Caste, Ur and Tamilness among the Tamils in Metropolitan London

Jane Russell. reviewing article by Thanges Paramsothy entitled  “Caste Within the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora” in Anthropology Matters Journal, Vol.18 No 1 (2018)

I usually avoid reviewing academic articles. Many are derivative and ones that employ original research can be turgid and dull. But that is not the case with this article by Thanges Paramsothy, currently South Asia Program Scholar at Cornell. While replete with sociological and anthropological information about Sri Lankan Tamil caste groupings, both past and present, it is also full of revealing insights into a social system that has been a veiled inner sanctum to many outsiders.

a toddy tapper

As a “reflexive insider”, Paramsothy is perfectly placed to explore and comment on caste matters within the Jaffna Tamil diaspora of Sri Lanka. Most importantly, he is relatively free from bias as he does not belong to either of the two largest and politically dominant castes, the Vellalar and Karaiyars. But usefully for his research, among the Jaffna diaspora he can pass for, and on occasion has been identified as, a member of the Vellalar caste by other Vellalar. However, his sphere of examination excludes Tamils from the Batticoloa and Trincomalee regions of the Eastern Province.

His most significant insight is that the majority of Jaffna Tamils in exile are far more attached to their ur, which he defines as the area or ward within their home village (or island in the case of very small territories) which was their ancestral (ie caste ascribed) place of habitation, than they are to any notion of an imagined Sri Lankan Tamil ‘homeland’ or Eelam. This virtually knocks out the LTTE presumption, widely trumpeted, that all, or most, of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora are supportive of their activities. [1]

 a former Tiger now a barber in Jaffna

His evidence is a series of interviews and meetings with his fellow Jaffnese in exile in London, particularly at annual festivals of ur associations. According to Paramsothy, “hegemonic notions of ‘Tamilness’ often fail to illustrate local identities and their (re)construction within the nation”. For example, different ur associations in London do not mix. Paramsothy concludes therefore that “the institution of caste continues as an organising principle in the UK.”

However, while the principle of caste continues within the diaspora, it does so in a changed form. There is, for example, a distinct change in the social mobility of Jaffna Tamil castes among exiles. Some smaller castes have managed to free themselves completely from their ritual-bound caste occupation and have taken on semi-Vellalar identity. Others, eg. some members of the Ampattar (hairdresser/barber) caste, have migrated to countries like France, where they have been able to employ their caste-based skills to their material advantage without compromising their newly acquired status of castelessness. Paramsothy also notes that in some places, eg Switzerland, the Vellalar have been subject to downward mobility as they have been forced by circumstance to take on jobs such as cleaning which earlier would have been considered taboo.

Above all, the sentimental attachment to their ur among exiles differs considerably between dominant and other caste groups. To quote Paramsothy:

“Different caste groups do not share a similar romanticised imagination of ur.  The sentiment of ur is a fantasy for the dominant Vellalar caste, but it is not the same for oppressed castes who want to escape from caste-based hierarchical relations and discrimination. While dominant castes celebrate their ur through annual festivals, oppressed castes maintain low-key functions”.

Paramsothy uses recent research from Canada, France, Switzerland and Norway on the wider Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora as well as his own research in IDP camps in Sri Lanka to compare and contrast with his findings in London.  Overall, a thorough and thoroughly readable examination of the topic.

 Jane Russell (Dr.) London, 01/07/2020

[1] Paramsothy states that approximately only sixteen out of “the many Tamil diasporic organisations in the UK work exclusively for the liberation of the Tamil nation”. This is contrasted with activism of the Canadian Tamil diaspora during the final years of the civil war as cited in Amarnath Amarasingham’s (2015) discussion,”Pain, Pride and Politics”, Univ. of Georgia Press

two scenes from high caste Hindu festivals in London

1 Comment

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One response to “Caste, Ur and Tamilness among the Tamils in Metropolitan London

  1. chandre Dharma-wardana

    We all know that Ur is etymologically related to the word (p)ur in Sanskrit, and of course means “town or settlement”. It occurs in modern sinhala as well as in old sinhala as Pura. In a traditional Hindu society, the best land is occupied by the higher castes, and the lower castes have their specific areas at the outer edges of the city in less desirable areas. Thus, the structure of a settlement (Nagar) has a caste structure (a “geographic placement”) based on the distribution of caste villages or Ur. This I think has become a problem in re-settling the IDPs after the end of the war. The ruling elites of the Tamil political parties (elite caste people) want to re-settle the IDPs in exactly the same caste configurations as before, without affecting the land they own and the right of way etc that they enjoyed. However, the IDPs would like to avoid being put into the old casteist structure if they can avoid it. On the other hand, the expats unite under the same Ur label which works out to be their caste label as well, because of the “geographic placement” of castes.

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