Open main menu
Location of Eelam, the Tamil name for Sri Lanka

Eelam (Tamil: ஈழம், īḻam, also spelled Eezham, Ilam or Izham in English) is the native[1] Tamil name for the South Asian island state of Sri Lanka. 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, and there are number of conflicting theories. The Retroflex approximant l in Eelam is a characteristic phoneme for Dravidian languages, retained in closely related Tamil and Malayalam. Conventionally it has been represented in the Latin script with the digraph zh.[3]


The Tamil meaning of "Eelam" is homeland.[4][5] The word "ஈழம்" (Eelam) has similarities with the Tamil word "இல்லம்" (Illam), which means home or homeland. The earliest use of the word is found in a Tamil-Brahmi inscription as well as in the Sangam literature. The Tirupparankunram inscription found near Madurai in Tamil Nadu and dated on palaeographical grounds to the 1st century BCE, refers to a person as a householder from Eelam (Eela-kudumpikan).[6] The inscription reads,

erukatur eelakutumpikan polalaiyan "Polalaiyan, (resident of) Erukatur, the husbandman (householder) from Eelam." .[3]

The Sangam literature Paṭṭiṉappālai, mentions Eelattu-unavu (food from Eelam). One of the prominent Sangam Tamil poets is known as Eelattu Poothanthevanar meaning Poothan-thevan (proper name) hailing from Eelam. (Akanaṉūṟu: 88, 231, 307; Kuṟuntokai: 189, 360, 343; Naṟṟiṇai: 88, 366).[7] The Tamil inscriptions from the Pallava & Chola period dating from 9th century CE link the word with toddy, toddy tapper's quarters (Eelat-cheri), tax on toddy tapping (Eelap-poodchi), a class of toddy tappers (Eelath-chanran). Eelavar is a caste of toddy tappers found in the southern parts of Kerala.[6] Eela-kaasu and Eela-karung-kaasu are refers to coinages found in the Chola inscriptions of Parantaka I.[8] The Tamil lexicons Thivaakaram, Pingkalam and Choodaamani, dating from c. 8th century CE, equate the word with the Sinhala language and with gold.[citation needed]

Since the 1980s the words Eelam and Eelavar have been taken up by the Sri Lankan Tamil resistance movement. In this usage, Eelam refers to Tamil Eelam, an area covering what has been reconstructed by historians as the former Jaffna Kingdom. Eelavar now refers to the future citizens of Tamil Eelam.[3]


Late 19th century linguists took the view that the name Eelam was derived from the Pali (An Indo-Aryan language) form Sihala for Sri Lanka. Robert Caldwell, following Hermann Gundert, cites the word as an example of the omission of initial sibilants in the adoption of Indo-Aryan words into Dravidian languages.[9] The University of Madras Tamil Lexicon, compiled between 1924 and 1936, follows this view.[2]

According to Peter Schalk a professor of theology from University of Uppsala who has done studies on Sri Lankan Tamils and their culture, Caldwell and the Madras Tamil lexicon were wrong in deriving Eelam from Sihala. He concludes that Eelam is attested well before Sihala in India and Sri Lanka, in inscriptions and literature in the 1st century BCE. Whereas Sihala is attested for the first time in present-day Andhra Pradesh to refer to a Buddhist temple meant for monks from Sri Lanka in the 3rd century CE. He further concludes that it is a word used exclusively for toddy beginning from the common era up until the medieval period.[3]


Thomas Burrow, in contrast, argued that the word was likely to have been Dravidian in origin, on the basis that Tamil and Malayalam "hardly ever substitute (Retroflex approximant) l peculiarly Dravidian sound, for Sanskrit -'l'-." He suggests that the name "Eelam" came from the Dravidian word "Eelam" (or Cilam) meaning "toddy", referring to the palm trees in Sri Lanka, and later absorbed into Indo-Aryan languages. This, he says, is also likely to have been the source for the Pali '"Sihala".[10] The Dravidian Etymological Dictionary, which was jointly edited by Thomas Burrow and Murray Emeneau, marks the Indo-Aryan etymology with a question mark.[11]

Sri Lankan historian Karthigesu Indrapala claims that Eela, the stem of Eelam, is attested in Sri Lanka for centuries before the common era as a name of an ethnic group, and eventually it came to be applied to the island as Eelam. He also believes that the name of the island was applied to the popular coconut tree or vice versa in Tamil. He believes the early native names for the present Sinhalese ethnic group, such as Hela, are derivations of Eela, which was Prakritized as Sihala and eventually Sanskritized as Simhala in the 5th century CE.[12]


Yet another theory based on archeological evidence suggests the word is a Tamil word which originated from South India.[13]

Cognate termsEdit

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 terms 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.[14][12] 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.[3] 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.[3] Not only are the words Eezham, Eelam, Cilam, Chilam, Cheralam, Eelavar, Eela, I'la, E'lu, He'la, Seeha'la, Simha'la, Sinhala, Greek Salai and Seiladiba, the Arab Serendib, Portuguese Ceilão and the colonial Ceylon cognates.[14][15]


  1. ^ Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju (2003). The Dravidian Languages. Cambridge University Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-521-77111-5.
  2. ^ a b University of Madras (1924–36). "Tamil lexicon". Madras: University of Madras. Archived from the original on 2012-12-12. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) (Online edition at the University of Chicago)
  3. ^ a b c d e f Schalk, Peter (2004). "Robert Caldwell's Derivation īlam<sīhala: A Critical Assessment". In Chevillard, Jean-Luc (ed.). South-Indian Horizons: Felicitation Volume for François Gros on the occasion of his 70th birthday. Pondichéry: Institut Français de Pondichéry. pp. 347–364. ISBN 978-2-85539-630-9..
  4. ^ Stokke, K.; Ryntveit, A.K. (2000). "The Struggle for Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka". A Journal of Urban and Regional Policy. 31 (2): 285–304. doi:10.1111/0017-4815.00129.
  5. ^ An Introduction to World Politics: Conflict and Consensus on a Small Planet (2012), Berch Richard Oliver Collin, Pamela L. Martin, 414p.
  6. ^ a b Civattampi, Kārttikēcu (2005). Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan. Aivakam. pp. 134–135. ISBN 9789551132002.
  7. ^ Lal, Mohan (1992). Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature: Sasay to Zorgot. Sahitya Akademi. p. 4155. ISBN 9788126012213.
  8. ^ Sivarajah, Ambalavanar (1996). Politics of Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka. South Asian Publishers. p. 122. ISBN 9788170031956.
  9. ^ Caldwell, Robert (1875). "A comparative grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages". London: Trübner & Co. Cite journal requires |journal= (help), pt. 2 p. 86.
  10. ^ Burrow, Thomas (1947). "Dravidian Studies VI — The loss of initial c/s in South Dravidian". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 12 (1): 132–147. doi:10.1017/s0041977x00079969. JSTOR 608991. at p. 133
  11. ^ Burrow, T.A.; Emeneau, M.B., eds. (1984). "A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary" (2nd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. Archived from the original on 2012-07-07. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) (Online edition at the University of Chicago)
  12. ^ a b c 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
  13. ^ Sitampalam, S.K. "Origin of 'Tamil Eelam'". The Hindu. Retrieved 2008-10-02.
  14. ^ a b Akazhaan. "Eezham Thamizh and Tamil Eelam: Understanding the terminologies of identity". Tamilnet. Retrieved 2008-10-02.
  15. ^ 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 ...

Further readingEdit

  • Schalk, Peter (2004). Ilam<Sihala?:An Assessment of an Argument. Uppsala: Uppsala University. ISBN 978-91-554-5972-7.
  • Ubayasiri, Kasun "A virtual Eelam: Democracy, Internet and Sri Lanka’s Tamil struggle" in Asian Cyberactivism: freedom of expression & media censorship by Steven Gann, James Gomez and Uwe Johannen. ISBN 0-9749177-5-3

External linksEdit