The caste systems in Sri Lanka are social stratification systems found among the ethnic groups of the island since ancient times. The models are similar to those found in Continental India, but are less extensive and important for various reasons, although the caste systems still play an important and at least symbolic role in religion and politics. Sri Lanka is often considered to be a casteless or caste-blind society by Indians.
The caste systems of Sri Lanka were historically not tied to the religious establishment but rather a tool to service the ruling elite - a model more reminiscent of feudalism in Europe. At least three major, parallel caste systems exist in Sri Lankan society: Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamil and Indian Tamils.
A universal welfare system which focused on providing education for everyone regardless of background has provided people from lower caste groups similar opportunities to enter jobs previously only frequented by those in upper caste groups, with younger generations mostly rejecting any pressure to conform to caste-related jobs. The Civil War has also broken down caste barriers as they were seen as an obstacle towards ethnolinguistic unity.
In ancient Ceylon, although marriages between Sinhalese and Tamils (usually among higher castes) were not uncommon, they occurred between comparable castes; Eurasians and South Indian Chetties married into the southern Sinhalese Govigama and Karava. Several prestigious Govigama families have mixed Govigama and Tamil (or European) ancestry.
Although caste discrimination is still found in Sri Lanka (particularly in rural areas), caste boundaries are blurring. Political power and wealth have largely replaced caste as the main factor in Sri Lankan social stratification, especially in the Sinhalese and Indian Tamil communities. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, under British Ceylon, opposed extending voting rights to the people and urged reservation of franchise only to men of the Vellalar caste.
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The documented history of the island begins with the arrival of Prince Vijaya from India. The island was reportedly inhabited by four tribes at that time: the Dewa, Nagas, Yakkas and Raksha. Although the origin of Sri Lankan communities is unclear, genetic studies on Sinhalese have shown that most of the Sinhala community is genetically related to the South Indians and Bengalis. About half of the Sinhalese population are Govigama. Of the three native tribes, it is believed that the Dewa are part of the Sinhalese castes.
Ancient Sri Lankan texts, such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya, Yogaratnakaraya and inscriptions, show that a fourfold caste category namely Raja, Bamunu, Velanda and Govi existed among the Sinhalese. Evidence of this hierarchy can be seen during the 18th century British-Kandyan period, indicating its continuation even after the Sri Lankan monarchy. Colonialism and foreign intervention in the dynastic conflicts of the island throughout history has also influenced the caste system, some suggesting even a re-arrangement of the occupational castes. At present 13 castes are commonly found among the Sinhala viz. Radala, Govigama, Bathgama, Deva, Nekathi, Bodhivansha, Rajaka, kumbal, Hunu, Durava, Karava, Salagama and Navandanna, with smaller castes being absorbed to the larger castes.
In the Central Highlands, many traditions of the Kingdom of Kandy were preserved from its 1818 collapse beyond independence in 1948 and the Land Reform Act of the 1970s. Although large agricultural landlords belonged to the Govigama caste, many now may not own land. Most Govigama were however ordinary farmers and tenants as absolute land ownership was exclusive to the king until the British colonial period. In addition to the Govigama, there were several strata of occupational castes. Wahumpura or Deva were the caste who traditionally made jaggery and farmed. The Bathgama caste was also engaged in agriculture with access to some land. The Navandanna (Achari) caste were artisans. The Rada were washers, and this caste is still prevalent in Sri Lanka's laundry sector. The Berava were traditional drummers and agricultural wage laborers. The Kinnara caste did menial work and were segregated from the rest of the community. The most important feature of the Kandyan system was Rajakariya ("the king's work"), which linked each caste to an occupation and demanded service to the court and religious institutions.
There are still differences between the caste structures of the highlands and those of the low country, although some service groups were common to both in ancient Sri Lanka. The southwestern coast has three other castes (the Salagama, the Durava and the Karava) in addition to the majority Govigama, which is common throughout the region. Some of these castes' ancestors are believed to have migrated from Southern India, and have become important in the Sinhalese social system. The first-century BC Anuradhpura Abayagiri inscription referring to a Karava navika may be the first reference to a specialized occupation.
The Tolkāppiyam Porulatikaram indicating the four-fold division is the earliest Tamil literature to mention caste. Sangam literature however mentions only five kudis associated with the five tinais. Colonialism also had influenced the caste system.
Tamils of Indian origin (Hill Country Tamils, who were brought to the island by the British as indentured labour) also follows the Indian caste system form which is called jāti. Their caste structure resembles that of a Tamil Nadu village.
Those who are considered to be of higher castes occupy the first row of line rooms. They perform respectable jobs such as factory work and grinding of tea as minor labour work. Even though they belong to the labour category they are influential among conductors, tea makers, kanganies (or supervisors) and other officials. The workers considered low caste live in the dwellings that are away from the centre 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.
The caste system has stronger religious ties than its Sinhalese counterpart, although both systems have comparable castes. There are in the Sri Lankan Tamil caste system, distinctions between Northern and Eastern societies and also the agricultural and coastal societies.
The agricultural society have mainly the castes of the Vellalar, Nalavar and Koviar, where the Vellalar caste is the dominating one, particularly in Northern Sri Lanka. They constitute approximately half of the Sri Lankan Tamil population and are the major land owning and agricultural caste.
The Northern and Western coastal societies are dominated by the Karaiyars, who are traditionally a seafaring and warrior caste. The Thimilar and the Paravar are also among the coastal communities involved in fishing. The Mukkuvars, traditional pearl divers, dominate greater parts of Eastern Sri Lanka where they are the major landowners also involved in agriculture.
The artisans, known locally as Kammalar or Vishwakarma consists of the Kannar (brass-workers), Kollar (blacksmiths), Tattar (goldsmiths), Tatchar (carpenters), Kartatchar (sculptor). Along with the Kammalar were the Ambattar (barbers), Kadaiyar (lime burners), Koviar (farmers), Kusavar (potters), Maraiyar (conch blowers), Nattuvar (musician), Nalavar (toddy-tappers), Pallar (farmers), Paraiyar (drummers and weavers), Turumbar (scavengers) and Vannar (dhobies) the domestic servants termed as Kudimakkal. The Kudimakkal gave ritual importance in marriage, funeral and other temple ceremonies.
Other Sri Lankan Tamil castes of importance are the Cirpatar (cultivators), Iyer (priests), Kaikolar (silk-weavers), Madapalli (former royal cooks), Seniyar (cotton-weavers), Siviyar (palanquin bearers), Cantar (oil-presser) and Maravar (mercenaries). The Sri Lankan Chetties, traditional merchants, along with the Bharatha people, traditional sea-traders, are listed as their own ethnicities in Sri Lankan census. The Coast Veddas, found mainly in Eastern Sri Lanka are considered a Tamil caste among the Sri Lankan Tamils.
The village deities of the Sri Lankan Tamils are also shaped by the caste structure. The Sri Lankan Moors don't practice the caste system, however follow a matriclan system which is an extension of Tamil tradition.