The Caste system in Sri Lanka is a division of society into strata, differing somewhat from the classic Varnas of North India but is similar in nature to the Jā ti system found in South India. The fourfold caste model in Sri Lanka`s pre-British period Sinhala history and literature was: Raja, Bamunu, Velenda and Govi. Ancient Sri lankan texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptional evidence show that the above hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period. The repetition of the same caste hierarchy even as recently as the 18th century, in the British / Kandyan period Kadayimpoth - Boundary books as well, indicates the continuation of the tradition right up to the end of Sri Lanka`s monarchy.
It is one of many caste systems in the world. As everywhere, a Sri Lankan caste can be functional, religious, ethnic, tribal or even composite in origin.
Caste as we know it today appears to have been introduced to Sri Lanka by Prakrit-language-speakers from North India. Whether the similar Jā ti like separation of society existed prior to this invasion is unknown. There is evidence, in early historical chronicles, of the main vedic castes in the early Anuradhapura era, although it is possible that these categories were used as a literary convention. It has been posited by Bryce Ryan and others that the system as it exists in Sri Lanka is a preservation of that of early or pre-Vedic India, which bore little relation to the classic varna model.
The introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century BCE blunted the edge of the system somewhat. However, there is a reference to King Dutugemunu Abhaya`s son, Saliya choosing to lose caste by marrying Asokamala, a Chandala or outcaste woman, in the 2nd century BC, indicating that caste taboos remained in place.
The later caste system seems to have evolved as much through waves of ethnic migration as by delineation by occupation. Also Sri Lankan monarchs seem to have overwhelmingly depended on South Indian manpower for functional needs such as menial tasks, weaving, crafts and ritual drumming.
As a result of the Mudaliyar class created by the British in the 19th century, the majority caste among the Sinhalese population now is the Goyigama. It appears that the Govigama comprise at least half the Sinhalese population. The traditional occupation of this caste is cultivation, and most members are still farmers in villages almost everywhere in Sri Lanka. In traditional Sinhalese society, they were the peasants but their status improved dramatically after the collapse of Sri Lanka`s traditional feudal system. Changes to land ownership concepts introduced by the Dutch liberated them from their bonds to the land. The Sinhalese system is divided between the Kandyan and Low country.
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 post independence 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 Hindu 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 occupational divisions within the caste such as herdsmen (Patti), woodcutters (Porowakara)etc. In the low country, these sub castes within the Goyigama have faded away, and high status is marked by European titles and degrees rather than the older, feudal titles. Honorific titles hearkening back to ancestral homes, manors or vasagama, or noble houses or gedara still marked the pedigrees of the old nobility in the 1980s, and marriages between members of these families and common Goyigama were rare.
In the Kandy District of the highlands live the Batgama or Padu, another caste of agricultural laborers who have escaped the British period consolidation of the cultivator caste. Also untouchable Rodiya and the Kinnaraya who display the vestiges of a hunter gather tribe, were traditionally segregated from other groups because of their menial status. Living in all areas are service groups, such as the Hena or Rada, traditional washermen who still dominate the laundry trade the Berava, traditional temple drummers who work as cultivators in many villages and the Navandanna or Acari types are traditional artisans. 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.
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 other than the majority Goyigama common to both Low Country and Up Country, whose ancestors are believed have migrated from South India but who have become important actors in the Sinhalese social system: the Karave, the Durava and the Salagama.
These groups have exploited their traditional occupations and their coastal positions to accumulate wealth and influence during the colonial period. By the late twentieth century, members of southern castes, especially by the karavas, had moved to all parts of the country, occupied high business and academic positions. Formerly untouchable Rodiya and Kinnaraya are also found in the low country.
Castes amongst Sri Lankan Tamils
These duplications Sinhalese castes might have arisen due to similar social structure of caste throughout South Indian cultural zone as well as migrations and fusions in the past.
There is also a caste called Koviar, the some members of which claim to be Sinhalese Govigama isolated in Tamil areas after the Jaffna Kingdom conquest of the North. Just like amongst the Sinhalese, the caste structure of the Northern Tamils is somewhat different compared to the Eastern Tamils. Northern Tamil caste system is mostly dominated by the Vellalar except in some coastal regions where Karaiyar have numerical and ritual superiority over others. In the East coast, the fisher castes are dominant numerically that they have used to create ritual superiority over other castes except the Vellalar who seem to be newer arrivals from the North. Paradoxically, Mukkuvars who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in the North are almost at the top in the East.
Castes amongst Hill Country Tamils
The Tamils of Indian origin or Hill Country Tamils who were brought over by the British as indentured labour were mainly from the lower Indian castes the South Indian categories came over with them.
Their caste structure resembles that of a Tamil Nadu village. Those who are considered to be of higher castes such as Maravar, Kallar, Agamudaiyar, Vellalar, Naidus, Reddiars and Nairs occupied the first row of line rooms. They performed respectable jobs such as factory work and grinding of Tea. They worked as minor employees too. Even though they belong to the labor category they were influential among conductors, tea makers, Kanganies or supervisors and other officials.
The workers considered low castes lived in the dwellings that are away from the center and these dwellings are called distant or lower Lines. This group consists of Pallar, Paraiyars, Sakkiliar, Washers and Barbers. The yard sweepers and changers of clothes are in the lowest rank. Other tamils were already originally there as a cause of Indian tamils broguth over to be converted into Sri Lankan tamils.
Non Sinhalese and Tamil castes
There are also social groups such as Bharatakula and Colombo Chetties who, while maintaining caste-like endogamy, decline to be considered either Sinhalese or Tamil. Both the groups descend from South Indian immigrants. Maravar are considered as the highest gast among high castes of Indian Origins
Importance of ethnicity versus caste
It appears that caste was more important than ethnicity until comparatively recently. In pre-British times, the Govigama were classed as Vellala by the colonial authorities. Eurasians and South Indian Chetties were absorbed into the southern Sinhalese Govigamas. Cross-ethnic marriage was fairly common. Several so called `first class Govigama`families (i.e. those of the ranks of `superior colonial headman`) are descended from a mixure of Govigama men and European women.
Religion and caste
In the case of Tamil caste system, Religious practice tends to reinforce it. In the feudal era, people of low castes were not allowed into the shrines of the major gods. The priests of the gods Brahmin or other native priests among the Tamils. There were no such restrictions in the Buddhist order. Devil Dancers , exorcists, healers and sorcerers were drawn from the caste of tom-tom-beaters Berava.
In the 19th century the Amarapura and Ramanna sects were formed to allow non-Govigama priests to be ordained. This was in opposition to the Siyam Nikaya which had converted itself into a Govigama preserve within a few decades of its formation in the 18th century. . In the late 1960s, there were a series of Temple Struggles in the northern Jaffna district, during which members of lower castes forced their way into Hindu temples, establishing their right of entry.