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Berava are a social group or caste amongst the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. Like the Paraiyar of the neighboring Tamil ethnic group in Sri Lanka as well as Tamil Nadu state in South India they were segregated from the mainstream society yet played and still play an important and vital role in the religious rituals of the mainstream community.
As the mainstream Sinhalese speakers claim North Indian ethnic origins the presence of many South Indian type Jatis like the Beravas indicate a complex migration history from India to Sri Lanka. Beravas do not indicate any tribal origins like the other formerly untouchable caste of Rodiyas. They are part and parcel of the caste structure albeit with a primary function associated with Tom Tom or drum besting in all ritual occasions. Yet they are also used as agricultural workers, weavers and domestic help throughout the country.
South Indian roots
Some anthropologists believe that the early society of Sri Lanka has looked to neighboring South India for manpower to fulfill functional needs as land was cleared and many new villages found. Berava are believed to be descended from Paraiyar like caste of South India who also play an important role in Tom Tom or Drum or Bera beating
The powerful Mudaliyar class created by the British in the 19th century attempted to keep this caste and all other Sri Lankan castes out of colonial appointments. They also used all possible means to economically and socially marginalise and subjugate all other communities. The oppression by the Mudaliars and connected headmen extended to demanding subservience, service, appropriation of cultivation rights and even restrictions on the type of personal names that could be used by this community. Continuous oppression and prejudices created by the Buddhist monastic establishment has made it difficult for this community to progress.
Etymology of Bera
The etymology of the word Bera for Drum in Sinhalese is derived from after the Tamil word Parai which originally meant speak came to denote a drumming caste. Thus this etymology indicates that Berava were a late addition to the Sinhalese Society.
There are many subdivisions within the caste, some of which are Badgam Berava and Gahala Berava indicating drumming specializations. They denote Temple drummers who occupied and cultivated Bathgam (rice producing villages) as tenant farmers and Executioner's drummers respectively. It may indicate diverse origins for this caste as for all castes in India.
Role in folk religion
Although great many Sinhalese purport to profess the conservative Theravada Buddhism there is a thriving belief in demons, spirits, Hindu gods and connected rituals such as spirit possession, cursing ceremonies throughout the country also referred as the Spirit Religion or Folk Tradition. Some of these are facilitated by shamans, sorcerers and native priests and astrologers. Berava perform the needed role as sorceress in some villages and also gain respectability by building cultic shrines to attract devotees from other castes.
- The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power – by BRUCE KAPFERER. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
- Performing Respectability: The Beravā, Middle-Class Nationalism, and the Classicization of Kandyan Dance in Sri Lanka by Susan A. Reed Cultural Anthropology May 2002, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 246-277 Posted online on October 29, 2004.
- The Musical Gift: Sound, Sovereignty and Multicultural History in Sri Lanka by Jim Sykes, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2011.
- Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work, and: The Kitchen Spoon's Handle: Transnationalism and Sri Lanka's Migrant Housemaids (review) by Tiengtrakul, Chanasai NWSA Journal - Volume 15, Number 2, Summer 2003, pp. 195-199