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Embroidery, India

Ritual and aesthetics among Tamils from Sri Lanka

Øivind Fuglerud and Stine Bruland


This part of the CIM-project has involved two researchers from the Oslo team.  The main empirical focus has been the role and importance of material objects in ritual improvisation in Sri Lanka and in the Sri Lanka-Tamil diaspora.  The theoretical foundation is a broad understanding of aesthetics as primary to the Western use of this concept with reference to art and beauty.  People’s everyday worlds as such, seen as specific, emerging symbolic forms, should be regarded as aesthetic in the sense that they manifest or objectify – and, through this, make available for reflection and contemplation – the forces engaged in the composition of these forms. Specific articulations of aesthetics, like ‘art’, therefore, should be studied within a broader conceptual and perceptual landscape. As noted by Kapferer and Hobart (2007: 5):

The aesthetic and its compositional forms are what human beings are already centered within as human beings… To concentrate on the aesthetic is to focus on the dynamic forces and processes engaged in human cultural and historical existence as quintessentially symbolic processes of continual composition and recomposition. 

This positionality of art vis-à-vis the symbolic in general does not diminish the importance of art, rather it is what provides art the capacity to be ‘active in the creation of their realities and have effect or bring about changes in the circumstances of existence through the aesthetic dynamic of their composition’ (Kapferer and Hobart 2007: 9).  What this positionality does, however, is to deny ‘art’ a monopoly of the aesthetic. In particular, it opens up the question of the relationship and overlap between art and ritual, ‘a domain of practice… conventionally treated as the primordial space of the symbolic’ (Kapferer and Hobart ibid: 11).

Given the 30-year civil war, and the role of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in this war, politics and armed resistance has, for obvious reasons, been one important ingredient to this project component. The LTTE systematically re-interpreted central tenets of Tamil culture and gave these a tangible expression, embedding their exercise of military authority over people in wider, symbolic structures. For example, the LTTE can be said to have opened a new position for women in society equal to that of men through their use of female frontline- and suicide-soldiers. This involved a decisive break with tradition. The genius of the LTTE as producers of ideology lies in doing this while retaining the familiar concepts and putting them to work in new ways. Of interest to the project has been poetry written by LTTE soldiers and official rituals staged by the organization, in particular the celebration of Mavirar Nal, involving various forms of visual art as well as poetry, music, and theatre.  In the territory under LTTE control until 2008 – 2009, as well as in Toronto, London, Geneva, Oslo, and almost every other town where Tamil refugees live, supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s military fight for separation from Sri Lanka have since 1989 annually gathered on 27 November to celebrate Mavirar Nal, ‘Day of Great Heroes’, commemorating the soldiers of the LTTE who have died in the struggle. In the main cities of Tamil settlement the gatherings have drawn crowds of thousands and sometimes even tens of thousands of people. Through this, and through a number of minor ceremonies in the same manner celebrated simultaneously in LTTE-controlled parts of Sri Lanka and in the diaspora, life in exile has been ‘calibrated’ to life in Eelam.

As part of the findings from the project it is argued that we may learn something about the importance of the form in which political ideas like those of the LTTE are materialized by drawing on perspectives from fields of research often considered far from that of war and violence, in particular the fields of aesthetics and cognitive science. Svasek (2007: 10) in her discussion of art,  uses the term ‘aestheticisation’ to describe the process whereby the sensory experience of objects, ‘often already influenced by additional knowledge about the object and its related status, and by the spatial setting in which it is used or displayed’, reinforce abstract ideas or beliefs. The project goes further, and argues that the importance of aesthetics can justifiably be understood within a theoretical perspective of ‘extended cognition’. This perspective, which is far from unitary or homogeneous, tends to see what surrounds a human as not only influencing or affecting his or her cognition, but as part of the cognitive process itself. In the particular case discussed here, it is argued that to many people living in Sri Lanka’s war-afflicted areas and  struggling to make sense of their own violent experiences, the material manifestations manufactured by the LTTE constituted, in the words of Alfred Gell (1998: 232), ‘a whole form of cognition, which takes place outside the body, which is diffused in space and time, and which is carried on through the medium of physical indexes and transactions between them’ (emphasis in original).

The project component in question has also explored how nationalism becomes essential in private practices of relatedness among politically active Tamil families in the process of creating meaningful lives in exile. Based on fieldwork in Norway it has been found that among politically active Tamil parents there is a strong desire that their children should adopt what they call a ‘Tamil identity’. To achieve this, the parents socialize their children into a specific embodied understanding of what it means to be a Tamil – closely tied to the nationalistic discourse of the LTTE. The way a Tamil Tiger identity becomes attractive in these families’ transnational lives both by offering guidelines for how to be a Tamil and by healing the parents’ personal loss or nostalgia for the life lived prior to exile, is explored. The particular conceptualization of national identity has the potential of transcending the geographical distance from the place that parents associate with their childhood relations and memories, the Tamil soil. Given the inter-subjective, mutual relationship between parents and children it is argued that the parents make use of their children's performance of Tamil identity to create continuity in their own lives. In this the rituals staged by the LTTE in exile, and the sensorial experiences which these rituals involve, are central.

Finally, this project component has studied material culture and sensorial practices across the religious division of Hinduism and Catholicism among Sri Lankan Tamils residing in Paris, e.g. the use of incense and flower garlands, the worship of Mother Mary as part of Hindu prayers as well as Catholic etc. Shared objects and practices may appear as religious borrowing and religious syncretism. Studies of Hindu elements appearing in Catholic practices and vice versa among Sri Lankan and South Indian Tamils have, to a large extent, been concerned with classifying elements and ideas of such practices into the categories of Hinduism or Catholicism, or showing historical connections between the two religions. In this project it is, in stead, suggested that there is a need to take peoples’ shared material culture and sensorial practices as the point of departure and examine what such practices mean to the practitioners’ religious experience, and thus understand how such forms circulate, and come to be shared. It is argued that overlapping practices can be fruitfully analyzed from a perspective recognizing the power of materiality and aesthetics in religious practice. Objects or “things” are active and have agency (cf. Gell 1998); they are processual, relational, and performative. Materiality is performed in the mutual interaction with humans; humans act out the materiality by acquiring, using, and sensing material objects and their material surroundings, and in the same process materiality acts on humans as it affects our experience of the action, place, ritual, and so on. Vital to this understanding is the ability of material surroundings to affect the senses that produce emotions and feelings in interaction with our sensing body (Kapferer and Hobart 2005). The findings, therefore, argue for a need to take into account the sensations and emotions produced in interaction with the sensuous world as vital aspects of people’s religious experience (cf. Kapferer and Hobart 2005; Meyer 2009).



Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: an Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kapferer, Bruce and Angela Hobart (2005): ‘Introduction. The Aesthetics of Symbolic Construction and Experience’, in A. Hobart and B. Kapferer (eds.): Aesthetics in Performance: Formations of Symbolic Construction and Experience. Berghahn Books: New York, Oxford

Meyer, Birgit ()ed.) ( 2009):  Aesthetic Formations; Media, religion, and the Senses. Palgrave: New York

Svasek, M. 2007. Anthropology, art and cultural production. London: Pluto Press


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