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
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
discrimination and cannot effectively participate in Sri Lanka's national
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
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
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.
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.
SETTLEMENTS & ECONOMY
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.
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
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 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.
KINSHIP, MARRIAGE &
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
- 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
- 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