My paper deals with the construction of Tamil national identity in the
areas of north-eastern Sri Lanka. In particular it focuses on the relevance of
the new LTTE burial
practices within the process of nation building. In this context I will pay
special attention to the
perception that Tamil people, both civilians and fighters, seems to have of the
Tigers’ cemeteries as
symbolic centres of the new nation, the Tamil Eelam1.
In my paper I will analyse the reasons which have led to this perception. On one
side I will
discuss the functional analogies between the LTTE cemeteries and the war
graveyards of military
Western tradition. On the other, I will emphasise their peculiarity of being
perceived as holy places.
The Tigers’ cemeteries are indeed called Tuillum Illam, literally “Sleeping
houses”, and are often
portrayed as temples. I will argue that the LTTE, in spite of their secular
nature, have decided not to
reject this religious interpretation, because it allows them to include the
Tuillum Illam in the
mainstream of Hindu tradition. In this context the ability to integrate the
represents a crucial component in the process of nation building.
This paper draws upon findings of fieldwork I carried out between July 2002 and
2003 in the north-eastern regions of Sri Lanka controlled by the LTTE.
The change in funerary practices
At the beginning of the ’90s, in a Sri Lanka ravaged by civil war, a great
change in the funerary
practices reserved to the LTTE fighters took place. Until then the bodies of the
“Great Heroes”) were cremated in accordance with Hindu tradition and the ashes
were given to the
families. From that period onward LTTE began to bury their dead and to collect
them in the Tuillum
To understand the meaning of this change in ritual we have to consider the
practices which are performed in the north and in the east of Sri Lanka. These
practices depend on
the religion professed by the families of the dead. Both Christians and Muslims
bury their dead, and
put the bodies in their graveyards2, while Hindus resort to cremation and
immerse the ashes in
rivers, though there are some exceptions that we will discuss later. This means
that in this context burial is not unknown, but is reserved to people belonging to Christianity and
Islam, and that most
people, being Hindu, are not accustomed to this practice. It might be argued
that the shift from
cremation to burial should have been perceived as a radical move from
traditional practices, and
therefore should not have been so readily accepted.
Before discussing the strategies that are carried out by Maaveerar’s relatives
civilians in order to accept the new practices, I would like to illustrate the
official explanation given
by the LTTE’s leadership to justify this change. When questioned about the
reasons for the shift in
ritual, Mr. Pontyagam, in charge of Maaveerar’s office, stated:
Before 1991 we burnt [the fighters] according to Hindu rites. If the parents
asked for the ashes, we gave
them. But Christians and Muslims didn’t take ashes. We had this problem. There
were Christian soldiers, and
the parents didn’t want to burn them. A meeting of the leaders was organized and
they decided to study what
did for their soldiers other countries like America and England. They saw that
they used to bury their
soldiers. Then they decided to proceed in the same way […]3.
Then, when asked about the reaction of Hindu relatives, Pontyagam replied:
Yes, relatives agreed because they [the LTTE leaders] explained them it was a
worldwide custom. Before
that there were problems, and then they decided, Prabhakaran4 decided, what to
Indeed if we have a look at the pictures of Tuillum Illam, we can recognize in
the pattern of Western war graveyards, particularly if we compare the Tuillum
Illam with other
cemeteries in the area.
It is not surprising that the LTTE chose to adopt funerary
practices utilized by Western
armies. In fact, Tigers do not like the epithet of “terrorist” and claim the
status of liberation fighters.
That is why they never miss an opportunity to emphasize that they are a regular
army: for instance,
they point out that they wear uniforms. From this perspective, an acceptance of
funerary customs might be considered a logic consequence of such a claim.
Conversely, what is really surprising is to ascertain that the official
explanation for the
transition from cremation to burial is never mentioned by civilians or fighters.
Indeed, if questioned
on this issue, both tend to refer to other explanations for the change. In the
course of my fieldwork,
I interviewed LTTE fighters, Tamil civilians living in both LTTE- and
territories, and eventually Tamils living in Italy. The persons interviewed gave
interpretations for the transition, but nobody referred to the official one.
This official explanation is
probably neither significant nor acceptable to Tamil civilians, particularly for
the relatives of the
dead. In fact, when a daughter or a son, a sister or a brother are given burial
as opposed to the
customary ritual cremation, it is likely that relatives would not be satisfied
with an explanation that
justified this practice on the basis of conformity with Western military
tradition. Indeed, it is more
than likely that they would seek other more meaningful explanations.
There are in fact two main interpretations5 which tend to emerge
to justify the change in the
LTTE funerary practices. The first one emphasizes the need for remembrance,
whether the second
one places the burial practice within the mainstream of Hindu tradition.
Tuillum Illam as places of remembrance
To elucidate the process which make it possible for the Tuillum
Illam to be regarded as places of
remembrance, I would like to quote some passages from interviews I took in Sri
Lanka during my
fieldwork. For instance a fighter in Vavuniya asserted: “This is a place of
memory, if you burn them
[Maaveerar] the history will be destroyed”. Similarly a man in charge of
Koppai’s Tuillum Illam
explained:At the beginning we burnt them [Maaveerar]. Then we thought: “It
is not nice, it is better to have a place to
remember them”. If you have a monument, every year you can celebrate them, and
the relatives can come to
visit them, they often do this.
A civilian in Jaffna affirmed:
In this situation we did need a place to make our people happy. When our
children ask [showing the Tuillum
Illam]: “What is it?”, we reply: “Here there are the people who sacrificed their
life for the freedom of Tamil
A young Tamil man living in Italy pointed out:
The Maaveerar are people who defend the land, our homeland. If
we burn them, they become dust, and they
will disappear. To keep their memory alive, the Tigers bury them and build
tombs. They write on the tomb
“This person died to defend the homeland” and in this way they [the Maaveerar]
are with us longer.
Finally the sister of a fighter fallen at Elephant Pass clarified: “We have to
[Maaveerar] bodies, at least the bones must be preserved”.
It could be argued that to have places of remembrance it is not
necessary to have tombs.
However we must keep in mind that in Hinduism, as Maurice Bloch and Jonathan
nothing of the individual is preserved which could provide a focal symbol of
group continuity. The physical
remains of the deceased are obliterated as completely as possible: first the
corpse is cremated and then the
ashes are immersed in the Ganges and are seen as finally flowing into the ocean.
The ultimate objective
seems to be as complete a dissolution of the body as possible (1982: 36).
Such a dissolution imply the absence of a public space where the
dead are remembered.
Even if there are postcremation rituals in which ancestors are worshipped (Knipe
1977), such rituals
are performed in the private space of the house and are carried out by
relatives. The cultural
background provides reasons for the lack of any correlation between cremation
and public place of
The perception of Tuillum Illam as place of remembrance would
also explain, according to
my informants, their destruction by Sri Lankan Army
6. M. R. Narayan Swamy, a
describes in this way the capture of Jaffna:
It is clear Prabhakaran will one day certainly try to recapture
Jaffna, whatever be the cost, if nothing else to
avenge the humiliation of 1995 when victorious Sri Lankan troops rolled into
ancient Tamil town amid
frenzied celebrations across the country. The LTTE has not forgotten the way the
military destroyed without
trace the LTTE’s sprawling martyrs’ graves that were spread over a vast open
ground (2002(3): 355) (italics
At the entrance of Tuillum Illam in Koppai and Naundil the visitor can see,
encased in glass,
the collected pieces of devastated graves and cenotaphs. A stone book has been
placed on the
pieces, and the following words are impressed on it:
"After our displacement in
1995, the Sri Lanka army
damaged and destroyed
the monuments of our
war heroes, treasured by us.
The stone remains of the
left over have been collected
by us. Let us bow our
heads and wait at this
point for a few moments."
The destruction of tombs by Sri Lankan Army can be considered as
governmental soldiers’ appreciation of Tuillum Illam’s significance within the
Tigers’ struggle. In
order to better understand the symbolic value of the LTTE’s burial grounds, we
need to pay
attention to the functional analogies between such places and the war military
Functional analogies with war cemeteries in military Western
It could be argued that Tuillum Illam share many functions with war cemeteries
tradition. As George Mosse (1990) points out, to concentrate all the dead
soldiers in the same space
gives the opportunity to stress the importance of their deeds and to focus
people’s attention on their
sacrifice for the nation. It is exactly in this perspective that we may read the
words of Prabhakaran
who, talking about the graves, affirms “The tombs of the fallen Tigers heroes
will be the foundation
of our new nation” (quoted in the 1995 LTTE diary).
Another important function of Western war cemeteries is their
being places of
commemorations, which is also the case of Tuillum Illam. The Maaveerar are
November 27th, officially remembered as the day in which the first Tiger died.
In this day the
LTTE pay honours to their dead fighters all over the world. Tamils of the
celebrations in public places such as theatres and public halls7, while in Sri
Lanka the ceremonies
take place in the Tuillum Illam.
Ceremonies start in the afternoon, when people go to the
Illam bringing flowers, incense, camphor and candles and stay by the tombs;
women weep and cry
out in pain. The Maaveerar day is a main LTTE political event, not only because
of the extensive
involvement of civilians, but also because it is the occasion in which
Prabhakaran’s yearly speech is
delivered and broadcast through loudspeakers in all Tuillum Illam. Prabhakaran’s
considered, as Cheran emphasizes, “a sort of throne speech in which he usually
elaborates on the
victories, ground situation, future plans and an analysis of the current
political situation” (2001: 17).
In this sense the Tuillum Illam are the setting for the exercise of “intentional
rhetorics” which, as
Elizabeth Tonkin stresses, are a central element in the processes of nation
“Intentional rhetorics” are utilized “to convince people of a social identity
which they may not
otherwise experience as such” (1992: 130).
Eventually - to conclude the analysis of functional analogies -
in war cemeteries belonging
to Western tradition there are symbols which can be interpreted in different
ways. As George Mosse
clarifies, English cemeteries were centred upon the Cross of Sacrifice and the
Stone of Remembrance. The Cross of
Sacrifice, in Rudyard Kipling words, has “a stark sword brooding in the bosom of
the cross” whose
symbolism, by the Commission’s own admission, was somewhat vague. It could
signify sacrifice in war or
simply the hope of resurrection […]. The Stone of Remembrance and the Cross of
Sacrifice projected a
Christian symbolism which dominated the cemetery, though originally the Stone
was conceived by its
architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens, as a non-Christian pantheistic symbol. Yet, at
times, the Stone of
Remembrance was referred to simply as “the altar”, conferring the same religious
significance upon it that
the Cross of Sacrifice possessed (1990: 85).
Similarly in the Tuillum Illam the “flame of sacrifice” burning
on the central platform could
be compared, as suggested by the chancellor of Jaffna university, to the flame
of the Arc de
Triomphe in Paris, but at the same time it could also be perceived as a symbolic
substitute of the
fire of cremation.
Tuillum Illam as temples
I would now examine the second interpretation which emerges from
popular narrative to justify the
transition in funerary practices. This interpretation is given mainly by
civilians and is connected
with the religious Hindu tradition. As already mentioned, in Hinduism there are
some exceptions to
cremation. In the context of the Sri Lankan civil war, such exceptions are
utilized to give a sense of
cultural continuity to the funerary practices reserved to the LTTE’s fighters.
An analysis of the
exceptions to cremation within Hinduism is obviously beyond the aim of this
paper. Therefore I will
restrict myself to mentioning that these exceptions are associated with either
(poor people do not have the resources to cremate their dead) or religious ones.
From a religious
perspective, the concept of the cremation ritual as a sacrifice offered to the
gods has in fact several
implications: in case of “bad death”, that is non-voluntary and untimely death
(for instance, death
by drowning, act of violence or some kinds of disease), the body does not
symbolize an appropriate
sacrifice to the gods, and is therefore not cremated8.
However, there are other cases in which the corpse is not
cremated: this happens when the
dead is a child or an ascetic. With regard to children, there are cross-cultural
evidences of different
practices performed for those who die in the early years of their life. The
reason for the specific
treatment of dead children’s bodies within Hinduism has given rise to a
widespread debate (see Das
1976 and Malamoud 1982). Scholars have suggested several interpretations, some
of them stressing
on the characteristic of liminality showed by children.
With regard to ascetics, they can also be
regarded as liminal figures, because of their transcending the customary
partitions of Hindu society
and being located in the symbolic limen between life and death. The burial of
ascetics is in fact
justified on the basis of their renunciation of ordinary life. As Charles
Malamoud points out,
La cérémonie complexe qui marque l’entrée en “renoncement” consiste à laisser
s’éteindre les feux
sacrificiels après y avoir fait brûler, ultime oblation, ultime combustible, les
divers ustensiles du sacrifice.
Les feux ne sont pas abolis pour autant : ils sont intériorisés, inhalés, on les
fait “remonter” en soi […]. cuit
de l’intérieur, et de son vivant même, le samnyasin n’a pas a être cuit après sa
morte : il n’est donc pas
incinéré, mais inhumé […]. en intériorisant leurs feux, ils ont aussi aboli la
possibilité d’être transportés vers
une divinité qui leur soit extérieure. En s’instituant d’emblée comme offrande,
et en persistant jusqu’au bout
dans ce rôle, ils ont fait de leur propre personne, de leur atman identifié au
Soi universel, leur divinité (1989:
Thanks to the exception represented by the interment of ascetics, Tamil
civilians have the
opportunity to place the burial practice within the mainstream of Hindu
tradition. In order to
provide an understanding of the symbolic analogy between ascetics’ interment and
burial we have to dwell upon the self-representation of the LTTE fighters. The
portrayed as men and women who are not involved in the “bad habits” of ordinary
people: they do
not drink, do not smoke and do not have forbidden sexual intercourses.
Abstaining from alcohol and
cigarettes is significant particularly for male fighters, because in Tamil
culture women are not
supposed to drink or smoke. With regard to female fighters the most important
therefore their purity:
The LTTE ideal of the armed guerrilla woman puts forward an
image of purity and virginity […]. The
women are described as pure, virtuous. Their chastity, their unity of purpose
and their sacrifice of social life
supposedly give them strength. The armed virginal woman cadre ensures that this
notion of purity, based on
denial, is a part of the social construction of what it means to be a woman
according to the world view of the
LTTE (Coomaraswamy quoted in Schrijvers 1999: 316).
Michael Roberts suggests that the ascetic mould of the LTTE
fighters implies “the influence
of Hindu tradition of tapas (strength via abstinence) as well as Maoist strains
of revolutionary selfdiscipline”
(1996: 256). The ascetic attitude of fighters is also a subject of
this regard Peter Schalk, explaining the plot of a film on the Black Tigers –
the suicidal commandos
–, points out:
The hero of the film is described as a tavan, “ascetic”, not by
the word, but by his behaviour. Although he is
of marriageable age, there is no sign of a girlfriend […]. Living in the group
of Black Tigers, he seems to be
dedicated to the holy aim [to free Tamil Eelam] only (1997: 160).
The symbolic association between fighters and ascetics is not
restricted to their behaviour in
life. After their death, the combatants, as the ascetics, are worshipped and
regarded as gods. When I
asked if Tuillum Illam were cemeteries, all the people replied saying “How can
you say such a
thing? Tuillam Illam are temples, gods are seeded [buried] there”. If we take
into consideration the
expected behaviour of the Tuillum Illam’s visitors, actually we can realize that
practices when going to or coming back from Tuillum Illam are exactly the
reverse of those
contemplated in case of visiting cemeteries. The absence of women and the need
to take a bath
when coming back from burial grounds can be considered as the central
The identification of Maaveerar with gods – which would require a deeper
analysis – is not
rejected by the LTTE, in spite of their secular nature. During my fieldwork, I
observed that not only
civilians, but also some people involved in the movement, although not fighters,
theMaaveerar are gods and Tuillum Illam are temples. In my understanding the
LTTE do not reject
this interpretation because it is necessary in order to make acceptable the
introduction of the new
funerary rituals. In fact, as pointed out by Paul Connerton, in his book How
All beginnings contain an element of recollection. This is particularly so when
a social group makes a
concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start. There is a measure of
complete arbitrariness in the very
nature of any such attempted beginning. […] But the absolutely new is
inconceivable. It is not just that it is
very difficult to begin with a wholly new start, that too many old loyalties and
habits inhibit the substitution
of a novel enterprise for an old and established one (1989: 6).
It is not surprising, then, to find out that Prabhakaran himself
compares the fallen Tigers to
Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE, requests the people to
venerate those who die in the battle for Eelam as
sannyasis (ascetics) who renounced their personal desires and transcended their
egoistic existence for a
common cause of higher virtue (Chandrakanthan 2000: 164).
I would argue that the attitude of the LTTE with regard to the
identification of the
Maaveerar with gods emerges as an ambiguous but necessary one. On one side the
are the places where the secular values of the future nation are displayed: the
of all the differences among people (caste, class and gender differences) is
symbolically carried out
through the performing of the same funerary rituals and the building of equal
tombs. On the other
side, the idea that Tuillum Illam are temples where the Maaveerar/gods are
worshipped allows the
LTTE to avoid a break with the religious feelings of civilians, guaranteeing
popular consent to the
new project of nation-building.
1 Tamil Eelam refers to the separate state claimed by LTTE (Liberation Tigers of
2 Christians sometimes are buried close to the area where Hindus perform
3 Personal interview, 7 December 2002.
4 In passing we may observe that Prabhakaran is supposed to take all central
decisions regarding the fighters. The
LTTE’s members themselves explained to me that, although many decisions are
joint resolutions, actually is better to
ascribe them to the leader. In this way people will accept them more easily.
5 Although the detailed description of all the interpretations
is beyond the aim of this paper, it is necessary to mention
that to some fighters (but not to civilian) the burial of dead fighters is
considered as a return to the practices of the
ancient Tamils, who in fact buried their fallen warriors. References to the
custom of the Chankam period are quoted
also in some of the LTTE’s publications. As Fuglerud points out, “The
ideological project of the LTTE is directed
towards homologising the pre- and post-colonial situation, of linking the
present claim for statehood with the restoration
of authentic Tamil culture” (2001: 203). For further details, see also Cheran
2001, Natali 2004.
6Here has to be reminded that the destruction of Tuillum Illam
is not officially acknowledged either by Sri Lankan
government or by international organizations such as International Committee of
the Red Cross (ICRC).
7 For further details on the ceremonies outside Sri Lanka, see
Cheran (2001) for the Canadian case, and Natali (2002)
for the Italian case.
8 This does not necessarily mean that the body is buried:
sometimes it is indeed set adrift on a river (children too are
often treated in this way).
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