The town of Gampola in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district houses a 100-year-old structure comprising five “line rooms”—each windowless square, just ten by 12 feet in size, was once home to an entire family of estate workers. Though elsewhere people still live in such cramped accommodations, this particular row of rooms has been turned into a museum that boasts a peculiar collection of objects: including images of Subhash Chandra Bose and Mohandas Gandhi, an incense-stick holder with Jawaharlal Nehru’s face on it, drums once used to announce news of funerals and marriages, and an ooduku, or small drum, that is used to chase away the devil. Not long ago, these objects could be found in the homes of Sri Lanka’s Tamil plantation workers—also known as Malaiyaha, which means “mountain,” or up-country Tamils. The community is considered distinct from “Sri Lankan Tamils,” who have been settled on the island for much longer than the former group.
Over a course of ten years, the activist P Muthulingam convinced many Malaiyaha Tamils to donate their possessions to the Tea Plantation Workers’ Museum and Archive, which he founded in 2007. The museum’s small budget is evident: a map that traces the path the migrating workers took from south India to Sri Lanka’s hill country is hand-drawn and coloured; both the poetry that is pinned to one side of a long board, and the legal documents that occupy the other, are basic printouts. But the community is proud of Muthulingam’s efforts, nevertheless.
“There are other museums in Kandy,” K Yogeshwari, one of only a handful of women to lead a trade union here, told me in December. “However, they look at only the production aspects of how tea is made. This is the only museum dedicated to the workers. No one knows how much our community has contributed to this country.”
The Malaiyaha Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka by the British around the mid-nineteenth century to work on tea plantations. Hailing from places in Tamil Nadu such as Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Madurai and Thanjavur, many of them had fled poverty and famine, and came as bonded labourers.
Muthulingam, who runs the non-profit organisation the Institute of Social Development, or ISD, wanted to familiarise new generations with the community’s history of struggle, and also with its rich culture and traditions.
Some of the objects in the museum have dark backstories—for instance, the thappu drums lined up on the lawn outside. Until the 1930s, tens of thousands of Indian Tamils crossed the narrow ocean in canoes and made an arduous 238-kilometre trek from the west coast of the Mannar island on foot. Disease dogged their steps and many died on the way. They were buried in shallow, inexpertly dug graves, and many animals dug up their corpses, so the route was strewn with bones. Often, they had to move through dense forests, where the migrants beat the thappu and sang to scare away leopards and elephants.
After Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, gained independence in 1948, a few members of the Malaiyaha Tamil community got citizenship under a government scheme (Yogeshwari’s father was among them). Others lived under the threat of deportation—over 500,000 people were sent back to India. Having only ever known life in Sri Lanka, the community resisted. They organised protests where many burned their Indian passports. In 2003, the crisis was finally resolved when the last of the Malaiyaha Tamils who were still stateless—some 300,000 people—were granted citizenship.
Over time, this community of more than 800,000 people has emerged as a political force to be reckoned with, with trade unions bargaining for improvements in wages and labour conditions that have benefitted workers in other industries across the island.
Despite this, many Malaiyaha Tamil families still contend with debilitating poverty. Maternal and child health statistics are poorer than the island average, seeing some of the highest rates of stunting in children due to malnourishment. The community also grapples with rampant alcoholism and gender-based violence. Both Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese majority see Malaiyaha Tamils as outsiders, Yogeshwari told me. Women are at a further disadvantage, she said, pointing to domestic violence, higher rates of illiteracy, sexual abuse in the workplace and constrictive roles at home.
Yogeshwari is one of a long line of impassioned activists to arise from the plantations. Muthulingam has collected many stories from Malaiyaha Tamils, in the form of documents and oral histories. He hopes to make these accessible to visitors soon. One such account is that of the 94-year-old woman activist Sivapakkiam Kumaravel. In the 1940s, Kumaravel was a powerful campaigner who fought to establish a six-hour workday for tea pickers. Another woman Muthulingam hoped to feature, he told me, was only a child when her family was torn apart by the repatriation process—she was away from home when military personnel came in a green van and forcibly deported her parents.
Another of Muthulingam’s projects will catalogue the experiences of those who fled the plantations in the wake of the ethnic riots that punctuated the decades from the 1950s to the 1980s. Seeking safety in the Tamil-majority north and east, they found themselves surprisingly unwelcome refugees, and till date many remain landless.
For years now, Muthulingam has been in the thick of the action as trade unions from this area have agitated for better working conditions. The last few months have been particularly tumultuous. In late 2016, thousands of workers across the tea-plantation sector went on strike. Protestors carried posters condemning “Ceylon Blood Tea” and burnt tires both in the hill country and in Colombo, demanding a pay increase. The establishment eventually responded with some concessions, but Muthulingam believes only a dramatic restructuring of the system will be able to stem the flow of labour away from the plantations.
“The plantation system itself is under some crisis,” PP Devaraj, a former minister, who also belongs to the Malaiyaha Tamil community, told me in December. Figures issued by Sri Lanka’s central bank reveal that tea exports have declined; climate change is taking a toll on the agricultural produce and international markets are in flux. A model of labour at least 150 years old, in which workers live and work on the plantations, also no longer appears sustainable. “The workers are moving out of the plantations, and the estate management are finding them difficult to run,” Devaraj said. In this context, he admits his reaction to the museum itself is complicated—he appreciates it, yet believes the community should look more to the future and less to its past.
But activists such as Yogeshwari bring a different perspective to the museum. Her organisation, among others, has been arguing that the Malaiyaha Tamils should be recognised as a minority, independent of the Tamils of the north and east, and that they should have better representation in local government. “You can see that socially, culturally, politically and even financially, the two groups have very different issues,” she said. “Being able to contribute our ideas for the new constitution is for us a historical opportunity. A sense of our ethnic identity is very important now.”
Most importantly, the museum seeks to honour the dead. Muthulingam’s establishment has prominently displayed a poem by CV Velupillai, the “bard of the plantations.” It reads simply:
They lie dust under dust
beneath the tea
No wild weed flowers
or memories token
Over the fathers’ biers!
O shame! What man ever gave them a grave
Only God in his grace
covered them with grass.
Smriti Daniel is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera, Vice, the Sunday Times, Scroll and The Hindu among others. In 2013, she was named feature writer of the year by the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka.