Indian “professionals” in late colonial Ceylon
Posted on May 18th, 2018

by Tissa Devendra Courtesy The Island

Today’s news media are flooded with an endless ha-ho by home grown “professionals” against infiltration by unwanted Indians encroaching into their employment niches. This controversy takes my memory back to my boyhood in a Ceylon which was yet a British Colony. Our neighbour India too was British ruled . As such, no passports were necessary for Ceylonese and Indians to travel from Dondra Head to the Himalayan foothills. Travelling to India by rail only required a ticket from the Fort Railway Station. Then prosperous Ceylon became a magnet for various classes of Indians, mostly from the South, to seek their fortunes in this green and pleasant land.

I will not refer to the many thousands of ‘coolies’ sequestered in European-owned tea plantations. My ‘target groups’ will be those Indians who came here, on their own, in search of a better livelihood than was available in their homeland. I will now embark on my description of those groups that caught my attention. I must make it clear that this list is arbitrary and idiosyncratic and far from being a sociological study. Most of my observations date from my boyhood in Kandy in the late 1930s and early 1940s.


Barbers who flourished on many streets in Kandy were all South Indian Tamils. Their workplaces were, invariably, signboarded as ‘Barber Saloon’ [Gentrification as ‘Hair Dressing Salon’ was a few decades later]’.Barber shop interior décor never varied. A brightly sareed Lakshmi, goddess of fortune, presided over the swing door entrance, with her incense ‘poojas’ scenting the workplace. Brightly hued pictures of Indian heroes – Gandhi, Nehru, Swami Vivekananda graced the walls.So did a glimpse of Chinese beauties simpering coyly in their well filled Cheongsams.


“Afghan”money lenders – These exotic men in baggy pantaloons, waistcoats and turbans, swinging a short cane, sauntered around – generally frequenting kachcheries and other offices on pay-day to confront dodging debtors who had the misfortune of borrowing money, at exorbitant rates, from these rapacious chaps. An unsolved mystery is how these Baluchis [ their proper ethnicity] came to hear of the rich pickings in Ceylon and the source of their capital. Independence and the Partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan led to the gradual withdrawal of this tribe from our streets.


Chetties: This South Indian ‘tribe’ seems to have been in our country from ancient times – as can be seen from Sinhalese family names[e.g. Hetti-arachchi] and place names [e.g. Hetti-mulla]. However, their heyday dawned with the British occupation and the development of a market economy. A rising class of Sinhalese entrepreneurs had little, or no, access to capital to improve their enterprises. This want was soon filled by the Chetties, from South India, who moved into Ceylon when their grapevine advised them of the rich pickings available here. They flourished for about a century till the development of legally constituted local banks. Interestingly, a few, very few, drifted away from their traditional Hindu faith and traditions into Christianity and white-collar professions where they flourished.

Goldsmiths were a traditional class of craftsmen, Sinhala and Tamil, who made bespoke jewellery for royalty, nobility and temples. There was no commercialism in their time-honoured craft. All this changed with British rule and the advent of a native mercantile capitalist class in the major towns. Conspicuous consumption became the norm among this class. Nothing was more conspicuous than the display of gold jewellery. Traditional goldsmiths were limited in their designs, nor could they cater to a mass market. Once again, the good news spread to South Indian goldsmiths who lost no time in moving in and establishing specialized ‘ghettos’, mainly in Pettah’s Sea Street, where they popularized modern Indian designs. They yet flourish-popularly suspected of yet smuggling in Indian Tamil craftsmen to boost their workforce to cater to Sri Lankan’s unending lust for gold jewellery.

Saree salesmen flourished in their shops in the Pettah, Maradana and Kandy’s Trincomalee Street.The more upmarket locales were staffed by smooth talking Gujeratis,expert at charming our ladies into buying their glamorous wares. The humbler shops, clustered in Maradana, were run by Tamils from Madras and specialized in cheaper cotton sarees, Palayakat sarongs and ‘cambayas’.

Thosai Bhavans

‘Thosai Bhavans’ , yet flourishing in major towns are owned and staffed by Tamils from India. Strangely, these Dravidian specialty ‘Bhavans’ were never the chosen business of Tamils from Jaffna or Batticaloa. A few of these establishments went up market, improved furniture, uiformed their waiters and,even, sold popular Indian newspapers and magazines.

Kerala Teachers

Kerala Teachers – English was the medium of secondary and higher education , both in India and Ceylon. It did not take long for well qualified but under-employed teachers( often Science) from Kerala to move into the better schools in Ceylon which, as yet, had no science graduate producing University. Our schools had on their staff teachers carrying Biblical names with a Kerala flavor. Kurien. Joshua, Matthew, Pulimood,Abraham . A few even authored popular text-books. The emphasis on education in Sinhala and Tamil after 1956 led to an inevitable decline in their numbers.

Toddy tappers

Toddy tappers Also from Kerala came toddy-tappers whose professional expertise had inspired local distillers to hire them for seasonal employment’ However they never settled down here.

Bone setters Famed for their skill in traditional massage and manipulation were the ‘native medicine men’ popularly called ‘Kochchi Vedas’ as they were from Cochin – the Colonial name for Kerala. They probably accompanied the many hundred dock workers from their homeland who had been hired by British shipping firms to work in the Colombo harbour.


Rickshawmen -Rickshaws were a poular form of personal transport. A few of these ‘vehicles’ are exhibited as curios in posh hotels. These two- wheeled contraptions were powered (pulled) by scrawny but wiry ‘rickshaw-pullers’ – every one an ‘Indian Tamil’ The heyday of the rickshaw was the early decades of the last century when it was the chosen mode of transport by European businessmen. They were yet popular in the 1940s and middle-class parents had bespoke, trusted, rickshawmen to take their children safely to school and back. Sadly, I have no idea of the economic relationship between the puller and the entrepreneur who leased it to him.No puller could ever afford to own his own rickshaw. By the 1950s transport had changed as well as social attitudes – and the rickshaws and their pullers faded away.

Kadala sellers

‘Kadala sellers’ This group of Indian Tamil men and women clustered round school gates or hawked their spicy grams at school matches, open air functions and Galle Face Green at dusk. They are no longer seen around and the selling of gram has been gentrified into glass cubicles on wheels.

Conservancy labourers These once-so-essential Municipal workers were snootily referred to as ‘sakkili’ or ‘lavatory coolies’.Long before the advent of flush toilets, households relied on buckets as the depository of, what was politely called, No.2. Once a day this worker visited town houses, emptied their toilet buckets and went his way, pushing a cartload of No.2 to a Municipal designated dump. They seem to have survived the end of the ;bucket age’ as their employer was the Municipality which redeployed them. During their hey-day Christmas was great fun. They were,naturally, near alcoholics. After the staid Carol Singers had departed , these chaps became a raucous band of drummers, singers and dancers who invaded respectable homes demanding hand-outs – readily givwn to escape this frenzied band. They have, however, left behind a cultural footprint in the savage beat of “papara bands’ at big school matches.

In conclusion, I must pay this tribe a much deserved compliment. I have written earlier about the ‘Sakkili Usaviya’ I witnessed long, long ago in a Borella Watta. These workers and their families crowded round a circle in whose centre was a stool on which sat a white-bearded elder. One by one- in a predetermined order, petitioners came up to him with their domestic problems -unpaid debts, violent neighbours, frisky spouses and so on, The ‘judge’ pondered briefly and delivered his verdict -greeted with cheers or weeping as the case may be. No appeal was ever made, His word was law and accepted by the multitude. When he read my account, the late Justice Weeramanthry felt it was an example of true democracy.

I hope that readers will find interesting this brief account of barely documented ‘incursions’ by little-known Indian groups during the late colonial period.

2 Responses to “Indian “professionals” in late colonial Ceylon”

  1. aloy Says:

    “Tissa Devendra” seems to have waded into a “hot” topic that is being discussed and will be taken up with the prez next week. His statement as follows has opened a can of worms:

    “Today’s news media are flooded with an endless ha-ho by home grown “professionals” against infiltration by unwanted Indians encroaching into their employment niches”

    His write up, however, is not about the niches but about Barbers, Sakkilis and Hettis who have infiltrated into Srl Lankan society. It is the British who allowed these unwanted people to flood our country as the locals were not ready to work for them to rule. In order to handle the administration successfully they devised various ways of divide and rule. Thus all those considered inferior in society were elevated by giving them various perks, good education and government jobs just to make them loyal to rulers. They are the ones now hell bent on creating the same situation again in the country and prevent those coming from free education system to take their due place at the “niches”. This article therefore is like providing a ladder to the monkeys. The minister who is trying hard to do it is one of them.

    He has also tried to give his own two cents about Hettiarachchis saying they are South Indian immigrants. If so all these Arachchis should be South Indians as it is a very common name in Tamil Nadu. You can find Hettis all over south east asia and it is the same picture the locals have in their mind about them, while in SL Hettiarachchis are considered Goviyas practicing age old traditional farming.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    With a massive population density of over 320 persons per square kilometre (higher than India) we certainly do not need any Indians in the island. They are also a drain on our scant foreign reserves.

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