Tamil Tigers: Dead Body Politics and Sacrificial Devotion

Michael Roberts, reproducing here an article  entitled “Tamil Tigers:  Sacrificial symbolism and ‘dead body politics’,” that was first presented in  Anthropology Today, June 2008,  vol.  24/3: 22-23. The re-working of this article was seen to by Ms Nadeeka Paththuwaarachchi of Battaramulla.

Scholars and journalists often mistakenly treat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) as a ‘secular organization’ at a time when stereotypes of the Islamic ‘terrorist’ or ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ dominate popular thinking about political extremism. Political scientists devote space to the Tamil Tigers in their global surveys of what they term ‘suicide terrorism’.[1] Recently, Roland Buerk of the BBC presented a similar view: ‘They are not religious and believe that there is nothing after death. Their fanaticism is born of indoctrination from childhood.[2]

Tiger fighters relax in camp but retain their kuppi with cyanide in chainsaround neck-Pic by Shyam Tekwani c.1989 whne embedded among the LTTE

Though the Tigers are commonly classified as a guerilla force, they have actually run a de facto state since 1990, and maintain a brown-water navy. Those less familiar with Sri Lanka, such as Buerk and Robert Pape (2005), are not alone in presenting an array of oversimplifications: some Sri Lankans offer similar assertions. Shantha Jayasekera of the Peace Secretariat of the Sri Lankan government, for example, has also maintained that there is no religious dimension to LTTE practices.[3]

A more informed view is provided by the knowledgeable journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj.[4] Writing last year about the annual LTTE Mavirar Nal (Heroes’ Day) ‘mourning celebrations’ (my phrase) held on 27 November, he wrote: ‘The Great Heroes Day observances provide them with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality’ (Jeyaraj 2006). Jeyaraj’s point about ‘establishing immortality’ has to be read in the context of Tamil belief in rebirth through numerous realms[5] on the basis of karmic principles of ethical cause and effect. This belief holds even among Tamil Christians (see, e.g., Bayly 1989 and Mosse 1994 for Christians in southern India); in Sri Lanka, too, we find Tamil ‘karmic Christians’ who adhere to the belief in karma and rebirth.[6]

The LTTE’s goal of setting up a secular state in which no single religion carries emblematic status needs to be understood alongside its innovative project of commemorative rites, as well as the iconography and embodied practices associated with these rituals and related activities such as the Pongu Thamil (Resurgent Tamil) cultural pageants (Fig. 2). In addition to the radical step of doing away with cremations for their Hindu fallen and instituting burial at what they call tuyilam illam, or ‘resting places’, they have imported a southern Indian practice of calling their tombstones natukal (pronounced nadugal), literally ‘planted stones’. These are also known as viragal (hero stones), and referred to generically as ‘memorial stones’ in the Indian literature (Rajam 2000, Settar and Sontheimer 1982). From Cankam times natukal have been reserved for sannyāsin, for heroes who died defending their villages, for female ascetics (sati), and for those who commit suicide in protest against perceived injustice by self-immolation or cutting their own throats. In many parts of southern and western India these stones have become shrines, that is, named deities (generically called māvīran), which often serve as guardian deities on the edge of villages and thus become one element in the category ‘fierce deities’, a cluster that includes numerous goddesses (ammans) as well as Kāli, Kannaki and Durga (see Bayly 1989, Mines 2005).

  fig 2 = A Pongu Tamil pageant in Vavuniay area during the ceasefire period 2000s

The LTTE may declare their organization to be ‘secular’, but the effect of instituting the deification of humans is to sacralize localities with their dead. Jeyaraj (2006) refers to the concept of nadugal valipādu, literally, ‘worshipping the planted stone’, to describe the rites and practices in and around the commemorations of Māvīrar Week, a period of intense activity surrounding these ‘holy places’ and ‘temples’ (www.TamilNet.com, 27 November 1998, and Natali 2005).

Such sacred sites are politically valuable for, as Sangarasivam contends, the ‘laying of bodies […] and the building of tombstones inscribe the presence of the honoured dead into the land [and] their physical substance coalesces with the soil of the land to create a culturally circumscribed sacred space’ (Sangarasivam 2000: 300). As in Ireland, then, a sacred topography of political import has been constructed.

Participating in the cosmic principle of sakti (divine energy) is part and parcel of the idea of nation-building among the LTTE. Both Trawick (1997) and Hellmann-Rajanayagam (2005) highlight the degree to which horticultural imagery and themes of regeneration feature in LTTE poetry, including the ‘motif of the blood-soaked soil out of which new life grows’ and heroes as vittuTal (pronounced viththudal), namely, ‘bodies that become seeds’ (Fig. 3). Ash is a central ingredient in Hindu ritual and religious practice. Set in such a context, the iconography embodied in some cenotaphs, the ‘syncretistic combination of Christian and Saivite symbolism’ in the poetry produced by Tiger personnel, and explicit references to being ‘born anew’ and ‘redemption’ in some poems (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005) – all these meaningful practices[7] taken together show clearly the presence of motifs of rebirth and a fruitful afterlife in the ideological productions surrounding the self-sacrifice of Tiger fighters.

Fig 3 = Symbol marking capture of Kilinochchi from the Govt — a scenario that can be interpreted as “Bodies that Fight ON”  … Pic by Ravi Vaitheespara

The LTTE does not, therefore, have to place icons of Christ or Siva on the tombstones and cenotaphs in order to invoke ‘religious’ principles. The seed metaphor and the many embodied practices of grieving kin, as well as their iconography, convey the idea that fallen fighters are an embodiment of sakti – divine essence or cosmic energy (Roberts 2005, 2006, 2007a). One is reminded here of Katherine Verdery’s work on the ‘political lives of dead bodies’ in Eastern Europe, where she points out the significance of ‘cosmic concerns’ and the power of affect (1999). Not all Tamil fighters and their supporters lack faith in the cycle of rebirth. Misleading over-simplifications and errors on the part of foreign political scientists who flit in and out of Sri Lanka are par for the course, but it is high time that Sri Lankan commentators came to terms with these facets of their own cultural universe.


[1] Reuter 2002, Pape 2003 and 2005, Mia Bloom 2005, Elster 2005, Holmes 2005 and Gambetta 2005. Note the dangers of compounded error: for an appreciative review of Pape’s book and his overwhelming emphasis on the nationalist political goals of contemporary political forces, including Islamist ones, from an Indian commentator of materialist disposition, see Noorani 2007. For a critical review of Pape, see Roberts 2007b; elaborations of the argument in this article can be found in Roberts 2005a, 2005b, 2006 and 2007a. Further detail on the photographs included here may be found in Roberts 2007b.

[2] Buerk, R. 2007. ‘A date with a renegade rebel Tiger [Karuna]’. BBC online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/6524869.stm, 4 April (my emphasis).

[3] Personal communication with a postgraduate student at Aberdeen University who had been in conversation with Jayasekera, February-March 2007.

[4] See http://transcurrents.com.

[5] Cf. the data and reflections of William Sax, based on his north Indian researches (1992).

[6] N. Kumarakulasingam, email communication, December 2006.

[7] See the capsule notes attached to the photographic illustrations in the essay by Roberts in http://hpsacp.uni-hd.de.


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Gambetta, Diego (ed.) 2005. Making sense of suicide missions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.— 2005. Can we make sense of suicide missions? In: Gambetta, D. (ed.). Making sense of suicide missions, pp. 259-299. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hellman-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 2005. ‘And heroes die’: Poetry of the Tamil liberation movement in northern Sri Lanka. South Asia 28: 112-153.

Holmes, Stephen 2005. Al-Qaeda, September 11, 2001. In: Gambetta, D. (ed.). Making sense of suicide missions, pp. 131-172. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jeyaraj, D.B.S. 2006. ‘No public speech ceremony for LTTE chief this year?’ http://transcurrents.com/tamiana/archives/234, 26 November.

Mines, Diane 2005. Fierce gods: Inequality, ritual and the politics of dignity in a South Indian village. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mosse, David 1994. Catholic saints and the Hindu village pantheon in rural Tamilnadu, India. Man 29: 301-332.

Nabokov, Isabelle 2000 Religion against the self. An ethnography of Tamil rituals, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Natali, Christiana 2005. ‘Building cemeteries, constructing identities: Funerary practices and nationalist discourse among the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka’. Paper presented at the Conference of the British Association of Asian Studies.

Noorani, A.G. 2007. Roots of suicide terrorism. Frontline 24(7), 7-20 April. http://www.frontlineonnet.com/stories/20070420000507800.htm.

Pape, Robert A. 2005. Dying to win: The strategic logic of suicide terrorism. New York: Random House.

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Reuter, Christoph 2002. My life is a weapon: A modern history of suicide bombing. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Roberts, Michael 1996. Filial devotion and the Tiger cult of suicide. Contributions to Indian Sociology 30: 245-272.

Roberts, Michael 2005a. Tamil Tiger ‘martyrs’: Regenerating divine potency? Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28: 493-514.

Roberts, Michael 2005b. Saivite symbolism, sacrifice and Tamil Tiger rites. Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

Roberts, Michael 2006. Pragmatic action and enchanted worlds: A Black Tiger rite of commemoration. Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2007a. Suicide missions as witnessing: Expansions, contrasts. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30: 857-888.Roberts, MichaeL 2007b. ‘Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s muddles on “suicide bombers” in Sri Lanka’. Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics. Available at http://hpsacp.uni-hd.de/

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Shulman, David 1980. Tamil temple myths: Sacrifice and divine marriage in the South Indian Saiva tradition, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Trawick, Margaret 1999. Reasons for violence: A preliminary ethnographic account of the LTTE. In Gamage, Siri and Watson, I.B. (eds) Conflict and community in contemporary Sri Lanka, pp. 139-163. London: Sage.

Verdery, Katherine 1999. The political lives of dead bodies. New York: Columbia University Press.







Fig. 1 (above). Tiger fighters with cyanide capsule in camp, c. 1989.

Fig. 2 (below). Pongu Thamil (Resurgent Tamil) float,Geneva, 2003.


Fig. 3 (above). Memorial built in 2004 to commemorates the Tigers who fell in recapturing Kilinochchi from the Sri Lankan army a few years previously.


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Filed under Al Qaeda, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, cultural transmission, Eelam, heritage, Hinduism, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, Indian religions, Indian traditions, landscape wondrous, life stories, LTTE, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, religiosity, Saivism, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Sri Lankan scoiety, suicide bombing, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, unusual people, war reportage, world events & processes

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