TAMIL CULTURE AND LIFE
Tamils are the largest minority in Sri Lanka. They make up about 16.4 percent of the population of Sri Lanka compared to Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up three quarters of Sri Lanka’s population. Tamils live primarily in the north and east and the tea-growing areas of central Sri Lanka. Many are Hindus but some are Christians. Tamil-speaking Muslims are called Moors. They make up 9.2 percent of the population of Sri Lanka and are regarded as a separate group. If you add the Tamils and the Moors — both Tamil-speaking groups — together they make up 25.6 percent of Sri Lanka’s population.
The Tamils in Sri Lanka are divided into Sri Lankan Tamils (11.2 percent of Sri Lanka’s population), whose descendants arrived in Sri Lanka many centuries ago, and the so-called Indian Tamils (4.2 percent), descendants of Tamils who were brought into Sri Lanka from India by the British during the last 150 years. Tamils in Sri Lanka are linguistically and culturally related to the Tamil- and Malayalam-speaking people of southern India, particularly the 70 million residents of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, just 32 kilometers miles across the Palk Strait, which separates northern Sri Lanka from southern India.
The people collectively known as the Tamils use the Tamil language as their native tongue. Tamil is one of the Dravidian languages found almost exclusively in peninsular India. Ethnic Tamils are united to each other by their common religions beliefs and culture. Some 80 percent of the Sri Lankan Tamils and 90 percent of the Indian Tamils are Hindus. They have little contact with Buddhism, and they worship the Hindu pantheon of gods. Their religious myths, stories of saints, literature, and rituals are distinct from the cultural sources of the Sinhalese. The caste groups of the Tamils are also different from those of the Sinhalese, and they have their rationale in religious ideologies that the Sinhalese do not share. Religion and caste do, however, create divisions within the Tamil community. Most of the Indian Tamils are members of low Indian castes that are not respected by the upper- and middle-level castes of the Sri Lankan Tamils. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]
The Tamils are regarded as more dour and hardworking than the Sinhalese. Tamils have been called the Scots of Sri Lanka. They have traditionally put a great emphasis on education. Many became professionals and civil servants under the British. The Sinhalese are regarded as friendly, easy with a laugh, individually minded and willing to take risks while Tamils are regarded as more serious, hardworking, group- oriented and cautious. Both Tamils and Sinhalese have hierarchal organizations and have incorporated Hindu caste traditions but these tendencies are stronger among the Tamils, because of their Hindu traditions.
Tamil, the language of the Tamils, is a Dravidian language unlike Sinhalese, the language of the Sinhalese. which is an Indo-European language. The Tamil spoken by the Tamils of Sri Lanka is a distinct regional dialect, significantly different from the Tamil spoken in mainland India but mutually intelligible. The Tamils of Sri Lanka consider their dialect to be purer than the one spoken on the mainland.
Tamils in Sri Lanka were very upset when Sinhalese-controlled government made Sinhala the official language of government affairs in 1956 and elevated it the national language in 1973, fueling tensions that ultimately led to civil war. Later measures were taken for Tamil to be taught in schools in Tamil-dominated areas and it was made a national language in 1978 constitution.
Tamil is one of the Dravidian languages found almost exclusively in peninsular India. It existed in South Asia before the arrival of people speaking Indo-European languages in about 1500 B.C. Tamil literature of a high quality has survived for at least 2,000 years in southern India, and although the Tamil language absorbed many words from northern Indian languages, in the late twentieth century it retained many forms of a purely Dravidian speech — a fact that is of considerable pride to its speakers. Tamil is spoken by at least 65 million people in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (the "land of the Tamils"), and by millions more in neighboring states of southern India and among Tamil emigrants throughout the world. By one reckoning Tamil is the 19th most widely spoken language in the world. . [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]
Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Sri Lankan dialect is characterized by its conservatism; testifying to the relative isolation of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, the dialect preserves archaic features of Tamil that have been dropped or altered on the mainland. The Tamil spoken in Sri Lanka is characterized by diglossia. (One variant of the language is used for high-status situations, such as political speeches, while another is used for everyday conversation.) [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
Tamil Hinduism and Religion in Sri Lanka
The majority of Tamils are Hindus. The Hinduism practiced by Tamils in Sri Lanka is regarded as practical, philosophical and devotional. Shiva is generally recognized as the most important god and is worshiped indirectly. The worship of other gods, based mostly on self or family interest, is practiced by making offerings to gods that will perhaps help them pass an examination, give birth to a child, have success in business or bring good health to a sick loved one. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
Tamils are united to each other by their common religions beliefs and culture. Some 80 percent of the Sri Lankan Tamils and 90 percent of the Indian Tamils are Hindus. They have little contact with Buddhism, and they worship the Hindu pantheon of gods. Their religious myths, stories of saints, literature, and rituals are distinct from the cultural sources of the Sinhalese. The caste groups of the Tamils are also different from those of the Sinhalese, and they have their rationale in religious ideologies that the Sinhalese do not share. Religion and caste do, however, create divisions within the Tamil community. Most of the Indian Tamils are members of low Indian castes that are not respected by the upper- and middle-level castes of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Furthermore, a minority of the Tamils — 4.3 percent of the Sri Lankan Tamils and 7.6 percent of the Indian Tamils — are converts to Christianity, with their own places of worship and separate cultural lives. In this way, the large Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is effectively separated from the mainstream Sinhalese culture and is fragmented into two major groups with their own Christian minorities. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]
Hinduism remains very much alive among the Hindus in Tamil areas of Sri Lanka as it is in Tamil Nadu in India. Most cities and towns have significant temples.Village life often revolves around the worship of local deities.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.The usual period or mourn after a funeral is 35 days.
On Tamil ideas about death and afterlife, Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Westerners who believe Hindus are focused on a better life after reincarnation are inevitably surprised by the almost complete disinterest that Tamil Hindus show in the afterlife. It is thought, though, that someone who dies without having fulfilled a great longing will remain to vex the living. Cremation is the norm and is followed, for most castes, by a period of death pollution lasting thirty-one days; subsequently there is an annual death observance with food offerings. For the few highly educated Hindus familiar with the Saiva Siddhanta tradition, an expressed goal of afterlife is reunification with Shiva.
See Separate Article on HINDUISM IN SRI LANKA
Christian Tamils in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly Hindus, but there are significant numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant ones. Christian Tamils regard themselves every much as Tamil as Hindu Tamils, maybe the same way Christian Palestinians do. Many Christian Tamils converted to Christianity during the British colonial period. Many of them were members of lower castes who were educated at English-language schools. Even more might have converted where it not for a Hindu revivalist and reformist movement that tried to get rid of many practices such as animal sacrifices that Christians decried as barbaric. Many traditionalist Hindus were angry about the changes but the movement did restore pride about Tamil Hindu religious traditions and reduced the number of conversions.
Christians make up 7.4 percent of the population of Sri Lanka and are outnumbered by Muslims. In the past they made up more than 8 percent of the population and outnumbered Muslims. Most of the Christians (6.1 percent) are Roman Catholics. Most Christians in Sri Lanka are Tamils (of which most are Catholics).
Catholicism was introduced by the Portuguese in 1505. The Portuguese were able to win converts among both Sinhalese and Tamils. The descendants of these converts still have a strong presence on the west coast of Sri Lanka, where many towns have large churches. The Catholic community in South India and Sri Lanka have grown considerably, not by winning new converts but by avoiding family planning rules.
In the 1980s, about 4.3 percent of the Sri Lankan Tamils and 7.6 percent of the Indian Tamils were Christians. They had their own places of worship and separate cultural lives. In this way, the large Tamil minority in Sri Lanka have traditionally been separated from the mainstream Sinhalese culture and is fragmented into different groups. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]
Tamil Holidays in Sri Lanka
Tamil Hindus celebrate important life cycle events as other Hindus do. Village temples hold annual “car” festivals in which a Hindu deity is carried around the temple in a huge chariot. Similar rituals are held at large pilgrimages. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
January 14 — Tamil Thai Pongal Day is a multi-day Hindu harvest festival observed particularly by Tamils of South India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere around the world. It begins at the start of the month Tai according to Tamil solar calendar, which is usually on or around January 14. The festival is dedicated to the Hindu sun god, Surya, and corresponds to harvest festivals held under many regional names in India. Pongal marks the sun's entrance into constellation Capricorn. Families boil rice with sugar and turmeric (the mixture is known as pongal) in homes and temple until it spills out of the pot (the greater the spillage the better) and eat it communally.
February and March — Maha Shivarathri Day is a colorful Hindu festival that celebrates the marriage of Shiva.
October — Dival (Deepavali), the Hindu festival of lights, is celebrated throughout the country by Hindus as well as Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. Hindu homes are lit up at night, new clothes are worn, homes are spring-cleaned and all Hindus purify themselves with an oil bath. Lights are hung to welcome the Hindu god Lakshima.
Tamil New Year
The Tamil New Year is widely celebrated in mid April in Tamil areas of southern India as well as Sri Lanka. Northern Indian festival like Holi and Dussehra are not that big in Tamil Nadu in southern India.. Diwali, the festival of lights, is widely celebrated. Held around the time the monsoons arrive, Tamils New Year is viewed as 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. The Tamil New Year in 1996 was named ``Thathu'' in the Almanac. Its beginning (“Varushapirappu'' ) was at 2.25pm on April 13. The “Vishu Punya Kalam'', auspicious period, was from 10.25am to 6.25pm on the same day.
Nirmala Ragunathan wrote: “ Homes are cleaned and got ready for the event on previous day. On the day, during the auspicious time
Maruthu Neer'' — clean water boiled with various herbs, selected flowers and leaves, milk, saffron and other ingredients is made by the priests in temples. Maruthu Neer is applied on the heads of all family members whilst the placingPunku'' leaves on head and Fig leaves under the feet and bathe. Then new clothes are recommended according to the colors mentioned in the almanac to wear. This year's colors are shades of black or ash. [Source: Nirmala Ragunathan, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
“Giving thanks to the Sun God is observed by making
Pongal''. A sweet rice made if possible with new raw red rice, jaggery, cashew nuts ghee and plums. The area in front of the house is cleaned and sprinkled with saffron water, and cowdung. A decorative designKolam'' is put with raw white rice flour. The hearth is made a little distance away facing the East, and a new pot is used to cook the
Pongal''. Lamps are lit by the housewife, and the head of the household will arrange theMangala Kumbam''. A pot with five mango leaves and a coconut, joss sticks are lit, a tray of flowers, betel leaves, arecanuts, comb of bananas and the sweet rice are offered to the Sun God and Lord Ganesh to compete the pooja. A coconut is broken by the head of the household, and incense is shown.
“In earlier times, people made a sambol ``Pachchadi'' with the flowers of Margosa, the sour mango, and the sweet jaggery. Sweet rice was eaten together with this sambol. The sambol was made to remind people of the fact that life has sorrows, troubles and happiness — a mixture of circumstances in life that one faces in the year ahead cannot be overlooked. This practice is hardly in use today.
“The elders in the family bless the children, who worship them and seek their blessings and good wishes. A visit to the temple is a must when New Year dawns. The Hindus always begin by worshipping and offering poojas to Lord Wina Vinayaga to have his blessing in the coming year for prosperity. The priests bless them too. Customarily alms should be offered to the poor.
“During the auspicious time, the sweet rice is partaken by the family. Later the head of the family gives money, betel leaves, paddy and flowers —
Kai Vishesham'' to the family members and wishes them good luck. The head of the family performs,Er Mangalam'' — during this time. This ploughing ceremony — being an agrarian community, is the traditional act on a new year day. However, today people observe this according to their occupations. A teacher would start a lesson, a trader starts a new account, a craftsman starts his craft and so on.
“Visiting relatives and entertaining relatives and friends are also important duties of the New Year celebrations. As a Hindu housewife I shall observe the rituals laid down by my ancestors in todays context to the best of my ability. In this ``Thathu'' Hindu New Year, when I offer poojas to the Sun God and pray to Lord Vigneshwar, I will pray most sincerely and ardently to ask his blessings for Mother Lanka and all her children to live happily in peace, harmony, understanding and prosperity. "We Hindus try to celebrate the new year by observing the procedures and rituals practised by our ancestors over the years.
Marriages among Sri Lankan Tamils have traditionally occurred with a preference for cross cousin unions and, among “respectable castes,” is often is accompanied by the payment of a large dowry, often including a house and land. This is in sharp contrast to mainland India Tamils who traditionally downplays the importance of dowries. Girls technically are old enough to get married after the they reach puberty but marriage often takes place long after that so her family can raise money for the dowry. Even men delay marriage so they can help raise money for their sister’s dowry. Among modern Tamils today dowry is less important than it was in the past. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
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.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The ideal groom is an educated, English-speaking, government-employed man from a good, respectable family of the same microcaste. He is also ideally a cross-cousin of the bride, although this is by no means necessary. For most couples the marriage is strictly an unromantic relationship, though it may grow into love later; a "good wife" submits to her husband's authority and serves him humbly and obediently.” If a boy's parents discover that he has fallen in love, they take offense at this erosion of their authority and try to break up the relationship; if a girl's parents discover that she has fallen in love, they express their disdain for her and take advantage of the situation by trying to strike a marriage deal that involves little or no dowry. More rarely, broad-minded parents may try to arrange what appears to be a traditional marriage even if the two are in love.
Residence after marriage is neolocal [separate from the bride’s and groom’s revealed], the determining factor being the availability of lands and a house. This contrasts with Tamils in India, where most couples move in with the groom’s family or at least into his village. Divorce is exceptionally uncommon and quite difficult to obtain, but among the poor and lower castes desertion and new, casual relationships are common. |~|
Tamil Weddings in Sri Lanka
Tamils wears traditional Tamil wedding clothes and have a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony instead of a poruwa ceremony preferred by Sinhalese. The Tamil 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.
Tamils have traditionally been married in Hindu temples. One of the central events is the tying of a gold necklace around the neck of the bride. It usually has a medallion inscribed with a conch. The necklace, a trident and a ring, represent the Hindu trilogy. By wearing these things the bride becomes a symbolic goddess of the house. and here groom, her god.
As is true with Hindus in India, wedding are expected to be lavish affairs that attest to the status of the families involved. For poorer and low-caste families, who can afford neither the dowry nor the ceremony, weddings are far more casual. Matches are not based on love but on factors the parents of the bride and groom deem important and advantageous to their families. Love is expected t grow as the couple live and spend time with each other. The civil war period from 1983 to 2009 years have affected Tamil marriage customs as they have affected most everything about Tamil life. Few families could afford dowries or lavish weddings.
Tamil Kin Groups, Women and Families in Sri Lanka
Traditional Tamil society is male-dominated and patriarchal with clearly defined separate roles for men and women. Women are encouraged to stay at home and traditionally have been discouraged from traveling or working unless accompanied by a chaperone. The male-dominated society has persevered through arranged marriages and the maintenance of demeaning female roles. But new employment and educational opportunities for women have given women more freedom and allowed them to earn money. But in general, women are responsible maintaining the house and taking care of children and domestic affairs while men work outside the home in agriculture, transport, industry, services, and government. In some ways the Tamil Tigers have been a liberating force for women. Many Tamil Tiger fighters and suicide bombers have been women. Although wife abuse is thought to be common, it is publicly discouraged and, in strong contrast to India, women have a moderate degree of economic recourse in that they retain property rights under traditional Tamil law (which is upheld in the courts). [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
Individuals generally belong to nuclear families and microcastes (called “our caste people” in Tamil), made up of people of common descent and shared status. Microcastes are often spread out among several villages. Its members cooperate in agriculture, trade and politics. Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The microcaste is often distributed among several hamlets or wards in adjoining (or in some cases separated) villages; within the hamlet microcaste members cooperate in agriculture, ritual, trade, and politics. In sharp contrast to south Indian Tamil culture, descent is fully bilateral, except in the eastern coastal regions, where matrilineal descent is common.
The average household is five or six persons; a married couple may be joined by elderly parents after these parents relinquish their lands and homes to other children in a form of pre-mortem inheritance. In contrast to the mainland Tamil pattern, property is divided equally among all children — if any property is left after paying dowry at the going rates. |~|
. Within traditional Sri Lankan Tamil Villages gossip and ridicule were potent forces for social conformity. The family backed its authoritarian control through threats of excommunication (deprivation of lands, dowry, and family support). With growing landlessness and unemployment, however, many families are unable to deliver on their material promises and the threat of excommunication has become increasingly empty. Suicide and youthful militancy are both manifestations of a general rejection by youth of traditional forms of authoritarianism. |~|
Tamil Children in Sri Lanka
The customs regarding children and girls are similar to those of mainland Tamils. They are allowed to run free and are spoiled when they yung children but when they are five ro six their lives become shaped by their increasingly authoritarian parents. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Small children are treasured by most adults, who play with them, tease them, and create homes that are structured around their needs. A first rice-feeding ceremony takes place at approximately six months. Toilet training is relaxed and untraumatic. But there is a pronounced change at approximately age five, when the parents begin the task of bending the child to their will. At this age there begins an authoritarian relationship in which the parents assume the right to determine the child's school interests, prospective career, friends, attitudes, and spouse. Tradition-minded families may force girls to leave school at puberty, following which there was formerly a ceremony (now done privately or not at all) that declared the girl to be technically eligible for marriage; she dons a sari and is no longer free to go about unchaperoned. |~|
“Both the family and school declare to children, in effect, "Do what we tell you to do and we will take care of you in life." However, families and schools are increasingly unable to deliver on this promise. In the 1970s, Tamil youths found themselves receiving authoritarian pressure from their families to conform but faced bleak prospects; this double bind apparently contributed to a tripling of suicide rates, giving the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka one of the highest recorded suicide rates in the world. The rise of youthful Tamil militant groups is not only a political phenomenon but also a generational revolt; Tamil youths are rejecting not only Sinhalese rule but also the moderate politics and social conservatism of their parents.
Tamil Castes in Sri Lanka
Tamil society has traditionally been dominated by the powerful agriculture castes: the Vellala in the Jaffna Peninsula and the Mukkuvar, a former fishing caste that turned to agriculture, on the eastern coast. There are few Brahmans, and although they are regarded as higher up in terms of ritual purity they are relatively poor and powerless economically and politically. Lower castes have traditionally been defined in terms of those who provided services such as labor and cleaning for the dominant castes. The Tamils who work as tea pickers have traditionally been of lower castes than the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
Caste is more important to the Tamils than to the Sinhalese but less important than to Indians. The craft castes have traditionally been found in the towns and cities. They were the ones who took advantage of missionary education and the British colonial government to advance while rural castes remained stuck in the traditional system until the mid 20th century when new economic opportunities were created that allowed them to ventures into urban areas.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”:“Like the regions of southern India, part of the distinctiveness of Sri Lanka's Tamil regions stems from the presence of a self-consciously unique, dominant agricultural caste, around which the entire traditional caste system was seen to revolve. Tamil society departs from that of south India in ways that are obvious to Tamils. Traditional intercaste services were both sacred and secular. The sacred services, such as the services provided by barbers and washers at life-cycle rites and by agricultural laborers at sacrificial rituals, served to define and regulate the low status of serving groups, while the secular ones created patron-client linkages that could endure for generations. The rural service and labor castes remained in traditional relationships with the dominant castes until the mid-twentieth century, when the rise of a service economy created the new marginal economic niches for these groups at the same time that mechanization rendered their labor unnecessary. Coastal fishing groups were never so observant of caste differences, and in consequence have long rejected the stigma of low status. |~|
Tamil Caste Issues in Sri Lanka
Before independence there were long lists of caste rules that caste members were expected to abide by. After independence caste discrimination was made illegal. Although it still exists in some rural areas and is stronger than that of the Sinhalese, caste discrimination is not as strong as it is in India. Again the Tamil Tigers have played a role in making the caste system obsolete; many their leaders were from low castes. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” “Prior to the twentieth century, caste statuses were upheld by dozens of detailed regulations, such as a rule prohibiting low-caste women from covering the upper half of their bodies. Caste discrimination in such matters, including temple entry and the use of public facilities and conveyances, is now illegal, but persisted in rural areas until the outbreak of the war. In the face of the brutal occupation of Tamil areas by Sinhalese security forces in the early 1980s, caste rivalry diminished in intensity as the Tamil community integrated vertically in order to meet the external challenges posed by the war. Still, it would be wrong to say that the war has erased the divisions of caste structure, which still reigns supreme as a principle of familial and community organization. Sri Lanka Tamil society appears to be evolving in the direction of Sinhalese society, in which most people view caste as a positive and valuable means of affiliation but strongly reject the notion that the various castes should be differentially ranked or empowered. |~|
“Traditionally, conflicts occurred within families and between castes. Interfamily conflict often arose from Status competition, particularly when a wealthy ward attempted to cease relations with its "poorer relations" in pursuit of new, more lucrative ties with a similarly-endowed group. Longstanding grudges and obsession with "enemies," real or imagined, sometimes have led to violence. Dominant castes routinely used violence to punish subordinate groups that were taking on high-caste life-style attributes (such as using umbrellas) , often by burning down huts or poisoning wells.
Tamil Houses and Villages
Tamils in Sri Lanka have traditionally been a rural people. Under the British they became more urbanized. Many of the their towns look like oversized villages. Tamil towns and villages gave traditionally been centered around a temples with, in some cases, separate neighborhoods for separate castes.
Houses have traditionally been hidden behind natural fences of trees and bushes which also provides natural fertilizer (mainly leaves) for their gardens. The house have traditionally been built of the same materials used to make Sinhalese horses. The gardens often contain mango and coconut trees.
Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The rural-urban balance has not changed significantly as of the beginning of the twenty-first century, due to an almost complete lack of industrial development, as well as to Sri Lanka's vigorous rural social service program (vestiges of which still function despite the conflict). Traditional villages are nonnucleated. Lanes wander through the village. Land is traditionally divided into three categories: house land, garden land, and paddy land. Traditional houses are made of mud and thatch; wealthier villagers construct stucco houses roofed with ceramic tiles. Houses are situated within a private fenced compound, which is usually planted with mangoes, coconut palms, and palmyras. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
Tamil Culture in Sri Lanka
Among Tamils in Sri Lanka, there traditionally has not been much emphasis on the arts. More emphasis has been placed on careers and developing marketable skills that can earn money. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Even so, young people today may receive instruction in traditional South Indian classical music (Carnatic music) or South Indian dance (Bharata Natyam) as a means of impressing on them the antiquity and greatness of Tamil culture. Music and dance were formerly associated with low-caste status. “Medicine. There is a pronounced division of labor between scientific medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which is thought to be more effective for mental illness, snakebite, paralysis, and listlessness.
“The unique culture of Sri Lankan Tamils took on distinctiveness early from its close proximity to the Sinhalese and from waves of immigration from diverse regions of southern India. Many features of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, including village settlement patterns, inheritance and kinship customs, and domestic and village "folk religion," stand in sharp contrast to mainland Tamil customs. One possible reason is that the immigrants who created the first Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka appear to have come not just from the Tamil region of south India but from the Kerala coast as well. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
The Sri Lankan Tamil community itself boasts an impressive mythology of cultural and religious uniqueness and superiority. This is particularly true of dominant-caste Vellala Tamils living in the Jaffna Peninsula, who regard their Tamil cousins living in India and the Indian Tamil residents of Sri Lanka, as well as the Sinhalese, as their less civilized inferiors (thus undermining, to some extent, the rationale behind Sinhalese fears of engulfment by the two Tamil communities). According to anthropologist Bruce Pfaffenberger, the Vellala Tamils place great importance on the correct observation of Hindu rituals, the chastity of their women, and the need to maintain precisely the hierarchical distinctions of caste. Pfaffenberger notes that the Vellala regard the Jaffna Peninsula as their natu, or country, and that states ruled by their kings existed there from the thirteenth century until the sixteenth-century arrival of the Portuguese. Although not all Sri Lankan Tamils were members of the Vellala caste, its members dominated local commercial and educational elites, and its values had strong influence on Tamils of other castes. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]
Tamil Politics in Sri Lanka
After independence, Tamils suffered under a government that was centralized and power was in the hands of the Sinhalese. Efforts to devolve power to the provinces, which would have enabled Tamils to have more say in their own affairs, was thwarted by Sinhalese nationalists.
Although Tamils are not numerous enough to win elections outright, there are enough of them to provide critical swing votes in elections and provide critical support for a coalition government. Moderate Tamil politicians have traditionally lost credibility and respect among ordinary Tamils because of their inability to win even the most basic of concessions from the Sinhalese-controlled government. They were the target of Tamil Tiger assassinations. Through threats and assassinations the Tamil Tigers were able to eliminate any potential rivals.
Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: The Sri Lankan government is dominated by Sinhalese. Moderate Tamil politicians who endorsed a parliamentary solution to Tamil grievances were ineffective and were swept away during the rise of Tamil youthful militancy. The Sri Lankan state is partly an artifact of colonial rule: excessively centralized, it was devised to suppress regional rebellions as the British were consolidating their power. The failure of this overly centralized political system to devolve power to the provinces is one of the reasons for the rise of militant Tamil separatism.
Unable to win concessions from the Colombo government, Tamil parliamentarians lost credibility and were pushed out of the Tamil community by militant youth groups, which were composed mainly of unemployed graduates as well as unmarried and rootless youth. These groups competed with each other — sometimes violently — until the 1987 incursion by Indian troops under the provisions of an accord between Colombo and Delhi. The Marxist-oriented groups, unlike other factions, accommodated to the Indian security forces, but their presence and actions in the Sri Lankan Tamil community were resented as much as those of the Colombo forces. After the departure of the Indian troops, the Marxist groups lost credibility along with political moderates. At the beginning of the twenty-first century LTTE had effectively eliminated other potential sources of political leadership within the Tamil community. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
History of Tamil Politics in Sri Lanka
Some political commentators hold that it was in the wake of the 1956 elections, in which Sinhalese nationalists took power, that two completely separate and basically hostile political systems emerged in Sri Lanka: one for the Sinhalese and another for the Tamils. The trend toward Tamil exclusivity, however, despite periods of accommodation with Sinhalese political parties, had begun developing before independence. The first political organization to be formed specifically to protect the welfare of an ethnic minority was the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), which G.G. Ponnambalam founded in 1944. The Tamil Congress attempted to secure adequate constitutional safeguards before the country attained its independence. These attempts reflected Tamil anxieties that British domination would simply give way to domination by the Sinhalese majority. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]
After independence, a dissident Tamil group in the ACTC emerged under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. The new group disagreed with Ponnambalam's policy of collaboration with the intercommunal, but Sinhalese-dominated, UNP. In 1949 the dissidents broke away from the ACTC and formed the rival Federal Party, which proposed establishing an autonomous Tamil linguistic state within a federal union of Sri Lanka. The Federal Party regarded this alternative as the only practical way to preserve Tamil identity.*
In 1956 the Federal Party emerged as the dominant Tamil political group as a result of its convincing victory over the conservative Tamil Congress. The Federal Party had a distinct advantage because the Tamil Congress had suffered considerably from the stigma of its association with the UNP (which had abandoned its policy of making both Sinhala and Tamil national languages in an attempt to obtain the support of the numerically greater Sinhalese vote).*
The Federal Party continued to consolidate its strength and became an important player in national politics. In 1965 the party became a component of the UNP-led coalition government by committing its bloc of parliamentary seats to the UNP, which at that time needed the Federal Party's support to form a stable parliamentary majority. In 1968 however, the Federal Party withdrew from the UNP government because its leaders were convinced that the party could no longer derive any tangible benefits from further association with the UNP. In 1970 the Federal Party campaigned independently, unlike the Tamil Congress, whose leaders called on the Tamils to join a united front with the Sinhalese.*
Agriculture and Economics in Tamil Areas
As is true with Sinhalese, most Tamils have traditionally been subsistence farmers who supplemented their income through other kinds of jobs. Along the eastern coast many Tamils have traditionally used irrigation agriculture to produce high rice yields. Many of the garden crops produced in Sri Lanka have traditionally come from the Tamil areas. Traditional craft making has largely died out due to competition from cheap metal and plastic goods. There are few industries other than a couple of cement plants and a few light assembly factories. Remittances from overseas Sri Lankan Tamil is a key source of income for many Tamils in Sri Lanka.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” Agriculture in Tamil areas is “rainfall-dependent and only marginally economic at best, producing only enough for subsistence. Under import restrictions following Sri Lanka's independence, Jaffna became a major source of garden crops, including tomatoes, chilies, onions, tobacco, gourds, pumpkins, okra, brinjal (eggplants), betel, potatoes, manioc, and a variety of indigenous grains. Traditional agricultural practices make intensive use of green and animal manures, although the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is increasing. In coastal regions with limestone bedrock (and particularly in Jaffna), groundwater is intensively used to supplement rainfall; irrigation is rare, except in the eastern coastal region. Domestic animals include cattle and chickens. Significant foods of last recourse include manioc and the ubiquitous palmyra, which supplies starch from seedlings, molasses, jam, and a mildly alcoholic beverage called toddy. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Before the war, rapid growth in the service sector (especially retailing, transport, communications, banking, public administration, education, health services, repair, and construction) created significant new employment opportunities for Tamils who could no longer look to the professions and civil service. Since then, military conflict has all but destroyed the once flourishing economy of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. According to estimates by refugee organizations, between 600,000 and 800,000 Sri Lankan Tamils are dependent on food provided by international relief organizations” in the early 2000s |~|
“Some members of the artisan castes (goldsmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, and temple builders) still create traditional goods such as jewelry, ox carts, hoes, and cooking pots. Few industrial enterprises were located in Tamil regions and most such enterprises closed, and their premises were destroyed, in the war. Private-sector ventures include manufacturing or assembly of garments, toys, candies, bottled juices, and soap. But indigenous goods are regarded as shoddy and receive stiff competition from imports and rampant smuggling. |~|
The rural economy is thoroughly cash-based. Village boutique owners and wealthy villagers often engage poorer villagers in what eventually becomes debt servitude. Shops in town sell needed consumer items, and weekly village markets provide marginal economic niches for itinerant traders and village cash-crop agriculturists. Transport is provided by bullock carts, tractors pulling flatbed trailers, old automobiles, and light trucks. Remittances are the only source of income for many families.
“Land is held outright, but holdings tend to be both minute and geographically fragmented. Bilateral inheritance, coupled with population increase, compounds subdivision. Landlessness is increasingly common, and often delays or prevents marriage, because traditional dowry customs require the married pair to be given lands and a house.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022