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 compared to the neighbouring India, some 90 percent of the population in Sri Lanka recognizes it for some purposes at least. 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. 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 Shudra, the Govigama and the Vellala were the dominant castes from the Dutch colonial period, collectively referred to as Bellala. 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 and Bengalis. About half of the Sinhalese population are Govigama. 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 fourfold caste category namely Raja, Bamunu, Velanda and Govi existed among the Sinhalese. Evidence of this hierarchy can be seen during the 18th century British-Kandyan period, indicating its continuation even after the Sri Lankan monarchy. 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. At present 13 castes are commonly found among the Sinhala viz. Radala, Govigama, Bathgama, Deva, Nekathi, Bodhivansha, Rajaka, kumbal, Hunu, Durava, Karava, Salagama and Navandanna, with smaller castes being absorbed to the larger 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. 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. 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) 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. They perform respectable jobs such as factory work and grinding of tea as minor labour work. Even though they belong to the labour category they are influential among conductors, tea makers, kanganies (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 Paraiyars, Sakkiliar, washers and barbers. The yard sweepers and changers of clothes are in the lowest rank.
Sri Lankan Tamils
Unlike the modern Sinhalese counterpart, modern Sri Lankan Tamils caste-based social-stratification system is still influential. The caste system has stronger religious ties than its Sinhalese counterpart, although both systems have comparable castes. In the caste system observed, is there distinctions between Northern and Eastern societies, and also the agricultural and coastal societies.
In the agricultural society are there mainly the castes of the Vellalar, Pallar, Nalavar and Koviar, whereas the Vellalar caste is the dominating one, particularly in Northern Sri Lanka. They approximately constitute half of the Sri Lankan Tamil population and are the major land owning and agricultural caste.
The Northern and Western coastal society is dominated by the Karaiyars, traditionally a seafaring and warrior caste. The Thimilar and the Bharathavar are also among the coastal communities. The Mukkuvar, also a coastal population dominates greater parts of Eastern Sri Lanka, who traditionally also occupy coastal occupations and farming.
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.
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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