By Bernadine Rodrigo
Sri Lanka’s cities and Sri Lanka’s roads, traversed on every day, beheld by the masses on a daily basis, constantly spoken about, especially with the conclusion of the recent presidential election, have been mentioned time and time again by almost every Sri Lankan with the ability to speak. However, while we refer to these places every day and address them with their different names with different pronunciations, it is not often that we think about how these strange names came to be. A man that has thought not about where to go but has thought about and studied deeply these names which we use in such a carefree manner is Frederick Medis (94).
When beginning to describe Medis, one can perhaps start by saying that he has an exceptionally long list when it comes to titles on his visiting card. He is an antiquities consultant who is a Fellow of the Commonwealth Society of Antiquaries, Melvin Jones Fellow, Justice of Peace, past President of the Royal Commonwealth Society, past President of Lanka-Japan Friendship Society, and holder of the title of the Order of the Rising Sun, an honour given to him by the very Emperor of Japan. He was also awarded the title of Cambridge International Man of the Year in 2004 and is Vice President of the Ceylon-Australia Society. He is Vice Patron of the Child Protection Society of Ceylon and he was also President and Vice President of the Sri Lanka Natural History Society and Royal Asiatic Society, respectively. He was also the past President of the Philatelic Society of Sri Lanka and that of the Sri Lankan Numismatic Society. Currently, he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Peradeniya and the University of Moratuwa while being a member and lecturer at the National Trust of Sri Lanka.
With all these awfully impressive qualifications, Medis still found time to research his passion, the history of place names in Sri Lanka. He can tell anyone, from top to bottom, the story of the name of almost any city in Sri Lanka and is currently engrossed in writing a book involving 1,060 places. One would have to take an entire week off to learn all that he knows – that is, just about the names of the places in Sri Lanka; if you want to get into his coin or stamp collection, you will need at least another month more!
Therefore, out of the kindness of his heart and the desire to spread at least some of his knowledge, he is prepared to speak about a few of the more popular places in Sri Lanka along with the recurring themes found in the names relevant to the location.
Some of these themes are recurring suffixes found in some of the street names. For example, when the word “goda” is used such as Nugegoda, it means the area was a village. Nugegoda contains a rather grim but piquing story behind it that connects us to the strange ways of the past. As “nuga” means banyan tree, the name of the place indicated that it was an area with many banyan trees. The more interesting fact about the place however, is the fact that convicts of the State back then, especially from the Kotte Kingdom, were sent there to be hanged. According to Medis, the term Nugegoda, while meaning village of banyan trees can also mean “above the banyan tree”, a connection to the brutal history of punishment in Sri Lanka where a person was hanged “above” a tree. Similar to meaning village, with no other side stories like that of Nugegoda, is “gama” such as in “Ragama”, but a special word meaning village found in Sri Lankan cities is “uhr” such as in Polonnaruwa. This word comes from Hebrew which indeed means village. How Sri Lankans ended up with Hebrew names is quite a strange notion to think about.
Another suffix is “wala” which means land or garden along with “wana”, “pitiya”, and “ana” such as in Ratmalana, Mirihana, or Nawala. Ratmalana, he says, used to be called “Ratmal Uyana” which means it was a place filled with red flowers. A very interesting story is the one behind Nawala, which means “elephant garden”, indicating that there were elephants in Nawala where only human beings are now found. Medis says that the elephants were heard aloud the day King Buwanekabahu VII of Kotte was shot by a Portuguese soldier in the late 1500s, when a massive uproar spread across Kotte and the kingdom was in turmoil. A Dutch historian has even called it a “howling wilderness, catched and kraaled”, in reference to the hoard of elephants.
Another suffix which appears in the names of Sri Lankan places is the suffix “pe” such as in Minipe, Dompe, Kospe, Bope, or Veralupe. Medis says that every time “pe” comes into play, it means the area was at the foot of a tree; except for the case of Minipe, which in fact means precious stone.
While the theme of suffixes is something that exists all around the country, areas like Colombo and those occupied widely by foreign invaders follow the similar theme of being connected to exactly that – foreign words. For example, Medis spoke of Milagiriya where there was a Roman Catholic church built by the Portuguese while they were here. The church was called the “Church of Our Lady of Miracles” which translated in Latin and Latinised languages to a word sounding similar to Milagiriya.
“The names of many places come from other languages from across the globe, including Portuguese, Dutch, English, and sometimes even Greek,” said Medis. While the mention of Greek may shock some people, it has been reported by historians that a group from Alexander the Great’s followers while on missions in India had come and visited Sri Lanka in the past, which may also be another possible way the Hebrew connection came in. Here is a chance for us to remember how well connected the people of ancient Sri Lanka were. While we may often believe that we were simply a lone island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, thriving in our own agricultural methods, we must constantly remember that it was not so. Sri Lanka has had connections, and in a far greater scale than we in the 21st Century can perhaps understand or research.
Another very interesting story which Medis mentioned was the one about Mabole in Wattala. This story contains the four following countries: Sri Lanka, Portugal, Holland, and Britain. The story goes as follows: King Rajasinha II, who used the aid of the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese, had a small section of the army – amounting up to about 100 men – who were Sri Lankan nationals. These people were all recruited by one man. So, as a thank you to him, the king gifted him a large area of land in Wattala. This area came to be called “Maha Budale” by the Dutch in whose language it means “great gift” (this word soon came into use in Sinhalese vocabulary as well). The “d” sound in Budale is pronounced as a cerebral “d”, making a strong “th” sound. However, the Portuguese were only able to pronounce it as an “r”. Hence, it became “Maha Borale” which the British later shortened to “Mabole”.
The evolution of Mabole is a great insight into how the names evolved from long phrases with deep meanings to short, little words which can sometimes twist the tongues of non-Sinhalese or Tamil speakers. Stories like this also show how far these little words which we use every day go and how closely connected the country of Sri Lanka was in its past.
It is but a sad fact that only a very few people such as Medis even care about these histories of our country which can tell so much about the way people thought, how they saw things, and indeed, even the past ecosystem of our country. While he is 94 years old, Medis stands as an example to all those who are growing up with not the slightest knowledge of the history and culture of our country which lives on even in the names of various locations.