Midweek Review
A closer look at southern part of the Vanni

by D.G.B.de Silva

[Spoken Language of Nuwarakalaviya], published by S.Godage Bros.
Author: K.B.Manewa

Hugh Nevill, former British Civil Servant and antiquary was, perhaps, the first to draw attention to the distinctive characteristics of the language spoken in the Vanni districts. Yet one had to wait for over another century until K.B.Manewa undertook writing his recently published work, ``Nuwara-Kalaviye Janavahara through which he has placed before the Sinhala reader much information on the language spoken, social customs and belief systems in the southern part of the ancient land of Vanni, the region which was popularly known as the Nuwarakalaviya district of the Northern Province. This was the land watered by the three great reservoirs of the NCP, namely, Nuwara wewa, Kalawewa, and Padaviya wewa [Padi of ancient times] from which the old district name was derived.

Vanni lands came to be artificially separated after the Dutch brought through a series of contracts, the Vanni chieftains who lived north of the roadway from Arippu to Mullativu through Vavunikulam under their influence and finally took over their lands. [Records of contracts available in the National Archives.]. The houses of chieftains both in the north and south were united by marriage and their members were mostly Tamil speaking and followed certain South Indian social customs. For example, even during the British period Kumarasinghe Mahavanniya’s family of Nuwarawewa was related by marriage to Bandara Vanniya who lived near Mullativu.[For details see the edited text of my Hugh Nevill Commemoration lecture on Vanniyas in Royal Asiatic Society Journal.].


Chieftains of some of the Vanni lands were immigrants from Southern India who came in search of new pastures after the Muslim invasion but the populace at large placed under them comprised the ‘rate-atto’ over whom the Vanniyas or ‘Vannihuru' ruled following local custom supported by a coterie of local officials. Besides the influence they left on the local populace over whom they held supremacy, as seen from the language and manner of speaking, I expected some traces of Tamil settlers from Jaffna peninsula who were settled in the lower Kalawewa basin by the British Government Agent, W. Levers. He was given the option of selecting settlers in these newly opened state-aided colonisation schemes and he opted, perhaps, following the myth spread by the British planting community about the industry of the South Indians [coast Tamils] to settle Jaffna Tamils in the newly opened lands of the Anuradhapura district. Levers later recorded his disappointment in his Diaries [National Archives]. To quote a single reasoning, he wrote that these people were over-awed by the density of jungles, the like of which they had never seen before and the land had to be cleared for them even after which they did not utilise the land profitably, or take care of the crops they sowed. Many of them had to be transported back to the peninsula.


This confirmed what the Chieftains from Jaffna peninsula told the Governor at a Durbar of Chiefs that Jaffna Tamil was no pioneer and all his intention was to make as much as he could and return to his village. This was when the Governor was telling them that he had `earmarked’ the tank Country for them and held the prospects of bringing South Indians if they did not respond. [Ponnambalam Ramanathan later presented the Jaffna man differently as one who was prepared to venture out for commerce; and even claimed some and others from the South had even ‘colonised' Anuradhapura . That was when he pleaded the case of extension of railway line to Jaffna. Obviously, the two parties had two different people in mind.]

Manewa has made an amazing contribution to our knowledge of this Sinhala dialect – one could call it even a sub-language-of the Vanni which is very rich in expression as much as it is peculiar. Born and bread in the village of Kalagam Korale North, he has put together the knowledge and experience he acquired living among his people [varigeatto] teaching and interacting with them for over half a century. Writing in the Vanni language he introduces himself as follows:

``Paele-pilema laeggila hitapu mata maye sereee isamet talattu vela tiyenne ‘game-koma ma tamay.’

The book is no simple account of the language, idiom and usage of the region but a complete story of all facets of life of common people of Nuvarakalaviya [rate-atto] presented through the spoken language of Vanni which gives a good idea of the social organisation, social customs and belief systems.It presents another dimension to the study of the development of the Sinhala language which needs to be pursued by philologists. The insight into the life of the villagers of Nuvarakalviya should be of interest to anthropologists. The way the author has presented the cases of Vanni language [speech of `wew-bendi-rata' or `Paele-pile- vahara' as he calls it] itself is a departure in the treatment of the subject. As a result, the work is not an abstract study which weary the reader.

He introduces conversations and situations to illustrate the local speech, usage, idiom and sayings relating to each section [chapter] which makes the presentation an episode in the life of the people.; and gives commentaries to unfamiliar terms and usage which one familiar with normally spoken Sinhala would find it difficult to understand. Even this is done using the Vanni language without tiring the reader who finds himself taken to the midst of these people. The chapters are preceded by an introduction by Prof.G..B.Meegaskumbura, another researcher on Nuvarakalaviya, and several other introductory notes which provide the background. Sifting the large number of quotations under different chapters itself could have called for some effort.

The book is presented under 16 chapters which the author prefers to call ‘Pel-mura' as the whole book is the story written around the ‘Paela’, the watch-hut and the ‘Pila' the verandah of the villagers' living quarter. There are also seven Appendices, the last of which has five sections. Of these five, the Word Index prepared by the author's two daughters which consists of 65 pages, is what an index to a book ought to be. The author has put his daughters under severe test and their product is of a very high standard. This is followed by four other Indices of special expressions, idioms and usage. The author has not overlooked the need to introduce a few pictures though their printing quality leaves much to be desired.

Vanni language

The Vanni language has been looked down upon by average Sinhala speakers. The usage relating to rice cultivation have certain similarities to the `Kamat-basawa', the language used in the paddy thresh at harvesting time, and also a few to Vedda language but it is far richer and more complex than these variations and even the day to day spoken Sinhala. The author has tried to show that some of the words and expressions are actually used in literature, in popular works such as Saddharmaratnavaliya, Jatakapota, Rajavaliya etc. A few examples are given below. The word ‘helankada' denoting the section of the compound of a house is referred to in medieval literary works as ‘senankana'. Another such word in Vanni use is ‘kaja-boja for food and drink [‘Kajja-bhojja' in literature].. A proud woman is called ‘udappare[Rajavaliya: senava udapparan kara]. Perhaps, it has a Tamil connotation. Another such word is ‘neyyadagam [neyyadam] which word also occurs in Ummagga Jatakaya and in the speech of the South..

There are also other Tamil words in use such as `Pokkanam' [kokkanaya], ‘adais’[adissi], ‘pakada’ [pahade].

The author quotes many instances of use of terminology for expressing situations in the life of people. A few cases relating to relationship between a young man [Namba] and a girl [Naembi] are given below as examples: ‘Haebey Yako tuntiruven kalkiriyava gevaganda baeri ekage mayya vena pilaka bali venne paedurat nokiya.’ Simply, it is a saying that one's wife would seek another man if one is not careful and attentive. The addition of the expression at the end of a sentence is typical of Vanni speech. In the Vanni society a child-less woman has to face many indignities. A typical description of a situation is as follows:

‘Panguvak naembiyo pael gehunata passe [after living as husband and wife] pussiyo kiyala osirippuvena hinda [publicity as a child-less woman] kilivaela palu koragonay inne'. [do not dry under-clothes in the open, i.e,, to show they have stopped menstruation]. Kilivaela is the cloth-line tied to a corner of the roof and a tree in the garden. When the underwear is not put out for drying the idea is given that the woman is expecting a child. [Full account of the woman's other antics like forced vomiting cannot be given owing to space constrains].

A ‘kindavaela' in Vanni language is one what a man wears round his waist when copulating with a partner who is not easily satisfied. [An ancient Sinhalese precursor of Vyaghra? Shouldn't we protect patent rights?]

Language and usage

It would be an impossible task to give a full idea of the richness of the Vanni language in a short review. The few examples given above from a vast number should provide some idea of the nature of the language and usage as well as social customs of the people of Nuvarakalaviya and the Sinhalese Vanni districts of the Northern province.

Prof.J.B.Dissanayake observed that there is a certain `’sing-song' in the way the Vanni language is spoken, which arises from the intonations rising and falling as one speaks. The people of the NCP have a habit of elongating the speech , a parallel of which I came across in the speech of people of certain villages in the south, the emphasis differing from village to village. Perhaps these peculiarities may have disappeared today with intercourse between people.

The book deserves to be read by every one who wishes to gain a wider knowledge of the application of the Sinhala language and a peep into the age-old social customs and cultural practices of the Vanni. The wealth of information makes the price of Rs.500/- reasonable.