Colombo Telegraph

Are The Tamils And The Sinhalese, Same Or Different?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Prof Ratnajeevan Hoole, quite gently responding to my article on “Some Ethnic Differences Observed by Robert Knox” has stated “I am particularly not sure about the following statement about Sinhalese light-skin.” To clarify my point of view, first I must say that I don’t believe that Sinhalese are light-skin or Tamils are dark-skin, but there are both light-skin and dark-skin people among both communities. How does this happen might be an intriguing question, explanations often going haywire, and anyway, light-skin or dark-skin does not represent any racial difference in my opinion or to authoritative views. This short rejoinder is a further explanation of my view on the issue, if I have not clarified it clearly enough.

I was commenting on a reference by Robert Knox in 1681 where he said “It is more probable, they came from the Malabars, their Country lying next, tho they do resemble them little or nothing. I know no nation in the world do so exactly resemble Chingulays as the people of Europe.”

I could have avoided Knox’s above observation given its sensitivity today, but as an academic, I am not in the habit of hiding issues and doing so to me is a dishonest exercise. My main purpose however was different. I made two explanations prefacing that “what the above shows is the apparent mix character of the Sinhalese as he had seen.” First was “Knox was mainly living in the Hill Country, where people were relatively fair-skinned due to the climatic conditions.” I also said that “Knox had not seen the Sinhalese people who were living in the coastal areas of the West and the South who would have mostly resembled what he called the Malabars,” which Hoole has not quoted because it is not very relevant to his point. But the second sentence put my point of view into a better perspective.

I do believe that climatic conditions do make a difference to the skin complexion, among other factors. Second I said, “…among the Sinhalese, it is also possible that there had been an ancestral mix of people who came from the Northern parts of India as well” (emphasis newly added). It is my view that when we discuss the ethnological issues, we should not completely disregard the possible play of ‘genetic’ or ‘hereditary’ factors. But we should not exaggerate them either. What are genes? To me or for my present purposes, genes are primarily the accumulation of environment, climate being one. Genes are specific to a person and not necessarily common to a community or ethnicity. There can be some and only some common genes running through at a given time and a given place. But those do not determine people’s psychological or ideological sphere but limited physical or physiological aspects.

I was referring to some ancestors (not all) of the Sinhalese coming from Northern parts of India where climatic conditions are again milder. When I said, “among the Sinhalese” I was referring to ‘Chingulays’ in Kandy and in the 17th century and not today. I also believe that some of the ancestral roots of low country Sinhalese people are from South India including my own! I do have some reasons to say so.

In support of my particular comment on Knox, let me quote the following from a UNESCO Statement on Race dated June 1951.

“Some of the physical differences between human groups are due to differences in hereditary constitution and some to differences in the environments in which they have been brought up. In many cases, both influences have been at work.” (Section 2).

I was referring to possible both factors. It should be emphasized, however, that the main purpose of the UNESCO Statement was to dispute arbitrary claims of race or racial superiority stating at the outset that “Scientists are generally agreed that all men living today belong to a single species, homo sapiens, and are derived from common stock, even though there is some disputes as to when and how different human groups diverged from this common stock.” There are four such statements by UNESCO (1950, 1951, 1964 and 1967) attested by over 50 prominent scientists and several other declarations. All are educational and can be accessed online. Those scientists state that if race can be if anything in terms of biology then there can only be three or five racial groups at best.

Prof Hoole also says that “However, Prof. Gananath Obeyasekere says there is no difference between us and I tend to agree with him.” I completely agree with the spirit of the argument. The purpose of the quoted article, as far as I understand, was to dispute the so-called Aryan Dravidian racial difference between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. However, there can be few things that I may have slightly different views or emphasis. Not to be unreasonable to the author of that article, let me talk in very general terms.

Ethnicity and race are two different phenomena. Ethnicity is primarily a sociological phenomenon but race is basically a biological or supposed to be a biological category. Tamils and Sinhalese are not two races or offspring of two races. This is same in the case of the Muslims. They are ethnic communities and in that sense there are recognizable differences.

Ethnicity by and large is defined by language, culture, religion, history and sometimes by claimed common ancestry. Ethnicity also overlaps, in some instances, with human groups which are influenced by hereditary or environmental factors. Nepal is a clear example. In the case of the Tamils (including South Indian) and the Sinhalese, at present time, these influences are more less the same. Even if there are differences, these differences are extremely marginal. Internal differentiations (also in ethnic terms) are great in the case of both communities.

Most important thing in life is not necessarily to deny differences, but recognize, respect and live in peace with justice and equality. What prevents peaceful living is nothing but obnoxious politics.

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