17 June, 2024


Ritual & Recovery In Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

By Thanges Paramsothy

Thanges Paramsothy

Thanges Paramsothy

A recent book, ‘Ritual and Recovery in Post-conflict Sri Lanka,’ by Jane Derges, provides an ethnographic account of the performances of Hindu rituals that serve to recover some old, less ubiquitous religious traditions in war-affected Jaffna society located in the Northern part of Sri Lanka. This study particularly explores the traditional Hindu ritual performance of Thuukkukaavadi in which a devotee is suspended by hooks attached through the flesh of his backs and legs. Derges sees ‘Thuukkukaavadi’ as a transformative practice, which enables devotees to heal their experience of pain and suffering in a repressive political atmosphere where people find it difficult to voice their opinions and their mobilizations against the injustices they face are suppressed by means of violence. This ethnographic study is a seminal and novel contribution to Anthropological studies that focus on post-conflict Jaffna.

The fieldwork for this study was conducted during the ceasefire agreement (2002-2006) between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Given the absence of intellectually stimulating ethnographic studies about Northern Sri Lanka due to the protracted civil war that affected the region from the 1980s to the late 2000s, this study breathes fresh air into anthropological conversations on the traditions and cultures of the people of Jaffna.

Book Review: Ritual and Recovery in Post-conflict Sri Lanka Derges, Jane. (2013) Ritual and Recovery in Post-conflict Sri Lanka, London and New York:Routledge. Number of Pages: xvi, 213. Price: £85.

Book Review: Ritual and Recovery in Post-conflict Sri Lanka
Derges, Jane. (2013) Ritual and Recovery in Post-conflict Sri Lanka, London and New York:Routledge. Number of Pages: xvi, 213. Price: £85.

This book consists of four parts. Outlining the conversations that the subsequent chapters focus on, the introduction begins to build momentum for the rest of the book. Derges states at the beginning that she has chosen ‘An Analysis of Silence’ as a tool to study the place of both spiritual and bodily performance of devotees during the religious festivals and in other ritual settings. She realised during her fieldwork that people in general saw silence as a protective mechanism and utilised self-hurting religious practices in order to express not only devotion but also a non-verbal response to the oppressive effects of war and violence. She notes that self-hurting religious practices function as transformative ritual performances that have a greater degree of potential to heal the wounds of post-conflict Jaffna society. According to Derges, in an atmosphere where an open dissent against social and political injustices has been extensively ignored, people use silence and non-militant discourses such as spiritual and bodily performance to maintain some degree of dignity, safety and autonomy (p. 8). This is, in fact, a fresh observation about the role rituals play in the post-conflict political lives of the people of Jaffna.

Derges narrates her own experience of data collection in detail. She explains the challenges that she faced while conducting fieldwork. Derges notes that the participants of the study were suspicious of her and that there was noticeable silence among them. As a result, total acceptance of the researcher as a participant observer by the participants was out of the question. Similarly, the participants did not have much trust in each other. This suspicious and fearful environment led her to question the traditional methodology and strategies of ethnographic fieldwork such as participant observation, interview and some other established data collection techniques. Instead, she found informal settings and conversations, which produced a more spontaneous interaction among the participants, helpful to gather more intimate and honest accounts. She adopted methodologies that were more suitable to an environment where a stranger is treated with suspicion. She had her exchanges in ‘Mobile Interview Settings’- ‘on buses, boats, during walks and visits to locals, which provided useful opportunities to trigger particular memories and impressions of the participants that cannot be easily accessible in more static settings’ (p.15). Creating a non-static setting in a conflict environment by a stranger is not an easy task. It requires long-term commitment and experience. Derges, in fact, was successful in her attempt to establish appropriate methodologies in collecting sensitive data from both verbal and non-verbal (bodily) expressions. In a number of cases, she realised that the formal interviews with participants were unproductive and unwise, whereas attention to everyday activities including observation of ritual performance, gossip in everyday interactions and the use of dramatic interpretation offered her a clear perspective on how people were dealing with the war, violence and their consequences (p. 112).

Let me briefly discuss what Derges has examined in each part of the book. The first part is about the discourses of war. She discusses very briefly the origin of Tamil grievances and the rise of Tamil militancy and explains how the colonial and post-colonial political and nationalist lexis as well as armed confrontations constructed Tamils as an indigenised ‘other’. She argues that the indigenised ‘other’ is a by-product of the failure in the ‘post-colonial era to construct a national identity that would encompass all Sri Lankans under one united and cohesive state’ (p. 29). This has in turn created a localised identity which Tamils in Sri Lanka perceived to be more important than the national (Sri Lankan) identity. Moreover, she describes how the people in the north established diverse strategies for dealing with the horrors of a war, which caused uncertainty, fear, mistrust, suspicion and destruction in their everyday lives. People in such a post-conflict atmosphere widely exercise silence as a form of resistance, protection as well as response to trauma.

tamils-missing-3-630x350The second part of this book is about the transformation of social realities. Derges covers a number of changing contemporary social realties in Jaffna including dislocation of families, women-headed households, changing ‘traditional roles’ of women, increasing incidence of couple co-habiting, high incidence of pregnancy among unmarried women, unemployment, escalating level of alcoholism, an increase in suicide rate, the re-establishment of neighbourhood, visits by Tamil diaspora to see their families and friends in their homeland and expressions of caste and class consciousness.

There are a large number of women-headed households in Jaffna due to the death, disappearance and dislocation of men (husbands) during the war. This has also created a social reality where women co-habiting rather than re-marrying. The author also talks about the escalating levels of alcoholism in the female population. Women in post-war Jaffna seemed to be easy targets of verbal abuses and physical and sexual harassment: ‘there are numerous incidences of sexual molestation and physical assault by local youths and gangs. However, crime committed by local youths or gangs often went unpunished by the local police’ (p. 62). Derges also points out that there is a widespread criticism of the police establishment that they deliberately demonstrate ineptitude in maintaining law and order in post-war Jaffna society. She indicates that many still remember with great nostalgia the protection the LTTE offered women until they lost control of Jaffna.

Derges illustrates the general expression of local inhabitants-‘Sandaiyumillai, samaathanamumillai’ (no war, no peace)- in an extensive manner with her filed data. This was particularly expressed with reference to the ‘High Security Zones’ (HSZs) and the militarization of the north and the east. Her analysis indicates how the war and the political violence have caused negative impacts on the youth of Jaffna. The powerless position of Jaffna Tamils, particularly the youth, creates alternative discourses of dissent and resistance through language and action. These alternative discourses of resistance are widely prevalent in the form of jokes, gossip, petty acts of sedition and street drama, which are often hidden from public view, but open a space to express their feelings of defenselessness. ‘Thuukkukkaavadi’ is viewed as an extreme form of symbolic expression of violence and torture. The author describes the performance of Thuukkuukkavadi as follows:

‘Thuukkukkavai presents perhaps a more extreme version of symbolic inversion: the young Tamils participants inverted their experience of violence and torture through reproductions of bodily pain as acts not only of religious devotion but also of strength and control. The violence perpetrated against them was transformed through religious passion that also enabled them to reclaim a sense of power (shakthi) through their own agency (p.91).

The bodily ritual performance of the research participants and bodily engagement of the ethnographic researchers during the fieldwork are central aspects in both traditional and contemporary Anthropological and Sociological literature (see for example Das 1997; Shilling 2004). The third part of the book was allocated to illustrate the articulation of participants’ bodies in religious ritual performances. The bodily ritual performance of participants was identified and illustrated as effective and non-violent forms of social recovery and healing practices. Notably, the author has described the insufficiency of western models of therapeutic practices such as counseling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET), which were attempted by aid workers or NGOs in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Jaffna (p. 166). She points out how religious ceremonial practices such as Vaakku Cholluthal (oracles), Kai Parththal (palm readers), Thuukkukkaavadi, Pirathattai (rolling), Theemithippu (fire-walk) and Paravasam (trance or stage of ecstasy) function as local recovery mechanisms among the Tamils in Jaffna affected by the war, violence and torture.

Derges indicates a tremendous growth in these religious practices particularly with the arrival of the Sri Lankan army and the subsequent sudden rise in the arrests and torture of Tamils. People in Jaffna during the time of horror and violence had faith in religious practices and rituals that involve the body of the worshiper when all forms of their resistance to political violence were widely suppressed. Increasing number of people, particularly the youth in Jaffna made the vow and were actively involved in these religious performances in order to escape successfully from everyday violence, to protect them from torture and arrests, to deal with trauma and disorder and to articulate powerlessness and resistance. Derges describes the multiple functions of these religious practices in post-conflict Jaffna society, where ‘the bodies of devotees became a central, productive and cathartic element, which sought to retrieve self and community from a sense of oppression and enabled the survival of the beleaguered community’ (p. 180). Moreover, she has documented how these religious practices are performed and the ways in which neighbours, fellow villagers and the Jaffna community in general view and treat these religious practices.

The fourth part is the conclusion. As Derges herself indicates, her research attempts to link two major themes: the first theme relates to the contested identity and subjugation of the Tamils and the second reveals survival and resilience (pp.177-78). The author has paid much of her attention to understand how traditional religious performances are articulated and how the locals give a new meaning to these religious performances in a conflict-ridden setting where the community is expected to live amidst violence, torture, frequent arrests and humiliation.

This study, however, has a few shortcomings, which prevent readers to view the current contradictory realities of Jaffna society. Firstly, it is true to a great extent that the people practice silence as a protective and recovery mechanism in post-conflict Jaffna. The fieldwork for this study was conducted during the ceasefire agreement when both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan forces were present in Jaffna. There was also a rumor among the people that spies representing both the LTTE and the Sri Lanka government were active at this time. Even the author ‘on an occasion was openly accused of being a spy for the government or the CIA’ (Central Intelligence Agency) (p. 14), as she was ‘hanging out’ in public places, particularly spending a lot of time at the temples as part of her ethnographic fieldwork. Ordinary people were careful as to whom they could trust and on what they could speak to a stranger, and thus they exercised silence as a way of protecting them from potential harm and arrest from both the state and non-state actors. However, the war-affected people, political and media personnel and social activists in Northern Sri Lanka, following the end of the civil war, often break their silence and frequently mobilise against injustice. They demand the state to reveal the whereabouts of their relatives who disappeared at the time of violence and displacement and to release their properties and lands controlled and occupied by the Sri Lankan forces in the so-called High Security Zones (HSZs) and to free media from the interference of the state and its armed forces.

What is happening after the civil war came to a brutal end? People, activists and Tamil political leaders have been looking for opportunities and spaces to break their silence in order to convey their voice to the international community, since their collective voice has not been heard by the Sri Lankan government and suppressed by the of oppression and arbitrary arrests. For example, hundreds of northern Jaffna Tamils protested when David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Britain arrived in Jaffna in November 2013 demanding the state to reveal what happened to their relatives and friends who went missing during and at the end of the war. Balendran Jeyakumari and her 13 year-old daughter Vipoosika protested on a number of occasions demanding information on a family member who disappeared at the end of the war and were eventually arrested and detained in March 2014 on suspicion of harboring a criminal. Jeyakumari took a leading role in the demonstration that greeted David Cameron (BBC Asia 2014, March 14). After almost one year with the regime change and due to local and international pressure on the Sri Lankan government, Jeyakumari was released on bail and asked to report in a nearby police station on a monthly basis. She was also asked to surrender her passport in the court and informed not to move outside the district where she lives without permission. It is obviously understood through the court’s order that her free movement is prevented and her presence is regularly monitored. It is indeed another form of imprisonment in a relatively wider geographical space, even though she is released.

Secondly, Derges observes that the ritual performance of devotees has re-established a sense of strength and cohesion among fellow villagers and families. However, at the village level in Jaffna, the ritual performance, which generally takes place along lines of caste, fails to bring the entire community together. Notably, caste-based religious practices create divisions within the same ethnic group. The historical division in the religious domain has been further accelerated by the reconstruction of caste-based Hindu temples with the support of diaspora remittances sent by both dominant and subordinate castes in Jaffna. The author’s observations on the sense of strength and cohesion created among fellow villagers and families through a rituals sharply differ from the observation that ritual performance takes place mostly along lines of caste and kinship in the villages in Jaffna. The author, as she herself stated, lived in a densely populated urban area rather than an isolated village. As a result, she would not have been able to observe religious and ritual practices that take place at the village level.

Thirdly, the discussion on caste and class in new social settings again failed to throw light on the caste-based discriminatory practices observed in rural Jaffna. According to the author, both in the peninsula and abroad, caste divisions have, to some extent, diminished, in large measure due to the war, which brought people together in refugee camps (p. 75). However, it should be noted that even though the war and repeated displacement made it difficult to maintain caste-based distance in an emergency social setting, a closer observation indicates that caste-based distance and discriminatory practices are prevalent in IDP camps, which emerged as a result of the long stay of IDPs. Many long-term IDP camps in Jaffna emerged along caste lines and reproduced the old categorizations of caste in an entirely new social setting (Thanges 2008). Moreover, it can be observed that caste divisions, to some extent, have been questioned due to the protracted war and displacement. But, at the same time, we cannot simply ignore the historical struggle of oppressed castes against untouchability in Jaffna (Vegujanan and Ravana 2007). The struggle against ‘castism’ in Jaffna has a longer history than the struggle for political freedom or an independent Tamil homeland (Russell 1982).

Fourthly, the author demonstrated that there was a reversal of caste status due to demographic change particularly at work place. Members of dominant caste, reduced in number, increasingly found themselves in subordinate positions within the work place (p. 75). Not like before, it is quite obvious in Jaffna that a substantial number of people from the traditionally oppressed castes have access to higher education and consequently get government jobs. Another important reason for this demographic change is that a large number of so-called ‘upper caste’ and ‘middle class’ Vellalar left the country due to violence and the armed conflict, extending their socio-economic networks within and beyond the country (McDowell 1996). For example, McDowell (1999) provides statistics on the caste composition of Sri Lankan Tamils who arrived in Switzerland between 1983 and 1991. According to him, 63% of the population was Vellālars and 13% of them were Karaiyārs (fishermen) from the western side of Jaffna peninsula. His analysis shows that there was a significant mixed-caste of migrant population in the middle years of the 1990s.

It was estimated as of the 1950s that half of the population (50%) in Jaffna peninsula was Vellalar (Banks 1960). A study in a village (Mallakam) in Jaffna shows that 31% of the village population was Vellalar (Thanges 2008). It is possible to get an approximate caste-based break down of the population when a researcher conducts an ethnographic survey in a small village with the support of local government officers and inhabitants. It is indeed extremely difficult to get an accurate percentage of Jaffna’s population in terms of their caste status, as there are no official records on the caste composition of the population. However, overwhelming displacement towards western countries particularly among the Vellalar caste (McDowell 1996,1999; Danial & Thangaraj 1995) is instrumental in changing the traditional demographic patterns in the socio-economic and religious domains of Jaffna. The demographic change in Jaffna, however, did not bring about a fundamental change in the dominant social history of Vellalar (Arasaratnam 1981). They still carefully maintain their dominant role in the spheres of religion, positions in higher educational institutions and Tamil national politics in Jaffna.

Finally, Derges rightly observes that there is an increasing class-consciousness following the exodus of different caste and class groups abroad and due to their acculturation into the social systems of the west and their accumulated wealth (p. 78). It is an important and obvious observation in today’s Jaffna society. However, she did not explain in detail how this class-consciousness among different caste groups including oppressed castes brought changes in their everyday inter-caste interaction, power relations, socio-economic and religious status and the traditional caste hierarchy. These are indeed potential research areas, which scholars need to focus on in their ethnographic fieldwork in an extensive and holistic manner in order to understand the changing socio-economic trends in contemporary Jaffna society.

As it is noted at the beginning, the ethnographic fieldwork for this study was conducted from ‘July 2003 to November 2004 with a shorter period in 2005’ (p. 14) and the findings were published as a book in 2013. There is almost an eight-year gap between the fieldwork and the publication. Notable changes have taken place in the social, economic and political atmosphere after the end of the civil war in may 2009. These changes include the reopening of the A9 highway connecting peninsula to the mainland of the country and the consequent developments in internal trade and internal labor migration. The recent regime change in Sri Lanka as a result of the presidential election took place in 8th January 2015 has created a small opening to exercise democracy in political, economic, and socio-cultural affairs in the country. These changes, perhaps, lead to social recovery and transformations.

Apart from these shortcomings, on the whole, this study throws light on the complex nature of the social realities and ritual recovery practices among those who undergo political violence and oppression in their everyday life in the war-affected Jaffna society. It is an immense contribution to those who are interested in studying the ‘new’ role of local Hindu religious and ritual practices, which emerged as an effective transformative and recovery mechanism in conflict and post-conflict settings.

*Thanges Paramsothy, PhD Research Student in Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of East London, UK

Works Cited

Arasaratnam, S. (1981) Social History of a Dominant Caste Society: The Vellalar of North Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the 18th Century, The Indian Economic Review, XVIII (3 & 4): 377-391.

Banks, Michael. (1960) ‘Caste in Jaffna’, in E. R. Leach, (ed.) Aspects of Caste in South India, Ceylon and North West Pakistan. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 61-77.

BBC Asia, (2014, March 14) Tamil Activist Detained in Sri Lanka. Available at: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-26577956.

Daniel, E Valentine.&Thangaraj, Yuvaraj. (1995) ‘Forms, Formations and Transformation of the Tamil Refugee’, in E.V. Daniel & Chr. Knudser, J. (eds.) Mistrusting refugees, Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp.225-255.

Das, Veena. (1997) ‘Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain’, in Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das and Margaret Lock (eds.), Social Suffering, Berkeley: University of California Press.

McDowell, Christopher. (1996) A Tamil Asylum Diaspora: Sri Lankan Migration, Settlement, and Politics in Switzerland, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

——-. (1999) ‘The Point of No Return: The Politics of the Swiss Tamil Repatriation Agreement’, in R. Black and K. Koser, (eds.) The End of The Refugee Cycle? Refugee Repatriation and Reconstruction, Oxford: Berghahn Books, pp. 126-141.

Russell, Jane (1982) Communal Politics: Under the Donoughmore Constitution 1931-1947, Sri Lanka: TisaraPrakasakayo Ltd.

Shilling, Chris. (2004) The Body and Social Theory, London: Sage Publications.

Thanges, Paramsothy. (2008) ‘Caste and Social Exclusion of IDPs in Jaffna Society, University of Colombo Review,1(2): 80-102.

Vegujanan and Ravana (2007) SaathiyamumAthatkuEthiraanaPorattangalum (Castism and anti-caste struggles), Chennai: South Vision.

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Latest comments

  • 8

    Thank you. The study you have reported confirms what I have observed since the war ended. The changes that have taken place in traditional sexual mores has been avoided. Alcoholism and drug addiction are also rampant and have not been mentioned. Expectatations are extremely high, because living standards-real and apparent- of expatriate relatives has fired dreams beyond the capacity of the North or the island to fulfill. This aspect has also been not addressed. This has created many parasites who prey on others. Finally, many who become materially and educationally successful among the so-called lower castes have assumed a Vellalah identity now. This social ascendency, unfortunately indicates a desire to become vellalahs, rather than demonstrate a desire to attain a higher social status transcending caste identities. This will create a situation where the strength of the Vellahla caste will be constantly replenished, despite the forces that have affected it adversely. The poorer and segments of the so-called lower castes will continue to bear their heridatory cross. This aspect too deserves deeper study. The consequences of war, poverty and lack of employment opportunities have also created a large segment in the northern society who are addicted to charity. This addiction too deserves deeper study.

    To recover as a people, we have to recognise the the social manifestations that have established among the northern Tamils, study their extent, adverse effects and find remedies. I hope you will provide further insights, as they become available.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 1

    Derges appears to have been unaware of the part played by the army in parading its cadres in hindu devotees’ dress and going in procession including bogus Thirukkavadi dancers to occupy the Nalloor temple and premises on the final most important day of the annual festival.


    And, the fact that the army does not distinguish between social classes among northern tamils in harassing them and interfering
    in their family lives and livelihoods – like some tamils who believe in the “caste system” and wish to perpetuate it for the advantage of so-called vellalas who appear to believe that they have a special ‘vellala gene’ which is inherited, and which cannot be ‘shared’ under any circumstances, even with educated affluent non- vellalas.

  • 0

    I wonder how one could call it ‘Post conflict Sri Lanka’. It is ‘Post war’situation now.After the CFA brokered by the Norwegians was signed and until it was unilaterally abrogated by the Sri Lanka governmenet it was ‘No war-No Peace’ situation. I don’t understand how both you and the author of the book state so. If it is so why all this bother.Surely as academics you must first be sure of the terms you use or if it is not your field consult someone from that field(Conflict Resolution, Peace studies etc.)

  • 0

    I still await a response from the author of the book and the writer of this article.if it is the post conflict Sri lanka has the root causes of the conflict been addressed and solved? In fact the root causes have not been addressed even.Looks like two blind so called academics are trying to lead others.

  • 0

    I think that everybody knows the root causes for the conflict have not yet been addressed. The author of the book is trying understand the role of Hindu ritual practices to recover people who are affected by war. It is one way of studying society. As a reader of this article, I see the term, post conflict Sri Lanka, is of course debatable in terms of the period when the fieldwork was conducted. Apart from that, I see it is important what is written in the book based on the findings.

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