Names of Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is an island country that has been known by many names. The existence of the island has been known to the Indic, Chinese, Persian, Arabic, and Western civilisations for many millennia and the various names ascribed to the island over time reflect this.

Sri Lanka and related names[edit]

The island was renamed Sri Lanka, meaning "resplendent island" in Sanskrit, in 1972, before which it was known by a variety of names and the island was often simply called Lanka. Other names using a form of Sri include Shri Lanka, preferred by the former Sri Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa but never gaining wider appeal.

The word Lanka simply means any island. It is still widely used by the aborigines of Central and Eastern India to mean an island and especially an islet in a river. The word is considered as belonging to Austro-Asiatic languages. The Veddas, the aborigines of Sri Lanka who are Austro-Asiatic in origin, might have rendered the name Lanka to the island. As it is the biggest island in the South Asian context, Lanka probably became an exclusive term for it.

Strains of this word can also be found in the Maldivian language Dhivehi and in the island names of Maldives. In Maldivian language, Ahi-lanka means Maldives (probably from Aha-lanka, meaning our islands) and Mahi-lanka means other countries (probably from Mahaa-lanka meaning big islands). Hilang is a related word in Dhivehi, which means evidence of existence for any land (also consider the Tamil word Nilan for land). Le, Laa, Li, Lu, Lai, Lang and Lankan are other words found to indicate islands in Maldives.

Clear references come from Silappatikaram and Manimekalai of the late Sangam period.

Lak-vaesiyaa in Sinhala means an inhabitant of the island of Lanka. Lak-diva in E'lu (old Sinhala) means the island of Lanka. The name Lakkadeevs (Laccadives) for the archipelago in the Arabian Sea (now a union territory of India), lying north of Maldives, which has been sanskritised into Lakshadweeb, also need to be considered in this context. In the Ramayana it was also known as Lankadweepa, with dweepa meaning "island". From the Ramayana comes the Javanese name Alengko for Ravana's kingdom. Another traditional Sinhala name for Sri Lanka was Lakdiva, with diva also meaning "island". A further traditional name is Lakbima. Lak in both cases is derived again from Lanka.

Of the same etymology, Sri Lanka is known locally in Tamil as İlankai. The Tamil language commonly adds /i/ before initial /l/, especially in borrowed words.

The appellation Lanka, however, was unknown to the Greeks, from whom most Western names would be derived, and is not seen in any Western names until 1972.

Sinhala and Sinhalese[edit]

One theory is that in has its root from the Sanskrit Sinha ("lion") independently.[citation needed] With the Sanskrit Sinha as its root, Sinhala can be interpreted to mean "the blood of a lion". As lions are not native to Sri Lanka, Sinhala is most often taken to mean a lion-like man – i.e. a hero – presumably Vijaya's grandfather. The Pāli form of the Sanskrit Sinhala is Sihalam (pronounced Silam)'.[citation needed]

A more accurate meaning for Sinhala would be that the word has transformed over the ages from the word siv hela which means the four divisions hela or ancient Sri Lanka. During ancient times Sri Lanka was widely known as Helabima which means the land(bima) of the Hela people.

Sinhalese Ceylon and cognates[edit]

The English name Ceylon and a host of other related names all most likely trace their roots back to Eelam (Tamil: ஈழம், īḻam) also spelled Eezham, Ilam or Izham in English, the native[1] Tamil name for the island. Eelam is also a name for the spurge (a plant), toddy (an intoxicant) and gold.[2] The exact etymology and the original meaning of the word are not clearly known, although it probably stems from the island's Iron Age association with the state of Kerala and the term Ceralamdivu, the "island of the Ceran kings". Two thousand years ago, one of the states in the region was called Cheralam in Classical Tamil: Chera, Sera and Kera are variants of the same word.[3] The Retroflex approximant l in Eelam is a unique phoneme for Dravidian languages, retained in closely related Tamil and Malayalam. Conventionally it has been represented in the Latin script with the digraph zh.[4]

Eela and Eelavar are etymologically related to Eelam. The stem Eela is found in Prakrit inscriptions dated to 2nd century BCE in Sri Lanka in term such as Eela-Barata and Eela-Naga, proper names. The meaning of Eela in these inscriptions is unknown although one could deduce that they are either from Eela a geographic location or were an ethnic group known as Eela.[5][6] Although the two derivations Eelam and Eelavar are etymologically related, the word Eelavar in South Indian medieval inscriptions refer to the caste or function of toddy-drawers, drawn from the Dravidian word for palm tree toddy, Eelam.[4] From the 19th century onwards, sources appeared in South India regarding a legendary origin for caste of toddy drawers known as Eelavar in the state of Kerala. These legends stated that Eelavar were originally from Eelam. The consciousness of the South Indian Eelavar caste being of Sri Lankan origin is not older than 150–200 years.[4] Not only are the words Eezham, Eelam, Cilam, Chilam, Cheralam, Eelavar, Eela, I'la, E'lu, He'la, Seeha'la, Silam, Simha'la and Sinhala cognates, but so too are the Old Tamil-Malayalam Cerantivu (pronounced Seren deevu), Greek Salai and Seiladiba, the Arab Serendib, Portuguese Ceilão and the colonial Ceylon cognates.[5][7]

Also deriving from the Old Tamil-Malayalam Ceran tivu,[7] the 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus called the island Serandivis and the 6th-century Greek sailor Cosmas Indicopleustes ("Cosmas India-Voyager") called the island Sielen Diva ("island of Sielen"), with both -dives and Diva merely forms of divu or tivu, meaning "island". From Sielen derived many of the other European forms: the Latin Selan, Portuguese Ceilão, Spanish Ceilán, French Selon, Dutch Zeilan, Ceilan and Seylon, and of course the English Ceylon. Further variants include Seylan, Zeylan and Ceylan. Today, Ceylon and its equivalents in other languages are still occasionally used.

This origin is shared with many other names, such as Serendiva, Serendivus, Sirlediba, Sihala, Sinhale, Seylan, Sinhaladveepa, Sinhaladweepa, Sinhaladvipa, Sinhaladwipa,Simhaladveepa, Simhaladweepa, Simhaladvipa, Simhaladwipa, Sinhaladipa, Simhaladeepa, etc. Many of these names appear to reflect nothing more than the numerous orthographic variations in the way these names have been transliterated into Western languages, including changing the n to m, changing the an at the end of Sinhala to an e, writing the vowel in the penultimate syllable as an i or an ee, changing the v to a w, omitting vowels completely, and so on.

The 10th-century historian Abu Rihan Muhammad bin Ahmad, or Alberuni, called the island Singal-Dip, also derived from sinhala and a form of the word meaning "island". However, in Arabic, Sri Lanka ultimately came to be known as Serendib or Sarandib, which led to the Persian Serendip (as used in the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes were always making discoveries of things they were not seeking, from which Horace Walpole in 1754 would ultimately coin the English word serendipity). An Arabic form of more recent vintage than Sarandib, Sailan, later came to be via predecessor words in Arabic Tilaan and Cylone, also sharing the same root as Ceylon.


The 2nd-century Greek geographer Ptolemy called the inhabitants Salai and the island Salike ("country of the Salai"), most widely believed to derive from the Pāli Sihalam. Some argue[who?] that another Indian name for the island – Salabha ("rich island") – is its source. Others argue that it came via the Egyptian Siela Keh ("land of Siela"), even more similar to Cosmas' Sielen and still of the same ultimate origin. Some scholars also hold that it was merely a corruption, probably by the Greek sailors who traveled to Sri Lanka, of Simhalakahi.

Simoundou and related names[edit]

Ptolemy also called the island Simoundou or Simundu (probably meant to read Silundu[8]), also believed to derive ultimately from the Sanskrit sinhala. From Ptolemy we learn that, relative to Taprobanê, Simoundou was an ancient name for Sri Lanka (from Ptolemy's perspective, and thus even more so now).

He also called it Palai-Simundu, which is believed to either mean simply "Old Simundu", using the Greek word for "old", or alternatively to derive from the Sanskrit pali-simanta (meaning "head of the sacred law"), as Sri Lanka had by that time become an important center of Buddhism.

Heladiva and related names[edit]

The names Heladiva and Heladveepa have two possible origins, a point of hot debate between certain Sri Lankans. Some argue[who?] that these are nothing more than an additional type of name sharing the same origin as those related to Ceylon mentioned above, simply having been shortened by dropping the Sin or Sim. Others argue[who?] that the Hela were a separate people living in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Indians, the Dravidians or specifically the Tamils of South India. Those who make this distinction are more likely to use these names to describe Sri Lanka.

Sivuhelaya may also be a name of similar origin, although it is very obscure.

Tâmraparnî and related names[edit]

Other names have also been used in the West to describe the island. The Indian conqueror Vijaya named the island Tâmraparnî ("copper-colored leaf"), a name which was adopted into Pāli as Tambaparni. The accounts of Alexander the Great's officers and others like 4th-century BCE Greek geographer Megasthenes, based on information they obtained from Greek and Sri Lankan travellers, called Sri Lanka Taprobanê, generally regarded as a transliteration of Tâmraparnî.

The renown of Taprobane even reached mediaeval Ireland, finding its way into later recensions (ca. 1100) of the legendary history Lebor Gabala Erenn as Deprofane (Recension 2) and Tibra Faine (Recension 3), off the coast of India, supposedly one of the countries where the Milesians / Gaedel, ancestors of today's Irish, had sojourned in their previous migrations.[9][10] In the 16th century, Traprobana (Sri Lanka) is mentioned in the first strophe of the Portuguese national epic poem Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões ("going beyond Traprobana"). Later, the 17th-century English poet John Milton borrowed this for his epic English-language poem Paradise Lost and Miguel de Cervantes mentions a fantastic Trapobana in Don Quixote.[11]

An alternative etymology for the Greek Taprobanê is from the Sanskrit Tambrapani ("great pond" or "pond covered with red lotus"), most likely in association with the great tanks for which Sri Lanka is famed. A third is that it derived its name from a river; the name of the river is Tāmaraparnī or Tamiravarani or Taamravarni, which is North of Sri Lanka and is a combination of the Sanskrit taamra ("coppery") and varna ("color"). A river that through the Tirunelveli district south Tamil Nadu flows is called Thamirabarani River. The ancient capital of the Pandyan Kingdom was near the river Thamirabarani.

Other names[edit]

Other names include the Tamil İlanare, the Arabic Tenerism ("isle of delight"), and the Chinese Pa-Ou-Tchow ("isle of gems"). The island has also earned at least two nicknames. First, it came to be known as the "Island of Teaching" due to the large number of Greeks and Chinese who travelled to the island to learn of Buddhism[citation needed]. Second, due to its shape and location in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of India, some also refer to the island as "India's teardrop" It is also known as the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean.'

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Krishnamurti 2003, p. 19
  2. ^ University of Madras (1924–36). "Tamil lexicon". Madras: University of Madras.  (Online edition at the University of Chicago)
  3. ^ Nicasio Silverio Sainz (1972). Cuba y la Casa de Austria. Ediciones Universal. p. 120. Retrieved 6 January 2013. 
  4. ^ a b c Schalk, Peter. "Robert Caldwell's Derivation īlam<sīhala: A Critical Assessment". In Chevillard, Jean-Luc. South-Indian Horizons: Felicitation Volume for François Gros on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Pondichéry: Institut Français de Pondichéry. pp. 347–364. ISBN 2-85539-630-1. .
  5. ^ a b Akazhaan. "Eezham Thamizh and Tamil Eelam: Understanding the terminologies of identity". Tamilnet. Retrieved 2008-10-02. 
  6. ^ Indrapala, Karthigesu (2007). The evolution of an ethnic identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka C. 300 BCE to C. 1200 CE. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa. ISBN 978-955-1266-72-1. p. 313
  7. ^ a b M. Ramachandran, Irāman̲ Mativāṇan̲ (1991). The spring of the Indus civilisation. Prasanna Pathippagam, pp. 34. "Srilanka was known as "Cerantivu' (island of the Cera kings) in those days. The seal has two lines. The line above contains three signs in Indus script and the line below contains three alphabets in the ancient Tamil script known as Tamil ...
  8. ^ Malte-Brun, Conrad, "Island of Ceylon", System of Geography, retrieved 2007-06-30 
  9. ^ Lebor Gabala Erenn Vol. II (Macalister translation)
  10. ^ In the early 1800s, Welsh pseudohistorian Iolo Morganwg published what he claimed was mediaeval Welsh epic material, describing how Hu Gadarn had led the ancestors of the Welsh in a migration to Britain from Taprobane or "Deffrobani", aka "Summerland", said in his text to be situated "where Constantinople now is." However, this work is now considered to have been a forgery produced by Iolo Morganwg himself.
  11. ^ Don Quixote, Volume I, Chapter 18: the mighty emperor Alifanfaron, lord of the great isle of Trapobana.

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