Notwithstanding brazen efforts by vested interests to depict ‘Maaveerar Naal’ falling on 27 November as a day of general Tamil mourning, it must be emphasised that the so-called ‘Great Heroes Day’ was never a national day of Tamil mourning. The ‘Maaveerar Naal’ was an intensely conducted partisan event “of the Tigers, for the Tigers and by the Tigers”. To portray it otherwise as some are doing, including stalwarts of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is sheer political hypocrisy. This does not mean that Tamils do not mourn the loss of their loved ones. They do. The Tamils have lost those dear and near to them in the communal violence of 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983. They have suffered innumerable losses in many forms during the long years of the war. There cannot be a single Tamil living who has not suffered the loss of a loved one during the years of violence and war. What is unacceptable however is the deception to depict the ‘Maaveerar Naal’ as a day of universal Tamil mourning
by D B S Jeyaraj
‘Maaveerar Naal’ or Great Heroes Day (GHD) is observed on 27 November by sections of Sri Lankan Tamils regarded as being generally supportive of the Tigers. It is the day on which fallen members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are commemorated. It was at one time a very important event in Sri Lankan politics. However after the military defeat of the LTTE and the demise of its leader Veluppillai Prabhakaran in May 2009, it has lost much of its lustre and prestige.
Nevertheless the GHD continues to be observed on a minor scale in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and in Western countries where there are substantial numbers of Tamils. In Sri Lanka many of these observances are done despite strenuous efforts by the Government to prevent them. In fact many of the GHD observances by political elements are done in a spirit of defiance against the Government rather than from a desire to mourn the departed militants. To family members, relatives and friends the loss is very personal and the yearning to pay homage is very genuine.
The ‘Maaveerar Naal’ or Great Heroes Day concept has its roots in the somewhat antiquated customs and cultural practices of the Tamil people. There existed in the martial tradition of the Tamils a practice known as ‘Nadugal Vazhipaadu’ and/or ‘Veerakkal Vazhipaadu,’ which literally meant worshipping the planted stone and worshipping the hero stone, respectively. Tombstones were erected at the graves of great heroes fallen in battle or armed combat. These were honoured regularly through special Panegyrical rituals.
The classical Tamil literary works of the Third ‘Sangham’ (Academy of Poets and Scholars) period are replete with references to this ‘Nadugal/Veerakkal Vazhiipaadu’ practice. The third Sangham period was from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd Century CE. Some of the references to Planted Stone/Hero Stone Worship can be found in the verses of ‘Ahanaanooru’ (35, 53, 67, 131, 289, 297, 343, 365, 387), ‘Puranaanooru’ (221, 222, 223, 232, 261, 306, 314, 329), ‘Aingurunooru’ (352), ‘Pattinappaalai’ (line 79) and ‘Malaipadukadaam’ (lines 388 and 395).
The decline of the Tamil monarchic dynasties along with the advent of Moghul and Nayakkar rule followed by European colonialism saw the martial tradition among Tamils declining and becoming debilitated. The custom of paying homage to heroes fallen in battle became non-existent in an environment where war was virtually unknown for generations.
The advent of the Tamil militant groups in Sri Lanka and the commencement of an armed struggle brought about a change. Now the LTTE went back to the roots of the Tamil martial culture and revived its most potent symbolic and ritual form. A special day to pay homage to Tigers killed in battle was proclaimed as ‘Maaveerar Naal’. Tribute was paid by ritualised observances.
Cult of martyrdom
An important feature of the homage paid by the LTTE to members slain in battle was the construction of several cemeteries called ‘Maaveerar Thuyilum Illangal’ (abodes where the great heroes slumber). In a modern replay of the ancient planted stone/hero stone worship practice, each of the departed cadres was marked by a single tombstone. In most cases the actual body of the dead cadre was not buried at the spot. Most bodies of dead cadres – if and when recovered – were disposed of with honours at the area of combat itself. While these tombstones were laid out in neat rows, a pavilion commemorating them collectively with names and relevant dates was also constructed.
The LTTE by nurturing this cult of martyrdom achieved many things. It provided those cadres among the living a bond of affiliation with their departed comrades. The cadres got a feeling of reassuring comfort that he or she too would be honoured in similar fashion when dead. The LTTE cadres had fought and died in the belief that posterity would remember and honour their memory and martyrdom.
The GHD observances provided them with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality. Likewise the kith and kin of the departed souls too were gratified that the loss of their loved one has not been in vain. The emotive content of GHD observances also motivated other youths to join the LTTE. The spectacle also inspired the general population in continuing to appreciate the LTTE sacrifices and render support.
The first ‘Maaveerar Naal’ (Great Heroes Day) was held on 27 November 1989. From 1991 the entire week from 21-27 November was declared as Great Heroes Week.
Interestingly the birthday of LTTE leader Prabhakaran was 26 November. Since this day was now within the Great Heroes Week, more importance was attached to it. An outpouring of emotion both genuine as well as sycophantic emerged. Gradually the focus shifted from Great Heroes Day to the leader’s birthday.
Some even thought that Great Heroes Day was to celebrate the leader’s birthday. Soon Prabhakaran acted firmly and clamped down all festive activity connected with his birthday. The week was for the fallen heroes and the red letter day of that week would only be 27 November, the Great Heroes Day, he decreed.
Nevertheless various religious observances were undertaken by followers and well-wishers on 26 November, seeking divine protection and blessings on the man who supposedly personified Tamil resistance to Sinhala chauvinist hegemony.
Sathiyanathan and 27 November
Why then was 27 November chosen to be ‘Maaveerar Naal’? It was to commemorate the first Tiger to die fighting the Sri Lankan armed forces.
The first-ever Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) member to embrace death in combat was Sathiyanathan of Kambarmalai, a northern village adjacent to Valvettithurai, the birthplace of Veluppillai Prabhakaran, its leader. Sathiyanathan alias Shankar also known as Suresh died on 27 November 1982. Incidentally the Sea Tiger Special Commander Thillaiambalam Sivanesan alias Soosai was married to Shankar’s sister. Soosai is from Poligandy, a coastal village in Vadamaratchy sector.
Shankar like Raveendran alias Pandithar – also of Kambarmalai – was a childhood friend of Prabakharan and one of his earliest recruits. Shankar had gone to the Nithiyanandan residence in Navalar Road, Jaffna, to warn them of a military crackdown on Tamil professionals and intellectuals suspected of being sympathetic towards the LTTE. Even as Shankar was communicating with Jaffna University Lecturer Muthiah Nithiyanandan and his wife Nirmala, an ex-varsity lecturer who was teaching at a leading girls’ school, a posse of soldiers surrounded the house. Shankar managed to shoot his way out of the military cordon but sustained serious injuries in the process. The Nithiyanandans were arrested.
Later Shankar’s condition deteriorated and another senior LTTE member Thalayasingham Sivakumar alias Anton Master who later represented the Tigers at the Thimphu talks undertook a perilous, clandestine journey by boat along with the injured Shankar to Tamil Nadu to procure urgent medical assistance for the latter. This was in the pre-1983 period when the LTTE consisted only of around 30 full-time activists and had very few resources including even wireless communication equipment.
Leaving the grievously injured Shankar in a safe-house at Kodiaakkarai, on the coast, Anton went up to Madurai where LTTE chief Prabhakaran and some others were staying then. This was the time when Prabhakaran was confined by court order to Madurai because of his involvement in a broad daylight shoot out with People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) Chief Umamaheswaran at Pondy Bazaar in Chennai (then Madras). Thanks to the help rendered by Pazhaniappan Nedumaran who was then a member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative assembly representing Madurai West, Shankar was brought to a farmhouse belonging to Nedumaran for medical treatment. The people nursing Shankar in the coastal hideout had ignorantly given a lot of water to quench his thirst. This worsened his condition to a point of no return. Shankar died in Madurai on Prabhakaran’s lap mumbling “Thambi, Thambi” (Thambi was the endearing term by which Prabhakaran was known in the old days) while the visibly shaken and weeping LTTE leader kept stroking his hair. This was one of the few occasions when the LTTE leader ever wept in public. Death in combat of a cadre whether immediate or subsequent was a new phenomenon to the LTTE on that day.
Seven years after Shankar’s death in 1989, around 600 LTTE cadres assembled at a secret venue in the Mullaitivu District jungles of Nithikaikulam on 27 November. The occasion was the newly-proclaimed Great Heroes Day or Maaveerar Naal as known in Tamil. This was the time when the Indian Army was fighting the LTTE on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government. Thanks to the understanding arrived at between the LTTE and then President Ranasinghe Premadasa a cease-fire had been declared on 21 September that year.
A withdrawal of troops had been announced in principle. The Indian Parliamentary Elections scheduled for December 1989 would determine whether Rajiv Gandhi would be re-elected or not. That verdict would in turn decide the fate of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka. The LTTE leader had in the meantime thought of honouring his dead cadres by observing a unique ceremony called Maaveerar Naal or Great Heroes Day.
The LTTE leader was proud then of the performance of his organisation in having withstood the onslaught of 132,000 troops of the Indian Army. When the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed and hostilities ceased the LTTE had lost 632 cadres in battle. When a cessation of hostilities with the Indian Army was enforced the LTTE had lost a further 711 cadres. Prabhakaran wanted to recognise their contribution, honour their sacrifices and pay tribute to their memory in a collective manner. What better way than promulgating a special day? Which better day than the date on which the first LTTE member laid down his life? So 27 November it was.
The first Great Heroes Day
The first Great Heroes Day was a restricted affair of which the highlight was a highly-emotional address delivered extemporaneously by Prabhakaran to his enraptured followers. It was at this meeting that Prabhakaran uttered his historic pronouncement: “If ever Prabhakaran betrays the Tamil Eelam cause, you all must kill me.”
This writer saw the video cassette in which the event was recorded for the first time in Toronto. Prabhakaran in his speech traced the history of the LTTE while enraptured cadres listened. At one point he stated that Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam was killed by the LTTE. “Amirthalingam had supported Tamil Eelam at one time but later betrayed it. That is why we killed him. Tomorrow if Prabhakaran betrays the Tamil Eelam cause then you all must kill me. Whoever betrays Tamil Eelam must be killed,” the Tiger leader pronounced then. Subsequently this “scene” was edited out of the video cassette that was widely circulated among the diaspora.
The nineties of the last century saw the LTTE controlling the greater part of the Northern Province and substantial pockets in the Eastern Province. During this period the LTTE developed to a great extent, the ceremonial aspect of paying homage to its fallen heroes.
Utilising its control to the maximum of the north and parts of the east during the 1990-1995 period the LTTE conducted elaborate demonstrations and events as part of observing the ‘Maaveerar Naal’ and ‘Maaveerar Vaaram’ (Great Heroes Week)The week culminated in a grand function on the 27th at a special location attended by Prabhakaran himself. With the passage of time GHD ceremonies became decentralised. Several observances would be conducted simultaneously but pride of place however was naturally awarded to the one in which Prabhakaran participated.
Participation of family members
The most touching spectacle of the Great Heroes Day observance was the mass participation of family members at these cemeteries and memorial pavilions. Later GHD ceremonies were observed in foreign cities where substantial concentrations of the Tamil diaspora lived. The overseas Tigers and fellow travellers seized upon the event to test and demonstrate their popular support as well as generate more funds by exploiting people emotionally.
As the ethnic conflict kept continuing the casualty rates also increased. This meant that more and more Tamil families were suffering the losses of their loved ones and becoming grief stricken. Gradually the event became large scale and mass oriented.
This writer has witnessed Great Heroes Day ceremonies held overseas as well as films of functions in Sri Lankan Tamil areas. There is no doubt that the sight of-grief stricken emotional outpourings over their loved ones by family members was a profoundly moving one. The families of fallen LTTE cadres were called ‘Maaveerar Kudumbangal’ (Great Hero Families) and were often given preferential treatment in spheres that came within the ambit of LTTE control.
The Great Heroes Day address
The annual Great Heroes Day address by the LTTE leader began to assume great significance and importance over the years. Since Prabhakaran was quite reclusive and shunned direct media exposure the GHD appearance became one of those rare occasions where he interacted with the public. The annual speech was also considered to be something akin to a policy statement by the LTTE. It was dissected by analysts to ascertain what the LTTE leader envisaged for the immediate future. In later years Prabhakaran did not deliver extempore but read from a carefully prepared text usually written by LTTE political adviser Anton Stanislaus Balasingham alias Bala Annai.
The setting up of the LTTE’s own radio station ‘Puligalin Kural’ (Voice of Tigers) enabled it to be relayed out. With the development of information technology the speech was later relayed simultaneously via Internet. The LTTE also had its own ‘Nitharsanam’ TV and GHD proceedings were telecast to the world at large from the Wanni. The emergence of several Tamil broadcasting stations in the Western world created a situation where the speech was heard in Tamil homes throughout Europe, Australia and North America. Likewise the acquisition of various television stations by Tamils enabled wide televised coverage too.
Multi-faceted and diversified observances
The GHD observances were multi-faceted and diversified. The highlight of the ceremonies was the lighting of candles and torches by those assembled. While people holding these flickering lights lined up and formed an illuminated corridor, a glowing torch was brought in relay form by LTTE cadres in similar fashion to that of the Olympic Games.
The flaming torch was then given to the chief guest who then lit a large eternal flame known as ‘Eegai Chudar’ (Flame of Sacrifice) at the memorial monument. This was followed by the lighting of a myriad lamps and torches, making the occasion a festival of lights. Several senior LTTE figures were chief guests at different ceremonies. The flames at various memorials were lit by senior Tiger stalwarts. All the ceremonies were attended by members of great hero families taken by procession to the various memorials from different spots. Music was played by troupes from different LTTE formations.
The different venues were also decorated with pandals. The red and yellow flags were hoisted widely. In 2003 the LTE declared the ‘Senkaanthal’ flower known as ‘Kaarthigai Poo’ (November flower) as the national flower of ‘Tamil Eelam’. Thereafter the flower known in English as ‘Gloriosa Lily’ (Botanical name Liliaceae Glory lily or Gloriosa superba) was an integral part of GHD décor and decorations.
The primary ceremony however was at the site in which Prabhakaran himself participated. A newly constructed memorial was the usual venue. After the LTTE flag was hoisted a display demonstration by selected squads from various units of the LTTE was held. A march past was held after which Prabhakaran accepted the ceremonial salute. Prabhakaran then began his address at 6:05 p.m., the time that Shankar breathed his last. The speech was usually about 30 to 40 minutes.
Prabhakaran thereafter accepted the flaming torch brought in relay form and went on to light the premier flame of sacrifice. After observing two minutes of silence along with the massive crowd in attendance, the LTTE leader garlands a picture of Sathiyanathan alias Shankar, the first great hero. Thereafter the LTTE leader accompanied by other Tiger members lit the small lamps and placed flowers before the pictures of martyrs.
This then is the history behind the GHD significance. So great was the importance attached to the day that the LTTE opened a special office in Kilinochchi to handle the event as well as affairs concerning dead LTTE cadres and families. A retired educationist Pon. Thiyagam was in charge of this office. He is now living outside Sri Lanka.
Not a national day of Tamil mourning
What must be taken note of is that the LTTE never commemorated or mourned the loss of Tamils who belonged to other Tamil militant movements. The sectarian LTTE did not regard others as fallen heroes. Only LTTE cadres were given that recognition. Families of dead cadres belonging to other movements were not allowed to mourn their loved ones publicly. They could only mourn in private.
Notwithstanding brazen efforts by vested interests to depict ‘Maaveerar Naal’ falling on 27 November as a day of general Tamil mourning, it must be emphasised that the so-called ‘Great Heroes Day’ was never a national day of Tamil mourning. The ‘Maaveerar Naal’ was an intensely conducted partisan event “of the Tigers, for the Tigers and by the Tigers”. To portray it otherwise as some are doing, including stalwarts of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is sheer political hypocrisy.
This does not mean that Tamils do not mourn the loss of their loved ones. They do. The Tamils have lost those dear and near to them in the communal violence of 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983. They have suffered innumerable losses in many forms during the long years of the war. There cannot be a single Tamil living who has not suffered the loss of a loved one during the years of violence and war. What is unacceptable however is the deception to depict the ‘Maaveerar Naal’ as a day of universal Tamil mourning.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected])