Sarasālocanā – Dvitīya Sarga : Chena

Burning the Brushwood (Painting by Erik Nikolai Järnefelt)

Pra Jay has posted a very interesting and catalytic question in the comments section of my article titled “Sarasālocanā agrima sarga : Héna”. His question queried the fidelity of the lexical entry related to chena in the Merriam–Webster Dictionary. His question was:

Definition of chena :  an area of virgin or secondary timberland in a tropical region cleared and cultivated for only a few years and then abandoned

Origin and Etymology of chena :

Hindi cenā, from Sanskrit cīna, cīnaka, cīṇaka

මෙය නිවැරදි ද? (Is this correct?)

Pra Jay’s question is potential, and is pointing us towards a serious discussion on the definition and etymology of chena. The following rendering is my contribution to that discussion, based on my modest knowledge in linguistics, which I am glad to share with the discursive person in the nom de plume of Pra Jay and the others in the readership of The Public Sphere.


1. Definition

The definition of chena as detailed in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary i.e.  an area of virgin or secondary timberland in a tropical region cleared and cultivated for only a few years and then abandoned” is not wrong at all. In fact, it provides us the basic understanding of what is being done at chena. However, as we would expect in a dictionary, it is a general description in a lexical context. 

When we read into the descriptions of chena by Leonard Sidney Woolf in his “The Village in the Jungle”  first published in 1907  (as I have quoted in my index article) or by Rev. James Cordiner in his colossal compilation: “A Description of Ceylon”, which was written around 1800 and first published in 1807, we can comprehend very well what chena is referred to. Let me table Rev. Cordiner’s definition of chena (he used the term chemass for the Sinhala word héna) for the consideration of our discussion forum. 

The ground cultivated from small jungle, or brushwood, is called chemass, and affords only one crop of the fine or dry grains. It is of a different description from that which produces large trees. It is left for eight or ten years until the shrubs are renewed, when they are cut down and burned as before.

It is also worth mentioning (then Lieutenant-Colonel) William MacBean George Colebrooke who presided the Colebrooke–Cameron Commission (along with Charles Hay Cameron) had mentioned the word chena at several places in his early report to the Right Honourable Viscount Goderich in 1831. Colebrooke’s report could be considered as one of the earliest documents containing the word chena with an introduction to its meaning. Let me quote the relevant segments here.

Colebrooke’s report describes the government revenue from cinnamon in detail and in that description the word chena is mentioned:

These plantations are likely to be extended, in consequence of the recent regulations which I have noticed, authorizing the delivery of cinnamon in payment of land rents. Several inhabitants have stated their willingness to form plantations in the maritime as well as in the Kandyan districts, if encouraged to do so; and there are many lands adapted to the growth of cinnamon which are not now under cultivation. In the high lands called “Chenas,” which are cleared and cultivated only at intervals of several years, it has been observed that the plants which spring up where the jungle has been burned yield cinnamon of the finest quality.

Colebrooke’s report also mentions the word chena in its description of the administration of the government under the subsection agriculture:

In the hills the rice-fields are cut in terraces, which are watered by the mountain springs or streams led out. These fields are separated by tracts of high ground attached to them, which are cultivated once in eight or ten years by cutting down and burning the jungle. These are distinguished as “chena” or commons, and “owitte” or wooded lands.

Neither Woolf nor Rev. Cordiner were into lexicography, although they both have rendered superb depictions of chenas, which stand solidly as evidence of their capacity to meticulous observation. Therefore, l shall bring a scholar who had been in Ceylon, who had a sound understanding of the unique vernacular in Ceylon and more importantly who had been into lexicography. The Wesleyan missionary Rev. Benjamin Clough who visited Ceylon in 1813, would perhaps be the earliest person to possess all specifications aforementioned. This is what Rev. Clough said in his world-renowned  work:  A Sinhalese–English Dictionary which was compiled in 1821 and first published in 1830:

හේන්කොටනවා, Hénkoṭanawā, v. to make clearings in a chena land for the purpose of bringing it under dry grain cultivation.

හේන, Héna s. ground prepared for cultivation by the cutting and burning of jungle; high jungle ground cultivated at intervals generally of from five to fourteen years, but in some cases in longer intervals: pl. හේන් hén. 

The Baptist missionary Rev. Charles Henry Carter who visited Ceylon in 1849, is another person who would possess all specifications aforementioned. This is what Rev. Carter said in his famous work: A Sinhalese-English Dictionary first published in 1889:

හේන, n. chena land, dry land, in distinction from swampy, cultivated at intervals of some years; pl. හේන්.

හේන්කොටනවා, v. to clear chena land for cultivation.

හේන් ගොවිතැන, n. cultivation of chena land.

Humphrey William Codrington, a brilliant Oxonian joining the Colonial Civil Service was posted to Ceylon in 1903. Codrington’s contribution in the disciplines of history and languages of Ceylon is highly formidable. The word chena did not elude one of Codrington’s monumental works: Glossary of Native, Foreign and Anglicized Words Commonly Used in Ceylon, which was first published in 1924. Here is what Codrington had to say about chena:

Héna හේන S T ..  “Chena,” through the Tamil. High Jungle land cultivated at intervals. The jungle is cut down and burnt for manure, and the the land is then sown with hill paddy, fine grain, &c. Other land, similar to these (sc., a species of Ratmahera) are called chena; they are generally elevated spots of land covered with low jungle . . . . If worked without the consent of Government, it is subject to the payment of one-half of the produce; if with it, it then pays according to – agreement (Bertolacci).

(It is worth noting that Codrington as well as Rev. Clough straight away used the word chena when describing the word Héna. Does that mean that the word chena was in use by the time when their dictionaries/glossaries were compiled? This observation may have an implication in the etymology of chena.)

As Sri Lankans, born and raised in an era in which chena cultivation had been a common sight, we have learnt empirically what chena should be and we would conclude that all above descriptions or definitions of chena are appropriate for the concept that we refer to as héna in Sinhala. 


2. Etymology

I presume that Pra Jay was probably querying about the fidelity of the etymology of the word chena (i.e. the origin of the word chena and from which language the word chena was loaned or adapted into English) as mentioned in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Etymology in any language is a subject of disputes. There are many different thoughts, sometimes evolving into different schools of thought, regarding the etymology of even the well documented words loaned or adapted into English from Greek, Latin, French etc.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary mentions the following details about the etymology of the word chena

Hindi cenā, from Sanskrit cīna, cīnaka, cīṇaka

Let me discuss briefly the Sanskrit words mentioned above: cīna (චීන), cīnaka (චීනක) and cīṇaka (චීණක). None of them cognates with the word chena or héna as long as the meaning and the concept referred to by those Sanskrit words are considered. But, let me verify my presentment by referring to the most respected Sanskrit–English Dictionary compiled by Sir Monier Monier–Williams, who was the second Boden professor of Sanskrit at Oxford (the Monier–Williams Sanskrit–English Dictionary provides the references where a particular word had been used for each of its meaning;  but I will quote only the meanings for convenience). Here they are:

cīnacīna m. pl. the Chinese (also cīṇa), m. sg. a kind of deer L., Panicum miliaceum (also cinna L.), a thread L., n. a banner L., a bandage for the corners of the eyes, and lead L.

cīnaka and cīṇaka are also related to the above meanings. In addition to the above meanings, the word cīnaka has additional meanings as fennel (mahaduru – මහදුරු) and a kind of camphor

For the sake of completeness in our discussion I went through the meanings of the Hindi words cenā and cīnā, and found that they also refer to Panicum miliaceum (common millet, proso millet, wal meneri – වල් මිනේරි). Phonetically associated other words in Hindi such as chenā (ඡේනා – a type of curd cheese) or caina (චෛන – rest, ease) would not fit to the meaning of the English word chena either. 

There are Several Place-Names Featuring cenai in Sri Lanka.

Let us not forget to look into Tamil, which is a major language spoken by Sri Lankans. Of course, Codrington in 1924 linked héna (හේන) to Tamil as he mentioned ‘Héna හේන S T ..  “Chena,” through the Tamil’. During the times that I happened to work in many parts of Sri Lanka where there were many Tamil speaking people, I could hear the folks used the word cenai to refer to the place-names with the Sinhala word héna. I wonder whether that cenai (චෙනෛ) was an authentic Tamil word referring to héna/chena with semantic basis or just a phonetical adaptation for the rhyming mimicry. The latter may be the case as the lexical definition of cenai i.e. troop – a group of soldiers, a group or company of people or animals, does not fit to the meaning of chena/héna

However, the lexical Tamil word for chena is cēṉaip (වේණෛප්) and of course it cannot be ignored as a probable etymological relation of the English word chena as well. The word cēṉaip also has a meaning of cereal crop

We have already touched (if not discussed thoroughly) thus far several probable etymological origins for the English word chena from Sinhala (Southern Zone Indo-Aryan Language), Classical Sanskrit (evolved form of an Old Indo-Aryan Language), Hindi (Central Zone Indo-Aryan Language) and Tamil (Southern Dravidian Language). Of course we should not miss a Middle Indo-Aryan Language that is very close to Sri Lankans. Therefore, let us briefly look into Pāli with regard to the word chena/héna.

I have previously discussed in another article elsewhere that there is no reference to a chena, hena or any equivalent in Nanadavagga (under Udhānapāḷi in Khuddaka nikāya) of Pali Tripiak, although a chena in the form of séna (සේන) had been added to the account in the Sinhala texts of Pùjāvaliya and Saddharmaratnāvaliya. Nor there is any such reference to a chena, héna or any equivalent in the atṭakata (commentary) of khuddaka nikāya.

Although Pāli Mahavaṃso in its chapter 23 relates a story that Goṭaimbara and his brothers cleared a forest to lay out a bean-field, the exact word used in the Pali text is māsakhettatthṃ (මාසඛෙත්තත්ථං), which means a field (khetta – ඛෙත්ත: කෙත) of mung/beans (māsa – මාස: මුං – Phaseolus indica/P. mungo).

Pāli Mahavaṃso again at the beginning of its chapter 34 relates a story that the King Mahāchúlí-Mahātisso worked incognito as a labourer in a rice-field. However, the exact word used in the Pāli text is sālilavanaṃ (සාලිලවනං), which means a jungle/forest (vana – වන: jungle, forest) of rice (sāli – සාලි: rice); attributed meaning: field of rice.

I went through one of the finest Pāli-English dictionaries, which was compiled by one of the most eminent Pāli scholars in the history of English speaking world in the name of Thomas William Rhys Davids (the founder of the Pāli Text Society in London, who had worked in Ceylon as a Colonial Civil Servant), in view of discovering whether there could be a Pāli word related to chena/héna either semantically or phonetically (Just as the Monier–Williams Sanskrit–English Dictionary, the Pāli-English Dictionary by Rhys Davids provides the references where a particular word had been used for each of its meaning;  but I will quote only the meanings for convenience). I could not find anything other than khettha yet there can be a few words related to the word field (e.g. kiṭṭha – කිට්ඨ:  cornfield, kedāra – කෙදාර: irrigated field). But it is very unlikely that the English word chena could be loaned, adapted or anglicised from Pâli. Phonetically associated other words in Pāli such as ciṇṇatta (චිණ්ණත්ත – custom, habit ) or ciṇṇa (චිණ්ණ – travelled over, resorted to, made a habit of; done, performed, practised) would not fit to the meaning of the English word chena either.

Let us now come back to our initial question discussed in this article i.e. whether it is reasonable to relate chena etymologically to the Hindi word cenā and Sanskrit words cīna, cīnaka and cīṇaka as suggested in the Merriam–Webster Dictionary over the Sinhala word héna. We shall now raise two questions regarding the etymology of the word chena based on the aforementioned facts:

1. Is the English word chena related etymologically to the Sinhala word héna?

2. Is the English word chena related etymologically to the Sanskrit word cīna (and its derivatives viz. cīnaka and cīṇaka) or the Hindi word cenā?

We shall arrive at a reasonable conclusion that it should be the Sinhala word héna that cognates well with the English word chena as long as the meaning is concerned, on the basis of rationality. It will be a very distant arrival to acknowledge the Sanskrit words cīna, cīnaka and cīṇaka to cognate with chena, as they have only one fitting meaning i.e. fennel (මහදුරු) to claim any sort of relevance. The Hindi word cenā is not much different to the Sanskrit words either, as it has only one fitting meaning i.e. common millet (වල් මිනේරි) to claim any sort of relevance. 

However, in etymologically oriented diachronic analysis of linguistic matters, the rationality itself is not the sole virtue. The rationality per se may be a temptation. Etymology relies more on historical discourse and evolution, so that a word with  a totally unrelated root could sometimes give origin to a new word with a new meaning. Thus, it is important to research into the earliest mentioning of a particular word, which is subjected to analysis. The objective of this article is to lay the foundation for such research by the individuals who are interested in linguistic matters, and accordingly, I have brought some literature of colonial era into discourse. 

Swidden in Finland

While we are appreciating the close relationship between the Sinhala word héna and the English word chena, we need to acknowledge that there have been equivalent concepts of cultivation in the other parts of the word as well. The slash-and-burn cultivation, which is characterised by clearing a portion of a jungle by cutting down trees and burning them has been practiced in many other regions of Asia, the Americas, Africa and Europe as well. Different names have been used to refer to the technique of the slash-and-burn cultivation used in different regions. In fact, the English language has an ad hoc word for slash-and-burn technique and its resultant plot viz. swidden originating from the Middle English word swithen, with a Germanic root.

However, the technique of the slash-and-burn cultivation practiced in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is associated with unique methodology and culture, emphasising the need for a distinct word referred to as chena (perhaps in the same manner that necessitated the Sinhala word aswedduma to be anglicised as asweddumise).

My opinion is that the word chena is etymologically more related to héna than any other Sanskrit or Hindi words depicted in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. That is my opinion and I am not the only person who entertains such an opinion. At the same time, I acknowledge the existence of different thoughts held by a few others. They are entitled to their opinion as much as I am entitled to mine. We need in-depth comparative linguistic research into the literature of other countries specially such as India in order to consolidated our proposition that the English word chena related etymologically to the Sinhala word héna. 

Pra Jay should be acknowledged with full many a thank for asking a very thoughtful and interesting question. I hope and wish that our discussion will inspire at least a few people to research into the hidden dark corners of the topic discussed in this article.

Bandula Kudalagama,



4 thoughts on “Sarasālocanā – Dvitīya Sarga : Chena

  1. Thank you Dr. Kudalagama for one of the most erudite, but clear, and concise, but complete, etymological analysis I have read for quite some time.

    After you replied my comment in the previous post I posed two other queries on the subject. Since there are more pertinent to the present post I will repeat them more concisely here :

    1. I agree that it is more likely that Chena derived from Hena. However, although I have read to some extent the works of writers of our colonial era (but, not as widely as you obviously have) , with the notable exception of Corbett, I have not read similar work on India. Was there slash and burn cultivation in India during that time? If so, what were the names used in Hindi and Tamil (or languages related to either) for such cultivation? Was “Cena” , or Tamil “Cenai” or a phonetically similar term used? Merriam-Webster Dictionary has given the Hindi “Cena” as a root because it is phonetically similar or because that is/was the Hindi term used for Chena type cultivation in India? If “Cena” or “Cenai” was used in such a context during British Raj India, isn’t it likely that Chena may have come from it?

    2. Where did our word “Hena” come from? Directly from the Sanskrit root or from Tamil “Cenai” ?

    I also asked in the previous post for your views about Sinhala “Thaththa” and the Roman (Latin) affectionate term for father “Tata” = Spanish “Tata” (dad) . What is more likely : “Thaththa” evolved from an Indo-European Aryan root (Latin/Sanskrit) or we got it from the Portuguese (who, despite all the ties to the Spanish, do not seem to have “Tata” in the language) ? I would appreciate your opinion.

    By the way, Doctor, now that I know your interest and prowess in the field, I would like your views on a piece of amateur etymological work I did sometime time back for the Royal Asiatic Society (SL). Rather than take up space in this forum, and bore the others in the process, I would prefer to email it if you don’t mind giving an email address. Or, should I send it via the estimable Rt. Hon. Sarasa?

    Thank you once again for letting me indulge myself in one of the most pleasurable intellectual activities I know – etymological detective work !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Pra Jay,

      Many thanks for your kind words. I saw your comments attached to my previous article and I replied them. Please read them when you have some free time. Let me discuss here a few of your questions that I have not dealt with elsewhere.

      1. The Colonial Era Writings on India:

      There is a wealth of literature on India, perhaps more than on Ceylon, authored by colonial scholars. However, as you have correctly mentioned, that literature is not much resourceful for our interests in this discussion. The archives of Royal Asiatic Society harbours many a original text written on the subject. However, quite interestingly, there archived hardly any that would feature the practice of subsistence agriculture such as slash-and-burn cultivation in British India by the name of chena. Neither there has been anything referred to as chena in that sense in post-colonial India (Note: this conclusion is merely based on an informal and non-intense literary survey. More thorough research would substantiate the proposition).

      I just ran though a few books by Rudyard Kipling who was born and brought up in India and who had written a fair volume of literature related to India. Rudyard Kipling who was based in British India happened to be contemporary with Leonard Woolf who was based in British Ceylon. But, quite sadly, Kipling had not shown much interest in the subsistence agriculture in British India as much as Woolf had shown in it in British Ceylon!

      I believe that if the word chena or any other phonetically related word had been used even in the literature of Old Indo-Aryan languages such Vedic Sanskrit for the meaning of what we referred to as chena today, Sir Monier-Williams would have mentioned something about it in his superb dictionary. I do observe the same opinion regarding Pāli literature in relation to the works by Rhys Davids. They were truly brilliant, widely-read and versatile scholars.

      2. The Slash-and-Burn Cultivation in India:

      There is a host of literature that features the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation in India, out of which a handful referring to the colonial era. The science of archeology had traced back evidence of similar cultivation methods practiced even about 9 000 years ago. The commonest word used in India to refer to the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation (interchangeable with shifting cultivation and swidden) is Jhum. It is the word preferably used in North-Eastern India. Let me list a few different names that I could find to be used for similar practices of cultivation in different areas of India:

      Bogma in Meghalaya
      Lo in Mizoram
      Lyngkhalum or Shyrti in Khasi
      Peuda in Madhya Pradesh
      Podu in Southern Orissa and Andhra Pradesh
      Rit in Assam
      Tekonglu in Manipur

      3. Slash-and-Burn Cultivation in Different Countries:

      The following list shows some different names used in different countries to refer to the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation (interchangeable with shifting cultivation and swidden):

      Chena, héna, séna, séṉa, ketha – Sri Lanka
      Chitememe – Zambia
      Chinampa – Tropical America
      Cagin, caingin – Philippines
      Caomib – Mexico
      Conuco – Venezuela
      Humoh – Java
      Karen – Japan
      Ladang – Indonesia
      lo, bogma, lyngkhalum, rit, tekonglu, podu, peuda, dahi, dhya, nevad, koman, penda, bewar, khandad, kumri – India
      Masole – Central Africa
      Milpa – Central America
      Ray – Vietnam
      Roco – Brazil
      Sartage – Ardennes
      Taungya – Myanmar
      Tamrai – Thailand

      3. Etymologically Relevant Roots:

      Let us briefly look into the phonetically related words such as cīna, cīnaka and cīṇaka in Sanskrit (Indo-Aryan), cenā and cīnā in Hindi (Indo-Aryan) and, cenai and cēṉaip in Tamil (Dravidian).

      There is no distinct Proto-Indo-Aryan root that can be semantically related to any of those words!

      However, there is a Proto-Dravidian (specifically a Proto-South Dravidian) root viz. kēnai- (කේනෛ-) with a meaning of yam, which had entered Tamil as cēnai (චේනෛ – Elephant Foot Yam – Amorphophallus campanulatus) and Malayalam as cēna (චේන – yam, Arum Lilies – Arum campanulatum).

      There is another Proto-South Dravidian root viz. cīnī- (වීනී-) with a meaning of false hemp tree, Tetrameles nudiflora, which had entered Malayalam as cīnī (චීනී – false hemp tree).

      Thus, we can understand that none of the Proto-Dravidian roots are related to chena semantically although there may be phonetical resemblance. But the Sinhala word Héna is both semantically and phonetically very close to the English word chena.

      4. Where Did Our Héna Come From?

      Well! That is further complicated. Codrington in his glossary published in 1924 linked héna to Tamil. As I have mentioned in my article the Tamil words cenai and cēṉaip could be strong candidates as the progenitor of Héna. But their meaning i.e. troop – a group of soldiers, a group or company of people or animals, cereal crop does not fit to the meaning of chena/héna.

      Héna had been referred to as séna and séṉa in the classical Sinhala literature written in the 13th century and in lithographs. Prior mentioning of those words have not been well established although khetta had been used in several texts to refer to héna/chena. Further postdating needs extensive research.

      5. Etymology of tāttā

      It has already been discussed at the place where Pra Jay had posted the original question. Please refer.

      Dear Pra Jay, I hope that the information provided above would surely help your further discoveries. Please send me your etymological work to with a reference to Bandula Kudalagama in the subject field. Then the mail will be directed to me immediately. Please send your works as well as any other material related to our common interest in the future as well.

      Bandula Kudalagama,


      1. Thanks so much Dr. K. I will send my RAS article to that address. I’d value and appreciate your opinion on it. It was done sometime back and,as always it happens with these things, now I see shortcomings.
        Thank you for your explanation about Thaththa. But how do we reconcile Roman affectionate term for father -Tata as well as Spanish Tata for dad with the Tamil root?
        I used to think Tata came from Tamil but was puzzled when I got to know Roman and Spanish Tata. Then i started wondering if it could be an Aryan derivation or an import from Spanish/ Portuguese

        Liked by 1 person

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