Tamil people facts for kids
|Regions with significant populations|
|Sri Lanka||3,092,676 (2001)|
|88% Hindu, 6% Muslim, 5.5% Christian.|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Dravidians · Telugus · Kannadigas · Tuluvas · Malayalis · Giraavarus · Sinhalese|
The Tamil people are an ethnic group from South Asia. They have a written history of more than 2,000 years. Traditionally, they have been living in the southern parts of India, and the northeastern parts of Sri Lanka.
The Tamil people number around 74 million in the world. Of that, there are about 63,000,000 in India; about 3,600,000 live in Sri Lanka; about 1,500,000 live in Malaysia; and about 250,000 live in Singapore. The remaining Tamil people live in many other places. Other peoples are related to the Tamil people by language, culture, and ancestry. Some of them are Brahui people, Kannadigas, Malayalis, Telugu people, Tuluvas, and Gonds.
Tamil people identify themselves with their language, Tamil. In recent times, they have broadened the definition of Tamil people. They now also include descendants of Tamil speaking people even when they no longer speak Tamil language.
- Geographic distribution
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The history of Tamil people has three broad time periods as described below.
The pre-classical period
No one is sure about the exact origins of the Tamil people. Some historians believe that they migrated to India around 6000 BC. Some connect them with the Elamite people of ancient Iran. Some historians believe that people of the Indus Valley Civilization were either Tamil or a similar Dravidian race. However, nothing is sure about the origins of the Tamil people.
In Tamil Nadu, the earliest presence of Tamil people dates back to around 1000 BC on wards. Archeologists have found many burial places of megalithic era. The style of burials is same as described in classical Tamil literature. Recent excavations at these sites have also provided samples of early Tamil writing, dating back to at least 500 BC (The Hindu, 2005). 
The classical period
About 2,300 years before, at around 3rd century BC onwards, three royal families emerged in the lands of the Tamil people: the dynasties of the Cholas, the Cheras, and the Pandyas. Each one of them controlled a separate part of the Tamil-speaking nation. The classical Tamil literature and many inscriptions discovered also describe many smaller local rulers of that period. These kings and rulers frequently fought among themselves, and also with rulers of Sri Lanka. However, they had one common thing: they all supported arts and literature. The classical Tamil literature of that period record many practices peculiar to Tamil people. These practices still continue.
At that time, agriculture and trading were two main economic activities of Tamil people. They even traded with many other countries, including places in Europe. In Karur (Tamil Nadu), archeologists found a large number of coins of Ancient Rome. The Pandyas sent at least two ambassadors to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Archeologists have also found Tamil writings in broken pieces of pottery in the Red Sea.
An unnamed traveler from ancient Greece had described in Greek language ports of the Pandya and Chera kings. He had detailed the items exported by the Tamil people. These items included black pepper, pearls, ivory, silk, diamonds, sapphires, and tortoiseshell.
The classical period ended at around 4th century. People from northern parts of India invaded the lands of the Tamil people. For Tamil people, this was a dark period of their history. This dark phase ended with the rise of the Pallava dynasty.
The imperial and post-imperial periods
Historical records tell about Pallavas from the 3rd century. But, only after 300 years, during the 6th century, they became powerful. Pallava dynasty did not have Tamil origin, but they adopted the language and the Tamil ways. They modeled their kingdom on the lines of empires of north India like the Mauryan Empire and Gupta Empire. The Pallavas also encouraged the worship of Shiva and Vishnu; and built large temples. During their reign, caste system became rigid.
In the 9th century, the Cholas and the Pandyas defeated Pallavas. By the 10th century, the Cholas had established a big empire, covering most of south India and Sri Lanka. They had a strong navy. Their navy reached Thailand, Burma and Sumatra. They also had a strong trading links with China. By the 12th – 13th centuries, the power of the Cholas had declined. For some time, Pandyas became powerful. However, by that time Muslim rulers invaded Tamil lands. The Pandya dynasty came to an end by the 16th century.
Over a period of time, western parts of Tamil lands were developing in a separate manner. By the 13th century, the Cholas and the Pandyas had lost control over these areas. The people living there developed their own language and culture. By the 15th century they had a separate language, Malayalam language, now the language of the Indian state of Kerala.
After 16th century no major rulers emerged to rule Tamil lands. But, there were many smaller local rulers. For some time, rulers from the present day Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh also ruled over the Tamil lands. By the 17th century, Europeans from the United Kingdom, France and Denmark started to establish their settlements in Tamil lands. They fought many battles. Finally, the British won, and by the end of the 18th century, most of the Tamil lands came under the British rule.
Tamils in Sri Lanka
Historians of Sri Lanka say that Tamil people reached Sri Lanka only after 7th century during the invasions of the Chola dynasty. The Tamil people ruled parts of Sri Lanka from time to time, and played important role in the ruling of Sri Lanka. In the 10th century, the Chola kings made Sri Lanka a part of their kingdom. This continued until late 11th century.
After decline of the Chola power in Sri Lanka, different rulers ruled Sri Lanka, the Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty from 1215. The Arya Chakaravarthi dynasty ruled over large parts of northeast Sri Lanka until 1619. By this time the Portuguese and the Dutch won many areas of Sri Lanka. However, in 1796, the British won entire Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka became part of the British Empire..
The modern period
During the British Raj, the British combined all Tamil lands and gave them a new name, the Madras Presidency. The Madras Presidency became a part of the British Raj. Similarly, the British combined Tamil lands of Sri Lanka and other regions of Sri Lanka in 1802. This became the Ceylon colony, also a part of the British Empire. When India became independent in 1947, Madras Presidency became a part of India. Ceylon became independent in 1948, and the Tamil lands remained a part of independent Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka.
After India’s independence in 1947, Madras Presidency became Madras State. It covered the areas of present day Tamil Nadu, coastal parts of Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, northern Kerala, and the southwest of Karnataka. The Government of India rearranged (1956) the boundaries of many states of India based on language. Thus, the present day state of Tamil Nadu came into existence.
At the beginning, there was a demand for an independent country for the Tamil people. However, the constitution of India gave major rights to the states, and protected the speakers of regional languages from compulsory speaking and use of Hindi. This satisfied most of the Tamil people, and presently there is no demand for a separate country for Tamil people outside the federal system of India.
However, in Sri Lanka, the government did not give sufficient rights to people who spoke Tamil language. During 1970s, this led to a demand for independence of Tamil people from Sri Lanka. In early 1980s, the situation became very bad. A civil war broke out. Currently, peace negotiations are under way.
Tamil people live in many geographical regions. Sections below describe them.
Most of the Tamil people of India live in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Most of the people living in Pondicherry of India are also Tamil people.
Tamil people have been traditionally living in some other parts of India - for examples, Hebbar and Mandyam Tamils of southern Karnataka, the Tamils of Palakkad in Kerala, and the Tamils of Pune, Maharashtra. For last one hundred years or so, Tamil people went to many other parts of India for jobs or business. Some of them settled in these places.
In Sri Lanka
Presently, there are two groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The first group is Sri Lankan Tamils. They are descendants of the Tamil people who lived in the old Jaffna kingdom or who migrated to the East coast. The second group is Hill Country Tamils. They descended from the Tamil people who went to Sri Lanka from India as laborers in the 19th century-early 20th century. The first group mostly lives in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. The second group mostly live in the central highlands.
In 1949, some political developments in Sri Lanka were adverse for Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Many Tamils people lost their citizenship of being citizens of Sri Lanka. Under an agreement between the governments of India and Sri Lanka, about 40% of these Tamils could get back their citizenship. Many others had to shift to India. These developments brought the two groups of the Tamil people of Sri Lanka closer. By 1990s, most of the Tamil people had got back their citizenship.
In other places
Beginning from the 18th century, many poor Tamil people went as laborers to many countries of the British Empire. Some of these countries were Malaya, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and the Caribbean. At the same time, many Tamil businessmen also went to places in Burma and East Africa. Many Tamils still live in these countries.
Special mention may be made of Singapore. The government has made Tamil language as one of the national languages although only 4.2% of the people speak Tamil language in Singapore.
By 1980s many Tamil people of Sri Lanka were facing ethnic conflicts. Many of them fled to Australia, Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. Today, the largest concentration of Tamils outside southern Asia is in Toronto, Canada.
Language and literature
Tamil people call their language as "the Tamil mother." They identify themselves based on their language.
Tamil language, like other languages of south India, is one of the Dravidian languages. It is not related to the Indo-European languages of the north India. Although modern speakers of Tamil language use a number of words of Sanskrit and English, Tamil language has maintained its original classical character. The Government of India has recently recognized Tamil language as one of the classical languages of India.
Classical Tamil literature is varied. For example, they cover poetry and lyrics; works of ethics and philosophy; and many other types of literary works. Notable works in classical Tamil literature include the Tirukkural by Thiruvalluvar, The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature and the works of Auvaiyar. Over many centuries, the written Tamil has changed very little. Thus, even modern Tamil people are able to read and enjoy these classical literary works.
Modern Tamil literature is also varied. It has many aspects: for example, Indian nationalism, historical romanticism, and social realism. In recent years, many works of Tamil language in Sri Lanka describe the tragedy of ethnic conflict and civil war. Tamil people living in many other places have also produced literary works.
Some of the note-worthy poets are Bharathiyar, Barathidasen, etc... of end of 19th century who depicts the originality of Tamil culture and India, penned several notarary poems on Tamil and National interest.
Tanjore painting is the most important form of painting of Tamil people. The painting originated in a place named Tanjore (modern name: Thanjavur). This style of painting originated in the 9th century. In this style of painting, the painter paints on a piece of cloth. Sometimes, the painter also decorates the painting with threads of gold and silver, and precious gems. There is one other type of important painting style. Painters make paintings on the walls of temples. Tamil paintings use rich colors and show minute details.
In their sculpture, artists use bronze. Several pieces of sculptures are found throughout Tamil Nadu, particularly in temples. Most of them are very old, dating from the 7th century onwards. The sculptures show very minute details, including details of ornaments and dress. Many sculptures also show movement with fine details. Two important examples of such sculptures are: the cave sculptures at Mamallapuram and Nataraja statue at Chidambaram.
There are many temples in the lands of Tamil people. The gates of these temples, called Gopuram, are higher than other parts. Earlier Gopurams were simple in construction. From 13th century onwards, they became bigger and have engravings and paintings. The engravings and paintings show scenes and characters from Hindu mythology. Temples at Thanjavur. Chidambaram and Srirangam are very big and fine examples of temples of Tamil people.
Tamil art is an important tradition of Indian art.
The Tamil people have many performing arts. The classical Tamil literature has many details of these performing arts.
Classical music of Tamil people is carnatic music. The classical Tamil literature records details about the carnatic music. This is a vocal music with use of musical instruments. Carnatic music is completely religious.
Tamil folk music is very different from the carnatic music. The folk music shows a lot of excitement. The songs may convey folklore and other popular tales.
Bharatanatyam is the main dance of the Tamil people. Generally one dancer performs this dance. The dance tells a story through movements of parts of body, particularly hands. Until 1930s, girls known as devadasis performed this dance in temples. Now, it has become common, and there are many famous dancers who perform this dance. Tamil people also have many types of folk dances performed in villages. Sometimes they perform such a dance before the village goddess called Mariamma.
Tamil people also have a long tradition of theatrical performance. In villages, performers perform in the open. They dance and sing, and some times tell stories. These stories may be religious stories or on any other topic.
Tamil Nadu has a well-developed tradition of stage theatre tradition. Presently, both classical and folk performing arts survive in modern Tamil society.
Tamil people like to watch movies. Tamil movies are famous for technical details, artistic presentation, and entertainment. Most of the Tamil movies will have some songs and dances. Kollywood is the popular term for the Tamil film industry
Most of the Tamil people are Hindus. However, many are Muslims and Christians. At one time, Jainism was one of the major religions of Tamil people. However, presently there are only few thousand Tamil Jains.
The most important Tamil Muslims festivals are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
In Tamil Hinduism, the most popular deity is god named Murugan. He is a form of Karthikeya, the son of Shiva. The Tamil people also worship mother goddess Amman or Mariamman. Many Tamil people also worship Kannagi, a folk heroine. Throughout Tamil lands, there are many temples of Shiva, Vishnu, and Ganesha (Ganpathi). In rural areas of Tamil Nadu, people worship many local gods and goddesses. They call them aiyyanar.
There were many saints known as Alvars and Nayanars. In the 10th century, Ramanuja propagated his philosophy about worship and also accepted lower caste-Hindus as his disciples. There were many other notable Tamil saints. The Ramayana has many parts based in Tamil regions and according to legends, many of Rama's soldiers were Tamil people.
The most important Tamil festivals are Pongal and the Tamil New Year. Pongal is a harvest festival and people celebrate this in mid-January. Tamil people also celebrate Diwali. Two other important Hindu festivals of Tamil people are Thaipusam, and Adipperukku.
A Tamil legend states that the Cholas, Chera and Pandyan kings fought many wars in the 1st century. The war lasted for about one hundred years. During this period, the Tamil people perfected many martial arts. All these styles of martial arts still exist. They also developed many weapons.
There are many types of martial arts. For example, in a special type of martial art, a person would use a stick of about 1.6 meters long. By moving the stick he would try to defend against attack by several persons. In another type of martial art, persons get training to defend themselves without using any weapons, by using their hands and legs.
Varma Kalai (Tamil: வர்மக்கலை) is a martial art and esoteric healing art originating from ancient Tamil Nadu in South India. The name literally translate as "The Art of Vital Points". It is an element of the Tamil martial art Kuttu varisai.
Periyar Ramasami, a social leader of Tamil people started a movement named Self-respect Movement. It was to promote self-respect and remove social evils like casteism. Many people call this movement as the Dravidian movement. All political parties of Tamil Nadu draw their principles from this movement.
Scholars of India and Sri Lanka have developed a vocabulary in Tamil language for words of science and technology.
In the 1960s, the government of Tamil Nadu held a World Tamil Conference. The Conference has been meeting regularly.
In 1999, many Tamil people organized a World Tamil Confederation. Its purpose is to protect and promote Tamil culture and bring a sense of togetherness amongst Tamils in different countries. The Confederation has since adopted a Tamil flag and Tamil song  to act as symbols for the Tamil people living in different countries. The words on the flag quote the opening line of a poem by the classical poet Kanian Poongundranaar. These words mean: “All lands are our home; all people are our kin.”
In Sri Lanka, the Federal Party (later the Tamil United Liberation Front) took the lead in Tamil politics. However, by 1980s, political movements took a back seat in Tamil politics of Sri Lanka. Many military groups had started conflicts, and a civil war broke out. The Tamil Tigers emerged as the most important force amongst these military groups. The Tamil Tigers are fighting to establish its own government in areas where Tamil people are in majority. Presently they control many areas, and are negotiating for peace.
Images for kids
The Varaha cave bas relief at Mahabalipuram from 7th century AD
Tamil architecture and culture influenced much of Southeast Asia between the 8th to 13th century AD.
Distribution of Tamil speakers in South India and Sri Lanka (1961)
Dancing Siva or Nataraja, example of Chola Empire bronze
Megalithic sarcophagus burial from Tamil Nadu
Virampatnam jewelry from funerary burial, 2nd century BC, Tamil Nadu
Souttoukeny jewelry, 2nd century B.C. Tamil Nadu
Tamil people Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.