Caste system in Sri Lanka

The caste systems in Sri Lanka are social stratification systems found among the ethnic groups of the island since ancient times. The models are similar to those found in Continental India, but are less extensive and important for various reasons, although the caste systems still play an important and at least symbolic role in religion and politics. Sri Lanka is often considered to be a casteless or caste-blind society by Indians.[1]

The caste systems of Sri Lanka were historically not tied to the religious establishment but rather a tool to service the ruling elite - a model more reminiscent of feudalism in Europe. At least three major, parallel caste systems exist in Sri Lankan society: Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamil and Indian Tamils.[1]

A universal welfare system that focused on providing education for everyone regardless of background has provided people from lower caste groups similar opportunities to enter jobs previously only frequented by those in upper-caste groups, with younger generations mostly rejecting any pressure to conform to caste-related jobs. The Civil War has also broken down caste barriers as they were seen as an obstacle toward ethnolinguistic unity.[1]


The caste system of the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils display some similar traits, where both systems having comparable castes with similar occupations and status.[2]

The interior arable land is largely dominated by the Govigama caste under the Sinhalese and by the Vellalar under the Sri Lankan Tamils, who are traditionally involved as husbandmen and form approximately half the population of their respective ethnicities.[3] The peasants under them are the Sinhalese Bathgama and Tamil Pallars.[4] The coastal land is dominated by the Karavas under the Sinhalese and the Karaiyar under the Tamils. Both castes share a common origin with background in seafaring, trade and warfare.[5][6] The artisans were collectively known as Navandanna by the Sinhalese and as Kammalar by the Tamils.[7] They constituted of respective endogamous castes traditionally involved as blacksmith, goldsmith, coppersmith, carpenters and stonemasons.[8][9] While toddy tapping was largely in the hands of the Sinhalese Durava and Tamil Nalavar, jaggery production was in the hands of the Sinhalese Vahumpura and Tamil Cantars.[6] The traditional drummers of both ethnicities, the Sinhalese Berava and Tamil Paraiyar, have religious importance in Buddhism and Hinduism, respectively. The domestic castes of barbers and dhobies were the respective Sinhalese Ambattaya and Hinnava, and Tamil Ambattar and Vannar.[10][11][12]

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.[13]

Although caste discrimination is still found in Sri Lanka (particularly in rural areas), caste boundaries are blurring.[1] 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.[14] Ponnambalam Ramanathan, under British Ceylon, opposed extending voting rights to the people and urged reservation of franchise only to men of the Vellalar caste.[15]

Sinhalese castes

The documented history of the island begins with the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India. Although the origin of Sri Lankan communities is unclear,[16] genetic studies on Sinhalese have shown that most of the Sinhala community are genetically related to North Indians, with traces from South India too.[17][18][19][20][21][22] About half of the Sinhalese population are Govigama.[23]

Ancient Sri Lankan texts, such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya, Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptions, show that a caste system namely existed among the Sinhalese. Evidence of this hierarchy can be seen during the 18th-century British-Kandyan period,[24] indicating its continuation even after the Sri Lankan monarchy.[25][26] Colonialism and foreign intervention in the dynastic conflicts of the island throughout history have also influenced the caste system, some suggesting even a re-arrangement of the occupational castes.[27][28]

Kandyan 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.[29] The most important feature of the Kandyan system was Rajakariya ("the king's work"), which linked each caste to occupation and demanded service to the court and religious institutions.[30]

The "Duraya" was a loose categorization of lower Kandyan castes, comprising the castes of Vahumpura, Puda, Panna, Velli, Berava, possibly Henaya, and more. The group was interpreted by the British for their own administrative purposes and was used loosely.[4]

Southern castes

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 of ancient 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 Anuradhapura Abayagiri inscription referring to a Karava Devika may be the first reference to a specialized occupation.[31][32]

Sri Lankan Tamil castes

The caste system has stronger religious ties than its Sinhalese counterpart, although both systems have comparable castes.[33] There are in the Sri Lankan Tamil caste system, distinctions between Northern and Eastern societies and also the agricultural, coastal and artisanal societies.

The agricultural society has mainly the castes of the Vellalar, Pallar, Nalavar and Koviyar, where the Vellalar caste is the dominating one, particularly in Northern Sri Lanka. They constitute approximately half of the Sri Lankan Tamil population and are the major land owning and agricultural caste.[34][35]

The Northern and Western coastal societies are dominated by the Karaiyars, who are traditionally a seafaring and warrior caste.[36] The Paravar and the Thimilar are also among the coastal communities involved in fishing. The Paravars or Bharathas are traditionally found in the western part of the island in the Mannar region, who many also are descendants from South Indian Paravar traders and seamen who settled there under Portuguese rule.[37] The Mukkuvars, traditional pearl divers in western Sri Lanka, dominate greater parts of Eastern Sri Lanka where they are the major landowners also involved in agriculture.[38][39] The Mukkuvars are largely Muslims or Roman Catholic in the Puttalam region of the western part of the island, and predominantly Hindus in the eastern part of the island. [40]

The artisans, known locally as Kammalar or Vishwakarma consists of the Kannar (brass-workers), Kollar (blacksmiths), Tattar (goldsmiths), Tatchar (carpenters), Kartatchar (sculptor).[41][42] Along with the Kammalar were the Ambattar (barbers), Kadaiyar (lime burners), Koviar (farmers), Kusavar (potters), Maraiyar (conch blowers), Nattuvar (musician), Nalavar (toddy-tappers), Pallar (farmers), Paraiyar (drummers and weavers), Turumbar (dhobies) and Vannar (dhobies) the domestic servants termed as Kudimakkal.[43] The Kudimakkal gave ritual importance in marriage, funeral and other temple ceremonies.[44][45]

Other Sri Lankan Tamil castes of importance are the Cantar (oil-presser), Iyer (priests), Madapalli (former royal cooks), Seerpadar (cultivators), Seniyar (cotton-weavers), Siviyar (royal palanquin bearers)[46][47] and Maravar (mercenaries).[48][49][50] The Sri Lankan Chetties, traditional merchants, along with the Bharatha people, traditional sea-traders, are both colonial South Indian migrant castes and listed as their own ethnicities in Sri Lankan census.[51] The Coast Veddas, found mainly in Eastern Sri Lanka are considered a Tamil caste among the Sri Lankan Tamils.[52]

The village deities of the Sri Lankan Tamils are also shaped by the caste structure. The Sri Lankan Moors don't practice the caste system, however, follow a matriclan system which is an extension of Tamil tradition.[53]

Indian Tamil castes

The Tolkāppiyam Porulatikaram indicating the four-fold division is the earliest Tamil literature to mention caste.[54] Sangam literature however mentions only five kudis associated with the five tinais.[54][55] Colonialism also had influenced the caste system.[56][57]

Indian Tamils or Tamils of Indian origin (Hill Country Tamils, who were Indians brought to the island by the British as indentured labour) and the group of Indian Tamil people who migrated to Sri Lanka as merchants also follows the Indian caste system form which is called jāti. Their caste structure resembles that of a Tamil Nadu village.

Those who are considered to be of higher castes occupy the first row of line rooms, and that sect includes Vellalars, Mudaliyars (kaikolars), Agamudayars, kallars, Mutharayar etc. They perform respectable jobs such as factory work and grinding of tea as minor labour work, on the other hand, they are also involved in business activities. Even though they belong to the labour category under the British rule and post-independence of the country, they were influential among conductors, tea makers, manganese (or supervisors), and other officials. The workers considered low caste live in the dwellings that are away from the centre and these dwellings are called distant or lower lines. This group consists of Pallar, Paraiyars, Sakkiliar, washers and barbers. The yard sweepers and changes of clothes are in the lowest rank.[58]

See also

  • Social class in Sri Lanka




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