Home::IRI Home::Links
Sethusamudaram

Sethu project will revive Jaffna’s ancient maritime glory: Historian

PK Balachanddran

Contrary to the alarmist view held by most Sri Lankans about the impact of India's Sethusamudram project on their island country, a renowned Sri Lankan Tamil historian believes that it will only bring immense benefits to the island, and revive Jaffna's glorious past as a maritime trading power.

"Though the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project is primarily meant to facilitate Indian coastal shipping, it will also have a tremendously beneficial impact on the economy of Sri Lanka, particularly the Northern and North Western parts of the island, by reviving maritime activity in the Palk Strait," says Dr S Pathmanathan, Professor of History at Sri Lanka's prestigious Peradeniya University.

"It will help revive the ancient ports of North Sri Lanka, which had gone into disuse because of various historical and contemporary political factors," Prof Pathmanathan told Hindustan Times in an interview at Kandy last weekend

"And with the activation of the ports at Thalaimannar, Kankesanthurai and Point Pedro, the age-old connections between the peoples of South India and Sri Lanka, particularly those of North Sri Lanka, will be revived," Pathmanathan added.

Currently the Chair of History in Sri Lanka's oldest university, the silver-haired don is known for his definitive work on the history of Jaffna, and is an authority on the history of the relations between the Tamils of North East Sri Lanka and the Tamils of South India.

"When opportunities for trade between South India and the Tamils of North Sri Lanka develop, the state of Sri Lanka will be obliged to develop the ports in the Jaffna peninsula, such as Thalaimannar, Kankesanthurai, Point Pedro and possibly even Mullaitivu, on the North Eastern coast."

"And there will be a great deal of commercial activity and economic development as a result of the development of these ports," he said.

"There is no basis for the assumption that the Sethusamudram project will have an adverse effect on Sri Lanka," Professor Pathmanathan asserted.

"India and Sri Lanka are linked by geography and history, culture and geo-politics. These links will only be further cemented by measures to facilitate the flow of trade, commodities and people between the two countries," he said.

"Development of the ports and the economy of North and North Western Sri Lanka will lead to an increase in the two-way traffic of tourists. Pilgrims from Sri Lanka will be able to go to Hindu and Buddhist shrines in India more easily and at less cost."

"Closer ties with India will also facilitate the transfer of Indian technology, which will only benefit Sri Lanka," Pathmanathan argued.

Region's glorious maritime past

Steeped in the history of Sri Lanka-South India relations, Professor Pathmanathan said: " In ancient times, the southern-most part of India and Sri Lanka had formed a single trading unit.There were close connections between the ports in South India and those in North West, and North East Sri Lanka".

"There was a substantial degree of trade between South India and Sri Lanka through the Palk Strait. The Medieval kings of Jaffna, the Ariya Chakravathis, were known as the Sethu Kaavalar or the Guardians of the Sethusamudram, as the Palk Strait and Palk Bay were known." "The title Sethu Kaavalar also symbolised the Jaffna kings' sentimental attachment to the sacred Hindu sites on the Rameswaram coast," Pathmanathan said.

On the other side of the Palk Strait, in Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, the local ruling dynasty was known as the Sethupathi, the Lord of the Sethusamudram.

And according to Prof Pathmanathan, the Arab traveller, Ibn Batuta, who visited Jaffnapatnam in 1344 AD and stayed as a guest of the Ariya Chakravarthi, has said that the king spoke in Persian!

According to Ibn Batuta again, the king was conducting pearl fisheries and was exporting large quantities of cinnamon to the Indian coast, stretching from Quilon in present-day Kerala, to Nellurpatnam in present Andhra Pradesh.

Ibn Batuta further states that he had seen over a hundred ships belonging to the Jaffna Ariya Chankravarthi on the South Indian coast on their way to Yemen in Arabia.

According to Dr Naresha Duraiswamy, the Fifth Century Coptic monk, Indicopleustes, had described the port of Manthai on the Mannar coast in North West Sri Lanka, as an emporium linked to parts of the Coromandal and Malabar coasts of South India.

"The goods of the Far East were exchanged for those of the Near East in these ports. South Indian traders mediated the trans-shipment of merchandise. According to Sundaramurthi, Manthai port was crowded with ships belonging to different nations," Duraiswamy said in a personal communication to Hindustan Times.

"And the Arab travellers of the 10th century, Suleyman and Abu Zaid, had noted that the chief of Zapage (Jaffna) derived his income from shipping."

Duraiswamy went on to say that the ship construction industry continued in Kayts and Valvettithurai in Jaffna, till as recently as 1901.

"The early history of the Tamils of Northern Sri Lanka was linked to maritime trade," he asserted. It is this glorious tradition that may be revived if the ports of Northern Sri Lanka are revived as a fallout of India's Sethusamudram project.

It was the existence of maritime links across the Palk Strait, which brought the South Indian peninsular peoples, to Sri Lanka.

"Recent archaeological findings show that in the first three centuries before Christ, Tamil language was widely spoken in several parts of the island of Sri Lanka, like the North East, North West, North Central and South Eastern parts of the island, says Prof Pathmanathan.

Coins bearing Tamil names were found in the South East. Tamil Brahmi letters were seen in broken pottery, he notes.

"There was an overflow of megalithic people from peninsular India into Sri Lanka and they spoke what might be called proto-Tamil, with an admixture of certain features of Kannada and Telugu," Pathmanathan says.

Invasions from Tamil Nadu across the sea, were also not uncommon in the past.

Says Dr Duraiswamy: "Karikalan, the Chola king, captured the iron fort at Manthai on the Mannar coast in the first century AD. The Chera king Sengottuvan stormed Manthai in the second century."

"Several poems of the Tamil work Purananuru of the third century, are in honour of Chief Kumanan of Manthai," he points out.

The relations between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Tamils of peninsular India were very strong so long as maritime links existed.

"The maritime trade of Jaffna with South India and the rest of the world was so strong that even the mighty Portuguese and the Dutch, who ruled Jaffna in succession, could not stamp it out. But British rule brought about a major change," says Prof Pathmanathan.

British rule weakened ties

"The British developed Colombo, as the major port of the island of Ceylon, and neglected the development of the northern ports. The 20th century especially saw a sharp decline of the northern ports," Pathmanathan said.

"Trade links between South India and North Sri Lanka almost completely ceased particularly after Ceylon became independent in 1948. Post-independence Ceylonese or Sri Lankan governments continued to neglect the northern ports, preferring to bestow attention on Colombo exclusively," he observed.

Of course, governmental neglect of the Sri Lankan northern ports was not the only reason for the decline of trade between North Sri Lanka and South India

The nationalisation of import and export trade in Sri Lanka had led to a decline in private trade. And all the South India-North Sri Lanka trade was in private hands.

"This had an adverse impact on the economy and society of North Sri Lanka because legitimate trade was replaced by smuggling. Smuggling began to flourish," Pathmanathan noted.

Unfounded fears about Colombo port

The Sri Lankan historian had no hesitation in asserting that the fear that the development of the Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu, as a result of the Sethusamudram canal, would hinder the growth of Colombo port, was "unfounded."

"The large carriers from South East Asia and the Far East will still call at Colombo by necessity. Similarly, ships from South East Asia and West Asia and Africa will be coming to Colombo because there is no prospect of these ships reaching South Indian ports," Prof Pathmanathan said.

In conclusion, Prof Pathmanathan's earnest plea to fellow Sri Lankans was: "All thinking people concerned about the welfare of society as a whole in Sri Lanka have an obligation to support projects and ventures from which the people of the country are destined to reap benefits."

In conclusion, Prof Pathmanathan's earnest plea to fellow Sri Lankans was: "All thinking people concerned about the welfare of society as a whole in Sri Lanka have an obligation to support projects and ventures from which the people of the country are destined to reap benefits."