Native headmen of Ceylon

A native chief headmen with his staff and ceremonial lascoreen guard.

Native headmen system was an integral part of the administration of the island of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) under the successive European colonial powers, namely the Portuguese Empire, the Dutch East India Company and the British Empire. Native headmen or leaders where appointed by the European colonial administrators to function as intermediates between the Europeans and the native populous. During different periods through this system these headmen functioned in military, policing, administrative and ceremonial capacities. They served as translators, revenue collectors and wielded quasi-judicial powers. Much of the system evolved and changed over time until some of the last vestiges of it were removed in the post-independent Ceylon.


Mudaliyar is a South Indian and Tamil name for ‘first’ and a person endowed with wealth. It was created in the 17th century by the Portuguese function as a link between the colonial administration and the local populous, as they had done in South India. They received payment in form of land grants and use of tenured service (Rajakariya) of the local population which they extracted for their own estates.[1]

With the on set of British rule, Governor North restructured the native headmen system. The system was transformed into a salaried system with land grants and tenured service abolished. Over the next century the headmen grew to be a powerful and affluent class consolidating economic power through land ownership and marriage. Gradually functions of headmen were transferred to various departments that were established by the British administration.

Following the formation of the State Council of Ceylon in 1931, one of its members, H. W. Amarasuriya, called for an inquiry into the headman system. A commission was formed made up of retired civil servants and lawyers headed by H.M. Wedderburn. The commission reported on reforming the headman system or replacing it with transferable District Revenue Officers. The headman system was abolished as an administrative system, with the titles of Mudaliyar (Mudali - මුදලි) and Muhandiram retained by government to be awarded as honors. This practice remained until suspension of Celonese honors in 1956. The minor headman positions where retained, surviving well into the 1970s when the post of Vidane was replaced with the transferable post of Grama Niladhari (Village Officer).

Classes of headmen in the low country

Classes of headmen in the up country

A group of British appointed Kandyan chiefs, with Hon. J. P. Lewis, Government Agent in 1905.

Following the Uva Rebellion in 1818 and changers to the administrative divisions of the island with the creation of Districts, British Government Agents (GA) took over the duties of the Dissava (with the remaining and newly appointed Dissavas being mere honorary titles), with Rate Mahatmaya becoming a subordinate to the local Government Agents and Assistant Government Agents.

In the same way after 1818 the position of the remaining and newly appointed Adigar (Maha Adigar or 1st Adigar) became mere honorary titles

Classes of headmen in Tamil areas

The Northern and Eastern provinces had the following classes of native headmen:[5]

Peace Officer (Muladeniya)

Need to verify where the Peace Officer (Muladeniya) will fit in the Classes of headmen [6]

During the British administration appointment was made (both in up Country and Low Country) by the Government Agent of the district. Appointments were non-transferable and usually hereditary, made to locals, usually from wealthy influential families loyal the British Crown. This was an influential post, the holder had much control over the people of the area and had police powers since he was responsible to keep the peace, carry out revenue collection and assist in judicial functions.

Names of some of the prominent Peace Officers (Muladeniya’s) are given below

See also


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