Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka

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Crucible of Conflict is an ethnographic and historical study of Hindu castes, matrilineal family structure, popular religious traditions, and ethnic conflict. It is also the first full-length ethnography of Sri Lanka’s east coast, an area that suffered heavily in the 2004 tsunami and that is of vital significance to the political future of the island nation. Since the bitter guerrilla war for an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka broke out in 1983, the easternmost region of the island has emerged as a strategic site of conflict. Dennis B. McGilvray argues that any long-term resolution of the ethnic conflict must accommodate this region, in which Sinhalese Buddhists, Tamil Hindus, and Tamil-speaking Muslims are each a significant share of the population.

McGilvray explores the densely populated farming and fishing settlements in this coastal zone, focusing on the Tamil and Muslim inhabitants of an agricultural town in the Ampara District. Drawing on fieldwork conducted over more than thirty years as well as on Tamil and Dutch historical sources, he describes the regional dominance of a non-Brahmin matrilineal caste of thirteenth-century Kerala origin. The Muslims, who acquired dowry lands and matrilineal family patterns through local intermarriages, have in the twentieth century emerged from Hindu caste domination and are now the Tamil Hindus’ political and economic equals. Crucible of Conflict offers a uniquely detailed account of Muslim kinship and community organization in eastern Sri Lanka, as well as a comparison of Tamil and Muslim practices and institutions. McGilvray concludes with an analysis of the interethnic tensions and communal violence that have intensified in recent years.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“For the forseeable future, anyone interested in the people of Sri Lanka’s eastern coast will need to consult Dennis B. McGilvray’s magisterial and definitive new book.” - Mark Whitaker, Journal of Anthropological Research

“McGilvray’s book will certainly provide a benchmark for all future work in this part of Sri Lanka, and it provides the essential context for the work of other important anthropologists writing about Eastern Sri Lanka. . . . It is also extremely well written and exemplifies the strengths of detailed long-term field research in providing intellectually persuasive anthropological analysis.”
- R.L. Stirrat, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“The strength of this book is its perspicuity of the history and minutiae of social relations of and between Tamils and Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka.” - Vivian Y. Choi, Current Anthropology

Crucible of Conflict is clearly one of the most important books on Sri Lanka to be published in decades. Dennis B. McGilvray has written a rich, thorough, historically grounded ethnography of a fascinating but understudied region, and he has articulated it with the most contemporary regional, national, and world developments. He moves smoothly and never superficially from ancient history to his decades of ethnographic work, to world Islam, to the recent tsunami. This is work of lasting value, a book that will be cited and cited for years to come.”—Deborah Winslow, co-editor of Economy, Culture, and Civil War in Sri Lanka

“Dennis B. McGilvray has long been engaged in ethnographic and historical research among Muslims and Hindus in Sri Lanka’s matrilineal belt in the East Coast, the current scene of intense ethnic conflict and warfare. This much-awaited book will be indispensable for understanding the complexities of the nation’s ethnic conflict and a ‘must read’ for those working in South Asia, on ethnic conflict and resolution, on the vicissitudes of matrilineal descent and the complexities of historical and social change in this region.”—Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Princeton University

“Recognized as a leading anthropologist of Sri Lanka, Dennis B. McGilvray has been studying the Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims of the country’s eastern region for some thirty years. McGilvray argues that it is in the eastern region that the future of the insurgency is being decided, and therefore the future of Sri Lanka itself. His book has great potential to deepen understanding of the crisis, and to show the strategic importance of this neglected region. It is a very rich work.”—Thomas R. Trautmann, author of Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras

Mark Whitaker

“For the forseeable future, anyone interested in the people of Sri Lanka’s eastern coast will need to consult Dennis B. McGilvray’s magisterial and definitive new book.”
R.L. Stirrat

“McGilvray’s book will certainly provide a benchmark for all future work in this part of Sri Lanka, and it provides the essential context for the work of other important anthropologists writing about Eastern Sri Lanka. . . . It is also extremely well written and exemplifies the strengths of detailed long-term field research in providing intellectually persuasive anthropological analysis.”
Vivian Y. Choi

“The strength of this book is its perspicuity of the history and minutiae of social relations of and between Tamils and Muslims in eastern Sri Lanka.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341611
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 3/30/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Dennis B. McGilvray is Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Symbolic Heat: Gender, Health, and Worship among the Tamils of South India and Sri Lanka.

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Read an Excerpt


Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka
By Dennis B. McGilvray


Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4161-1

Chapter One



The eastern coastal plain of Sri Lanka, extending nearly 100 miles from Valaichchenai in the north to Pottuvil in the south, is a region of broad, irrigated paddy fields, coconut plantations, and large semi-saline lagoons, interspersed in some places by rocky stretches of Dry Zone forest. The two Tamil-speaking communities in this coastal zone are Tamil (Saivite) Hindus, members of a cluster of matrilineal castes whose historical origins may date to the thirteenth century C.E. or earlier, and Sunni (Shafi'i) Muslims, known since the Portuguese era as Moors, who apparently settled and intermarried with local Tamils over many centuries. The low and well-settled parts of the coastal plain are flat and fertile, extending ten or twenty miles inland to the foot of the Bintenne hills, which until the twentieth century was a sparsely populated forest region of Sinhala swidden (chena) cultivators and Vedda hunters (map 6).

Since the 1950s, however, a significant Sinhala population, by now nearly one-third of the total population of the region, has been resettled on land at the foot of these hills under the Gal Oya peasant-colonization scheme, the first major postindependence hydroelectric, irrigation, and resettlement project in the island (Farmer 1957). Implementation of the Gal Oya scheme also resulted in the creation in 1960 of a new district, administered by a government agent with headquarters in the old settlement of Amparai (hereafter "Ampara," to accord with the official Sinhalized spelling, although it will always remain Amparai in Tamil) and carved from territory which had previously formed the southern half of a much larger Batticaloa District. As a result of the Gal Oya Project and other large, internationally funded irrigation and peasant-resettlement programs, significant shifts have occurred in the proportions of Tamils, Moors, and Sinhalas living throughout the Eastern Province.

Although the Tamils and Moors live in a checkerboard pattern of discontinuous villages and interspersed enclaves, the ethnic distribution of Tamil speakers throughout the Batticaloa region as a whole is nevertheless fairly balanced: 57 percent Tamils, 43 percent Moors (Manogaran 1987: 142). However, when the influx of government-sponsored Sinhala settlers is included, the ethnic picture becomes much more complex. In 1911 the area encompassed by today's Ampara District, where Akkaraipattu is located, was populated by 7 percent Sinhalas, 37 percent Tamils, and 55 percent Moors. By 1981 the proportions had been significantly altered to 38 percent Sinhalas, 20 percent Tamils, and 41.5 percent Moors (Manogaran 1994: 112). Unless otherwise noted, "the Batticaloa region" should therefore be understood to refer to the Tamil-speaking coastal zones of the present-day Batticaloa and Ampara districts, and not to the recently colonized Sinhala-speaking settlements farther inland, which have been identified as part of a long-term government effort to entrench a large Sinhala Buddhist population in the northern and eastern Dry Zone, including Trincomalee District (Manogaran 1987, 1994; Peebles 1990; Kemper 1991). While many poor Tamils and Moors in Akkaraipattu have benefited enormously from irrigation technology and land redistribution under the Gal Oya Project, the larger political implications and ethnic agendas of such internationally funded resettlement schemes have prompted one author to label them quite candidly as "foreign aid for conflict development" (Mallick 1998: chap. 6).

Ecology, Culture, and Settlement Patterns

In most places along the east coast, particularly at sunset, one can discern the irregular outline of the Bintenne hills, as well as the smoother profiles of scattered dome-shaped monoliths that rise unexpectedly from the coastal plain. This region has a distinct geographical and cultural identity in the minds of its Tamil-speaking inhabitants. They refer to it as Mattakkalappu ("smooth lagoon," or according to some etymologists, "muddy lagoon") which was rendered as "Batticaloa" by Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial writers whose linguistic blunders were eventually codified as standard usage. Part of the self-conscious identity of the region is its distinctive Tamil dialect, in which colloquial pronunciation corresponds with the written form of the language to a greater extent than in Jaffna or in Tamilnadu, and in which a number of lexical fossils have been preserved. The Batticaloa form of speech is considered one of the most marginal dialects of the language, but it has also developed a few striking innovations (Zvelebil 1966: 125). (Because of this, I find that my Batticaloa pronunciation and vocabulary makes me stand out from Tamil speakers elsewhere, especially in South India, where my accent sounds quaintly literary.)

A system of semisaline lagoons, interspersed with fertile paddy fields, is basic to the ecology of the region. As the natural drainage from the Bintenne hills flows eastward toward the Bay of Bengal, it is impounded both by small-scale irrigation works as well as by the modern Gal Oya reservoir (Senanayake Samudra) near Ampara and the newer Maduru Oya reservoir farther north. Shallow, rain-fed tanks have also been integral to the local irrigation system in many areas. Eventually, most of the water flows into one of the major lagoons, where it is trapped by sandbars thrown up by natural wave action at one or more natural outlets to the sea. At some point during the northeast monsoon (November-February), the level of the fresh water in the lagoons rises and cuts through a sandbar to the sea, allowing the water levels to equalize. With the sandbar open, seawater enters the estuary before the action of the waves eventually closes the bar. In this semisaline environment, several varieties of small fish as well as prawns flourish. The lagoons are a rather dependable source of food in hard times, as well as a means of bulk transport by vallam sailboats within the region.

The environment appeared idyllic in the accounts of the earliest British visitors to the east coast. Rev. James Cordiner's remarks about Batticaloa in the early 1800s offer a specimen of this naïve pastoral genre: "The native inhabitants of this place are uncommonly obliging.... They fish to so much advantage in the smooth frith that they never think of venturing into the open sea. Tranquillity, plenty, and contentment reign among them; and they feel no desire to leave the spot where they were born" (Cordiner 1807, 2:260). Cordiner also noted the huge size of men's earrings and recorded the claim (still heard today) that Tamils on the east coast of Sri Lanka spoke the language better than it was spoken in South India. More realistic, however, was the severity of the smallpox epidemics of that period, which seem to have had devastating effects on the local population (Toussaint 1933: 3). In fact, a quick glance at S.O. Canagaratnam's Monograph of the Batticaloa District (1921) reveals the dates of numerous floods, cyclones, famines, and epidemics that devastated the region in the nineteenth century and early twentieth. In 1878 there was a flood that "rolled away elephants," and in 1907 "the village of Karungkodditivu Akkaraipattu [was] utterly wrecked" (Canagaratnam 1921: 43-47). I started fieldwork in Akkaraippattu in January 1970 during a seasonal inundation that people assured me was nothing in comparison to the flood of 1957. In November 1978 a further disaster struck the region: a tropical cyclone of epochal severity that leveled vast stretches of coconut trees and destroyed innumerable houses (Vitharana 1990). However, the scope and impact of the tsunami disaster of 26 December 2004 far exceeded any catastrophe in the region's recorded history. At least 13,000 people died in Batticaloa and Ampara Districts, accounting for 43 percent of Sri Lanka's entire death toll from the tsunami.

As a final note on (pre-tsunami) ecology, I cannot ignore the attraction for which Batticaloa is popularly known throughout Sri Lanka: the legendary "singing fish" (or perhaps molluscs) said to be the source of a mysterious humming noise, likened to that of a jews'-harp or a cello string, which emanates from the depths of the Batticaloa Lagoon on still nights (Kadramer 1934: 22). The English politician and traveler James Emerson Tennent in 1848 compared it to the "the gentle thrills of a musical chord ... the sweetest treble mingling with the lowest bass" (Tennent 1859, 2:469), but an English boat operator later testified that "the weirdness of it almost placed sleep out of the question" (Lewis 1923a: 345). More ominously, Tennent also noted "the numbers and prodigious size" of the crocodiles that infested the local waters (Tennent 1859, 2:466). Regardless, this ichthyological curiosity has moved local poets to eulogize Batticaloa as min patum ten natu, or "honey land of singing fish." In fact, the singing fish, with its tail fins curved to form a lyre or harp, has now become a popular logotype for Batticaloa that appears in media graphics and in civic architecture.

The largest lagoon in the region empties into the Bay of Bengal only a mile from Batticaloa town, site of a seventeenth-century Dutch fort. This town is still viewed as the regional capital, not only because of its schools, hospitals, and other public institutions, but because of the historical role it played, prior to the rise of Ampara, as the center of administration for the entire region. In the 1970s the kachcheri, or administrative headquarters, of the Batticaloa District was still housed within the stone walls of the Dutch fort. Nowadays, however, the towns of Kalmunai and Ampara, with their strong Muslim and Sinhala ethnic identities, increasingly rival Batticaloa as centers of population, commerce, and political influence. The population of the region is concentrated in a string of dense semiurban coastal villages and towns, many of which are located along the sandy isthmus separating the lagoons from the Bay of Bengal. Farther inland, on the western or "sun-setting shore" (patuvan karai) of the Batticaloa Lagoon, are found historic but more isolated agricultural villages. The denser coastal settlements are inhabited by both Tamils and Moors, while the smaller inland hamlets are predominately Tamil. Farther inland still, Tamil rice fields give way to newer Sinhala rice fields along an insecure ethnic frontier delineated by the Gal Oya resettlement project.

The cardinal factor to keep in mind is that the Tamils and the Moors, although living in close proximity to each other, are invariably segregated into ethnically homogeneous villages and residential neighborhoods. Driving along the main coastal road south from Batticaloa, one will first pass through a dense Tamil settlement, then a Muslim one, followed by another Tamil one, sometimes separated by no more than a sandy lane. In some areas, as from Manmunai to Kallar, Tamil villages predominate, while farther south, between Kalmunai and Akkaraipattu, Muslim communities are more common. In a fewer number of cases, of which the town of Akkaraipattu itself is an example, village identity and local governmental authority have, until recently, been shared by the Tamils and the Moors, and the principle of residential segregation is expressed in ethnically homogeneous headman's divisions that bisect the town itself.

In certain locations gill-net fishing from boats and shore-based beach-seine fishing are major activities for Muslims and for Karaiyar caste Tamils, as well as for seasonally migrant Sinhalas and Tamils from the west coast near Chilaw (Stirrat 1988). In a few settlements, such as the Moorish enclave of Kattankudy, there is some specialization in handloom textiles, wholesale trading, and, it is alleged, smuggling. However, the fundamental economic activity for most people throughout the Batticaloa region is irrigated rice cultivation. Hybrid rice varieties requiring chemical fertilizers and pesticides are widely utilized, and two crops per year are possible on the best land. In the large-level paddy fields characteristic of the region, draft animals (bullocks and water buffaloes) have largely been displaced in the cultivation cycle by tractors. In fact, the wheel bearings on tractors often fail because they are driven all night in a tight circle, just as water buffaloes were formerly, to thresh the rice. The crop is seeded by hand, not transplanted, with men performing most of the agricultural tasks, except for weeding, which is done by contract brigades of poor women, and postharvest winnowing and gleaning, which may employ both women and children. Men generally harvest the rice by hand, but the use of new Indian-made harvesting combines is spreading rapidly. It is common for those engaged in rice cultivation to commute daily up to five to ten miles by bicycle, bullock cart, or bus from their semiurban neighborhoods along the coast to their rice fields located inland. As Bryce Ryan correctly observed a half century ago, the typical Batticaloa coastal settlement is in reality a "peasant town ... a city of farmers" (1950: 10-12).

The population of these "peasant towns" is quite substantial when contrasted with the smaller villages studied by anthropologists in the northern Dry Zone (Leach 1961), the Kandyan highlands (Yalman 1967; Robinson 1975), or the southern Sabaragamuva foothills (Obeyesekere 1967). Organized settlements along the east coast frequently have populations of 15,000 to 35,000 people, often closely packed. Kattankudy, just south of Batticaloa town, is said to have one of the highest population densities of any settlement in the island. Whether the inhabitants are primarily Tamil or Moorish, these coastal towns tend to be laid out in a similar grid pattern of sandy lanes, walled-in by formidable barbed-wire, cadjan thatch, corrugated metal fences, or masonry walls erected for the privacy of each household compound. In the inland settlements to the west of the lagoons, Tamil villages are much smaller and less "urban," but fenced compounds are still the norm, distinguishing them from the typically more open compounds in Sinhala villages. Ethnic communities in both areas are identifiable by neighborhood Hindu temples or Muslim mosques, and also in some places, Christian churches.


The presence of both Tamils and Muslims governed under a single village council, although no longer the case today, was one of the original attractions of Akkaraipattu as a fieldwork site. In this respect the town was not typical of most settlements in the Batticaloa region, but it offered the possibility of convenient interactions with Tamils and Moors, as well as the opportunity to study interethnic relations within a shared political arena. The name Akkaraipattu means literally "the district on the other shore," referring to the south bank of the Kaliyodai Aru River, which forms the boundary of the administrative subdistrict, about five miles north of town. While Akkaraipattu is the major center of population in the subdistrict, there are also significant Moorish populations just to the north in Addalachchenai and solid Tamil populations to the south in Kolavil, Panankadu, Tampaddai, Tambiluvil, and Tirukkovil (map 7). The term pattu (parru) identifies the area as one of the pre-modern political chieftaincies of the Batticaloa region (along with Manmunai Pattu, Eruvil Pattu, Karavaku Pattu, and others), although in this century the name Akkaraipattu has come to be applied specifically to the major town in the subdistrict as well.


Excerpted from CRUCIBLE of CONFLICT by Dennis B. McGilvray Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

List of Tables xiii

Acknowledgments xv

Note on Transliteration xvii

Part 1. Framing Fieldwork in the Batticaloa Region

Introduction 3

Chapter 1. The Research Setting 21

Part 2. Problems of History and Anthropology

Chapter 2. Past and Present 55

Chapter 3. Issues in Comparative Ethnography 97

Part 3. Tamil and Muslim Social Structure

Chapter 4. Views of the Tamil Caste Hierarchy 151

Chapter 5. The Tamil High Caste Alliance 167

Chapter 6.The Kudi in Action 189

Chapter 7. A Profile of the Tamil Specialist Castes 210

Chapter 8. The Moors: Matrilineal Muslims 266

Chapter 9. Muslim Elites and Specialists 292

Part 4. Ethnicity, Conflict, and the War in the East

Chapter 10. Ethnic Identities and Communal Violence 313

Epilogue: Fieldnotes from the War Zone 331

Appendix 1. Tamil Kinship Terms in Akkaraipattu 365

Appendix 2. Moorish Kinship Terms in Akkaraipattu 367

Notes 369

Glossary 389

Bibliography 395

Index 417

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