Telugu Community In Sri Lanka

- M. Raju

           As is well known, the two major communities of the island of Sri Lanka are the Sinhalese and the Tamils. During the reign of the Telugu kings, who ruled mainly in the Central and the Eastern Provinces of the country, there is evidence that that several Telugu chieftains, military and other personnel were brought to the island but no records are readily available about their achievements worth of note. It should, however, be possible to trace valuable information particularly since the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinghe.

           According to the available data on the subject Kirti Sri Rajasinghe belonged to a dynasty descended from the brother of the queen last king of the vijayan dynasty, viz., Narendra Sinha. The queen came from the line of the Vijayanagar Kings. Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1780) stemmed the tide of national degeneration and decadence and also brought about a religious revival. His brother, Rajadhi Raja Sinha, who was a scholar himself, succeeded Kirti Sri, and during his time there was a literary efflorescence, though not of high order, and his reign lasted until 1798. His successor, Sri Wickrama Raja Sinha (1798-1815) was destined to be the last of the royal line which had ruled the country for nearly two thousand four hundred years. The British captured the king and his queen and deported them to Tanjore. The direct descendants of the last king of Kandy are now reported to be living in Narasingaraopeta in Chittoor District in Andhra Pradesh.

           Although Telugu arts and culture flourished during the reign of the Telugu kings, they did not leave any discernible mark, presumably due to the turbulent period of their rule. The small numbers of Telugu people who migrated to Sri Lanka during this period were brought mostly from the Southersn Districts of India, such as Tanjore, Salem, Madurai etc., and accordingly, the influence of Tamil culture and literature on them over the generation s was quite substantial.

           With the passage of time and the changes in powers, the Telugu community in Sri Lanka, which was negligible in numbers, literally merged with the other large Indian community of Tamils and, to a lesser extent, with the Sinhalese community mainly in the Kandy and Anuradhapura Districts. Some of them have, however, remained aloof and continued with their commercial and professional activities on a small scale, mostly in Colombo, Kandy, Northern and Eastern Provincial towns.

           After the onslaught successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, the small Telugu community in Sri Lanka has completely lost its identity and all of them have, perforce, to be registered as Ceylon Tamils and / or Indian Tamils, as the local legislation does not provide for registration as Ceylon or Indian Telugus. Unfortunately, a good number of the present generation do not even know either to read, write or speak in their mother tongue, nor are they aware of their rich cultural and literary heritage. A silver lining for this dark cloud is the tremendous influence exerted by the compostitions of Thyagayya, Kshetrayya and others in the field of music and by spiritual leaders such as Sri Bhagvan Satya Saibaba and Sri Siva Bala Yogi Maharaj from Andhra Pradesh. It will be interesting to note that these spiritual leaders have large following in Sri Lanka and some of their devotees are keen on learning the Telugu Language as a further evidence of their great devotion to to these Gurus. The condition in which the Telugu community in Sri Lanka now finds itself is, to a great extent, attributable to the following factors

  • The Telugu kings who ruled the country and their retinue were mostly from the Tamil Districts of South India and accordingly, the influence of Tamil literature, arts etc., on them was great:
  • The kings themselves were predominantly occupied with stablising their positions. The accent was on the development of agriculture and irrigation facilities.

           Despite the odds against which the Telugu community in the island had to struggle for survival, it is heartening to note that in some parts of the island, such as Kandy, Jaffna, Batticaloa, they have, to the limited extent possible retained their identity, pursuing their activities in business and low income professions.

           While it is apparent that the Telugu community, negligible as it is in number cannot and should not nurture any political ambitions, it should be possible, given adequate facilities, for them to :

  • Provide themselves with facilities for the study of Telugu Language:
  • Strengthen their cultural heritage:
  • Improve their social standards:
  • Further contribute their mite for the economic, literary and cultural development of the country of their domicile, and
  • Inculcate a sense of belonging to their motherland as well as for the country of their domicile.

           With a view to achieving the objectives outlined in the preceding paragraph, it would be necessary, as an initial step, for the Secretariat of the World Telugu Conference fto collaborate with a locally established Association of Telugu people in Sri Lanka to arrange for:

  • The circulation/distribution of Telugu books or literary value, Magazines, periodicals, etc., donated by the Government of Andhra Pradesh and/or leading publishers:
  • The establishment of a Telugu Library on a small scale:
  • The exhibition of Telugu Films (old and new) of cultural, library or social value. Owing to the stringent Exchange Control Regulations in Sri Lanka these films should be donated by the Producers and/or others and supplied through the High Commission for India in Sri Lanka.
  • The utilization of the funds realised by the private or public exhibitions of the Telugu Films and the sale of book/magazines, etc., for the conduct of Telugu classes, and their cultural and social development;
  • Lecture tours by leading Telugu Pandits, Teachers and other dignitaries:
  • Study tours of Andhra Pradesh by selected persons / students to enable them to gain first-hand knowledge in specialized common fields such as agriculture, cottage and small industries, irrigation facilities, etc.,
  • Providing training facilities for the children of Telugu people in Sri Lanka in Andhra Arts and Crafts with a view to developing in them a sense of self-respect and self-reliance:
  • The grnating of Scholarships on a stipulated basis for the educational and cultural development of the Telugu youth in Sri Lanka.

Socio-Economic Position:
           Although Telugu kings from the Vijayanagar dynasty ruled the country during the period 1747-1815, the impact of Telugu culture, arts, education, etc., on the local population is negligible and there do not appear to be any monumental works worthy of note during their period of reign. However, as there are no historical records readily available, a further research in this field is warranted.

           The small number of Telugu people who came to Sri Lanka, most of whom are reported to Army Personnel, have completely lost their identity particularly after the fall of the last Telugu king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Raja Sinha, whose real name is Kannuswamy Naicken. Since then the community identified themselves as Ceylon Tamils, as there is no statutory provision for them to register as "TELUGUS' and contributed their mite for the economic development of the island, though, for obvious reasons, to a limited extent. A few others continued in their business, and low-income professions. Even during the period of the British rule of the country a fairly good number of Telugu people migrated to Sri Lanka, from the Southern Districts of India, viz., Salem, Coimbatore, Madurai, etc., but were identified with the main stream of Tamils, who came to the island as indentured labour, small businessmen, temple priests, hotel-keepers, etc. Presumably due to their Tamil oriented background these people have, over the years, almost forgotten their mother tongue, and their achievements in the other fields are not worthy of note.

           Although due to circumstances beyond their control, the small Telugu community in Sri Lanka has lost its linguistic and cultural identity, it would be incorrect to say that they had lost the love of their language and cultural heritage. Given the opportunities and necessary incentives for their social, cultural and educational development, it should be possible to bring them together and enable them to regain their individual identity.

           Information is available that in some of the important towns, viz., Colombo, Kandy, Anuradha pura, Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, Jaffna etc., a good number of Telugu people are engaged in business, small trades and low-income professions and that small Telugu Gypsy or tribal community is still living in the central hill province of Kandy. Kandy incidentally, was the capital of the Telugu kings who ruled the country.

           The Telugu people living in Sri Lanka are estimated at two to three lakhs, but these figures are not authentic. It is not unlikely that this community is classified as one of the 'Backward' communities of Sri Lanka.