A growing community celebrates Tamil Heritage Month in Edmonton

Adhithya Visweswaran poses as part of the Tamil Project, a photo series by Edmonton photographer Dhakshayini Boopalan. Visweswaran and Boopalan are part of Edmonton’s growing young Tamil community.   (Submitted by Dhakshayini Boopalan - image credit)
Adhithya Visweswaran poses as part of the Tamil Project, a photo series by Edmonton photographer Dhakshayini Boopalan. Visweswaran and Boopalan are part of Edmonton’s growing young Tamil community. (Submitted by Dhakshayini Boopalan - image credit)

Edmonton's Tamil community is marking Tamil Heritage Month in January with an influx of new faces.

The Tamil community is linked through dialect — Tamil is one of the world's longest surviving classical languages, dating back to 300 BC.

In 2021, according to Statistics Canada, there were 238,000 Tamil speakers in Canada — in Alberta, just over 10,000.

"Every year it feels like there's more and more kids," Ahdithya Rajan Visweswaran told CBC's Radio Active.

In 2016, the House of Commons voted unanimously to recognize every January as Tamil Heritage Month.

Canada remains home to one of the largest Tamil diasporas in the world — with roots in the Southern Indian state Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and Singapore.

Members of most Tamil communities follow Hinduism, with distinct clothing, practices and food that set them apart from other Desi communities.

Coming from a variety places, the Tamil community itself is full of varying accents, colloquialisms and experiences. Many Tamils have faced civil war or have been refugees; other families have simply moved to Canada for a better life.

"It's important not to see Tamil culture and community as a monolith," Visweswaran said.

He was born in the United States and lived in Winnipeg and the Toronto area before his family landed in Edmonton. He now studies at the University Of Alberta's Campus Saint-Jean. His parents are active members of the Tamil community, sharing cultural teachings and language lessons.

"We've got quite an intergenerational community," he said. "People who have been here for a long time, some people who have only been here for a couple years."

Submitted by Ravi Subramaniam
Submitted by Ravi Subramaniam

Celebrating the harvest

January was chosen for Tamil Heritage Month because of Thai Pongal, a harvest festival celebrated by Tamils around the world.

"This festival marks the end of the agricultural year in South India and is a time of great rejoicing and Thanksgiving," said Ravi Subramaniam, president of the Edmonton Tamil Cultural Association.

The four-day festival revolves around the making of pongal, a sweet dish made with rice that has been boiled over.

On the final day, communities around the world gather to celebrate union and connection.

"We meet relatives, friends and whatever misunderstandings or whatever we had. We get together and start a new year from that day," said Subramaniam.

"That part I really love, kind of making reconciliation."

For Visweswaran, bringing Tamil cultural activities into the mainstream is key to recognizing the community — a minority population among Edmonton's South Asian diaspora.

"Being able to see that representation with our celebrations and our saris worn the Tamil way or the veshti [clothing worn by men] … owning it as Tamil identity is very, very important as well."

Capturing growth

In 1979 when the Edmonton Tamil Cultural Association was established, Subramaniam said there were maybe 10 Tamil families in Edmonton.

Now the association supports more than 1,000 coming to Edmonton from all walks of life — refugees, skilled workers and students.

"Our generations and new generations are all over," he said. "We are all so proud to be Tamil Canadian because we are all part of Alberta's social economic, political and cultural fabric."

This diversity in her community inspired Edmonton photographer Dhakshayini Boopalan to start the Tamil Project.

Submitted by Dhakshayini Boopalan
Submitted by Dhakshayini Boopalan

Boopalan moved to Edmonton from Chennai, India, when she was 17 to attend the University of Alberta. Starting her photography business after she graduated, she didn't see the diversity she wanted.

"I realized I don't have enough pictures of Tamil people. I wanted to represent them through my art and share their stories that way."

She created a questionnaire to get to know other Tamil Edmontonians and built photo shoots around their stories and passions. The Tamil Project was published on Instagram in the spring of 2021.

Tamil pride

Finding and showcasing other young Tamils in Edmonton — like Visweswaran — has pushed Boopalan to stand in her Tamil pride.

"I've become louder with how I talk about my identity," she said — like correcting people when they assume she speaks Hindi.

"All the things that make us different is what I'm really, really proud of."

Submitted by Ahdithya Visweswaran
Submitted by Ahdithya Visweswaran

In Hollywood, Tamil actors and writers like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari are bringing stories to the big screen – but Visweswaran says there is room to grow beyond the perception of what 'Tamil' means.

"I think it's very important to understand that we are all Tamil — that's what brings us together. But we're very, very diverse," he said.

"It comes with a culture and a baggage of history. It's a very unique experience."