Doctoral Dissertation Research: Sanmugeswaran: Community Rebuilding after Disaster

Grants and Contracts Details


Overview: This project will investigate how community rebuilding is occurring in a gravely damaged, post-conflict society. Specifically, it will look at how people in two villages in Tamil, Hindu, Jaffna, Sri Lanka, are using their ‘sense of place’ and ‘place-making practices’ (Field and Basso, 1996; Kingsolver 2011), or what the co-PI calls here their ‘village-temple consciousness’, to maintain and rebuild their communities after war to make them, once again, places in which they feel a comfortable sense of belonging. This is a comparative study because Inuvil and Naguleswaram were affected differently by the Sri Lankan civil war. That is, while Inuvil, was physically damaged and socially disrupted by the conflict, which ended in 2009, it nonetheless remained intact throughout; Naguleswaram, on the other hand, was completely raised to the ground by government forces, and its scattered inhabitants are only now being allowed to return after 26 years to rebuild their homes and Hindu temples. By comparing the efforts of people in these two villages -- one where people are using an ongoing but mutating sense of place to adjust to changed circumstances, and another other where people, of necessity, are using memory to reconstruct a place once lost -- this project will attempt to understand the role Jaffna Tamil people’s ‘village temple consciousness’ is playing in the process of local social healing and community reconstruction that is ongoing in this rapidly changing post-war society. The co-PI here uses the compound term ‘village-temple consciousness’ to reflect the Tamil word, ur, meaning, at once, a physical village of origin and the sacred, landscape-fixing temples that organize such places as social and physical spaces. The co-PI argues that understanding the conjoined village-temple sense of place that underlies social life and its reconstruction in Jaffna requires recognizing the conjunction of the physical and the sacred implied by this compound term. It is the hypothesis of this project 1) that the postwar social and communal rebuilding ongoing in these two villages depends upon people using their village-temple consciousness as models of/for such endeavors; 2) that an ethnography of the role of ‘place-making’ in community rebuilding in Jaffna, Sri Lanka will illuminate the more general issue of how communities anywhere after war reconstitute themselves not just as physical locations but as places in which people can once again truly feel at home. This study will use qualitative research techniques: participant observation, semi-structured interviewing, temple-conflict case studies, monitoring of relevant village and temple websites, and cultural mapping. Interviews will be conducted with members of both high and the non-high caste temples, at community centers and at temple voluntary service associations. The co-PI will also do archival work and life history interviews with older Tamil residents who came of age before the war. Intellectual Merit: This study will contribute to the study of post-conflict societies by asking how people’s pre- and postwar ‘senses of place’ are being used in ravaged locations to rehabilitate or completely rebuild communities. In addition, it will contribute broadly to theoretical debates on the role of spatial consciousness, war, religion, emotions, identity, place and recovery in post-conflict communities. Its focus on ‘village temple consciousness’ will, of course, also contribute to the ethnography of South Asia, where it will complicate an already large literature on South Asian villages. Further, this study also will contribute to spatial anthropology by explicating how, in Sri Lanka, sacred landscapes help construe not only religious space but local belongingness in general. This study will also look at how re-building communities cope with post-conflict global flows from a war engendered diaspora, but from a village point of view. Within the anthropology of religion this work will address how ritual practices are adjusted to handle forces such as war and globalization. This will require looking at related issues such as the relationship between religion and politics, religion and caste, religion and power, and religion and identity within the context of an anthropology of place-consciousness. Finally, local ethnographic issues of urimai, bhakthi religiosity and consciousness as arrayed against a broader, global, post-conflict backdrop, will also be addressed in terms of the anthropology of emotions by looking at the relationship between these specifically Tamil emotions and transnational attachments. Broader Impacts: First, this research should be of use to people working in the area of post-conflict reconciliation and also, hence, to policy makers in Sri Lanka. Intensive ethnographic research work on post-conflict communities in Jaffna will be a great asset to the Jaffna academic community, and a useful resource for the International Non-Governmental Organizations and the Local Governmental Organizations who work in post-conflict Jaffna. Second, because this research will include two Jaffna University Social Science undergraduates as field assistants, it will contribute to the education and training of Jaffna residents. Third, by furthering the education of the co-PI, a Sri Lankan national who intends to return there to teach at the undergraduate and graduate level, this research will contribute to the enhancement of national curricula for undergraduate and graduate education with special reference to improving in the areas of contemporary ethnographic research methods and cultural anthropology. Also, documentation of life histories with elders and the documentation of cultural mapping of these two, ancient Jaffna villages will make a valuable contribution to the Sri Lankan national archives.
Effective start/end date2/1/187/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $25,181.00


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