Caste system in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka a caste-based social stratification system can be seen among its two major ethnic groups (the Sinhalese and the Tamils). 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.[1] 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.[2][3][4] The occupations of ancient community groups have been linked to the development of castes, although the island's indigenous Veddha community avoided the system.[5][6] 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.[2][7][8] Although classified as Shudra, the Govigama[3][9] and the Vellala[4][6][10][11] were the dominant castes from the Dutch colonial period, collectively referred to as Bellala.[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] Several prestigious Govigama families have mixed Govigama and Tamil (or European) ancestry.[14][15]


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.[16]

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[17] encountered caste division in the Ceylonese village of Terutenne in 1954. According to Lakshman et al.,[18] "The Social Disabilities Act of 1957 intended to outlaw caste-based discrimination." (p. 68, note 16)

Sinhalese castes

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,[19] 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.[20][21][22][23][24][25] About half of the Sinhalese population are Goyigama.[11] Of the three native tribes, it is believed that the Dewa are part of the Sinhalese castes.

Ancient Sri Lankan texts, such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya, Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptions, show that a four fold caste category namely Raja, Bamunu, Velanda and Govi exited among the Sinhalese. Evidence of this hierarchy can be seen during the 18th century British-Kandyan period,[26] indicating its continuation even after the Sri Lankan monarchy.[27][28] Colonialism and foreign intervention in the dynastic conflicts of the island throughout history has also influenced the caste system, some suggesting even a re-arrangement of the occupational castes.[29][30] At present 13 castes are commonly found among the sinhalese viz. Radala, Govigama, Bathgama, Deva, Nekathi,Bodhivansha,Rajaka,kumbal,Hunu,Durava,Karava,Salagama and Navandanna, with smaller castes being absorbed to the larger castes.

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 Goyigama were however ordinary farmers and tenants as absolute land ownership was exclusive to the king until the British colonial period.[31] In addition to the Govigama, there were several strata of occupational castes. Wahumpura or Deva were the caste who traditionally made jaggery and farmed. The Bathgama caste was also engaged in agriculture with access to some land. The Navandanna (Achari) caste were artisans. The Rada were washers, and this caste is still prevalent in Sri Lanka's laundry sector. The Berava were traditional drummers and agricultural wage laborers. The Kinnara caste did menial work and were segregated from the rest of the community.[32] 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.[33]

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 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.[34][35]

Tamil castes

The Tolkāppiyam Porulatikaram indicating the four-fold division is the earliest Tamil literature to mention caste.[6] Sangam literature however mentions only five kudis associated with the five tinais.[6][36] Colonialism also had influenced the caste system.[12][37]

Indian Tamils

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.[38] Within the Sri Lankan Tamil population, many distinctions are made between the Northern (Jaffna) and Eastern Tamil (Batticalao) communities.[39] 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.[10] 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.[12][37] Next are the Karaiyar, a warrior caste,[40] who are today traditionally fishermen and sailors.[41][42][43] 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).[38]

Although Brahmans in Sri Lanka have been a minority, their conservative worldview has prevailed among the Vellala and similar castes.[10] 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.[38]

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.[39] Mukkuwas and Thumilas (sailors) worked on the sea. During the colonial era, Vellalas arrived from the north as government officials.[39]

See also


  1. 1 2 Silva, Kalinga Tudor; Sivapragasam, P.P.; Thanges, Paramsothy (2009). "Caste Discrimination and Social Justice in Sri Lanka: An Overview" (PDF). Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. III. Retrieved 29 July 2014.
  2. 1 2 Castes & Tribes at the time of Sanghamitta, Populations of the Saarc Countries: Bio-Cultural Perspectives, by Jayanta Sarkar and G. C. Ghosh, p.73
  3. 1 2 Polonnaruwa Galpotha inscription, CONCISE MAHAVAMSA: p. 107, by Mahānāma Thero and Dhammakitti Thero, edited by Wihelm Greiger (Publisher: Ruwan Rajapakse), ISBN 9780972865708
  4. 1 2 Madras journal of literature and science, Volume 13, Madras Literary Society and Auxiliary of the Royal Asiatic Society, p.41 (Nabu Press) ISBN 9781173048129
  5. Vadda of Sri Lanka, Accessed 13-06-2015
  6. 1 2 3 4 Chattopadhyaya, Brajadulal (2009). A Social History of Early India. CSC and Pearson Education. pp. 30–37. ISBN 9788131719589.
  7. Senerat PARANAVITĀNA, Cyril Wace Nicholas (1961). A Concise History of Ceylon: From the Earliest Times to the Arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. Ceylon University. p. 18. ASIN B002AAG0Q6.
  8. Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. C Hurst. pp. 152–56,166–83. ISBN 1850656703.
  9. 15th century Janawamsaya on caste, The Adaptable Peasant: Agrarian Society in Western Sri Lanka..., Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, p. 188, (Brill Academic), ISBN 9789004165083
  10. 1 2 3 Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1982). "Caste in Tamil Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka". Tamilnation. org.
  11. 1 2
  12. 1 2 3 Fernando, Laksiri (2013). "Philip Baldaeus Didn't See A Big Ethnic Difference In Ceylon". Colombo Telegraph.
  13. The adaptable peasant: agrarian society in western Sri Lanka under Dutch rule, 1740-1800, By Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, p. 201.
  14. Nilaperumal aka Kalukapuge
  15. J.R. Jayawardena family History of the Colombo Chetties, edited and compiled by Deshabandu Reggie Candappa, Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara (Sunday Times, 08.07.2001)
  16. Caste in Jaffna And India, Review Article on Neville Jayaweera’s Jaffna Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision Dr. Devanesan Nesiah (Sunday Leader 10.10.2014)
  17. Under the Bo Tree -- studies in castes, kinship, and marriage in the interior of Ceylon, 1967, 1971, Univ. of California Press
  18. "Sri Lanka's Development Since Independence: Socio-economic Perspectives and Analyses", New York, 2000
  19. Kshatriya, GK (December 1995). "Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan populations". Hum. Biol. 67: 843–66. PMID 8543296.
  20. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, Alberto Piazza (1996). The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton University. pp. 239–40. ISBN 0691029059.
  21. Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan populations, by Kshatriya G.K. (1995)
  22. Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations, L Ranaweera, et al; Journal of Human Genetics (2014)
  23. Pre-Vijayan Agriculture in Sri Lanka, by Prof. T. W. Wikramanayake
  24. A SHORT HISTORY OF LANKA by Humphry William Codrington, CHAPTER I; THE BEGINNINGS 'The princess and her retinue/dowry (service castes)'
  25. Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka By Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, p. 152-3
  26. Kadayimpoth - Boundary Books
  27. Mahavansha
  28. Sinhala Sanna ha Thudapath, Ananada thissa Kumara, Godage Publication,Second Edition,2006,pp 142,pp 137
  29. Kandy Fights the Portuguese, C.Gaston Perera, Vijithayapa Publications, 2007
  30. An Historical Relation Of The Island Ceylon In The East Indies, Robert knox, 1681, pp. 46 & 73
  31. Land: Feudalism to Modernity.
  33. An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies by Robert Knox.
  34. de Silva, Raaj. "The ancient 'Kaurava Pavilion' at Anuradhapura". De Fonseka Web.
  35. "Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions".
  36. KOLAPPAN, B (2015). "'Early Tamil society was free of caste'". The Hindu.
  37. 1 2 Schröder, Ulrike (2012). Ritual, Caste, and Religion in Colonial South India. Primus. p. 72,93–113,278. ISBN 9380607210.
  38. 1 2 3
  39. 1 2 3 M. M. M. Mahroof (November–December 2000). "A Conspectus of Tamil Caste Systems in Sri Lanka: Away from a Parataxis". Social Scientist. 28 (11/12): 40–59. doi:10.2307/3518280. JSTOR 3518280.
  40. "Caste in Jaffna". R. Visvanathan P.J.K. Retrieved 2016-03-03.
  41. Vriddhagirisan, V (2007). Nayaks of Tanjore. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. pp. V, 80–1 & 91. ISBN 978-8120609969.
  42. Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives by Chandra Richard De Silva, p.137
  43. "Westward ho!" The Sunday Times (19.04.2009)
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