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 Post subject: The Caste system in Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Jan 13, 2008 12:14 pm 
The Caste system in Sri Lanka

The fourfold caste model in Sri Lanka’s pre-British period Sinhala history and literature was Raja, Bamunu, Velenda and Govi. The later caste systems seem to have evolved as much through waves of ethnic migration as by delineation by occupation. The caste systems in our land have metamorphosed into several distinct groups over centuries of time. The Sinhalese have Govigama, Karava, Berava, Durave, Batgama, Salagama and Hina. This is also complicated by differences of the system between the hill country Sinhalese and the low country Sinhalese.

Based on an article by Dr. B.J.C.Perera
@LBN / 13Jan2008


Anthropologists use the term “caste” more generally, to refer to a social group that is endogamous and occupationally specialized. Such groups are common in highly stratified societies with a very low degree of social mobility. In other words, a caste system is one in which an individual’s occupation and marriage prospects are determined by his or her birth and heritage. In its broadest sense, examples of caste-based societies include colonial Latin America under Spanish and Portuguese rule and even more advanced countries like the United States of America.

Caste is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “each of the hereditary classes of Hindu society, distinguished by relative degrees of ritual purity or pollution and of social status” and “any exclusive social class”. Although Hinduism is often now associated with the word caste, it was first used by the Portuguese to describe inherited class status in their own European society. In medieval Europe, the estates of the realm were a caste system. The population was divided into nobility, clergy, and the commoners. In some regions, the commoners were divided into burghers, peasants or serfs, and the estateless.

Vedas and other Indian scriptures speak of ‘Varna’, a classification of the human society in general based on ‘guna’, or personality traits, and ‘Jati’, or tribe. The word Jati (tribe) is used to describe any community and not a specific religion. A person’s Jati or caste is the social group with its own demography that one is born into. There are countless castes or communities or Jatis in India. Many communities were known for certain occupations and this was used to delineate certain castes. Before universal education, as in the rest of the world, job skills were often transferred within families and communities. Those communities known for a particular occupation or related occupations that could be categorized into one of the four varnas (priest, warrior, merchant / agriculturist, or artisan), were over time known as belonging to one of the four varnas.

Each community governs itself without proselytizing, interfering or imposing their values on other communities, and this live and let live attitude is the main reason why so many communities were able to maintain their diversity while living among other communities in India.

The Caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into strata, differing somewhat from the classic Varnas of North India but similar in nature to the Jati system found in South India. The fourfold caste model in Sri Lanka’s pre-British period Sinhala history and literature was Raja, Bamunu, Velenda and Govi. Ancient Sri Lankan texts and inscriptional evidence show that the above hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period. The repetition of the same caste hierarchy even as recently as the 18th century, in the British / Kandyan period indicates the continuation of the tradition right up to the end of Sri Lanka’s monarchy.

As everywhere, a Sri Lankan caste can be functional, religious, ethnic, tribal or even composite in origin. Caste as we know it today appears to have been introduced to Sri Lanka by Prakrit-language-speakers from North India. Whether the similar Jati like separation of society existed prior to this invasion is unknown. There is evidence, in early historical chronicles, of the main vedic castes in the early Anuradhapura era, although it is possible that these categories were used as a literary convention.

The later caste systems seem to have evolved as much through waves of ethnic migration as by delineation by occupation. Also Sri Lankan monarchs seem to have overwhelmingly depended on South Indian manpower for functional needs such as menial tasks, weaving, crafts and ritual drumming.

The caste systems in our land have metamorphosed into several distinct groups over centuries of time. The Sinhalese have Govigama, Karava, Berava, Durave, Batgama, Salagama and Hina. This is also complicated by differences of the system between the hill country Sinhalese and the low country Sinhalese.

The general differentiation of castes in Sri Lankan Tamils divide them into Vellala, Karaiyar, Paraiyar, Nalavar, Pallar, Saliyar and Thurumbar. There is also a caste called Koviar, the some members of which claim to be Sinhalese Govigama isolated in Tamil areas. Just like amongst the Sinhalese, the caste structure of the Northern Tamils is somewhat different compared to the Eastern Tamils.

This picture is also coloured by the Tamils of Indian origin or Hill Country Tamils who were brought over by the British as indentured labour, mainly from the lower Indian castes. Their caste structure resembles that of a Tamil Nadu village. Those who are considered to be of higher castes such as Maravar, Kallar, Agamudaiyar, Vellalar, Naidus, Reddiars and Nairs occupied the first row of line rooms. They performed respectable jobs such as factory work and grinding of tea. Even though they belong to the labour category they were influential among conductors, tea makers, Kanganies or supervisors and other officials.

In the past, in all strata of Sri Lankan society, the caste system has been further complicated by certain religious practices such as the selection of clergy from certain specified castes.

As much as the caste system originally designated the professions it also became a tool by which social mixing and marriages were arranged. In some areas, people of the so-called higher classes would not even think of talking socially to those of the lower classes, let alone even condone marriages between such classes. Even in as recent a period as in the latter half of the last century, matrimony outside the caste was unthinkable to some die-hard believers of the purity of their caste system.

Quite contrary to popular thinking, many undercurrents of discrimination based on this structure are still in force in some areas of the world and this is particularly so in the South Asian region. Inevitably perhaps, politics has crept into this muddle and in some countries like India, it is indeed a most powerful presence. However, the inherited social status is gradually relaxing, especially in metropolitan and other major urban areas due to development, diversification of employment, advanced penetration of high education, symbiotic co-existence of all communities and lesser knowledge about caste system due to alienation with rural roots of people caused by internal or external migration.

In addition, it is also known that certain groups of lower-caste individuals could seek to elevate the status of their caste by attempting to emulate the practices of higher castes. However, in the countryside and small towns, this system is still very much in evidence and the total elimination of the caste system seems unlikely and distant, even if ever possible, due to many sociological factors that perpetuate the persistence of caste politics.


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