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Home > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography > The Cultural and Linguistic Consciousness of the Tamil Community in Sri Lanka - K.Kailasapathy
‘The Cultural and Linguistic Consciousness
A paper presented at a Social Scientists Association Seminar
The cultural and linguistic consciousness of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka has always been influenced by developments in India in general and South India in particular...
In describing the growth of cultural and linguistic consciousness of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, one cannot treat it in isolation, especially from the political and economic factors that formed the bases for such a consciousness and the inevitable interplay of the two. I propose to limit the scope of this paper to the cultural and linguistic aspects.
One preliminary observation ought to be made at the outset. The cultural and linguistic consciousness of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka has always been influenced by developments in India in general and South India in particular. This applies to politics as much as to culture; accordingly, the major events in India during the last hundred years or so have had their impact on the Tamil community: the rise of the neo-Hindu movements - Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission - the founding of the Indian National Congress (1885), the partition of Bengal (1905), the Swadeshi Movement (1906- 1915), the different regional movements that arose in South India which eventually crystallized in the emergence of the Dravida Munetra Kalagam , and the movement for the formation of linguistic states are some of the more significant events that have contributed to the cultural and linguistic consciousness of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Although there have been, and there continues to be, certain avowed socio-cultural differences between 'Sri Lankan Tamils - who have been living in this country for centuries-and the 'Tamils of Indian origin'- those who came here during the heyday of the plantations - both sections have shared the common characteristic of looking up to India for cultural and spiritual sustenance.
Along with these may be considered the individual influences of personalities like Swami Vivekananda (1863- 1902), Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), both of whom visited Sri Lanka and especially Jaffna, where they were accorded rousing receptions and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), who also visited Jaffna on more than one occasion.
The evolution of the cultural and linguistic consciousness among the Tamils should be seen in this general background. Having delineated the general scene, one has to see the phenomenon more closely.
It is generally accepted by most scholars on the subject that in many Asian countries political nationalism was preceded by religious awakenings that arose in response to Christian missionary activities. The point needs no elaboration. However, what should be pointed out is that this religious awakening was, at least on the surface, of a dual nature.
In their response to the proselytizing activities of the Christian churches, the indigenous religions reacted in two different ways; one reaction appeared to concede the necessity for reform in the traditional religions and thereby obliquely accommodated some of the stances of the Christian church. This attitude was pronounced among the English educated middle classes who were exposed to westernisation. The other reaction was essentially revivalist in character and argued for upholding traditional beliefs and practices.
In the case of Indian history it has become customary to cite the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj respectively for the reformist and revivalist trends. It is of course, arguable, and rightly so, that the two trends were never mutually exclusive and the differences were more apparent then real. Both the reformers and the revivalists came from the Hindu upper castes, but while the former were not only English educated but also used that language for their livelihood and for acquiring social status, the latter were primarily traditional in their education and used their mother tongue for their livelihood and social communication .
From this one may postulate another hypothesis: the religious awakening and the activities connected with it took place at two levels or planes. The reformists were, because of their broader vision and greater exposure to non-traditional cultures, and higher social position in their society, prone to take a liberal and compromising position. Besides most of them wrote in English.
In contrast the revivalists were mainly highly erudite in their mother tongue and wrote in it. Their audience was the local intelligentsia engaged in the professions and the self employed who were of respectable stock and generally landowners. In other words, the religious awakening and fervour can be seen at the larger national level and the local level each with their adherents and their followers. If one might use the term 'elites' to describe these people, then a distinction can be drawn between the national and local elites. Bearing in mind the fact that such a distinction is never mutually exclusive we may adopt it for our analysis.
The religious revival among the Hindus in Sri Lanka was largely due to the pioneering efforts of Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879). This is not the place to narrate in detail the crucial and seminal role played by him in kindling a consciousness among the Tamils in Sri Lanka and South India about their spiritual heritage. In many ways Navalar could be compared to Dayananda Saraswathi (1824-1883) who founded the Arya Samaj in North India. What Dayananda did for the Vedic religion in the North, Navalar accomplished for the Saiva-Agamic faith in South India and Sri Lanka.
Hailed as the father of modern Tamil prose, originator of public speaking, the first non-Christian to write and publish Tamil text-books for primary and secondary schools, pioneer textual critic, an innovator in grammar, and founder of Saiva schools, Navalar bestrode like a collosus, the Hindu -Tamil world of his day. Utilising the profound knowledge he had acquired while helping Rev. Peter Percival with the Tamil translation of the Bible, Navalar counter attacked the Christian missionaries who were publishing tracts ridiculing the Hindu gods and scriptures. Navalar started publishing pungent pamphlets against the Christians and initiated a movement to win back those who had been converted to Christianity. (Here again one can see a parallel between Navalar and Dayananda Saraswathi whose concept of Shuddhi 'reclamation or reconversion' helped to fortify the cracks in Hinduism).
As a writer of polemics Navalar had few equals. He was followed in this by almost all his disciples, among whom the notable ones were Siva Sangara Pandithar (1829-1891). Senthinatha Iyer (1848-1924), and N. Kathiravel Pillai (1874-1907). The activities of Navalar led to the founding of the Saiva Paripalana Sabhai (Society for the Preservation of Saivism) in 1888, and the Jaffna Hindu High School in 1890 which was later renamed Hindu College. An editorial in the Hindu Organ (July, 1899) makes the point clear.
Paramount role played by Navalar was not confined to the religious and educational fields...
The paramount role played by Navalar was not confined to the religious and educational fields. No doubt his contributions to the two were unique and far reaching. But Navalar had a social outlook that went beyond that of any other Tamil religious reformer of his time. He had unhesitatingly thrown his weight behind the campaign against the Government Agent of Jaffna, W.C. Twynam whose measures were extremely unpopular. He organised relief measures providing meals for the needy during the severe famine in 1876; he was the force behind the founding of the Jaffna and Batticaloa Commercial and Agricultural Company Limited, whose prime purpose was to develop agriculture in the Trincomalee District. He pioneered the temperance movement; just before his death he campaigned for the selection of P. Ramanathan as the Tamil representative to the Ceylon Legislature in 1879 to fill the vacancy created by the death of Sir M Coomaraswamy in May 1879.
Convening a meeting of the prominent personalities in Jaffna, among whom were merchants, public notaries, engineers, vidans, udayars and a sub-magistrate, Navalar drew up a memorial to be sent to the Governor (Sir James R. Longdon), requesting that Mr. P Ramanathan be appointed 'a member of the legislative Council to represent the interests of the community'. Thus Navalar created the climate for Ramanathan to enter active politics and influence public life. Navlar was able to combine his interests in the religious field with practical actions that were vital to the community and mingle both socio-politics and religion. This was a major contribution to the subsequent cultural awakening among the Tamils.
But there was another aspect to this. Navalar, it may be remembered, spent several years in Madras, in lecturing and publishing. But many others C.W. Thamotheram Pillai (1932-1901), V. Kannagasabhai Pillai (1855-1906), T. Chellappah Pillai, T A. Rajaratnam Pillai, T. Kanagasundaram Pillai (1863 1922), T. Saravanamulllu Pillai, Sabapathy Navalar (1843-1903) and N. Kathiravel Pillai (1874-1907) virtually spent their lives in South India holding positions in government service and publishing their works with a sense of dedication rarely seen in later times.
They did visit Jaffna off and on and founded schools in their villages or helped others to find avenues of advancement in Madras. Such close links between Jaffna and Madras were something new.
It was true that there had been traditional connections between the two regions populated by people speaking a common language and cherishing a common cultural tradition. But the earlier links were sporadic and few and far between. Probably there were more traders soldiers and adventurers than scholars and poets. The opportunities under British rule to travel to India freely not only revived earlier bonds, but also established new relationships that were different in quality. By living and working in the midst of the Tamils in South India, who were themselves experiencing tremendous changes, these scholars from Sri Lanka engaged in a two way traffic of ideas and movements that. ushered ha a new era.
These scholars considered themselves part of the mainstream of Tamil culture and contributed to it as much as they received. In fact, during the time of Navalar and about three decades after his death it was the 'Jaffna School' that dominated the literary scene in Madras. The late A.V. Subramania Ayyar (1900-1976) has rightly remarked that the most eminent Tamil scholar in the last quarter of 19th century was perhaps C.W. Thamotharam Pillai, 'He belongs to the band of Jaffna Tamil scholars and is next in importance only to Arumuga Navalar, who exercised considerable influence over him and his literary work'.
In passing it may be noted that Thamotharam Pillai was one of the first two graduates of the Madras University passing the degree in 1858; the other, Viswanatlha. Pillai (1820-1880) was also from Jaffna Later Thamotharam Pillai was a member of the Madras University Syndicate and also 'appears to have been advisor to the Madras government on matters relating to Tamil .
Robert Caldwell's 'Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Language' set in motion a train of ideas that went beyond the field of philology...
While the "Jaffna Scholars" were making their presence felt in South India - lecturing, teaching, debating, editing and publishing - they were also witnessing the nascent stirrings of the cultural nationalism in Tamilnadu. Although Navalar seems to have missed the impact of the publication of Bishop Caldwell's (1814 -1891) Comparative Grammar of Dravidian Language ( 1856; revised edition 18 75), Thamotharam Pitlai and others unmistakably show the influence of that work. I have elsewhere dealt with the subject and need not delve into it here. Suffice to say that by theorising about the antiquity and independence of the Dravidian languages vis-a-vis Sanskrit and the Indo-Aryaln languages, Robert Caldwell 'set in motion a train of ideas and movements whose repercussions and consequences went beyond the field of philology.'
Of course Caldwell was not entirely alone in postulating a glorious history for the Tamil language. There were other European missionaries who put forward the Dravidian case. But it was Caldwell's Comparative Grammar that summed it up Already in the lengthy and controversial prefaces to the critical editions of ancient Tamil classics brought out by Thamotharam Pillai -Virasoiyam (1895) and Kalitokai (1887), we hear echoes of Caldwell's assertions about Dravidian and Tamil. Not only the classical works - both literary and grammatical - but also the medium of those creations had become an object of veneration. The modern linguistic consciousness of the Tamils can be traced to this period. The patron saint of the movement was ironically enough a Christian missionary .
By about 1880s, the Tamil elite, both in South India and Sri Lanka had become quite enthusiastic about their language, culture and history. The landmark was of course the publication of a verse play Manonmmaniyam (1891) by P. Sundaram Pillai (1855-1897) who was professor of philosophy at the Trivancore University College. In that celebrated work he had described Tamil as 'Goddess'. The language had been declared divine and thereby sacrosanct.
These events were taking place in South India with the full participation and contribution of Sri Lanka Tamils. An indication of the growing awareness of languages and culture was the commencement of the publication of two journals; Siddhanta Deepika, 'The Light of Truth' (1897-1913), and the Tamilian Antiquary (1907-1914) . A recent researcher's observation on the two journals clinches the point.
What is pertinent here is the fact that Tamil scholars of Sri Lanka actively participated in the publication of these journals. The Siddhanta Deepika was edited by J. M. Nallaswami Pillai (1864-1920), and the Tamilian Antiquary was edited by Pandit D. Savariroya Pillai (1854-1923). The former was a district magistrate and the latter a lecturer at St. Joseph's College, Trichy. A perusal of the pages of the volumes of these journals will demonstrate both the quantity and quality of the contributions by Sri Lankan Tamils: P. Arunachalam, P. Ramanathan , S. W. Coomaraswamy (1875- 1936), A . Muthutamby Pillai (1858 1917), V. J Tamby Pillai, T. Ponnambala Pillai and a few others seem to have been regular contributors to these Journals. Arunachalam's translations appeared under the initials P. A.
Nallaswami Pillai was an ardent admirer of Navalar and cherished the writings of Sri Lankan Tamil scholars. Pandit Savariroya Pillai was encouraged by two well-placed Tamils from Jaffna who held responsible posts. T. Ponllambala Pillai was Commissioner of Excise in Travancore. His brother T. Chellapah Pillai was a justice in Travancore. T. P. Masilamani Pillai was the son of the former who also wrote articles in the Tamilian Antiquary. On his return to Sri Lanka after his retirement, T. Chellapah Pillai was elected President of the Saiva Paripalana Sabhai.
The case of Pandit Savariroyan brings us to another point. Although the cultural awakening began as a Hindu movement and was predominantly led by Saiva scholars, its character changed over the years. The prestige accorded to Christian missionary scholars, (Caldwell, Percival, Bower, Pope, Ellis) and the endeavours of scholars like Savariroyan brought the Christians into the mainstream. Furthermore, with the shifting of focus from religion to language, the importance hitherto attached to Saivism became less significant. (In fact, the active role played by local Christian scholars both in India and Sri Lanka, from the time of Savariroya Pillai -- L.D. Swamikannu Pillai(1865-1925), Fr. S. Gnanapiragasar (1875-1947), Dr. T. Isaac Tambyah (1869-1941) and Rev. Fr. X.S. Thani Nayagam - in the cause of Tamil has, at times, led to the allegation by some Hindus that the Christians have infiltrated the Tamil cultural movement.)
Concern for Tamil manifested itself in the number of societies and associations that were formed for its protection and development...
The events mentioned above had, without doubt, their effect in Sri Lanka. The concern for the Tamil language manifested itself in various ways. A number of societies and associations were formed for its protection and development. As may be expected, Jaffna led the way. As early as 1898 a Tamil Academy was established in Jaffna by the efforts of T. Kailasapillai (1852-1939), a nephew of Arumuga Navalar on whom had fallen the mantle of the great savant. It is interesting to note that Pandi Thurai Thevar (1867-1911), the zamindar of Palavanantham, Ramnad District, founded the Madurai Tamil Sangam. in 1901, inspired by the Jaffna Tamil Academy.
This trend gathered momentum during the next few decades and a number of associations were formed. (The Colombo Tamil Sangam was formed in 1942). Conferences and meetings were held to celebrate different aspects of Tamil language and literature, one such meeting was held at the Ridgeway Hall in Jaffna in 1922, presided over by A. Kanagasabai. This was the first major literary conference in Jaffna and to befit the occasion, leading personalities from Madras were invited. Among them were Dr. S. Krishnaswamy Iyengar (1871-1947), K. Subramania Pillai (1889-1945) a staunch Tamil revivalist, P.V. Manicka Naicker (18711931) a language enthusiast and A. Madaviah (1874-1925) the novelist. Sir Vaitilingam Duraiswamy presided over the proceedings of the second day. T.A. Thuraiappa Pillai (1872-1929) who was the founder of Mahajana College and himself a poet and playwright took an active part in this conference. In the same year the Arya-Dravida Basha Development Society was inaugurated.
Pattern of development seen in the case of the Tamil language was paralleled in the case of Saiva Siddanta philosophy...
The pattern of development seen in the case of the Tamil language was paralleled in the case of Saiva Siddanta philosophy, characterized as the indigenous religious thought of the Tamils. Following the early lead given by Navalar in restoring its prestige and strength, numerous associations sprung up in different parts to foster it. Reference has already been made to the Jaffna Saiva Paripalan Sabhai. In South India the Saiva Siddhanta Samajam was founded in 1905.
Hitherto the Mutts or Saiva monasteries were the sole custodians of Saiva religion and philosophy. But now laymen considered it their bounden duty to preserve them. The Samajam became the association par excellence for the propagation of Saiva Siddhanta and several prominent Tamils from Sri Lanka took a leading part in its activities: distinguished Sri Lankans were often invited to deliver lectures at the Samajam and also preside over its annual sessions. J.M. Nallaswami Pillai was closely associated with the Samajam.
Sociologically speaking, the linguistic and cultural awakening was essentially that of the middle-class Tamils with the upper middle-class providing the leadership...
Sociologically speaking, the linguistic and cultural awakening described above was essentially that of the middle-class Tamils with the upper middle-class providing the leadership. The awakening which began in the religious sphere extended to the linguistic and literary fields. Basically it was a form of cultural self-assertion in the face of colonial domination The point is that this cultural consciousness was limited in scope and in effect, designed to buttress the middle-class values and aspirations and also provide that class with the necessary image for leadership.
In so far as language was concerned, the zeal for Sen-Tamil, 'Cultured Tamil' or 'Classical Tamil' which for all practical purposes was moribund, (although Sir P. Ramanathan and his son in-law and political successor S. Natesan created a vogue for speaking in the classical style), was the basis for the founding of societies and the holding of conferences.
Bharata Natyam and Carnatic Music were the two forms that came to be considered the necessary artistic acquirements for a cultured Tamil girl...
Bharathanatyam and Carnatic Music were the two forms that came to be considered the necessary artistic acquirements for a cultured Tamil girl. Both were extolled as 'Tamilian arts and achievements' and soon became the preoccupation of middle-class Tamils. Bharata Natyam in particular had been resuscitated in the early twenties by the efforts of people like Bharata Iyer, Rukmani Arundale (who founded the Kalakshetra, which has remained the outstanding dance academy in Madras) and G. Venkatachalam whose critical essays helped propagate the traditions and ideals of that dance form. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Bharata Natyam had become degraded, and called a 'nautch-dance', performed by courtesans and prostitutes.
While scholars and critics from G. Venkatachalam to the late Professor V. Raghavan contributed immensely to the resurgence of Bharata Natyam, it was perhaps, in the writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy that the dance form found its greatest champion. Two of the earliest monographs of Coomaraswamy were The Mirror of Gesture (1917) and The Dance of Shiva (1918) both of which have inspired almost all subsequent writers on Bharata Natyam. Likewise Carnatic music had been brought from the court and temple to the concert hall and along with the dance form, acclaimed as divine arts.
Thus we see that Tamil language, Bharata Natyam and Carnatic music were deified and thereby denied the possibility of experimentation and innovation. It goes without saying that considerable affluence was the precondition for the cultivation of these arts and it was the upper classes that could afford them.
Needless to say the 'ancient and divine arts' were carefully guarded against any political intrusions, especially of any ideas tinged with social reform or change. To put it differently, artistic forms which are periodically revitalized by the absorption of radical ideas and giving expression to them, were kept hermetically sealed by the upper middle class Purely as status symbols and ethnic identity characteristics.
This was the nature of the linguistic and cultural consciousness of the Tamils until the 1950s. The most sensitive Tamil scholars and creative writers like the late A. Periyathambi Pillai (1899-1978), S. Somasundra Pulavar (1878- I 953), N. Nallathambi Pulavar (1896-1951) and Thuraiappa Pillai always conceived Sinhala and Tamil as two eyes or two sisters or two companions and sang of a united happy home.
Post-independent political development began to change this picture...the disfranchisement of about 900,000 Tamils of Indian origin and other events increased the awareness of the Tamils as a national minority...
Post-independent political development began to change this picture. The disfranchisement of about 900,000 Tamils of Indian origin and the constant increase of Sinhalese seats in successive parliamentary elections and other events increased the awareness of the Tamils as a national minority. It is not fortuitous that in 1952, the Tamil Cultural Society was formed in Colombo. Its programme included not only the propagation of the history and culture of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, but also in other parts of the world.
Some aspects of the cultural consciousness at this period merit attention. Although South India continued to be looked upon as the 'mainland', it was nevertheless gradually receding in to the background. The past and present history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka was unavoidably becoming increasingly important and experientially immediate. Whatever common links and bonds there were between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and South India, the two peoples ware living under different governments and facing different problems.
Sri Lanka Tamils began to manifest a keen interest in questions such as: were they autochthonous to the land?...
The dialectal differences too were becoming more evident. Thus for the first time, Sri Lanka Tamils began to manifest a keen interest in this land. No doubt the interest was mostly from the Tamil point of view. Questions such as when and from where did the Tamils come here? Are they autochthonous to the land? What is their relationship to the Sinhala people? What is their contribution to the culture and civilization of this country? These and other questions protruded to the forefront in ever increasing frequency and intensity.
It is true that in the preceding decades Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam (1870-1940), Fr. Gnanapiragasar, A. Muthuthamby, K. Velupillai (18601944) and others had shown interest in the history of the Tamils. Their attempts were basically academic in character. But in the fifties, the historical writings were more than academic. There was an urgency and involvement in the quests. Professor K. Kanapathi Pillai (1903-1968) published his historical play Sankili (1956) which he prefaced with a 'history of Tamils in Sri Lanka '
This was followed by C.S. Navaratnam's Tamils and Ceylon (1958), and K. Navaratnam's Tamil Element in Ceylon Culture (1959). Nor was the interest confined to history. K. Navaratnam (1898-1962) who was a devotee of Ananda Coomaraswamy and had popularised some of his books in Tamil, brought out in Tamil the Development of Arts in Sri Lanka (1954).
This trend continued to grow with the voices becoming more shrill and the tone overtly polemical. Some of the academic writings of this period found an outlet in the journal Tamil Culture (1952- 1966) which was being edited by a Sri Lankan, Xavier S. Thani Nayagam. It was printed and published in Madras. It carried academic articles like A.J. Wilson's 'Cultural and Language Rights in the Multinational Society' (1953), Thani Nayagam's 'Tamil Culture - its past, its present and its future with special reference to Ceylon' (1955) and also amateurish pieces like W. Balendra's 'Trincomali Bronzes' 11953) and S.J. Gunasegram's 'Early Tamil Cultural Influences in South-East Asia' (1957). H.W. Tambiah published his The Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Ceylon (1954) probably responding to the prevalent mood. A recent contribution to the subject is Tamil Cullure in Ceylon by M.D. Raghavan.
Concept of Tamil culture was given a wider significance and interpretation...
Generally speaking, the concept of Tamil culture was given a wider significance and interpretation. C. Sivaratnam's ‘The Tamils in Early Ceylon’ (1964) reflects this tendency. There were also plans for the economic reconstruction and development of Tamil areas and world Tamil unity. From this period, the Tamil cultural movement becomes overtly political and begins to show up its class character and ideological leaning.
It is at this stage that for the first time, the literary and cultural movement touches the traditionally oppressed sections of the Tamil people who had hitherto been beyond the pale. Both in South India and Sri Lanka, post-independence problems created the conditions for the emergence of a band of writers who came from the traditionally oppressed sections of Tamil society, that is, the lower castes. Many of them were attracted by Marxism and communist organisations which provided them with a world view and also the confidence to struggle against exploitation and articulate their thoughts and feelings freely .
As might be expected, their level of literary education was somewhat low. But they ushered in new experiences and visions into fiction, poetry and drama using hitherto unheard of dialects, idioms and expressions. They were indifferent to 'correct' Tamil itself as taught by school teachers; classical Tamil was of no concern to them. They in fact openly despised it and ridiculed its proponents. To them linguistic restrictions or restraints were akin to social and political oppression and all such barriers had to be broken down.
Harrison's general observation in a slightly different context seems applicable here:
The cultural nationalism of the Tamils is today at the cross roads. It has two options before it. To tread the path of cultural isolation and chauvinism or to identify those features that are also common to the majority community and work out a democratic way of life. The choice would appear to be obvious. But to do that would also mean a national struggle by both communities obfuscating the veil of narrow ethnic interests and marching towards a social order in which there will be no exploitation of man by man.