THE CHARM OF LITTLE JAFFNA:
Dominant Asian (read Tamil) community area of Paris
Little Jaffna in Paris
Ask most Parisians about Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis in the 10th arrondissement,
and they'll likely evoke the presence of large Turkish, African, and Indian communities.
They might mention the famous Passage Brady, with its countless Indo-Pakistani
restaurants fiercely competing in close quarters. When asked about the winding street's
last stretch between metros Gare de Nord and La Chapelle, your Parisian might light
up with recognition and pronounce the area Little Bombay, recalling women in colourful
saris, sidewalks studded with market stalls selling curries, exotic vegetables and
silks, and the fragrance of spices in the air. Finally, if you were to bring up the word
"Tamil ", your friend's face would quite possibly go blank. Just as mine probably did,
when I first heard it.
Many people fail to grasp the remarkable diversity of the "Indian" community in Paris.
Among the some 46,000 immigrants originating from the Indian sub-continent and
settled in the Parisian region, only a fraction are natives of India proper. Bengalis,
Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Pendjabis, and Sri-Lankan Tamils form culturally and
socially distinct groups in Paris, regardless of their physical proximity. Different
languages and dialects are spoken. Differing customs are practised. Of these
communities, the largest and most visible (though mostly unrecognised) is the
Tamil. In only 10 years, "Little Jaffna" (the area our friend mistakenly took for
Little Bombay) has sprung to life and begun to truly flourish. Few, however,
know how or why. From an uninformed perspective, it could appear as if thousands
of Sri-Lankan Tamils effortlessly transported themselves to Paris, carving out a
veritable village in no time flat.
The reality, of course, is far more complex and painful. The vast majority of
Parisian Tamils fled Sri-Lanka as refugees in the 1980's, escaping a violent
civil conflict with the island's ethnic majority, the Cinghalese. The French Prefecture
was initially quite reluctant about granting asylum to Tamils, when in 1987 OFPRA,
the Office for the Protection of Refugees, gained in power and opened up a period
of nearly systematic asylum. This liberal period eventually tapered off in the 90s
as a result of new European measures designed against an influx in immigration.
Today, there are about 50,000 Sri-Lankan Tamils living in France, of which the
greatest number live in Paris.
The Parisian community was fairly dispersed and disorderly until 1991, when
Paris-based Tamils began to form tightly-knit networks centred in the northern reaches of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Tamil-owned businesses appeared in great numbers seemingly overnight, while the colourful Chariot Festival, a tribute to the Hindu elephant god Ganesha, has become a popular annual procession eagerly anticipated by thousands of Parisians. There are Tamil newspapers, a radio station, and a website dedicated to Paris' habitants. Little Jaffna is a thriving village in its own right, offering a kind of cultural richness that seems curiously preserved from French influence. One might ask how Parisian Tamils manage this in a host culture that places a heavy emphasis on integration.
I met with Yasotha, a Parisian of Sri-Lankan Tamil origin who has been living in France for 11 years. She helped shed some light on the seeming ease with which Tamils have built a solid community in Paris.
According to Yasotha, the difficulty that the Tamils have learning French has, ironically, served to strengthen the ties and the determination of the Tamil community.
"Because of the language problems, [Tamils] haven't mixed with the French very well. So to develop their way of life, they all try to stay together. We are all very dependent on each other. Especially the first years we are here. Sri Lankans are very friendly with each other."
Sri-Lankan Tamils, most often fluent English speakers as a result of a British colonial past, generally come to France without knowing a word of French. As a result, the search for well-paid and fulfilling employment, or the successful completion of higher education, can be a brutal and demoralising battle, work papers or not. Yasotha described the frustration of those who earned a high level of education and a corresponding post in Sri-Lanka and are subsequently unable to find similar work in France. "It's very difficult, physically and mentally...Without knowing the language well, it's difficult for [Sri-Lankans] to find proper work or schooling."
Adults, particularly, are given a very short time to learn French before being expected to become self-sufficient. The three month French programme sponsored by the local town hall (mairie) for foreigners, offering free instruction in French, is insufficient, according to Yasotha. "The mairie class is not properly organised. Only the first three months are free. Afterwards adults have to take private lessons, and this is difficult, financially...Children receive one year of daily language classes. Why shouldn't adults have the same? Then it would be easier for Tamils to find better work."
Yasotha also thinks that the settling process for Tamils would proceed more smoothly if the French government created special work-training programmes designed to orient refugees from different fields. "It would be good to have an employment advisory board with translators for the Tamils just arriving in France."
Once settled in cultural and behavioural differences are a permanent problem."In Sri-Lanka, boys and girls never go out together before marriage. Mothers become very worried about their daughters, here. Their daughters complain that their [French] friends go on dates with boys, so why can't they?...Many families send their children to India to study if they can."
The Parisian Tamils do their best to preserve their children's culture by creating special schools. Today there are ten or eleven active branches in Paris and in the suburbs (banlieue). In these weekend classes, children are taught the Tamil language, traditional music and dance, and religion. "Sri-Lankans are afraid that if they integrate to much into the French culture, they could lose their own," remarked Yasotha.
A Deeper Look at Little Jaffna
The area baptised "Little Jaffna", around metros Gare du Nord, La Chapelle, and Louis Blanc, provides few flashy, tourist-friendly photo opportunities. At a superficial glance, it looks pretty much the same as much of North-Eastern Paris: 19th century buildings sootier and less well-kept than counterparts in swankier arrondissements. The nearby Bassin de la Villette offers a touch of repose and greenery in an area that can seem a bit sombre. The beauty and charm of this quartier populaire lies in its smaller, quieter details. It takes time and a discerning eye to appreciate the cultural riches on offer here.
To begin exploring Little Jaffna, start at Metro Gare du Nord and walk uphill along the neighbourhood's spine, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Soon you will notice storefronts with signs printed more in English than in French and also in an elegant, looping language: Tamil. From this point on to the noisy intersection at Blvd de la Chapelle, you will come across innumerable shops selling ornate saris and other fashions native to the Indian sub-continent, bustling "cash and carry" supermarkets, speciality jewellery shops, Indian music stores, travel agencies, and restaurants offering authentic Indian and Sri-Lankan cuisine. Your problem will be deciding where to step inside first…
If you start out with a hunger pang, you may want to consider lunch at Madras Café, 180 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, where generous menus are on offer for only €6 or €8. Vegetarians need not be wary, there's lots of choice with you in mind. This is true of most other Indo-Sri-Lankan restaurants in the area, which cater to the Tamil community, many of whom are vegetarians. For a snack or a quick meal, try Shalini Take-Away, 208, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, where you can find pakoras, samosas, and other delights for next to nothing.
For those attracted to the sumptuous fabrics and lavish design of traditional Indian dress, you'll certainly be able to shop around without strain. Small budgets will be appeased at the Saree Palace, 182 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, where for as little as €50 you can find a fine, beautifully embroidered silk sari, with a choice of many colours. Up the way, at Kumaran Silks and Jaipur Silk Palace (both at 191, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis), comparable quality and prices can be found.
If you'd like to have a stab at Indo-Sri-Lankan cooking at home, VSCO Cash and Carry, 197, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, has anything and everything in stock that you could need. The whole gamut of Patak's products are here, of course, but if you're more daring, you can hand-select the dozens of different spices available. Rose syrup, Naan bread, Indian teas, cooking ghee, henna, and exotic vegetables-jaquier, noori, tindooris-are all at your fingertips for low prices.
Finally, if you'd like to plan a journey to India or its islands, it might be a good idea to go through a travel agency in Little Jaffna. At a humble agency simply named Agence de Voyages, 208 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, return flights are advertised for as low as €500.
Other charming niches to explore are Rue Cail, Rue Perdonnet, and Rue Philippe de Girard. If you'd like to visit the area's Hindu Temple, Sri Manicka Vinayakar, 72 Rue Philippe de Girard, it is open daily to visitors between 9:30 am and 8:30 pm. This religious community is warm and welcoming to all guests.
The Chariot Festival: A Rite of Colour and Delight
On Sunday, 8th September, I went to the 7th annual Chariot Festival in Paris, organised by the Temple Sri Manicka Vinayakar. A ritual dedicated to Ganesha, the Hindu god of prosperity and good luck, the Chariot Festival is anything but solemn. The senses are thoroughly engaged through the use of music, heady fragrance, and vibrant colours.
At the temple, two elegant chariots are painstakingly prepared. Statues of Ganesha and another god, Muragan, are lavishly decorated with garlands of fresh flowers, and the chariots are decked with flowers, fruits, and fan-shaped leaves. Coconuts, bananas, mangos, camphor, and flowers are clustered together in baskets as offerings to the gods. Priests preside over the chariots and lead the ritual. Surrounding the chariots are majestic embroidered umbrellas and long poles with spade-shaped heads. Orange, red, and green are the pervading colours. The women are dressed in their most luxurious silk saris, while the men wear equally sumptuous wraps around the waist. Drumbeats, dancing and singing fill the air long before the procession has begun. The alleyway behind the temple, transformed into a majestic courtyard, is brimming with people, including curious onlookers and admirers.
At around 11 o'clock, the procession begins in a great rush. We are all ushered out onto the street and pressed together to make room for the chariots. The streets have been washed with saffron and rose water in an act of purification. Dancers adorned with peacock feathers and women carrying burning camphor in earthenware pots are the first in line, followed by the first chariot, hand-pulled by what seems to be 70 or 80 men. Thousands are gathered in the streets to participate or watch, not including the countless heads peeping out from windows.
Piles of coconuts covered in orange pigment line the streets. Participants take each coconut and violently smash them to the ground. Hindus believe that the shell of the coconut symbolises the illusions of the earthly realm, the meat corresponds to human "karma", and the milk represents the ego. Smashing the coconuts means renouncing the physical realm and offering oneself to Ganesha.
The procession winds around the eastern part of the 18th arrondissement, gathering new spectators as it moves. Shop owners offer free snacks and drink, including rose milk, much creamier and delicate than I had anticipated. The festival is a perfect way to culminate my look at Little Jaffna and its community-on a joyous note.
Resources and Addresses
Jaipur Silk Palace
191, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th, Tel : 01.40.34.97.77
191, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th Tel : 01 126.96.36.199
182, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th, Tel : 01.46.07.57.61
187 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th
Sri Mahal Gifts and Jewellery
197, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th Tel : 01.46.07.83.12
21? Blvd de la Chapelle, 10th Tel : 01.42.09.72.12
Jamuna Cash and Carry
220, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th Tel : 01.42.09.19.44
New Shamina Supermarket
184, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th Tel: 01.40.35.44.41
VSCO Cash and Carry
197, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th Tel : 01.40.34.71.65
Indian Music Centre
199, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th
22, rue Perdonnet, 10th
180, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th
189, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th Tel : 01.40.34.30.70
208, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th
189, rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th
14, rue Perdonnet, 10th
Sri Manicka Vinayakar
72, rue Philippe de Girard, 18th Tel: 01.40.34.21.89
Like to order Tamil books?
click here to see a list of Books of interest to Tamil Diaspora that you can
order directly from