The goddess of the tea estates
Hindu traditions and community boundaries in the Up-country of Sri Lanka
Annual festivals to the Hindu goddess Mariyamman are the largest events that Up-country Tamils organise for themselves, and they invest tremendous amounts of time, effort, money and meaning into these celebrations. Up-country Tamils are descendants of South Indian migrants, who came between the 1870s and 1930s to work on tea plantations in the island’s central highlands, or up-country. In this article, I focus on how the various rituals, ceremonies and processions that take place during tea plantation festivals mark external and internal community boundaries. Through the performance of these rituals, Up-country Tamils make meaningful sacred places for themselves in the diaspora out of Sri Lankan spaces. In doing so, Up-country Tamil communities not only differentiate themselves from neighbouring communities of fellow Up-country Tamils, but also from their elders’ and ancestors’ communities, through the transformation of Hindu traditions. By looking at the planning and execution of such ritual activities, including when things did not happen as planned, I show how Up-country Tamils understand internal differences, especially along caste lines, and construct their cultural heritage, while presenting a common front to outsiders, whether Sinhalas or Jaffna Tamils. Though outwardly religious, these festivals have become embedded expressions of ethnic identification in the up-country. Some of the ritual practices of these festivals, such as hook-swinging, are rarely practiced in India today, yet have become central to the performance of Up-country Tamil ethnic identification and cultural heritage in the diaspora.
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