Census Categorization and the Bharathas and Colombo Chetties

A Note from Fabian D. K.  Schokman of Moratuwa, 22 March 2020

Dear Michael,  Thank you for this. I believe, as with most of the “lesser minorities,” the Bharatha community did not have its own classification until the 2001 census, when there was a breakthrough mostly on account of the Chetties and their successful fight to be classed as a distinct ethnicity. Throughout census history, one can see the Chetties demanding to be classed as distinct from the Tamils. The term “race” in SL, must always be seen as a synonym for “ethnicity” and not with the same connotation it derives in the West.

In the 19th century, it was commonly distinguished by dress, but beginning in the late 19th century and standardizing in the 20th century, the distinction of dress (and according to some accounts language) faded into obscurity, and both the Chetties and the Bharathas faced assimilation like no other “race” [i. e. ethnic group] in SL. The census never recorded “castes” only ethnicity, but the Bharatha and Chetty communities’ classification as an ethnicity has changed over the years.

A Colombo Chetty painted by Hyppolyte Silvaf in the early 19th century …. courtesy of Ismeth Raheem

The Chetties and Bharatha families speak Sinhala or Tamil interchangeably depending on the locality and the language most commonly spoken by their neighbours. To specifically say that the older generation speaks Tamil and the younger generation speaks Sinhalese is to tread gently onto the line of assumption.

From what I have been told though, unless the numbers drop to the point of obscurity, the Bharatha and Chetty communities will continue to be enumerated separately as distinct groups, after that they will be grouped into the infamous “Other”.


Fabian II responding to my query whether the name “Nugera” and/or “Nugara” could have been Bharatha rather than Burgher in the more distant past.

The Nugara’s are a Burgher family as far as records show. That being said, it doesn’t mean they aren’t Chetty. Like I said, assimilation of these communities dates into antiquity. Only further research will show if they are Burgher in the context of the Ondaatje family (i.e. Assimilated Chetties)[1].

I am currently researching the genealogy of my third great grandmother Jane Eliza Nugara. If it turns up a Chetty/Bharatha connection, I will let you know.

On a side note, most Burgher assimilations came from the Chetties rather than the Bharatha community. I’m uncertain of what the historical obstacles were, but I’m sure there were a few. Perhaps the Bharatha community’s genealogists can work on a comprehensive study of the customs, language and tradition of the community form antiquity to date. It would be a valuable contribution to ethnic studies in Sri Lanka.

A Note from Hugh Karunanayake in Melbourne, 22 March 2020:

Dear Michael, ………. A case of “assimilation” into the Sinhalese community is well illustrated in the life of Minister Johnston Fernando popular MP for Kurunegala, whose father Stanislaus was Mayor of Kurunegala. Stanislaus’s grandfather was an immigrant from Tuticorin, India in the 1890s and spoke only Tamil. “Johnny” the present MP is now assumed to be a full-blooded Sinhalese by his electorate. It is possible that his male ancestors in post-1890 Sri Lanka may have married Sinhalese women.

Regards, Hugh


Thank you, Fabian. Most interesting. Would you know if JF’s maternal ancestors were Sinhalese? He speaks very fluent Sinhala. The Dias B ancestry is not Chetty I believe, but of other South Indian origin. They also have a Dutch ancestor Susanna Scharff. The Hetti connection to common Sinhalese family names may or may not owe their origins to Chetty ancestry because all Saravanamuttus, Sellamuttus etc would then be linked to clans of horsekeepers or Muttus.

Johnston Fernando

mandatory Credit: Photo by Andy Paradise/Shutterstock (1010353i) Christopher Ondaatje Christopher Ondaatje at home in London, Britain – 2009

Fabian Schokman to Hugh Karunanayake, 23 March 2020:

Dear Hugh,  I am not entirely certain of JF’s ancestry, but it is likely that there is a Sinhalese connection somewhere. As to the Bandaranaikes, I do know that they hail from South India, but I did read in a genealogical paper that propagated the “Nilaperumal” name and story that he was aChetty. If I am not mistaken, this was written by the family’s genealogists. I tried to locate the source, but I can’t seem to find it in my papers. I am not discounting the possibility that the genealogists did not wish to admit to “Tamil” ancestry, because Nilaperumal is certainly not Malayali or Telengu. But this was what was written. Chetties are not specifically a race in India, but a blanket term for traders, one that dates back to the time of the Buddha (as I have been told).
The prefix and suffix Hetti, while not a definite marker of Chetty ancestry, is a likely marker of it. For this one will have to (a) look at the etymology of the name and (b) the origin of the name. I don’t think Tamil names are the ideal example. The vast majority of Tamil surnames are patronymics.  A cursory glance at your reference to the Saranavanamuttu/Sellamuttu relationship to the “Muttu” caste would lead me to conclude that the same principle can be applied.

Regards,  Fabian D. K. Schokman


Dr Shivaji Felix has indicated that Samuel Daniell painted a Colombo Chettty in rather different form a few years before Silvaf; but I require someone to provide me with a good reproduction of the Daniell painting of a Colombo Chetty;


Christopher Ondaatje: The Man-eater of Punanai — a Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon (1992)

Christopher Ondaatje: Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf, 1904–1911 (2005)

Michael Ondaatje: Running in the Family, McClellnad & Steuart

Jeremy De Lima: The Bharathas of Sri Lanka: Roots and Tales,  17 March 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/03/17/the-bharathas-of-sri-lanka-roots-and-tales/#more-41127

Lalith Seneviratne: A Diagonal Journey across Sri Lanka with Sir Christopher Ondaatje, Sunday Observer, 3 February 2019, http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/02/03/travel/extreme-experience

Michael Roberts, Percy Colin-Thome & Ismeth Raheem: People Inbetween, Ratmalana, Sarvodaya, 1989

Michael Roberts: Potency, Power & People in Groups, Marga, 2011


[1] Fabian is referring here to the world-renowned Ondaatje family comprising Christopher, Michael and Gillian whose parents were/are generally regarded as “Burgher” in Sri Lanka as well as UK and Canada because of  their marriages (for e.g Mervyn Ondaatje married a Gratien), wealth and life-style.

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