It has been reported that some Northern Provincial Council (NPC) members have initiated moves to change the name of Nagadeepa to Nainathivu, triggering polarization of opinion back to the feverish days of the TNA rallies in Vaddukkoddai (a town known even up to 1900 as Batakotte, marked as such in Dutch maps). That was a time when the gory verses of Kasi Ananthan calling for the blood of “traitors” were hailed as liberating “poetry”.
Ever since the railway connected Colombo with Jaffna in 1905, Northerners have moved into Colombo and suburbs, and then more well do to went on to even better climes abroad. Today, in Colombo we see a vibrant multi-ethnic society where Tamil culture is more alive than in Jaffna. Some businesses in Dehiwala have Tamil and English sign boards with names like “Dehiwalai”. But the Sinhalese have not protested. It is common to see buses with Tamilized destination names (in Tamil characters) where Tangalle becomes Tangallai and Halavatha becomes Chilapam, with absolutely no protest from the Sinhalese.
Unfortunately, Tamil nationalism and its cousin, Sinhala nationalism changed the open discussion of such topics. Toponymic studies have become a hot potato where a mere discussion of place names becomes like the positioning of “kajan” fences in Jaffna as they move back and forth claiming territory! The souring of the minds of even scholars of the caliber of A. J. Wilson from about 1965 onwards has been documented by Michael Roberts (Michael Roberts: Tamil nationalism: Journal of South Asian Studies, n.s., Vol.XXVII, no.1, April 2004
A vast number of place names in the North and East are most likely to be of Sinhala origin, as was pointed out even by Tamil Pandits like Rasanayagam, K. Velupillai and colonial civil servants. Velupillai, in his Yalpana Vaibhava Kaumudi devotes a whole chapter to Sinhala place names in Jaffna. These were further extended by Paul E. Peiris, Nicholas, Paranavithana and others, and in a doctoral thesis by Dr. Indrapala Karthigesu. Ven. Medhananda and others have followed suite. I have attempted to complement and compile what is known, and put them together as a website for scrutiny by interested scholars.
However, the question of etymology is not an issue to the ordinary citizen. For him, Colombo can be “Kolomba” or “Kolompu” depending on his language, just as Brussels is Bruxelles to a Francophone. They constitute the rich cultural tapestry that Sri Lanka acquired by being a nation on the silk route. Scholars like Rasanayagam and Velupillai were overjoyed to see that Iluppaikadavai identifies as the Meepaathota of the Sinhalese (Madhupatheetha of the Mahavamsa), while “Chenakaladi” near Batticaloa (Madakalapuwa) is identified as “Sinhala vaadiya“. On the other hand, place names like Chempian aru, Chempiyan pattu are most likely of Chola Origin, evoking the name of a Chola queen. I have listed some three thousand place names and their tentative toponymic details in the website that I referred to, while noting uncertainties in such research.
A good antidote to mono-ethnic nationalism (a.k.a racism) is to label the place-names with names in both languages where possible (at least in Parenthesis if the name is mainly to evoke hisotry). At least the train stations and the bus stations should have sign boards, with not only the current name, by older historical names. For example, Killinochchi, should be complemented with the name “Giranikke“, evoking the fact that even the Magha invader of the 10th century respected this bird sanctuary in a forest of “Nika trees” (Vitex Negundo). First-century CE stone pillars, and ruins of a shrine named Lumbini Vihara existed there. Today we have also the left-overs of the Eelam-IV battles. These matters are surely equally interesting to the tourist as well as to those residents who can shed their narrow communalism.
Many places in the Jaffna peninsula (Nagadeepa, or Waeligama at different times, c.f., Sigiri griffiti etc.) are well known to Buddhists as they are listed (in the “Nampotha”, and other texts) as places of pilgrimage. I have prepared an interactive internet map giving Sinhala, English and Tamil names, and more details (see Interactive English map of pre-CE Buddhist sites in Jaffna.)
Most observers in the south seem to feel that the NPC, since its inception in 2013 has shown a deep interest in pushing forward contentious issues while mouthing “reconciliation”. The NPC passed its contentious charge of “Genocide” against all governments since 1948. This is a beefed up 21st century version of G. G. Ponnambalam’s orations in front of the Soulbury commission claiming that the British Raj had grievously discriminated against the Tamils in government jobs, Anuradhapura preservation, agriculture, medicine, not developing a port in Jaffna and so on (See Dr. Jane Russell, Communal Politics under The Donoughmore Constitution, p. 312 et sec. ). The TNA leaders were LTTE spokesmen during Prabhakaran’s time, and still claim an LTTE political legacy. It has been alleged that they have prevented the resettlement of Muslims and Sinhalese who were driven away from the North by the ethnic cleansings of the LTTE. Mr. Ariyaneththiran who entered Parliament (after the LTTE paved the way for him by abducting Rasanayagam) in 2004 claims that the Muslims were not cleansed out. A hartal harking to the 1980s has been launched in this ambiance to force the courts to free LTTE prisoners. Even if the objectives were laudable, the inherent dangers in launching such hartals are mind boggling.
So let me invite the Honorable members of the Northern Provincial Council to consider place names as enriching the national cultural heritage, with valuable tourist potential. It should be a launch pad for inter-communal linkage, as in Rasanayagam, rather than a bone of contention. One may disagree with the interpretations, but so what!