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March of the Proud Malaiyaha People: Tracing 200 Years of Struggle and Resilience

Today marks a significant moment in the history of Sri Lanka as the ‘Proud Malaiyaha People’ continue their remarkable march, tracing the arduous path their ancestors undertook two centuries ago. Embarking on a journey spanning 22 kilometres from Tirappane to Kekirawa, this march, which commenced on July 28 from Thalaimannar, holds deep cultural and historical significance. As they stride through cities like Pesalai, Mannar, Madu, Veddikulam, and Mihintale, this march serves as a poignant reminder of the hardships endured by their forebears on their journey from Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Madurai, and Kanjore to Matale, Kandy, and Nuwara Eliya.

Coffee and Tea Cultivation in the Colonial Era

During the colonial period, ‘Ceylon’ was successful in the production of coffee and tea, and these people made the biggest contribution to those achievements. After independence, until the 1980s, Sri Lanka’s export economy was entirely based on the labour of this plantation community. Although there was no coffee cultivation, tea and rubber were the main sources of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka until the end of the 1980s.

Around 1823-24, George Samuel Bird, who became a white army officer, found the areas of Matale and Gampola to be very suitable for coffee cultivation. Accordingly, he started the first coffee garden in Gampola. The main problem faced by George Samuel, who started growing coffee like that, was finding labourers for plantation duties.

Because the Sinhalese were not very interested in doing the work of the whites. Then, Sir Edward Barnes, who became the governor, told Samuel about the problem of finding workers and said that if workers were brought to work from South India, they could find a large income from coffee. The result of that idea is that in 1827 it is implemented in this way.

Malaiyaha People in Sri Lanka

The first group came to Sri Lanka from South Indian regions like Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Madurai, and Kanjore. It is not wrong to say that they were brought like slaves. At that time, it is said that it took about a month to disembark from the pier in Thalaimannar and reach the quarantine camp in Matale. For this Tamil community to come to Sri Lanka, they must first walk to ‘Tiruchi’. After that, you have to come to Dhanushkodi via Rameswaram.

Looking at it this way, this is a fateful journey mixed with sadness and tears..!

The ancestors of the ‘Proud Malaiyaha People’ embarked on a perilous voyage, rife with horror, fear, and sorrow, as they fled diseases and fought against death. Countless lives were lost due to illnesses like smallpox, cholera, typhus, and malaria during this epic journey. The Mihintale Police Precinct is now a sombre reminder, believed to be the burial site of Tamil individuals who fell victim to these harsh conditions.

Matale, a city intertwined with the legacy of this march, was a pivotal destination for Tamil labourers brought from India. Isolated within detention centres upon their arrival, their experiences narrate the tale of the largest Tamil temple in Matale City. A glimpse into the past reveals that only about half of the approximately 1000 labourers survived after being brought from India to work on Sri Lanka’s plantations. Diseases and exhaustion claimed the lives of the rest, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of Matale.

Professor EFC Ludwig highlights that by 1840, the mortality rate among upland Tamil workers stood at 250 per 1000. Over time, the community grew in numbers, with census records indicating their rapid expansion. By 1891, around 235,000 Indian Tamils had made Sri Lanka their home, growing to 530,983 by 1911, and surpassing 700,000 by 1931.

Commonly referred to as ‘Malaiyahaaga Tamil’ or ‘Vatu Tamils,’ this community has undertaken the march to commemorate the arrival of their forefathers in Sri Lanka. This event holds special significance as it coincides with the bicentennial of their migration, which originally occurred around 1827. However, variations in historical accounts emphasize the importance of this march, uniting the community in their shared heritage.

The status of the community now

Two centuries may have passed, but the echoes of the past resonate in the present struggles of the Vatu Tamil community. The very fabric of their lives remains interwoven with the line housing culture established by the colonial powers. These compact housing units have become synonymous with their daily existence, shaping their health, habits, and even their mindset.

Health disparities within the estate community are a stark reality, with women experiencing particularly challenging conditions.

Diseases continue to claim lives at a higher rate than in other communities, and the quality of life remains compromised. The recent demand for a daily wage increase to 1000 rupees further highlights the economic disparities faced by this community despite their significant contributions to the tea export industry, a major revenue generator for the nation.

Despite attempts to alleviate the challenges faced by this community, substantive change has proven elusive. The deep-rooted struggles continue to plague the descendants of these pioneers who bore the weight of the plantation economy. The incongruity between the industry’s vast profits and the marginalized state of the labourers persists, a reflection of a historical imbalance that has yet to be rectified.

Political engagement among the plantation community gained momentum over the years, with the emergence of leaders such as Soumyamurthy Thondaman, George Motha, and Kalimuthu Rajalingam. The plantation workers’ participation in the political sphere underscored their desire for representation and equality. The journey from being disenfranchised and marginalized to asserting their political voice reflects the resilience of a community determined to rewrite its narrative.

The march of the ‘Proud Malaiyaha People’ transcends mere physical movement; it symbolizes a collective call for equality, opportunity, and justice. Their demand for improved living conditions, fair wages, and access to better healthcare and education reflect their aspiration to rise above the historical injustices they have endured. As we witness this historic march, let us heed the call of the ‘Proud Malaiyaha People.’ Let us acknowledge the struggles that have defined their past and continue to shape their present. May this march serve as a catalyst for change, prompting a society-wide introspection into the plight of this community and the imperative of rectifying the disparities they face. In an era characterized by progress and inclusivity, may we finally bridge the chasm of inequality that has persisted for two centuries, ensuring that the ‘Proud Malaiyaha People’ truly become proud of their place in Sri Lanka’s tapestry.