Possessing memories, designing cemeteries - Part I

Read 'Possessing memories, designing cemeteries' - Part II

The aftermaths of wars are coined by various, often divergent, forms of national politics of commemoration and historiography. In a pluralistic world, states and governments are globally committed to the production, remembrance and celebration of their distinct interpretation of history and the memory of those who have fallen for the concept of the nation-state. Amidst their varying tales, at times, a common denominator can be found in the acknowledgement of an emphasis granted to the memorization of suffering and sacrifices, especially in the process of reconciling with historic passages of severe national and/or societal violence and trauma. The questions of who is being memorized and for what particular reasons remains thereby crucial to the understanding of the architecture of national memory, i.e. the physical and psychological manifestations of memory, as well as its designers.

Inscribing the past

Politics of history and memory appear as important markers of how individual and collective suffering and sacrifices are recognized, emphasized and memorialized.  The production and maintenance of collective memory helps to inform and establish identities as well to uphold group consciousness of self and other. They simultaneously serve as indicators of desired and undesired narrations and interpretations of human catastrophes: those that are placed inside and those that fundamentally remain outside of the concept of the nation.

Whilst majority notions of memory serve to produce, stabilize and reinforce the pillars of carefully constructed national identities and ideas of, for instance, national pride and belonging via shared histories on suffering, sacrifices and heroism, they equally hold the ability to obliterate narrations of difference and divergence. By creating exclusive and often monopolizing interpretations of the past, the architects of state-backed memory intentionally or by default reduce, eliminate, dominate and in fact often deny versions of history that alternate and thus potentially serve to destabilize, their very own perspective and interpretation of history and its eventual political capitalization. Dominant representations, narrations and theories of war, suffering and sacrifice hence help to marginalize, silence and repress alternative interpretation of such. These stories then emerge as antagonist histories and its memorials are, therefore, mutually threatening to the existence and legitimacy of the other.

Narrations of a violent past are often translated into architectonic structures such as war memorials, which mark the landscape of (post-) war or (post-) conflict societies. War memorials are, however, not the only architectonic traces of violence in a region and society. In times of conflict, buildings are inevitably damaged or destroyed. In times of post-conflict, ‘progress’ and ‘development’  lead to the modernization and industrialization of cities and regions, which  then poignantly alter architecture, landscape and societies. The levelling of buildings is therefore part of ever changing environments, economies and regimes. Acts of demolishing buildings, restructuring cities and changing landscapes are, however, never free from ideological underpinning. In fact, they are an ideological response to state-efforts of nation-building. 

While mainstream interpretations of history remain secured by the powers of states, some sites of memory appear as non-dominant interpretations of one particular, or a chain of historical events. These are mostly perspectives and voices that belong to minority groups, whether they may be ethnic, cultural, political, sexual et al.. Their narration of the past finds itself positioned and pushed to the fringes of mainstream society and its prominent acts of memorialisation of the past. The repression of minority cultures has been widely discussed and produced great scholarship over time, but rarely has there been a focus on how minority repression translates into repression of minority architecture and space.  Repressed populations produce repressed memories. Their past becomes a subaltern memory of particular social, political, historical and cultural events. They commonly remain excluded from national trajectories of storytelling, commemoration and performances that help to produce, impose and reinforce shared national identities and ideas of belonging through the authoring of a common history. Tools such as national school curriculums, history books, museums, memorial sites, national remembrance days, public speeches or stage performances thereby take the role of teaching, producing  and maintaining collective histories, memories and consciousness.

Antagonist histories

As alternate historical interpretations challenges dominant narrations of the past, they become contested and their meaning is often threatened to be hollowed out by the political manoeuvres of historical interpretants at the centre of power. Their rights are often limited, its legitimacy consistently attacked while its followers are policed and contained to protect mainstream versions of history from being devalued and dominated by stories of difference. By undermining their legitimacy and challenging their very right to exist through, for instance, physical and psychological acts of marginalization, stigmatization or sometimes even warfare, the non-dominant interpreter’s version of the past often finds itself marked as oblivious. To hold onto one’s individual and collective past, therefore, becomes a struggle against oppression and repression in itself - amongst the various intersections of systemic inequalities and injustices these groups often find themselves challenged with.

Politics of memory are reflective of state and societal power structures. Mirroring the centres of political power, the agents of dominant historical narrations are likewise mostly representatives of ruling classes and ideologies seated in national or regional capitals of a state. Acts of national memorialisation thus emerge as staged and central political performances that underline present structures of dominance and power. They serve the purpose of binding together and upholding the scaffold of national identities, allegiances and, of course, forces for political mobilization.

In the aftermath of wars, it is victor’s politics and victor’s justice that crucially shape, alter and dictate the immediate and long-term post war period of reconstruction, restructuring, re-education, reintegration and reconciliation. Is victor’s history however evenly true and self-explanatory? Questions about the narration of the history of violence, suffering and sacrifices call into question subjectivities of authorship, as it relates to the author’s role in the erasures of elements of history that find no space and validity in their own personal interpretation of a period of violence. In this process, the defeated side is limited to the receiving end, and its interpretation of history at the mercy of the authors of the victorious fraction, whose self-interest often leads to censorship and crass manipulations.

The diversity of narrations of war , however, also speak  to a diversity of natures of wars and conflict: during inter-national wars i.e. wars waged between two nation-states, public spaces of memory for individuals who have given their lives for their respective state can easily be created and confined to the internationally recognized territory of belonging. In civil wars however i.e. wars that are fought between people of one state and limited to the borders of the same state, the situation emerges as more complex and divisive: the sovereignty of the state isn’t limited to its supporters, but equally encompasses contested regions and the territory of belonging of those who might have died in struggles against the state, its ruling elites and/or their ideologies. In other words, enemy groups, populations and conquered territories find themselves brought under the control of a hostile nation. Under these circumstances, the memory of the victor increasingly holds the ability to trump, endanger and superimpose the memory of the defeated.

The context of civil wars therefore also highlights the role of geopolitical space in the process of memorialisation. How does one narrate and honour memories when the same land marks multiple narratives motivated by political and religious agendas, which relativises good and bad, right and wrong? How is minority/enemy architecture affected by newly spaced land and control?

Memories of violence

In Sri Lanka, the final end of war on May 18 2009 brought the militant struggle for an independent Tamil homeland to a sudden and lethal end. The vast areas of the North and East that remained for several years, if not decades, under the control of the LTTE found themselves alongside their residents moved back from the framework of the breakaway de-facto state of Tamil Eelam to that of the unitary state of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s national flag started to re-emerge in the contested territories after having being absent over years and replaced by flags of the Tamil state. Alienated ghost towns and cities in the Vanni that were left depopulated by death and exodus found themselves newly marked and spaced. The change of flags in the newly captured territories from tiger, the emblem of the LTTE, to lion, the emblem of the Sinhalese people and the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL), serves to demonstrate presence, power and victory by contesting former spatial and ethno-political borders that separated people and power. Flags decorated the bombed lanes, buildings, vehicles of recaptured land as it also started to decorate its war-torn people. The end of civil war thus equalled the forceful reintegration of a conquered region and people under rebellion by recapturing land, bodies and minds.

For the victorious and defeated side - the conqueror and conquered - the memories and narrations of war are as distinct and polarizing as the political positions taken and aspirations represented throughout the young history of the postcolonial state and its societies. The physical manifestations of memories of violence, memorials and processions of commemoration dedicated to the war, have evolved very distinctively amongst both Sinhalese and Tamils. Both sides have, however, evenly used memories as a ‘site of identity formation’ which positioned each in relation to the other’s national and global past1. The length of Sri-Lanka’s civil war and the human losses that occurred on both sides of the imagined and actual ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural and political lines of demarcations begged for the construction of a number of such public fields of representation of the past. These memorial spaces served for its architects and the national authorities that governed the land and people at the time as an ‘objective to mould and control’ private memory ‘as a stabilized narrative which served to unify memory’2. While both interpretations of the past stabilized its respective national identities, histories and claim to power, they served in juxtaposition as mutually destabilizing narrations of war. Tamil and Sinhalese monuments of war thus served as antagonistic sites of remembrance.

Memorial landscape

From 1989 onwards the LTTE commenced to pay organized public tribute to its fallen combatants3. All over the LTTE controlled territories of the island, temporary sheds that functioned as shrines, photographs, statues and cemeteries for the fallen ‘marveerars’ (heroes/martyrs)  started to sprout and change the geographic and social landscape of the area4. By institutionalizing ‘mortuary rites of burial’ for the fighters of the secular armed group, the LTTE enacted an extreme breakaway from socially dominant forms of Tamil-Hindu Saiva death practices - specifically those in the Jaffna region5. In a cultural space largely coined by the Hindu Saiva tradition of cremation, death ceremonies formed private practices of commemoration, which for the most part were confined to personal acts of ritualized remembrance confined to the intimacy of families and relatives6. Hindu death ceremonies traditionally left little memories or spatial traces of death, loss and mourning in the geographic landscape that could potentially serve as sites of remembrance and political mobilization. The construction of so-called ‘tuyillam illams’(sleeping houses) for the fallen LTTE fighters, thus, constituted an extreme abolition and separation from traditional Tamil Hindu culture, specifically those of the majority upper-caste Jaffna Tamil Hindu population.

While the act of cultural distancing, reformation and expansion of death rituals on the one hand attended to function as Roberts calls it ‘an act of bonding’  between Tiger personnel’ and those who became in the language of the LTTE ‘marveerars’ (heroes/martyrs) of their cause, it also served the purpose of re-spacing the territory under their control7. The construction of tuyillam illams in LTTE territories subsequently left lasting physical sites of remembrance and commemoration of war combatants in the social and political landscape of the Tamil people. The intrusion of the private and public sphere that occurred with these untraditional forms of public commemoration intended to disrupt ‘conscious lives’ by installing the ‘persistent belief that the past continues to inflect the present’ amongst the people8. By constructing lasting sites of commemoration, the sacrifices made by the marveerar in their quest to establish an independent Tamil state should forever remain part of the Tamil social and political consciousness. As such, the physical manifestations of collective and individual grief evolved as sites to revisit the past by ‘reopening the history that produced out contemporary world’9. The temporal return thus produced ‘the past as a field of meaning’, which provided understanding for the current social and political situations of the people. The Tamil population was ought to search, find and read meaning in the gravestones and memorials of the thousands of combatants who have given their lives for Tamil sovereignty.

By interpreting the present through past human sacrifices, public memorization however also aimed to reinforce the commitment of fellow LTTE combatants and the general public to the cause – the struggle for secession from the Sinhala majority ruled state of Sri Lanka.

Institutionalizing grief

When on November 27 1989 , the LTTE’s late leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran announced a national day of collective commemoration for Tamil war dead named ‘marveerar naal’ (heroes’/martyrs’ day),  the LTTE successfully mainstreamed a choreographed act of constructing the island’s Tamil society’s ‘relationship to its past’ as well  as present10. Ever since, marveerar naal has nationally, and through the Tamil diaspora also internationally, risen to become the most important day of memorialisation and commemoration of Tamil war dead and Tamil resistance. Similar as to the architectonic purpose of the tuyillam illam’, marveerar naal equally served to become the day of re-legitimizing and re-strengthening the commitment to the struggle for Tamil self-determination. In Sri Lanka and the then de-facto state of Tamil Eelam, the 21 tuyillam illams built by the LTTE became the main sites of assembly to commemorate and collectively mobilize for the Tamil political cause. Tens of thousands of people were drawn onto the grounds of public memory to individually and collectively grief and commemorate the fallen each November 2711. The significance of these public sites of memorialisation and the relationship of a large section of Tamil society to these spaces can be understood when taking into account the transformation of tuyillam illams from resting places for the dead and sites of remembrances to that of ‘holy places’ and ‘temples’  in the vernacular  of thousands12. Marveerars were thereby often elevated to the status of divine deities, whose sacrifices for the Tamil nation resembled those of Gods and Goddesses. The representations given to the dead and the struggle through architectural constructions such as cemeteries, tombstones and symbols like flags and emblems produced a manifold of societal meaning. From the individual interpretant by way of the ‘final interpretant’, in this case the LTTE leader Prabhakaran, politicized memorialisation started to become habitual to a large social group through ways of repeated individual and collectively orchestrated enactment and thus started to become ‘culture’13.  Tulliyam illams and other war monuments constructed under the reign of the LTTE therefore signified to represent not just the LTTE, but the presence of a community and its culture.

Since its institutionalization by the LTTE in 1989, public grief and memorialisation emerged as a habitual practices linked to specific geographies in the de-facto state and outside of it. These spaces transformed to become ‘a repository for the beliefs and values’ of Tamils and for the respective signs and interpretive strategies they share14.In other words, the war cemeteries of the LTTE became as much symbols of the past as of the future in the form of separate statehood. As architectonic sites that served to physically assemble and politically unify the Tamil people and nation, the tulliyam illams were not just inscribed with names of dead combatants, but also a clear political message of sovereignty and secession.  Hence, within the history of 26 years of war and war time loss, the representations given to memories of the past by the LTTE, as the national authority of the de-facto state, produced a culture coherent to the architectural embodiment of grief and memory that became intrinsic to the spatial landscape of the Tamil majority regions. LTTE war memorials did, as a result, not just remain embodiments of a LTTE culture, but were equally also Tamil war memorials and sites of commemoration that were both militaristic and civil. They were an ever present reminder of a Tamil past and present.

Violated bodies

As thulliyam illams were reserved for fallen combatants, they remained exclusive to members of the LTTE. In as much as the cemeteries represented the Tamil struggle, they also failed to represent the toll of life carried by Tamil civilians, who were neither formally or informally part of the ‘iyakkam’ (movement). During the protracted war, Tamil civilians became targets to be fought for and against. Their bodies were manipulated and interpreted to become sites of violence of their own. Massacres, executions, murder, assassinations, rape, abductions and disappearances were projected upon the bodies of Tamil men, women and children. Civilian suffering coined much of the Tamil past and present. The social landscape of Tamils was subsequently inscribed with numerous unmarked massgraves and the burnt remains of severely violated bodies.

The LTTE’s breakaway from the predominant upper-caste Jaffna Hindu Saiva death rituals never translated into a cultural revolution in respect of death rituals amongst the predominately Hindu Saiva community. Instead, the majority of Tamils of Christian faiths continued their tradition of burying their dead whilst Hindu Saivas for the most part held onto their practice of cremating the remains of their relatives. The scale of violence perpetrated against Tamil civilians by armed forces, whether the Sri Lankan Armed Forces (SLAF) or the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), however, increased the need to create public spaces to commemorate the suffering imposed upon the civilian population.  Landmark sites in villages, towns and cities that became infamously connected to episodes of severe violence such as Jaffna (1974, 1994), Sathurukondan (1990), Kokkadichcholai (1991), Navali (1995) or Sencholai (2006) were to become geographic spaces marked by the presence of public memorials dedicated to the loss and trauma carried by the civilian population. The violent landscape thus produced architectonic constructions that preserved and connected its residents to painful memories of local civilian tragedies. In a society where death, grief and loss remains for a majority of devout people religiously intertwined with notions of impurity, civilian death found a culturally very unlikely visible manifestation in the shape of statues, pillars and gardens all over the Tamil homeland. Some were designed and constructed by local residents and village/town councils; others were built and inaugurated with the help and participation of the LTTE. The memorialisation of war dead in the Tamil lands was thus not just limited to combatant forces and their political agenda, but remained to be an equally strong endeavour and interest of the civilian population. Both, however, equally served the purpose of being visible constructions of resistance that emphasized the resilience and resistance of a people to state-violence.

Threats and targets

The areas held by the GoSL on the other hand produced a culture of memorization, which was distinct and contradictory from the one widespread in the north and east of the island.  The narrative and culture that was constructed and reinforced in the majority Tamil areas through war memorials and cemeteries did essentially not just contrast the Sinhalese perspective, but also helped to destabilize and unsettle the interpretation that was fiercely propagated by the GoSL to its people and the so-called international community. The LTTE’s efforts for political mobilisation and its reinforcement of provision for the legitimacy of the cause of Tamil Eelam threatened the very territorial sovereignty, integrity and racial supremacy practiced and propagated by the Sri Lankan state.  Hence, Tamil war memorials and evolved to become legitimate targets of the GoSL in its attempt to fight Tamil separatism by reclaiming territory and people through the capture and erasure of their history and memory.

Prior to the current post- war environment, indications for the GoSL’s policies in relation to LTTE and Tamil war memorials could be traced in a long history of destructions of Tamil sites of grief following the capture of the Jaffna peninsula in 1995. When the contested peninsular fell into the hands of the SLAF, war memorials constructed by the LTTE had to be left behind by the southbound retreating guerilla forces. Following their retreat, the four prime LTTE thuyilum illams located in Koappay, Velanai, Thenmaradchi and Vadamaraadchi were, irrespective of the sentiments of local Tamil residents, raised to the grounds by bulldozers of the SLAF and left in debris15. Years later, all four cemeteries were as part of the 2001 cease-fire agreement reconstructed, but soon again to be bulldozed to the grounds with the official collapse of  the fragile and de-facto non-existent peace in 2008. Similar destructions of Tamil war memorials took place after the capture of the majority ethnic Tamil Eastern regions that were part of the de-facto state of Tamil Eelam until 2006 and 2007 respectively. Thereby, the cemeteries in Kagnchikudichcharu in Ampaarai district, Thaandiyadi, Tharavai, Kandaladi and Maadavi Mumaari in Batticoloa district and Aalangkulam, Iththikkulam, Verukal, Upparu and Paalampoaddaaru in the Trincomalee district’ fell victim to the GoSL’s policy of erasing memories and were reduced to nothing but shapeless rubble16.

When the SLAF on May 18, 2009 announced the end of war and their victory over the LTTE, ten more Tamil war cemeteries that remained in the ever decreasing and by then vanquished de-facto Tamil state came under control of the GoSL. One of them was the largest thuyilum illam built in Visuvamadu, where more than 4000 resistance fighters were buried. Similar as to its predecessors, it was bulldozed to the ground even before the end of war was officially announced17. Of the last ten thuyilum illams in Aandaangkulam, Aadkaaddiveli and Pandivirichchaan in Mannar, district, Kanakapuram and Muzhangkaavil in Kilinochchi district, Uduththurai in Vadamaraadchi East of Jaffna district, Eachchangkulam in Vavuniyaa district and Vanni Vizhaangkulam, Visuvamadu, Alampil and Mulliyavalai in Mullaiththevu district not a single one remains to stand today18. The destructions of Tamil war memorials was, however, not just limited to LTTE sites of memory. Civilian war memorials that visually represented and connected the population to the great suffering imposed upon them by GoSL (and IPKF) evenly became targets of state-vandalism by being either attacked or completely flattened to the ground. Neither the lotus flower shaped memorial commemorating the civilian victims of the IPKF’s attacks in Valveddiththurai in 1989, or the statue of the late Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) politician and leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam remained to be safe from the Sinhalese state’s yearning to erase the individual memory of a people by destroying their sites of collective memorials19. By doing so, the spaces of physical and psychological return for Tamils were reduced to ashes and with it, Tamils’ rights to grief and memorize their losses effectively annulled.

(To be continued)

Read 'Possessing memories, designing cemeteries' - Part II


Sinthujan Varatharajah graduated in 2012 from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies. Interested in migration, diaspora and critical race theory, he wrote his thesis on conceptions of caste under migration and refugeehood. He now works as a research intern at the Institute of Race Relations in London as well as a researcher on Islam and Muslim communities in France, Belgium and Switzerland for Harvard University’s and CNRS France’s joint academic research network Euro-Islam. The author can be followed at twitter.com/varathas


1. Evans, M., Lunn, K. (ed), 1997.War and Memory in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berg.

2. Ibid

3. http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2010/01/03/symbolic-postscript-a-terrible-violence/2

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. Sherman, D., 1999. The construction of Memory in Interwar France. Chicago: The University of  Chicago Press.

9. Evans, M., Lunn, K. (ed), 1997.War and Memory in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berg.

10. Sherman, D., 1999. The construction of Memory in Interwar France. Chicago: The University of   Chicago Press.

11. http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2008/09/tamil-tigers-sacrificial-symbolism-dead.html

12. Ibid

13. Sherman, D., 1999. The construction of Memory in Interwar France. Chicago: The University of   Chicago Press.

14. Ibid

15. http://www.lankasrinews.com/view.php?2b35QSX4b43z96ae4b43CWdce2bh3CS3cd3XlpG2e0d15MvDce02l2DI0cd3sksBd0

16. Ibid

17. Ibid

18. Ibid

19. http://tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=32140

More articles by Sinthujan Varatharajah:

Why a cultural and academic boycott is necessary?
Temples, Rose Petals and Guns