The Tamils are an ancient people. Their history had its beginnings in the rich alluvial plains near the southern extremity of peninsular India which included the land mass known as the island of Sri Lanka today. The island's plant and animal life (including the presence of elephants) evidence the earlier land connection with the Indian sub continent. So too do satellite photographs which show the submerged 'land bridge' between Dhanuskodi on the south east of the Indian sub-continent and Mannar in the north west of the island.
Some researchers have concluded that it was during the period 6000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. that the island separated from the Indian sub continent and the narrow strip of shallow water known today as the Palk Straits came into existence. Many Tamils trace their origins to the people of Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley around 6000 years before the birth of Christ. There is, however, a need for further systematic study of the history of the early Tamils and proto Tamils.
Clyde Ahmad Winters, who has written extensively on Dravidian origins commented:
He has also explored the question whether the Dravidians were of African origin. (Winters, Clyde Ahmad, "Are Dravidians of African Origin", P.Second ISAS,1980 - Hong Kong:Asian Research Service, 1981 - pages 789- 807)
At the same time, the Aryan/Dravidian divide in India and the 'Aryan Invasion Theory' itself has come under attack by some modern day historians. (see also Sarasvati-Sindhu civilisation; 'Hinduism: Native or Alien to India')
Professor Klaus Klostermaier in 'Questioning the Aryan Invasion Theory and Revising Ancient Indian History'commented:
Hinduism Today concluded in Rewriting Indian History - Hindu Timeline:
Robert Caldwell wrote in 1875:
The Tamils were a sea faring people. They traded with Rome in the days of Emperor Augustus. They sent ships to many lands bordering the Indian Ocean and with the ships went traders, scholars, and a way of life. Tamil inscriptions in Indonesia go back some two thousand years. The oldest Sanskrit inscriptions belonging to the third century in Indo China bear testimony to Tamil influence and until recent times Tamil texts were used by priests in Thailand and Cambodia. The scattered elements of ruined temples of the time of Marco Polo's visit to China in the 13th century give evidence of purely Tamil structure and include Tamil inscriptions.
In early times the Pandyas, the Cheras and the Cholas held their pioneering sway over the country and extended their authority beyond the traditional frontiers. As a result the Tamil Country served as the homeland of extensive empires. It was during this period that the Tamil bards composed the masterpieces in Tamil literature.....
"In the first decade of the 14th century the rising tide of Afghan imperialism swept over South India. The Tughlugs created a new province in the Tamil Country called Mabar, with its capital at Madurai which in 1335 asserted independence as the Sultanate of Madurai. After a short period of stormy existence, it gave way to the Vijayanagar Empire... Since then, the Telegus, the Brahminis, the Marathas and the Kannadins wrested possession of the territory. Between 1798 and 1801, the country passed under the direct administration of the English East India Company." (History of Tamil Nadu 1565 - 1982: Professor K.Rajayyan, Head of the School of Historical Studies, M.K.University, Madurai - Raj Publishers, Madurai, 1982)
The East India Company website contains interesting information about the efforts of the early English rulers.
Today an estimated 70 million Tamils live in many lands - more than 50 million Tamils live in Tamil Nadu in South India and around 3 million reside in the island of Sri Lanka.
The response of a people to invasion by aliens from a foreign land is a measure of the depth of their roots and the strength of their identity. It was under British conquest that the Tamil renaissance of the second half of the 19th century gathered momentum.
It was a renaissance which had its cultural beginnings in the discovery and the subsequent editing and printing of the Tamil classics of the Sangam period. These had existed earlier only as palm leaf manuscripts. Arumuga Navalar in Jaffna, in the island of Sri Lanka, published the Thirukural in 1860 and Thirukovaiyar in 1861. Thamotherampillai, who was born in Jaffna but who served in Madras, published the grammatical treatise Tolkapiyam by collating material from several original ola leaf manuscripts.
It was on the foundations laid by Arumuga Navalar and Thamotherampillai that Swaminatha Aiyar, who was born in Tanjore, in South India, put together the classics of Tamil literature of the Sangam period. Swaminatha Aiyar spent a lifetime researching and collecting many of the palm leaf manuscripts of the classical period and it is to him that we owe the publication of Cilapathikaram, Manimekali, Puranuru, Civakachintamani and many other treatises which are a part of the rich literary heritage of the Tamil people.
Another Tamil from Jaffna, Kanagasabaipillai served at Madras University and his book 'Tamils - Eighteen Hundred Years Ago' reinforced the historical togetherness of the Tamil people and was a valuable source book for researchers in Tamil studies in the succeeding years. It was a Tamil cultural renaissance in which the contributions of the scholars of Jaffna and those of South India are difficult to separate.
Again, not surprisingly, it was a renaissance which was also linked with a revived interest in Saivaism and a growing recognition that Saivaism was the original religion of the Tamil people. Arumuga Navalar established schools in Jaffna, in Sri Lanka and in Chidambaram, in South India and his work led to the formation of the Saiva Paripalana Sabai in Jaffna in 1888, the publication of the Jaffna Hindu Organ in 1889 and the founding of the Jaffna Hindu College in 1890.
In South India, J.M.Nallaswami Pillai, who was born in Trichinopoly, published Meykandar's Sivajnana Bodham in English in 1895 and in 1897, he started a monthly called Siddhanta Deepika which was regarded by many as reflecting the 19th century ' renaissance of Saivaism'. A Tamil version of the journal was edited by Maraimalai Atikal whose writings gave a new sense of cohesion to the Tamil people - a cohesion which was derived from the rediscovery of their ancient literature and the rediscovery of their ancient religion.
The cultural renaissance of the 19th century led to an increasing Tamil togetherness and was linked with the thrust for social reform and political power - a thrust which at the same time, sought to marry a rising Tamil togetherness with the immediate and larger struggle for freedom from British rule.
In South India, no one exemplified the marriage of this duality more effectively than Subramania Bharathy whose songs in Tamil stirred the hearts of millions of Tamils, both as Tamils and as Indians. The words of Bharathy's Senthamil Nadu Enum Pothinale, continue to move the hearts of the Tamil people today. It was his salute to the Tamil nation that was yet unborn. His Viduthalai was the joyous song of Indian freedom and there he reached out beyond the Tamil nation to the day when Bharat would be free.
Bharathy sought to consolidate the togetherness of his own people by his ceaseless campaign against casteism and for women's rights. The Bharathy birth centenary celebrations of 1982 served to underline the permanent place that Bharathy will always have in the hearts of the Tamil people, whether they be from Tamil Nadu, Tamil Eelam, Malaysia, Singapore or elsewhere.
Two other Tamils will be always associated with the rise of Tamil national consciousness in the first two decades of the 20th century - lawyer, Tamil scholar and revolutionary, V.V.S.Aiyar and the Swadeshi steam ship hero, Kappal Otiya Thamilan, V.O.Chidambram Pillai.
Aiyar was a lawyer who joined Grays Inn in London to become a barrister but became a revolutionary instead. Later, he wrote many books in Tamil and in English and is regarded by many as the father of the modern Tamil short story. He was a pioneer in Tamil literary criticism. His major works included a translation of the Thirukural and 'Kamba Ramayanam - A Study'.
In the years after the first World War, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi reached out to the underlying unity of India and sought to weld together the many peoples of the Indian subcontinent into a larger whole. But the attempt did not entirely succeed. The assessment of Pramatha Chauduri who wrote in Bengali in 1920 was not without significance:
"...You have accused me of 'Bengali patriotism'. I feel bound to reply. If its a crime for a Bengali to harbour and encourage Bengali patriotism in his mind, then I am guilty "But I ask you, what other patriotism do you expect from a Bengali writer? The fact that I do not write in English should indicate that non Bengali patriotism does not sway my mind. If I had to make patriotic speeches in a language that is the language of no part of India, then I would have had to justify that patriotism by saying it does not relate to any special part of India as a whole. In a language learnt by rote you can only express ideas learnt by heart.
In Madras Presidency, which was the largest province of British India, and which included parts of that which is Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala today, the Suya Mariyathai Iyakam (Self Respect Movement) of E.V.Ramasamy (Periyar) started initially, in the early 1920s, as a social reform movement aimed at a casteless society. It later developed into a vehicle for a rising Tamil nationalism.
The establishment of Annamalai University in Chidambaram and later the Tamil Isai Sangam in Madras were manifestations of a rising Tamil self consciousness. The students at Annamalai University were to become influential political leaders of the Tamil people in the years to come.
As early as 1926, Sankaran Nair, a nominated member of the Council of State in Delhi, pleaded for self government to the ten Tamil districts of the Madras Presidency, with its own army, navy and airforce.
Scholar politician V. Kaliyanasundarar writing in 1929 urged that Tamil Nadu constituted a nation within the Indian state. He declared that the correct English translation of the word Nadu was nation and not land and pointed out that the early Tamils had their own government, language, culture and historical traditions. (V.Kaliyanasundarar, Tamil Cholai, Volume 1, Madras 1954)
In 1937, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy took over the leadership of the South Indian Liberal Federation, commonly called the Justice Party. At the Justice Party confederation held in Madras in 1938, Periyar Ramasamy put forward his demand for Dravidanad. This was two years before Mohamed Ali Jinnah set out the formal demand for Pakistan at the Lahore conference. In 1944, the Justice party changed its name to Dravida Kalagam and C.N.Annadurai functioned as its first General Secretary.
These early manifestations of a Tamil national consciousness influenced Tamils outside India as well. Periyar visitedMalaysia in 1929, and his visit led to a proliferation of Tamil associations, dedicated to religious and social reform - associations which were often led by journalists and teachers. The writings of Annadurai and other leaders of the Dravida Kalagam were avidly read by ordinary Tamils and marked a watershed in the literary heritage of the Tamil people .
But, in the end, Periyar E.V.Ramasamy, the undoubted father of the Dravidian movement failed to deliver on the promise of Dravida Nadu. E.V.R. failed where Mohamed Ali Jinnah succeeded. It is true that the strategic considerations of the ruling colonial power were different in each case - and this had something to do with Jinnah’s success. But, nevertheless, if ideology is concerned with moving a people to action, the question may well be asked: why did E.V.R’s ideology fail to deliver Dravida Nadu?
Two aspects may be usefully considered. One was the attempt of the Dravida movement to encompass Tamils, Malayalees, Kannadigas and all Dravidians and mobilise them behind the demand for Dravida Nadu. Unsurprisingly, the attempt to mobilise across what were in fact separate national formations failed to take off.
It was one thing to found a movement which rejected casteism. It was quite another thing, to mobilise peoples, speaking different languages with different historical memories, into an integrated political force in support of the demand for Dravida Nadu.
At the same time, the Aryan/Dravidian divide propagated by German scholars such as Max Weber, encouraged by the British, and espoused by E.V.R. paid insufficient attention to the underlying unity of India and the enduring links that the Tamil people had with the other peoples of the Indian sub continent.
That was not all. E.V.R extended his attack on casteism to an attack on Hinduism - and indeed to all religions as well. Periyar E.V.R threw out the Hindu child with the Brahmin bath water.
E.V.R was right to extol the virtues of pahuth arivu, common sense. He was right to attack mooda nambikai, foolish faith. His rationalism was often a refreshing response to religious dogma and superstition. His attack on casteism, his social reform movement and his Self Respect Movement in the 1920s infused a new dignity, thanmaanam, amongst the Tamil people and laid the foundations on which Tamil nationalism has grown. The Iyer Heritage Site serves to show that even today, the self perception of at least some Brahmins is that they are "Aryans".
It was the pioneering work of EVR that led to the growth of the Dravida Munetra Kalagam (DMK) led byC.N.Annadurai and later by M.Karunanidhi, to the All India Dravida Munetra Kalagam led byM.G.Ramachandran and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munetra Kalagam (MDMK) led by V.Gopalasamy.
But, having said that, the refusal of EVR to recognise that casteism was one thing, Hinduism another and spiritualism, perhaps, yet another, proved fatal. His belligerent atheism failed to move the Tamil people. In the result even within Tamil Nadu, EVR's Dravida Kalagam became marginalised, and the DMK which was an offshoot of the Dravida Kalagam and the ADMK which was an offshoot of the DMK, both found it necessary to play down the anti religious line and adopt instead a ‘secular’ face. One consequence of EVR’s atheism was that spirituality in Tamil Nadu came to be exploited as the special preserve of those who were opposed to the growth of Tamil nationalism.
Furthermore, the anti-Brahmin movement tended to ignore the many caste differences that existed among the non-Brahmin Tamils and failed to address the oppression practised by one non-Brahmin caste on another non-Brahmin caste. It is a failure that continues to haunt the Tamil national movement even today. Caste divides and fragments the togetherness of the Tamil people.
Support for the positive contributions that E.V.R. made in the area of social reform and to rational thought, should not prevent an examination of where it was that he went wrong. Again, it may well be that E.V.R. represented a necessary phase in the struggle of the Tamil people and given the objective conditions of the 1920s and 1930s, E.V.R was right to focus sharply on the immediate contradiction posed by 'upper' caste dominance and mooda nambikai. But in the 21st century, there may be a need to learn from E.V.R. - and not simply repeat that which he said or did.
Growth of Tamil national consciousness in Sri Lanka
In the island of Sri Lanka, the separate national identity of the Tamil people grew through a process of opposition to and differentiation from the Buddhist Sinhala people. The Sinhala people trace their origins in the island to the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India, around 500 B.C. and the Mahavamsa, the Sinhala chronicle of a later period (6th Century A.D.) records that Prince Vijaya arrived on the island on the same day that the Buddha attained Enlightenment in India. However, the words of the Sinhala historian and Cambridge scholar, Paul Peiris represent an influential and common sense point of view:
The Tamil people and the Sinhala people were brought within the confines of a single state by the British. The struggle for freedom from British colonial rule, did lead Tamil leaders such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan andPonnambalam Arunachalam to work together with their Sinhala counterparts in the Ceylon National Congress. But it was largely a dialogue between the English speaking Tamil middle class and its English speaking Sinhala counterpart.
Professor Kailasapathy in a paper presented at a Social Scientists Association Seminar in Colombo, traced the growth of Tamil consciousness in Eelam from the time of British rule, through independence and upto 1979. The paper affords many insights into the continuing growth of Tamil Consciousness today, not only in Eelam but in the Tamil diaspora as well:
The Pan Sinhala Executive Committee of the Ceylon State Council in 1936 and the formation of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by G.G.Ponnambalam were some of the early manifestations of the growth of a separate Sinhala nationalism and a separate Tamil nationalism in the political arena of the island of Ceylon (as it then was known).
It was a Tamil nationalism which eventually found expression in the formation of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi led by S.J.V.Chelvanayakam in 1949 and later in the 1970s in the Tamil armed resistance movement, led today by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Velupillai Pirabaharan.
The 'thiyagam' of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, gave poignant expression to the cultural values of the Tamil people, rooted in the Purananuru and Cilapathikaram. At the same time, the armed resistance movement in Tamil Eelam, also brought about a fundamental cultural transformation in Tamil society. It helped to break down casteism among the Tamil people. It helped to liberate Tamil women from the structures of oppression that had been deeply embedded in sections of Tamil society - and help create the Puthumai Penn that Bharathy had sung about.
That the armed resistance movement of the Tamil people should have originated in Tamil Eelam and not in Tamil Nadu is not altogether surprising. It is the nature of the discrimination and oppression which often determines the nature of the response.
Suffering unites a people and the suffering of the Tamil people in the island of Sri Lanka, in their struggle for freedom and justice, has also served to bring together Tamils living not only in Tamil Eelam and Tamil Nadu but also those living in many other lands. At the same time, in Tamil Nadu poverty and corruption have weakened confidence in existing political structures.
The Tamil cultural renaissance of the second half of the 19th century, the rise of the Dravida Tamil national movement of the first half of the 20th century, and the armed struggle for Tamil Eelam are but tributories flowing into one river - the river of the growing togetherness of the Tamil people - and it is unlikely that this is a river that will flow backwards.
Here, not many will question that the future of the Tamil people lies with the peoples of India. In 1973, Kamil Zvebil, Professor in Tamil Studies at Charles University, Prague wrote in 'The Poets and the Powers', of the Tamil contribution in shaping and moulding the great Indian synthesis :
Sylvain Levi George Coedes and La Valee Poissin wrote in the 'The Indianisation of South East Asia' in 1975:
The Indian union in an emerging post modern world, will be a free and equal association of states, that will be rooted in the heritage that the Tamil people, (whether they be from Tamil Nadu or Tamil Eelam or elsewhere) share with their brothers and sisters of India - a shared heritage that the Tamil people freely acknowledge. It is a shared heritage to which the Tamil people have contributed and will continue to contribute - and from which the Tamil people also derive strength.
Milestones in Tamil History UNESCO Courier, March, 1984
| "The Tamil Language is the official language of the State of Tamil Nadu (population over 48 million) in southeast India and is also spoken by some 4 million people living in Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, as well as parts of east and south Africa and islands in the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific and the Caribbean.|
There is a scholarly literature in Tamil dating back to the early centuries of the Christian era. The language is of Dravidian origin. The Dravidians were the founders of one of the world's most ancient civilizations, which already existed in India sometime before 1000 BC when the Aryans invaded the sub-continent from the north.
The Aryans, who spoke the Sanskrit language, pushed the Dravidians down into south India. Today 8 of the languages of northern and western India (including Hindi) are of Sanskrit origin, but Sanskrit itself is only spoken by Hindu Brahman priests in temple worship and by scholars. In southern India, 4 languages of Dravidian origin are spoken today. Tamil is the oldest of these.
The Colonial Age opened in the 17th century. In 1639 the British East India Company opened a trading post at the fishing village of Madraspatnam, today Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu. In 1947, India achieved Independence. The overwhelming majority of the population of Tamil Nadu is Hindu, with active Christian and Muslim minorities.