The growing significance
of the "Great Heroes Day"
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The first ever Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam (LTTE) member to
embrace death in battle was
Sathiyanathan of Kambarmalai a
northern village adjacent to
Valvettithurai, the birthplace of
Velupillai Prabakharan its leader.
Sathiyanathan alias Shankar was also
known as Suresh died on November
27, 1982. He was a childhood friend of
Prabakharan and one of his earliest
recruits. Shankar had gone to the
Nithiyanandan residence in Navalar
Road, Jaffna to warn them of a military
crackdown on Tamil professionals and
intellectuals suspected of being
sympathetic towards the LTTE.
Even as Shankar was communicating with Jaffna University Lecturer Muthia
Nithiyanandan and his wife Nirmala an - ex-varsity lecturer now teaching at a
leading Girls School, a posse of soldiers surrounded the house. Shankar
managed to shoot his way out of the military cordon but sustained serious injuries
in the process. The Nithiyanandans were arrested.
The first LTTE death
Later Shankar's condition deteriorated and another senior LTTE member
Sivakumar alias Anton who later represented the Tigers at the Thimphu talks
undertook a perilous and clandestine journey by boat along with Shankar to Tamil
Nadu to procure urgent medical assistance for the latter. This was in the pre-1983
period when the LTTE consisted only of around 25 to 30 activists and had very
few resources including even wireless communication equipment.
Leaving the grievously injured Shankar in a safehouse at Kodiaakkarai, Anton
went up to Madurai where LTTE chief Prabakharan and some others were staying
This was the time when Prabakharan was confined by court order to Madurai
because of his involvement in a broad daylight shoot out with Peoples Liberation
Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) chief Umamaheswaran at Pondy Bazaar in
Chennai (then Madras). Thanks to the help rendered by Pala. Nedumaran who
was then a member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative assembly representing Madurai
West, Shankar was brought to a farmhouse belonging to Nedumaran for medical
The weeping leader
The people nursing Shankar in the coastal hideout had ignorantly given a lot of
water to quench his thirst. This worsened his condition to a point of no return.
Shankar died on Prabakharan's lap mumbling "Thambi, Thambi" (thambi was the
endearing term by which Prabakharan was known in the old days) while the visibly
shaken and weeping LTTE leader kept stroking his hair. This was one of the few
occasions when the LTTE leader ever wept in public. Death in combat of a cadre
whether immediate or subsequent was a new phenomenon to the LTTE on that
Seven years later in 1989 around six hundred LTTE cadres assembled at a secret
venue in the Mullaitheevu district jungles of Nithikaikulam on November 27. The
occasion was the newly proclaimed Great Heroes Day or Maaveerar Naal as
known in Tamil. This was the time when the Indian army was fighting the LTTE as
a proxy of the Sri Lankan government. Thanks to the understanding arrived at
between the LTTE and then President Ranasinghe Premadasa a cease-fire had
been declared on September 21, that year.
A withdrawal of troops had been announced in principle. The Indian Parliamentary
elections scheduled for December would determine whether Rajiv Gandhi would
be re-elected or not. That verdict would in turn decide the fate of the Indian Army
in Sri Lanka. The LTTE leader had in the meantime thought of honouring his dead
cadres by observing a unique ceremony called Maaveerar Naal or Great Heroes
Proud of the LTTE
The LTTE leader was justifiably proud then of the performance of his organisation
in having withstood the onslaught of 132,000 troops of the Indian army. When the
Indo-Lanka accord was signed and hostilities ceased the LTTE had lost 632
cadres in battle. When a cessation of hostilities with the Indian army was enforced
the LTTE had lost a further 711 cadres.
Prabakharan wanted to recognise their contribution, honour their sacrifices and
pay tribute to their memory in a collective manner. What better way than
promulgating a special day? Which better day than the date on which the first
LTTE member laid down his life? So November 27th it was. The first Great Heroes
Day was a restricted affair of which the highlight was a highly emotional address
delivered extemporaneously by Prabakharan to his enraptured followers.
The Dravidian culture
The nineties saw the LTTE controlling the greater part of the northern province
and substantial pockets in the eastern province. During this period the LTTE
developed to a great extent, the ceremonial aspect of paying homage to its fallen
heroes. There exists in the martial tradition of the Tamils a concept known as
Nadugal Valipaadu which literally means worshipping the planted stone. Until the
influence of Aryan-Brahminism pervaded the Dravidian people, the custom in
South India had been that of burying their dead. Tombstones were erected at the
graves of great heroes fallen in battle. These were honoured regularly through
special Panegyrical rituals.
The classical Tamil literary works of the Sangham era are replete with references
to this Nadugal Valipaadu concept. The aftermath of the Hindu renaissance period
saw Brah- minism becoming dominant and altering a way of life drastically. The
decline of Tamil dynasties along with the advent of Moghul, Nayakkar and
European colonialism saw the martial tradition among Tamils becoming debilitated.
The custom of paying homage to heroes fallen in battle became non-existent in an
environment where war was virtually unknown for generations.
Now the LTTE went back to the roots of the Tamil martial culture and revived its
most potent symbolic and ritual form. From 1991 the entire week from November
21-27, was declared as Great Heroes Week. Interestingly the birthday of LTTE
leader Prabakharan was November 26. Since this day was now within the Great
Heroes Week more importance was attached to it. An outpouring of emotion both
genuine as well as sycophantic emerged. The focus shifted from Great Heroes
Day to the leader's birthday.
Some even thought that Great Heroes day was to celebrate the leaders birthday.
Soon Prabakharan acted firmly and clamped down all festive activity connected
with his birthday. The week was for the fallen heroes and the red letter day of that
week would only be November 27, the Great Heroes Day. Nevertheless various
religious observances are undertaken by followers and well wishers on November
26, seeking divine protection and blessings on the man who now personifies Tamil
resistance to Sinhala chauvinist hegemony.
Utilising its control to the maximum of the north and parts of the east during the
1990 - 1995 period the LTTE conducted elaborate demonstrations and events as
part of observing the Great Heroes day.
The entire week was full of meetings, religious rituals, processions, exhibitions etc.
to commemorate the fallen LTTE cadres. Cutouts, posters and handbills of the
departed cadres were distributed widely. Each village was asked to pay homage to
those Tigers from their area who were now great heroes. Each school was asked
to pay tribute to those of their alumni who had fallen in battle. The three days of
Nov 25th, 26th and 27th however are the most important days of Maaveerar
The grand function
The week culminated in a grand function on the 27th at a special location
attended by Prabakharan himself. With the passage of time Great Heroes day
ceremonies became decentralised. Several observances would be conducted
simultaneously but pride of place however was naturally awarded to the one in
which Prabakharan participated.
The LTTE also established several cemeteries called Maaveerar Thuyilum Illangal
(residences where the great heroes slumber). While the departed cadres were
laid out in neat rows of graves marked by single tombstones a pavilion
commemorating them collectively with names and relevant dates was also
The most touching spectacle of the great heroes day observance was the mass
participation of family members at these cemeteries and memorial pavilions. Later
G. H. D. ceremonies were observed in foreign cities where substantial
concentrations of the Tamil Diaspora lived.
Increasing casualty rates
As the ethnic conflict kept continuing the casualty rates also increased. When the
first G. H. day was observed in 1989 there were only 1343 martyrs. The tally as of
October 20th in 2000 was 16,591. The present figure as at Oct 31st is 17,903;
263 black tigers have been killed so far. The LTTE has lost 234 during three and
a half years of ceasefire. This means that more and more Tamil families are
suffering the losses of their loved ones and becoming grief stricken.
The event is now mass oriented. This column has witnessed Great Heroes Day
ceremonies held overseas as well as films of functions in Sri Lankan Tamil areas.
There is no doubt that the sight of grief stricken emotional outpourings over their
loved ones by family members is a profoundly moving one. The families of fallen
LTTE cadres are called Maaveerar Kudumbangal and are often given preferential
treatment in spheres coming within the ambit of LTTE control.
The LTTE by nurturing this cult of martyrdom is achieving many things. It provides
those cadres among the living a bond of affiliation with their departed comrades.
The cadres get a feeling of reassuring comfort that he or she too would be
honoured in similar fashion when dead. The LTTE cadres are fighting and dying in
the belief that posterity will remember and honour their memory.
Eternity and immortality
The Great Heroes Day observances provide them with the feeling that by
sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality. Likewise
the kith and kin of the departed souls too are gratified that the loss of their loved
one has not been in vain. The emotive content of Great Heroes Day observances
also motivates other youths to join the LTTE. The spectacle also inspires the
general population in continuing to appreciate the LTTE sacrifices and render
The annual great heroes day address by the LTTE leader began to assume great
significance and importance over the years. Since Prabakharan is quite reclusive
and shuns direct media exposure the great heroes day appearance has become
one of those rare occasions where he interacts with the public. The speech is also
considered to be something akin to a policy statement by the LTTE.
It is dissected by analysts to ascertain what the LTTE leader envisages for the
immediate future. With Prabakharan being the determining factor of Sri Lankan
politics for nearly fifteen years, his G. H. D. address is awaited eagerly. At times it
is interpreted according to the specific agenda of propagandists. At times the
address has turned out to be a damp squib without any new dimension in thought
but nevertheless it remains an oration of tremendous importance. Nowadays
Prabakharan does not deliver extempore but reads from a carefully prepared text.
Speech over the Internet
After the relocation of the LTTE to the northern mainland of Wanni, Prabakharan
makes his annual address from places within that region. The setting up of the
LTTE's own radio station Puligalin Kural (Voice of Tigers) enabled it to be relayed
out. With the development of information technology the speech is now relayed
simultaneously via Internet.Nowadays the LTTE has its own TV and GHD
proceedings are telecast to the world at large from the Wanni.
The emergence of several Tamil broadcasting stations in the western world has
created a situation where the speech is heard in Tamil homes throughout Europe,
Australia and North America. Likewise the acquisition of various television stations
by pro - tiger Tamils enables wide televised coverage too.
A noteworthy feature of Prabakharan's speeches in recent times is his resonant
delivery in well modulated tones. The usual highpitched voice that tends to be
squeaky at times is totally absent.
The Great Heroes Day observances were as usual multi-faceted and diversified.
The highlight of these ceremonies is the lighting of candles and torches by those
assembled. While people holding these flickering lights line up and form an
illuminated corridor, a glowing torch is brought in relay form by LTTE cadres in
similar fashion to that of the Olympic games. The flaming torch is then given to the
chief guest who then lights a large eternal flame known as Eegai Chudar (Flame
of sacrifice) at the Memorial monument. This is followed by the lighting of a myriad
lamps and torches making the occasion a festival of lights. Several senior LTTE
figures are chief guests at different ceremonies.
The flames at various memorials are lit by senior tiger stalwarts. All the
ceremonies are attended by members of great hero families who are taken by
procession to the various memorials from different spots. Music is played by
troupes from different LTTE formations. The different venues are also decorated
with pandals.The red and yellow flags are hoisted widely.
Ceremony done in style
The primary ceremony however is at the site in which Prabakharan himself
participates. A newly constructed memorial is the usual venue.After the LTTE flag
is hoisted a display demonstration by selected squads from various units of the
LTTE is held.
A march past is held after which Prabakharan accepts the ceremonial salute.
Prabakharan then begins his address. It is about 30 to 40 minutes. Prabakharan
thereafter accepts the flaming torch brought in relay form and goes on to light the
premier flame of sacrifice. After observing two minutes of silence along with the
massive crowd in attendance, the LTTE leader goes on to garland a picture of
Sathiyanathan alias Shankar the first great hero.
Thereafter the LTTE leader accompanied by other tiger members also light the
small lamps and place flowers before the pictures of martyrs. The visual
dimension does not however diminish the importance and significance of the LTTE
The LTTE leader's Great Heroes address is quite concise and precise with some
interesting nuances. It encapsules effectively and vividly the LTTE position and
what it hopes to do in the future.
In recent times there is a sideshow in London where the political adviser and chief
negotiator Anton Stanislaus Balasingham known affectionately as "Bala Annai"
addresses a large Mavveerar Day meeting. The highlight of his speech is an
amplification and clarification of the salient aspects of Prabakharans address.
What is of interest here is that it is Bala Annai who writes the speech for the LTTE
leader. Thereafter he expands on his own creation.
This year the ceremony is to be held within the peninsula at the site of the historic
Elephant Pass or Aanaiiravu base complex. Operation Unceasing waves- 3 or
Oyatha Alaigal - 3vhas gone down in contemporary military history as an
incredible military feat where a comparatively lesser force fought against
overwhelming logistical and terraneous difficulties to overcome a superior force.
The Isthmus of Elephant pass linking the peninsula and mainland is of great
significance to the Tamil people in a historical, geographical, economic, social,
cultural and political sense. Now it has acquired a military dimension too. The
LTTE staging its GHD meeting at Elephant pass this year is an event of immense
politico - military symbolism.
More important will be the LTTE leaders address. The election of Mahinda
Rajapakse as President with the help of hawkish parties like the Janatha Vimukth
Peramuna and Jathika hela Urumaya is a watershed. The enforced boycott of that
election by the LTTE is also a significant pointer. Mahinda Rajapakse's election
manifesto and Policy speech in Parliament outlines what the Government
approach towards the National question is going to be. Now Velupillai
Prabakharan will outline the response of the LTTE and what lies in store for Sri
Lanka in general and the Eelam Tamils in particular.