Colombo Telegraph

Para Dhemalā: On The Meaning Of The Word ‘Para’ By Professors Sarvan And Roberts

By Agnes Thambynayagam

Agnes Thambynayagam

I am writing this in response to the articles published in the Colombo Telegraph by Professors Charles Sarvan and Michael Roberts regarding the meaning of the word ‘Para’ used amongst the various ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.

Amongst the Tamils the word Para is commonly used in the context of demeaning gesture. According to Prof. Charles Sarvan his Sinhalese classmates in Colombo called him ‘Para Dhemmala’. The meaning of the word ‘Para’, when used in such a context, originates from the word ‘Parayan’. This meaning of the word, however, is diagonally opposite to the meaning derived from the words Paranghi, Para-Rajasingham and Parama Pitha.

The word Faranghi in Portuguese means foreigner. Tamil language does not have the sound for ‘F’. Therefore, the letter ‘P’ was used in place of the letter ‘F’ and consequently, ‘Paranghi’ was adopted in the Tamil vocabulary for foreigners in the sixteenth century. In the name Para-Rajasingam, the word Para means Noble or Lord. Parama- Pitha is the God of the Universe where the word Param means the Universe in Tamil.

The word ‘Para’ that originated from Parayan (Parayar in plural) meant messenger before the twentieth century. Parayar were the group of people who went from village to village, beating the drum proclaiming the messages of the governors. In the twentieth century, the necessity for such a method of conveyance of messages became redundant, especially due to the arrival of the postal services. The traditional occupation of the Parayar was gradually eroded.  The market force created a new occupation for the unemployed group of Parayar to fulfill a necessary need of the local municipalities. Sadly, in marked contrast to their previous occupation, the Parayar had to settle for the job of collecting and disposing of the human waste. In Sri Lanka the people who performed such a task were viewed at low esteem and the word Para is commonly used in a demeaning context.

*Agnes Thambynayagam has conducted extensive research into Sri Lankan history between 1498 and 1833. A significant portion of her research was conducted during her tenure at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, England in 2003-2007.

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