Tamils are one the largest groups in southern India. They have traditionally been defined as speakers of the Tamil language. They live mostly in the state of Tamil Nadu and to a lesser extent Karnataka in southern India and northern Sri Lanka. There are some in Malaysia, Fiji, Britain and North America. [Source: Most of the information for this articles comes from the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

There were around 60 million Indian Tamils (making up 5.9 percent of the population) in 2001, according to a census taken that year. About 38 percent of them are urban dwellers, among the highest percentage of any major ethnic group in India, The annual population growth is only around 1.3 percent.

Tamils are regarded as Dravidians, which have traditionally lived in southern India and tend to be short, dark and have wavy or curly hair and broad noses. Paul Theroux wrote in the “Great Railway Bazaar”, "Tamils are black and bony; they have thick straight hair and their teeth are prominent and glisten from repeated scrubbing with peeled green twigs." Many people in southern India use only one name.

See Tamil Nadu


Dravidian is the name given to a linguistically related group of people in India. They are said to be the first original settlers of ancient India. Dravidian culture is very diverse, with some groups maintaining more traditional customs such as totemism and matralinealism, while others have developed the lifestyles of a modern technological society. Dravidians are thought of as the descendants of the earliest known inhabitants on India. They include the primitives Bhil and Gond tribes of the central and western hill forests and the Tamils of the south. The earliest Dravidians were hunters and cattle herders. It is not known what language they spoke.

Some scholars believe the Indus people of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, an ancient civilization that lasted from 3300 B.C. to 1500 B.C., spoke a language that belongs the Dravidian family. This language is believed to have diffused through Maraashtra to the south, especially after 1000 B.C. along with the horse, and iron. Dravidian language has remained relatively intact despite a considerable amount of contact and intermarriage with other people in the Indian subcontinent. Today with more than one hundred seventy million speakers, the Dravidians make up the fourth largest linguistic group in the world.

It is often presumed that Dravidians were the creators of the Indus River Valley Civilization and that they were occupying all of the Indian subcontinent when the Indo-Aryans invaded from Afghanistan (ca2000 B.C.). The Dravidians were probably subjected by the Indo-Aryans and are the dasus of Vedic scriptures. Other Dravidians remained in a tribal state in central and southern India. Dravidians in general were gradually Hinduized, but retained their languages. The Tamil language is the first of the Dravidian languages to reflect the influence of Hinduism.

Dravidians have traditionally been regarded as dark-skinned while the Aryans of the north were light-skinned. Around 1500 B.C., according to some historians, the Aryans conquered the Indus River civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and the Dravidian people in South Asia. The caste system is believed to have been introduced as a way for light-skinned Aryan invaders to keep the indigenous Dravidian people in their place. Higher castes are usually associated with whiter skin and purer Aryan descent. Aryan conquerors gave the conquered dark-skin Dravidians dirtier, lower status tasks. “ Varna”, the Hindu word for caste means "color." Perhaps it evolved from something other than color of skin but many think it is reference to skin color. The Vedas refer to conquered “Dasas” or “Dasyi” (names meaning “slaves” and probably referring to the early Dravidian-speaking Indus people),

Aryans, Dravidians and Caste

The origin of the caste system is unknown but it may have evolved from differences between the conquering Aryans and subject Dravidians—which happened to be different in color. Aryans were relatively light skinned while Dravidians were darker. “ Varna”, the Hindu word for caste, means "color."

The caste system is believed to have been introduced in its preliminary form around 1500 B.C. as a way for light-skinned Aryan invaders to keep the indigenous Dravidian people in their place. Higher castes are usually associated with whiter skin and purer Aryan descent because, it has been argued, the first light-skinned Aryan conquerors gave the conquered dark-skin Dravidians dirtier, lower status tasks. Not all scholars agree with is assessment. “Color” could be a reference to something other than skin color.

The Vedas describe Aryan society divided into the four major castes: the Brahmins (priestly caste); Kshatriyas (warrior caste), the Vaisyas (farmer caste); and Sudras (laborers). Early in Aryan history the Brahmins gained political and religious superiority over the Kshatriyas. The caste system described in the Rig-Veda may have grown out of the enslavement of people from the Indus Valley by the Aryans. The Vedas refer to conquered “Dasas” or “Dasyi” (names meaning “slaves” and probably referring to the early Dravidian-speaking Indus people).

A settled lifestyle for the Aryans brought in its wake more complex forms of government and social patterns. This period saw the evolution of the caste system, and the emergence of kingdoms and republics. The Aryans were divided into tribes which had settled in different regions of northwestern India. Tribal chiefmanship gradually became hereditary, though the chief usually operated with the help of advice from either a committee or the entire tribe. With work specialisation, the internal division of the Aryan society developed along caste lines. Their social framework was composed mainly of the following groups : the Brahmana (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (agriculturists) and Shudra (workers). It was, in the beginning, a division of occupations; as such it was open and flexible. Much later, caste status and the corresponding occupation came to depend on birth, and change from one caste or occupation to another became far more difficult. [Source: Glorious India]

DNA studies of Indians have found that highest caste members have more genetic similarities with Europeans while lower caste members have more genetic similarities with Asians. This is consistent with the historical record of the Aryan invasions and links between the Aryans and members of higher castes. Some have suggested that caste may have originally been a Dravidian concept rather than an Aryan one. One argument for this is the lack of a caste system in other areas conquered by the Aryans such as Greece.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is the southernmost state in India. Formed as a linguistic state after independence, it occupied 130,058 square kilometers. It is separated from the state of Kerala by the Western Ghats—mountains that rise to over 2,400 meters—and extends from Madras in the north to the southern cape of India.

In many ways Tamil Nadu is as different from northern India as it from Japan or Kenya. The food is spicier, the climate is hotter and the temples are more exotic than even those in Khajuraho. One of the things that tourist like most about this part of India are the elaborate temples covered with thousands of brightly colored figures. The region also has distinctive styles of music and dance.

Most the people in Tamil Nadu are Tamils who speak Tamil. These non-Hindu Dravidian people seem friendlier, more relaxed and easy going than people in the north. The population density of Tamil Nadu is 461 persons per square kilometer, compared with 267 in India as a whole. The ratio of males to females is much smaller than elsewhere in India.

Tamil Nadu is hot the whole year round. October to February is the coolest time. It is still hot but not oppressively hot like it is from March to June. Most rains come with the northeast monsoon, which arrives in October. Less amounts of rain fall in the southwest monsoon, which begins in June. Tamil Nadu receives only 75 centimeters of rain a year as much of the rain that comes in on southwest monsoon is blocked by the Western Ghats.

Tamil Nadu is considerably drier than verdant and lush Kerala to the west. It is covered by scrubby growth and thorn trees. There is no water to support additional agriculture or more people in the cities. There are already water shortages. There are some tensions between Kerala and Tamil Nadu because Kerala has lots of water and Tamil Nadu doesn’t and in they eyes of some Tamils the Keralans could be more generous in sharing it.

Early Tamil History

Ancient literature describes a homeland of the Tamils that more or less corresponds with the modern state of Tamil Nadu. Writing, urbanization, and other aspects of classical Indian culture appear to have been introduced by sea between the 5th and 2nd centuries B.C. The earliest Tamil inscriptions are in Jain caves, dated to about the end of the 1st century B.C. Beginning in the 2nd century B.C. large irrigation systems were built, especially on the Kaveri River. These increased agricultural productivity made the creation of major kingdoms and civilizations possible.

The Tamils were never absorbed by the north Indian kingdoms. The Pandyan kingdom dates back to the 2nd century B.C. According to ancient Tamil literature it was founded by the daughter Herakles with help from 500 elephants,, 4000 cavalry, 13,000 infantry and Roman ships. The Pandiya kingdom produced Tamil Sangam literature, unique poetic books written in the A.D. 1st to 3rd centuries that describe trade with Europeans. Poompuhar was the center of a Tamil dynasty that traded with the Far East, Rome and Egypt in the A.D. 2nd century but was destroyed by a tsunami in the 6th century. The ruins now lie in the sea about three kilometers from the sea. Other Tamil kingdoms included Cholas on the Kaveri Basin, the Ceras in Kerala, and the great Pallava kingdom at Kanchipuram which endured from 7th to the 9th centuries. The Coljas developed a rich civilization in 10th to the 13th centuries and for a while ruled Sri Lanka, the Maldives and parts of Indonesia.

Chola Dynasty

In 985, Maharajah Rajaraja the Great (who name roughly translates to King Kingking the Great) became the leader of the Chola kingdom of southern India. He built a huge stone temple dedicated to Shiva not so much out of piety but as means of unifying support against the Muslims and taking a stake in the trading empires in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and China.

The Chola dynasty had been around several centuries before it became a major player in India. It was mainly a regional power in southern India and didn’t have much influence over India as a whole until later. Battles between the Chola kings and their rivals from Chera and the Pandyan kingdom are described in the poems and epic ballads of Sangam” anthologies, the earliest surviving Tamil literature. The Chola Dynasty produced beautiful carved Indian goddesses from granite and bronze. See Art.

The Cholas are among the earliest of South Indian royal houses. The artifacts of the period found in South India, the Mahabharata and Ashokan inscriptions mention it. It is known that Karikala was a Chola ruler who reigned in the A.D. 2nd century. During Karikala's reign, the capital city was moved to Kaveripattanam from Uraiyur. Nedumudikilli seems to have been the successor of Karikala, whose capital town was set to fire by the sea pirates. The frequent attacks of Pallavas, Cheras and Pandyas decreased Chola’s power. Cholas’s glory began when Pallavas power declined. [Source: Glorious India]

See History

Chola Sculpture

The golden age of Indian sculpture was during the Chola Dynasty (10th to 13th century). Works from this period included beautiful carved granite Indian goddesses and multi-armed bronze gods. The Chola rulers came to power at a time during the Hindu Restoration, when Hinduism was reasserting itself after a long period when Buddhism and Jainism were strong. Part of the revival was the production of images of Hindu deities. During the early years of the Chola dynasty granite was the favored material but it was heavy and difficult to transport. Bronze then became the material of choice because it could be be crafted into smaller, lighter objects and metal was one of the five elements of nature.

Favored images were the gods Shiva, his consort Parvati, Durga, Ganesha and Lord Rama. Describing a late 10th century bronze Shiva statue called “Lord Crowned with the Moon,”Souren Melikian wrote in International Herald Tribune: it “has a smile of ineffable contentment on its closed lips. It invites and at the same time defies scrutiny.” A Vishnu bronze he wrote, stands “with one arm steadying his club while another peacefully salutes and the other two arms hold up symbols. Here, the deity, smiles with irrepressible glee.” On a Durga made in 970 he wrote it “must have been inspired by a young woman in her teens. She stares with a soft almost timid expression at odds with the character of a goddess that tramples demons. Yet the longer you look at the masterpiece, the more you suspect something in eludes the profane.” [Source: Souren Melikian wrote in International Herald Tribune, February 22, 2003]

Great Living Chola Temples

According to to UNESCO: “The Great Living Chola Temples were built by kings of the Chola Empire, which stretched over all of south India and the neighbouring islands. The site includes three great 11th- and 12th-century Temples: the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram. The Temple of Gangaikondacholisvaram, built by Rajendra I, was completed in 1035. Its 53-m vimana (sanctum tower) has recessed corners and a graceful upward curving movement, contrasting with the straight and severe tower at Thanjavur. The Airavatesvara temple complex, built by Rajaraja II, at Darasuram features a 24-m vimana and a stone image of Shiva. The temples testify to the brilliant achievements of the Chola in architecture, sculpture, painting and bronze casting. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website \^/]

“The great Cholas established a powerful monarchy in the A.D. 9th century at Thanjavur and in its surroundings. They enjoyed a long, eventful rule lasting for four and a half centuries with great achievements in all fields of royal endeavour such as military conquest, efficient administration, cultural assimilation and promotion of art. All three temples, the Brihadisvara at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara at Gangaikondacholapuram and Airavatesvara at Darasuram, are living temples. The tradition of temple worship and rituals established and practised over a thousand years ago, based on still older Agamic texts, continues daily, weekly and annually, as an inseparable part of life of the people. \^/

These three temple complexes therefore form a unique group, demonstrating a progressive development of high Chola architecture and art at its best and at the same time encapsulating a very distinctive period of Chola history and Tamil culture. The Brihadisvara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram in the Perambalur district was built for Siva by Rajendra I (1012-1044 CE). The temple has sculptures of exceptional quality. The bronzes of Bhogasakti and Subrahmanya are masterpieces of Chola metal icons. The Saurapitha (Solar altar), the lotus altar with eight deities, is considered auspicious.\^/ “The Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur marks the greatest achievement of the Chola architects. Known in the inscriptions as Dakshina Meru, the construction of this temple was inaugurated by the Chola King, Rajaraja I (985-1012 CE) possibly in the 19th regal year (1003-1004 CE) and consecrated by his own hands in the 25th regal year (1009-1010 CE). A massive colonnaded prakara with sub-shrines dedicated to the ashatadikpalas and a main entrance with gopura (known as Rajarajantiruvasal) encompasses the massive temple. The sanctum itself occupies the centre of the rear half of the rectangular court. The vimana soars to a height of 59.82meters over the ground. This grand elevation is punctuated by a high upapitha, adhisthana with bold mouldings; the ground tier (prastara) is divided into two levels, carrying images of Siva. Over this rises the 13 talas and is surmounted by an octagonal sikhara. There is a circumambulatory path all around the sanctum housing a massive linga. The temple walls are embellished with expansive and exquisite mural paintings. Eighty-one of the one hundred and eight karanas, posed in Baharatanatya,are carved on the walls of second bhumi around the garbhagriha. There is a shrine dedicated to Amman dating to c.13th century. Outside the temple enclosure are the fort walls of the Sivaganga Little Fort surrounded by a moat, and the Sivaganga Tank, constructed by the Nayaks of Tanjore of the 16th century who succeeded the imperial Cholas. The fort walls enclose and protect the temple complex within and form part of the protected area by the Archaeological Survey of India. \^/

“The Airavatesvara temple at Tanjavur was built by the Chola king Rajaraja II (1143-1173 CE.): it is much smaller in size as compared to the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. It differs from themin itshighly ornate execution. The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The front mandapa known in the inscriptions as Rajagambhiran tirumandapam, is unique as it was conceptualized as a chariot with wheels. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture. A number of sculptures from this temple are the masterpieces of Chola art. The labelled miniature friezes extolling the events that happened to the 63 nayanmars (Saiva saints) are noteworthy and reflect the deep roots of Saivism in this region. The construction of a separate temple for Devi, slightly later than the main temple, indicates the emergence of the Amman shrine as an essential component of the South Indian temple complex.” \^/

Later Tamil History

From the 16th century the Tamils were ruled by a Teluga-speaking dynasty, the Vijayanagar Empire, based in Vijayanagar, near Hampi, in Karnataka, India. It was founded by two Hindu princes, who were kidnapped by Muslims and returned to power. They were expected to create Muslim kingdoms but instead founded Hindu ones. The kingdom was eventually conquered by rival local kingdoms and they in turn were defeated by the Moguls, but Mogul rule in the area was short lived.

The British East India Company established a major trading operation in Madras in 1639. The British ruled all of Tamil Nadu from 1801 to 1947. The French held Karikal and Pondicherry, which remained in French hands until 1962.

Throughout their history and even today the Tamils have rejected influences from northern India and have worked hard to maintain their own identity in language, deities, food and state politics. In 1965, many people died and immolated themselves in anti-Hindi riots in southern Indians by ethnic Dravidians, who languages has little in common with the Aryan languages like Hindi spoken in the north.

Tamil Language

Tamil belongs to the Dravidian language group, which includes at least 21 other languages spoken mostly in south and central India. They are quite different from the Indo-Aryan languages spoken in northern India. The four largest Dravidian languages are spoken in the four linguistic states in southern India. Some Dravidian language speakers live in Pakistan and Sri Lanka but most are found in southern India. In southern India, Tamil and English are widely spoken. Few people speak Hindi. They reject efforts to have Hindi imposed on them.

Tamils consider their language to be the “most pure” of the major Dravidian languages. Modern written and spoken Tamil is very similar to Tamil used 2,000 years ago. This is attributed to the high value put on the purity of language and an adversity to incorporating Sanskrit and Hindi words into the language. Regional dialects of Tamil, including the one spoken in Sri Lanka, do not differ all that much from one another.

Tamil is very difficult to learn because of the pronunciation. There are many nasal sounds and two different “l” sounds, five different “r” sounds and five different “n” sounds. The written language is a mass of curves and squiggles. Paul Theroux wrote in the “Great Railway Bazaar”, Tamils have a "rippling speech that resembles the sputtering of a man singing in the shower. Tamils seem to talk constantly-only toothbrushing seems to silence them. Pleasure for a Tamil is discussing a large matter (life, truth, beauty, "walues") over a large meal."

Tamil Government and Politics

Tamil villages have traditionally been governed by caste “panchayats” (councils). Elected councils were supposed to replace the cast councils but they have not developed up there full potential because state politicians have tended to regard them as a threat and neglected or ignored them.

Major political parties have managed to gain a large amount of influence in most rural institutions. Many espouse a kind of Tamil nationalism. They often work with large landholding families and the major economic powers to enhance each other’s interests.

Local government is often in the form of an administrative office called the “taluk”, which usually includes offices for the police, land registration, electricity supply, a lower court and high schools for girls and boys. Above these are the district offices. There are 20 of these in Tamil Nadu. Madras is the state capital.

Tamils are generally suspicious of northern Indians and the political power their shear numbers represent. They reject efforts to have the Hindi language imposed on them They also tend to be sympathetic of struggle of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Tamil Education and Health

Literacy rates are relatively high. Most villages have their own elementary schools. Some have their own middle schools. English education is common in the cities. Many villagers want English to be taught in their schools so village children can advance in life.

Western medicine is available mostly in the cities and towns. In villages, people depend on Ayuveda medicine, Unani Muslim medicine and Mantiravati, a system based on the uses of magical mantras and special herbs. Many people wear amulets to ward of disease. Treatments often involve herbal medicines, special diets, mantras, psychological advise, religious ceremonies and a proper balance of “hot” and “cold’ foods.

Siddha medicine, See Health Care

Tamil Economics

Money was used in ancient Tamil kingdoms and thus the Tamils have a long history of capitalism, trade and moneylending. Rural communities began widely using money in the 19th century. Streets are lined with shops. There are many weekly markets. Complex trade interactions are arranged with help of financiers, agents, wholesalers and other middlemen. The trucking industry is very developed. Foodstuffs are moved through auctions. Muslims are very active in trading.

Crafts made by traditional artisans include products made from leather, clay, reeds, cotton, woods, iron brass, silver and gold. Traditional industries include brick making, cement. roofing tiles and wooden furniture.

There is good system of recording land titles. Large amounts of land are held by dominant farmer castes. Every villages has low caste laborers that can be mobilized for fieldwork. There are not many very large estates. Sharecropping is common but not regarded as particularly exploitive.

Tamil Agriculture and Livestock

Land is generally divided into two types: wet land used for growing irrigated rice and dry land used for growing rain-fed crops. In ancient times extensive irrigation systems and catchment reservoirs were built. Today there are 40,000 such reservoirs in Tamil Nadu. In recent years, commercial agriculture has declined somewhat as Tamil Nadu has become increasingly industrialized and urbanized.

The main crops are rice, pearl millet and several other millets, sorghum, several types of pulses and oilseeds, coconuts, bananas, Indian vegetables and condiments, Mango and tamarind trees are plentiful. Commercially raised crops sch as sugarcane, cotton and peanuts are produced using electric irrigation pumps.

Oxcarts are still widely used. Oxen are used to pull plows and carts, draw irrigation water and turn oilseed presses. Cows yield milk, primarily given to children, and used to make curds and buttermilk. Chickens, water buffalo, goats, sheep and donkeys are also kept. Fishing castes live on the coast.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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