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 Post subject: Caste and class in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Fri Dec 26, 2008 4:10 pm 
Caste and class in Ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

The Sinhala system of social contact was not as fussy as the Hindu system. The Sutta nipata speaks of both high and low persons sharing the same pillar installed at a bathing place for rubbing their backs. The concept of ritual pollution was not to be seen either. The ancient Sinhalese did not think that consuming food prepared by those of low birth was polluting. King Buddhadasa performed a surgical operation to correct a womb defect in a chandala woman. Chandalas (scavengers) were considered to be the lowest in the social scale. In the Hindu caste system this would have led to pollution.

By Kamalika Peiris - July 2007

Society was highly stratified in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka. The divisions were based on wealth, power, occupation as well as birth and family. Birth (jati) was the most important element in placing a person. There was a distinction between those of birth (yahapath jati) and low birth (hina jati). Several historical sources, including the commentary to the Sutta nipata refer to those of high and low birth. In the Hattavanagalla vihara vamsa (13th century) there is a dialogue with the line "I am not of low birth".

High and low birth led to the creation of high and low families. Ariyapala points out that in the medieval literature "a distinction was always maintained between the yahapat (noble) and hina (low) families". The yahapat families did not mix with the hina families. The Ambagamuve rock inscription of Vijayabahu 1 (1055-1110) stated that he had a separate platform constructed on the Sri Pada for those of low birth (adhamajatin). The Saddharmaratnavali (13th century) recommended that a marriage should be arranged only after "jati sari tenakin vichara". The Dambadeni katikavata (13th century) declared that monks should be taken into the order only after checking on jati and gotra, together with literacy, intelligence and health.

Those of high birth were very proud of their position. In the medieval period, even the sangha were concerned about birth. Leading monks drew attention to their family connections if the family was influential in society and politics. The author of the Pujavali said that he could show unmixed descent on both sides from the Gnanavasikula lineage. Status according to birth was an open fact. According to the Saddharmaratnavali it was possible to "jati-gotra prakasakota kiyanne" and "jati-gotra vicharanne". "Gotra" can be equated with clan. "Kula" meant family. According to the Sammohavinodini (5th century) it was possible to get one’s birth purified and thus achieve an elevation of status.

Occupations were also ranked as high or low. The Sammohavinodini said that there were two kinds of occupations, superior and inferior. The superior occupations, according to historical records, included accountants, agriculture, cow herding, scribes, seal bearers and trade. Inferior occupations included barbers, basket making, carpentry, pottery, sugar milling and weaving. Many artisan and service groups were classified as low.

Persons were classified according to their occupations. The medieval literature speaks of govi kula (cultivator), vadi kula (hunters), kapu kula (barbers), vadu kula (carpenters) and so on. The Saddharmaratnavali refers to a monk who entered the order from the kapu kula. The occupational level affected marriage. The Saddharmaratnavali in one of its stories recommends marriage to a person who comes from "taman saha samana velanda kulayakin". When a monk fell in love with a weaver’s daughter (Sumangalavilasini), the girl pointed out that she is a weaver’s daughter. The monk marries her but ends up as a weaver.

There seems to have been a hierarchical system of occupations, but researchers say that it is difficult to determine even the approximate place of each group in the hierarchical system. Historical sources mention villages of potters, carpenters, lapidaries, fishermen, brick makers, drummers and weavers. The Kaduruvava inscription referred to a weavers’ tank. Cattle breeding was carried out on such a large scale that there were separate villages of cowherds.

There is evidence to show that certain occupations were allotted ritual functions. The Pujavali (13th century) stated that the cultivators (govi) had to pay a certain quantity of grain at harvest time to the washermen and drummers. The Budumuttuva inscription near Nikaveratiya datable to 1122 AD, records a dispute between washermen and blacksmiths. The washermen refused to provide "caste services"to the blacksmiths. These services included the provision of clothes for covering the faces of the dead. There was an inquiry and the washermen were ordered to provide the services

However, the concept of "caste" cannot be applied easily to ancient Sri Lanka. Ariyapala noted that the medieval literature did not say anything about a caste order, customs or practices. R. A. L. H. Gunawardana found that the sangha of the early medieval period did not mention caste in their writings. He says "no specific mention of caste was found". Liyanagamage points out that there is no reference to caste in the "voluminous" Pali literature of Sri Lanka

A. L. Basham stated that the word "caste" came from the Portuguese word "castas" meaning tribes, clans or families. The Portuguese used this word to describe what they saw in Hindu India in the 16th century. Our historians use "caste" as a generic to indicate a set of status groups ranked according to birth and occupation, where marriage was confined to the caste and some groups were obliged to provide ritual services. My view is that it is not helpful to use a term derived from the 16th century for something that existed in an earlier period.

The Indian caste system was based on the Bramana (Hindu) concept of the four varnas, namely brahamana, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra. This four-fold division was known in Sri Lanka. It is mentioned in the Manorathapurani. However, historians doubt whether Sinhala society was organised on the same system as India. The emphasis in Sri Lanka is on jati. According to Basham jati is mentioned very little in classical Indian literature. The Jetavanarama Sanskrit inscription (9th century) speaks of five castes, not four. The castes are not named.

In my view, there is clear evidence that Sinhala society was not organised according to the Indian Hindu system. To start with, the Indian system was not even respected in Sri Lanka. According to the Mahavamsa the Brahmins were not given quarters in the inner city of Anuradhapura. They were kept outside. Historians point out that this would not have been done if the Indian caste system had been followed.

In Sri Lanka, kshatriya came first, brahmana came second. Karunatilaka says the "entire" Buddhist tradition of India and Sri Lanka put kshatriya before brahmana. Karunatilaka also says that though there were a few kshatriya families in ancient Sri Lanka, they never developed into a separate caste as in India. In Sri Lanka a third entity "gahapati" (householder) came after kshatriya and brahmana. They were high born, so they could not be vaisya. Karunatilaka says there is little evidence of vaisya and sudra castes in Sri Lanka. In India the majority of the population were vaisya or sudra.

The Sinhala system of social contact was not as fussy as the Hindu system. The Sutta nipata speaks of both high and low persons sharing the same pillar installed at a bathing place for rubbing their backs. The concept of ritual pollution was not to be seen either. The ancient Sinhalese did not think that consuming food prepared by those of low birth was polluting. King Buddhadasa performed a surgical operation to correct a womb defect in a chandala woman. Chandalas (scavengers) were considered to be the lowest in the social scale. In the Hindu caste system this would have led to pollution.

Historical records show few references to the Hindu divisions. Caste seems to have been in the minds of royalty during the Polonnaruva period. In the time of queen Kalyanavati (1202-1208), there was an announcement that the four castes had become impure through mixture. The first known reference to the Hindu divisions is in the Gadaladeniya inscription dated 1344. However, this inscription combines the Sinhala and Hindu systems. It speaks of "high and low folks, such as kshatriya, brahmin, vaisya and sudra."

P.V.B. Karunatilaka suggested that social position was determined not by caste but by a "parallel system" of ranking based on political and economic status. This could be termed a class structure. A class structure became visible after the 2nd century BC. The royal family and nobility were at the top. Historians are of the view that the Sinhala kings were not of kshatriya origin, though later on they claimed to be kshatriya. The Summohavinodini said that kings were "consecrated kshatriyas". Inscriptions show that marriages took place between sons and daughters of brothers in the royal family. The Pujavali (13 century) stated that the royal family did not mix with the govi caste.

Below the king there was a wealthy and privileged upperclass, which contained several elite groups. In the early Anuradhapura period, there was a powerful ruling class known as parumaka. The word probably derived from the Sanskrit pramukha, and Pali pamukha which denotes chief. Karunatilaka says initially parumakas had their own power bases, independent of the king. Once the king extended his power, the parumakas came under and ranked immediately below royalty. The post of senapati was held by a parumaka. An early brahmi inscription indicated that a parumaka had held the post of an amatya. Most of the administrative positions were also held by them. The term parumaka disappeared after the 1st century AD.

The amatyas or king’s courtiers (amacca) were an important component in the royal circles from very early on. The amatyas took part in the coronation ceremony. They acted as the king’s advisers. They also acted as regent in the absence of a king. They wielded executive power. Provinces such as Rohana which were under princes at an earlier date were later entrusted to amatyas. Karunatilaka says that by the 1st century BC, amatyas were serving as provincial governors in far off districts. (sic)

The amatyas grew in numbers, power and wealth. By about the 1st century BC they were becoming "almost a class by themselves". The amatya positions had become hereditary. The Kaduruwewa inscription says that the family of Mahadoratana held the rank of amatya for five generations under six kings over a period of a hundred years. However, amatyas were not appointed blindly. They had to satisfy certain criteria. The Summohavinodini speaks of four sons of amatyas who were seeking position in the royal court. One said he would get the appointment because he was watchful and attentive, the second said he was brave and courageous, the third relied on his birth, and fourth on his skill in counselling. All four of them received positions.

The amatyas were wealthy, a fact that contributed much to their power. Some amatyas had their own treasurers (bandagarika). They donated large sums of money, large extents of fields, caves, reservoirs and the income derived from water rights to the sangha. These donations show that the amatyas possessed considerable wealth including important economic resources. These donations are recorded in the Kaduruveva, Ilukvava and Avukana vihara inscriptions of the 1st century AD and Bimpokuna inscription of the 2nd century. The Mahavamsa says that two ministers of Vattagamani each built a vihara.

The upper class branched into clans. The terms "mahakula", "kulageha" and "kulina" were used from the early Anuradhapura period, when speaking of the upper strata of society. By the 5th century the kulinas had established themselves as an elite group quite distinct from the ordinary people. They had close associations with the royal court and the central administration They held position as amatyas and owned land. The Bodhajarakula clan consisted of the 16 families that came from North India accompanying the Bodhi branch. They remained as attendants to the Sri Maha Bodhi and became one of the most influential sections of the nobility.

The Lambakannas and Moriya clans were important politically. The Lambakannas had some connection with the royal court from the very beginning and within a few decades had secured a firm place in it. The Lambakannas dominated the royal court during most of the Anuradhapura period. They were powerful and could even instigate revolt. They angered king Ilanaga who made them work on roads under Chandalas. There was open rebellion and the king had to flee the country. The Moriyas and Lambakannas vied with each other for kingly power. From King Vasabha, (67-111) to Mahanama (406-428), the kings came from the Lambakanna clan. From Dhatusena (455-473) to Kittisena (516- 517) the kings came from the Moriya clan.

I think that there were several other elites as well. One was a military elite consisting of the top ranks of the army. The commander of the army was second only to the king. He held a powerful and important position in the central administration. This position was given only to a high ranking official such as a parumaka or amatya or to a member of the royal family. The literature stated that only those considered to be of good family "had the pride and responsibility of bearing arms for their sovereign". The ability to shoot well was considered a necessary accomplishment for princes and freemen. Some army men were wealthy. The Mahavamsa speaks of a warrior who built a vihara.

There was an administrative elite that included officials from both the central and regional administration. The top positions in the central administration were given only to a select group. Therefore this was a closed elite. Positions went in hereditary succession from father to son from generation to generation. The families that held these positions were linked through marriage as well. In one instance, all positions with the exception of one bandagarika were held by one family, each individual holding more than one office. The powerful Vahiti lineage group held a series of offices such as amatya for nearly three generations.

The ratiya, who administered the rata (district), also had high status. The commentaries said that the amatyas and the ratiyas were two of the most powerful and wealthy sections in the entire royal officialdom. The Sammohavinodini stated that no other royal officials had more crops and vehicles than the amatyas and ratiyas. The ratiyas also had donated land, reservoirs, and irrigation rights to the sangha. The village headman (gamika) position was hereditary and the appointees became an elite group in their area. The Situlpavuva inscription mentions three brothers who were gamika. One of them had a son who was also a gamika.

There was a merchant elite. Mercantile wealth became important in the first century AD and a respected merchant elite had appeared by the fifth century. The top merchants had a place in the royal court. In the early Anuradhapura period, the person who poured water on the king at the consecration as the representative of the common people was a setthi. The term setthi was used only for high ranking merchants. In the Polonnaruwa period, the Situna or chief of the setthis occupied a seat in the Kings Council. Joti Sitana ruled the hill country, as one of the subordinates of Parakramabahu VI. The Alakesvara family who dominated politics in the 14 century came from a trading family.

There was an agrarian elite owning large landholdings. Dutugemunu’s father had dealings with a strong and powerful agrarian elite known as the Mahakula. The Mahavamsa records that Pandukhabaya’s uncle cultivated an area of 400 acres. The Rasavahini said a person possessing vast amount of paddy, beans, and other grains was considered wealthy. Paddy was such a profitable commodity that we hear of an extremely poor man becoming rich by lending on interest a small quantity of paddy which he had collected as his pay for winnowing grain in another’s field. Rich farmers held the vap magula on a grand scale, inviting hundreds of people and feeding them on such occasions.

By the medieval period, there was a firm upper class in which certain elites were prominent. The Pujavali speaks of raja, situ, bamunu and velenda kula. Rank was always respected. The Mahavamsa says that Dutugemunu wanted costly beds and chairs, placed according to rank, in the Lohamahapasada. Moving into the top ranks from the outside would have been difficult, if not impossible. It was a closed system. The key positions were held in hereditary succession within clans. According to Papancasudani high positions were normally given to those born to amatya families. This meant that power and authority were concentrated in the hands of a few families. Change was resisted. The Culavamsa remarked that people of good family were slighted when ambitious men of the lower classes were placed in leading positions. However, I think that people would have been able to enter the merchant and agricultural elites.

I think that there would have been a "middle class" which came well below these elites. This could have consisted of middle level officials, traders, and professionals. Accountancy, law, medicine, metallurgy, surgery and veterinary medicine were studied in the medieval period. There were positions such as "irrigation engineer" and "officer in charge of canals". Some of the artisans also qualified for this group. Siriweera says that Vadumaha adar, the chief of the carpenters, who is mentioned in the Mihintale tablets, belonged to the middle class. The Mihintale tablets are dated to Mahinda IV (956-972).

Some of these professionals would have been rich or at least comfortably well off. The Pujavali (13th century) stated that goldsmiths, leather workers, bronze smiths, masons, ironsmiths, painters, and carpenters had divel lands which they either cultivated themselves or gave out on and cultivation. The Kossavakanda inscription tells us of a donation made by Kudaganaka Veteya, an accountant by profession and a tank owner as well. He stipulated that his donation should be used for work on the stupa, the water terrace, shrine to the Bo tree and the refectory he had built. He seems to have been a very wealthy person. I think that people would have been able to move into the middle class and that the professions would have welcomed suitable persons. Those who fell from the upper class would also have settled into the middle class.

I think that there would have been a tiered "lower class" as well. The medieval literature refers to archers, astrologers, bamboo workers, carpenters, carters, chariot drivers, coir workers, cooks, dancers, devil dancers, drummers, fishermen, florists who made garlands and supplied flowers, funeral undertakers, honey gatherers, messengers, potters, snake charmers, soldiers, tailors, washermen, watchmen of cities and palaces and wet nurses. Some of these, if not all, would have belonged to the lower class.

There were female and male domestic servants in the houses of the nobility and the well-to-do. They sometimes worked as servants to pay off loans. Husband and wife went into service together, even whole families. The servants had to work hard. The mistress was sometimes harsh. There were also hereditary slaves and bought slaves, who worked in houses and as cowherds, potters and tailors. People bought and donated slaves to the temples. There was also the hired agricultural labourer whose numbers were "by no means small". Even the peasant cultivator hired labour.

Thanks to this unequal distribution of wealth and power, ancient Sri Lanka had people who were excessively rich at one end and those who were utterly poor at the other. Their lives differed accordingly. The merchants and "wealthy householders" lived in a separate area in Anuradhapura and followed a distinctive lifestyle. Fa Hien said that the merchants houses were richly adorned. The rich led comfortable lives. They ate well. There is a reference in the Culavamsa to scented rice stored in granaries for three years on various layers of aromatic drugs. Siriweera states that if such rice existed, it would have been consumed only by the upper classes. They dressed well. Rich women wore costly robes.

The rich had servants. The royal households and the nobility also employed slaves. The Rasavahini (14th century) refers to the purchase of a slave for sixty kahapanas. The slaves were treated as adopted persons or as faithful domestic servants rather than as menials. They were employed as guardians and personal attendants of the members of the royal household and they were sometimes entrusted with secret missions of high responsibility. In order to maintain the dignity of the upper class, impoverished members of this class were looked after. Udaya I gave clothes and food to high caste widows. Vijayabahu I gave food, clothing and land to destitute widows of good families.

The poor led lives that were "far from happy". Wages were unsatisfactory and the rich seem to have exploited them. In one place the labourer was only given the cost of meals, elsewhere the pay was insufficient even to survive. The cowherds were paid low wages. In the Pujavali (13 century) a peasant says that what was left to the cultivator and his family after the harvest was barely sufficient for them to subsist on until the next harvest. One man is said to have saved 12 kahapanas after working in a sugar mill for 6 months. Prior to this employment, this same man had earned his living by selling firewood at Mahagama.

Poverty among the poorer classes was such that sometimes poor parents sold their children as slaves or as servants. They thereafter bought them back. Children were treated as a commodity. One woman said to her husband, "Are those who have children, poor? This is your daughter, put her in a house, get 12 kahapana and buy a milch cow." Another married his daughter to a rich family for 12 kahapana and yet another mortgaged his son for 8 kahapana. Poor women had a hard time. The Sihalavaththu prakaranaya speaks of one Chandra who pounded paddy through the night and fell asleep on the mohol gaha.

The peasant lived at a low subsistence level and bartered part of their share of rice to obtain necessities such as cloth, jewellery, salt and metal products. The poor ate cooked unpolished rice with river fish. Their houses were wattle and daub huts with one or two rooms. The houses were so small that one could not enter without bending. The floor was of clay with cow dung applied on it. Roofs were thatched with grass. There was a fence round the compound with a stile.


The writings of M. B. Ariyapala, A. L. Basham, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, T. Hettiarachchy, S. Hettiarachchi, W.A. Jayawardana, P.V.B. Karunatilaka, A. Liyanagamage, I. Munasinghe, S. Paranavitana, W. I. Siriweera and Walpola Rahula were used for this essay


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