Stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka
Traditional Sinhalese society is male-dominated and patriarchal. Matrilineal descent is common among Sri Lankan Tamils while patrilineal descent is common among Indian Tamils. Economic opportunity is divided along ethnic and caste lines. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ All researchers agree that Sri Lanka is a patriarchal country, however, the degree of patriarchy is in dispute. Many suggest that Sri Lanka is not nearly as patriarchal as other countries in South Asia; Anju Malhotra and Amy Ong Tsui write that, “in contrast to much of the rest of South Asia, Sri Lanka has a cultural heritage of relative gender equality in terms of later marriages, bilateral descent, daughter’s value in the parental home, continued kin support following marriage and widespread access to education for women” (1999, 221). [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

People customarily try to help members of their community that have fallen on hard times or share their wealth when they come on good fortune. Conformity has traditionally been valued. Social control has traditionally been exercised through gossip and ridicule. Families are expected to keep their members in line. In the past transgressors were banished from their families, kin groups or villages but that reportedly doesn’t happen much any more.

The crucial problem facing Sri Lanka's plural society is whether it can evolve a form of socialism that will address the needs of all groups, or whether frustrated aspirations will engender further conflict. In the field of education, for example, excellent accomplishments in elementary schooling have emerged alongside bitter competition for coveted places in the university system; this competition has fueled ethnic hatred between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. In a land with limited resources, the benefits of social welfare programs highlight the inadequacies of progress for some regional or ethnic groups. In these circumstances, caste, ethnic, or religious differences become boundaries between warring parties, and a person's language or place of worship becomes a sign of political affiliation. The social organization of Sri Lanka is thus an important component of the politics and economy in the developing nation. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Social Development in Sri Lanka

In terms of medical care, literacy, and life expectancy, the quality of life in Sri Lanka is near that of a developed country even though it is still regarded as a developing nation. The population of Sri Lanka grew considerably between independence in 1948 and the early 1990s. In the 1980s it was increasing by approximately 200,000 people or 1.37 percent each year. Because of this population pressure, the government faced a major development problem as it has attempted to reconcile the divergent interests of caste, class, and ethnic groups while trying to ensure adequate food, education, health services, and career opportunities for the rapidly expanding population. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Politicians and officials attempted to meet these needs through a form of welfare socialism, providing a level of support services that is comparatively high for a developing nation. Building on colonial foundations, Sri Lanka has created a comprehensive education system, including universities, that has produced one of the best-educated populations in Asia. A free state-run health system provides basic care that has raised average life expectancy to the highest level in South Asia. Ambitious housing and sanitation plans, although incomplete, promised basic amenities to all citizens by the year 2000. In 1988 the government addressed the nutritional deficiencies of the poor through a subsidized food stamp program and free nutrition programs for children and mothers. *

Human Development Index: 72 (rank out of 189 countries): (compared to 1 for Norway, 13 for the United States and 189 for Niger). The HDI (Human Development Index) aggregates measures of health, education, and standard-of-living indicators into a composite index. It is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators. A country scores higher HDI when the life expectancy at birth is longer, the education period is longer, and the income per capita is higher In 2002, Sri Lanka had an HDI of .737, the highest in South Asia, compared to.929 in the U.S. and .563 in India. [Source: United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report, Wikipediaj

Caste in Sri Lanka

Although Buddhism opposes the caste system and Buddha himself spoke out against it, the caste system exists in Buddhist-Sinhalese-controlled Sri Lanka although it is milder and less discriminatory than the one found in India. There are no powerful Brahmans, Kshatriya (the warrior caste), caste councils that punish caste transgressions or Hindu ideology to justify it. Enforcement of caste rules are left up to families. Nevertheless there is still strong pressure for people to marry within their castes and abide by caste rules in part to keep families and communities unified and ensure equitable distribution if resources, property and inheritance. See Separate Article on CASTE IN SRI LANKA.

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Traditionally, the division of labor in Sri Lanka has been largely based on caste, gender, and ethnicity. Although members of all ethnic groups participate to some degree across the range of occupations, particular ethnic groups are thought to predominate in certain occupations, for instance, the Sinhala in rice cultivation and the public sector, and the Muslims, Tamils, and recent immigrants in trade. Different castes are also associated with particular occupations, which is not necessarily reflected in the actual work that people do. Symbolically associated with occupations such as rice farming, the largest and highest status Sinhala castes are typically land holders and recipients of service obligations from the lower castes. The lower status service castes are associated with hereditary crafts such as mat weaving, jewelry making, and clothes washing. Increasingly, these hereditary statuses are being replaced by education and command of English as the most important determinants of employment. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Caste creates social divisions. The Goyigama caste of the Sinhalese — traditionally associated with land cultivation — is dominant in population and public influence, but in the lowlands other castes based on commercial activities are influential. The Tamil Vellala caste resembles the Goyigama in its dominance and traditional connection with agriculture, but it is completely separate from the Sinhalese caste hierarchy. Within their separate caste hierarchies, Sinhalese and Tamil communities are fragmented through customs that separate higher from lower orders. These include elaborate rules of etiquette and a nearly complete absence of intercaste marriages. Differences in wealth arising from the modern economic system have created, however, wide class cleavages that cut across boundaries of caste, religion, and language. Because of all these divisions, Sri Lankan society is complex, with numerous points of potential conflict. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Social Stratification in Sri Lanka

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Even though the ideal of social equality is widely diffused in contemporary Sri Lanka, stratification according to caste and class, as well as gender and ethnicity, continues to be very important. Class is determined by attributes such as wealth and education while caste, a traditional part of Hindu and Buddhist society in Sri Lanka, is determined by birth into a predetermined status hierarchy, typically understood as a matter of reward or retribution for one's deeds in previous lives. The traditional correspondence between these statuses was upset by 450 years of colonial rulers who often privileged members of certain, relatively low-status castes, effectively raising their class status and that of their offspring. The importance and legitimacy of caste continues to be undermined by political and economic developments. Class differentiation, on the other hand, is increasing both in day-to-day social interaction and manifestations of disparities. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva,“Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Traditionally, caste identity was extensively marked by ritual roles and occupations, names of individuals and places, networks of social relations, and regulations of dress and housing. Degrees of difference within the caste hierarchy were also marked by forms of address, seating arrangements, and other practices of deference and superiority. Today, where these hierarchical relations continue, there is a degree of uneasiness or even resentment toward them, particularly among the educated younger generations. Class status, in contrast, is increasingly manifested in speech, dress, employment, education, and housing. In general, elite classes can be identified by their command of English, education in exclusive schools, executive-level employment, possession of valued commodities, and access to international networks, whereas the lower classes are associated with manual labor, minimal comforts, and a lack of social contacts with the elite.

Societal Forces in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Within the village gossip and ridicule are strong forces for social conformity. The family regulates behavior through the threat of excommunication (deprivation of land and family support in seeking employment). With growing landlessness and unemployment, many families are increasingly unable to deliver on their material promises and the threat of excommunication has become ineffective. The JVP insurgency is in part a rejection of parental authority. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Traditionally, violence within families often was a result of long-standing grudges and an obsession with one's "enemies," real or imagined; however, conflict between Tamil and Sinhala speakers was all but unknown until the late nineteenth century. In the interstitial zones between the two populations intermarriage was common. Today's Tamil-Sinhalese conflict is far more attributable to competition for modern state resources than to ancient animosities. |~|

“A late nineteenth-century riot occurred between Buddhists and Christians; later clashes pitted Sinhalese against Muslims (1915). After the "Sinhala only" language act of 1956, communal riots involving Tamils and Sinhalese occurred in 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983. There was an aborted military coup in 1963, and violence often occurs during and after elections. Since the early 1980s, Sri Lankan security forces have attempted to suppress the LTTE through military means; such efforts may succeed in imposing nominal state control of the Tamil-dominated provinces in the north and east, but by 2001 it was widely acknowledged that such efforts could not eradicate the LTTE or reduce its capacity to conduct terrorist suicide bombings, assassinations, and the forced conscription of Tamil youths. Suffering high casualties, the Sri Lankan security forces, which are drawn mostly from the Sinhalese rural poor, are widely regarded as poorly disciplined and liable to desertion.

Political Organization in Sri Lanka

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Sri Lanka is a parliamentary democracy with a president as the head of state. There is a strong two-party system dominated by the centrist United National Party, which has been in power since 1977, and the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Both are dominated by Sinhalese politicians and appeal to Sinhalese sentiment. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“The Sri Lankan state, an artifact of colonial rule, is excessively centralized and politicized; the provinces are governed by agents appointed by the president, and virtually all services — roads, railways, education, health services, tax collection, government-owned corporations, and land registry and allocation — are administered by centrally controlled ministries. Efforts to devolve power and resources to the provinces, including the Tamil Northern Province and Eastern Province, have been opposed by Sinhalese chauvinists, who see devolution as an erosion of Sinhala sovereignty. Members of parliament select the candidates for government positions, including the lowest menial jobs, on the basis of political loyalty. Politicization has eroded the autonomy of the civil service and the judiciary. The JVP insurgency and its popular support can be seen in part as a broad-based rejection of an unresponsive and corrupt political system. |~|

Traditional Values Expressed During Sinhala and Tamil New Year

Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala wrote: "To many of us, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is an occasion on which we attempt to repeat certain rituals and ceremonies of the past, based on a lifestyle that had agriculture (i.e. paddy cultivation) as its main vocation. Some of us, I mean, a significant portion of our people fail to see any relevance of such New Year rituals, customs and ceremonies to modern life. [Source: Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

But on closer inspection, with a knowledge culled from our sociology and anthropology of the past, we observe in these practices a definite social relevance and a meaning. Such a relevance and meaning could be underestood only in the total context of all such rituals, customs and ceremonies. An understanding of that nature perhaps would assit us to develop new insights and gain from the practice of New Year customs etc, and help in building the nation in a positive way.

“The value of paying respect to elders is found underlying all phases of New Year celebrations. It is one of the vital reasons that motivates our young people not to forget their parents in their old age. If we understand social-cultural occasions such as the New Year with their emphasis on such values, it would be an eye-opener for all other ethnic groups (Muslims, Burghers etc,) and religious to make the best out of it.

“Of values associated with the Sinhala Tamil New Year” are “gratitude and paying respect to elders. Cleanliness (i.e purity of body and mind) is another such value. The ritual baths at the end of the passing year and the onset of the New Year lay emphasis on washing the head with lime and such other medicinal herbs, weraing clean clothes etc. These values, the elders see, are ingrained in young children during the New Year. The New Year is thus not an occasion only of celebrations but also of positive socialization.

“The importance attached to food cannot be forgotten. It should be shared by everyone. No one who comes to the house is allowed to depart without a meal. Even animals are fed, as they also considered a part of the family. The food often consists of milk, milk-rice and other grains and fruits. The use of such items, I believe, are dictated by reasons of health. The ritualistic offerings made to Hindu gods and the Buddha consists of such items only. Could it be that the insight into our individual and community health prompted our ancestors to choose such items of food alsofor the New Year?

“The leadership pattern in the village is often articulated during the time of the New Year. The religious leader (i.e. the Buddhist monk or the pusari), the social leader (i.e. the physician or teacher), and. Also the economic leader (i.e. the affluent landed or management strata), all have a duty to perform which they do with great dedication and pleasure. The mutual interaction of the community awakens itself from a long, incentive slumber and adds color to the rural village life. Even those who do not visit the village temple or the god's shrine do so on this occasion. With social change, interior patterns of behaviour have come to March the usefulness of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. One such pattern is the inordinate use of alchol. Sometime ago, if one were to partake of alcohol, he could not take part in New Year activities. The wing dedicated to Goddess Pattini would never tolerate a drunken individual who mounts it. It is unfortunate to observe how today such positive cultural values are undermined, giving rise to verbal and physical disorganisation among people.”

“Even the solutions to conflicts is built-in to the structure of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. The strengthening of family units takes place in the form of eating together at home according to a set plan created by auspicious times and fortified by rituals which are looked at with respect. The father and mother lead, and the children follow. They exchange gifts, paying attention to seniority, and these activities release a fund of goodwill and thus strengthen the foundation of family life. In the community, social visits are made, and usually a plate of oil cakes, milk rice and plantains are sent from one house to the other. Each one reciprocates by continuing the chain of mutual exchange. Even those who for some reason or other have developed ill-feeling, exchange such food. I have never come across any family refusing such a plate of New Year food sent to them in the village. The only instance that I experienced it in the city was in a so-called educated family who blatantly refused such a gift from another family (a neighbour) who wanted to put an end to the misunderstanding between them that arose over a simple act of misinformation.

Disparity of Income in Sri Lanka

The Asian countries in the early 2000s with the lowest income disparity between rich and poor (determined by how many times more income the richest 20 percent of the population has than the poorest 20 percent) are: 1) Sri Lanka (4.4); 2) Indonesia (4.9); 3) South Korea (5.7); 4) China (6.5), Philippines (7.4)...compared to 9.0 in the U.S., 15.5 in Thailand and 32 in Brazil.

Percentage of Population Living in Poverty: Under US$1.90 per day:: 4.1 percent; under US$3.20 per day: 6.7 percent; [Source: World Bank, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Income Inequality: United Nations rich 10 percent versus poor 10 percent: 11.2 percent; United Nations rich 20 percent versus poor 20 percent: 6.8 percent; World Bank Gini Index: 39.2 (2017) ; CIA Gini Index: 49. (2010). Rich versus poor 20 percent is ratio of the average income of the richest 20 percent to the poorest 20 percent. Gini index is a quantified representation of a nation's Lorenz curve. A Gini index of 0 percent expresses perfect equality, while index of 100 percent expresses maximal inequality. [Source: UN: Data from the United Nations Development Programme; CIA World Factbook, World Bank; Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Distribution of Income or Consumption by Percentage Share: Sri Lanka: A) Lowest 10 percent 3.5; B) Lowest 20 percent 8.0; C) Second 20 percent 11.8; D) Third 20 percent 15.8; E) Fourth 20 percent 21.5: F) Highest 20 percent 42.8: G) Highest 10 percent 28.0 . [Source: 2000 World Development Indicators, Survey year: 1995]

In the late 1980s, vast differences remained in the wealth and life-styles of citizens in Sri Lanka. In urban areas, such as Colombo, entire neighborhoods consisted of beautiful houses owned by well-off administrators and businessmen. This elite enjoyed facilities and opportunities on a par with those of middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Europe or North America. In the countryside, families that controlled more extensive farms lived a rustic but healthy life, with excellent access to food, shelter, clothing, and opportunities for education and employment. In contrast, at lower levels in the class pyramid, the vast majority of the population experienced a much lower standard of living and range of opportunities. A sizable minority in both the cities and rural villages led a marginal existence, with inadequate food and facilities and poor chances for upward mobility. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Intervention by successive governments has had marginal success in decreasing the differences between income groups. In the rural sector, legislation has mandated a ceiling on private landownership and has nationalized plantations, but these programs have provided extra land to relatively few people. Although resettlement programs have benefitted hundreds of thousands of people, they have not kept pace with population growth. In rural environments, most people remained peasants with small holdings, agricultural laborers working for small wages on the lands of others, or landless plantation workers. Migration to the cities often did not lead to a great improvement in people's life-styles because most immigrants had little education and few skills. As a result, urban slums have proliferated; by the 1980s almost half the people in greater Colombo were living in slums and shanties. Because economic growth has not kept pace with these population changes, double-digit unemployment continued with the poorest sections of the urban and rural population suffering the most. A hard-core mass of poor and underemployed people, totalling between 20 and 25 percent of the population, remained the biggest challenge for the government.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “The wealthy, representing those engaged in commerce and industry, are largely concentrated in urban areas, while the poorest live on plantations and in rural areas. While the rich live in luxury, many urban poor live. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

“The urban poor in Sri Lanka are found mainly in the capital, Colombo. The majority of the Sri Lankan population live in rural areas, and the major source of wealth among them is land. Landlessness and unequal distribution of land are key determinants of rural poverty. Those living on plantations are laborers with no access to land ownership or alternative employment opportunities. They live in sub-standard houses supplied by the owners of plantations. A fourth group of poor, those displaced by the continuing war in the north and east, live in various refugee camps with no access to any amenity or opportunities.

“The overall degree of disparity in wealth is reflected in the distribution of incomes. The wealthiest 20 percent of the population account for over 52 percent of the nation's income while the poorest 10 percent account for only 2 percent. Disparities in wealth have risen steadily during the post-1977 period, a result of policy reforms that paved the way for more wealth generation through the increased participation of the private sector. An important byproduct of the policy reforms was the soaring inflation induced by the falling value of Sri Lankan currency, raising the cost of living of the poor disproportionately. Meeting basic needs is a struggle to the poor, because average Sri Lankans spend over 40 percent of their income on food alone. Rising poverty has led to considerable social unrest; strikes in work places and protest rallies are common occurrences. The government maintains several subsidy programs to improve the position of the poor. Over 45 percent of the population benefits from one such income supplementary program called Samurdhi. Another, the dry ration program, is aimed at helping displaced families of the north and east due to the continuing civil war. International agencies such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have sought to help Sri Lanka reduce poverty. Several funded projects have directly targeted the poorest segments of the population. Despite low per capita income levels, and high levels of the incidence of poverty, the quality of life in Sri Lanka is relatively high when compared with its neighbor, India.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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