Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Tamil Diaspora

by V.Sivasupramaniam

Diaspora comes from the Greek word ‘diaspeirein’ to mean disperse or scatter.  Diaspora is the dispersal or the scattering of persons with a common identity such as culture and language in different directions.  Diaspora transcends all its variations.  The diaspora maintains and nurtures their civilisational and cultural distinctiveness and their aspirations to link their country of origin with the diaspora world-wide, making it a global unity with a global identity.  The dispersal of persons and communities is an age-old happening, but the phrase ‘diaspora’ is of current usage.  The Jewish, Indian and Chinese Diasporas are some of the vibrant ones with a global presence.  This scattering, which started with trade in the age-old day, changed into contract and indentured labour migrations during the early colonial days, specially after the abolition of slavery in 1834.  Later, it was the professionals in search of greener pastures and finally refugees and asylum seekers due to political and social pressures in different countries.  This phenomenon, which continued over centuries on a small scale, has of late resulted in mass migration with a common identity on a global level.

The dispersal of Tamils around the globe is not of recent origin and at the moment there are seventy million of them spread in over fifty countries of the world.  The Tamil diaspora is a growing togetherness of more than seventy million people living in many lands and across distant seas, many thousands as refugees and asylum seekers.  It is a togetherness rooted in an ancient heritage, a rich language and literature, and a vibrant culture.  But it is a togetherness which is not simply a function of the past.  It is a growing togetherness consolidated by struggle and suffering and given purpose and direction by the aspirations of a people for the future – a future where they and their children and their childrens’ children may live in equality and freedom in an emerging one world.

The diaspora's passion for and the love of their language and culture, which has a cherished heritage, is what binds the Tamil diaspora worldwide and their coherence and unity is fast growing to be recognized as an international force.  According to Father Heras, "Tamil is the oldest of the present languages."  Tamil, one of the powerful Dravidian languages, is perhaps the only example of an ancient language which has survived as a spoken language for more than 2500 years with its basic structure almost unchanged.  The name Tamil is itself unique, meaning "sweetness" and "coolness".  

Language and culture are two facets of the same identity, and language is a major cultural element.  Culture is everything which is socially learned and shared by members of a society; it is an organized system of behaviour and said to be normative because it defines standards of conduct.  According to Edward Burnett Tylor, an Anthropologist, "it is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, customs and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of a society."

Isolated diaspora communities often preserve their cultural heritage much more than their brethren in their homeland.  "Jaffna Tamils preserve a dialect of Tamil that is in many respects closer to classical Tamil," so says Patrick Harrigan in the April 2001 souvenir issue of the Mauritius International Murugan conference.  Each Tamil diaspora community has had to wage its own unique struggle over generations to achieve economic prosperity while yet preserving its Tamil identity and ancestral traditions.  Each has its own stories of how they overcame obstacles peculiar to their adopted homeland.  Despite their relative isolation from their homeland they have preserved and nurtured Hindu religious traditions such as Kavadi and other cultural elements to posterity.

Today, the digital revolution is not only accelerating the process of globalization, but also strengthening the bonds of the diaspora, forging a new cultural, economic and political togetherness of a people and deep rooted kinship ties and finding fresh avenues for expression.  To quote Piet Baker in "Remembering Roots" (1999), the "Internet made it possible for members of diasporic groups to communicate regardless of time and distance.  Their homeland, their national identity, and the ethnic, social, cultural and political meanings of this identity are the most covered topics in these online meeting places."

The dual orientation towards both the country of origin and the country of resettlement is not as contradictory and paradoxical as it seems.  In fact, some people with homes in two countries are showing an amazing capacity to maintain dual identities – with strong cultural ties and contributions to both places.

The early settlement patterns of the Tamils could be traced to the sugar cane plantations of Mauritius, Reunion in the Indian Ocean; Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean; Guyana and Suriname in South America; plantations in South Africa; Rubber estates and the Railways in the Federated Malay States – FMS – (Malaysia); Coffee and Tea estates in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); and to coal mines of New Caledonia off Australia in the Pacific Ocean.  The Manimekalai cult and the Perumpannan Kovil in Indonesia, the Thiruvempavai festival in Thailand, and Karraikalamman Kovil in Kampuchea are valid traces of early Tamil settlements far and wide in the world.

Britain with 300,000 or more, the USA with well over 300,000, Canada with over 300,000 and Australia with over 30,000 are some of the developed countries where the Tamil diaspora is well settled, having gone on voluntary migration from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.  It is also estimated that there are more than 250,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka which comprises voluntary migrants and refugees/asylum seekers.  Their sense of belonging and togetherness has resulted in the flowering of multi-faceted cultural, religious and media growth to such an extent as to excel these activities in the lands of their origin.  It is estimated that as base habitation India has almost 61,000,000 and Sri Lanka has 5,000,000 Tamils.

Tamils in South East Asia

ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS, south of Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean has over 40,000 Tamils, the second largest ethnic group and over 6,000 Tamil children are in 33 Tamil schools.

INDONESIA had 50,000 Tamils at a point of time and they were taken there by the Dutch colonial masters in the 1830s to build up their plantations.  They were used as hard labour and, as the conditions were not conducive, many returned in the 1940s.  About 2,000 to 10,000 remained in Northern Sumatra and there was a concentration of Tamils in that region. Most of them were Hindus but there were Christians and Muslims, too.

SINGAPORE has about 200,000 Tamils who constitute the third main cultural group.  Tamil as a mother tongue for Tamil children is taught from primary to the pre-University level and 18,000 learn Tamil from the kindergarten to the Junior college level.  Numerous temples are spread over in this small and diverse immigrant city state and Tamil cultural activities take place with deep involvement on an international spread.  The Tamil electronic and the print media is vibrant with a global presence and audience.  The Tamil community is fortunate, as it is resources rich in terms of knowledge, technology, culture and creativity which are critical success factors in today's world.

Sri Veerama Kaliamman Temple. Singapore

MALAYSIA has a 1,060,000 Tamil population starting mainly from 1901 when it was called the Federated Malay States (FMS).  Initially the migration was to work in the rubber plantations, but later turned to trade and other professions mostly in the government sector such as the railways and the PWD.  The first Tamil school was there as early as 1876, but by 1925 the number rose to 235 and by 1999 they had 548 schools.  The Chettiar community from Chettinadu were there mainly as moneylenders and wholesalers.  The Tamil electronic media is having round the clock service and the print media is also very vibrant.   The festivals at Battu Caves, especially the Kavadi festival, is one of the biggest Hindu festivals on a national scale that rallies round the Tamils from far and wide.

MYANMAR (BURMA) had a Tamil population of 200,000 at one time, but since the end of the Second World War the number has been reduced.  The affluence of the Tamil community could be gauged by the existence of Dandayuthapani temples in 32 towns, the functioning of 50 Tamil primary schools, and the circulation of two Tamil newspapers "Rasika Ranjani" and "Thondan," both of which were banned from 1966.  Nattukottai Chettiars were in the business and the export trade was monopolized by them.  The University of Culture in Yangon (Rangoon) is promoting Tamil culture.

VIETNAM has a small minority of about 3,000 Tamils mostly in Ho Chi Minh city.  The city boasts a Dandayuthapani temple.

CAMBODIA has 1,000 Tamils, China 5,000 and Thailand 10,000.

Tamils in Africa

MAURITIUS has a Tamil population of 115,000, the larger bulk from the southern state of Tamil Nadu who arrived there since 1727 to work in the sugar cane plantations.  The Commission of Enquiry of 1845 commented that the Tamils were the best workers.  In 1847 a Tamil syllabus was drawn up for examination for Tamil children with greater emphasis on Tamil grammar and Nanool.  There are more than 250 temples, Muruga cult is very popular, the traditional Tamil New Year, Pongal, fire-walking and Kavadi being celebrated on a national level.  Thiruvalluvar and Bharathi days are celebrated while Deepavali, Thaipoosam, Sivarathiri and Pongal are public holidays.  Since 1727 Tamils alone have built almost 125 Tamil temples.  Sinnathambou, a Tamil, built the first temple decades ago and even now that temple is known by that name.  Years ago, when a petition was presented to the Government by one Rasaretinam Moodaliyar, it was in Tamil and English and the Tamils were in the forefront of the agitation for their rights.  When Mahatma Gandhi visited Mauritius in 1901, he profusely congratulated the Tamils for fighting for justice.  Tamil cultural links are well preserved by staging plays such as Harichandra, Nala-Dhamayanti, Savitiri-Satyavan, Nanthanar, Nallathangal, and Bharathiyar from time to time.  There are about 100 primary schools teaching Tamil and the Tamils there take all efforts to consolidate their religion and other Hindu practices. Prayers in Tamil and the singing of Thevarams and Thiruvasagam are being done well now after the arrival of Brahmin priests from Jaffna in Sri Lanka.  In 1948 Ranganathan Sreenivasan was the first Tamil to be elected to the Legislative Council, A.V.Chettiar was the Vice-President of the country for a long time and Arumoogam Parasuramen was a popular Minister of Education and Science for a long time (now with UNESCO) – all have their roots in Tamil Nadu.  Many Tamil words are in use with the local Creole language like pudol as pathol, pakku as pak, pittu as pubtu, karuveppillai as karupilay, kottamali as kotomili and murunkay as moorroung.  Even currency notes issued by the Central Bank bear the name in Tamil.  Mauritius was the venue in the 1960s for the International Tamil Research Conference under the guidance of the respected Tamil scholar Father Thaninayagam Adigalar.  The second International Murugan Conference hosted by the island nation is a fitting tribute not only to the Tamils of Mauritius who have resolutely answered the call of the heart during long decades of separation from their motherland, but to the entire diaspora throughout the Indian Ocean region and beyond.

REUNION is an Indian Ocean island being run as a French Department.  Tamil settlements started as far back as 1848 as indentured labour, mainly from Pondicherry and Karaikal, the French territories in Southern India.  There are about 120,000 Tamils with a large number of Hindu temples run by voluntary organizations where Hindu and Tamil cultural links are preserved well.  Tamil is an optional language for children.  The Murugan cult, Kavadi festival and fire walking are widespread traditional links.  The adherence to these practices of religion and culture has kept the Tamils strong and united.  The Tamil diaspora should congratulate the Tamil Sangam of Reunion for arranging to host an International Tamil Conference jointly with the Municipality of St Andre during the 2004 Deepavali festival.

SEYCHELLES, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, has a Tamil history of about 230 years.  A shipload of migrants landed here in 1770, composed of diverse ethnicity, out of whom five were Tamils from Mauritius/Reunion.  Tamil traders from Pondicherry used to visit for purposes of timber trade followed by settlements of Tamils from Tamil Nadu for trading purposes.  Later, a trading community was in place here, mainly of Tamils, and many of them got integrated with the local community.  Now there about 4000 Tamils in trading as well as in the professions.  The organization of the Seychelles Hindu Kovil Sangam in 1984 and the building of the first and only Navasakthi Vinayagar temple brought together all the Tamils to further consolidate and nurture their cultural and religious links.  The annual Kavadi festival is a major event which is a government holiday for all Hindus.  Cultural troupes are invited from time to time to enhance cultural values and links.  The organization of the Seychelles Hindu Council, celebration of Deepavali festival on a national scale and the setting up of a crematorium with government support are events worthy of note.  The Tamil Cultural Development centre conducting Tamil classes with the support of the Indian High Commission, the Seychelles Tamil Manram with its periodical publication of the Tamil Murasu and contributions and advertisements in Tamil in the national daily are factors contributing to keep the language and culture alive in this country.

SOUTH AFRICA: Tamil migration started from 1860, first as indentured labour and in the first batch 340 Tamils were there.  Now there are more than 250,000 Tamils spread over many cities, the concentration being in Natal and Durban.  The 140 years of residence has given them a valuable sense of identity and solidarity and the Tamil heritage has been an inspirational and healing factor during the turbulent periods that they have undergone.  Now, there is a sort of Tamil renaissance and the Tamils there take great pride in their age-old traditions.  Tamil cultural organizations help a lot to recover the beauty of their language and culture.  The Kavadi festival, Tamil dramas and the Hindu festivals have promoted Tamil oneness.  During the period 1900 to 1949 many temples were built and the rich traditions are well nourished by Brahmin priests from Sri Lanka.  Mahatma Gandhi, in all his struggles for justice and fair play, had his greatest inspiration from the Tamil community, so much so, that he made a special effort to study Tamil to express his gratitude to them in their mother tongue.  It is appropriate to recall that a young Tamil girl of 18 – Thillaiadi Valliammai – was a pioneer in her support to Mahatma, was imprisoned and is commemorated well now in Tamil Nadu and South Africa.  It is interesting to note that a young South African national was so inspired by Tamil classical music that he spent three years at the feet of popular musician Dr. K.J.Jesudas at his home in India and now his recitals are an exact replica of his master and he has become a globally acclaimed Tamil classical music figure.

Tamils in Oceania

AUSTRALIA with a population of over 18 million has about 30,000 Tamils spread out in all the six states, but the concentration is mainly in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. There are more than ten Hindu temples spread over all the states and Tamil is one of the approved subjects for the HSC examination and Tamil skill tests are conducted for children of ages five to sixteen.

NEW ZEALAND has about 3,000 Tamils, mostly professionals who have migrated on their own. Attempts are being made to construct Hindu temples and consolidate their cultural and religious links.

FIJI in the Pacific Ocean had a Tamil population of over 110,000 whose ancestors were taken there to work in the plantations by the colonial masters in the 1880s.  Out of an Indian population of 350,000 the Tamils could number about 80,000 now.  The number who can speak Tamil is about 5,000 only and another 1,000 could write.  It is only about 6,000 who declare their origins as Tamils as most of them have got well integrated with the local population.  Most of them have lost their Tamil identity and are Tamils only in name.  The South Indian Sanmarga Sangam is the pioneer body that forged the Tamil culture, Tamil education and the Hindu practices in the country for a long time.  The worship of Lord Muruga is very popular and many Tamils still go by their Tamil names such as Pillai, Mudaliyar, Padayadchy, Samy, Naidu and Gownder.

NEW CALEDONIA and TAHITI in the Pacific Ocean have only about 20 Tamil families who are the decendents of the early Tamil settlers who went to work in the coal mines.  Although they have lost their Tamil identity, they are known by Tamil names such as Pavalakoddy, Rayappu, Veerasamy, Saminathan and Maria Soosai.

Tamils in the Gulf

BAHRAIN is the home for over 7,000 Tamils, mostly professionals and workers.

QATAR is the home for about 4,000 Tamils, mostly from Tamil Nadu.  In December 2000 the Qatar Tamil Sangam was inaugurated for conducting Tamil cultural programmes, teaching of Thirukkural and conducting Tamil elocution contests for Tamil children.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (UAE): There are about 10,000 Tamils spread over the several states of the UAE, having come from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka as professionals and workers in many sectors.  There are three Hindu temples in Oman and a Lord Siva worship facility in a religious complex in Dubai.  Pongal and New Year are celebrated on a grand scale in Dubai and in a few other states.  Recently a Tamil newspaper Tamilan Kural circulates in Dubai.

SAUDI ARABIA and KUWAIT are home for a substantial number of Tamils who are recent migrants.

Tamils in Europe

BRITAIN has more than 300,000 Tamils out of whom about 200,000 are from Sri Lanka.

FRANCE has more than 60,000 Tamils from Pondicherry and a substantial number of Sri Lankan Tamils who went there as refugees.  The Tamil electronic and print media radiates worldwide from there and they are very popular.  Many Hindu temples are serving the community well religiously and culturally, not only in the capital but also in the suburbs.

GERMANY has well over 50,000 Tamils and more than half of them went as refugees from Sri Lanka.  Religious fervour among them got intensified as their numbers swelled.  Due to the inspirational encouragement of Hawaii Subramaniaswami – the disciple of Yoga Swamigal – two well organized Hindu temples – Sidhivinayagar Kovil and the Kannagi Amman Kovil – have in place in Hamm since 1984.  According to the journal Hinduism Today, the youth are being well trained in their religion and culture at home and in weekend schools in rented halls using texts from Sri Lanka.  They even wear Saiva symbols of Vibuthi and Tilak.

ITALY has about 25,000 Tamils, most of whom have gone as refugees during the last few years.

SWITZERLAND has about 40,000 Tamils, the majority of whom are from Sri Lanka who have gone as refugees.  Although they are well entrenched in the country and integrated with the local community, yet they are actively alive to their Hindu religious and Tamil cultural links.  Temples, cultural festivals, international conferences, seminars and meetings draw a large number of the Tamil diaspora from other European countries to the various Swiss cities, so much so that it has become the nerve centre of Tamil cultural activism.  Tamil language classes, dance and music classes run by voluntary bodies are fast increasing.

NETHERLANDS has more than 20,000 Tamils, the majority of whom are refugees from Sri Lanka.

NORWAY has about 10,000 Tamils, most of whom are Sri Lankan refugees.  The city of Bergen is the home for about 400 Tamil families.  It has become the centre for Tamil gatherings.  Yogarajah Balasingam (Baskaran) is the first elected Tamil member for the city council there.

SWEDEN has a Tamil population of about 2,000 which is of recent origin.

DENMARK has over 7,000 Tamils the majority, being refugees.  There are two well-patronized Hindu temples – one for Vinayagar and another for Abhirami – and the Tamil population has got well adapted to the Danish environment.

Tamils in Americas and the Caribbean

USA is the home for more than 300,000 Tamils both from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. [Any reader want to add a description of the American Tamil population?  Editor]

CANADA has a large concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils, almost 90% of the Tamil population – amounting to 300,000.  Tamil is taught from primary to pre-university level and 75% of the children learn the language with interest.  The cultural needs of the community are catered to well by round-the-clock radio/television channels and by numerous Tamil publications – literary and religious.  Apart from the World Tamil Organisation there are many more pro-active voluntary organizations keeping the Tamil culture alive and the numerous Hindu temples and churches satisfy the religious fervour of the diaspora community.

GUADELOPE and MARTINQUE in the French West Indies had 20,000 and 15,000 Tamils respectively. The migration was mainly sailings from Pondicherry and Karaikal during the years 1853 – 1883 and since 1893 almost all of them got well integrated with the people there.  Presently, a microscopic minority of 17 who are in the age range 60-70 can speak Tamil and one Albert Marimuttu is a standout.

GUYANA in South America has had a large number of Tamils in their plantations since 1838.  Most of the sailings were from Madras and in 1860, 2,500 from Madras alone settled there.  Tamils were spread in about 60 towns.  Dr Cheddy Jagan, former President, and Shridath Ramphal, former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, had Indian origins.

TRINIDAD and TOBAGO in the Caribbeanhas  had Tamils since 1840 and there was a place called Madras settlement near the airport.  They were all plantation workers.  There was a Siva temple called the "Madras Sivalayam" or the Canra road temple.  There was a priest from Gopichettipalayam in 1910.  The Deepavali celebration by the Tamils there displayed extraordinary pluralism, but over the years the people have lost their knowledge of Tamil.  Yet, the Tamils over there moved from servitude to resistance and finally to freedom and were able to retain their self-dignity, preserve and enhance their culture and enrich themselves.

As much as the diaspora love their origins and roots to the lands of their birth and that of their ancestors, there is one core element; a vital bond that holds together the diaspora of Tamils spread across the globe.  That is the common language – TAMIL – and its rich and inspiring manifestations.  The Tamil language and the encompassing culture of enduring values have transcended national boundaries.  It continues to bridge and express all thoughts in writings spanning centuries, and into the time zones.

The Tamil diaspora share a common bond that is fragile.  There is an urgent need to restore the primacy in Tamil thought and culture.  It is interesting that there is a proposal to launch an International Tamil Centre in the USA to create a global vision for the Tamil population and to meet all the challenges.  A Tamil University and Cultural Complex is being created to serve the global community of Tamils. T he idea is to foster unity, promote culture, enhance education and enrich the Tamil language.  The headquarters will be located in the USA.  There will be the International Tamil Centre Complex, University Complex and the Community Housing Complex.  This Centre, in course of time, should evolve as an ideal centre to co-ordinate and bring together the valued aspirations of the global Tamil community for greater achievements and success.

Tamil Media

On a global level, apart from the Tamil print media which reaches the nooks and cranies of the world, the strongest bond that binds the Tamil diaspora is the electronic media that has helped to compress it into a tiny village.  On this role, the immense services being rendered by the daily half an hour broadcast by the ‘Tamil Osai’ from the BBC; the VERITAS from Manila, Philippines; the round-the clock-Radio/TV by the IBC (Tamil) London; Inbathamil Vanoli from Australia and the web-sites such as www.tamilnation.org , www.tamilnet.com , www.tamilcanadian.com , www.tamilnaatham.com , www.sangam.org  are worthy of mention, among many others.

The Tamil TV, film and music industry have in the past two decades found a niche market among the Tamil diaspora and their marketability is said to be next only to Hindi films/music in the competitive overseas market.

(In the preparation of this article, I am greatly indebted to www.tamilnation.org for all the valuable information obtained.)

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Posted October 7, 2004