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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Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

The Making of a Sri Lankan Tamil
Northeastern Herald, 1 November 2002

The Sri Lankan Tamils as a group of people with definitive traits and characteristics that distinguish them socio-culturally and anthropologically from other such groups are today better known internationally than even the Tamils of south India. They are today seen as a politically well integrated community though spread across the world.

They are very much concerned with the maintenance and fostering of their cultural identity as Sri Lankan Tamils and are keen in transmitting their traditions to their younger generation wherever they live.A major feature of the feeling of oneness of this community is that it cuts across religious barriers. In the contemporary psyche of this society a Christian Sri Lankan Tamil is as important an inheritor of Tamil culture as a Hindu Tamil. More importantly this feeling of being Sri Lankan Tamil does not arise from any notion of classical cultural heritage coming top down but a consciousness that grows from within and arises from a shared tradition of life.

There is a certain degree of sturdiness and authenticity that characterise this consciousness. The apparent diversities that one sees in the community do not shake the essence of this unity. It needs emphasis that the bedrock of the Sri Lankan Tamil identity is the feeling that this island is the community’s mother country. And that fact, namely its geography and history have shaped the cultural traditions of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Their feeling is that they belong to this island and nowhere else. And they are very proud of it. It is this sense of pride that has made them use the term Eelam, derived from the word Hela, and used in classical Tamil literature. Not very many non-Tamil scholars know that the word Eelam has the lexical meaning ‘the Island of Simhala’.

It may come as a surprise to many that what is taken as the Sri Lankan Tamil community is really a socio-cultural aggregate of unevenly developed and, to a certain extent, once secluded, regions of the present northeast. Quite often the regional specifics of daily cultural existence of this community reveal marked differences in spite of its basic commonness of social organisation, kinship system and language. In fact a quarter century ago it was the differences that were articulated more than the commonness. Starting from the east, the following are the geographically easily identifiable regions from which the Sri Lankan Tamil community comes.

Batticaloa (including the Tamils of the Ampara district)
Trincomalee (reference is made here more to the residents of the hinterlands than the townsfolk.
The Vanni (Tamil Vanni really consists of the old Vavuniya and the Mullaithivu districts)
The Jaffna peninsula and the islands
The southwestern coast of Mannar and the Mannar Island.
The coast from Puttalam to Negombo.

Besides these, there are two important two important regions of Tamil residence. They are Colombo (as the capital city) and the upcountry region referred to as the Malayaham in contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil. Today, the Sri Lankan Tamil identity draws itself basically from the six regions. There is a general belief that Jaffna is the most crucial region in the formation of Sri Lankan Tamilness. The fact that there was a state formation from the 13th to the 16th century in Jaffna lends credence to this belief. In colonial times, especially in the British period, a Sri Lankan response to colonialism and westernisation was conceptually formulated first in Jaffna through Arumuga Navalar who articulated the Hindu Tamil identity. Navalar cannot be taken as anti-British. His concern was mainly with Hinduism and the preservation of the Jaffna social order.

One cannot therefore argue that despite his contribution to Tamil writing, Navalar, can be taken as landmark in the rise of Sri Lankan Tamilness. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who inherited his religio-cultural legacy was opposed to democratising the Tamil society. (Today democratisation constitutes the sheet anchor of Tamil solidarity). The scripturalisation of Jaffna Hinduism by the Navalar school peripheralised pre and non Sanskiritic Tamil forms of worship like the rituals associated with Murugan and Kannaki amman.

When the Youth Congress of Jaffna was established in the 1920’s its appeal was based largely within the framework of Indian nationalism.

In cultural terms the period of Navalar and thereafter show a steady process of Sanskritisation as described by the Indian sociologist M.N Srinivas (or ‘Agamaisation’ in Navalar’s own words)in Jaffna. This leads to a virtual erosion of the popular Tamil cults and ritual traditions which constituted the strength of the culture of the other Tamil regions.

Due to the advantages Jaffna which enjoyed in social and political terms, the Tamil problem was mainly articulated there. Until the question of land became central to the Tamil question, the problems of Jaffna tended to be presented and perceived as the problems of the Sri Lankan Tamils. As for instance, the issue of state sector employment was a problem mainly affecting Jaffna.

The other major region, Batticaloa in a way stands in contrast to the Sanskritic Hindu cultural traditions promoted by the Navalar school in Jaffna. Even in those temples of high gods, rituals are not that ‘Agamised’ as in Jaffna. This quite evidently seen at the Sivan Temple in Kokkaddicholai. Batticaloa retains the matriclan Kudi system among all castes and the Muslims. In Jaffna the Kudi system is dormant and is only perceptible among the less Sanskritised caste groups. However, in Jaffna this Kudi system is not as systematised as in Batticaloa. The region’s caste system is less rigid and the cultic traditions are such that they do not legitimise caste as in Sanskritised, Agamaised Hinduism. Thus there is a better potential for social and political mobilisation which is not possible to that extent in Jaffna. This political mobilisation has been well demonstrated in the emergence of a primarily Tamil educated youth taking up to politics and leadership.

Given the fact that Mr. S. J. V Chelvanayagam, the founder leader of the Federal Party had to depend on a batch of Tamil educated youth from the east, belonging to the rationalist movement there such as. S. E Kamalanathan, S. D Sivanayagam, Saturday Kandasamy, Vettivel Vinayagamoorthy, Ira Pathmanathan,, to mobilise the masses, the pre-eminence of Batticaloa in Tamil politics was assured beyond doubt. Quite in contrast to this political Tamil leadership in Jaffna until the arrival of the militant youth was confined to the English speaking professional leisure class, comprising mainly lawyers. Except for K. Vanniasigham who was the master of wit and irony, the young Amithalingam inspired by the rhetoric of the Dravidian Movement and M. Sivasithamparam, no major Tamil nationalist political leader of Jaffna was a persuasive communicator in Tamil.

Batticaloa, with its comparatively better structured feudalism aided by the geographical seclusion it enjoyed, especially in the Paduvanakarai region, was able to retain a basic, uncorrupted Tamilness.

In contrast, the social history of Jaffna shows westernisation began early in the 19th century and was very pervasive - very few places in the peninsula were left untouched by inroads of modernity.

It is a pity that the history of the Trincomalee district, especially that of its hinterland, has not yet been properly researched and recorded even in terms of the history of the entire island. Post Magha Sri Lankan history has left it as a major blank!

The traditions of the littoral villages of the Trincomalee, starting from Thennameravady going down to Salli in the northern part of the district and from Mutur to Verugal in its southern part is not yet fully explored even though it is yet a repository of unique Tamil traditions (perhaps it is not known to many that there are Tamil speaking Veddhas living in this region). As in the case of Batticaloa here too land tenure and social organisation kept virtually intact many Tamil traditions and linguistic usage that had eroded or vanished elsewhere.

The Tamil Vanni was until the early sixties a closed book. Here too there was less caste rigidity (because of the immense availability of land) and marked continuity of non-Sanskritic Tamil rituals especially those associated with birth, coming of age, marriage and death. In fact this region was politicised only after the threat of Sinhalization became real. And thus in the Vanni there was an immediate fall back on the intrinsic Tamilness forgetting centuries of Sinhala Tamil tranquillity in the region. The comparative economic backwardness of the Vanni also made them to retain their traditional Tamilness.

Mannar presents a strikingly different picture. Here is a place with a history of a wonderful balance among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. This is perhaps historically the most important centre of Catholic activity. Mannar served as a key transmitting point for Catholicism in spreading the gospel among the Singhalese. There very rich religio-literary/artistic traditions here which have not been studied fully. They derive their historical roots from the Mathottam (Mahatitha) days. The history of the pearl fishery of this coast connecting it up to Tuticorin in south India on the one hand and Chilaw on the other is has not been explored fully. The strong Catholic tradition among the peasantry and fisher folk of Mannar has strengthened their Tamilness. (Rather than retaining and co-opting the social traditions of the past the Protestant Churches, through  modernisation/westernisation created a sense of Tamil awareness. (c.f. the rediscovery of Tamil traditions by the American Missionaries of Jaffna). Without going into the details of the northwestern region where as mentioned in these columns earlier, Sinhalisation which went along with Roman Catholicism and confining ourselves to the present northeast, one should highlight three major factors in the development of modern Sri Lankan Tamil consciousness. They are:

1. The introduction of free education opened the flood gates of talent and intellect from regions and groups which had hitherto been kept out of education and upward social mobility.

2. The introduction of vernacular education too helped these regions and groups similarly and simultaneously.

3. The defensive mechanisms that arose among all Sri Lankan Tamils irrespective of their groups and regions due to the imposition of Sinhala only.

Regarding point three, it would be useful to distinguish the two important phases in the development of Sri Lankan Tamil consciousness. The first came with the legislative enactments and administrative impositions relating to the use of the Sinhala language and the marginalisation of Tamil. This affected the educated Tamils more than the Tamil peasantry, fisher folk and artisans. In the second phase, begins when the state aided Sinhala colonisation became a direct threat to the very existence of the peasantry and fisher folk. It was at this point that Tamil awareness was taken to the last Tamil man and woman.

Speaking of the Sinhala impact, one should not forget the positive influence of what happened in Sri Lankan Tamil theatre. It should be said to the credit of Sarachandra that without his Maname Vithiyanathan would not have lunched on his quest for the rediscovery of the Tamil Kooththu. But what distinguishes this interaction from the other impacts was that it was friendly and acknowledging each other’s importance. While ancient political history was being used to fight contemporary issues in Sri Lankan politics, Tamil and Sinhala artists and scholars in the fields of theatre and literature were speaking about the mutual contributions of their respective cultures. These artists strove to construct what the charlatans destroyed.

Perhaps most crucial factor in the emergence of Sri Lankan Tamilness was the arrival of the Tamil youth in the arena of politics. Coming in first as a challenge to the political ‘mollifiers’ among the Tamils, they with the knowledge of Tamil only and with no chance ever to learn Sinhala, demanded equal rights as sons and daughters of this country. The tragic irony was that it was at this time administrative and legislative barricades were put up, preventing them from joining the national mainstream. The more those barricades worked the more they felt their Tamilness, this time cutting across the hitherto divisive castes and regions.

And when the need for their political mobilisation arose the pattern of recruitment showed that here were groups paying scant regard to the taboos and social barriers and inhibitions which had weighed heavily upon their preceding generations. The Sri Lankan Tamil community had produced its own youthful dissidents and the state and the security forces decided to treat them as they did the JVP. But there was a distinction between a Sri Lankan government treating the Sinhala miscreants and a Sinhala dominated state dealing with the Tamil youth. This constituted the last straw on the already loaded camel’s back. Sri Lankan Tamilness has not only become permanent but started asserting its uniqueness.

Supported by a rich tradition of art and literature which draw from the resources of the variegated regions and subcultures of the northeast, they are creating a new symphony which demands not only close listening but deeper and sympathetic understanding.


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