History Narrative Introduction: Setting the Scene Poem by Tamil poet Laureate, Kannadasan (June 1927-October 1981):
கடல் கடந்தான் எங்கள் தமிழன் – அங்கும்
கற்பூர தீபம் கண்டான் இறைவன்
உடலுக்குப் பொருள் தேடி உள்ளத்தில் இறை நாடி
தமிழுக்கும் பணி செய்து தன்மானத்துடன் வாழ (Seshadri, V. 2008)
He crossed the sea, our Tamil man - There also
In Holy Light, he saw God.
For his body, he looked for wealth; in his soul, he searched for God.
To Tamil, also he did service, so that with self pride he may live.
Here, in the Tamil poem, the description of the singular ‘Tamil man’ is in actual fact a symbol for the pluralized: Tamil race. Therefore the actions of this poetic persona are meant to represent the actions of Tamil people or more specifically, that of Tamil migrants.
The poem illuminates the themes that arise from Sri Lankan Tamil migration and describes the process of setting up communities oversees. It also reveals the importance placed upon faith and language as crucial aspects of immigrant identity. I choose here to use the word faith in general, as the poem identifies spirituality but not of any specific religious deity thereby focusing on the Tamil language as a unifying feature among the Tamil community of all faith backgrounds. The poem’s central message is that the service of one’s language offers one respectability and attaining wealth and spirituality are important needs which characteristically define development in one’s life journey. It seems here that physical migration causes the immigrant identity to rediscover and re-establish the spirituality of their identity prior to migration.
This poem sets the scene for discussing the Tamil Hindu community and does actually pretty accurately paint a small picture of the Tamil Diasporas’ development after migration – as they are seen to first set up a religious based community and then teach the Tamil language to the next generation. This pattern can be seen in Sri Lankan Tamil migration to many locations all around the world. The story of Tamils in Newham also follows the pattern described in the poem. Firstly though, let us examine the history of the East Ham which has the highest population of Tamils in Newham.
History of Local Area: East Ham – in London Borough of Newham
Situated around 7 miles to the east of the City of London, East Ham is a culturally diverse area reflecting a blend of the traditional East End alongside new spaces created by migrant communities from all around the world. However, the most notable sector of the new community has its origins in Asian countries; in the 2001 census demographic 42% of the total population were described as being Asian (‘East Ham’, UK Polling Report). A significant part of this large Asian community is made up of Sri Lankan Tamils, whose presence in the area can be seen in the new spaces that are visible in the high street shops, the use of buildings as community schools and in the creation of places of worship either custom built or as transformations of existing building spaces.
East Ham is a busy place filled with lively high streets, a beautiful town hall and endless looking rows upon rows of Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses. Emerging from the high streets are the many tree lined Avenues of East Ham, that make for a pleasant walk around the area and slightly raised pavements around the trees where the roots fight back over their concrete oppressors!
Figure 1 Photo of a tree lined, tight knit, terraced street winding its way towards the Temple. he tree lined streets provide the area a characteristic uniformity and beauty too, offset against the trees are the neatly aligned terraced houses that give the area a compact, warm and homely feel. Walking around the streets it is difficult to imagine the area prior to the long winding rows of houses that have made such a mark on East Ham’s landscape.
Historically, however, the clue to the structure of the area was in its name: ‘‘Hamme’ meaning ‘low lying pasture’’ (‘The Newham Story’, Newham London). During this time ‘Hamme’ was not divided as East Ham and West Ham, respectively, but was one area that held a population of 72 pastoral Saxon settlers in the year 1086.
From the 12th century this figure remained steady and after a slight dip in the 13th century to 43 the population stagnated during the 14th – the mid 17th century around the figure of 70 and by the end of the 18th century in 1796, the population reached only 150! This changed rapidly at the turn of the 19th century where the population doubled from 1801 – 1861 and trebled during the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century from 32,713 to 96,018 in 1901:
Figure 3 Population figures from 1801- 1931 (‘The Newham Story’, Newham London).
Before East Ham became a town, rural East Ham consisted of three hamlets: North End, South End and Wall End. These three villages each were known for their contribution to the agricultural livelihood; North End was used for growing market produce especially of cabbage and South End marshland was used for cattle rearing. However the quiet village atmosphere and small population was soon to change. A website dedicated to commemorating the centenary of East Ham’s Methodist Church takes a particularly colourful but negative view of this change:
But ere long the peace and tranquility was to be shattered forever, for it was inevitable that the industrial monster, already gaining strength, was bracing itself for the great plunge, for history tells its own story. Within a space of a few years, it has ploughed its way through the entire area, and the village of East Ham was numbered with many others who have suffered similar circumstances. (Jarman T., 1972)
East Ham’s transformation from scattered villages to town, like with most other places, coincided with the arrival of the station in 1858 – soon after which the place underwent a radical increase in urbanisation. The arrival of the station made East Ham accessible to and from the city of London and allowed for the advancement of the Royal group of docks by creating housing for workers at the dockyard and gasworks set up on the previous South End of East Ham at the marshes:
The great Royal group of docks was already expanding and […] the new gasworks had also set upon its great task of supplying the City of London from its riverside home. These events heralded the closing of an era. The village as such was about to change its role. Cabbages and cattle were no longer the priority, but men and houses, men for the dockyard and men for the gasworks and houses, hundreds of them, in which the ever increasing population was to make its home. Within ten years: 1881-1891, the population of East Ham trebled. (Jarman T., 1972)
Figure 4 East Ham Station taken in 1900 (‘The Newham Story’, Newham London).
Interestingly, the change in East Ham from an agricultural rural community to a bustling industrial one seems to have generated mixed views. As before the station’s arrival, some verses written about 1850 refer to East Ham's
one writer, in describing his early recollections of the northern part of the village [North End], refers to the red tiled cottages with their white washed fronts, with gardens stocked with vegetables and the rustic seats for the villagers to sit and while away the time on pleasant summer evenings (Jarman T., 1972).
A hundred years later in 1950, East Ham started seeing the arrival of new communities that would later change the face of Newham (now that East Ham is a part of the borough of Newham) like the arrival of the station did a hundred years previously:
Figure 5 Map of London’s Boroughs (‘London government directory’, London Councils).
The Borough celebrates its cultural diversity and advertises itself as full of
youthful vigour and creativity [that] has fused with the traditional East End values of warmth, friendliness, community spirit and good humour to make Newham a welcoming place with a unique character. (‘Discover Newham’, Newham London).
Certainly this view of Newham as a welcome place continues throughout the literature published by the council in their fortnightly magazine titled: ‘Newham Mag’. This local magazine is delivered to all households across the borough. The council very much promotes the idea of the local indigenous English culture being in harmony with the cultural activities of all the new communities that have found a home in Newham, for example, in one article:
Hindu chariot festival attended by thousands
More than 9,000 people took part in the Sri Murugan Temple’s annual chariot festival.
The temple festival is a ten-day event, starting with a flag-raising ceremony. The flag was
taken down by the priest on the 11th day after the water festival. Every day, special poojas
(prayers) were said for peace throughout the world and blessing Newham.
A chariot procession was a spectacular event full of colour including the traditional drummers
Figure 6 Article featured in Bishop J. (ed) (2007) ‘The Newham Mag’, Issue 127, pg 4.
In this extract there is a clear focus on how this is positive for community relations: as the Temple procession is seen to be ‘blessing Newham’ and that ‘non-Tamil’ members of the community are welcome too highlights the positive qualities of cultural diversity. This is a sentiment that is created and reinforced every year that the festival occurs and receives mention in the aforementioned ‘Newham Mag’.
Interestingly, unlike the radical industrialised population influx transformation of East Ham during the 19th century which created a voiced mixed review, the cultural development and addition of migrant communities has only been described as positive in council literature; it is obvious that this is a dominant discourse in the council’s narrative that is played to quieten perhaps unhappy voices in the community which is dressed up as being culturally and linguistically rich and very much integrated. In their website promoting Newham, they say:
As well as being an excellent base for exploring central London, there is also plenty to see and do here. For a taste of the real London, look no further than Green Street - dubbed 'the Bond Street of the East End'. A refreshing break from the chain stores of most high streets, it has over 400 independent shops representing cultures from around the world, selling food, jewellery, designer saris (as worn by Cherie Blair), and a myriad of cafes and restaurants serving authentic international cuisine. (‘Discover Newham’, Newham London)
Here, there is an interesting omission of the ‘local’ (indigenous English people) which is brought into sharp focus as the article instead concentrates on promoting the link to ‘authentic international cuisine’. The website also portrays Newham as:
not just [having] the shining new buildings and facilities that make the borough a happening place. Newham has the youngest and most diverse population in the UK. More than 40 per cent of the 254,000 people in Newham are under 25 years old and more than 100 languages are spoken locally - from Albanian to Zhuang. All of which makes for an exciting area rich in culture, flavour and atmosphere where local people take great pride in being part of a global village. (‘Discover Newham’, Newham London)
The description of ‘local’ is a little ambiguous here as it is not clear as to whether this describes the local English indigenous population or groups everybody together i.e. the new communities and the local English community and in doing so either alienating or subduing the voice of the indigenous locals. The council here employs a very celebratory rhetoric on community relations and an emersion into East Ham’s streets reflects a much more pragmatic picture of community relations; one that has developed into a respectful understanding allowing for dialogue and a fertile ground for future possibilities.
East Ham through the ages has undergone many transformations and its current face is coloured by many generations of cultural change creating a truly mixed environment that mingles the old and the new in a way that all its inhabitants play a part in its historical and cultural landscaping. This way East Ham’s diversity allows for the growth of both old and new roots in the same soil and is a haven for new developing communities that have flourished and found in the East Enders, a welcome neighbour. Thus conclusively, the borough is aptly named ‘Newham’: a homestead for the new.
History of the Migration of Sri Lankan Tamils There has always been a flow of Tamil migration to Britain starting around 1948 which marked Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain. However, this inflow was far from steady and the migration of Sri Lankan Tamils to Britain can be seen to concentrate in certain periods, creating ‘three main waves’ (Daniel and Thangaraj 1995, reported in Van Hear et al 2004, pg 16) concentrating in the 1940’s, 60’s and 80’s. The reasoning behind each wave of mass migration is varied and complex:
The first wave of Tamils who migrated to Britain around the 40’s
were largely professionals and students who came for university or professional studies and were mainly from upper class and upper caste backgrounds in Ceylon (later renamed Sri Lanka) (Van Hear et al, 2004, pg 16).
Most of these early immigrants moved back to Sri Lanka whilst only some remained in Britain marking the start of Sri Lankan Tamil migration. The early Tamil community were dispersed widely throughout the UK and it wasn’t until later migration waves that the Tamil community started to develop cultural and religious services with a significant impact on the British born second and subsequent generations.
The reasons for the second wave were radically different from the education seeking rich Tamils of the first wave; this mass migration around the 1960’s stemmed from the beginning of political unrest in Sri Lanka
as the Sinhalese-dominated government introduced discriminatory measures against the Tamil minority [even going as far as passing] legislation […] that made Sinhala the sole official language [thus] devaluing Tamil as one of the country’s national tongues. [Since then] relations between the two main ethnic groups, Sinhalese (74%) and Tamils (19%) degenerated into rival nationalisms. (Van Hear et al, 2004, pg 16).
Sri Lanka’s continuing discrimination against the Tamil race and the Tamil community’s reaction to this led
the escalation of communal strife into civil war between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in early 1980s. [This] brought [on the third] wave of migration which had three components: professionals who used their social capital and networks to gain entry into Britain; those who could afford to travel and could connect themselves through education, retraining (e.g. as nurses), family union, or limited sponsorship schemes and poorer people who fled the hostilities at home as refugees, especially after 1983. This latter group of asylum seekers came to dominate Tamil migration to Britain (Van Hear et al, 2004, pg 16).
Tamil refugees sought asylum in Britain from the early 1980’s right though to the 1990’s. However, David has noted that
the move into the new millennium showed a change in migration patterns - a marked decline in asylum migration, but an increase in the regrouping and relocating of family groups, particularly of Tamils from Europe to the UK. This secondary migration has perhaps been pushed forward by desires for the younger generations to gain an English education and by the obvious support of a well-established, significant [Sri Lankan Tamil] UK community (David, 2006, pg 1).
This strong network of large Tamil communities clustered in London coincide with the mass migration waves suggesting that those who came together tended to settle together too creating stronger communities than that of the more dispersed earlier migrants.
Van Hear also notes this tendency, describing that:
Tamils live mainly in London and are concentrated in places such as East Ham, Southall, Wembley, Tooting and Croydon […]. There is [also] evidence of tension between the different migration streams and cohorts of arrival (Daniel and Thangaraj 1995) owing to differences of social backgrounds and situations in Sri Lanka and the resulting difference in circumstances in Britain.’ (Van Hear, 2004, pg 16)
The differences between the Tamils who arrived later are reflected in terms of the jobs they do and other social status markers like property and money. For example,
The Tamils of the first two waves secured positions in the public sector such as in the NHS and in other white-collar jobs. Subsequent waves have ventured into many other avenues, especially into small businesses such as retail. (Van Hear, 2004, pg 16)
East Ham’s High Street is now transformed by flourishing Tamil businesses in catering, jewellery, clothing and grocery:
Figure 7 The High Street in 1965 (‘East Ham, Greater London’, Francis Frith).
Figure 8 Today the High Street has been transformed by Tamil businesses (Dissanayake S., 2008). he history of Sri Lankan Tamil migration is marked by a number of factors, with the recurrent reasons being education and war. The reasoning behind the move to East Ham also accounts for the strength in the community as most of East Ham’s Tamil community arrived in the 1980’s as refugees and many were scarred by the civil war in Sri Lanka which saw increasing numbers strive to create, promote and protect their Tamil identity that was denied to them before. The Tamil community felt liberated to share their stories and educate their young into feeling pride about being Tamil and though most religious and school establishments are wary of expressing any outward political views there is always an underlying sense of awareness of their identity as being part of a persecuted race with no homeland.
The sharing of experiences in migration and of the war brings the community together in numerous ways and in many ways is the positive aspect that enables the teaching of Tamil and Tamil religious, cultural practices to prosper. As a large Tamil population in East Ham developed, many shops sprang up along the high street and now there are over a 100 Tamil businesses in Newham and the growing Tamil community build upon their earlier predecessors’ attempts at developing a religious community by creating numerous Tamil schools, centres and Temples too.
History of Tamil Hindu Spiritual Activities in London: Setting the Scene for the Arrival of London Sri Murugan Temple Following the poem above describing Tamil people’s quest for God and wealth across the seas; the Tamil migrants since the 1940’s did not have a communal space for prayer so with the second mass migration of the 1960’s the earliest Tamil Hindu organisation for spiritual purposes in Britain was set up as the ‘Hindu Association of Great Britain’ with a specific aim of preserving Saivaism (the Tamil strand of Hinduism) for the coming generations.
However, the aims of this organisation was met with little enthusiasm as the immigrants of the 60’s felt that their stay was not permanent and so that the development of community structures in the UK was unnecessary. It also shows that the immigrant community was more dispersed than in later migration which also didn’t help community cohesion.
For example in a souvenir released for its 20th year it specifically mentioned that:
Figure 9 Hindu Association of Great Britain, 1987 (Krishnamoorthy C., 1987).
his is in direct contrast to the gradual increase and interest in developing Temples that was felt a decade later in the 70’s. This can be explained as a direct result of a larger number of immigrants and more importantly a realisation that the outbreak of the civil war in Sri Lanka meant a longer stay in London was imminent. On the back of this sentiment everything was in place for the arrival of London Sri Murugan Temple.
History of London Sri Murugan Temple O Lord Muruga, ‘in the beautiful city of London, which is garlanded by the fleeting Thames River, at the heart of East Ham town, is the temple that is Your divine abode’
(London Sri Murugan Temple Maha Kumbhabishekam, 2005, pg 246).
Since the Temple’s origins in 1975, Murugan Temple has been an important religious site in the lives of Tamil Londoners. It certainly has played a crucial role in my life in more ways than one. It is aptly described as a ‘magnet for thousands of devotees’ (London Sri Murugan Temple Maha Kumbhabishekam, 2005, pg 8) at the new Temple’s opening 30 years later in 2005 where a short history of the transformation of London Sri Murugan Temple is told in its commemorative book.
The creation of the Temple started with poosais conducted at the address of one of its founders in London on the 14th of April 1975 (the Tamil New Year). Around a 100 people attended and by the end of the celebration 78 of them had joined as the ‘founding members’ to create a Temple catering for the Hindu Tamil community which was growing steadily in number.
In the beginning only monthly meetings for prayer were organised at this address. Soon the idea of a temple for prayer grew and attracted larger crowds and so in order to accommodate the devotees, the monthly prayers were moved to ‘Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan’ (a community centre) in central London and later moved to a larger hall in London at ‘Gregory House’.
The early monthly poosais (prayers) were conducted in a simple fashion with a picture of Lord Murugan. This changed in 1978 with the arrival of the ‘Vel’ from Tamil Eelam (the Tamil part of Sri Lanka); Lord Murugan’s Holy Spear. The new Temple still has this ‘Vel’ which is placed with the new statue of Lord Murugan. Soon after the arrival of the ‘Vel’ the creation of the temple gained momentum with funds being raised across the community both nationally and internationally.
Figure 10 A picture of the early religious practices before the construction of a Temple. Poosais are conducted in front of the golden ‘Vel’ and picture of Murugan, 1978 (London Sri Murugan Temple Maha Kumbhabishekam, 2005, pg 11).
As this was happening, the Temple meeting premises moved yet again but this time more significantly to East Ham where its present location is. The monthly meetings were moved to two locations whilst a purchase of a building was considered: ‘Labour Party Hall’, in High Street North and later to ‘Plashet School Hall’ (incidentally my Tamil Saturday and mainstream Secondary School). The movement of the makeshift Temple includes quite an ironic use of a political and educational establishment for Tamil Hindu religious activity since Sri Lankan politics and discrimination in education are the very reasons behind the existence of the Tamil community in London.
The reasoning behind the move is explained; as in late
1978 the prayer meeting was relocated to the Labour Party Hall, in High Street North, Manor Park, because of the high concentration of our [Tamil Hindu] people residing in that area (London Sri Murugan Temple Maha Kumbhabishekam, 2005, pg 10).
Describing how the effect of Tamil migration settlement patterns resulted in the creation of the London Murugan Temple in Newham. Once the temple had moved to East Ham, more local Tamil people became involved with the Temple and in January 1983 the property at 78 Church Road (still its present location) was bought.
Once the property was bought, it took a year to transform it into a Hindu Temple with all the deities consecrated according to the ancient rites and rituals. On February 1984 the Temple was finished and priests were employed to carry out poosais and all manner of cultural and religious needs such as weddings for the Tamil Hindu community. Children were soon taught the traditional Arts in the nearby buildings and all the festivals that would be practiced in Sri Lanka were now available to the Tamil migrant community in London.
The Temple’s wider activities played a significant role in creating my own and others’ cultural awareness as I learnt the arts of traditional dance and devotional singing since the age of 5 and was schooled in Tamil and religion at 3! I have always had a sense of a strong personal relationship with the Temple and in 1985 (the year of my birth) the first ever annual chariot festival began. In 1987 the Chief Priest, Naganathasivam Gurrukal joined the Temple and the Temple began purchasing the surrounding buildings for an expansion.
Nearly more than 10 years later in 1999, the deities were temporarily moved to 90 Church Road (one of the purchased sites) and demolition began to create the new Temple. After 6 years of having a temporary Temple, in May 2005 the magnificent structure of the new Murugan Temple was unveiled and is considered a remarkable achievement of the London Tamil Hindu community.
Figure 11 Me aged 2 at the old Murugan Temple behind the shrine of Lord Shiva, 1987
Conclusively, the histories of the area, migration and the Temple are interlinked and influenced not only by local but also by international politics and change. The link to all three histories is ‘transformation’ and ‘adaptation’ as these two themes have played out in all sections allowing for an understanding of how the complex relationship between time, space and people creates cultures and change.
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