Who Are the Tamils?

An elderly Tamil woman in southern India
By Sowri on Flickr.com

The Tamil people are an ethno-linguistic group living primarily in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, as well as in north-eastern Sri Lanka. They were also a primary source of immigrants into the Maldives in centuries past.

Genetic and linguistic evidence suggests that the Tamils, a Dravidian people, were the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. They were pushed southward by an influx of Indo-European speakers; some Tamils mixed with the newcomers, while others moved into the south-most tip of India and the off-shore islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The Dravidic languages are wholly unrelated to Indo-European tongues.

With their lands' key position, jutting out into the Indian Ocean and its trade routes, the Tamil people have long relied on foreign trade as well as farming and fishing for their living. They have also maintained one of the most ancient living artistic traditions on earth, including unique musical, sculptural and poetic forms, as well as temple architecture and literature. The first century CE Greek source, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, mentions a place called Tamilakkam, or the Country of the Tamils. Tamilakkam served as an entrepot for trade with the Deccan Plateau and the deeper interior of India:

"Besides this there are exported great quantities of fine pearls, ivory, silk cloth... from the places in the interior, transparent stones of all kinds, diamonds and sapphires, and tortoise-shell; that from Chryse Island, and that taken among the islands along the coast of Damirica (Limyrike). ~ Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 56

In recent times, the word "Tamil" has been more often associated with the Sri Lankan separatist guerrilla movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or "Tamil Tigers." Founded in 1976 to seek a separate homeland for the Tamil minority on Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers were defeated by ethnic-Sinhalese government forces in 2009.

Pronunciation: TAM-uhl


"The British in India added control of the Tamil section of Sri Lanka to the previously-conquered Sinhalese areas in 1802, thus forming the colony of Ceylon."