An Ethnological Introduction to the Tamils of Sri Lanka

 Karthigesu Sivathamby

 This item now presented in Thuppahi is the first part of a book in pdf format entitled The Tamils of Sri Lanka. In converting the pdf the whole text went haywire and the paragraph divisions were all over the shop. I cannot guarantee that my painstaking editorial reconstruction stuck to Siva’s original design. I have refrained from inserting any highlighting emphasis on the text: so the highlighting you see is there in the original… As far as I could work out, this work was finalized in 1989, but that point is subject to correction ………….. Michael Roberts

The ethnic crisis of Sri Lanka has internationalised the problem of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. A closer study of these people has now become essential to understand the nature of the Tamil demands, the group tensions within the Tamil ethnos, the political nuances that one has to be aware of, and, of course, the attempts made to thwart the Tamil unity and thereby lessen the intensity of the Tamil political demands.

The preliminary problematic is to identify this “group” in exact terms and “describe” them comprehensively.

The word “Tamil” refers both to the language and its speakers, and when it refers to the

speakers, it does not denote them as speakers of a language, but refers to them as also an “ethnic” group, with an identifiable culture, and a consciousness among them that they belong to one group. The word used to denote this grouping and state of mind in Tamilnadu (India) is “Tamilian” and is not much in vogue in the Sri Lankan political vocabulary.

In Sri Lanka, the term “Tamil” will not include the Muslims even though their mother tongue, except in the case of the few Malays of Sri Lanka, is Tamil. The Muslims of SriLanka consider themselves as belonging to an independent ethnic group.

Nor are all the Tamils living in Sri Lanka referred to as “Sri Lankan Tamils” (SLT) for in all the government records and even at the level of group consciousness there is a distinction made between the “Indian Tamils” (IT) of the tea and rubber plantation areas, and the “Sri Lankan Tamils” (SLT) who are the traditional Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka largely confined to the northern and the eastern parts of theisland.

It should be borne in mind that the political militancy found among the Tamils that characterises the current ethnic conflict is totally opposed to such a distinction being made, and prefers to call these Tamils the “Malaiyakattamilar” (1it: “Tamils of the Mountain.” Home referring to the Upcountry Tamils). Though it is true that the bulk of the Tamils of Indian descent bought in as plantation labourers by the Britishers are continuing to live in the “estate” areas in the central regions of Sri Lanka, it cannot be denied that a substantial number of them had to leave the estates and go into the “ traditional” Tamil areas for reasons of safety and security – a process that started in the sixties increased in the seventies when the estates were nationalised and in the eighties when there were ethnic riots. Thus, in the Census of 1981 it was officially acknowledged that the following districts which are predominately Tamil had the following percentage of Indian Tamils: Vavuniya 19.4% Mullaitivu: 13.9% Mannar:13.2%. The figures for the recently created district of Kilinochi has not been given (it should at least be about 15% ) and the figures since 1983 must be high.

What is important is that, due to economic and sociopolitical pressures the pace of assimilation of the IT into the SLT is high. Marriages between IT and SLT Tamils are on the increase and there is an increasing sense of oneness politically. However, to understand their “group” solidarity and cohesiveness, it is important that they are studied separately.

The focus at first therefore should be on the Sri Lankan Tamils. Before we go into the problem of the groupings among these Tamils, their culture and the sub-cultures that are prevalent, we should understand the significance of this group of Tamils in terms of the history of the Tamils as a whole. It is this “historical” consciousness that has given a wider dimension: – Pan-Tamilian solidarity.

The Sri Lankan Tamils are the largest and the oldest of the Tamils living outside “Tamilakam” (the Tamilian consciousness does not express this history in terms of India; it is always expressed in terms of the “Land of the Tamils”). The proximity of this country and the group to Tamilians on the South Westof India contributes to sense of Tamilian elation over their “ great Past”. There has been a persistent tradition of referring to Tamilagam as the mother (place of mother) and Tamil region of Sri Lanka is “CEYAKAM” (place of the child).

Besides this aspect of Tamilian ‘group-psychology’, there is also the fact of a variation in terms of sociocultural organization which has given a sense of specificity to Sri Lankan Tamil culture, thereby also creating a sense of dedication and commitment to keep that specificity alive. The following, in brief, are some of the significant peculiarities of SLT culture, when compared to the Tamil culture prevalent among Tamilnadu Tamils (TNT).

  1. a) Brahmins do not exercise social control. Though they are ritually the highest caste, among SLT they do not have the necessary social power and authority. Quite often they are employees at temples with well-defined duties and obligations. Nor do the Brahmins officiate in all temples; there are non- Brahmin priests known as Saivakkurukkals, drawn originally from the Vellala caste.
  2. b) The dominant caste among SLT is the Vellalas, and except in rare cases they have the social control.
  3. c) Unlike in Tamilnadu, where the caste system has an observable caste-tribe continuum (Vanniyar, Kallar, Maravar, Irular), among SLT castes are largely occupation based (Vellalar, Karaiyar, Nattuvar, Nalavar, Pallar, Vannar, Ampattar). Social control by the Vellalas except in the littoral towns where the Karaiyars (lit. those of the shore, ref. to the fishermen) are dominant, is virtually a complete one.
  4. d) Among the SLT marriages are largely matrilocal; among the TnT it is largely patrilocal.
  5. e) Kinship organisation and sometimes even the kinship terms are different (for instances, at the non-Brahmin level among the TnT uravinmurai (lineage) tradition is very strong; among the SLT even though they have the “pakuti” (lineage) tradition, it is not strong; it is not sustainable).
  6. f) In religious practices also there is considerable difference; there are also considerable differences in temple management.
  7. g) Food habits vary much (among the TnT there is not much use of coconut and chillies; among the SLT there is much less use of milk, esp.”tayir” and “mor”.
  8. h) SLT dialect is very much different from the local dialects of Tamilnadu.
  9. i) The SLT literary culture too has been very different. In creative critical writings, SLT literary culture, responding to local needs and aspirations, has been able to carve out a distinct idiom of expression.

The SLT live mostly in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The following are the population figures of the SLT in the various districts of the North and East, for 1981.

Northern provinces:

Jaffna (including Kilinochi) – 95.3%

Mullaitivu – 76.0%

Mannar – 50.6%

Vavuniya – 56.9%

Eastern provinces:

Trincomalee – 33.8%

Batticaloa – 70.8%

Amparai – 20.1%

Of the population of 14,850,001, SLT are 1,871,535 (12.6%) and Indians are 825,238 (5.6%). The Tamils in all constitute 17% of the population…SOURCE: CENSUS 1981.

Jaffna with a history of a kingdom of its own (taken as an important legitimising factor in the political demands of the SLT) has throughout been an articulating centre in the constitutional demands of the Tamils. The other major SLT regions are Vanni and Mattakkalappu (Baticalo).

In terms of the geography of Sri Lanka, the area referred to as the Vanni districts fall between Mankulam and Anuradhapura in the North covering Vavuniya and Mullaitivu among the Tamil districts, and Anuradhapura, Tammankaduwe, Kekirake of the Sinhala areas going up to the northern reaches of the Triconamalee District. As the term “Vanni” itself implies the word is derived from “Vana” (forest) – this is the area that came under the Anuradhapura Kings (c. 2 ond c. B.C to 9th C.A.D) and later because of the drift of the Sinhala capitals to the South-West, became Jungle. These areas with their elephant infested jungles and malaria infested villages were kept aloof from the nuclear areas of post- 11th century Sri Lankan history. The area is divided into the Sinhala Vanni and the Tamil Vanni. Thus the distinguishable Tamil areas are Batticaloa, Vanni, and Jaffna.

In an overall grouping up of “culture areas” within the Tamil speaking region of Sri Lanka, Mannarpresents a problem. This region on the North-West of the Northern province, now taken as part of the Vanni electoral district, was till recently a bigger district with Mullaitivu within it. It lies to the northwestern border and is the closest point in SriLanka to South India. It has a long littoral region thus making it a rich fishing area. It has been rich in pearl fisheries from historical times. In spite of the fact that in the

land interior it has as much a tank-based agrarian economy as the Vanni, the littoral character dominates.


Manner has a substantial Muslim population (26.6%) and among the Tamils the Roman Catholics are very influentially placed. It is of interest to note that on the south it is contiguous with Puttalam district which until the first two decades of this century had a substantial Tamil Catholic: population. It is well known fact of Roman Catholic Church history that there was a process of Sinhalisation of these fishermen during the time of Bishop Edmund Peiris. The fishermen of the north-western coast beginning from Negombo go to the Mannar and Mullaitivu areas for seasonal fishing.

One should not fail to understand the rich Roman Catholic tradition that is prevalent in Mannar. It was the first area to be converted and had therefore come under the influence such illustrious personalities like Francis Xavier. In the last days of the Jaffna Kingdom (17th C) it had to face a suppression of the Catholics by Cankili, the last king of Jaffna, the memory of which is preserved to this day in the remembrance of the martyrs of Mannar”.

The Roman Catholics of Mannar have a rich literary and dramatic tradition. The memory of Matottam, the ancient port of trade, looms large in the traditions of Mannar, in fact one of their theatrical forms is referred to as the “Matottappanku”.

To the Hindu Tamils, Mannar is hallowed by the presence of Tirukketisvaram the Hindu temple sanctified by the tevarams of Campantar and Cuntarar of 7th and 8th centuries A.D. The Hindu-Catholic relations have not always been friendly (it very often manifests in the identification of and erecting of places of worship) but with increasing Tamil political consciousness Catholic-Hindu hostilities have decreased. The pro-Sinhala position the Sinhala Catholic hierarchy took in and after 1983 had brought about an unprecedented unity among the Tamil Christians and Hindus. It should be mentioned, in passing, that the ideology of the Liberation Theology adopted by many of the younger priests of the Catholic Church had facilitated this Hindu-Christian Tamil unity.

It is equally important to note that the Muslim-Tamil relationship in Mannar has not been a hostile one and that there has been a history of friendly co-existence, especially among the Hindus and the Muslims.

In terms of anthropology the Tamils living in the Batticaloa district exhibit very interesting features indicating a tradition of social organisation and settlement quite different from other Tamil settlements, both in India and Sri Lanka. Batticaloa is the anglicised form of “Mattakkalappu” (lit: shallow points in the sea/river) and is now used, as the term Jaffna is to refer to a system of social organisation (Batticoloa Tamils, Jaffna Tamils).

Batticaloa lies on the central part of the eastern sea border of SriLanka, south of Trincomalee. Historically speaking it had come under the Kandyan Kingdom (from about the 16th century to 1815) thereby it has a completely different geographical and historical environment. Jaffna is close to South India and was able to found a kingdom of its own.

Two factors which have determined the “politicality” of Jaffna when compared with Batticalo. Batticaloa had been exclusive and has therefore been able to preserve many of

traditional institutions which the much “exposed” Jaffna has lost. Even under British rule, Batticaloa was not “modernised” as comprehensively as Jaffna was. Modernisation in Batticaloa was confined only to the town of Batticaloa and a very sharp rural-urban discontinuum is a striking feature of Batticaloa district.

The social organisation of the Tamils of this district in terms of caste formation is slightly different from the one that obtains in Jaffna and is definitely less rigid. The traditional agrarian organisation is characteristically feudal in terms of the extraction of surplus.

Within the Sri Lankan Tamil dialect, Batticaloa has a distinctly separate mode. It is important to note that the differences that one sees on the social and cultural organisation of Jaffna and Batticaloa are not that fundamentally different from each other, because if one analyses the basics of both the “systems” one will not fail to see that they emanate from the basic Dravidian kinship system (Trautmann) – South Indian system. Uneven development arising out of years of exclusive existence have sharpened the dis-similarities.

The term “Mattakkalapputtamilar” refers to the Tamils living in the present Batticaloa and Amparai districts.

The following are the castes found in Batticaloa – the dominant ones – Vellalar, Cirpatakkaral*, Mukkuvar, Karaiyar (there has always been wrangling arguments on the order of precedence among these castes; oneof them as recently as 1980/1 when a book on Batticaloa was published.)

– other castes: Tanakkarar, Kaikkulavar Canar, Pallar, Vannar, Ampattar, Vanniyar*, Kollar, Tattar, Taccar, Kataiyar*, and Vetar*.

Castes marked with the asteric (*) arc found only in Batticalo.

A special feature of the caste organization of Batticalo is the “Kuti” system. The Tamil word “KUTI” means “a house”, a settlement. In Batticalo Kuti is found among all the major caste groups, and every context it refers to the exogamous matri-clans.

The kuti system among the Muslims of Batticalo. The number of Kutis within a caste is always seven and the names vary. The significance of the kuti system lies in that,

  1. a) it is related to matrimonial jilliances (None carry with him the kuti of his birth and one always a

joins the wife’s kuti on marriage

  1. b) control of the places of worship (temples) is through the kuti system

For Instance the following are the kutis among the Vellalar and the Mukkuvar.

Vellalar Kantankuti, Carukupillikuti. Kattappattankuti, Kavuttankuti, Attiyayankuti, Ponnaccikuti and Vaittikuti.

(the Vellalar consider themselves to be the deseants of Magha of Kalinga who invaded Sri Lanka in the 14th century A.D.)

Mukkuvar Ulakippotikuti, Kalinkakuti, Pataiyantakuti, Pettankuti, Panikkankuti, kaccilakuti, and Pettantapata antakuti.

The kuti system is also found among the Cirpatakkarar, the Cettis, the Karaiyar and the Kammalar. It is of interest to note that the names of kutis are common to some of the castes.

Besides those castes which have an internal kuti system there, are seventeen (17) caste groups which ~ are called “CIRAIKKUTIS” (lit: prisoned kutis, meaning these are under “ captivity” and they are confined to the work they have got to do). Those are Matular, Koil Pantaram, Pantarappillai, Kucavar, Kollar, Mutalikal, Valipan, Nampikal, Vannar, anipattar, Canar, Pallar, Paraiyar, Koviyar, Tavacikal, and Kataiyar.

In the traditional agrarian system the “feudal” landlord is known as the “ POTI”, the reverential form being “potiyar”. The Batticala potiyar is a regular farmer; he is not an absentee landlord. But there is a system of leasing land to “Kuttakaikkarar” (lessees), who undertake to do the cultivation (vellanmai) by paying a lump sum to the potiyar. There are instances when one potiyar could lease out land from another. Under the potiyar come the “vayalkarar” (those of the field) who work on the fields. Labour is their main input, and the potiyar ‘looks after’ them, giving them what they need. These vayalkarar of the Batticalo system would correspond to the ‘pannaiyal’ of the ryotwari system in Tamilnadu.

The religious traditions of the Batticalo Hindus are very important. Sanskritization, which is a characteristic feature of Jaffna Hinduism is very much absent. Religious practice in Batticalo is mainly non-Agamic (Agamas are the Sanskrit texts dealing with the practices in rituals and religious behaviour. They prescribe how the rituals are conducted). In fact, there is only one major Civan temple Kokkatticcolai Tantonri Isvaran Koyil.

There are of course a number of Pillaiyar (Ganesa) shrines in Batticalo, most important of which is the Mamankappillaiyar temple. But it should be noted that Pillaiyar is an agrarian deity among the SLT. Batticalo has a large number of Murukan shrines, at Verukal, Cittanti, Tirupperunturai, Mantur, Tantamalai and Ukantamalai.

The most important popular cult found in Batticalo is the Pattini cult in which Kannaki, the chaste goddess, is worshipped. The important cult centres are Karaitivu, Palukamam, Kulakkattu, Makilativu, Aracatitivu, and Kannakuta.

Another important cult is the Draupatai Amman cult. Whereas Kannaki worship is also found among the Jaffna Tamils (mostly at the Little Tradition level the Great Tradition), The Draupathai Amman cult is only seen at very rare places in the Jaffna tradition.

Fire-walking, though performed at other cult centres also, is the main form of votive offering at these shrines. There is also the worship of Marianiman and Kali.Some of the major art forms of Batticalo are yet associated with rituals – the Kuravai, Vacantan, and the Kompu-murittal. The Batticalo theatre, consisting of the Vatamoti and Tenmoti plays, are even now largely votive offerings performed during the post-harvest season. The entire village joins in the production of a “ kuttu”(play).

It is important to note that when compared to the religious tradition prevalent in Jaffna and in South Tamilnadu, where the non-Brahminic traditions are very strong, one could see that the cults that now prevail in Batticalo are really the pre-sanskritizcd forms or those forms which were widely prevalent among the Tamils before Brahminism gained ascendancy.

Batticalo has a strong Muslim presence (Batticalo 24.0% and Amparai 41% of the population) and unlike in the case of the Muslims of the Western Province and Southern province, who are the richer and political the more articulate, are agrarian and thus land based. They are very strongly steeped in the Tamil tradition (they share the kuti system) and the much published [publicized?] oral poetry of Batticalo is really the folk-songs of the Muslims. But this should not underplay the intense suspicians one group has of the other, which is quite manifested in the Tamil-Muslim fights. Regardless of this, a lot of syncretism has been taking place, and it is unfortunate that no objective scholarly study of this has yet been made.

Trincomalee (Tirukkonamalai) on the north of the Eastern Province is really a halfway house between the Jaffna and the Batticalo systems. With Mullaitivu on its northern boundary and Batticalo on its south it has had a Tamil population which has been maintaining its relationship with both parts. Triconamalee with its famous Tirukonesvaram, the second of the Hindu shrines hallowed by the Tevarams of Campantar and Cuntarar, is vital to the Hindu Tamil traditions of Sri Lanka.

Going northwards from Triconamalee we come to Vavuniya, Mullaitivu districts, known as the Vanni. Vanni is characterised by the developed village, with a tank-based cultivation a highland settlement and the jungle beyond. The livestock of buffaloes, bulls and cows is related to the agrarian system. Hunting in this area is more than a pastime; it is necessary to keep the cultivation going.

The Tamil Vanni consists of Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Eastern Mannar. A census taken in 1890 listed 711 tanks in this area.

Historically speaking this area has been in direct contact with South India in the Late Medieval period. Nedunkerni, Putukkutiiruppu, Mulliyavalai and Tenneerurru are some of the better known Vanni villages and their characteristics and social composition could be taken as representative of the Vanni traditions.

Vanni Tamils distinguish themselves from those of Jaffna. But quite often they have marital relations with the Tamils living in the peninsula. For instance the Vellalar of Tanneerurru, Odducuttan and Netunkeni have marriage relations with the Vellalars of Mattuvil and Itaikkatu, Kaikkular of the Vanni with the same group at Kallinankatu, the Karaiyar of the Vanni have marriage relations with those living in Valvettiturai and Karaveddi (and also with the Karaiyars from Tennamaravady and Tampalakamam in the Eastern Province). Once the marriage is over the couple, generally speaking, settle down in the Vanni because of the availability of land.

The Vanni being primarily agricultural, farmers dominate, but there has always been a tendency for all these castes to take to agriculture. The Tamil proverb current in vanni, a variation of a well-known one indicating the upward mobility of many non Vellala caste groups to Vellala status, depicts the Vanni situation rather pithily, ……………………

Kallar Maravar Kanatta Akampatiyar mella mellap pallarkalum vellalar anarkal

(not only) the Kallar the Maravar and the weighty Akampatiyar even the Pallar gradually became Vellalar).

J. P. Lewis in his “THE MANUAL OF THE VANNI DISTRICT” gives a list of 36 castes from Brahmins, Vellalar, Karaiyar to Nalavar. There is also mention of the Vanniya caste, one which is not found in the Jaffna system, but is very important in the Tamilnadu system.

The caste system is less rigid in the Vanni, but one could see all the castes found in Jaffna e.g. in Mulliyavalai there are the following castes:- Brahmins, Vellalar, Koviyar, Karaiyar, Kaikkolar, Taccar,  Kollar, Vannar, Ampattar, Pallar, Paraiyar, and Turumpar. The service castes, as mentioned earlier besides doing their caste services are also engaged in agriculture.

Because of the peculiar feature of the Vanni where elephant noosing is done there has been a caste – the panikkans doing that particular work.

Vanni has a very rich oral tradition connected with agriculture, a feature not seen much in other areas. The oral poetry of Pantippall kuruviccintu, Kuruviappallu, Murukaiyan cintu and Amman cintu are connected with agriculture. It has also a very rich dramatic tradition: kattavarayan Kuttu and Kovalan kannaki Natakam are well known.

It is the system of caste and social stratification that prevails Jaffna that is better known, but even here it should emphatically be mentioned that there are not enough studies and whatever that is available cannot be taken as comprehensive and adequate.

The major studies on Jaffna social organization are those of Banks, David, Skjonberg, Pfaffenberger and Holmes. The studies of David and Pfaffenberger seem to fit the caste mode that exists in Jaffna into some of the “reigning” theoretical moulds. That is not a thing to be criticized for it is a welcome attempt to understand the society that exists in Jaffna in wider perspectives and in terms of the existing knowledge of the discipline.

But the crucial fact is that these studies have been done in such a manner that it would not be possible to generalise on the basis of the findings because each of these has been confined to areas with which it is not possible to make an assessment of the system that exists within Jaffna as a whole. Banks, study was based on Sirupiddy in which there is no Karaiyar caste, and it will not be possible to decide on caste ranking without understanding the importance of the “unbound” groups (as very well pointed out by David). Pfaffenberger’s study also suffers from the fact that his area of research-Tenmaradchy also cannot be considered as typical of Jaffna caste system because of the absence of the Karaiyar population.

Kenneth David’s study is in this respect more typical, because it deals with Vellala-Karayar interaction. Unfortunately, it does not possess an active and representative enough Koviya caste for one to get a picture of how the relationship within the “bound modes” are under transition. And that is something that would be crucial to the understanding of the system as it operates/functions now. Nor do we have any caste studies which could be related to each other and thus a picture be obtained of the overall situation.


It is only when we look at the problem of caste and inter-relationships and at the possibility of getting at an overall picture, we would realize the need to identify the sub regions within Jaffna where dominances and, therefore, caste relationships vary. A closer look at the social system of Jaffna from this point of view would necessitate the demarcation of the sub-regions. I would on the basis of my observations taking into count

the occupational patterns, availability of resources, the build-up of local traditions and positions of economic strength and dependence suggest the following sub-regions:



The Islands

Jaffna Town, with Vannarponnai,

Nallur and up to Kopay


Tellippallai, Cunnakam

Chulipuram Pannakam

The littoral area from Kankesanturai to Palaly

Vaddukkottai, Araly

The last 4 sub regions covering the present Valikamam North and East should be worked out in better detail. A thorough-going analysis of the systems in each of the subregions followed by a comparative analysis would throw up a picture of the system that is in operation in Jaffna. One should not forget the significance of the social relationships that are emerging in the Kilinochi, Paranthan area, the area opened up for agricultural development in the North. The people who have gone into these areas are from Jaffna and there (in the new settlements) due to economic needs and social situations not experienced in Jaffna have evaluate(??) mode of social relationships characteristic of or demanded by the mode of agricultural production that exists there is emerging between groups of persons who retain an active contact with their native villages in Jaffna. A contrast of these relationships would enable us to understand the current system better and to see how there is a transformation taking place.

The following are the important caste groups seen in Jaffna today:

Piramanar, Saivakkurukkalmar, Vellalar, Karaiyar,

Koviyar, Tattar, Taccar Kollar, Nattuvar, Kaikkular,

Chcttikai, Timilar, Mukkuvar, Kucavar, Vannar,

Ampattar, Nalavar, Pallar, Paraiyar, Turumpar

(the names of the castes are not given in any order of precedence)

It is the hierarchic order that is crucial to the discussion of caste as a system of social organization and action among the Tamils of Jaffna. Kennetth David very rightly spoke of the “ bound” and the “ non-bound mode”, the former refers to the relationships those caste groups which have been considered dependent on the Vellalar for their economic subsistence and thus were bound to the Vellalar through the kutimai-atimai murais.

Both the kutimai and the atimai systems are not there more in the manner they are expressed and articulated in traditional terms but the this concept of being “bound” has a significant role in assigning the hierarchical order. The term “non-bound” refers to those groups which are not dependent on the Vellalar for their sustenance. This would refer to those non-agrarian pursuits like fishing.

The caste system in Jaffna is very much Vellala-based and an ideology of Vellala hegemony has been built up over the centuries through caste myths and “Histories” which have legitimised the hegemony. Ideologically speaking the most interesting are the sat-sudra concept which takes away from the Vellalar the defilements spoken of in relations to sudras as the lowest in the varna hierarchy and the formation of the pancama castes (lit: the fifth caste consisting of Nalavar, Pallar, Vannar, Ampattar and Paraiyar) so that the Vellalar as sudras are no more the lowest.

The characteristic feature of the caste system is that it prescribes the vocation for a person on the basis of his birth and a system of social network is worked on that basis. Variations were permitted in so far those did not threaten the system.

In contemporary Jaffna the caste-vocation cotinuum is seen in the following manner.

  1. Those which have a significance in ritual practices. Brahmins (Rituals are done by those Brahmins who are qualified to do it: other Brahmins though are of the caste do not do it) Vannar (the washermen: they have important ritual functions at temples, at domestic level ceremonies child birth, coming of age, marriage, and death). Ampattar (the barbers, they have an important place in death ceremonies and
  2. Those who are engaged in the field of traditional technology: Taccar (carpenters), Kollar (blacksmiths) Tattar (goldsmiths).
  3.  Here too it must be remembered that not all who are born into these castes take the caste jobs. Nattuvar (the traditional musicians, name the nadadeswaram, tavil players) will also come in this category.

Besides these the main division would be in relation to the two main economic activities


In the case of fishing the following are the caste groups that are considered as traditional fishermen: Karaiyar, Mukkuvar and Timilar. It is true that occasionally Nalavar and Pallar do some shallow water fishing during rainy season. They use very very primitive forms.

Vellalar are the agriculturists. In the native perception a Vallalan is one who is engaged in vellanmai: They own the lands.

A close analysis of the caste formation in Jaffna would show that many of the intermediate caste groups which were doing vocations which ceased to exist after the socio-historical changes that have been taking place through modernization, like the Matappalliyar, the Akampatiyar, the Tanakkarar and even the local Chetties, have been now absorbed in to the Vellala caste. Thus the proverb “Kallar, Maravar….” referred to earlier. There used to be a concept of Chinna Vellalar.

The Kutimakkal are no more dependent on the Vellalar and the mode of remuneration is no more the Varucappati (the annual gift in kind) but a monetary payment on the basis daily wages. In the case of Vannar and Ampattar there are yet places where an annual donation of paddy is given, but that is in addition to what is given as cash payment.

An important feature of contemporary caste in Jaffna today is the formation of what I would describe as the “Mega castes”. By this is meant the absorption into one caste all those intermediate castes the specific vocations of which do not exist now, or those which, irrespective of the technologies they use are doing the same vocation and are clustered together now. The mega castes that have arisen thus are the Vellalar, the Karaiyar and the smiths.

It should be noted that the social position assigned to the intermediate castes in the sub regions vary, for instance the social position of the Karaiyar is low in Karaveddi whereas in Valvettiturai they are the dominant caste. Social mobility is now a feature of caste life in Jaffna and it is important to know the manner the change takes place. With the opening up of Education in the British period and education itself becoming the gateway to white

collar jobs in the government service the consciously guarded social power began to disintegrate. At the beginning it was Christianity that provided the breakthrough. One should not altogether dismiss as mere Christian propaganda that the early efforts at the revitalization of traditional religion (Hinduism) were also meant to check the social mobility that had started taking place. When the traditional main groups found that their social pre-eminence was at stake they began to collaborate with the rulers.

With modernization and the ensuing mechanization there came up new professions which eroded the caste vocation continuum. Driving lorries and tractors, being masons, running and working. in motor-repair shops and garages and such other secondary technology led to a number of people from the lower rungs of society to get out of the tyrannies of the caste system. Also important was the emergence of urban trade, mostly small trade which again eroded the social exclusiveness that the caste system tended to impose.

Politicization, especially the emergence of Tamil nationalism, was another factor which enabled social mobility. All these led to a process of Sanskritization and many caste groups and subgroups assuming “ respectable” position within the system itself. These led to the absorption of many of the intermediate caste groups onto the higher groups and to many of the lower groups to be independent of the religious isolation that the higher castes tried to impose on them.

The social rigidities of the caste also began to loosen. With the development of the subsidiary food crop production, especially with the boom of the early seventies the traditional tenurial system relating to leasing began to change. Men and women from the lower caste groups began to be employed as agricultural wage labour. They began to demand new work conditions which challenged the traditional caste norms.

There began in the fishing industry also the employment of wage labour in fishing. Equally important, though a later day phenomenon, is the exodus to the Middle East which enabled carpenters and masons to get very high incomes. This newly earned wealth has led to a new wave of Sanskritization by which social position accruing out of management of religious institutions is being shared by the once socially un-privileged, and underprivileged.

The need of the day is not to study caste system as an unchanging one but to study the caste-class relationship. It would yet be tenable to argue that the caste as a system of social behaviour has ceased to be effective. The “system” exists but in new forms. It is important to identify these new forms and also the efforts taken to counter them.

It is at this point sociology should take over from anthropology.

With the new problems as Sri Lankan Tamils are facing as Tamils and because they are Tamils, there is no doubt an increasing emphasis on the Tamil identity than on the “intra” identities. When one takes into count the fact that many of the youth are out of the country as refugees, and a large number of families have migrated or are migrating, the question is how does the social organization among the Tamils stand today?

At this point the problem has got to be viewed in an all Tamil perspective for we will find that all the Tamils virtually share the same concepts relating to “family”. The Tamil word for “family” is “KUTUMPAM” and it does not, even today, refer only to the “nuclear” family. It is the “extended family” that is always referred to. There may be so many bickerings (and there are many) within “Kutumpam” but it is the unit of social existence when it comes to matters relating to marriages and deaths. The extended family would definitely include the parents. brothers and sisters and their children. It is at this point a “Kutumpam” becomes a PAKUTI (making “a section, division”).

A Caste group really consists of such Pakutis. The pedigree of the family, the moral values of a family are all judged in terms of the pakuti’s standing in those matters. This is so because marriage in this situation is largely a question of forging relationships with other situation is largely a question of forging relationships with “ other” families to form not only new solidarities, but also to establish the internal unity of the family that seeks or accepts the marriage proposals.

Marriage in such a situation becomes an important social arrangement which has got to be carefully “negotiated”. The choices have got to be made very carefully, because on it would depend the future position of that “sons” or “daughter” in the family, his/her usefulness to the younger siblings and the maintenance of that family relationship with the other members of the Kutumpam.

It is true that love marriages do pose problems for this type of family-oriented organizations. And the experience so far has been that love marriages ultimately end up with the parents’ families also getting together or the couple being absorbed into one of the families, either that of the husband or that of the wife.

Marriage of a sister therefore becomes the responsibility of a brother. The social norm yet is that the brother helps enable the sister married comfortably so that the standing of that family goes up in relation to the pakuti.

One could say that the individual in among the Sri Lankan Tamil is, if we understand that term in its original meaning – “that which cannot be divided furthur into substantive figures” – it is the family that is the unit of existence, not the single person.

The traditional property law among the Tamils yet envisages such a social organization in which the “Kutumpam” is taken as the unit of social existance. This is very much so in the Tecavalamai (lit: the usages of the country) the law relating to the Property rights of the Tamils of Jaffna.

……………………………. 1989

FURTHER READING … [Siva’s brief list]

Byran Pfaffenberger – Caste in Tamil culture. Syracuse, USA- 1982

Michael Banks (Ed.): Caste in Jaffna: an aspect of caste in South India, Ceylon and North West Pakistan Learn: Cambridge 1960.

Kenneth David:  “Hierarchy and Equivalences in Jaffna North Ceylon- Normative code as mediators in the New Wind changing identitie”s in South Asia. (ed.)  K. David – Hague – 1976.

J.P.Lewis: The Manual of the Vanni.

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ABOUT Karthigesu Sivathamby



Filed under ancient civilisations, art & allure bewitching, caste issues, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, demography, economic processes, education, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, island economy, landscape wondrous, language policies, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, Saivism, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

3 responses to “An Ethnological Introduction to the Tamils of Sri Lanka

  1. Rex Olegasegarem

    Hi Michael. Your account of the caste system among the Thamil population is Sri Lanka is correct. There are a few variants as well. My mother’s ancestory is from Jaffna in a small hamlet called Arraly which has people mainly from the Vellalla caste but within this a small section called “Chetty Vellallar” Chetty has nothing to do with the “Colombo Chettys” . However they were Called ” Chetty Vellalas as they were a prosperous group and lent money to the other Vellalars for cultivation of crops.My mother hailed from this group.

  2. Rex Olegasegarem

    Continuing – The section in Araly occupied by the “Chetty Vellalars in Araly was called “Chettya Madam”. Madam means the occupied section. .

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