LOCATION: Sri Lanka (northeast area); India (Tamil Nadu region)

POPULATION: 67 million in India; 3 million in Sri Lanka


RELIGION: Hindu majority; Muslim; Christian


The Tamil name comes from "Damila." This is the name of a non-Aryan people mentioned in early Buddhist and Jain records. The Tamil have roots in western India, Pakistan, and areas farther to the west. The peoples of the Indus civilization spoke a Dravidian language around 2500 BC . Dravidian speech and associated cultural traits spread into southern India and northern Sri Lanka, especially in the centuries after 1000 BC . By the early centuries BC , a distinctive culture had developed.

Many Tamils settled in northern Sri Lanka in ancient times. Several south Indian kingdoms challenged Sinhalese rule of the island, including such dynasties as the Pandyas, Cheras, and Pallavas. An impressive Tamil civilization emerged under the Cholas, who ruled from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. Chola sea power allowed them to bring Sri Lanka and even parts of Southeast Asia under their control. The fourteenth century saw virtually the entire region incorporated into the Vijayanagar empire.

After the British took control of India and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), they established a plantation economy. Coffee, coconut oil, tea, and cinnamon were produced on the island. The British moved many Tamils to Ceylon to work on these plantations.

After Ceylon become independent in 1948, a Sinhalese government took control. It changed the name of Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1972.


Most Tamils, about 67 million, live in India. Tamils, however, are a significant minority group in Sri Lanka (about 3 million) and live in other parts of Asia, as well as Fiji, Africa, the West Indies, Europe, and the United States.

Ancient literature describes the land of Tamils as stretching from Tirupati, a sacred hill northwest of Madras, to India's southern tip at Cape Comorin. Many Tamils in Sri Lanka identify with this homeland, which runs along the shores of the Bay of Bengal in India. The Western Ghats in India form the western boundary. The climate is tropical with moderately hot summers and gentle winters. Tamil Nadu, the modern state in India, receives about 31 to 47 inches (80 to 120 centimeters) of rain a year. This makes it a lush area.

Many Sri Lankans divide Tamils into two categories. One group is the Ceylon or indigenous Tamils whose ancestors settled on the island in ancient times. The other group, the Indian or estate Tamils, represents the descendants of the plantation workers whom the British brought from India in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tamils today make up approximately 18 percent of Sri Lanka's population.


Tamil belongs to the Dravidian language family. Several dialects are spoken, including Pandya, Chola, and Kangu. The Tamil spoken by the Indian or estate Tamils also is considered a dialect. There is a difference between spoken and written Tamil. Tamil has two written forms—Vattelluttu (round script) which is used for everyday, and Grantha, a traditional script.


A highly venerated figure in south India is the sage (rishi) Agastya. According to legend, all the sages once gathered in the Himalayas. Their wisdom had so much weight that the earth started to sink. The sages asked Agastya, who was heavier than the rest, to go south so that the earth could rise to its original position. Agastya left, taking water from the sacred Ganges River with him. One day, a crow knocked over the pot holding that water. The water began to flow, forming the Kaveri, a river that Tamils consider holy.


Tamils are mostly Hindu, although some are Muslim or Christian. Tamil Hindus generally perform daily prayers (puja) . Shiva is the most important deity, although Vishnu and other gods are worshiped. Vinayaka, a form of the god Ganesha, is particularly popular. Tamils also give special importance to the Mother Goddess, a tradition that may date to the Indus Valley civilization. The Mother Goddess is worshipped as Durga, but also assumes the form of local ammans, or goddesses, such as Mariamman, who protects against disease. Many Tamils also worship village deities, and believe in such popular superstitions as spirits and the evil eye.


Although Tamils celebrate major Hindu festivals, the most important regional festival is Pongal. This mid-January celebration marks the end of the rice harvest. Newly harvested rice is boiled in milk and offered to Surya, the sun god. On the third day of the festival, cattle are decorated and worshiped, and bullfights and bull races take place. The Tamil New Year, in mid-April, is celebrated widely. Several shrines in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu are centers of pilgrimage. The island of Rameswaram, between India and Sri Lanka, is considered sacred.


Tamil superstitions shape life for pregnant women. They are not supposed to cross a river or climb a hill during pregnancy. During the fifth or seventh month of their pregnancy, women receive bangles or bracelets from their husband's families. After the baby is born, naming and hair-shaving ceremonies are performed.

Customs marking the coming of age of children vary. When a girl reaches puberty, Tamils celebrate with a feast.

Tamil tradition requires people to avoid saying that a person is dead. Instead, the person is said to have reached the world of Lord Shiva, to have attained a position in heaven, or to have reached the world of the dead. Tamil cremate or bury the dead, with burial being more common among lower castes. The body is prepared for the funeral by being washed, perfumed, and dressed in new clothes. Families observe the anniversary of a death by gathering together, giving gifts to priests, and feeding the poor.


Tamils use the typical Hindu namaskar, the joining of the palms of the hands in front of the body, to say hello as well as good-bye. Guests are entertained with coffee and snacks. When a visitor leaves, he or she generally says "I'll go and come back." The host responds, "Go and return."


Tamil villages are built near or around a temple. Priests (usually Brahmans) live in areas known as agraharam . Villages usually have a school, shops, shrines to local deities, and a cremation and burial ground. Wells provide water and a nearby "tank" or reservoir, catches and stores rainwater for irrigation. Individual houses vary from the one-room, thatched mud huts to two-story brick and tile structures.


A Dravidian emphasis on matrilineal ties (links with the wife's relatives) strongly influences Tamil family relations. Marriage between cousins is common, and the preferred match is with a man's mother's brother's daughter. In some castes, the marriage of a man to his sister's daughter is customary. Tamils marry within their caste. Marriages are arranged, and the bride's family usually pays for the wedding and a dowry. The actual ceremony usually takes place on a marriage platform with a canopy of thatched coconut leaves. Rituals include walking around a sacred fire, blowing conch shells, and throwing rice and colored water. The newlywed couple moves to the husband's village. Parents, children, and their elderly or unmarried relatives generally live together.


Tamils traditionally wear the dhoti or loincloth. The dhoti is made by wrapping a long piece of white cotton around the waist and then drawing it between the legs and tucking it into the waist. Women wear the sari (a length of cotton or silk wrapped around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder) and a blouse. Women wear their hair long, keeping it oiled and plaited, often with jasmine blossoms braided into it. They also wear gold jewelry. College-educated or career women may adopt Western styles, and many young men now wear shirts and pants.

Dress is an important indicator of caste, and many groups wear their clothes in a special style. For example, Tamil Brahman men wear the dhoti with the ends tucked in at five places (panchakachcham) . Tamil Brahman women wear a sari that is eighteen cubits long (a cubit is an ancient measure equal to about half a meter, or roughly eighteen inches), with the kachcham (the ends tucked in various ways). Non-Brahman women wear a shorter sari, without the tuck. Tribal women wear a smaller garment that reaches just below the knees, and they often leave the upper body bare.

12 • FOOD

Most people eat three meals a day. Breakfast consists of coffee and items such as idlis (steamed rice cakes), dosas (pancakes made of rice and lentils), and vadas (fried doughnuts made from lentils). Lunch is boiled rice, curried fish or mutton, vegetables, sambar (a sauce made with lentils, vegetables, and tamarind), and rasam (a thin, peppery soup). The last dish served is usually curds, which is mixed with rice. The evening meal is a repeat of lunch, but with fewer dishes. People drink both coffee and tea, but coffee is more popular. Milk also is important. Non-vegetarians eat poultry, eggs, fish (including prawns), and mutton. Some low castes eat pork, but this is taboo for Muslims.


Tamil centers of learning date back to Buddhist times. The British colonial government and Christian missionaries emphasized an English approach to education during the nineteenth century. Education is seen as a step to a better job, and literacy among Tamils is quite high.


Tamil literary traditions date to the first and fifth centuries when three literary academies, called sangam, flourished. Writings include epics and secular poetry, but the glory of Tamil literature lies in the religious works of medieval saints and poets. These involve two distinct traditions, one devoted to the worship of Shiva and the other consisting of the Vaishnavite hymns written by poets known as the Alvars. Tamil literature also flourished from the tenth to thirteenth centuries.

Bharata-natyam, one of the four great Hindu classical dance styles, evolved in Tamil region and so did Carnatic classical music. Tamil temples, with their towering gopurams (gateways), are well known in southern India. These temples are covered with large, carved statues of gods and figures from Hindu mythology.

Tamil folk culture includes oral literature, ballads, and songs performed or recited by bards and minstrels. Songs and dances are accompanied by music played on instruments such as the tharai, an S-shaped horn, and the thambattam, a type of drum. Folk dances include Kolattam, performed by young girls with sticks in both hands who rhythmically strike the sticks of the neighbors as they dance. Kavadi is a dance form as well as a religious act, in which pilgrims carry a symbolic structure (the kavadi) on their shoulders as they dance their way to the shrine of Subrahmanya, Shiva's son. In one dance, the dummy-horse show, the actors don the costume of an elaborately decorated horse and look as if they are actually riding on horseback. Various forms of folk drama and street theater are also performed for the amusement of the people.


Tamils work in agriculture, particularly in Sri Lanka. Rice and millet are the main food crop. Oilseeds and cotton are important cash crops. Tea is also grown in Sri Lanka. The Vellala are an important group of farming castes. In addition to cultivators, Tamils have a full range of trading, service, and artisan castes that pursue their traditional caste occupations. Fishing is important in coastal areas.


Tamil children play tag, leapfrog, and hide-and-seek. One particular game requires a player to stand on one leg and try to catch the members of the opposing team within a square playing area marked out on the ground. Another game is something like Simon Says. An adult says Kombari, Kombari (They have horns), and the children repeat this statement. The leader then goes on to list animals with horns. Occasionally a statement such as "elephant has horns" is made, and the children who repeat the incorrect statement are out.

Adult games include stick fighting (Silambam), wrestling, and Thayam, which is like chess. Tamils also enjoy Western sports.


Movies, and, more recently, television are the leading forms of entertainment. Even in rural areas, people tend to prefer them to the more traditional folk dances or street-corner theaters. The Tamil movie industry is centered in Madras, India.


Every young Tamil girl learns a folk art known as kolam. This involves using the thumb and the forefinger to draw designs and floral motifs with a white powder. Kolam is drawn on the ground in front of houses, particularly on festive occasions. In India, Tamils are known for their handmade silk saris, pottery figures of various gods, bronze work, and brass and copper inlaid with silver. Painted wooden toys and cloth dolls are popular. Tamil artisans skillfully carve materials such as shell and horn. Woodworkers have made the massive, elaborately carved doors of temples, and they produce furniture such as tables with legs in the shape of elephant heads.


Tamils suffer discrimination and economic hardship in Sri Lanka. The government, which is led by Sinhalese, has established policies that prevent the teaching of Tamil in schools, keep Tamils from owning land, and deny the right of citizenship to the Indian or estate Tamils. Many have tried to leave the country and settle in Tamil Nadu in southern India.

Discrimination has led to a separatist movement in the northern areas around Jaffna. In this movement, Tamils are engaged in armed rebellion against the government. The ongoing conflict has produced a great deal of terrorism, the assassination of a prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi in 1991), and much loss of life. The Sinhalese government, however, continues to enforce anti-Tamil policies.


Dolcini, Donatella. India in the Islamic Era and Southeast Asia (8th to 19th century). Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

Kalman, Bobbie. India: The Culture. Toronto, Canada: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1990.

Pandian, Jacob. The Making of India and Indian Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995.


Consulate General of India in New York. [Online] Available http://www.indiaserver.com/cginyc/ , 1998.

Embassy of India, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.indianembassy.org/ , 1998.

Interknowledge Corporation. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/india/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. India. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/in/gen.html , 1998.

User Contributions:

shraddha parekh
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Aug 20, 2007 @ 6:06 am
it was realy a vera nice site to visit for the information on tamil nadu . i got lots of information for my sisters project and ecpect an a grade from her after geting so much of information
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Mar 13, 2008 @ 6:06 am
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Feb 12, 2010 @ 5:05 am
Fantastic article, i found it very informative. Being Tamil, i have seen various funeral rites that tamils observe once a family member has passed on. I am curious about why is the body cremated within the same day of the death or the day after. Why do tamils fast for 16 days after the death of a loved one and what is the significance of the 16 day ceremony where their fast is broken and the men in the family perform a ritual at the river? I have heard that its a way of conveying the soul to the River Ganges back to God, is this true? I have also seen that they keep a God lamp conitnuously burning from the time the loved one passes up until the funeral is over and it is carefully guarded and refilled with oil to make sure that the flame doen't burn out. My mum told me that it is to keep the loved ones soul close to the home that it does not wander off and gets lost, is this correct. I find the custom very interesting but would love to hear more detail on this.
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Jul 26, 2010 @ 12:00 am
please refer to contex which i sent to u. most intersting tamil life in this world. tamil language and its traditional is more advance early times.
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Sep 17, 2010 @ 2:02 am
Lovely article..can i have the same clarifications that Sinthi Rama received...i'm a Tamil, third generation living in Mauritius and am passionate about my culture. Here we are confronted with issues when it comes to the number of days to be observed for when a relatives passed away or babies are born etc. Most of our priests come from India and they find its weird that we onserved 40 days for almost everything while in India its 8 or 16 days...can you clarify.

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Mar 9, 2011 @ 12:00 am
Why do tamils fast for 16 days after the death of a loved one and what is the significance of the 16 lamps
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Mar 9, 2011 @ 8:08 am

Very interesting, I would also like to know about Sinthi said about the 16 days prayers, and also the one year prayers that needs to be done

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Jun 10, 2011 @ 3:15 pm
kindly say about cristian and muslims in tamil nadu
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Oct 5, 2011 @ 8:08 am
My eldest daughter is expecting her first baby, does she come to her mothers house when she is 7 months pregnant as i know it is custom. i would also like to know if her husbands familly does the naming of the baby of her side of the family,

her inlaws want the baby on the 11th day to do some prayer and name the child so i dont think we should do a second one please help
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Apr 12, 2012 @ 6:06 am
I wish to know all the rites and rituals after death for a tamilian and how they are performed?
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Jun 14, 2012 @ 5:17 pm
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Aug 13, 2014 @ 9:09 am
This article was useful to do my project of tamil religion. Very nice article. Thanks.
Bob Pillay
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Aug 22, 2014 @ 4:04 am
I found your Website by chance. A beautifully and informative written article. I would like to learn more about the after death rituals and their significance.
Morgan Pillai
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Mar 11, 2015 @ 8:08 am
Very Interesting article. I would like to know more about item 3.
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Oct 20, 2015 @ 8:08 am
awesome article..was so very useful for my project work
Rajendran Shanmoogam
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Nov 3, 2016 @ 9:09 am
I am a tamil from South Africa, and would like to know where the answers to the queries listed above can be found as I have wondered about the significance of e.g. 16 days fast observed after death of family members,etc.

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