in the beds of Maha Oya and in the rivers flowing to the west in the island, and the ancients were not unaware of finding gold in the island, says Emerson Tennent (1860), citing Mahavamsa.

There is a reference in later literature of the popularity of Eezhaththu-Irumpu (Iron from Eezham). We do not know the antiquity of this nomenclature but a kind of sword called Eeli in both Sanskrit and Prakrit could probably be of Eezham origins.

Interestingly, Sinhala vocabulary has retained a term Illama for a vein of metal.

Medieval Tamil inscriptions, apart from coming out with a number of references to Eezhak-kaasu (a gold coin) also let us know about a kind of metal lamp called Eezha vi’lakku, Eezha-nilai vilakku etc.

We do not know what was special about this lamp; whether it was an import from Eezham to Tamil Nadu or recognition of a style, but there is a strong possibility that the reference was for the metal or metal alloy.

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Eezham was probably the Tamil way of naming the land of metal ores just like the Sanskrit tradition of naming some of the Southeast Asian countries as Swrna-dvipa (Island of Gold) and Swarna-bhumi (Land of Gold).

This etymology for the word Eezham tally well with the other early names for the island, i.e., Tamba-pa’n’ni (the copper-coloured land) and See-a’la (the red tract of land), which are obvious references to the iron-rich red earth of the island.

Ample archaeological evidences attest to the flourishing iron industry in the length and breadth of the island in the megalithic protohistoric times and in the early historic times, when the island names discussed above probably originated

All the three identities, Tamba-pa’n’ni, Eezham and Seeha’la, the first one in Prakrit and the other two in Dravidian, are perhaps generically related to one another in meaning. They are geographical and descriptive of the landscape of the island and its metallurgical potentialities.

Lanka, another name for the island, considered to be older than the ones discussed above because of its Austro Asiatic origins, belongs to a different genre and will be taken up for a separate study in a subsequent column.

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A list of original references to the terms and their chronology is given below, followed by a re-appraisal of the Thirupparangkun’ram inscription, for those who wish to pursue the investigation further:

Geographical Meaning:

Eezhaththu-u’navu: ஈழத்து உணவு: Food from Eezham (arriving in shipment to Kaavirippoom-paddinam); Changkam Diction, Paddinappaalai, c. 1st century CE.

Izha Kudumpikan / Eezha Kudumpikan: ஈழ குடும்பிகன்: Householder from Eezham / of the clan of Eezham; Thirupparangkun’ram Tamil Brahmi inscription, c. 1st century BCE / CE

Eezhaththup-Poothan Theavanaar, Mathurai Eezhaththup Poothan Theavanaar: ஈழத்துப் பூதன் தேவனார், மதுரை ஈழத்துப் பூதன் தேவனார்: The poet coming from Eezham / the poet hailing from Eezham but settled in Mathurai; One of the Changkam poets whose poems are found in Akanaanooru, Ku’runthokai and Natti’nai – early layer of Changkam literature dateable to centuries before the Common Era. But the compilation of the works giving his name is dated to c. 5th century CE.

Eezham Chingka’lam: "ஈழம் சிங்களம்": Eezham is geographically equated to Chingka’lam in this verse found in old lexicons; Tamil lexicons, Cheanthan Thivaakaram (8th century CE); Pinkalam (10th century CE) and Choodaama’ni (13th century CE)

Ilangkai Eezhaththu: இலங்கை ஈழத்து: Eezham that is Ilangkai or Eezham that is in Ilangkai; Eezham is geographically equated with Ilangkai; Perungkathai / Kongkuvea’l Maakkathai, Jaina Tamil literature of 10th century CE.

Eezham: ஈழம்: Used in geographical sense; Tamil inscription 905 CE, (TASSI 1962-65 p 1-31, also Glossary of Tamil Inscriptions)

Eezhaththaraiyan: ஈழத்தரையன்: The king of Eezham; Tamil inscription 919 CE, (SII iii p99, also GTI).

Eezha-ma'ndalam: ஈழ மண்டலம்: The geographical region of Eezham (as part of the Chola Empire); Tamil inscription 1012 CE (SII vii p863, also GTI).

Eezhap-padai: ஈழப் படை: The army of Eezham; Tamil inscription 1168 CE (SII vii 456, also GTI).

Eezham: ஈழம்: In Tamil literature and Epigraphy, this is the word that is found used with the longest continuity over two thousand years to mean the entire island. Tamil literature that arose in the island as well as inscriptions such as the one found at Fort Hammenhiel, Kayts (1017 CE) also have used the term. Somewhat a modern sense of national identity could be traced in the use of the word in Pa’raa’lai Vinaayakar Pa’l’lu, an Eezham Tamil literature of the Dutch period, in which the senior wife of the cultivation worker while challenging the junior who had come from the Chola country would assert “ Eezham is our country” (Eezha ma’ndala naadengka’l naadea / ஈழ மண்டல நாடெங்கள் நாடே).

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Meaning Gold / Coin / Metal:

Eezham: ஈழம்: Gold; Tamil lexicons Cheanthan Thivaakaram (8th century CE), Pingkalam (10th century CE), Choodaama’ni (13th century CE), Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 550

Eezhak-kaasu: ஈழக் காசு: Gold coin / the money of Eezham; Tamil inscription 912 CE (MCCM viii p144-09, also GTI)

Eezhak-kazhagnchu: ஈழக் கழஞ்சு: Gold coin / Gold coin of Eezham; Tamil inscription 950 CE (TASSI 1962-65 p32-52, also GTI)

Eezhak-karung kaasu: ஈழக் கருங் காசு:A kind of coinage / a kind of coinage from Eezham; Tamil inscription 960 CE (SII xiii p84, also GTI)

Eezhang-kaasu: ஈழங் காசு: Gold coin / the money of Eezham; Tamil inscription 1189 CE (CHEN xxviii p 144, also GTI)

Eekai: ஈகை: Gold; Tamil, Changkam Diction, dateable to the dawn of the Common Era (Puranaanoo’ru 99:5, 353:3, Ku’rignchippaaddu 126, Malaipadukadaam 72), Tamil lexicon, 10th century CE (Pingkalam 10:155)

Eeyam: ஈயம்: Lead, originally a common name for several metals, lead, graphite, copper etc. (Lexicons, Thivaakaram, 6:26, Pingkalam10:509, Choodaama’ni 11:299); One of the five metals, gold, silver, copper, iron and lead. All five of them were often called Aim-pon – the five kinds of gold. The usage of ‘five kinds of gold’ is also attested to by one of the lexicons (Pingkalam 10:871). The island of Sri Lanka is a well-known source for iron, copper and graphite (Kaar-Eeyam); Eeyan, Eeyam, Eeyama: Lead (Sinhala)

Illama: A vein of metal (Sinhala)

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Meaning an identifiable community engaged in tapping toddy or climbing palmyra and coconut palms to get their produce.

Eezhap-poochchi: ஈழப் பூச்சி: A kind of tax on the community of Eezhavar who were tapping toddy, Tamil inscription 750 CE, (EI vol 8, also GTI)

Eezham-poodchi: ஈழம் பூட்சி: A kind of tax levied from the community of Eezhavar tapping toddy; Tamil inscription 789 CE (SII ii p99, also GTI)

Eezhavar: ஈழவர்: The name of the community indicated as those who climb coconut palms and palmyra palms; Tamil inscription 789 CE (SII ii p99, also GTI)

Eezhavar, Eezhak-kaiyar: ஈழவர், ஈழக் கையர்: The community of Eezhavar and those who belong to the code of conduct of the guild of Eezhavar; (Tamil inscription 849 CE (TAS ii p 67-68, also GTI). One shade of meaning for the word Kai in old Tamil is code of conduct. The word was used in this sense in the names of guild-based identities such as Kaikkoa’lar and in the names of identities such as Valang-kai, Idang-kai etc.

Eezhach-chaan’raan: ஈழச் சான்றான்: The one who draws toddy belonging to the Eezham community; Tamil inscription 929 CE (SII iv 533, also GTI)

Eezhak-kula-theepan: ஈழக் குல தீபன்: The light of the community of Eezhavar. Reference to a Saiva saint Eanaathi-naatha-naayanaar by Nampiyaa’ndaar Nampi in Thiruththo’ndar Thiruvanthaathi, verse 10, 10th century CE

Eezhavan: ஈழவன்: The community tapping toddy mentioned along with Kollan (black smith), Va’n’naan (washerman), Pa’rampan (leather workers / a hill tribe) and Pa’raiyan (drummers); Tamil inscription 1000 CE (EI xxxiii p 33, also GTI)

Eezhap-poodchi: ஈழப் பூட்சி: A kind of tax levied on the community of Eezhavar who were tapping toddy; Tamil inscription 1008 CE (EI xxii p 34, also GTI)

Eezhach-cheari: ஈழச் சேரி: The settlement of Eezhavar; Tamil inscription 1014 CE (SII ii p 4, also GTI)

Eezham: ஈழம்: Toddy; Tamil lexicon (Choodaama’ni 13th century CE)

Eezhavar: ஈழவர்: Today this is the name of a caste associated with drawing toddy in southern Kerala. Migration is remembered in the legends and folklore of this community, which traces its origins to the island of Eezham.

Eedi, Eedigaa, Eedigitti: ஈடி, ஈடிகா, ஈடிகித்தி: Toddy, toddy-tapping man, toddy-tapping woman respectively (Kannada, note the ZH / D interchange, DED 549, 550)

Eedigaa, Ee’ndra, Ee’ndradi: ஈடிகா, ஈண்ட்ரா, ஈண்ட்ரதி: Toddy, man and woman of the toddy-tapping community (Telugu, note the ZH / D interchange, DED 549, 550)

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Lamp made in the style of the country of Eezham or lamp made of a particular alloy of metal

Eezha Vi’lakku: ஈழ விளக்கு: The lamp of Eezham; Tamil inscription 808 CE (EI vi p29, also GTI)

Eezha Nilai-vi’lakku: ஈழ நிலை விளக்கு: Stationary lamp of Eezham; Tamil inscription 923 CE (SII xix 397, also GTI)

Eezhach-chiyal vi'lakku, Eezha-achchiyal vi'lakku: ஈழச்சியல் விளக்கு, ஈழ அச்சியல் விளக்கு: A kind of Eezham-lamp; Tamil inscription 1009 CE (SII v p521)

Eezhap-parisu: ஈழப் பரிசு: A lamp made in the Eezham way – an eight sided or eight angled lamp made of brass as we come to know from the ionscription; Tamil inscription 1014 CE (SII ii p36, also GTI)

GTI: Glossary of Tamil Inscriptions (In Tamil), Santi Sadhana, Chennai, 2002
EI: Epigraphia Indica
SII: South Indian Inscriptions
TASSI: Transactions of the Archaeological Society of South India
TAS: Travancore Archaeological Series
CHEN: Chenthamizh, Journal of Madurai Thamizh Changam
MCCM: Madras Christian College Magazine

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Cognates in Sinhala:

I'la-barata: (Iḷa-barata) Whether this phrase found in a Brahmi inscription of Sri Lanka means a person of Parathavar community of Eezham or whether the phrase as one word means a place name as the word in the inscription is followed by a locative case ‘hi’ (Iḷabaratahi) are debatable (Brahmi inscriptions of Ceylon, Paranavitana, 1970, No 94; Seneviratne. S., 1985 and Indrapala K., 2006)

I'la-naaga: (Iḷa-nāga) Name of a 1st century CE ruler of the island found mentioned in Mahavamsa compiled in 5th century CE. Sinhala chronicles of the later period rendering the name as Eḷun-Nā may imply that I'la of the early centuries and E'lu of the later centuries were cognates. However, whether the word I'la in this case means Naga of I'la country / identity or whether it was an adjective to mean younger or junior is debatable (Indrapala K., 2006)

He'la-divi: (Heḷa-divi) The ‘He'la island’; (Sigiri graffiti, c.8-9th century CE)

He'la-tuva: (Heḷa-ṭuva) The He'la island; Dhampiyaa aṭuvaa gæṭapadaya, 10th cenury CE Sinhala literature (K. Indrapala, 2006 p 369)

He'la-basa: (Heḷa-basa) The language of He'la; Dhampiyaa aṭuvaa gæṭapadaya, 10th cenury CE Sinhala literature (K. Indrapala, 2006 p 369), Elu or ancient language of Ceylon (Clough’s Sinhala Dictionary)

He'lu: (Heḷu) The country or language of He'lu; Dhampiyaa aṭuvaa gæṭapadaya, 10th cenury CE Sinhala literature (K. Indrapala, 2006 p 369)

He'la: (Heḷa) The ancient name of Ceylon; (Clough’s Sinhala Dictionary traces the origin of the word to Sihala > Seela > Sela > Hela)

E'lu: (Eḷu) The country of E'lu as in the title of the Sinhala literature Eḷu Bōdhi Vamsa. Also language in later usages

E'luwa: (Eḷuva) The ancient Sinhalese language (Clough’s Sinhala Dictionary)

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Cognate in Maldivian / Dhivehi:

E’lu-dhoo-karaa: Eḷu-dū-karā: (in Maldivian transcription, Elhu dhoo karaa): This is the traditional Maldivian way found in literature and usage to refer to the island called Sri Lanka today. Any foreign country is referred to as Karaa in Maldivian (Karai : coast, border etc in Tamil). In Tamil the phrase literally means ‘the coast of the island of E’lu / Eezham’ (E’lu: Eezham; Dhoo: island; Karaa: coast / border / land)

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Thirupparangkun’ram Tamil Brahmi Inscription of Eezha Kudumpikan (Īḻa kuṭumpikaṉ): a Re-appraisal:

ETE 507 / 55
Estampage of Thirupparangkun'ram inscription: This one-line inscription is given here in two pieces of estampags. Note the vertical line separating two sentences after the 18th character [Image courtesy: Iravatham Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, pp 507]


This inscription in Tamil language and Tamil Brahmi characters, palaeographically dateable to the dawn of the Common Era, appears in one line on the ledge above a row of stone beds made for Jaina monks in a cave in Thirupparangkun’ram hill near Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

The inscription was first published in Annual Report of Epigraphy of the Archaeological Survey of India, 1908 and 1911-12.

The latest study of the inscription can be found in Iravatam Mahadevan’s, Early Tamil Epigraphy, Harvard Oriental Series no. 62, 2003, p 142, 390, 393, 583 and 584.

Mahadevan dates the inscription to c. 1st century CE. Some earlier studies dated it back to c. 1st century BCE.

The text could be transcribed as follows. Note that pure consonants had no special markers in old Tamil writing system. They were identified and differentiated by context.

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ETE 390 / 55
The lettering of the Thirupparangkun'ram inscription in Tamil language and Tamil Brahmi writing. This one-line inscription is reproduced here in two lines in the sentence order, as given by Mahadevan. Note the writing Eezha in the 6th and 7th letters of the inscription [Image courtesy: Iravatham Mahadevan, Early Tamil Epigraphy, pp 390]


Transcription of the inscription letter by letter:

e ru kā ṭu ra i ḻa ku ṭu ma pi ka ṉa po lā lai ya ṉa |
ce ya tā ā ya ca ya ṉa ne ṭu cā ta ṉa

எ ரு கா டு ர இ(ஈ) ழ கு டு ம பி க ன பொ லா லை ய ன |
செ ய தா ஆ ய ச ய ன நெ டு சா த ன

The one-line inscription is separated after the 18th character by a vertical line to indicate there are two sentences. The characters of the second sentence are smaller than the first.

Applying the conventions of Tamil epigraphy and treating characters in certain contexts as pure consonants, Mahadevan reads the text in Tamil as follows:

erukāṭur iḻa-kuṭumpikaṉ polālaiyaṉ |
ceytā[ṉ] āycayaṉ neṭucātaṉ

After the 21st character Mahadevan adds an N. He says that this is “supplied here from the evidence of the noun which follows.” This is not necessary as we shall see later.

“(The gift of) Polālaiyaṉ, the Īḻa-householder from Erukkāṭṭūr. Āyccayyaṉ Neṭucāttaṉ made.” is the meaning given by Mahadevan.

The gift made is the stone beds as understood from the context of the inscription.

The writer prefers to read the second line without supplementing an N, as ceyta Āyccayyaṉ, Neṭucātaṉ.

The preferred version of the writer in Tamil:

எருகாடூர் ஈழகுடும்பிகன் பொலாலையன் |
செய்த ஆய்சயன், நெடு சா(த்)தன்

See table at the end of the column for discussions on the phrases.

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In his interpretation Mahadevan says Ila-householder (Īḻa-kuṭumpikaṉ) more appropriately means a householder of the Eezhavar community (tree climber caste) than a householder from the island of Eezham. He also attributes Kannada connections to the personal names appearing in the inscriptions but the explanations are not convincing. (Mahadevan,I., Early Tamil Epigraphy, 2003, p584-585)

Indrapala argues in favour of interpreting the adjective Īḻa of the phrase Īḻa-kuṭumpikaṉ of the inscription as a cognate of Eezha, I'la, E'lu He'la etc., and as an ethnic name for the dominant ethnicity of the island now called Sri Lanka. (Indrapala.K., The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity, 2006, pp 140-149)

It seems the key lies in satisfactorily interpreting Polaalaiyan, the personal name of the Īḻa-householder.

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The name Polaalaiyan has three components: Pol+ aal+aiyan.

Pol is a unique word found today only in Sinhala language to mean coconut. The Sinhala vocabulary has a number of derivates from the word Pol to stand for various produces of the coconut palm.

Interestingly the Sinhala word Pol is of Dravidian origin and is a cognate of the Tamil word Pul (Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 4300), which was originally a generic term for plants such as coconut palm, palmyra palm, arecanut palm, bamboo as well as varieties of grass.

“Pu’rak-kaazhanavea pul ena mozhipa; Akak-kaazhanavea maran enappadumea” புறக் காழனவே புல் என மொழிப; அகக் காழனவே மரன் எனப்படுமே (all those plants for which the exterior is harder than the core are Pul and all those for which the core is harder than the exterior are Maram: Tholkaappiyam 27: 86-87

Tholkaappiyam further clarifies that coconut palm along with other palms is classified as Pul, by bringing out the conventional names that are used for parts of such plants in the next stanza 27:88:

Thoadea madalea oalai en'raa
Eadea ithazhea paa'lai en'raa
Eerkkea kulaiyea chearnthana pi'ravum
Pullodu varumenach chollinar pulavar


தோடே மடலே ஓலை என்றா
ஏடே இதழே பாளை என்றா
ஈர்க்கே குலையே சேர்ந்தன பிறவும்
புல்லொடு வருமெனச் சொல்லினர் புலவர்

This earliest available grammar in Tamil, dateable to c. 5th century CE if not earlier says, Thoadu (leaf), Madal (leaf-branch and its base), Oalai (leaf), Eadu (flat and long single leaf), Ithazh (leaf), Eerkku (the spine of a leaf), Kulai (bunch of fruits) etc are names of parts applicable only to Pul variety of plants.

Anyone who is familiar with Tamil usage could see from the names how the generic term for coconut palm in old Tamil was Pul.

However the Tholkaappiyam classification doesn’t explain the etymology of Pul. This is better explained by other terms such as Pulli in old Tamil for outer leaf of a plant. It seems all those plants having leafs as branches were called Pul.

In modern Tamil Pul means only grass but in old Tamil usages there are clear examples for the use of the word for Palmyra palm, bamboo etc.

In Sinhala vocabulary too the word Pol, besides being the name of coconut palm is also the prefix of the names of a few variety of grasses. (See table below)

P.C. Bagchi (1929), Prof D.E. Hettiarachchi (University of Ceylon History of Ceylon vol I and Prof K Indrapala (2006 p 312) have perhaps missed the obvious affinity between Sinhala Pol and Tamil Pul in surmising Austro Asiatic origins for the word Pol and its meaning as coconut palm. (Indrapala K, 2006, pp 312-314.)

Probably people of the island of Eezham applied the Dravidian generic term Pul / Pol to name the coconut palm that is not native to the island and the name stayed in Sinhala language. Coconut palm is believed to be native to Southeast Asia / Pacific islands and the island of Eezham could have been one of its first habitats in South Asia.

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Coming to the inscription under discussion, the second component of the word Aal is another old Dravidian word meaning water.

The third component Aiyan meant leader, father, elder brother etc. in old Tamil and is listed in the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary. Meaning elder brother in Sinhala, the word Ayiyaa is a common suffix found in Sinhala usage in respectfully addressing experts of any trade.

Polaalaiyan simply means the ‘Toddy Elder’ or ‘the elder of the profession of tapping toddy / coconut palm water.’

If this interpretation is acceptable then the whole context only favours the deduction that the householder was of the origins of the island of Eezham and the adjective Eezha of Eezha-kudumpikan originally stood for the geographical identity of Eezham, even though it might have also stood for that migrant community specialized in tapping the produce of palm trees.

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The folklore and legends of the community of Eezhavar, found mainly in Kerala today, are full of references about their origins from the island of Eezham and about their community introducing the coconut palm to Kerala.

Indrapala cites the literature Kēralōtpatti, and the following publications: A Aiyappan, Iravas and Culture Change, Madras Government Museum; Travancore State Manual I and II, 1906 and 1940 and Cochin State Manual, 1911.

Even though Indrapala’s argument that Eezham itself might have originally meant coconut to render the name to the island seems not well attested to, his citations strongly suggest that right from early times coconut palm could have been associated with the island of Eezham and the migrant community of Eezhavar. He cites that the names Thennai and Thengku in Tamil and Malayalam for the coconut palm inferring its introduction from the south.

Whether Eezham originally meant coconut is very doubtful because the early lexicons do not give the meaning toddy for Eezham. This meaning is found only in a late lexicon Choodaama’ni of 13th century CE.

However the Eezhavar community and their profession of climbing not only coconut palms but also Palmyra palms is specifically mentioned in a Tamil inscription dated to 789 CE.

“Thengkum panaiyum Eezhavar ea'rap pe'raathaaraakavum”

தெங்கும் பனையும் ஈழவர் ஏறப் பெறாதாராகவும்

“Coconut palms and palmyra palms (in this endowed land) are prohibited for Eezhavar to climb.” (South Indian Inscriptions, ii p99)

There are hundreds of later inscriptions attesting to the wide prevalence of the identity of this community, which might have ultimately equated the term Eezham with toddy.

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The Thirupparangkun’ram Tamil Brahmi inscription under discussion is an evidence of very early times, going back to the dawn of the Common Era, for the arrival and identity of the migrants from the Eezham island and at the same time attesting to the antiquity of the name Eezham for the island.

The inscription not only evidences the use of Tamil by this community that migrated from the island by or before the dawn of the Common Era but also indicates through words such as Pol, the Dravidian substratum of their language that caused the subsequent formations of Sinhala and Eezham Tamil.

Perhaps Eezhavar were the first known community of migrants or what we call diaspora today that has come the other way round in considerable numbers- from the island of Eezham to the sub-continent and retained the identity for over two millennia.

* * *





See table below for discussions on the other words found in the inscription and their meanings:

Erukaadoor: எருகாடூர்: The village where the householder of the clan from Eezham was residing in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, this village name, spelt as Erukkaaddoor is found mentioned in the Changkam literature too as the home village of a poet Erukkaaddoorth-thaayam Ka’n’nanaar. The affix Thaayam a term like Kudumpikan suggests that the poet belonged to a household of matriarchy in that village or to the matriarchal part of the village. Thaayam, from Thaay (mother) means matriarchy, matrilineal property, matriarchal household etc. Also note the words Thaayaththaar, Thaayaathi etc in Tamil, identifying close relatives in terms of matriarchy. Etymologically Eruk-kaaddoor > Erukku+kaadu+oor means the village of Erukku (Calotrophis gigantean) shrubs. Compare Erukkalam-piddi in Mannaar.

Izha-Kudumpikan: ஈழ குடும்பிகன்: Palaeographically it can also be read as Eezha-kudumpikan. The householder from the island of Eezham / the householder from the clan of the island of Eezham / the householder from the clan of the island of Eezham engaged in activities related to palm trees.

Polaalaiyan: Pol+aal+aiyan: பொல்+ஆல்+ஐயன்: The elder of the profession of tapping toddy / coconut palm water

Following are words and phrases in Sinhala related to Pol, meaning coconut and kinds of grasses:

Pol: பொல்: Matured coconut, also a grass Paspalum cora; Pol-gaha: Coconut palm; Pol-raa: Coconut toddy (Raa: toddy; Na'raa in old Tamil); Pol-atta: Dried coconut palm leaf, plaited; Pol-ula, Pol-koora: pointed stick to peal coconut; Pol-kaṭuwa, Pol-kōmbe: Shell of a coconut; Pol-kiri: juice of coconut; Pol-kuḍu: refuse of scraped coconut after extracting milk, also a sort of grass; Pol-kuḍupalā, Pol-palā: Knot-grass; Pol-amu: kind of grass, Paspalum scrobiculatum; Pol-æl-vī: Kind of paddy; Pol-kohu: Coconut fibre; Pol-tel: Coconut oil; Pol-walla: Bunch of coconut; Pol-waakara: Arrack of the first distillation.

The following are the references for the word Pul in Old Tamil, meaning palm varieties of trees as well as grass:

Pul: புல்: Generic term for grass family; Plants like grass, coconut palm, palmyra palm, arecanut palm, bamboo etc (Glossary of Historical Tamil Literature, Santi Sadhana, vol 4 2002, p 1730); Any plant for which exterior is harder than the core is Pul (Earliest Tamil grammar Tholkaappiyam, 27:86: “Pu’rak-kaazhanavea pul ena mozhipa;” புறக் காழனவே புல் என மொழிப; Grass, grass family (Tamil, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 4300); Grass family (Old lexicons); Palmyra palm (Thivaakaram 4:73 and Choodaama’ni 4:10 lexicons): Pulli: Outer leaf of a plant, filament of stamen (Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 256). This explains the name Pul for plants having leafs as branches.

Also note the following stanza of Tholkaappiyam (27:88) that gives the conventional names for the parts of Pul variety of plants. The long popular use of these terms for parts of coconut palm in Tamil convention attests to the identification of the plant as a Pul in Tamil.

Thoadea madalea oalai en'raa
Eadea ithazhea paa'lai en'raa
Eerkkea kulaiyea chearnthana pi'ravum
Pullodu varumenach chollinar pulavar


தோடே மடலே ஓலை என்றா
ஏடே இதழே பாளை என்றா
ஈர்க்கே குலையே சேர்ந்தன பிறவும்
புல்லொடு வருமெனச் சொல்லினர் புலவர்

The following reference in Kallaadam (39:10), means a palmyra palm by the word Pul:

An'ril pul cheakkai pukku
அன்றில் புல் சேக்கை புக்கு

The An'ril bird reached its nest in palmyra palm (this bird always lives in palmyra palms)

Aal: ஆல்: Also, Aalam, Aali: Water, raindrops (Tamil and Malayalam, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 384); Aali-neer: Water of dew (DED 384); Aali: Oozing water (Tamil literary usage); Æla: stream of water, brook, rivulet, canal (Sinhala); Æliya: River, drain (Sinhala). See column on Ællegoda.

Aiyan: ஐயன்: Also, Ayyan: Father, sage, priest, teacher, Brahmin, superior person, master, king (Tamil, DED 196); Ai: Lord, master (Tamil, DED 196); Aiyan: Husband, lord, elder, father, gods Murukan and Chaaththan (Tamil, Changkam Diction and lexicons); Aiyanmaar, Aiyar: Elder brothers (Tamil, Changkam Diction); Tham-Aiyan: Elder brother (Tamil, Malayalam DED 196); Ayiyaa: Elder brother (Sinhala); Ayiyaalaa: Elder brothers (Sinhala)


Second sentence:

Cheytha Aaychayan Nedu Chaathan: செய்த ஆய்சயன் நெடு சாதன்: The bed-cutter who made was Nedu-Chaathan. There is no need to add an N after Cheythaa to make it Cheythaan. Instead it should be read as Cheytha.

Cheytha: செய்த: Adjective meaning ‘made by.’ From the verb Chey (to do, make, creat, cause; Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 1957)

Aaychayan: ஆய்சயன்: Probably Aayvai-cheyan or Aayvai-cheyyan: The bed-cutter. Aayvai: ஆய்வை: Bed, sleeping place (Pingkalam lexicon 4: 260; Cheyan, Cheyyan: செயன், செய்யன்: one who makes

Nedu-chathan: நெடு சாதன்: Nedugn-chaaththan (நெடுஞ்சாத்தன்); the tall / great / senior / esteemed Chaththan. (Chaaththan is a common name found in old Tamil literature and epigraphy, probably for a member of an artisan guild or trade guild.)

First published: Thursday, 31 December 2009, 23:47

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