SOME OBSERVATIONS ON CASTE IN JAFFNA Part 1
Posted on January 23rd, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

The essay is not a comprehensive study on caste in Jaffna. It is a cluster of observations on caste in Jaffna collected while researching on the Tamil Separatist Movement. Those who write on Jaffna’s greatness, it’s wonderful culture, its need for a separate state have remained silent on the subject of caste in Jaffna, but caste oppression has now come to be discussed in the media.

I looked at the writings of A.L.Basham and Andre Beteille to see what they say about caste in Tamilnadu. I did so because the Jaffna Tamil” is a product of South India, not Sri Lanka.  The label ‘Ceylon Tamil’ is a bogus label created by the British.  A.L.Basham observed that in India, Tamils were mostly Sudra, a few were Brahmin.   Basham in his book ‘The wonder that was India’ has this to say about caste in Tamilnadu:

Early Tamil literature gives no evidence of caste, but the development of a more complex political and economic structure produced a system in some ways more rigid than that of the North. By the Cola period an important feature of South Indian caste structure had appeared, and this has survived to the present day.

In the Dravidian country groups claiming to be Kshatriyas were few, other than the ruling families, and Vaisyas were equally rare.’ Nearly the whole of the population were Brahmans, Sudras or Untouchables.

The Sudra castes, which formed the mass of the people, were divided into two great caste groups, known as the right and left hands. On the right are the trading castes, some weaving castes, musicians, potters, washermen, barbers, and most of the cultivating and labouring castes. On the left are various castes of craftsmen, such as weavers and leather workers, cowherds, and some cultivating castes.” (Wonder that was India)

There are no high caste Tamils in Sri Lanka said Izeth Hussein. There are very few Brahmins in Jaffna, agreed Jayaweera. The Jaffna Tamil immigrated into Jaffna during the Dutch occupation.    These Tamil emigrants were landless agricultural laborers brought in by the Dutch to work the tobacco plantations in the north.  It is most unlikely that they would have belonged to the Brahmin caste. They would have belonged to the Sudra group.

  1. Sooriasegaram (2017) says,” 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. Unlike the Brahmins in India, they are not highly educated, few have received a good secondary school education.

Some say that the Ceylon Brahmins are not really Brahmin, continued Sooriasegaram. To cross the sea is one way to lose caste, and it is thought that no high caste Brahman from India would have crossed the sea to Ceylon. This means that the Brahmans who are presently attached to temples in Ceylon are from another caste.

There was also the opposite opinion. Bala Tampoe (b 1922) had told Malinda Seneviratne, in an interview that his family belonged to the Jaffna aristocracy and there were even claims that they were connected to Sankili the last Tamil king of Jaffna. Their ancestral home was located opposite the palace at Nallur and was called Sangili thoppe or Sangili garden.

My great, great grandfather was the first Hindu convert to Christianity in Jaffna. Tampoe’s father, a coconut planter in Jaffna, was arrogant, he used to ride horses and carried a whip with him and when he went by car if the road was blocked by cattle or people he would toot his horn and after passing the place would stop take out his whip and lash out at the herdsman or whoever was blocking his path.

Neville Jayaweera, who was   Government Agent in Jaffna 1963-1966, found that the Jaffna Tamil community was ‘highly fragmented by caste’. In Tamilnadu and Jaffna there is a caste consciousness that cannot be equalled anywhere else in the world, announced Jayaweera.

There is an almost impenetrable caste barrier into Vellala and non Vellala, he exclaimed. Even among the Diaspora” abroad the high caste Tamils do not mix with the low caste Tamils.  Rajan Hoole said that the Tamils were a ‘caste ridden entity’. The   standard question asked when one Tamil met another Tamil, what is your village?” That was to find out the caste.

The top caste in Jaffna today is the Vellala, announced Jayaweera. The Vellalas are a unique Tamil social formation peculiar only to Sri Lanka, he observed. In Tamilnadu there is no indigenous concentration of Vellala of any political consequence.

Andre Beteille, who did fieldwork in Sripuram in Thanjavur District, Tamil Nadu, in the 1960s, described the Vellala in Sripuram as peasantry. The Vellala are the cultivating caste par excellence in Tamilnadu, he said. (Caste, Class and Power 1965).    Nalin de Silva added to this.  There is a caste called Vellala in Natal in South Africa, he said. These Vellala are the agricultural labourers who migrated to South Africa from India during British rule. It would have been the same with those who came here for tobacco cultivation in Dutch times.

S.R.N. Hoole said, ‘except for the Vellala themselves, all others agree that the Jaffna Tamils are mostly Sudra. Almost everyone in Jaffna tries to pass off as Vellala, Hoole added. Tamils themselves think that unless he is Vellala he is worth nothing, said Hoole. ’ P.G Veerasingham said that Vellala in Jaffna is a mixture of several castes. Castes such as Kallar, Kayavar, and Ahampady became Vellala over time. (Tales of an Enchanted Boyhood, Alupola to Jaffna 1940-1960)”  

The Vellala appear to have entrenched themselves as the top caste during Dutch times. There was a tremendous growth of Vellala in the Dutch Census, observed S.R.N. Hoole. But the present day Vellala  rose due to  calculated patronage of the British, who gave them access to government jobs, ownership of land in Jaffna and elsewhere in the north,

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, said Sooriasegaram.  There were rankings between the Vellala, agreed Vimala Ganeshananthan. Emily Ganesan     however, dismissed the matter. ‘Why fuss over whether this or that is the higher Vellala, when the Vellala belong to the Sudras. They were not high caste like Brahmins’, she said. (The Yaal players)

In Jaffna, the Vellala were the dominant caste.  They go as the superior class, said Jayaweera.  They are the sole power within Jaffna Tamil society.  Akalya Francisglain observed that Jaffna Tamil literature and the arts tended to pass off Vellala culture as synonymous with Tamil Jaffna culture, since Vellala culture was the dominant one. The Vellala speak a distinctive Vellala Tamil.

The Vellala were about 35% of the Tamil population in Jaffna, but they own about 95% of the land and hold all the economic, social and cultural power, declared Jayaweera. ‘The rest of the Jaffna society, i.e. 65% were lumped together as low caste or pariahs and lived on the margins of Tamil society as faceless persons.’

The Vellala controlled the rights to land and water. They controlled wells and rituals in temples. They were also a closed economic class, owning most of the lands and exercising total control over the economy and politics.

The Vellala were a formidable power group as well. All the Tamils in national politics were Vellala, observed Jayaweera. The Tamil DROs in the 1960s were all from the Vellala caste as well. Almost all the Tamils who entered the university were from the Vellala caste with a sprinkling of the Karayiar caste, said Sebastian Ramalingam. All The Tamil journalists were Vellala.

There were also the non-Vellalas. They were necessary. They did the menial jobs. According to Simon Casie Chetty (1807-1860) there were 152 non Vellala castes in Jaffna.  Emily Ganesan (b 1903) recalled that she was told that there were 24 main castes but many subdivisions within each. Each caste had their separate wells.

Each caste, such as goldsmith, carpenters, potters, had its own strip of land. These strips of land had no interaction.  These various lanes in the Karainagar Island were well known to the LTTE, she added, but were a stumbling bloc for the army. The LTTE negotiated the lanes easily as they knew them but the army followed them, lost their way and ran into a blank fence. The barbers and washer men who worked for the Vellala lived in their compound and worked only for them.

Low castes that came to her grandfather’s house, sat on a low seat. The lowest caste would drag a palmyrah frond to indicate that he was approaching.  The high caste person then moved to the opposite side.  Caste was ever important in marriage and guests of the wedding. In Karainagar, nobody forgot or was allowed to forget his or her caste, she said.

Among the less-privileged castes, Koviyar and Karaiyar were favoured by Vellala community. Unlike the other less-privileged castes, they did not face serious problems, said P.J.Antony. However, Ralph Pieris told me, with a wide smile, that a Tamil colleague, Vellala of course, had told him, probably in the 1950s or 1960s, You Sinhalese don’t know how to keep the Karava caste down, we in Jaffna know how.”

Though Tamils converted to Christianity their caste system remained and Church had no alternative but to recognize the caste system. The caste system was accepted by the Church, and caste became a basic qualification for ordination, said Rasalingam. The Christians whom Jayaweera had consulted in 1960s such as Bishop Kulendran and Puisne Judge H.W. Tambiah said caste system was evil but conformed to it willingly and wouldn’t violate its boundaries.

The missionaries were forced to accept caste distinctions. Uduvil Girls School in Jaffna Initially had girls from lower castes, such as Koviah and Pandarama.Koviah are household cooks equal to the Vellala and Pandaram are temple cooks. Uduvil also offered equal seating to all, in a single dining hall, when serving meals. Uduvil was the first school to voluntarily offer this. Before that, the oppressed castes whether students or parents, had to sit out of the way, separately when eating. But Vellala parents objects to their daughters eating with other castes.

In 1826 the Mission decided to accept only girls of good caste, who had some property, who would be a suitable match for the Christian boys.  The Batticotta School boarding was only for Vellala, but day students were a mixture of Vellala and lower castes, who sat on the ground in school and in church too. The Catholic churches in Jaffna did not permit women to cover their heads with a veil.

Caste oppression continued without hindrance in Jaffna    P.J. Antony (b. probably 1935   ) after my father’s death, my mother worked as a daily-wage labourer to raise me. When she approached some Catholic priests, they asked my mother why I could not be trained in my father’s profession. Upper-caste people thought education was not meant for minority Tamils. Downtrodden castes could not send their children to fee-levying schools due to poverty.

I was a victim of caste discrimination when I was 13 years old in Jaffna, said Antony. I was assaulted by upper-caste students at the Christian school I attended. I cannot forget that incident – even now.

Minority Tamils were not allowed to eat food in the company of upper-caste people. They could not go inside tea shops. Tea was given in rusty tin containers and soda bottles. They were asked to sit on an empty sack spread on the floor when they were given food in shops. This custom existed in the 1960s even in places like Subash Café, P.J. Antony said.

Sebastian Rasalingam (b. 1930s) said having come from a depressed caste and group in the in 1930 s in Jaffna, I know the vicious character of caste, maintained by violence as well. ’ When I was growing up in Jaffna, the lower caste Tamil could not go on buses or attend schools. Their very presence was ‘polluting’. In my young days I sat on the class room floor or carried a low stool from class to class as only the high caste could sit on chairs. The treated me and another child like me as excreta and punished us for daring to be there.

When I moved to Hatton and later to Colombo, in the late 1950s, I found a very different world, continued Rasalingam. My wife and I Found that our work mates, mostly Sinhalese would actually” sit with us and shared a cup of tea. We found that we could go to night schools and study without being threatened, beaten up or go and borrow books and do thing that would bring swift retribution back in the north.  Our dwelling would have been torched and our women raped with impunity.

Caste discrimination in Jaffna is not something of the past it exists with equal ugliness today .   The alleged “discrimination of Tamils by the Sinhalese” was nothing compared to the discrimination of the Tamils by the upper castes of the Tamils themselves, concluded Sebastian Rasalingam, writing from Canada in 2012.

Ananda Dharmapala   said ‘I was born an untouchable in Hindu Jaffna. I had no water to drink because the so called high caste Hindus, denied drinking water to me from the wells. The untouchable wells had run dry. I came to the south, took a Sinhala name and embraced Buddhism. It is possible that a large percent of Tamils became Sinhalese in the past. It is natural because they have joined a better society.’ ( Island 1.5.2004 p 9).

A.C.B. Pethiyagoda who had studied in Jaffna College in 1949 said there was a strong caste system at the time. When he was studying in Jaffna College, he was invited by a friend to coffee at one of the tea kiosks outside the school. The shop owner had asked in Tamil what caste Pethiyagoda was and on being told he was of ‘royalty’ had given him the drink in a glass tumbler. Otherwise it would have been a tin mug and a bench outside the boutique.

Neville Jayaweera discovered caste oppression in Jaffna when he was sent there as Government Agent. He was shocked. There was a deep caste divide in the north    he exclaimed. The low castes were a deeply oppressed, degraded group. Jayaweera called it ‘an appalling tragedy’. Jayaweera described the Jaffna Tamil underclass as it was in the 1960s when I discovered it’.

Anyone born Non-Vellala was frozen in his particular station, whether fishing or tree climbing or whatever. They were tied to their villages and their occupations. They could not reside outside their villages. They could not drink at the village well nor use any other public amenity outside their own villages. They could not wear jewellery, ride in carriages nor use drums at any ceremony. The non Vellalas owned little or no land.

They did not have access to high caste temples owned and managed by Brahmins or Vellala and they did to have access to Hindu schools or higher education. This was breached when the missionaries came, much to the consternation of Hindu leaders. They were not allowed into the premises occupied by the Vellala except for doing the tasks they were born to do. They dared not marry anyone form the Vellala caste, When they died they could not be cremated or buried on land reserved for the Vellalas. It was an oppressive system as bad as that in India, concluded Jayaweera.

In the 1930s and 1940s, minority-Tamil women were not allowed to wear sari blouses, recalled Antony. They had to raise the piece of cloth they wore so as to cover their breasts. The upper-caste people also barred minority-Tamil men from wearing the  Vetti, added P.J.Antony.

‘Every leading Hindu citizen of Jaffna whom I consulted’ had said that the whole caste system including denial of access to temples was deeply embedded in the Hindu religion and any attempt to change will not only be resisted but be treated as sacrilege said Jayaweera.  The Jaffna Tamils Christians consulted by Jayaweera also indicated that they too conformed to caste willingly and would not violate its boundaries.

Lalin Fernando, a senior army officer, who was in charge of the army units in Jaffna also said that Jaffna was very caste conscious. When the army first moved there, in 1961, low cast women were not allowed to wear jackets with their saris.  They were prohibited from bathing at wells of the high caste, they were also excluded from certain temples and they could not sit in buses. He recalled that in 1981 Hindu temples refused to take in the displaced Tamils due to caste.

Engineer M.Sooriasegaram , who lives in Jaffna, writing   in 2017,  stated that the   caste system is still practiced in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is a living cancer within the Tamil community. The high caste is the ruling caste in the Northern Province. All other castes have been discriminated and downtrodden in a wide variety of ways , socially, economically and in many other ways. They have been kept out of temples,  eating  places such as restaurants. Serving tea and food took place in separate low quality designated vessels in a very humiliating manner, concluded Sooriasegaram .

H.L.D Mahindapala pointed out in 2012 that low caste Hindus could not enter high caste Hindu temples in Jaffna. They could not bury their dead according to Hindu rights.  High caste would not let low caste drink from their wells.

The non-Vellala castes tried to improve their position, through ‘peaceful demonstrations’. The Minority Tamils Maha Sabha was established in 1941 with the view to winning the rights of the downtrodden castes, said P.J.Antony. Thiruvalluvar Council, Arunthathiyar Association, Toddy Tappers’ Union and the Washermen’s Union also put forward their demands, continued S.K.Senthivel. The Minority Tamils Council and the Communist Party took the initiative in the matter. But they did not put forward a comprehensive set of rights or launch a firm struggle for the rights, said Senthivel.

In the 1940s the  two most  visible  forms of oppression  was non- access into Hindu temples and tea shops. Low castes were not allowed to enter tea shops  and were served tea in broken bottles or rusted tumblers.  Minority Tamils Maha Sabha organized protests and temple-entry campaigns. These had some success.

Some temples were opened amicably. by 1958, three of the major temples of Jaffna, Nallur Murugan, Vanar Panani Sivan and Yal Perumal temples threw their doors open to the  non[Vellalas. ‘This was a major feat to have achieved without violence – the upper caste management of these temples were progressive for their time – but various other temples had to have their doors broken forcibly over the next decade, before temple entry could take place,’ said Senthivel.

‘As a result of severe pressure’, continued Senthivel,   in the 1950s , certain tea shops in Jaffna agreed to serve all castes from the same vessels. The V.S.S.K. café became the first restaurant to open its doors wide to everyone. Apart from  opening up temples and tea-shops however, progress in other areas of caste oppression continued to be slow.

The MEP government of 1956, led by SWRD Bandaranaike, took note of caste oppression. When the buses were nationalized, the CTB buses allowed anyone to go on them.  That angered the high caste Tamils.

The MEP government  passed the Prevention of Social disabilities Act 21 of 1957 amended later  by Act 18 of 1971.  This Act made Imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their caste to be an offence.

It said any person who imposes any social disability on any other person by reason of such other person’s caste shall be guilty of an offence and shall, on conviction after summary trial before a Magistrate, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years with or without a fine not exceeding three thousand rupees”.

Where an offence under this Act is committed on, or in relation to, any premises where any business is carried on under the authority of a licence and the person who is the proprietor or the manager of such business is convicted of such offence, the court may, in addition to any other punishment it may lawfully impose cancel such licence”.

The Non-Vellalas would have  got much encouragement and support from this Act. ‘In the 1960s there was a change of attitude’ said Senthivel. ‘A mostly non-violent movement which has put up with violence from the dominant castes for decades finally decided to retaliate. They took up arms and forced their way into resisting temples and eateries until nearly all these establishments opened their doors.’

There was a march against caste oppression on 21st October 1966. The march was led by political leaders N. Shanmugathasan, K.A. Subramaniam and V.A. Kandasamy. The march started from Chunnakam and ended in a mass rally at the Jaffna maidan. The march was joined by nearly all castes of the Tamil community, recalled P.J. Antony.  Many of the leaders were beaten up and jailed. Nevertheless, a consciousness had arisen – both in the minds of the anti-casteists as well as the casteists they were addressing – that caste oppression would no longer be acceptable or unchallenged.  It was a historic march by thousands of men and women protesting caste oppression.

By mid 1967, café entry and temple-entry struggles had started. There was direct confrontation.  The café entry confrontation in Changanaie resulted in one death. After Changanai, there were confrontations in cafes in Chavakachcheri, Kodikamam, Acchuveli, Karaveddy, Nelliyadi, Urumpirai, Maruthanarmadam, Chunnakam, Kankesanthurai, Tellippalai, Chitthankeni and Vaddukkoddai,

In Changanai, Kodikamam, Manduvil, Acchuveli, Karaveddy, Kanpollai and Nelliyadi the confrontations became clashes that went on for years.  In Changanai it went on for three years. ‘Up to fifteen militants at the forefront of the struggle became martyrs to the struggle’, said Senthival. Many were imprisoned and tortured in police stations. Many were seriously wounded. At the same time high caste fanatics were also attacked and killed. Many women were at the forefront of struggle, he said.

The battle to gain entry to high case Hindu temples intensified in the 1960s. Jayaweera, as GA Jaffna in the 1960s recorded that there was conflict between the Brahmin and Vellala owned temple authorities on one side and the non Vellala castes on the other. The MPs of the districts and the  14 DROs did nothing to help the non-Vellalas.  The non- Vellalas came to   Jayaweera,  but Jayaweera could not help.

The Vellalas strongly resisted opening their Hindu temples to the low castes. The 1957 Act helped but there were many loopholes in this act when it was implemented for the first time. Taking advantage of these loopholes, the Vellalas continued to prevent minority Tamils from entering the Hindu kovils in Jaffna.

The non-Vellalas did not give up. Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, the most renowned temple in the North, was opened but ‘only under intense pressure. It was the same at Amman temple in Mattvil the Selvacchannathi temple at Thondamanaru and the Azhvar temple in Vallipuram.

The struggle to enter the Maviddapuram Kandaswamy Temple, one of the major temples in the north, went on for three years. During the period the temple remained closed. In  early 1968   non-Vellalas mainly Pallar and Nalavar stormed Maviddapuram temple and staged a non-violent protest outside the temple gates but were met with violence from a group of “high” caste Hindus.

In June 1968  they  tried again and were successful. C Suntheralingam  who was one of the temple authorities had stood at the entrance to the temple flailing his walking stick over his head, and threatening anyone who came within striking distance. Suntheralingam was prosecuted under the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act and fined Rs. 50 by the Supreme Court.

Request to the police to ensure the participation of minority Tamils in pujas and festivals held in Hindu kovils were ignored before 1971. We hardly got the support of the police before 1971 when the Act was amended, said Antony. Once the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act  was amended in 1971, the police, had to support the organisers of temple-entry campaigns.  They could no longer connive with the upper caste or remain inactive. Superintendent of Police, Jaffna, rendered his fullest cooperation to us.  Assistant Superintendent of Police, Kankesanthurai, ordered the trustees of the Variyavalavu Pillayar Kovil in Thunnalai to open the temple to minority Tamils in the presence of some members of the Maha Sabha recalled Antony.  ( continued)

2 Responses to “SOME OBSERVATIONS ON CASTE IN JAFFNA Part 1”

  1. Christie Says:

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616

    Read and see the picture about the caste system in India.

    Those humans caste by Brahma were Caste people. Anyone else is not a Caste person.

    This is well illustrated by the fact Tribes people in India are treated as Dalits ( Chandals)in Tamil). So all people who are not Caste who happen to be Hindus are out casts.

    So for the High Caste Hindus everyone else is a Dalit. So you and me and Putin, Queen, Trump are all Dalits.

    Dalits are concentrated in their own habitat and are not allowed to leave their habitat.

    So the Chandals in Jaffna are not Dalits who have come from India. This is the case even today. The only Dalits that are found living in the West are found in USA and in Australia.

    These few Dalit families happened to come from Bhutan as refugeed in the 1990s if I am right. These Dalits are not allowed to attend Hindu Temples and the priests do not service this community.

    The first large migration or arrival of Indian Colonial Parasites started in 1792. They came with the British to take over the Dutch Administration of the newly acquired Dutch possessions.

    The Sinhalese rebelled against these High Cate Indian Colonial Parasites from the Malabar Coast. Most of these Parasites did not return to India but settled in Jaffna.

    The Sinhalese who were in Jaffna became the Sakkiliyas of Ceylon.

  2. PRIYAN WIJEYERATNE Says:

    Abolish 13A, cast system will die.

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