Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > International Tamil Eelam Research Conference, U.S.A., 1991 > Sri Lanka Tamils - Brian Pfaffenberger

International Tamil Eelam Research Conference,
Sacramento State University, U.S.A.,
21-22 July 1991

Sri Lanka Tamils
Ethnonyms: Tamils, Tamilarkal ("Tamil people")

Professor Brian Pfaffenberger
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, USA

Orientation | Settlements & Economy | Kinship, Marriage & Family | Sociopolitical Organisation | Religion | Selected References




Linguistically and culturally related to the Tamil - and Malayalam - speaking peoples of southern India, Sri Lankan Tamils have long resided in their traditional homelands (the northern and eastern cultural regions of Sri Lanka), and interacted with the neighbouring Sinhalese.

The product of their unique geographical and historical circumstances is a unique culture, obvious to Sri Lankan Tamils themselves as well as to professional anthropologists. Predominantly Saivite Hindus, Sri Lanka Tamils call their traditional homelands Tamil Eelam, a term that originally meant "Tamil Sri Lanka" but has now become virtually synonymous with what many Sri Lanka Tamils regard as rightfully a separate state: the predominantly Tamil Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country.

Sri Lanka Tamils distinguish themselves from the so-called ''Indian Tamils," who are Tamil- speaking descendants of south Indian Tamil labourers brought to Sri Lanka to work nineteenth-century British tea plantations. Sri Lanka Tamils also distinguish themselves from the indigenous, Tamil-speaking Muslim population of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Moors.


Sri Lanka is located between 6 degrees and 10 degrees north latitude and 70 degrees and 82 degrees east longitude. Sri Lanka Tamils traditionally made their homes within the present Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, within Sri Lanka's Dry Zone. The center of Sri Lanka Tamil population and culture is the densely-populated Jaffna Peninsula of the extreme north; other population concentrations are found in the isle of Mannar and along the eastern coastal littoral, stretching from north of Trincomalee to Batticaloa. In recent times, many Sri Lanka Tamils have migrated to the North Central Province and to Colombo; almost half the Sri Lanka Tamil population dwells outside the group's traditional homelands. Significant overseas communities of Sri Lankan Tamils in London, Australia, and Malaysia maintain close ties with families back home; foreign remittances are a significant element in the Sri Lanka Tamil economy.


In 1989 the population of Sri Lanka was estimated to be 17,541,000, with an average population density of 655 per square mile and a growth rate of 1.8% per year. Sri Lanka Tamils constitute approximately 11 percent of the island's population.

Linguistic Affiliation.

The Tamil spoken by Sri Lanka Tamils is a distinct regional dialect of mainland Tamil, but the two are mutually intelligible. Taught in the schools is standard literary Tamil. Sri Lanka Tamils know that their language is directly descended from the classical Tamil of more than 2,000 years ago and proudly lay claim to a distinguished tradition of achievement in literature, poetry, and philosophy. Tamils fear that their language's survival is threatened by a Sri Lankan government that, in 1956, made Sinhala the sole official language of government affairs, and in 1973, elevated Sinhala to the status of a national language. Although subsequent measures were taken to allow for the legitimate administrative and educational use of Tamil within the predominantly Tamil areas and Tamil was also made a national language, Tamils nevertheless believe that Tamil speakers are subject to rampant discrimination and cannot effectively participate in Sri Lanka's national affairs.

History and Cultural Relations.

The unique culture of Sri Lanka Tamils took on distinctiveness early from its close proximity to the Sinhalese and waves of immigration from diverse regions of southern India. Many features of Sri Lanka Tamil culture, including village settlement patterns, inheritance and kinship customs, and domestic and village "folk religion," stand in sharp contrast to mainland Tamil customs, and more closely resemble their Sinhalese counterparts. Moreover, 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.

It is not known when Tamils first settled in Sri Lanka; early settlements occurred in the aftermath of repeated South Indian invasions (ca. 1st to 13th centuries A.D.), and Tamil-speaking fishing folk doubtless settled along the northern and eastern seacoasts at an early date. By the 13th century, there is firm evidence of the rise of a significant Tamil Hindu social formation in the Jaffna Peninsula, complete with a Hindu king and a palace, in the aftermath of the collapse of the classical Sinhala Dry Zone civilisations.

The Portuguese subdued the last Hindu king in 1619, destroyed hundreds of Hindu shrines, and forced the population to convert to Roman Catholicism. Save for fishing castes and Untouchable whose status within Hinduism was low or problematic, conversions were nominal and important Hindu rituals continued to be conducted in secret; thus Sri Lankan Tamils learned early that secrecy and clandestine activities could prove effective in accommodating to foreign rule.

Catholic conversions were more sincere among Untouchable and fishing castes, for whom continued observance of Hinduism would only mean continued social stigmatisation. In 1658, the Dutch followed the Portuguese.

The Dutch codified the traditional legal system of Jaffna, but in such a way that they interpreted indigenous caste customs in line with Roman Dutch definitions of slavery. Taking advantage of the situation, agriculturalists of the dominant Vellalar caste turned to cash crop agriculture using Pallar slaves brought from southern India, and Jaffna soon became one of the most lucrative sources of revenue in the entire Dutch colonial empire. In 1796, the British expelled the Dutch from the island.

During the first four decades of British rule few changes were made with the exception of granting freedom of religious affiliation and worship, a move that was deeply appreciated by the Tamil population. Slavery was abolished in 1844, but the change in legal status brought few meaningful changes to the status of Pallar and other low-caste labourers.

More threatening to the structure of Tamil society was a sedulous conversion campaign by Christian missionaries, who built within the Tamil areas (especially Jaffna) what is generally considered to be the finest system of English language schools to be found in all of Asia during the nineteenth century.

In response to a tide of Christian conversions, Arumuka Navalar (1822-1879), a high-caste Hindu religious leader, reformulated Hinduism in line with austere religious texts so that it omitted many practices Christian missionaries had criticised as barbarous, such as animal sacrifice. Navalar's movement was resented by many Hindus who felt that sacrifice and other practices were necessary, but his reformed Hinduism stemmed the tide of Christian conversions and gave educated Hindus access to a textual tradition of Saivism (called Saiva Siddhanta) that gave them pride in their religious traditions.

Benefitting from the missionaries' English-language schools without converting to Christianity, many Sri Lanka Tamils (except those of low caste) turned away from agriculture--which became far less lucrative as the nineteenth century advanced--and toward government employment in the rapidly-expanding British colonial empire. In this accommodation to foreign rule, an accommodative, utilitarian culture arose that stressed rigorous study in professional fields, such as medicine, law, engineering, and accountancy, together with staunch adherence to Hindu tradition.

Family support of educational achievement led to extraordinary success in the British meritocracy but to disaster later: after Sri Lanka's independence in 1948, many Sinhalese came to feel that Tamils were disproportionately present in Sri Lanka's civil service, professions, judiciary, and business affairs. In 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike won a massive electoral victory by appealing to these sentiments and promising to implement Sinhala as the sole official language of government affairs. Tensions over the language act led to the appalling 1958 Riots, in which Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils living in Sinhalese areas. The subsequent imposition of university and employment quotas radicalized Tamil youths; the first Tamil youth organisations included many unemployed graduates.

In 1974, the Tamil political parties unified and called for the peaceful creation, though negotiation, of a separate Tamil state in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, but largely because the Colombo government made few concessions and political moderates seemed content to wait the situation out, Tamil youths rejected their elders' politics and began a wave of violent assassinations, mainly aimed at Tamils who were suspected of collaborating with Sinhalese organisations.

In 1981, Sinhalese security forces went on a brutal rampage in Jaffna, burning down Jaffna's library and terrorising the population, which drew the conclusion that only the youth groups could protect them.

The 1983 Colombo riots, which appeared to have the unofficial guidance and support of some sections of the government, effectively eliminated the Tamil business presence in Colombo and throughout the Sinhalese sections of the island, which further radicalised the Tamil people. After almost a decade of violence, the Colombo government has yet to make genuine concessions to the Tamil community and apparently believes the Tamil militants can be defeated by force. In the meantime, many Tamils have become refugees, hundreds of temples and schools have been destroyed, the Tamil middle class and intelligentsia has fled abroad, and tens of thousands of innocents have died, often in massacres of unspeakable brutality.




Sri Lanka Tamil regions are predominantly rural; even the towns seem like overgrown villages. The rural urban balance has not changed significantly in this century, thanks to Sri Lanka's vigorous rural social service program and to an almost complete lack of industrial development. Traditional villages are non-nucleated and are internally differentiated by hamlets, in which members of a single caste reside. The only obvious center of the village is the temple of the village goddess. Lanes wander chaotically through the village, hiding homes behind stout, living fences, which provide copious green manure for gardens. Land is traditionally divided into three categories: house lands, garden lands, 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, secretive compound, which is usually planted with mango, coconut, and palmyrah trees.

Subsistence and Agricultural Activities.

Subsistence agriculture, supplemented by marginal employment in service-related occupations and government employment, characterises the economic life of most rural Sri Lanka Tamils. A significant source of income for many families is foreign remittances. Save in the eastern coastal region, rice agriculture is extensive but rainfall- dependent and only marginally economic at best. Under import restrictions following Sri Lanka's independence, Jaffna became a major source of garden crops, including tomatoes, chilies, onions, tobacco, gourds, pumpkins, okra, cashews, brinjal (eggplant) betel, potatoes, manioc, and a variety of grams and pulses.

Traditional agricultural practices make intensive use of green and animal manures, although the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is increasingly common. In coastal regions with limestone bedrock (and particularly in Jaffna), ground water is intensively used to supplement rainfall; irrigation is rare, save in the eastern coastal region.

Domestic animals include cattle and chickens. Significant foods of last recourse include manioc and the ubiquitous palmyrah, which supplies starch from seedlings, molasses, jam, and a mildly alcoholic beverage called toddy. Rapid growth in the service sector (especially retailing, transport, communications, banking, public administration, education, health services, repair, and construction) has created significant new employment opportunities.

Industrial Arts

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, although such goods face stiff competition from industrially-manufactured plastic and aluminum goods, so that traditional goods increasingly used only for ceremonial purposes. Very few industrial enterprises are located in Tamil regions, with the exception of the stateowned cement factory at Kankesanthurai along the northern coast and the chemical factory at Paranthan. 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 other more impecunious 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 agriculturalists. Transport is provided by bullock carts, tractors pulling flatbed trailers, old automobiles, and light trucks.

Division of Labor

Traditional Sri Lanka Tamil society is male-dominated and patriarchal, with a strong division of labor by sex, arranged marriages, and a tendency to demean feminine roles. Female seclusion is a concomitant of family status, thus discouraging women to travel or work without a constant chaperon. However, significant new employment and educational opportunities for women cause many families to moderate the traditional division of labor as they seek additional income. In general, women are responsible for domestic affairs while men work outside the home in agriculture, transport, industry, services, and government.

Land Tenure

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 delays or prevents marriage because traditional dowry customs require the married pair to be given lands and a house.



Kin Groups and Descent

The largest kin group is the ''micro-caste" (called "our caste people" in Tamil), a section of a larger caste category within which people recognise common descent and a shared status. The microcaste is often distributed among several hamlets or wards in adjoining (or in some cases separated) villages; within the hamlet micro-caste members cooperate in agriculture, ritual, trade, and politics. In sharp contrast to south Indian Tamil culture, descent is fully bilateral, save in the eastern coastal regions, where matrilineal descent is common. Kinship Terminology Dravidian terms, which strongly encourage symmetrical cross-cousin marriage, are used.


Marriages among the "respectable" castes are arranged by parents and are accompanied by a large dowry--which, again in sharp contrast to the mainland Tamil pattern, include lands and a house as well as movables and cash. A girl's parent is technically eligible to marry after puberty but marriages are increasingly delayed, often into a woman's mid- to late-twenties, owing to the difficulties involved in assembling the dowry and finding a suitable groom.

The ideal groom is an educated, English speaking, and government- employed man from a good, respectable family of the same micro- caste; again ideally, he is terminologically a cross-cousin of the bride but this is by no means necessary. The traditional Hindu wedding is a lavish affair which declares the family's status. 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. But if a boy's parents discover that he has fallen in love with a girl of good caste, they may try to arrange a traditional marriage. Residence after marriage is neolocal, the determining factor being the availability of lands and a house.

"Love marriages" are increasingly common. Poorer and low-caste families can afford neither the dowry nor the ceremony, so marriages are far more casual. 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). Divorce is exceptionally uncommon and quite difficult legally, but among the poor and lower castes desertion and new, casual relationships are common.

Domestic Unit

The average household size is 5 or 6; a married couple may be joined by elderly parents after these parents relinquish their lands and homes to other children in a form of premortem inheritance.


In contrast to the mainland Tamil pattern property is divided equally among all children. For daughters, the dowry constitutes premortem inheritance. Sons may receive their parents' remaining property; they transfer may take place before death when the elderly parents go to live in one of their children's homes.


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 6 months. Toilet training is relaxed and untraumatic. But there is a pronounced change at approximately age 5, 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. The family's authoritarianism is echoed in school, which emphasises rote instruction and obedience to authority.

Families may force girls to leave school at puberty, following which there is a ceremony that declares 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.



Sri Lanka is a parliamentary democracy with a President as the head of state. The two-party parliamentary system is, however, dominated by Sinhalese, and the Sri Lanka Tamils are not sufficiently numerous to affect the outcome of elections. As a result moderate Tamil politicians who endorsed a parliamentary solution to Tamil grievances were ineffective and were swept away during the rise of Tamil youth militancy.

Social Organisation

Sri Lanka Tamil regions take on their distinctiveness owing to the presence of a dominant agricultural caste--the Vellalars in the Jaffna Peninsula and the Mukkuvars in the eastern coastal region--around which the entire caste system is focused. In contrast to the Tamil mainland, Brahmans are few, and although they are considered higher than the dominant caste in ritual terms, they are generally poor and serve the dominant caste as temple priests or managers.

Traditional intercaste services focused on the dominant caste and were both sacred and secular; the sacred services, such as the services provided by Barbers and Washermen 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. Once bound to these sacred and secular relations, the artisan castes freed themselves by taking advantage of British liberalisations, the expanding service economy, and their urban residence.

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 new marginal economic niches for these groups at the same time that mechanisation rendered their labor unnecessary.

Coastal fishing groups were never incorporated into the compass of agricultural caste solidarity, and in consequence have long maintained their independence and resisted the stigma of low status. Prior to the twentieth century, caste statuses were upheld by a huge variety of sumptuary 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 persists in rural areas. 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 pulled together. Prominent in many Tamil militant organisations are leaders from low or marginal castes; Tamil youth militancy is thus a rejection of traditional caste ideology as well as a generational and ethnic revolt.

Political Organisation

The Sri Lanka State, nominally a parliamentary democracy, is in actuality an artifact of colonial rule: excessively centralised, it was devised to suppress regional rebellions as the British were consolidating their power. The failure of this overly centralised 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 of mainly of unemployed graduates as well as unmarried and rootless youth.

Fractious and focused on a single, charismatic leader, 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 lost credibility by accommodating to the Indian security forces, whose presence and actions in the Sri Lanka Tamil community were resented as much as those of the Colombo forces. After the departure of the Indian troops, these groups lost credibility. At this writing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group whose Marxist trappings belies its stress on ethnic nationalism' has effectively eliminated--through attrition, fear, assassination, and massacre--all other potential sources of political leadership within the Tamil community.

Social Control

Within traditional Sri Lanka 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 youth militancy are both manifestations of a general rejection by youth of traditional forms of authoritarianism.


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. Long-standing grudges and obsession with "enemies," real or imagined, sometimes leads to violence. Dominant castes routinely used violence to punish subordinate groups that were taking on high-caste lifestyle attributes (such as using umbrellas), often by burning down huts or poisoning wells.

Since the late 1970s, the ineffectiveness of moderate Tamil politicians has led many Tamil youths--doubtless influenced by violent Hollywood and Asian films--to conclude that the only solution to their problems lay in violence. The result has been the rise, not only in Tamil areas but throughout Sri Lanka, of a culture of violence, in which unspeakable acts of slaughter and massacre are commonplace. Official estimates are that approximately 20,000 have died in Sri Lanka's decade-old civil war but unofficial estimates place the toll at two to three times that figure.



Religious Beliefs

Sri Lanka Tamils are predominantly Saivite Hindus, but there are significant enclaves of Roman Catholics and Protestants (mainly Methodists). Discussed here is the Hinduism of Tamil Sri Lanka, a Hinduism that is at once utilitarian, philosophical, and deeply devotional.


In temples that conform to the scriptural dictates of the medieval temple-building manuals (called Agamas), the priests are Brahmans. A small caste of non-Brahman temple priests called Saiva Kurukkals performs the rites at non-Agama temples, particularly shrines of the goddess Amman.

The officiants at village and family temples, called pucaris, are ordinary villagers with whom the temple's god has established a spiritual relationship, often through a form of spirit possession. Here and there one finds temple priests who open a shrine to the public and try to solve medical, legal, and social problems for all comers, without regard to caste. The very few holy men are revered but may attract more foreign than indigenous disciples. Astrologists are numerous and are routinely consulted at birth, marriage, and times of trouble.

Hindus believe that one's fate is "written on one's head" (talai viti) and cannot be fully escaped, although some intelligent finessing and divine assistance can help one avoid some problems or calamities.


Siva is the supreme deity, but is not worshipped directly; Siva bestows his grace by running your life so you aspire nothing other than reunification with Him. The perspective taken towards the other deities is frankly utilitarian: they are approached for help with mundane problems, such as illnesses, university exams, job applications, conflicts, legal problems, or infertility. Commonly-worshipped deities include Siva's sons Murukan and Pillaiyar, the several village goddeses (such as Mariyamman and Kannikiyamman), and a host of semi-demonic deities who are thought to demand sacrifices.

Of all deities, most beloved is Murukan a Christ-like god who bestows his grace even on those who may be unworthy, to the extent that they devote themselves to Him. Ceremonies Households celebrate a rich repertoire of calendrical and life-cycle rituals, which bring the family together in joyous holidays. Village temples offer annual "car" festivals, in which the deity is carried around the temple; these ceremonies occur on a much larger scale in regional pilgrimage, which used to attract visitors from all over the country.


With its utilitarian ethos, Sri Lanka Tamil culture does not encourage young people to pursue careers in the arts. Even so, young people may receive instruction in traditional Tamil music or dance, often as a means of impressing on them the antiquity and greatness of Tamil culture.


There is a pronounced division of labor between Western medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which is thought to be more effective for mental illness, snakebite, paralysis, and listlessness.

Death and Afterlife

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 31 days; subsequently, there is an annual death observance with food offerings. For orthodox Saivite Hindus familiar with the Saiva Siddhanta tradition, an oft-expressed goal of afterlife is reunification with Siva.



  • Banks, Michael Y., "Caste in Jaffna," in Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon, and North-West Pakistan, ed. by E.R. Leach (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1961), pp. 61-77;
  • Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar, "The Tamil Militants--Before the Accords and After," Pacific Affairs 61 (1988- 1989): 603-619.
  • Holmes,W. Robert, Jaffna (Sri Lanka): 1980 (Jaffna, Sri Lanka: Jaffna College, 1980);
  • McGilvray, Dennis, Caste Ideology and Interaction (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982);
  • O'Ballance, Edgar, The Cyanide War: Tamil Insurrection in Sri Lanka, 1973-1988 (London: Brassey's, 1989);
  • Pfaffenberger, Bryan, Caste in Tamil Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka (Syracuse: Maxwell School of Foreign and Comparative Studies, Syracuse Univ., 1982);
  • Schwartz, Walter, The Tamils of Sri Lanka, 4th ed. (London: Minority Rights Group, 1988);
  • Skonsberg, Else, A Special Caste? Tamil Women of Sri Lanka (London: Zed Press, 1982).


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