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Govigama (also known as Goyigama, Govikula, Govi Vansa or Goyi Vansa[1]) is a Sinhalese caste found in Sri Lanka. They form approximately half of the Sinhalesee poulation and are traditionally involved in agriculture.[2] The term Govigama became popular during the last period of the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kandy. Its members have dominated and influenced national politics and Sinhalese Buddhism (particularly the Siam Nikaya sect).[3]

Geographically Govigama is highly concentrated in to Upcountry including Kandy, Colombo and some other interior areas of low country. These Govi and the Bathgama have traditionally been responsible for cultivation in accordance with the traditional tenure system of land-holding known as Rajakariya (duty). The Govigama caste has several endogamous sub divisions which include the Radalas (Kandyan aristrocracy), Rate atto (husbandmen), Patti (shepherds), Katupulle (messengers or clerks), Nilamakkara (temple servants), Porovakara (wood cutters), Vahal (Radala servants) and Gattara (Govigama outcaste).[4][5][6][7]


The caste name is occupational derived. Govigama is derived from the Sinhala word Govi or Goyi meaning paddy, in reference to their traditional occupation as rice farmers.[8][9] Early Sinhalese texts such as the 13th century Pujavaliya mention a Varna-like caste order of the Sinhalese society; the Raja (rulers), Bamunu (Brahmins), Velanda (traders) and lastly the Govi (peasants).[10][11]

An 18th-century etching of cultivators fishing in a reservoir during the dry season, from An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon by Robert Knox(1641–1720)


Ancient period[edit]

Ancient texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya list the four major classes as Raja , Bamunu, Velanda, and Govi.[10][11] Pújavaliya also says that a Buddha could be been born into the Govi caste, as Govi caste was started by the Shakya Princess Badrakachchayana and he followers.

Kandyan period[edit]

For the past 1.700 years the only undisputed symbol of Sri Lankan Royalty and Leadership has been the sacred Tooth Relic of Gautama Buddha. Whosoever possessed this was acknowledged as the rightful ruler of Lanka, and thus the Tooth Relic was a possession exclusive to the ruling dynasty of Sri Lanka. Upon each change of capital, a new palace was built to enshrine the Relic. Finally, in 1595 it was brought to Kandy where it is at present, in the Temple of the Tooth. However, even in the land-locked Kandyan kingdom 'Unambuwe' a son of a concubine of some considerable background was deemed not of 'royalty', hence a Telugu of royalty was imported from Madurai. This last Kandyan royal dynasty (four kings) of Nayake origin was from the Balija caste[12][full citation needed] Even King Senarat Adahasin's regent, Antonio Baretto Kuruvita Rala, Prince of Ouva, was not from the Govi cast[13][14]

The oldest Buddhist sect in Sri Lanka, the Siam Nikaya (established on 19 July 1753) are the custodians of the Tooth Relic, since its establishment during the Kandyan Kingdom. The Siam Nikaya uses caste-based divisions, and as of 1764 grants higher ordination only to the Radala and Govigama castes, excluding other castes from its numbers,[15] Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti (Durawa) was the last non-Govigama monk to receive upasampada. This conspiracy festered within the Siam Nikaya itself and Moratota Dhammakkandha, Mahanayaka of Kandy, with the help of the last two Kandyan Telugu Kings victimised the low-country Mahanayaka Karatota Dhammaranma by confiscating the Sri Pada shrine and the retinue villages from the low country fraternity and appointing a rival Mahanayaka[16]

Current political power[edit]

Non–Govigama representation in Parliament has steadily declined since independence and representation of non-Govigama castes are well below their population percentages. Caste representation in the Cabinet has always been limited to a few very visible, but unconcerned and disconnected members from a few leading castes.[17]



The Govigama are a landowning caste.[18][19] The Sinhalese caste system was based on the service to the king or 'raja kariya',[18] and land ownership. The Govigama people had the right to cultivate and use the lands of the Sinhalese Kingdom at the behest of Sinhalese King. Their contribution to rice production,leadership in Buddhism and service in royal service gave Govigama people the foremost role in the ancient agrarian society of aryans. Kings are said to have participated in harvesting festivals held end of each Yala (dry) and Maha (wet) season.[20]

In the present era, it has been a norm that the head of the country should be a Govigama caste member, though President Premadasa was not. Colonial occupiers, including the Portuguese, Dutch and British, tried to change Govigama dominance by giving prominence to other castes by granting government posts and education under them. However they were unable to change the Govigama superiority in traditional Sinhalese society. The Dutch and the British introduced the ideas of Republicanism.


An important characteristic in the Sinhalese caste system is that the family name or the surname details the ancestry. The original name was given based on where one lived. Later, honorary terms, granted by the king based on a person's service to the kingdom, were added to the original name. This continued for generations and resulted in very long names. In General Bandara, Disawe, Mudiyanse, Appuhamy, Nawaratne, Jayathilaka, Gunathilaka, Jayawardana, Wijayawardhana, Gunawardhana, Siriwardhana, Abeywardhana, Abeysiriwardhana, Abeygunawardhana, Dharmawardhana, Bandaranayake, Disanayaka, Alahakoon, Tennakoon, Wijekoon, Wickramasighe, Rajapaksha, Kiriella, Kobbakaduwa, Arachchi, Vidhane are considered to be names taken up by Govigama People, and these names were extended according to the ranking in the service of the kingdom. Further variations exist due to changes during the colonial period. Historic literature and inscriptional evidence from the feudal period show that this hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period until the collapse of Sri Lankan kingdoms and social structure under the onslaught of European colonialism. However, even in the present day, Sinhalese people look at surnames and ancestry when it comes to marriages.[citation needed]

As for name and religious conversions, Govigama families too became Christian and had Portuguese/Christian names (some strangely adopted during British/Dutch times) such as Don Davith (Rajapaksas),[21][22] Barthlamew (Senanayakes), Ridgeway Dias (Nilaperumal/Bandaranaykes), Pererala, Arnolis Dep (Wijewardane), de Sarem, de Alwis, etc. It is also why all elite Sri Lankans of the British period be it farmer or other wise had English first names. The Goyigama also were pioneer arrack renters of the colonial era.[23]

Social status[edit]

In traditional Sinhalese society Buddhist monks are placed at the top. Irrespective of the birth caste of a monk, even the king had to worship him. However, this led to some Buddhist sects in Sri Lanka allowing only Govigama people to join, contrary to Buddha's instructions. Other castes such as Karava, Durava, Salagama and Wahumpura have their own Buddhist sects. The Govigama sect also known as the Mahavihara Wanshika Siyam Order hold the custody of Sri Dalada Maligawa (The temple of the tooth) and the sacred tooth relic of Buddha.[24][25][26]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hussein, Asiff (1 January 2001). The Lion and the Sword: An Ethnological Study of Sri Lanka. A. Hussein. p. 18. ISBN 9789559726203.
  2. ^ Peebles, Patrick (22 October 2015). Historical Dictionary of Sri Lanka. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 65. ISBN 9781442255852.
  3. ^ Fernando, Jude Lal (2013). Religion, Conflict and Peace in Sri Lanka: The Politics of Interpretation of Nationhoods. LIT Verlag Münster. pp. 141–142. ISBN 9783643904287.
  4. ^ Silva, K. M. De; M, K. (2005). A History of Sri Lanka. Penguin Books India. p. 202. ISBN 9789558095928.
  5. ^ Padmasiri, Kulasekera Mudiyanselage (1984). British Administration in the Kandyan Provinces of Sri Lanka, 1815-1833, With Special Reference to Social Change. University of London. p. 23.
  6. ^ Brow, James; Weeramunda, Joe (1992). Agrarian change in Sri Lanka. Sage Publications. pp. 74–75. ISBN 9780803994157.
  7. ^ Nyrop, Richard F. (1985). Sri Lanka: A Country Study. 550. Washington University: U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 103.
  8. ^ Spolia Zeylanica. National Museums of Sri Lanka. 1955. p. 209.
  9. ^ Holt, John (13 April 2011). The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press. p. 296. ISBN 9780822349822.
  10. ^ a b Kapferer, Bruce (15 October 1997). The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power. University of Chicago Press. p. 68. ISBN 9780226424132.
  11. ^ a b Obeyesekere, Gananath (1984). The cult of the goddess Pattini. University of Chicago Press. pp. 116–117. ISBN 9780226616025.
  12. ^ Pre-Nayake kings of Kandy (children of Kusuma Devi) and their marriages to south-Indian Nayakes
  13. ^ Description of the Great and Most Famous Isle of Ceylon, Philip Baldaeus, p. 693-7
  14. ^ Ceylon of the Early Travellers, by H. A. J. Hulugalle (1965); 'Kuruwita Rala, a relative of our last royal Queen'
  15. ^ Two Great Needs of Buddhists
  16. ^ Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750–1900: A Study of Religious Revival and.... By Kitsiri Malalgoda, p. 84-87 & 91
  17. ^ Fonseka, the political arriviste–a historical irony
  18. ^ a b Sri Lankan Caste System
  19. ^ Castes & Tribes at the time of Sanghamitta (Populations of the Saarc Countries: Bio-Cultural Perspectives By Jayanta Sarkar, G. C. Ghosh, p.73)
  20. ^ Dewasiri, Nirmal Ranjith. The Adaptable Peasant. p. 246.
  21. ^ "The Rajapaksas and Ruhuna". Archived from the original on 2 January 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Nobodies to somebodies: the rise of the colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka by Kumari Jayawardena (Zed Books) p.190-191 ISBN 1-84277-229-5
  24. ^ A SHORT HISTORY OF LANKA by Humphry William Codrington, CHAPTER I; THE BEGINNINGS 'The princess and her retinue/dowry (service castes)'
  25. ^ 'Pandyan retinue of Prince Vijaya': Sea: Our Saviour By K. Sridharan, p.19
  26. ^ Pre-Vijayan Agriculture in Sri Lanka, by Prof. T. W. Wikramanayake
  27. ^ Social Change in Nineteenth Century Ceylon, pg 45, Patrick Peebles
  28. ^ a b c Premadasa Exceptionalism and challenges it currently faces...
  29. ^ Exploring Confrontation; Sri Lanka:Politics, Culture & History, Pg166, Michael Roberts
  30. ^ How Mrs. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960 - Elections
  31. ^ Saga of Nilame and Kumarihamy by Lakmal Welabada. Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka), Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
  32. ^ "Black July: A Note On Buddhism, Caste & The New Sinhalese Nationalism". Retrieved 12 June 2015.


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