Colombo Telegraph

Land Bridge Over Palk Straits: Impact On Bio-Diversity & Ethnic Identity

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

In a previous comment I discussed economic issues and some questions about sovereignty that arise if the Indians revive a 2002 proposal for a land bridge over the Palk straits. Surprisingly, many Northern Nationalists think that the opposition to the land bridge is a matter of “Sinhala Chauvinism”. In fact the entity most threatened by the bridge is the “Illankai-Thamil” culture . The distinctive flora and fauna of the island, evolved since the last glaciation are equally threatened. The robustness of ecosystems and communities is strengthened by their bio-diversity and complexity. Hence all tendencies to mono-cultures and bio-uniformity should be resisted. The whole issue of whether to build a land bridge to India or not can be discussed in objective, non-emotional terms within such a point of view.


Legend holds that the Island was connected to India by “Rama’s bridge”. Geological evidence and temperature records validate such beliefs, and even delineate the periods when the sea was low enough to link the mainland to the Island. However, the sea level rose with the end of the cold spells. This provided a sanctuary for biological and cultural evolution distinct from those in the mainland. An impressive bio-diversity is seen in the Sri Lankan ecosystem. Any ethno-botanical list of Lankan plants (e.g, the author’s place.names/bot2sinhala.html) indicate Lankan species by name-ending like Ceylanica, or Zeylanica (though not always excluive to Lanka). The richness of the rain forests of Sri Lanka is well-known. We only wake up to it if foreign entrepreneurs attempt to exploit the native plants. Holiday bungalows in nature reserves are more important to the elites, while their henchmen engage in illicit logging and staking out forest reserves, with bio-diversity going up in smoke.

The early work of Philips (1935) on Lankan mammals has been handsomely updated by Asoka Yapa and Ratnavira in their monumental “The mammals of Sri Lanka” (2013). The 50 km separation of India has given the Island 126 species of mammals, and no other island of comparable size is as diverse, with 1/5 of this diversity endemic to Lanka! Since local politicians cross easily from side to side, we have over 15 species of bats. According to folklore, the bat has joined with the beasts r the birds, depending on what is more advantageous.

The bio-diversity of the Lankan mammals is not the only surprise. A stunning 2002 report in the journal Science, by Meegaskumbura et al was noted by the science writer Elizabeth Pennisi. She wrote “ While other herpetologists have been scrambling to understand why amphibians are declining worldwide, one research team has been cataloging more than 100 new species, all from one postage stamp of a rain forest in Sri Lanka. The discovery of this biodiversity hot spot … increases the number of known frog species on the island fivefold”!

Given a land bridge, the unique heritage of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammal will decline against competing species, just as where international barriers have been opened up for free-markets, refugee movements or military campaigns. Ireland is an island without snakes, thanks to its separation from other land masses. If a bridge were to be built, connecting it to the rest of the British Isles, the arrival of snakes in Ireland may be predicted, leading to a rapid change in the predator-prey relationships of small creatures on the island.

The un-quarantined arrival of the IPKF with its cooks, goats, dogs, soldiers and military vehicles brought invasive species that have become permanent pests in the North. It is not often appreciated that the success of “barbarian hoards” against the Roman Empire, or the victories of Alexander’s or Atilla’s forces against medieval cities and villages may have been caused not just by military might, but by the malignant microbes that the invaders brought into villages that has not developed immunity to these species of micro-organisms.

The large humanitarian problems of UN refugee camps could not have existed in ancient times, even if there had been a world body like the UN, as such camps would be ravaged by epidemics eliminating the refugees. Today, modern medical know-how enforces the minimal sanitation needed to keep such communities alive.

Ethnic and cultural diversity

The Sinhala language is a unique evolution from the mid-Prakrit of ancient India. However, in spite of James de Alwis, Geiger, Paranavithana and others, some (like Pandith W. F. Gunawardena) claimed a Dravidian origin for Sinhala. Modern like James Gair and literary men like Dharmadasa had to convince the skeptics that Sinhala had evolved from its Prakrit beginnings within the protective shores of the island. The rise of “sinhala consciouness” is distinct from that of the language it self. The “Sinhala consciouness” may well have begun around the time of the military confrontations between Dutugemunu and Elara. In any case, the Mahawasma should be regarded as an epic poem in Pali establishing a high point where tribal sentiments may have acquired a national dimension justified by the destiny of “preserving Theravada Buddhism”. These developments in the Island coincided with the Sangam period in South India, where Tamil, a small regional tribal language overtook the other Dravidian languages and developed into a full-fledged language and culture . It had abandoned the more rationalist Jainism and Buddhism in favour of a politically more strong Hindu mysticism and ritual.

The Tamil Prakrit forms probably arrived in the Island via Tamil Buddhists and Jains in ancient times, even prior to the Sangam period. The historical evidence (e.g., no many stone inscriptions or monuments, but there are coins) that are available suggest that there were small Tamil communities associated with maritime trading centers since early times. One may speculate that the early dialects morphed with later invasive Tamil forms, and the more recent importations of labour from the Malabar coast. These developed into its own “Illankai-Thamil” characteristics that Tamil scholars have tried to document. The Late Prof. Kailasapathy was the President of the Jaffna campus in the mid seventies when I was the President of Vidyodya campus. He gave me an impressive amount of reading material well beyond easy assimilation. Professor Sivathamby was the head of the Tamil department at the Vidyodaya University at the time, and he claimed that even the Eastern Tamils, linked with from a “Mukkuva” tradition, had their own distinct characteristics that are “threatened” by local forces. In my view the biggest threat to any Lankan Tamil culture is Bollywood. Today the social media and the internet add a new dimension. A road bridge will make them more potent as described below.

The ratio of Tamil speakers to Sinhala speakers in the Island is of the order of 1: 4 ( including Muslims and estate Tamils). The ratio of Lankan Tamils to South-Indian Tamils is of the order of 1:300. This strong quasi-monoculture of Tamil Nadu will be unleashed on the Northern peninsula, given a land bridge. Wealthy Indian businessmen will control the peninsular financial, religious, and media operations. The cinemas will be run by Bollywood bigwigs. The Lankan Tamils, controlled for over a century and even today by the “Colombo-7 Tamils”, will be controlled by the tycoons of Chennai or Kochin. The LTTE learnt this at first hand and turned against India.

Tamil and Sinhala have co-existed for many centuries, with medieval Sinhala the major beneficiary. This has been enough to mislead Mudliar W. F. Gunawardena or historians like Leslie Gunawardena who also looked for a Marxist “class interpretation” of the evolution of ethnic identities (for a more careful discussion, see K. N. O Dharmadasa ). Most Sinhalese or Tamils tracing their genealogies would find total inter-mixing and that only cultural differences distinguish them. G. G. Ponnambalam declared at a meeting in Nawalapitya in 1939 that the “Sinahalese are a mongrel race” etc., while maintaining the racial purity of the Tamils, and triggered the first Sinhala-Tamil “race riot” (see Jane Russell’s book on “Communal Politics in the Donoughmore Constitution 1931-1947”, page 256 ). The riot was rapidly put down by the British government, in contrast to those that happened after independence. However, both “races” are equally “mongrel” within all biological criteria. Even the cultural distinctions are often reversed when probed deep. Common “Tamil” names like “Balasingham” have Sinhala origins, while many “Sinhala” names (be it Banadaranaike or Tennakoon) are etymologically Tamil. The Sinhala origin of many “Tamil” place-names in Ceylon is treated in a 1965 Ph. D thesis by Karthigesu Indrapala (see also my compilation in: Nevertheless, today we have a particular linguistic and cultural configuration in the Island resulting from a long co-existence.

Periodic incursions from outside which give time for each configuration to evolve and “absorb” the external perturbation, and such inputs have a positive evolutionary effect. In contrast, experience shows that a land bridge usually produces a continuous uncontrolled “immigration” of people and prejudices that are not easily assimilable. It is usually the “less desirable” who try clandestine immigration. The British who remained independent of the invasions since 1066 are today subject to such uncontrolled immigration via the Channel tunnel. Today the tunnel provides a hard-to-control conduit for impoverished whites from Eastern Europe, non-whites, Jihadists etc., from Africa and the Middle East to creep into England while the French prefer to see these “misérables” out of France.

The Hinduism of Jaffna relates to the early monistic form of the “Saiva Siddhanatha” due to saint Thirumular. In contrast, Tamil-Nadu Saivism is pluralistic and follows Aghorasiva who rejected the “monism” of Thirumular. Given a land bridge, the more profitable northern Kovils will pass into Indian hands. The Saivism offered will become the Saiva Siddhanatha of Aghorasiva. The caste system is linked to the Manu Dharma of orthodox Hinduism. The intensity of the caste system in South India has grown in recent times under “free-market economics, while that of the Northern Sri Lanka has diminished to some extent with the Eelam wars. This trend will be revered if a land bridge were to be opened. Thus, there are social characteristics that we do not wish to perpetuate, and these are often a part of religious orthodoxies. While outdated social entities have to be rejected, other aspects of social conventions and religion have to be recognize for their cultural and ethnic significance, allowing them to survive as part of the varied heritages that enriche and invigorate our social fabric. Such optimally envisaged social re-orientation is not possible when the controlling factors pass to the mainland via a land bridge.

To conclude, while Sinhala and Tamil cultures have co-existed within Lanka, any free access to a direct connection to Tamil Nadu will erode the identity of Lankan-Tamil culture, and to a lesser extent, the Sinhalese Culture. The latter, used to centuries of such interactions may survive the challenge of a land bridge, while Lankan Tamil culture will be stifled and homogenized by a direct embrace with Tamil Nadu. In effect, while we must have vigorous links with India, our dealings need to be “at arms length”.

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