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Complexities of A Social System

Gulbin Sultana

By Dennis B. McGilvray
Duke University Press and Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo, 2008 & 2011, pp. 425, Rs. 950.00


Dennis B. McGilvray in his book Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, ex-plores the ethnography of the Eastern region of Sri Lanka, originally inhabited by Tamil Hindus, Moors, small number of Sinhala chena cultivators and Vedda hunters. As a result of the Gal Oya project and other large, internationally funded irrigation and peasant-resettlements, significant shifts had occurred in the proportions of Tamils, Moors and Sinhalas living throughout the Eastern Province after independence, as government settled significant Sinhala population under those irrigation projects. While poor Tamils and Moors in this region were benefited enormously from irrigation projects, they had negative political implications in the long run.  The armed ethnic conflict that began in 1983 further impacted on the demography, society and politics of the East.  According to McGilvray, because of its ‘geographically juxtaposed and demographically unstable combination of Tamil, Moorish, and Sinhala populations, it is in the Eastern coastal region, not in Jaffna, fate of Tamil Eelam or unified Tamil province in the northeast-will ultimately be decided’ (p. 10). The rationale behind his argument is the distinctive identity of the Eastern Tamils from the Jaffna Tamils and the mutual suspicion between the Tamils and Moors of the Eastern province.  According to the author, the Eastern region is historically and sociologically different from the North. East is distinctive for its non-brahminical caste hierarchy, multi-religious communities, matrilineal clan traditions, and matrilocal family and dowry property system.  He argues that the Mukkuvars, a maritime Hindu caste originally from the matrilineal Malabar Coast of Kerala, became politically and economically dominant in the Batticaloa region in the wake of the thirteenth-century invasion of the island by Kalinga Magha. They moulded the social structure of the other Tamil castes to conform to their model of matrilineal descent and matrilineal political office. The Mukkuvars were assisted by a local non-brahmin Virasaiva (Lingayat) priesthood whose religious doctrines and ritual traditions emphasized less brahmanical forms of worship. Due to its non-brahmanical caste hierarchy and matrilineal clan traditions Batticaloa was viewed as an uncivilized region by the high-caste ‘Jaffnese’.  Despite having religious differences, the Moors and Tamils in the East on the other hand shared kinship and family patterns including Dravidian kinship terminology, bilateral cross-cousin marriage, exogamous matrilineal clans and clan-based political offices, and pre-modern transfer of most wealth and real property to daughter via dowry. Yet, the East coast Moors had a long history ...

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