Koviar (also Koviyar or Covia) is a Sri Lankan Tamil caste of traditional agriculturalists and temple workers. Today they are found in all aspects of the society. In the Vellalar dominated caste hierarchy of the Jaffna peninsula they ranked higher due to their proximity to temples. There are number of competing theories as to their origins.
- Native temple workers
According to primary sources such as Yalpana Vaipava Malai, they were temple workers known as Kovilar who with time came to be known as Koviar. In Tamil Kovil stands for a Hindu temple. In South Indian census records Koviar and Kovilar as native South Indian castes.
- Assimilated Sinhalese
Some historians such as Mudaliar Rasanayagam have speculated that Koviar are assimilated Sinhalese belonging to the Govigama caste with the ascendancy of the Jaffna kingdom. Mudaliar Rasanayagma made the speculation based on the fact that Koviar caste was not found in South India but the census figures for 1881 lists a Koviar caste in the Madras Presidency in South India.
They provided the bulk of the manual manpower required for cultivation and temple services. There were not held in bonded servitude like other Dalit-like castes in Jaffna. Their ritual position was just below that of the Vellalar and was allowed into the temple as workers and as devotees.
After Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lankan Tamil politics was geared towards a nationalistic cause. Koviar using their ritual and physical proximity to the educational services upgraded themselves socially and economically. The Policy of standardization imposed by the successive Sri Lankan governments since 1973 had the effect of restricting the number of Tamil students entering state Universities and affected upwardly mobile Koviar students as much as the dominant class. Hence Koviar were also involved in many of the Tamil nationalistic agitations that eventually resulted in the formation of many Tamil militant groups. They were prominent in one of them namely TELO that was eventually eclipsed by the LTTE that was also seen as to be associated with another minority but upwardly mobile Karaiyar caste in Jaffna.
The civil war and the Black July pogroms have retarded most of these gains and many have escaped the deprivations by seeking refugee status in India, Europe and North America. They are merging with the host populations and/or the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.
- British Colonial census document 1881 Volume 3 page number 7 mentions Koviar in India
- Hasbullah, S. H.; Morrison, Barrie M. (2004). From differences to ethnic solidarity amongst Tamils. Dagmar Hellman-Rajanayagam (Sage). ISBN 978-0-7619-3221-5. Retrieved 2008-06-04.