Sri Lankan caste system

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The Sri Lankan caste system is a division of society into strata, influenced by the classic Varnas of North India and the Dravida Jāti system found in South India. Ancient Sri Lankan texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptional evidence show that the above hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period. The repetition of the same caste hierarchy even as recently as the 18th century, in the British / Kandyan period Kadayimpoth - Boundary books as well, indicates the continuation of the tradition right up to the end of Sri Lanka's monarchy.

It is one of many caste systems in the world. As everywhere, a Sri Lankan caste can be functional, religious, ethnic, tribal or even composite in origin.


In pre-historical time, there were three casts in Sri Lanka, and these were Deva, Naga, and Yaksha. Deva people lived specially on mountain areas and eastern side of Sri Lanka, and Naga people lived on sea area of western side of Sri Lanka. The Yaksha people lived on north western area of Sri Lanka ex: Puttalam Mannaram. Here it was mentioned that the prehistoric caste system. Anyway after the arrival of King Vijaya to Sri Lanka who was the earliest ancestor of Sinhalese people as believed, the Indian systematic caste system established intrinsically in Sri Lanka. According to the MAHAWAMSA and the other Pali commentaries, with the arrival of the mob of Vijaya's (A prince from a province in India) to the Sri Lanka, it incorporated the caste system without any effort. Many of the members of the Vijaya's mob or group represent various types of Castes. Specially while considering Mahawamasa1 and Deepawamsa those were very important historical accounts, can recognize the influence of Indian caste system on the Sri Lankan society.

Although the prince Vijaya was the accepted earliest ancestor of Sinhalese clan, the arrival of the Great Mahinda Thero who was a Buddhist Monk_a son of Great King Ashoka was the vast important incident for civilization process in SriLanka. Once the Buddhism had incorporated, the society of sri Lanka was gone higher level as accepted by the many a scholars. Anyhow in this way it caused the sustainability of the caste system as a stratification system in Sri Lanka

Sinhalese castes

The documented history of the island begins with the arrival of Prince Vijaya, it is stated that the island was inhabited by three tribes during this time Dewa, Nagas and Yakkas. But now only real sinhaleese cast is Deva cast other all cast came from south India.

Kandyan castes

In the Central Highlands, some 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. The most important feature of the old system was rajakariya, or the "king's work," which linked each caste to a specific occupation and demanded services for the court and religious institutions.2

The connection of caste and job is still stronger in the Central Highlands, and at events such as the Kandy Perahera, an annual festival honoring Hindu gods and the Buddha, the various castes still perform traditional functions. There are four categories such as Raja-Deva caste, Bamunu-Deva caste, Vaishya-Velanda-Situ-Radala Caste, Shudra-Govi Caste. Raja-Deva is the highest caste in Kandyan Kingdom Bandara Deviyo is Royalty of the Kandyan Kingdom came from Kotte Kingdom. Raja-Deva and Bamunu-Deva castes are amalgamated with the all other Warrior Deva (Raksha & Naga) tribes after they lost power and influence during the Nayakkar reign in the Kandyan kingdom. Nowadays largest population is the Shudra-Goyigama caste with many personalities from Deva, Radala and prominent castes converting to Govigama due to the Govigama becoming influential in the colonial era. Govigama in the highlands differ from those of the low country because they preserve occupational divisions within the caste such as herdsmen (Patti), woodcutters (Porowakara) etc.

In the low country, these sub castes within the Goyigama have faded away, and high status is marked by European titles and degrees rather than the older, feudal titles. Honorific titles hearkening back to ancestral homes, manors or vasagama, or noble houses or gedara still marked the pedigrees of the old nobility in the 1980s, and marriages between members of these families and common Goyigama were rare. The status of secondary castes in the low country (Salagama, Durava, etc.) improved dramatically after the collapse of Sri Lanka's traditional feudal system.

In the Kandy District of the highlands live the Batgama or Padu, another caste of agricultural laborers who have escaped the British period consolidation of the cultivator caste. Also untouchable Rodiya and the Kinnaraya who display the vestiges of a hunter gather tribe, were traditionally segregated from other groups because of their menial status. Living in all areas are service groups, such as the Hena or Rada, traditional washermen who still dominate the laundry trade; the Berava, traditional temple drummers who work as cultivators in many villages; and the Navandanna or Achari types are traditional artisans.

Most people today think themselves as Govigama because of social trend but most of them originally belong to other higher castes that prevailed before formation of Govigama during British period such as Radala (Vaishya), Deva (Raja / Bamunu) classes.

Southern castes

There are still major differences between the caste structures of the highlands and those of the low country, although some service groups are common to both. The southwest coast is home to three major castes other than the majority Goyigama common to both Low Country and Up Country, some of whose ancestors are believed have migrated from Southern India at a later period but who have become important actors in the Sinhalese social system: the Salagama, the Durava and the Karave (or Karava). The 100 BC Anuradhpura Abayagiri terrace inscription referring to a Karava navika may be the first reference to a specialist occupation.3 Their traditional occupations and their coastal positions of power have been advantageous to the Karave caste during the colonial period. Hence mixed marriages with the Portuguese (as promoted by Alphonso Albuquerque) as well as wealth accumulation during the rest of the colonial period have been natural consequences. By the late 20th century, members of southern castes, especially by the Karave, Durava and Salagama had moved to all parts of the country, occupied high business and academic positions. Formerly untouchable Rodiya and Kinnaraya are also found in the low country.

Castes amongst Sri Lankan Tamils

Currently among the Sri Lankan Tamils, some of the equivalent Sinhalese castes are:

These duplications might have arisen due to similar social structure of caste throughout South Indian cultural zone as well as migrations and fusions in the past.

There is also a caste called Koviar, the some members of which claim to be Sinhalese Govigama isolated in Tamil areas after the Jaffna conquest of the North. Just like amongst the Sinhalese, the caste structure of the Northern Tamils is somewhat different compared to the Eastern Tamils. Northern Tamil caste system is mostly dominated by the Vellalar except in some coastal regions where Karaiyar have numerical and ritual superiority over others. In the East coast, the fisher castes are dominant numerically that they have used to create ritual superiority over other castes except the Vellalar who seem to be newer arrivals from the North. Paradoxically, Mukkuvars who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in the North are almost at the top in the East.

Castes amongst Hill Country Tamils

The Tamils of Indian origin or Hill Country Tamils who were brought over by the British as indentured labour were mainly from the lower Indian castes; the South Indian categories came over 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. They performed respectable jobs such as factory work and grinding of tea. They worked as minor employees too. Even though they belong to the labor category they were influential among conductors, tea makers, Kanganies or supervisors and other officials.

The workers considered low castes lived in the dwellings that are away from the center 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. Other Tamils were already there as a cause of Indian Tamils brought over to be converted into Sri Lankan Tamils.

Non-Sinhalese and Tamil castes

The Colombo Chetties

Historically the caste system accepted was Raja Bamunu Welenda Govi, the Colombo Chetties are from the Welenda Caste. The term Chetty is interpreted as Setti or Setthi in Pali, Hetti, Situ or Sitana in Sinhalese and as Etti in Tamil. The Colombo Chetties are of the Tana Vaisya stock; according to Rev Fr Boschi the Vaisyas were the nobility of the land and were divided into various sub-divisions or castes; the highest of these sub-divisions was the Tana Vaisya or Chetties followed by the Pu Vaisya and Ko Vaisya etc.: The Ahikuntaka people originally inhabited areas close to Coorg and Benares, although they do not wish to be part of the caste system of both the Sinhalese and the tamils, they are a highly respected community. Historians believe that King Vasaba (BC 65–100) who inaugurated the Lamba karana dynasty from Dumbara Minipe Valley, is a descendent of Prince Sumitta and as such of the Ahikuntaka stock. The Lamba Karana dynasty ruled Sri Lanka for nearly 350 years up to King Jattagahaka (BC. 432), a total of 26 kings.

Importance of ethnicity versus caste

It appears that caste was more important than ethnicity until comparatively recently. In pre-British times, the Govigama were classed as Vellala by the colonial authorities. Eurasians and South Indian Chetties married into the southern Sinhalese Govigama and Karava.4 Cross-ethnic marriage was fairly common. Several so called 'first class Govigama' families (i.e. those of the ranks of 'superior colonial headman') are descended from a mixture of Govi and European ancestry.

Religion and caste

In the case of Tamil caste system, Religious practice tends to reinforce it. In the feudal era, people of low castes were not allowed into some shrines of the major gods. The priests of the gods Brahmin or other native priests among the Tamils. There were no such restrictions in the Buddhist order. Devil Dancers, exorcists, healers and sorcerers were drawn from the caste of tom-tom-beaters Berava.

In the 19th century the Amarapura and Ramanna sects were formed to allow non-Govigama priests to be ordained. This was in opposition to the Siyam Nikaya which had converted itself into a Govigama preserve within a few decades of its formation in the 18th century. In the late 1960s, there were a series of Temple Struggles in the northern Jaffna district, during which members of lower castes forced their way into Hindu temples, establishing their right of entry.

Sinhalese system

Kandyan castes

Southern castes

  • Ahinkuntaya – Gypsies
  • Badahäla (Kumbal) - Potters
  • Berava - Tom-tom beaters
  • Demala Gattara - Tamil Outcastes
  • Dewa Deva - Feudal rulers, merchants, military personnel (later renamed as an artificial sub-caste called Wahumpura)
  • Durava - Traditional teachers, soldiers and coconut cultivators, toddy tappers, confectioners
  • Gattara - Cultivators
  • Govigama - Traditional cultivators, landworkers and herdsmen
  • Hannali - Tailors
  • Hinna - Washers
  • Karava - Traditionally marine based activities and warriors, typically indicated by a ge-name to denote the feudal tribe
  • Navandanna - Artisans (many subcategories)
  • Pamunu - Tenant farmers
  • Pannikki - Barbers
  • Porowakara - Wood cutters
  • Rajaka (Hena) - Washermen
  • Rodiya - Outcastes
  • Salagama - Cinnamon cultivators, warriors and coastal nobility

Sri Lanka Tamil system

Due to modernization and assimilation, most northern Tamil castes are no longer found.

Northern castes

  • Agamudaiar or landholders, (they were originally soldiers from the Indian Mukkulathor caste which has several sub div.such as

Rajakula,Parvatha Rajakula, Raja bhoja etc... ) very few families

  • Chettiar or merchants (relatively recent immigrants from south India), very few families continue to exist within the country
  • Idayar or herders, no longer found
  • Kadeyar or lime burners, no longer found
  • Karaiyar or mariners
  • Keerai Thuraimar or Overlord: highest cast among Sri Lankan Tamil, direct descendent of the Arychakravarti Royal Family very few pure blooded individual left (One of the founder of Jaffna Hindu College)
  • Koviar or social helpers to other cast
  • Madapalli or cooing in Temples
  • Mukkuvar or land holders, fisher and farm hands
  • Maravar or Warrior and Landlord, very few families most fused with Vellalar and part now part of High cast Vellalar
  • Mukguhar or land holders, boat owner, and farm hands
  • Nalavar or toddy tappers
  • Pallar/Mallar or Agriculturist
  • Palliwilli or fishers
  • Pandaram or helpers to Temple priests and temple workers
  • Paraiyar or tom-tom beaters to funerals
  • Paravar or fishers
  • Piramanar, Iyer or Brahmin priests high cast in Jaffna
  • Nadar, very few families
  • Sempadavar or fishers
  • Siviar or royal palanquin bearers, live in Jaffna Ariyala area
  • Thanakarar or Royal stable workers, no longer found
  • Thimilar or farmers or fisher
  • Thurumbar Washers for toddy tappers and other low-caste families
  • Vadugar or soldiers, no longer found
  • Vellalar or high cast in Tamil, landlords
  • Veera Saivar, Lingayat,Jangam, Pandaram, or non-Brahmin priests

A special category called Kudimakkal was divided along

  • Navidar or Ampattar or barbers
  • Koller or blacksmiths
  • Tattar or gold smiths
  • Kannar or brass founders, no longer found
  • Thatcher or carpenters
  • Sitper or masons, no longer found
  • Paner' or tailors, no longer found
  • Vaanikar or oil workers, no longer found
  • kussavar or potters
  • Wannar or washer men

Eastern castes

A special category called Siraikudi or enslaved groups similar to northern Kudimakkal is divided along

  • Matular'*
  • Koil Pandaram' or native priests
  • Pandarappillai or native priests
  • Kussavar or potters
  • Koller or blacksmiths
  • Mutalikal*
  • Valipan*
  • Nampikal*
  • Wannar or washer men
  • Navidar/Ampattar or barbers
  • Pallar or Traditional cultivators, landworkers and herdsmen
  • Paraiyar or tom-tom beaters
  • Koviar' or temple workers
  • Tavacikal*
  • Kataiyar*

Castes marked with the asterisk (*) are found only in Batticaloa.

See also


  • Bryce Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon, Rutgers University Press, 1953.
  • 1855 Ceylon Gazetteer Page 55.
  • Social Change in 19th century Ceylon. Patrick Peebles. 1995, Navrang ISBN 81-7013-141-3
  • The Mahavamsa
  • The adaptable peasant: agrarian society in western Sri Lanka under Dutch rule, 1740–1800, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, ISBN 90-04-16508-8, p. 201
  • Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions
  • An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies by Robert Knox

External links

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