Feature Article

Indian protest to Eezham provocative: Peter Schalk

[TamilNet, Monday, 13 August 2012, 06:45 GMT]
The demand of Indian MEA to drop Eelam from the TESO conference title is provocative, gives food for thought and does not make sense, says Professor Peter Schalk in a note sent to TamilNet on Sunday. The decision comes from confusing Eelam, a Tamil toponym standing for the entire island, with Tamileelam. In usage Eelam predates Lanka. On Eelam and Cinkalam, Prof Schalk said they are of a parallel allocation and parallels never meet, but walk side by side. Meanwhile, BBC Tamil Service on Saturday cited Professor MA Nuhman saying that the connotations of the word became a problem only with the ‘secessionist movement’. He agreed with the word’s old Tamil usage meaning the entire island, but questioned its Dravidian origins. The TESO response was naïve or sly by equating Eezham/ Ilangkai with the politically invented and Tamil -rejected term Sri Lanka.

The full text of the note on Ilam sent by Professor Peter Schalk [His transliteration of Tamil words following Madras Tamil Lexicon system, but without diacritical marks, is retained as it was in the text sent by him]

Peter Schalk
Professor Peter Schalk
The demand by the Indian External Affairs Ministry that Ilam/Eelam should be dropped from the title of the Conference named Eelam Tamil Rights Protection Conference (TamilNet 9.8. 2012) is provocative and gives food for thought. The Ministry probably thought that Ilam stands for Tamililam. If so, the Ministry should have stopped the whole conference making a political evaluation in accordance with India’s evaluation of the Tamil resistance movement being still a threat to the integrity of India. If the Ministry thought that Ilam is an alternative name for Lanka as a whole there was no reason to demand that Ilam should be dropped. The decision by the Ministry does not make sense.

I have observed for many years that in talk and writing by Tamil and Sinhala speakers, but also by Western scholars and journalists, Ilam stands often for Tamililam. The confusion started already in the 1970s with the famous slogan by EROS: nam ilavar, namatu moli tamil, nam natu ilam ‘we are Ilavar, our language is Tamil, our country is Ilam’. The country that EROS wanted was of course Tamililam, not the whole island. Tamililam’s citizens should be called Ilavar and their language be Tamil. Kumar Ponnampalam tried to re-introduce the word ilavar as self-designation, but he was killed in 2000. There was a journal called ilavar kural, a network called eelavar alumni, an eelavar web ring, and a Club Sportive Eelavar. They all had in mind Tamililam, not Ilam.

Historically, Ilam is a Tamil toponym for the whole of the island. It can be documented from the 1st century CE, before “Lanka” was introduced in Dīpavamsa 9:1. “Lanka” was Tamilised to “Ilankai” and alternated with Ilam in use by Tamil speakers. Tamil speakers also used the toponym Cinkalam, which is a Tamilisation of the toponym Sinhala. All three, Ilam, Ilankai and Cinkalam were used by alternation in the wordbooks (nikantu, akarati) throughout the centuries up to the modern period.

There is a tradition by Sinhala speakers on the ethnonationalist front to insist that Ilam is derived from Sinhala, that Ilam is nothing but Sinhala. This derivation was introduced by the Christian missionary Robert Caldwell in the 1850s. It is a typical orientalism. It is therefore ironical that it should be exploited by Sinhala ethnonationalists. It has no support in the Tamil and Sinhala history of linguistics and is from a modern linguistic point of view wrong. Unfortunately, some Tamil scholars went into Caldwell’s trap giving the derivation their blessing. The relation between Ilam and Cinkalam is that of a parallel allocation. Parallels never meet. They walk along side by side.

* * *

BBC Tamil service on Saturday said that it was interviewing Professor M.A. Nuhman, following the advice of India to TESO conference on dropping the word Eezham and as the word has became controversial in the last few decades.

New Delhi has not advised TESO but has made it a condition for permitting foreign participants to the conference. BBC Tamil service was blatantly twisting the truth.

Professor Nuhman cited the use of the word Eezham in the Changkam Tamil literature.

But the Dravidian origin of the word is questionable, Nuhman said.

The word has no entry in the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary (DED). The Madras Tamil Lexicon traces the origin of the word to Pali. In pre-Christian Brahmi inscriptions I’la, Eezha, Hela, Sihala, E’lu and Sinhala come with the same meaning. Researchers have said that they were words in different languages meaning a particular ethnicity of people. Even according to Veeramaamunivar [a 17th century Tamil philologist] Eezham means the country of Sinhalese, Nuhman was cited saying by the BBC Tamil Service.

The term Eezham, meaning the entire island became controversial only after the ‘secessionist’ movement, but writers generally use it in the sense of the entire island, Nuhman said.

* * *

The following comments are from an Eezham Tamil academic in the diaspora:

The word in fact has an entry in the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary (entry no. 549), in the meaning toddy. DED normally accommodate entries only when cognates of the word are found in other Dravidian languages. The word Eezham in the meaning of toddy has cognates in other Dravidian languages.

But the earliest Tamil literary usage of the word found in the Changkam text Paddinappaalai definitely shows that Eezham meant a territory (Eezhaththu u’navu: food items from Eezham).

The earliest objective written evidence in the form of Tamil Brahmi inscription dateable to the dawn of the Common Era also implies the same (Eezha-kudumpikan: the house-holder or clan member from Eezham).

The meaning of toddy for the first time appears only in inscriptions of 8th century CE and literature of 10th century CE.

The toddy-tapper community known as Eezhavar in Kerala traces their origins to the island of Eezham.

The word Seehala cited by the Madras Tamil Lexicon (MTL) as the Pali original of Eezham, is for the first time found in an inscription dateable to c. 3rd century CE, roughly 300 years after the inscriptional usage of Eezham.

Hence, there is no historical linguistic possibility for Eezham to derive from Seehala and the MTL etymology is not convincing.

Meanwhile, there is another Tamil Brahmi inscription that comes out with a geographical identity Chai-a’lam, which could mean red-earth country in Dravidian and could help tracing even the etymology of Seehala/ Sinhala/ Chingka’lam to Dravidian.

Literary and inscriptional evidences for the usage of the Sinhala words E’lu and He’la are found only from 8–10 century CE onwards (nearly 800 –1000 years after the usage of Eezham was found).

Again there is no historical linguistic possibility for Eezham to derive from E’lu or He’la. But it could be the other way round.

Pre-Christian Brahmi inscriptions never tell us that I’la, Eezha, Hela, Seehala, E’lu and Sinhala mean the same, and that they all stand for one ethnicity of people.

Prof Indrapala who conjectures that the prefix I’la found with some personal names in the Brahmi inscriptions could be a cognate of Eezha, and could stand for an ethnicity, concedes that it could also mean a junior or a younger person.

The word Eezham is also equated to Pon in Tamil, by the old lexicons. The word Pon in its early usages in Tamil generally meant any metal. There were specific usages in which it meant iron (DED 4570). The word Eezham in many inscriptional usages meant metal objects.

The earliest dateable inscriptional reference to the island is Tampapa’n’ni, found in Asoka’s Prakrit inscriptions of 3rd century BCE. Tampa-pa’n’ni possibly means anything ‘copper-coloured’.

It seems that the earliest terms so far noted, i.e., Tampapa’n’ni, Eezham, Seehala/ Chai-a’lam, all come from the geography: copper-coloured, having iron or metal and red-coloured earth.

These earliest available words, one being in Prakrit and the other two in Dravidian, are independent in origin. They may be rough synonyms but not cognates. The word Lanka is of another origin, probably Austro-Asiatic, simply meaning an island. Its Tamilised form Ilangkai found used from Changkam times also stood for any island in general.

Territories usually get their original names from geography, not from people or mythologies.

Coming to the comment related to the word Eezham that it became a controversy only after the ‘secessionist’ movement, there is another side of the story, which any unbiased person could see.

Eezham was preferred for political usage by the Tamil youth organisations that wanted to break away from the older generation polity, only when the State in Colombo imposed a Sinhala-Buddhist constitution against the wishes of Tamils and associated an innovated term Sri Lanka with that constitution in 1972. All Eelam organisations or Tamil Eelam organisations came out only after the Sri Lanka of 1972.

At least Eezham has the long historical legacy and justifiability to go beyond any current political connotations. New Delhi and media working for its agenda would only look fools by asking to drop the word or by subtly trying to discredit its usage. But the term Sri Lanka they all try to uphold has a historical legacy of nothing but 40 years of genocide.


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