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 (the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils), who have roots dating back over 2,000 years. A caste system was extensive from the ancient history of Sri Lanka to the colonial era. Although it is less extensive and important than it has been, 90 percent of the population still recognizes the system.
The Sri Lankan caste system was influenced by the varnas of North India and the jāti system of South India, particularly Tamil Nadu; the caste system of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka is primarily influenced by the varnas. The occupations of ancient community groups have been linked to the development of castes, although the island's indigenous Veddha community avoided the system. Ancient Sri Lankan texts, such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya, Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptions, show that the castes existed throughout the feudal period. Evidence of caste hierarchy can be seen during the 18th century British-Kandyan period, indicating its continuation after the Sri Lankan monarchy. Three major, parallel caste systems exist in Sri Lankan society: Sinhala, Sri Lankan Tamil, and Indian Tamil.
Ethnicity versus caste
It has been argued that until recently, caste may have been more important than ethnicity, religion and language. In ancient Sri Lanka, the varna system was important because of the Sinhala civilization's Indo-Aryan roots. Although classified as Sudra, the Govigama and the Vellala were considered the 'highest' castes from the Dutch colonial period. In ancient Ceylon, although marriages between Sinhalese and Tamils (usually among higher castes) were not uncommon, they occurred between comparable castes; Eurasians and South Indian Chetties married into the southern Sinhalese Govigama and Karava. Several prestigious Govigama families have mixed Govigama and Tamil (or European) ancestry.
Although caste discrimination is still found in Sri Lanka (particularly in rural areas), caste boundaries are blurring. Political power and wealth have largely replaced caste as the main factor in Sri Lankan social stratification, especially in the Sinhalese and Indian Tamil communities.
In 1951 the Kandyan Peasantry Commission wrote, " ... As a first step in the fight against caste it is necessary to abolish the service tenures." (R.K.P.C. 1951, p. 180.) Nur Yalman encountered caste division in the Ceylonese village of Terutenne in 1954. According to Lakshman et al., "The Social Disabilities Act of 1957 intended to outlaw caste-based discrimination." (p. 68, note 16)
The documented history of the island begins with the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India. The island was reportedly inhabited by four tribes at that time: the Dewa, Nagas, Yakkas and Raksha. Although the origin of Sri Lankan communities is unclear, genetic studies on Sinhalese have shown that most of the Sinhala community is genetically related to the South Indians as well as Bengalis and Gujaratis. About half of the Sinhalese population are Goyigama. Of the three native tribes, it is believed that the Dewa are part of the Sinhalese castes.
In the Central Highlands, many traditions of the Kingdom of Kandy were preserved from its 1818 collapse beyond independence in 1948 and the Land Reform Act of the 1970s. Although large agricultural landlords belonged to the Govigama caste, many now may not own land. Most Govigama were however ordinary farmers and tenants as absolute land ownership was exclusive to the king until the British colonial period. In addition to the Govigama, there were several strata of occupational castes. Vahumpuras or Deva were the caste who traditionally made and supplied jaggery/Hakuru and farmed. The Padu caste was primarily agricultural labourers. The Navandanna (Acari) caste were artisans. The Rada were washers, and this caste is still prevalent in Sri Lanka's laundry sector. The Beravas (Beravaya) were traditional drummers and agricultural wage laborers. The Kinnara caste did menial work and were segregated from the rest of the community. The most important feature of the Kandyan system was Rajakariya ("the king's work"), which linked each caste to an occupation and demanded service to the court and religious institutions.
There are still differences between the caste structures of the highlands and those of the low country, although some service groups were common to both in ancient Sri Lanka. The southwestern coast has three other castes (the Salagama, the Durava and the Karava) in addition to the majority Govigama, which is common throughout the region. Some of these castes' ancestors are believed to have migrated from Southern India, and have become important in the Sinhalese social system. The first-century BC Anuradhpura Abayagiri inscription referring to a Karava navika may be the first reference to a specialized occupation.
The Tolkāppiyam Porulatikaram indicating the four-fold division is the earliest Tamil literature to mention caste. Sangam literature however mentions only five kudis associated with the five tinais. Colonialism also had influenced the caste system.
Tamils of Indian origin (Hill Country Tamils, who were brought to the island by the British as indentured labour) were primarily from the lower Indian castes and the South Indian caste systems followed them. Their caste structure resembles that of a Tamil Nadu village. Those considered to belong to higher castes, such as Maravar, Kallar, Agamudaiyar and Vellalar, occupied the first row of line houses (small, attached houses on a plantation). They did factory work and ground tea.
Sri Lankan Tamils
Unlike the modern Sinhalese counterpart, modern Sri Lankan Tamils' caste-based social-stratification system is still influential. Within the Sri Lankan Tamil population, many distinctions are made between the Northern (Jaffna) and Eastern Tamil (Batticalao) communities. The caste system has stronger religious ties than its Sinhalese counterpart, although both systems have comparable castes.
The dominant northern Tamil caste, constituting over half of the Tamil population, is the Vellala. Like the Govigama, members are primarily farmers. During the colonial period, they took advantage of new avenues for mobility and made up a large segment of the educated, administrative middle class. Next are the Karaiyar, a warrior caste, who are today traditionally fishermen and sailors. Like the Sinhalese Karava, they began commercial ventures. The Chetti were merchants. In the centre of the caste hierarchy is a group of artisan castes, and at the bottom of the system are laboring castes (including the Palla, associated with agricultural work).
Although Brahmans in Sri Lanka have been a minority, their conservative worldview has prevailed among the Vellala and similar castes. Changes occurred during the twentieth century; egalitarian ideas promoted by the government have combined with higher levels of education to soften prejudice against the lower castes. This has improved access to employment, education and Hindu temples for all.
The eastern caste system has been influenced by Mukkuvar, who came to the island from the present Malabar District of South India. They brought Marumakarthayam law, which influenced the caste system. Mukkuwas and Thumilas (sailors) worked on the sea. During the colonial era, Vellalas arrived from the north as government officials.
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- Further reading
- Bryce Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon, Rutgers University Press, 1953.
- Social Change in 19th century Ceylon. Patrick Peebles. 1995, Navrang ISBN 81-7013-141-3
- The adaptable peasant: agrarian society in western Sri Lanka under Dutch rule, 1740–1800, Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, ISBN 90-04-16508-8, p. 201
- Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions
- An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies by Robert Knox
- The International Dalit Solidarity Network: The Caste System in Sri Lanka