The vast majority of Tamils are Hindus. Muslims make up about 5 percent of the population of Tamil Nadu; Christians, 6 percent. Hinduism remains very much alive among the Hindus in Tamil Nadu. Most cities and towns have large temples. Village life often revolves around the worship of local deities. Females deities are generally more numerous and are believed to possess greater power, especially in matters concerning fertility, healing and success in life. Male deities are generally regarded as protectors. Among these is Murugan, whose image is often placed on hills and is sought out by pilgrims. It is customary for people to ask the gods for some favor and if that favor is granted to honor the god through a pilgrimage or offering. Along the coast in southern India, people tend to worship local gods, particularly those associated with the sea.

The doctrine of rebirth is not widely embraced by Tamils. The dead tend to be buried rather than cremated and have traditionally been buried under or near the home. Ceremonies are usually held within castes. At middle caste funerals the corpse is wrapped in a cloth and lowered in the ground while male relatives carrying pots of water circumambulate the grave in counterclockwise direction (an inauspicious direction). Death pollution lasts for several days, and is recognized with special foods and ritual cleansing of the body and the house where the deceased lived.

Tamil Festivals

Important festivals and ceremonies are held to honor the birthdays of special deities. These often feature a procession with an image of the deity from the temple through the streets. There is also feasting and night time entertainment. Larger festivals draw tens of thousands—even hundreds of thousands—of pilgrims and celebrants.

The Tamil New Year is widely celebrated in mid April. Northern India festival like Holi and Dassara are not that big in Tamil Nadu. Diwali, the festival of lights, is widely celebrated. Tamil New Year is celebrated in Tamil Nadu and Kerala and elsewhere in southern India and places where Tamils live. Held around the time the monsoons arrive, it is a time to wear new clothes and is considered the beginning of summer. The first thing that a person sees in the morning is supposed to influence one for the rest of the year.

Mankar Sankranti (Pongal) is a harvest celebration that marks the sun's entrance into constellation Capricorn. Celebrated in mid January, it is the biggest festival in southern India. In Tamil Nadu, kin groups boil rice with sugar and turmeric (the mixture is known as “pongal”) in homes and temple until spills out of the pot (the greater the spillage the better) and eat it communally. In villages in and around Thanjavar, cattle and oxen have their horns painted red and green and garlands are placed around their necks. Some are raced. Women make geometric patterns known as “kolams” with rice powder. The festival also celebrated in West Bengal, where it is known at Shantiniketan as Paush Mela.

Tamil Character

Tamils have a reputation for being friendlier and more relaxed and easy going than other Indians. They place a premium on hospitality and avoiding conflict. From an early age, Tamils learn a large variety of emotional expressions, body language and gestures. Many Tamils enjoy teasing another and being purposely ambiguous. In general, people from southern India have a reputation of being friendlier and more excitable than Indians from the north.

Paul Theroux wrote in the “Great Railway Bazaar”, "Tamils are also modest. Before they change their clothes, each makes a toga of his bed sheet, and, hopping up an down, and working his elbows, he kicks his shoes and trousers off, all the while babbling in that rippling speech.

Tamils and people from Madras in particular are regarded as hard workers, tolerant, pragmatic, down to earth. They tend to put their faith in science rather than idealism and greatly value humility. Although the vast majority of them are Hindu there have been few incidents of violence directed at Muslims.

Tamil Marriage

Among Tamils, Dravidians and people of South India, cross-cousin marriages are common and households are often linked by marriage within caste to a network of kin alliances. The preferred marriage for a male is to his mother’s brother’s daughter or to a lesser extent his father’s sister’s daughter— or even his own elder sister’s daughter. It is not uncommon in southern India for a young man to marry his sister’s daughter. Some anthropologists have described the marriage system as an exchange of women among families with political and economic implications. Freudians analyzed the system and described it as a marriage that allows males to remain in the protection of their mother.

Marriages have traditionally been arranged by elders, often uncles and aunts. Girls are regarded as marriageable after their first menstruation although these days many women wait until much later to get married. Men generally get married when they are in their 20s. Most marriages are regarded as religious matters and are not registered with the state.

The wedding ceremony is generally performed by a Brahman priest or a caste priest at the home of the bride. The bride’s family pays for most expenses of the wedding and is expected to provide a dowry, whose value depends on the wealth and education level of the family. Large brass vessels are given as wedding presents. Most couples couples move in with the groom’s family or at least into his village.

Divorce is difficult to obtain for couples of castes that have high social expectations, but separations a and new alliances or marriages are common among those not belonging to higher castes. Widow marriage is forbidden or at least uncommon among Brahmans and other high castes.

Tamil Families, Men and Women

Many Tamils live in extended nuclear families with five or six members. Sometimes there are joint family houses that help preserve land or business ties. It is not unusual for elderly people or couples to live alone. Many rich families have live-in servants or live-in servant families. When Tamil men move from the countryside to the cities they often bring their families with them. This means among other things there is not a shortages of women in Tamil cities.

Men have traditionally done the plowing, harrowing and harvesting while women have traditionally done the transplanting and weeding and milked cows. Women have traditionally not been able to handle ox carts, potter wheels, fishing nets and taxis. They are expected to take care of cleaning, washing, child care but some of these chores are done by men. Women often work as teachers, nurses and office workers.

Inheritance is generally along the male line and newly married couples often live with their fathers. Matrilineal descent is common among Sri Lankan Tamils. Sons usually divide the father’s property and wealth. Daughters divide the mother’s jewelry and other possessions.

Women are expected to return to the home of her parents to give birth, especially in the case of the first child, and stay there for a few months to receive advise and training on raising the children. Girls have a special ceremony after their first menstruation. A feast is held and relatives and friends give presents. The girl puts on a sari and is technically marriageable. In the past this often meant she was no longer free to do as she wanted and was required to be accompanied by a chaperone whenever she went out.

Children are carefully nurtured. Men and women play with children and children get a lot of attention from various members of the extended family in addition than parents. Children are weaned suddenly after about a year and given their first rice when they are six months or so. Toilet training is done early and often accomplished without diapers and with a minimum of fuss. School age children are sometimes punished with a spanking or a tweaking of the ear. Girls are expected to help with household chores. Boys often help with herding animals and doing agricultural chores.

Tamil Society and Castes

Tamil villages have traditionally been organized by caste, with communities separated along caste lines and untouchables and lower castes sometimes living in satellite hamlets. Some large villages have a Brahman street with a temple at the end that is off limits to lower castes. Up until the 1980s many cafes and restaurants had benches for middle castes, low benches for lower castes and spots on the floor for untouchables. Brahmans were expected to stay at home. There were also separate eating places for different caste groups. These customs have largely been ended.

Caste distinctions are declining. Many Brahmans have moved to the cities and taken up urban occupations; middle castes have improved their positions through education and increased their land holdings; and lower castes have moved to cities. In the cities there is an educated English-speaking elite that uses English to keep their power and excludes non-English speakers.

Caste norms serve as both a means of social control and a source of social tensions. Caste conflicts sometime erupt over resources, such as access by castes to certain wells. The punishment for breaking caste taboos can be quite severe and often very humiliating.

Tamil Villages and Homes

The Tamils have traditionally lived in unwalled villages with between 2,000 and 5,000 people. These villages usually have well-defined streets and neighborhoods divide up along caste lines and marked by small temples dedicated to specific deities. The villages tend to be well kept. Most houses are whitewashed . In some places, each morning women apply cow dung wash on the streets before their front doors and make patterned designs with chalk-like powder. See Art.

Large villages have several open wells, a large temple, a common threshing floor with big trees, and an area for cremations and burials. Some have a catchment reservoir for irrigating rice. Nearly all Tamil villages have electricity but in the past only a small number of houses were connected to the system.

The poor and lower castes have traditionally lived in one-room mud huts with coconut leaf roofs. Wealthier people and members of higher castes have lived in large houses, sometimes with courtyards, tile roofs and two stories. In southern India many village homes are built with loosely woven straw matting that allows breezes in.

Tamil Life

Vegetarianism is widely practiced among the upper and middle classes. Tamil food has been described as "very wet vegetables studded with chilies and capsicums, and served with damp poori and two mounds of glutinous rice." Tamils eat with their hands.

Many Tamils brush their teeth with a stick of acacia, a “neem”, a bitter tasting toothbrush which they chew and spit for a half an hour or more. Paul Theroux wrote in the “Great Railway Bazaar”, "Watch a Tamil going over his teeth with an eight-inch twig and you begin to wonder if he isn't trying to yank a branch out of his stomach...The forest of Madhya Pradesh [are] where the best toothbrush twigs are found; they are sold in bundles, bound like cheroots."

Many men in southern India wear “longis” (sarongs) and tank-top-style T-shirts. Tamil men favor ones with blue and green checks and twist it above their waist so the hem is above his knees. Women often wear flowers in their hair and wear heavy silk saris with a border of a contrasting colors. Some are decorated with gold thread.

Tamils are known for their fine weaving. The ancient Romans admired their work and imported cloth they produced. Today they have the most successful handweavers cooperatives in India.

Tamil Culture

Tamil arts include Bharatanatyam dance, still performed in temples, south Indian classical music, which is very complex and has its origins in the Middle Ages. The karagam is the most common folk dance in Tamil Nadu. Dedicated to Mariamman, the goddess of health and rain, it is performed by men with pots of uncooked rice balanced on their heads and surrounded by a tall conical bamboo frame covered with flowers. The dance is accompanied by music from a drum and long pipe.

Tamil women perform three closely related dances, which are commonly performed during festivals. The simplest is the Kummi which features dancers gathered in a circle, clapping their hands as they dance. The Kolayyam is similar expect the dancers strike small wooden sticks against each other instead of clapping their hands.

Tamil temples feature large soaring towers above gateways. Large temples have tanks, housand-pillared halls of stone, passages for circumambulating images of deities and a multitude of sculpted images and figures, all made in accordance with ancient rule books.

Movie stars have traditionally been held in high esteem in Tamil Nadu. Many of its leader have been actors or actress (See Politics, Film). Village entertainment include all-night musical narrations of the Tamil verison of the Ramayana by itinerant drama troupes. Traveling transvestite dancers, fortunetellers and magician entertainers also travel from village to village. Tamil has a great literary tradition but little of it has been translated. One famous verse from the ancient Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. goes: “With a good wife, what is lacking?/ Lacking that wife, what is good?

Tamil Ground Painting

Peasant women in Tamil Nadu adorn the thresholds to their homes with elaborate floor designs, known as “kolam”, made from chalk, lime, crushed stone, and colored rice flour. Elderly members of the household often draw them every morning under the belief that they will keep evil out of the house and bring prosperity. More than a million homes have them. The custom is centuries old. The designs, also known as “alpana”, “rangoli” or “rangavalli”, are found in other parts of India, particularly the south.

Describing a Tamil Nadu artist at work, Stephen Huyler wrote in Natural History, “Just as she does every morning, she pours water from a small brass pot into her hand and sprinkles it over the dirt beneath her feet, making it firm enough to draw on, Bending straight over at the waist, she takes large handful of rice flour from a little metal bowl and quickly drops it onto the ground, followed by an another and another, all evenly spaced, until she has created a diamond-shaped grid of white dots about five feet high on each side.”

“Then with further pinches of flour, she deftly draws thin white lines between the dots—some straight, some curved—rapidly transforming the packed earth into the petals, leaves, stamens and stem of a lotus blossom. Because it is a special festival day she fills in her picture with colored powders before going inside to awake her family and prepare breakfast...Each drawing is ethereal. As the day begins and family members come out of he house and into the street, they walk over the “kolam”, smudging the design. Bicycles, scooters, bullock carts, vans and buses all rapidly eradicate the artwork; within an hour all traces of it are gone.”

Most of the designs depict animals or plants but geometric designs are also popular. Each region has its own styles. The Deepavali festival features decorative designs made from grains of rice. The largest kolam in the world was produced in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The 70-x-40.5 meter masterpieces was made over 18 hours by 450 volunteers with 1,800 kilograms of rice.

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 May 2015

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