Castes are perhaps best known because of the powerful influences of the Indian caste structure but they existed in other places such as Sri Lanka. Traditionally it was believed the caste system was a fairly simple structure in Sri Lanka comprising 4 classes; Raja, Bamunu (Brahmin), Velenda and Govi. There is evidence that this structure prevailed up until the 18th century when the British were able to restructure the system following the end of Sri Lanka’s monarchy in 1815.
This class structure appears to have come to Sri Lanka from Northern India, with the people who move to the island millennia ago. There are similarities to the Southern Indian Jati caste structure, which may have journeyed to the country as people migrated, or it might represent an even more ancient system. With the arrival of Buddhism the importance of caste was reduced but it remained a potent force in the community and still does today. Waves of migration particularly from Southern India, some sponsored by various Kings in Sri Lanka and then the British, continued to support caste in the social structure.
The British consolidation of caste as a management tool and in particular the introduction of a new “Mudaliyar” (Gatekeeper) class, now vanished as this group was absorbed by Govigama, resulted in the progressive reduction in the number of castes. It is now estimated that more than half the Sinhalese population are of the “Govigama” (Cultivator) caste. This movement began with the Dutch who freed up land ownership and many of the then peasants became independent cultivators. This process was hastened by the British who preferred to bring Tamil workers from India for plantation work and so effectively raised the status of existing Sinhalese cultivator classes.
There remains a separation between lowland and highland (Kandyan) castes. Partly this was because Dutch influences didn’t reach the Kandy kingdom and many classes were preserved. However with the final collapse of the kingdom in 1818 and complete British control of the island the differences declined. However caste and occupation remain more closely linked in the central highlands than anywhere else.
Major differences exist between low and high country people. Aside from the importance of cultivator classes there are other groups that took advantage of colonial trading demands and their location. Karave, Durava and Salagama developed into powerful classes, though still much smaller numerically than Govigama. During the colonial period these classes accumulated wealth and influence and spread to all parts of the island.
The other factor that has had profound impact on caste was the introduction of Tamil labour. Though various kings had found Tamil mercenaries useful during family and other feuds, it was the British use of Indian labour within the plantation economy that brought most of them to Sri Lanka. Because of the nature of the work most of these people came from lower castes and were more familiar with the rigid application of class in Southern India.
However peculiarities also exist among Tamil castes. Northern Tamils have some differences to Eastern or central Tamils. Over time some of the lower cultivator castes have risen in status with support from the British while in the East fisherman castes have found prominence because of their numeric and economic significance. Central Tamils are mainly Southern Indian labour and this is reflected in the way the caste resembles a Tamil Nadu community. Overall most of these people are from the lowest castes in India and their status is the same in Sri Lanka.
There is also a small group of people called “Chetties” in and around Colombo. They had their origins in the ancient Velenda caste and are believed to be a “noble” class. Somehow they avoided, and didn’t want to be part of any evolving caste system. In effect they became a caste outside of the normal system and are given credence for being of noble origin.
The British, while keen to consolidate castes as a management tool, also recognized the separateness of Chetties and allowed them to exist as something of a subset of Govigama. In the same way Eurasians were also seen as a subset of Govigama because it would have been too unpalatable for “white” lower castes to exist. As a consequence within the Govigama caste there formed a group of “first class” families who were mixed blood people and in some ways more British than the British.
Among Tamils the religious practices and obligations demanded strong representation from among the religious castes. The result was a larger number of these castes relative to the population and while the general structure resembled a normal Tamil Nadu village, there was a noticeable imbalance of castes.
There are still 18 castes remaining in central and southern regions but of the original 24 castes only 15 remain in northern areas. This reflected changing occupational demands and the impact of British consolidation as well as post independence reorganization along socialist lines. Despite the decline in importance of caste as people become more educated it remains of significant social relevance. Every weekend adverts are placed by hopeful parents/brothers/sisters seeking marriage partners with expectations about caste and astrological forecasts. Caste remains a force in society that still guides many people’s lives.
The following table sets out current castes and the basic relationship but it is naturally a generalized interpretation. However what is clear is the dominance of Sinhala castes among land-owning/cultivating castes while Tamils are dominated by fishermen and religious castes. Of course as said earlier these castes are not numerically equal with about half the population being from the Govigama caste.