by Michael Roberts

(this was first published at

The LTTE, as we know, has fostered a sacrificial ideology as a vital force in their struggle for the liberation (cutantiram) of the Sri Lankan Tamil people, a just war in the view of a significant proportion of Tamils. The imperatives driving this readiness to sacrifice self for political cause were provided by this context of military-political goal. When initiated in the early 1980s, this gifting of individual life as weapon, or uyirautam, was informed by circumstances of military asymmetry.

    Thus, as argued in my previous essays (2006, 2009a, 2009b), political goal, relative weakness in power and the inspirational force in securing popular support prompted the Tiger leadership in their recourse to suicidal commitment – first as defensive tool and then as symbolic protest (Tilīpan, Annai Pūpati) or precision weapon in attack.

    These were the necessary conditions for the development of this method. The brief allusion to this set of political factors should not be held to obscure their central significance. Nor should we forget that the other fighting groups, EPLRF, PLOTE, TELO et cetera, did not adopt this tactic. I do not know why they did not.

     That emphasis marked, I turn to the cultural foundations promoting the LTTE’s policy in this regard. A clue to the significance of this dimension is provided in the reverberating popular response to Ponnudurai Sivakumāran’s act of defensive suicide in June 1974 (Roberts 2009b). Apart from the humiliating assaults on leading politicians at his funeral, “several [Tamil Youth League] members slashed their fingers and with the blood … placed dots on their foreheads, pledging collectively to continue the fight for an independent state” (Narayan Swamy 1994: 253).

    The influence of cultural strands within Indian Hindu civilisation in encouraging suicide for political cause did not strike me till 1995. I literally stumbled upon this line of inquiry. I was in Delhi then collecting secondary data on “communal violence” in India. This included a study of newspaper material on the anti-Sikh pogrom after Mrs Indira Gandhi was killed. A little footnote to this atrocious episode caught my attention: when the news of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination reached Tamilnadu at least ten people attempted suicide or committed suicide, in some cases by self-immolation; and these actions were attributed locally to grief associated with her death (The Hindu, 3 Nov 1984). The numbers are small, but should be assessed against the absence of similar tales from the Hindi-speaking heartland.

    However miniscule the numbers, this unusual tale of suicide in empathetic political alignment (at least as interpreted locally) led me further. I found that when MGR suffered a paralytic stroke in October 1984 “at least twenty-two people immolated themselves and cut off their limbs, fingers or toes as offerings to various deities” who were propitiated to spare MGR; while more than a hundred people are said to have attempted self-immolation (Pandian 1992: 18). When he died on the 24th December 1987, at least 31 of “his desolate followers” are said to have been “unable to contain their grief” to the point where they committed suicide (Pandian 1992: 17). Others in the principal Tamilian city of Madras went on “an orgy of violence” in the main thoroughfare of Anna Salai. Several of them assaulted the statue of MGR’s archrival, M. Karunanidhi, with crowbars and placed burning tyres around its neck in a symbolic killing (Frontline, 9-22 Jan 1988, p 122). What is more, at these sites of violence exclamations of despair, essentialised expressions, were voiced by MGR’s followers: “With MGR dead what is the use of living” (India Today, 15 Jan 1988, pp. 25-26).

    Thus activated, I read Ramanujan’s translations and exegesis (1985) on the Cankam poetry, including the warrior themes in the Purananuru. The Cankam poetry of the period 100 BC to 250 BCE emerged from oral traditions and flowed back into it (surmise confirmed subsequently by K. Sivathamby in conversation). In an article published in India (1996), in what was a monumental leap of speculation, I suggested that these lines of inspiring poetry had linked up with the bhakti movement in southern India dating from the latter half of the first millennium BCE and had then been carried through into the modern era by both literary and popular modes of transmission.

    In my thesis one of the linking texts was the Periya Purānam, a kāvya for Sivā through the tale of 63 Tamil Saiva Nāyanārs (saints), a tale that pressed the value of participation in the object of one’s devotion. The absolute devotion of these saints inspired them to indulge in fierce acts in sacrificial mode against their own loved ones and against themselves. In brief, their “emotional intensity of anpu [love]” drove them “far beyond normal moral boundaries” to an “excess of blood and death;” and this excess pleased Siva because it embodied total devotion (Hudson 1990: 375).

    My article was immediately disparaged by Peter Schalk (1997b). Since then Dagmar Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s translation of some LTTE poetry in recent propaganda literature has indicated that both “Saivite symbolism” and motifs from the Purananuru feature within these evocative expressions (2005: espec. pp. 122-23, 126-30, 133, 139-400). Her conclusion is that three ideas run through the poetry and prose she has examined: “the hero as seed out of which new life springs…, the hero as history clothed in immortality, and the hero as victim who sacrifices himself to pay a debt …” (2005: 151).

    But before this article appeared I had returned to this topic as part of a series challenges directed against the highly instrumental/rational explanations of “suicide terrorism” that were being served up by in the academic circuit by several Western scholars, such as Robert Pape (Roberts 2005a, 2005b, & 2006a). Within the space of this short essay I can only provide brief and incomplete outlines of the work on the Indian and Saivite backdrop to what I call the “embodied practices” of sacrificial commitment among Tiger personnel.


                                                            *          *          *          *          *

Those familiar with ancient Indian history will be aware of the incidence of sati as well the practice among certain warrior lineages of fighter retainers and/or familial entourages committing mass suicide when their chief dies in battle. Way back in medieval times Indian Hindu practices spread to the Indonesian archipelago and secured deep roots within Bali in particular. When the Dutch imperial forces defeated the forces of Badung and reached the King of Badung’s palace, “the king, his wives, his children, and his entourage marched in a splendid mas suicide inot the direct fire of [the Dutch] guns…. Two years later, in 1908, this strange ritual was repeated in the most illustrious state of all, Klungklung: … the king and court again paraded… out of the palace into the reluctant fire of by now thoroughly bewildered Dutch troops” (Geertz 1980: 11).

    The instances of followers of chiefs committing mass suicide may have been episodic and few in ancient and medieval India; that is, one can hardly say that such devotional loyalty to a chieftain was widely generalised. But the point here is that it was valorised in both oral and literary traditions in some areas, notably in Rajputana and southern India (Cf. Jayabarathi n. d. & Sivaram 1992)..

   Throughout India, moreover, the heroic action of village chieftains was recognised by commemorating them with stone epitaphs known as natukal or vīragal, namely, “planted stones” or “hero stones,” which are considered part of a generic category referred to as hero stones (Settar & Sontheimer 1982; Rajam 2000). Such memorial stones were also planted for sannyāsi and women of sati. In all such cases the individuals were treated as special and thus buried, not cremated.

    In many localities such hero stones were invested with divine power: they became shrines where local people invoked a named deity. Southern India is replete with shrines and temples, both local and regional, which are dedicated to fierce deities, “divinities of blood and power” as Susan Bayly refers to them (1989: 27 ff).. In other words, we have here tales and embodied practices relating to the deification of human beings.

    When the cinema industry developed in the middle decades of the twentieth century, heroic figures from the past, such as Rājarāja Chōlan, Shivāji, Madurai Veeran and Kattabommān were among the central figures featuring in some films with MGR and Shivāji Ganēsan in lead roles. One such local hero, Madurai Veeran, developed into a “quintessential Tamil hero” (Shulman 1980: 355); while becoming, over time, a regional god in many parts of south India where he also serves as a male attendant and thus a guardian for “nearly all the village goddesses throughout Tamil country” (Whitehead 1921: 25, 114). Such deities are known generically as bhairavar and māvirar. Their (righteous) vengeance is widely regarded to be as bloody as devastating (Mines 2005: 129-35).

    Such avenging deities at the local level are in step with the character of such punishing higher deities as Kannaki and Draupadi. Likewise, the blood and gore associated with sacrifice (velvi) and punishment in Tamil Saivism is in keeping with the Hindu religion in general, a multi-stranded corpus that is founded on the proposition that “life is born out of darkness; Death himself is the Creator” (Shulman 1980: 42, also Bowker 1991: 157-58 & Mines 2005: 31).

    A fundamental principle within this religious schema is the idea of “creative destruction” and “creative sacrifice” – so that “the symbol of the new life produced from the sacrifice is the fiery seed” (Shulman 1980: 108 & 90-91). It is no surprise, therefore, that on one occasion Pirapāharan called forth a folk aphorism along these lines: “death is the breadth of life” (quoted in Schalk 2003: 396). 

                                                *          *          *          *          *

The traditions associated with nadukal (also written as nadugal) do not seem to have flourished in the Jaffna Peninsula in the last two centuries. The āgamic reforms pressed by Arumugam Navalar would have discouraged such forms of local practice. However, it is possible that some vestiges of this practice remained alive in the northern Vanni and Eastern Province. S. Visahan, for instance, has referred me to the Nacchiyar shrines in the Paranthan locality and their worship by his grandparents’ generation (personal communications). 


Col. Bork’s Nadukal venerated by LTTE official - courtesy of

Col. Bork’s Nadukal venerated by LTTE official - courtesy of




    Thus, it appears to have been radically innovative for the LTTE to import and implant this concept around the year 1989-1990 (Roberts 2005a, 2005b). This was an ideological innovation in support of a radical new practice for Saivite Tamils: namely, the burial of their deceased, in this instance Tiger fighters and personnel – where, previously, Saivite Tiger dead were cremated, while Christians and Muslim fighters were buried. When at some moment down the track an LTTE official (S. Elilan) garlanded the nadukal of Lt. Col. Bork (Mapanapillai Arasaratnam) — who was killed in a valiant effort to destroy the entrance to the Mankulam army camp on 23 November 1990 – at the Eachchankulam Maveerar Thuyilum Illam near Vavuniya (image in we have clear demonstration of this programme.

     As significantly, the LTTE dead are not usually called tiyaki or catci, but rather referred to as māvirar, literally “great heroes,” but often translated by the LTTE as “martyrs.” The first great ceremony for these māvirar was held on 27 November 1989, the anniversary of the first Tiger    fighter to die, viz., Shankar (alias Sathiyanathan). We are indebted to DBS Jeyeraj (2007) for the details on this meaningful event,

·        “Around six hundred LTTE cadres assembled at a secret venue in the Mullaitheevu district jungles of Nithikaikulam on November 27. The occasion was the newly proclaimed Great Heroes Day or Maaveerar Naal.”

·        “The LTTE leader was justifiably proud then of the performance of his organisation in having withstood the onslaught of 132,000 troops of the Indian army.”

·        “The first Great Heroes Day was a restricted affair of which the highlight was a highly emotional address delivered extemporaneously by Prabakharan to his enraptured followers.”

    Jeyaraj contends that “the Great Heroes Day observances provide [the LTTE] with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality.” It is in line with this orientation for these burial sites to be depicted by the LTTE as tuyilam illam (literally “resting places”). Staunch Saivites who visit these sites do not necessarily have to cleanse themselves with a bath in contrast with their visits to polluted cemeteries. These tuyilam illam, therefore, are regarded as “holy places” and “temples” (, 27 November 1998, and Natali 2008: 297-99).

     In brief, in this manner the tuyilam illam imprint a sacred topography within the lands controlled by the LTTE. 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). In inspiring and animating their struggle for cutantiram in this manner the LTTE has synthesized the principle of utility with that of cosmic power.  


Tuyilam Illam at Vadamaradchchi, November 2004 - Picture by Michael Roberts

Tuyilam Illam at Vadamaradchchi, November 2004 - Picture by Michael Roberts




Māvīrar Nāl, 2004 - Sent by Tamil friend, no details

Māvīrar Nāl, 2004 - Sent by Tamil friend, no details





    Bayly, Susan 1989 Saints, Goddesses and Kings. Muslims and Christians in south Indian society,

         1700-1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bowker, John 1991 The Meaning of Death, Cambridge University Press.

Geertz, Clifford 1980 Negara. The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali, Princeton University Press.

Hellman-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 2005 “ ‘And Heroes Die’: “Poetry of the Tamil Liberation   

     Movement in Northern Sri Lanka,” South Asia 28: 112-53.

Hudson, Dennis 1990 “Violent and Fanatical Devotion among the Nayanars: A Study in the Periya

     Purānam of Cēkkilār,” in Alf Hiltebeitel (ed.) Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees, Dehi:

     Manohar, pp. 375-405.

Jayabarathi, S. “Self-sacrifice or Navakantam,”


Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2006 “No public speech ceremony for LTTE Chief this year?”

    26 November 2006    in

     Mines, Diane 2005 Fierce Gods. Inequality, Ritual and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian

         Village, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. 1994 Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd.

Natali, Christiana 2008 “Building Cemeteries, Constructing Identities: Funerary Practices and

   Nationalist Discourse among the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka,” Contemporary South Asia 16: 287-301.

Pandian, M. S. S. 1992 The Image Trap, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Rajam, K. 2000 South Indian Memorial Stones, Thanjavur: Manoo Pathikam.

Roberts, Michael 2005a “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28: 493-514.

Roberts, Michael 2005b “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis   

     49:  67-93.             

Roberts, Michael 2006 “Pragmatic Action and Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2009a “Suicidal Political Action I: Soundings,” http://www.transcurrents.

    com &

Roberts, Michael 2009b “Suicidal Political Action II: Ponnudurai Sivakumāran,” http://www. &

Sangarasivam, Yamuna 2000 “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Cultural Production  

       of Nationalism and Violence,” Syracuse University: Ph.D dissertation.

Schalk, Peter 1997a “Resistance and Martyrdom in the Process of State Formation of Tamililam,” in Joyce Pettigrew (ed.) Martyrdom and Political Resistance, Amsterdam: VU University Press pp. 61-84.

Schalk, Peter 2003 “Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Europe,” in Martin Baumann et al. eds.) Tempel

      (und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat, Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.

    Settar, S. & G. D. Sontheimer (eds.) 1982 Memorial Stones, Dharwad: Institute of Indian Art History.    

    Shulman, David 1980 Tamil Temple Myths. Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva

         Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sivaram, D. 1992 “Tamil Militarism,” Lanka Guardian, 1 May 1992 et seq. in 11 parts.

    Whitehead, Henry 1921 [rep. 1981] The Village Gods of South India, 2nd edn, New Delhi, Cosmo


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