Total population
c.75.8 million[1]
Regions with significant populations
 India 60,700,000 (2001)[1]
 Sri Lanka 3,113,247 (2012)[2]
 Malaysia 1,800,000[1]


for others see Tamil diaspora



Related ethnic groups
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The Tamil people (Tamil: தமிழர், tamiẓar (singular) ? [t̪ɐmɪɻɐɾ], or Tamil: தமிழர்கள், tamiẓarkaḷ (plural) ? [t̪ɐmɪɻɐɾxɐɭ]), also known as Tamilians,[5][6][7] Tamilans,[8][9][10] or simply Tamils, are an ethnic group who speak Tamil as their mother tongue and trace their ancestry to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Union territory of Puducherry, or the Northern, Eastern Province and Puttalam District[11] of Sri Lanka.[12] Tamil people with a population of about 77 million living around the world are one of the largest and oldest of the existing ethno-linguistic cultural groups of people in the modern world.[13] Tamils comprise 24.87%[note 1] of the population in Sri Lanka, 5.91% in India, 10.83% in Mauritius, 5% in Singapore and 5.7% in Malaysia.

From the 3rd century BCE onward, urbanisation and mercantile activity along the western and eastern coasts of what is today Kerala and Tamil Nadu led to the development of four large Tamil political states, Chera dynasty, Chola dynasty, Pandyan Dynasty and Pallava dynasty and a number of smaller states warring amongst themselves for dominance.

Among languages spoken today, the Tamil language is the oldest written language among world's languages.[20] Between the 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century AD, Tamil people produced native literature that came to be called Sangam literature.

Tamils were noted for their martial, religious and mercantile activities beyond their native borders. Pandyas and Cholas were historically active in Sri Lanka. The Chola dynasty successfully invaded parts of Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Southern Thailand and Indonesia.[21] Medieval Tamil guilds and trading organizations like the "Ayyavole and Manigramam" played an important role in the Southeast Asia trade.[22] Pallava traders and religious leaders travelled to Southeast Asia and played an important role in the cultural Indianisation of the region. Locally developed scripts such as Grantha and Pallava script induced the development of many native scripts such as Khmer, Javanese Kawi script, Baybayin and Thai.

Tamil visual art is dominated by stylised Temple architecture in major centres and the productions of images of deities in stone and bronze. Chola bronzes, especially the Nataraja sculpture of the Chola period, have become notable as a symbol of Hinduism. Tamil performing arts are divided into popular and classical. Classical form is Bharatanatyam, whereas the popular forms are known as Koothu and performed in village temples and on street corners. Tamil cinema, known as Kollywood, is an important part of the Indian cinema industry. Music too is divided into classical Carnatic form and many popular genres.

Although most Tamils are Hindus, most practice what is considered to be folk Hinduism, venerating a plethora of village deities. A sizeable number are Christians and Muslims. A small Jain community survives from the classical period as well. Tamil cuisine is informed by varied vegetarian and non-vegetarian items usually spiced with locally available spices. The music, the temple architecture and the stylised sculptures favoured by the Tamil people as in their ancient nation are still being learnt and practised. English historian and broadcaster Michael Wood called the Tamils the last surviving classical civilisation on Earth, because the Tamil mainstream preserved substantial elements of their past regarding belief, culture, music and literature despite the modern globalised world.[23][24]


It is unknown as to whether the term Thamizhar and its equivalents in Prakrit such as Damela, Dameda, Dhamila and Damila was a self designation or a term denoted by outsiders. Epigraphic evidence of an ethnic group termed as such is found in ancient Sri Lanka where a number of inscriptions have come to light datable from the 6th to the 5th century BCE mentioning Damela or Dameda persons. In the well-known Hathigumpha inscription of the Kalinga ruler Kharavela, refers to a T(ra)mira samghata (Confederacy of Tamil rulers) dated to 150 BC. It also mentions that the league of Tamil kingdoms had been in existence 113 years before then.[25] In Amaravati in present-day Andhra Pradesh there is an inscription referring to a Dhamila-vaniya (Tamil trader) datable to the 3rd century AD.[25] Another inscription of about the same time in Nagarjunakonda seems to refer to a Damila. A third inscription in Kanheri Caves refers to a Dhamila-gharini (Tamil house-holder). In the Buddhist Jataka story known as Akiti Jataka there is a mention to Damila-rattha (Tamil dynasty). There were trade relationship between the Roman Empire and Pandyan Empire. As recorded by Strabo, Emperor Augustus of Rome received at Antioch an ambassador from a king called Pandyan of Dramira.[26] Hence, it is clear that by at least the 300 BC, the ethnic identity of Tamils has been formed as a distinct group.[25] Thamizhar is etymologically related to Tamil, the language spoken by Tamil people. Southworth suggests that the name comes from tam-miz > tam-iz 'self-speak', or 'one's own speech'.[27] Zvelebil suggests an etymology of tam-iz, with tam meaning "self" or "one's self", and "-iz" having the connotation of "unfolding sound". Alternatively, he suggests a derivation of tamiz < tam-iz < *tav-iz < *tak-iz, meaning in origin "the proper process (of speaking)."[28]


In India

Pre-historic period

Possible evidence indicating the earliest presence of Tamil people in modern-day Tamil Nadu are the megalithic urn burials, dating from around 1500 BCE and onwards, which have been discovered at various locations in Tamil Nadu, notably in Adichanallur in Tirunelveli District[29][30][31] which conform to the descriptions of funerals in classical Tamil literature.[32]

Various legends became prevalent after the 10th century CE regarding the antiquity of the Tamil people. According to Iraiyanar Agapporul, a 10th/11th century annotation on the Sangam literature, the Tamil country extended southwards beyond the natural boundaries of the Indian peninsula comprising 49 ancient nadus (divisions). The land was supposed to have been destroyed by a deluge. The Sangam legends also added to the antiquity of the Tamil people by claiming tens of thousands of years of continuous literary activity during three Sangams.[33] Pandya legends, tells about a submerged continent which is today referred as Kumari Kandam, the continent which is supposed to be the origin of the Tamil people.[34]

Classical period

Grey pottery with engravings, Arikamedu, 1st century AD

Ancient Tamils had three monarchical states, headed by kings called "Vendhar" and several tribal chieftainships, headed by the chiefs called by the general denomination "Vel" or "Velir".[35] Still lower at the local level there were clan chiefs called "kizhar" or "mannar".[36] The Tamil kings and chiefs were always in conflict with each other mostly over territorial hegemony and property. The royal courts were mostly places of social gathering rather than places of dispensation of authority; they were centres for distribution of resources. Ancient Tamil Sangam literature and grammatical works Tolkappiyam, the ten anthologies Pattuppāṭṭu, the eight anthologies Eṭṭuttokai also sheds light on ancient Tamil people.[37] The kings and chieftains were patrons of the arts, and a significant volume of literature exists from this period.[38] The literature shows that many of the cultural practices that are considered peculiarly Tamil date back to the classical period.[38]

Agriculture was important during this period, and there is evidence that networks of irrigation channels were built as early as the 3nd century BCE.[39] Internal and external trade flourished, and evidence of significant contact with Ancient Rome exists.[40] Large quantities of Roman coins and signs of the presence of Roman traders have been discovered at Karur and Arikamedu.[40] There is evidence that at least two embassies were sent to the Roman Emperor Augustus by Pandya kings.[41] Potsherds with Tamil writing have also been found in excavations on the Red Sea, suggesting the presence of Tamil merchants there.[42] An anonymous 1st century traveller's account written in Greek, Periplus Maris Erytraei, describes the ports of the Pandya and Chera kingdoms in Damirica 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.[43]

The classical period ended around the 4th century AD with invasions by the Kalabhra, referred to as the kalappirar in Tamil literature and inscriptions.[44] These invaders are described as evil kings and barbarians coming from lands to the north of the Tamil country.[45] This period, commonly referred to as the Dark Age of the Tamil country, ended with the rise of the Pallava dynasty.[44][46][47] According to Clarence Maloney, during the classical period Tamils also settled the Maldive Islands.[3]

Economy, Trade and Maritime

The Tamil country is strategically located in Indian Ocean and had access to sea trade route.

Imperial and post-imperial periods

The Varaha cave bas relief at Mahabalipuram from 7th century AD

The names of the three dynasties, Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras, are mentioned in Tamil Sangam literature and grammaticall works like Tolkappiyar refers to them as the "Three Glorified by Heaven", (Tamil: வாண்புகழ் மூவர், Vāṉpukaḻ Mūvar ?).[48] Later, they are mentioned in Mauryan Empire's Pillars of Ashoka (inscribed 273–232 BCE) inscriptions, among the kingdoms, which though not subject to Ashoka, were on friendly and allied terms with him.[49][50] The king of Kalinga, Kharavela, who ruled around 150 BCE, mentioned in the famous Hathigumpha inscription of the confederacy of the Tamil kingdoms that had existed for over 100 years.[51] The Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras, Pallavas were followers of Hinduism, though for a short while some of them seem to have embraced Jainism and later converted to Hinduism.[52] After the fall of Mauryan Empire, the Tamil kingdoms were allied with Satavahana Dynasty.

Tamil architecture and culture influenced much of SouthEast Asia between 8th to 13th century AD

These early kingdoms sponsored the growth of some of the oldest extant literature in Tamil. The classical Tamil literature, referred to as Sangam literature is attributed to the period between 200 BCE and 300 CE.[53][54] The poems of Sangam literature, which deal with emotional and material topics, were categorised and collected into various anthologies during the medieval period. These Sangam poems paint the picture of a fertile land and of a people who were organised into various occupational groups. The governance of the land was through hereditary monarchies, although the sphere of the state's activities and the extent of the ruler's powers were limited through the adherence to the established order ("dharma"). Although the Pallava records can be traced from the 2nd century AD, they did not rise to prominence as an imperial dynasty until the 6th century.[55] They transformed the institution of the kingship into an imperial one, and sought to bring vast amounts of territory under their direct rule. The Bhakti movement in Hinduism was founded at this time, and rose along with the growing influence of Jainism and Buddhism.[56] The Pallavas pioneered the building of large, ornate temples in stone which formed the basis of the Dravidian temple architecture. They came into conflict with the Kannada Chalukyas of Badami. During this period, The great Badami Chalukya King Pulakeshin II extended the Chalukya Empire up to the northern extents of the Pallava kingdom and defeated the Pallavas in several battles.[57] Pallava Narasimhavarman however reversed this victory in 642 by attacking and occupying Badami temporarily.[58] However a later Chalukya King Vikramaditya II took revenge by repeated invasions of the territory of Tondaimandalam and his subsequent victories over Pallava Nandivarman II and the annexation of Kanchipuram.[59] The Pallava dynasty was overthrown in the 9th century by the imperial Kannada Rashtrakutas who ruled from Gulbarga. King Krishna III, the last great Rashtrakuta king consolidated the empire so that it stretched from the Narmada River to Kaveri River and included the northern Tamil country (Tondaimandalam) while levying tribute on the king of Ceylon.[60]

The Tamil Chola Empire at its height, 1030 AD

Under Rajaraja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola, the Cholas became dominant in the 10th century and established an empire covering most of South India and Sri Lanka.[61] The empire had strong trading links with Chinese Song Dynasty and Southeast Asia.[62][63] The Cholas defeated the Eastern Chalukya and expanded their empire to the Ganges. They conquered the coastal areas around the Bay of Bengal and turned it to Chola lake. Rajendra Chola improved his father's fleet and created the first notable marine of the Indian subcontinent. The Chola navy conquered the Sri Vijaya Empire of Indonesia and the Malaysia and secured the sea trade route to China.[61] Cholas exacted tribute from Thailand and the Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia. The power of the Cholas declined around the 13th century and the Pandyan Empire enjoyed a brief period of resurgence thereafter during the rule of Sundara Pandya.[61] The Pandyan Dynasty reached its peak in the 13th century during the reign of Sadayavarman Sundara Pandyan I and Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I. The Pandyan Empire was threatened by the constant Islamic invasions of South India. In the early 14th Century, Madurai, the capital of Pandyans was conquered by Jalaluddin Ahsan Khan and an independent Madurai Sultanate was established. The short-lived Madurai Sultanate was captured in 1378 by the Vijayanagara Empire. During the 15th and 16th century the Vijayanagara Empire became the dominant power of South India. After the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1646, Tamil Nadu was dominated by small states like the Madurai Nayaks.

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.[64] They developed their own distinct language and literature, which increasingly grew apart from Tamil, evolving into the modern Malayalam language by the 15th century.[65]

In Sri Lanka

Main article: Sri Lankan Tamils
Megalithic burial urns or jar found in Pomparippu, North Western, Sri Lanka dated to at least five to two centuries before Common Era. These are similar to Megalithic burial jars found in South India and the Deccan during similar time frame.[66]

There is little scholarly consensus over the presence of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, prior to the medieval Chola period (c. 10th century AD). One theory states that there was not an organised Tamil presence in Sri Lanka until the invasions from what is now South India in the 10th century AD; another theory contends that Tamil people were the original inhabitants of the island.[67][68] Yet according to another theory cultural diffusion, rather than migration of people, spread the Tamil language from peninsular India into an existing Mesolithic population, centuries before the Christian era.[69]

However, according to Tamil tradition in Sri Lanka, they believe that they are lineal descendants of the aboriginal Naga and Yaksha people of Sri Lanka. The "Nakar" used the cobra totem known as "Nakam" in the Tamil language, which is still part of the Hindu Tamil tradition in Sri Lanka today as a subordinate deity.[70]

Pre-historic period

The indigenous Veddhas of Sri Lanka are ethnically related to tribal people of South India.[71] Settlements of people culturally similar to those of present-day Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu in modern India were excavated at megalithic burial sites at Pomparippu on the west coast and in Kathiraveli on the east coast of the island, villages established between the 5th century BCE and 2nd century AD.[72][73] Cultural similarities in burial practices in South India and Sri Lanka were dated by archeologists to the 10th century BC. However, Indian history and archaeology have pushed the date back to the 15th century BC, and in Sri Lanka, there is radiometric evidence from Anuradhapura that the non-Brahmi symbol-bearing black and red ware occur at least around 9th or 10th century BC.[74]

Historic period

South Indian type Black and Red ware potsherds found in Sri Lanka and dated 1st to 2nd century AD. Displayed at the National Museum of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Potsherds with early Tamil writing from the 2nd century BCE have been found in excavations in north of the island in Poonagari, bearing several inscriptions including a clan name – vela, a name related to velir from ancient Tamil country.[75] Tamil Brahmi inscribed potsherds have also been excavated in the south of the island in Tissamaharama. There is epigraphic evidence of people identifying themselves as Damelas or Damedas (the Prakrit word for Tamil people) in Anuradhapura, the capital city of Rajarata, and other areas of Sri Lanka as early as the 2nd century BC.[76] Historical records establish that Tamil kingdoms in modern India were closely involved in the island's affairs from about the 2nd century BC.[77][78] In Mahavamsa, a historical poem, ethnic Tamil adventurers such as Elara invaded the island around 145 BC.[79] Tamil soldiers from what is now South India were brought to Anuradhapura between the 7th and 11th centuries CE in such large numbers that local chiefs and kings trying to establish legitimacy came to rely on them.[80] By the 8th century CE there were Tamil villages collectively known as Demel-kaballa (Tamil allotment), Demelat-valademin (Tamil villages), and Demel-gam-bim (Tamil villages and lands).[81]

Medieval period

In the 9th and 10th centuries AD, Pandya and Chola incursions into Sri Lanka culminated in the Chola annexation of the island, which lasted until the latter half of the 11th century AD.[80][82][83][84]

During the rule of the great Chalukya King Vikramaditya VI, in the late eleventh to early twelfth century, the Western Chalukyas convincingly defeated the Cholas on several occasions, weakening their empire.[85][86] The eventual decline of Chola power in South India in the 12th century was also due to the rise of Hoysala power in the region.[87][88][89] The Hoysalas extended their foothold in Tamil Nadu around 1225, making the city of Kannanur Kuppam near Srirangam a provincial capital that give them control over South Indian politics and began a period of Hoysala hegemony in the southern Deccan.[90][91] Hoysala Vira Narasimha II's son Vira Someshwara earned the honorific "uncle" (Mamadi) from the Pandyas and Cholas. The Hoysala influence spread over Pandya kingdom from who they gained tribute.[92] The Chola decline in Sri Lanka was followed by the restoration of the Polonnaruwa monarchy in the late 11th century AD.[93] In 1215, following Pandya invasions, the Tamil-dominant Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty established an independent Jaffna kingdom[94] on the Jaffna peninsula and parts of northern Sri Lanka. The Arya Chakaravarthi expansion into the south was halted by Alagakkonara,[95] a man descended from a family of merchants from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. He was the chief minister of the Sinhalese king Parakramabahu V (AD 1344–59). Vira Alakeshwara, a descendant of Alagakkonara, later became king of the Sinhalese,[96] but he was overthrown by the Ming admiral Cheng Ho in 1409. The Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty ruled over large parts of northeast Sri Lanka until the Portuguese conquest of the Jaffna Kingdom in 1619. The coastal areas of the island were taken over by the Dutch and then became part of the British Empire in 1796. The English sailor Robert Knox described walking into the island's Tamil country in the publication An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, annotating some kingdoms within it on a map in 1681.[97] Upon arrival of European powers from the 17th century, the Tamils' separate nation was described in their areas of habitation in the northeast of the island.[98]

The caste structure of the majority Sinhalese has also accommodated Hindu immigrants from South India since the 13th century AD. This led to the emergence of three new Sinhalese caste groups: the Salagama, the Durava and the Karava.[99][100][101] The Hindu migration and assimilation continued until the 18th century.[99]

Modern period

Ma. Po. Si and Rajaji in center Convention of the Mylai Tamil Sangam, early 1900s

British colonists consolidated the Tamil territory in southern India into the Madras Presidency, which was integrated into British India. Similarly, the Tamil speaking 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, comprising 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 Reorganisation 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. Today the Tamils make up 25% of the population of Sri Lanka.

An Independent Tamil state

Tamil Eelam is a proposed independent state that Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora aspire to create in the north and east of Sri Lanka.[102][103][104][105][106][107] Irrespective of the ethnic differences, the British imposed a unitary state structure in British Ceylon for better administration.[108] During the British colonial rule, there were a lot of Tamils who had a higher position than the Sinhalese in the government, because they were favored by the British for their qualification in English education. In Sri Lankan highlands the lands of the Sinhalese were seized by British and Indian Tamils were settled there as plantation workers. All this created a hatred among Sinhalese toward Tamils, who were seen as "loyalists" of the British.[109] After the British colonial rule in Sri Lanka left, a conflict began between the Sinhalese and the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Since the Sinhalese are the majority of the country, many of them didn't seem to like that the minority had more power than the majority. In 1948, about 700,000 Indian Tamils from Sri Lanka were made stateless and deported "back" to India. In 1956, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka passed an act called Sinhala Only Act, an act where Sinhalese replaced English as the only official language of Sri Lanka. Due to this, many Tamils forced to resign from civil servants/public servants because they were not fluent in Sinhalese.[110] The Tamils of Sri Lanka saw this act as a linguistic, cultural and economic discrimination against them.

After anti-Tamil pogroms in 1956, 1958 or 1977 and police brutality against the Tamils protesting against these acts, guerilla groups like Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were created. Their goal was to create an independent Tamil state, Tamil Eelam. The Burning of Jaffna library in 1981 and Black July in 1983 led finally to an over 25 years of war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankan civil war led to death of over 100,000 peoples according to the United Nations.[111]The Sri Lankan Government are alleged to have committed war crimes against the civilian Sri Lankan Tamil people during the final months of the Eelam War IV phase in 2009.[112]

Geographic distribution


Most Tamils in India live in the state of Tamil Nadu. Tamils are the majority in the union territory of Puducherry, a former French colony. Puducherry is a subnational enclave situated within Tamil Nadu. Tamils account for at least one-sixth of the population in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

There are significant Tamil communities in other parts of India. Most of these have emerged fairly recently, dating to the colonial and post-colonial periods, but some date back to the medieval period. Significant populations reside in Karnataka (2.9 million), Maharashtra (1.4 million), Andhra Pradesh (1.2 million), Kerala (0.6 million) and National Capital Region (0.1 million).[113]

Sri Lanka

Distribution of Tamil speakers in South India and Sri Lanka (1961)

There are two groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka: the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils. The Sri Lankan Tamils (or Ceylon Tamils) are descendants of the Tamils of the old Jaffna Kingdom and east coast chieftaincies called Vannimais. The Indian Tamils (or Hill Country Tamils) are descendants of bonded laborers who migrated from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in the 19th century to work on tea plantations.[114] There also exists a significant population in Sri Lanka who are native speakers of Tamil language and are of Islamic faith. Though several evidence point them towards being ethnic Tamils,[15][16][17] they are however controversially[15][17][18] listed as a separate ethnic group by the Sri Lankan government.[115][116]

Most Sri Lankan Tamils live in the Northern and Eastern provinces and in the capital Colombo, whereas most Indian Tamils live in the central highlands.[116] Historically both groups have seen themselves as separate communities, although there is a greater sense of unity since the 1980s.[117]

Under the terms of an agreement reached between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments in the 1960s, about 40 percent of the Indian Tamils were granted Sri Lankan citizenship, and many of the remainder were repatriated to India.[118] By the 1990s, most Indian Tamils had received Sri Lankan citizenship.[118]

Tamil diaspora

Tamil woman in traditional attire, c. 1880
Batu Caves temple built by Tamil Malaysians in ca.1880s

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, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. At about the same time, many Tamil businessmen also migrated to other parts of the British Empire, particularly to Burma and East Africa.[119]

Many Tamils still live in these countries, and the Tamil communities in Singapore, Reunion Island, Malaysia and South Africa have retained much of their original culture and language. Many Malaysian children attend Tamil schools, and a significant portion of Tamil children are brought up with Tamil as their first language. In Singapore, Mauritius and Reunion, Tamil students learn Tamil as their second language in school, with English as the first. In Singapore, to preserve the Tamil language, the government has made it an official language despite Tamils comprising only about 5% of the population, and has also introduced compulsory instruction of the language for Tamils. Other Tamil communities, such as those in South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and the Caribbean no longer speak Tamil language 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.[120] There is a very small Tamil community in Pakistan, notably settled since the partition in 1947.[121]

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.[122]

Today, the largest concentration of Tamils outside South Asia can be found in Toronto, Canada.[123][124][125][126]


Language and literature

Sage Agathiar, one of the contributor of old Tamil literature

Tamils have strong attachment to the Tamil language, which is often venerated in literature as "Tamil̲an̲n̲ai", "the Tamil mother".[127] It has historically been, and to large extent still is, central to the Tamil identity.[128] 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.[129] Tamil literature is of considerable antiquity, and is 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.[130]


Ancient Tamil grammatical works Tolkappiyam, the ten anthologies Pattuppāṭṭu, the eight anthologies Eṭṭuttokai sheds light on early religion. Seyyon was glorified as, the red god seated on the blue peacock, who is ever young and resplendent, as the favored god of the Tamils.[37] Sivan was also seen as the supreme God.[37] Early iconography of Seyyon[131] and Sivan[132][133][134] and their association with native flora and fauna goes back to Indus Valley Civilization.[135][136] The Sangam landscape was classified into five categories, thinais, based on the mood, the season and the land. Tolkappiyam, mentions that each of these thinai had an associated deity such Seyyon in Kurinji-the hills, Thirumaal in Mullai-the forests, and Kotravai in Marutham-the plains, and Wanji-ko in the Neithal-the coasts and the seas. Other gods mentioned were Mayyon and Vaali who are major deities in Hinduism today. Dravidian influence on early Vedic religion is evident, many of these features are already present in the oldest known Indo-Aryan language, the language of the Rigveda (c. 1500 BCE), which also includes over a dozen words borrowed from Dravidian.[137] This represents an early religious and cultural fusion[138][note 2] or synthesis[140] between ancient Dravidians and Indo-Aryans, which became more evident over time with sacred iconography, flora and fauna that went on to influence Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism[141][139][142][143]

Meenakshi Amman temple, dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi, tutelary deity of Madurai city

The cult of the mother goddess is treated as an indication of a society which venerated femininity. Amman, Mariamman, Durga, Lakshami, Saraswati, Kali and Matrikas are venerated in all their glorious forms.[144] The temples of the Sangam days, mainly of Madurai, seem to have had priestesses to the deity, which also appear predominantly a goddess.[145] In the Sangam literature, there is an elaborate description of the rites performed by the Kurava priestess in the shrine Palamutircholai.[146] About 88%[147] of the population of Tamil Nadu are Hindus.

Erwadi durgah in Ramanathapuram district is the major pilgrimage shrine of the Tamil Muslims

In Tamil Nadu, Christians and Muslims account for 6% and 5.8% respectively.[147] The majority of Muslims in Tamil Nadu speak Tamil,[148] with less than 15% of them reporting Urdu as their mother tongue.[149] Tamil Jains number only a few thousand now.[150] Atheist, rationalist, and humanist philosophies are also adhered by sizeable minorities.[151]

The Om symbol in Tamil script

The most popular deity is Murugan, he is known as the patron god of the Tamils and is also called "Tamil Kadavul" (Tamil God).[152][153] In Tamil tradition, Murugan is the youngest son and Pillayar the oldest son of Sivan, it different from the North Indian tradition, which represents Murugan as the oldest son. The goddess Parvati is often depicted as a goddess with green skin complexion in Tamil Hindu tradition. The worship of Amman, also called Mariamman, is thought to have been derived from an ancient mother goddess, is also very common.[154] Kan̲n̲agi, the heroine of the Cilappatikār̲am, is worshipped as Pattin̲i by many Tamils, particularly in Sri Lanka.[155] There are also many followers of Ayyavazhi in Tamil Nadu, mainly in the southern districts.[156] In addition, there are many temples and devotees of Vishnu, Siva, Ganapathi, and the other Hindu deities.

Muslims across Tamil Nadu follow Hanafi and Shafi'i schools while the Tamil Muslims in Sri Lanka follow Shadhili school. While the Marakkayar and Kayalar sects claim descent from the Arab World, the Rowther and Lebbai sects claim descent from the Turkic World. All these sects have improvised Tamil vocabulary with peculiar loan words due to miscegenation. Erwadi in Ramanathapuram district and Nagore in Nagapattinam district[157] are the major pilgrimage centres for Muslims in Tamil Nadu.

Ayyanar, guardian folk deity of Tamil Nadu

Among the ancient Tamils the practice of erecting memorial stones Natukalhad appeared, and it continued for quite a long time after the Sangam age, down to about 16th century.[158] It was customary for people who sought victory in war to worship these hero stones to bless them with victory.[159] They often carry inscriptions displaying a variety of adornments, including bas relief panels, frieze, and figures on carved stone.[160]

The most important Tamil festivals are Pongal, a harvest festival that occurs in mid-January, and Varudapirappu, the Tamil New Year, which occurs on 14 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 District, Tirunelveli, and Thoothukudi.[161]

In rural Tamil Nadu, many local deities, called aiyyan̲ārs, are thought to be the spirits of local heroes who protect the village from harm.[162] Their worship often centres 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.[163] The Saivist sect of Hinduism is significantly represented amongst Tamils, more so among Sri Lankan Tamils, although most of the Saivist places of religious significance are in northern India. The Alvars and Nayanars, who were predominantly Tamils, played a key role in the renaissance of Bhakti tradition in India. In the 10th century, the philosopher Ramanuja, who propagated the theory of Visishtadvaitam[164]

Tamil Jains constitute around 0.13% of the population of Tamil Nadu.[147] Many of the rich Tamil literature works were written by Jains.[165] According to George L. Hart, the legend of the Tamil Sangams or "literary assemblies: was based on the Jain sangham at Madurai.[166]

Martial Traditions

Kalaripayattu martial art form which originated during Sangam Period

Various martial arts including Kuttu Varisai, Varma Kalai, Silambam, Adithada, Malyutham and Kalarippayattu, are practised in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.[167] The warm-up phase includes yoga, meditation and breathing exercises. Silambam originated in ancient Tamilakam and was patronized by the Pandyans, Cholas and Cheras, who ruled over this region. Silapathiharam a Tamil literature from the 2nd century AD, refers to the sale of Silamabam instructions, weapons and equipment to foreign traders.[168] Since the early Sangam age, there was a warlike culture in South India. War was regarded as an honorable sacrifice and fallen heroes and kings were worshiped in the form of a Hero stone. Each warrior was trained in martial arts, horse riding and specialized in two of the weapons of that period Vel (spear) Val (sword) and Vil (bow).[169] Heroic martyrdom was glorified in ancient Tamil literature. The Tamil kings and warriors followed an honour code similar to that of Japanese Samurais and committed suicide to save the honor. The forms of martial suicide were known as Avipalli, Thannai, Verttal, Marakkanchi, Vatakkiruttal and Punkilithu Mudiyum Maram. Avipalli was mentioned in all the works except Veera Soliyam. It was a self-sacrifice of a warrior to the goddess of war for the victory of his commander.[170] The Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka reflected some elements of Tamil martial traditions which included worship of fallen heroes (Maaveerar Naal) and practice of martial suicide. They carried a Suicide pill around their neck to escape the captivity and torture.[171] A remarkable feature besides to their willingness to sacrifice is, that they were well organized and disciplined. It was forbidden for the rebels to consume tobaccos, alcohols, drugs and to have sexual relationship.[172]

Katar, Tamil dagger which was popular throughout South Asia

Among the ancient Tamils the practice of erecting memorial stones Natukalhad appeared, and it continued for quite a long time after the Sangam age, down to about 16th century.[158] It was customary for people who sought victory in war to worship these hero stones to bless them with victory.[159] They often carry inscriptions displaying a variety of adornments, including bas relief panels, frieze, and figures on carved stone.[160]

The Wootz steel originated in South India and Sri Lanka.[173][174] There are several ancient Tamil, Greek, Chinese and Roman literary references to high carbon Indian steel since the time of Alexander's India campaign. The crucible steel production process started in the sixth century BC, at production sites of Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu, Golconda in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Sri Lanka and exported globally; the Tamils of the Chera Dynasty producing what was termed the finest steel in the world, i.e. Seric Iron to the Romans, Egyptians, Chinese and Arabs by 500 BC.[175][176][177] The steel was exported as cakes of steely iron that came to be known as "Wootz."[178]

The Tamilakam method was to heat black magnetite ore in the presence of carbon in a sealed clay crucible inside a charcoal furnace. An alternative was to smelt the ore first to give wrought iron, then heated and hammered to be rid of slag. The carbon source was bamboo and leaves from plants such as Avārai.[178][179] The Chinese and locals in Sri Lanka adopted the production methods of creating Wootz steel from the Chera Tamils by the 5th century BC.[180][181] In Sri Lanka, this early steel-making method employed a unique wind furnace, driven by the monsoon winds, capable of producing high-carbon steel and production sites from antiquity have emerged, in places such as Anuradhapura, Tissamaharama and Samanalawewa, as well as imported artifacts of ancient iron and steel from Kodumanal. A 200 BCE Tamil trade guild in Tissamaharama, in the South East of Sri Lanka, brought with them some of the oldest iron and steel artifacts and production processes to the island from the classical period.[182][183][184][185] The Arabs introduced the South Indian/Sri Lankan wootz steel to Damascus, where an industry developed for making weapons of this steel. The 12th century Arab traveler Edrisi mentioned the "Hinduwani" or Indian steel as the best in the world.[173] Another sign of its reputation is seen in a Persian phrase  to give an "Indian answer", meaning "a cut with an Indian sword."[186] Wootz steel was widely exported and traded throughout ancient Europe and the Arab world, and became particularly famous in the Middle East.[186]

Traditional Weapons

The Tamil martial arts also includes various types of weapons.

Visual art and architecture

Dancing Siva or Nataraja, example of Chola Empire bronze
The Brihadeshswara Temple at Thanjavur, also known as the Great Temple, built by Rajaraja Chola I

Most traditional art are 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.[187]

The most important form of Tamil painting is Tanjore painting, which originated in Thanjavur in the 9th 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.[188] 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 Brihadeeswarar temple of Tanjore.[189]

Tamil sculpture ranges from elegant stone sculptures in temples, to bronze icons with exquisite details.[190] The medieval Chola bronzes are considered to be one of India's greatest contributions to the world art.[191][192] 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.[193] As a result, one often sees in stone sculptures flowing forms that are usually reserved for metal.[194]


Ancient Tamil works, such as the Cilappatikaram, describe a system of music,[195] and a 7th-century Pallava inscription at Kudimiyamalai contains one of the earliest surviving examples of Indian music in notation.[196] Contemporary dance forms such as Bharatanatyam have recent origins but are based older temple dance forms known as Catir Kacceri as practised by courtesans and a class of women known as Devadasis[197]

Performing arts

Famous Tamil dance styles are

Contemporary dance forms such as Bharatanatyam have recent origins but are based older temple dance forms known as Catir Kacceri as practised by courtesans and a class of women known as Devadasis[197] One of the Tamil folk dances is karakattam. In its religious form, the dance is performed in front of an image of the goddess Mariamma.[198] 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 the kurava tribe(people of hills and mountains), who tells the story of a lady pining for her lover. The therukoothu, literally meaning "street play", is a form of village theater or folk opera. It is traditionally performed in village squares, with no sets and very simple props.[199] The performances involve songs and dances, and the stories can be either religious or secular.[200] 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.[201] Tamil Nadu also has a well developed stage theatre tradition, which has been influenced by western theatre. A number of theatrical companies exist, with repertoires including absurdist, realist, and humorous plays.[202]

Film and theater arts

The theatrical culture that flourished Tamil culture during the classical age. Tamil theatre has a long and varied history whose origins can be traced back almost two millennia to dance-theatre forms like Kotukotti and Pandarangam, which are mentioned in an ancient anthology of poems entitled the Kalingathu Parani.[203] The modern Tamil film industry originated during the 20th century. Tamil film industry has its headquarters in Chennai and is known under the name Kollywood, it is the second largest film industry in India after Bollywood.[204] Films from Kollywood entertain audiences not only in India but also overseas Tamil diaspora. Tamil films from Chennai have been distributed to various overseas theatres in Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malaysia, Japan, Oceania, the Middle East, Western Europe, and North America.[205] Inspired by Kollywood originated outside India Independent Tamil film production in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Canada, and western Europe. Several Tamil actresses such as Anuisa Ranjan Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Rekha Ganesan, Sridevi, Meenakshi Sheshadri, and Vidya Balan have acted in Bollywood and dominated the cinema over the years. Some Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu like MG Ramachandran, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have their background in Tamil film industry.

Sports in Tamil Nadu

Main article: Sports in Tamil Nadu

Different Sports has been played by the people of Tamil Nadu. These include both traditional sports and Sports from other countries. Tamil Nadu has some notable players in each sports.

  1. Jallikattu: Jallikattu is over 2000 years old bull taming sport in Tamil Nadu and an integral part of Tamil culture. In Ancient times, Two bull taming and bull-racing sports were conducted. 1.Manjuvirattu and 2. Yeruthazhuval. These sports were organised to keep the people's temperament always fit and ready for the war at any time. Each has its own techniques and rules. These sports acted as one of the criteria to marry girls of warrior family. There were traditions where the winner would be chosen as bridegroom for their daughter or sister. On the other hand, the untamable bulls were held as a pride of owner/village and used for breeding the cows. Unlike western bullfighting, bulls and warriors participated in the sport year after year. The ancient Tamil art of unarmed bull taming, popular amongst warriors in the classical period,[206][207] has also survived in parts of Tamil Nadu, notably Alanganallur near Madurai, where it is known as Jallikaṭṭu and is held once a year around the time of the Pongal festival.
  2. Kabaddi: A traditional sport that originated in Tamil Nadu.[208] The word "Kabaddi" is probably derived from Tamil word "kai-pidi" ("to hold hands").[209]
  3. Mattu Vandy Elgai Panthayam ( Reckla Race ): Bullock cart racing is mostly celebrated in southern Tamil Nadu.
  4. Silambam (Staff fencing): Silambam is a martial art originated in the ancient Tamilakam. In 1978, the Tamil Nadu government and Tamil Nadu Olympic Federation recognised silambam as a traditional sport, but it was not recognised by Sports Ministry of India and Indian Olympic Association.[210]
  5. Cricket: More people are interested in Cricket. Notable players from Tamil Nadu are Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Baba Aparajith, Murali Vijay, Ravichandran Ashwin, Murugan Ashwin and Dinesh Karthik. In Chennai M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is present with a capacity of 50000.
  6. Chess: Chess is a widely popular game in the state. The Tamil Nadu State Chess Association (TNSCA) is the apex body for the game of chess in Tamil Nadu. Viswanathan "Vishy" Anand is an Indian chess Grandmaster and former World Chess Champion. Described by chess commentator Lubomir Kavalek as one of the most versatile world champions ever, Anand has won the World Chess Championship five times (2000, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012), and was the undisputed World Champion from 2007 to 2013.
  7. Hockey: Fewer people are interested in Hockey. Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu is planning to set up a hockey academy[211]
  8. Squash: Joshna Chinappa, Dipika Pallikal are the notable players.
  9. Swimming: Kutraleeswaran is a notable swimmer.[212]
  10. Tennis: Chennai Open is a professional tennis tournament organised in Chennai every January. Notable players are Ramesh Krishnan, Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Mahesh Bhupathi and Nirupama Vaidyanathan.
  11. Motor racing: The sport was pioneered by Sundaram Karivardhan (1954–95) in its early days. Motor racing between the 1960s and 1980s was conducted at Sholavaram, a track used as a World War II air strip.[213] Modern motor racing events are held at the Irungattukottai Race Track owned and operated by Madras Motor Sports Club near Sriperumbudur and Kari Motor Speedway near Coimbatore. The people representing India in Formula 1 are from Tamil Nadu, namely Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok. In F2 European season held in 2010, Parthiva Sureshwaren and Ajith Kumar represented India.[214]
  12. Volleyball: Tamil Nadu team won Gold in National level Men's Volleyball competition held in 2011.[215]
  13. Archery: Srither won gold at Asian Archery Championship held at Indonesia in November 2009.[216]
  14. Football: Tamil Nadu football team representing Tamil Nadu in the Santosh Trophy.
  15. Paralympic games: Mariyappan Thangavelu has won the gold medal in the finals of 2016 Summer Paralympic games held in Rio de Janeiro.[217][218]

Tamil Cuisine

Main article: Tamil cuisine

Tamil cuisine including vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. Many Tamils, especially those belonging to the Brahmin caste are vegetarian because of religious reasons.[219] Tamils like to eat very hot and spicy food. During the British Raj, a hot spice mix was famously known as the Hot Madras Masala Powder.[220] Rice is the staple food in most Asian countries and has great importance in the Tamil culture. Tamils were among the first peoples who cultivated rice, probably the word "rice" has its origin in Tamil word "Arisi".[221][222] Rice is mostly eaten with vegetarian and non-vegetarian curries. Traditionally, the Tamils sit on the soil and the food is served on a banana leaf. The traditional foods are eaten with right hand. Dishes such as Dosa, Idli, Vada are served with Sambar, Chutney or in Sri Lanka with Coconut Sambal. The rasam replace the soup in Tamil cuisine. The Tamil cuisine in Sri Lanka differs little from that of South India.[223] A famous Sri Lankan Tamil specialty is Kottu Roti, it is available in most Sri Lankan restaurants in the country and abroad.


  1. Tamils in Sri Lanka are classified into three ethnic groups by the Sri Lankan government namely, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Origin Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors who accounted for 11.15%, 4.12% and 9.30% respectively of the country's population in 2011.[14] Indian Origin Tamils were separately classified in the 1911 census onwards while the Sri Lankan government lists a substantial Tamil-speaking Muslim population as a distinct ethnic group. However much of the available genealogical evidence points that the Sri Lankan Moor community belong to Tamil ethnicity and the majority of their ancestors were also Tamils who had lived in the country spanning generations, and had simply converted to Islam from other faiths.[15][16][17][18] It is also evidenced by the fact that Sri Lankan Moors were not a self-defined group of people and neither did the 'Moor' identity exist before the arrival of Portuguese colonists.[19]
  2. Lockard: "The encounters that resulted from Aryan migration brought together several very different peoples and cultures, reconfiguring Indian society. Over many centuries a fusion of Aryan and Dravidian occurred, a complex process that historians have labeled the Indo-Aryan synthesis."[138] Lockard: "Hinduism can be seen historically as a synthesis of Aryan beliefs with Harappan and other Dravidian traditions that developed over many centuries."[139]


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