Dearth of Available Source Material

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Dearth of Available Source Material

The researcher into genealogy in Sri Lanka, (as in the rest of the Indian subcontinent) faces a significant problem due to the lack of reliable source material. Unlike in the west, where there has been a long tradition of documenting genealogical data (ie: births, marriages and deaths) from very early times, in Sri Lanka it is only after the advent of the Portuguese that such information was recorded systematically in the Parish records. (sadly these records were destroyed by the Portuguese to prevent them from falling into the hands of the advancing Dutch army.)

In Sri Lanka as in the Indian sub-continent, genealogical information was maintained and passed down by Oral Tradition prior to the advent of the Colonial Powers.  Even the Hindu religious teachings such as the Vedas have been passed down the centuries from father to Son by word of mouth.  In Jaffna, genealogical information about prominent families were also traditionally maintained by the Paraya community (the drummer caste).

The vestiges of the feudal structure, which continued to remain until the,  1950’s 1960’s, has disappeared hastened by the ethnic conflict. Village communities including the “Parayas” have dispersed from their native villages, taking with them their knowledge of the local genealogies. Information that had been committed to writing was on perishable material, and hence very little if any has survived the ravages of time. Official Documents have also been lost in the destruction caused by the civil war.

One of the leading causes for the collapse of the caste system has been migration. Internal migration from Jaffna and the Vannis to the business and economic centres of the country, which took place in the closing years of the 19th century and the   early part of the 20th century. The advent of the ethnic conflict in the 1970's saw migration of many residents of Jaffna and the Vannis migrate to countries such as Canada and Australia where large communities of Jaffna Tamil diaspora can be found.  In addition to migration, education too has played a part in the collapse of the caste system of Jaffna and the Vannis. As education became readily available many Jaffna Tamils from the traditional lower castes have pursued careers in other professions. Therefore the castes and the traditional occupations of the Jaffna Tamil people have ceased to be a consideration in the day to day lives of the people, and have over a period of time been abandoned and forgotten.



5 comments at the moment.
Comment By Comment
Sam - Canada Dear Mohan,

I read with great interest all your articles and it took me back many years to when my grand parents would tell me stories of their lives in Jaffna.

My question though is regarding either documentary or word of mouth information about life in Jaffna. Surely there are some people from the various castes who still remain in Sri Lanka and still remember some of the information passed down to them by their fathers?

Can we not try to get to these people?

Prabath Nissanka I agree with you totally, its so sad that the social structure of the country had to change so much over the last 50 years. What is even more worrisome is that the force for change and abandoning of these traditions and the way of life came not from outside but from within. Internal conflict and racial intolerance have led to Sri Lanka loosing part of its national heritage which remained intact over 450 years if colonial rule!

The burning of the Jaffna library for me was the worst disaster of the war and the conflict. So much material was lost - that could have been used to piece together the social fabric of the last 50 years.
Web Master Dear Sam, Thank you for exploring the site and we are glad you found the site interesting to read. As stated in the article "Dearth of Available Source Material"the social structure that existed in the 1950's has completely disappeared and is no longer around.

As people have embraced education and technology the old ways and the caste system which was based on their birth right are no longer important. People measure success by a very different yard stick, and therefore even if there are people with some knowledge about the days when the caste system prevailed they are not likely to come out and speak about it.

Having spent much time with Mr Tissanayagam I know that even he does not advocate the caste system and his intentions in agreeing to work on this site with me is that he views all of this quite dispassionately merely as a study of sociology.

A line he often quotes is from the Lord Buddha's teachings "A Brahmin is by one's actions and not by one's birth"

Please do read and contribute further and we will publish all your comments no sooner i can review them with Mr Tissanayagam
Wicks  This is a in fact a response to Sam-Canada - I too read all of the articles and as a Tamil from Jaffna i am very proud and happy that such a site has been done. This site is also a very impartial one and has a ring of truth about thing that are mentioned in it.

I also read some of the comments and the web master responses and i would like to see the response to this article! However to my knowledge there is no way you can find too much in the way of the old caste system in Sri Lanka now. This is true not only of the caste system of the Jaffna and upcountry Tamils but of the Sinhalese as well.

I would say that there was some semblance of the cast system in operation in politics and governance upto the 1940's and maybe even the 1950's. However today there is absolutely no sense of looking for people who even have knowledge as there are no such people.

People who are in positions of influence now have made their way to the top through effort, education, and by peddling money and influence. None of them want to discuss caste and family status. Even if they did very few would have any information to talk on since this has been a forgotten topic for at least two generations.
Prabath Nissanka  The Social Structure of Jaffna or even Sinhala Sri Lanka is no longer intact. And most aspects of the castes and the practices surrounding the caste system have all bust disappeared from society today.

The reason for this would probably be the Colonization of Sri Lanka in succession by the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British and also modernization and development, which brought with it: Education and Information & Communications Technology (ICT).

Today people are of the mindset that they can change their stars that it is what they make of themselves and not what they were born to that matters.

The caste system cannot survive in such an atmosphere where people look to improve themselves and believe that personal achievement and not birth right dictates a man's social standing
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