Vanni chieftaincies

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Vanni chieftaincies
13th century
Sri Lanka in the 1520s
Sri Lanka in the 1520s
Historical eraTransitional period
13th century
• Vanniyar Rebellion
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Polonnaruwa
British Ceylon

The Vanni chieftaincies or Vanni principalities was a region between Anuradhapura and Jaffna, but also extending to along the eastern coast to Panama and Yala, during the Transitional and Kandyan periods of Sri Lanka.[1][2] This land was a collection of chieftaincies of principalities that were a collective buffer zone between the Jaffna Kingdom, in the north of Sri Lanka, and the Sinhalese kingdoms in the south.[3][4][5] The emergance of these chieftaincies were a direct result of the breakdown of central authority and the collapse of the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa in the 13th century, as well as the establishment of the Jaffna Kingdom in the Jaffna Peninsula.[6][4] Control of this area was taken over by dispossessed Sinhalese nobels and chiefs of the South Indian military of Māgha of Kalinga (1215–1236), whose 1215 invasion of Polonnaruwa led to the kingdom's downfall.[7][8][6] Sinhalese chieftaincies would lay on the northern border of the Sinhalese kingdom while the Tamil chieftaincies would border the Jaffna Kingdom and the remoter areas of the eastern coast, outside of the control of either kingdom.[6]

The chieftains, who were known as Vanniars, would function like feudal lords in their territories. During much of the Transitional period where the island was politically unstable, depending on the situation at the time, the chieftains would owe their allegiance to one or the other kingdom. They offered military protection to those who came under their authority.[6] Vanniars referred to a broad category of people who could have been appointees of the Sinhalese kings, who administered outlying districts or autonomous rulers of large, sparsly populated and undeveloped lands. The Vanniars in general paid tribute to the Kingdom of Kotte and later to the Kingdom of Kandy, apart from a few that were close to the Jaffna Kingdom.[9][10]


Vanniar or Vanniyar 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.[11][12]

Origin theories[edit]

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 Vanniyar caste immigrants from modern Tamil Nadu, whereas others were of Mukkuvar, Karaiyar, Vellalar and other caste origins.[11][12][13][14] Some scholars conclude the Vanniyar title as a rank of a local chieftain which was introduced by the Velaikkarar mercenaries of the Chola dynasty.[15]

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.[12]

Feudal chiefs[edit]

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.[16][17][18] 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.[19] As a result of his policies, the Vanni region flourished. The Vanniar claim descent from this chief.[19][20][21] 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.[19][22]

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.[23] 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.[24]

Northern chieftaincies[edit]

1692 engraving by Wilhem Broedelet of Robert Knox's 1681 map of northern Sri Lanka.

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 the Vanni 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.[12][23][25][26] 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 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".[27]

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.[28] 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[edit]

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.[11][12][25] By the 18th century, the Batticaloa and Ampara (Panova) chieftaincies had been reincorporated into the Malabar Coylot Wanees Country.


  1. ^ De Silva 2005, p. 87.
  2. ^ De Silva 2005, p. 145.
  3. ^ De Silva 1981, p. 117.
  4. ^ a b De Silva 1981, p. 110.
  5. ^ De Silva 1981, p. 133.
  6. ^ a b c d De Silva 1981, p. 134.
  7. ^ Codrington 1926, p. 67.
  8. ^ De Silva 2005, p. 85.
  9. ^ De Silva 1981, p. 145.
  10. ^ De Silva 1981, p. 199.
  11. ^ a b c McGilvray, Mukkuvar Vannimai: Tamil Caste and Matriclan Ideology in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, p.34-97
  12. ^ a b c d e Karthigesu, Sri Lankan Tamil Society and Politics, p.7-9
  13. ^ McGilvray, Dennis B. (2008-05-07). Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. Duke University Press. p. 156. ISBN 0822341611.
  14. ^ Arasaratnam, Sinnappah (1996-01-01). Ceylon and the Dutch, 1600-1800: External Influences and Internal Change in Early Modern Sri Lanka. n Variorum. p. 422. ISBN 9780860785798.
  15. ^ Guṇavardhana, Raṇavīra; Rōhaṇadīra, Măndis (2000). History and Archaeology of Sri Lanka. Central Cultural Fund, Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs. p. 210. ISBN 9789556131086.
  16. ^ Schalk, Peter (2002). "Buddhism Among Tamils in Pre-colonial Tamilakam and Ilam: Prologue. The Pre-Pallava and the Pallava period". Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala University. 19-20: 159, 503.
  17. ^ Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar (1994). "Tamils and the meaning of history". Contemporary South Asia. Routledge. 3 (1): 3–23. doi:10.1080/09584939408719724.
  18. ^ Pillay, K. (1963). "South India and Ceylon". University of Madras. OCLC 250247191. The Tamil stone inscription Konesar Kalvettu details King Kulakottan's involvement in the restoration of Koneswaram temple in 438 A.D. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. ^ a b c Pridham, Charles (1849). "Trincomalee - Its Early History". An historical, political, and statistical account of Ceylon and its dependencies. London: T. and W. Boone. pp. 544–546. OCLC 2556531.
  20. ^ Sivaratnam, C (1968). "Tamils in early Ceylon". OCLC 248358279. As for cultivators he got fifty one tribes of Vanniyars, a caste of agriculture experts from the Pandyan coasts... on the invitation of Kulakoddan in c 493 for the noble purpose of cultivating the land at Tambalakamam. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. ^ Arumugam, S (1980). "The Lord of Thiruketheeswaram, an ancient Hindu sthalam of hoary antiquity in Sri Lanka". Colombo. OCLC 10020492. Kulakottan also paid special attention to agricultural practice and economic development, the effects of which made the Vanni region to flourish ; temples were cared for and regular worship instituted at these, Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ Pathmanathan 2006, pp. 62
  23. ^ a b Peebles, History of Sri Lanka, p.31-32
  24. ^ "Book review of Spoken Language of Nuwarakalaviya". Silva. Archived from the original on 2012-09-19. Retrieved 2008-02-04.
  25. ^ a b Gunasingam, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, p.53
  26. ^ "Vannimai". University Of Madras, Tamil Lexicon. Retrieved 2007-12-23.
  27. ^ De Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Vol. I, p. 51.
  28. ^ Tambiah, Laws and customs of Tamils of Jaffna, pp. 62–3.