Tamil - Orientation



Identification. Indian Tamils are those who speak Tamil. Their homeland in India from ancient times was known as "Tamil Nādu" (land) or "Tamil akam" (home), now largely coterminous with the state of Tamil Nadu plus the small territory of Pondicherry. Tamils are also found in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Fiji, Britain, and North America.

Location. Tamil Nadu is the southwesternmost state of India, extending from Madras city to the southern cape, Between about 8° and 13° N and 76° and 80° E. The state is 130,058 square kilometers in area and was formed along with other linguistic states after the independence of India. It is mostly a sunny plain draining eastward with the Kaveri River basin in its center. The Western Ghats are mountains separating Tamil Nadu from Kerala; these rise to 2,400 meters in two places, near the mountain towns of Ootacamund and Kodaikanal. The rest of the state is tropical and moderately hot, with virtually no winter. Most of the rain comes with the northeast monsoon beginning in October, while the southwest monsoon begins in June. Rainfall is roughly 75 centimeters per year, but with the high evaporation and runoff, much of the state is semiarid, with large stretches of thorn-tree wasteland. There is no apparent source of more water for the state's agriculture, industry, and cities—nor is there enough water to support further population growth—and shortages are already occurring.

Demography. There are about 60 million Indian Tamils. The 1991 census counted 55.6 million persons in Tamil Nadu and 8 million in Pondicherry, and it had an undercount of about 4 percent. There are perhaps 5 million Tamils around Bangalore and elsewhere in India, and a lesser number of Telugus and other ethnic groups in Tamil Nadu. The state has 1,024 males per 1,000 females, a marginal surplus compared with all of India. The density is 461 persons per square kilometer, compared with 267 for India as a whole. Literacy of persons above age 7 is 64 percent. Annual population growth has come down to 1.3 percent. Tamils are about 38 percent urban, the highest such percentage of any major ethnic group in India.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tamil belongs to the Dravidian Language Stock, which includes at least 21 languages mostly in south and central India and is altogether different from the Indo-Aryan languages of north India. The four largest Dravidian languages are spoken in the four linguistic states comprising south India. The language and script of modern Tamil are directly descended from the Tamil of more than 2,000 years ago, and because of high consciousness about the purity of the language there has been some tendency to resist incorporation of Sanskrit or Hindi words. The modern Regional spoken dialects of Tamil, including the Tamil of Sri Lanka, do not differ widely, but standard literary Tamil as taught in schools does differ grammatically. Malayalam, the language of Kerala, was considered in the ancient literature as Tamil, but in medieval centuries it gained status as a separate language.

History and Cultural Relations. Tamils consider their language to be the "most pure" of the major Dravidian Languages. Its roots are from western India, Pakistan, and further westward. Dravidian must have been spoken in the Indus Civilization around 2500 B . C ., diffusing through Maharashtra to the south, especially after 1000 B . C . with adoption of the horse and iron and with the black-and-red pottery dating from a few centuries B . C . There is no hint of the earlier Languages that might have been spoken in south India by cattlekeeping cultures or the hunters. The ancient literature defines Tamil Nadu as reaching from Tirupati (a sacred hill northwest of Madras) to Cape Comorin. Writing, urbanization, classical kingship, and other aspects of complex Indian civilization came to Tamil Nadu about the fifth to second centuries B . C . by sea, appearing on the southern coast in a progression parallel to diffusion of those features from Gujarat to Sri Lanka. There are also legends of early cities, including an ancient city of Madurai on the coast. The earliest Tamil inscriptions are in Buddhist and Jain caves of about the second century B . C . The present Madurai, capital of the enduring Pāndiya kingdom, had an academy that produced the Tamil Sangam literature, a corpus of unique poetical books from the first to third centuries A . D . that mention sea trade with Europeans. Other Tamil kingdoms were the Colas in the Kaveri Basin, the Cēras of Kerala, and from the seventh to ninth centuries the Pallavas at Kanchipuram near Madras. The Colas developed a magnificent civilization in the tenth to thirteenth centuries, and for a time they ruled Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and large parts of Indonesia. Tamils were never absorbed by a north Indian kingdom, but from the sixteenth century the land was ruled by Telugu-speaking dynasties from the Vijayanagar Empire. The British built a trading center, Fort Saint George, in Madras in 1639 and ruled all Tamil Nadu from 1801 to 1947. The French, having lost to the British in south India, held Pondicherry and Karikal, now administered as a separate Union Territory within India. The process of Sanskritization, partial assimilation into the overarching Indian pattern of civilization, progressed in late medieval centuries. But in the twentieth century the tendency has been to reject features ascribed to north India and to reemphasize Tamil identity in language, deities, foods, and state politics.


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