Sri Lankan Expressiveness: Warm Gratitude and Vicious Vituperation

Michael Roberts

I did not see the article that highlighted the manner in which the Tamil people of Vishvamadu feted and lamented the departure of the Sinhalese Military Commander of that arena, Ratnapriya Bandu, when it was originally placed in the public domain in late 2018. This striking presentation was the result of a combination between Shenali Waduge in Lanka and the SPUR organisation in Melbourne, an alliance that immediately indicates orientations laced with sentiments of a chauvinist Sinhala hue.

That stigma notwithstanding, this article was significant and remains significant because of (a) the meaningful implications of the photographs and (b) the misleading political orientations displayed by Shenali Waduge. I shall begin with the latter.

One: Waduge should take note of the adage that “one swallow does not make a summer.” Her sweeping generalizations must be firmly qualified by a range of ethnographic studies exploring the sentiments of the Tamil peoples of the Vanni area of the north today – complemented by the existing work (inclusive of census data) on the processes that engaged the reception of the IDPs in 2009 and the subsequent resettlement (including the tedious tasks of demining).[1]

Two: In her partisan subjectivity, Waduge totally by-passes the fact that Pirapāharan and the LTTE opened up many avenues of advancement for the various types of lower caste people in the north as well as the economically depressed plantation-worker migrants who had moved north and were mostly engaged as agricultural labour in the 1970s and 1980s.[2] Pirapāharan’s fascist commitment to total war meant that the LTTE sought to maximize the available resources.

Three: There is no doubt that recruitment to the Tiger fighting cadres cut across caste divisions and opened the door for some of the depressed castes to secure recognition and status. One such status was that of māveerar grand hero. Yes, a dead hero but, as such, one who raised the status of family and caste in patriotic Tamil eyes.

Four: Let me introduce one ethnographic illustration indicating the crosscutting strands of commitment to the Tamil cause associated with the Tigers. My short stay at Kilinochchi in late November 2004 was at a guest house where the late Joe Ariyaratnam, a former Trinitian working as a Reuters correspondent, was also staying. As we were seated chatting in the verandah one evening, he indicated that the resthouse keeper was a Plantation Tamil migrant from the Kandy area. He then nodded towards the small shrine adorning the verandah: that significant ‘symbol’ marked the owner’s obeisance towards his maveerar son – one who had given his life for the Tamil cause. The father had also told Joe that he was prepared to join the Tigers and fight if so required. Yes, one swallow does not a summer make; but this little example is nevertheless a meaningful pointer.

Five: Scholars need to absorb the revolutionary character of the LTTE’s decision to bury its dead — inclusive of the Hindus among the dead—rather than cremating the bodies (the standard Hindu custom). The work of Peter Schalk, Dagmar Hellman-Rajanayagam and Christiana Natali is essential fare for this purpose.[3] The māveerar concept was a great liberating force in this sense (though hardly so for the victims of the suicide strikes and attacks). Caste differentiation and caste distancing was nowhere in place at Māveerar Nal on 26th November in any part of Thamililam (and for that matter in the Jaffna Peninsula too) in the period 1990-2009.

Black Tigers pay homage to Black Tigr Maveerer at Sampur in 2004 (?); while relatives at a thuyilam illam in the Batticaloa region pay respects to their maveerer kinsmen or women

Epitaph for Malathy the first female Tigress maaveerer [in the mid 1980s]

The gathering at one of the Thuyilam Illam (resting places) south of Kilinochchi on 26 November 2004 which I attended involved a massive crowd marshalled in well-organised spaces[4] whose commitment to the Tiger heroes and Thamilīlam was quite manifest. Whether the rigours of war that engulfed them subsequently, inclusive of the manner in which the Tiger forces deployed them as sandbags in a defensive retreat designed to entice Western intervention,[5] modified or transformed such commitments is an empirical question that I cannot answer. In fact, I believe it is an issue that admits no easy answer.

The Thuyilam Illam at Kopay in the Jaffna Peninsula in November 2004–Pix by Roberts

Female maaveerer depicted in Valhalla background at a maaveerer shed in VVT, Nov 2004 —Pix by Roberts

Six: Standing now in 2020, unlike the authors of the illustrated piece in 2018, namely Waduge and SPUR, we are aware that Rathnapriya Banda joined the SLPP and contested the parliamentary elections in the Vanni constituency which embraced the Vishvamadu arena. Lo and behold! He did not win a parliamentary seat. As I have no competence in deciphering the ramifications of the electoral system and voting patterns, I shall not attempt an analysis of the results. But that verdict surely imposes qualifications on the salutary fanfare presented by Waduge and SPUR in 2018.

However, in a tangential move, let me extract significant ethnographic meanings from the collection of striking photographs presented by the SPUR team. Note, here, that the inferences available to us are not from one or two snaps, but a whole range of pictures revealing profound strands of sorrow. lament and gratitude. The emotions are raw and deep. The total impact is meaningful and powerful.

A: In my reading the pictures indicate typical Sri Lankan ways of sorrowful parting ways and mannerisms that are not common to Westerners whose sense of individual worth and emphasis on autonomy precludes the forms of bodily deportment that one sees in the scenes on display. It is not that a typical mob of Aussie people conveying sadness at some moment of parting or at a funeral after some disaster would not be expressive in comportment. It is that their sense of autonomy would restrain and mould their interactive expressions and comportment.

This contention is essayed as a broad generalization presented here for critical comment from scholars and observers of the two worlds: with the universe of Sri Lanka being set against that associated with that of the West — deciphered by me via associations with the Australian-British-American-German worlds of beingwhere I have resided for spells.

B: Note that I have presented the scenario as that of “Sri Lankans” not merely Tamils. But Waduge and SPUR were marking the expressive behaviour – the sadness and pathos expressed within a deferential class relationship – of Tamils. My move has been deliberate. In my experience the scenes displayed in this village of Visvamadu could easily have occurred in any rural Sinhalese village where a benefactor from an upper class or a superior official position was departing from his/her moment of benefaction. To my eyes, what you see in the pictorial evidence within this evocative article is so utterly Sri Lankan ….. niyama lankika hasireema …… dinky-die bloody Lankan.

C: This does not mean that the Tamil and Sinhala people who present themselves in such expressive and deferential manner would always be deferential. That is, it does not mean that they will never be nasty. Given disturbing events, whether a conflict with a neighbouring village arising from a caste dispute or an island-wide clash of ethnic others leading to some killings, some of the wailing desolate personnel one sees in the Waduge/SPUR documentary would transform into avenging personnel with the womenfolk spouting focused hostility and urging their men to seek justice via retaliation.

This speculative and sweeping assertion on my part arises from a long history of research on riots and pogroms in Sri Lanka supported by general life experiences in the land over the years. Essential background for my arguments here rest within an article entitled “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies” (2012).[6]

This essay was inspired by a literary piece fashioned in my mind in a reflective mood as I flew to Charlottesville, Virginia in 1991 and then remoulded in interaction with a cross-disciplinary corps of colleagues at the University there. This work is entitled “The Agony and Ecstasy of Pogrom: July 1983” and has seen press in several sites.

Mob at Borella Juncton, 24/25 July 1983 …Pic by Chandrgupta Amarasinghe

 Violent attacks & burnings in Colombo July 1983

But, today, I entreat readers to invest time on the first of these articles: “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies.” This work was directed against the wholly instrumentalist and/or Marxist explanations for ethnic violence in South Asia associated with a wide range of scholars.[7] It sought to “displace rather than replace the instrumentalist line of causal reasoning” and the “means/ends rationality” that dominated the discourse at that point of time in the 1970s-90s. It asked investigators to move in a direction where one attempted to “understand zealotry while yet rendering vivid the agential complicity and the horrors perpetrated by chauvinists and all assailants.”

Towards this end it advocated efforts to “understand the social conditions and social relations which can so transform an individual as to overwhelm his/her body with emotions of rage or whatever — so that the emotion has manifest, felt, bio-physiological components which unify mind and body in powerful ways. I am thinking, here, of anger that inspires rapid-fire vituperation, of grief which induces total collapse, of fear which turns one’s legs to jelly, of rage which pushes one into acts of amok10 and of a Muslim in England whose body was overtaken by cold tremors when he heard what Salman Rushdie had said in his Satanic Verses.”

As one step in this quest I visited Delhi in India on a Teen Murti Fellowship in 1995 intent on studying communal violence, whether past or ongoing present, in that vast land. In Delhi I interacted not only with several scholars, but also with several journalists and cameramen.[8]

One of the major atrocities in India’s recent past included the anti-Sikh riots in northern India after Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated on the 31st October 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards as punishment for the Indian government’s forcible entry into the sacred Golden Sikh temple at Amritsar in early June 1984 as one aspect of its “Operation Blue Star” against Sikh separatists.

Indira Gandhi did not die immediately; and her bleeding body was brought to Teen Murti Hospital — where a mass of grief-stricken citizens assembled in concern. Photojournalists have captured their graphic displays of anguish ad frenzy. One of these journalists told me (in 1995) that the attacks on passing Sikhs commenced at this site after Mrs Gandhi’s death was announced.[9] My essay entitled “Kill any Sikh” (2017) is one record of the emotional anguish that spawned such punishing acts. Photographs are a vital ingredient in this ethnographic work.

Distraught crowd outside Teen Murt hospital  … a few scale the gates

Attacks & Burnings on the Streets of Delhi

This type of ethnic retribution, therefore, prompted the interpretative contentions presented in “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies” in its elaborated and final form (1998). I present a critical passage from this text here:

“[we need] to move towards understanding zealotry, while yet rendering vivid the agential complicity and the horrors perpetrated by chauvinists and all assailants. It is part of an ongoing project that is seeking to understand the social conditions and social relations which can so transform an individual as to overwhelm his/her body with emotions of rage or whatever — so that the emotion has manifest, felt, bio-physiological components which unify mind and body in powerful ways. I am thinking, here, of anger that inspires rapid-fire vituperation, of grief which induces total collapse, of fear which turns one’s legs to jelly, of rage which pushes one into acts of amok and of a Muslim in England whose body was overtaken by cold tremors when he heard what Salman Rushdie had said in his Satanic Verses. [10]

Thus guided, I ask Sri Lankans to dwell on their experience, if any, of neighbourhood disputes arising from conflicts over land or whatever – especially long-standing familial or caste disputes. I assert that the verbal vituperation at such moments can be vicious and is often voiced by women.

When political conflicts that have aroused feelings are in the air, a small incident or violent act at some spot can generate stories and violent reactions over a wide terrain. The Gal Oya riots of 1956 had this character. The attacks on Tamils in 1958 seem to have been sparked by the murder of a middle class gentleman named Seneviratne in the Batticaloa-Gal Oya region which had nought to do with ethnic hostility; but which was attributed to Tamil hate and promoted violent retaliation in his home town of Panadura and widespread Sinhala attacks on Tamils in many parts of the island because a major political tussle was already in place over language rights, the Sri sign on vehicles, et cetera.[11]

D: In brief, the Waduge-SPUR presentation encourages me to stress that there are two sides to such emotional coins. One side, their tale, reveals the goodness of humankind in Lankan modality. The other side – presented here in summary – reveals the vicious bloody side of Sri Lankan ways of being. On these fronts, in my reading, there is no difference in the ways in which Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslim Moors and Malays respond to benefactors on the one hand and to opponents in ongoing disputes on the other: viz: deferential kindness and warmth on the one hand and vicious vituperation and assault on the other.

Thus, to move to an unusual front,  let me present a speculative assertion as a parenthetical conclusion: a long-standing neighbourhood conflict between two Malay households in Slave Island or in Kirinde[12] could generate vituperative verbal violence that escalates into assault. It is not without any historical grounding that the Malay word “amok” has become entrenched as a regular word in the English dictionary.



1993    “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies” in Japanese in The Shinso, Jan. 1993.  (Special edition on Nationalism Today ed. by T. Aoki), pp. 127-50….. also reproduced in 2012 at

1994 “The agony and ecstasy of a pogrom: southern Lanka, July 1983,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 317-25. …. Reprinted in Nethra, 2003 vol. 6: 199-213.

1998-99  “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, vol. XXIV & XXV, pp. 65-86.

2005b “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict  & Terrorism 28: 493-514.2005c “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites”, Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

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

2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30:  857-88.

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

2012 “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies,” 21 May 2012,  …………………………………

2017 “Anguish as Empowerment …. and A Path to Retribution,” 22 March 2017,

2017 “Kill Any Sikh: The Anti-Sikh Pogrom of 1984 in Delhi in Bhawan Singh’s IMAGES,” 26 March 2017,”

2020 “Embracing the LTTE Strategy in 2008/09: Norway, USA, UK, France and the Human Rights Conglomerate as Complicit Tiger Allies,” 8 April 2020,


Chandrakanthan, Jemuel V. 2017 “Lest WE Forget: The Anti-Tamil Pogroms,” 22 July 2017,–The-anti-Tamil-pogroms

Hellmann-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 2005 “ ‘And Heroes Die’: “Poetry of the Tamil Liberation Movement in Northern Sri Lanka,” South Asia vol 28 pp. 112–153.

Herath 2011 “From Tsunami Medical Logistics to IDP Camp Medical Aid, 2004-09; Q and A with Dr Herath,” 14 September 2011,

Natali, Christiana 2008 “Building Cemeteries, Constructing Identities: Funerary Practices and Nationalist Discourse among the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Contemporary South Asia, vol. 16: 287-301.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. 2003 Inside an Elusive Mind (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers.

Reddy, B. Muralidhar 2009 “Multiple displacements, total loss of identity,”

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, B. Luchesi, and A. Wilke, eds., Tempel und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat (Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2003),

Schalk, Peter 1997 “Resistance and Martyrdom in the Process of State Formation of Tamililam,” in Joyce Pettigrew, ed., Martyrdom and Political Resistance (Amsterdam: VU University Press.

Tambiah, S. J. 2017 “The Anti-Tamil Gal Oya Riots of 1956,” 2 February 2017.

Vitachi, Tarzie 1958 Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, Andre Deutsch.

Waduge, Shenali 2009 “Sri Lanka’s IDP issue blown out of proportion,” Asian Tribune Review, September 2009.

Waduge, Shenali 2020 “A Poignant Farewell at Vishvamadu in 2018, ……………………….

Wikipedia n.d. “1984 Anti-Sikh Riots,”,-See%20also%3A%20Hondh&text=After%20the%20assassination%20of%20Indira,in%2040%20cities%20across%20India.


[1] The reception, housing and other services provided for the Tamil civilians who escaped from the penned-in hostage situation under the LTTE which they escaped from in a trickle from late 2008 and then in a flood in April/May 2009 is a complex story. This enormous task was undertaken by GoSL in a consortium involving the WHO, other Foreign INGOS, local NGOs, government servants and military personnel. THIS is acomplex topic but see  Reddy 2009 and Herath 2011 for starters.

[2] Look at the census data on ethnic groups in the relevant districts within the Northern Province for the year 1981 and you will find significant numbers of “Indian Tamils.” Some of this movement was generated by the land reform programmes of the UF government that came to power in 1970.

[3] These authors’ works are listed in my Bibliography.

[4] There was a spacious ten for people to rest; water tanks pints; first aid spots. et cetera. The crowd was massive – covering a thuyilam illam that could have added up to several MCG cricket grounds.

[5] This central point has been demonstrated via numerous articles under my name: see

[6] Originally presented at a conference in Japan in 1993 which has appeared in Japanese in The Shinso, Jan. 1993, special edition on Nationalism Today ed. by T. Aoki, pp. 127-50. This article was presented in two different spots in English subsequently.

[7] For instance: Eric Hobsbawm, Kumari Jayawardena, Abner Cohen, Fredrik Barth, FG Bailey and Marcus Banks.

[8] The personnel in the office housing India Today were particularly helpful and its pictorial stocks illuminating.

[9] The account in Wikipedia asserts that “3,000 Sikhs in New Delhi and an estimated 8,000 –17,000 or more Sikhs were killed in 40 cities across India, [while] at least 50,000 Sikhs were displaced.

[10] I note, here, that on one occasion one of my legs turned into jelly without mental orders from my brain: viz, when our car was chased by an irate wild elephant at Yala in 1974. That experience is still etched in my brain.

[11] See Vitachi 1958; Tambiah 2017 and Chandrakanthan 2017.

[12] Both places are locales where there were/are significant numbers of people of Malay descent – often visibly Malay in appearance as well.

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