Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism & “Dead Body Politics” - Sri Lanka Guardian


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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism & “Dead Body Politics”

["This is an expanded version of an article published in Anthropology Today, June 2008, vol. 24:3, pp. 22-23' and we thank the author for allowing us to publish this in cyber-format." Editor - Sri Lanka Guardian]

“The LTTE does not, therefore, have to place icons of Christ or Siva on the tombstones and cenotaphs in order to invoke religious principles. The seed metaphor and the many embodied practices of grieving kin, as well as some of their iconography , convey the idea that the fallen fighters are an embodiment of sakti, namely, divine essence or cosmic energy.” [Image: Tiger fighters with cyanides capsules in Camp, 1989]

by Michael Roberts

(September 09, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) The facile manner in which both scholars and journalists continue to treat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a ‘secular organisation’ is not only amazing. It also reveals the rationalist and either/or reasoning of Westernized modes of thought in a context where the ‘model’ of an Islamic ‘terrorist’ or ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ dominates the thinking about political extremism and suicide attacks. This assertion is presented year in year out by political scientists who have devoted some space to the Tamil Tigers in their global surveys of what they term ‘suicide terrorism.'

Recently Roland Buerk of the BBC presented a similar view.

The Tamil Tigers have carefully nurtured their deadly mystique. Every Tamil guerrilla fighter carries a cyanide suicide capsule the day he or she is accepted into the Tigers' military ranks – to take if he or she is ever captured alive. Suicide bombings, carried out by an elite unit known as the Black Tigers, are still at the heart of the Tigers' effectiveness as guerrilla fighters. …For the Tamil Tigers there is none of the talk of a guaranteed place in heaven for martyrs you hear from Muslim suicide bombers. They are not religious and believe that there is nothing after death. Their fanaticism is borne of indoctrination from childhood.

Apart from Buerk’s serious mistake in depicting the Tigers as merely a guerilla outfit when they have run a de facto state since 1990 and maintain a brown-water navy, this set of remarks errs in treating all of them as mere plasticine in the hands of manipulative sculptor leaders. It does not allow for agency and the capacity of some Tamils to generate their own motivations in part or whole. It says more about the rationalist instrumentalism of the writer than the subjects of commentary. Indeed. I stress here what is well-known: such instrumentalist reasoning is the dominant epistemology in the world today, having developed in conjunction with capitalism and continuing to service this mode of production in all its variety

Westerners who dip briefly into Sri Lanka are not the only ones to present such invalid simplifications. Though versed in Tamil (unlike me), Peter Schalk insists that the LTTE is a secular force (1997, 2003). I have seen comments by several Sri Lankans that present similar assertions. Shantha Jayasekera of the Peace Secretariat of the Sri Lankan government tried to persuade a postgraduate student named Nick Appleby in Aberdeen University that there was no religious dimension to LTTE practices when the latter, somehow, twigged that there was.

While I have written extensively on this subject of late (Roberts 2005a, 2005b, 2006 and 2007), let me refer to the work of someone who knows far more about the Sri Lankan Tamil world than I do, namely, the indefatigable journalist, DBS Jeyaraj. Writing last year about the annual LTTE ‘mourning celebrations’ (my phrase – quite advisedly) on 27th November known as Māvīrar Nal (Heroes’ Day), which commenced in 1989, he said this: ‘The Great Heroes Day observances provide them with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality.’

Establishing immortality: what does this mean precisely? At an obvious level, the fallen fighters will be cast in stone and remain in the memory of pro-Tiger Tamils everywhere. But is that all?

Jeyaraj’s point has to be read within a context where a large majority of Tamils in both India and Sri Lanka believe (1) that worldly existence is a stage of transition from past existence towards future worldly lives, that is, they believe in rebirth and the existence of numerous realms of life; and (2) that one’s cycle of lives is determined by the karmic principles of ethically-dictated cause and effect.

I say “Tamils” advisedly. While a large proportion of Tamils who are Hindus will have such beliefs, even some Tamil Christians will be guided by such ideas. The researches of Bayly and Mosse in southern India reveal the osmosis of indigenous concepts about transcendental/cosmic issues among the Christians in those lands (Bayly 1989, Mosse 1994). My inquiries about the presence in Sri Lanka of what I call ‘karmic Christians’ drew responses from Fr. Aloysius Peiris and Naren Kumarakulasingham, a postgraduate working among victims during the 1983 pogrom, that revealed that there are some Tamil Christians (plus Christians in general, albeit a minority) who adhere to karmic notions and, thus implicitly, to the idea of rebirth.

Therefore, the LTTE’s explicit goal of setting up a secular state in which no religion carries emblematic status has to be interpreted within the context of their multi-purpose project of commemorative rites as well as the iconography and embodied practices associated with these rituals, besides related activities such as the Pongu Thamil (Resurgent Tamil) cultural pageants .

The LTTE has been highly innovative and intelligent in this regard. Apart from the radical step of doing away with cremations for their Hindu fallen and instituting burial at what they call thuyilam illam, or ‘resting places’ , they imported a hallowed Indian practice and called the tombstones natukal (pronounced nadugal). Literally meaning ‘planted stones,’ natukal are also called viragal (hero stones) and are referred to as ‘memorial stones’ in the Indian literature (Rajam 2000, Settar and Sontheimer 1982).

From Cankam times (third century BCE to third century CE) natukal have been reserved for sannyāsin, for heroes who have died defending their villages, for female sati, and for those victims of the powerful who committed protest suicide or redemptive suicide (by immolation or slitting of one’s own throat) for unjust humiliations heaped upon them. In many parts of southern and western India these stones have become shrines, that is, named deities (generically called māvīrans), often serving as guardian deities on the edge of villages and thus becoming one segment of the category ‘fierce deities,’ a cluster that includes numerous local mother goddesses (Ammans) as well as the region-wide great deities, Kāli, Kannaki and Durga. The lower level shrines within this cluster are referred by Susan Bayly to as ‘divinities of blood and power’ (Bayly 1989: 27ff.). These shrines include ‘the army of invisible supernatural warriors (virans: a term denoting power and heroic valour) who attend figures like Aiyanar and Munisveran’ – with many virans being humans in origin, men and women who had met a violent and/or premature death (Bayly 1989: 32-3).

In brief, we have here humans who have been deified. To repeat: deified humans. Evaluated within this broader setting, it is significant that Jeyaraj (2006) refers to the concept of ‘nadugal valipādu [which] literally means worshipping the planted stone,’ when he describes the rites and practices in and around the commemorations of Māvīrar Week. This is a week of intense activity marked by multi-media modalities of loud music, buntings and decorations in the LTTE colours of red and gold (which happen to be Hindu colours) and billboards and sheds with pictures of the fallen at several sites. Jeyaraj’s previous reference to Mavirar Day being an exercise in immortality refers to the peak day of 27 November and especially to the climatic moment at twilight 6.06 p. m. when the flame of sacrifice is lit , an institutional practice that commenced in 1989, grew incrementally and now embraces numerous sites, especially the 21 large tuyilam illam, or ‘resting places,’ maintained so immaculately by a special LTTE department (Schalk 2003, Roberts 2005b and 2006). Significantly, these resting places are referred to as ‘holy places’ and as ‘temples’ (www.TamilNet.com, 27 Nov. 1998 and Natali 2005).

The creation of such sacred sites in this manner, clearly, has great political advantages in providing centres of inspiration and legitimization. As Sangarasivam contends, the ‘laying of bodies …and the building of tombstones inscribe the presence of the honoured dead into the land [and] their physical substance coalesces with the soil of the land to create a culturally circumscribed sacred space’ (Sangarasivam 2000: 300).

Thus, there are enchanted dimensions within this ritual act in a context where the cosmic principle of sakti (divine energy) guides most Hindus and Christians. As Collins has revealed, ‘vegetation imagery’ alluding to ‘seed’ and ‘root’ is built deeply into the soteriology of the Indian subcontinent and is embedded within the concept of many worldly lives involving rebirths shaped by ‘karma-seeds’ (1982: 218-24, 226). Both Trawick (1997: 155, 180) and Hellmann-Rajanayagam have highlighted the degree to which horticultural imagery and themes of regeneration feature in LTTE poetry. The latter stresses that poetry employs the ‘motif of the blood soaked-soil out of which new life grows’ (2005: 124); while through their sacrifice the heroes are said to be vittuTal (pronounced viththudal), namely, ‘bodies that become seeds,’ or are said to turn to ash and fertilize the soil, thereby renewing life. Ash is a central ingredient-cum-concept in Hindu religious praxis: ‘while produced out of destruction, it is also the ‘seed’ of creation that remains to rejuvenate the cosmos’ (Mines 2005: 31). Viewed in the light of the iconography embodied in some cenotaphs, the ‘syncretistic combination of Christian and Saivite symbolism’ in the poetry produced by Tiger personnel and explicit references to being ‘born anew’ and ‘redemption’ in some poems (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 133, 140-1, 145), there is little doubt that motifs of resurrection have a place in the ideological productions surrounding the self-sacrifice of Tiger fighters.

Schalk’s convoluted attempts (1997: 68, 78; 2003) to present the LTTE as a secular force, therefore, are severely undermined by such evidence. He himself tells us that that Heroes’ Week is celebrated as an elucci nāl, that is, a ‘Day of Edification’ or ‘Day of Rising’. The term elucci (also written as ezucci) is ‘the nominalization of the verbal root ‘elu’, which means rise up, get up, get up out of bed – [a word] that it is reflexive, that is, to raise oneself up, to get oneself up, rather than to lift up something else [so that it marks] independence and self-sufficiency’ (email note from Rick Weiss in Auckland, 20 Feb. 2007). It appears to carry a multivalent richness in Tamil-speak for a dictionary indicates its meanings as ‘ascent, elevation, staring as in a procession, derivatively song sung at dawn to raise the god, king or VIP from sleep, origin, birth appearance, beginning, oatitis, inflammation of the ear, effort, activity’ (my emphasis).

The LTTE does not, therefore, have to place icons of Christ or Siva on the tombstones and cenotaphs in order to invoke religious principles. The seed metaphor and the many embodied practices of grieving kin, as well as some of their iconography , convey the idea that the fallen fighters are an embodiment of sakti, namely, divine essence or cosmic energy. One is reminded here of the thrust of Katherine Verdery’s work on the ‘political lives of dead bodies’ in Eastern Europe: where one line of argument stresses the significance of ‘cosmic concerns’ and the power of affect (1999: 107-08 & 125-26).

Clearly, there can be an instrumental, manipulative dimension to these activities in the minds of those calling the shots. The Tiger dead are a potent symbol of mobilization and legitimization. Verdery, too, talks of ‘dead body politics’ in this sense; but her book is directed against an overwhelming reliance on rationalistic analyses (Verdery 1999: 112, 126). To rely solely on instrumentalist arguments for this phenomenon of sacrificial commitment and hero rituals is an impoverished approach. Such an emphasis does not allow for the emotional currents that both impel, and then expand out of, these māvīrar operations. Again, it is extremely silly to think that all the leaders, all the fighters and all the supportive Tamils have no faith in the cycle of rebirth and the existence of many worldly realms. That Westerners should be unable to comprehend these facets of the Tamil and Tiger life-world is not surprising; but that Sri Lankan commentators have failed to grasp these facets is a mark of alienation from their own cultural universe.


1. Buerk, “A Date with a Renegade Rebel Tiger [Karuna],” BBC on web, 4 April 2007 (emphasis added by me).

2.Email exchanges with Appleby in Feb/March 2007.

3.Jeyaraj has been living in Toronto for perhaps two decades, but appears to have a extensive network of informants and recovers detailed information on ongoing events within days, if not hours, of any incident in Sri Lanka. For his regular feature items, see http://transcurrents. com.

4. D.B.S. Jeyaraj, “No Public Speech Ceremony for LTTE Chief this Year?” 26 November 2006, in http://transcurrents.com/tamiana/archives/234.

5. Cf. the data and reflections of William Sax on the basis of his north Indian researches (1992).

6. N. Kumarakulasingam responded thus to my inquiry: ‘in conversations about the 83 riots mostly Tamil Christians [who had suffered] but also Sinhala Christians have said this [karmic cause and effect] when talking about many of the people who were involved in the violence.’ Moreover, and significantly in his view, they made ‘no refs to damnation or eternal hell etc’ (email note, 28 Dec. 2006). At a more general level, Fr. Aloy Pieris, s.j ., whose ‘beat’ is just north of Colombo, had this to say: ‘Not only among labourers but even among people in the upper echelons here in Sri Lanka, you always find individuals who have absorbed the belief in reincarnation and karmic effects from the cultural ethos of the country. But it is not widespread. But the question is always asked’ (email note, 20 Dec. 2006).

7. Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 124, 141. Moreover, LTTE posters disseminate this idea: “we are not dead; we have been sown” (Schalk 1997a: 79; UTHR 1994: 81). I thank S. V. Kasynathan (email of 6 April 2007) and Dennis McGilvray for helping me to come to grips with the word vittuTal (t’s with dot underneath), which is an unusual and metaphoric combination of vitu (viththu) or vitai meaning ‘seed,’ and uTal (udal) meaning ‘body.’ McGilvray: ‘The word vitai (i.e., vithai, using dental th) is [commonly used for] ‘seed,’ [and provides] the root of an alternative verb ‘to sow seed.’ The gerund form would be ‘vithaiththal’.” (email 14 April 2007).

8. Schalk 2003: 404. He adds: “what exactly rises? One supporter told me that a (collective) amma ‘soul’ of the members of the movement rises. His view is not sanctioned by the LTTE, but it is not rejected either.”

9. Information conveyed by S. V. Kasynathan in Melbourne (email notes, 20 Feb. 2007) using the Madras University Lexicon (1982 edn.) and adding his own elaborations. Note the semantic overlap with the concepts pongu and ponkal.

Sri Lanka Guardian

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