The Durava - toddy tappers or royalty?

by ASIFF HUSSEIN

The Durava community can boast of a long presence in Sri Lanka which may date back to several centuries or even millennia if their claims to Naga ancestry are to be taken seriously. Yet this largely coastal population has had to struggle hard to debunk a myth perpetuated since Portuguese times that they are toddy tappers, one which they believe lowers them in the eyes of other men.


The Hastiya Maha Kodiya or great elephant flag of the Gajanayaka Nilame who is believed to have been a prominent Durava official in the days of the Sinhalese Kings.

Spokesmen for the caste contend that they are descendants of the long-lost Nagas, of royalty and aristocracy, of soldiers and elephanteers, but certainly not tappers of toddy. In support of this they point out that only a few Durava families today engage in the tapping of toddy in areas such as Payagala and Kochchikade and that they are not the only caste who do so. They also point out that the family name Madinage or House of the tapper is a rare one among them when compared to other hereditary family names denoting military occupations, literary activity, pastoral pursuits and so on. It is not surprising then that this proud people have gone to great lengths to debunk this myth. Mention here must be made of the Sri Lanka Durava Sangama, later the Maha Saviya Padanama which was established in 1970 to safeguard Durava interests. The society headed by a monk named Ananda Ahangama led a legal campaign against the inclusion of Durava as 'toddy tappers' in the Prayogika Sinhala Sabdakoshaya edited by Harischandra Wijetunga and published by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1982. This resulted in the ministry agreeing to expunge the offensive words in all past, present and future publications of the dictionary.

Naga Kings


The Adayalam Kodiya, the lion flag of the Durava indicating their long lost military tradition

The Nagas first find mention in an ancient Sinhalese chronicle, the Dipavansa where it is stated that the Buddha visited the island to settle a dispute between the two Naga kings Mahodara and Chulodara over a gem-set throne. The Buddha is also said to have visited the Kalyani country where dwelt the Naga King Maniakkhika and his retinue of Nagas. What became of this people remains a mystery for they do not figure in the history of the country after this period. Did such a race actually exist in the past or were they a figment of the poet's imagination? The idea that the Durava are descended from the Nagas of yore was first proposed by Hugh Nevill, the editor of the Taprobanian in August 1887. Unfortunately Nevill did not elaborate on his theory.

 It is possible however that he was influenced by the elephanteer tradition of the Durava. In Pali, the language in which the Dipavansa was written, the term Naga may signify a cobra, an elephant or an ironwood tree (Messua Ferrea). For example, we find in the Dhammapada the expression naga-vana ' a forest inhabited by elephants'. The Durava and the elephant have had a long connection and it is not impossible that they were termed Nagas on this account. Many are the hereditary Durava family names relating to the elephant force and elephant-keeping. Thus we find Kuruvege, Kurunayakage, Gajanayakage, Gajanayaka Muhandiramge, Nakande Nage and Nagasen Mutukumaranage. The words Naga, Gaja and Kuru used here are synonymous terms and mean elephant. The names Kurunayaka and Gajanayaka are particularly important as they denote 'Commander of the elephant force' or 'Superintendent of elephant affairs'. 

Another important Durava name Nanayakkara could also be said to mean 'Chief of the elephants'. Other hereditary Durava names connected to the elephant include Alige, Kandege and Panikkalage. Be as it may, the contentions of Nevill regarding the connection of the Durava to the Nagas have been supported by a number of Durava scholars including James Bastian Perera, the author of the Nitiratnavali (1914), Richard De Silva, the author of Lamani Raja Kulaya (1995) and more recently Nandanapala Cumaranatunga, the author of Indo- Lanka Ethnic Affinities (2001). Perera even went on to claim that the Nagas were in Kelaniya in the time of Totagamuve Sri Rahula as evident in the following stanza from the Selalihini Sandeshaya.

Mana hara na meneviya nidala velipita Gena minivena tat niyagin meda ruvata Kana heva gayana buduguna gi miyuru kota sena heva kelani gangabada mada kalaksita

(The pretty Naga damsel on the sandy river bank playing the gem-studded lute with finger-tips listening to the songs sung in praise of the Buddha have a respite on the banks of the Kelani river.)

Royal caste

Richard De Silva in his book Lamani Raja Kulaya has sought to show the caste's royal connections. For instance, he has attempted to show that the Lamkakarnas, a mediaeval Sinhalese dynasty were of Durava origin. The Sanskritic term Lamba-karna, he points out , literally means 'long-eared' or having 'pendulous ears' and denotes an elephant, probably on account of its sagging ears. On this basis, he has sought to show that the Lambakarnas were Duravas whose elephanteering tradition is well known. He also believes that Durava folk bearing such hereditary names as Kudakanage, Mahadaliya Manage and Mahanam Radage are of royal origin. Kudakana, he believes, is Kuta Kanna Tissa (1st century B.C), Mahadaliya Mana is Maha Dathika Mahanaga (1st century A.D.) and Mahanam Rada, King Mahanama (5th century A.D.). De Silva has also cited such hereditary names as Kumarage (House of the Prince) and Kumarapperumage (House of the Prince of princes) to show that they are of royal stock. 

He is also of the view that it was the duty of Durava folk to bear the royal sword known as the ran kaduva or golden sword as suggested by hereditary names such as Ran Kaduge (House of the Golden Sword), and to bear the Ran Kota or golden spear of the King as seen from hereditary names such as Rankotge (House of the Golden spear). Nandanapala Cumaranatunga, a veteran journalist and the author of Indo-Lanka Ethnic Affinities, a comprehensive work on the Durava, has sought to trace the lineage of prominent Durava families to the Sinhalese royalty of the Kotte and Sitavaka Kingdoms. For instance, he believes that the Pattamestri and Pattamestri Rajapakse families of Chilaw and Negombo are descended from Pattamestri Sinhala Kirti Rajapaksa, father of King Rajasinha 1, and his kinsmen. In like manner, he traces the kinship of the Kahatudes and Kahatudages to Kiravelle Biso Bandara, Queen of Vijayabahu VI, whose personal name was Anula Kahatuda. 

The Timbiripolage families, he believes to be descendants of Prince Timbiripola Adahasin, the second son of King Mayadunne. The Tammitage families, he believes to be connected to Tammita Bandara, brother of King Vidiya Bandara, the ruler of Rayigama and the father of Don Juan Dharmapala. The Diogu De Silvage Rajakarunas, Cumaranatunga believes to be descended from Diogu De Silva Vikramasinha, the Commander-in-chief of Mayadunne. The Barestuge Abeysinha Gunavardanas, he believes are descended from General Dom Theodosio Barestu, the powerful Sinhalese rebel leader of Portuguese times who was appointed Disava of Matara by King Senarat.

Martial tradition

The military tradition of the Durava however seems to have been largely forgotten. There are a good many Durava hereditary names denoting military occupations. This includes Hevage (House of the soldier) in such forms as Golu Hevage, Lama Hevage, Mamu Hevage and Punchi Hevage. Many seem to have distinguished themselves in war and commanded high offices as seen in names such as Ranavirage (House of the war hero) and Henanayakage (House of the Commander-in-chief). They also had clans of bards (Bettage), lance-bearers (Lansage), flag-bearers(Kodikarage), gunners (Kodituvakkuge) and archers (Dunu Vidi Hevage). Then we have family names with Vedage (House of the physician), Guruge (House of the teacher) and Hettige (House of the merchant). There are also to be found family names of a religious character such as Kovilage (House of the temple), those denoting pastoral pursuits such as Enderage (House of the herdsman) and those concerned with a literary tradition such as Liyanage (House of the scribe). Indeed, the Durava have distinguished themselves as the literati of the Sinhalese due to their excellent command of the Sinhala language. Among the prominent Durava literary personalities may be included Munidasa Kumaratunga, founder of the Hela Havula school and Editor of Subasa, Devaraja Dampasangina, the author of the Dalada Sirita, Malavara Kavsekara, the composer of the Rabel Asna and the famous poetess Dona Isabel Cornelia Senaratna Perumal alias Gajaman Nona. How is it then that the Portuguese designated the Durava as Chandas and labelled them as 'toddy tappers', a designation that has stuck to this day. 

Cumaranatunga thinks he has the answer. He contends that the Duravas took to tapping toddy only because they were the original coconut land owners of the country. If at all they tapped toddy, it was for their pleasure and that of their masters who were also Durava folk, he explained. The name Chandas, he believes, was first introduced by the Portuguese who mistook them for the Shanars, a palmyra-tapping caste of peninsular India. Cumaranatunga claims that the coconut plantation from Devundara to Unavatuna planted by King Agbo 1 was entirely owned by Durava folk from very early times. That the Durava owned the coastal coconut plantations from Galle to Dondra could be proven by a study of deeds, he pointed out. 


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