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 > Tamils - a Nation without a State > Nations & Nationalism > The Strength of an Idea > Martyr Cults - Peter Schalk: Introduction & Sacrilisation of Politics by the LTTE > Martyr Cults - Peter Schalk: The concept of martyrdom of the LTTE & devotio, the ideal act of the tiyaki of the LTTE > Martyr Cults - Peter Schalk: Great Heroes' Day & the celebration of heroism by the Government and other former IIavar movements > Martyr Cults - Peter Schalk: The veneration of martyrs by the LTTE , Summary & References

The Revival of Martyr Cults among Ilavar

Peter Schalk - Copyright Temenos 33 (1997), 151­190.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
The concept of martyrdom of the LTTE
Devotio, the ideal act of the tiyaki of the LTTE

The concept of martyrdom of the LTTE

The LTTE very often uses Tamil words for "martyr" and adds without hesitation the English word "martyr" in English pamphlets, as if the Tamil words were equivalents. Let us first make clear what we may mean with '`martyr" in a Jewish­Christian tradition. The Western reader is influenced by this tradition. Discussions about "true" and "false" martyrs usually preclude a conceptualisation of what a martyr is. The discussion in the West about what a martyr is is very complex, but we will make it short here.

We can say that the image of a martyr meaning "(blood) witness" made up in a Jewish Christian tradition contained eight elements. If these are put together as an image or ideal role and are ascribed to a person, then we have to do with a fully competent martyr.

  1. A martyr­to­be has a firm conviction that he does not want to change or abandon under any circumstance.
  2. A martyr­to­be is exposed to physical or mental torture and is executed because of his conviction.
  3. A martyr­to­be has not used violence or urged others to use violence to defend him, but he has nevertheless shown remarkable civil courage.
  4. A martyr­to­be is regarded as "genuine" by his followers.
  5. A martyr­to­be's conviction is evaluated by his followers as representing important cultural values, if not ultimate cultural values.
  6. A martyr­to­bets torture and death are regarded as redemption for his own failures in life or for his group's or for humanity's as a whole.
  7. The death of a martyr is regarded not as an end but as a passage to another way of existence. Life is regarded as indestructible for a martyr.
  8. The dead martyr is venerated in ritual.

The ideal martyrs are those who die Christ­like, even if they are Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

There is a "movement", then, in the life of a martyr that passes through total humiliation and dehumanisation but ends up in elevation, grades of apotheosis and recognition. This "movement", seen from a global point of view, follows a well­known pattern that we know from rites of marginalisation. We could say that the life of a martyr follows the pattern of a rite of marginalisation in which especially humiliation and submission to death are stressed (but ending nevertheless in elevation). The process of martyrdom repeats the same pattern as baptism or an initiation rite. In certain trends of Judaism and Christianity, this stressing of submission became a permanent and dominant feature and constituted these religions as "religions of martyrdom".

If we apply this normative pattern of maximum competence for a martyr, we find that the LTTE martyr is not fully competent. Regarding item 2, most LTTE fighters die in battle, but there are also cases of torture and executions. The main deviation from the pattern is item 3 stipulating that the martyr has not used violence. The Muslim martyr, the shahid, also falls short here, and so does the mediaeval Christian martyr who dies with his sword in his hands.

Item 6 has to be clarified. The concept of redemption in the LTTE does not refer to sins committed by individuals or by the community against God earlier in life or in history; it refers to the killing of enemies. The blood that has been spilled by the LTTE martyr for the holy aim redeems the killing of the enemy. This is made explicit in a secret ritual performed by the LTTE over the corpse of a martyr.

Instead of rigidly applying a Jewish­Christian normative pattern, which is provoked by the LTTE's own reference to the Jewish Christian term "martyr", we should, of course, look for an indigenous Indian interpretative pattern, and we find it in the concept of tiyakam (see below). According to this pattern, the LTTE is indeed fully competent. The problem is that the LTTE does not stick to one term alone. There are thus several ideas crossing each other, sometimes in the same text.

In the sacrificial ideology of the LTTE the following terms, demonstrating its complexity, are highly frequent:

  • arppan,ippu, "sacrifice",
  • pali, "sacrifice",
  • virar, "hero", viram, 'heroism",
  • maravar' 'warrior",
  • maram' 'valour",
  • tiyaki, "one who abandons",
  • tiyakam, "abandonment",
  • catci, "witness", "martyr",
  • "martyr"( English)

The word arppanippu (alternatively arppanam or arppanam) comes from Sanskrit arpana. We have translated it with "sacrifice". It can also mean "dedication", referring to the sacrifice that is dedicated to a god. The word also belongs to a secular context, to the dedication of a book. It does, however, originally belong to a religious ritual context, to the libation offered to the god in the temple or to any gift presented to the god. We have the word tevarppanam, "offering that is acceptable to gods''. Arppi, "to offer", could include the totality of a human as expressed in the Tamil composite ivvutampai unakkarpanam akkinen, "I have sacrificed this body to you". In the context of the LTTE this sacrifice becomes a sacrifice for the realisation of Tamililam.

Not being aware of the religious sacrificial connotation of this Hindu term, the reader misses the point that is communicated to the reader of the Tami1 text: just as a libation or any gift is sacrificed to a god, so you sacrifice yourself totally for the sake of the holy aim. The sacrifice on the battlefield is rationalised by reference to a well­known sacrifice to a god. The closest parallel in the West to the arppannippu would be the devotio practised by dedicated fighters on the battlefield of the Romans.


The word pali (Sanskrit bali) refers to a sacrifice to gods and manes, and the Tamil verb palikotu means "to sacrifice a victim", "to present offerings (to a deity)" and "to kill". A pali is that which has been "killed" or taken as a sacrifice. It can be an animal, boiled rice or flowers given to a god or to manes. In LTTE language, the pali is, of course, not an animal or vegetable. The pali is the fighter himself who has been killed and who is at the same time the sacrificer and the sacrifice. He gets killed in the very act of killing that intents to make the holy aim come true. His getting killed is equalled to the killing of a sacrifice in the kovil. The word pali belongs to the sacrificial language of the Hindu temple.


The word virar is an honorific masculine form for viran. That means "Hon. hero". There is no feminine form *viral, but another form viri. A "heroine" can also be designated in literary Tamil by other names like talaivi, "female leader", and vira ananku, "heroic woman". Only the epicene form vicar is applied to women in LTTE texts. There is also the neologism virankanai, "heroic woman", created first by the DMK and then taken up by the LTTE.

Viram or viriyam means "bravery", "heroism", "fortitude".

The LTTE leadership bestows posthumously exclusively the honorific title virar, "Hero", or ma~virar, "Great Hero", to all men and women, cadres of the LTTE. These are the persons who have succumbed to their wounds in battle or who have anticipated getting killed by killing themselves with cyanide in battle (or in battle­like situations) to avoid capture and torture. The dead fighter is sometimes called vira maranamatainta vicar, "hero who attained heroic death".

The word virar in an LTTE context is complex because it refers to different historical traditions about heroes and to different types of heroes.


The word maram is connected with "valour" "bravery", "anger", "wrath", "enmity", "hatred", "strength", "power", 'victory", 'war", "killing" and "murder". Not only a warrior can have maram, but also a whole army and a horse. This can be made evident by the two turai, "themes" of heroic so­called Cankam poetry, tanaimaram, "valour of the army" and kutiraimaram, "valour of the horse". The maravar in the so­called Cankam literature can be described as an aristocratic libertine with access to worldly pleasures. Up to the end of the first millennium the word maravar referred to a function, the warrior's function, that could be taken up by mercenaries in different armies. Usually this group of warriors was spoken of as a functional group by the term mara­k­kuti.

Kuti does not mean caste like cati, Sanskrit jati, or like kulam, Sanskrit kula. Kuti, a Tamil term that has become a loan word in Sanskrit, means "house", "abode", "home", "family", "lineage", `'town", "group of tenants". It refers to an allegiance of people with the same interest, here to an allegiance of mercenaries that was open to all who sought their livelihood in warfare. Only after the first millennium did the term develop into a caste name.

Today the word maravar has developed into a caste name for hunters and robbers in South India, for dacoits, i.e. a criminal caste. The maravars were declared a criminal caste in 1911 by the then Government of India. Their political ambition after 1911 was to get rid of this bad reputation that discriminated them in public life. This succeeded only in 1947.

Their ambition was taken up by the South Indian Branch of the Forward Bloc. This was founded by Muttiramalinkam Tevar on behalf of Subash Chandra Bhose in 1938. What connected them immediately was their anti­Congress position. There is thus a close connection between the maravars and the Subhasists in recent times from about 1938. This connection is also clearly visible in the fact that part of the Indian National Army (INA) under Subhash Chandra Bhose to 1945 consisted of maravars. Maravar ambitions and South Indian Subhasism were co­ordinated. The self­image of the maravars of having a glorious history, and their political ideology classified as Subhasism strongIy infIuenced the mind of the young Veluppillai Pirapakaran.

Among all the words given here, only the word maravar seems to be gender related. Even if it is seen as an epicine form, and even though VEluppillai Pirapakaran, when seeing men and women as one fighting collectivity, defines all as maraver, the present author has not yet found a single text written by women in which female fighters call themselves by the most "male'' designation of a maravar. They do not hesitate to call themselves virar because there is already a female tradition of virar, but evidently they hesitate to use maravar. When this hesitation has been overcome, the desired gender distinctions have been overcome.


When the LTTE speaks about "martyrdom", it often translates the word tiyakam. It does not lexically mean "martyrdom". It means "abandonment". Implied in this concept is the meaning of voluntary abandonment of life, the conscious choice of possible death to reach an aim that is declared holy.

The very specific meaning assigned by the LTTE to tiyakam is the voluntary abandonment of life in the very act of taking life, in the act of killing. The getting killed whilst killing (in rage), having been confronted with the death of a comrade, is tiyakam. Likewise, a tiyaki is one who is killed whilst killing (in rage), having first been confronted with the death of a comrade. It is of the uttermost importance to understand the concept of tiyakam as a reaction on encountering death. Tiyakam is a specific type of aggressive mourning behaviour in the martial culture of the LTTE. A killed male and female LTTE fighter is regarded as a tiyaki.

No living fighter, male or female, is called virar or tiyaki. These epithets belong to the veneration of the dead, but the ideal of a tiyaki is, of course, in the mind of those who choose to die as a tiyaki. We could therefore introduce a distinction between a tiyaki-to­be and a tiyaki. This distinction is not unimportant because a tiyaki is expected to have lived a special life in abandoment of the temptations of life. He was during his life, or at least during the last stages of his life, a tavan, 'tan ascetic". The first "martyr" of the LTTE, Cankar, was said to have been a tavan.

The concept of tiyakam, "abandonment (of life)", i. e. a rather specific Indian form of martyrdom, is cultivated by both male and female fighters. A "martyr" of the LTTE has not chosen, like the Christian martyr, to suffer in the mind the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He has taken up arms against the sea of troubles, trying to end them by opposing them.

The concept of tiyakam that has its roots in the last section of the Bhagavadgita was known in the medieval period, in the early colonial period and was revived in the struggle for independence of India. The concept itself implies the taking up of armed struggle. The ideal tyagi (Sanskrit) is Arjuna who without self­interest kills even his kin and teachers in dedication to Visnu. The LTTE tiyaki (Tamil) is then not a misunderstood creation of a Christian martyr, but stands in the tradition of the revivalist martial concepts that were emphasised during the Indian struggle for independence in the 20th century.

In the Tamil version of the Ramayana, Rama himself is called tiyakamavinotan, "the great one who diverts himself with abandonment".

The tiyaki is also known to Caivacittanta philosophy from about the 16th century AD. In a work called Nanavacittam, the tiyaki is described as one who is completely without (worldly) acai, ``desire". He, indeed, is said to be a makattana tiyaki, "great tiyaki".

Another Caivacittanta work from about the 18th century called Kaivalliya Navanitam gives a classification of religiosi from lower to higher. First there is the makarttan, "great acting person", who acts without attachment to worldly things. Then there is the mapoki, `'the great enjoyer", who can live without having any interest. Finally there is the mattiyaki, "great abandoner", who does not expect any fruit from his actions. All three of them are eligible for vitu, "liberation".

The concept of a tiyaki from the Gita's last section was interpreted in political terms and applied to the freedom fighters against British colonialism by the Indian independence movement. Especially in the writings of Vivekananda, the distinction between a religious and political interpretation of originally religious terms was consciously blurred. "Liberation" was not only the liberation of the individual soul from bondage in rebirth, but was homologised to the freedom of the nation; and the soul itself was not only an individual and a mental quality, but was homologised to the collective spirit of the nation.

There is in Yalppanam (Jaffna) then a long Tamil Gita tradition about the tiyaki, a tradition that depicts the tiyaki as an outstanding living man who has extraordinary mental and moral qualities that all amount to self­restraint. He is one who has an ultimate aim of becoming a tiyaki.

The status that such a person had in a deeply religious society becomes similar to the status that a tiyaki­to­be has within the martial society established by the LTTE and which is openly displayed in the cult of the dead, of the tiyakis. It is tempting to project a continuity from the Gita over the medieval period to colonial and post colonial traditions about the tiyaki, with regard to status, not, of course, with regard to their aims, but again with regard to the ultimacy of an aim. We are, however, not tempted. The "roots" of the LTTE go to the Indian freedom struggle, not further.

The idea of the tiyaki suffering a representational death for the people of Tamililam is highly developed in the LTTE. This idea comes close to certain traits of representational death in Christendom. The tiyaki concept has been taken up by some of the representatives of the Catholic and Protestant Church. The Catholic Church of Yalppanam has very deep roots in the population and has established itself as a folk­religion alongside Hinduism. Its Bishop chaired the Citizens Committee of Yalppanam and many priests are involved in organising relief for the physical and mental suffering of the people. Some priests have suffered death in their work for the community and some have suffered torture in Sinhala prisons.

The concept of tiyaki has, however, a "negative" side. It rationalises the use of violence. The LTTE tiyaki gets killed in the very act of killing. What the priest wishes to emphasise is the representational dying, and not the killing. Therefore we find this tiyaki concept sometimes replaced by another concept, that of catci. This word means "witness". 'witness" in Greek is martys, which we recognise in our "martyr". It does not imply the act of killing.


Some of the Catholic priests have taken up the idea of the killed young man or woman being a catci (caksi), and this term has also found its way into the idiom of the LTTE and its supporters and sympathisers. This brings us to a new concept that emphasises strictly the aspect of representational death.

This word catci or caksi is a Tamilised form of Sanskrit saksin, which means "witness". The word caksi {cat.ci) is normally related to the legal sphere and also has a specific meaning within the speculative philosophy of Caivacittanta. There it refers to a mental ability in the mind of man, but it did not have the meaning of "martyr" in an indigenous pre­colonial Tamil tradition. From colonial times the word caksi is also related to persons who died for their conviction. The word then gets the special meaning of irattacaksi, 'blood witness" or cattiyaccaksi, "truth witness".

When did this meaning of caksi as blood witness arise and who gave this meaning? The answer is simple: The Christians. When the Christian missionaries had to translate the Greek word martys, "witness", in the New Testament into Tamil, they translated the classical formula for the meaning of "martyr', in, for example, Matthew IS, 16 and many other places with caksi.

Through the translations of the New Testament into Tamil7 this usage of the word came into Christian preaching, became common knowledge and was spread by the Christians (Catholics} to the LTTE, of which a very strong Catholic contingent is in Mannar.

In one official Tamil document of the LTTE, the present writer has found the word catci and he also knows that the LTTE author, who wants to remain anonymous, is a Catholic. The poet said in his poem concerning killed LTTE cadres:

cattiyam unkalukku catci
Truth (shall be} your witness

This alludes to the technical Christian term of a cattiyaccaksi, `'truth witness''.

Further, a Tamil playwright who is also a Catholic finds it apt to use even the word vetac catci, "witness (martyr) of religion", as a term for an LTTE fighter.

More important than this stray information is that in preaching and in literature by Tami1 Catholic priests, some LTTE cadres who have been killed are called catci in Tamil. Taking up this strand, we leave, of course, the corpus of official LTTE texts and turn to Catholic interpretations of LTTE fighters' dying on the battlefield. They lack and they do not request the imprimatur from the LTTE. By using the term catci, a special Christian meaning is introduced into the understanding of a "martyr" that separates it from the other terms of Indian origin.

A catci in the Christian sense submissively endures all sufferings to the end without using violence. Submissive endurance in suffering is the main virtue of a Christian martyr, who really hands himself over in complete faith to God as a "truth witness" of agape in the steps of Jesus Christ. By calling a killed LTTE cadre a catci, the element of self­sacrifice for others is selectively emphasised, not at all armed heroic killing. This is said here as a rule that has exceptions. Even a priest is a human who may be tempted to blend the martyr with the hero.

The whole semantic field word catci, implying submissive endurance in suffering to death, is, of course, an anomaly in the martial idiom of the LTTE, and is de facto very rare in documents that carry the imprimatur of the LTTE. Only once could the present author find it in printed form. The author of it is a Catholic. The LTTE emphasises instead the killing of the fighter before he is killed himself. It does so with the help of the two terms virar and maravar. These two terms are also part of the semantic field of the LTTE concept of a tiyaki. A tiyaki is a virar or maravar or both. Again, it is important to emphasise that the martial aspect of the tiyaki is not an addition to this concept, but that it organically belongs to the concept of a tiyaki. It is not a misunderstood concept of the Christian concept of a martyr.

In English texts distributed by the LTTE one can find the word "martyr" rather frequently. This is thus an additional term in the sacrificial ideology of the LTTE. In the first proclamation of the Heroes' Day in 1989, we can read:

Every freedom fighter who sacrifices his or her life is a martyr...

The LTTE appeals then to a Western understanding of what a martyr is, but does not realise that the West has a differentiated comprehension of this. Some would blankly deny that a LTTE tiyaki is a martyr because he uses violence. Others would say that he is a martyr because of his representational death on behalf of others. Some again would associate this word with suicidal behaviour only and acknowledge the tiyaki to be a martyr alongside kami kaze warriors. There are some who will say that the word martyr has no meaning at all in an LTTE context, that it is only a persuasive term. Finally, there are the enemies of the LTTE who say that the LTTE has no martyrs, it has only terrorists, and only the soldiers from one's own side can be called martyrs.

True enough, the word "martyr" creates a hermeneutic problem for the LTTE in the West. The reader should, however, know that this problem is not new. In the English speaking stream of the struggle for independence in India, this word was already used for the victims of British suppression. The LTTE has inherited this term, like most of the other terms pertaining to its sacrificial ideology, from the Indian freedom struggle for independence.

This tallies completely with the early conceptualisation of the young Veluppillai Pirapakaran, who was strongly influenced by the martial terminology of South Indian Subhasism formed in the Indian struggle for independence. One dominant configuration of his thinking is the homologising of colonial occupation and the Indian freedom struggle {as performed by "Netaji") to the Sinhala occupation of the Tamil homeland and the freedom struggle of the Tigers.

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Devotio, the ideal act of the tiyaki of the LTTE

By devotio, we mean here a simplified version of the complex devotio, i.e. a self­sacrifice behind the lines of the enemy for the benefit of the Tamil community.

The ideal martyr is an imagined and idealised person. We find him or her in the obituaries, but also in films made by the LTTE. We also find him or her, however, in reality. He or she belongs to the elite group of suicide killers called karumppuli, "Black Tiger". A person who practises devotio knows with certainty that he will be killed in a last decisive battle in which he will eliminate an obstacle, but paying the price with his life. His aim contrasts to a "normal" tiger who has two tasks, to kill and to survive. The death of a normal tiger is calculated, but so is his survival. A Black Tiger calculates only with his or her death.

There is a film called tayakakkanavu, "The dream of the motherland (homeland)" produced by Nitarcanam, the official television station of the LTTE, on the occasion in 1993 of the commemoration day of the Black Tigers on July 5. The film was very successful in making the Tamil public deeply touched. The present author could see many tears in the public, and even former hard core fighters sobbed.

The film starts by showing a happy family consisting of parents, a daughter and a son, the tiyaki­to­be. They are all happily sitting in the garden celebrating a birthday. They feed each other with their hands as signs of intimacy.

There are good relations with the neighbours. The son takes the neigbour's young daughter the age of his own tankacci, "younger sister", to school on his motor­bike. One day the Lankan Air Force drops bombs on the school, and the boy can only take the dead body of his young friend to her parents. In his inner vision, he anticipates that this could have happened to his own tankacci.

He decides that he will enter the squad of Black Tigers. Having got permission from his father to enter, the hard training to become a Black Tiger is shown. The film spends much time describing the comradeship that develops within the group' especially between our hero and a comrade. The two comrades are shown feeding each other.

Our hero is very serious and dedicated. Even in his spare time he plays his harmonium, not just anything, of course only the melody of the song called "The task of the Tigers is (to win) the Motherland Tamililam". It is a march that is played at public state ceremonies. Still more, he does not tolerate that his comrade plays nonsense on the harmonium. He hits him and tells him to be serious. This affected their comradeship, that had by feeding each other been placed on the level of a close kinship relation.

Then comes the day when one of the Black Tigers in the group has to be selected to launch a suicidal attack on a Sinhala army camp by driving explosives on a truck into the camp, and letting it explode. The selection is made by drawing lots; each of the Black Tigers in the squad has to pick a piece of paper. The boy picked a piece of paper on which was written, vetti, 'victory". That meant that he had been selected.

He bid farewell to his comrades by giving each some of his property. To his close comrade, whom he had hit, he gave the harmonium and his diary with a picture of Veluppillai Pirapakaran, and they separated for ever as friends.

He also bid his family farewell, and last, Veluppillai Pirapakaran. Then he went for his last assignment, which he accomplished as calculated. The enemy camp was eliminated and he was killed by the explosion. The next day all read and talked about him. His picture was put up on a commemorative altar. Then the parents were informed by two officials from the LTTE that he had achieved viramaranam, "heroic death". Above all his tankacci wailed.

His comrade also wailed. He remembers the scenes of conflict and reconciliation. He takes up the harmonium and plays the melody to the song The task of the Tigers... His turn will come soon to make the next suicidal attack on a Sinhala army camp, incited by the heroic death of his comrade.

The hero of the film is described as a tavan, 'ascetic", not by the word, but by his behaviour. Although he is of marriageable age, there is no sign of a girlfriend, not even among the mourners. He has a tankacci and not a talaivi. He does not need to think of children of his own.

Living in the group of Black Tigers, he seems to be dedicated to the holy aim only, indicated by his carrying a picture of Veluppillai Pirapakaran (whom he bids farewell last). His intimate family bonds are also replaced by the intimate bonds to a male comrade.

The different scenes of the film are connected by the repeated use of the melody The task of the Tigers..., the feeding each other, and the picture or reference to Veluppillai Pirapakaran.

So much for the film.

The film presents a chain of deaths caused by getting killed in the act of killing for the realisation of "the holy aim". The hero is incited to kill to revenge the death of his young friend; his comrade is incited to kill by his death, etc. It is the death of a close person that incites to kill and to die in the act of killing.

Looking at this film, one has to realise that even if the story is fiction, the type of act described in it - let us call it arppanippu in Tamil or devotio in Latin - has been made real many times by the Black Tigers. The film is indeed based on reality and that makes the act of arppanippu or devotio a serious matter. This act is not an ideal yet to be achieved. It is a reality already, though idealised. It is highlighted every year on 5th July at karumpulikal nal, the "Dayof the Black Tigers", to commemorate the death of the first Black Tiger on 5th July 1987 and of his many followers.


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