Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?

This article from my pen was probably drafted in 2004. It appeared in Studies in Conflict  & Terrorism vol. 28 in 2005 after the usual refereeing process. Some of the details and arguments have, in fact, been obliterated within my fading memory. For this reason, it was a refreshing READ for me and brought up specific details that are pertinent to any debate surrounding the motivations that induce self-immolation, jihadist killings of a suicidal nature, et cetera… The Bibilography will also aid present investigations though, of course, other writings have appeared since then on Islamic jihadists and other martyrdom operations…. Michael Roberts, 8 November 2020 … The photographs are fresh additions … and so too the highlighting within the text.

Misunderstanding the Tamil Tigers [1]

The heightened global emphasis on suicide bombers and “terrorists” has led to a greater interest in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil Tigers). In general surveys two gross errors are sometimes perpetuated. It is assumed that all the Tiger activists are Hindu and that the LTTE project, in contrast to that of the jihadists, is purely secular. “The Tamils are Hindu and the Tamil Tigers are secularist,” says Peter Coleman.[2]

Such popular misunderstandings in international circles seem to be grounded in both ignorance and in the rather truncated view of “religion” espoused by Westerners nourished in rationalised realms that have been cleansed of “magical enchantment.” I point here to Max Weber’s emphasis on “disenchantment” as the corollary of secular rationality. In Weber’s argument “rational empirical knowledge has consistently worked through to the disenchantment of the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism.” He did not see this as a one-way linear process however. In his view this process created tensions within each religious realm for its circle of carriers. The religiosi responded by rendering their beliefs more bookish and literary; but this trend only encouraged the eruption of “prophets” and “mystics” among thinking lay devotees; and thus a re-emergence of the “irrational.”[3]

Set within this context my intention is to flesh out the syncretistic religious hues nestling within the rational, pragmatic goals of the LTTE, namely their strategic use of rituals to mobilise supporters and legitimise their cause among Tamil-speakers, while also cementing the loyalty of their personnel. In my argument, therefore, the threads of pluralistic religious symbolism are part of the self-motivation and the instrumentality of a highly modern force[4] seeking statehood on the principle of self-determination. But the instrumental function rests also on the meaningfulness of the symbols that are selected. Any old symbol plucked from within Tamil culture would not work. So, the selections matter. Moreover, the ramifications of these symbols and rituals go beyond the intentions of the composers.

Pursuing this task calls for explorations that I term “deep culture” and “deep history” and a study of the folk culture of Tamilian India, present and past. This is necessarily an ambitious goal. My essay must therefore remain preliminary.

The movement for Eelam originated largely among those identified as Sri Lanka Tamils.[5] Initially, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the centre of militant Eelamist activity was within the Jaffna Peninsula, the heartland of SLT culture and the principal district in what is known as the Northern Province. There were hardly any Sinhalese dwelling in the Northern Province in 1981 with the exception of Vavuniya District.[6] Among the SLT one finds a significant Christian minority. The vast majority of these Christians, perhaps around 90 percent of them, are Roman Catholics, an outcome of the Portuguese colonisation in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Thus, in 1981 the Mannar District even had a Roman Catholic majority, accounting for 41% of the total population as opposed to 27.1% Hindus; while the proportion of Catholics in Jaffna and Mullaitivu districts was 11.5% and 15.2% respectively.[7]

The Catholic and Protestant clergy in both the Northern and Eastern Provinces have supported the Eelamist struggle in considerable measure. As the LTTE developed into the principal force for Eelam, this support extended to the LTTE. Indeed, support for the Tigers among the generality of SLT has been “fierce” and the LTTE has a “strong emotional hold on the population.”[8] The Tiger fighters seem to be drawn mostly from the lower middle class and the labouring poor. The Westernised middle class is said to have provided only a few recruits. From the early 1990s the farming and fishing villages of the Eastern Province and the northern Vanni seem to have been a major source of Tiger fighters.[9]

Velupillai Prabhakaran is a Hindu (Saivite) from the Karaiyar caste in the Velvitathurai (VVT) locality. The LTTE has been “a Karaiyar-led and dominated group.[10] The Karaiyar are traditionally associated with fishing,[11] but their own lore points to roles as warrior mercenaries and sea captains in the distant past. They “[consider] themselves something special” and have a general “reputation for toughness;” while VVT in modern times has been a smuggler’s haven.[12] Though the Karaiyar of VVT and the Eastern Province are mostly Hindu, the Karaiyar community is known to have a higher proportion of Catholics than other castes, especially in the Mannar District.

The Karaiyar networks, therefore, facilitated cross-religious cooperation in the clandestine guerrilla activity of the LTTE during the first 15 years of its existence. The early Tiger commanders included such Catholics as Seelan, Victor (Marcelin Fuselus) and Rahim (Canagaratnam), while Kittu was a Hindu who adopted Catholicism.[13] Seelan was the nom de guerre for Charles Anthony, a close friend of Prabhakaran whose early death on 15 July 1983 – effectively a suicide by order and in this sense the first Tiger suicide – was a personal loss for Prabhakaran.[14] His mateship has since been inscribed upon the Tiger dispensation. One of the LTTE regiments is called the Charles Anthony Brigade. What is more Prabhakaran’s son is called Charles Anthony. The homage to the dead, therefore, begins in its leader’s heart.

Victor led the Tiger commando raid that slaughtered 146 civilians in Anuradhapura in May 1985. He died in battle sometime in November 1986. The priest who delivered the funeral oration for this “Mannar area leader” deployed a metaphor from St. John’s Gospel, “the motif of the seed that shall not bring forth life unless it fall on the ground and die.”[15] The same Tamil source notes that this idea has become common currency in the poetry and other imagery espoused by the Tigers and their sympathisers. Moreover, Victor was accorded a ‘state funeral’ and his body traversed the length and breadth of the Mannar area and the Jaffna Peninsula in daytime. Catholic clergymen feature in the video film depicting this ritual moment, a video that then traversed the networks of Tamil migrants and their sympathisers in the global circuit.[16]

These are not isolated cases. Those with some experiential or research links among the Tigers are positive that the Black Tigers, the elite corps from which the suicidal attackers have generally been recruited in the last 18 years, includes Christians.[17]

The issue, however, is not one of personnel. The question is whether the Tiger symbolism has elements that are either inspired by religious motifs of some sort or have the potential to embody supernatural meanings and mystical power for those Tamils attuned in devotional directions? The argument here is that the images employed in LTTE commemorations have the capacity to draw on śakti and accaryam — divine power and marvellous potency; [18] and that some Tamil participants engage in these rites in ways that render them into acts of propitiatory regeneration. It is this suggestion that I shall develop – thereby indicating that a modern organisation can effectively mix a measure of enchantment within its rational methods.

The Struggle for Tamilīlam (Eelam in short)

The political struggle by Sri Lanka Tamils (SLT) against what was deemed to be impending Sinhala hegemony took an important turn in early 1949 when a breakaway faction formed the Federal Party, one year after independence was secured.[19] These activists were thoroughly Ceylonese and were arguing within the framework of the state known as “Ceylon.” Their nationalist sentiments were a form of sectional nationalism. As indicated by their limited success during the 1952 general elections, they did not command majority support among the SLT voters. Thus, the transformation of Tamil nationalism from a sectional nationalism arguing for federalism to a separatist nationalism, as embodied in the new meaning attributed to the term “Eelam” (or rather Tamilīlam)[20] as the future state of Sri Lankan Tamils, occurred between 1956 and the early 1970s.

In 1972 the FP transformed itself into a broader front called the Tamil United Front (TUF); and then became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) at the point when it gathered at a mass meeting in May 1976 and adopted the Vaddukoddai resolution defining their goal as Tamilīlam. The die had been cast. Even the moderate Tamil politicians of yesteryear had become separatist in sentiment. Behind this shift was their awareness of the profound discontent of the Tamil peoples, especially the younger generations. This discontent was strongest in the Jaffna Peninsula: by the mid-1970s the centre for Tamil political leadership had shifted to the Jaffna Peninsula and away from the elite Tamil families with residential stakes in the city of Colombo.

In brief, the chief reasons for this heightening of Tamil grievances and aspirations were (1) the ramifying economic and political implications of a programme that made Sinhala the language of administration after the populist victory of the MEP led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party at the 1956 general elections; (2) a measure of discrimination inserted into state policies in administrative recruitment and educational criteria as a result of statutory acts and the growing influence of administrators with Sinhala prejudices; (3) the implications attached to the mini-pogrom in Sinhala-majority areas in 1958; and (4) the manner in which a new republican constitution was set up in 1972, one that discarded the meagre constitutional safeguards valued by some lawyers. This process was encouraged, however, by the constitution of 1947, one modelled on that of Westminster and involving a system of parliamentary elections on a first-past-the-post scheme. Given the respective numerical proportions of Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims and their peculiar spatial distribution, this meant that victory at the general elections was decided in the Sinhala-majority areas; and, further, that a small swing in the percentage of votes generated major swings in parliamentary power. Once a wave of Sinhala linguistic nationalism with populist tendencies secured control of the government in 1956, therefore, it was not in the interests of the leading parties to grant concessions to the Tamils. In the result the Tamil political forces moved to the extremes between 1956 and 1976.[21]

The bullish policies of the two different governmental regimes in the period 1970 to the 1980s, the mini-pogrom of 1977 and the major pogrom that terrorised Tamils in the southern and central parts of the country of 1983 sealed the fate of a united Sri Lanka. Support for Tamil militancy and armed struggle among Tamils everywhere swelled thousandfold. Politicians in Tamilnadu as well as the Indian government stepped into the fray as supporters of the Eelamist forces – in ways that attempted to extend India’s regional hegemony.

Several underground revolutionary organisations had taken root among the Sri Lanka Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1970s, most “origin[ating] from TU(L)F youth organizations.”[22] By 1983/84 they numbered over 30, but five (TELO, PLOTE, LTTE, EROS and EPRLF) were of some consequence[23] and profited from the explosion of Tamil hostility after the pogrom of 1983. Their militancy was sustained by the competition for recruits. It was only the LTTE, however, that insisted that its fighters should take an oath of loyalty. One can safely presume that this oath involved the reiteration of the LTTE’s “holy aim” (putantiram) and the credo that is widely proclaimed in many of its posters and publications, namely: “The task (thirst) of the Tigers (is to achieve) Motherland Tamililam.”[24] This initiation was linked to the promise to carry a cyanide vial and to swallow it if captured.[25]

Tiger fighters relax in camp — but always have the kuppi around thieir necks — photo by embedded Indian journalist Shyam Tekwani c. 1989   A Tigress receives a kuppi as the culminating act in her passing out parade–BBC doc 1990

The cyanide vial is called a kuppi in Tamil. “The vial is fully and consciously exposed hanging on a chord around the neck in processions and in daily encounters [with] LTTE cadres and civilians ….The vial is dear to the LTTE fighters and there is even an LTTE song praising the taking of cyanide,” states Schalk. As significantly, the kuppi “is regarded as a friend especially by woman fighters.” Its virtues are also promoted by poems and other martyrologies that focus on the agonies of slow death through wounds or torture.[26]

The kuppi became a beacon evidencing the commitment of the Tigers as well as the legitimacy and justice of the Tamil cause. The “devotion that the Tigers showed was unmatched” and thereafter the people required no further proof of this dedication, said a Tamil octogenarian when the topic of arppanippu, an evocative Tamil word referring to “dedication or gift (of human to god)”, entered our conversation.[27] The Tiger personnel were, henceforth, walking witnesses to the idea of tiyakam, “abandonment” and sacrifice – thus potential tiyaki and in some ways proximate to “martyrs” in the Western tradition.[28] Needless to say, this practice provided the LTTE with an edge over the other groups in attracting support from the Tamil peoples, though it was their ruthless extermination of the leadership of TELO, EPRLF and PLOT that eventually left them masters of the armed wing of the struggle for Eelam.[29]

In the initial stages during the 1980s, and even into the 1990s, the LTTE was a guerilla force battling what was considered to be an occupying army. They were in a position of military weakness. The power balance was one of marked asymmetry. In this situation the sacrificial suicidal commitment of the LTTE fighters was of special value. Converted into smart bombs these Tiger personnel became precision tools.[30] These precision bombs were not only used in ambush or battle. They were deployed as weapons of assassination and bomb blast in the heart of enemy territory — especially Colombo. These means were used to eliminate the commander of the navy, a president-of-state, potential presidents and a defence minister. By using truck bombs on occasions massive damage was inflicted in the very heart of a teeming city. The goal here was to evoke anxiety among the people residing in the metropolitan area, while also disrupting the economy.

The first truck bomb was driven into an army camp at Nelliyady on 5 July 1987 by a fighter known by the code name Capt. Miller.[31] His act consolidated the development of the special commando regiment known as the Black Tigers from 1986, a body that has become an integral apart of the LTTE forces[32] and from whose ranks most of the suicidal raiders and/or assassins appear to have been drawn in subsequent decades. Indeed, 5 July has been demarcated “Black Tigers’ Day” in the ritual calendar set up for their people by the LTTE from the year 1989. It is marked by acts of homage to the fallen Black Friday personnel throughout Tiger-controlled territory as well as the networks of Tamil migrants in other lands.

 Pirapaharan pays tribute to Miller (embodying all Black Tiger mavirar) on Black Friday Day … Black Tiger personnel honour their own martyrs at a ceremony at Sampur on 5th July 2003

Conventionally, the LTTE websites reiterate this image: “Black Tigers’ identities are closely guarded. Having completed their training, they serve in regular LTTE units, concealing their membership. When called up for a mission, they take routine leave and if they survive, return to regular service again. Membership is only revealed if they are killed in combat.”[33]  The significance attached to the Black Tiger personnel within the military machine of the LTTE from the late 1980s is indicated by the fact that those sent on suicide missions have the privilege of a last meal with their tesai talaivar or “national leader.”[34]

The most significant day in the LTTE ritual calendar, however, is 27 November when the tesai talaivar,[35] Velupillai Prabhakaran, delivers an oration in commemoration of all the fallen Tiger personnel, the māvīrar or “great heroes.” There are ten ritual days in the annual calendar, among them the 19th April and 26th September in memory of Annai Pupati (a mother of ten children) and ‘Tiyaki’ Tilipan (Thileepan) respectively: both fasted unto death in protest against the Indian Peace-Keeping Force’s presence in Tamil country.[36]

Figures presented by the LTTE indicate that between 1982 and September 2002 there were 241 Black Tigers among their fallen, set apart from the 17,648 “fighters” killed.[37] Within the latter figure, 3766 were women and 13,882 men. All these personnel, in the Tiger, and thus in the Tamil, view, are “māvīrar” – translated by the LTTE as “heroes” and/or “martyrs.” Māvīrar only applies to dead persons and is therefore not deployed in the Western sense of heroes.[38] Indeed, Schalk is careful to draw out the distinctions between the Tiger’s connotation of martyr and that in the West, thereby confirming the opinion conveyed to me by several Tamils, namely, that māvīrar is an innovation. [39]

Moreover, a veritable sacred topography has been composed in ‘Tigerland’ through cenotaphs and cemeteries as well as more isolated gravestones that dot the country. The cemeteries are symmetrical in design and kept in immaculate order, in effect indexing and replicating the regimented character of the LTTE. These sites are augmented on ritual days by arched billboard pandals and pictures of specific heroes placed at nodal points in the populated areas.[40] As Schalk observes, the “LTTE has produced an elaborate symbolism of death and metaphors for the survival of the holy aim, and a sacrificial commitment to the nation.”[41] They even set up an Office of Great Heroes in 1995 to oversee the memorial sites and mould the māvīrar cult.[42]

The influence of these architectural symbols and the pictorial imagery deployed in LTTE web sites and publications cannot be understood without attending to the insidious power of visual and oral modes of cultural transmission in such societies as India and Sri Lanka. Storytelling, poetry, films and ritual practice in South Asia are all characterised by enormous redundancy. That is, messages and patterns of representation are repeated endlessly.[43] This means that the populace absorbs the ambience and/or message of a rite, picture, building, or pandal unreflectively because of a familiarity gained by endless exposure to the style of representation. This understanding can extend, say, to colour coding. So billboard images of Annai Pupati in bright red tinged with gold immediately inscribe a religious aura to her action and her commemoration, especially when it is framed as a lotus (for a red lotus is the symbol for the fierce goddess, Durga and conveys the idea of strength). [44]

The LTTE practices of commemorative homage are reminiscent of the northern Irish landscape where “new memorials are being built all the time, creating an extensive and expanding network of sites for the growing number of commemorations.”[45] As in Ireland then, the memorials, rites and even some dramatic performances (kuttu) carry a quality of sacredness that could appeal to those Hindu, Catholic and Protestant Tamils who are devoted to Eelam and/or the LTTE. Such orchestrated practices, therefore, help deepen and expand Tamil patriotism and Eelamist sentiment, while accumulating social capital for the LTTE. As such, they point to the active fostering of a māvīrar (tiyaki) cult. The rationale, clearly, is to reaffirm and cement the beliefs of the existing band of Tiger personnel on the one hand and, on the other, to induce new, younger generations of Tamils and those older Tamils on the sidelines to join the Eelam struggle.

I hold, however, that such an instrumental explanation is only one part of the story. The Tiger leaders are not outsiders. They are a body of individuals who have not only seized the position of leaders of their people fighting for their people. I go further on a speculative basis and assert that they are, in some senses, of the people.[46] They are ready to practice what they preach. High-ranking Tigers have committed suicide in order to protest and/or protect their comrades or to prevent incriminating evidence falling into enemy hands. Again, at least two district commanders, Pulendran and Kumarappa, were among the 17 Tigers who swallowed cyanide vials when they were being despatched to Colombo after their boat was captured in October 1987.[47] In January 1993 no less a person than Kittu (Krishnakumar Sathasivam), virtual no. 3 in the hierarchy, went down with a LTTE merchant ship as it was being sequestered on the high seas by the Indian Navy.[48]

One’s inquiries, moreover, should not be confined to the thinking of the LTTE leaders. The sentimental practices organised by the Tiger regime, whether rites or icons for the fallen, or poetry, song, drama (kuttu) and feature article, engage the Tamil people. The ramifications of these cultural practices among these people, the principal audience addressed, should be one of the arenas examined. It is the reception of these practices that is as central as anything else.

This combination of focus, that centring on roots of inspiration and that on reception, must necessarily delve into the cultural backdrop for such practices. Deciphering the symbols and participatory activities of the LTTE calls for extensive participant observation, no easy task without expertise in Tamil and explicit sympathies/links with the Tamil-cum-Tiger struggle.[49] Along another methodological track one requires cultural exploration. It is the latter course that I am partially qualified to take, though constrained by my lack of competence in Tamil.

Indeed, without attention to culture one can hardly comprehend the significance of a momentous innovation initiated by the LTTE in the late 1980s,[50] one that is on a par with the use of cyanide vials (kuppi). I refer to the decision that their fallen should be buried rather than cremated.

Since most Sri Lanka Tamils are Hindus and since roughly 50 percent of the people in the Jaffna Peninsula are of the highest caste, namely Vellālar,[51] for centuries the conventional manner of respectfully treating the deceased has been the cremation of their bodies.[52] Only Christian Tamils and perhaps some of the depressed castes buried (bury) their dead.[53] A ‘standard’ Hindu village, therefore, would not have a cemetery, only a cremation ground. Cremation carried value and status. For the Tiger hierarchy to order the burial of their dead and impose it on the peoples under their thumb was a radical measure.

On a priori reasoning at least two pragmatic considerations could be said to have directed such an innovation. Firstly, cremation is an expensive business and the Jaffna Peninsula in particular is short of wood. To bury the dead was cheaper and would conserve wood in a context where the number of bodies could be considerable. Secondly, the Tigers would have seen the strategic advantage of a māvīrar cult as a mobilising device and a justificatory tool. It is possible that their knowledge of the Irish scene and the history of the Nazi Germany made them alive to such potentialities. It is likely that the Christian personnel in their ranks promoted such a modus operandi. But even without such inspirations, instrumental and rational considerations could have led the Tiger leaders to such a momentous policy decision.

They may also have been directed by special themes in Hindu tradition and practice. Not all Hindus are cremated. Sannyasins are a special category of persons: the path to the status of exemplary ascetic involves the burning away of one’s former life, a form of death in other words. So sannyasins are buried and their shrines are regarded as a locus of divine power.[54] So, too, popular heroes or heroic sati-suicides were revered in the distant past and their persona marked by a commemorative stone slab or shrine. Perhaps adopting pre-Hindu practices, then, for many centuries Hindu Indians have enshrined these special humans in what are called “memorial stones” or “hero stones.”[55] This practice embodied a broader process that one can depict as “the deification of humans and the humanising of the deities.”[56]

Narrowing my regional focus, let me stress that the practice of erecting hero stones, that is, natukal or viragal, prevailed in many parts of Tamilnadu as well as the Kannada-speaking area of Mysore (Karnataka) and Kerala for many centuries.[57] The evidence goes back even to the Cankam poetry of the first-to-third centuries BCE. “These heroes often became tutelary divinities or demons and were worshipped with offerings of food and flowers.”[58]

Such heroes included great men who suffered “voluntary death when some irretrievable disgrace or insult befell them.”[59] This suicidal act, then, could even be a form of protest and a chastisement of powerful figures by those weaker.

The critical point is that some of these deified local heroes became one facet of a more general category, the guardian deities protecting villages from outsiders. Such guardian deities are identified by the generic terms māvīrar or bhairavar,[60] though at the same time one could have a specific, named shrine in a locality that is called Māvīrar or Bhairavar. The more popular deities, such as Maduraivīran, became deities with some regional reach. During his researches in the early twentieth century Whitehead discovered that Maduraivīran was “a male attendant of nearly all the village goddesses throughout the Tamil country.” While often represented by a small conical stone, Maduraivīran’s image at the Azhargiri Temple in Madras was “covered with spears, guns and arms.”[61] In Shulman’s classic interpretation Maduraivīran (Maturaivīran) ‘is a quintessential Tamil hero (vīran, Skt vīra) endowed with a perilous plenitude of power that cannot but spill over the paltry limits set by society.”[62]

Indeed, it is possible that the goddess Kannaki (Kannagi), to whom numerous temples are dedicated in Kerala, Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka, originated in distant time as a village deity that was taken up by a kingly court and thereafter diffused and developed into a major force.[63] Kannaki has both a chaste dimension as well as the character of an avenging goddess. There are several temples for Kannaki Amman in Sri Lanka and she is a figure known to every Tamil.[64] It is not surprising but yet significant, therefore, that Kannaki in her militant and yet chaste form has been incorporated into Tiger literature as an inspiration for their female fighters.[65]

My point, therefore, is ‘simple’: such icons and shrines are a source of power, capable of wrathful or bountiful intervention. Where appropriate, they are propitiated by the faithful for these reasons. These deified humans inspire hope. They help one to surmount fear and to derive mystical power. They protect, and thereby renew, one’s being. The act of an individual devotee is, in such contexts and especially at collective rites, at once individual and yet collectively ramifying. They renew the being of the collective people, usually a village writ large. But such communitarian implications can embrace larger collective units.

Natukal in Tamil literally means “planted stones.”[66] So it is significant that the LTTE literature speaks of planting their dead rather than burying their dead. Peter Schalk’s close association with the LTTE[67] enables him to state conclusively that “a LTTE martyr never ‘dies’. His body is planted as seed to be reborn. ‘The LTTE never buries its dead, it plants them’ to quote a LTTE leader.” Thus, LTTE posters on Black Tigers’ Day proclaim: “We are not dead; we have been sown.”[68] This viewpoint is in tune with the metaphoric picture of their fallen brave as “seeds,” that is, vitai.[69] Thus, in paying homage to their comrades as sacrificial seeds at commemorative rites, the living fighters and supporters are not only emphasising their debts of obligation. They are drawing energy (sakti, accaryam, darsan, akarsana, haskam)[70] from these ‘seeds’ of divine force for their ongoing endeavours. It is a regenerative act. So, I infer.

Propitiation & Pluralistic Religious Practice

My inference arises from an awareness of religious practices of propitiation in Sri Lanka favoured by Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants and even Muslims. Though I have personally witnessed such ritual moments, my understanding is based on secondary sources rather than extensive participant observation. It derives from the anthropological work of a wide range of scholars: Obeyesekere, Gombrich, Kapferer, Stirrat, Garbett, Bastin, Tanaka, Pfaffenberger and Lawrence. Most of these analysts pursued their researches in the south western and central parts of the island and not in the north and east.[71] But SL Tamils figure in the work of Garbett,[72] Bastin and Obeyesekere, while Tanaka’s detailed ethnographic study of religious rituals embraces a Tamil Karaiyār village on the western coast.

With the exception of Tanaka’s research, these studies do not focus purely on localised religious activities. Several sites of divine power (śakti) draw supplicants from distant places, a process that is assisted by the extensive public transport system in Sri Lanka and the relative cheapness of travel. Indeed, Kataragama, Munnesvaram and Kudagama are major pilgrimage sites that attract large numbers of people at specific times, besides those who visit the shrines at other moments to request favours.

The acts of propitiation, or “votive rituals” as Tanaka calls them, are performed in public. Only the most vicious and powerful forms of sorcery (kodivina) are enshrined in secrecy and only the very rich and powerful can organise private rites.[73] In Sinhala-speak the most prevalent rites are called bara, vows, though its literal meaning, “in charge of,” is not without significance.[74] People approach powerful deities and divine forces for all manner of favours: to secure a job, to achieve pregnancy, to secure a business deal, to find a marriage partner, to resolve interpersonal conflicts, et cetera. Many seek protection from afflictions and illness; or from imagined acts of sorcery; or from the effects of the evil eye, evil tongue or evil thoughts. Indeed, retributive vengeance (paligahanavā, or simply pali) is openly demanded and specific persons can be targeted – for such acts of counter-sorcery are regarded as entirely legitimate. Justifiable vengeance enables one to rely on pali and kodivina openly and to approach the “beings of sorcery,” that is, “transcendent god-like or demonic figures who are extraordinarily violent, amoral beings [and] Janus-faced creatures of the boundary.”[75]

Propitiating assistance in this manner also stacks reciprocal demands on each supplicant. Where benefits accrue from any vow, the supplicant or beneficiary must fulfil the promises attached to the request. This often calls for return visits to the potent shrine to offer propitiatory thanks. Where the visit is on a popular day each supplicant may have to wait for hours to receive the mediation of the ritual specialist. Enormous patience is called for, a requisite usually accepted with equanimity.[76] Among the Hindu Tamils these votive promises can embrace exacting tasks: such as firewalking, rolling round a temple building or self-mutilation. Indeed, Tanaka “did not come across any case in which a votary failed … to perform a votive rite.”[77]

Visitors to the more powerful shrines come from all walks of life and are spread across the class spectrum. Gombrich and Obeyesekere affirm “there is a widespread belief in [the spirit] cults even among the educated and elite segments of the society.”[78] This was also true for the devotees — mostly Catholic, but also Buddhist and Hindu — visiting the shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes at Kudagama in the 1970s.[79]

The empirical data produced by all these scholars make it clear that a large section of the population residing in the south western and central parts of the island engage in such propitiatory acts. Consider the information collected by Rohan Bastin at the cluster of shrines at Munnesvaram temple during the mid-1980s. During the festival period the crowd was estimated to be roughly 20,000 per day. During the rest of the year there were usually about 150 visitors per day, but more on weekends. Again, Obeyesekere estimated the crowd at Kataragama over the whole period of a 15-day festival in the early 1970s to be somewhere between the official figure of 800,000 and his lower estimate, so that one could speak of roughly 40,000 per day.[80] The pictures of temple festivals in the north and east displayed on LTTE sites in recent years also reveal enormous crowds of devotees.[81]

If one considers the fact that there are numerous other Kāli shrines in Sri Lanka and that people are also visiting shrines to other avenging deities such as Huniyam, Kataragama, Dädimunda, Devol Deviyo, Kadavara, Gini Kurumbara and Sihavatuka – most of whom have many shrines located throughout the land, then the implications are staggering: a fair proportion of the population spend a little time each year making or fulfilling vows.[82]

The visitors to these shrines are not confined to believers of one faith. To those readers nourished in the belief that religious faiths are mutually exclusive, let me stress that the supplicants cross religious boundaries to seek help. As in India, there is considerable cross-fertilisation, pluralism and borrowing in religious activity.[83] This facet of religion in Sri Lanka simply cannot be overestimated.

Thus, even a handful of Muslims visit Munnesvaram to appeal to the deities. The Kahatapitiya shrine at Gampola researched by Obeyesekere is a shrine of a Muslim saint; yet most of the clients making propitiatory appeals at Kahatapitiya were Sinhala Buddhist.[84] Indeed, both Obeyesekere and Bastin are quite clear that the majority of people visiting Munnesvaram are Buddhist. The principal temple at Munnesvaram is for the Saivite goddess Ambal, though Sinhala Buddhist worshippers are more likely to attend to her in the name of Pattini. But the most popular site at Munnesvaram is the temple for Bhadrakāli, or Kāli in short: “it is the marvellous potency (haskam) associated with this origin site [for Kāli] that contributes most to Munnesvaram’s Sri Lanka-wide fame.”[85] Bastin’s sample of worshippers revealed that 82% of those visiting the Bhadrakāli temple were Sinhala Buddhist, while 78% of those visiting the Ambal/Pattini shrine (main temple) were also Sinhala Buddhist.[86]

Bastin illustrates “the potency of the [Munnesvaram] temple’s dynamic” as he observed it in 1985 through details describing the event that conventionally concludes the annual festival. This is the water-cutting rite where the statues of the temples’ deities are brought to the neighbouring river in a procession and housed in an octagonal pavilion. One statue, the guardian form of Śiva known as Astara Dēvatā, is then given a sacred bath, a moment when worshippers indulge in “wild splashing and bathing.” A striking scene during this stage of the rite is the moment when the statues are installed at the pavilion: “there was a sudden onset of trance and abandon in front of the bo tree near the pavilion.”[87] Bastin’s informants clarified this by saying that a guardian deity called Kadavara had “manifested in the tree” and that the rush of “lower guardian deities into the space was … a direct result of the presence of the high deities inside the octagonal (lotus) pavilion.” Apart from the specific religious motifs (lotus-shape, bo tree) associated with this place, most of those who were moved into trance states were Sinhala Buddhist. Furthermore, when Bastin subsequently observed the festival in 1994 he found that “alongside the solitary bo tree there now stood a trident (weapon and symbol of Siva, especially in his guardian Bhairavar form) and a small cement structure housing a painted statue of Kāli.”[88]

Catholics, whether Sinhalese or Tamil, were among those supplicating the deities at these shrines. Likewise Catholic shrines at such places as St. Anthony’s in Kotahena, Colombo and at Kudagama, Suvagama and Katunayake cater to the needs of the troubled and afflicted – mostly Catholic at these sites, but also Hindu and Buddhist in minor proportions.[89] At Kudagama in the 1970s most worshippers were seeking exorcism from demonic possession, but the popularity of the place, its relic and mediating priest had developed to the point that devotees approached this site of for all manner of assistance. The site was regarded as a place “imbued with divine power.”[90]

Significantly, Stirrat found that the understanding of suffering among the Catholic supplicants “owe[d] much to Buddhist notions of dukkha;” and that the “ideas of demonic possession … depend[ed] upon a fairly detailed knowledge and reworking of Sinhala Buddhist ideas about gods and demons.” Though some clergymen and lay Catholics were unhappy with these practices, the Kudagama shrine and its practices were “still within the framework of the institutional church.”[91]

These descriptions by a diverse band of scholars, therefore, reveal the rich pluralism and cross-fertilisation in religious practices, together with their associated symbols, in the southern half of the island. It is probable that similar patterns prevail in the northern and eastern parts of the island. In any event Tanaka’s village study reveals patterns of sacrificial symbolism among Hindu Tamils that enable one to understand the milieu that has rendered Sri Lanka Tamils amenable to sacrificial resistance in circumstances they deemed intolerable.[92]

Some Tamil devotees from Jaffna who make the long journey to the place Kataragama to worship Murukan do so not for any cures, protection or specific worldly gains, but in order to “restore their faith.” This desire is fulfilled through embodiment: for “Murukan reveals himself by conferring trance ecstasy.”[93] Some of the devotees who make the pilgrimage to the Kataragama festival, both Tamil Hindu and Buddhist Sinhalese, also walk the fire. “The firewalkers,’ says Obeyesekere, “clearly agree on one thing: all of them walk the fire to renew their power.”[94] Tanaka is even more explicit when he describes this practice during the Draupadi Festival at the village Cattiyur: ‘firewalking is homa … a ceremony of symbolic death and rebirth in which the medium and votaries … sacrifice themselves.”[95]

Significantly, we are also told by Pfaffenberger that Hindu worshippers in the Jaffna Peninsula offer vēlvi (heating offerings) to a certain class of deities, the “self-born deities” who are “commonly thought [to have] once lived a corporeal existence;” and that the “hot offering par excellence is blood sacrifice, which involves the giving of a life (uyir) to sustain the life of a deity.”[96] Such blood offerings are usually goats and chickens. The key concept in this traditional practice is uyir. It seems to have inspired the LTTE to coin a new concept, uyirayutam, so as to legitimise and extol the dedicated acts of fighters on suicide missions – for uyirayutam translates as “life-as-weapon” (or life-gifted-as weapon) and has now been popularised in the international circuit.[97]

Clearly, though, direct observation of the LTTE rituals as well as the individualised practices of kinfolk and others who visit the cemeteries and cenotaphs is required in order to test my speculation that some Tamils (including some Tigers) may renew their faith and derive śakti from their sincere acts of devotion to the dead – dead who may even be regarded as deities. I am not in a position to administer such a test. But, coincidentally, an ardent Tiger apologist named AJV Chandrakanthan has provided strong evidence of this facet of LTTE and Tamil practice.

Religious Threads in Tamil Nationalism

Chandrakanthan was a lecturer at the University of Jaffna in the 1990s and was among those who fled when the government’s army broke out of the beachhead at Palaly and took control of the western half of the Jaffna Peninsula. He was therefore part of the exodus enforced by the LTTE as their response to this threat.[98] He became part of the migrant Tamil population in Canada. When the eminent political scientist, AJ Wilson, who had settled down in Toronto on retirement, was commissioned to write a book on Tamil nationalism by Hurst and Company of London, Chandrakanthan was at hand to provide an “Inside View” in a separate chapter within this book.

Both Wilson and Chandrakanthan argue that Tamil nationalism was a reaction to the excesses of Sinhala nationalism and organise their material as a legitimation exercise.[99] Chandrakanthan’s essay, however, goes further than Wilson in providing paeans of praise for the LTTE. In the process, he takes us into the heart of LTTE practice and thinking when he eulogises “the self-sacrificing spirit of thousands of Tamil youth who call themselves uyirayutham (life-as-weapon).” His immediate elaboration is of central import for my purposes:

“Heroic death founded within the fire of Tamil nationalism has given birth to a new set of terms, almost all derived from the ancient Tamil religion of Saivism; indeed, within the North and East Tamil nationalism has the appeal of a new religious movement. Prabhakaran … requests the people to venerate those who died in the battle for Eelam as sannyasis (ascetics) who renounced their personal desires and transcended egoistic existence for a common cause of higher virtue. I have seen hundreds of shrines erected in Jaffna by the friends and relatives of those LTTE cadres who have died in various actions; and the rituals performed with offering of flowers and lighting of oil lamps are those normally reserved to Saivite deities and saints.”[100]

The import of this description is that much sharper because Chandrakanthan is a Catholic priest. One must, however, qualify the sweeping character of his analysis by drawing distinctions between official and public LTTE rituals and those pursued by individual families. The Tiger hierarchy is fully alive to the dual Hindu-Christian base of support it draws on. Therefore, one would expect its cultural producers to avoid too overt a leaning towards specific deities.[101] But, given a context where the lighting of lamps, the deployment of the metaphor of “seed(s)”, veneration for monastic/ascetic self-negation and the propitiation of divine forces in order to gain śakti and āccaryam have been common to both Saivite (Hindu) and Catholic worship among the Tamils, it is not a major difficulty for them to mix and match these signifiers and to thereby incorporate devotees from both backgrounds into the LTTE dispensation.

The possibilities afforded to the LTTE composers and the participatory faithful from the store of stories embedded in Tamil culture are indicted by referring to Shulman’s work on temple myths. Several, such as the Tiruvānaikkā myth, “link” the standard symbol of the temple tree (which is conventionally understood to link heaven and the worlds below) to “the birth of the divine seed” – a story about Siva that also embodies the “idea of self-sacrifice.”[102] Such rich details support Shulman’s stress on the manner in which Tamil myths differ from those of other regions of India in “the absolute localization of all symbols.” He concludes that the “notion of a divinity inhering in a particular place or object seems to belong to the oldest stratum of Tamil civilization.”[103]

The organization of LTTE rituals for their fighters is localised in this manner. On Black Tigers’ Day and Māvīrar (“Heroes”) Week the various functions have a local emphasis. Living Black Tigers pay homage to Black Tiger dead from that particular region.[104] The mothers of specific heroes/heroines place garlands on their children’s tombstone or photo: so that Capt. Miller’s mother appears at Nelliyady to mark his landmark blow at that cultic spot, a new shrine for the Tiger cause.[105] When, in July 2003, the LTTE’s political chief for Vavuniya District placed a garland on the tombstone of a local lad who had died in battle in 1990 as a Black Tiger, moreover, the LTTE described his gravestone as a “nadukal” – in an innovation (see Plate) that implants a southern Indian meaning within Sri Lankan Tamil consciousness.[106]

The association of particular deities with specific shrines/places and landscapes in Tamil history and culture renders it forceful for Tamilians to advance their land claims through such idiomatic modalities. In effect, there is a stress on autochthony. For all his emphasis on the purposive rationality in the ideological productions of the LTTE, Schalk supports Chandrakanthan as well as the thrust of my argument when he notes that the LTTE “stipulates that every sepulchre of dead hero is a seal by which the LTTE confirms its ownership of the land” and asserts that “it is the [hero’s] death that brings Tamilīlam.”[107] In keeping with the metaphoric emphasis on their dead as vitai or seeds, as well as the LTTE’s reference to the planting of their dead, moreover, “among the most prevalent theme[s] in Eelam poetry is the regeneration of life from death.” “The imagery,” continues Margaret Trawick, “is vegetative, horticultural.” Furthermore, Trawick’s interviews with female fighters showed that “the close bonding of combatants means that when one combatant is killed, her friends are all the more motivated to fight. In this way they redeem her.”[108] The idea of redemption is not as dead as Schalk asserts.[109]


Lest I be misunderstood, let me set limits around my claims. I am not saying that the LTTE rituals are solely directed by purposive endeavours to draw on supramundane forces or that such expectations dominate the participation of all those who engage in public or private rites for the Tiger fallen, the māvīrar. I am suggesting that it is a potential facet that may inform the work of those who compose both the visual representations and the rituals. In stronger tones I contend that regenerative and protective expectations of the type associated with practices of propitiation in Tamil society, whether Hindu or Christian, inform in some measure the participatory practices of those Tamils attending the rites or visiting the cemeteries. In this manner I proclaim the significance of the cosmological conditioning of the Tamil peoples, a grounding that goes back many centuries and cannot be grasped without attending to the evocative power of these historical motifs.[110] These historical conditions include facets of bhakti religiosity that have been unreflectively absorbed or purposively re-worked in the everyday life of Tamils over many centuries.

I do not claim that this dimension of LTTE activity has had a central bearing on the military success of the Tigers enterprise or that the LTTE leaders see this to be the most significant reason for their successes, both political and military. That they devote significance to these activities, however, is manifest: manifest both in the fact that they set up an Office of Great Heroes in 1995 and in the care they devote to their “hero stones” and sepulchres. If spiritually-oriented sportsmen in the modern world (e.g. Michael Johnson, Matthew Hayden, Chaminda Vaas) can openly seek divine support or thank the gods for their triumphs, it should be no surprise that so many ordinary Tamils, Hindu and Christian, engaged as they are in such an extraordinary and dangerous project as that directed by the LTTE, should gild their rational, down-to-earth measures with actions that please their deities; or even render their own dead into hero-deities in the fashion of some Tamils of old. The deification of human beings, it seems, continues afresh.

It may be possible to treat such reformulations of old and new as “original articulations” that are “thoroughly modern” — as Kapferer contends in his clarification of contemporary sorcery practices. But Kapferer’s theoretical position is one that also speaks of “hybridising continuities” and attends to the cosmological conditioning in ways opposed to the modern/tradition dichotomy on the one hand and, on the other, to any sharp temporal distinctions between a pre-colonial past and the modern era in the fashion favoured by scholars attached to positivist or post-modern perspectives.[111]  In sum, then, there is a prima facie case for explorations of Tamil culture across the span of the Palk Straits and for engagements with the works of such scholars as Blackburn, Hart, Kailasapathy, Krishna Shastri, Ramanujan, Shulman and Zvelebil and, on the other, with such scholars of contemporary folk culture as Val Daniel, Diane Mines and Margaret Trawick, if one wishes to comprehend the phenomenon of Tiger devotional sacrifice.


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[1] I discovered the pertinence of a book by M. Tanaka (1991) only after this article had been accepted for publication. Reference to this work is therefore limited because its material will serve as the foundation for another essay working in the same direction. Again, I received Peter Schalk’s article (2003) on māvīrar rites at an advanced stage of the publication process. As it calls for a series of challenges, I have only incorporated its data in a minimal way.

[2] Sumarising and reviewing Christoph Reuter’s book My Life is a Weapon: History of Suicide Bombing, Weekend Australian 3-4 July 2004, R 10. Also see Pape 2003: 343 where the Tigers are mistakenly said to have “elements of Marxist Leninism.”  Pape, clearly, has not consulted Hellmann-Rajanayagam (1994b: 4, 136, 142). Likewise, misled by Pape, Riaz Hassan describes the Tamil Tigers as “a radical nationalist group whose members [are] from Hindu families who were adamantly opposed to religion” (ISM Newsletter14, June 2004, p. 8. Cf. “The LTTE hero is a ‘secular’ hero” and the “Black Tiger’s sacrifice is made in a secular setting” (Schalk 1997a: 68, 78) – statements that are contradicted by Schalk’s own data.

[3] Weber 1948a: 350-51. Also see Weber 1948b & 1984c; and Weber in Runciman 1978. Cf. Bastin 2002b: 169.

[4] The modern rationality and corporate structure of key “terrorist” organisations, such as Al Qaeda, have been validly pinpointed by scholars (Bruce Hoffman, ‘Terrorist Leader as CEO’, Interview, 2003, in http://www.rand.org; and Ramakrishna & Tan 2002: 6-7).

[5] The Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka of Tamil ethnic origin are broadly divided into two categories in the censuses, the Sri Lanka Tamils and the Indian Tamils. In the first three quarters of the twentieth century there were relatively few Indian Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. However, their ranks were swelled by those who moved to these provinces after being displaced from their localities/jobs in the Central Highlands during the land reforms of the 1970s.

[6] Respectively 0.85, 5.1, 8.1% and 16.55 in the Districts of Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya (Census of 1981, Colombo: 1985, Table 7 for each district).

[7] These statistics are for all ethic groups because the census data does not cross-tabulate ethnic group and religious category. Vavuniya District, the southernmost part of the Northern Province has a number of Sinhalese along its borders and is therefore the odd-place out. Note that in 1921, when cross-tabulations are available, the proportion of Christians among the “Ceylon Tamils” in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of that day was 14.3%and 8.2% respectively (Census of Ceylon, 1921, Vol. IV, Table XII, p. 197).


[8] Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994b: 136, 22. This statement needs some qualification now for the Eastern Province after a major split led by the military commander Karuna in early 2004.

[9] Helmann-Rajanayagam 1993: 273 & 1994b: 35-36 and information from a young Tamil in Australia whose name cannot be revealed. It is supported by a conversation with the late Mahen Vaithianathan in the 1990s that has remained indelibly in my memory bank. He said that most of the recruits were from the poor villages in the Vanni and East and that the Tigers acquiesced readily in the middle classes pursuing their usual paths of economic advancement because the latter eventually became useful resources of money or skilled personnel beyond Tigerland, that is, in my annotation, those located in Colombo and in global diasporic settings. This contention is supported by Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1993: 279.

[10] Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1993: 274. Re Karaiyar domination and the reservations of Vellalar conservatives in the Jaffna Peninsula, see Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994b: 138-42.

[11] This does not mean that even the majority of Karaiyar in the 20th century has relied on this occupation, though it is probable that the Karaiyar is the biggest single group among fishermen.

[12] Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1993: 267, 265, 268. She also notes that the Karaiyar networks within the LTTE have used this background to present the LTTE as Kshātriya warriors and protectors of the Tamil people; and that the Tigers attempted to “appropriate the symbols of ‘Tamilness’ … and extend them horizontally and vertically” (1993: 278, 251). Earlier, I conjectured that the Mukkuvar of the Eastern Province and the Karaiyar have stronger roots in the popular cults of southern India than the Vellālar (1996: 265).

[13] Kittu’s conversion may have been induced by the crystallisation of a love affair with a Cattholic medical student who was from an established middle class family in Mirusuvil (information from a Tamil university student in her  time).

[14] Tamilnet.com, 24 Nov. 2002, describing the Heroes’ Day ceremony at Trincomalee (Seelan’s home district) and Narayan Swamy 2003: 77-78; also pp. 62, 73. Schalk provides graphic details of the grief among the early LTTE leaders when Sankar (Selvasintaran Sathiyanathan) died on 27 November 1982. This day is now earmarked as Māvīrar Day, while Prabhakaran fasts for 24 hours on this day every year (2003: 400-01).

[15] UTHR 1994, Report no 13, p. 81 which adds: “The last song contains a rationalisation at least partly borrowed from Christianity — the Saviour who voluntarily takes upon him, and dies for, the sins of the world.”

[16] I saw the uncut version in the home of one such supporter in Europe in 1987. For a recent commemoration for Victor see www.tamilnet.com, 12 Oct. 2004.

[17] Information communicated personally by Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam. One young Tamil (name cannot be disclosed) nurtured in the Jaffna Peninsula even says that there are “a significant number of Catholic suicide bombers.” However, Rajan Hoole indicated that he was not aware of many Catholic suicide bombers (email note conveyed 14 Dec. 2003 via an intermediary). So far I can identify the following Catholics among the fallen: Alphonsraajah Jancyraani of Jaffna, Vinayakamoorthy Rason Pandivirichchan of Mannar, Somasunderam Jude Subendran of Amparai, and Joseph Ganeshkumar alias Captain Pavalaratnam of Batticaloa (www. TamilNet, 16 Oct. 1999, 10 Dec. 1997, 27 Oct. 1998, and 24 Dec. 1998 respectively).

[18] The term accaryam is Tamil for “potency” and “marvel(s”) — see Bastin 2002: xv, 133-44. Śakti (also written as shakti) refers to “divine power” or  “essential power” and is a term familiar to both Sinhalese and Tamils, though especially significant in Tamil and Hindu culture (Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988: 190, 90; Wadley 1977). Thus “shakti is neither moral power nor physical power, but both” and “Hindu deities are power-filled,” that is, shakti-sanpann. There is also a goddess Shakti and in this sense shakti implies the female energy of the universe … but shakti does not mean just female power…, but power in general” (Wadley 1977: 139, 138). Also see Kapferer 1997:  112, 261.

[19] See Roberts 1999 and 2002a.

[20] Īlam or Eelam was originally the Tamil word for the whole island.

[21] This argument has been spelt out by me in 1978, an essay written in Germany in 1976 — for by 1973/74 I had lost hope in the possibility of rapprochement (Roberts 1978).


[22] Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994: 40.


[23] Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994a: 169 & passim and Narayan Swamy 1994: 72ff, 115-53.

[24] Schalk 1997a: 64 and Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994a: 177.

[25] Narayan Swamy 2003: 201-02, 109. Narayan Swamy says this policy was adopted in 1984. I have no means of verifying all the information in his book (though I am sure that a proportion of his facts would be wrong—that being the nature of the historical beast).

[26] Schalk 1997a: 74. “We are married to our cyanide,” said one LTTE publication in Tamil (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994b: 67). Also see Schalk 1997b: 62-63. Schalk notes that the cyanide vials are manufactured in Germany. The first Tiger to swallow the cyanide kuppi was Celvam (Selvam) Pakin on 18 May 1984 (Schalk 1997b: 62).

[27] Interview with S. Rajanayagam (b. 1908) in Adelaide, 7 January 2004. On arppanippu, see Schalk 1997a: 66.

[28] Schalk 1997a: 67. The Tamil word tiyaki (also written as tiyahi) is one of the terms used by the LTTE to convey the idea of martyr though other words are also used according to Schalk. Schalk stresses that this concept “does not exactly correspond to what in Judeo-Christian tradition is meant by ‘martyr and ‘martyrdom’.” (1967: 67). The term tiyaki is related to the Sanskrit word tyagi. Both were deployed in colonial India to describe the Indian freedom fighters of the anti-British struggle. It is probably from this intellectual thread and the representations surrounding the life and times of Subhas Chandra Bose that Prabhakaran and his associates adopted this term for their personnel. Christian missionaries and Christian Tamils used the terms cātci (pronounced sātsi) or ratacātci as the term for “martyr” (Schalk 1997a: 66, 80 & 1997b as well as my Tamil and Christian informants).

[29] Narayan Swamy 1994: chs. 7 & 8 and 2003: 132-49. Also Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1994b: 42-48, 138.

[30] The LTTE leadership was also convinced that the kuppi gave them a motivational edge in battle: “As long as we have this cyanide around our neck, we have no need to fear any force on earth! … In reality this gives our fighters an extra measure of belief in the cause, a special edge; it has instilled in us a determination to sacrifice our lives … for the cause” said Kittu during his interview with Peter Schalk (1997a: 76). This comment points to the indoctrination of recruits, while yet revealing how the commanders are themselves true believers and had internalised these attitudes. Also see Trawick 1997: 169-70.

[31] Narayan Swamy 1993: 155-56 and Schalk 1997a: 77. Captain Miller was the son of a bank clerk and had attended Hartley College in Point Pedro  (information from Tamil friends). Schalk, who has a tendency to purify all Tamil names, refers to him as “Capt Millar” not Miller, though all the LTTE internet sites and my Tamil friends use the spelling “Miller”. Indeed, if Yogi had any influence on the naming scheme, it is likely that he chose Keith Miller as his inspiration for this nom de guerre.

[32] For the date when the Black Tiger corps was set up, see Schalk 2003: 396. Also see Hopgood 2004 for a review of the role of the Black Tigers and their possible motivations. Also see Joshi 1996, Gunaratna 1997 & 1998 and Reuter 2002: 155-62.

[33] From http://www.tamilnet.com, 6 July 1997. However, other accounts indicate that the Black Tigers do operate as units especially at sea.

[34] Grapevine stories and Reuter 2002: 160, and Schalk 2003: 396.

[35] Talaivar can also be read as “hero” (Trawick 1990: 26, 30) or “lover” (Zvelebil 1975: 98n).

[36] Schalk 2003 and http://www.tamilnet.com on these days in any one year.

[37] The first table is taken from www.eelamweb.com and the second from www.tamilcanadian.com While the figures do not match, they are close enough. For other estimates, see Hopgood 2004.

[38] Schalk 2003: 397-99.

[39] That is, before the 1980s māvīrar was differentiated from tiyaki, catci and ratacatci. The first LTTE māvīrar in their martyrlogy is Lt Shankar who died on 27 November 1982 after being wounded in one of the Tiger ambushes in July, while the first woman  māvīrar is Malati, who committed cyanide suicide when wounded fatally (Narayan Swamy 2003: 77-78 & Schalk 1997a: 72).

[40] See the picture of one cemetery in www.tamilcanadian.com and the many pictures in the sub-segment entitled “Warriors Statues” in www.eelamweb.com.

[41] Schalk 1997a: 66.

[42] Schalk 1997b: 63.

[43] As conveyed, indepedently, by Neloufer de Mel and Kingsley Garbett (in conversation). This argument has been developed elsewhere by me in relation to war stories and oral transmission in the era before and after the extension of print technology (Roberts 2002b).

[44] See www.tamilnet.com and its news item, c. 19 April 2003 with pictures of a cut-out at a road junction in the Batticaloa area (her home locality). For the red lotus see Bastin 2002: 139.


[45] Sluka 1998: 50. Sluka stresses that in Ireland funerals are “sacred events” and that commemorations are “funerals remembered” and “past funerals re-experienced” (1998: 51, 52).


[46] I came to this conclusion on a priori grounds in the course of a conversation with David Olney of the Politics Dept, University of Adelaide. Subsequently, I came across a similar claim built upon ethnographic experience by Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam:  “the Tigers are from the people and therefore of the people” (1994b: 67). This said, note that some Tamils in Sri Lanka are ambivalent about the LTTE and yet others vehemently opposed — at the same time that they are critical of the Colombo-based governments. See Hoole 2001.

[47] Narayan Swamy 2003: 179-81. These cyanide vials, according to Narayan Swamy, were slipped to them by Balasingham and others during a visit to their jail. Grapevine information within Tamil circles suggests that Rahim did not swallow his kuppi when captured by the Indians; and that his departure from the LTTE was precipitated by this event.

[48] Narayan Swamy 2003: 244-45. The ship was a 290-tonne vessel registered in San Lorenzo.

[49] The work of Schalk, Trawick and Hellmann-Rajanayagam is particularly valuable because they command these characteristics. It usually comes at a price however.

[50] Approximate date conveyed by Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam (email, 6 July 2004) on information she derived from Peter Schalk.

[51] Pfaffenberger 1982: 47 and Banks 1960. The Karaiyar are computed at 10%, the Kōviyar at 7%, Pallar at 9% and Nalavar at 9 percent. Thirteen other castes are named, but none made up over 3% of the population in the Jaffna Peninsula according to Banks’ estimates.

[52] Information conveyed by Vamadevan of Sydney (a former police officer whose home village is near Palaly) and Dr. Ravindran of Adelaide. The latter added: “This [the practice of cremation] was in keeping with the belief that that body was impermanent or ‘unreal’ …. the ‘atma’ alone was permanent or ‘real’. The only exception to this was the body of a saint (a person who had realized the “Ultimate”) as usually the place of burial was consecrated & became a place of worship.”

[53] Vamadevan indicated that some depressed caste people would receive financial support from their patrons in order to bury their dead.

[54] Information conveyed by Arthur Saniotis on the basis of his interview with a monk at Shivananda Ashram in Rishi Kesh, India.  Also note the independent confirmation of this note by Dr. Ravindran in fn. 52 above.

[55] See Settar and Sontheimer 1982: passim.

[56] This quotation is a modified version of a title used by Aiyappan 1977. Also see Schalk 1997b: 64. Note, too, that among the Sinhala-speakers “demon deities are regarded as having once been human beings or the children of a divine-human union” (Kapferer 1997: 32, relying on Obeyesekere’s work on the Pattini cult).

[57] See Settar & Sontheimer 1982; Settar 982 and Soundarara Rajan 1982.

[58] Pope as quoted in Kailasapathy 1968: 76. Also see Whitehead 1921: 91, 93, 102, 117-19.

[59] Kailasapathy 1968: 76.

[60] Information conveyed by Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam and Rohan Bastin (email notes late May 2004 and 16 March 2004 respectively).

[61] Whitehead 1921: 25, 114.  Spears are a common symbol of village deities in Southern India and stand for śakti (Shulman 1980 44).

[62] Shulman 1985: 355.

[63] A speculation voiced by Rohan Bastin (telephone conversation, 31 March 2004).

[64] Opinions conveyed by K. Sivathamby and S. Rajanayagam (interviews 3 October 2003 and 7 Jan. 2004 respectively).

[65] Schalk 1997a: 73-74.

[66] Kailasapathy 1968: 235. Among the Tamils of Sri Lanka the word natukal is familiar, but is associated with the symbolic cornerstone for a new house. The southern Indian sense of a memorial or hero stone does not seem to be part of popular understanding (responses of Tamil friends).

[67] Schalk was able to interview Kittu in London on 30 March 1990 (1997a: 83, 68, 76) and is known in LTTE circles as “the White Tiger” (a LTTE organiser who cannot be named).

[68] Schalk 1997a: 66 and http://www.tamilnet.com, 6 July 1999.

[69] UTHR 1994: 81 and Schalk 1997a: 79.

[70] See fn. 18 above for śakti and āccaryam. Ākarsana is a Sinhala concept and refers to the “pull,” “current” or “magnetic force” residing in an image of Buddha or a deity  — so that ākarsana balaya “is the śakti of the god reaching the body of the devotee” (Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988: 190). I am not certain of the Tamil equivalent. Haskam (“marvels”, “potency”) is a Sinhala concept, whereas darsan would be understood in both Tamil and Sinhala as “the quality of seeing or being seen by a divine force”– in itself a boon or a blessing.

[71] Pfaffenberger (1979) provides material on religious practices in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1970s and Tamil pilgrimages to Murukan at Kataragama, while Lawrence (1998) provides harrowing accounts of oracular mediation in the Batticaloa region during the traumatic situation in the 1990s. I am aware of Mark Whitaker’s work, but his focus is not on religious action at shrines per se. In sum, their work does not add up to the scale of work done by the others.

Note, however, that Bastin spent several months researching in the Batticaloa locality in the mid-1980s before moving to Munnesvaram which is chiefly a Saivite temple cluster in a borderline area that services both Tamils in the northern and north western regions as well as those in the rest of the island, besides Sinhalese and other ethnic categories from all parts of Sri Lanka. Bastin has subsequently worked in Kalutara South.

[72] Garbett’s research included the shrines at the Hindu temple in Mutwal, the mosque at Dematagoda, the Buddhist temple at Bellanwila and St. Anthony’s Church in Kotahena, every one of them in Colombo. No publications have resulted, but as he is a colleague, I have gained information about his findings over the years.

[73] Bastin 2002: 29 and Obeyesekere 1975: 4-5. As widely known, Mrs Bandaranaike was among those who frequented Munnesvaram in the past.

[74] Cf. In appealing to deities as sources of śakti, devotees in north India expect saran, that is shelter – so that they are placing themselves within a particular deities’ fold (Wadley 1977: 147).

[75] Kapferer 1997: 13, 14. Also Bastin 2002b: 156.

[76] The story goes that when a famous cricketer jumped the queue at Kataragama, many devotees in that queue incorporated his name into their curses. The patience shown by worshippers at shrines is in marked contrast to the push and shove of Sri Lankans at bus halts.

[77] Tanaka 1991: 90-92.

[78] Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988: 142. These two scholars’ researches not only embraced religious sites in Colombo, but also at such spots as Gampola, Kataragama, Seenigama and Munnesvaram. In his small sample of clients approaching Huniyam at Seenigama in the early 1970s Obeyesekere found that 40 per cent were from what he defines as “non-traditional occupations,” while 12% were shopkeepers and 16% “landed proprietors” (1975: 12-13 and 1977: 378).

[79] Stirrat 1992: 62. Note that 13% of Stirrat’s small sample was Buddhist and that roughly 2000 pilgrims visited Kudagama every week in 1974 (1992: 153, 63).

[80] Bastin 2002: 28 and Obeyesekere 1977: 194.

[81] For instance, see www.tamilnet.com on 19 April 2003 for Amman Festival and ^ April 2004 for the Chariot Festival at the Pathirakāli Ambal Temple.

[82] Huniyam’s main shrine (and thus his most powerful site) is at Käbälläva in the north western interior; Kāli’s at Munnesvaram and Murugan’s (Kataragama’s) at Kataragama in  the extreme south east.

[83] Note Susan Bayly’s argument that in southern India Christianity is a thin veneer overlaid upon an essentially Hindu form of popular religion (1989: 454 ff and passim).

[84] Obeyesekere 1975: 7.

[85] Bastin 2002: 164-65, 19-34, quotation from 22; and Obeyesekere 1975: 7.

[86] Bastin 2002: 28.

[87] Descriptions of ecstatic trance and uninhibited outpourings of emotion can also be found in Obeyesekere 1978 and Pfaffenberger 1979: 260, 269. Bastin notes that the “potency of the riverside bo tree stems from the deity pavilion and the festival bathing site, which draw out the symbolic association of the site as ambiguous juncture of land and water” (2002: 4). Note, too, Kapferer’s emphasis on the boundary in the quotation within the text

[88] Bastin 2002: 3-5

[89] Stirrat 1992: passim and information from Kingsley Garbet

[90] Stirrat 1992: 63, 78.

[91] Stirrat 1992: 121, 150, 122, with the emphasis being my addition. Significantly, the terms dukkha and tapasa were used interchangeably (p. 134).

[92] Tanaka’s work is so important that I will be using it as a foundation for another essay that addresses Schalk’s thesis on māvīrar rituals.

[93] Pfaffenberger 1979: 262.

[94] Obeyesekere 1978: 466 (emphasis mine). I have strong reservations about Obeyesekere’s social dislocation thesis, one that sees urbanised rootlessness as the main reason for the increase of such activities and the participation of Buddhists (allegedly a new phenomenon) in this event. However, for our purposes what matters is the reading of these practices as a facet of bhakti religiosity” – for bhakti devotionalism has a long history in India especially in the Tamil south and goes back to the 6th century BCE if not earlier. This does not mean that it was an unchanging tradition.

[95] Tanaka 1991: 181. Unlike Kataragama only men walked the fire at Cattiyur in 1982 when Tanaka estimated that around 1000 people undertook this exercise. Note that the devotees at the Draupadi Festival included people from the surrounding districts as well as Colombo and Jaffna (1991: 184).

[96] Pfaffenberger 1979: 260. On blood sacrifices (vēlvi) also see Tanaka 1991: 114, 118-19 and Bastin 2002: 198-99.

[97] Schalk 1997b: 40, 63 and Chandrakanthan 2000: 164 and the title of Reuter’s book (2002).

[98] Typically, his account of this episode lays the whole onus on the Sri Lankan army (2000: 162). One needs grapevine information and the reports of the other Tamil organizations (e. g. AUTO 2004) to gain some sense of the manner in which, so to speak, the “sharks took the sea with them” when the LTTE gave up untenable military positions.

[99] Wilson 2000: 43, 116ff; Chandrakanthan 2000: 157-59, 161 and Roberts 2004.

[100] Chandrakanthan 2000: 164-65.

[101] Hellmann-Rajanayaga 1994b: 69.

[102] Shulman 1980: 45-46.

[103] Shulman 1980: 47-48.

[104] “The Black Tigers’ day was celebrated in the Trincomalee district Saturday, with the opening of a memorial at Sampur village in the LTTE controlled Muttur east for Black Tiger cadres from the Trincomalee district, by the Trincomalee district area commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Colonel Pathuman, as the main event in the morning, sources said” (www.tamilnet.com, 5 July 2003). “The parents of Black Tigers killed in action also participated in the ceremonies. Like their children, the parents are also revered by their local communities” (describing the ceremony on 5 July 1997 in the Vanni – http://www.tamilnet. com, 5 July 1997).

[105] See www.tamilnet.com, 5 July 2004.

[106] See www.tamilnet.com, 5 July 2003 – an item that I discovered after my article was drafted. As such it is a discovery that confirms my previous speculations. Note that the “t” and the “d” are synonymous in Tamil. Most of my SLT informants told me that natukal referred to a ritual foundation stone for a new house. Thus, its usage as a hero stone is an importation from southern India, albeit one that is consonant with local culture.

[107] Schalk 1997a: 81 and 1997b: 57. Such contentions contradict his insistence that the “secular setting” in which the LTTE operates renders all their actions ‘secular’ (single quotation marks signifying some qualification?) in some sense. The problem lies with Schalk’s overwhelming focus on the motivations of the Tiger fighters and Prabhakaran’s rationality rather than the cosmological universe of being that conditions the interpretations of the Tamil people addressed by the Tiger leaders as well as the selections of the Tiger cultural producers themselves. Their cosmos bears on their emotions. Praxis is not purely purposive and rational.

[108] Trawick 1997: 155, 180. See also the statements clarifying their reasons for firewalking provided by worshippers at Kataragama and Obeyesekere’s article on the subject (1978).

[109] Schalk 1997a: 67. That said, the theme of redemption and expiation does not seem to hav the prominence it does in Judaic and Christian strands of martyrdom.

[110] It was with the intention of stressing the importance of the cosmological and historical dimensions of Tamil political lifeways and their bearing on sacrificial action that I penned an explicitly speculative article on “Filial devotion in Tamil culture and the Tiger cult of martyrdom” in 1996. Schalk has interpreted my essay to be a form of “historisation,” that is, naïve history-writing that draws a continuous chain of links between past and present, and as such replicating the ideological work of the LTTE without the same justification — for he considers the latter to be natural and legitimate in their circumstances, whereas my work is derided as that of an outsider demonising the LTTE (1997b). But throughout his corpus of writings Schalk proceeds to draw on historical roots whenever it suits him: for instance he goes back to a famous 4thor 5th century BCE text when he clarifies the force of the iratta(t) tilakam (the red dot imprinted in real blood, or symbolic blood, on one’s forehead) as a sacrificial relationship with a god or even with a living being in the process of becoming a deity (such as Tilipan as he fasted unto death in 1987) in modern Tamil practice. Remarkably, he even asserts that the LTTE’s Office of Great Heroes is “sovereign and not predisposed … in their approach to the cultural heritage” (1997b: 63). Though his article is bedevilled by a materialist bias, a species of Orientalist positivism and a misreading of my English metaphors, it is an essential text for any study of the Tigers and happens to provide ample support for my contentions. Amen.

[111] Kapferer 2002a: 15, 20 and 2002b: passim.

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One response to “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?

  1. A NOTE from the AUTHOR, 9 November 2020: “An email note from a friend and scholarin UK complained in mild tones about thelength of this article. Coincidentally another scholar in Australia complimented my essay in ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY in 2008, entiTled “Tamil Tigers. Sacrficial Symbolism and Dead Body Politics” for its crispness et cetera.

    I stress here that the latter could not have been writTen without the foundations provided by my SCT article above and other essays on the LTTE martyrdoM operations.

    SEE https://thuppahis.com/2018/12/02/tamil-tigers-dead-body-politics-and-sacrificial-devotion/

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