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, a Kshatriya caste of warriors, 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.

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “Sri Lanka does have a caste system, but unlike India, it is not rooted in religious scriptures. Though caste did, and to some extend still does, serve as a basis of Sri Lankan local and national-level social organization, it has always been identified with material socioeconomic differences rather than the purity-pollution ideology that is the key ideological component of the Indian caste system. Further, there are only about 20 castes in Sri Lanka and the dominant caste is the Goyigamas, a farmer caste. Goyigamas constitute about 50 percent of the Sinhalese population. Unlike India, which has a Brahmin caste and uncounted other castes and subcastes, there is no Brahmin population in Sri Lanka and thus, there is no Brahmanical hegemony over the 20-some caste systems in Sri Lanka. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

The Sinhalese are the dominant ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Most of them are Buddhists and the make up about three quarters of population of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese caste system has it roots in feudalism from the past in which almost all castes were granted land on the basis of their service to the king and local aristocrats. The Tamils are the largest minority. Most of them are Hindus and the make up about 16.2 of population of Sri Lanka. They have their own caste system, which overlaps some with the Sinhalese caste system but not so much.

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. Caste rankings tend to be more significant, in rural areas but still exist in urban areas too except among the very Westernized. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Sinhalese have traditionally been opposed to the idea that castes should be ranked and given certain privileges. Colonialism under the British undermined the caste system somewhat through the creation of a national elite based on merit, achievement and knowledge of English. Some members of lower castes were able to rise to elite positions in this system. Even so the elite continued to dominated by upper caste members.

How Caste Works in Sri Lanka and South Asia

When the Portuguese began to trade extensively with South Asia, they quickly noticed a fundamental difference between South Asian societies and those of other world areas. In India and Sri Lanka, societies are broken up into a large number of groups who do not intermarry, who are ranked in relation to each other, and whose interactions are governed by a multitude of ritualized behaviors. The Portuguese called these groups casta, from which the English term caste is derived. In South Asia, they are described by the term jati, or birth. According to traditional culture, every person is born into a particular group that defines his or her unchangeable position within society. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

There has been a strong tendency to link the position of different castes in the social hierarchy to their occupations. Groups who wash clothes or who process waste, thus coming in contact with undesirable substances from many persons, are typically given low status. In both Hindu and Buddhist thought, the destruction of life is very ignoble, because it extinguishes other beings struggling for consciousness and salvation. This idea has rationalized views of fishermen or leather workers, who kill animals, as low and impure groups. In many cases, however, the labeling of an occupational group as a caste with a particular status has depended on historical developments rather than theories of purity. *

As the village farming economy spread over time, many tribal societies probably changed from hunters and gatherers to low-status service castes, ranked below the landowning farmers. Many poor agricultural laborers in Sri Lanka remain members of low castes as well. Other immigrant groups came to Sri Lanka, fit into particular occupational niches, and became known as castes with ranks linked to their primary occupations. Castes with members who accumulated wealth and power have tended to rise gradually in their relative positions, and it is not uncommon for members of rising caste groups to adopt vegetarianism or patronize religious institutions in an attempt to raise their public ritual status. *

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Sri Lanka actually has two broad caste systems reflecting the minority Tamil and majority Sinhalese cultures. Various regional differences add another layer of complexity. Still, there are common elements. All consider Sri Lankans with land-owner or tenant farmer ancestors near the top of the hierarchy. Those whose relatives once worked in trade groupings, such as alcohol brewers, jewelry makers, laundry men, and fishermen, make up the middle. Descendants of such groups as beggars, mat weavers, and funeral drummers are near the bottom. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times , February 5, 2006]

“Generally, the Sinhalese caste system, which was softened by Buddhism, is losing its grip faster in part because the Buddha preached against castes. The Sinhalese system tends to identify caste members by their family name. Sri Lankan Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, generally identify caste members by ancestral village or neighborhood, and the system remains stronger in part because of links to Hinduism in India. Over the centuries, prejudices have developed around the castes. Members of the Govi Gama caste are said to be honorable, the Hali alcohol brewers loud and abrasive, the Karawa fishermen overly aggressive. Anusha Rajakaruna, 25, an employee at a nonprofit education group in Galle, recalled her mother and neighbors singing a song after a Hali proposed to her older sister years ago. ''Halis are no good. No matter how beautiful they may be, they don't have a nice aroma," the song went. Her sister ultimately rejected the suitor.

Caste and Purity

One of the most basic concepts underlying caste is purity. On one level this idea translates into a concern for personal hygiene, but the concept ultimately refers to a psychic or spiritual purity that lies beyond the physical body. A religious interpretation associated with Indian thought asserts that personal salvation or enlightenment is the ultimate goal of life, and that the individual goes through many lives and experiences before attaining sufficient knowledge to transcend the material world. Those beings who have gone farther on this road to enlightenment have purified their consciousness and regulate their lives in order to prevent more gross experiences from interfering with their progress toward salvation. Those groups of people whose life-styles are the purest are farthest along on the spiritual road and are most deserving of respect. These ideas about purity offer a rationale for dividing society into a large number of groups, ranked according to the purity of their lifestyles or occupations. The persons in each group must be careful to preserve the relative purity of their own group and to avoid close contact with persons of lower purity; otherwise, they may sully or "pollute" themselves or the members of purer groups. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The idea of psychic purity blends with a series of traditional notions about pure or polluting substances and about behaviors and rituals, resulting in a rich system that explains caste segregation and modes of caste interaction. It is possible for people to transmit their qualities to others by touching them or by giving them objects. In extreme cases, even the shadow of a very low-caste individual can pollute an individual of the highest, priestly castes. If the physical contact is intimate or if people have manipulated certain objects for a long time, the intensity of the transmitted qualities increases. Simple objects such as tools, for example, may change hands between persons of different caste without problem. Food, however, which actually enters and becomes part of a person's body, is a more serious matter. Cooked food, involving processing and longer periods of contact, is more problematic than uncooked food. *

There is thus a series of prohibitions on the sharing of food between members of different castes. Members of higher castes may avoid taking food from members of lower castes, although lower-caste persons may not mind taking food from members of the higher orders. The most intimate contact is sexual because it involves the joining of two bodies and the transmission of the very substances that determine caste for life. Sexual contact between persons of different castes is discouraged, and intercaste marriage is rare. When intercaste sexual affairs do occur, they are almost always between men of higher caste and women of lower caste, for it is less polluting to send forth substances than to receive them. In the distant past, women who had sexual contact with men of lower caste were killed, and they would still be ostracized today in some villages. When polluting contacts occur between members of different castes, personal purity may be restored by performing cleansing rituals. In general, these concepts of purity prevent partaking of meals together and intermarriage between different castes, regulate intercaste relations through a wide variety of ritual behaviors, and preserve deep-seated social cleavages throughout Sri Lanka. *

Social Stratification and Caste in Sri Lanka

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Sinhalese caste system lacks the stratifying ideology of Hinduism and most Sinhalese villages lack caste organizations (panchayats), which in India punish transgressions of caste. Because property is inherited bilaterally [on both the wife’s and husband’s side], however, families have very strong incentives to enforce endogamy [marrying within one caste or social group]. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 ]

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.

Daily Life Caste Interactions in Sri Lanka

The divisions between the castes are reaffirmed on a daily basis, especially in rural areas, by many forms of language and etiquette. Each caste uses different personal names and many use slightly different forms of speech, so it is often possible for people to determine someone's caste as soon as the person begins speaking. Persons of lower rank behave politely by addressing their superiors with honorable formulas and by removing their headgear. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

A standard furnishing in upper caste rural houses is a low stool (kolamba), provided so that members of lower castes may take a lower seat while visiting. Villages are divided into separate streets or neighborhoods according to caste, and the lowest orders may live in separate hamlets. In times past, low-caste persons of both sexes were prohibited from covering their upper bodies, riding in cars, or building large homes. These most offensive forms of discrimination were eliminated by the twentieth century after extensive agitation.*

Outside the home, most social interactions take place without reference to caste. In villages, business offices, and factories, members of different groups work together, talking and joking freely, without feeling uncomfortable about their caste inequalities. The modern urban environment makes excessive concern about caste niceties impossible; all kinds of people squeeze onto buses with few worries about intimate personal contact. Employment, health, and educational opportunities are officially open to all, without prejudice based on caste. In urban slums, the general breakdown of social organization among the destitute allows a wide range of intercaste relationships. Despite the near invisibility of caste in public life, castebased factions exist in all modern institutions, including political parties, and when it comes to marriage — the true test of adherence to ritual purity — the overwhelming majority of unions occur between members of the same caste. *

Caste and Work Customs of Kandyans in the 19th Century

T. B. Parnatella wrote in 1908: “When a kinsman is seen approaching the house, some one should go forward a step or two to welcome him, and having conducted him to the house, should offer him a seat. If he is not closely related, it is against etiquette for the visitor to take a seat without being asked to do so. When a low-caste man comes into a house he should remain standing until he is given a mat or a kolomba (the lowest kind of stool, roughly made out of a piece of log) to sit upon. And it is also against the rules of etiquette to delay in giving him a kolomba or a mat. When a low-caste man meets one of 'a high caste or approaches his house, he should make a bow and salutation in the manner already described. He who is saluted in this way should acknowledge it simultaneously, with a very slight salutation of the same kind. [Source: T. B. Parnatella, “Sumptuary Laws and Social Etiquette of the Kandyans,” The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 1908; Lanka Chronicle, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“When a householder has collected a number of men from the village for some work or other, he should treat them with due respect. If it is field work, the plan of the work and the method of executing it should be explained to the most respectable one of the company. Then he, addressing the others, will say: "Kinsmen, it is fitting for us to do this gentleman's work to the best of our ability. Therefore please do (such and such work)'' Sometimes he uses such expressions as this: "Do not Rave anything "undone, lest there be aught to our shame after we have finished the work and gone." In entertaining these people, by serving them with rice and betel, none of the rules of etiquette that are observed at a wedding feast should be violated. When they are about to begin to work, no one should start it, who is not fit to do so. On such occasions the juniors must watch the procedure of the elders, and follow them accordingly. It is a custom at an assembly to follow the elders in every act done. If there is an arrangement for a dance or anything of that sort to be performed before an assembly, permission to begin must first be obtained from the head person in the company. If the teacher of the performer happens to be present, the pupil should hand over his udekkiya (a small hand drum shaped like an hour glass), or any other instrument of music on which he plays, to his tutor, salute him, and get permission from him also. The dance then begins. It is wrong to attempt either to dance or play a tune without this preliminary ceremony.

“Soon after the harvest is over, alms should first be consecrated to Buddhist priests with the rice prepared from the new paddy. Next, new rice should be prepared, with special curries, for feeding parents, either by inviting them to one's own house or by taking the food to them. The day on which the new rice is cooked is also observed as an occasion of festivity on a smaller scale.

“Nearly all visit their relatives with " pingo loads" when the Sinhalese New Year is drawing nigh. In this way when a kinsman pays a visit to a house with one or two pingo loads, he should be welcomed with affection in the aforesaid manner, and entertained with food and drink according to the means of the person visited. It is against custom to return the baskets empty in which confectionery was brought.

“When they are returned, either rice and curry, or other sweetmeats and kiri-bat (rice boiled with milk of the coconut) must be put into them. Sometimes, if there is no way of getting them so replenished, the baskets are not returned when asked for, but are kept back with the words " We will send them later." This means " A return visit will be paid in a few days with baskets felled with confectionery." If this is not done it is below the standard of due etiquette. If a son, or a daughter, or a son-in-law, or a younger brother, or some such one. visits his elders with a child and with a pingo load, it is customary to give presents to the child. These presents sometimes consist of money and sometimes of clothing and ornaments.

Caste and Marriage in Sri Lanka

Both Sinhalese and Tamils tend to marry not only within their caste but also within their microcaste. Each caste is subdivided into microcastes (pavula), and women must marry men of equal or higher status within the caste.

Reporting from Colombo, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Every Sunday, newspapers here are filled with classified ads for marriage partners. But for Americans accustomed to the personals staples ''SWF" and ''must love cats," the descriptions can be mystifying. ''Sinhala Buddhist Govi mother seeks professionally qualified partner for youngest daughter," read a recent. in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer. ''Reply with caste and religion material, horoscope." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times , February 5, 2006]

“The ad, referring to the elite land-tilling Govi Gama caste, spotlights a system that has locked islanders into a rigid social hierarchy for centuries. Vasuki Somarathnam, 19, is a bank clerk from the Nadar caste, relatively low in the hierarchy. She says that when it comes to friends, business relations, and voting, caste plays little, if any, part in her daily life. Her views on marriage are far more progressive than those of her parents' generation, with character at least as important as caste in the choice of a future husband.

“Still, as a good daughter, she said, she would never defy her parents' wishes that she marry within the caste. If it came to it, she would work hard to convince them that she was capable of making this decision, but would leave the final say to them. ''God gave them to me. I must respect that," said Somarathnam, who works at a bank that is ''caste blind," as are most businesses, at least officially, in Colombo these days. Ultimately, she acknowledged, it would be easier if she found someone from the same group.This is part of the dilemma for many people. ''Educated Sri Lankans know the caste system is irrational and shouldn't exist," said Kalinga Tudor Silva, a sociologist at the University of Peradeniya. ''But when it comes to marriage, it remains very important, the head versus the heart."

“Lower-caste parents are often as wary of their children marrying into upper-caste families as the other way around, fearing social conflict or humiliation. Sebba Kuttige Priyangani, 44, from the Karawa caste, was beaten and harassed by her grandmother after a higher-caste man proposed to her when she was 14. She eventually broke it off. A few years later, however, another suitor showed up, this time a foreigner, and she eloped.

“Cross-caste marriages are becoming more common, but they're not always easy. Nonprofit group employee Rajakaruna is from the fisherman caste and her fiance from the elite farmer caste. Both sets of parents were less than delighted. The couple hid their relationship for years, but the secret got out when the tsunami hit and he rushed to check on her.

Caste Among the Sinhalese

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. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Although the government keeps no official statistics on caste, it appears that the Goyigama comprise at least half the Sinhalese population. The traditional occupation of this caste is agriculture, and most members are still peasant farmers in villages almost everywhere in Sri Lanka. In traditional Sinhalese society, they monopolized the highest positions at royal courts and among the landowning elite. In the democratic society of the twentieth century, their members still dominate the political scene. In most villages they might be no richer than their nonGoyigama neighbors, but the richest landlord groups tend to be Goyigama, while the poorest agricultural laborers tend to include few Goyigama. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Sinhalese caste system is somewhat similar to the classic Varnas of North India — Brahmins (priestly class), the Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators and warriors), the Vaishyas (artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers), and Shudras (labouring classes) — but is closer the Jati system found in South India. The fourfold caste model in Sri Lanka's pre-British period was: Raja (rulers), Bamunu (Brahmins), Velenda (merchants) and Govi (farmers).

In the Central Highlands, some traditions of the Kingdom of Kandy survived after its collapse in 1818, preserved in unique forms of the caste system until the postindependence period. The most important feature of the old system was rajakariya, or the "king's work," which linked each caste to a specific occupation and demanded services for the court and religious institutions. The connection of caste and job is still stronger in the Central Highlands, and at events such as the Kandy Perahera, an annual festival honoring gods and the Buddha, the various castes still perform traditional functions. The Goyigama in the highlands differ from those of the low country because they preserve divisions within the caste that derive from the official ranking of noble and commoner families in the old kingdom. Honorific titles hearkening back to ancestral homes, manors (vasagama), or noble houses (gedara) still marked the pedigrees of the old aristocracy in the 1980s, and marriages between members of these families and common Goyigama were rare. In the low country, these subcastes within the Goyigama have faded away, and high status is marked by European titles and degrees rather than the older, feudal titles. *

Sinhalese Caste Groups Lanka

The highest caste, the Goyigama, were traditionally farmers. They make up about half the population. They are ranked to some degree by their relation to royalty and aristocrats from the past. The Bandaras and Radalas are subgroups within the Goyigama caste . Castes found among the Kandyan Sinhalese include Berawa (drummers), Hinna (washermen) and the Navandanna (metalwrokers).Among the lower castes are the Rodiya, formerly itinerant beggars and entertainers, and Radhu (washer folk). Lowland caste include Hakurus (jaggery makers) and Karava (fishermen). Three maritime trading castes (the Salagama, Durava and the Karava) have had success in business and politics.

The Karava (fishermen), Durava (toddy tappers), and Salagama (cinnamon peelers) are the predominant caste groups along the southwest coastal regions. Although they speak Sinhalese today they are of southern Indian origin. They are considered lower castes by the so-called true Sinhalese, who control the government, military and economy. Most members the JVP (a leftist political party) come from coastal areas where the Karava, Durava and Salagama are strong.

There are major differences between the caste structures of the highlands (the Kandyans) and those of the low country, although some service groups are common to both. The ancestors of the Karava, Durava and Salagama may have immigrated but who have become important actors in the Sinhalese social system: the Originally of marginal or low status, these groups exploited their traditional occupations and their coastal positions to accumulate wealth and influence during the colonial period. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By the late twentieth century, members of these castes had moved to all parts of the country, occupied high business and academic positions, and were generally accorded a caste rank equal to or slightly below the Goyigama. The highland interior is home to the Vahumpura, or traditional makers of jaggery (a sugar made from palm sap), who have spread throughout the country in a wide variety of occupations, especially agriculture. In the Kandy District of the highlands live the Batgam (or Padu), a low caste of agricultural laborers, and the Kinnara, who were traditionally segregated from other groups because of their menial status. Living in all areas are service groups, such as the Hena (Rada), traditional washermen who still dominate the laundry trade; the Berava, traditional temple drummers who work as cultivators in many villages; and the Navandanna (Acari), traditional artisans. In rural environments, the village blacksmith or washerman may still belong to the old occupational caste groups, but accelerating social mobility and the growing obsolescence of the old services are slowly eroding the link between caste and occupation. *

Caste Among the Tamils

Caste is arguably more important to the Tamils than to the Sinhalese but less important than to Indians. The craft castes have traditionally been found in the towns and cities. They were the ones who took advantage of missionary education and the British colonial government to advance while rural castes remained stuck in the traditional system until the mid 20th century when new economic opportunities were created that allowed them to ventures into urban areas. The Indian Tamils — regarded as different from Sri Lankan Tamils — are predominantly members of low castes from southern India, whose traditional occupations were agricultural labor and service for middle and high castes. Their low ritual status has reinforced their isolation from the Sinhalese and from the Sri Lankan Tamils.

The caste system of the Sri Lankan Tamils resembles the system of the Sinhalese, but the individual Tamil castes differ from the Sinhalese castes. The Tamil caste system is more closely tied to religious bases than the caste system of the Sinhalese. Caste among the Sri Lankan Tamils derives from the Brahman-dominated system of southern India. The Brahmans, a priestly caste, trace their origins to the dawn of Indian civilization (ca. 1500 B.C.), and occupy positions of the highest respect and purity because they typically preserve sacred texts and enact sacred rituals. Many conservative Brahmans view the caste system and their high position within it as divinely ordained human institutions. Because they control avenues to salvation by officiating at temples and performing rituals in homes, their viewpoint has a large following among traditionally minded Hindus. The standards of purity set forth by the Brahmanical view are so high that some caste groups, such as the Paraiyar (whose name came into English as "pariah"), have been "untouchable," barred from participation in the social functions or religious rituals of other Hindus. Untouchability also has been an excuse for extreme exploitation of lower-caste workers. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Although Brahmans in Sri Lanka have always been a very small minority, the conservative Brahmanical world-view has remained strong among the Vellala and other high castes. Major changes have occurred, however, in the twentieth century. Ideas of equality among all people, officially promoted by the government, have combined with higher levels of education among the Tamil elites to soften the old prejudices against the lowest castes. Organizations of low-caste workers have engaged in successful militant struggles to open up employment, education, and Hindu temples for all groups, including former untouchables. *

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”:“Like the regions of southern India, part of the distinctiveness of Sri Lanka's Tamil regions stems from the presence of a self-consciously unique, dominant agricultural caste, around which the entire traditional caste system was seen to revolve. Tamil society departs from that of south India in ways that are obvious to Tamils. Traditional intercaste services were both sacred and secular. The sacred services, such as the services provided by barbers and washers at life-cycle rites and by agricultural laborers at sacrificial rituals, served to define and regulate the low status of serving groups, while the secular ones created patron-client linkages that could endure for generations. The rural service and labor castes remained in traditional relationships with the dominant castes until the mid-twentieth century, when the rise of a service economy created the new marginal economic niches for these groups at the same time that mechanization rendered their labor unnecessary. Coastal fishing groups were never so observant of caste differences, and in consequence have long rejected the stigma of low status. |~|

Tamil Caste Groups in Sri Lanka

Tamil society has traditionally been dominated by the powerful agriculture castes: the Vellala in the Jaffna Peninsula and the Mukkuvar, a former fishing caste that turned to agriculture, on the eastern coast. There are few Brahmans, and although they are regarded as higher up in terms of ritual purity they are relatively poor and powerless economically and politically. Lower castes have traditionally been defined in terms of those who provided services such as labor and cleaning for the dominant castes. The Tamils who work as tea pickers have traditionally been of lower castes than the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]

The Tamil Vellala caste resembles the Goyigama — the predominate Sinhalese caste, traditionally associated with land cultivation — in it dominant in population and public influence, but in the lowlands other castes based on commercial activities are influential. The Goyigama is completely separate from the Tamil caste hierarchy.

The Vellala make up well over half of the Tamil population. In the past, the Vellala formed the elite in the Jaffna kingdom and were the larger landlords; during the colonial period, they took advantage of new avenues for mobility and made up a large section of the educated, administrative middle class. In the 1980s, the Vellala still comprised a large portion of the Tamil urban middle class, although many well-off families retained interests in agricultural land. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Below the Vellala, but still high in the Tamil caste system, are the Karaiya, whose original occupation was fishing. Like the Sinhalese Karava, they branched out into commercial ventures, raising their economic and ritual position during the nineteenth century. The Chetti, a group of merchant castes, also have a high ritual position. In the middle of the caste hierarchy is a group of numerically small artisan castes, and at the bottom of the system are more numerous laboring castes, including the Palla, associated with agricultural work. *

Tamil Caste Issues in Sri Lanka

Before independence there were long lists of caste rules that caste members were expected to abide by. After independence caste discrimination was made illegal. Although it still exists in some rural areas and is stronger than that of the Sinhalese, caste discrimination is not as strong as it is in India. Again the Tamil Tigers have played a role in making the caste system obsolete; many their leaders were from low castes. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures” “Prior to the twentieth century, caste statuses were upheld by dozens of detailed regulations, such as a rule prohibiting low-caste women from covering the upper half of their bodies. Caste discrimination in such matters, including temple entry and the use of public facilities and conveyances, is now illegal, but persisted in rural areas until the outbreak of the war. In the face of the brutal occupation of Tamil areas by Sinhalese security forces in the early 1980s, caste rivalry diminished in intensity as the Tamil community integrated vertically in order to meet the external challenges posed by the war. Still, it would be wrong to say that the war has erased the divisions of caste structure, which still reigns supreme as a principle of familial and community organization. Sri Lanka Tamil society appears to be evolving in the direction of Sinhalese society, in which most people view caste as a positive and valuable means of affiliation but strongly reject the notion that the various castes should be differentially ranked or empowered. |~|

“Traditionally, conflicts occurred within families and between castes. Interfamily conflict often arose from Status competition, particularly when a wealthy ward attempted to cease relations with its "poorer relations" in pursuit of new, more lucrative ties with a similarly-endowed group. Longstanding grudges and obsession with "enemies," real or imagined, sometimes have led to violence. Dominant castes routinely used violence to punish subordinate groups that were taking on high-caste life-style attributes (such as using umbrellas) , often by burning down huts or poisoning wells.

Tamil Caste Conflicts in Sri Lanka

On the intensity of caste conflicts among the Tamils, Brian Pfaffenberger wrote in “Caste in Tamil Culture”: "Clearly Vellala domination is most pointedly threatened by the aspirations of the Atimal untouchables, not to destroy the social system that oppresses them, but rather to realise their ambition to become Vellala with whom Pallars claim ancient kinship. Becoming a Vellala involves assuming Vellala customs and gaining control over land. It is precisely for this reason that entire villages may be burnt down and people killed over trivial incident as a Pallar cutting his hair or wearing a shoe. For Vellala much is at stake." [Source: The Island, February 25, 2001]

Pfaffenberger observes that while the Vellalas claim their great purity as distinct from impure fisherman’s caste etc. they lead a fairly impure lifestyle. For example they do not eat beef, but eat other kinds of meat, drink alcohol (but treat the low caste toddy tappers as impure) supervise-blood sacrifices, remarry widows and throw themselves lustily into the tainting offers of day to day life. "When measured against the ranking paradigm of Dharma Sutra, the status of Vellalas appear to be both irreligious and artificially inflated" observes Pfaffenberger. He then concludes, that "the temporal powers elevate the rank of the impure and that the dominant Vellalas caste claim to be pure, is little more than artificial and invented to clothe it’s naked power in the fabric of traditional authority."

Vellala jealously guard their right to claim respect, honour and services of a wide variety of subordinate castes such as Potters, Barbers and Carpenters. Although the Vellalas held such domineering belief’s, according to Pfaffenberger they do not fancy themselves to be warriors unlike the Kallars and Maravars of south India who maintain a martial tradition. Early Tamil texts (such as Tolkappiyan’s grammar) as well as a Madras census report in early twentieth century described Vellalas as, a peace loving, frugal and industrious people — a description Pfaffenberger-feels applies to Vellalas in Jaffna today. (page 12)

A British Assistant Government observed in the late 19th century: Great changes are going on in Jaffna native society, which are bitterly resented by the conservative part of the population. The (so called) ‘low castes’ are becoming more rich, and having acquired property, most of them naturally decline to follow old customs, by which they are prohibited from wearing jewels, riding in carriages, using tom-tome for marriages, and other social functions... the Vellalas know that the next step the progress... will be that of wearing jewellery and assuming Vellala customs (cited in Asumainayagam 1976b: 21).

Pfaffenberger observes that the unifying force of Tamil culture, moderated the schism or caste conflicts and reinforced Tamil nationalism. Tamil caste ranking ideology however cannot be isolated from Tamil nationalism, which celebrates that which is purely Tamil.

Caste and the Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tigers — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a pro-Tamil, anti-Sinhalese separatist movement in Sri Lanka — were the main perpetrators of the 1983-2009 Sri Lanka Civil War that left about 100,000 people dead. The group’s leader Velupillai Prabhakaran insisted that his group was a “liberation movement.” His goal was to remake rather than preserve and protect the caste-stratified ’Tamil’ culture and create a classless and casteless society.

While the high caste Brahmins and Vellalas have sought to maintain their socio, politico and economic dominance, Prabhakaran and his followers have sought to undermine their power. To his followers Prabhakaran was a freedom fighter struggling for Tamil emancipation from Sinhala oppression. Tamil nationalism was obviously Prabhakaran’s overriding motivation but the LTTE also attacked other militant Tamil groups and assassinated democratically elected members of parliament and two mayors of Jaffna. This cannot be explained by Tamil nationalism or simply the work of a megalomaniac who didn’t tolerate rivals. Sharmilee has argued caste rivalry was the root cause. [Source: The Island, February 25, 2001]

Prabhakaran was a relatively low-ranking Karaiyar. Naturally he and other Karaiyars in the LTTE viewed the Vellala imposed restrictions as symbols of subjection and oppression. According to an article in The Island: “The theory that caste oppression by the Vellala is a key element in Prabhakaran’s struggle is further reinforced by the caste composition of south Indian Tamil political parties supporting LTTE. Pattaligal Makkal Katchi (PMK) which won five seats at the last elections and which supports LTTE is a caste based party representing the Vanniyars — the single largest caste grouping in Tamil Nadu. The other strong caste blocs are Dalits or Harijans and Mukkulathor. They are treated as low caste. Unlike in Sri Lanka the Vellala of south India are not politically strong as they are fragmented in all political parties. The other caste based Tamil Nadu party supporting LTTE is Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazghagham (MDMK). This party with four seats in the Lok Saba is a member of the BJP government.

It is interesting that PMK which has two ministers in the BJP government feels that Indian nationalism is about Brahmin autocracy and Hindu imperialism " therefore we should throw them out, Tamil nationalism in the only answer" says PMK leader. A secret paper circulated among the hard core group of PMK trainees said "India should be declared as a Federation of Independent Sovereign Republic of National Races. The right to secede through self determination from such a Federation should be given legally to such national races"

It is most significant if that the Hindu clergy (who belong to the Brahmin caste) has not extended their support to the LTTE, nor has Prabhakaran sought their support or blessings even the most efficient LTTE propaganda has not shown any pictures of Prabhakaran entering a Hindu temple in order to win support of the devot Tamils. Prabhakaran’s Marxist ideology, which considers religion as the opium of the people may also explain this strange conduct. On the other hand several senior members of the Christian clergy are actively supporting and working for the LTTE both locally and internationally. The anomaly of Hindu clergy not supporting LTTE which seeks to establish a state for Tamils, while some Christian clergy is actively supporting the LTTE, can only be explained by the caste factor. Whereas the Hindu clergy is at the apex of the caste structure and are the virtual guardians of the caste system, Christianity does not recognise the caste system and Jesus, preached that all human being are equal before God.”

Legislation to Get Rid of Castes (Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957)

K T Rajasingham wrote in the Asia Times:“ S W R D Bandaranaike enacted the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957, with the view to doing away with the scourge of the caste system that was still widely prevalent among Tamils and Sinhalese.The act was approved on April 13, 1957, and enacted to prevent the imposition of social disabilities on any person by reason of their caste. According to the act, clause (2), "any person who imposes any social disability on any other person by reason of such other persons caste, shall be guilty of an offence and shall, on conviction after summary trial before a magistrate, be liable to imprisonment of either description for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding one hundred rupees. This law enabled the temple entry of the members of the so called depressed caste Tamils especially in the Jaffna district". [Source: K T Rajasingham, Asia Times ]

“Eight years earlier, the Tamil MPs met then prime minister D S Senanayake and appealed to him to introduce legislation to prevent animal sacrifices in Hindu temples and also to compel the temple management to allow the so called members of the depressed caste to enter the temples for the purpose of worship.

“D S Senanayake appointed a commission under the Chairmanship of K Kanakaratnam, the Tamil Congress MP for Vaddukoddai. It held several sittings and subsequently submitted its report. Based on this, a bill was drafted to give effect to the recommendations. Temple entry, which was proposed in the draft legislation, was opposed by conservative Hindus on flimsy religious grounds. As there was opposition to the bill, it did not find a place on the statute book.”

Reducing the Importance of Caste in Sri Lanka

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Numerous chisels are chipping away at” the power of the caste system, “including better education, increasing wealth, fewer arranged marriages, a stronger civil service recruited on merit, and the shift from agrarian to urban life. As young Sri Lankans gravitate to big cities in search of opportunity, they inevitably mix in wider social and ethnic circles, helping shed the straitjacket of village life. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times , February 5, 2006]

“Vasuki Somarathnam, 19, is a bank clerk from the Nadar caste, relatively low in the hierarchy. She says that when it comes to friends, business relations, and voting, caste plays little, if any, part in her daily life. Her views on marriage are far more progressive than those of her parents' generation, with character at least as important as caste in the choice of a future husband.

“Each passing year sees the caste system weaken a little more.Some, unwilling to see the system die a slow death, have taken an activist approach. A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the nonprofit Sarvodaya group, which focuses on community development, micro-credit and other charity work, has made caste elimination a cornerstone of its mission. To that end, the group brings so-called high-caste children to lower-caste villages, and vice versa, encouraging them to eat and play together.

“Some lower-caste Sinhalese trying to shed their unfortunate heritage are opting for a legal name change. They're in good company. The late president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, born into the lowly caste of washermen, adopted the Premadasa moniker associated with farmers early in his career. The government doesn't make such identity shifts easy. The process can take as long as four years, with a person's father required to change his name as well. That doesn't seem to deter a steady flow of applicants at Colombo's Registrar General's Department. ''Almost all are from lower-caste name holders," said an official who asked not to be identified. ''Otherwise, why would they do it?"

Still Castes Hangs On in Sri Lanka

Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Yet caste lingers along with other prejudices, affecting decisions in quiet ways few people speak about. The devastating tsunami in December 2004 underscored the caste system's subtle resilience. In the immediate aftermath, caste, ethnic, religious, and other divisions melted away as people rushed to bury the dead and care for survivors. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times , February 5, 2006]

“But over time, prejudices crept back. Aid workers say some refugees from the Govi Gama caste refused to help in the rebuilding, viewing manual labor, especially cleaning toilets, as beneath them, despite the need. Now, with the relief effort shifting to permanent housing, members of different castes are balking at living together.

The Island reported: “Although the spirit of caste is still operating in Jaffna, socio economic differentiation has occurred in recent times even within caste, largely due to western influences and access to new fields of economic activity. Economic opportunities are accessible due to peoples circumstances or class instead of caste. Thus opportunities exist for people like Gnakone to gain recognition as a big man in Jaffna Tamil society despite his low caste. Peter Robb observes that "while the idea of domination still works as a caste based model for identification, in reality its operation at the local level of the town is no longer absolutely pre-eminent". [Source: The Island, February 25, 2001]

Caste system is closely linked to religious rituals — which could offend a sensitive youth exposed to western concepts of equality. Thus Vellalas are the patrons of temples providing funds for construction and maintenance and during religious rituals the priests serve the Vellalas first and rest thereafter. The very low caste, are not allowed even to enter the temple. As is well known even Professor Sunderlingham sued a low caste Tamil for desecrating a Hindu temple by entering it.

Durava Caste: Toddy Tappers, Royalty or Elephanteers?

Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lanka journalist and writer, wrote: The Durava community can boast of a long presence in Sri Lanka which may date back to several centuries or even millennia if their claims to Naga ancestry are to be taken seriously. Yet this largely coastal population has had to struggle hard to debunk a myth perpetuated since Portuguese times that they are toddy tappers, one which they believe lowers them in the eyes of other men. The Hastiya Maha Kodiya or great elephant flag of the Gajanayaka Nilame who is believed to have been a prominent Durava official in the days of the Sinhalese Kings. [Source: Asiff Hussein]

Spokesmen for the caste contend that they are descendants of the long-lost Nagas, of royalty and aristocracy, of soldiers and elephanteers, but certainly not tappers of toddy. In support of this they point out that only a few Durava families today engage in the tapping of toddy in areas such as Payagala and Kochchikade and that they are not the only caste who do so. They also point out that the family name Madinage or House of the tapper is a rare one among them when compared to other hereditary family names denoting military occupations, literary activity, pastoral pursuits and so on. It is not surprising then that this proud people have gone to great lengths to debunk this myth.

The Nagas first find mention in an ancient Sinhalese chronicle, the Dipavansa where it is stated that the Buddha visited the island to settle a dispute between the two Naga kings Mahodara and Chulodara over a gem-set throne. The Buddha is also said to have visited the Kalyani country where dwelt the Naga King Maniakkhika and his retinue of Nagas. What became of this people remains a mystery for they do not figure in the history of the country after this period. Did such a race actually exist in the past or were they a figment of the poet's imagination? The idea that the Durava are descended from the Nagas of yore was first proposed by Hugh Nevill, the editor of the Taprobanian in August 1887. Unfortunately Nevill did not elaborate on his theory.

It is possible however that he was influenced by the elephanteer tradition of the Durava. In Pali, the language in which the Dipavansa was written, the term Naga may signify a cobra, an elephant or an ironwood tree (Messua Ferrea). For example, we find in the Dhammapada the expression naga-vana ' a forest inhabited by elephants'. The Durava and the elephant have had a long connection and it is not impossible that they were termed Nagas on this account. Many are the hereditary Durava family names relating to the elephant force and elephant-keeping. Thus we find Kuruvege, Kurunayakage, Gajanayakage, Gajanayaka Muhandiramge, Nakande Nage and Nagasen Mutukumaranage. The words Naga, Gaja and Kuru used here are synonymous terms and mean elephant. The names Kurunayaka and Gajanayaka are particularly important as they denote 'Commander of the elephant force' or 'Superintendent of elephant affairs'.

Another important Durava name Nanayakkara could also be said to mean 'Chief of the elephants'. Other hereditary Durava names connected to the elephant include Alige, Kandege and Panikkalage. Be as it may, the contentions of Nevill regarding the connection of the Durava to the Nagas have been supported by a number of Durava scholars including James Bastian Perera, the author of the Nitiratnavali (1914), Richard De Silva, the author of Lamani Raja Kulaya (1995) and more recently Nandanapala Cumaranatunga, the author of Indo- Lanka Ethnic Affinities (2001).

Karava of Sri Lanka

Karava is the traditional military (warrior, Kshatriya, royal ) race, of Sri Lanka. The Karavas were one of the interconnected ruling dynasties of the Indian region. Royal succession in Sri Lanka passed on to Karava kings during the Polonnaruwa period. Karava king Gajabahu II (AD 1131 — 1153 ) was one of the greatest rulers of Sri Lanka, and the Kandy Perehera and other annual pageants of Sri Lanka that end with the water cutting ceremony commenced as pageants in honour of his invasion of south India . Fragmented kingdoms of Sri Lanka were thereafter ruled by Karava Kings and sub-kings until the last three kingdoms passed over from Karava royal families to Europeans; Kotte and Jaffna in the 16th century to the Portuguese and Kandy in the 19th century to the British.

The fortunes of the Karava community has seen ups and downs over the centuries dependent on the fortunes of the leading Karava royal families and their victories, defeats and alliances with South Indian royal dynasties. European colonization ended all native dynasties and rulers of the region and was therefore disastrous for the Karavas as well as the Kshatriya Rajputs of India. (see Timeline of the Karava I) The post-independence period too has been particularly disastrous for the Karavas. Whatever lost wealth and power the Karavas had regained during the British period was taken away from the Karavas by Govigama dominated post-independence governments of Sri Lanka. (see Timeline of the Karava ) and Sri Lanka government sponsored propaganda during the 1900s has attempted to falsely portray the Karawas as the "Fisher caste" of Sri Lanka (see Govi supremacy myth)

The Karavas have migrated to Sri Lanka over several centuries, mostly from the ancient Kuru Mandalam (the kingdom of the Kuru's -now Coromandel) coast of South India as Kings, Princes, Naval Commanders, Mercenaries, Warriors, Soldiers and fighters. See Migration from India for a list of some of the known migrations. Karavas are now a diverse community spanning the socio-economic spectrum and include speakers of Sinhala, Tamil and English and practitioners of Buddhism, Hinduism, Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. The majority of the Karavas reside in the southern, western and northern districts of Sri Lanka. Since independence, many Karava professionals and former land owners have migrated to western countries and continue to do so.

Rodiya: Sri Lanka's Untouchables

The Rodiya, formerly a caste of itinerant beggars and entertainers, are sometimes called Sri Lanka’s Dalits (Untouchables), one of Sri Lanka’s lowest castes. Asiff Hussein wrote: “No Sinhalese caste has aroused so much wonder and curiosity as the Rodiya. Indeed there is something mysterious about this people who claim descent from Sinhalese royalty but who have for centuries been despised and down trodden by society. Theirs is a very sad story indeed and their plight a yet sadder one. It is only today that this folk are emerging to take their due place in society after centuries of oppression thanks to the progressive legislation and social welfare policies of successive governments since independence. [Source: Asiff Hussein]

M.D. Raghavan — author of “Handsome Beggars. The Rodiyas of Ceylon. 1957 — believes that the Rodiya are descended from totemistic eastern Indian aboriginal hunting tribes who came to Sri Lanka along with the sacred Bo-sapling (today the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura) about 2000 years ago. Raghavan connects the term Rodiya to the Palli rudda (Sanskrit. rudra) meaning hunter. As for their outcaste and untouchable status Raghavan has an explanation that is worthy of consideration. He believes that the ancestors of the Rodiya were worshippers of the Black Goddess' Kali whose cult of human sacrifice was prevalent in eastern India until fairly recent times.He is of the view that in former times the Rodiya too were given to human sacrifice as may be gleaned from the invocatory hymns sung by Rodiya women to their legendary ancestress.The name Ratna-tilaka-valli befits you; with rituals awe-inspiring I propitiate you. And you whose twentieth year has passed you shall not go without the taste of flesh.'

Another verse attributed to Ratnavalli says prosperity do I bring you with blood flowing like the river waters ' while yet another verse refers to Ratnavalli as onewho wears the fearsome strings of coral which Raghavan says isthe garland of human skulls round the neck of the awe-inspiring Kali.' In India statues of Kali are traditionally depicted with a garland of human skulls. Added to all this, the tales of cannibalism attributed to Princess Ratnavalli in the traditions of the Rodiya themselves also support this theory. As for their outcaste status Raghavan notes: `That a form of worship in which human offerings formed the essential ritual would have been anathema to the Buddhist way of life goes without saying; and it needs no stretch of imagination that any class of people in whom the cult prevailed or survived even in an attenuated form would have been pronounced by the sangha (i.e. the Buddhist clergy) as exiles from the social order.'

Another indication that the Rodiya were originally a nation apart from the Sinhalese is their distinct language which savours of a tribal origin. The language which is neither Indo-Aryan (like Sinhala) nor Dravidian (like Tamil) has been connected to the Austro Asiatic group of languages spoken by the aboriginal Munda tribes of eastern India. Raghavan believes the language to be connected to the Munda language spoken to this day by primitive tribes in Orissa and Bihar.

In the olden days, the Rodiya chieftain was known as Hula-valiya (lit.torch-bearer) which Raghavan believes is `a traditional institution from the days when the Rodiya was a tribe of hunters.' Unlike in the olden days, today Rodiya have lost their sense of clanishness. In former times, the Rodiya in the Vanni regions were divided into 12 exogamous clans (eg: Mahappola Vapolla and Alpaga) while those in other areas also had distinct clan identities. The Rodiya are found concentrated in the up-country areas (the former Kandyan kingdom) especially in the central north western Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Today they number a few thousands islandwide.

The last census which enumerated the Rodiya as a separate community was in 1911. It returned a total of 1.572 Rodiya. The traditional life-style of the Rodiya is fast dwindling though some characteristics peculiar to Rodiya culture still live on. Rodiya women are said to have enjoyed a high social status in the past. Even to this day these enterprising and progressive minded women are said to dominate domestic life. They commonly arrange the marriages of their children and earn a considerable income from entertainment and agriculture. The allure of the charming Rodiya girls have captivated the hearts of many an `upper caste' youth. A modern day Sinhalese poet thus sings the charms of a Rodiya girl

Historical Accounts of the Rodiya

Rodiya legend holds that they are descended from Ratnavalli (also known as Navaratna Valli) the daughter of King Parakrama Bahu 1 (12th century). About 100 years ago Hugh Nevill, a prominent British civil servant recorded the following tradition current among the Rodiya as to their origins: `At Parakrama Bahu's court the venison was provided by a certain Veddha archer. Who during a scarcity of game substituted the flesh of a boy he met in the jungle and provided it as venison for the royal household. Navaratna Valli, the beautiful daughter of the king discovered the deception and fascinated by a sudden longing for human flesh ordered the Veddha hunter to bring this flesh. The Veddha accordingly waylaid youths in the woods, and disposed of their flesh to the royal kitchen. The whole country was terrified by the constant disappearance of youths and maidens. It happened that a barber who came to the palace to complain of the disappearance of his only son while waiting was given by the servants of the royal scullery a leaf of rice and venison curry.

Just as he was about to eat he noticed on his leaf the deformed knuckle of the little finger of a boy. Recognizing it by the deformity as that of his son he fled from the palace and spread the alarm that the king was killing and eating the youths of the city. The facts then came to light and the king stripping his daughter of her ornaments and calling out a scavenger then sweeping out a neighbouring yard gave her to him as wife and drove her out to earn her living in her husband's class.' [Source: Asiff Hussein]

Somewhat different is the original legend narrated by Robert Knox in his Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681). Says KnoxThe predecessors of these people from whom they sprang were Dodda Veddhas which signifies hunters: to whom it did belong to catch and bring venison for the king's table. But instead of venison they brought man's flesh. Unknown; which the king liking so well commanded to bring him more of the same sort of venison. The king's barber chanced to know what flesh it was and disclosed it to him. At which the king was so enraged that he accounted death too good for them; and to punish only those persons that had so offended not a sufficient recompense for so great an affront and injury as he had sustained by them. Forthwith therefore he established a decree that both great and small that were of that rank or tribe should be expelled from dwelling among the inhabitants of the land and not to be admitted to use or enjoy the benefit of any means or ways or callings whatsoever to provide themselves sustenance; but what they should beg from generation to generation from door to door, through the kingdom, and to be looked upon and esteemed by all people to be so base and odious as not possibly to be more.' Many were the restrictions placed on the Rodiya during the Kandyan period. Says Knox: `And they are to this day so detestable to the people that they are not permitted to fetch water out of their wells; but do take their water out of holes or rivers. Neither will any touch them lest they should be defiled.' Until fairly recent times till about 100 years ago this was still true of the Rodiya in the Kandyan areas.

During Kandyan times both Rodiya men and women were compelled to go bare-bodied and forced to reside in separate hamlets known as kuppayam. Their rajakariya (duties to the state) included the supply of rope made of animal hide for trapping wild beasts. During Knox's time the primary occupation of the Rodiya was mendicancy and hardly anyone refused them. In more recent times the folk were given to professional entertainment. The women would sing hymns in praise of their legendary ancestress Ratnavalli and spin brass plates while the men played a one-sided drum known as Bum-mendiya.

Rodiya women are renowned for their extreme beauty and this may perhaps be explained by the following statement of Knox: `Many times when the king (i.e. Rajasinghe II) cuts off great and noble men against whom he is highly incensed he will deliver their daughters and wives unto this sort of people reckoning it as they also account it to be far worse a punishment than any kind of death.'

Constant intercourse with the women of the Kandyan nobility may well account for the aristocratic looks and stately carriage of Rodiya women to this day though the same cannot be said of their menfolk. This may perhaps also explain the claims of the Rodiya to royal status.

Mount Lavinia Hotel was built in 1810 as a private residence by a fun-loving British Governor who constructed secret passages in the building. Some of these have been discovered in the kitchens, but unfortunately, are not open to the public. Apparently, a Rodiya girl who worked for the Governor fell in love with him. When the Governor was leaving, he asked the Rodiya what she wanted from him. Much to his surprise, she did not ask for the house which he was willing to give her. Instead, she asked for official permission to wear a cloth about the waist, a mark of status normally denied to Rodiyas. The Governor gave his consent with an official gazette notification and the house was sold and turned into a hotel.
Fair of face like the full blown lotus
Thy rosy lips match the red lilies
Thine eyes blue as the induvara flower
With swelling swanlike breasts;
Shine resplendent
the livelong day,
Rodi girl; the full moon over Ratnapura sky; Kavsangarava. 1928).

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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