Sri Lankan place name etymology

Sri Lankan place name etymology

Sri Lankan place name etymology is characterized by the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the island of Sri Lanka through the ages and the position of the country in the centre of ancient and medieval sea trade routes. While typical Sri Lankan placenames of Sinhalese origin vastly dominate, toponyms which stem from Tamil, Dutch, English, and Portuguese also exist. In the past, the many composite or hybrid place names and the juxtaposition of Sinhala and Tamil placenames reflected the coexistence of people of both language groups. Today, however, toponyms and their etymologies are a source of heated political debate in the country as part of the political struggles between the majority Sinhalese and minority Sri Lankan Tamils.

Morphological structure of place names

The morphological structure of Sri Lankan place names by and large depends on the language. Sinhala and Tamil favour transparent compounds involving geological features combined with an animal or plant, while the European languages are more person centered and derive place names from saints or nobility or army.


Place names of Sinhala origin, like Tamil origin, have a typical X+Y structure, where Y is a geographical feature such as"mountain", "river" or "village"and X is a qualifier, like an animal or plant often found at that place, or otherwise associated with it. Examples for this are

* singha+pitiya "lion place"
* weli+gama "sand village"
* monara+gala "peacock rock"

Commonly used trees in village names are "pol" (coconut) and "Kitul" (palm), among others.

The X part can be complex as in

* kiri bath goda = milk rice village

The X part can also refer to social concepts like caste. Examples for this are "waduwa" (carpenter), "batta" (lower caste settlement), "ambataya" (barber), "aruwa" (potter), "govi" (farmer), "bamuna" (Brahmin) and "Villiya" (Rodiya).Gnanaprakasar, "A Critical History of Jaffna", p. 33]

Besides the Y parts already mentioned, other commonly used land usage forms are "Kumbura" (paddy fieldds), "Deniya", "watte" (garden), "pola", "gama" (village), and "Hena" (newly cultivated lands). Grasslands were termed as "talava" and tree groves were termed "golla". Village tanks were called "pokuna" or "katuwa". Irrigation tanks were called "wewa". [Gnanaprakasar, "A Critical History of Jaffna", p. 34] Canals from such lakes were called "aala". Flat lands were termed "botha". Ports were termed "tota". [Gnanaprakasar, "A Critical History of Jaffna", p. 35] Names of flower gardens belonging to Buddhist establishments end with "uyana".


Place names of Tamil origin, like Sinhala origin, also have a typical X+Y structureFact|date=June 2008.The place names are simple and descriptive; they reflect criteria normal to early societies and are related to the concepts and outlooks of people of those times. The majority of the place names can be listed under caste and occupational, landforms, land classifications, coastal features, irrigation works, fields and farms, trees, animals, names of deities, personal names, old, new, big, small, good, settlement and village.Kularatnam, "Tamil Place Names in Ceylon outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces", p. 483]

The X-part in Tamil place names is often one of the following: The commonly used trees are "Vembu, Panai" (palm) and "Illupai". Commonly used animals and birds are "Anai" (elephant), "Puli" (tiger), and "Kuranku" (monkey). Other notable classifications are deities such as "Amman", "Andi", "Kali" and "Pillaiyar".Kularatnam, "Tamil Place Names in Ceylon outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces", p. 484–492] The commonly used caste or ethnic titles in Tamil are "Chetty, Vannan" and "Demala".

As for the Y-part, the commonly used landforms "Mulai or Mulla" (corner), "Malai or Male" (mountain), "Aru" (creek), "Kuda" (bay) "Manal" (sandy place), "Kuli" (depression), "Tivu" (island), "Pallam" (depression) and "Ur" or "uruwa" (village). Land classification are "Tottam" (garden), "Kudal" (bay), "Puval, Kadu" (forest), "Munai" or "Mune" (front), "Karai" (coast) and "Turai" or "Ture" (port). Irrigation and agriculture classifications are "Kulam" or "Kulama" (tank), reflecting the most common village name endings in Anuradhapura and Puttalam districts, "Kinaru" (well), "Kani" (allotment), "Vayal" (paddy field), "Vaikkal" (canal) and "Eri" (tank).


The Portuguese who came to the island in 1505 and left in 1658. They often gave names of Saints to whom the churches in the vicinity were dedicated. "San Sebastian Hill" and "St. Joseph's Road" are examples of these and "Milagiriya" had the church of Our Lady of Miracles ("milagro" in Portuguese).Fact|date=June 2008

A name like "Grand Pass", a northern suburb of Colombo, is the English redering of "Grande Passo", the name of a ferry established by the Portuguese, to cross the Kelani River.

Point Pedro and Mount Pedro are also place names with the name of a Portuguese person as a component, although they might have been coined by the British.

The Portuguese language furthermore was an important step stone for the English terms used today, the British would often use Portuguese names and adapt them, rather than taking the original form. An example for this is Batticaloa, and Ceylon itself.


The Dutch rule the maritime provinces from 1658-1796. Amongst their legacy place names of Dutch origin although not many are still significant. For example "Hulftsdorp" which is Dutch for 'Hulft's Village' and named after a Dutch general. Among the other place-names in Colombo which are of Dutch origin may be included "Bloemendahl" (Vale of Flowers) and "Wolfendahl" (Dale of Wolves). The "Beira lake" in Colombo probably takes its name from De Beer who is believed to have been an engineer in charge of the Dutch water defenses. Agranite plaque inscribed with the words 'De Beer 1700' recovered from an old Dutch sluice which controlled the flow of water from the lake has altered the hitherto accepted view that the lake takes its name from the Portuguese "beira" meaning 'bank or edge (of a lake)'.

The Dutch also christened the islands of Jaffna in remembrance of Dutch towns, such as "Hoorn, Delft, Leiden, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Middelburg and Enkhuizen", but these names (with the exception of Delft) have all but disappeared and have been replaced by their local Tamil names.


The British who followed the Dutch left many place names within the capital Colombo city, like streets, squares and quarters, but their influence on larger geographical features like towns is limited. Within Colombo, many of the place names have a British royal connotation, such as "Queen's Street, Prince Street, Duke Street". The quarters Fort, Cinnamon Gardens, Slave Island and Mount Lavinia carry English names, next to the native ones.

Outside of Colombo, English influence can be found in the tea planting region with the towns of Hatton and Dalhousie, and several estates like "Montechristo" or "Blinkbonnie". A more remote place is Arugam Bay on the East Coast.



Place names in Arabic also exist throughout scattered pockets in Sri Lanka where substantial populations of Sri Lankan Moors reside. According to the location Arabic place names are often mixed with Sinhala or Tamil morphological naming conventions. For example the town of Katthankudy in Eastern Sri Lanka is thought to be named after an Arab settler named "Katthan".Fact|date=August 2008

Origins of some well-known place names

Big towns

* Colombo: was originally 'Kalanthota' or 'Kolonthota' and indicated it to be the 'port' of the 'Kaleni' river. However, the Portuguese were probably struck by its similarity to the name of Colombus, and renamed the city 'Colombo'
* 'Kandy' is an abbreviation of 'Kanda Udarata', or 'hill country' which was the seat of the later Sinhala kings.
* Galle
* Trincomalee
* Batticaloa
* Jaffna

Touristic places

* Polonnaruwa
* Anuradhapura
* Sigiriya
* Mihintale
* Negombo
* Hikkaduwa
* Unawatuna
* Ambalangoda
* Bentota
* Tangalle
* Nilaweli
* Nuwara Eliya

Focus of research

Hybrid place names

Many Place Names in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka with Tamil sounding names appear to have etymologies originating in the Sinhala language.Fact|date=June 2008 "Yalpana Vaibhava Kaumudi" [K. Velu Pillai, Yalpana Vaibhava Kaumudi, ISBN : 8120619137, (1918 English Edition)] has also devoted a whole chapter to place names related to the Sinhalese language.Fact|date=June 2008Disputed-inline

Sometimes these places were re-conquered and re-named when southern kings returned to these areas. This in turn involved demolition of Hindu shrines, or their absorption into Buddhist shrines and vice versa as kingdoms and their boundaries changed continually. This ebb and flow has left a rich cultural legacy in the North and East. A detailed study was presented by Dr. Karthigesu Inthirapala in 1965 University of London, Ph.D Thesis 1965; also "Evolution of an Ethnic Identity" 2005.] and reviewed in 2005. It should be noted that the so called "Tamil or Sinhala" people are inherently totally intermixed over the centuries. The last "Sinhala" king of Kandy had a well defined South Indian lineage. Hence all this should be regarded as a common legacy constituting a valuable patrimony of the present inhabitants of the country.

Places with diverging names

While the names of many places are related in the languages spoken on the island, some towns have diverging names in Sinhala, Tamil or English, which do not seem related at first glance. Cases in point are ("Maha Nuwara" in Sinhala, "Kaɳɖi" in Tamil).Another example is "Beruwala" (Sinhala name, western province) called "Nallur" in Tamil.

Disputed place names

Archaeologist Paranavithana suggests that the original name was "Javapatuna", where 'Java' alludes to the presence of Javaka people. The Portuguese historian De Queyroz refers to it at 'Jafanapataõ', which he says is said by some to be a corrupted form of 'Jafana-en-Putalam', or "Town of the Lord Jafana", and by others to be derived from 'Jafana-Patanaõture' meaning "long harbour". [Fernaõ De Queyroz, "The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon", translated by S.G. Perera, Government Printer of Ceylon, Colombo: 1930 Vol I at pp. 47-48. The translator, in his notes to De Queyroz's text, tentatively cites the Tamil phrases "Yalppananin-paddanam" and "Talvana-paddanat-turai" in connection with these names.]

Unusual etymologies

The Colombo quarter of Slave Island is called "kompañña vīdiya" (කොම්පඤ්ඤවීදිය) in Sinhala, where "kompaña" is a Portuguese loanword ("companhia") referring to the Dutch East Indian Company having their head quarters there. So the Sinhalese use a Portuguese word for a Dutch entity, while English usage ignores this altogether and has different semantics, albeit it also associated with the VOC, who traded in slavesFact|date=June 2008.

Geolinguistic distribution

As already stated above, European place names are found mainly in the big towns which used to be colonial centers. On the countryside, there is close to no European toponymy and the indigenous languages are dominant.

Given the very similar processes of place name formation in Sinhala and Tamil explicated above, it is not always easy to establish the original language of a place name, because loan translations are common in both directions. For such an alleged example of loan translation, see the case of Trincomalee above. Additionally, some place names draw on Sanskrit or Pali roots, which are then adapted to Sinhala and Tamil phonology in different ways. These intricacies must be taken into account when evaluating claims that a certain area was predominantly inhabited by one group or the other at a certain point in time.

Taking a synchronic point of view, Sinhala place names are more common in the Sinhala speaking areas in the South, whereas Tamil place names are more common in the Tamil speaking areas in the North and East. On a diachronic point of view, things are more complicated, and both Sinhala settlements in the North and Tamil settlements in the South have been claimed to have been more common in the past. The motivation behind such analyses is not always scientific; political goals also play a role in claiming a certain area for a certain language group, see the next section for more discussion of this. The following statements have to be interpreted with this caveat in mind.

Sinhalese place names are found throughout the island. As discussed by Sri Lankan historians such as Paul E Peiris, Karthigesu Indrapala and others, pre-Christian stone inscriptions of Sri Lanka point to the extensive use of the Sinhala language in local administration. Much of the information for tracing the old place names comes from etymology, written texts, many stone inscriptions which are in Sinhala and dating back to pre-Christian times, as well as the more recent colonial records.

Dutch and British records show that the language of the inhabitants of Vanni in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were Tamil. In addition, only Tamil words were used for natural and human-made features in the Vanni region with no trace of Sinhalese words. [Chelvadurai, M. "The Sri Lankan Tamils", p.88] According to Professor K. Kularatnam, when analyzing the regional distribution of place names in Sri Lanka, one not only comes across Tamil names in areas which are now Sinhala-speaking, and vice versa, but also composite or hybrid place names which are part Sinhalese and part Tamil in composition, as well as Sinhalese and Tamil place names juxtaposed within small areas.

Most hybrid place names are found in the traditionally Sinhalese North Western and North Central provinces, as well as the traditionally Tamil Northern and Eastern provinces.

Sigiri graffiti verses referring to the Jaffna peninsula and written circa 8 century CE, contain references to "Vaeligama",cite book | author = Paranavitana, S. | year = 1956 | title = Sigiri Graffiti, Vols. I & II | publisher = Oxford University Press | isbn = ] page numberKularatnam concluded from the hybrid place names that the traditionally Sinhalese North Central and North Western Provinces, as well as the coastal tracts as far as south as Colombo, were inhabited by Tamil-speaking people in the past. In addition, there have been also at least small segments elsewhere in the island. The many composite or hybrid place names and the juxtaposition of Sinhala and Tamil place names indicated the peaceful coexistence of people of both language groups.Kularatnam, "Tamil Place Names in Ceylon outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces", p. 493]

Anthropological and political relevance of place names in Sri Lanka

Place names are a source of controversy in Sri Lankan politics. According Jonathan Spencer, a social anthropologist from the School of Social and Political Studies of the University of Edinburgh, [cite web |title=Staff profile:Jonathan Spencer |author=The University of Edinburgh |url= |accessdate=2008-03-14] the Sri Lankan Civil War is an outcome of how modern ethnic identities have been made and re-made since the colonial period, with the political struggle between minority Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhala-dominant government accompanied by rhetorical wars over archeological sites and place name etymologies, and the political use of the national past. Spencer further noted that in the currently Tamil-dominant Northern Province there are place names with Sinhalese etymologies, which is used by the Sinhala dominant government to claim the territory, whereas Tamils using Tamil place names in rationally Sinhala areas point to their antiquity in the island. [Spencer, "Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict", p. 23] [citeweb|url=|title= Sri Lanka Summary.|accessdate=2008-05-08 |format=html |work= Jonathan Spencer] There is a movement in Sri Lanka that seeks to Sinhalize all placenames throughout the country. [cite web |title=Travesty of our place names |author=Perera, D. G. A. |url= |accessdate=2008-03-06|quote=Sinhala language and its nomenclature was precise and meaningful. That was why even the English and Burgher lawyers are known to have preferred to have their land deeds drawn up in the Sinhala language.Therefore, giving attention to the preparation of an officially recognised list of all place names in the island, is of paramount importance. The Tamils can continue to pronounce the place names in their own way if they choose to do so, but the official spelling remains unchanged. Under British rule, the original Sinhala names of tea, rubber (and even coconut) estates were replaced by English ones, for the most part. But the Tamil estate workers who came from India coined their own names for each of these estates. The Ferguson’s Directory listed all these estate names in English and Tamil, while most of the original Sinhala names were allowed to be forgotten.]

Historical development of the place name controversies

In the 1920s, two historical descriptions of Jaffna were published, "Ancient Jaffna" by C. Rasanayagam, and "A Critical History of Jaffna"By Swamy Gnanaprakasar Gnanaprakasar] . A main claim of these books was that the North and East were hereditary possessions of the Tamils.Disputed-inlineUpon the establishment of the University of Ceylon under the Indian historian H. C. Ray, and the archeologist S. Paranavithana, these claims were re-examined by Sinhalese academics. An issue of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1961 [ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (ceylon Branch), vol III, p174-224 (1961) ] , examined the findings of Rasanaygam et al. and gave different interpretations.

ee also

*Languages of Sri Lanka
*Scottish place names in Sri Lanka



*cite book |last=Gnanaprakasar |first=Swamy |title=A Critical History of Jaffna (Tamil edition from 1928)|publisher=Asian Educational Services |year=2003 |location=New Delhi |isbn=81-206-1686-3
*cite conference |first=K |last=Kularatnam |title=Tamil Place Names in Ceylon outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces |booktitle=Proceedings of the first International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, vol. 1 |pages=483–493 |publisher=International Tamil Conference |date=1966-04-23 |location=Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia |url= |accessdate=
*cite book |last=Spencer |first=Jonathan |title=Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict |publisher=Routledge |year=1990 |location= |isbn=04-150-4461-8
*cite book |last=Pfaffenberg |first=Brian |title=The Sri Lankan Tamils |publisher=Westview Press |year=1994 |location= |isbn=0-8133-8845-7

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