Rev. James Cartman, OBE, M.A., B.D., M.Th.
from Hinduism in Ceylon, 1957
Many books on Caste conveniently draw up a four-fold division,
|1. The Brahmans
||- Priests (although the Brahmans are generally
described as priests, many of them in India are not priests at all and
never intend to be.)
|2. The Kshatriyas.
||Soldiers or Nobles
|3. The Vaisyas
|4. The Sudras
Those who do not fall
into these four divisions are commonly described. as Harijans or Outcastes. This
division, however, is an inadequate description of caste in Ceylon, for by it
most of the Hindus in the Island would be simply classified as Sudras and
Outcastes. Such a simple classification will not suffice. It is, indeed,
necessary to give two lists of classification, as there are marked differences
between the Ceylon Tamils and the South Indian Tamils.
In each list, alongside
the name of the caste, is given the hereditary occupation associated with it,
though today many individual members of these castes are not actively engaged in
that particular occupation. The first list is of Ceylon Tamils. There are two
broad divisions, the clean and the unclean castes, and in each division the
order given is an indication of the status ascribed to the various castes.
List 1 - Ceylon Tamils (Hindus)
|A. The Clean Castes
| Chetty Vellala
||Cultivator & Trader
||Cooks (domestic servants) to Vellalas
| a. Thattar
| b. Collar
| c. Thachchar
| d. Sitpar
||Dhoby (people who wash clothes)
|B.-The Unclean Castes
|| Tree-tappers and labourers
||Scavengers, funeral tom-tom beaters
||Dhobics to Palla, Nalava and Paraiyar
The second list gives a classification of the South Indians who have come to
work in Ceylon. whether they be traders or immigrated labourers. Here again
there is a division into two main groups, the Kudianas and the non-Kudianas. Mr.
Lewis B. Green writes : " On enquiring the caste of a cooly (South
Indian), the answer will frequently be, ` I am a Kudiana"
This term Kudiana roughly covers the caste described as ` clean ' in the first
list. On the tea and rubber estates in Ceylon most of these South Indian Tamils
are now no longer following their hereditary occupation.
List 2 - South Indian Tamils
|2. Retti (or Kappu)
||Robbers. Originally these people were thieves but now
they have taken to cultivation and estate work. On the estates they are
good watchmcn; a case of ` set a thief to catch a thief.'
||A Telugu caste, hunters and fishermen now employed on
||Non-Brahmanic priests drawn from the other castes.
|5. The Panchalas (Craftsmen)
||Ironsmiths and blacksmiths
||Shepherds and Cattleherds. Many are now employed on the
estates as carters, wheelwrights, shoe-wrights and even cattle-keepers.
||jungle people of South India
||N.B.-Among both these castes are those who practise
Ayurvedic medicine, exorcism of demons. Many of their wives are
recognised midwives. They do not eat meat or drink liquor.
||The funeral tom-tom beaters. Their position in Ceylon
is slightly better than it is in India. They eat meat, even carrion
flesh. Their priests, called Valluvar, are adepts at charms and
This list of South Indian Tamils does not claim to exhaust all the South Indian
Tamils who have come to Ceylon but it covers the main groups that are found
working in the Island.
It is necessary to add
explanatory notes on the castes of the Ceylon Tamils.
1. The Brahman.
In Ceylon there is a
very small community of Brahmans and practically all of them are attached to
temples, either as priests or as assistants. Comparatively few of them receive
an education in the recognised English Secondary Schools. This is a rather
different position from that held by Brahmans in. India. The Brahmans in India
are certainly not confined to the temples ; indeed most of them are among the
best educated people and are taking an active part in the economic and political
life of the country. There are some people who think that the Ceylon Brahmans
are not really Brahmans by race. To cross the sea is one way to lose caste, and
it is thought that a high caste Brahman in India would not lightly take the
adventure across the sea to Ceylon. Hence those who hold this view contend that
the Brahmans who are presently attached to temples in Ceylon were originally
selected by the community from another caste for this purpose. Whatever be their
origin they are held in great respect and they are looked upon as the superior
caste. The Brahmans. wear the sacred thread : they are also strictly vegetarian.
2. The Vellala.
When reference is made
in Ceylon to the high caste Hindu, everyone has in mind the Vellala, the
respectable, nonBrahman caste. About 90 per cent of the well educated Hindus
belong to this caste. Traditionally they are cultivators, and even now, although
many of them have obtained posts in Government service, they still retain. thcir
fields for tills is their title right to their 'Standing in tile community.
Although some Vellalas are strictly vegetarian, others will eat mutton, fowl and
certain kinds of fish, but they will not touch beef, pork, turtle and other
kinds of fish. Among the Vellalas themselves there are many sub-divisions, some
of which are regarded as higher than others. The Vellalas of Paloli (Point
Pedro), Karativu. and Arali for instance, are regarded as pure 'Blue' Vellalas,
and they lay claim to a respect which no one will dispute ; they are' citizens
of no mean city.' Some of the Vellalas claim to be called Chetty Vellala and to
belong to a slightly higher caste than the other Vellalas, but although many of
the villagers recognize their claim, there is little support for it, and in fact
they actually inter-marry with the other Vellalas. These Chetty Vellalas should
be distinguished from the Chettiar community which has immigrated to Ceylon from
South India. These South Indian Chettiars originate from an area known as Nattu
Chotty. Their chief, the late Sri Annamalai Chettiar, who founded the Annamalai
University, received the title of Raja from the British Government. These
Chettiars from South India are a wealthy, influential trading community. They
too are Saivite Hindus and many of their temples are in Colombo.
3. The Karaiyar
The Karaiyar or
fisherfolk caste is regarded as much inferior to the Vellalas. They live mainly
near the coast. Many of them are now well educated and hold good positions. Many
of them have become Roman Catholics. The Muchavar, also fisherfolk, are
generally regarded as a lower caste than the Karaiyar who refuse to intermarry
4. The Koviyar
This Koviyar caste is
unknown in India, and the community in Ceylon is very small, being largely
confined to the Jaffna peninsula. It is widely believed that they were
originally Sinhalese and that their ancestors were war captives. Their main
occupation is that of domestic servants to the Vellalas, and they are recognized
as ,excellent cooks. At a Vellala funeral, it has long been the custom for the
Koviyar caste to carry the corpse. In social status, however, they are roughly
parallel to the Karaiyar.
5. The Panchalas.
This is the general
designation given to the five groups of craftsmen, and they are regarded as
parallel castes. The Thattar, goldsmiths, are responsible for all the jewellery
and ornaments to which Hindu women and men are most partial. Many of the
Panchala castes are now educated and have found employment as clerks in the
Government Clerical Service.
6. The Nadduvar.
These are the musicians
engaged for most domestic, social and religions functions, though they are not
called for funerals. In India, it is from this caste that the Deva-adiyalkal,
the temple dancers, are drawn. But in addition to these professional Nautch
girls who come to Ceylon from South India, there are others drawn from the
Nadduvar caste in Ceylon. The professional prostitutes belong to this caste.
Originally they were undoubtedly associated with the temple, but nowadays they
are mainly concerned with the commercial aspect of their profession.
Nevertheless, many of them are still regarded as married to a god. They take
part in a ceremony called Podduccaddutal, during which a circular metal symbol
is placed round the neck. Among the Hindus in Ceylon the token and symbol of
marriage is the tali, which is fastened round the bride's neck. When a marriage
between a man and a woman takes place, the tali is engraved But the professional
prostitute, who undergoes this rite, Podduccaddutal, receives a blank tali. She
is married not to a particular man, but to the god.
All the castes already commented upon are regarded as ` Clean' castes, although
there is such a wide difference iii their social rank.
7. a. The Vannar, the dhoby, is permitted to enter the temple. But the
remaining castes, including, 7. b. The Ambattar the barber, are unclean ;
they are not permitted to enter the temple. All these ` unclean ' castes are
able to pollute the higher, ` clean ' castes. Poluution in Ceylon is only by
actual contact; pollution by shadow is not recognized except by a few Hindus,
who believe that they ,can be polluted even by the shadow of certain birds.
Nowadays even pollution
by touch is necessarily modified, for in the public trains, tramcars and buses,
there are no separate compartments specially allocated to high and low castes.
In many of these crowded conveyances contact with low caste men is almost
unavoidable. There are, of course, many strict Hindus who take all necessary
precautions, and, whenever they travel, they will, before entering a high caste
home, purify themselves by washing.
8. The Palla and the
The Palla are the field
labourers, the, coolies. The Nalava are also labourers, but they are generally
known as the tree-tappers, tapping the palmyrah, kitul and coconut trees from.
which toddy and arrack are obtained. These two castes are roughly of equal
status. They seldom own land. Originally they were almost the slaves of the
Vellala who allowed them to occupy his outer buildings and, for this privilege,
they worked in his fields. The British made every effort to abolish this system
of forced labour, known as Rajakariya_
This they accomplished
in 1832, in spite of considerable local opposition. The abolition of Rajakariya
put an end to the legal sanction which the caste system of forced labour had
hitherto received. Nevertheless,. the Vellala continued to treat the Palla and
the Nalava as inferiors. Even today, the older Palla and Nalava women in Jaffna
continue to wear the sari just above their breac.ts, leaving their shoulders
bare. This practice was, hitherto, rigidly enforced by the higher castes. But
many of the younger Pa11a and Nalava women, especially those who have received a
little education and are more prosperous, now insist on wearing the sari over
their shoulders. On the whole, the Palla and Nalava castes have a darker skin.
These two castes will sometimes intermarry, but they will not interdine.
9. Kusavar and Seneer.
The Kusavar are the
potters ; the Seneer are the weavers. Their occupations, unlike those of the
Panchalas, are regarded as menial arid for this reason they are ` unclean '
10. Kadaiyar and
Kadaiyar are the lime
burners. They also undertake the work of colour vs ashing buildings. The
Chakkiliyar are people who work in leather, and, as the hide comes from the
sacred cow, they are considered a very low caste.
11. The Paraiyar
The Paraiyar is not
really a caste, but an outcaste. They eat beef and sometimes carrion flesh They
are the noisy tom-tom beaters, engaged at funerals and also for the purpose of
town crying. The Tamil word " parai " means 'drum ' ; its verb means to "
announce." The Paraiyar caste also provides the greater portion of the
scavengers, urban and municipal.
12. The Thurumba
- The Thurumba are the lowest of the low castes. They are really the dhobies for
the Palla, the Nalava and the Paraiyar. They are usually found distant from the
towns and rarely come into contact with the high castes. The Vannar, considered
higher than the Palla, would never consent to wash clothes for the Palla, and
hence this work is done by the Thurumba caste. The late Rev. Father Gnana
Pragasam held that all the Thurumba caste people are now Roman Catholics. This
claim may be true, but it does not in any way alter their status in the eyes of
The general practice is for only the members of the same caste
to eat together. This practice refers to the full meal of which cooked rice
forms a part. At weddings and other social events, short eats and cake may be
served to all who are present, irrespective of caste, though the Brahman would
refuse to eat with others even on such occasions. Food :sc-nt by members of a
higher caste to those of a lower caste can be eaten, but again the meal is
shared by only members of that lower caste. Rice must be cooked by a member of
the same caste. There is one strange exception to this rule. The Koviyar are
engaged as cooks to the Vellala and no question of pollution ever rises. It has
already been pointed out that this Koviyar caste is an anomaly, and this may
account for the exception. In Colombo where life is cosmopolitan and greatly
influenced by western civilization, there is some relaxation of the caste rules
regarding eating. Here members of different castes may mix and dine together.
Strangely enough, however, when these very same persons are in Jaffna, they
strictly observe the caste exclusiveness by eating with only members of their
A proper Hindu marriage is possible only within the same caste.
A high caste man may have a mistress in a slightly lower caste without being
polluted, but he must not marry outside his own caste. According to Hindu Law,
inter-caste marriage is illegal. In India, polygamy is lawful even according to
Civil Law, but in Ceylon the Civil haw insists on monogamous marriage even for
The low ` uuclean ' castes are expected by Hindu custom to
conform to certain recognized dress. The men should be barebodied, and certainly
not presume to wear a jacket. There are instances where low caste men have been
threatened and even abused by high caste men for presuminmg to wear dress not in
keeping with their social status. The Palla and Nalava women, as already
explained, are expected to leave their shoulders bare. In Jaffna and parts of
the Eastern Province these customs regarding dress are fairly strictly observed,
but elsewhere, especially on the estates where climatic conditions necessitates
warm clothes, the customs are considerably relaxed.
There are several recognized ways by which a Hindu may lose
caste. One way is by marriage to a person belonging to a lower caste. Such a
person would then be considered to belong to the.lower caste. Theoretically a
person who eats beef becomes a Paraiyar, but today, in practice, this is
generally overlooked. In Colombo it is all but ignored. A person who kills his
father should really become a Paraiyar. In many of the sacred Hindu books,
plays, songs, poems, it
is held that a person loses caste when he commits sacrilege. But again in
practice this is ignored., perhaps because few really know what is meant by
sacrilege. Another way by which one may lose caste is to leave one's own
country, especially if one should cross the sea.
There is a religious ceremony called Prayacitta
2 by which a man who has married
outside his caste, or committed sacrilege or travelled abroad, may regain caste.
Members of his family take him to the temple where he is cross-examined by the
priest to whom he promises to make amends for the past. He is bathed
ceremoniously and is required to accept some form of penance, such as rolling
round the temple, or, more commonly, the payment of
a fee. Generally, apart from the penance, there is an offering made to the
temple. The priest recites prescribed verses and finally declares
the man clean. Many young Hindus have left Ceylon for higher education in
Europe, especially in England. In former days, all without exception submitted
themselves, on their return, to this religious ceremony, even today many
orthodox Vellalas strictly observe this practise. Many of the South Indian
Tamils who come to Ceylon for work in the estates submit to a similar religious
ceremony on their return to India.
The Twice Born
The twice born Hindus are those who have passed from one cycle
of re-births and are now permitted to wear the sacred thread. In India the twice
born are confined to the three higher castes, but in Ceylon, they include the
Brahmans and a very small percentage of very high caste Vellalas of both sexes,
all of whom undergo a religious ceremony called Diksha. Brahmans invariably take
this initiation ceremony about the age of five or six ; the high caste Vellalas
take it later when they are fourteen or fifteen.
For a month before and a month. after the ceremony, the
candidate for initiation is strictly vegetarian. in his diet, and during the
preparatory month he is taught Sanskrit prayers. On the chosen day he is
ceremonially bathed and taken to the temple whore the priest repeats several
mantrams and whispers something into his ear, something which he is to keep
secret and never tell to another Hindu ; to tell another uninitiated Hindu is
regarded as a grievous sin. The secret word is s AUM Sivayaham which is Siva's
During the ceremony, sacred ash is smeared with three finger
tips, forming three distinct bars or lines upon sixteen different parts of the
body. The uninitiated will just rub the ash upon his forehead, but those who
have taken " Diksha " are entitled to wear the three distinct bars of the
Saivaites For each mark upon the body there is also a corresponding prayer.
The Hindu has a string of seeds from the tree Rudraksha (Rudra,
being another name for Siva, and aksha meaning " an eye.") This string of seeds
is like the Roman Catholic's rosary. The sacred number of seeds is one hundred
and one. The twice-born Saivite will wear this string of Rudraksha seeds around
Another privilege of the twice-born is the wearing of the,
sacred thread. Incidentally, in Jaffna, the Thattar, goldsmiths, also wear a
thread, though they have not undertaken this ceremony, nor are they regarded as
twice-born. The Thattar, however, wear the thread over the right shoulder and
under the left arm, whilst the twice-born wear the sacred thread over the left
shoulder and under the right arm. Having been duly initiated, the twice-born
Hindu is expected henceforth to maintain a higher standard than other Hindus in
the observance of ceremonial religion. He is expected to be more strictly
vegetarian and more regular in his bathing. Moreover, the twice-born is expected
to attain a higher standard of moral behaviour.
Caste and Occupation
In Ceylon, caste, at any rate in origin, was closely associated
with a particular occupation, but today that particular occupation is not
necessarily followed by all the members of the same caste. Nevertheless,
whenever another occupation or profession is taken up, it is never one that it
is associated with another caste : it is always work that does not seem to have
been provided for among the respective castes.
Government service, especially during the British occupation of
Ceylon, has provided many posts for Hindus, such as, Engineering, especially in
connection with roads and irrigation ; Postal services ; Railways ; work at the
Port of Colombo ; Bank clerks and messengers ; all the professions, doctors,
apothecaries, inspectors of schools, teachers, lawyers. All these occupations
are open to men of all castes. In actual practice most of the highly paid posts
have been filled by men from the high castes, though members of the lower castes
are found in most of the professions and clerical occupations. On the Tea and
Rubber Estates also much of the work, both in the field and in the factory, is
entirely new and does not have any particular caste flavour. But even though a
man may change his occupation, he still retains his caste. Many Vellalas who
have ceased to be cultivators still hold tenaciously to their land and property,
for this is the outward and visible proof of their caste claims.
The Unclean Castes
The unclean castes among the Ceylon Hindus are not permitted to
enter the larger temples, or to bathe in the sacred tanks, springs or rivers.
There is as yet no universal welcome extended to them. In India there has been
considerable agitation to open the temples to Harijans, but in Ceylon such
agitation is spasmodic, In Jaffna and the Eastern Provinces, the unclean castes
are just kept out.
Many of them have their own smaller temples and shrines, and
their most popular gods and goddesses are Bhairava, Ganesa, Virabhdra, Aiyanar,
Muni, Muniandy, Annamar, Madasvami, Kannakai, Kali and Mari Amman. The Palla and
the Nalava castes have their own temples and their own priests, and they in turn
refuse admission to the Thurumba and the Paraiyar. At these Palla and Nalava
temples, the sacrifice of goats and fowls is commonly practiced. In addition to
these low caste temples, there are numerous shrines found under trees, or by the
side of the paddy fields in which the Palla and the Nalava work.
The Paraiyars also set up their own little shrines under wayside
trees. Even the language and forms of address emphasize the difference that
exists between the castes. In Tamil there are three forms for the second person
singular. The first " Neengal " is used when a superior is addressed ; the
second, " Deer " is used when addressing an equal ; the third, " Nee," is used
only for an inferior. The high caste man always employs the third term when
addressing a member of the lower caste. When a Paraiyar man is asked for his
name, he will reply : " I think I am a Perumal." These unclean castes as a
general rule - preface their statements with this, `I think', which goes to
emphasize their modesty and lowly status.
High caste Hindus use this expression only when they address a
holy man. For centuries the unclean castes have acquiesced in their lot. But
today there are abundant signs of uneasiness among both high caste and low caste
: the former fears the awakening of the latter, whilst the latter is beginning
to demand rights which the former has so long denied him. The introduction of
universal franchise has placed a powerful weapon in the hands of the low caste.
The provision of education, now free from the Kindergarten to
the University, has made it possible for the low caste to understand more of the
world in which he lives. The infiltration of Communist political propaganda has
helped to fire the low caste with greater determination to throw off the stigma
of caste. Many instances of the changing situation could be given. Here and
there comes the demand to open temples to all castes. The incident, already
recorded, at the Nallur Skanda Temple exemplifies this demand.
There is also the demand to open schools, hitherto attended by
only high caste children, to the children of the low castes. A few years ago,
the Manager of a Christian School at Tunnalai East requested the head teacher to
admit low caste children. At first, the head teacher refused, but, when the
Manager threatened to report him to the Education Department, he acquiesced.
But during the following night, the school building was
burned down. Some years ago the Education Department arranged to supply midday
meals to school children. This created certain difficulties even in those
schools to which only `clean ' caste children go, but the employment of a high
caste cook and the grouping of children into caste groups for the, actual eating
of the meal met the situation. The children bring their own plates and so avoid
pollution. On an estate, there is usually only one school which all children
attend, whether they are regarded as clean or unclean, but invariably these
children are separated into caste, groups for their lessons as well as for their
midday meal. The opening of many new Government Central Schools, in which free
education is provided for every child, irrespective of caste, will tend to bring
children of all castes together. This has long been taking place in the
Christian denominational schools, and now the Government Schools are pledged to
extend this reformation.
Now and again very unpleasant clashes take place between the
high castes and the low castes. According to Hindu custom, the high caste
cremates his dead, whilst the law castes buries his dead. Legally, however, all
castes can claim to cremate their dead. At Viloondy, in Jaffna, in 1945, a
number of people belonging to the Nalava caste claimed the right to cremate a
corpse in the cremation grounds used by the Vellalas. The Vellalas raised an
objection to this, but the Nalavas ignored them. Then followed a skirmish in
which two members of the Nalava caste were shot and killed.
In April, 1947, very near to Jaffna town, another low caste man
was shot by a boutique keeper. The unclean castes are permitted to buy tea to
drink at the boutique (a small street shop), provided they bring their own
vessel into which the tea is poured. On this occasion a man of an unclean caste
failed to bring his vessel, but seeing an empty cigarette tin inside the
boutique, he suggested that this be given him for his tea. The boutique keeper,
to whom the cigarette tin belonged, shot and killed this low caste man for his
insolence and forgetfulness of his station. Both these incidents subsequently
came before the law courts.
On the estates the South Indian Tamils are not subject to the
manifold caste restrictions that appertain in South India In South India, the
Paraiyars and other outcaste groups are obliged to live in separate villages,
and they are not permitted to draw water from the well which is used by other
castes. In Ceylon, though a planter takes note of caste when arranging to
accommodate his workers in the "lines", there is nothing like the same
segregation, and all castes draw water from a common spout. Most of the
labourers employed on an estate have access to the estate Hindu temple. The
conditions under which they live and work have tended to break down many of the
Non Hindus and Caste
Theoretically Christian Tamils, Europeans, Burghers and Muslims
are outcastes, and as a general rule they are treated as such as far as temple
ritual and worship is concerned. In practice there is little evidence that any
of these groups are so treated. But Muslims are really outcastes because they
are beef- eaters, so also are the beef-eaters among Christians. In the majority
of Hindu temples in Ceylon, a European is permitted to enter provided he removes
his shoes, and, in some instances, provided he washes his feet before entering.
There are some Hindu temples where the European is not welcome, especially at
the festival season. Buddhists. who theoretically are heretics, are not regarded
as outcastes.3 For Hindus in
Ceylon, Buddhism is a tolerated religion. The Buddhist is commended because he
is not a beef-eater. The Vaddas, strangely enough, are regarded as fairly good
caste, for though they eat many kinds of meat, they do not eat beef. The regard
for them may be due in part to the legend of Skanda the favourite god, and the
Vadda princess, Valli, whom he weed and married. Nevertheless, according to
Hindu writings, a man can only be a Hindu if he is actually born a Hindu. Others
who wish to become Hindus can, in their present life, arrive at a right
conception of Hinduism, and then, in the next birth, they will be born a Hindu.
1. Lewis D. Green, op. cit., page 3.
2. A Ceremony of Atonement, cf Crown of Hinduism,
J.N.Farqubar page 171
3. Most of the villagers who support the Sivan Temple at
Munnesvaram are Sinhalese.