Activists / Anthropologists / Artists / The Caravan

A New Leaf



The town of Gampola in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district houses a 100-year-old structure comprising five “line rooms”—each windowless square, just ten by 12 feet in size, was once home to an entire family of estate workers. Though elsewhere people still live in such cramped accommodations, this particular row of rooms has been turned into a museum that boasts a peculiar collection of objects: including images of Subhash Chandra Bose and Mohandas Gandhi, an incense-stick holder with Jawaharlal Nehru’s face on it, drums once used to announce news of funerals and marriages, and an ooduku, or small drum, that is used to chase away the devil. Not long ago, these objects could be found in the homes of Sri Lanka’s Tamil plantation workers—also known as Malaiyaha, which means “mountain,” or up-country Tamils. The community is considered distinct from “Sri Lankan Tamils,” who have been settled on the island for much longer than the former group.

Over a course of ten years, the activist P Muthulingam convinced many Malaiyaha Tamils to donate their possessions to the Tea Plantation Workers’ Museum and Archive, which he founded in 2007. The museum’s small budget is evident: a map that traces the path the migrating workers took from south India to Sri Lanka’s hill country is hand-drawn and coloured; both the poetry that is pinned to one side of a long board, and the legal documents that occupy the other, are basic printouts. But the community is proud of Muthulingam’s efforts, nevertheless.

“There are other museums in Kandy,” K Yogeshwari, one of only a handful of women to lead a trade union here, told me in December. “However, they look at only the production aspects of how tea is made. This is the only museum dedicated to the workers. No one knows how much our community has contributed to this country.”

The Malaiyaha Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka by the British around the mid-nineteenth century to work on tea plantations. Hailing from places in Tamil Nadu such as Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Madurai and Thanjavur, many of them had fled poverty and famine, and came as bonded labourers.

Muthulingam, who runs the non-profit organisation the Institute of Social Development, or ISD, wanted to familiarise new generations with the community’s history of struggle, and also with its rich culture and traditions.

Some of the objects in the museum have dark backstories—for instance, the thappu drums lined up on the lawn outside. Until the 1930s, tens of thousands of Indian Tamils crossed the narrow ocean in canoes and made an arduous 238-kilometre trek from the west coast of the Mannar island on foot. Disease dogged their steps and many died on the way. They were buried in shallow, inexpertly dug graves, and many animals dug up their corpses, so the route was strewn with bones. Often, they had to move through dense forests, where the migrants beat the thappu and sang to scare away leopards and elephants.

After Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, gained independence in 1948, a few members of the Malaiyaha Tamil community got citizenship under a government scheme (Yogeshwari’s father was among them). Others lived under the threat of deportation—over 500,000 people were sent back to India. Having only ever known life in Sri Lanka, the community resisted. They organised protests where many burned their Indian passports. In 2003, the crisis was finally resolved when the last of the Malaiyaha Tamils who were still stateless—some 300,000 people—were granted citizenship.

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Published in The Caravan on May 1, 2017.  By Smriti Daniel. Pic by Malaka Mp.