18 August, 2022


Research, Ideology & State Policy In Relation To Trincomalee

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

The Dress Rehearsal In Trincomalee – Part IV

The New Bosses

Transplanted from settings where they had the help of family and friends, and thrown into a new environment as ‘driftwood’, the experience of the colonists was increasingly one of disillusionment and pauperisation. This made them more dependent on state patronage, and on politicians who held out to them the prospect of it. Their use as shock troops by politicians in the late 50s to break up meetings of the rival party and to harass delegates travelling to the Federal Party convention from the East have been mentioned by Vittachi.

To cabinet ministers dealing with land and resettlement, or with some other subject placing large resources at their command, furthering the party’s reach through settling more Sinhalese in areas having a Tamil association became a means of enhancing their prestige and influence. The prestige came from being seen as the torch- bearers of the Sinhalese cause into hostile territory. Settlement meant in time new electorates and their proteges becoming new MPs, strengthening in turn their position in competition for power within the party.

This gives us an idea of the role Gamini Dissanayake was playing as a minister in the government of 1977 with the huge resources at his command. Trincomalee District, where the Tamil population had declined from 76.5% in 1824 to 60% in 1901 to 37% in 1981, became a target of concerted attempts to tilt the ethnic (i.e. electoral) balance in favour of the Sinhalese. The proportion of the latter had increased from about 5% in 1901 to 33% in 1981. Sinhalisation lay at the root of the administrative policy of appointing Sinhalese GAs for Trincomalee, which has been followed by all governments.

At local level, the thrust of demographic transformation was led by administrators, security officials and persons who had entered politics as proteges of powerful ministers and had established themselves in the area or in the neighbourhood.

Abeysinghe (see above) describes a particular class of persons who acquire political influence (p 108), having come to the schemes as landless casual workhands, often with small time contractors: “These elements slowly get established through accumulative capital. They get hold of the alienated land from the weaker, lazy and unsuccessful farmers/settlers who come within their orbit for funds or help… He accumulates capital, finances production, lends money for settler needs… provides tractors/bullocks on hire, purchases the produce in bulk and becomes a ‘godfather’ to the settlers. He then extends his purview into local politics… links himself to an established family…through marriage. He then commands political power through economic power and becomes a benevolent leader”.

This is a class of persons to whom extending Sinhalese settlements into neighbouring Tamil speaking areas made, in theory at least, good economic sense, and also by this means extended their political influence. H.G.P.Nelson is a politician in this class described by Abeysinghe: “Nelson in Polonnaruwa came from Tangalle as a labourer… He first worked as a labourer, and later as a tea maker in his uncle’s shop. He encroached a canal reservation and gradually made his way up. He entered local politics and ended up an MP”.

He was appointed District Minister for Trincomalee in 1981. He narrowly escaped a JVP attempt on his life in October 1987 during the Southern insurgency of 1987-90. Later the Disappearance Commission for his region named him along with several leading politicians as being implicated in disappearances by witnesses who testified. As district minister of Trincomalee, the local Tamils did not regard Mr. Nelson as personally harmful. But he was symbolic of the power interests behind him.

Research, Ideology and State Policy in Relation to Trincomalee

When a State intends accomplishing something highly questionable among minorities devoid of effective power, it has many options, and can for the most part make its means appear normal administrative decisions intended to serve a higher purpose. In Trincomalee, a majority Tamil speaking district, as pointed out, all the government agents (GAs) since the mid-60s have been Sinhalese.

To be fair, the work of many of the Sinhalese GAs was appreciated. One or two of them were ideologically motivated crusaders, but most were gentlemen. The GA is the linchpin for the implementation of government policy. Most often the difference between having a Sinhalese and a Tamil GA in Trincomalee is a subtle one, and applies largely on account of the ethnic polarisation that prevails in the country at large. A Sinhalese officer when posted to Trincomalee as GA, knows that he is part of an agenda and the Government can influence the conduct of an administrator through a range of rewards and punishments. A Tamil officer marked for a certain zeal in ensuring that his Tamil clients get the best possible deal, may find himself refused the routine extension of service upon reaching the age of 55. (See our Special Report No.8.) In carrying out the kind of agenda the State has in Trincomalee, there is a need for secrecy and to have a fait accompli on the ground before any meaningful protest can be mounted.

In late 1968, a new rationale was created for the Sinhalisation of Trincomalee. That year the Federal Party (the main party of the Tamils) which was in the coalition government of Dudley Senanayake, wanted the Koneswaram Temple precincts lying in the colonial Fort Frederick at Trincomalee, to be declared a sacred area.

Dr. C.E. Godakumbura, a retired archaeological commissioner, was fairly typical of retired public men turning crusader. He argued in articles in the Sun (17th Sept. & 9th Dec. 1968) that such a move would allow ‘quislings’ and ‘fifth columnists’ to entertain foreign agents in the temple precincts and facilitate an invasion of this country by India. True to the wisdom of his class, he pointed out that ‘when Visakapatanam is developed as a naval base, Trincomalee will be easily accessible from there’. He saw agents of the invader coming in advance to the ‘sacred city’ as tourists and pilgrims to be entertained by ‘collaborationists’ etc. After some dithering, Prime Minister Senanayake stated that the Federal Party’s request could not be granted for reasons of ‘national security’.

Ironically, in April 1971, the danger to security arose not from India, but from within, from the JVP insurgency in the Sinhalese South, and at the invitation of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, Indian troops came not to invade, but to guard key installations until the Government regained control. Politicians thus took the extremists seriously only when it suited them.

The Hindu sacred area episode above, brought to the Koneswaram Temple precincts in Fort Frederick, a brand new Buddhist temple, purported to be the replanting of the ancient Gokanna Vihare that had disappeared without a trace. It was the first time that a lost shrine was located with so much certainty without a trace of archaeological evidence to support it. The story is instructive because it marked a precedent for discovering ancient Buddhist sites in the Trincomalee District and planting Sinhalese colonies. This was one of the hobbies of ministers notably in the Jayewardene government.

The Koneswaram Temple of antiquity was destroyed by the Portugese during the 17th century, but the tradition of worship at the location continued (e.g. Emerson Tennant’s Ceylon compiled in the 1840s). In 1955, Archaeological Commissioner Prof. S. Paranavitana published in Epigraphica Zeylanica V his reading of a donative inscription in Sanskrit from a fragment discovered in the temple precincts. Dating from about the end of the 12th century AD, the inscription recorded a visit by a Prince Codaganga Deva to Gokarna.

Observing that Gokanna is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit Gokarna, Paravitana was quick to identify Trincomalee on the north-eastern sea- coast, with Gokanna, a place referred to by the Pali chronicle Mahavamsa (37: 41). The text related to the building of a Buddhist Temple by King Mahasena in the 3rd Century AD. Mahasena, who had earlier converted to Hinduism, is said to have recanted his apostasy and built three Buddhist temples after destroying the Hindu temples at those locations. Two of these places have been identified in ancient Rohana, the present Hambantota District in the south-east of the island (see Wilhelm Geiger’s Mahavamsa). The third, Gokanna, described as lying on the eastern sea- coast, is also consistent with Rohana.

After placing the lost Gokanna Vihara in Trincomalee, Paranavitana made other deductions. Pointing out that the etymological equivalent of Gokanna is ‘Gona’ (Bull) in Sinhalese, he deduced that ‘Ko’ (King, and the Bull as the vehicle of Siva) in the Tamil name Thirukonamalai (Trincomalee) is a transliteration of Gona in Sinhalese. Paranavitana suggested that the Buddhist shrine faded away even as the Hindu shrine [of Koneswaram] flourished after its supposed destruction in the 3rd century AD. Writing 13 years later in 1968 (Sun 9.12.1968), Godakumbura, Paranavitana’s successor as archaeological commissioner, who was then retired, would not even allow that the Hindu shrine existed in antiquity. Indeed, however, the name Gokanna itself is indicative of a place- name deriving from a shrine of Siva. It was by then well known that remains of the shrine, apart from archaeological artefacts, had been discovered in the sea and identified (see M.D. Raghavan’s Tamil Culture in Ceylon and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Reefs of Taprobane).

From then onwards, any suggestion of a Tamil connection with Trincomalee dating back to antiquity, was greeted with intolerance by an articulate section of the Sinhalese academic establishment (see K.N.O. Dharmadasa’s Place- Names and Ethnic Interests in the Sri Lanka Journal of Humanities, December 1976, in response to a paper in the same journal by S. Gunasingam on an 11th century AD Tamil inscription from Nilaveli). All these strong conclusions about Trincomalee were based on highly tricky etymological arguments. Their authors would not allow Ko in Tamil a life independent of Gona in Sinhalese, even though Ko occurs widely in Tamil devotional literature (e.g. Gnanasambandar’s hymns of the 7th century AD). Trincomalee was thus first Sinhalised by the academic establishment in Sri Lanka.

The inconclusive nature of etymological arguments is illustrated by another possible source of the Tamil name Thirukonamalai given by Hugh Nevill in the Taprobanian (p.176 in Vol II of 1887): Thiru Kona Nathan of the Inky Throat – or The Lord of the Chief Angle (of the Three) – is another name for Lord Siva.

We may note here that the identification of the remains of the destroyed temple on the sea- bed as Pallava in architecture, matches well with other information we have. Gnanasambandar in a 7th century hymn to Siva speaks of Konamalai (Hill of Siva) by the roaring ocean. Mahayana Buddhist inscriptions a few miles north of Trincomalee in Kuchchaveli (Epigraphica Zeylanica III) and Thiriyai (EZ IV) date back to the same period. Both are in Sanskrit (as distinct from Pali, the sacred language of the Theravada sect). These inscriptions are in the Grantha script, and are of South Indian inspiration. The one in Thiriyai, written in the Pallava Grantha script, speaks of sea-faring merchants and of the shrine’s foundation by guilds of merchants. This was also the period when the rival faiths of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism were vying with each other in the South-Indian region. We thus learn a good deal about the contemporary fame of all these shrines and of how Gnanasambandar came to know so much about Koneswaram. These shrines were closely connected with maritime trade.

There was an even trickier point in the arguments of Paranavitana and the others mentioned. Names are subject to replication and Gokarna is a generic name denoting ‘Shrine of Siva’, that has in several instances come to denote the place names of such shrines (see Nando Lal Dey’s The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India, 1927). It is not unlikely that there were several of these Gokarnas in Sri Lanka.

Quite independently, Henry Parker in the 19th century, in his Ancient Ceylon (p235 ff), using local tradition and information available from the Pali Chronicles, had located the Gokanna referred to in them, in Magama (in ancient Rohana) in the Hambantota District. His arguments had completely been ignored. From an event in Gokanna described in Culavamsa 57: 5, where Muruga (Kumara) is featured, Paravitana deduced that Trincomalee (or Gokanna according to him) was a centre of the cult of Skanda-Muruga. There is no such tradition in Trincomalee. But, if one were looking for a Gokanna near a renowned cult centre of Skanda-Muruga (i.e. Kataragama), one would have immediately hit upon Magama. Culavamsa 45: 58-59, a passage not referred to by the writers named above, places the villages of Gonnagama and Gonnavitti in the vicinity of Magama.

All these references in the Pali Chronicles pertain to the period 3rd to 8th century AD. Subsequently, Rohana went into decline. The next reference to Gokanna by the Culavamsa in the 12th century AD refers no doubt to Trincomalee, but has nothing to say about a Buddhist temple.

The new re-discovered Gokanna Vihare, a model of the State’s piety and munificence, faces prominently the sea-front in Trincomalee town. Guarded by the Sri Lankan Army, the Vihare is a paradigm of how academic scholarship, ideology and state policy combine to the detriment of the country’s unity.

The momentum had thus been set in Trincomalee and during 1975, the Army moved to acquire Plantain Point in addition to its base at Fort Frederick. A land officer named Jayasuriya who was in the Volunteer Force of the Army, went into Plantain Point and unceremoniously evicted the Tamil squatters. The Government Agent Tissa Devendra, who was reportedly unhappy with the move, is said to have left the station in order to dissociate himself from it, as well as to avoid confronting the Army. (Our Special Report No.8.)

In the latter 1970s and early 80s the new government of J.R. Jayewardene embarked on massive development programmes in Trincomalee hardly any of which was meant to benefit the local Tamils and Muslims, many of whom by 1983 had lost both their property and security. Several ministries and ministers were involved, and they launched on a spree of land acquisition. 5000 acres along a long stretch of the Colombo Road leading from town were brought under the Ports Authority of which not even 100 acres have been used. Land totalling several thousands of acres, was acquired by the Tourist Board, Petroleum Corporation and several other state bodies. The linchpin of these efforts was Government Agent Jayatissa Bandaragoda. Two examples would suffice to show how these moves were meant to bring about a planned influx of Sinhalese

When applicants were called for employment at the Singapore owned and newly installed Prima Flour Mills, it was stipulated that they should be cleared for security by the GA even though Tamil militants were then (about 1980) not active in Trincomalee. It was thus ensured that 80% of those selected were Sinhalese. Of the 5000 acres taken over by the Ports Authority, 700 were ceded by President Premadasa in 1993 to government abetted encroachment by Sinhalese. (See our Report No.11 of 1993.) Whatever the Government’s pretensions to be working towards a higher national purpose, they were by this time looking extremely dubious. (A defensive, but frank statement of the Colombo establishment’s intentions is given in pp. 307-308 of Sinha Ratnatunga’s book.)

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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Latest comments

  • 3

    [Edited out] Anyway, this tells a lot about Tamils’ knowledge into the history of Sinhale North and East.

    He needs to colonial writings read and get some idea about the demography and population dynamics in that area prier to Portugeuse invasion to see how far back Tamil and muslim history goes in that region.

    His book is good for forceful Tamil encrochment into Sinhale history and sinhale landscape. It is simple an attmept to tamilize North and East.

    • 0

      Don’t worry Jim. Trinco is a Muslim majority district today.

      We will never allow Tamils to take it over too. We know what they did in Jaffna. We will never allow that in Trinco. Never!

  • 1

    This writing is 15 years old, a chapter from an out-of-print book. What strikes me immediately is the objectivity, restraint, and erudition of the author. We are reading it at a time when communal passions are running high again.

    Quite by co-incidence, I happened to join a bus load of retired Sinhala teachers from a large school in Uva, who were going to visit “Trincomalee”, which meant that District plus Polonnaruwa, on a three day trip, on the 28th, 29th and 30th of October 2016. For most it was a pilgrimage. I was keen on that aspect of it, as well as the ecology of the area, particularly Pigeon Island. There was also a Trotskyite and his wife who both realised that it was going to be a nice break but that we had to go along with the majority; at the end of the trip we were happy, the people we went with were very nice, but we realised that a dangerous situation was soon going to arise. Pigeon Island that got knocked off the programme.

    I knew that there was a need for somebody to draw attention to the situation, but I hardly had the knowledge to write an actual article and answer the queries that would arise. So, I contented myself with making comments 16 and 17 of the 19 responses that appear here:


    It is very difficult to separate Buddhism from Sinhala nationalism. On the first day, we “saw” Polonnaruwa, but didn’t see Dimbulagala which had been much talked about in the planning of the trip. At Thiriyaya (Dr Hoole’s “Thiriyai”) we were given huge doses of slanted history in large write ups displayed on billboards, as well as a loudspeaker that gave us an account of how the area was “re-discovered”in 1953. Plaques announced that President J.R. Jayawardena and Minister Cyril Mathew had contributed much in the 1970s. All this was so simplified that we realised nothing of the fact that this was a Mahayana shrine and that the ancient inscriptions were in Sanskrit, and not in Pali.

    For half the second day we were taken round Trincomalee Harbour, and the Naval Museums. You pay a little, but get more than your money’s worth with Navy Guides who recite accounts that they have obviously memorised; but they are intelligent enough to answer queries. Up to a point all this is fine, but we, (the “critical trio”) returned realising that we had seen a great deal at first hand, but without being able to analyse anything objectively.

    We saw the “Sinhalisation” at Seruwila, and the construction of new stupas on the third day. My Trotskyite friend, Piyaratne, actually commented that this was a wonderful opportunity for young monks to set up temples and be set for a prosperous life ahead. Even the devotees among us did tell each other stories of how the commercial ventures, supposedly sponsoring the Buddhist constructions were in fact doing much of their work drawing on donations from the poor pilgrims, and that bricks that were “donated” (that is moved from one place to another close by after being paid for), were in fact being “re-cycled” the following day.

    On the second day, after the Harbour visit we had a swim at the Marble Beach in Trincomalee:


    No, we didn’t go in to the resort proper, run by the Air-force, but adjoining that there is beach (with basic washroom and fresh water shower facilites) which could be used for a Rs 50/= payment as we entered the area. For us, this, too, got waived because we had a useful Army connection. Please note that this is not meant to be an expose of corruption, just to say that there is a certain amount of help extended with State Funds to Sinhalese groups visiting the area.

    There were lots of other Sinhalese groups also visiting the area. Actually, the members of a family who are my immediate neighbours, were also there as part of a heavily subsidised trip by the Sri Lanka Tansport Board for their employees. On of those little perks. What the Ministers and the MPs get is so outrageous it gets talked about. These are for humbler people. Both groups of pilgrims spent two nights at a Buddhist Temple in Trincomalee town; it was a decent place, and we paid for accommodation which gave six of us a room with comfortable beds and clean washroom for Rs 2,000/= per day. Those who had to stay for free had to sleep on the floor in a hall.

    And so, there is a constant stream of Sinhalese visitors who visit the area, and each brings back their dreams of glorious future for our “Blessed Island”. I have already commented on how somebody said that encompassing all of the island are places connected with the Buddha’s life and relics. The scholarship that should follow: for me it takes the form of just reading up enough to know that there must be other perspectives from the defeated Tamils.

    On the third day, we had a quick swim at Passekudah. One man commented on how many “Tamils and Muslims” there were. I did not respond. To remind him that those, too, were citizens of Sri Lanka, and that we were in what had traditionally been a predominantly “Tamil Area” would have amounted to being hostile.

    We are told by Dr Hoole that “Tissa Devendra, who was reportedly unhappy with the move, [wished to] to dissociate himself from” [things like this]. I have written this much to confirm that we must be mindful of what is happening right now in the Batticloa area. An intelligent response to the news must take account of how politicians will use this situation.

    • 1

      Nicely put.

    • 0


      Thank you for the travel story.

      “Actually, the members of a family who are my immediate neighbours, were also there as part of a heavily subsidised trip by the Sri Lanka Tansport Board for their employees.”

      Do similar trips also exist for Tamils and Muslims who would like to experience other parts of the country? They should exist because these trips can increase understanding and reconciliation.

      Was the support from the security forces due to “old boy” connections?

  • 2

    Rajan Hoole.

    Your line….
    The story is instructive because it marked a precedent for discovering ancient Buddhist sites in the Trincomalee District and planting sinhalese colonies….

    The Modus Operandi in the Batticaloa District is similar with a minor change.
    Ampitiye Sumanarathna-a man in yellow robes hunts for a Bo-Tree.Then he claims that there was a Buddhist shrine several centuries ago,even though the Bo tree is a couple of years old not necessarily planted by anyone.
    If Dr.C.E.Godakumbura was around he will pick up a stone in the area,turn it around in his hand and declare that it was a PURANA sinhala settlement!

    It is this strategy that made the Tamils in the Trincomalee shrink to 37% from 76.5% in 1824.

  • 0

    Is a dress rehearsal for a new outbreak of communal violence unfolding now. A Fasion Bug store and warehouse in the Dehiwala area was set in fire last night. During the final days of the MR regime too a Fashion Bug Store was put to in the Dehiwala area and those responsible were let. Go scot free.

    What does this government propose to do, in view of who the culprits may be is quite obvious.

    Dr,Rajasingham Narendran.

    • 0

      While this sort of story is matter for concern:


      this much is true,

      “due to a water cut in the area earlier during the day.”

      There was indeed a water cut in the area. But knowing that could also have been the reason for timing arson, although none of this has been proved.

      There are other reports; the area in which this happened could variously be described as “Dehiwala”, “Nugegoda” or “Pepiliyana”.

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