Tamil Canadian Built Environments

Submitted by tamiladmin on Mon, 01/16/2023 - 08:58


The Tamil Built Environment project explores places of personal, social, religious, economic, and cultural interest and value to the Tamil-speaking diaspora residing in Canada. The first phase of the project begins with the scope of Greater Toronto Area (GTA), home to one of the largest diasporic concentrations of Tamil Sri Lankans in the world (Cheran 2000), most of whom have fled to Canada since the onset of the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). Places in the GTA’s built environment catalogued here represent the re-makings of home for Tamil Sri Lankans displaced from war, as well as for earlier Tamil migrants, non-Sri Lankan Tamil migrants from India, Singapore, and other areas of South Asia, and succeeding generations of Tamil-Canadians. The project currently takes the form of a databases and addresses, as well as particular associations of relevance to researchers and the general public. 

Overview of Data Collected

Notes on the Catalogue

The catalogue provides a general census of places offering culturally relevant Tamil goods and services in Canada. This includes religious spaces, where the data de-centres the majority Tamil Hindu population and considers religious differences by including temples, mosques, churches, and multi-faith centres. Places not purposefully built for but occupied by Tamils are included in the data to achieve this diversity (for example, multi-ethnic churches co-occupied by Tamil Christian organizations are listed). Places that have moved or permanently closed are also included in the data for a richer understanding of the Tamil built environment. The frequency of moves and closures and the duration of occupancy indicated by the dates can reveal the vulnerability and insecurity experienced by Tamil-owned businesses and services, as well as the resiliency required to maintain a Tamil identity in the public sphere in Canada. Similarly, urban zones are included in the metadata to reveal how municipal boards accurately or inaccurately classify Tamil places in the built environment; for example, it is found that most temples in the GTA are not accurately recognized by the city as institutional urban zones, but rather adjunct spaces like employment industrial zones, commercial residential zones, etc.

Where the data architecturally describes buildings and their features, the use of Tamil words are prioritized. For example, purpose-built Tamil Hindu temples are identified as kovils, with gopurams and vimanas (ornate pyramidal towers), thers (temple cars/chariots) stationed nearby, toranas (flower garlands) hung on entrance doorways, and mayura (peacock) and padma (lotus flower) motifs decorating the exterior. Non-structural details and small-scale architectural interventions are included in the data to emphasize the importance of so-called ‘informal’ architectures, often self-made by marginalized groups and communities. Examples of this include signage, interior finish materials, and non-structural exterior materials. Signage can indicate the alternative use of a building, distinct from its originally built purpose. Continuing with the example of a kovil, warehouses converted into temples indicate their religious identity through bi- or tri-lingual signage in Tamil, English, and Hindi, imagery, iconography, motifs, as well as colours and patterns such as the red-and-white stripes painted on exterior walls or displayed in window panels, characteristic of traditional kovils. Interior finish materials in warehouse temples also reference the architecture of traditional kovils, using tile to resemble marble, for example. Non-structural exterior materials can also distinguish a purpose-built temple from an adaptively re-used building, where stucco (plaster) or a stone veneer may indicate an intentionally designed, newly-built temple, and corrugated metal siding or a brick veneer may indicate an adaptively re-used industrial building.


Certain private businesses and services are omitted from the data to prioritize including places offering culturally relevant Tamil goods and services. This includes financial, legal, medical (with the exception of alternative medicine clinics such as those offering Ayurvedic, Eastern, or naturopathic practices), architectural and real estate, cleaning, employment, printing and graphic design, photography, money transfer, auto repair, courier, travel, and tutoring services, as well as electronic, furniture, and home appliance stores. Another significant piece of data omitted is the internal hallways in interior malls named after districts, cities, and villages in Jaffna such as those seen in the Majestic City mall in Scarborough.

Project Team

This project is undertaken by the library's Digital Scholarship Unit  in partnership with the Institute of the Fraser Valley's South Asian Studies Institute and with support from the Government of Canada's Young Canada Works Summer Jobs program. 

Mayuri Paranthahan Headshot Mayuri Paranthahan has a Master of Architecture from the University of Waterloo. Mayuri's thesis is titled "Our Grand Domestic Revolution: (Re-)making home from Jaffna, Sri Lanka to the Greater Toronto Area." Mayuri works on this project as a UTSC Library Emerging Professional
Headshot of Thansri Thanasri Ganeshamoorthy is a workstudy student at UTSC who has contributed to many Digital Tamil Studies initiatives at the library. She is providing Tamil language titles for the dataset.