Faith and Healing in Northern Sri Lanka


A review of War and Grief, Faith and Healing in a Tamil Catholic Fishing Village in Northern Sri Lanka, by Kaori Hatsumi.

With the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in May 2009, and greater access to the Northern Province—particularly that stretch known as the Vanni, much of which remained under the control of the LTTE for almost two decades—there has been a renewed interest in ethnographic research projects in the former warzones. Kaori Hatsumi’s thesis is the first instance of this scholarship, and because the fieldwork on which it is based began even before the end of the war, it offers a rare insight into this traumatic period of Sri Lanka’s contemporary history. Hatsumi’s research focuses on the relationship between suffering and religious faith in a community of Catholic Tamil fishers, many of whom were driven from their home village, Perunkalipattu, in 1999, to be resettled on land given to them by the Catholic Church. This camp, Santa Marta, was Hatsumi’s main field site, to which—despite being repeatedly driven out by security concerns—she tenaciously returned for several visits between 2007 and 2010.

The core of the thesis, Chapters 3 to 6, comprises a chronological series of ethnographic episodes that begin immediately before the end of the war, during Easter 2009, and culminate a year later in Easter 2010. These episodes describe the villagers’ agony as they await news and speculate on the fate of their relatives caught in the war zone, while striving to maintain contact with those who have already escaped but are being detained in Manik Farm, the vast camp in which the government held civilians after the conflict. The villagers’ suffering continues after the defeat of the LTTE, and their human losses are exacerbated by economic deprivation. In these chapters, Hatumi moves between scattered asides about Sri Lanka’s changing political and economic context, and a reflexive, narrative ethnography that aptly conveys the grief and uncertainty wrought by the war. Within this chaos, the villagers’ religion alone seems to provide both stability and catharsis, and Hatsumi has chosen to take Catholic ritual as the organizing principle of her ethnography, which frequently focuses on specific masses and the events which occur around them.

A Tamil-speaker, Hatsumi uses her narrative approach to depict both the daily minutiae of Santa Marta but also the powerful force of emotion within the village. For this reviewer, currently conducting research with Catholic Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, Hatsumi’s description rang true, and the result is a thicker, closer ethnography of Sri Lankan Tamil society that has been lacking in recent years. I was particularly struck by her account of the burial of a middle-aged woman who died under ambiguous circumstances in Kuwait, where she had worked for a decade. After deciding that the body is fit for viewing (the death having occurred forty days earlier), the men of Santa Marta regulate the women’s grief:

“A group of bullies surrounded the coffin, and they were conducting a kind of traffic-control, bullying the women, making them wait in line and allocating each woman limited time to say ‘good-by’ to Rebecca. Whenever a woman-mourner started sobbing and appeared to have lost her self-control, they would order, ‘Carry this one away! Go! Go, get away!’” (p. 173).

The ethnography reaches its most sustained articulation in Chapter 6, when Hatsumi journeys with the villagers of Santa Marta to celebrate the Easter of 2010 in Perunkalipattu. In Chapter 2, Hatsumi drew on oral histories and secondary sources to construct an image of village as it was before the war arrived in 1990: a peaceful community reinforced by abundant produce and harmonious inter-ethnic relations. This is a sharp contrast to her first and only visit, during which she is shocked by Perunkalipattu in its contemporary ruined state. But as the stations of the cross are celebrated by a procession of villagers winding their way through the “carcasses” (p. 190) of their former homes, and Easter reaches its culmination in subsequent masses, the villagers are transformed by the passions of their faith. According to Hatsumi: “The women were responding to the mass service from their experience—their survival in the Vanni—and it was the moment of their spiritual regeneration” (p. 209).

This figure of the villager transformed by faith becomes the central problematic of the theoretical passages that bracket the ethnographic core of Hatsumi’s thesis. Hatsumi acknowledges that she was initially skeptical about the villagers’ Catholicism, which she considered marginal in comparison with the material and social aspects of their lives. But, having come to understand that religion is in fact crucial to understanding the villagers’ experiences and their agency, Hatsumi now finds herself critical of the secularism of anthropology as a discipline. Drawing in particular on Fennella Cannell’s argument that anthropology excels in the unbelief in the Christian faith above all others, Hatsumi argues that anthropologists need to find ways of representing religious devotion despite the discipline’s contradictory opposition to it [Fenella Cannell, “Introduction,” The Anthropology of Christianity, ed. Fenella Cannell. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 1-50].

This task leads Hatsumi away from anthropology, towards existential philosophy, and a re-definition of the human being itself. Hatsumi transposes Søren Kierkegaard’s notion of Ex-sistere, the “being of the believer”—not just existing in the world but standing out from it—against secular, Heiddegerian approaches which block religion and faith from their understanding of humanity [Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Translated by David F. Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968; Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. New York: Harper and Row, 1962). Hatsumi engages in particular with Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life,” which she rejects as an inadequate description of the condition of the villagers, despite their total lack of agency at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998). Rather than considering man, like Agamben, as the subject of a worldly sovereign first and foremost, Hatsumi draws on Kierkegaard to argue that the human is an ethical rather than political being, and the subject of a transcendental sovereign. Thus, in the “state of exception” created by the war, the villagers’ devotion to God is a conscious act representative of their humanity, albeit one which might be missed by ethnographic observers pursuing an exclusively secular approach.

This is a valuable work which lays some of the foundations for research on Sri Lanka’s post-war Northern Province for the years to come. It will be useful for scholars of the anthropology of religion, South Asian Catholicism in particular, and for those with an interest in Tamil culture and society. It is also an important text for those who are trying to understand Sri Lanka’s long and brutal war.

Dominic Esler
PhD Candidate
Department of Anthropology
University College London

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork in Sri Lanka

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 234 pp. Primary Advisor: E. Valentine Daniel.

Image: Photo by Author, Sri Lanka, 2006.

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