Medical point of view – The island




This is an afterword to the article by Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi, “Singhala Surnames” published in The island Sat Mag of July 3, 2021. The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes the surname as “a hereditary name common to all members of a family, as opposed to a (Christian name or) a given name (first name)”; “an additional descriptive or allusive name, (title or epithet) attached to a person (added to the name of a person), sometimes becoming hereditary” (Eighth edition and tenth revised edition).

In my study of Dumbara (ready to be published) I have devoted four chapters to describing the names of villages, Gedera’s name (name of the farm: generally the name of the plot in the highlands or the name of a paddy field), Vasagam (last names) including Mudiyanse names and Walawwa names, titles, surnames, personal names and nicknames that prevailed in Dumbara, one of the five Ratas (territory) around the capital of the former kingdom of Kandy.

We must not try to trace the history of Sinhalese surnames by associating them with the advent of Western colonialists, even if in the Maritime provinces some have been forced to borrow Portuguese names, a sign of foreign domination, servitude and cultural aggression. To retrace the history of surnames in the ancient kingdom of Kandy, we must consult our literary sources, kada-im poth (Frontier books) which date back to the 14th century, lekam miti (Land Rolls) of various categories, many types of old documents related to land grants such as sannas and thalpath, and acts passed after legislating compulsory land registration.

“Mandaran Pura Puwatha”,

a book of poetry composed of 866 verses, helps us to identify many names of office holders and military leaders during the king’s time Rajasinghe I. This list is too complete to be cited in a newspaper article. AC Lawrie’s “Geographical directory of the central province of Ceylon” (1898) is a real source for identifying all types of names found in the Kandy countryside, which also includes names of elevation plots and rice fields. The electoral roll prepared for the first Council of State election conducted by universal suffrage in 1931, provides lists of unembellished and uncorrupted surnames in their natural form, which subsequently suffered from upward mobility.

In the Kandy countryside, there is a closely identifiable affinity between village names and the surnames of office holders in ancient times. Office holders drew their surnames either from the village names of their fathers, sometimes from their mothers, or from the village they had chosen to reside. Again, this list is too exhaustive. Dugganna Unnnases or Mahatmayos or Yakadadolis (the king’s concubines) have also been identified with the names of the villages. Mahabandihami and the beautiful name Chandra Rekhavo (of Alutgama of Patha Dumbara) were two personal names of such Yakadadolis found in historical sources. The Kandyan chiefs who signed the so-called Kandyan Convention in 1815, all used their village names. One of these signatories was Millawa, Dissawa of Wellassa. Through strange circumstances, her son, a loyal servant of the British Empire, adopted his mother’s name Dunuvila, a village in Harispattuwa bordering Patha Dumbara. John Davy in his “A Tale of the Interior of Ceylon” (1821) says Millawa was “the most learned of all the Kandyan chiefs”, although current writers have ruthlessly castigated Davy’s method of gathering information for writing “Sketch of the history of Ceylon”, a chapter of his “Account”.

During British times, many families adopted their Gédéra names, Vasagam and also the names of their hamlets as their family names; for example, in the first case, Ambagahawela Gedera people gave up Gédéra and used the last name Ambagahawela, while some have kept it as in the case of Pihillegedera. Others have adopted their Mudiyanse names like surnames such as Herath Mudiyanselage Kiri Banda to become Herath Mudiyanselage Kiri Banda Herath. Tillakaratna Banda became Banda Tillakaratna hold back Tillakaratna as his last name; but without giving his children his adopted surname, he resorted to his ancestral roots to choose a surname for his children. Most of these changes occurred from the beginning of the 20th century. Minor titles in the old palace, military and provincial administration such as Korala, Mudiyanse, Mohottala, Duggannarala, Mahalekam, Wedikkara, Atapattu, Palihawadana, Vannaku were later adopted as surnames. But the honorary titles of the leaders of the so-called depressed castes, which were in abundance, were not accepted as surnames by their communities. An interesting development is Gama Gédéra and Dugganna Gedera to become Gama Walawwa and Dugganna Walawwa respectively.

In ancient times Gedara names, surnames and personal names reflected or faithfully reflected the rigid caste system, like all Gedara names and surnames in general and personal names in particular were caste-based. Members of the so-called depressed castes had only one personal name; these names were very beautiful, rhythmic and sounded like a melodious note denoting many virtues of the holder of the name, something which was lacking in the personal names of members of the so-called privileged castes. I have collected hundreds of these beautiful personal names of men and women respectively. But no one had the courage and inclination to name their offspring by their village names or Gédéra names until recently, which was the prerogative of the so-called upper castes. In my writings, I have explained that changing caste-based names and adopting certain names from the privileged lot, sounds like a struggle in defiance of age-old discrimination. But just adopting a taboo name within a generation does not mean complete emancipation. The upward mobility that has taken place as a result of the opening up of more and more educational and employment opportunities, and the migration to large cities, has given a new dimension to the development of surnames.

Now for Dr. Rohan H. Wickremasighe’s question: “Mandaran Pura Puwatha” was written by the poet “Wikum Aduru Pandiwara”, Haluwadana Nilame (Head of the royal wardrobe) of the king Rajasinghe II. He also mentions a “Wikumsiha Pandi” of Bogamuwa (Kurunegala District) and “Wickramasingh Kotalawala Tennakone Methi” of Saparagamuwa.


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