The Making of a Sri
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.