The Tamil diaspora refers to descendants of the Tamil immigrants who emigrated from their native lands to other parts of the world. They found primarily in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Réunion, Mauritius, Europe, North America, and parts of the Caribbean.
- Early migrations
- British French and Dutch indentured workers and others
- Return Migration from Sri Lanka and Burma
- Post 1983 dispersal of Sri Lankan Tamils
- 20th century dispersal of Tamils from India
- Mainland Africa
- Indian Ocean Islands
- North America
- Caribbean and Latin America
- South Asia
- South East Asia
- West Asia
- Northern Europe
- Western Europe
Many of Tamil emigrants who left shores of Tamil Nadu before 18th Century and mixed with countless other ethnicities. In medieval period Tamilians emigrated as soldiers, traders and labourers settled in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and intermixed well with local population, while few communities still maintain their language and culture. Many groups still claim descent from medieval-era Tamil emigrants such as the Thigalas, Hebbars of Karnataka who have resided in Karnataka for generations have even adopted Kannada as their mother tongue, Kaikadis of Maharashtra, Chittys of Malaysia and the Sri Lankan Chetties, Bharatha people, some section of the Sri Lankan Tamils of Sri Lanka.
An early emigrant group that is not well documented is the Tamil Muslims who emigrated in considerable numbers to the Sultanate of Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) and were instrumental in spreading Islam amongst the indigenous Malays. Some are descended from immigrants from land of Arabia (Middle East), though it is not known which part of the Arab world they are from.
British, French, and Dutch indentured workers and others
During this period British, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Danish colony administrators recruited a lot of local Tamilians and took them to their overseas colonies to work as laborers, petty administration officers, clerical and military duties.
In the 19th century, Madras Presidency (of which the Tamil Nadu region was a core part of) faced brutal famines. Great Famine of 1876–78. Tamil Nadu was both politically and economically weak. Britishers thus made use of hungry Tamil workers for their plantations all over the world - Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Mauritius, South Africa, Fiji and also Sri Lanka (distinct from the Tamils who migrated to Sri Lanka before 18th century). Some of the Tamil groups (especially Chettiyars, Pillais, Muslims) emigrated as commercial migrants. These groups then dominated the trade and finance in Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, South Africa and other places. The first Indian to own a merchant ship during the British times comes from this group.
These Tamilians well integrated, assimilated with their adopted countries, and became part and parcel of local populations in Mauritius, South Africa, Guyana, and Fiji. Where as Karnataka Tamils of Karnataka, Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka of Sri Lanka, and Tamil Malaysians of Malaysia were evolved into distinct communities of their own with unique multilingual sub-culture and identity.
Many also left to work in the possessions of the French Empire via its holdings in Pondichéry in Réunion and the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe (See Malabars). A small group was hired by the Dutch colonial government in Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) to work in Sumatra (namely in Medan). Roughly about 40,000 (est) descendants of these immigrants are still found in Medan.
Many independent Tamil merchant guilds such as the Nagarathar also left for these areas in an age old tradition of their ancestors who had traded in these areas for the last 2,000 years. Britain also hired many Sri Lankan Tamils as clerical and other white collar workers, especially in Malaysia and Singapore. All these different streams have combined to create vibrant Tamil communities in these countries.
Also many Tamils from India and Sri Lanka migrated to Crown colony of Singapore and British Malaya as labours, army clerks and merchants.
Return Migration from Sri Lanka and Burma
During and after the devastating WW2 a large number of Tamils and other Indians from Burma fled to India- to Manipur, and Tamil Nadu. They established Burmese refugee colonies that still exist today and maintain an identity as Burmese returnees. In Sri Lanka the Sinhalese nationalist SLFP party disfranchised all Indian origin Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka and returned 600,000 back to India under the Srimavo-Shastri Pact signed between India and Sri Lanka. Many were repatriated to the Nilgiris region's tea estates. They too maintain a distinct identity as Ceylon returnees in Tamil Nadu. Black July has created another stream of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka refugees in India who have languished for the last 20 years in refugee camps throughout Tamil Nadu while many others have integrated with the mainstream community or left India for other countries in the west.
There is also a movement of native Sri Lankan Tamils to India; some migrated to do white-collar jobs during the British days, but there has been a much bigger diaspora today.
Post-1983 dispersal of Sri Lankan Tamils
The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora is less than 100 years old and was well established in Malaysia, Singapore and England prior to the post 1983 Black July induced dispersal of refugees and asylum claimants in India, Europe, and Canada. Although relatively recent in origin, this subgroup had well-established communities in these host countries prior to the 1983 pogroms. A more recent Sri Lankan Tamil community has developed rapidly in the United States.
20th century dispersal of Tamils from India
In the second half of the 20th century, Tamils from India migrated as skilled professionals to various parts of India and countries like UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UK, USA, Singapore and so on. Some of them got citizenship of respective countries but still having strong family and cultural ties with Tamil Nadu, than those who migrated before 1950, who lost touch with their ancestral links in Tamil Nadu.
With reference to Mainland Africa, There is a significant amount of Tamils in Africa, Especially Kenya. Kenya holds at least 30% of the Tamilians in the Country followed by Uganda. Most of these people are Migrants while some of them have been living there for generations.
Tamil migration to South Africa started as from 1860, first as indentured labour and in the first batch 340 Tamils were there. Now there are more than 250,000 Tamils spread over in many cities, the concentration being in Natal and Durban.
Indian Ocean Islands
Mauritius has a Tamil population of 115,000. Most arrived from Tamil Nadu after 1727 to serve as labourers on the sugar cane plantations. Tamil culture has flourished in Mauritius. Since 1727, the Tamil community has built almost 125 Tamil temples and Murugan is a popular deity. Tamil holidays and festivals such as Tamil New Year, Pongal, Timiti and Thaipusam are celebrated on a national level. Thiruvalluvar and Bharathi days are also celebrated while Deepavali, Thaipusam, Maha Shivaratri and Pongal are public holidays. But most of the people in Mauritius do not speak Tamil.
The Tamil language is taught in approximately 100 primary schools. Tamils are attempting to include their religion and other Hindu practices. Once Tamil priests came from Jaffna in Sri Lanka, they conducted prayers in Tamil. Later, some scholars started to facilitate the population to get access to sacred books. This helped the people to learn Tamil holy Enchantment from Thevarams and Thiruvasagam
Tamil settlement in the French department of Réunion started as far back as 1848 as indentured labour, mainly from Pondichéry and Karaikal, the French territories in Southern India. There are now about 120,000 Tamils living in Réunion or "Malabars" as they are known there with a large number of Hindu temples run by voluntary organisations where Hindu and Tamil cultural links are preserved well.
Tamil traders from Pondicherry used to visit the Seychelles for purposes of timber trade followed by settlements of Tamils from Tamil Nadu for trading purposes. Later, a trading community was in place here mainly of Tamils and many of them got integrated with the local community. Now there about 4000 Tamils in the trading business as well as in other professions.
Canada has a large concentration of Sri Lankan Tamils, almost 90% of the Tamil population - amounting to 300,000. Tamil is taught from primary to pre-university level and 75% of them learn the language with interest. The cultural needs of the community are catered to well by round the clock radio/television channels and by numerous Tamil publications - literary and religious. Several Canadian universities contain large Tamil Student Associations (TSAs).
There are many more pro-active voluntary organisations keeping the Tamil culture alive. Toronto is home to the largest Tamil-speaking population outside Asia.
United States of America
Central New Jersey contains the largest population concentration of Indian Americans of Tamil descent. New Jersey houses Tamil associations including its own Tamil Sangam. Sizeable Tamil populations and various Tamil organisations have also developed in the New York City Metropolitan Area and the Washington Metropolitan Area, as well as on the West Coast in the Silicon Valley, where there are Tamil associations such as the Bay Area Tamil Manram.
On the other hand, the New York City and Los Angeles metropolitan areas and Central New Jersey are home to the largest concentrations of Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan Americans.
Caribbean and Latin America
French West Indies
Tamil migration to the French West Indies was mainly sailings from Pondicherry and Karaikal during the years 1853 to 1883 and since 1893 almost all of them got well integrated with the people there. Presently a microscopic minority of 17 who are in the age range 60-70 could speak the Tamil language.
Guyana had a large number of Tamils in its plantations since 1838. Most of them came from Jaffna and in 1860, about 2500 Tamils from Madras alone settled in Guyana. Tamils were spread in about 60 towns. There is also a popular Mariamma temple.
Trinidad and Tobago
Tamils have been in Trinidad and Tobago since 1840. The first Tamils arrived in Trinidad and Tobago as plantation workers who were brought by the British to work there. There was a Shiva temple called the "Madras Sivalayam" or the Canra Road temple. The Deepavali celebration by the Tamils there displayed extraordinary pluralism.
A large community of Tamils exists in Karachi, Pakistan, which includes approximately 1,000 Tamil-speaking Hindus as well as much larger numbers of Muslims - including some refugees from northern Sri Lanka. Tamil festivals are also celebrated like Pongal, Panguni uthiram, Thaipoosam etc.
Burma had a Tamil population of 200,000 at one point in the country's history but since the end of the Second World War the number has fallen. The affluence of the Tamil community could be gauged by the existence of Dandayuthapani temples in 32 towns, the functioning of 50 Tamil primary schools, and the circulation of two Tamil newspapers, "Rasika Ranjani" and "Thondan", both of which were banned as of 1966.
Tamils were brought to Indonesia by the Dutch in the 1860s to build up their plantations. They were used as hard labor, and as the conditions were not conducive many returned in the 1940s. About 30,000 to 40,000 remained in Northern Sumatra, and as a result, there remained a concentration of Tamils in that region.
Malaysia and Singapore
Malaysia has a Tamil population of 2,560,000 starting mainly from 1901 when it was called British Malaya. Initially the migration was to work in the rubber plantations but later turned to trade and other professions mostly in the government sector such as the railways and the Public Works Department. The first Tamil school was there as early as 1876 but by 1925 it rose to 235 and by 1999 they had 548 schools.
Singapore is home to about 500,000 Tamil people. Tamil Language is one of the four official languages in Singapore. An estimation of about 3.2% percent of the total population in Singapore speaks Tamil at home, while about 5% is literate in Tamil language. Almost all official documents printed in Singapore are translated and distributed in Tamil as well as three other national languages. In 1956, the Singapore government decided to adopt a trilingual policy. Students were taught English, a second language, as well as Malay as a third language. Today the emphasis has shifted to bilingualism, where the medium of instruction is English with the mother-tongue as a second language, while the third language is optional.
Tamil is taught as a second language in all government schools from the primary to junior college levels. Tamil is an examinable subject at all major nationwide exams. There is a daily Tamil newspaper printed in Singapore, the Tamil Murasu. There is a full-time radio station, Oli 96.8, and a full-fledged TV channel, Vasantham.
Sepoy troops from Madras (now Chennai, Tamil Nadu), arrived in Manila, Philippines with the British expedition and occupation between 1762 and 1764 during the Seven Years' War. When the British withdrew, many of the Sepoys mutinied and refused to leave. Virtually all had taken Filipina brides (or soon did so). They settled in what is now Cainta, Rizal, just east of Metro Manila. The region in and around Cainta still has many Sepoy descendants.
Vietnam has a small minority of about 3000 Tamils mostly in the Ho Chi Minh city. Near to Bến Thành Market Dandayuthapani, Subramaniam Swamy & Mariyamman temples are there. Thailand has about 10,000 Tamils living there while there are 1,000 Tamils in Cambodia.
The Middle East is home to thousands of migrants from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, and over 75.000 migrants immigrated to the Middle East in 2012 alone. However, statistics on the numbers of migrants are scarce.
Qatar is the home for about 4,000 Tamils mostly from Tamil Nadu. In December 2000, the "Qatar Tamil Sangam" was inaugurated for conducting Tamil cultural programmes, teaching of Thirukkural and for conducting Tamil elocution contests for Tamil children.
United Arab Emirates
There are about 450,000 Tamilians in the United Arab Emirates having come from Tamil Nadu as professionals and workers in many sectors. Pongal and New Year are celebrated on a grand scale in Dubai and in a few other states. The first Tamil newspaper from the Middle East region was launched from Dubai on December 10, 2014. Tamil 89.4 FM radio is a tamil radio broadcasting from Dubai UAE.
Bahrain is home for over 7000 Tamils mostly professionals and workers. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are also home for a substantial number of Tamils who are recent migrants.
The first Tamil immigrant to Norway, Anthony Rajendram, came to Norway in 1956. The majority of the early immigrants had contacts to Rajendram, and came as immigrant worker. Most had their origins in a few villages on the edge of Jaffna town; Karaioor, Arialai, Navanthurai. This first group was a starting point for future immigration to Norway. Norway has about 13,000 Tamils most of whom are Sri Lankan refugees. The city of Bergen is the home for about 400 Tamil families and it has become the centre for Tamil gatherings. Around 7,000 Tamils also live in the capital Oslo. Sweden has a Tamil population of about 2,000 and is of recent origin.
Community estimates suggest that 150,000 Tamils lived in the United Kingdom (UK) as of 2008, with a 2006 Human Rights Watch report putting the number of Sri Lankan Tamils in the UK at 110,000. Migration of significant numbers of Tamils to the UK started with labour migrants in the 1940s. These were joined by students moving to the UK for education in the 1970s, and by refugees fleeing the Sri Lankan Civil War in the 1980s and 1990s. The majority live in North London.
About 57,600 Tamils live in France. The first Tamils to arrive in France came from Pondichéry when it was still a French colony. However, a majority of Parisian Tamils are of Sri Lankan origin who fled the country and came to France as refugees in the 1980s, escaping the violent civil conflict.
Germany has well over 50,000 Tamils and more than half of them went as refugees from Sri Lanka. Religious fervour among Tamil Germans intensified as their numbers swelled. Due to the inspirational encouragement of Hawaii Subramaniaswami – the disciple of Yoga Swamigal – two well organised Hindu temples – Sidhivinayagar Kovil and the kamadchi Amman Kovil –have in place in the city of Hamm since 1984. According to the journal Hinduism Today, the youth are being well trained in their religion and culture at home and in weekend schools in rented halls using texts from Sri Lanka. They even wear Hindu symbols of Vibuthi and Tilakam.
Switzerland has about 40,000 Tamils the majority of whom are from Sri Lanka who went as refugees. Although they are well entrenched in the country and integrated with the local community, yet they are actively alive to their Hindu religious and Tamil cultural links.
Temples, cultural festivals, international conferences, seminars and meetings draw a large number of the Tamil diaspora from other European countries to the various Swiss cities, so much so that it has become the nerve centre of Tamil cultural activism. Tamil language classes, dance and music classes run by voluntary bodies are fast increasing.
A large Tamil community was established in Zurich with a place known as little Jaffna. However most of the Tamils reside in the German part of Switzerland.
Denmark has over 7,000 Tamils, the majority being refugees. There are two well-patronised Hindu temples – one for Vinayagar and another for Abhirami – and the Tamil population has got well adapted to the Danish environment. The Netherlands also has more than 20,000 Tamils, the majority of whom are, again, refugees from Sri Lanka.
There are officially about 52,000 Tamils in Australia spread out in all the six states but the concentration is mainly in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. However, the actual number of ethnic Tamils is possibly double this amount and could be estimated at around 100,000. Among this 40% are from Sri Lanka and 35% are from India. The remainder come from various countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, USA, South Africa, Fiji and Mauritius. More than 80% have completed high school education compared to 78% (2010) for the general Australian population. More than 15% own their houses while more than 30% of the general population own their houses.
Numerous Tamil schools and Hindu Temples have been established in all main cities to cater for the growing Sri Lankan Tamil population. The Sydney Murugan Temple was constructed for the needs of the large Tamil population in Western Sydney. Smaller temples have been built in the greater Sydney area. The Siva Vishnu Temple in Carrum Downs south east of Melbourne is also a temple built by Sri Lankan Tamils. The Sunshine Murugan Temple in western Melbourne also caters to the Tamil community. In other cities such as Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Townsville, Darwin, Canberra and Hobart, Hindu temples have also been built.
The Tamil language is one of the approved subjects for the HSC examination and Tamil skill tests are conducted for children of ages five to sixteen.
New Zealand has about 6,800 Tamils, mostly professionals who have migrated on their own.
Fiji had a Tamil population of over 110,000 having been taken there to work in the plantations by the colonial masters in the 1880s. Out of an Indian population of 350,000 the Tamils could number about 80,000 now.
The number who could speak is about 5,000 only and another 1,000 could write. It is only about 6,000 who declare their origins as Tamils as most of them have got well integrated with the local population. Most of them have lost their Tamil identity and are Tamils only in name. The South Indian Sanmarga Sangam is the pioneer body that forged the Tamil culture, Tamil education and the Hindu practices in the country for a long time. In 2005, it was revealed that in the 20 primary schools managed by TISI, out of the 4940 students, 1765 took Tamil classes.
There are about 500 New Caledonians of Indian Tamil descent. Like in Réunion, they were known as Malabars and orinignally arrived in the 19th century from other French Territories, namely Réunion. New Caledonia has several descendants of Tamils, whose parents intermarried with the local population in the last century.