Tamil of Sri Lanka - History and Cultural Relations



The unique culture of Sri Lankan Tamils took on distinctiveness early from its close proximity to the Sinhalese and from waves of immigration from diverse regions of southern India. Many features of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, including village settlement patterns, inheritance and kinship customs, and domestic and village "folk religion," stand in sharp contrast to mainland Tamil customs. One possible reason is that the immigrants who created the first Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka appear to have come not just from the Tamil region of south India but from the Kerala coast as well. It is not known when Tamils first settled in Sri Lanka; fishing folk doubtless visited the coasts, seasonally or permanently, from an early date, either for their own fishing needs or to engage in the pearl trade between Sri Lanka and Rome. During the period of the classical Sinhala dry zone civilizations (about the first twelve centuries A . D .), there is evidence that Tamil-speaking Buddhist merchants settled widely in the northern and Eastern seacoast regions, where they built towns and shrines. By the thirteenth century, in the wake of the collapse of the Sinhalese dry zone civilizations, a Tamil Hindu kingdom arose in the Jaffna Peninsula, with a Hindu king and a palace. The Portuguese subdued the Hindu king in 1619, and as their geographic control was only over the coastal region, they left their legacy in coastal Catholic communities that persist today. In 1658, the Dutch followed the Portuguese. The Dutch codified the traditional legal system of Jaffna, but in such a way that they interpreted indigenous caste customs in line with Roman-Dutch definitions of slavery. Taking advantage of the situation, agriculturalists of the dominant Vellala caste turned to cash-crop agriculture using Pallar slaves brought from southern India, and Jaffna soon became one of the most lucrative sources of revenue in the entire Dutch Colonial empire. In 1796, the British expelled the Dutch from the island. During the first four decades of British rule, few changes were made with the exception of granting freedom of religious affiliation and worship, a move that was deeply appreciated by the Tamil population. Slavery was abolished in 1844, but the change in legal status brought few meaningful changes to the status of Pallar and other low-caste laborers. More threatening to the structure of Tamil society was a sedulous conversion campaign by Christian missionaries, who built within the Tamil areas (especially Jaffna) what is Generally considered to be the finest system of English-language schools to be found in all of Asia during the nineteenth Century. In response to a tide of Christian conversions, Arumuka Navalar (1822-1879), a Hindu religious leader, reformulated Hinduism in line with austere religious texts so that it omitted many practices Christian missionaries had criticized as "barbarous," such as animal sacrifice. Navalar's movement was resented by many Hindus who felt that sacrifice and other practices were necessary, but his reformed Hinduism stemmed the tide of Christian conversions and gave educated Hindus access to a textual tradition of Saivism (called Saiva Siddhanta) that gave them pride in their religious traditions. Benefiting from the missionaries' English-language schools without converting to Christianity, many Sri Lankan Tamils (except those of low caste) turned away from agriculture—which became far less lucrative as the nineteenth century advanced—and toward government employment in the rapidly expanding British colonial empire. In this adaptation to foreign rule, an accommodative, utilitarian culture arose that stressed rigorous study in professional fields, such as Medicine, law, and engineering, together with staunch adherence to Hindu tradition. Family support of educational achievement led to extraordinary success in the British meritocracy but to disaster later: after Sri Lanka's independence in 1948, many Sinhalese came to feel that Tamils were disproportionately present in Sri Lanka's esteemed civil service, professions, judiciary, and business affairs. In 1956, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike won a massive electoral victory by appealing to these sentiments and promising to implement Sinhala as the sole official language of government affairs. Tensions over the language act led to the appalling 1958 riots, in which Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils living in Sinhalese areas. The subsequent imposition of university and employment quotas radicalized Tamil youths; the first Tamil youth organizations included many unemployed graduates. In 1974, the Tamil political parties unified and called for the peaceful creation, though negotiation, of a separate Tamil state in the Northern and Eastern provinces, but largely because the Colombo Government made few concessions and political moderates seemed content to wait the situation out, Tamil youths rejected their elders' politics and began a wave of violent assassinations, mainly aimed at Tamils who were suspected of collaborating with Sinhalese organizations. In 1981, Sinhalese security forces went on a brutal rampage in Jaffna, burning down Jaffna's library and terrorizing the population, which came to the conclusion that only the youth groups could protect them. The 1983 Colombo riots, which appeared to have the unofficial guidance and support of some sections of the government, effectively eliminated the Tamil business Presence in Colombo and throughout the Sinhalese sections of the island, which further radicalized the Tamil people. After almost a decade of violence, the Colombo government has yet to make genuine concessions to the Tamil community and apparently believes the Tamil militants can be defeated by force. In the meantime, many Tamils have become refugees, hundreds of temples and schools have been destroyed, the Tamil middle class and intelligentsia have fled abroad, and tens of thousands of innocents have died, often in massacres of unspeakable brutality.


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