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. Compared to India, it is less significant and less visible in many respects, but about 90 per cent of the Sri Lanka population still recognise it for some purposes at least.1

The Sri Lankan caste system was originally 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.

Three parallel caste systems exist in Sri Lankan society: Sinhala, Sri Lankan Tamil and Indian Tamil.1

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 Unlike in modern India, political power discrimination is present in Sri Lanka.5

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

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

Tamil castes

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.

See also

References

Further reading

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