The Caste System and the Social Structure of Jaffna

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The Ceylon Tamils are concentrated in two main provinces in the Island-the Northern and Eastern Provinces, as well as in the towns of Puttalam and Kalpitiya, in the North Western Province. The social system of Ceylon Tamils, which has evolved over the centuries, can be seen in these parts. While the four fold caste system of Brahmin, Kshatria, Vaisya and Sudra held sway in Northern India, Jaffna followed the Dravidian system, with the Vellalar, who correspond to the South Indian Tamil caste of that name, at the apex of the structure.

The Vellalar’s were numerically superior being approximately 50% of the population and hence the structure was an inverted pyramid. This numerical superiority that ensured their position remained un-challenged by the lower orders.

The numbers of Brahmin families in Jaffna declined and it was necessary to bring them over from the mainland to officiate in the temples of the Vellalar and Chetty castes. It is during Dutch times that we get our first insights into the social structure, through reports and memoires of governors, in their efforts to define the various groups and their services to the Dutch East India company.

Governor Van Rhee, has left us a comprehensive list of the castes and their traditional work. In his listing some castes are denoted by their services, ie: carpenters, silversmiths, cabinet makers, masons etc. Whilst others are denoted by religion- Christian carpenters, Heathen Carpenters etc. Other groups have names of Dutch origin: Foundadoors – who are makers of copperware for the company and Bauthekares, who’s job was to procure game for the Governor’s kitchen. Two caste groups are mentioned, even though they gave no services to the Company - Brahmins, and Kovias, the latter being the slaves of the inhabitants and did not work for the Dutch.

Baldeus, a minister and historian, has also left full and detailed studies of certain castes- the” Bellalas”, (Vellalas) are described as citizens of some standing and wealth, as gathered from the description of their gold earrings and their slippered feet, and lived well, off the land on agriculture and animal husbandry. They married strictly within themselves, and were known for being litigious “for they are constantly envious of each other”.

In Dutch times an account of the Brahmins in Jaffna inadvertently discloses the degree of success gained by the missionaries in their conversions. The Brahmins were people of high moral standards, sober, clean and industrious. Strongly attached to their orthodoxy, the “Christianized” Brahmin will continue to believe in their age old superstitions, and carry their prayer beads, and courteously evade the lifestyle of the foreigner. Baldeus noted that the system was rigid, with the upper castes looking down on the lower, who were obliged to behave in a humble and servile manner towards their superiors. He also noted that the inhabitants of the kingdom of Jaffnapatam were generally speaking: intelligent, sober, moderate in diet, clean in their apparel, with good memories, and a tendency to be outspoken.  


In ancient lanka the Brahmin was honored in his several roles as minister, guru and priest. Uncompromising in his orthodoxy, he held his ground as a separate caste. The Mahavamsa states that “when the Sacred Bo Sapling was brought to the island, it was accompanied by a retinue that included 8 persons from Brahmin families.” In time they merged into the Sinhala Social system, leaving behind a number of place names such as Brahmanawatte- the garden of the Brahmin, Bamunugama, the village of the Brahmin etc.. In medieval Jaffna society, the Brahmin did not hold a conspicuous place, his role being relegated to temple rituals. He was employed by the Vellalars and Chieftains to officiate in the temples built by them.


The Aryacakravarti kings who ruled Jaffna, and their immediate family claimed Brahma-Kshastriya status, meaning Brahmins who took to marital life. The ruling family and their kin were never in great numbers so as to form an entire cast group. It is indicated in the Portuguese records that during the annexation of the Northern Kingdom of Jaffna, many members of the Royal family were either put to death by the Portuguese or forcibly made to accept Christian holy orders, in order to impose celibacy on them, and ensure that no clear royal bloodlines continued. This evidence contradicts the Yalpana Vaipava Malai account which mentions how the Portuguese befriended Prince Paranirupasinghe, his daughter and his eight (08) sons, the descendents of the Royal House of Jaffna. If any members of the Royal family of Jaffna, survived the annexation of the Kingdom, they could have only done so by fleeing the vengeance of the Portuguese. Such survivors would have been few and their descendents would have been forced to inter-marry with some of the exclusive Vellalar, Chetty or Madapalli families, as there were no Kshastriya’s left in the Kingdom.  


The Vellalas, or the great Farmer caste, occupies the apex of the social system in the agricultural economy of Jaffna, as their counterparts do in South India. Writers like H. A. Stuart and W. B. Francis, both of the Indian Civil Service have left interesting accounts of their traditional culture and standing in society. According to Stuart, the word Vellalam is derived from Vellanmai Vellam, meaning water, and Anmai, meaning management, ie, cultivation or tillage. Stories describing their origins abound, and all point to divine intervention in answer to the prayers of the people: A sublime being arises from the earth (in one version he emanates from the side of the goddess Bhudevi,) carrying a plough, who proceeds to show the ancient people how to till the soil and support themselves. He consorts with the daughters of the gods, and his myriad progeny become the Vellalars. He is given the sacred thread as belonging to the Vaisya caste. His descendents intermarry with the children of the gods, and subdivisions of the caste take place. In one version, the gods decree that the Pancha Jati, or five artisan castes, would be subservient to the Earth born Cultivator who is given the titles of Saviour of the Earth, Descendant of the Ganges, and Protector of the Plough. W.B. Francis, in the course of his Madras Census Report 1901, notes: “The internal structure of the caste, and it’s self contained and distinct sub-divisions and the methods by which it’s members are enhanced by accretations from other castes are typical of the characteristics of the corresponding Madras castes.” It is natural that members of other castes without any real connection with the Vellalars would like to align themselves if not subtly merge with the caste at the top. A Tamil proverb puts it succinctly when it says that a Kallan could come to be a Maravan; in due course with the cultivation of respectability he may develop into an Akamudaiyan, and so, by degrees, develop into a Vellalar.

W.B. Francis also observes that: “The caste is so widely diffused that it cannot protect itself against these invasions. After a few generations, the origin of the new recruit is forgotten, and he has no difficulty in passing himself off as the genuine Vellalar”.


The Chetty caste who were entitled to wear the sacred thread, as a result of which were considered twice born, often claimed a higher status than their Vellalar or the Madapalli counter-parts. They rarely inter-married outside the caste and on the rare occasions they did, they married into exclusive Vellala or the Madappalli families. There were major Chetty settlements in Nallur, Tellipalai, Chettiyar madam, and Kolumbuthurai. The Chettys were mainly in trade and commerce, and some were also large land-owners. During the reign of the Tamil Kings, some of them made large fortunes and became great potentiaries wielding great influence in the Kingdom. It is pertinent to note that even in the Kotte Kingdom, the ascendants of the Kings had originally come to Sri Lanka’ from Kerala, to trade and in the course of time established themselves as merchant princes prior to acquiring the crown. (not unlike the “Medici” family in medieval Florence) The Kingdom of Jaffna was primarily an agrarian economy. It also had a flourishing export trade in pearls, dyes, conch shells and elephants. This would have ensured both the Vellalar’s and Chetty’s pride of place in the Northern Kingdom.


According to M. D. Ragavan, “the Madapallis are a community originally with a strong individuality all its own, until their gradual assimilation into the Vellalar fold in the later ages.” There is no knowing who the Madapalli’s were or whence they came. The sense of exclusiveness grown around the name has found varied explanation at the hands of various writers. That they were “immigrants and colonists” as the Vaiyapadal states, takes us nowhere, as this is true of all Jaffna groups, Madapalli or not. “Madapally” as signifying “Royal Kitchen” is the explanation given by Mudaliyar Rasanayagam. Boake in his monograph on Mannar, features them as “Bastards of Royal Descent” Whether of royal descent or not “Bastard” is not appropriate term to apply to a whole community of people. “Madam” is the term for a Brahmin house or a Kings palace. “Palli” has a sense of sacredness attached to the name, as its meaning of a house of the Gods. The Vaiyyapadal, which narrates the history of the colonization of Jaffna in the 13th century, mentions the Madapalli’s as one of the caste groups that accompanied the first Aryachakravarti King. If this is so, Mailvagana Pulavar’s account explaining the origins of the Madapalli caste in the late 16th century, cannot be accepted as correct or be taken seriously. According to Mailvaganam the usurper King Sankili in order to degrade his brother Prince Paranirupasinghe and his descendents conferred on them the Vellalar title of Mudali and designated them as Madappalli’s. This narrative seems farfetched and incredulous! The Madappallis were said to be devided into three sub castes: Rasa Madapalli, Kumara Madapalli, and Saruva Madapalli.


There are references of a scramble for superiority between the Madapalli’s and the Vellalar’s during Dutch times. The Dutch surmounted this difficulty by appointing one from each of these groups as “Kanakapulles” to the Dutch Commander. However prevalent opinion in Jaffna was that the Madappalli’s, were inferior to the Chetty’s and Vellala’s. This could be due to their association with the kitchens of the temples and palaces. Their status was said to be similar to that of the “Pandarams” who worked in the temples and who were considered lower that the Chetty’s and Vellalar’s A letter written to MohanTissanayagam by a kinsmen, the late K. C. Thuraisingham in a subtle manner reflects this position. (transcript below)

......... In us there is a combination of Chettys and Vellalars, no Madapalli even. ”

Furthermore in a decided case

“VENAGEGER CANDAR plaintiff Vs VENGEGAR MOORUGER defendant” 16th June 1834 – (refer Thesawalame by H. F. Mutukisna)

V. Cander, a Vellalar sought legal proceedings against V. Mooruger for damages for calling him a Madapalli. The defendant pleaded that the plaintiff was not from his village, and hence was unknown to him. He had been misled by some others to belive that the plaintiff was a Madapalli. However the defendant was now convinced otherwise and agreed to call him a Vellalar. As the defendant had admitted that the plaintiff was a Vellalar, it did not appear to the court that the defendant had purposely called the plaintiff a Madapalli and it was held that the payment of costs of litigation was a fair judgement.

V. Cander would not have taken legal action if he had been mistaken for a higher caste! Many Jaffna families believing the accuracy of the Vaipava Malai story have claimed that they were of the Madapalli caste in order that they could claim their descent from the Arya Chakravarthis through Prince Paranirupasinge. This proves their claims are fictitious.


As their name denotes, the people of the Vanni are inhabitants of the buffer zone which divides the Tamil areas of the North and the Sinhala areas of the South. They were a people ruled by chieftains who enjoyed some independence since the early days of the Jaffna kings and the Sinhalese kings of Kandy, which they continued to enjoy even in the time of the Dutch, in return for an annual supply of elephants - the sole product of the Vanni.

The Vanni’s were divided into the Tamil Vannis and the Sinhala Vannis. The Sinhala Vannis were devided into the Maha Vanni and the Kalyana Vanni. The Tamil Vannis which were also known as “demala kaballa” were bounded by the Jaffna Lake, the Aruvi Aru, Trincomalee and Mannar and comprised of the following chieftaincies: Tennamaravadi, Mulliyavalai, Karunaval Pattu, Panankamam, Perunkali Pattu, and Musali Pattu.

As a result of the rebellious nature of these people and the their chieftains, during Dutch, Portuguese and early English times these areas were often referred to as “ADANGA PAARU” which in Tamil meant “un-subjugatable land”

Governor Van Heer records them in his Memoires that the Vanniyars were intractable and conceited, and showing no respect for the Company or it’s officers. When the British took over from the Dutch, Pandara Vanniya led his people in a revolt, which was eventually subdued. How the Vanni came to be colonised is explained by varied sources, one such story being that their progenitors came in the retinue of a Princess who came from Madura to be the wife of a local chieftain who had assumed kingship. A series of colonizations followed and it would seem that the land of the Vanni had taken its name from the Vanniyar people who settled there. After the Portuguese period, all prevailing forms of government in the Vanni area deteriorated. The chieftains behaved like brigands, harassing and plundering the people instead of keeping order. In time apathy took over and the life of the Vanniyars became so primitive thatthey were confused with the veddahs who lived close to nature.


The Koviar caste plays a vital role in the social life of the Vallalars. Be it the arranging of a marriage, performing the rituals at a funeral, or seeing to the auspicious activities attending the attainment of age, Koviar men and women will be there seeing to all the details with knowledge acquired through the ages. In fact, the close interdependence between the Vellalars and the Koviar have led observers to point to a “curious status relationship”’ where a “ritual equality “seem to exist between two castes of unequal social status. Koviar marriages are very similar to Vellalar, and the latter will attend them as guests. At funerals, the Vellalar mouner will touch the bier before it is taken for cremation, although he will not be a pall bearer. One “origin myth” tries to explain this by holding that the Koviars are the descendents of captured Sinhalese Goigames, or Goviars, who were enslaved by the Vellalars. Another says they are descendents of the Sinhalese Buddhists expelled by Sangkilly, when he began to persecute Christians and other non Hindus in his kingdom The Koviar and the Nalavar held land on lease from the Vellalar, paying them the prescribed lease money. Today, in a few progressive villages, the Koviar now own land- as in Veligammam, and do not serve the Vellalars


This is a caste group rich in tradition and service to society since the middle ages. They are found both among the Sinhalese known as the “Karavas” and amongst the Jaffna Tamils as the Carea. (ie the people of the coast) They are famed as sea farers and fighting men, and known as the Kurukulather in Negombo and the district of Tamankaduwa in Polonaruwa. One of the oldest inscriptions referring to the Karava in Ceylon is found in ancient Brahmi script, on an Assembly Hall of Tamils in Anuradhapura. Two of the names mentioned are Kubira and Karava Navika – Kubira obviously derived from Kuruvira, a warrior, and Karava Navika signifying a sea captain. Another reference in ancient times to this group is to the Commander of the Velaikkar forces of King Vijayabahu, in the 11th century, who was named Kurukulatte Rajan. During Portuguese and Dutch times there are references to the high social standing of the Karavas, who enjoyed several privileges, including that of keeping slaves. The Kings of Jaffna allotted to the Karawa’s the westerns sector, which has since been marked “Cereoer” in Dutch maps, bounded by Nallur in the East, Chunduculi in the South, and Vannar Ponnai in the North-East (earliest Dutch topography – land, map surveys, page 142 Brohier and Paulus 1952) It is the part that is today occupied by the Jaffna town proper within which are found the Cathedral, the Seminary, St Patrick’s College, Holy Family Convent, St. James’s Church, Central College, the Court House and the Fort. The Kurukulathar during peace times were a fishing community and during war were conscripted to fight in the armies of the various Kings. In certain areas, as in the towns of Manthota (near Mannar) and Thamankaduwa (in Pollonnaurwa) they were largely agriculturists. Over the years with the benefit of education they are progressively inclined to demarcate between two classes of the group, the “Melongi”, and the “Keelongi” the former a socially advanced class with the benefits of English education and employed in educational and other fields of government and other services. The other section denotes the class which pursues fishing, mainly deep sea fishing as their main avenue of livelihood!


As it was earlier mentioned, in medieval Lanka the Karavars were conscripted to fight in the armies of the kings. Ragavan observes that in his role as a soldier the Karava carried out a similar function as a Kshastriya would do in North India. This observation has been often misquoted by some interested parties to claim that: The Kurukulathar were Kshastriyas. A well known Karava family in the (########) has even published a book claiming that they belong to the Singhe dynasty – the descendents of the Arya Chakravarthis.


The Mukkuvar are a Fisher caste, who claim that their legendary beginnings go as far back as the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana Epics, in the story of Satyavathi, a beautiful Fisher maiden. Today, their way of life differs according to their varied environments. Although a number of them still continue to follow the fishing life, as in Karainagar, the Mukkuvar of the eastern province are mainly agriculturalists, while those in Puttalam flourish on tobacco and cattle rearing. Education has greatly changed their economic and social status. In religion too, they are diverse. In the North-Western province they are mainly Roman Catholic, in Kottantivu there is a Muslim Mukkavar minority and in the Northern and Eastern provinces they are largely Hindu. Yet, in their marriage ceremony, all communities of Mukkaver unite in the custom of the tying of the Tali, a tribute to their Tamil Heritage. The Mukkavar claim territorial rights in the waters in which they fish, and have even gone to court to claim their hereditary rights over the sea. Harking back to their matrilineal family system, which has now eroded, the women have an important place in the family, and its economics.

The Mukkuvar are governed by a personal law called the "Mukkuvar" law.



The Chanders are the people traditionally involved in the extraction of gingely oil, and the trade in gingely seeds. The main settlement is at Anaikoddai, with other villages in Vannarponnai, Navali, Sandilipay and Alavaddi. The business in gingelly seeds and oil, and in the cultivation of a stretch of paddy land for their domestic needs sum up the life of the Chandar. There is an oral tradition that the Shanars of South India became the Chandars of Ceylon. Their origins were in Tinnevelly and Travancore district where they had tended and tapped the coconut palm. Caste disputes and over population have led them to Ceylon, where their industrious habits soon found them new occupations. With the advancement in education they have become keen and successful businessmen, holding responsible positions in public life. A point of interest is that a large numbers of Chander have converted to Roman Catholicsm, while others have remained Hindu, and that in the villages of Pitipane, Seeduwa and Nallandaluva there are small communities of “Sinhala “ Chander who speak Tamil , and intermarry with the Puttalam Chanders.


Inherited from the Tamils of South India, the Social system of the Jaffna Tamils is an ancient one, - held together by bonds of mutual services and priviledges. It made for a balanced social wellbeing , in which every unit of society were partners in the interest of society as a whole, and afforded a sense of security to the lower social orders. The grading of the groups below the Vellalars is distinctly divided into the ADIMAI and the KUDIMAI. The Adimai was made up of castes which were attached to the Vellalar families, such as the Koviar, the Nalavar and the Pallar. These were slaves who could be bought and sold with the land. On the other hand, the Kudimai composed of artisan castes- goldsmiths, blacksmiths, braziers, the Ambattans or barbers, and Vannan or washermen, who served society as a whole, and were not the property of a particular Vellalar family. Of the three Adimai castes, the Nalaver and the Pallar were classed as untouchables.


The Kudimakkal literally means “indoor servants” “the sons of the soil”, although the term is synonymous with Adimai who were slaves. It reflects the economic status more than the social status. The three typical Kudimakkals of Jaffna are the Koviar, Ampattar (barber) and Vanran (dhoby)


The Chivias were traditionally manual labourers, and continued to be carriers of water and wood while being given the added druggery of carrying the Company officers and Dutch inhabitants on litters. The Chivias, on their part, displayed some pride, and refused to carry the more ordinary persons who had to make use of the coolies.


The place of the Pallar in the Kudimakkal system of Jaffna is among the lowest, slightly higher than the Parayar and the Turumbar. It is recorded that the Pallars, along with other tribes, left South India during a period of unrest and disturbance, and came to Jaffna looking for employment in the fields of the Vallalars. But the waves of immigration were so heavy that many were disappointed. Some even went back, but the more resourceful ones stayed on and took to alternate occupation. Fishing, the production of oil, and toddy tapping were some of the new avenues of income. There were yet others who could not make it- and had to sell themselves into slavery to the Vellalars and other high castes. In their marriage ceremonies, and funeral ceremonies, they are unusual in that they do not engage priests, but are attended by their elders. However, they do have the services of the Turumbar who are the washermen of the lower castes. The name Pallar is derived from the word Pallam, a pit, which could also suggest that they were low wet land cultivators. A numerous, but despised caste, they live in detached communities, avoiding contact with higher castes. But those who have broken away from their serfdom have taken up new occupations that have raised their standard of living.


The Nalavar of Jaffna traditionally brand their cattle with a bow and arrow as well as a bugle. These are reminiscences of a martial group, the bugle that summoned the troops to battle, or announced victory on the battle field, and the bowmen who comprised a significant section of the armies of Tamil chieftains. Today they are drawers of toddy from the palmyra and coconut palm. They are reputed to have descended from the Nambis who came to Ceylon with the early Tamil Kings, and the retinues of the Vellalars. The Portuguese and the Dutch in their turn, fostered a system that suited their own needs, making use of able bodied men, generally from the lower classes. Although the conditions are now changing, and the Nalvar are no longer solely depended on toddy tapping, their traditional lifestyles are not forsaken. The Nalavar women were the midwives of Jaffna when qualified paramedical staff were not available, and continue to serve in remote villages in this traditional role. In their worship, the Nalavar is individualistic. Their offerings to the gods are not the usual food and drink, but wooden clubs about 2 1/2 feet long, a clue to their warrior past, and probably a cult of the spirits of ancestors or departed heroes. During the times of the Kings some Nalavar families were made to settle near the entrance of the main gateway of the city of Nallur for its defense. They were a sturdy and militant lot and their descendants could be found even in the early 20th century. Their settlement was still called “Kottai Vasai Nalavar” (Nalavars from the entrance of the fort)


The name is derived from the word “drum”, and the Parayars were originally the drummers in pre Vedic and Vedic society of India. How they came to be relegated to their present despised state is one of the unfortunate results of the Aryan invasions which entered the Ganges plain, and added newer strata that submerged this group which represented the oldest of the pre Aryan civilization, not far removed from the Indus Valley civilization. The intrinsic worth of the Parayar was seen in the distant past, and shows a revival in the Indian continent. From being called the Panchama (the 5th caste), and the Adi Dravida, the Parayar name has evolved in to Harijan. There is nothing in their life style or occupation that is degrading. In the Dutch thombos they are described as weavers, and this they continue as one of their main pursuits. In feudal Jaffna they were the drummers of the higher castes, who beat the Tom Tom during family festivals and funerals. They were considered unclean (polluting) because they came in contact with the dead skins of animals which was part (the snare) of the drum.


The Turumbars are a caste of washermen, who serve the Pallar and the Parayar, thus placing them on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The name is derived from the Malayalam word for “washing”. Traditionally, they were subjected to very severe ostracism. It was believed that contact with them polluted the other castes, and hence the Turumbar were forbidden from leaving their dwellings during the day. They were expected to move around only at night. And even then, to make a noise so as to warn the higher caste groups of their whereabouts. It was also said, that in the past they had to tie an Olah leaf to their leg in order that they could leave a trail which could be avoided by the higher castes. The Turumbar did their washing in separate tanks, avoiding the areas assigned to the Vannar (the Washermen) of the higher castes. As if in defiance members of this caste attained a reputation for Black Magic and were reputed to carry out assassinations for a fee. Not surprisingly their numbers have steadily decreased which even may have led to their extinction as a caste group.



2 comments at the moment.
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Sam Canada There is a lot of talk that the Kshastriya and the Sinhala Karave casts refer to the same group of people - what are your thoughts.

I like the article by the very detailed!

Web Master Dear Sam,

Your question is an interesting one and somewhat controversial and as such we can only respond with an opinion based on facts. Therefore it is our opinion that the Karavars and the Kshastriyas are from two different caste systems. As mentioned in our article the Kshastriyas being strict Aryans would never willingly cross the ocean, as it was their belief that it would defile them and make them loose caste status.
The Karavars never had such a belief as many of them either directly or indirectly made a living from the resources of the ocean. There are many reasons that can be given to support our argument but this website may not be the ideal forum for such a discussion.
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