25 September, 2023


Affirming Sri Lankan Identity In Anthem(s)

By Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

Why should a country have more than a single version of its national anthem? This is the question that many are asking following President Maithripala Sirisena sanctioning the use of the Tamil version of ‘Sri Lanka Matha’. Those who ask this question by way of supporting the obvious answer to the rhetorical question (‘there’s no reason to have more than one version’) point to India’s case. India is made of many states populated by people speaking several major languages and hundreds of dialects and yet has one national anthem. They also point to the fact that very few countries have more than a single version.

While a general global trend can indicate ‘better way’ it does not mean that all countries should necessarily fall in line. Just because federalism works for India (according to some people) and makes sense in the USA it does not follow that Sri Lanka should also adopt a federal model. Just because the capitalist mode of production and a development model that takes growth (at the cost of almost everything else including the health of the planet) as the driver and objective of the paradigm it does not mean that it is either good or should forbid exploration of alternatives.

What needs to be assessed is whether or not any proposal on anything suits Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans taking into account social, political, economic, environmental and historical factors. It is in this context that the two-language national anthem idea needs to be commented on.

First of all, this is not about a ‘Tamil’ national anthem that is at odds or even different from ‘Sri Lanka Matha’ in substance or melody. The Tamil version is not something that was dreamed up yesterday. It was written by the famous Tamil poet Pandithar M Nallathamby in 1950. There was no ban on singing it until 2010. The Tamil version in no way ‘unseats’ or subtracts from the Sinhala version’s official status in the Constitution. It must be pointed out that Sinhala is spoken by close to 80% of the population and in effect is the predominant ‘Link Language’ and as such few if any would say it is not logical for the official version to be in that language. It must also be remembered that the Indian anthem is in a minority language (Bengali), as is the Singaporean one (Malay).

The angst that has surfaced perhaps can be attributed to perceptions of the majority community being harangued at every turn by other groups, for example the separatist putsch by certain sections of the Tamil community and in-your-face identity assertion by certain Muslim groups. Be that as it may, it must be remembered that the Sinhalese, historically, were and in a way still are a community that privileges embrace over antagonism. The majority of Sinhalese were not opposed to green and orange strips being stitched to the national flag. It was probably seen less as giving into communalists like Ponnambalam Ramanathan, GG Ponnambalam and Chelvanayakam than an acknowledgment of the rights of all Sri Lankans for a place in Sri Lanka on all counts.

Inclusion and embrace has been the signature of the helas or the yakshas as evidenced in legend, chronicle and archeological remains. Some might call it betrayal but if Buddhism is the predominant philosophical idea that marks our overall cultural ethos, in terms of doctrine and practice our ancient decision-makers have shown great wisdom. Well, the best of them, at least.

This is a country that has seen Sinhala kings offering land and refuge to Muslim traders hounded by European invaders.  It is a land where kings from South India and the royal line they engendered were accepted as ‘Sinhala’ as any ‘Sinhala’ king.  Hindu deities or rather their images were accommodated in Buddhist temples. South Indian kings were invited to rule this country; they were given the equivalent of citizenship and they in turn saw themselves as Sinhalese and Buddhists rather than Vadigas or Hindus.

So yes, just as the history of this island can be written in terms of invasions, it could alternatively be written in terms of embrace.  There was and is conflict.  There was and is post-conflict.  There was and there should be embrace in the ‘after’ of bitterness and anger, suspicion and counter-suspicion, the clash of arms and sorrow, regret and shoulder-shrug.

It takes a lot to move away from all the negatives, to move past that which happened and which was so regrettable.  There are commonalities that can help heal all the wounds that difference differently read in such regrettable ways inflicted on all our peoples.

This is a country where people have fought each other over faith and identity and yet have stood together in times of tragedy.  This is a country that divided itself and fell again and again.  It is a country that can stand up and be proud. Today after thirty years of fighting each other Sinhalese and Tamils have won the right to live without fear of explosions and the bull rush of armies. We destroyed much, together. Our commonality has been reduced, for better or worse, to two things: hope and grief. We can hope together and we can grieve together.

The Tamil version is an affirmation (in a language other than Sinhala) of a single nation, a unitary state and a territory undivided. It affirms what is best among our better and more enlightened citizens. It restores in some small measure a sense of pride among Tamils, I believe, about being a Sri Lankan and being as Sri Lankan as a Sinhalese or any other citizen. It is not and should not be read as an ‘anthem-version’ of the erroneous and much quoted (by communalists) assertion of Colvin R De Silva (‘one language, two nations; two languages, one nation’). Life and politics is not as simple as that.

*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com  

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Why not have more than one language? Prefferably the soon to be dead Sinhala Language Whoes practioners are yet to acept diversity of langauges and want to make thier island a hell hole for others and them selves.

    Come out of that hole Malinda or dig deep in and quit using english for your mutty articles here.

    • 5

      Malinda Seneviratne – Mahinda Shill and white Washer

      RE: Affirming Sri Lankan Identity In Anthem(s)

      Remember, Lanka is the Land of Native Veddah Aethho.

      Everybody else is a Para-deshi, Para. That Includes, Para-Sinhala, Para-Tamil, Para-Muslim, Para-Portugues ( Parangio), Para( Dutch, Para-English, Para-Malay and other Paras. Hery all are born and live in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho, the Motherland.

      Why should the National Anthem be restricted only one Para Group, Para-Sinhala?

      Of Course the Para-Sinhala, who are actually Para-Dravidian from south India,who gave Dravidian DNA, would like to think so.

      PS. Malinda, can you please write about the MedAmulana Mahinda Rjapaksa, Crooks, Robbers and Criminals, CRCs, please.

  • 8

    The following words from your article are important.To quote “First of all, this is not about a ‘Tamil’ national anthem that is at odds or even different from ‘Sri Lanka Matha’ in substance or melody. The Tamil version is not something that was dreamed up yesterday. It was written by the famous Tamil poet Pandithar M Nallathamby in 1950. There was no ban on singing it until 2010”. Does banning the Tamil version reflect the Sinhala Triumphalism ? The rationale for a national anthem is to unite the people. Is allowing the Tamil version dividing or uniting the people?

  • 4

    a country would gain immensely if all of its citizens unite to do the basic activities together in unity and amity. this has been proven in many successful economies. if we can’t agree to sing the national anthem in one language something is very rightly lacking in our citizenry.

    canada claims to sing its national anthem in french and english. but do we want to go their way considering how barbaric a past they have i n having all but wiped the original peoples from the face of their land while continuing to do so?

    sri lanka is a sovereign country like no other or it has been up until now…and is not guilty of any of the shameful atrocities perpetrated by the canadians or those of others.

    we should unite and learn to live in unity by working it out together like other economically and socially successful countries do: the benefits can be enormous when you have that kind of unity at heart and in mind.

    think about it.

  • 0

    a national anthem should work at creating a sense of unity amongst all of the country’s people. how can you arrive at this kind of totally unconditional unity if we are to sing it in two different languages?

    canada claims to sing there national anthem in both french and english but what of their past and ongoing atrocious practices with regard to its original peoples? they are indeed guilty of much that they sweep under the rug…

    sri lanka has no such botched past. we are a sovereign country like no other or rather have been so far. we should live in unity and amity. when you have this kind of unity at heart and in mind there is no end to what we will be able to achieve together as one people. countries in the south east are living proof of this. such is the social and economic progress we will achieve if we were to be totally and absolutely united as one.

  • 5

    Well said Malinda. In truth, I would never expected such a view from you some moons back. Better late than never to let those scales fall from your eyes!

    PS: This is the first time I heard the Tamil version and I thought it sounded pretty cool!

  • 2

    True what you say…context is important…if there’s a quote that can aptly be applied to almost all human interaction, it’s that what we must fear most is fear itself. If communities jump the gun based on an assumed or feared threat, well…we can all say goodbye to peace. If the various leaders are loathe to lead in a “Sri Lankan” manner, well, the ordinary citizens of Sri Lanka can set the example through our own relationships and interactions (which are rarely based on ethnic rivalries, rather harmony) and show them the spirit needed and the way forward.

  • 2

    I sang national anthem in Tamil when I was in the primary school. I am not sure whether I like or Love Sri Lanka. But for sure I liked and loved singing national anthem and the anthem too.

  • 2

    The issue is deeper than singing a song in one language or another. If that is the case WHY not sing in ENGLISH for ALL purposes the Language of power and priviledge in Sri Lanka and the world.

    Why don’t we do this ?

    Because, there are NO English speakers asserting Nationhood within the boundaries of Sri Lanka.

    It is a Sinhala majority country ONLY if you take Sri Lanka as ONE WHOLE unit. Meaning UNITARY=one entity.

    In the case where Sri Lanka is taken to be a formation of Northern+Eastern Province and what is lefover if I call it the South-Western region.

    In this case Sinhala is NOT a majority in the Northern and/or Eastern Provinces. (Not even in Colombo it is a majority) ….

    So by allowing the National Song to be sung in 2 languages what is happening is that we have a bifircation of objects of statehood. Which a national song definitely is. The next step would be the national flag. Then national institutes.

    ALL these are FINE you may say ….BUT PLEASE COMMUNICATE what you are doing to the Sinhala people.

    And South-Western region should be so define exclusively for Sinhala people who by the way ONLY exist natively in Sri Lanka.

    So we shall restrict our activities to south-western region and do whatever that is needed. Being Sri Lankan I haven’t gone beyond Trincomalee.

    So end result would be Tamils singingg in Tamil , Muslims singing in Tamil and Sinhala people singing in sinhala. Yes ! great one voice this is correct….

    BUT , for those people who want to create and aid Tamil Nationalism to undermine the Sinhala-Buddhist culture in unitary Sri Lanka this is a fine weapon.

    GOOD Sinhala-Buddhist should limit their activities to South-Western region of Sri Lanka and assert our identity without getting in the way of anyone or getting blamed for being racist and chauvanists. (mind you mostly unfairly)

    The POLITICANS in Sri Lanka DO NOT care about the voters who vote them into power.

    The politicans are a special elected CASTE group who ONLY look after their OWN welfare. (eg: WHY was not the parliament dissolved when Sirisena was elected…To safe guards the pensions of ministers)


  • 4

    Dear Malinda, thank you. Hope every Srilankan citizen will appreciate beauty of this diversity and history of Srilanka. All we need measures to accommodate all with give and take from everyone to travel in the same train to move forward. If it means we stand unique in this world our ancesters will be blessing us more from stars shinning upon Srilanka. We only need courage, hope and trust not fear and suspicion. we are brothers and sisters belong to one family. Regards.

  • 4

    Good on you Malinda, at last you have come to your senses.The National Anthem sung in Tamil or Sinhala does not take away the love and pride we as Sri Lankans call our home . Get rid of Sinhala and Tamil racism we can live like brothers and sisters that we are fortunate to call our home.Guys like you Malinda should serve as examples of writers that express your unbiased views for a change.

  • 7

    Folks, I am Tamil and in my early 40’s. Lived through the troubles during most of my teen years in Jaffna and Colombo. One might even say I have contributed to the freedom struggle in my youth.

    This is the first time I have heard the national anthem over a 20 years and I must tell you that I am very emotional. It made me feel like a Srilankan for the first time since I have attended the primary school in Batticola in the very early 80’s.

    So please do not divide the country along the ethnic/ language ( or religious lines) Make the Tamil feel that they are also children of mother Lanka. Please don’t give a reason to the extreme elements. There is more similarities between Tamils and Sinhalese than differences. Lets celibate what we have in common than what differences we may have between us.

  • 2

    In India there are so many languages and so it will take hours if one is to sing in all the languages at a function.But in canada they sing in English and French.SO what is the problem in singing in sinhalese and tamil if all r considered to be SL citizens with equal rights.

    • 0

      radish S

      “SO what is the problem in singing in sinhalese and tamil if all r considered to be SL citizens with equal rights”

      But they are not are they? Constitutionally the Sinhalese are superior under a UNITARY constitution. Canada has a FEDERAL constitution.

      First fix the constitution, then the flag and after that the anthem.

      We can all then sing lustily about how great we are in both languages and proudly wave our flag.

  • 6

    I feel that one should not be forced to sing an anthem in a language that one is unfamiliar with. If the Tamil version has been around for sixty odd years, there is no reason why it should suddenly be banned. Racial politics has always been the bane of Sri Lanka, together with opportunistic bigotry.

  • 4

    Sinhala LINK LANGUAGE? What a sad story by Malinda. Is this guy stupid or what. Link language is a language which connects or acts as a common language where two other languages are involved. In Sri Lanka English has been a link language for years. Does Malinda’s statement mean that the practice of all these years has to be forgotten.13th amendment clearly states English is the link language. Why is he bringing the place accorded to Sinhala down?

  • 2

    New Zeqland’s anthem is sung in Maori and English-some of the stanzas in Maori and others in English. Just one anthem , one version but in two languages.

    Perhaps that’s the civilized way to go along with a drastic change to the flag to incorporate all people-ie sans the Sinhala lion.

    If we are to resolve a well entrenched problem we need to look at radical measures -even symbols. Symbols are important they cannot be dismissed. Symbols convey a lot.

    May be this is asking too much!

    • 2

      Why not a Lion and a Tiger facing each other and shaking paws.
      HA! Ha! That will be the Day!

  • 1

    Malinda Seneviratne –

    “Why should a country have more than a single version of its national anthem”

    The problem was created when Sinhala was made the National Language of Sri Lanka, and later Tamil was also made a National language.

    I believe that all Sri Lankans should be able to understand one another’s Languages, and be able to have a link language when necessary.

    It may be a good idea to have an Orchestra version to be played on State Occasions, and either language to be used on suitable situations.

    • 1

      “It may be a good idea to have an Orchestra version to be played on State Occasions, and either language to be used on suitable situations.”

      On the other hand, why not use the Orchestral version always, then People could sing it in their preferred language, as they wished.

      I have heard this happen several times.

  • 0


    Most indians I repeat most indians not only south indians have dravidian in them

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