Sri Lankan Tamil people

Sri Lankan Tamil people
Sri Lankan Tamils
ஈழத் தமிழர்
Jaffna Royal family 280x190.jpg
Yogaswami AS 140x190.jpgMIA front face.jpg
Total population
3,000,000 (estimated)
Regions with significant populations
 Sri Lanka       1,871,535 (1981)[1]
Other significant populations:
 Canada ~200,000 (2007)[2]
 United Kingdom ~120,000 (2007)[3]
 India ~100,000 (2005)[4]
 Germany ~60,000 (2008)[5]
 France ~50,000 (2008)[6]
 Switzerland ~50,000 (2008)[7]
 Malaysia ~24,436 (1970)[8]
 Netherlands ~20,000 (2008)[9]
 Denmark ~9,000 (2003)[10]

Tamil, English, Sinhala[11][12]


Predominantly Hinduism of Saivite sect with a Christian and Roman Catholic minority

Related ethnic groups

Indian Tamils  · Portuguese Burghers  · Sinhalese · Sri Lankan Moors  · Veddas  · Malayali  · Giraavaru

Sri Lankan Tamil people (Tamilஈழத் தமிழர், īḻat tamiḻar ?), or Ceylon Tamils also known as Eelam Tamils[13] in Tamil, are a section of Tamil people native to the South Asia island state of Sri Lanka. According to anthropological evidence, Sri Lankan Tamils have lived on the island since around the 2nd century BCE. Most modern Sri Lankan Tamils claim descent from residents of Jaffna Kingdom, a former kingdom in the north of the island and Vannimai chieftaincies from the east. They constitute a majority in the Northern Province, live in significant numbers in the Eastern Province, and are in the minority throughout the rest of the country.

Although Sri Lankan Tamils are culturally and linguistically distinct, genetic studies indicate that they are closely related to other ethnic groups in the island. The Sri Lankan Tamils are mostly Hindus with a significant Christian population. Sri Lankan Tamil literature on topics including religion and the sciences flourished during the medieval period in the court of the Jaffna Kingdom. Since the beginning of the civil conflict in the 1980s, it is distinguished by an emphasis on themes relating to the Sri Lankan Civil War. Sri Lankan Tamil dialects are noted for their archaism and retention of words not in everyday use in the Tamil Nadu state in India.

Since Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, relations between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities have been strained. Rising ethnic and political tensions, along with ethnic riots and pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983, led to the formation and strengthening of militant groups advocating independence for Tamils. The ensuing Sri Lankan Civil War has resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 people and the forced disappearance of thousands of others.

Sri Lankan Tamils have historically migrated to find work, notably during the British colonial period. Since the beginning of the civil war in 1983, more than 800,000 Tamils have been displaced within Sri Lanka, and many have left the country for destinations such as India, Canada, and Europe. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, a number of Sri Lankan Tamils have sought refuge in countries like Canada and Australia.[14][15]



There is little scholarly consensus over the presence of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, also known as Eelam in early Tamil literature, prior to the medieval Chola period (circa 10th century AD). One theory states that there was not an organized Tamil presence in Sri Lanka until the invasions from what is now South India in the 10th century AD; another theory contends that Tamil people were one of the original inhabitants of the island. Theories about Tamil people's presence in Sri Lanka feed into the cycle of ethnic conflict.

Pre-historic period

Dakhinathupa in Anuradhapura, currently identified as a Buddhist temple, but considered until the 1900s CE the tomb of 2nd century BCE Tamil king Elara. The identification and reclassification is considered controversial.[16][17]

The indigenous Veddhas are physically related to Dravidian-speaking tribal people in South India and early populations of Southeast Asia. It is not possible to ascertain what languages that they originally spoke as Vedda language is considered diverged from its original source.[18] The aboriginal Naga people of the island were Dravidian in origin and likely spoke Tamil, sharing some of the economic lifestyle and cultural and worship traits of the Dravdians of the Maldives, Kerala and the Coromandel Coast.[19] According to K. Indrapala, cultural diffusion, rather than migration of people, spread the Prakrit and Tamil languages from peninsular India into an existing Mesolithic population, centuries before the common era.[20] Tamil Brahmi and Tamil-Prakrit scripts were used to write the Tamil language during this period on the island.[21]

Settlements of culturally similar early populations of ancient Sri Lanka and ancient Tamil Nadu in India were excavated at megalithic burial sites at Pomparippu on the west coast and in Kathiraveli on the east coast of the island. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to burials in the early Pandyan kingdom, these sites were established between the 5th century BCE and 2nd century CE.[22][23] Excavated ceramic sequences similar to that of Arikamedu were found in Kandarodai (Kadiramalai) on the north coast, dated to 1300 BCE. Cultural similarities in burial practices in South India and Sri Lanka were dated by archeologists to 10th century BCE. However, Indian history and archaeology have pushed the date back to 15th century BCE. In Sri Lanka, there is radiometric evidence from Anuradhapura that the non-Brahmi symbol-bearing black and red ware occur in the 10th century BCE.[24] The skeletal remains of an Early Iron Age chief were excavated in Anaikoddai, Jaffna. The name 'Ko Veta' is engraved in Brahmi script on a seal buried with the skeleton and is assigned by the excavators to the 3rd century BCE. Ko, meaning "King" in Tamil, is comparable to such names as Ko Atan, Ko Putivira and Ko Ra-pumaan occurring in contemporary Tamil Brahmi inscriptions of ancient South India and Egypt.[25][26]

Historic period

Potsherds with early Tamil writing from the 2nd century BCE have been found from the north in Poonagari, Jaffna to the south in Tissamaharama. They bore several inscriptions, including a clan name—vela, a name related to velir from ancient Tamil country.[27] Epigraphic evidence shows people identifying themselves as Damelas or Damedas (the Prakrit word for Tamil people) in Anuradhapura, the capital city of Rajarata the middle kingdom, and other areas of Sri Lanka as early as the 2nd century BCE.[28] Excavations in the area of Tissamaharama in southern Sri Lanka have unearthed locally issued coins, produced between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE, some of which carry local Tamil personal names written in early Tamil characters,[29] which suggest that local Tamil merchants were present and actively involved in trade along the southern coast of Sri Lanka by the late classical period.[30] Other ancient inscriptions from the period reference a Tamil merchant,[31] the Tamil householder residing in Ilubharata[32] and a Tamil sailor named Karava.[33] Two of the five ancient inscriptions referring to the Damedas (Tamils) are in Periya Pullyakulam in the Vavuniya District, one is in Seruvavila district in Trincomalee District, one is in Kuduvil in Amparai District and one is in Anuradhapura. Mention is made in literary sources of Tamil rulers bringing horses to the island in water craft in the second century BCE, most likely arriving at Kudiramalai. Historical records establish that Tamil kingdoms in modern India were closely involved in the island's affairs from about the 2nd century BCE.[34][35] Kudiramalai, Kandarodai and Vallipuram served as great northern Tamil capitals and emporiums of trade with these kingdoms and the Romans from the 6th–2nd centuries BCE. The archaeological discoveries in these towns and the Manimekhalai, a historical poem, detail how Nāka-Tivu of Nāka-Nadu on the Jaffna Peninsula was a lucrative international market for pearl and counch trading for the Tamil fishermen. In Mahavamsa, a historical poem, ethnic Tamil adventurers such as Elara invaded the island around 145 BCE.[36] Early Chola king Karikalan, son of Eelamcetcenni utilized superior Chola naval power to conquer Ceylon in the first century CE. Hindu Saivism, Tamil Buddhism, Jainism and secularism were popular amongst the Tamils at this time, as was the proliferation of village deity worship. The Amaravati school was influential in the region when the Telugu Satavahana dynasty established the Andhra empire and its 17th monarch Hāla (20-24 CE) married a princess from the island. Ancient Vanniars settled in the east of the island in the first few centuries of the common era to cultivate and maintain the area.[37][38] The Vanni region flourished.[39] In the 6th century CE, a special coastal route by boat was established from the Jaffna peninsula southwards to Saivite religious centres in Trincomalee (Koneswaram) and further south to Batticaloa (Thirukkovil), passed a few small Tamil trading settlements in Mullaitivu on the north coast.[40] The conquests and rule of the island by Pallava King Narasimhavarman I (630 – 668 CE) and his grandfather King Simhavishnu (537 – 590 CE) saw the erection and structural development of several Kovils around the island, particularly in the north-east – these Pallava Dravidian rock temples remained a popular and highly influential style of architecture in the region over the next few centuries.[41][42][43] Tamil soldiers from what is now South India were brought to Anuradhapura between the 7th and 11th centuries CE in such large numbers that local chiefs and kings trying to establish legitimacy came to rely on them.[44] By the 8th century CE Tamil villages were collectively known as Demel-kaballa (Tamil allotment), Demelat-valademin (Tamil villages), and Demel-gam-bim (Tamil villages and lands).[45]

Inscription dated to 1100 CE left by Tamil soldiers in Polonnaruwa

Medieval period

Coylot Wanees Contrey (Coylot Vanni country), Malabar country in the northeast of the island on a 1681 CE map by Robert Knox as published in his book.[46]

In the 9th and 10th centuries CE, Pandya and Chola incursions into Sri Lanka culminated in the Chola annexation of the island, which lasted until the latter half of the 11th century CE.[44][47][48][49] Raja Raja Chola I renamed the northern throne Mummudi Chola Mandalam after his conquest of the northeast country to protect Tamil traders being looted, imprisoned and killed for years on the island.[50] Rajadhiraja Chola's conquest of the island led to the fall of four kings there, one of whom, Madavarajah, the king of Jaffna, was a usurper from the Rashtrakuta Dynasty.[51]These dynasties oversaw the development of several Kovils that administered services to communities of land assigned to the temples through royal grants. Their rule also saw the benefaction of other faiths. Recent excavations have led to the discovery of a limestone Kovil of Raja Raja Chola I's era on Delft island in North Jaffna, found with Chola coins from this period.[52] The decline of Chola power in Sri Lanka was followed by the restoration of the Polonnaruwa monarchy in the late 11th century CE.[53] In 1215, following Pandya invasions, the Tamil-dominant Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty established an independent Jaffna kingdom on the Jaffna peninsula and other parts of the north.[54] The Arya Chakaravarthi expansion into the south was halted by Alagakkonara,[55] a man descended from a family of merchants from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. He was the chief minister of the Sinhalese king Parakramabahu V (1344–59 CE). Vira Alakeshwara, a descendant of Alagakkonara, later became king of the Sinhalese,[56] but he was overthrown by the Ming admiral Zheng He in 1409 CE. The next year, the Chinese admiral Zheng He erected a trilingual stone tablet in Galle in the south of the island, written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil that recorded offerings he made to Buddha, Allah and the God of Tamils Tenavarai Nayanar. The admiral invoked the blessings of Hindu deities at Tenavaram, Tevanthurai for a peaceful world built on trade.[57] The 1502 map Cantino represents three Tamil cities on the east coast of the island – Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and Pannoa, where the residents grow cinnamon and other spices, fish for pearls and seed pearls and worship idols, trading heavily with Kozhikode of Kerala.[58] The Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty ruled large parts of northeast Sri Lanka until the Portuguese conquest of the Jaffna Kingdom in 1619 CE. The coastal areas of the island were conquered by the Dutch and then became part of the British Empire in 1796 CE.

The Sinhalese Nampota dated in its present form to the 14th or 15th century CE suggests that the whole of the Tamil Kingdom, including parts of the modern Trincomalee district, was recognised as a Tamil region by the name Demala-pattanama (Tamil city).[59] In this work, a number of villages that are now situated in the Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee districts are mentioned as places in Demala-pattanama.[60]

The English sailor Robert Knox described walking into the island’s Tamil country in the publication An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, referencing some aspects of their royal, rural and economic life and annotating some kingdoms within it on a map in 1681 CE.[61] Upon arrival of European powers from the 17th century CE, the Tamils' separate nation was described in their areas of habitation in the northeast of the island.[62]

The caste structure of the majority Sinhalese has also accommodated Hindu immigrants from South India since the 13th century CE. This led to the emergence of three new Sinhalese caste groups: the Salagama, the Durava and the Karava.[63][64][65] The Hindu migration and assimilation continued until the 18th century CE.[63]


Tamil-speaking communities

The two groups of Tamils located in Sri Lanka are the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils. Sri Lankan Tamils (also called Ceylon Tamils) are descendants of the Tamils of the old Jaffna Kingdom and east coast chieftaincies called Vannimais. The Indian Tamils (or Hill Country Tamils) are descendants of bonded laborers sent from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in the 19th century to work on tea plantations.[66] A significant Tamil-speaking Muslim population exists in Sri Lanka; however, unlike Tamil Muslims from India, they do not identify as ethnic Tamils and are therefore listed as a separate ethnic group in official statistics.[67][68]

Most Sri Lankan Tamils live in the Northern and Eastern provinces and in the capital Colombo, and most Indian Tamils live in the central highlands.[68] Historically, both groups have seen themselves as separate communities, although there has been a greater sense of unity since the 1980s.[69] In 1949, the United National Party government, which included G. G. Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil Congress, stripped the Indian Tamils of their citizenship. This was opposed by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of Tamil nationalist Federal Party.[70]

Under the terms of an agreement reached between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments in the 1960s, about forty percent of the Indian Tamils were granted Sri Lankan citizenship, and most of the remainder were repatriated to India.[71] By the 1990s, most Indian Tamils had received Sri Lankan citizenship.[71]

Regional groups

Sri Lankan Tamils are categorized into three subgroups based on regional distribution, dialects, and culture: Negombo Tamils from the western part of the island, Eastern Tamils from the eastern part, and Jaffna or Northern Tamils from the north.

Negombo Tamils

Negombo Tamils, or Puttalam Tamils, are native Sri Lankan Tamils who live in the western Gampaha and Puttalam districts. The term does not apply to Tamil immigrants in these areas.[72] They are distinguished from other Tamils by their dialects, one of which is known as the Negombo Tamil dialect, and by aspects of their culture such as customary laws.[72][73][11] Most Negombo Tamils have assimilated into the Sinhalese ethnic group through a process known as Sinhalisation. Sinhalisation has been facilitated by caste myths and legends (see Passing (sociology)).[74]

In the Gampaha district, Tamils have historically inhabited the coastal region. In the Puttalam district, there was a substantial ethnic Tamil population until the first two decades of the 20th century.[74][75][76] Most of those who identify as ethnic Tamils live in villages such as Udappu and Maradankulama.[77] There are also Tamil Christians, chiefly Roman Catholics, who have preserved their heritage in the major cities such as Negombo, Chilaw, Puttalam, and also in villages such as Mampuri.[74] Some residents of these two districts, especially the traditional fishermen, are bilingual, ensuring that the Tamil language survives as a lingua franca among migrating fishing communities across the island. Negombo Tamil dialect is spoken by about 50,000 people. This number does not include others, outside of Negombo city, who speak local varieties of the Tamil language.[11]

Some Tamil place names have been retained in these districts. Outside the Tamil-dominated northeast, the Puttalam District has the highest percentage of place names of Tamil origin in Sri Lanka. Composite or hybrid place names are also present in these districts.[78]

Eastern Tamils

Eastern Tamils inhabit a region that spans the Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Ampara districts.[79] Their history and traditions are inspired by local legends, native literature, and colonial documents.[80]

The Koneswaram Hindu Temple in Trincomalee, mentioned in Saiva literature circa 700 CE by Thirugnana Sambanthar[81]

In the 16th century the area came under the nominal control of the Kandyan kingdom, but there was considerable local autonomy under native Vannimai chiefs.[82][83] From that time on, Eastern Tamil social development diverged from that of the Northern Tamils.

Eastern Tamils are an agrarian-based society. They follow a caste system similar to the South Indian or Dravidian kinship system. The Eastern Tamil caste hierarchy is dominated by the Mukkuvar. The main feature of their society is the exogamous matrilineal clans and is found amongst most caste groups.[85] Men or Women remain members of the kuti of their birth and be brother or sister by relation. No man can marry in the same kuti because woman is always become sister to him. But, a man can only marry in one of his sampantha kutis not in the sakothara kutis. By custom, children born in a family belong to mother's kuti. Kuti also collectively own places of worship such as Hindu temples.[85] Each caste contains a number of kutis, with varying names. Aside from castes with an internal kuti system, there are seventeen caste groups, called Ciraikutis, or imprisoned kutis, whose members were considered to be in captivity, confined to specific services such as washing, weaving, and toddy tapping. However, such restrictions no longer apply.

The Tamils of the Trincomalee district have different social customs from their southern neighbors due to the influence of the Jaffna kingdom to the north.[85] The indigenous Veddha people of the east coast also speak Tamil and have become assimilated into the Eastern Tamil caste structure.[86] Most Eastern Tamils follow customary laws called Mukkuva laws codified during the Dutch colonial period.[87]

Northern Tamils

Jaffna's history of being an independent kingdom lends legitimacy to the political claims of the Sri Lankan Tamils, and has provided a focus for their constitutional demands.[88] Northern Tamil society is generally categorized into two groups: those who are from the Jaffna peninsula in the north, and those who are residents of the Vanni District to the immediate south. The Jaffna society is separated by caste divisions, with social dominance attained by Vellalar by means of myths and legends. Historically, the Vellalar, who form approximately fifty percent of the population, were involved in agriculture, using the services of castes collectively known as Panchamar (Tamil for group of five). The Panchamar consisted of the Nalavar, Pallar, Parayar, Vannar, and Ambattar.[88] Others such as the Karaiyar (fishermen) existed outside the agriculture-based caste system.[89] The caste of temple priests known as Iyers were also held in high esteem.[89]

People in the Vanni districts considered themselves separate from Tamils of the Jaffna peninsula but the two groups did intermarry. Most of these married couples moved into the Vanni districts where land was available. Vanni consists of a number of highland settlements within forested lands using irrigation tank-based cultivation. An 1890 census listed 711 such tanks in this area. Hunting and raising livestock such as water buffalo and cattle is a necessary adjunct to the agriculture. The Tamil-inhabited Vanni consists of the Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, and Eastern Mannar district. Historically, the Vanni area has been in contact with what is now South India, including during the medieval period (see Vanniar).[88] Northern Tamils follow customary laws called Thesavalamai, codified during the Dutch colonial period.[90]

Genetic affinities

Genetic admixture of Sri Lankan Tamil by Dr. Gautam K. Kshatriya..
Genetic admixture of Sinhalese by Dr. Gautam K. Kshatriya.

Genetic studies indicate that they are most closely related to the Sinhalese than any other Asian group, with the Tamil and Sinhalese population sharing a common gene pool of 55%.

According to a genetic admixture study by Dr. Gautam K. Kshatriya in 1995, the Sri Lankan Tamil are closely related to the Sinhalese and to a lesser extent, Bengalis and Indian Tamils. Kshatriya found the Sri Lankan Tamils to have a greater contribution from the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka (55.20% +/- 9.47) than Indian Tamils (16.63% +/- 8.73). But Kshatriya found the Sinhalese had the greatest contribution from South Indian Tamils (69.86% +/- 0.61), followed by Bengalis from the North East India (25.41% +/- 0.51). With both the Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese sharing a common gene pool of 55%. They are farthest from the indigenous Veddahs.[91] This close relationship between the Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese makes sense, as the two populations have been in close proximity to each other historically, linguistically, and culturally for over 2000 years.[91]

This is also supported by a genetic distance study, which showed low differences in genetic distance between Tamils and the Sinhalese.[92] Tamils and the Sinhalese also share similar cultures in terms of kinship classification, cousin marriage, dress and housing.[93]

Furthermore, a study looking at genetic variation of the FUT2 gene in the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese population, found similar genetic backgrounds for both ethnic groups, with little genetic flow from other neighbouring Asian population groups.[94] Studies have also found no significant difference with regards to blood group, blood genetic markers and single-nucleotide polymorphism between the Sri Lankan Tamils and other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.[95][96][97] Another study has also found "no significant genetic variation among the major ethnic groups in Sri Lanka".[98] This is further supported by a study which found very similar frequencies of alleles MTHFR 677T, F2 20210A & F5 1691A in South Indian Tamil, Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamil and Moor populations.[99]

However, another study looking at Alu polymorphism,[100] VNTR[101] and genetic distance[92] have found the genetic relationship between the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese to be much smaller than Kshatriya's findings (11–30%).


Our Lady of St. Anne's Church, originally built during the Portuguese colonial period, is an important landmark in Vankalai, a Tamil village in the Mannar district.

In 1981, about eighty percent of Sri Lankan Tamils were Hindus who followed the Shaiva sect.[102] The rest were mostly Roman Catholics who converted after the Portuguese conquest of the Jaffna Kingdom and coastal Sri Lanka. There is also a small minority of Protestants due to missionary efforts in the 18th century by organizations such as the American Ceylon Mission.[103] Most Tamils who inhabit the Western Province are Roman Catholics, while those of the Northern and Eastern Provinces are mainly Hindu.[104] Pentecostal and other churches, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, are active among the internally displaced and refugee populations.[105]

The Hindu elite follow the religious ideology of Shaiva Siddhanta (Shaiva school) while masses practice folk Hinduism, upholding their faith in local village deities not found in formal Hindu scriptures. The place of worship depends on the object of worship and how it is housed. It could be a proper Hindu temple known as a Koyil, constructed according to the Agamic scripts (a set of scriptures regulating the temple cult). More often, however, the temple is not completed in accordance with Agamic scriptures but consists of the barest essential structure housing a local deity.[104] These temples observe daily Puja (prayers) hours and are attended by locals. Both types of temples have a resident ritualist or priest known as a Kurukkal. A Kurukkal may belong to someone from a prominent local lineage like Pandaram or Iyer community.[104] In the Eastern Province, a Kurukkal usually belongs to Lingayat sect. Other places of worship do not have icons for their deities. The sanctum could house a trident (culam), a stone, or a large tree. Temples of this type are common in the Northern and Eastern Provinces; a typical village has up to 150 such structures. The offering would be done by an elder of the family who owns the site. A coconut oil lamp would be lit on Fridays, and a special rice dish known as pongal would be cooked either on a day considered auspicious by the family or on the Thai Pongal day, and possibly on Tamil New Year Day.

There are seven worshipped deities: Ayyanar, Annamar, Vairavar, Kali, Pillaiyar, Murukan, or Pattini. Villages have more Pillaiyar temples, which are patronized by local farmers.[104] Tamil Roman Catholics, along with members of other faiths, worship at the Madhu church.[106] Hindus have several temples with historic importance such as those at Ketheeswaram, Koneswaram, Naguleswaram, Munneswaram, and Nallur Kandaswamy.[107] Kataragama temple and Adam's Peak are attended by all religious communities.


Tamil dialects are differentiated by the phonological changes and sound shifts in their evolution from classical or old Tamil (3rd century BCE–7th century CE). The Sri Lankan Tamil dialects form a group that is distinct from the dialects of the modern Tamil Nadu and Kerala states of India. They are classified into three subgroups: the Jaffna Tamil, the Batticaloa Tamil, and the Negombo Tamil dialects. These dialects are also used by ethnic groups other than Tamils such as the Sinhalese, Moors and Veddhas . Tamil loan words in Sinhala also follow the characteristics of Sri Lankan Tamil dialects.[108]

The Negombo Tamil dialect is used by bilingual fishermen in the Negombo area, who otherwise identify themselves as Sinhalese. This dialect has undergone considerable convergence with spoken Sinhala.[73] The Batticaloa Tamil dialect is shared between Tamils, Muslims, Veddhas and Portuguese Burghers in the Eastern Province. Batticaloa Tamil dialect is the most literary of all the spoken dialects of Tamil. It has preserved several ancient features, remaining more consistent with the literary norm, while at the same time developing a few innovations. It also has its own distinctive vocabulary and retains words that are unique to present-day Malayalam, a Dravidian language from Kerala that originated as a dialect of old Tamil around 9th century CE.[109][110] The Tamil dialect used by residents of the Trincomalee District has many similarities with the Jaffna Tamil dialect.[108]

The dialect used in Jaffna is the oldest and closest to old Tamil. The long physical isolation of the Tamils of Jaffna has enabled their dialect to preserve ancient features of old Tamil that predate Tolkappiyam,[108] the grammatical treatise on Tamil dated from 3rd century BCE to 10th century CE.[111] Their ordinary speech is closely related to classical Tamil.[108] The Jaffna Tamil dialect and the Indian Tamil dialects are not mutually intelligible,[112] and the former is frequently mistaken for Malayalam by native Indian Tamil speakers.[113] There are also Prakrit loan words that are unique to Jaffna Tamil.[114][115]


Sri Lankan Tamil society values education highly, for its own sake as well as for the opportunities it provides.[11] The kings of the Aryacakravarti dynasty were historically patrons of literature and education. Temple schools and traditional gurukulam classes on verandahs (known as Thinnai Pallikoodam in Tamil) spread basic education in religion and in languages such as Tamil and Sanskrit to the upper classes.[116] The Portuguese introduced western-style education after their conquest of the Jaffna kingdom in 1619. The Jesuits opened churches and seminaries, but the Dutch destroyed them and opened their own schools attached to Dutch Reformed churches when they took over Tamil-speaking regions of Sri Lanka.[117]

A group of American Ceylon Mission missionaries in Jaffna (circa 1890)

The primary impetus for educational opportunity came with the establishment of the American Ceylon Mission in Jaffna, which started with the arrival in 1813 of missionaries sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The critical period of the missionaries' impact was from the 1820s to the early 20th century. During this time, they created Tamil translations of English texts, engaged in printing and publishing, established primary, secondary, and college-level schools, and provided health care for residents of the Jaffna Peninsula. American activities in Jaffna also had unintended consequences. The concentration of efficient Protestant mission schools in Jaffna produced a revival movement among local Hindus led by Arumuga Navalar, who responded by building many more schools within the Jaffna peninsula. Local Catholics also started their own schools in reaction, and the state had its share of primary and secondary schools. Tamil literacy greatly increased as a result of these changes. This prompted the British colonial government to hire Tamils as government servants in British-held Ceylon, India, Malaysia, and Singapore.[118]

By the time Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, about sixty percent of government jobs were held by Tamils, who formed barely fifteen percent of the population. The elected leaders of the country saw this as the result of a British stratagem to control the majority Sinhalese, and deemed it a situation that needed correction by implementation of the policy of standardization.[119][120]


According to legends, the origin of Sri Lankan Tamil literature dates back to the Sangam period (3rd century BCE–6th century CE). These legends indicate that the Tamil poet Eelattu Poothanthevanar (Poothanthevanar from Sri Lanka) lived during this period.[121]

Medieval period Tamil literature on the subjects of medicine, mathematics and history was produced in the courts of the Jaffna Kingdom. During Singai Pararasasekaran's rule, an academy for the propagation of the Tamil language, modeled on those of ancient Tamil Sangam, was established in Nallur. This academy collected manuscripts of ancient works and preserved them in the Saraswathy Mahal library.[116][122]

During the Portuguese and Dutch colonial periods (1619–1796), Muttukumara Kavirajar is the earliest known author who used literature to respond to Christian missionary activities. He was followed by Arumuga Navalar, who wrote and published a number of books.[121] The period of joint missionary activities by the Anglican, American Ceylon, and Methodist Missions also saw the spread of modern education and the expansion of translation activities.

The modern period of Tamil literature began in the 1960s with the establishment of modern universities and a free education system in post-independence Sri Lanka. The 1960s also saw a social revolt against the caste system in Jaffna, which impacted Tamil literature: Dominic Jeeva, Senkai aazhiyaan, Thamizhmani Ahalangan are the products of this period.[121]

After the start of the civil war in 1983, a number of poets and fiction writers became active, focusing on subjects such as death, destruction, and rape. Such writings have no parallels in any previous Tamil literature.[121] The war produced displaced Tamil writers around the globe who recorded their longing for their lost homes and the need for integration with mainstream communities in Europe and North America.[121]


Puttu, with sea food at a shop in Jaffna.
String hoppers, known as Idiyappam in Tamil, is a popular breakfast and dinner dish.

The cuisine of Sri Lankan Tamils draws influence from that of India, as well as from colonialists and foreign traders. Rice is usually consumed daily and can be found at any special occasion, while spicy curries are favorite dishes for lunch and dinner. Rice and curry is the name for a range of Sri Lankan Tamil dishes distinct from Indian Tamil cuisine, with regional variations between the island's northern and eastern areas. While rice with curries is the most popular lunch menu, combinations such as curd, tangy mango, and tomato rice are also commonly served.[123]

String hoppers, which are made of rice flour and look like knitted vermicelli neatly laid out in circular pieces about 12 centimeters (4.7 in) in diameter, are frequently combined with tomato sothi (a soup) and curries for breakfast and dinner.[124] Another common item is puttu, a granular, dry, but soft steamed rice powder cooked in a bamboo cylinder with the base wrapped in cloth so that the bamboo flute can be set upright over a clay pot of boiling water. This can be transformed into varieties such as ragi, spinach, and tapioca puttu. There are also sweet and savory puttus.[125] Another popular breakfast or dinner dish is Appam, a thin crusty pancake made with rice flour, with a round soft crust in the middle.[126] It has variations such as egg or milk Appam.[123]

Jaffna, as a peninsula, has an abundance of seafood such as crab, shark, fish, prawn, and squid. Meat dishes such as mutton, chicken, pork, and beef also have their own niche. Vegetable curries use ingredients primarily from the home garden such as pumpkin, yam, jackfruit seed, hibiscus flower, and various green leaves. Coconut milk and hot chilli powder are also frequently used. Appetizers can consist of a range of achars (pickles) and vadahams. Snacks and sweets are generally of the homemade "rustic" variety, relying on jaggery, sesame seed, coconut, and gingelly oil, to give them their distinct regional flavor. A popular alcoholic drink in rural areas is palm wine, made from palm tree sap. Snacks, savories, sweets and porridge produced from the palmyra form a separate but unique category of foods; from the fan-shaped leaves to the root, the palmyra palm forms an intrinsic part of the life and cuisine of northern region.[123]


Sri Lanka became an independent nation in 1948. Since independence, the political relationship between Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamil community has been strained. Sri Lanka has been unable to contain its ethnic violence as it escalated from sporadic terrorism to mob violence, and finally to civil war.[127] The Sri Lankan Civil War has several underlying causes: the ways in which modern ethnic identities have been made and remade since the colonial period, rhetorical wars over archaeological sites and place name etymologies, and the political use of the national past.[128] The civil war has resulted in the death of over 70,000 people[129] and, according to human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, the forced disappearance of thousands of others (see White van abductions in Sri Lanka).[130][131][132] Since 1983, Sri Lanka has also witnessed massive civilian displacements of more than a million people, with eighty percent of them being Sri Lankan Tamils.[133]

Before independence

The arrival of Protestant missionaries on a large scale beginning in 1814 was a primary contributor to the development of political awareness among Sri Lankan Tamils. Activities by missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and Methodist and Anglican churches led to a revival among Hindu Tamils who created their own social groups, built their own schools and temples, and published their own literature to counter the missionary activities. The success of this effort led to a new confidence for the Tamils, encouraging them to think of themselves as a community, and it paved the way for their emergence as a cultural, religious, and linguistic society in the mid-19th century.[134][135]

A 1910 postcard image of a Sri Lankan Tamil girl

Britain, which conquered the whole island by 1815, established a legislative council in 1833 by unifying the Tamil and Sinhalese nations on the island and assigning three European seats and one seat each for Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Burghers.[136] This council's primary function was to act as advisor to the Governor, and the seats eventually became elected positions.[137] There was initially little tension between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, when in 1913 Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a Tamil, was appointed representative of the Sinhalese as well as of the Tamils in the national legislative council. British Governor William Manning, who was appointed in 1918 however, actively encouraged the concept of "communal representation".[138] Subsequently, the Donoughmore Commission in 1931 rejected communal representation and brought in universal franchise. This decision was opposed by the Tamil political leadership, who realized that they would be reduced to a minority in parliament according to their proportion of the overall population. In 1944, G. G. Ponnambalam, a leader of the Tamil community, suggested to the Soulbury Commission that a roughly equal number of seats be assigned to Tamils and Sinhalese in an independent Ceylon—a proposal that was rejected.[139] But under section 29(2) of the constitution formulated by the commissioner, additional protection was provided to minority groups, such requiring a two-thirds majority for any amendments and a scheme of representation that provided more weight to the ethnic minorities.[140]

After independence

Territorial claims for the state of Tamil Eelam by various Tamil groups

Following independence in 1948, G. G. Ponnambalam and his Tamil Congress joined D. S. Senanayake's moderate, western-oriented United National Party. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, which denied citizenship to Sri Lankans of Indian origin, split the Tamil Congress. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of the splinter Federal Party (FP), contested the citizenship act before the Supreme Court, and then in the Privy council in England, but failed to overturn it. The FP eventually became the dominant Tamil political party.[141] In response to the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, which made Sinhala the sole official language, Federal Members of Parliament staged a nonviolent sit-in (satyagraha) protest, but it was violently broken up by a mob. The FP was blamed and briefly banned after the mini pogrom of May–June 1958 targeting Tamils, in which many were killed and thousands forced to flee their homes.[142] Another point of conflict between the communities was state sponsored colonization schemes that effectively changed the demographic balance in the Eastern Province, an area Tamil nationalists considered to be their traditional homeland, in favor of the majority Sinhalese.[127][143]

In 1972, a newly formulated constitution removed section 29(2) of the 1947 Soulbury constitution that was formulated to protect the interests of minorities.[144] Also, in 1973, the policy of standardization was implemented by the Sri Lankan government, supposedly to rectify disparities in university enrollment created under British colonial rule. The resultant benefits enjoyed by Sinhalese students also meant a significant decrease in the number of Tamil students within the Sri Lankan university student population.[145]

Shortly thereafter, in 1973, the Federal Party decided to demand a separate Tamil state. In 1975 they merged with the other Tamil political parties to become the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). [146] [127][143] By 1977 most Tamils seemed to support the move for independence by electing the Tamil United Liberation Front overwhelmingly.[147] The elections were followed by the 1977 riots, in which around 300 Tamils were killed.[148] There was further violence in 1981 when an organized mob went on a rampage during the nights of May 31 to June 2, burning down the Jaffna public library—at the time one of the largest libraries in Asia—containing more than 97,000 books and manuscripts.[149][150]

Rise of militancy

Since 1948, successive governments have adopted policies that had the net effect of assisting the Sinhalese community in such areas as education and public employment.[151] These policies made it difficult for middle class Tamil youth to enter university or secure employment.[151][152]

Tamil rebels in a pickup truck in Killinochchi in 2004

The individuals belonging to this younger generation, often referred to by other Tamils as "the boys" (Potiyal in Tamil), formed many militant organizations.[151] The most important contributor to the strength of the militant groups was the Black July pogrom, in which between 1,000[153]- 3,000[154] Sri Lankan Tamils were killed, prompting many youths to choose the path of armed resistance.[151][154][155]

By the end of 1987, the militant youth groups had fought not only the Sri Lankan security forces and the Indian Peace Keeping Force also among each other, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) eventually eliminating most of the others. Except for the LTTE, many of the remaining organizations transformed into either minor political parties within the Tamil National Alliance or standalone political parties. Some also function as paramilitary groups within the Sri Lankan military.[151]

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the United States Department of State[156] and the European Union,[157] have expressed concern about the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, and both the government of Sri Lanka and the rebel LTTE have been accused of human rights violations. Although Amnesty International in 2003 found considerable improvement in the human rights situation, attributed to a ceasefire and peace talks between the government and the LTTE,[158] by 2007 they reported an escalation in political killings, child recruitment, abductions, and armed clashes, which created a climate of fear in the north and east of the country.[159]

End of the civil war

In August 2009, the civil war ended with total victory for the government forces. During last phase of the war many Tamil civilians and combatants were killed. The government estimated that over 22,000 LTTE cadres had died.[160]The civilian death toll is estimated to vary from 6,500[161] to as high as 40,000.[162] This is in addition to the 70,000 Sri Lankans killed up to the beginning of the last phase of the civil war.[163] Over 300,000 internally displaced Tamil civilians were interred in special camps and eventually released. As of 2011, there were still few thousand alleged combatants in state prisons awaiting trials.[164] The government, international aid agencies and the Tamil Diaspora has been contributing towards reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in formerly war affected areas.



Sri Kamadchi Ampal temple in Hamm, Germany, built primarily by Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates[5]

The earliest Tamil speakers from Sri Lanka known to have traveled to foreign lands were members of a merchant guild called Tenilankai Valanciyar (Valanciyar from Lanka of the South). They left behind inscriptions in South India dated to the 13th century.[165] In the late 19th century, educated Tamils from the Jaffna peninsula migrated to the British colonies of Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore) and India to assist the colonial bureaucracy. They worked in almost every branch of public administration, as well as on plantations and in industrial sectors. Prominent Malaysian Ananda Krishnan,[166] included in the Forbes list of billionaires and Singapore's former foreign minister and deputy prime minister, S. Rajaratnam, are of Sri Lankan Tamil descent.[167] C. W. Thamotharampillai, an Indian-based Tamil language revivalist, was born in the Jaffna peninsula.[168]

Post civil war

Expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil children in traditional clothes in Canada

After the start of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, there was a mass migration of Tamils trying to escape the hardships and perils of war. Initially, it was middle class professionals, such as doctors and engineers, who emigrated; they were followed by the poorer segments of the community. The fighting drove more than 800,000 Tamils from their homes to other places within Sri Lanka as internally displaced persons and also overseas, prompting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to identify them in 2004 as the largest asylum-seeking group.[4][169]

The country with the largest share of displaced Tamils is Canada, with more than 200,000 legal residents,[2] found mostly within the Greater Toronto Area. The Tamil Canadians are a relatively wealthy group,[170] and there are a number of prominent Canadians of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, such as author Shyam Selvadurai,[171] and Indira Samarasekera,[172] president of the University of Alberta.

Sri Lankan Tamils in India are mostly refugees of about over 100,000 in special camps and another 50,000 outside of the camps.[4] In western European countries, the refugees and immigrants have integrated themselves into society where permitted. Tamil British singer M.I.A (born Mathangi Arulpragasam)[173] and BBC journalist George Alagiah[174] are, among others, notable people of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus have built a number of prominent Hindu temples across North America and Europe, notably in Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, and the UK.[5][10]

See also


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