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; Sinhalese and Tamils which rooted back to its documented history of over 2000 years. The cast system was practised extensively during the era of ancient Ceylon through the colonial times up to now. Unlike its ancient days, the current practise is less extensive and bears less importance among many communities. Yet about 90% of the Sri Lanka population still recognise this 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 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. Evidence of the repetition of same 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[edit]

Ethnicity versus caste[edit]

It appears that Caste was more important than ethnicity till recent times. In pre-British times, the Sinhalese Govigama were considered in par with Tamils Vellalar (Vellala) by the ancient Srialankans as well as the colonial authorities and considered as an elite caste. 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.[2]. 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.[3][4]

Caste discrimination[edit]

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 (ie Sinhalese and Indian Tamil communities).[5]

Sinhalese castes[edit]

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[6], the genetic studies have shown majority of the current Sinhala community shares genetic similarities with South Indiand and Bengali genetics[7]. 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 .[8][9][10][11][12].

Kandyan castes[edit]

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. The most important feature of the old 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.[13]

Southern castes[edit]

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.[14]

Tamil castes[edit]

Castes amongst Indian Tamils[edit]

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 eachother 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[edit]

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[15]. Even within the Sri Lankan Tamil population, there are many differences and discriminations between Northern Tamil (Jaffna) community and Easten Tamil (Batticalao) community[16]. 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 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 Karaiya, whose original occupation was fishing (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[17].

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 untouchables[18]

Caste system of Sri Lankan Tamil in eastern province have been influenced by Mukkuwas who were 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[19]. 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 were able to assert their caste superiority in this part of the island again.[20]

See also[edit]


  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. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka By Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, p. 152-3
  9. ^ A SHORT HISTORY OF LANKA by Humphry William Codrington, CHAPTER I; THE BEGINNINGS 'The princess and her retinue/dowry (service castes)'
  10. ^ Pre-Vijayan Agriculture in Sri Lanka, by Prof. T. W. Wikramanayake
  11. ^ Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan populations, by Kshatriya G.K. (1995)
  12. ^ 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)
  13. ^ An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies by Robert Knox. 
  14. ^ "Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions". 
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
Further reading

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