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LOCATION: India (Tamil Nadu region); Sri Lanka
POPULATION: 71 million in India; 4 million in Sri Lanka
RELIGIONS: Hindu majority; Muslim; Christian


The Tamil are a people of southern India, speaking the Tamil language and unified by a common culture. Their name is derived from "Damila," the name of an ancient, warlike non-Aryan people mentioned in early Buddhist and Jain records. The Tamil language is Dravidian in origin, with its roots in western India, Pakistan, and areas farther to the west. The peoples of the Indus Civilization spoke a Dravidian language around 2,500 bc. Dravidian speech and associated cultural traits spread into southern India, especially in the centuries after 1,000 bc. By the early centuries bc, a complex and distinctive culture had developed in what is now Tamil Nadu, the "land of the Tamil."

In the following centuries, dynasties, such as the Pandyas, Cheras, and Pallavas, rose to power in Tamil Nadu. An impressive Tamil civilization emerged under the Cholas, who ruled from the 10th to the 13th centuries. Chola sea power allowed them to bring Sri Lanka and even parts of Southeast Asia under their control. The fourteenth century saw virtually the entire region incorporated into the empire of the Telugu-speaking Vijayanagara kings. The region experienced relative peace and prosperity for several centuries under Vijayanagara rule. In the seventeenth century, both the British and the French established themselves in the Tamil region. The British built a trading post at Fort St. George (later Madras, and now called Chennai) in 1639, and the French at Pondicherry in 1674. The British later gained control of all of Tamil Nadu, which became part of the Madras Presidency until India's independence in 1947. In the 1950s, there was a realignment of political boundaries in South India. The French possessions were ceded to India, to be administered as a Union Territory by the national government in New Delhi. Madras was broken up to form the language-based states of Andhra Pradesh (for speakers of Telugu), Kerala (Malayalam), Mysore (Kannada), and Madras (Tamil). The name of Madras State was changed to Tamil Nadu in 1969.


The 2001 census records 62,405,679 persons in Tamil Nadu, of which some 60.8 million belonged to the Tamil people. In addition, there are about one million Tamils in Pondicherry and another 5 million elsewhere in India. Allowing for population growth, there are currently an estimated 71 million Tamils in India. Th is figure does not include the nearly 4 million Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Tamils found in Asia, Fiji, Africa and the West Indies. The world-population for Tamils is estimated to be around 77 million.

The ancient literature describes the land of the Tamils as stretching from Tirupati, a sacred hill northwest of Madras, to India's southern tip at Cape Comorin. Th is basically defines the modern Tamil region. In the east, a broad coastal plain runs along the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The basin of the Kaveri (Cauvery) River lies in the center of the state, with the river flowing eastward to enter the ocean in a delta in Thanjavur (Tanjore) District. The Western Ghats (a mountain range) form the western boundary of Tamil Nadu. The Ghats exceed 2,600 m (about 8,500 ft) in elevation in the Nilgiris and the Palni Hills. The climate of the region is tropical, with moderately hot summers and mean winter temperatures that rarely drop below 24°c (about 75°f). Unlike most of India, the Tamil region has its maximum rainfall between October and December, associated with the northeast monsoon. Totals range between 80 and 120 cm (31-47 in) over most of the area. However, around Coimbatore and the southeast coastal section, rainfall dips to 60 cm (about 24 in) or below. Forests, found mainly in the western hills, cover only 15% of the state's area.


Tamil is the language of the Tamil people. It belongs to the Dravidian language family and is considered by Tamils to be the "purest" of the Dravidian tongues. Several regional dialects (e.g., Pandya, Chola, Kangu) are spoken in the area, and the Tamil spoken in northern Sri Lanka may also be considered a dialect of this language. Different forms of Tamil are used by Brahmans and non-Brahmans. There is also a sharp distinction between spoken and literary Tamil. Tamil has two written forms, the modern Vattelluttu ("round script") in everyday use and Grantha, a classical script used in Tamil Nadu for writing in Sanskrit.

Tamil, one of India's 23 official languages, is the official language of Tamil Nadu. It has also recently been designated one of India's two classical languages, the other being Sanskrit.


A figure highly venerated in South India is the sage (rishi) Agastya. According to legend, all the sages once assembled in the Himalayas. Such was the weight of their wisdom that the earth started to sink. The sages asked Agastya, who was heavier than the rest, to go south so that the earth could rise to its original position. Agastya took with him on his journey some water from the sacred Ganges. One day, after he had arrived in the South, it is said, the sage stopped to bathe. A crow knocked over his water pot, and the water began to flow, forming the Kaveri River. This link with the Ganges helps explain Tamil views toward the Kaveri. The river is regarded as sacred, and it is seen as the duty of every pious Tamil Hindu to bathe in the Kaveri at least once in his or her lifetime.


Tamils are mostly Hindus, although there are some Tamil Muslims and Christians. Hindus follow the rites and practices of the Hindu religion. Devout persons of all castes perform daily prayers (puja) at home or in the temple. Shiva is the most important deity, although Vishnu and other Brahmanic gods and their consorts are worshipped. Vinayaka, a form of the god Ganesha, is particularly popular. Brahmans officiate at major temples, although lesser deities may have priests drawn from other castes. One characteristic feature of Tamil religion is the importance given to the Mother Goddess. Th is tradition predates Hinduism, and most likely has its origins in the Dravidian culture of the Indus Valley Civilization. The Mother Goddess is worshipped as Durga, but also assumes the form of local ammans, or goddesses, like Mariamman, who protects against disease. Fire walking is a ritual performed at Mariamman temples. In fact, although Brahmanic Hinduism flourishes in Tamil Nadu, there is also vibrant popular religion based on the worship of village deities. In addition, there is a widespread belief in spirits and ghosts, in the evil eye, and in sorcery and witchcraft. Rituals needed to deal with this spirit world include blood sacrifice, the chanting of sacred mantras , and exorcism by sorcerers. People consult mediums, temple soothsayers, and nadi leaf readers (fortune-tellers who read ancient palm-leaf manuscripts) to predict the future.


Although Tamils celebrate the major Hindu festivals, the most important regional festival is Pongal. This three-day celebration falls in mid-January and marks the end of the rice harvest. It also coincides with the end of the northeast monsoon in South India. Newly harvested rice is ceremonially boiled in milk and offered to Surya, the sun god. On the third day of the festival, cattle are decorated and worshipped, and bullfights and bull races take place. The Tamil New Year, in mid-April, is celebrated widely. Temple festivals such as those held at Madurai and in the Srirangam Temple near Tiruchchirappalli (Trichinopoly) are an important aspect of Tamil religious life. The chariot of the Thiruvarur Temple, in which the image of the god is taken in procession around the streets, is reputed to be the largest in the country. It is said that 10,000 people were needed to pull it in days gone by. Numerous shrines in Tamil Nadu are centers of pilgrimage for the pious. Kanchipuram, southwest of Madras, is one of India's seven sacred cities. The island of Rameswaram, between India and Sri Lanka, is the southern dham, or shrine, that defines the borders of Hinduism. It is considered almost as sacred as Varanasi.


Tamils have various superstitions that influence the behavior of a pregnant woman. For example, she is not supposed to cross a river or climb a hill during pregnancy. During the fifth or seventh month of her pregnancy, she is given bangles or bracelets, by her husband's family. After the baby is born, the mother and child are kept in seclusion for about two weeks and undergo rituals to remove the pollution believed to accompany childbirth. Then usual naming and hair-shaving ceremonies are performed. A child might be named after the grandparents, some dead relative, or the family deities. Children are brought up in a loving atmosphere, in which they are pampered by their family and adult relatives. As they grow older, girls are expected to help with the housework, and boys are expected to help with the work of farming.

Customs marking the coming of age of children vary. There are no initiation rites for males except for the sacred thread ritual of the higher castes. The Chettiars, however, have ceremonies for both boys and girls reaching adulthood. When a girl reaches puberty, the Tamils mark the occasion with a feast for the family and friends.

Tamil tradition requires people to avoid saying that a person is dead. Instead, the person is said to have reached the world of Lord Shiva, or attained a position in heaven, or reached the world of the dead. A funeral is an occasion when family and caste members come together to mourn the departed. Failure to make a formal visit to console the bereaved family is almost considered a crime. Tamil both cremate and bury the dead, with burial being more common among lower castes. The body is prepared for the funeral by being washed, perfumed, and dressed in new clothes. Funeral music is played as the procession makes its way to the cremation ground or graveyard, except among the Brahmans. A period of mourning is followed by purification rites and a feast for family and caste members. Families observe the anniversary of a death by gathering together of kin, giving gifts to the Brahman priests, and feeding the poor.


Tamils use the typical Hindu namaskar , the joining of the palms of the hands in front of the body, as a sign of greeting and farewell. Expressions such as "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" are rarely used. This is not a sign of rudeness or impoliteness; it is just the custom. A typical welcome on the arrival of a visitor is a straightforward "come in." Every guest is entertained with coffee and snacks. When a visitor leaves, he or she generally says "I'll go and come back," to which the host will respond, "Go and return."


Tamil villages are compact, either square or linear in shape, and often have a tributary hamlet where the untouchable castes live. Each village is built near, or around, a temple, with the priests (usually Brahmans) living close to it in areas known as agraharam. Other castes have their own distinct neighborhoods in the village. The village is likely to have a school, shops, shrines to local deities, and a cremation and burial ground. Wells provide water and a nearby "tank" or reservoir, catches and stores rainwater for irrigation. Most villages in Tamil Nadu now have electricity. Individual houses vary from the one-room, thatched mud huts of the lower castes to large two-story brick and tile structures surrounded by their own compounds. Furnishings reflect the economic standing and tastes of a house's owner.


Tamil family relations are strongly influenced by the Dravidian emphasis on matrilineal ties, that is, links with the wife's relatives. Marriage between cousins is common, and the preferred match is with a man's mother's brother's daughter. In some castes, the marriage of a man to his sister's daughter is customary. Tamils marry within their caste. Only a few Brahmanized castes have clearly defined exogamous clans (gotras), that is, those that marry outside their own clan. Marriages are arranged, and the bride's family usually pays for the wedding and a dowry. Details of marriage rituals vary according to caste. Some groups use Brahman priests for the ceremony, while among others marriage is perform by respected community elders. The actual ceremony is usually carried out on a marriage platform with a canopy of thatched coconut leaves. Rituals include walking around the sacred fire, the blowing of conch-shells, and the throwing of rice and colored water. The newlywed couple typically sets up its household in the husband's village. A Tamil family usually consists of parents, children, and elderly or unmarried relatives. Many lower castes permit divorce and the remarriage of widows, but these practices are generally not found among Brahmans and other high-caste communities.


Traditional dress for Tamils consists of the dhoti or loincloth, for men and the sari and blouse for women. Women wear their hair long, keeping it oiled and plaited, often with jasmine blossoms braided into it. They also wear various amounts of gold jewelry. College educated or career women may adopt Western styles, and many young men now wear shirts and pants.

Dress is an important indicator of caste in a traditional society, and many groups have their own distinctive manner of wearing clothes. For example, ritual provides for the male Tamil Brahman style of wearing the dhoti with the ends tucked in at five places (panchakachcham). Non-Brahmans do not use this style. Similarly, there are differences between Brahman and non-Brahman women in the length of clothes and the way they are worn. Orthodox married Tamil Brahman women wear a sari eighteen cubits long (a cubit is an ancient measure equal to about half a meter, or roughly eighteen in), with the kachcham (the ends tucked in various ways). Non-Brahman women wear a shorter sari, without the tuck, but also reaching to the ground as with the Brahmans. Tribal women, the Adi-Dravida, wear a considerably smaller garment that reaches just below the knees, and they often leave the upper body bare.


Factors influencing food habits among the Tamil include the local ecology, economic standing, caste, and religion. In drier areas where rice cannot be grown, millet is the main grain. In other places, rice or a mixture of rice and millet provides the basic starch in the diet. The region around Madras, for instance, is a rice consuming area.

Most people eat three meals a day. Breakfast consists of coffee and items such as idlis (steamed rice cakes), dosas (pancakes made of rice and lentils), and vadas (fried doughnuts made from lentils). Lunch is boiled rice, curried fish or mutton, vegetables, sambar (a sauce made with lentils, vegetables, and tamarind) and rasam (a thin, peppery soup). The last dish served is usually curds, which is mixed with the rice. The evening meal is a repetition of lunch, but with fewer dishes. People drink both coffee and tea, but coffee is the more popular. Milk is also an important part of the diet. People who are not vegetarians eat poultry, eggs, fish (including prawns), and mutton. Some low castes eat pork, but this is taboo for Muslims. Vegetarian groups among the Tamil include Brahmans, Jains, and devotees of Shiva (the Shaiva Pillai). Some Chettiars (a mercantile caste) and Vellalas (agricultural workers) also avoid meat.


Tamils have had their own traditional centers of learning that date back to Buddhist times. Modern education, with an emphasis on English, was introduced by the British colonial government and Christian missionaries during the nineteenth century. Education is seen as a step to a better job. The state educational system offers up to 12 years of schooling, beginning with primary school, followed by three years of undergraduate study, and graduate school. In addition to numerous colleges, there are 19 universities, including the University of Madras and numerous other schools, including the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, in Tamil Nadu state. The literacy rate in the state in 2001 was 73.47% (82.33% for males, 64.55% for females). While this does not approach the literacy rate in Kerala, it is above the national average for India and compares favorably with the literacy rates of other heavily populated states in the country.


The Tamil have an important literary tradition that dates back to the centuries preceding the Christian era. Three great literary academies, called sangam, flourished in the early period, probably between the first and fifth centuries. Writings include epics and secular poetry, but the glory of Tamil literature lies in the religious works of medieval saints and poets. These involve two distinct traditions, one devoted to the worship of Shiva and the other consisting of the Vaishnavite hymns written by poets known as the Alvars. The 10th to 13th centuries mark the Golden Age of Tamil literature.

The Tamil can be proud of major achievements in other areas of the arts. Bharata-natyam, one of the four great Hindu classical dance styles, evolved in the Tamil region. Carnatic, or South Indian, music, is also widely practiced. In the field of architecture, Tamils developed a distinctive style of South Indian temple building. The towering gopurams (gateways) of Tamil temples are unique to southern India. Covered with elaborately carved, often life-size statues of gods and figures from Hindu mythology, gopurams dominate the landscape of Tamil cities. The temples at Madurai, Kanchipuram, and Thanjavur (Tanjore) are classic examples of this architectural style. Tamil folk culture includes a body of oral literature, ballads, and songs performed or recited by bards and minstrels. Songs and dances are accompanied by music played on instruments such as the tharai , an S-shaped horn, and the thambattam , a type of drum. Folk dances include Kolattam , performed by young girls with sticks in both hands who rhythmically strike the sticks of the neighbors as they dance. Kavadi is a dance form as well as a religious act, in which pilgrims carry a symbolic structure (the kavadi) on their shoulders as they dance their way to the shrine of Subrahmanya, Shiva's son. In one dance, the dummy-horse show, the actors don the costume of an elaborately decorated horse and look as if they are actually riding on horseback. Various forms of folk drama and street theater are also performed for the amusement of the people.


Although cities such as Madras and Coimbatore are manufacturing centers, Tamils work predominantly in agriculture. Agriculture is more commercial in Tamil Nadu than in other parts of the country. Canal irrigation is used in some areas, although most of the region relies on "tanks" or reservoirs, for its water. Rice and millet are the main food crop, and oil-seeds and cotton are the important cash crops. The Vellala are an important group of farming castes. In addition to cultivators, Tamils have a full range of trading, service, and artisan castes that pursue their traditional caste occupations. Fishing is important in coastal areas. As India develops, however, more Tamils are moving into modern sectors of the economy.


Tamil children play games typical of children throughout South Asia. They amuse themselves with games of tag, leapfrog, and hide-and-seek. One particular game requires a player to stand on one leg and try to catch the members of the opposing team within a square playing area marked out on the ground. Another game is something like "Simon Says". An adult, says Kombari, Kombari ("They have horns"), and the children repeat this statement. The leader then goes on to list animals with horns. Occasionally a statement such as "elephant has horns" is made, and the children who repeat the incorrect statement are "out". Adult games include stick fighting (Silambam), wrestling, and a board game (Thayam) similar to chess. The Tamil also engage in modern Western sports.


The movies, and, more recently, television are the leading forms of entertainment for Tamil. Even in rural areas, people tend to prefer them to the more traditional folk dances or street-corner theaters. In the late 1980s, there were 2,364 movie theaters in Tamil Nadu. The Tamil movie industry is centered in Madras, although film studios are located in other cities in Tamil Nadu.


Every young Tamil girl tries to be fully accomplished in a form of folk art known as kolam. This involves using the thumb and the fore-finger to draw intricate geometric designs and floral motifs with a white powder. Kolam is drawn on the ground in front of houses, particularly on festive occasions. Among the best known handicrafts of the Tamil region are handmade silk saris from Kanchipuram, pottery figures of various gods, bronze work, and silver inlay on brass and copper. Painted wooden toys and cloth dolls are popular. Tamil artisans are skilled in the art of carving materials such as shell and horn. Woodworkers have made the massive, elaborately carved doors of temples, and they produce furniture such as tables with legs in the form of elephant heads. Stone carving is also highly developed. Soapstone figures of gods and religious items are available in nearly all of the temple towns of the region.


Tamils face the usual array of social, economic, and political problems that one finds in India today.

Many of India's social problems are related to population pressure. In Tamil Nadu, however, population growth appears to be slowing. The increase in population between 1981 and 1991 was 14.94%, compared to India's overall rate of 23.5%. The growth rate in Tamil Nadu in 2008 was 1.15% per annum. Obviously, there are differences within the various communities in the region, and some groups still face problems such as poverty, high unemployment, and illiteracy. Agriculture in the state is more commercial than in many other parts of the country, but farmers still rely to a large extent on good monsoons for their harvests. And periodically cyclones from the Bay of Bengal hit the region, bringing widespread destruction.

Although India was by no means the country worst hit by the December 2004 tsunami, in Tamil Nadu, according to estimates from officials in Chennai, 8,031 people are known to have lost their lives and 1,000 disappeared. Almost a million more—around 300,000 families—were affected through bereavement, injury or loss of job or home, and more than 100,000 families ended up in camps. Local industries such as fishing were so disrupted that sought other occupations. Both national and international agencies provided relief in the form of cash aid, and relief supplies, as well as activities such as constructing homes to replace those lost in the disaster.

Corruption in high government circles seems to be endemic in India, and has apparently been a problem in Tamil Nadu. In late 1996, the former Chief Minister (Jayalitha Jayaram, a former film actress turned politician) of the state and several of her cabinet ministers were arrested (and later convicted) on various charges relating to the misuse of public funds. An ongoing problem is Tamil involvement in the ethnic conflict between Tamil and the Sinhalese in nearby Sri Lanka. In addition, a small group of Tamil separatists is campaigning for Tamil independence from India. In 2008, the government, led by Dr. Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi, was formed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) (literally "Dravidian Progress Federation"), a regional political party in the state of Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu's record with respect to caste discrimination is fairly poor. The state, during the peak of the Dravidian movement, experienced strong anti-Brahmin sentiments. The government's 69% reservation policy in educational institutions for the backward castes is, in general, resented by many for being a policy of reverse discrimination. Tamil Nadu's record of tolerance towards linguistic minorities has, however, been exemplary, despite provocative incidents occurring in other states and despite the state having been the epicenter of anti-Hindi agitations.

In January 2008 the Tamil Nadu government announced its intent to nationalize cement companies in the state, claiming a report following an internal investigation of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission revealed cartelization leading to "exorbitant" increases in cement prices. It may be noted that the price of cement in Tamil Nadu (perhaps in other states in India, too) is approximately 50% higher than the price of imported cement when it is offloaded at ports. Apparently such a high price differential between the international prices and the domestic prices is prima facie indication that all is not well within the cement industry. Crucially, it highlights the soft underbelly of the Indian economy. Tamil Nadu's economy grew at rate of 12.1% in 2007 and it possessed the fifth largest economy (2005-2006) among states in India. It is also the most industrialized state in the country. The price of cement in Tamil Nadu has declined, but whether a government takeover of the industry is the answer remains to be seen. Neither Tamil Nadu nor its cement industry is an exception in the Indian context. Rather they are the rule and are responsible for many of the ills plaguing the Tamil Nadu economy.

While India ranked 128 in the human development index calculated worldwide with 0.619, Tamil Nadu has performed well with an index of 0.736 in 2006, only 0.041 less than 81st ranked China. HDI is calculated using measures including population, sex ratio, density of population, per capita income, people below the poverty line, infant mortality rate, literacy rate, and women's empowerment. The life expectancy at birth for males is 65.2 years and for females it is 67.6 years. However, Tamil Nadu has a number of challenges. Significantly, poverty is high, especially in the rural areas, though poverty in the state had dropped from 51.7% in 1983 to 21.1% in 2001. For the period 2004-2005, the trend in incidence of poverty in the state was 22.5% as against the national figure of 27.5%. The World Bank is currently assisting the state in reducing poverty. High drop-out rates and low completion of secondary schools continue to hinder the quality of training in the population. Other problems include class, gender, inter-district, and urban-rural disparities.

Despite these problems, Tamils have a strong sense of identity and take great pride in their cultural and historical traditions. Nearly two thousand years ago, Tamils evolved a distinctive regional culture in the southeastern part of the Indian peninsula. Today, Tamils and Tamil culture remain a significant element in the complex of peoples and cultures that make up Indian society.


Tamils are mainly Hindus, and Tamil women suffer from all the problems of traditional Hindu society. Arranged marriages, child marriages (though technically illegal in India), payment of dowry by the bride's family, and bride burnings and dowry deaths—are all issues faced by women in Tamil society. The traditional preference for male offspring is found and female infanticide (illegal, though rarely prosecuted) and sex selective abortion is not uncommon (in Salem District, the sex ratio in 2006 was 912 females to 1000 males). High castes do not permit divorce or widow remarriage, although this is allowed among some low caste groups.

Cases of domestic violence (though rarely reported) are on the increase, and Tamil women are subject to sexual and physical abuse. Security forces in Sri Lanka, both the Sinhalese and the IPKF, have been accused of rape and murder committed against Tamil women, who are often involved in combat roles in the civil war.

There are, however, women's groups such as the Tamil Nadu Women's Forum which have been formed to fight for women's rights and gender justice and which stand against gender based discrimination, including caste based discrimination, and of course discrimination against Dalit women (low caste or Untouchables). The Tamil Nadu Women's Development Project provides low-cost loans and other financial assistance to women to help them develop a degree of economic independence.


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—by D. O. Lodrick