Caste system in Sri Lanka

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In Sri Lanka, a caste based social stratification system can be seen among its two major ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils, who have roots dating back over 2000 years.

A caste system was practiced extensively during the ancient history of Sri Lanka until the colonial era. Currently, the caste system is less extensive then in the past, and bears less importance among many communities. Ninety percent of the population still recognizes the system for many purposes.1

It is believed that the Sri Lankan caste system was originally influenced by the classic varnas of North India and the jāti system found in South India, particularly Tamil Nadu as the caste system of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka is primarlily influenced by the Varna classification.234 In addition to this, occupations of ancient community groups have been linked to the development of certain caste categories, though the island's indigenous Veddha community escaped caste ideology.5 Ancient Sri Lankan texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya, Yogaratnakaraya, and inscriptional evidence show that the above hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period. Evidence of the repetition of caste hierarchy can be seen during the 18th century, in the British/Kandyan period Kadayimpoth - Boundary Books, indicating the continuation of the tradition after the end of Sri Lanka's monarchy.

Three main parallel caste systems can be seen in Sri Lankan society: Sinhala, Sri Lankan Tamil, and Indian Tamil.1

Castes in society

Ethnicity versus caste

It has been argued that caste may have been more important than ethnicity, religion and language till recent times. In ancient Sri Lanka the varna system had been important due to the Indo-Aryan roots of Sinhala Civilization.2 In medieval times, though classed as Shudra,36 the Sinhalese Govigama became considered in par with Tamils Vellalar (Vellala)4 and considered as the elite caste in this agricultural island7 In ancient Ceylon, though cross-ethnic marriages between Sinhalese and Tamils were not uncommon, when it happens (usually among higher castes) it was always within comparable castes - Eurasians and South Indian Chetties married into the southern Sinhalese Govigama and Karava.8 Several 'first class Govigama' families (i.e. those of the ranks of 'superior colonial headman') have been descended from a mixture of Govigama and Tamil ancestry and in some cases European.910

Caste discrimination

Caste discrimination of some kind is still found in Sri Lanka specially among rural ethnicities. However the uniformity is some what less clear in the three caste systems.1 In modern days power discrimination (by means of political and wealth) has taken over the place of caste discrimination as the main factor of social stratification in Sri Lanka specially in the south (i.e. Sinhalese and Indian Tamil communities).11

The Kandyan Peasantry Commission, writing in 1951, states that "... As a first step in the fight against caste it is necessary to abolish the service tenures." (R.K.P.C. 1951, p. 180.) Nur Yalman 12 encounters caste division in the Ceylonese village of Terutenne in 1954. However, as Terutenne used to be a mixed village of Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists, Yalman's observation holds as far as Tamils are concerned.

W.D. Lakshman, et al.13 makes the remark that "The Social Disabilities Act of 1957 intended to outlaw caste-based discriminiation." (p. 68, note 16)

Sinhalese castes

The documented history of the island begins with the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India, it is stated that the island was inhabited by three tribes during that time Dewa, Nagas and Yakkas. Scientific origin of modern Sri Lankan communities are still far from clarity,14 the genetic studies on Sinhalese have shown that most of the current Sinhala community shares genetic similarities with South Indian and Bengali genetics. Also among above three native tribes, it is believed Deva cast has continued to be a part of Sinhalese castes and all other sinhalese cast are descendant from India though this has not been proved comprehensively.1516171819 Roughly 50% of the Sinhalese population fall within the category of Goyigama (Govi caste).7

Kandyan castes

In the Central Highlands, many traditions of the Kingdom of Kandy survived after its collapse in 1818, preserved in unique forms of the caste system until the post-independence period. Many of the larger agricultural landlords were of the "Govigama" caste, though with modern social dynamics, many may not even hold a single plot of agricultural land. After this stratum there were several strata of castes with overlapping status concerning with many other occupational inputs to the community. "Vahumpuras" were the caste who traditionally make and supply jaggery to the society and in addition they also did other works on lands, farms and other social requirements not addressed by other castes. The "Padu" caste was mainly concerns with jobs related to labor and since ancient Sri Lanka was mainly an agricultural economy, they did works on agricultural lands in return of wages. Caste "Navandanna (Acari)" was the traditional artisans of the society. Caste "Rada" was related to the duties of washermen and this caste still dominates the laundry sector in Sri Lanka. "Beravas (Beravaya)" were the caste concerned with traditional drummers yet they were engaged with other occupations like agricultural labor in return of wages (returns). "Kinnara" caste was considered to be a menial sector in the society and lived in segregation from the rest of the community.20

The most important feature of the old Kandyan system was Rajakariya, or the "king's work(designated job in the kingdom)," which linked each caste to a specific occupation and demanded services for the Court and Religious Institutions.21

Southern castes

There are still major differences between the caste structures of the highlands and those of the low country, though some service groups were common to both in the ancient Sri Lanka. The southwest coast is home to three other major castes (the Salagama, the Durava and the Karaave AKA Karava) in addition to the majority, Govigama which is common to both Low Country and Up Country. Some of these castes ancestors were believed to have been migrated from Southern India at a later period yet have become important factors in the Sinhalese social system. The first century BC Anuradhpura Abayagiri terrace inscription referring to a Karava navika may be the first reference to such kind of a specialist occupation.22

Tamil castes

Castes amongst Indian Tamils

The Tamils of Indian origin or Hill Country Tamils who were brought to the island by the then British rulers as indentured labour, were mainly from the lower Indian castes; therefore the South Indian caste systems came along with them.

Their caste structure resembles that of a Tamil Nadu village. Those who are considered to be of higher castes such as Maravar, Kallar, Agamudaiyar and Vellalar occupied the first row of line rooms (Line rooms/houses are a set of small houses attached to each other within a plantation estate). They performed respectable jobs such as factory work and grinding of tea. They worked as minor employees too. Even though they belong to the labour category they were influential among conductors, tea makers, Kanganies or supervisors and other officials.

The rest of the workers considered low castes lived in the dwellings that are away from the centre and these dwellings are called distant or lower Lines. This group consists of Pallar/Mallar, Paraiyars, Sakkiliar, Washers and Barbers. The yard sweepers and changers of clothes are in the lowest rank.

Castes amongst Sri Lankan Tamils

Unlike the modern Sinhalese counterpart, modern Sri Lankan Tamils' caste based social stratification system is still more influential and a deciding factor in many social endeavours.23 Even within the Sri Lankan Tamil population, there are many differences and discriminations between Northern Tamil (Jaffna) community and Eastern Tamil (Batticalao) community.24 The caste system is also shares strong ties with religious bases than the Sinhalese counterpart though the both systems have comparable castes.

In North, the dominant Tamil caste, constituting well over 50% of the Tamil population, are the Vellala. Like the Govigama, members are primarily cultivators/farmers and ancient times they were the larger landlords. During the colonial period, they took advantage of new avenues for mobility and made up a large section of the educated, administrative middle class. Below the Vellala, but still high in the Tamil caste system, are the Karaiyar, who originally were fisherman and mariners (Like the Sinhalese Karava, they branched out into commercial ventures). The Chetti, merchant castes, also have a high ritual position. In the middle of the caste hierarchy is a group of numerically small artisan castes, and at the bottom of the system are more numerous laboring castes, including the Palla, associated with agricultural work.23

Although Brahmans in Sri Lanka have always been a very small minority, the conservative Brahmanical world-view has remained strong among the Vellala and other high castes. Major changes have occurred, however, in the twentieth century. Ideas of equality among all people, officially promoted by the government, have combined with higher levels of education among the Tamil elites to soften the old prejudices against the lowest castes. This has some what opened up employment, education, and Hindu temples for all groups, including former untouchables23

Caste system of Sri Lankan Tamil in eastern province have been influenced by Mukkuvar who originally came to the island country (during second AD) from the current day Malabar district of South India. They brought the Marumakarthayam law which influenced the caste system of that part heavily.24 Both Mukkuwas and Thumilas (Boatmen) caste shared sea as their occupation hence they became the backbone of the caste system in eastern Tamils of Sri Lanka. Later specially during colonial era, Vellalas from north who came as government officials attempted to assert caste superiority in this part of the island.24

See also


  1. ^ a b c Silva, Kalinga Tudor; Sivapragasam, P.P.; Thanges, Paramsothy (2009). "Caste Discrimination and Social Justice in Sri Lanka: An Overview" (PDF). Indian Institute of Dalit Studies III. Retrieved 29 July 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Castes & Tribes at the time of Sanghamitta, Populations of the Saarc Countries: Bio-Cultural Perspectives, by Jayanta Sarkar and G. C. Ghosh, p.73
  3. ^ a b Polonnaruwa Galpotha inscription, CONCISE MAHAVAMSA: p. 107, by Mahānāma Thero and Dhammakitti Thero, edited by Wihelm Greiger (Publisher: Ruwan Rajapakse), ISBN 9780972865708
  4. ^ a b Madras journal of literature and science, Volume 13, Madras Literary Society and Auxiliary of the Royal Asiatic Society, p.41 (Nabu Press) ISBN 9781173048129
  5. ^ Vadda of Sri Lanka, Accessed 13-06-2015
  6. ^ 15th century Janawamsaya on caste, The Adaptable Peasant: Agrarian Society in Western Sri Lanka..., Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, p. 188, (Brill Academic), ISBN 9789004165083
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ The adaptable peasant: agrarian society in western Sri Lanka under Dutch rule, 1740-1800, By Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, p. 201. 
  9. ^ Nilaperumal aka Kalukapuge
  10. ^ J.R. Jayawardena family History of the Colombo Chetties, edited and compiled by Deshabandu Reggie Candappa, Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara (Sunday Times, 08.07.2001)
  11. ^ Caste in Jaffna And India, Review Article on Neville Jayaweera’s Jaffna Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision Dr. Devanesan Nesiah (Sunday Leader 10.10.2014)
  12. ^ Under the Bo Tree -- studies in castes, kinship, and marriage in the interior of Ceylon, 1967, 1971, Univ. of California Press
  13. ^ "Sri Lanka's Development Since Independence: Socio-economic Perspectives and Analyses", New York, 2000
  14. ^
  15. ^ Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka By Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, p. 152-3
  16. ^ A SHORT HISTORY OF LANKA by Humphry William Codrington, CHAPTER I; THE BEGINNINGS 'The princess and her retinue/dowry (service castes)'
  17. ^ Pre-Vijayan Agriculture in Sri Lanka, by Prof. T. W. Wikramanayake
  18. ^ Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan populations, by Kshatriya G.K. (1995)
  19. ^ Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations, L Ranaweera, et al; Journal of Human Genetics (2014)
  20. ^
  21. ^ An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies by Robert Knox. 
  22. ^ "Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions". 
  23. ^ a b c
  24. ^ a b c M. M. M. Mahroof (November–December 2000). "A Conspectus of Tamil Caste Systems in Sri Lanka: Away from a Parataxis". Social Scientist 28 (11/12): 40–59. JSTOR 3518280. 
Further reading

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