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Tamil people

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(top row, left to right): Chandrasekhar • Subbulakshmi • Ramanujan • Rajaratnam
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 India 60,793,814 (2001)
 Sri Lanka 3,092,676 (2001)
 Malaysia 1,060,000 (1993)
 Canada 200,000 (2007)
 South Africa 250,000
 Singapore 111,000 (1993)



Predominantly Hinduism; minorities are Christianity, Islam and a small number of Jainism.

Related ethnic groups

Dravidian people · Brahui people · Kannadigas · Malayalis · Tamils · Telugus · Tuluvas · Gonds · Giraavarus

Tamil people (also called Tamils or Tamilians) refer to the collection of peoples from the Indian subcontinent who natively speak the Tamil language, with a recorded history going back two millennia. The oldest Tamil communities are those of southern India and north-eastern Sri Lanka. There are also a number of Tamil emigrant communities scattered around the world, especially in central Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Africa, Singapore and Mauritius with more recent emigrants found in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States, and Europe. There are an estimated 77 million Tamils around the world.

The art and architecture of the Tamil people encompass some of the greatest contributions of India to the art world. The music, the temple architecture and the stylised sculptures favoured by the Tamil people are still being learnt and practiced. The classical language of Tamil, one of the oldest languages in India, has the oldest extant literature amongst other Dravidian languages.

Unlike many ethnic groups, Tamils were not governed by a single political entity during most of their history; Tamilakam, the traditional name for the Tamil lands, was politically united for only a brief period, between the 9th and 12th centuries, under the Chola Empire. The Tamil identity is primarily linguistic, although in recent times the definition has been broadened to include emigrants of Tamil descent who maintain Tamil cultural traditions, even if they no longer regularly speak the language.


Pre-historic period

The Great Temple at Thanjavur built by Rajaraja Chola I

The origins of the Tamil people, like those of the other Dravidian peoples, are unknown, although genetic and archaeological evidence suggests a possible migration into India around 6000 BC. The earliest clear evidence of the presence of the Tamil people in modern Tamil Nadu are the megalithic urn burials, dating from around 1000 BC and onwards, which have been discovered at various locations in Tamil Nadu, notably in Adichanallur. These burials conform to the descriptions of funerals in classical Tamil literature in a number of details, and appear to be concrete evidence of the existence of Tamils in southern India during that period. In modern times, ancient Tamil literature like Sangam poetry and epics like Silappatikaram have been interpreted as making references to a lost land known as Kumari Kandam.

An Indian linguist, Bhadriraju Krishnamurthy argues that Dravidian language speakers did not enter the subcontinent from outside based on the fact that most archaic features of Dravidian in phonology and morphology are still found in the southern languages such as Tamil and as such Dravidian language is native to the Indian subcontinent.

Classical period

Although it is unknown as to whether the term Tamilar and its equivalents in Prakrit such as Damela, Dameda, Dhamila and Damila was self designation or a term denoted by outsiders, epigraphic evidence of an ethnic group termed as such is found in Amaravati in present day Andhra Pradesh referring to a Dhamila-vaniya (Tamil trader) datable to the third century BC. Another inscription of about the same time in Nagarjunakonda seems to refer to a Damila. A third inscription in Kanheri refers to a Dhamila-gharini. In the well-known Hathigumpha inscription of the Kalinga ruler Kharavela refers to a Tramira samghata (Confederacy of Tamil rulers) dated to the first century BC. In ancient Sri Lanka too number of inscriptions have come to light datable from third to first century BC mentioning Damela or Dameda persons. In the Buddhist Jataka story known as Akiti Jataka there is a mention to Damila-rattha (Tamil country). Hence it is clear by at least the third century BC the ethnic identify of Tamils has been formed as distinct group.

From around the third century BC onwards, three royal dynasties—the Cholas, the Cheras and the Pandyas—rose to dominate the ancient Tamil country. Each of these dynasties had its own realm within the Tamil-speaking region. Classical literature and inscriptions also describe a number of Velirs, or minor chieftains, who collectively ruled over large parts of central Tamil Nadu. Wars between the kings and the chieftains were frequent, as were conflicts with ancient Sri Lanka. These wars appear to have been fought to assert hegemony and demand tribute, rather than to subjugate and annex those territories. The kings and chieftains were patrons of the arts, and a significant volume of literature exists from this period. The literature shows that many of the cultural practices that are considered peculiarly Tamil date back to the classical period.

Agriculture was important during this period, and there is evidence that irrigation networks were built as early as 2nd century AD. Internal and external trade flourished, and evidence exists of significant contact with Ancient Rome. Large quantities of Roman coins and signs of the presence of Roman traders have been discovered at Karur and Arikamedu. There is also evidence that at least two embassies were sent to the Roman Emperor Augustus by Pandya kings. Potsherds with Tamil writing have also been found in excavations on the Red Sea, suggesting the presence of Tamil merchants there. An anonymous first century traveler's account written in Greek, Periplus Maris Erytraei, describes the ports of the Pandya and Chera kingdoms and their commercial activity in great detail. Periplus also indicates that the chief exports of the ancient Tamils were pepper, malabathrum, pearls, ivory, silk, spikenard, diamonds, sapphires, and tortoiseshell.

The classical period ended around the fourth century AD with invasions by the Kalabhra, referred to as the kalappirar in Tamil literature and inscriptions. These invaders are described as evil kings and barbarians coming from lands to the north of the Tamil country. This period, commonly referred to as the Dark Age of the Tamil country, ended with the rise of the Pallava dynasty.

Imperial and post-imperial periods

Detail from a temple in Chidambaram. The Tamil kings were patrons of the arts, and built many ornate temples.

Although the Pallava records can be traced from the second century AD, they did not rise to prominence as an imperial dynasty until the sixth century. The dynasty does not appear to have been Tamil in origin, although they rapidly adopted the local culture and the Tamil language. The Pallavas sought to model themselves after great northern dynasties such as the Mauryas and Guptas. They therefore transformed the institution of the kingship into an imperial one, and sought to bring vast amounts of territory under their direct rule. The Pallavas were initially followers of the Brahmanical tradition (Hinduism),for a short while,one of their kings embraced Jainism but later converted to Hinduism(Source- K.A.Nilakanta Sastri's "History of South India"). They encouraged the Bhakti movement, which had risen to counter the growing influence of Jainism and Buddhism. The Pallavas pioneered the building of large, ornate temples in stone which formed the basis of the Dravidian temple architecture.

The Pallava dynasty was overthrown in the 9th century by the resurgent Cholas. The Cholas become dominant in the 10th century and established an empire covering most of southern India and Sri Lanka. The empire had strong trading links with China and Southeast Asia. The Cholas' navy conquered the South Asian kingdom of Sri Vijaya in Sumatra and continued as far as Thailand and Burma. Chola power declined in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the Pandya dynasty enjoyed a brief period of resurgence thereafter during the rule of Sundara Pandya. However, repeated Muslim invasions from the 15th century onwards placed a huge strain on the empire's resources, and the dynasty came to an end in the 16th century.

A young Tamil girl wearing rich gold ornaments. Source:The National Geographic Magazine, April 1907

The western Tamil lands became increasingly politically distinct from the rest of the Tamil lands after the Chola and Pandya empires lost control over them in the 13th century. They developed their own distinct language and literature, which increasingly grew apart from Tamil, evolving into the modern Malayalam language by the 15th century.

The remains of a palace of Ettappan, a Nayak who ruled Ettayapuram.

No major empires arose thereafter, and parts of Tamil Nadu were for a while ruled by a number of different local chiefs, such as the Nayaks of the modern Maharashtra (see Serfoji II) and Andhra Pradesh regions. From the 17th century onwards, European powers began establishing settlements and trading outposts in the region. A number of battles were fought between the British, French and Danish in the 18th century, and by the end of the 18th century most of Tamil Nadu was under British rule.

Tamils in Sri Lanka

The Koneswaram Hindu Temple in Trincomalee in Sri Lanka that was mentioned in Saiva literature circa 700 CE by Thirugnana Sambanthar

There is little consensus on the history of the Tamil-speaking parts of Sri Lanka prior to the Chola period. Some Sinhala historians argue that there was no organised Tamil presence in Sri Lanka until the invasions from southern India in the 10th century, whereas many Tamil historians contend that Tamils are the original inhabitants of the island. A theory by historian K. Indrapala concludes that the Sinhalese and Tamil languages were spread due to cultural diffusion from peninsular India into an already existing Mesolithic population with minimal population transfer by the activities of traders and others in centuries BCE.

The historical record does establish that the Tamil kingdoms of India were closely involved in Sri Lankan affairs from about the 2nd century BCE. There is epigraphic evidence of traders and others self identifying as Damelas (or Damedas) in Anuradhapura and other areas of Sri Lanka as early as 2nd century BCE. According to the primary source Mahavamsa, ethnic Tamil adventurers such as Elara invaded the island as far back as 200 BCE. South Indian soldiers were brought to Anuradhapura in ever larger numbers in the seventh, eight, ninth and tenth centuries leading to number of rulers relying on their help to consolidate and rule. There was also large scale mercantile activity from peninsular India primarily from the Coromandel Coast. By the eighth century there were epigraphic evidence of Tamil Villages collectively known as Demel-kaballa (Tamil allotment), Demelat-valademin (Tamil villages), Demel-gam-bim (Tamil villages and lands). In the 10th century Pandya and Chola wars against Sri Lanka culminated in the Chola annexation of the island, which lasted until the latter half of the eleventh century.

The decline of Chola power in Sri Lanka was followed by the re-establishment of the Polonnaruwa monarchy in the late eleventh century. In 1215, following Pandya invasions the Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty established an independent Jaffna kingdom in the Jaffna peninsula and parts of northern Sri Lanka. The Arya Chakaravarthi expansion into the south was halted by Alagakkonara, a man from a family of merchants from Kanchipuram in present day Tamil Nadu, who had become the chief minister of the Sinhalese king Parakramabahu V (1344–1359). Alagakkonara built a fortress at Kotte, and held the Arya Chakravarthi army there while he defeated the invading fleet at Panadura, southwest of Kotte. A descendant of Alagakkonara, Vira Alakeshwara later became King of the Sinhalese, but this line was deposed by the Ming admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) in 1409. The Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty ruled over large parts of northeast Sri Lanka until 1619, when it was conquered by the Portuguese. The coastal areas of the island was then taken by the Dutch, and in 1796 these became part of the British Empire.

Modern period

A colonial-era photograph of a Tamil couple.

British colonists consolidated the Tamil territory in southern India into the Madras Presidency, which was integrated into British India. Similarly, the Tamil parts of Sri Lanka joined with the other regions of the island in 1802 to form the Ceylon colony. They remained in political union with India and Sri Lanka after their independence, in 1947 and 1948 respectively.

When India became independent in 1947, Madras Presidency became the Madras State, comprised of present-day Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra Pradesh, northern Kerala, and the southwest coast of Karnataka. The state was subsequently split along linguistic lines. In 1953, the northern districts formed Andhra Pradesh. Under the States Reorganization Act in 1956, Madras State lost its western coastal districts. The Bellary and South Kanara districts were ceded to Mysore state, and Kerala was formed from the Malabar district and the former princely states of Travancore and Cochin. In 1968, Madras State was renamed Tamil Nadu.

There was some initial demand for an independent Tamil state following the adoption of the federal system. However, the Indian constitution granted significant autonomy to the states, and protests by Tamils in 1963 led to the government adopting a new policy called the "three language formula". This has led to Tamils in India becoming increasingly satisfied with the federal arrangement, and there is very little support for secession or independence today.

In Sri Lanka, however, the unitary arrangement led to a growing belief among some Tamils of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority. This resulted in a demand for federalism, which in the 1970s grew into a movement for an autonomous Tamil country. The situation deteriorated into civil war in the early 1980s. A ceasefire in effect since 2002 broke down in August 2006 amid shelling and bombing from both sides. Today Tamils make up 18% of Sri Lankas population.

Geographic distribution

Indian Tamils

Most Indian Tamils live in the state of Tamil Nadu. Tamils are the majority in the union territory of Pondicherry, a former French colony. Pondicherry is a subnational enclave situated within Tamil Nadu. There are also Tamil communities in other parts of India. Most of these have emerged fairly recently, dating to the colonial and post-colonial periods, but some—particularly the Hebbar and Mandyam Tamils of southern Karnataka, the Tamils of Palakkad in Kerala, and the Tamils of Pune, Maharashtra—date back to at least the medieval period.

Sri Lankan Tamils

Hill Country Tamil women working on a tea plantation in upcountry Sri Lanka.

There are today two groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The first are the Sri Lankan Tamils, who either descend from the Tamils of the old Jaffna kingdom or who migrated to the East coast. The second are the Indian Tamils or Hill Country Tamils, who are descendants of bonded labourers sent from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in the 19th century to work in tea plantations. Ceylon Tamils mostly live in the Northern and Eastern provinces and in the capital of Colombo, whereas hill-country Tamils largely live in the central highlands. The Hill Country Tamils and Ceylon Tamils historically have seen themselves as separate communities. In 1949, the United National Party Government, which included G. G. Ponnambalam, a leader of the Tamil Congress and of the Sri Lankan Tamils, stripped the Indian Tamils of their nationality, including their right to vote. Prominent Tamil political leaders such as S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and his Tamil opposition party opposed this move.

Under an agreement between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments in the 1960s, around 40% of Hill Country Tamils were granted Sri Lankan nationality, and many of the remainder were repatriated to India. However, the ethnic conflict has led to the growth of a greater sense of common Tamil identity, and the two groups are now more supportive of each other. By the 1990s most Indian Tamils had received Sri Lankan citizenship.

There is also a significant Tamil-speaking Muslim population in Sri Lanka. Unlike Tamil Muslims from India, however, they do not identify themselves as ethnic Tamils and are therefore usually listed as a separate ethnic group in official statistics.

Tamil emigrant communities

Significant Tamil emigration began in the 18th century, when the British colonial government sent many poor Tamils as indentured labourers to far-off parts of the Empire, especially Malaya, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and the Caribbean. At about the same time, many Tamil businessmen also immigrated to other parts of the British Empire, particularly to Burma and East Africa. Many Tamils still live in these countries, and the Tamil communities in Singapore, Reunion Island, Malaysia and South Africa have retained much of their culture and language. Many Malaysian children attend Tamil schools, and a significant portion of Tamil children in Mauritius and Reunion are brought up with Tamil as their first language. In Singapore, Tamil students learn Tamil as their second language in school, with English as the first. To preserve the Tamil language, the Singapore government has made it a national language despite Tamils comprising only about 10% of the population, and has also introduced compulsory instruction of the language for Tamils. Other Tamil communities, such as those in South Africa and Fiji, no longer speak Tamil as a first language, but still retain a strong Tamil identity, and are able to understand the language, while most elders speak it as a first language.

A large emigration also began in the 1980s, as Sri Lankan Tamils sought to escape the ethnic conflict there. These recent emigrants have most often fled to Australia, Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. Today, the largest concentration of Tamils outside southern Asia is in Toronto, Canada.

Many young Tamil professionals from India have also immigrated to Europe and the United States in recent times in search of better opportunities. These new immigrant communities have established cultural associations to protect and promote Tamil culture and language in their adopted homes.


Tamil culture is supposed to be one of the ancient and most rich culture in India. The people value their culture and tradition, but are highly tolerant and respect other culture. Tamil people are considered to be highly civilised. They like talking about the rich tradition and glory of their past, but do not forget the future. The traditional costume of Tamil people is Pudavai [saree] for women, Paavaadai dhaavani [half-saree] for young women, and long skirt and blouse for girls. Men adore themselves with "pattu vaetti" and chattai [shirt]. But with modernisation, men wear trousers and shirt, while women wear a wide variety of garments like chudidhar, skirts, jeans and t-shirts. In spite of modernisation that is spread all over India, there is little loss culture among Tamil women, for even when they go abroad they do not get carried easily away by the whims and fancies of modern western world, at least with their dress codes.

Language and literature

An idol in Madurai representing the Tamil language as a goddess; The caption on the pedestal reads Tamil Annai ("Mother Tamil").

Tamils have strong feelings towards the Tamil language, which is often venerated in literature as "Tamil̲an̲n̲ai", "the Tamil mother". It has historically been, and to large extent still is, central to the Tamil identity. Like the other languages of South India, it is a Dravidian language, unrelated to the Indo-European languages of northern India. The language has been far less influenced by Sanskrit than the other Dravidian languages, and preserves many features of Proto-Dravidian, though modern-day spoken Tamil in Tamil Nadu, freely uses loanwords from Sanskrit and English. Tamil literature is of considerable antiquity, and was recognised as a classical language by the government of India.

Classical Tamil literature, which ranges from lyric poetry to works on poetics and ethical philosophy, is remarkably different from contemporary and later literature in other Indian languages, and represents the oldest body of secular literature in South Asia. Notable works in classical Tamil literature include the Tirukkural, by Tiruvalluvar, the five great Tamil epics, and the works of Auvaiyar.

Modern Tamil literature is diverse. It includes Indian Nationalism, in the works of Subramanya Bharathi; historical romanticism, by Kalki Krishnamurthy; radical and moderate social realism, by Pudhumaipithan and Jayakanthan; and feminism, by Malathi Maithri and Kutti Revathi. Sujatha, an author whose works range from romance novels to science fiction, is one of the most popular modern writers in Tamil. Sri Lankan Tamil literature has produced several works reflecting the civilian tragedy caused by decades of war. There is also an emerging diaspora literature in Tamil.

There are a number of regional dialects in use by the Tamil people. These dialects vary among regions and communities. Tamil dialects are mainly differentiated by the disparate phonological changes and sound shifts that have evolved from Old Tamil. Although most Tamil dialects do not differ significantly in their vocabulary, there are a few exceptions. The dialects spoken in Sri Lanka retain many words that are not in everyday use in India, and use many other words slightly differently. The dialect of the Iyers of Palakkad has a large number of Malayalam loanwords, has been influenced by Malayalam syntax, and has a distinct Malayalam accent. The Sankethi, Hebbar, and Mandyam dialects, the former spoken by groups of Tamil Iyers, and the latter two by Vaishnavites who migrated to Karnataka in the 11th century, retains many Vaishnavite religious and spiritual values. The Tamil spoken in Chennai infuses English words, and is called Madras Bashai (Madras language).

Visual art and architecture

Most traditional Tamil art is religious in some form and usually centres on Hinduism, although the religious element is often only a means to represent universal—and, occasionally, humanist—themes.

The most important form of Tamil painting is Tanjore painting, which originated in Thanjavur in the ninth century. The painting's base is made of cloth and coated with zinc oxide, over which the image is painted using dyes; it is then decorated with semi-precious stones, as well as silver or gold thread. A style which is related in origin, but which exhibits significant differences in execution, is used for painting murals on temple walls; the most notable example are the murals on the Kutal Azhakar and Meenakshi temples of Madurai, the Brihadishwara temple of Tanjore. Tamil art, in general, is known for its stylistic elegance, rich colours, and attention to small details.

A gopuram of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai.

Tamil sculpture ranges from elegant stone sculptures in temples, to bronze icons with exquisite details. The medieval Chola bronzes are considered to be one of India's greatest contributions to the world art. Unlike most Western art, the material in Tamil sculpture does not influence the form taken by the sculpture; instead, the artist imposes his/her vision of the form on the material. As a result, one often sees in stone sculptures flowing forms that are usually reserved for metal. As with painting, these sculptures show a fine eye for detail; great care is taken in sculpting the minute details of jewellery, worn by the subjects of the sculpture. The lines tend to be smooth and flowing, and many pieces skillfully capture movement. The cave sculptures at Mamallapuram are a particularly fine example of the technique, as are the bronzes of the Chola period. A particularly popular motif in the bronzes was the depiction of Shiva as Nataraja, in a dance posture with one leg upraised, and a fiery circular halo surrounding his body.

An inside view of a traditional Tamil house

Tamil temples were often simply treated as sculptures on a grand scale. The temples are most notable for their high spires, known as Gopura, consisting of a number of stepped levels, and the vimanam, which rises above the sanctum sanctorum. During the Chola period, the vimanams had more prominence, as seen in the Brihadīsvara temple of Thanjavur. During the Nayak period, the spires became progressively more elaborate and ornate, as exemplified by the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, while the vimanam became much smaller. From the 13th century onwards, the entrance gates to the temples, called gopurams in Tamil, also began to grow bigger, and more elaborate. The temples at Chidambaram and Srirangam have particularly impressive gopurams, covered with sculptures and reliefs of various scenes and characters from Hindu mythology.

As with Indian art in general, Tamil art does not traditionally aspire to portraiture or realism. Much more emphasis is placed on the representation of ideal prototypes, and on depicting the symbols with which the theme of the artistic work is associated. This means that small details, such as the direction which a hand faces, the animals or trees portrayed, or the time of day depicted, are often of critical importance to understanding the meaning of a work of art.

Performing arts

The traditional Tamil performing arts have ancient roots. The royal courts and temples have been centres for the performing arts since the classical period, and possibly earlier. Descriptions of performances in classical Tamil literature and the Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts, indicate a close relationship between the ancient and modern artforms. The aim of a performance in Tamil tradition, is to bring out the rasa, the flavor, mood, or feeling, inherent in the text, and its quality is measured by the extent to which it induces the mood in the audience.

Tamil folk artists presenting a Villuppattu near Tirunelveli during a festival (panguni uththiram) at an Ayyanar temple.
Folk artists performing at a funeral Video clip  — Watch in browser ( media help)

Tamil shares a classical musical tradition, called carnatic music, with the rest of South India. It is primarily oriented towards vocal music, with instruments functioning either as accompaniments, or as imitations of the singer's role. Ancient Tamil works, such as the Cilappatikaram, describe a system of music that includes old Carnatic modes, and a seventh-century Pallava inscription at Kudimiyamalai contains one of the earliest surviving examples of Indian music in notation. Modern Carnatic music is organized around the twin notions of melody types (rāgam), and cyclical rhythm types (thāḷam). Unlike the northern Hindustani music tradition, carnatic music is almost exclusively religious. In sharp contrast with the restrained and intellectual nature of carnatic music, Tamil folk music tends to be much more exuberant. Popular forms of Tamil folk music include the Villuppattu, a form of music performed with a bow, and the Naattupurapaattu, ballads that convey folklore and folk history.

The dominant classical dance amongst Tamils is Bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam is performative, rather than participative. The dance is an exposition of the story contained in a song, and is usually performed by one performer on stage, with an orchestra of drums, a drone, and one or more singers backstage. The story is told through a complicated combination of mudras (hand gestures), facial expressions, and body postures. Dancers used to be exclusively female, but the dance now also has several well-known male practitioners.

The most notable of Tamil folk dances is karakattam. In its religious form, the dance is performed in front of an image of the goddess Mariamma. The dancer bears, on his or her head, a brass pot filled with uncooked rice, decorated with flowers and surrounded by a bamboo frame, and tumbles and leaps to the rhythm of a song without spilling a grain. Karakāṭṭam is usually performed to a special type of song, known as temmanguppattu, a folk song in the mode of a lover speaking to his beloved, to the accompaniment of a nadaswaram and melam. Other Tamil folk dances include mayilattam, where the dancers tie a string of peacock feathers around their waists; oyilattam, danced in a circle while waving small pieces of cloth of various colors; poykkal kuthiraiyaattam, in which the dancers use dummy horses; manaattam, in which the dancers imitate the graceful leaping of deer; paraiyattam, a dance to the sound of rhythmical drumbeats; and thippanthattam, a dance involving playing with burning torches. The kuravanci is a type of dance-drama, performed by four to eight women. The drama is opened by a woman playing the part of a female soothsayer of a wandering kurava tribe, who tells the story of a lady pining for her lover.

The therukoothu, literally meaning "street play", is a form of village theatre or folk opera. It is traditionally performed in village squares, with no sets and very simple props. The performances involve songs and dances, and the stories can be either religious or secular. The performances are not formal, and performers often interact with the audience, mocking them, or involving them in the dialogue. Therukkūthu has, in recent times, been very successfully adapted to convey social messages, such as abstinence and anti-caste criticism, as well as information about legal rights, and has spread to other parts of India.

The village of Melattur, in Tamil Nadu, has a special type of performance, called the bhagavata- mela, in honour of the local deity, which is performed once a year, and lasts all night. Tamil Nadu also has a well developed stage theatre tradition, which has been heavily influenced by western theatre. A number of theatrical companies exist, with repertoires including absurdist, realist, and humorous plays.

Both classical and folk performing arts survive in modern Tamil society. Tamil people in Tamil Nadu are also passionate about films. The Tamil film industry, commonly dubbed Kollywood, is the second-largest film industry in India. Tamil cinema is appreciated both for its technical accomplishments, and for its artistic and entertainment value. The overwhelming majority of Tamil films contain song and dance sequences, and Tamil film music is a popular genre in its own right, often liberally fusing elements of carnatic, Tamil folk, North Indian styles, hip-hop, and heavy metal. Famous music directors of the late 20th century included M. S. Viswanathan, Ilayaraaja, and A. R. Rahman.


About 90% of the population of Tamil Nadu are Hindu. Christians and Muslims account for 5% each. Most of the Christians are Roman Catholics. Among muslims, two-thirds of them speak Tamil and identify themself as Tamil muslims. Rest of them speak Urdu, who settled in Tamil Nadu during Nawab's rule. Tamil Jains number only a few thousand now. Tamil Hinduism, like other regional varieties of Hinduism, has many peculiarities. The most popular deity is Murugan, who is same as Karthikeya, the son of Siva, but who may in origin have been a different deity, and has taken on a distinctly local character. The worship of Amman, also called Mariamman, thought to have been derived from an ancient mother goddess, also is very common. Kan̲n̲agi, the heroine of the Cilappatikār̲am, is worshipped as Paṭṭin̲i by many Tamils, particularly in Sri Lanka. There are also many followers of Ayyavazhi in Tamil Nadu, mainly in the southern districts. In addition, there are many temples and devotees of Vishnu, Siva, Ganapathi, and the other common Hindu deities.

The most important Tamil festivals are Pongal, a harvest festival that occurs in mid-January, and Varudapirappu, the Tamil New Year, which occurs around mid-April. Both are celebrated by almost all Tamils, regardless of religion. The Hindu festival Deepavali is celebrated with fanfare; other local Hindu festivals include Thaipusam, Panguni Uttiram, and Adiperukku. While Adiperukku is celebrated with more pomp in the Cauvery region than in others, the Ayyavazhi Festival, Ayya Vaikunda Avataram, is predominantly celebrated in the southern districts of Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli, and Thoothukudi.

Local deities Vandimalaisaami and Vandimalaichchiamman in Ettayapuram

In rural Tamil Nadu, many local deities, called aiyyan̲ārs, are thought to be the spirits of local heroes who protect the village from harm. Their worship often centers around nadukkal, stones erected in memory of heroes who died in battle. This form of worship is mentioned frequently in classical literature and appears to be the surviving remnants of an ancient Tamil tradition.

Saivism is particularly strong, although most of its bases are in the North. The Alvars and Nayanars, who were predominantly Tamils, played a key role in the renaissance of Bhakti tradition in South India. In the 10th century, the philosopher Ramanuja, who propagated the theory of Visishtadvaitam, brought many changes to worshiping practices, creating new regulations on temple worship, and accepted lower-caste Hindus as his prime disciples.

Christianity is believed to have come to Tamil Nadu with the arrival of St. Thomas the apostle, but the number of Tamil Christians grew during the colonial period. Many Tamils are Catholic, Protestant, and Syrian Orthodox. Tamil muslims are mostly either mainstream Sunni or can also be Sufi.


Tamil cuisine is one of the oldest vegetarian culinary heritages in the world. Rice, the major staple food in most of Tamil, is usually steamed and served with about two to six accompanying items, which typically include sambar, dry curry, rasam, kootu, and thayir ( curd) or moru ( whey or buttermilk).

Tiffin or Light meals usually include one or more of Pongal, Dosai, idli, Vadai along with sambar and Chutney is often served as either breakfast or as an evening snack. Ghee Clarified butter called neyyi in Tamil, is used to flavor the rice when eaten with dhal or sambar, but not with curds or buttermilk. Morkulambu, a dish which can be spiced with moru, is also popular with steamed rice.

Each geographical area where Tamils live has developed its own distinct variant of the common dishes plus a few dishes distinctly native to itself. The Chettinad region, comprising of Karaikudi and adjoining areas, is known for both traditional vegetarian dishes, like appam, uthappam, paal paniyaram, and non-vegetarian dishes, made primarily using chicken.

Martial arts

Various martial arts including Kuttu Varisai, Varma Kalai, Silambam Nillaikalakki, Maankombukkalai (Madhu) and Kalarippayattu, are practised in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The weapons used include Silambam, Maankombukkalai, Yeratthai Mulangkol (double stick), Surul Pattai (spring sword), Val Vitchi (single sword), and Yeretthai Val (double sword).

The ancient Tamil art of unarmed bullfighting, popular amongst warriors in the classical period, has also survived in parts of Tamil Nadu, notably Alanganallur near Madurai, where it is known as Jallikaṭṭu or mañcuviraṭṭu and is held once a year around the time of the Pongal festival.


The global spread of the Tamil diaspora has hindered the formation of formal pan-Tamil institutions. The most important national institutions for Tamils have been the governments of the states where they live, particularly the government of Tamil Nadu and the government of Sri Lanka, which have collaborated in developing technical and scientific terminology in Tamil and promoting its use since the 1950s.

Politics in Tamil Nadu is dominated by the Self-respect movement (also called the Dravidian movement), founded by E.V. Ramasami, popularly known as Periyar, to promote self-respect and rationalism, and to fight casteism and the oppression of the lowest castes. Every major political party in Tamil Nadu bases its ideology on the Self-respect Movement, and the national political parties play a very small role in Tamil politics.

The Tamil flag adopted by the World Tamil Confederation to represent Tamil people everywhere.

In Sri Lanka, Tamil politics was dominated by the federalist movements, led by the Federal Party (later the Tamil United Liberation Front), until the early 1980s. In the 1980s, the political movement was largely succeeded by a violent military campaign conducted by several militant groups. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which emerged as the most important force amongst these groups in the 1990s, controls portions of northern Sri Lanka, and has attempted to establish its own government there, which it calls the government of Tamil Eelam.

In the 1960s, the government of Tamil Nadu held a World Tamil Conference, which has continued to meet periodically since then. In 1999, a World Tamil Confederation was established to protect and foster Tamil culture and further a sense of togetherness amongst Tamils in different countries. The Confederation has since adopted a Tamil flag and Tamil song to act as trans-national symbols for the Tamil people; the words on the flag quote the opening line of a poem by the classical poet Kanian Poongundranaar, and means "Everyone is our kin; Everyplace is our home".

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