Tamil Diplomat

The origins and growth of journalism in the Tamil Language in Sri Lanka (I)

This article was written by late Professor Bertram Bastiampillai ( Dept. of History and Political Science University of Colombo, Sri Lanka ) for ‘Kalaiththoothu’, a facilitation volume to mark the 60th Birthday of Rev. Fr. Saveri in 1999. 


Even though the Dutch had set up the first printing press on the island in 1737, it was British who published the first regular government newspaper, the Gazette in 1802.

There is no record of the existence of Tamil News Papers in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) before the advent of the British rulers in 1796. However, even after the occupation of the island by the British there was a considerable interval before newspapers in Tamil appeared. In the north of Sri Lanka, peopled mostly by Tamils. An English newspaper filled a void. It wascalled the Ceylon Freeman. Founded in Jaffna in 1862. Which anyway became extinct soon after wards. But its successor the Ceylon Patriot, founded in 1863 and published weekly in Jaffna, the northernmost town of Sri Lanka, lasted longer. In the busy northern peninsula, again another weekly in English the Catholic Guardian was published in 1876, and the Hindu Organ also came out in English as a weekly.

The Morning Star, a Protestant news organ, published both in English and Tamil on a fortnightly basis in 1841 broke fresh round coming out in Tamil too. At Batticaloa in the island’s eastern coast anther Tamil town, a highly remarkably got up Wesleyan newssheet entitle The Lamp appeared periodically, again catering mostly to the Tamil Christian population there.

Colombo Journal

The first journal Colombo Journal (government-owned) was published in 1832, and within two years privately owned newspapers The Observer and The Commercial Advertiser were published.

Publications of newspaper in Tamil were slow to follow, and as we can notice the pioneering newspapers in the language bore a religious orientation generally. These newspapers formed principally a part of the Christian missionary effort, to propagate their faiths, and naturally catered to a clientele who belonged to their respective denominations. To this Christian effort, Hind us responded with their publications. The focus of these early publications naturally riveted on sectary a religious thinking mainly. Although with the passage of time, material of a social, economic and political hue too found a place in the publications.

A reason for these religious groups first venturing into creation of English publications was that most of the educated Tamil peoples read the English newspapers. English education had relatively flourished well among the Tamil people of Sri Lanka because missionary enterprise had accounted for the setting up of English schools, partly as a media for conversion, and an English reading public was available both in the north mostly and to a somewhat lesser extent in the East. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the first newspaper, published in Tamil, the Morning Star, had been founded indeed as early as in 1841 and vigorously continued to flourish later. The Tamil newspapers catered also however to the large mass of the local peoples who either could to read English or had a limited know ledge of the language.


The first Tamil newspaper, Udaya Tharakai, was published in 1841. Soon after this, several newspapers started to come out in Tamil such as Ilankai Nesan (1848) , Paaliyar Nesan (1859), Hindu Organ (1876) and Sathiyavetha Paathukaavalan (1876).

Uthayatharakai 2Tamil newspaper publications had a boost through a community other than that of the Tamils. The Moors (Muslims) and others who followed Islam in Sri Lanka as their faith had a number of people among them who used in every day life the Tamil language. A newspaper in the interests of this community composed of the adherents of Islam had necessarily to be published then in the Tamil language to supply their needs for information. The Muslim Friend was founded as a consequence through the exertion of the leading members of the Islamic community of the population of Sri Lanka. The Muslim Friend was an exclusive Tamil publication and was issued biweekly. The Journal was established primarily in the interests of all those who followed the Islamic faith. The newspaper aimed at conserving the interests and safeguarding the rights of those following Islam throughout the island.  Its news service was responsible for and representative in presenting information and the newspaper had a well maintained circulation, naturally among the Tamil speaking Muslims.

In the field of journalism the path had already been pointed out to the Muslims by Buddhist and Hindu revivalists who had discovered the effectiveness of  journalism as a means of espousing their Faiths. A Muslim leader Siddi Lebbe took the pioneering step of establishing the  Muslim Neisan, a news  organ that grew to be popular and became particularly note worthy in the 1880. Thus, both in the Hindu and Muslim religion cultural reawakenings in the island, journalistic endeavours were well utilised in their respective efforts at furthering the cause of advancing a salient, strong religious and cultural consciousness among their respective communities. The Muslim Neisan appearing in the Tamil language was specifically aimed at a Muslim readership and the message conveyed was to lead to a reawakening and regeneration of their ethos in a multi ethnic society.

The lead given by Siddi Lebbe with the Muslim newspaper was soon followed by other Muslim entrepreneurs, and several other Muslim sponsored newspapers and journals in Tamil and English appeared in the wake during the next years. But like some of the newspapers or journals put out in Tamil by Hindus as well as by other religionists these newspapers and publications often lacked staying power. The reasons for the transient nature of these news publications were that the sponsors of these news organs had to grapple continuously with difficulties posed by a lack of expertise, and production not only in respect of technical aspects but also in regard to much of editorial work and reporting had to depend on the contributions made by personnel drawn from other ethnic and religious groups. This was a situation that could hardly be ideal to suit journalistic endeavours devoted to the espousal of sectarian causes.

Moreover, hardly any of these type of Tamil news  publications became really financially viable ever. But Tamil newspapers of anther character relatively enjoyed a greater circulation, although eve they remained linguistically and sometimes territorially targeted to a restricted readership. There were also internal conflicts with in the groups that were responsible for the production of these types of news publications, which accounted for their collapse. For example, in such unhealthy circumstances was the new newspaper Asiawaap turned out in Tamil in 1900 to be as a rival to the Muslim Neisan.

Muslim NeisanIn spite of such deficiencies, Muslim, Tamil Newspapers proved to be relevant and important in the development of the Muslim ethno cultural revivalist movement at the beginning of modern times by the end of the 19 century in the island. These newspapers articulated the pressing needs of a community, which was now gearing them selves to adapt their peoples to changing conditions. Also significantly these Muslim Tamil newspapers brought to the Muslim community, within Sri Lanka, news about their coreligionists elsewhere in the world. The local Muslims thus grew to be aware of developments in other Islamic lands and tended to be pan Islamic in thinking, which made these newspapers have an important impact on Muslim thought and attitude in Sri Lanka. It is no doubt true to conclude that Muslim revivalism was to a great extent sponsored through Tamil language newspapers as much as Hindu resurgence was fostered by Hindu Tamil news publications.

The relative weakness of both Hindu and Muslim Tamil newspapers in the Island in the last 19th and early 20th centuries when compared with either the Catholic or Christian news publications in Tamil can be easily understood. The Catholic or Christian newspapers benefited from stronger and more sophisticated expertise and greater skill. The missionaries, especially the foreigners, knew about newspapers and their production better than the indigenous activists among Hindus and Muslims. Furthermore, the missionaries could draw upon larger capital resources and could expect an assured clientele for their news publications from a captive flock assembled at religious services that were regularly organized and conducted in designated places. They had a more cohesive enrolled readership among who sales of newspapers could be more assured and even costs of production could be subsidized from back up capital, sometimes received from overseas based headquarters of the different missions.

Those newspapers in Tamil, although with a sharp focus on religious matters, gradually extended their coverage to include social, ethical and educational material. Such transformation made the publications encompass a variety of information that proved to be more interesting to the readership. Even governmental and administrative affairs impinging on education or ethical issues and such questions came to be discussed although from a religious point of view primarily. But such an input made the newspapers even more desirable readable, and they began to influence the thinking and shape the opinion of the reading public gradually, but surely and steadily. However, these Tamil newspapers had a readership confined largely to certain geographical areas of the island and with their sectarian impress limited to a definite and small category of peoples. They did not command and Islandwide reach, and only the minority of Tamils and Tamil reading Muslims patronized these newspapers in the Tamil language ( Continues).