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Sinhalese Presidential Elections

A vanity fair of gaudy caste carnival

by Sachi Sri Kantha, December 15, 2009

Here is my hypothesis. The Sinhalese presidential elections are nothing but a gaudy caste carnival. What I present below will be unpalatable for many Sinhalese. But, I have the grit to say what is true. Many patriotic Sinhala Buddhists deny the existence of caste rivalry...

In this paper we shall be content with an analysis of the mechanism of caste in Ceylon – an instance of caste in the classical sense, less complex though not less interesting than the Indian system. In this instance we are incidentally provided with historical data which indicate how racial divergencies are transmuted into authentic caste relationships.

In actual fact, the cultivators or farmers (goigama or goiwanse) comprised the chief caste, the ‘good people’, as opposed to the ‘low castes’. This ‘farmer aristocracy’, as it has been called...

The Sinhalese word ‘perahera’ means a procession, especially as connected with some major Buddhist temples, and is the equivalent of a carnival. The Microsoft Encarta Dictionary in my work desk describes the origin of carnival as follows: ‘Carnival comes from Italian, and is based on Latin words meaning ‘meat, flesh’ and ‘raise, lift’. It refers to the Christian practice of giving up meat-eating for Lent, the 40 days before Easter.”

Bryce Ryan 1953 Caste in Modern CeylonIn 1953, sociologist Ralph Pieris concluded in his paper on Sinhalese castes [see appendix below, for excerpts of this paper that was published in the Social Forces journal] that “In Ceylon and India, despite the infiltration of ‘democratic’ ideas and a system of representative government, the caste system dies hard.” This conclusion is still valid even after 56 years. The tradition of presidential elections, was instituted by Junius Richard Jayewardene (a pretending-to-be-pious Buddhist) who deluded himself as the 20th century version of ancient Buddhist monarchs. The presidential elections in Sri Lanka have provided entertainment for the suffering masses, with a lot of tongue muscle-flexing, acrobatics and oral gymnastics. In the past 27 years, Sri Lanka has seen five presidential elections (in 1982, 1988, 1994, 1999 and 2005). We will see another one in January 2010.

Here is my hypothesis. The Sinhalese presidential elections are nothing but a gaudy caste carnival. What I present below will be unpalatable for many Sinhalese. But, I have the grit to say what is true. Many patriotic Sinhala Buddhists deny the existence of caste rivalry. Ideally, this may be true; but, in reality, the Buddhism practised in Sri Lanka is a hotpotch of a syncretic religious mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism. As such, the caste concept of Hinduism had crept into Sinhala Buddhism.

I became interested in this issue of Sinhalese castes, when in 1990s, I was engaged in a discussion with H.L.D. Mahindapala (former editor of Colombo Observer and an anti-Tamil commentator) in the pages of Lanka Guardian magazine, edited by Mervyn de Silva. Mahindapala in his ignorance (He was/is ignorant on many historial facts, including Sinhalese society) denied (1) the existence of rodiya (the outcastes) and (2) slavery, among the Sinhalese. Both of Mahindapala’s beliefs were wrong, if one studies the research of Bryce Ryan and Ralph Pieris.

Background to Sinhalese Castes

In the late 1940s, Bryce Ryan, the first professor of sociology at the University of Ceylon, traversed the nooks and corners of Sinhalese country and produced a masterpiece ‘Caste in Modern Ceylon: The Sinhalese System in Transition’ (Rutgers University Press, 1953). According to Ryan, Sinhalese split themselves along caste lines into 25 categories. These are as follows:

1. Govi-vamsa (Goyigama) = Cultivators of the soil


Radala = King’s office holders
Mudali = Leaders of the people
Patti = King’s cowherds
Katupulle = King’s clerical servants
Nilamakkara = Temple servants
Porovakara = Wood cutters, axemen to the King
Vahal = ‘Slaves’, household workers to Radala
Gattara = Goyigama ‘outcastes’
Guruvo = Conch blowers

2. Karava = Fishermen


Karawa Porovakara =unknown

3. Salagama = Cinnamon peelers


Hevapanne =soldiers
Kurundukara = Cinnamon peelers

4. Durava = toddy tappers

5. Navandanna (Aacari) = Artisans, including smiths of all types

6. Hannali = Tailors

7. Hunu = Chunam (Lime) burners

8. Hena or Rada (Dhoby) = Washers to higher castes

9. Vahumpura (Hakuru) = Jaggory makers

10. Hinna = Washers to Salagama

11. Badahala = Potters

12. Panikki = Barbers

13. Velli-durayi = Guardians of Sacred Bo-tree

14. Panna-durayi = Possibly grass cutters

15. Berava = Tom-tom beaters

16. Batgam Berava =  Tom-tom beaters

17. Kontadurayi = Unknown

18. Batgam (Padu) = Possibly King’s palanquin bearers

19. Oli = Dancers

20. Pali = Washers to low castes

21. Kinnara = Mat weavers

22. Gahala-berava = Funeral drummers and executioners

23. Rodi = ‘Outcastes’, beggars

Hierarchically unclassed

24. Kavikara = Devale (temple) dancers and chanters

25. Demala-Gattara = Tamil ‘outcastes’

Make a note of the 25th caste listed by Bryce Ryan, Demala-Gattara, the Tamil ‘outcastes’. In the current President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet, there are quite a few who now belong to this caste, such as Douglas Devananda, V. Muralitharan (aka Karuna, aka Kokila Gunawardena) and Arumugam Thondaman Jr. In Rajapaksa’s predecessor’s cabinet, there was one prominent Demala-Gattara type, Lakshman Kadirgamar. Few of the rabid anti-Tamil baiters in the past who have promoted themselves as Sinhalese leaders, rose from some non-Govigama castes: Charles Percival de Silva (Karava), Ranasinghe Premadasa (Hinna), Konara Mudhiyanselage Piyasena Rajaratne (Karava), Cyril Mathew (Wahumpura), Merrill Kariyawasam (Karava), and Rohana Wijeweera (Karava).

What is not mentioned by Bryce Ryan were the hybrid half-caste types, represented in Sinhalese politics by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene, both of whom in the 1950s promoted anti-Tamil chauvinism. Bandaranaike’s paternal origin (as his surname reveals) was from Tamilnadu pandaram (a lowly Brahmin, or as Ralph Pieris denotes below ‘priests of a low grade’) caste. Jayewardene’s paternal origin (as revealed by his biographer K.M. de Silva) was from the Tamilnadu chettiyar caste.

Here is a caste identity listing of the chief combatants of the past five presidential elections and the leading horses for the 2010 elections.

1982: J.R. Jayewardene (half-caste) against H. Kobbekaduwa (Kandyan Goigama). Winner Jayewardene.

1988: R. Premadasa (Hinna) against Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Kandyan Goigama). Winner Premadasa.

1994: Chandrika Kumaratunga (half-caste) against Sirima Dissanayake (Kandyan Goigama). Winner Kumaratunga.

1999: Chandrika Kumaratunga (half-caste) against Ranil Wickramasinghe (probably, Low Country Goigama). Winner Kumaratunga.

2005 Mahinda Rajapaksa (Low Country Goigama) against Ranil Wickramasinghe (probably, Low Country Goigama). Winner Rajapaksa.

2010: Mahinda Rajapaksa (Low Country Goigama) against Sarath Fonseka (karava).

As the forthcoming presidential elections compete two Sinhalese from two different castes from the Low Country Dry Zone region, I present the caste statistics in Tangalle, as counted in 1824 January 27 by the British authorities and published in 1827, as ‘Return of the Population of the Island of Ceylon’. This data is culled from Ralph Pieris’s book Sinhalese Social Organization: The Kandyan Period (Ceylon University Press Board, 1956, p. 192). Castes are listed in decreasing hierarchical order.


Farmers (Goyigama) 45,769


Fishers (Karave) 7,451

Toddy-drawers (Chandos) 7,280

Smiths (Achari) 3,004

Potters (Badahala-badda) 696

Barbers (Ambattayo) 263

Washers (Rada-badda) 3,316

Salagama (Chalias) 2,348

Tom-Tom beaters (Berava-badda) 2,646

Jaggery makers (Hakuru) 1,846

Lime Burners (Chunam) 473

Washermen to Salagama (Hinna) 425

Mat weavers (Kinnaru) 16

Dancers (Oli) 639

Tailors (Hannali) 33

Iron-smelters, executioners (Padu) 56

Though theoretically the monarchic traditions that preserved and propagated the adu kula (‘low castes’) have waned, the Sinhalese presidential elections instituted by Jayawardene in 1982 have rejuvenated the various tribes of barbers, washers, dancers, tailors, lime burners, iron smelters, tom-tom beaters and executioners to service the monarch pretenders.

Ralph Pieris also noted in his 1956 book that, “It was in marriage that the regulations of caste were most evident, and besides caste endogamy, even ranks within a caste sometimes refrained from marrying into an inferior family of the same caste. The taboo on inter-caste marriages did not however apply so strictly to all sexual relations, and the principle of hypergamy – the tendency on the part of women of lower castes to become concubines of men of exalted caste – was extensively practised.” (p. 177) An alternative pattern, a reverse hypergamy of lower caste men marrying high caste Goigama women, in the island also occurred during the past 500 years. The paternal ancestry of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene attest to this fact.


Appendix: Excerpts from Ralph Pieris’s 1952 Paper on Sinhalese Castes

Caste, Ethos and Social Equilibrium

by Ralph Pieris [Social Forces, May 1952, vol.30, no.4, pp. 409-415.]

Note: Words in italics are as in the original.

In his account of the advent of caste societies, Toynbee contends that such societies are apt to arise in two alternative ways as a result of immigration. On the one hand, an indigenous population may be conquered by a powerful invading people ‘who forbear to exterminate it and disdain to coalesce with it, and are constrained to tolerate it in the status of a depressed caste’. Such states of society arose in Africa, and in Australia on account of physical segregation of the aboriginal tribes in ‘reserves’, and in India, as Barker puts it, the British accepted the idea of caste so thoroughly that they made themselves a governing caste – ‘a caste side by side with, or, as an Indian might say, above the rest.’ This was done by creating an unbridgeable social distance between the governors and the governed. In other words, the impinging group is faced with a choice: “Shall they treat these ‘natives’ as vermin to be exterminated, or as domesticable animals to be turned into hewers of wood and drawers of water? No other alternative need be considered if ‘niggers have no souls’.

The classical instance of a crystallized caste system is, of course, that of Hindu India. The quest for the origins of this intricate web of social relations is practically futile. Hutton, enumerating the obvious factors contributing to the emergence of caste in India, includes geographical, racial, religious, economic and other considerations. In this paper we shall be content with an analysis of the mechanism of caste in Ceylon – an instance of caste in the classical sense, less complex though not less interesting than the Indian system. In this instance we are incidentally provided with historical data which indicate how racial divergencies are transmuted into authentic caste relationships.

In Ceylon, the classical Hindu fourfold division into priest, warrior, merchant and slave (Brahmana. Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudra) had long suffered attrition in the exigencies of social practice. In actual fact, the cultivators or farmers (goigama or goiwanse) comprised the chief caste, the ‘good people’, as opposed to the ‘low castes’. This ‘farmer aristocracy’, as it has been called, is far from being the exact counterpart of the feudal nobility of mediaeval Europe. Social stratification in feudal Europe represented a pyramid, having at its apex a numerically restricted nobility, and the great mass of the ‘common people’ – serfs, villeins, and so forth – at its base. In Ceylon, the so-called farmer aristocracy consisted of the bulk of the population, and the system of social stratification represented an inverted pyramid. Many high caste individuals were economically dependent on feudal lords; some of them were slaves, but their owners were invariably of equal or higher caste than themselves. On the other hand, there were men of considerable wealth among the low castes at all times. The analogy with European feudalism lies not in any similarity of the social gradations, but in the fact that economic obligation, generally, was linked to the system of land tenure.

“But it is the Birth and Parentage that inobleth’, observed Knox long ago. At no time was wealth a criterion of gentility. “Riches cannot prevail with them in the least to marry with those by whom they must eclipse and stain the Honour of their Family; on which they set an higher price than their lvies.” The King therefore selected his provincial governors and high officials from the chief caste, usually from a group of high-ranking oligarchic families within the caste, and he regarded not their ability or efficiency, “only they must be persons of good rank and gentile extraction; and they are all naturally discreet and very solid, and so the fitter for the King’s employment.” It is no wonder, then, that the cultivators the proverb was current, “Take a ploughman from the plough and wash off his dirt, and he is fit to rule a kingdom.”

The entire system of Ceylon was founded on a magico-religious base, its cornerstone being the idea of service due to the ‘good people’ from the ‘low castes’. These ‘low castes’ are usually associated with specific occupational functions, e.g: washerman (rada), drummers (berrewa), barbers (ambattea), and so on, down to the very small caste whose function was to provide the royal stores with mats. The rodiyas or outcastes are forbidden to wear any clothing above the waist, and are obliged to beg for a living. But these economic functions of the most important of the low castes (in the sociological sense), are only a symbolization of a sacrificial role in religious observances and familial ceremonies. It is not without reason, then, that the drummer is politely called ‘astrologer’ (nakati minissu), and although of inferior grade, certain ‘low castes’ occupy a key position in the society and are essential to social life.

For instance, in the rites connected with the ‘crises of life’ such as puberty, marriage, and funeral celebrations, the washerman is essential. Thus when a girl attains the age of puberty with her first menstruation, the laundress supplies her with a daily change of clothes, and bathes her with due ritual at the auspicious time; for these services the laundress is entitled to the soiled linen, in a corner of which some money is wrapped. Likewise, in the parallel male ceremony of ‘shaving the beard’, the shavings are placed in a cup into which the guests present at the ceremony drop a few coins, and it is handed to the barber who takes the coins and throws the shavings on the roof to prevent people trampling them. Again, at the conclusion of a legal suit, before the judges pronounce the final sentence, the low caste ‘dhoby’ or washerman is asked whether he is satisfied with the findings and the proposed sentence, to which question he must reply in the affirmative. Such examples of the role of the key low castes in birth, puberty, marriage and death ceremonies can be multiplied.

The national religion of the Sinhalese, Buddhism, in its pure form, made no provision for the inexorable facts of death, disease and decay. So the ‘low castes’, represented by the key sacrificial castes, the ‘priests on the cremation ground’, priests of a low grade, perform the vital function of appeasing the devils, the profane deities (Ceylon: Yakshas or Yackas), for whose propitiation pure Buddhism makes no allowance.

The karawe or fisher caste, inhabiting the maritime areas, a comparatively recent immigrant group from India, was absorbed into the caste scheme. The entire caste, totalling 70,000, led by their chief, embraced the Roman Catholic faith during the Portuguese regime and were baptized by the Franciscans in 1556. There is ample evidence of a similar transformation of an immigrant racial group into an authentic caste, in accounts of the Chalia (alternatively Hali or Salagama) caste. They originally came into the Island as captives of war from the ‘opposite coast’ some 700 years ago. They are said to have been called chaliyas because they hailed from Chale, an old Malabar port. Originally numbering 12,000, they were presented to the King as slaves and palanquin bearers, intermarried with the jageroo caste, and multiplied.

These immigrant racial groups assimilated the local culture by employing the same language, adopting the same religion and ideology as the dominant group, and so found a niche within the caste complex. It was in this manner that aboriginal Indian groups lost their indigenous language and culture and acquired that of their ‘Aryan’ conquerors, although relegated to the status of ‘depressed’ castes. It seems, therefore, that the dominant caste is originally a powerful invading group, and, once established as the governing caste, relegates all future immigrant groups to the ranks of the aboriginal inferior castes, the original occupational-sacrificial dualism of function being secularized and specialized in the process.

The ‘low castes’ were jealous of their communal autonomy and permitted no intruders to encroach upon their rights. Even castes which were admittedly low in the status-hierarchy had their distinctive privileges, as we noticed in the case of the chaliyas. Knox has written of how the potters could not at first pour water into their mouths from the pots of their superiors, ‘upon which they jointly agreed’ to make pots only for themselves, whereupon the superiors gave in.

Such collective bargaining was not uncommon; nor was the hierarchical gradation of castes unduly oppressive to the lower castes who were sometimes wealthier than their betters. Even the outcastes could claim the flesh of cattle that died of natural causes, and begged for a living ‘with so much importunity, as if they had a Patent for it from the King, and will not be denied.’

In Ceylon and India, despite the infiltration of ‘democratic’ ideas and a system of representative government, the caste system dies hard. It is true that some of the elaborate ritual associated with the traditional scheme could not survive culture-contact. Thus ‘pollution by approach’ was eliminated in South India by the new means of transport – the bus and the railway. As the Madras Census Report comments, ‘It is probably becoming evident that a person of such rare texture that a presence sixty feet away pollutes him had better seek out some desert island or develop a less fragile purity.’ These fragile forms of purity, including the extremely punctilious modes of salutation, have all but disappeared in Ceylon. Gradually, the more rigid inter-caste restrictions were relaxed, particularly in the towns. In the early British schools pupils had to be seated according to caste, and there was a schoolboy strike when goigama and chaliya boys were taught in the same room. Again, the early British juries had to be selected from lists drawn up on caste lines. Such distinctions are now unknown.

But there has always been deep-seated hesitation in jettisoning the caste system in its entirety. When the Rev. Cordiner wrote early in the last century [i.e., 1807] that “among the Cingalese, the distinction of rank has indeed begun to be less strictly attended to, but without any better boundary being established in its place,” he was prophetic. The ancient system has a social momentum, even if it has taken the form of a vis inertiae, which has withstood the challenge of a bleak individualistic ethos. The less fragile aspects of caste, notably hereditary membership and endogamy, persist even in the case of the westernized elite.