Caste system in Sri Lanka

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The caste system in Sri Lanka is a system of social stratification that existed from ancient Ceylon up until the colonial times and later. Traces of the caste systems are still visible in present day Sri Lanka. However, compared to India, it is less significant and less visible in many respects. Although about 90 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka still recognises it for some purposes at least.1

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.

There exists three parallel caste systems: Sinhala, Sri Lankan Tamil and Indian Tamil.1


In pre-historical time, there were four tribes in Sri Lanka, Deva, Naga, Yaksha and Raksha. The Deva people lived specifically in mountain areas on the eastern side of Sri Lanka, the Naga people lived near the sea on the western side of Sri Lanka and the Yaksha people lived in the north western area of Sri Lanka ex: Puttalam Mannaram. Many of these tribes are also mentioned in ancient India, such as the south-eastern seaboard of India being the abode of the Nagas as in Nagapattinam. As the Veddha people do not practice cast ideology it is difficult to speculate about the prehistoric and the previjayan period. After the arrival of King Vijaya to Sri Lanka, believed to be the earliest ancestor of Sinhalese people, the Indian systematic caste ideology was established intrinsically in Sri Lanka. According to the MAHAWAMSA and 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.

Although Prince Vijaya was the accepted earliest ancestor of Sinhalese clan, the arrival of the Great Mahinda Thero, who was a Buddhist Monk_and son of Great King Ashoka, was an important incident for civilization process in Sri Lanka. Once Buddhism was incorporated, the society of Sri Lanka reached a higher level, as accepted by many scholars. This contributed to the sustainability of the caste system as a stratification system in Sri Lanka

Castes in society

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 as the elite of that caste claimed such. Eurasians and South Indian Chetties married into the southern Sinhalese Govigama and Karava.2 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 and in some cases Tamil.34

Caste discrimination

Caste discrimination of some kind is found in each parallel caste system. However there exists no uniform notion of untouchability in these three caste systems.1 However, unlike in modern India political power discrimination is present in Sri Lanka.5

Among religions

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 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.678910

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.11

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 (along with that of the ordinary Govi) 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 agriculturalists 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 castes that prevailed before formation of Govigama during British period such as Radala (Vaishya), Deva (Raja / Bamunu) classes.

List of Kandyan castes

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 first century BC Anuradhpura Abayagiri terrace inscription referring to a Karava navika may be the first reference to a specialist occupation.12 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.

List of Southern castes
  • Ahinkuntaya – Gypsies
  • Badahäla (Kumbal) - Potters
  • Berava - Tom-tom beaters
  • Demala Gattara - Tamil Outcastes
  • Dewa Deva - Feudal rulers, merchants, military personnel
  • 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

Tamil castes

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.13 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.

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

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

Castes amongst Indian 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.

Other castes

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 (65–100 BCE) who inaugurated the Lamba karana dynasty from Dumbara Minipe Valley, is a descendant 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.

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. ^ The adaptable peasant: agrarian society in western Sri Lanka under Dutch rule, 1740-1800, By Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, p. 201. 
  3. ^ Nilaperumal aka Kalukapuge
  4. ^ 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)
  5. ^ 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)
  6. ^ Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka By Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, p. 152-3
  7. ^ A SHORT HISTORY OF LANKA by Humphry William Codrington, CHAPTER I; THE BEGINNINGS 'The princess and her retinue/dowry (service castes)'
  8. ^ Pre-Vijayan Agriculture in Sri Lanka, by Prof. T. W. Wikramanayake
  9. ^ Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan populations, by Kshatriya G.K. (1995)
  10. ^ 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)
  11. ^ An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies by Robert Knox. 
  12. ^ "Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions". 
  13. ^ Royal grant to a port Patangatim; The Kingdom of Jafanapatam
  14. ^ “Westward ho!” The Sunday Times (19.04.2009)
  15. ^ a b Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives by Chandra Richard De Silva, p.137
  16. ^ a b The temporal and spiritual conquest of Ceylon, Fernão de Queyroz, p.468
Further reading

External links

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