Information about the Tamil

The Tamil people are an ethnic group from South Asia with a recorded history going back almost two millennia. The oldest Tamil communities are those of southern India and north-eastern Sri Lanka. In addition, there are also a number of Tamil emigrant communities scattered around the world, especially in Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Mauritius, and South Africa, with more recent emigrants also found in Australia, Canada, and parts of Europe.

Unlike many ethnic groups, the Tamils have at no point of time been under one political entity - Tamil_akam, the traditional name for the Tamil lands, has always been under the rule of more than one kingdom or state. Despite this, the Tamil identity has always been strong. The identity has historically been primarily linguistic, with Tamils being those whose first language was Tamil. In recent times, however, the definition has been broadened to also include emigrants of Tamil descent who maintain Tamil traditions though they no longer speak the language.

Tamils are ethnically, linguistically and culturally related to the other Dravidian peoples of South Asia. There are an estimated 74 million Tamils around the world.

History The pre-classical period

The origins of the Tamil people, as with the other Dravidian peoples, are unknown, although genetic and archeological evidence suggest a possible migration into India around 6000 BC (Gadgil 1997). Connections with the Elamite people of ancient Iran have been suggested, but there is little solid evidence to support this view. It has also been suggested that the people of the Indus Valley civilisation were either Tamil or another Dravidian people (see e.g. Parpola 1974; 2003), but this theory is deeply controversial and there is at present no academic consensus on the identity of the Indus people.

The earliest clear evidence of the presence of the Tamil people in modern Tamil Nadu are the megalithic urn burials, dating from around 1000 BC onwards, which have been discovered at various places in Tamil Nadu, notably Adichanallur. These burials conform in a number of details to the descriptions of funerals in classical Tamil literature, and appear to be concrete evidence of the existence of Tamils in southern India during that period. Recent excavations at these sites have also provided samples of early Tamil writing, dating back to at least 500 BC. (The Hindu, 2005) [1]

The classical period

From around the 3rd century BC onwards, three royal dynasties - the Cholas, the Cheras and the Pandyas - rose to dominate the Tamil country. Each of these dynasties had its own realm within Tamil_akam. In addition, classical literature and contemporary inscriptions also describe a number of ve¯li¯r or smaller chieftains, who collectively ruled over a large part of central Tamil Nadu. War between the kings and the chieftains were frequent, as were wars with Sri Lanka, but these appear to have been fought to assert might and demand tribute, rather than to subjugate and annex those territories. The kings and chieftains were patrons of the arts, and a significant volume of literature exists from this period. The literature shows that many of the cultural practices that are considered peculiarly Tamil date back to the classical period.

Agriculture was important during this period, and there is evidence that irrigation networks were built (including the Kallanai dam, considered to be one of the oldest dams still in use). The economy, however, was centred around foreign trade, and there is evidence of significant contact with Europe. Large hoards of Roman coins and evidence of the presence of Roman traders have been discovered at Karur and Arikamedu, and there is evidence that at least two embassies were sent to the Roman Emperor Augustus by Pandya kings. Potsherds with Tamil writing have also been found in excavations on the Red Sea, attesting to the presence of Tamil merchants there (Mahadevan 2003). An anonymous first century traveler's account written in Greek, Periplus Maris Erytraei, describes the ports of the Pandya and Chera kingdoms and the trade with them in substantial detail, and indicates that the chief exports of the Tamils in those days were pepper, malabathrum, pearls, ivory, silk, spikenard, diamonds, sapphires, and tortoiseshell (Casson 1989).

The classical period ended around the 4th century AD with invasions by a northern people referred to as the kal?va¯r, who are described as coming from lands to the north of Tamil_akam and being evil and oppressive rulers. This period, commonly referred to as the dark age of Tamil_akam, ended with the rise of the imperial Pallava dynasty.

The imperial and post-imperial periods

Although the Pallavas are mentioned in records from the 3rd century, they did not rise to prominence as an imperial dynasty until the 6th century. The dynasty does not appear to have been Tamil in origin and, although they rapidly adopted Tamil ways and the Tamil language, Tamil society was transformed during their reign. The Pallavas sought to model themselves on the great northern dynasties such as the Mauryas and Guptas. They therefore transformed the institution of the kingship into an imperial one, and sought for the first time to bring vast amounts of territory under their direct rule. The Pallavas also encouraged the growth of devotional worship centred around Siva and Vishnu, and began the culture of building large, ornate temples with many murals and sculptures. The caste system is thought to have been formalised and institutionalised during this period (Hart 1987).

The Pallava dynasty was overthrown in the 9th century by the resurgent Cholas and Pandyas. The Cholas become dominant in the 10th century and established an empire covering most of southern India and Sri Lanka. The empire was sustained by strong trading links with China and South East Asia. A major and successful naval campaign was conducted against the Srivijaya Empire as a result of trade disputes. Chola power declined in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Pandya dynasty enjoyed a brief period of resurgence thereafter, but repeated Muslim invasions from the 15th century onwards placed a huge strain on the empire's resources, and the dynasty came to an end in the 16th century (Sastri 2002).

No major empires arose thereafter, and Tamil Nadu was for a while ruled by a number of different Nayaks from the present day Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh regions, and other local chiefs. From the 17th century onwards, European powers began establishing settlements and trading outposts in the region. A number of battles were fought between the British, French and Danish in the 18th century, and by the end of the 18th century most of Tamil Nadu was under British rule.

The western parts of the Tamil lands became increasingly politically distinct from the rest of the Tamil lands after the Chola and Pandya empires lost control over them in the 13th century. They developed their own distinct language and literature which grew increasingly different from Tamil, and evolved into modern Malayalam by the 15th century (Chaitanya 1971).

The Tamils of Sri Lanka

There is little consensus on the history of the Tamil-speaking parts of Sri Lanka prior to the Chola period. The most radical Sinhalese historians argue that there was no organised Tamil presence in Sri Lanka until the invasions from southern India in the 7th century, whereas Tamil historians contend that Tamils are the original inhabitants of the island.

The historical evidence is not conclusive either way. A few poems from the sangam period are attributed to a poet called "Putan_r_evan_ar from il_am". Il_am, also spelled Eelam, is an old Tamil name for Sri Lanka, and this is generally used by Tamils as evidence that there were Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka at that time. Sinhalese historians, however, do not accept that and claim that there is no archeological evidence of Tamil settlement in Sri Lanka until much later. Accounts from that period, whilst not offering conclusive evidence either way, demonstrate that Tamils fought wars against the Sinhalese kingdoms and occasionally ruled over parts of Sri Lanka, and served as counsellors to Sri Lankan kings from a fairly early date. It is, however, unclear whether these Tamils came from India or were native to Sri Lanka.

The historical record does, however, establish that the Tamil kingdoms of India were closely involved in Sri Lankan affairs from a very early date. Tamil adventurers invaded the island as far back as 75 BC. From the 7th century onwards, the empires of Tamil Nadu played a significant role in Sri Lankan politics and there is concrete evidence of Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka in that period. Tamil wars against Sri Lanka culminated in the Chola annexation of the island in the 10th century, which lasted until the latter half of the 11th century.

The decline of Chola power in Sri Lanka was followed by the re-establishment of the Polonnaruwa monarchy in the late 11th century. In 1215, the Arya Chakravarthi dynasty established an independent kingdom in the Jaffna peninsula and parts of northern Sri Lanka. The dynasty ruled over large parts of the northeast of Sri Lanka until 1619, when it was conquered by the Portuguese. The island was then taken by the Dutch, and in 1796 became part of the British Empire.

The modern period

The British colonists consolidated the Tamil lands in southern India into the Madras Presidency, which was integrated into British India. Similarly, the Tamil parts of Sri Lanka were joined with the other regions of the island in 1802 to form the Ceylon colony. They remained in political union with India and Sri Lanka after independence in 1947 and 1948 respectively.

When India became independent in 1947, Madras Presidency became Madras State, comprising of present day Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra Pradesh, northern Kerala, and the southwest coast of Karnataka. The state was subsequently split up along linguistic lines. In 1953 the northern districts formed Andhra Pradesh. Under the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, Madras State lost its western coastal districts. The Bellary and South Kanara districts were ceded to Mysore state, and Kerala was formed from the Malabar district and the former princely states of Travancore and Cochin. In 1968, Madras State was renamed Tamil Nadu.

There was some initial demand for an independent Tamil state following independence. However, the Indian constitution in practice proved to grant significant autonomy to the states. In addition, protests by Tamils in 1963 led to the government adopting a new policy (called the "three language formula") which protects speakers of regional languages against the imposition of Hindi. These have cumulatively led to Tamils in India being largely satisfied with the federal arrangement, and there is little support for secession or independence today.

In Sri Lanka, in contrast, the unitary arrangement led to the slow growth of a feeling amongst Tamils that they were being discriminated against by the Sinhala majority. This resulted in a demand for federalism, which in the 1970s grew into a movement for independence. The situation deteriorated into civil war in the early 1980s. A ceasefire has been in effect since 2002, and a final peace settlement is currently being negotiated.

Geographic Distribution Tamils in India

Most Indian Tamils live in the state of Tamil Nadu, which includes most of the historic Tamil lands, and was created after independence as a linguistic homeland for them. There are also Tamil communities in other parts of India. Most of these are fairly recent, dating to the colonial and post-colonial periods, but some - particularly the Hebbar and Mandyam Tamils of southern Karnataka, the Tamils of Palakkad in Kerala, and the Tamils of Pune, Maharashtra - date back to at least the mediaeval period.

Tamils in Sri Lanka

There are today two groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The first are the Ceylon Tamils, who are descended from the Tamils who lived in the old Jaffna kingdom. The second are the Indian Tamils or hill-country Tamils, who are descended from bonded labourers sent from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka in the 19th century to work in tea plantations there. Ceylon Tamils mostly live in the northern and eastern provinces, whereas hill-country Tamils largely live in the central highlands. The hill-country Tamils and Ceylon Tamils historically saw themselves as separate communities. Under an agreement between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments in the 1960s, around 60% of hill-country Tamils were stripped of their Sri Lankan nationality and many were repatriated to India. However the ethnic conflict has led to the growth of a greater sense of common Tamil identity, and the two groups are now more supportive of each other (Suryanarayan 2001).

There is also a significant Tamil-speaking Muslim population in Sri Lanka. Unlike Tamil-speaking Muslims from India, however, they do not identify themselves as ethnic Tamils and are therefore usually listed as a separate ethnic group in official statistics.

Tamil emigrant communities

Tamil emigration began in the 18th century when many poor Tamils were sent to far-flung parts of the British Empire as bonded labourers, especially Malaya, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and the Caribbean. At about the same time, Tamil businessmen also emigrated to other parts of the British Empire, particularly Burma and East Africa. Tamil communities still exist in these countries. The Tamil communities of Singapore, Reunion Island, Malaysia, and South Africa have retained much of their culture and language. Many Malaysian children attend Tamil schools, and a significant portion of Tamil children in South Africa, Mauritius, Reunion and Singapore are brought up with Tamil as their first language. The other Tamil communities no longer speak Tamil, but they still retain a strong Tamil identity.

A large number of Sri Lankan Tamils also emigrated in the 1980s and thereafter to escape the ethnic conflict there, particularly to Australia, Europe, North America, and South-east Asia. Many young Tamil professionals from India, particularly computer programmers, have also emigrated to Europe and the USA in recent times in search of better opportunities. These new emigrant communities tend to be better integrated in their host communities than the older ones, and many of them have established cultural associations to protect and promote Tamil culture and the Tamil language in their adopted homes.


Language and literature

Tamils have strong feelings towards the Tamil language, which is often venerated in literature as "tamil_an_n_ai", "the Tamil mother." It has historically been, and to large extent still is, central to the Tamil identity (Ramaswamy 1998). Like the other languages of south India, it is a Dravidian language, unrelated to the Indo-European languages of northern India. The language has been far less influenced by Sanskrit than the other Dravidian languages and preserves many features of proto-Dravidian. Tamil literature is of considerable antiquity, and the language was recently recognised as a classical language by the Government of India.

Classical Tamil literature, which ranges from lyric poetry to works on poetics and ethical philosophy, is remarkably different from contemporary and later literature in other Indian languages, and represents the oldest body of secular literature in South Asia (Hart 1975). The written language has changed very little over the years, with the result that much of classical literature remains easily accessible to modern Tamils and continues to influence modern Tamil culture. Modern Tamil literature is considerably diverse, ranging from historical romanticism in the works of Kalki Krishnamurthy, radical and more moderate social realism in the works of Pudhumaipithan and Jayakanthan respectively, and feminism in the works of Malathi Maithree and Kutti Revathi. In more recent years, Sri Lankan Tamil literature has produced several powerful pieces reflecting the civilian tragedy caused by decades of war. There is also an emerging diaspora literature in Tamil.

Visual arts and architecture

Tamil art displays considerable unity across its three main forms, architecture, sculpture and painting, and is clearly situated within the South Asian artistic tradition. As with other South Asian arts, Tamil art stresses the plasticity and fluidity of forms. Most traditional Tamil art is at least nominally religious, usually centred on Hinduism, although the religious element is often only a means to represent universal - and, occasionally, humanist - themes (Coomaraswamy 1946). The classical artforms continue to be practiced, and therefore represent a living tradition.

The most important form of Tamil painting is Tanjore painting which, as the name suggests, originated in Tanjore (now Thanjavur) in the 9th century. The paintings are prepared on a base of cloth coated with zinc oxide, over which the image is painted using dyes and decorated with semi-precious stones and gold or silver thread. A style which was related in origin, but which exhibits significant differences in execution, is used for painting murals on temple walls, the most notable example being the murals on the Mi¯n_a¯t?ci temple of Madurai. Tamil painting is in general known for its stylistic elegance, rich colours, and small details.

Tamil sculpture is usually worked with bronze (using the lost wax technique) or stone (usually associated with temples), and surviving pieces date from the 7th century onwards. Unlike Western art, the material does not influence the form taken by the sculpture; instead, the artist imposes his vision of the form on the material. As a result, one often sees in stone sculptures the sort of flowing forms that would normally be reserved for metal (Sivaram 1994). As with painting, these sculptures show a fine eye for detail, with great care being taken in sculpting minute details of jewellery worn by the subjects of the sculpture. The lines tend to be smooth and flowing, and many pieces capture movement with great skill. The cave sculptures at Mamallapuram are a particularly fine example of the technique, as are the bronzes of the Chola period. A particularly popular motif in the bronzes was the depiction of Siva as Nataraja, in a dance posture with one leg upraised and a fiery circular halo surrounding his entire body.

The Meenakshi temple in MaduraiTamil temples were often treated as being sculptures on a grand scale. The temples are most notable for their high spires, consisting of a number of stepped levels, each with its own minature shrine. These spires tended to be simple and elegant in the earliest temples, and only sparsely adorned with sculpture, but they became progressively more elaborate and ornate, as exemplified by the Brihadi¯svara temple of Thanjavur. From the 13th century onwards, the entrance gates to the temples - called gopurams in Tamil - also began to grow bigger and more elaborate. The temples at Chidambaram and Srirangam have particularly impressive gopurams, covered with sculptures and reliefs of various scenes and characters from Hindu mythology (Pillai 1976).

As with Indian art generally, Tamil art does not traditionally aspire to portraiture or realism. Much more emphasis is placed on the representation of ideal prototypes and on depicting the symbols with which the theme of the artistic work is associated. This means that small details, such as the direction which a hand faces, the animals or trees portrayed, or the time of the day depicted, are often of critical importance to understanding the meaning of a work of art.

Performative arts

The traditional Tamil performative arts have ancient roots. The royal courts and temples have been centres for the performing arts since at least the classical period, and descriptions of performances in classical Tamil literature and the natyashastra, a Sanskrit treatise on the performing arts, indicate a close relationship between the ancient and modern artforms. In common with other Indian traditions, Tamil tradition stresses the unity of the various performative arts, and their symbiotic relationship with the visual arts and literature. The aim of a performance in Tamil tradition is to bring out the rasa - flavour, mood, or feeling - inherent in the text, and its quality is measured by the extent to which it induces the mood in the audience.

Tamil shares a classical musical tradition, called carnatic music, with the rest of south India. Carnatic music evolved from the ancient music forms of South India, some of which are recorded in classical Tamil literature, and was influenced by the musical theory of the natyashastra. It is primarily oriented towards vocal music, with instruments either being accompaniments or imitating the role of the singer. Carnatic music is organised around the twin notions of melody types (ra¯gam) and cyclical rhythm types (tha¯l?am). Unlike the northern Hindustani music tradition, carnatic music is almost exclusively religious. In sharp contrast with the restrained and intellectual nature of carnatic music, Tamil folk music tends to be much more exuberant. Popular form of Tamil folk-music include the Villuppa¯t?t?u, a form of music sung with a bow, and the Na¯t?t?uppur_appa¯t?t?u, folk ballads that convey folklore and folk history.

The dominant classical dance amongst Tamils is bharatanatyam. Bharatanatyam is performative rather than participative. A dance is an exposition of the story contained in a song, and is usually performed by one performer on stage, with an orchestra of drums, a drone and one or more singers backstage. The story is told through a complicated combination of hand-gestures or mudras, facial expressions, and bodily posture. The dance form evolved from a specialised form of temple-dancing, and was only performed in temples until the 1930s. Dancers used to be exclusively female, but the dance now also has several well-known male exponents.

Tamils also have a large number of folk dances. The most celebrated of these is karaka¯t?t?am. In its religious form, the dance is performed in front of an image of the goddess Mariamma. The dancer bears on his or her head a brass pot filled with uncooked rice, decorated with flowers and surrounded by a bamboo frame, and tumbles and leaps to the rhythm of a song without spilling a grain. Karaka¯t?t?am is usually performed to a special type of song known as temmanguppa¯t?t?u or thevar pa¯t?t?u, a folk song in the mode of a lover speaking to his beloved, to the accompaniment of a nadaswaram and melam. Other Tamil folk dances include mayila¯t?t?am, where the dancers tie a string of peacock feathers around their waist, o¯yila¯ttam, danced in a circle waving small pieces of cloth of various colours, poykka¯l kuthiraiyaat?t?am, where the dancers use dummy horses, ma¯n_a¯t?t?am, where the dancers imitate the graceful leaping of deer, par_aiya¯t?t?am, a dance to the sound of rhythmical drumbeats, and thi¯ppanda¯t?t?am, a dance involving play with burning wooden torches. (Sharma 2004).

Tamil dance is closely intertwined with the Tamil theatrical tradition. Most artforms include a blend of both. The kuravañci is a type of dance-drama, performed by between four and eight women. The drama is opened by a woman playing the part of a female soothsayer of a wandering kurava tribe, who tells the story of a lady pining for her lover. The songs themselves have a lyrical beauty, which is amplified by the performance.

The therukku¯thu (which literally means "street play") is a form of village theatre or folk opera. It is traditionally performed in village squares with no sets and very simple props. The performances involves songs and dances, sometimes at the same time, and the stories can be either religious or secular. The performances are not formal, and performers often interact with the audience, mocking them or involving them in the dialogue. Therukku¯thu has in recent times been very successfully adapted to convey social messages, such as abstinence and anti-casteism, and information about legal rights, and has spread to other parts of India. The village of Melatur in Tamil Nadu has a special type of performance, called the bhagavatamela, in honour of the local deity, which is performed once a year and lasts all night. Tamil Nadu also has a well developed stage theatre tradition, which has been heavily influenced by western theatre. A number of theatrical companies exist, who repertoire includes absurdist, realist and humorous plays.

Both classical and folk performative arts survive in modern Tamil society. The folk arts declined during the middle of the 20th century, but have seen a resurgence in recent years, particularly in southern Tamil Nadu, although their popularity continues to be largely confined to rural regions. The Tamil Nadu Folk Arts Society (or "Tamil_na¯t?u iyalisai na¯t?aka man_r_am") is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the folkarts, and has played a significant role in the continuance of the tradition.


Most Tamils are Hindus, but Islam and Christianity also have a long history in Tamil Nadu. According to popular legend, the last Chera king is said to have converted to Islam and travelled to Arabia to become a companion of Muhammad, and the mother of one of the early Pallava kings is believed to have been Christian. Native Tamil Christianity was entirely replaced by European Christianity during the 16th century, and most Tamil Christians today are either Catholic or Protestant. Jainism was at one time a major religious force in Tamil Nadu, but it declined substantially during the Pallava period, and there are now only a few thousand Tamil Jains.

Tamil Hinduism, like other regional varieties of Hinduism, has many peculiarities. The most popular god is Murugan, who has from a very early date been identified with Karthikeya, the son of Siva, but who may in origin have been a different god (Hart 1979). The worship of Amman or Mariamman, thought to have been derived from an ancient mother goddess is also very common. Kan_n_agi, the heroine of the Cilappatika¯r_am, is worshipped as Pat?t?in_i by many Tamils, particularly in Sri Lanka. There are also many temples and devotees of Vishnu, Siva, Ganapathi, and the other common Hindu gods. Kolams, a type of drawing made outside one's house with rice flour, are a typical characteristic of Tamil hinduism. The system of siddha medicine is also associated with Tamil Saivism.

In addition, the popular religion of rural Tamil Nadu has many local gods called aiyyan_a¯rs, who are thought to be the spirits of local heroes, who have the power to protect the village against harm. Their worship often centres around nad?ukkals, stones erected in memory of heroes who died in battle. This form of worship is mentioned frequently in classical literature and appears to be the survival of an ancient Tamil tradition.

The most important Tamil festivals are Pongal, a harvest festival that occurs in mid-January, and varud?apir_appu, the Tamil New Year, which occurs around mid-April. Both are celebrated by all Tamils, regardless of religion. Important Tamil Hindu festivals include Dipavali and Thaipusam.

Martial arts

According to Tamil legend, the Chola, Chera and Pandya kings fought a hundred-year war at the beginning of the 1st century, during which they perfected the art of fighting. Four martial arts are believed to have evolved out of this, kalaria¯t?t?am, cilamba¯t?t?am, ma¯n_kombukkalai and varmakkalai, all of which are still practised today in parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Cilamba¯t?t?am is the art of staff combat, and uses a staff 1.6 metres long. Its techniques were designed to enable a person to use a traveller's walking-staff to defend himself against an attack by several enemies. Its techniques focus on techniques of using the staff without stopping its movement, and synchronising staff, foot and body motion. Varma Kalai is a martial art, which trains people to attack the vital points of an opponent's body with hands or weapons. Ma¯n_kombukkalai involves fighting with a weapon made from the antlers of a stag tipped with metal. Kalariat?t?am focus on all aspects of fighting, including unarmed combat, combat with wooden weapons and with metal weapons. The kalaria¯t?t?am tradition is strongest in Kerala where it is known as kalaripayattu.

The ancient Tamil art of unarmed bull-fighting, popular amongst warriors in the classical period, has also survived in parts of Tamil Nadu, notably Alanganallur near Madurai, where it is known as Jallikat?t?u or mañcuvirat?t?u and is held once a year around the time of the Pongal festival.


Because Tamils have been spread over several countries for much of their history, there are few formal pan-Tamil institutions. The most important national institutions for Tamils have been the governments of the states where they live, particularly the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Government of Sri Lanka, which have since the 1950s collaborated in developing technical and scientific terminology in Tamil and promoting its use.

Politics in Tamil Nadu is dominated by the Dravidian movement, a movement founded by E.V. Ramasami, popularly known as Periyar, to promote self-respect and rationalism, and fight casteism and the oppression of the lowest castes. Every major political party in Tamil Nadu bases its ideology on the Dravidian movement, and the national political parties play a very small role in Tamil politics.

In Sri Lanka, Tamil politics was until the early 1980s dominated by the federalist movements, led by the Federal Party (later the Tamil United Liberation Front). In the 1980s, the political movement was largely succeeded by a violent military campaign conducted by several militant groups. The LTTE emerged as the most important force amongst these groups in the 1990s, and is currently negotiating a final settlement with the government. The LTTE controls parts of Sri Lanka, and has established its own government there, which it calls the government of Tamil Eelam.

In the 1960s, the government of Tamil Nadu convened a World Tamil Conference which has met periodically since then. In 1999, a World Tamil Confederation was established to protect and foster Tamil culture and grow a sense of togetherness amongst Tamils in different countries. The Confederation has since adopted a Tamil flag and Tamil song, to act as trans-national symbols for the Tamil people.

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The above includes excerpts from Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia

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