WEST ORANGE, NJ — The New Jersey Tamil community gathered once again at the Turtle Back Rock Park Picnic Area to share their culture on July 22. The fourth annual event drew approximately 200 people who united to celebrate their Sri Lankan heritage along with guest speaker U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. The daylong event included games for children, face painting, traditional music and dancing, and food from Sri Lanka.
The Ilankai Tamil Mantram New Jersey organization — “Ilankai” meaning Sri Lanka in the Tamil language and “Mantram” meaning community — aims to create a sense of community among the Tamil community, an ethnic group from Sri Lanka and India that has a large population in New Jersey.
“Community organizing is a way to bring progress by promoting teamwork and cooperation among members of the Tamil community,” the group’s mission states, according to the group’s website. “A true sense of community creates a sense of belonging that not only enhances our individual and collective survivability, but also strengthens our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of the people.”
“This is an event where we can be in the same physical space,” event organizer Haran Selliah told the West Orange Chronicle at the event. “We want to be self-sufficient in New Jersey, but we also don’t want our traditions to be lost.”
The day gave the Tamil community a chance to come together and teach younger generations about the culture.
“Our mission is broad,” Selliah said. “We want to teach the values to the children and the younger generations so that they don’t forget (where they come from).”
In addition to the daylong community events, Ilankai Tamil Mantram New Jersey also hosts college visits for high school students and weekend Tamil language classes. The organization also offers immigration assistance to those who have just arrived in the area, as well as to anyone else who needs it. The weekend event also promoted a blood and bone marrow drive in which the community participates.
“That’s what community is,” Selliah said about the organization and its activities. “We want to touch on everything.”
Events on the horizon include a trip to the United Nation headquarters as well as a group bicycle ride.
Ranjan Ramachandran, another event organizer, emphasized the importance of being together for a whole day.
“Our families all come from different places,” he told the Chronicle at the event. “So here we’re all in the same place. It’s one day to celebrate, and kids really enjoy it.”
In addition to embracing Tamil culture, the event also celebrated the group’s sense of belonging here in New Jersey. As such, Payne was given traditional dress to wear upon his arrival and he had the opportunity to see two young dancers perform a traditional Tamil dance. After presenting the winners of the children’s races with their trophies and handing out awards to three high school graduates, Payne spoke to the crowd.
“This is a really great time to share food and dance and music,” Payne said. “How amazing it is to be a part of this community. I’m always interested in learning about the people who make up this country. It contributes so positively to the community. One day I hope to visit your country.”
Payne talked about the importance of education in the community and teaching children about their own cultures and backgrounds.
Benedict Premkumar, an active member of the Tamil community, emphasized the benefits of such events, telling the Chronicle at the event: “Our main goal is to bring the culture together,”
Despite Sri Lanka being small in size, its people live all over the world, according to Premkumar.
“It’s a small country, but there are people all over the country and the world and this brings one community together,” he said.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic