Complexities of Sinhalese Ethnicity and Community: Caste, Kinship and Religion

Image courtesy Karava of Sri Lanka

Due to the war with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam for over three decades in Sri Lanka, the attention of many including academics, journalists, foreign observers and leaders was focused on Ethnicity –majority and minority.  There was an upsurge of literature –both popular and academic- using ethnicity as the framework and key concept used to gather information, analyse, interpret and write.  Yet, I am arguing that to understand the complexities and intricacies in the Sinhalese society, the way of life and the worldview, it is necessary to acquire a deep understanding of kinship, caste, religion and rituals including public rituals.  Traditionally these have been the focus of social and cultural anthropologists.  However, in order to get a deeper understanding of these arenas and the dynamics of contemporary polity, others also need to focus attention on these critical dimensions of Sinhalese society with the seriousness it deserves.

The Sinhalese society is constructed on the basis of several key hierarchies.  These include the party-political, religious (including Buddhist and deity worship), caste, bureaucratic-administrative, professional (e.g. educational, medical) and the military.   Understanding how these hierarchies are formed and they way they operate is one way to approach this subject.  In doing so, one has to understand the nature of those who hold positions within them. There are also layer upon layer of ‘interconnecting relationships’ based on the hierarchies mentioned here.

As in other ethnicities, individuals acquire Sinhalese Ethnic identity by birth.  Thus it is an exclusive identity category, meaning that those who are not Sinhalese are automatically excluded from the identification category.  There is an origin myth associated with this identity, i.e. Story about the arrival of Prince Vijaya from North India.  There are mechanisms whereby this ethnic identity and belonging are ‘reproduced’.  These include socially and culturally significant events such as weddings, funerals, Alms givings to the monks, Pirith chanting ceremonies, celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing (Vesak), birth day celebrations, new year celebrations, and ceremonies associated with the life and agricultural cycle.  In addition, the educational system and processes also contribute to the reproduction of Sinhalese identity starting from home, the pre school, school, and universities. These are very powerful mechanisms that are at play in reproducing ‘an exclusivist ethnic identity’.  The nature and dynamics as well as conceptualisations of such an identity cannot be properly understood without acquiring an understanding of these reproductive mechanisms as well as the central themes, associated beliefs and practices including the ritualistic dimensions in each of them.  What is common in each of these events is that they provide situations for members of the Sinhalese community to mingle, exchange information, revive existing relationships, establish new links, identify close and distant relatives, village/town and school mates, and at the end renew/reproduce ethnic identity as same people who have much in common. This then flows into the various official hierarchies described earlier providing an important link between those in authority and those in the periphery of power, wealth, and status.

Kinship is acquired through two means i.e. birth and marriage.  One is again born into a given sibling and extended kin group.  Marriage allows new interconnections with hitherto unrelated families even though some marriages take place between already related families also.  There have been studies of Sinhalese kinship by anthropologists, particularly in relation to land tenure and religious hierarchy, but I am not aware of recent academic studies of kinship conducted in the context of Sri Lanka’s powerful hierarchies mentioned in this article.  Kinship is also an exclusive category of identification and belonging even though there have been instances when outsiders have been incorporated as pseudo kinsmen or women on rare occasions.  The unity among kinsmen and women is a subject of fascinating study because with the interference of other factors such as land disputes, sibling rivalries, parental preferences for some children over others, issues with marital partners, wealth differences, various other nuances, the unity among kinsmen and women could be broken to the extent that they don’t even talk to each other.  Close relationships established by birth and marriage could thus be destroyed.

Sibling rivalry and competition is a common theme in the Sinhalese society.  As a result of this, some kinsmen and women get excluded from the close-knit in-groups.  It is here that the space opens for non-relatives to enter the in-groups as friends, co-opted pseudo brothers and sisters etc. Non-Sinhalese members of other ethnicities such as Tamils may be incorporated as household servants, drivers, gardeners and the like.  Such incorporated people secure close contacts with the families of in-groups that they serve.  Over the course of time, some of them can assume pseudo kinship status also.  This then shows how powerful is the in-group creation among the Sinhalese.  However, when it comes to ethnic identity those who are in the close kinship groups and those who are outside are both included.  Thus ethnicity is a broader category or concept embracing diverse kin groups. Interconnections between various kin groups built on the basis of lineage and marriage are sources of building powerful networks within the ethnic community.

Caste is often a subject that is not spoken about much in contemporary political and social discourses.  Yet it plays a central role in building hierarchies and reproducing in-groups and out-groups.  While caste was the key principle upon which the occupations, the land and various privileges were allocated during the kingdom times, during the post-independent era the strength of caste, as a mechanism that reproduces in-groups has been somewhat diluted due to various factors.  Among these is the modern education, geographical mobility of people from their places of birth, availability of employment in the state and private sectors (local and foreign) to so-called low caste people, upward social mobility due to expanded education, professionalization, and inter-marriages based on love.  Some arranged marriages also take place between men and women from different castes.  However, among some castes there are strong emphasis on in-group marriage e.g. Karava caste.  Choosing a marriage partner is a very intricate affair often based on astrological readings of horoscopes, compatibility checks, wealth and status considerations, personalities of the two people involved, and parental control over dowry and other assets that may pass on to the children.  Thus the decisions on children’s marriage are often determined by factors other than the love exhibited between the man and woman to each other.  While there have been some smaller studies conducted by undergraduate and postgraduate students for their academic theses on how the marriage, caste and kinship function in modern day Sinhalese society, again there is a serious lack of sound anthropological or sociological studies of repute in this area.

Caste is also a key factor in determining who is included and excluded in political party hierarchy, some religious hierarchies, e.g. Siam Nikaya and the like.   However, due to the liberalisation and professionalization of occupations such as in the judiciary, state administration/bureaucracy, educational, medical and other professions, there has been an influx of those from the non-dominant castes in significant hierarchies.  Yet ‘the dominant caste syndrome’ continues at the core of the political process and governance.  This has not been received much attention in the academic and other discourses during the period when there was the war between government forces and the LTTE combatants.

The dominant caste among the Sinhalese is called Govigama.  During the pre-colonial times and to some extent during the colonial periods, members of the dominant caste Govigama were freehold farmers and the landed gentry in the country. Unlike members of other castes who were granted villages in return for services to the king’s palace, Govigamas were not required to provide services to the King’s palace in return for the villages they inhabited.  However, they occupied important positions in the King’s administration. During the Kingdom times, there was also a top stratum called Radala who occupied important positions in the royal court and administration.  An example is Pilimatalavve Adikaram – who served as the prime minister under King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. Radala was a set of families holding large extents of land-both highland and paddy land- manorial houses (Walavva), staff and servants of various sorts, and also privileges of extracting material and non-material rewards from those who were below their status in the social and administrative hierarchy. These Radala families associated with the royal palace and administration formed a very powerful status in-group in time to come only to be superseded by the Walavva families, which came to prominence during the colonial period encompassing three different invaders, e.g. Portuguese, Dutch, and the British.

Probably, the difference between Radala families who served under the Sinhalese kings and those who served colonial rulers is that the former stratum was purely a dominant caste phenomenon whereas the latter stratum was a multi-caste one.  For example, during the British colonial period (1796-1948) some Karawa families also held important bureaucratic positions especially in the low country of Sri Lanka in the provincial administration.  By and large, the core of high positions and associated privileges including the ability to form Walavva (the manorial residences of those holding high positions) was allocated among members of the dominant caste –Govigama.  How far the reproduction of this ‘dominant caste syndrome’ is operational today in the formation of ruling elites and/or the political class in the country could be a fascinating topic for further critical examination.  Because if it does, it should be a phenomenon that determines the life chances of millions of people inhabiting the country, particularly those belonging to minority castes and kin groups.  The book by Janice Jiggins published in 1979 highlighted the way that key political families were related to each other by kinship and caste. Reproduction and rejuvenation of the dominant caste through the political system and other hierarchies combined with kinship networks along with the conduct of popular religious rituals like perahara can play a critical role ‘in maintaining dominance’ of a core stratum over the mass population within the Sinhalese ethnic community.

Religion and rituals are the other key variable that needs to be examined closely when attempting to acquire an understanding of the complexities of Sinhalese society. There are important events, celebrations and rituals associated with Buddhist and deity worship.  In terms of the Buddhist worship, rituals associated with Kandy Perahara and those associated with more minor perahara in surrounding areas are important.  Before the Kandy perahara, there are provincial perahara conducted at selected centres of Buddhist and deity worship.  Kandy perahara is the culmination of these events and until now it reflects the various strata constituting society as well as traditional costumes and other symbols, e.g. functions allocated to villages in Viharagam land.  Some studies have shown how the Kandy perahara symbolises the composition of traditional Sinhalese society.  In post-independent Sri Lanka, other perahara have also come to prominence, e.g. Kelaniya perahara, Gangaramaya Perhara, Kataragama Perahara.

Custodianship in various places of Buddhist and deity worship (devale) is an important position and the allocation of such positions is also influenced by caste, kinship, political and other factors. The custodians acquire certain privileges through such positions, most importantly symbolic ones that are important in the reflection of various identities and the projection of power to the rest of population. However, the important point to remember is how the rituals associated with Buddhist and deity worship reproduce and reinforce caste and kinship identities within the Sinhalese ethnic community.  Functioning of politically powerful individuals or those who are associated with politically powerful families within such ritualistic spheres add to the legitimation of power in the eyes of the public.

Ceremonies associated with the passing of individuals in families such as pirith chanting and alms giving are ‘compulsory events’ in the Sinhalese Buddhist society.  These are occasions when the laity and Buddhist monks come into close contact.  Transfer of merit (pin) to dead relatives is a core concept in Buddhist belief system, and members of families who experience grief due to the death of close relatives reduce their grief by performing such religious rituals.  It is customary for friends and other relatives to not only attend but also actively contribute to the preparation of venue, invitation to the monks, preparation of food and donations, and the conduct of these ceremonies.  On occasions like these, people-irrespective of their socio-economic status, sibling rivalries, and other secular differences- are able to visit the family concerned and contribute or even show their presences. Pansukulaya is conducted at the time of the funeral transferring merits by close relatives, but after 7 days, three months and one year of a death, it is customary to conduct pirith chanting and offer alms to Buddhist monks in memory of the deceased.  The scale of the ceremony depends on the socio-economic status of the family and sibling power.  Even the poorest families get help from the rest of the community to conduct these ceremonies at an acceptable level.  Visits from important persons such as politicians, local authorities, professionals are also common.  Some participants take the task of helping the family to organise such events upon themselves as a sign of their altruism.  These ceremonies offer an opportunity for people who belong to in-groups and out-groups to mingle, interact, exchange information, renew relations etc.  Thus they have a reproductive effect on various identities discussed in this paper.

The schooling system and the higher education system in the country play a role in terms of reinforcing and reproducing these identities.  As the schooling system is a segregated one in terms of ethnicity, they reinforce and reproduce singular ethnic identities.  Within the Sinhalese community, the schools and state higher education institutions reinforce and reproduce Sinhalese identity including aspects of religious identity.  In addition, they play ‘an equalising role’ in terms of caste and kinship identities.  As the ethnic and religious identities are largely ‘exclusivist’ ones due to the existence of in-group and out-group syndrome, the interactions by students of different castes and kin groups within the boundaries of schools and other higher education institutions create new friendships and alliances thereby alleviating the effects of in-group influence.

Thus, the Sinhalese identity, particularly its ethnic variety, is not necessarily the most important concept that can give insiders and outsiders an understanding of the intricacies involved in the construction and reproduction of identity.  In order to understand the complexities of Sinhalese identity, one has to examine sister identities such as kinship, caste, and religious in a deeper way.  Sole focus on ethnic identity in various academic, journalistic and political discourses without regard to these sister identities can lead to the assumption that Sinhalese identity is a uniform category consisting of individuals with no differentiation along other factors.  On the contrary, there is ‘a high level of diversity’ within Sinhalese ethnic community. It has its own ‘mechanisms and processes of domination and subjugation’, ‘inclusion and exclusion’, ‘empowerment and disempowerment’.  Unfortunately, the ‘ethnic conflict discourse’ where Sinhalese and Tamil ethnicities are the main focus over the last 3-4 decades has made these mechanisms and processes somewhat invisible and less important at the discourse and research level –even though on the ground level they matter very much for the well being of different strata of Sinhalese community and the distribution of opportunities among its various strata.  It is time that contemporary anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars concerned with the Sri Lankan society get back to re-focus their attention on these mechanisms and processes to better articulate their nature and function in contemporary society.

References

Jiggins, Janice  1979. Caste and Family in the Politics of the Sinhalese, 1947-1976, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.

The author can be contacted over email.

  • sabreta

    Very interesting article! how do you define ethnicity on a mixed marriage? For example, sinhalese-tamil, sinhalese-muslim or sinhalese-foreigner. How do you define their children’s identity? Based on ethnicity (which one), religion acquired, cultural habits? It is quite difficult to talk about “ethnic identity” in a globalised world, isn’t it?

    • Jay

      theoretically they will have the ethnic heritage of both. But in practicality the children will take the ethnicity of the parent who is more concerned about his/her ethnicity.

    • Off the Cuff

      Even in a globalised world have managed to hold on to this unfortunate system, especially unfortunate given that we call ourselves Buddhists.

  • MaxV

    Aren’t all ethnic identities “exclusivist”? Isn’t that what makes them “ethnic identities”? Things like kinship rivalries are common human occurrences. How does that play into a large, ethnic identity? How did a caste system prevail in a Buddhist country? Anyway, the description in this article of the caste system seems woefully inadequate, it fails to define what it is. I read an academic article that identified over a dozen major castes among the Sinhalese, and even more sub-castes within these. And these castes changed over time. So are they castes or classes?
    Anyway these are some of the questions.

  • goiya

    As Professor M.N. Sri Nivas aptly stated, the concept of the
    dominant caste is crucial to the understanding of rural social life in most
    parts of India. He further observed that “Whether analysis is to be made of the
    hierarchy of a multi-caste village, the settlement of a dispute at the level of
    village or caste, or the pattern of Sanskritization among the several castes of
    an area, a study of the locally dominant caste and the kind of dominance it enjoys
    is essential”.

    How this concept is operationalized in the social context of
    Sri Lanka is somewhat problematic, when Goigama caste is regarded the dominant
    caste. The concept of dominant caste is used in regional settings, may be in a
    district or an area comprising several districts. For example in some coastal
    areas in Sri Lanka Karava caste is the dominant caste, while in areas such as
    Rambukkana Bathgama caste has assumed dominance. Dominant caste is used to analyze
    the regional dominance of certain castes as has been used by Sri Nivas. It is
    used in contrast to the notion of high caste which is the Brahmins in Indian
    situation. If we identify the Goigama caste as the dominant caste, not only
    that we jeopardize the term of dominant caste, but also belittle its analytical
    use and vigor.

    • Rala

      True, how the domination occurs is important. It us here that the concept of power is important(see my article in Sri Lanka Guardian). I agree that in some areas there could be Karawa or Durawa or Batgama domination. isn’t this the exception? What about Hambantota, Ratnapura, Kandy or Kurunagala to name a few other locations?

      • Goiya

        I have nothing to quarrel about regional domination of castes in Sri Lanka. This is very well shown in provincial elections now and previously under the electoral system in politics. As documented by Michael Roberts certain caste have assumed power and dominance over the others in the hierarchy due to many factors (see his Karava book for example). The point I highlighted was that the concept of dominant caste is used to analyze the regional dominance of certain castes as has been used by Sri Nivas. It is used in contrast to the notion of high caste.

        In this article the concept of dominant caste is used differently, which lavishly destroys its original meaning and analytic use.

        The confusion of the usage is evident in the following
        statements:

        ” However, due to the liberalisation and professionalization
        of occupations such as in the judiciary, state administration/bureaucracy,
        educational, medical and other professions, there has been an influx of those
        from the non-dominant castes in significant hierarchies..”

        “Yet ‘the dominant caste syndrome” ??? What is this??

        “The dominant caste among the Sinhalese is called
        Govigama. During the pre-colonial times and to some extent during the
        colonial periods, members of the dominant caste Govigama were freehold farmers
        and the landed gentry in the country.”

        “Probably, the difference between Radala families who served
        under the Sinhalese kings and those who served colonial rulers is that the
        former stratum was purely a dominant caste phenomenon whereas the latter
        stratum was a multi-caste one..”

        “By and large, the core of high positions and associated
        privileges including the ability to form Walavva (the manorial residences of
        those holding high positions) was allocated among members of the dominant caste
        –Govigama. How far the reproduction of this ‘dominant caste syndrome’ is
        operational today in the formation of ruling elites and/or the political class
        in the country could be a fascinating topic for further critical examination…”

        “ Reproduction and rejuvenation of the dominant caste
        through the political system and other hierarchies combined with kinship
        networks along with the conduct of popular religious rituals like perahara can
        play a critical role ‘in maintaining dominance’ of a core stratum over the mass
        population within the Sinhalese ethnic community…”

        • Ralaya

          So you are saying that Goigama is not a dominant caste? But high caste…., what’s the definition of high caste?

          merely because SriNivas used the term dominant caste in a certain sense does not mean that one cannot use it in another context in another sense. We do not have to be locked into one meaning.

          What the article by Dr Gamage shows is how the high caste is maintaining dominance over the rest of the population?

  • Dev

    Thank you for highlighting the issue of caste among the the Sinhalese and by extension the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the best evidence of which is the existence of this within the different sects of the clergy. This caste issue even exists among the Christians . Clearly shows the difference what is preached and what is practiced by the religions.

    • Ralaya

      In Sri Lanka there is no Brahmin caste, high caste in the sense that Sri Nivas used the term as Goiya says,even though some would say that Buddhist monks perform thus role to some extent,e.g.when they conduct Channing and offer blessings at weddings. At weddings, the guys who perform pour a charitra also used Sanskrit verses before but now they have transformed to Buddhist ones in Sinhala. But they are not necessarily Brahmin in nature or style. Thus the use of the term dominant caste in Sri Lankan context is warranted as it reflects the close relationship between dominant power and the place of Goigama caste. One thing to be mindful is that among Goigamas also there are less powerful people. In terms of status hierarchy though they are also beneficiaries of dominant caste syndrome that continues among the Sinhalese at a symbolic, material and power sense.

  • Jayalath

    An Interesting write up . Around where I live that I got shock one day after heard how the caste work. One old man was working in a land of one other man who possess quite big paddy field , one day this land owner walked into meet the old man to his house and he was waiting out the door , then I inquired from another person why that person is standing out side the door instead of go and sit down inside the house and I was shocked to hear what was told me by that person , he said me that land owner is low caste although he was the land owner who is not allowed to go and sit Down of that old man’ house .

    Also,my father comes from Galle and I was told by him when the political parties select candidates from own party to contest the elections that they much concern to select them according to the caste at area as many people tempt to consider caste even today before the cast a vote .

    However the caste had been existing for millennium around the world and not specifically to Sri Lankan singhala ethnicity .however the caste is speedily fading away from the societies which is a good sign , but unfortunately it heads up in the societies in different face which is sad . The growing new class system shows remarkable impact of society which isn’t much different to the old caste . If you think of new class system today as , rich class , middle class , low class there you will see quite similarity to old system . where you can see how it work . but there is a fundamental different in between , if we consider to a person who belongs to a low class today who has a distinctive chance of moving into next level by of getting to educational ladder and in the old caste system mostly people born to particular caste and die from the same .Therefore . There are some significant differences are existing in the class system today compare to old days . But generally , the operation has not much different .i only can see that we are trapped in the caste and religion due to ignorance , hence handful of people in Sri Lanka have demonstrated near the recent past their curiosity to lead the mass of people to understand the essence of abolish the class system . Nonetheless ,that we must remember, there are nothing would change spontaneously in this world ,unless people consistently struggle to change it .

    Karl Marx was one who saw how this system work and it advanced into new class system . And his explanation marked a new process of world order . He named the proletariat as a labour class who works for the wage and a small land owners called bourgeoisie who wish to pay the wage as low as possible . He further referred this situation to as class warfare or class struggle where the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interest and desires between people of different classes . Where he sternly criticised the class and religion as he knew how the class and religion system work to divide people and then how difficult it can be to assemble them to face the real threats of their future prosperity and harmony .
    He further said , the caste system is existing and it is a part of the hierarchical capitalist system that dominates society.
    The worst caste system was reported from India and he said the caste system incorporated with Hinduism in India , as basis to form a mode of production and to maintain a hierarchical order