The Vannimais, or Vanni chieftaincies, were feudal land divisions ruled by petty chiefs south of the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. These chieftaincies arose in the 12th century, with the rise of the medieval Tamil kingdom's golden age and the collapse of the classical Sinhalese kingdom period. The chieftaincies developed in sparsely settled areas, and were ruled by Tamil chiefs of multi-caste origins, who called themselves Vanniar. An extension of the Jaffna kingdom's territory, the chiefs of the Vannimais were, for most of their existence, tribute-paying subordinates to Jaffna. The arrival of European colonists in the 16th century saw some of the Vannimai territories subdued by different kingdoms. By the early 18th century, the lands of the Vanni had been reincorporated with Jaffna to form the Malabar Coylot Vanni country.
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Vanniar or Vannia was a title used by tribute-paying feudal chiefs in medieval Sri Lanka. It was also recorded as the name of a caste amongst Sri Lankan Tamils in the Vanni District of northern Sri Lanka during the early 1900s.
The Vannimai ruling class arose from a multi-ethnic and multi-caste background. According to primary sources such as the Yalpana Vaipava Malai, some were descended from Vanniar caste immigrants from modern Tamil Nadu, whereas others were of Mukkuva origins. There were also number of Vannia chiefs of Sinhalese ancestry.
Some Sri Lankan historians derive the title Vannimai from the Tamil word vanam, meaning "forest", with Vannia or Wannia meaning "person from the forest", and Vannimais being large tracts of forested land.
Tamil chronicles such as the 18th-century Yalpana Vaipava Malai and stone inscriptions like the Konesar Kalvettu recount that the Chola royal Kankan, a descendant of the legendary King Manu Needhi Cholan of Thiruvarur, Chola Nadu, restored the Koneswaram temple at Trincomalee and the Kantalai tank after finding them in ruins. Kankan visited the Munneswaram temple on the west coast of Sri Lanka, before settling in the east of the island. According to the chronicles, he extensively renovated and expanded the shrine; he was crowned with the ephitet Kulakottan, meaning Builder of Tank and Temple. In addition to this reconstruction, Kulakottan paid attention to agriculture cultivation and economic development in the area, inviting the Vanniar chief Tanniuna Popalen and other families to a newly founded town in the Thampalakamam area to maintain the Kantalai tank and the temple itself. As a result of his policies, the Vanni region flourished. The Vanniar claim descent from this chief. Modern historians and anthropologists agree as historically factual the connection of the Vanniars with the Konesar temple, and some cite epigraphical evidence to date Kullakottan's renovations to 432-440 AD. Others cite poetic and inscriptional evidence to date his renovations to as early as 1589 BC.
After the re-rise of the Tamil kingdoms and the demise of the Rajarata after the twelfth century AD, many petty chiefs took power in the buffer lands between the northern Jaffna Kingdom and the southern kingdoms of Kotte and Kandy. These petty chefs paid tribute to the Jaffna Kingdom. Sometimes they were independent of any central control, or were subdued by the southern kingdoms for strategic advantages, before eventually being restored. Many kings and chiefs with titles such as Vannian or Vannia ruled in northern areas of modern Sri Lanka during the Jaffna era. Some of the Vanni chieftains were immigrants from southern India, and ruled over a populace known as rate-atto in Sinhalese. The Vanni chieftains ruled following local custom, supported by a coterie of local officials. Their rule had a noticeable influence on the language of the local populace.
Among the medieval Vanni cheftaincies, those of Panankamam, Melpattu, Mulliyavalai, Karunavalpattu, Karrikattumulai, Tennamaravadi and Trincomalee in the north of the island were incorporated into the Jaffna Kingdom. Hence Vannimai's just south of the Jaffna peninsula and in the eastern Trincomalee district usually paid an annual tribute to the northern kingdom instead of taxes. The tribute was in cash, grains, honey, elephants, and ivory. The annual tribute system was enforced due to the greater distance from Jaffna. The arrival of the Portuguese to the island caused a brief loss of some of Jaffna's territory. Queirós, an historian of Portuguese origin, says of the Jaffna kingdom:
"This modest kingdom is not confined to the little district of Jaffnapatnam because to it are also added the neighboring lands and those of the Vanni which is said to be name of the lordship which they held before we obtained pocession of them, separated from the proceeding by a salty river and connected only in the extremity or isthamus of Pachalapali within which the lands of Baligamo, Bedamarache and Pachalapali forming that peninsula and outside of it stretch the lands of Vanni. Crosswise from, from the side of Mannar to that of Triquillemele, being separated also from the country of Mantota in the jurisdiction of Captain of Mannar by the river Paragali; which ends in the river of the Cross in the midst of the lands of Vanni and of others which stretch as far as Triquillemele which according to the map appears to be a large tract of country".
which indicated the kings of Jaffna just prior to capitulation to the Portuguese had jurisdiction over an area corresponding to the modern Northern Province of Sri Lanka and parts of the northern half of the eastern province and that the Portuguese claimed these based on their conquest. Following Portuguese defeat by the Dutch, the Mannar, Jaffna islands and the Vanni lands were reincoporated into the Tamil Coylot Wannees Country by the early 18th century.
Western and Eastern chieftaincies
Vannimais in the Batticalao and Puttalam districts were under the control of chiefs of Mukkuvar origin. Puttalam was under Jaffna kingdom sovereignty in the 14th century, where it served as the second capital of the kingdom during the pearl fishing season. With the strengthening of Portuguese influence in the Kandyan and Kotte kingdoms, Vannimais in the eastern Batticaloa and Ampara districts came under the nominal control of the Kandyan Kingdom after the sixteenth century, although they had considerable autonomy under their chiefs. The Vanni Chieftaincy in the Puttalam districts came under the control of Kotte Kingdom. By the 18th century, the Batticaloa and Ampara (Panova) chieftaincies had been reincorporated into the Malabar Coylot Wanees Country.
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