Know the Etymology: 144
Place Name of the Day: Sunday, 28 February 2010


Langkaa / Ilangkai / Sri Lanka

லங்கா / இலங்கை / ஸ்ரீ லங்கா
Laṅkā / Ilaṅkai / S'rī Laṅkā

Langkaa
Sri+Lanka


The island

Langkaa 1: A generic term for any island, presumably belonging to Munda or Austro-Asiatic strain of languages. In this sense it was found used in Old Tamil and Maldivian and is found used in the place names of Andhra, Orissa and Assam; 2: The island / city of Ravana in the epic Ramayana (Sanskrit); 3: Specifically stood for the island called Sri Lanka today; Ilangkai: 1: The Tamil form of Langkaa, used since Changkam times (Dawn of the Common Era), to mean several places in the ancient Tamil country as well as the island called Sri Lanka today; 2: Any island in a river (Old Tamil Lexicons c.8th-13th centuries CE); 3: The island of the Epic Ramayana (in this sense appears first in post-Changkam literature of c. 5th century CE); 4: Specifically meant the island called Sri Lanka today; Sri Lanka: Addition of the ‘Sri’ part of the name, meaning auspiciousness, resplendent etc in Sanskrit, is an innovation of Sinhala nationalism in the 20th century. The addition became popular through the 1940 lyric of Ananda Samarakoon, which became the national anthem in 1951. Since 1948 Lanka added with Sri was used in the Sinhala legend of postal stamps and since 1956 it was introduced in the Sinhala legend of currency notes. In 1972, with the republican constitution, the country became officially named as Sri Lanka. However, Ilangkai continued in all official usages in Tamil.

For detailed usages of Langkaa / Ilangkai since early times see the table at the end of the column. Also see columns appeared earlier on Ceylon and Eezham.


As could be deduced from the usage found in several languages of South Asia, Langkaa is a generic term, meaning any island.

Langkaa-related island names are found from Maldives to Malaysia, in between covering Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Assam of the Bay of Bengal coast, showing that there is a clear pattern in the distribution. (See the table at the end of the column)

Ilangkai, the Tamil form of the word was in use in Tamil literature at least since the dawn of the Common Era, for place names in ancient Tamil Nadu as well as for the island called Sri Lanka today. As Tamil words do not begin with L, one of the three vowels, A, I or U is usually added in front of such words.

According to Changkam Tamil literature Pu’ranaanoo’ru 379, Ilangkai was a walled settlement, surrounded by a deep moat, and it was the seat of the chieftain Oaymaan Villiyaathan. He was referred to as Ilangkaik-kizhavan, meaning the owner or lord of Ilangkai. This Ilangkai was located in the Tho’ndai-Naadu (Kaagnchi region) of the ancient Tamil country. The place was probably like an island with its deep moat around it.

In Pu’ranaanoo’ru 176, another descendant of the same clan, Oaymaan Nalliyakkoadan is called as the lord of the great, big, Ilangkai (Peru-maa-Ilangkaith-thalaivan).

Chi’rupaa’naattuppadai of Paththuppaaddu, a long Changkam poem on Nalliyakkoadan, says he was the lord of ‘good great Ilangkai’ the name of which is parallel in antiquity to that of the ‘old, great Ilangkai’ (an obvious reference to the island called Sri Lanka today).

“Thol-maa-Ilangkaik karuvodu peyariya nal-maa-Ilangkai”
(Chi’rupaa’naattuppadai 119-120)
“தொல்மா இலங்கைக் கருவொடு பெயரிய நல்மா இலங்கை”
(சிறுபாணாற்றுப்படை)

From the inference we come to know that at least since the Dawn of the Common Era, even Langkaa or the island called Sri Lanka today was known by the name Ilangkai in Tamil usage.




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However, the term Ilangkai in its early usages in Tamil, strictly adhering to its original meaning standing for any island, is quite evident from the old lexicons.

The meaning given for the word Ilangkai in the Tamil lexicons, Cheanthan Thivaakaram (c.8th century CE), Pingkalam (c.10th century CE) and Choodaama’ni (c. 13th century CE) is that it is an island or islet in a river.

This is exactly the way the word is found used in Oriya and in some Munda languages (Austro-Asiatic languages) of Orissa.

An islet in the river at Sonepur in the Balangir district of Orissa is even today called Langkaa.

Langkaa also means any distant land in Oriya language.




* * *


Associating Ilangkai with Ramayana mythology appears in Tamil literature only from c. 5th century CE. The early references in this connotation come from Chilappathikaaram and Pazhamozhi Naanoo’ru, both post-Changkam in date.

The Tamil Buddhist literature Ma’nimeakalai of c. 5th century CE is the first to come out with another Tamil form Ilangkaa-theevam (the island of Ilangkaa) instead of Ilangkai.

A tendency noticed in Tamil literature and inscriptions is the practice of adding phrases of description before the word Ilangkai. Phrases such as Thol-maa-Ilangkai (the old big Ilangkai), Kadal-choozh-Ilangkai (the island surrounded by sea), Then-Ilangkai (the island in the south) etc found in Tamil usages in the context of identifying todays island of Sri Lanka only indicate that there was a necessity to differentiate this Ilangkai from the others.




* * *


An interesting clue in this respect comes from usages in the Maldivian language Dhivehi.

In old Maldivian language, Ahi-Langkaa means their own country of islands (Maldives) and Mahi-Langkaa means other countries. (Aha > Ahi: home, inner, inside, our etc; Mahaa > Mahi: great, big etc. For Maldives islands others are great countries / islands).

The Maldivian usage is another evidence that Langkaa meant any island and phrases were added whenever specific identification was needed.

Many Maldivian island names also provide valuable inferences that the very root syllable of Langkaa, i.e. Laa, Le, Lee, Lu etc as nouns and Lai, Lan, Lankan etc as adjectives themselves mean island. About 32 island names of this category are listed in the Etymological Dictionary of Maldivian Island Names (pp 163-165).

An example is Maa-le, the name of the capital island. The adjacent island where the international airport is situated is Hu’lu-le. Obviously they mean the big island and the small island, and Le in this context simply means island.

Laa and Le (as in legung) in certain contexts of Maldivian usage mean deposits (by waves etc) putting something (like an island) to take shape.

Parallels could be seen in Sinhala usages also.

Lak is a word equivalent to Langkaa in Sinhala. This is also evident from the Sinhala phrases, Lak-diva for the island of Langkaa and Lak-wæsiya for an inhabitant of Langkaa (Clough’s Sinhala Dictionary).




* * *


To which language family the word Langkaa belongs is a question.

As the Sanskrit or Pali / Prakrit diction has nothing to offer more than the geographical meanings standing for the island of Ramayana epic and the meridian of astronomical calculations passing through Ujjayini, the chances of Langkaa meaning any island originating fro Indo-Aryan family of languages is very remote.

Noting usage and distribution of the word, many scholars believe that it is a Mundari word originating from the Austro-Asiatic family of languages. In the case of Langkaa meaning today’s island of Sri Lanka, it is presumed that either the name originated from a usage of the Veddahs of the island or that it was a continental reference to the island originating from Austro-Asiatic vocabulary.

However, an old glossary of Maldivian language brings out another word ‘Hilang’ when it explains the word Langkaa and says Hilang is an evidence of anything (like a land) existing (Ghiyaasuddin Bas Foi and also Dhivehi Bas Foi). This brings a connection between Langkaa and the Tamil word Ilangku meaning the prominent existence of something.




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Many of today’s generation think Sri Lanka is an old name for the island. It is not so as far as the Sri part is concerned.

Sri Lanka was an innovation of 20th century Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists who resented the colonial usage, Ceylon.

Ananda Samaracone composed a lyric popularising the term Sri Lanka in 1940. It later became the national anthem in 1951, with a parallel translation in Tamil made by Muthu-thamizhip-pulavar Mu. Nallathambi.

Early Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists had a fervour for Sanskrit and note that this Sri was not spelt or written in the Pali / Prakrit / Sinhala form, Siri.

The postal stamps of independent Ceylon carried the legend Sri Lanka in Sinhala script and Ilankai in Tamil script in them, since 1949. Ilangkai was long in usage and no addition was made to it.

With the government of SWRD Bandaranayake coming to power in 1956, Sri Lanka first appeared as part of the name of the bank in currency notes, only in Sinhala script. After 1965 the bank name had the Tamil version with Ilangkai in it.

In 1972, with the republican constitution of Mrs Srimao Bandaranayake’s government, Sri Lanka became the official name of the country. However, its official name in Tamil remains Ilangkai.




Examples for the usage of the word Langkaa / Ilangkai

Meaning places other than the island that is politically called Sri Lanka today:

Ilangkaik-kizhavoan: Villi-Aathan, the lord of a walled city called Ilangkai or Maa-Ilangkai, surrounded by a moat, in Tho’ndai-naadu of the ancient Tamil country (Pu’ranaanoo’ru, 379:6, Dawn of the Common Era)

Peru-maa-Ilangkaith-thalaivan: The chief of the great Maa-Ilangkai, (Oay-maan Nalliyak-koadan, Pu’ranaanoo’ru 176:6

Nan-maa-Ilangkai: The capital of Nalliyak koadan of Oaviyar clan, in the ancient Tamil country. The name of the place is compared with the old great island of Ilangkai either in greatness or in antiquity (Chi’rupaa’naattuppadai: 120, c.1st century CE);

Ilangkai: An islet in a river (Aattidaikk-ku’rai: Old Tamil Lexicons, Thivaakaram, c. 8th century CE, 5:63, Pingkalam, c. 10th century CE, 4:104, Choodaama’ni, c. 13th century CE, 5:24)

Ahi-Langkaa: The Maldives islands, differentiated from Mahi-Langkaa, the other countries. This is a traditional usage in Maldivian language to refer to their country (Ahi: ours), differentiated from the other great lands (Mahi < Mahaa: great). (Dhivehi / Maldivian, Dhivehi Bas Foi, Dictionary of Maldivian Language, Ghiyaasuddin Bas Foi, Glossary of Old Dhivehi Words, a hand-written document prepared in 1769, NCLHR, Male, Etymological Dictionary of Maldivian Island Names, 2008, pp163-164)

Mahi-Langkaa: Means the other great lands in Maldivian language in the context of differentiating them from their own islands (Ahi: ours; Mahi: great). (Dhivehi / Maldivian, Dhivehi Bas Foi, Dictionary of Maldivian Language, Ghiyaasuddin Bas Foi, Glossary of Old Dhivehi Words, a hand-written document prepared in 1769, NCLHR, Male, Etymological Dictionary of Maldivian Island Names, 2008, pp163-164)

Lan, Lang, Le, Laa, Lee, Lu, Lai, Langkan: Components indicating island in Maldivian island names (Example: Maa-le: The big island compared to Hu’lu-le the small island adjacent to it; Etymological Dictionary of Maldivian Island Names, 2008, pp163-164)

Laa, Le, Legung: In sentence formations may mean deposits by waves placing an island (Maldivian / Dhivehi)

Hilang: Evidence of the existence of land or anything physically appearing (Dhivehi / Maldivian); Ilangku: prominent existence, clear appearance etc (Tamil, Changkam Diction); Il: place (Tamil, Changkam Diction);

Lakka-div: The Laccadives archipelago in the Arabian Sea. There is a strong possibility that the word Lakka by which the islands were traditionally called itself stood for islands. Whether the name was Sanskritized as Dweepa Laksham as appearing in a Pallava inscription of 7th century CE, or whether Lakka is the Prakrit / Tamil / Malayalam form of Laksha needs investigation. However, Government of India officially uses the Sanskritized form, and not the traditional usage of the people of these islands. (Laksha: one hundred thousand)

Langkaawi: Name of an island in Malaysia, in the Bay of Bengal, bordering Thailand at the Isthmus of Kra. Actually the name stands for a group of around hundred islands.

Langkaasuka: Name of an ancient kingdom in Kedah (Kaazhakam or Kadaaram) in Malyasia, situated at the Isthmus of Kra, separating Bay of Bengal and South China Sea. The place in mentioned in the Chola inscriptions of Rajendra I (1014-1044 CE). The group of islands called Langkawi today were part of this kingdom.

Langkaa: Name of an island in Sonepur in the Balangir District of Orissa. Also means a distant land in Oriya language (Dr. Subrat Kalyan Pattanayak, Sociolinguist from Orissa)

Langkaa: A component found in the names of several islands in the Krishna-Godavari Delta in Andhra Predesh

Bobbar Langkaa: An island in Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh (K. Indrapala 2006: p 356)

Agadala-Langkaa: An island in West Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh (K. Indrapala 2006: p 356)

Gudivaka-Langkaa: An island in West Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh (K. Indrapala 2006: p 356)

Nagaya-Langkaa: An island in the Krishna District, Andhra Pradesh (K. Indrapala 2006 p.356)

Maayilangkai: A place in Karnataka, (Epigraphia Carnatica III, pp. 147-148, cited by K Indrapala)

Langkaa: a place name in Assam, (cited by K Indrapala, 2006, p 356)




Langkaa / Ilangkai meaning the island politically called Sri Lanka today:

Thon-maa-Ilangkai: The old great island of Ilangkai (Chi’rupaa’naattuppadai, 119, c. 1st century CE)

Kadal-choozh-Ilangkai: The island of Ilangkai, surrounded by sea, from where king Kayavaaku came to the court of the Chera king Chengkudduvan (Chilappathikaaram, 30: 160, Uraipe’ru-kaddurai, 3)

Thol-Ilangkai: The old island of Ilangkai, referred to in the context of the story of Ramayana (Chilappathikaaram, 17, Padarkkaipparaval, 3)

Ilangkai Kizhavan: The lord of Ilangkai, Raava’na, Pazhamozhi Naanoo’ru, Post Changkam literature, c. 5th Century CE)

Ilangkaa Theevam: The island of Ilangkai (Ma’nimeakalai, 28:107, c. 5th century CE)

Then-Ilangkai: The island of Ilangkai in the south (Thevaaram hymns of 7th century CE); Then-Ilangkai-valagnchiyar: A trade guild of Ilangkai, the island in the south, operated in South India (Subbarayalu and Shanmugam 2002, cited by Indrapala K., 2006 p.254, 283

Ilangkaa-puram: (The island of Ilangkai, Tamil inscription, c.1000 CE, SII, IV, 167)

Ilangkeasan: The king of the island of Ilangkai, Vikkirama Paa’ndiyan who went to Eezham of the seas and became the king of that island (Tamil inscriptions, C. 1046 CE, SII, VII, 3, GTI)

Langkai: The island of Ilangkai (In the context of Ramayana, Addappirapantham 3:34)

Langkaa: Traditional name of the island politically called Sri Lanka today (Sinhala)

Lak: Equivalent to Langkaa (Sinhala);

Lak-diva: The island of Langkaa (Old Sinhala)

Lak-wæsiya: An inhabitant of the island of Langkaa (Sinhala)

Langkaa: 1. The city of Ravana, the island of Langkaa; 2. The first meridian or longitude in ancient Indian astronomical calculations that passes through Ujjayini in present Madhya Pradesh of India; 3. A female evil spirit; 4. An unchaste woman; 5. A branch; 6. A kind of grain (Sanskrit)

Langkaa-mirichi, Longkaa: Red Chillies (In most of the modern North Indian Languages). Probably red chillies were introduced to North India from the island of Langkaa as a substitute for pepper or Mirichi, (in old Tamil Miriyal). The island of Langkaa in turn received red chillies through the Portuguese. The pod that came as substitute for Mi’laku (pepper) became Mi’la-kaay in Tamil and Sinhalese differentiated the native pepper Gammiris, by adding Gam (native) to Miris. Another usage in Tamil, Kochchi-kaay, for red chillies suggests that it came from Cochin where it was probably first introduced by the Portuguese.


Colonial stamp
Postal stamp of colonial Ceylon, showing no legend in Sinhala or Tamil [Image courtesy: about.com]
Stamp independent Ceylon
Postal stamp of independent Ceylon. The name of the country is found written in 3 different ways, Ceylon in English, Sri Lanka in Sinhala and Ilangkai in Tamil. [Image courtesy: flagsonstamps.info]
Republic stamp
The postal stamp of the republic, showing the name Sri Lanka in Sinhala and English. The legend in Tamil is written as Ilangkai. [Image courtesy: post-stamps.blogspot.com]


Fifty cents
Colonial currency of Ceylon without any legend in Sinhala or Tamil for the name of the country. [Image courtesy: numismundi.com]
One Rupee Ceylon currency
Pre-1956 currency of independent Ceylon, showing no name of the country in Sinhala or Tamil [Image courtesy: omarhadad.blogspot.com]
One Rupee Sri Lanka currency
Post-1956 and pre-1965 currency note, showing Sri Lanka in Sinhala only in the name of the bank. No equivalent legend in Tamil or English.
Ten Rupees Sri Lanka
Post-1965, but pre-1972 currency note. While Sri Lanka in Sinhala is displayed in the name of the bank, Ilangkai and Ceylon are found in smaller letters in the legends in Tamil and English. [Image courtesy: www.tomchao.com]


Sri Lanka 1000 rupees
Post-1987 currency in which Sri Lanka in Sinhala and English is found in the name of the bank whereas Ilangkai continues in Tamil. [Image courtesy:mebanknotes.com]


First published: Sunday, 28 February 2010, 00:48

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