Mathangi Arulpragasam was born on 18 July 1975 in Hounslow, London, the daughter of Arul Pragasam, a Sri Lankan Tamil engineer, writer, and activist, and his wife, Kala, a seamstress. When she was six months old, her family moved to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where her brother Sugu was born. There, her father adopted the name Arular and became a political activist and founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), a political Tamil group affiliated with the LTTE. The first 11 years of Arulpragasam's life were marked by displacement caused by the Sri Lankan Civil War. Her family went into hiding from the Sri Lankan Army, and Arulpragasam had little contact with her father during this period. She has described her family as living in "big-time" poverty during her childhood but also recalls some of her happiest memories from growing up in Jaffna. Maya attended Catholic convent schools such as the Holy Family Convent, Jaffna, where she developed her art skills—painting in particular—to work her way up her class.