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Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
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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 veneration of martyrs by the LTTE
Summary | References

The veneration of martyrs by the LTTE

The martyr is usually venerated in a ninaivuccinnam, "token of commemoration". ninaivu.jpg (38439 bytes)It may be a high, pillar like construction, called tupi, sometimes having a conic structure. It stands on a platform to which an escalation leads. This tupi is partly surrounded by a pond, and in rare cases even by a garden or park and a fence. Sometimes the construction is very simple and sometimes it is very elaborate, like the token for Tilipan and the token in Valvettiturai for the twelve fighters who died by cyanide in 1987. The simple type can be seen, for example, on the beach of Valvettiturai. It consists of a tube of cement intended for a building construction. It has been filled with sand and in it are some flowers.

There are also other simple tokens without tupi and escalation; they may have a piece of wall specially built or some other kind of erection on which pictures of heroes are hung.

It is important to distinguish a ninaivu cinnam from a cam-ati (Sanskrit samadhi). The word camati refers to a sitting posture of an ascetic for silent meditation, being an upright, majestic position, but it also refers to a mode of interment, by placing the corpse in a sitting posture in imitation of the camati worshipper, and finally, it also refers to a grave, a tomb and a sepulchre. On a camati we could write "Here rests......

The ninaivu cinnam points at a dead fighter or collectively to several or to all dead fighters. There is no dead body, bodily relics or ashes of the body under the ground of a token. It is a memorial stone only. The camati, however, is usually a tomb containing the remains, body, relics or ashes of a dead person. Although the camati is a public construction and the dead person is remembered, if not even worshipped and prayed to by the public, it has strong ties to the kin of the deceased. Actually the cult at a camati is a kinship based ancestor cult made public, as in the case of Annaturai's and MGRs camati in Madras. At the moment of interment, the ancestor rituals are performed.

The public performance of these kinship-based public performances is possible because the dead heroes are homologised to fathers of the nation and the nation to the family.

The veneration of the fighter at a ninaivu cinnam, however, is only public. It is not an expansion, generalisation and exploitation of kinship relations. The kin may, of course, participate in the veneration, as part of the public, but not as kin. Finally, there is a recognised concept of a possible reciprocity between the dead in the camati and the living, but this concept does not exist, i.e. it is not promoted by the LTTE, in the relation between the imagined dead hero and the living at the ninaivu cinnam.

A ninaivu cinnam is established and maintained not by the kin but by the LTTE, with banana and coconut-leaves in public places. The leaves of these trees are taken to beautify the ninaivu cinnam.

Before the battle at Anaiyiravu (Elephant Pass) in 1991, if the body could be taken to the home of the dead hero, the relatives took care of it and buried it in a grave, if it belonged to a Christian or Muslim, or burnt it if it belonged to a Hindu. These kinship-based and religion-specific rituals have nothing to do with the rituals of the LTTE and with the ninaivu cinnam. The LTTE came into the picture before the body was disposed of the relatives in order to expose it in public, make speeches and salute the dead for a while. After that it was given back to the relatives.

Since the battle at Anaiyi-ravu in about August 1991, all dead bodies have been buried in a special place provided by the LTTE. It is called tuyilum illam (see below). This has nothing to do with the ninaivuc cinnam. The grave in the tuyilum illam is a camati. It contains the body of the dead. samadi.jpg (27079 bytes)

Tuyilum illam means "sleeping house", but as this translation can be misunderstood, we create "abode of rest". It is a permanent construction and functions as a burial ground for LTTE heroes only, not as a house actually, but as a burial ground (that is regarded as a home for the dead). Since July 1991 all martyrs have been buried and not burned in the tuyilum illam. The official reason for this was that the martyr should feel close to the soil which he defended. The non-official reason is that Yalppanam is suffering from a lack of firewood. The LTTE had some trouble convincing the Hindu parents, but finally they succeeded.

The four tuyilum illam that exist in Yalppanam (with Kilinocci) have seemingly endless rows of small burial in mounds. The mounds were sometimes fictitious; there was no body any more. It had vanished a long time ago, but the fiction is that there is a body. The tuyilum illam was established only in 1989. The ambition is to give every martyr a visible mound recalling his memory as a fighter, not as a private person.

In a tuyilum illam there are no crosses or any other symbols reminding of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism or Christianity, but the visitor may find reminiscences of an individual ancali, "salute", being made by some relative who left a malai, "garland (of flowers)".

The official ceremony consist of speeches made by some LTTE leader in the presence of the exposed dead body and a final firing of a salute. There is then a special ritual of transition, mentioned earlier, that indicates the change of the dead into a seed as the basis for new life. This ritual of transition consisting of the recitation of a text in which the dead is compared to a seed is performed by the LTTE. To this ritual may be added a speech by a Christian priest, but this is not the official and main speech.

The stone or wooden plate on which the small inscription of the dead martyr is inscribed should be called camati and is actually also called camati by the people. There is also the word kallarai that is sometimes translated with the high sounding "sepulchre". Kallarai is a traditional Tamil term used also by Christians. The tomb or sepulchre of the apostle Thomas in Madras is called punita tomaiyar kallarai, "the sepulchre of the holy (or Saint) Thomas".

So far, we can see that not only the ninnaivuccinnam but also the camati is controlled by the LTTE. This means that traditional rituals based on kinship have been made peripheral. They exist, but only on a small scale. The camati is also a public place and so are the rituals around it. The social identity of the dead is that of a fighter and not that of a brother or cousin. The camati carries the fighter's nom de guerre and not his or her personal name. Before the existence of the tuyilum illam system, the camati was still in the control of the kin. There is then a change from about 1990-91 towards an elimination of the private and kinship-based ritual system of the dead towards a public "statebasecr' ritual. schalk.jpg (24948 bytes)

The LTTE has also found another "new" term for camati. It is natukal, "planted stone'. This is a highly interesting term because it is a highly technical term, It indicates the wish of the LITE to make the funeral a public case.

A natukal is a special hero stone referred to in Pallava Age already, and they lasted to about the 12th century AD. These stones, which looked similar to the Scandinavian rune-stones, were planted on the outskirts of villages to commemorate a fallen hero. The spirit of the dead hero was identified with the stone and was worshipped and sacrificed to. There is a text inscribed on the stone and sometimes also a picture.

The natukal's establishment was surrounded by ritualistic prescriptions that should be followed: [1] Looking for (the stone), [2] taking the stone, [3] making water (flow on it), [4] planting the stone, [5] extolling (the dead) according to the tradition, [6] praising (his) greatness.

There are several explicit sayings in pre-Pallava literature that a certain dead hero, i.e. his spirit, is "in" the stone. He can be made an object of a cult by putting garlands and peacock feathers. A daughter says about her deceased father-. 'My father is in the stone ..." . Given that concept, it is not astonishing to find that the man in the hero stone was treated ritually and conceptualised as a god to which daily offerings were made and from whom help for victories in battle were expected. The word natpali, "daily offering", refers to a food offering brought each dawn to the man 'in" the natukal. The process known as apotheosis, gradually conceptuahsing a man as a god, can clearly be studied in the development of the natukal.

There was also the custom of planting the dead hero's lance or spear by the side of the hero stones and reclining on it his shield, and of placing the hero stone in the shadow of a tree or of erecting a canopy over it.

There are three main concepts involved in natukal, namely 1. auspiciousness of the stone, 2. apotheosis of the hero and 3. and worship of the hero whose hero stone may have been transformed into a small temple. These stones mocked the vanquished armies which fled by. The peasantry worshipped the deity of the hero stone. If the visitor happened to be a bard, he sang the praises of the fallen hero.

The natukal is technically not a camati but a ninaivuccirmam. The hero's body is not below the natukal. In this respect the natukal resembles the rune stone. Therefore it is historically not correct by the LTTE to call a camati a natukal. It would have been more correct to call a ninaivuccinnam a natukal. The wrong use shows that the LTTE leaders are not specialised historians, but still, we understand that they wanted to convey a special point by calling the camati a natukal. Everybody knows that a natukal is not a private, kinship-based object of worship, but that it is a territorial seal. The natukal and its surroundings belong to the group of people who live'in the same territory. There is a territorial and not a kinship-based aspect conveyed by the natukal. The LTTE puts its territorial seal wherever it establishes a camati in a tuyilum illam. That is the point. Again, the martyrs are the cornerstones of Tamililam.

Scholars usually alternate between saying natukal and virakkal. Virakkal and natukal are used synonymously in academic archaeological literature. The former means "hero stone" and the latter 'planted stone". These stones and the Tamil literary sources never use virakkal themselves, only natukal. Virakkal is in part Sanskrit. It is probably a translation from English 'hero stone" made by Western archaeologists in the 19th century. For the LTTE the word virakal is "impure"; only natukal is "pure" in the sense of being an original Tamil term. The cultural department of the LTTE is known to be purist. Tamil purism is also connected with the quest for the origin beyond established cultural forms.

It is evident that the LTTE wishes to revive archaic Tamil hero worship by reviving the concept of the natukal. This example clearly illustrates the traditionalism of the LTTE. But there is the rationalistic approach of the LTTE leadership counteracting an identification of the dead hero with the stone and a subsequent apotheosis and auspiciousness. It limits the worship to veneration and commemoration. The reference to a natukal is therefore selective and excludes auspiciousness and apotheosis, and with them a reciprocal relation between the dead and the living on the basis of exchange.

The word natukal is also wrongly used by the LTTE because a natukal was not at a tomb with a dead body. It was not a camati. The main point for the LTTE, however, is not to be faithful to the historical usage of terms, but to indicate with the word natukal that the LTTE transcends the established religions, even present Hinduism, and points at the very origin of Tamil culture. The origin is beyond traditional religions in some projections of history of the Dravidian movement (see below).

The LTTE ninaivucinnam, natukal (camati) and the tuyilum illam with its mourning rituals and funerals are a total new construction transcending everything known. They are intended to be an ideological superstructure which transcends, but also comprises as privatised phenomena, denominational and secular value systems in Yalppanam, and kinship relations as expressed in ancestor worship.

The LTTE's veneration of the heroes is not anti-Hindu, anti-Catholic or anti-humanistic, but there is an implied request that Hindus, Catholics and secular humanists and even atheists should reflect and interpret their own values in the direction of this ultimate concern of state solidarity as formulated and displayed by the LTTE in its public state cult of heroes. The hero belongs to the public and not to the kin. The hero cult is not a private but a public concern. His or her iyakkam per, "movement name", i.e nom de guerre, is put up as the name of a public lane, and not in his home.

The hero cult is a symbolic, material expression of the cultural and political aspirations of the LTTE. When the Lankan army occupies new Tamil territory, one of its first actions is to destroy all the ninailvuccinnam and tuyilum illam, these being rightly interpreted as symbols of resistance and as claims of being in the process of state formation.

The commemorative cult of martyrs is officially defined by the leadership of the LTTE as being a "secular" cult in the sense of "rationalistic", "being against superstition". "Secular" here also means "non-interfering" in traditional religious life. Among the LTTE martyrs one can find Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, agnostics and atheists. Considering the multi-religious situation to which justice has to be done by the LTTE, it feels that it would not be possible to have a specific Hindu, Muslim or Catholic cult of martyrs arranged by the LTTE, for the simple reason that death should not separate; the unity achieved in battle and suffering in solidarity should be continued, and unity can be maintained only in a "secular" cult, according to the LTTE, in the sense of a cult which does not interfere in any of the religions already practised, and also in the sense of a rationalistic commemorative cult.

The LTTE cult of martyrs is from the standpoint of the LTTE a cult which transcends earlier forms of religion. The linguistic purism and the quest for the origin of Tamil culture mentioned above also follow this tendency to transcend specific interests by groups and to find a common denominator.

This denominator is a symbolic expression for the loyalty towards the nation-state-to-be of Tamililam. This symbolic expression is the "secular" cult of the martyrs in the ninaivuc cinnam and the tuyilum illam. It must be secular in the sense of "a-religious" because religion again represents group-specific, i. e. dysfunctional interests. In order to avoid all associations with religion, the LTTE also emphasises that the cult is "rationalistic" or is directed against superstition.

The concept of sainthood that implies prayers for intercession is not explicit in the official statements of the LTTE. This silence is, of course, in accordance with the ambition to present the cult of martyrs as a "secular" cult.

According to the leadership of the LTTE, the cult of martyrs should be merely commemorative in the sense that the names and the deeds of the martyrs are depicted as ideal social roles to be taken up by young men and women to inspire them to fight, as means which connect the future with the past and finally as means which express solidarity in mourning of the Tamil community.

This instrumental, pragmatic and functionalist interpretation of the cult of martyrs is explicit in the conversation with the LTTE leadership and is also part of its "secular", rationalistic, theoretical, psychological, sociological approach to the religious side of this phenomenon.

There is a tendency for this a-religious cult to become exclusive in the latest development of funeral ceremonies. The former kinship based and religious-denominational based solidarity was expressed in the additional Hindu, Christian and Muslim rituals. These are now not forbidden, but traditional religious funeral rituals have been replaced by LTTE rituals. Traditional religions' funerals in public for martyrs are now replaced by rituals expressing the loyalty towards the state-to-be of Tamilitam. The "secular" cult of martyrs is thus a ritualised or symbolised expression of an all-embracing state ideology of the LTTE.

Although the LTTE has generated new rituals, it still has to give them meaning with a traditional religious language. In a speech made for Great Heroes' Day in 1991, Veluppillai Pirapakaran compared the heroes to those who carry a cross. We find then that the language of the LTTE, especially of its leader, is influenced by religious terms, more specifically by Hindu and Christian terms. The LTTE is aware that there is nothing like religion in eliminating the experience of contingency about a projected aim.

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There are six main ideological expressions of the LTTE that rationalise armed struggle, ending in "martyrdom" for cutantiram:

  1. The revival of a sacrificial language pertaining to the Hindu k6vil's sacrificial rituals as expressed in the terms arppanippu and pali.
  2. The Tamil patti (bhakti) tradition, albeit reinterpreted by the Indian freedom movement, providing concepts of dedication and ascetism as expressed in the concept of tiyakam.
  3. A Christian element expressed in the catci concept.
  4. Subhasism, expressed in the justification of using violence and in the concept of balidan.
  5. Dravidian nationalism providing martial concepts and the concept of a linguistic Tamil nation state.
  6. Martial feminism adapted to Tamil male concepts of female behaviour.

All six have been taken up by Veluppillai Pirapakaran and have been interpreted by him from the view point and interests of the armed struggle for Tamililam. Marxist influences were introduced in the 1980s by Anran Palacinkam, but they have disappeared.

Veluppillai Pirapakaran did not, of course, pick them out piece by piece and put them together. We have identified them, but they appear in the Dravidian area of the 1950s and 1960s and were conveyed to him through the mediation of different Tamil-interest groups that contained these elements, more or less.

The intellectual contribution - we neglect here his military contribution - by Veluppillai Pirapakaran was to apply a given martial trend in the Dravidian movement to the specific situation in Yalppanam by homologising the Indian freedom struggle from British hegemony with the freedom struggle of the Ilavar from Sinhala hegemony.

Even before him, separatist martial-trends within the Indian Dravidian movement had already homologised the Indian freedom struggle to Dravidian separatism from Delhi. Veluppillai Pirapakaran had in fact access to a Tamil interpretative-persuasive and very emotional model that he applied to the situation in Yalppanam of state formation and state fortifying of the Ilattamils.

This process of state formation and state fortifying has not been reached by negotiation but by a protracted bloody war that has cost tremendous suffering. Contingency problems about this process are reduced by reviving past prestigious models and ideals of liberation struggles, above all concepts of martyrdom, East and West. On the ideological side, we saw the attempt to revive religious concepts according to the principle that religion can in a religious society more than anything else eliminate the contingency problems arising within the LTTE. Revivalism reduces contingency problems. The LTTE's concept of martyrdom is an example of that statement.

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Hoole, Rajan [et al.]

  • 1990 The Broken Palmyra. The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka. An Inside Account. Claremont: Sri Lanka Studies Institute.

Prabhakaran, V.

  • 1994 How I became a Freedom Fighter. Tamil Times 15. 7. 1994: 18. [transl. from the Tamil of the original article in Veliccam April/May 1994]

Schalk, Peter

  • 1992 Birds of Independence. On the Participation of Tamil Women in Armed Struggle, Lanka 7:44-142.
  • 1994 Women Fighters of the Liberation Tigers in Tamilijam. The Martial Feminism of Atel Palacinkam. South Asia Research 14:163-183.
  • 1997a Historization of the Martial Ideology of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 20:1-38.
  • 1997b Resistance and Martyrdom in the Process of State Formation of Tamililam. in: Martyrdom and Political Resistance. Essays from Asia and Europe; pp. 61-84. Amsterdam: VU University Press. (Comparative Asian Studies, 18)

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