Encompassing Empowerment in Ritual, War and Assassination

Michael Roberts, courtesy of Berghahn Press and Social Analysis and Doug Farrer, the Editor of the Special Volume on “War Magic“, Social Analysis, 2014, vol 58/1…….. see http://berghahn.publisher.ingentaconnect.com/content/berghahn/socan/2014/00000058/00000001;jsessionid=brf7pbpqi52o9.Victoria….. Note that the article has a sub-title: Tantric Principles in Tamil Tiger Instrumentalities.

Abstract: This study highlights the Tantric threads within the transcendental religions of Asia that reveal the commanding role of encirclement as a mystical force. The cyanide capsule (kuppi) around the neck of every Tamil Tiger fighter was not only a tool of instrumental rational-ity as a binding force, but also a modality similar to a thāli (marriage bond necklace) and to participation in a velvi (religious animal sacrifice). It was thus embedded within Tamil cultural practice. Alongside the LTTE’s politics of homage to its māvīrar (dead heroes), the kuppi sits beside numerous incidents in LTTE acts of mobilization or military actions where key functionaries approached deities in thanks or in preparation for the kill. These practices highlight the inventive potential of liminal moments/spaces. We see this as modernized ‘war magic’—a hybrid re-enchantment energizing a specific religious worldview.

Keywords: cosmic encirclement, enchanted practices, liminality, LTTE, regeneration, sacrifice, suicide attacks, Tantrism

28c-vipoothi lad Figure 1 Young Tiger Fighter with Holy Ash on His Forehead Heads for the Battlefield in the Late 1980s —Photograph © Shyam Tekwani

Faced with calamity, death, and prospective danger, people in the Indian world seek votive protection and aid from mystical forces of all sorts. In the Indian sub-continent and its offshoots, these anchors of succor and shields of protection are drawn from the transcendental religions long connected to the area and the localized belief systems associated with ‘tribal’ and allegedly ‘primitive’ peoples.

Four contemporary instances of protective practice introduce us to this phenomenon. First, Sanjay Srivastava (2007) observed urban healers, mostly Hindu but also Muslim, retailing amulets as protective charms on the pavements of Delhi. Amid the erotic sex manuals and ‘footpath pornography’ that were vigorously peddled by vendors, he found advertisements for a “Tantric ring”; a “māla [chain] with 108 beads” that promised to “take away all your troubles, cast spells, pass exams”; and a booklet titled “Assam Bengal ka jaadu” that could “make humans disappear” (ibid.: 129, 130). Second, some Indian cricketers engage in sporting struggles with colored string bracelets around their wrists, in effect, amulets that “have been blessed by some local godman.”1 Third, Jacob Copeman indicated that his relatives in Delhi who were afflicted by a blood disease kept their medicines beneath idols of Ganesh, Krishna, and Jesus Christ so that the cures would be blessed.2 Fourth, Shyam Tekwani’s camerawork in the late 1980s3 captured a young Tamil Tiger fighter heading for combat duty with holy ash (vipūti) sharply and freshly emblazoned on his forehead in what is also called a pottu and is often a circle (see fig. 1).

All four examples indicate belief in supramundane forces, that is, powers beyond this world, powers that are intangible, mystical, and magical. They mark what Weber (1946; 1978: 174–205) would deem to be ‘enchanted practice’ at odds with secular rational thought (see also Roberts 2006: 77–79).  These enchanted practices have usually involved the propitiation of forces associated with the transcendental religions we call Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. But they could also embrace animist spirits and in more recent centuries have engaged Muslim saints (pir) and Christian figures.4 The last examples highlight the considerable cross-fertilization and pluralism of religious practice in South Asia. Thus, in Sri Lanka one finds Buddhists as well as Christians (and even a Muslim or two) at religious festivals associated with the deities of the Hindu world (Bastin 2002; Obeyesekere 1978, 1981; Roberts 2005c: 500–503). Hence, it is no surprise that a Tiger fighter of Christian persuasion should on occasion emblazon her forehead with ‘sacred ash’ in the manner of a Saivite person.5

These practices have extended to penances that involve considerable privation. Among those whom we have come to know as ‘Hindus’ (in all their variety), the powers of the deities are also stoked at regular intervals during festivals that involve teeming masses. When participants enter trance states of possession and ecstasy, they are understood to be agents of specific deities or a more general form of divine intervention.

The deities invoked are both male and female. The most popular are those who are amoral, that is, those known for the power of their wrath and for their affirmative responses to total devotion from a votive supplicant. These deities “may prove protective and beneficent at one time, then cruel at another” (Mines 2005: 126; see also Nabokov 2000). Several of these deities are female: Durga, Kāli, and Kannagi, for instance. Their iconic representations are in tune with such punitive force: “the violence of their origins and their vengeful natures are often reflected in their murderous depictions as … fanged terrifying women who look ready to bite” (Mines 2005: 133).

Given profound anxiety, it is hardly surprising that both protective shields and punishing forces carry commodity value. The pavement hawkers in Delhi referred to by Srivastava catered to popular prejudices by associating their amulets with Bengal and Assam, the two regions in the northeast of the subcontinent widely regarded as the primordial source of Tantric magic. The amulets on sale conveyed the ring of authenticity through such linkages. To those so oriented, they bespoke the power of encirclement.

We now face the unmarked question attached to three of our initial ethno-graphic examples: why does supramundane protection take an encompassing form, usually circular? For South Asia, the answer in surmise lies in Tantrism.

Religious Hybridity in Asia

Tantra as an umbrella concept refers to “a complex array of ritual, theoretical, and narrative strategies that are specific to their various … contexts,” but nevertheless have “a grouping of common denominators [permitting one to] classify these as so many varieties of a single tradition” (White 2000a: 5). Tantra emerged at some point “in the middle of the first millennium c.e.” (ibid.: 20) and intertwined with the currents of thought and practice that we denote today as Vedism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism. Each of these terms should be comprehended as intertwined religious movements rather than doctrinal systems with clear boundaries; and we must heed White’s insistence that “[n]o form of medieval Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism … has been without a Tantric component” (ibid.: 7).

Religious practices in Asia are a challenge to those who have been nourished in the either/or epistemology of the modern West. Cross-fertilization of thought and practice has, I repeat, generated hybridity in form. We must therefore absorb White’s (2000a: 12ff.) arguments about the imbrication of Tantric ele-ments within the better-known transcendental religions. ‘Imbrication’ means the interlacing and fusion of threads of practice or belief in a mosaic form that is reproduced over time amid the changes that enter over the years. In meshing with Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism in their search for spiritual emancipation, Tantric practices encouraged the deployment of “ritual technologies” (ibid.: 12)—so that one sees Tantric sādhakas (practicers) pursuing various sorts of practical attainments, including astrology, medicine, and magic (White 2000a). Such attentiveness to supernatural forces was (and still is) nevertheless located alongside “a connecting thread … between the magical and the spiritual” (Goudriaan 1979: 7).

One of the common denominators within the various threads of Tantrism was the use of the mandala (White 2000a: 13), that is, the “idealized circular model of the cosmos” (White 2000b: 629). Central to this visual aid to medita-tion was the Tantric representation of the energy levels of the universe as “a set of concentric circles (cakras) of hypostasized forms of the divine energy”; such divine energy could appear as “an array of divine, enlightened, perfected, demonic, human, or animal beings” (White 2000a: 10). These beings could also “manifest themselves on an acoustic level, as garlands or piled-up aggregates of phonemes (mantras),” or they could appear, “on a graphic level, as the written characters of the hieratic alphabets” (ibid.).

Two facets of Tantrism are pertinent to our focus on the principle of encom-passment in relation to Tamil Tiger practice. First, Tantric practitioners believe in the possibility of a fusion with the sublime deity, a goal that is line with their tenet that “the ‘microcosm’ of the body is [homologous] with the ‘macro­ cosm’ of the … world of the gods” (Goudriaan 1979: 8). So we have within Tantrism the reiteration of the Hindu idea of consubstantiation of self with a deity or deities (Fuller 1992: 73; Nabokov 2000: 8–9). Second, popular Tantra in many parts of India promoted the related notions of vīra (virile hero) and siddha (perfected being). The rites used by people to propitiate the various local deities included “the gratification of these beings through sacrificial offerings.” The “supreme offering [was] none other than the bodily constituents of the practitioner himself.” In the result, one found “an exchange of prestations in a heroic mode. Human practitioners [made] the supreme sacrifice of their own person, moving the Tantric deity to reciprocate with untold powers and supernatural enjoyments” (White 2003: 13–14). In short, one sees a dedication of self to the Greater Good, the Deity.6

The Tamil Tiger Kuppi 

The gifting of oneself for the Greater Good of Thamilıīlam (the insurgent state) was one of the fundamental principles enjoined on all those who were recruited to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), being embodied in the concept of uyirayutham. Uyirayutham refers to the gifting of one’s life as a weapon and thus describes a person whose suicidal action is a that-kodai or ‘self-gift’ (Chandrakanthan 2000: 164; Roberts 2005a: 13; 2005b; 2006). Its material form was embodied in a kuppi, a vial containing cyanide that all Tiger fighters carried on the promise that they would bite the vial if they were in imminent danger of cap-ture. The kuppi was a pragmatic instrument devised by the LTTE as a defensive tool that would save their personnel from the rigors of torture. But it was also sculpted into their mythology in ways that consolidated their esprit de corps.

The kuppi was also a talisman of selfless zeal: it told the world that the LTTE fighters possessed a remarkable intensity of commitment. None of the other Sri Lankan Tamil groups that had taken to arms in a quest for independence in the period from 1983 onward had adopted this tool and its symbolism. There is little doubt that the LTTE garnered widespread admiration among the Sri Lankan Tamil populace for their quality of arppaNippu (dedication, offering, gift, sacrifice).7 Thus, the kuppi also functioned as a propaganda device in the competition for support among the various armed groups during the initial stages of the LTTE’s war effort.

Velupillai Pirapāharan (1954–­2009), who founded the LTTE in May 1976, was captivated by the action of another budding revolutionary, Ponnudurai Sivakumāran, who swallowed cyanide when the police cornered him in 1974.8 Pirapāharan told a BBC team that he himself began to carry cyanide quite early in his career as the LTTE leader. Thus, the kuppi was eventually rendered into a badge of initiation for all Tiger fighters after their training—as graphically depicted in a BBC documentary (see Lambert 1991) filmed in the LTTE territories.9

This emblem, the kuppi, was usually worn as part of a necklace (māla). That, clearly, was the most pragmatic manner in which to carry a tool that one has to use quickly. But whatever the practical advantage of such a device, it can hardly be lost on Tamils that the kuppi was (is) in appearance similar to the thāli (also written as tāli).

In its original form, the thāli was a turmeric-stained string that was placed around a woman’s neck by her spouse at the rite finalizing their marriage.10 Among Tamils, this simple token could be embellished by gold emblems or pellets of various kinds threaded onto the string. Or the necklace itself could be a gold or silver ornament that bore more than just protective value. It is the meaning attached to the thāli, however, that is central: the thāli signifies a permanent bond—should the wife cut the thāli , the relationship would be severed (Mines 2005: 39).

My early juxtaposition of kuppi and thāli was originally a surmise. This interpretative leap has since been confirmed by Trawick’s (2007: 81) ethno-graphic finding: “[T]he pendant around the neck [of Tiger fighters] signifying submission to a particular discipline (kaddupādu) is a variform of the marriage pendant signifying, for women, the renunciation of personal freedom in the service of husband and family.” Significantly, the concept kaddupādu is often linked in modern Tamil expressions as part of a trinity with kadamai (duty, obligation) and kaNNiyam (decency).11 This triumvirate of cultural values has a puritanical thrust associated with sectarian and group discipline.

Like the thāli , therefore, the kuppi embodied a binding relationship—in this case, between each fighter and the LTTE (and its cause of Eelam). It was also a form of defensive empowerment. Both the kuppi and thāli immediately bring to mind one of our opening gambits, the image of a Tantric amulet. It is the encompassing form in which these ‘tools’ were worn that leads one to reflect upon a whole array of practices in the Hindu world that involve circular acts of protection or commitment.

Encompassment in Hindu Practices

The Tantric amulet is but one example of a species of shamanic practice deployed by many forest-dwelling and agricultural peoples of archaic time who faced the vicissitudes of environment and disease without the benefits of advanced technology. It is a form of enchanted practice that invests the principle of encompassment with magical force. We can speak of such encompassing acts as encirclement, but this should not be taken literally because a box or rectangle can also encompass. Indeed, the architectural composition of a Hindu temple usually involves a series of concentric box-edifices encompassing the central core with its inner sanctum, a sanctum that is also understood to be a ‘root seat’ and ‘seed chamber’, which is at once the primordial source of life and, metaphorically, a Mount Meru looming over the universe (Bastin 2002; Shulman 1980).

The placement of art designs in white rice powder, known as kolams, on the threshold of dwellings by their occupants is intended to “protect the household, and specifically [to] protect its female inhabitants” from evil spirits (Bastin 2002: 136), while also signifying “a state of auspiciousness” (Nagarajan 2007: 87). The power of protection resides in the intricate design and the vari-ous astrologically determined patterns—namely, forms of cakra (the wheel of dharma)—that they select (see fig. 7.1 in Bastin 2002: 135). Referencing Diana Eck’s work on darshan, Nagarajan (2007: 97) states: “The designs of kolams … [also] reflect symbolic tirthas (crossings)—that is, spaces to be crossed with a consciousness of the sacred.”12 Kolam art designs are also drawn in front of deities in shrine rooms. Thus, these kolam designs are forms of mantra, tantra, and yantra. In effect, what we have is protection sought through what one can call ‘astrological alignment’, a form of parallelism or ‘analogue magic’.

In a further testament to encompassment, it is a conventional practice for young boys to be ritually invested with a string or cord around the waist, an encircling device that is threaded through a brass capsule with a letter or symbol contained within it. This is the nūl kaddu, a protective charm. Used at the vulnerable childhood stage, its principal purpose is to provide protection, and one commonly observes little boys running around naked—except for a cord and amulet around their waists.

Just as significant are the collective rites of encompassing protection. One of the most fundamental rituals of protection and life renewal in agrarian and fishing villages in India and Sri Lanka involves elaborate ceremonial processes that culminate in a circumambulation of the village, known as the pradakshina. This act of boundary marking separates the vulnerable, civilized, and superior from the surrounding katu, the wasteland that is ghost-ridden, wild, and dangerous (Mines 2005: 40). The pradakshina is a mode of protective encompassment that is also regenerative: it is designed to secure divine boons for the fertility of people and ample harvests in the village.

These are just a few of the many illustrations of encircling spiritual acts in the world of Hindu worship (in all the varieties marked by the term ‘Hindu’). Central to much Hindu worship are actions and substances that further an identity of being between the worshipper and the superior divine power, understood as a Good and/or Force. The devotee seeks to disembody him- or herself in the process of embodying the divine figure that he or she is propitiating. This identity of being is revealed/effected not only “by the sequential logic of [a] ritual as it unfolds” (Fuller 1992: 72), but also by a multi-media ‘assault’ on all the senses that seeks to enfold and subsume the participants in one ‘globe’.

It is because of its englobing and pervasive capacities that a camphor flame is a favorite ‘tool’ in a Hindu pūjā (prayer ritual) in front of a deity’s image and is often scheduled for its climax. We are speaking here of ārati (also ārathi, aarthi), a rite of worship involving the encompassing ambience of light and fume. At this moment, the divine and human participants are most fully identified in their common vision of the flame and hence in their mutual vision of each other—the perfect darshana. God has become man and a person, transformed, has become god; they have been merged and their identity is then reinforced when the worshiper cups the hands over the camphor flame, before touching the fingertips to the eyes … Light, most especially the camphor flame, is thus an extraordinarily potent condensed symbol of the quintessentially Hindu idea, implied by its polytheism, that divinity and humanity can mutually become one another, despite the relative separation between them that normally prevails in this world where men and women live and must die. (Fuller 1992: 73)

The bhakti movement, commencing from about the sixth century CE, encouraged individuals to seek the realm of divinity through personalized devotion to a deity without resort to intermediaries. Bhakti has been “a theology of embodiment” where one’s devotion is “embedded in the details of human life” (Prentiss 1999: 6). By linking a focused mind to a loving heart, the devotee is believed to secure unity with the deity through participatory love-linked-to-awe (Cutler 1987: 1, 8, 10–11; Fuller 1992: 156–158, 164–169, 210–217; Prentiss 1999: 6–7, 15–18).

One expression of this theme was inscribed within a Saivite devotional poem in Tamil called the Periya Purānam, produced in the twelfth century by Cēkkilār. This is a hagiography about 63 Tamil Saiva tontars (servitors) or nāyanmārs who extend unqualified commitment to Lord Siva. The nāyanmārs’ absolute devotion inspires them to pursue fierce acts in sacrificial mode against their own loved ones and against themselves. In brief, their “emotional inten-sity of anpu” (or love) drives them “far beyond normal moral boundaries” to an “excess of blood and death”—an excess that pleases Siva because it embod-ies total devotion.13 Here, then, was an outstanding story of sacrifice of self for a Greater Good. The Periya Purānam, I note, was not an archaic text. It was transmitted as poetry, chant, and performative act in the Tamil vernacular. In short, it entered literary fare as well as folklore throughout much of the Tamil world in the modern era.14

Thus, we witness here the ultimate offering to divine form: the gift of oneself. For the vast majority of Hindu devotees, this esteemed act is not practicable. Arduous journeys of pilgrimage on religious occasions or surrogate acts of sacrifice serve as alternative paths. At many religious festivals, the culminating act that involves the sacrifice of goats or lambs—a rite called velvi15 by Tamil speakers—is one such moment. It is a ritual of renewal as well as an act of defensive girding through divine power. At the Bhadrakāli festival in Udappu along the western coast of Sri Lanka, the amassed worshippers yell “Aro¯harā” as a goat’s neck is cut off. Since the animal is garlanded and the ceremony occurs within a pandal, or temporary structure, the ethnographer Tanaka (1991: 119) suggests that the rite has affinities with a marriage ceremony. So we come full circle to the velvi’s analogy to the thāli of marriage rites and the binding promise of the kuppi, which is adopted by every warrior inducted into the fighting force of the LTTE.

To sum up in point form, these terms have the following meanings:

  • thāli = binding discipline of self in marriage;
  • velvi = sacrificial gift and a promise to a deity, one that carries the bondage of a vow;
  • kuppi = binding self to one’s peers and to the Greater Good via a promise of defensive sacrifice for one’s comrades.

It is no surprise that Tamil teenagers in the Eastern Province in the late 1990s firmly believed that joining the LTTE was a path to death (Trawick 2007: 81–86, 110, 129–130, 171, 176). This was a road that significant numbers were prepared to take.

Dead Body Politics

Such propaganda by deed was quickly elaborated by the propaganda around the dead, confirming Verdery’s (1999: 27) notion of “the political lives of dead bodies” (see also Roberts 2008). The LTTE initiated practices of homage to their dead in ways that created a sacred topography and mobilized Tamil senti-ment in favor of the leadership of the Tamil liberation struggle. On 27 November 1989, “around six hundred LTTE cadres assembled at a secret venue in the Mullaitheevu district jungles of Nithikaikulam” to commemorate what they call Māvīrar Nāl or Great Heroes Day (Jeyaraj 2006).

This was a revolutionary measure that involved shelving Hindu practices of cremation (Roberts 2005b; 2005c: 499–500). Between 1989 and 2004, the com-memorative process was incrementally expanded on an epic scale, occurring simultaneously at numerous sites, especially the 21 impeccably maintained tuyilam illam (resting places), where the countless Tiger fallen have been ‘planted’or commemorated by plaque.16 Here, then, was a striking reversal: the tuyilam illam, like cemeteries elsewhere in the world, became sacred terrain and were explicitly deemed to be ‘holy places’ and ‘temples’ (see Harman 2011; Natali 2008; Trawick 2007: 245). This moment engendered a community of suffering across the length and breadth of the Tamil country and along Tamil networks across the world. The lamentation, however, was gilded by pride and a celebration of worth (Roberts 2005b: 81–82). Indeed, as Schalk (2003: 404) tells us, Heroes’ Week was celebrated as an elucci nāl, that is, a “Day of Edification” or “Day of Rising.”17

Māvīrar Nāl and Cosmic Encirclement: The Heroes Week over the seven days culminating at 6:05 pm on 27 November was a state ritual, a ritual of Thamilīlam for Thamilīlam.18 Māvīrar Nāl was grand theater, but theater displayed locally and suffused with evocative cultural motifs and artifacts, while being imbricated with religious principles and enchanted hues. Within a context involving widespread cross-fertilization between religions and where Christian practices are a thin veneer upon a Hindu foundation (Bastin 2002; Bayly 1989: 454ff.; Obeyesekere 1978; Stirrat 1992), the religious hues within cultural forms were invariably Saivite, the dominant form of Hinduism­ among Tamils in both India and Sri Lanka.19

The LTTE honored their dead māvīrar (great heroes) during Māvīrar Nāl by displaying their pictures in their home locality. The garlanded photographs were placed in a series along the walls of a shed, the māvīrar mandapam, built especially for the purpose. The color scheme of the pillars separating sections of the shed replicated that of temple pillars, while the whole ambience was strikingly Saivite-cum-Hindu.20 The walls displayed meaningful scenes from the Tamil heritage that reached back into India (Roberts 2005b: 78–82). One illustration must suffice. Amid the colorful paintings of palatial houses, several calling to mind chalets and chateaux in Switzerland or other regions in northern Europe (see fig. 3 in ibid.: 79), was one scene where the image of an attractive and corpulent woman with a pot held at her waist appeared to smile down benignly at photographs of dead women that had been placed in front of the backdrop (see fig. 2). This puzzled me until the scholar Karthigesu Sivathamby explained that the backdrops were intended to convey the idea of pleasant surroundings and abundance.

This imagery of plenitude gains emphasis by reference to the religio-cultural values associated with the pot in Tamil culture, its regular use in rituals of regeneration such as Tai Pongal (or Ponkal), and its widespread deployment in LTTE mobilization work in Sri Lanka as well as abroad. Diane Mines’s (2005) village study in South India provides specifics that carry generalized validity for much of the Tamil-speaking country, if not much of India. The ponkal or boiled rice dish21 has to be interpreted in the context of temple festivals known as kotai held throughout the summer months in southern India.22 By cooking rice in pots and by offering personalized vows (ne¯rtikkatan) before a deity, the people of a village see themselves as producing general fruits (palan) or benefits (nanmai, lit., ‘goodness’) as well as specific outcomes, such as getting a loan to build a house (ibid.: 42, 149, 151).23 In the village festival studied by David Mosse (1994: 316), the heated goddess from outside was understood to be “the virginal or ascetic form identified with Durga or Kali” and was “carried from the water source [a well] to the village temple in the form of a ritually prepared pot containing milk which [was] said to ‘boil over’ with the goddess’s power.”

47--VVT-tropes of abundanceFigure 2 Photographs of Female Māvīrar Surrounded by Tropes of Abundance at a Ma¯vı¯rar Shed in Velvittathurai, November 2004 .. Photograph © Michael Roberts

In sum, therefore, the scenes surrounding the revered Tiger māvīrar were pleasant. They evoked thoughts of goodness and conveyed notions of abundance, plenitude, fructification, and renewal, suggesting the birth of a new ‘era’. And that is not all. Arrays of māvīrar photographs were displayed on one occasion at Pirapāharan’s old school, Maheswara College in the Eastern Province, in a blaze of lights set within a red background (see fig. 24 in Roberts 2007a). One could not have asked for a better replication of the encompassing principle of ārati. In addition, at the entrance to the tuyilam illam in the front-line town of Vavuniya, a profuse cluster of white flowers, almost certainly the fragrant, wild jasmine nitya kalyāni, encircled the LTTE flag (see fig. 3).24

This was not an isolated instance. In my observations in 2004, every official LTTE building at Kilinochchi had a flagpole—bearing the LTTE’s totemic flag— encircled by white jasmine. Likewise, the official epitaph to the LTTE fighters who had died in capturing Kilinochchi, intended as an inspiration for renewed vigor, was encircled in orange stone by replicas of the karthigapoo or glory lily, the flower selected by the LTTE in 2003 as their official emblem (see figs. 7, 9 in Roberts 2006). These were all officially ordained state actions. They embodied (embody) the principle of ‘cosmic encirclement’.

45a-Flagpole & Jasmine - Vavuniya 2 Figure 3  Nitya Kalyāni (Periwinkle) Encircles the Flagpole at the Tuyilam Illam at Vavuniya

Liminality and LTTE Inventiveness: The LTTE was one of the most innovative insurgencies in the history of insurrection. Here the reference is to military technology and improvisations in the face of adversity that enabled its leaders, over a long period of time, to counter forces (Sri Lankan and Indian) that had superior resources. This capacity also enabled the LTTE to function as a de facto state from mid-1990 until early 2009. Engaged in a liberation struggle with an explicit ideology of sacrifice, the LTTE as an organization and its personnel as individuals confronted an existential threat. What has been shown at the empirical ethnographic level, as well as interpretative surmise, is the manner in which—as Kapferer (2002: 21) puts it—the LTTE personnel worked “intuitively … by extending and adapting” the “available cosmologies” in support of this project.

Anthropology has laid great store by the concept of ‘liminality’, and Kapferer (2002: 22) stresses the vitality of this concept when he argues that magical activity in the modern world often arises in “spaces apart from everyday life” (ibid.: 22). Such liminal moments have the capacity to be “major sites of invention” (ibid.: 21). In the story of the LTTE as a state actor, the māvīrar rituals were a major invention within Sri Lankan Tamil culture. In replacing cremation with burial, the LTTE converted what would normally have been considered polluted mortuary sites into holy temples (Natali 2008; Roberts 2005b: 75; 2005c: 499–500). The tuyillam illam became places where the kinsfolk and friends of the deceased went to interact with those who had sacrificed themselves for the cause. And it was not only to lament: “They talked with them, scolded them, praised them, cajoled them, and they asked for help to bear the horrors of [their] terrifying war” (Harman 2001: 3). In this view, it is argued that the LTTE reproduced the “very substance of a religious impulse that embodied a form of traditional Tamil religiosity” (ibid.: 5). Deploying Kapferer, one can modify Harman’s emphasis on tradition. One can argue that the whole corpus of practices involving māvīrar veneration was a modernizing innovation and a practice of re-enchantment that re-energized the ‘magic’ of a specific religious worldview. In these terms, the result is a new hybrid composition (cf. Kapferer 2002: 20).

Concluding Remarks

Both cosmic and astrological alignments are threaded within the multifaceted range of LTTE practices, both commemorative and military, without necessarily being the predominant elements in their calculations. Furthermore, on some occasions Tiger functionaries indulged in votive thanksgiving acts or flower offerings that were suffused with religious principles, thus securing connections with their ‘lineage’ dead (Roberts 2006: 76–80). Critical military operations were also girded by propitiatory acts involving key functionaries. The Tiger assassination team intent on killing Rajiv Gandhi went to a Pillaiyar ko¯ vil in Chennai lorded over by Ganapati25 before heading for Sriperumbe-dur because one of the assassins, Dhanu, “wished ‘to say her final prayers’” (Roberts 2010: 38). After their successful strike at Sriperumbedur, on 25 May 1991 the operational commander Sivarāsan took the remainder of the team to Tirupati, South India’s most famous pilgrimage center, on “a thanksgiving trip” (Kaarthikeyan and Raju 2004: 50). This thanksgiving vow to cosmic forces was in keeping with a similar act by Velupillai Pirapāharan about seven years earlier. When a shipment of arms secured by the LTTE from Lebanon was landed secretly in Tamilnadu in 1984, thereby reducing their dependence on India and giving the LTTE an edge over the other militant Eelamist groups,26 Pirapāharan “tonsured his head as a mark of thanksgiving to the Hindu gods [and] quietly traveled to [the] pilgrim town of Palani to pray at the hill temple of Murugan, his favorite deity” (Narayan Swamy 2003: 110).

Those readers who are wedded to positivism and its either/or rationality may conceivably deem the circumstantial character of some evidence marshaled here as inadequate. However, I underline my arguments by taking my cue from D. S. Farrer’s (2008) essay on Malay healing arts and the inspiration it has drawn from Alfred Gell’s (1999) work on art objects and the ‘technology of enchantment’. The issue raised by this act of prompting can be phrased thus: what do the practices that I have outlined, whether flower offerings, garlands, tonsured heads, or amulets around the neck, achieve? Clearly, without ethnographic backing, the answers are speculative, although built on a priori grounds.

Take the kuppi worn around the neck by most LTTE soldiers. It was adopted, as I revealed earlier, at a powerful rite of induction that served to bind the soldiers to their peers and to the LTTE cause. Such rites, which are typical of military training in all parts of the world, are intended to implant loyalty to one’s peers and the unit of operation. Here, one’s unit becomes a single element in a larger force that is set up as the ultimate goal in life. Sporting teams also work in this way. Such practices are facets of the generalized technology of ‘beguilement’, a modern form of enchantment that works within and through the psychology of instrumental rationality.

Thus, arguably, the kuppi sustained self-confidence among Tiger fighters by reminding them that they were a special breed of persons, rather like the heroic figures of the archaic Tamil past and recent (Tiger) past—those deified humans of enshrined natukal power.27 In this sense, the kuppi extended its carrier’s agency in a manner similar to Gell’s (1998: 6, 31) interpretation of art objects, such as the Asmat shield or the painted prows of Trobriand war canoes, which are understood by their creators to generate awe in the enemies whom they face (see Farrer 2008). One can therefore suggest that the Tiger fighters were inspired to believe that they transcended quotidian life. In this way, the kuppi was also good instrumental psychology, although its effects were not necessarily successful at all times.28

While this psychological boost was partly meant for defense against torture, all Tiger warriors were aware of the first LTTE suicide attack. Carried out by Vallipuram Vasanthan, known as Captain Miller, in an explosive-laden truck, it pulverized an army camp at the Nelliyadi school on 5 July 1987. Miller’s was the first suicide attack by the Black Tigers, a wing of the LTTE that was trained to mount suicide missions. His action, one can assume, was also etched in the minds of Sri Lankan fighting forces. Nelliyadi came to symbolize the penetrative power of suicide attacks on land or sea, carrying the potential to instill fear in the enemy. Certainly, some LTTE personnel believed that the enemy was frightened by the Tigers in general, whether Black Tigers or ordinary soldiers (Trawick 2007: 118, 162). So the mystique of the kuppi and the serial record of its military successes captivated the LTTE’s own fighting personnel and promoted self-confidence.

In review, therefore, the cyanide vial, the kuppi, can be interpreted as a form of distilled power and “congealed agency” that enhanced the “ongoing agentive capacity” of Tiger personnel (Copeman 2004: 135; see also Farrer 2008; Gell 1999; Roberts 2007b). It was thus part of the technology of enchantment. In this argument, the play of instrumental rationality intertwines with a stress on the belief in cosmic powers.

Note, moreover, that the LTTE dead were commonly described through a “formulaic phrase” that runs thus: vīramana maranam adainta—“[having] attained a heroic death” (Trawick 2007: 84; see also ibid.: 102). This terminology and their status as ma¯vı¯rar linked the dead, in my interpretation, with a significant strand of belief in Tamil culture, namely, the belief in pey (ghosts) and “lesser ‘demonic’ beings including the army of invisible supernatural warriors (vı¯rans: a term denoting power and heroic valour) who attend figures like Aiyanar and Munisveran” (Bayly 1989: 32–33; see also White 2003: 3–4, 8).

Consider therefore a further dimension within the cultural backdrop: “Tamil culture draws no distinct boundary between gods and adored persons, creatures, or things: the dead are deities of a kind, and so are children and movies stars” (Trawick 2007: 107). Rather than reinforcing Trawick’s own leanings, these strands of information provide circumstantial support for the speculation that the māvīrar may have been invested with divine power and the punishing cosmic capacities of those ‘attendants’ serving Kāli, Murugan, and other deities of just cause.29

The latter proposal is explicitly tentative in character. In contrast, several pieces of evidence, some circumstantial and others empirically sustained, have been assembled within this article to establish the fact that Tiger personnel, including some of the highest rank, resorted to ritual practices of protection or invocation in connection with momentous operations. The tonsuring of one’s head by males is a form of ‘embodied practice’ among Saivites and Tamils that encapsulates a religious orientation toward divine power. It is thus a form of enchantment in the Weberian sense (opposed to secular, rational modes of being). In the context of military operations, Pirapāharan’s tonsuring of the head and expressions of thanks to powerful deities at Palani in 1984 can be deemed, metaphorically, if not literally, as ‘war magic’.

Acknowledgments: This article would not have been possible without the assistance of several friends who responded to many of my questions. Extra-special thanks are con-veyed to S. V. Kasynathan, Maya Ranganathan, K. Sivathamby, David Gordon White, and Sanjay Srivastava. Among others who helped me on specifics are Darshan Ambalavanar, David Mosse, S. Nataraja, Anoma Pieris, Fr. Aloysius Pieris, Shyam Tekwani, Rajesh Venugopal, S. Visahan, Richard Weiss, Mark Whitaker, and the late D. Sivaram.

Michael Roberts is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide and the author of numerous works on the Tamil Tigers. Educated in the discipline of history at the University of Peradeniya and Rhodes Scholar for Ceylon in 1962, he taught at Peradeniya from 1966 to 1976 before moving sideways into anthropology at the University of Adelaide in 1977. His many publications encompass social mobility, social history, agrarian issues, peasant protest, popular culture, urban history, caste in South Asia, practices of cultural domination, and nationalism. His main focus has been Sri Lanka, and his present concern is a comparative study of martyrdom. He is one of the cen-tral figures behind the new site http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress. com and also manages https://thuppahi.wordpress.com, http://www.flickr.com/ photos/thuppahi, and http://cricketique.wordpress.com.


  1. Deepak Mehta, e-mail note, 6 March 2008.
  1. Jacob Copeman, personal communication, 2010. See also Copeman (2004).
  1. Eventually becoming embedded within the LTTE, Tekwani began entering the north from late 1983 onward, embarking from Rameswaram and working with different Tamil militant bodies until the LTTE became the main arm. From late 1987, some of his missions were via Colombo, but through LTTE contacts. See Pratap (2001: chap. 1) for one account of the latter. These secret visits included the period when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was in occupation, from 1987 to early 1990.
  1. For illustrations of the forces propitiated by these practices, see Bayly (1989: 27–33, 141), Fuller (1992: 48–49), Mosse (1994), and van der Veer (1994: 33–53, 58–61, 200–201).
  1. This woman was Sita (code name), who was then a mother and an ex-fighter still linked to the LTTE (Trawick 2007: 88–89). Note Sita’s response when faced with Trawick’s challenging reaction: “In our movement all religions are one” (ibid.: 87).
  1. Apart from the readings cited, this review was aided by Flood (2006).
  1. On arppaNippu, see Schalk (1997: 66, 69, 76) and Hellmann-Rajanayagam (2005: 123). One also has the form ArppaNam. Both mean “the performance of dedication as well as that which is dedicated” (S. V. Kasynathan, email note, 30 March 2007). Also see Pratap (2001: 102–104), Roberts (2005c: 496; 2007a), and Trawick (2007: 184, 185, 207).
  1. Pirapa¯haran himself did not swallow a cyanide capsule when cornered on the battlefield on 18–19 May 2009; he died in a firefight (Roberts 2012). Details about Sivakuma¯ran are from Narayan Swamy (1994: 29), Roberts (1996: 252–254), and T. Sabaratnam in chapter 7 (“The Cyanide Suicide”) of a serialized book that is available on the web (http://www.sangam.org/Sabaratnam/PirapaharanChap7.htm).
  1. See the BBC documentary film Suicide Killers (Lambert 1991) for the oath and other details. For evidence of Pirapāharan’s god-like status in Tamil circles, see Pratap (2001: 70–72, 102–104), O’Duffy (2007: 265), and Trawick (2007: 85, 125, 182–183).
  1. V. Kasynathan, personal communication; Mines (2005: 38–39).
  1. V. Kasynathan, telephone conversation, 6 January 2008; Darshan Ambalavanar, e-mail communication, 7 January 2008.
  1. “Stepping on the kolam is like stepping into the Ganges River,” one Tamil woman told Nagarajan (2007: 97).
  1. This paragraph is based on comments kindly sent by Darshan Ambalavanar of Toronto that corrected questionable facets of my previous reading of Hudson (1990). On vannanpu or ‘violent love’, also see Vamadeva (1995).
  1. On 1 January 2007, Darshan Ambalavanar sent me this note about the Periya Purānam: “It was continuously taught in Saiva and probably broader Tamil literary circles … At the same time, the stories of the nāyanmaārs constitute the stuffof Saiva devotion.” He added that it was “carried by Vellalar and castes close to them,” so the issue as to whether it was diffused to the non-orthodox castes and dalits (lower class, or untouchables) should be treated as an open one.
  1. Etymologically, the multivalent term velvi can refer to (1) spiritual discipline, (2) the site of a rite, or (3) service or worship and thus can designate a desire or offering in search of a goal. In pointing this out with the aid of his dictionary, the scholar Karthigesu Sivathamby (1932–2011) added that it is related to the mythological image of kalavelvi, where the pey (evil spirits) dance on the battleground and make ponkal (gruel) from the gore of the fallen (information conveyed in November 2004). Also see Pfaffenberger (1979: 260), Roberts (2006: 74–75), and Tanaka (1991: 72, 114, 118–119).
  1. The LTTE does not bury the remains of a person. It conceives its mortuary opera-tions to be a ‘planting’ and speaks of the bodies as vitai (seeds) and viththu-dal (bodies that have become seeds) that will soak into the soil and fructify as ash (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 123–124, 138, 141; Schalk 1997: 79). See also http://www.TamilNet.com, 6 July 1999. Viththudal is the combination of two words: viththu (seed, semen), where the th represent the t with a dot underneath it when the diacritic is available, and udal (body). I was assisted here by S. V. Kasynathan in correcting a misprint in Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s article.
  1. For an elaboration of the concept elucci, assisted by e-mail exchanges with Rick Weiss in New Zealand, see Roberts (2010).
  1. This review is aided by my observations of one such week in the Jaffna Peninsula and environs of Kilinochchi in 2004 and by Roberts (2005b: 76–92; 2005c; 2006).
  1. I am influeced here by the terminology adopted by Bastin (2002) and Trawick (2007).
  1. This was the firm opinion of Vineeta Sinha of the National University of Singapore after I showed her pictures of the inside of two sheds taken during my visit to Jaffna in November 2004. Sinha has done extensive research on Hindu gods in southern India.
  1. This boiled rice dish has to be prepared “in a special way on open fires, often cooked on thresholds” (Mines 2005: 222). The Tai Ponkal holiday “is associated with agricultural productivity, kinship connections, and celebration of the Tamil New Year” (ibid.).
  1. Kotai literally means ‘gift’. Thus, regeneration is through offering, dedication.
  1. For illustrative details on the use of pots in Sri Lanka, see Bastin (2002: 137, 168– 169, 186, 195) and Tanaka (1991: 66, 78–98, 102–122).
  1. See also the garlands around tuyilam illam epitaphs in figure 23 in Roberts (2007a).
  1. The god Pillaiyar, also known as Vināyakar (Remover of Obstacles), Ganesh, and Ganapati, among other names, “is the most beloved and revered of all the Hindu gods, and is always invoked first in any Hindu ceremony or festival. He is the son of Parvati (the wife of Shiva, the Destroyer, the most powerful of the Hindu trinity of principal gods.” See http://www.lankalibrary.com/myths/ganesh.htm.
  1. Between August 1983 and July 1987, the Indian government and the state authori-ties of Tamilnadu actively supported and sponsored the several Eelamist fighting forces and established military training camps for most of them. The LTTE had at least 11 batches of soldiers trained at such camps, some of which were run by the LTTE. It is widely believed that TELO was the group most favored by the Indian authorities. However, TELO and other factions such as PLOTE were totally depen-dent on India for its arms and ammunition. Pirapa¯haran had the foresight and the connections to secure his own lines of armament.
  1. Natukal (also written as nadugal) are more or less equivalent to ‘hero stones’ (vāragal) and ‘memorial stones’ in southern India. They are burial epitaphs for sannya¯sin¸ sati, and other such heroes who have been vested with divine power and have become sites of supplication.
  1. Some Tiger soldiers did not bite into their cyanide capsules when capture was imminent (Shyam Tekwani, pers. comm.).
  1. The previous quotation from Trawick is from part of a section where she refers to an ethnographic situation at the house of a friend, an ex-female fighter who had placed a garland around each photograph of a dead friend adorning the rooms. The picture of Pirapa¯haran, however, had no garland. Trawick deploys this fact to contend that treating the leader as a god in this manner would be contrary to the LTTE’s proclaimed position that it is “a secular movement” (Trawick 2007: 107). But there are two counterpoints to this argument. First, in Indian convention, garlanded photographs are a conventional way of indicating that people are dead, whereas Pirapāharan was not yet deceased at the time and thus was not quite a māvīrar. Second, despite this, there is some evidence that Pirapāharan was expressly likened to a god by senior LTTE personnel (O’Duffy 2007: 265). Female fighters such as Sita and Nalini also beatified him—that is, he was depicted as ‘beautiful’ and a “man of goodness” (Trawick 2007: 85; see also ibid.: 81, 183).


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Filed under cultural transmission, Eelam, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, landscape wondrous, law of armed conflict, life stories, mass conscription, military strategy, nationalism, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, religiosity, Saivism, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, war reportage, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes, zealotry

2 responses to “Encompassing Empowerment in Ritual, War and Assassination

  1. Pingback: Lacquer’s Cultural History of Mortal Remains | Thuppahi's Blog

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