Sri Lankan Caste System

Sri Lankan Caste System

(Source: @ Library of Congress)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Caste among the Sinhalese

The dominant caste among the Sinhalese population is the Goyigama. 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.

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.

There are still major differences between the caste structures of the highlands and those of the low country, although some service groups are common to both. The southwest coast is home to three major castes whose ancestors may have immigrated but who have become important actors in the Sinhalese social system: the Karava (fishermen), the Durava (toddy tappers–see Glossary), and the Salagama (cinnamon peelers). 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. 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

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 dominant Tamil caste, constituting well over 50 percent of the Tamil population, are the Vellala. Like the Goyigama, members are primarily cultivators. 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. Below the Vellala, but still high in the Tamil caste system, are the Karaiya (see Glossary), 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.

The caste system of the Tamils 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 (see Hinduism , this ch.). 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.

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.

The Indian 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.

Caste Interactions in Daily Life

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. 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.

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