Throughout history, rulers of Sri Lanka, whether indigenous or European, had deployed soldiers from India to fight their wars.

By P.K.Balachandran

This was due to a shortage of manpower in the island. Given its much bigger population, India had a vast reservoir of “military labour” compared to Sri Lanka. Military labourers were mainly peasants in need of an extra income to make ends meet.

Many of them were from communities and castes which were considered “martial” like the Rajputs, Jats, Marathas, Gurkhas, Muslims, Nayars, Badugas (Nayakars) and Thevars. In North India, peasants were always geared for war due to constant internecine warfare and frequent foreign invasions. This is evident in the fortified villages of North India.       

Ancient and Medieval Era  

According to military historians W.I.Siriweera and Sanath de Silva, authors of Warfare in Sri Lanka (Sarasavi Publishers 2019), South Indian involvement in Sri Lankan warfare was evident from Third  Century AD when king Abayanaga (131-240 AD) ruled. King Mahanama (684-718) had taken the help of troops of the Pallava kingdom on the Coromandel Coast to secure the throne of Anuradhapura.

There was a huge influx of South Indian soldiers as a consequence of armed incursions from South India, especially at the time of the Cholas (1017-1070). A special category of South Indian mercenaries called Velaikkaras was used by Lankan kings between the 11 th., and 13 th., Centuries.These were well-trained soldiers hired by kings and merchants involved in overseas trade. The Velaikkaras came to Sri Lanka for the first time in 1017 along with the forces of Rajendra Chola.

In 1450, when Prince Sapumal Kumara of Kotte invaded Jaffna, his army was composed of Sinhala as well as Tamil, Tulu, and Kannada soldiers from South India. When he met the forces of the Ariyachakravarti of Jaffna at Javakakotte (present-day Chavakacheri) he found that they were Kannada-speaking people from the Vijayanagar Empire in South India. In Jaffna, he encountered “Yon Vadakkaras” who were Muslim soldiers from South India.

In the 16 th. Century, troops and naval personnel belonging to the Moplah Muslim community from Calicut in Kerala had a major role to play in the fight between the Portuguese and the ruler of Sitawaka, Mayadunne (1521-1581).

The Portuguese were entrenched in Kotte. They had a firm grip on its rulers Bhuvanekabahu (1521-1551) and his grandson and successor Dharmapala (1551-1597). Bhuvanekabahu was weak and Dharmapala had been converted to Christianity by the Portuguese as a child. Dharmapala owed everything to the Portuguese.

Mayadunne eyed Kotte as it was a prosperous area trading with the outside world. When Bhuvanekabahu expelled the Kerala Muslim merchants (called Moplahs) from Kotte at the instigation of their Portuguese rivals, Mayadunne gave them refuge in Sitawaka. Through the Moplah traders, Mayadunne obtained military support from the Zamorin of Calicut in Kerala. The Zamorin responded readily as he too was being tormented by the Portuguese. Calicut had a large population of Moplah Muslims with close ties with the Zamorin.      

In 1528, the Zamorin sent 2500 men in 15 ships under his trusted naval commander Payichchi Marakkar, a Moplah Muslim. Bhuvanekabahu promptly sought Portuguese help. The latter sent forces from Goa in Western India which was the headquarters of Portuguese possessions in India, Ceylon and the Far East. On the arrival of the Portuguese force, Mayadunne sued for peace.

However, in 1536, Mayadunne again developed an appetite for Kotte and sought the help of the Zamorin. The Zamorin sent 4000 men. The beleaguered Bhuvanekabahu called for help from the Portuguese, who sent a force from their Indian possessions in 1537. Overwhelmed, Mayadunne again sued for peace.

But this time, the Portuguese were determined to end the Moplah menace.  They pursued the Calicut forces as these were sailing back to India, and defeated them off Mangalore on the Karnataka coast.

A year later, in 1538, Mayadunne and Bhuvanekabahu were again at each other’s throats. As before, they sent for military reinforcements, Mayadunne from the Zamorin, and Bhuvanekabahu from the Portuguese. The Zamorin sent 16 shiploads of troops in 1539 to Negombo and the Portuguese sent 13 ships with 350 men from Goa to Colombo under the command of Miguel Ferriera.

The two armies fought pitched battles in Negombo, Kaduwela and on the Kelani river. The Sitawaka forces fought well because the Moplah Muslims in the Zamorin’s force and defectors from the Portuguese side had brought with them muskets and field artillery. This helped  narrow the technological gap between Sitawaka army and the Portuguese. 

Even so, Mayadunne could not cope with the Portuguese onslaught and sued for peace. This time, the Portuguese were determined to cut the Zamorin’s forces down to size. Miguel Ferreira refused to accept Mayadunne’s offer of peace and sternly demanded that Mayadunne surrender the Calicut contingent’s commander Payichchi Marakkar and nine of his top lieutenants. Mayadunne tried to wriggle out by offering a hefty compensation, but Ferreira would have none of that. Finally, Mayadunne killed Payichchi Marakkar and his lieutenants and sent their heads to Ferreira. The Zamorin was livid when he heard of the betrayal and swore not to help any Sinhala ruler again.

By 1582, the kingdom of Jaffna had become a tributary of the Portuguese, giving 10 elephants or their monetary equivalent to the Portuguese every year. But in 1591, king Puviraja Pandaram attacked the Portuguese fleet in Mannar with the help of the Zamorin of Calicut who had sent troops in 22 vessels. To counter this, the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa sent a strong force under Andre Furtado de Mendoza to Colombo. Mendoza’s force of 1400 Portuguese plus local levies called Lascarins sailed to Mannar in 43 vessels. Mendoza encountered the Zamorin’s troops at Karaitivu and decimated them.

Puviraja Pandaram sued for peace. But the Portuguese removed him from power and placed Pararaja Sekaran II (1591-1617) on the throne. However, the people of Jaffna did not like the concessions given to Portuguese missionaries. Pararaja Sekaran II responded to this complaint by allowing his territory to be used by South Indian soldiers going to the aid of the Kandyan king Vimaladharmasuriya, who was fighting the Portuguese.

When Pararaja Sekaran II’s successor Cankili II (1617-1619) faced a rebellion, he sought the help of the Portuguese first. But when the Portuguese failed to respond, he sought help from the Nayaks of Tanjore in South India who sent 5,000 men under the command of Varuna Kulattan. Cankili II crushed the rebels with this force.

But the Portuguese felt threatened by his alliance with the Nayaks of Tanjore because the Nayakas were opposing the Portuguese in South India with the help of the Dutch-based in Pulicat. The Portuguese were mortally afraid of a possible alliance between Nayaks, the Dutch, Cankili II and Vimaladharmasuriya of Kandy.  

To deal with the threat, the Portuguese Captain General in Colombo, Constantine de Sa Noronha, assembled 5000 Portuguese and Lascarins (local recruits) under Philippe de Oivera and despatched it to Jaffna in 1619. After a short and sharp engagement, Noronha defeated the Jaffna forces and put to flight Zamorin’s fleet which was anchored off Delft island.

European Powers

Like the indigenous rulers, European powers also used troops and levies from India to fight their wars in the island. The Portuguese and British forces had very large contingents of Indian levies, while the Dutch forces relied more on White recruits from Europe. In 1915, the British brought the Punjab Regiment to quell the 1915 Buddhist-Muslim riots. In World War II, an Indian Infantry Division was stationed in Ceylon to face a possible Japanese invasion. At the request of the Sirima Bandaranaike government, a large contingent of the Indian tri-services was in Ceylon to help put down the first JVP insurrection in 1971. And finally, an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was requisitioned by the J.R. Jayewardene government to fight the Tamil Tigers in the North and East between 1987 and 1990.