views updated May 29 2018


ETHNONYMS: Tamilar, Tamilian


Identification. Indian Tamils are those who speak Tamil. Their homeland in India from ancient times was known as "Tamil Nādu" (land) or "Tamil akam" (home), now largely coterminous with the state of Tamil Nadu plus the small territory of Pondicherry. Tamils are also found in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Fiji, Britain, and North America.

Location. Tamil Nadu is the southwesternmost state of India, extending from Madras city to the southern cape, Between about 8° and 13° N and 76° and 80° E. The state is 130,058 square kilometers in area and was formed along with other linguistic states after the independence of India. It is mostly a sunny plain draining eastward with the Kaveri River basin in its center. The Western Ghats are mountains separating Tamil Nadu from Kerala; these rise to 2,400 meters in two places, near the mountain towns of Ootacamund and Kodaikanal. The rest of the state is tropical and moderately hot, with virtually no winter. Most of the rain comes with the northeast monsoon beginning in October, while the southwest monsoon begins in June. Rainfall is roughly 75 centimeters per year, but with the high evaporation and runoff, much of the state is semiarid, with large stretches of thorn-tree wasteland. There is no apparent source of more water for the state's agriculture, industry, and citiesnor is there enough water to support further population growthand shortages are already occurring.

Demography. There are about 60 million Indian Tamils. The 1991 census counted 55.6 million persons in Tamil Nadu and 8 million in Pondicherry, and it had an undercount of about 4 percent. There are perhaps 5 million Tamils around Bangalore and elsewhere in India, and a lesser number of Telugus and other ethnic groups in Tamil Nadu. The state has 1,024 males per 1,000 females, a marginal surplus compared with all of India. The density is 461 persons per square kilometer, compared with 267 for India as a whole. Literacy of persons above age 7 is 64 percent. Annual population growth has come down to 1.3 percent. Tamils are about 38 percent urban, the highest such percentage of any major ethnic group in India.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tamil belongs to the Dravidian Language Stock, which includes at least 21 languages mostly in south and central India and is altogether different from the Indo-Aryan languages of north India. The four largest Dravidian languages are spoken in the four linguistic states comprising south India. The language and script of modern Tamil are directly descended from the Tamil of more than 2,000 years ago, and because of high consciousness about the purity of the language there has been some tendency to resist incorporation of Sanskrit or Hindi words. The modern Regional spoken dialects of Tamil, including the Tamil of Sri Lanka, do not differ widely, but standard literary Tamil as taught in schools does differ grammatically. Malayalam, the language of Kerala, was considered in the ancient literature as Tamil, but in medieval centuries it gained status as a separate language.

History and Cultural Relations. Tamils consider their language to be the "most pure" of the major Dravidian Languages. Its roots are from western India, Pakistan, and further westward. Dravidian must have been spoken in the Indus Civilization around 2500 b.c., diffusing through Maharashtra to the south, especially after 1000 b.c. with adoption of the horse and iron and with the black-and-red pottery dating from a few centuries b.c. There is no hint of the earlier Languages that might have been spoken in south India by cattlekeeping cultures or the hunters. The ancient literature defines Tamil Nadu as reaching from Tirupati (a sacred hill northwest of Madras) to Cape Comorin. Writing, urbanization, classical kingship, and other aspects of complex Indian civilization came to Tamil Nadu about the fifth to second centuries b.c. by sea, appearing on the southern coast in a progression parallel to diffusion of those features from Gujarat to Sri Lanka. There are also legends of early cities, including an ancient city of Madurai on the coast. The earliest Tamil inscriptions are in Buddhist and Jain caves of about the second century b.c. The present Madurai, capital of the enduring Pāndiya kingdom, had an academy that produced the Tamil Sangam literature, a corpus of unique poetical books from the first to third centuries a.d. that mention sea trade with Europeans. Other Tamil kingdoms were the Colas in the Kaveri Basin, the Cēras of Kerala, and from the seventh to ninth centuries the Pallavas at Kanchipuram near Madras. The Colas developed a magnificent civilization in the tenth to thirteenth centuries, and for a time they ruled Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and large parts of Indonesia. Tamils were never absorbed by a north Indian kingdom, but from the sixteenth century the land was ruled by Telugu-speaking dynasties from the Vijayanagar Empire. The British built a trading center, Fort Saint George, in Madras in 1639 and ruled all Tamil Nadu from 1801 to 1947. The French, having lost to the British in south India, held Pondicherry and Karikal, now administered as a separate Union Territory within India. The process of Sanskritization, partial assimilation into the overarching Indian pattern of civilization, progressed in late medieval centuries. But in the twentieth century the tendency has been to reject features ascribed to north India and to reemphasize Tamil identity in language, deities, foods, and state politics.


The predominant settlement pattern is one of nucleated unwalled villages, often having 2,000 persons or even more than 5,000, while traditionally retaining a village character. The layout usually has well-defined streets, with sections for separate castes, each marked by one or more little temples for their respective deities. House types range from one-room huts of mud and coconut-leaf thatch of the laboring and low castes to larger houses with courtyards and two-story brick and tile houses of the higher castes or landowning families. Tamil villages look relatively neat, with most houses white-washed. Early each morning the women of a house apply cowdung wash on the street before the front door and create a pattern design on the ground with chalklike powder. A large village usually has several open wells, one large temple, a common threshing floor with big trees, a piece of land or two for cremation or burials, and in many cases a catchment reservoir for irrigating its rice land. Now nearly all villages have electricity, but only a minority of houses use it.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Land is classified into wet land growing mostly irrigated rice and dry land growing rain-fed or well-watered crops. Large irrigation Systems were built from at least the second century b.c., especially on the Kaveri River, and there was an elaborate political economy supporting agricultural productivity especially developed by the medieval Cōlas. The kings also built catchment reservoirs for growing rice and gave them to the villages to maintain, as recorded in temple inscriptions; there are 40,000 such reservoirs in Tamil Nadu. The main field crops are rice, pearl millet and several other millets, sorghum, Several types of pulses and oilseeds, coconuts, bananas, Indian vegetables, and condiments. Mango and tamarind trees abound. The oxen plow and harrow, pull ox carts, draw buckets of irrigation water, and turn oilseed presses, while cows yield milk that is given to children and made into curds and buttermilk. A village may have chickens, buffalo, goats, sheep, and donkeys that carry the washers' clothes. Fishing castes occupy the long coast. Money was issued by ancient kings so there is a long tradition of moneylending, capitalism, and overseas trade; rural economic transactions became monetized in the nineteenth century. Since the 1960s farmers have installed many thousands of electric irrigation pumps and have taken up commercial crops such as sugarcane, cotton, and peanuts. But now agricultural growth is beginning to lag compared with industries and urbanization.

Industrial Arts. Artisan castes still make fine products of clay, leather, reeds, cotton, wood, iron, brass, silver, and gold. Ox carts are sturdy and still numerous. Tamils are known for their fine weaving, which even the ancient Romans imported, and today they have the most successful handweavers' cooperatives in India, though power looms are taking over. Great brass water vessels are given at weddings, though plastics are becoming popular. Bricks, roofing tiles, cement artifacts, and wooden furniture are now in demand everywhere.

Trade. The streets of large villages and towns are lined with shops, and there are still many weekly markets. Complex networks of wholesalers, agents, and financiers deal with all types of products. Now auctions are common for moving produce, and the trucking industry is intensively developed. Muslim traders are prominent in trade.

Division of Labor. Men plow, harrow, and handle the rice harvest, but women do transplanting and weeding for which their daily wage is less than that of men, and they may also milk cows. Tools of trade such as an ox cart, potter's wheel, fishing net, or nowadays a taxi are not handled by women. Women do kitchen work, cleaning, washing, and child care, but men may also do all these tasks, and professional cooks and washers are men. Women now may be teachers, nurses, and office employees.

Land Tenure. Landownership is well established with a system of official recording. Agricultural land is increasingly held by dominant farmer castes, while every village has its cadre of landless low-caste laborers available for fieldwork. There are few estates of great landowners, though temples and mosques still own some land for income. Sharecropping and tenancy are moderate, simply part of the socioeconomic dynamics. Because of population pressure and speculation, in many areas the market value of land now exceeds its productive economic value.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Dravidian kinship system with its preference for cross-cousin marriage has been the subject of wide anthropological theorizing. The household is linked by a network of kin alliances established through Marriage within the caste. Fictitious exogamous clans (gotras ) are found in only a few Brahmanized castes. Lineage depth Beyond three generations is not important in most families. Most Indian Tamils are patrilineal and patrilocal, though the Dravidian system equally accommodates matrilineal descent as among some Sri Lanka Tamils, including Muslims, and some castes in Kerala. But patriliny is less strong than in north India, and matrilateral links remain important. A woman is expected to go to her natal home for childbirth, Especially for the first child, and may remain there for a few months for nurturance and to gain confidence and training in infant care.

Kinship Terminology. For a male, all females are classified as sister (or parallel cousin, unmarriageable) or as female cross cousin (marriageable). The preferred marriage for a male is generally to his mother's brother's daughter, while in some groups his father's sister's daughter and his own elder's sister's daughter are also quite acceptable, as are more distant cognates classifiable as female cross cousins. Kin terms are few compared with north Indian languages; for example, māman is wife's father/father-in-law, mother's brother (who may be the same person), and father of any female cross cousin or anyone so classified. For a man, makan is own son, brother's son, and son's male parallel cousin. Terms distinguish between elder and younger siblings, or those so classified, and between some elder and younger siblings of the Parents, or those so classified. Some classical scholars tried to force explanations in terms of the north Indian system and Indo-Aryan languages, in which the bride's family is wife giver and hypergamy is built-in, but this misses the essence of the Dravidian system. About half of Tamil marriages now are Between such kin, but the categories are so strongly maintained in the language that the kinship pattern is imposed on all interpersonal relations. This has been structurally analyzed by anthropologists. Louis Dumont sees it as essentially a matter of affinities established by marriage, in which women are Exchanged among families that define the kin network; this has political and economic implications. Others see it as essentially a system of marriage rules that is an ideal or a mental representation. Still others have tried to explain it in terms of heritable body substances and biological ideas. The system has also been analyzed in terms of Freudian psychology: a man will want a marriage union enabling him to continue the warmth and protection of his mother, namely, through his mother's brother together with his daughter. For Tamils, as Thomas Trautman and others show, the whole conceptual structure is as much in the language as in the actual behavior. A recent approach proposed by Margaret Trawick is that the pattern itself is something like an art form that is perpetuated as any form of expressive culture; moreover, it creates longings that can never be fulfilled, and so it becomes a web of unrelieved tensions and an architecture of conflicting desires that are fundamental in the interpersonal relationships of Tamils.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are arranged by elders, ideally by a sister and brother for their respective son and daughter. A girl is technically able to marry soon after the ceremony of her first menstruation, but now her marriage may be postponed a few years, and boys often do not marry until their twenties. The marriage is performed by a Brahman priest or by a caste priest in the home of the bride. Her family bears expenses and provides a modest dowry, though in some castes there is more bride-wealth given than dowry. Recently among educated classes the expectation of dowry has vastly increased, in line with the costs of education and the presumed benefits of the marriage for the girl and her family. Ideally a married couple sets up its own house, usually in the boy's village, but if necessary they may move in with the boy's or alternatively the girl's family until this is possible. Marriage is a religious ceremony and only a few register it with the state. Divorce is quite difficult for higher castes with strict social expectations, but separation and new alliances or marriages are common among castes whose prestige is not so damaged thereby. Widow remarriage is forbidden or rare among castes having Brahmanic values, but not among lower castes.

Domestic Unit. The average household size is five to six people, with preference for an extended nuclear family. It is not unusual for an old person or couple to live alone, especially if they have few assets. Occasionally there are joint families when there is land or a business to keep intact. Most Influential families also have a live-in servant or servant family. When Tamil men migrate to a city for work, they try to take their wives and children along, so there is not a severe deficit of females in Tamil cities, but this means that urbanized Families find their rural roots weakening.

Inheritance. Under Tamil Hindu tradition, sons divide the land because they may live by cultivating it, and daughters get the mother's gold and jewels either as dowry or as Inheritance, but there are many exceptions and people can arrange their own wills.

Socialization. Tamils are a child-friendly society, and they socialize children so that they grow up with a firm sense of well-being. There is less tension than in many societies, and hospitality is often genuine. Men and women play with small children easily, pass them around, and may take in relatives' children temporarily or even adopt them. Several male gods have important child forms whose pictures are in houses everywhere, and Tamil literature creates abundant images of children. Toilet training is early and seemingly natural, with little use of diapers. The first rice is fed at about 6 months, and weaning is sudden after a year or so. Giving of food is important in relationships, and a mother may feed rice with her hand to a child up to the age of 6 or more. Adults frequently treat children with benevolent deceit and verbal ambiguity, and within the dynamic family context the child learns a wide range of verbal and emotional expression and body language. Children of school age are occasionally punished by tweaking of the ear or beatings given by the father. Girls are expected to help in household work as soon as they are able, and boys not in school may do agricultural activities or herd animals from about age 10. Most villages have their own elementary schools, and many now have middle schools also, so most children now become literate. There are no initiation rites Except for high-caste boys at the time they put on the Brahmanic sacred thread. Girls have an important life-stage Ceremony at the time of their first menstruation; a feast is given to relatives and friends, who bring presents. At this time the girl puts on a sari and is technically marriageable. This ceremony is found associated with the Dravidian kinship and marriage system.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Within a village, society is ordered principally by caste. Particular castes or blocks of castes occupy sectors of a village, with the ritually lowest castes sometimes in satellite hamlets. Large villages or towns may have a Brahman street with a temple at the end, formerly off-limits to low castes, and in the past Brahmans would generally avoid eating food not prepared at home. Ritual pollution and purity differentiate a wide range of human interaction, though not as strongly as in the nineteenth century and hardly at all now in public life in towns. Village coffee shops until the 1980s had benches for middle castes, low seats for the low laboring castes, and places on the floor for the lowest sweeper caste; there were separate cups for these three groups. Now rank by caste ascription is slightly declining even in villages, while the more numerous agricultural castes are increasing their landholdings and using elections to enhance their political power. Brahmans have for decades used their education to enter urban life, while many landless laboring caste people also have migrated to cities for urban labor and service jobs. The urban educated class and government officers utilize English to preserve their power and privileges, so now even in small towns many Tamils are demanding that schools offer English-medium education for their children.

Political Organization. Traditionally many castes, or the larger ones, had caste panchayats (councils) that enforced caste behavioral norms, and sometimes there were informal village panchayats. In recent decades the state government has set up elected village panchayats, which were supposed to take over village government and development. But these have been neglected because state politicians tended to view them as threatening. Statewide political parties competing for people's votes have infiltrated most rural institutions, and in the main members of state-level parties espousing Dravidian identity are elected. Dominant and landholding families manage to enhance their economic and political power through these new mechanisms, while the relative position of the laboring and low castes remains about the same as before.

Social Control. Sources of tension in a village are family and caste norms of behavior, caste differences, and disputes over land. Caste or village elders can pronounce embarrassing punishment for violators of behavioral norms, particularly in sexual matters. Caste conflicts sometimes erupt over scarce resources, such as the rights of certain castes to use wells in time of water scarcity. Families basing prestige on land may engage in long litigation. An individual who feels wronged may wield a sickle against another, which may be occasion to call the police. The lowest administrative level is the taluk, usually centered in a particular town, with offices for police, land registration, and electricity supply, a local court, and usually high schools for boys and girls. The second level of administration is the district, of which there are twenty in Tamil Nadu; as throughout India, the district is headed by a collector, who has wide powers. The third level is the state, with Madras as its capital.

Conflict. Tamils have no destructive conflict with adjacent linguistic or ethnic groups, nor do Hindus have much conflict with the 6 percent Christian and 5 percent Muslim Tamil minorities. They tend to sympathize with the Sri Lanka Tamils in their struggle for political autonomy or Independence. Tamils are suspicious of the overwhelming numbers and political power of north Indians and resent any attempts to "impose" Hindi on them, so Tamil Nadu does not require teaching of Hindi in schools. English is in fact favored over Hindi. The modern political system with its elections has provided a new arena for verbal conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Village Hinduism is vibrant, as are the imposing, large, and ancient temples in the center of all the old towns. Village beliefs are focused on a large number of deities, with most castes or social groups claiming a special deity. Female deities are more numerous and are worshiped for their power to intervene in healing, fertility, and other life situations. Male deities are protectors and dominate the landscape, especially Murugan, whose image stands on many stone hillocks and especially on Palani Hill, where people make special pilgrimages to him as protector of Tamil Nadu. By the process of Sanskritization over many centuries, most local deities acquired linkage with Sanskritic or Brahmanic deities. Among Brahman castes the distinctions between the sects of Shiva and Vishnu are maintained, but not always in village religion. It is very common that a person needing assistance of the power of the deity to solve some problem in life will make a vow to bend the will of the deity; for example, one may promise that if one's son passes his examination, if a disease is cured, or if an infertile woman gives birth, one will undertake some pilgrimage or make some gift to the deity. Tamil Catholics make similar vows. There is a strong stream of devotionalism (bhakti ) in Hindu literature and in the practice of modern Hindus, Christians, and Muslims.

Ceremonies. Among the most important religious events in villages are the birthdays of the special deities, which are celebrated with processions in which the deity is taken from the temple and carried around the village and with night entertainment performances. Festival days of the deities of major temples, as of Madurai or Palani, are regional Tamil festivals in which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims throng those places. Pongal is a distinctive Tamil festival, in which kin groups boil rice in front of their special temple and eat it communally. This occurs in January, along with Māt tu Pongal, in which oxen are honored, their horns painted red and green, and garlanded. North Indian festivals such as Holi and Dassara are far less important, though Tamils celebrate Dipāvali (Diwali), the festival of lights. The Tamil New Year is widely celebrated, in mid-April.

Arts. South Indian music, dance, and architecture were enhanced in Tamil Nadu in late medieval centuries by royal patronage, while north India was under the Moguls. There is no question that Bharatanātyam dance, preserved in the Temples, along with south Indian classical instrumental and vocal music, are among the highest classical art forms anywhere; they are far too complex to discuss here. Tamil temples, immediately distinguishable by the soaring towers (gōpuram ) above the gateways, are imposing living institutions. Large temples have tanks, thousand-pillared halls of stone, passages for circumambulating the deity, and an infinite number of sculpted images and figures, all done according to ancient architectural rule books. In villages today, troupes are commissioned to perform all-night musical narrations of epics such as the Tamil version of the Rāmāyana, itinerant drama troupes are popular, and there may be magician entertainers, transvestite dancers, and fortune-tellers.

Medicine. The medical systems are: Ayurveda, based on Sanskrit texts; Siddha, a south Indian system using strong chemicals and herbs; Unani, the Muslim system; and Mantiravāti, the use of magical phrases (mantras) and herbal medicine that are found in villages everywhere, whose practitioners also prepare amulets many people use to ward off disease. Allopathie (scientific) medicine is available in towns in government hospitals and private clinics. Disease etiology may be analyzed as multiple, with proximate and ultimate causes. There are multiple possible cures including herbs, medicines, mantras, diet, psychological change, and divine intervention. Tamils believe that bodily qualities should be in balance, and they classify foods as "hot" or "cold." Vegetarianism is widely practiced by upper and middle castes on grounds of both religion and health.

Death and Afterlife. The doctrine of rebirth is not actively held by the majority of Tamils, though those who tend to orthodoxy are likely to assert that the doctrine is taught. But according to an old belief or longing, a child who dies has a soul that will be reborn in the same household, and Therefore on death burial may be under or near the home. Many Tamil castes bury their dead, but those influenced by Brahmanic tradition cremate them. At a burial in a middle-rank caste, the corpse is wrapped in a cloth and lowered into the grave, whereupon the male relatives carrying pots of water circumambulate the grave counterclockwise (an inauspicious direction), then break their clay pots in the grave, while the women stand by watching. Death pollution lasts for a number of days that varies by caste; after that the house is cleansed and there is special food. For an important man, a brick Structure may mark the grave, and there is an annual ceremony of offering food on the death anniversary.

See also Labbai; Tamil of Sri Lanka; Vellala


Clothey, Fred (1978). The Many Faces of Murukan: The History and Meaning of a South Indian God. The Hague: Mouton.

Daniel, E. Valentine (1987). Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dumont, Louis (1983). Affinity as Value: Marriage Alliance in South India, with Comparative Essays on Australia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dumont, Louis (1986). A South Indian Subcaste. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Trautmann, Thomas R. (1981). Dravidian Kinship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trawick, Margaret (1990). Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wadley, Susan, ed. (1980). The Powers of Tamil Women. South Asian Series, no. 6. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University.



views updated May 29 2018

Tam·il / ˈtaməl/ • n. 1. a member of a people inhabiting parts of southern India and Sri Lanka.2. the Dravidian language of the Tamils.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.DERIVATIVES: Tam·il·i·an / təˈmilēən/ adj. & n.


views updated May 17 2018

Tamil Language spoken in s India, chiefly in the state of Tamil Nadu, by up to 50 million people. In addition, there are c.3 million speakers in n Sri Lanka and c.1 million distributed throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Mauritius, and Guyana.