Symbolic Postscript: A Terrible Violence

Michael Roberts

 Courtesy of This essay was first drafted on 23 Dec. 2009, as a sequel to the short note on “The Eelam Struggle,Tamil Tigers and Their Commemoration of Māvīrar (Great Heroes)” under the thuppahi cover.

The photographic images that have been deployed on web in my essay on “The Tamil Tigers and Their Practices of Homage” (httt:// as well as a host of less accessible academic articles convey the importance placed on the commemoration of the fallen by Pirapāharan and the Tiger leadership. The institutionalisation of mortuary rites of burial for their fallen from circa 1989 – in a radical move away from the cremation for those of Saivite faith[i] – was a way of sustaining meaningful bonding between Tiger personnel and those who had sacrificed their lives for the cause of Eelam.[ii]

There were, of course, other facets to this vast investment in rites of commemoration: Māvīrar Nal on 27 November every year served as a means of legitimizing the Eelam project and the de facto LTTE state, while also inspiring the Tamil people in ways that encouraged mobilisation. It implanted firm bonds between Tigers, the Eelam cause and people. By 2001 there were 21 immaculately maintained tuyilam illam, or “resting places” for the Tiger fallen.[iii] They were widely regarded as “holy places” and “temples.”[iv] My photographs of the preparations for Māvīrar Nal at tuyilam illam at Kopay and Vadamarachy, as well as indelible memories of the vast concourse of perhaps 60,000 people at the tuyilam illam at Murrippu south of Kilinochchi in late November 2004, highlight the degree to which the sites were profound symbols for the Sri Lankan Tamils associated with the LTTE’s Eelam project.

Tuyilam Illam at Vadamarachy in November, 2004 — Photo by Michael Roberts

Tuyilam Illam at Kopay in November, 2004Photo by Michael Roberts

That was then in 2004. Now, in mid-late 2009, after the LTTE was vanquished, these tuyilam illam are no more. My information from journalists and Tamil people[iv] is that they have been bulldozed and obliterated by the army as the enforcing arm of a Sinhala dominated government. This can be deemed an act of desecration. It calls for condemnation. This essay is an indictment of this act, a protest that flows logically from the essay on “The Tamil Tigers and Their Practices of Homage.”

This was not the first occasion for such practices of obliteration. After the Army swept out of their beachhead around Palaly in late 1995 and reconquered the western two-thirds of the Jaffna Peninsula, they bulldozed the existing tuyilam illam at Kopay and Vadamarachy. When the ceasefire period from late 2001 enabled the LTTE to restore these holy sites, they took care to build a little memento of smashed-up epitaphs in glass cases with plaques delineating this act of desecration (see Figures 3 and 4).[v]

Epitaph Highlighting Symbolic Remnants of Army’s Bulldozing Act, Vadamarachy — Photo by Michael Roberts, 2004

Epitaph Highlighting Symbolic Remnants of Army’s Bulldozing Act, Kopay — Photo by Michael Roberts, 2004

When I mentioned the bulldozing demolition of the mid-1990s to Nanda Godage[vi] a few months after I had visited Kopay, he said that he had been appalled by this series of events and had expressed his displeasure within high quarters.

His reaction, as well as mine, bespeaks norms that are rooted in liberal humanism and in the principles reigning in the Western world in modern times. These norms have spread across the universe after the triumph and spread of Western imperialism in the 18th-to-20th centuries. When leading Western countries inflicted two horrendous world wars upon themselves and on the rest of the world (with some aid from Japan in the second instance), many peoples had to deal with mountains of dead. It is through such experiences that those of us in the colonies learnt that these Western nations did not generally disturb the cemeteries of their enemies. The dead could usually rest in peace within their graves.

Such a code may not have been a universal phenomenon among the peoples of the world in pre-modern and early modern times. I do not know enough about this issue to make a pronouncement either way. But my disciplinary background inclines me to be sceptical about any universality in this field of human practice. As it is, cremation was the most widespread mortuary practice in the lands of the Indian sub-continent so that burial sites did not exist to honour or dishonour the dead (the memorial stones for special forms of sacrificial death known as nadukal in parts of India being exceptions).

Paradoxically, Sri Lanka provides an outstanding counter-example to this suggestion. It is widely believed that when the Sinhala hero-king Dutugämunu “slew his Tamil rival, Elara” in the second century BCE, he “paid him in death all the honours due to a soldier and a king.” So, “the spot on which the Tamil king was cremated was to be venerated for all time: no music was to be played there and all persons, even kings had to pass by on foot.”[vii]

We are indebted to the Mahāvamsa of the sixth century CE for this tale. This particular detail is all the more remarkable because Dutugämunu is presented therein as a Sinhala Buddhist saviour who had rescued the island from foreign Tamil rule and unified it under one parasol for the benefit of the Buddhist dispensation.[viii]

Even though the veneration of Elāra’s shrine is said to have prevailed for many a century, I question any effort to take the moral import of this tale as a reference to standardized practices towards the enemy dead in the history of warfare in ancient, medieval and early modern Sri Lanka. For that matter, I doubt if such a principle held true within India in general over the two millennium CE: if anything, fragmentary data points in the other direction.

In the Tamil world of southern India in ancient times one has the mythological image of the kalavelvi, where the pey, or evil spirits, dance on the battleground and make ponkal (gruel) from the gore of the fallen.[ix] Ponkal, significantly, is central to most Hindu festivals in the south and denotes regeneration, renewal and creativity.[x]

Pongu Thamil at Vavuniya, 2003 — Courtesy of TamilNet

Pongu Thamil, Geneva, July 2003 —  Courtesy of TamilNet

Note, too, several contemporary instances of mutilating capital punishment from Sri Lanka’s ‘rich’ history of modern atrocity. When the Janatā Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) held sway as a subterranean government in the south-western parts of Sri Lanka in 1987-89, in “one confirmed instance,” they killed “a notorious seducer of village girls [by cutting him] ten times with a sword [and slicing] his genitals, supposedly the traditional punishment of the King’s justice for such crimes.”[xi] The state’s death squads were no less beastly in their killings of suspected JVP personnel; and some of their counter-graffiti referred to impaling through the anus in the manner favoured by Sinhala kings in the past as a suitable method of execution befitting JVP persons.[xii]

Indeed, evidence from such sources as Baldeaus and Knox as well as indigenous records indicate that both impaling (ulatiyennava) and the tearing apart of murderers, heinous criminals and rebels by elephants were common forms of punishment in the 16th to 19th centuries.[xiv] Here, of course, Sinhala practices were not all that different in broad ‘principle’ from those deployed in medieval Europe.

Traitors impaled by Sinhalese King — from Baldeaus, 1672

Nevertheless, there was (and is) a specific cultural logic at play in the practices favoured by the Sinhala stats and its peoples. We are indebted to Bruce Kapferer for developing the reasoning behind such processes and revealing how understandings of personhood bear on the passions of just retribution. By fragmenting the body of a victim, agents of vengeance ensure that s/he is cast adrift in the world of perētayō (ancestor spirits) in future lives.[xv] In effect, this form of death ramifies in both this world and the next by bedevilling the mutilated victim’s circle of kinfolk. In this manner the method of punishment is a way of maximising the outcome over time along extended networks of kin.

This is a complex issue of course. My brief summary and the instances from Tamil, Indian and Sinhala pasts as well as more recent examples from Lanka do not add up to a conclusive case.  But they do suggest the probability that respect for the enemy dead was not standard practice when the Colas, Pandyans and Pallavas fought each other or when the Sītāvaka and Kandyan dynasties resisted the Portuguese and other imperial forces. The war poems of the Sinhalese — dating from the 1580s to the early nineteenth century — are quite fierce in the denigration of their enemies.[xvi] The inference that one can extract from these hatan kavi is that the Sinhala militia may have cut up those enemy dead who were not already cut up.

Concluding Remarks

Such cultural groundings notwithstanding, the actions of the Sri Lankan military agencies in both 1995 and 2009 call for severe condemnation. We exist today in a context of modernity threaded by humanism and look to a future that cannot be moulded by indigenous practices that are indefensible and do not abide by the Asian value on compassion.

I will let others better placed than I am expand on the moral outrage that can be extended to this set of events. Let me, rather, conclude by arguing that the bulldozing of the tuyilam illam is also an instance of bad politics. That is, it contradicts the kind of “pragmatic politics” that Dayan Jayatilleka has enjoined on the regime he has so been so closely associated with.[xvii]

It is reasonable to surmise that the military chiefs who decided to demolish the tuyilam illam were motivated less by the type of cultural logic that I have brought to the fore than the instrumental reasoning that is so pervasive in the modern era: namely, they did not wish the defeated LTTE to have any focal points for resurgence. That goal alone could have prompted such action – so that the cultural groundings that I have touched upon can be dismissed as esoteric nonsense by those readers attached to wholly instrumental thinking. In short, this line of destruction was pragmatic politics of the same type that inspired the government’s determination to ensure that no top-rung Tiger leader remained alive.[xviii]

With regard to the tuyilam illam, however, I challenge the pragmatic value attached to this course of action. For one: from circa September 2008 the Tamil people of the Vanni, perhaps some 300,000 to 350,000 all told, subjected themselves to multiple displacements or were pushed to do so by the LTTE. From January 2009 they found themselves corralled within increasingly limited space, subject to starvation diet and to the escalating jackboot of the LTTE. From that point they were a bargaining chip in the LTTE design, prisoners in the Eelam cause.

This meant that they were within the epicentre of modern warfare, caught between the withering blasts of gunfire and bombardment. Modern warfare is rarely ever anything but brutal. Death, injury and fear are its ‘daily fare’. UTHR No. 34 documents that which anyone familiar with warfare would have known – something which, indeed, was anticipated by a question raised and discussed in groundviews at the height of emotional concerns.[xix]

Within this body of entrapped Tamils, therefore, the circumstances were revolutionary in impact, though this turn of mind does not seem to have embraced the diehard supporters in their midst.[xx] Thus, the evidence provided by reporters behind army lines as well as the recent UTHR report confirm the conclusions one could draw from the many efforts by those entrapped to flee LTTE containment – even in the face of fire and death from Tiger interventions.

In brief, many (though not all) of these Tamils were thoroughly alienated by their experience of the last months of LTTE control. Such sentiments had the capacity to spread among other Tamils living in Sri Lanka. Such profound disquiet could have served as a foundation for some lines of reconciliation between these Tamils and the rest of the population — even though the government too was blamed for the turmoils they went through.

In this limbo situation, think then of those Tamil families whose kinspersons lay commemorated in the tuyilam illam as fighters in a lost cause. The epitaphs serve as concrete links to loved ones. Standing in 2010 each epitaph would tell a surviving member of the family that their kinsperson had died in vain. The epitaphs, therefore, had the potential to stand as a monument to the futility of the LTTE enterprise rather than the other way round. This conclusion would have been further animated by the experiences of those who walked through the shadows and shrubs of death in the north-eastern corner of the Vanni in early 2009. Those who had come to hate the LTTE during that inferno would have their thoughts consolidated by the epitaphs documenting the martyrdom of their Tiger kin of the recent past.

But, now, the acts of desecration have reduced such potential to nothing. The absence of tuyilam illam, in other words, will serve as a focal point for enhanced embitterment towards the government.


De Silva, K. M. 1981 A History of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Jayatilleka, Dayan 2009 “Prudent Two-Point Program for Pragmatic Tamil Politics,”, 13 Dec. 2009.

Kapferer, Bruce 1988. Legends of People, Myths of State. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kapferer, Bruce 1997a The Feast of the Sorcerer. Practices of Consciousness and Power, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kapferer, Bruce 1997b “Remythologizing Discourses: State and Insurrectionary Violence in Sri Lanka,” in David E. Apter (ed) The  Legitimization of Violence, New York: New York University Press, pp. 159-208.

Knox, Robert 1911 A Historical Relation of Ceylon, ed. by J. Ryan, Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons.

Ludowyk, E. F. C. 1966 The Modern History of Ceylon, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Mines, Diane 2005 Fierce Gods. Inequality, Ritual and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. 2003, Tamil Tigers, 2nd edn., Colombo: Vijitha Yapa.

Natali, Christiana 2008 “Building Cemeteries, Constructing Identities: Funerary Practices and

Nationalist Discourse among the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka,” Contemporary South Asia 16/3: 287-301.

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009 “Multiple Displacements, Total Loss of Identity,” The Hindu Online,

Roberts, Michael 2004 Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to1818, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Associates.

Roberts, Michael 2005a “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict& Terrorism 28: 493-514.

Roberts, Michael 2005b “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

Roberts, Michael 2006a “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration,” Social Analysis, 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.

Roberts, Michael 2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today 24/3: 22-23.

Schalk, Peter 2003 “Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Europe,” in Martin Baumann et al. (eds.) Tempel und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat, Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.

UTHR (University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna)) 2009 Report No 34: When People Do Not Matter and Tyrannical Egos are Dressed-Up as Nations,

[i]Roberts, “Regenerating Divine Potency?” 2005a: 499-500.

[ii] See Schalk 2003 and Roberts 2005b, 2006 & 2008.

[iii] Information conveyed by the late Joe Ariyaratnam (Kilinochchi, 27 Nov. 2004).

[iv] Christiana Natali 2008: 298-99.and, 27 November1998. Tuyilam illam can also be rendered as “sleeping house.”

[v] This includes one Tamil quite hostile to the LTTE whose parents live in Jaffna and another who happens to be visiting the Peninsula on holiday as I write.

[vi] Note Natali 2008: 293-94 and Narayan Swamy, Tigers, 2003: 355.

[vii] Godage had served in the Foreign Ministry and was a confidante of Chandrika Kumaratunga (who was President when the first act of demolition occurred).

[viii] Ludowyk, 1966: 5. I find the whole story quite puzzling. Deities are honoured with specific forms of music and a whole theory of pancaturyanāda (that is, sabda pūjā) elaborates on the value of religious music. Veneration via silence is contrary to this code.

[ix] For fuller analysis of the Dutugämunu-Elāra episode, see K. M. De Silva 1981: 14-16.

[x]Information from Professor K. Sivathamby, Nov. 2004. Also see Roberts, “Regenerating Divine Potency?” 2005a: 85-87.

[xi] Mines 2005: 151-52. See the photographs (figs. 31-32) reproduced in Roberts, “Blunders,”2007.

[xii]Kapferer, “Remythologizing Discourses,” 1997b: 181.

[xiii] Kapferer, “Remythologizing Discourses,” 1997b: 177-78. Also see Kapferer 1988 and 1997.

[xiv] Knox 1911: 63 and Roberts 2004: 152 and Figure 30 from Baldeaus.

[xv]Kapferer 1988, 1997a and 1997b.

[xvi] Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 2004: chaps. 7 and 9.

[xvii]Jayatilleka 2009.

[xviii] Obvious surmise in mid-May 2009, but also see UTHR (J) report No. 34 just out.

[xix] See

[xx] Reddy 2009.


Filed under cultural transmission, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, war crimes, world events & processes