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Caste & the Tamil Nation

Castes & Caste Observances amongst Tamils in Ceylon

Rev. James Cartman, OBE, M.A., B.D., M.Th.
from Hinduism in Ceylon, 1957


Many books on Caste conveniently draw up a four-fold division, namely:­

1. The Brahmans - Priests (although the Brahmans are generally described as priests, many of them in India are not priests at all and never intend to be.)
2. The Kshatriyas. Soldiers or Nobles
3. The Vaisyas Traders
4. The Sudras Cultivators.

Those who do not fall into these four divisions are commonly described. as Harijans or Outcastes. This division, however, is an inadequate description of caste in Ceylon, for by it most of the Hindus in the Island would be simply classified as Sudras and Outcastes. Such a simple classification will not suffice. It is, indeed, necessary to give two lists of classification, as there are marked differences between the Ceylon Tamils and the South Indian Tamils.

In each list, alongside the name of the caste, is given the hereditary occupation associated with it, though today many individual members of these castes are not actively engaged in that particular occupation. The first list is of Ceylon Tamils. There are two broad divisions, the clean and the unclean castes, and in each division the order given is an indication of the status ascribed to the various castes.

List 1 - Ceylon Tamils (Hindus)

Caste Hereditary Occupation
A. The Clean Castes
1. Brahman Priest
2. Vellala Cultivator
Chetty Vellala Cultivator & Trader
3. Karaiyar Fishers
Muchavar Fishers
4. Koviyar Cooks (domestic servants) to Vellalas
5.The Panchalas Craftsmen
a. Thattar Goldsmiths
b. Collar Ironsmiths
c. Thachchar Carpenters
d. Sitpar Masons
e.Kammalar Brass workers
Kannar Brass workers
6. Nadduvar Musicians
7a.Vannar Dhoby (people who wash clothes)
B.-The Unclean Castes
7b. Ambattar Barber
8. Palla Cooly Labourers
Nalava Tree-tappers and labourers
9. Kusavar Potters
Seneer Weavers
10. Kadaiyar Lime-burners
Chalckiliyar Leather-workers
11. Paraiyar Scavengers, funeral tom-tom beaters
12. Thurumba Dhobics to Palla, Nalava and Paraiyar

The second list gives a classification of the South Indians who have come to work in Ceylon. whether they be traders or immigrated labourers. Here again there is a division into two main groups, the Kudianas and the non-Kudianas. Mr. Lewis B. Green writes : " On enquiring the caste of a cooly (South Indian), the answer will frequently be, ` I am a Kudiana" 1 This term Kudiana roughly covers the caste described as ` clean ' in the first list. On the tea and rubber estates in Ceylon most of these South Indian Tamils are now no longer following their hereditary occupation.

List 2 - South Indian Tamils (Hindus)

Caste Hereditary Occupation
A. Kudianas
1. Vellala Cultivators
Chettiar Traders
2. Retti (or Kappu) Cultivators
3. Kallar Robbers. Originally these people were thieves but now they have taken to cultivation and estate work. On the estates they are good watchmcn; a case of ` set a thief to catch a thief.'
4. Ambalakarar Cultivators
Muthiriyar A Telugu caste, hunters and fishermen now employed on the estates.
Pandaram Non-Brahmanic priests drawn from the other castes.
Andi Beggars.
5. The Panchalas (Craftsmen)
Asari Goldsmiths
Kammalagar Brassworkers
Kannar Brassworkers
Odde Masons
Thachchar Carpenters
Kollar Ironsmiths and blacksmiths
6. Ideiyar Shepherds and Cattleherds. Many are now employed on the estates as carters, wheelwrights, shoe-wrights and even cattle-keepers.
7. Kaikolan Weavers
Kurumba jungle people of South India
B. Non-Kudianas.
8. Kosavan Potters
9, Shannar Tree-Tappers
Palla Labourers
Kosavar Gypsies
10.Ambattar Barber
Vannar Dhoby.
N.B.-Among both these castes are those who practise Ayurvedic medicine, exorcism of demons. Many of their wives are recognised midwives. They do not eat meat or drink liquor.
11. Chakkiliyar Leatherworkers. Sweepers.
12. Paraiyars The funeral tom-tom beaters. Their position in Ceylon is slightly better than it is in India. They eat meat, even carrion flesh. Their priests, called Valluvar, are adepts at charms and astrology.

This list of South Indian Tamils does not claim to exhaust all the South Indian Tamils who have come to Ceylon but it covers the main groups that are found working in the Island.

It is necessary to add explanatory notes on the castes of the Ceylon Tamils.

1. The Brahman.

In Ceylon there is a very small community of Brahmans and practically all of them are attached to temples, either as priests or as assistants. Comparatively few of them receive an education in the recognised English Secondary Schools. This is a rather different position from that held by Brahmans in. India. The Brahmans in India are certainly not confined to the temples ; indeed most of them are among the best educated people and are taking an active part in the economic and political life of the country. There are some people who think that the Ceylon Brahmans are not really Brahmans by race. To cross the sea is one way to lose caste, and it is thought that a high caste Brahman in India would not lightly take the adventure across the sea to Ceylon. Hence those who hold this view contend that the Brahmans who are presently attached to temples in Ceylon were originally selected by the community from another caste for this purpose. Whatever be their origin they are held in great respect and they are looked upon as the superior caste. The Brahmans. wear the sacred thread : they are also strictly vegetarian.

2. The Vellala.

When reference is made in Ceylon to the high caste Hindu, everyone has in mind the Vellala, the respectable, nonBrahman caste. About 90 per cent of the well educated Hindus belong to this caste. Traditionally they are cultivators, and even now, although many of them have obtained posts in Government service, they still retain. thcir fields for tills is their title right to their 'Standing in tile community. Although some Vellalas are strictly vegetarian, others will eat mutton, fowl and certain kinds of fish, but they will not touch beef, pork, turtle and other kinds of fish. Among the Vellalas themselves there are many sub-divisions, some of which are regarded as higher than others. The Vellalas of Paloli (Point Pedro), Karativu. and Arali for instance, are regarded as pure 'Blue' Vellalas, and they lay claim to a respect which no one will dispute ; they are' citizens of no mean city.' Some of the Vellalas claim to be called Chetty Vellala and to belong to a slightly higher caste than the other Vellalas, but although many of the villagers recognize their claim, there is little support for it, and in fact they actually inter-marry with the other Vellalas. These Chetty Vellalas should be distinguished from the Chettiar community which has immigrated to Ceylon from South India. These South Indian Chettiars originate from an area known as Nattu Chotty. Their chief, the late Sri Annamalai Chettiar, who founded the Annamalai University, received the title of Raja from the British Government. These Chettiars from South India are a wealthy, influential trading community. They too are Saivite Hindus and many of their temples are in Colombo.

3. The Karaiyar

The Karaiyar or fisherfolk caste is regarded as much inferior to the Vellalas. They live mainly near the coast. Many of them are now well educated and hold good positions. Many of them have become Roman Catholics. The Muchavar, also fisherfolk, are generally regarded as a lower caste than the Karaiyar who refuse to intermarry with them

4. The Koviyar

This Koviyar caste is unknown in India, and the community in Ceylon is very small, being largely confined to the Jaffna peninsula. It is widely believed that they were originally Sinhalese and that their ancestors were war captives. Their main occupation is that of domestic servants to the Vellalas, and they are recognized as ,excellent cooks. At a Vellala funeral, it has long been the custom for the Koviyar caste to carry the corpse. In social status, however, they are roughly parallel to the Karaiyar.

5. The Panchalas.

This is the general designation given to the five groups of craftsmen, and they are regarded as parallel castes. The Thattar, goldsmiths, are responsible for all the jewellery and ornaments to which Hindu women and men are most partial. Many of the Panchala castes are now educated and have found employment as clerks in the Government Clerical Service.

6. The Nadduvar.

These are the musicians engaged for most domestic, social and religions functions, though they are not called for funerals. In India, it is from this caste that the Deva-adiyalkal, the temple dancers, are drawn. But in addition to these professional Nautch girls who come to Ceylon from South India, there are others drawn from the Nadduvar caste in Ceylon. The professional prostitutes belong to this caste. Originally they were undoubtedly associated with the temple, but nowadays they are mainly concerned with the commercial aspect of their profession. Nevertheless, many of them are still regarded as married to a god. They take part in a ceremony called Podduccaddutal, during which a circular metal symbol is placed round the neck. Among the Hindus in Ceylon the token and symbol of marriage is the tali, which is fastened round the bride's neck. When a marriage between a man and a woman takes place, the tali is engraved But the professional prostitute, who undergoes this rite, Podduccaddutal, receives a blank tali. She is married not to a particular man, but to the god.

All the castes already commented upon are regarded as ` Clean' castes, although there is such a wide difference iii their social rank.

7. a. The Vannar, the dhoby, is permitted to enter the temple. But the remaining castes, including, 7. b. The Ambattar the barber, are unclean ; they are not permitted to enter the temple. All these ` unclean ' castes are able to pollute the higher, ` clean ' castes. Poluution in Ceylon is only by actual contact; pollution by shadow is not recognized except by a few Hindus, who believe that they ,can be polluted even by the shadow of certain birds.

Nowadays even pollution by touch is necessarily modified, for in the public trains, tramcars and buses, there are no separate compartments specially allocated to high and low castes. In many of these crowded conveyances contact with low caste men is almost unavoidable. There are, of course, many strict Hindus who take all necessary precautions, and, whenever they travel, they will, before entering a high caste home, purify themselves by washing.

8. The Palla and the Nalava

The Palla are the field labourers, the, coolies. The Nalava are also labourers, but they are generally known as the tree-tappers, tapping the palmyrah, kitul and coconut trees from. which toddy and arrack are obtained. These two castes are roughly of equal status. They seldom own land. Originally they were almost the slaves of the Vellala who allowed them to occupy his outer buildings and, for this privilege, they worked in his fields. The British made every effort to abolish this system of forced labour, known as Rajakariya_

This they accomplished in 1832, in spite of considerable local opposition. The abolition of Rajakariya put an end to the legal sanction which the caste system of forced labour had hitherto received. Nevertheless,. the Vellala continued to treat the Palla and the Nalava as inferiors. Even today, the older Palla and Nalava women in Jaffna continue to wear the sari just above their breac.ts, leaving their shoulders bare. This practice was, hitherto, rigidly enforced by the higher castes. But many of the younger Pa11a and Nalava women, especially those who have received a little education and are more prosperous, now insist on wearing the sari over their shoulders. On the whole, the Palla and Nalava castes have a darker skin. These two castes will sometimes intermarry, but they will not interdine.

9. Kusavar and Seneer.

The Kusavar are the potters ; the Seneer are the weavers. Their occupations, unlike those of the Panchalas, are regarded as menial arid for this reason they are ` unclean ' castes.

10. Kadaiyar and Chakkiliyar.

Kadaiyar are the lime burners. They also undertake the work of colour vs ashing buildings. The Chakkiliyar are people who work in leather, and, as the hide comes from the sacred cow, they are considered a very low caste.

11. The Paraiyar

The Paraiyar is not really a caste, but an outcaste. They eat beef and sometimes carrion flesh They are the noisy tom-tom beaters, engaged at funerals and also for the purpose of town crying. The Tamil word " parai " means 'drum ' ; its verb means to " announce." The Paraiyar caste also provides the greater portion of the scavengers, urban and municipal.

12. The Thurumba - The Thurumba are the lowest of the low castes. They are really the dhobies for the Palla, the Nalava and the Paraiyar. They are usually found distant from the towns and rarely come into contact with the high castes. The Vannar, considered higher than the Palla, would never consent to wash clothes for the Palla, and hence this work is done by the Thurumba caste. The late Rev. Father Gnana Pragasam held that all the Thurumba caste people are now Roman Catholics. This claim may be true, but it does not in any way alter their status in the eyes of the Hindus.

Caste Observances

1. Eating

The general practice is for only the members of the same caste to eat together. This practice refers to the full meal of which cooked rice forms a part. At weddings and other social events, short eats and cake may be served to all who are present, irrespective of caste, though the Brahman would refuse to eat with others even on such occasions. Food :sc-nt by members of a higher caste to those of a lower caste can be eaten, but again the meal is shared by only members of that lower caste. Rice must be cooked by a member of the same caste. There is one strange exception to this rule. The Koviyar are engaged as cooks to the Vellala and no question of pollution ever rises. It has already been pointed out that this Koviyar caste is an anomaly, and this may account for the exception. In Colombo where life is cosmopolitan and greatly influenced by western civilization, there is some relaxation of the caste rules regarding eating. Here members of different castes may mix and dine together. Strangely enough, however, when these very same persons are in Jaffna, they strictly observe the caste exclusiveness by eating with only members of their own caste.

2. Marriage

A proper Hindu marriage is possible only within the same caste. A high caste man may have a mistress in a slightly lower caste without being polluted, but he must not marry outside his own caste. According to Hindu Law, inter-caste marriage is illegal. In India, polygamy is lawful even according to Civil Law, but in Ceylon the Civil haw insists on monogamous marriage even for Hindus.

3. Dress.

The low ` uuclean ' castes are expected by Hindu custom to conform to certain recognized dress. The men should be barebodied, and certainly not presume to wear a jacket. There are instances where low caste men have been threatened and even abused by high caste men for presuminmg to wear dress not in keeping with their social status. The Palla and Nalava women, as already explained, are expected to leave their shoulders bare. In Jaffna and parts of the Eastern Province these customs regarding dress are fairly strictly observed, but elsewhere, especially on the estates where climatic conditions necessitates warm clothes, the customs are considerably relaxed.

Losing Caste

There are several recognized ways by which a Hindu may lose caste. One way is by marriage to a person belonging to a lower caste. Such a person would then be considered to belong to the.lower caste. Theoretically a person who eats beef becomes a Paraiyar, but today, in practice, this is generally overlooked. In Colombo it is all but ignored. A person who kills his father should really become a Paraiyar. In many of the sacred Hindu books, plays, songs, poems, it
is held that a person loses caste when he commits sacrilege. But again in practice this is ignored., perhaps because few really know what is meant by sacrilege. Another way by which one may lose caste is to leave one's own country, especially if one should cross the sea.

Regaining Caste

There is a religious ceremony called Prayacitta 2 by which a man who has married outside his caste, or committed sacrilege or travelled abroad, may regain caste. Members of his family take him to the temple where he is cross-examined by the priest to whom he promises to make amends for the past. He is bathed ceremoniously and is required to accept some form of penance, such as rolling round the temple, or, more commonly, the payment of
a fee. Generally, apart from the penance, there is an offering made to the temple. The priest recites prescribed verses and finally declares the man clean. Many young Hindus have left Ceylon for higher education in Europe, especially in England. In former days, all without exception submitted themselves, on their return, to this religious ceremony, even today many orthodox Vellalas strictly observe this practise. Many of the South Indian Tamils who come to Ceylon for work in the estates submit to a similar religious ceremony on their return to India.

The Twice Born

The twice born Hindus are those who have passed from one cycle of re-births and are now permitted to wear the sacred thread. In India the twice born are confined to the three higher castes, but in Ceylon, they include the Brahmans and a very small percentage of very high caste Vellalas of both sexes, all of whom undergo a religious ceremony called Diksha. Brahmans invariably take this initiation ceremony about the age of five or six ; the high caste Vellalas take it later when they are fourteen or fifteen.

For a month before and a month. after the ceremony, the candidate for initiation is strictly vegetarian. in his diet, and during the preparatory month he is taught Sanskrit prayers. On the chosen day he is ceremonially bathed and taken to the temple whore the priest repeats several mantrams and whispers something into his ear, something which he is to keep secret and never tell to another Hindu ; to tell another uninitiated Hindu is regarded as a grievous sin. The secret word is s AUM Sivayaham which is Siva's name.

During the ceremony, sacred ash is smeared with three finger tips, forming three distinct bars or lines upon sixteen different parts of the body. The uninitiated will just rub the ash upon his forehead, but those who have taken " Diksha " are entitled to wear the three distinct bars of the Saivaites For each mark upon the body there is also a corresponding prayer.

The Hindu has a string of seeds from the tree Rudraksha (Rudra, being another name for Siva, and aksha meaning " an eye.") This string of seeds is like the Roman Catholic's rosary. The sacred number of seeds is one hundred and one. The twice-born Saivite will wear this string of Rudraksha seeds around his neck.

Another privilege of the twice-born is the wearing of the, sacred thread. Incidentally, in Jaffna, the Thattar, goldsmiths, also wear a thread, though they have not undertaken this ceremony, nor are they regarded as twice-born. The Thattar, however, wear the thread over the right shoulder and under the left arm, whilst the twice-born wear the sacred thread over the left shoulder and under the right arm. Having been duly initiated, the twice-born Hindu is expected henceforth to maintain a higher standard than other Hindus in the observance of ceremonial religion. He is expected to be more strictly vegetarian and more regular in his bathing. Moreover, the twice-born is expected to attain a higher standard of moral behaviour.

Caste and Occupation

In Ceylon, caste, at any rate in origin, was closely associated with a particular occupation, but today that particular occupation is not necessarily followed by all the members of the same caste. Nevertheless, whenever another occupation or profession is taken up, it is never one that it is associated with another caste : it is always work that does not seem to have been provided for among the respective castes.

Government service, especially during the British occupation of Ceylon, has provided many posts for Hindus, such as, Engineering, especially in connection with roads and irrigation ; Postal services ; Railways ; work at the Port of Colombo ; Bank clerks and messengers ; all the professions, doctors, apothecaries, inspectors of schools, teachers, lawyers. All these occupations are open to men of all castes. In actual practice most of the highly paid posts have been filled by men from the high castes, though members of the lower castes are found in most of the professions and clerical occupations. On the Tea and Rubber Estates also much of the work, both in the field and in the factory, is entirely new and does not have any particular caste flavour. But even though a man may change his occupation, he still retains his caste. Many Vellalas who have ceased to be cultivators still hold tenaciously to their land and property, for this is the outward and visible proof of their caste claims.

The Unclean Castes

The unclean castes among the Ceylon Hindus are not permitted to enter the larger temples, or to bathe in the sacred tanks, springs or rivers. There is as yet no universal welcome extended to them. In India there has been considerable agitation to open the temples to Harijans, but in Ceylon such agitation is spasmodic, In Jaffna and the Eastern Provinces, the unclean castes are just kept out.

Many of them have their own smaller temples and shrines, and their most popular gods and goddesses are Bhairava, Ganesa, Virabhdra, Aiyanar, Muni, Muniandy, Annamar, Madasvami, Kannakai, Kali and Mari Amman. The Palla and the Nalava castes have their own temples and their own priests, and they in turn refuse admission to the Thurumba and the Paraiyar. At these Palla and Nalava temples, the sacrifice of goats and fowls is commonly practiced. In addition to these low caste temples, there are numerous shrines found under trees, or by the side of the paddy fields in which the Palla and the Nalava work.

The Paraiyars also set up their own little shrines under wayside trees. Even the language and forms of address emphasize the difference that exists between the castes. In Tamil there are three forms for the second person singular. The first " Neengal " is used when a superior is addressed ; the second, " Deer " is used when addressing an equal ; the third, " Nee," is used only for an inferior. The high caste man always employs the third term when addressing a member of the lower caste. When a Paraiyar man is asked for his name, he will reply : " I think I am a Perumal." These unclean castes as a general rule - preface their statements with this, `I think', which goes to emphasize their modesty and lowly status.

High caste Hindus use this expression only when they address a holy man. For centuries the unclean castes have acquiesced in their lot. But today there are abundant signs of uneasiness among both high caste and low caste : the former fears the awakening of the latter, whilst the latter is beginning to demand rights which the former has so long denied him. The introduction of universal franchise has placed a powerful weapon in the hands of the low caste.

The provision of education, now free from the Kindergarten to the University, has made it possible for the low caste to understand more of the world in which he lives. The infiltration of Communist political propaganda has helped to fire the low caste with greater determination to throw off the stigma of caste. Many instances of the changing situation could be given. Here and there comes the demand to open temples to all castes. The incident, already recorded, at the Nallur Skanda Temple exemplifies this demand.

There is also the demand to open schools, hitherto attended by only high caste children, to the children of the low castes. A few years ago, the Manager of a Christian School at Tunnalai East requested the head teacher to admit low caste children. At first, the head teacher refused, but, when the Manager threatened to report him to the Education Department, he acquiesced.

But during the following night, the school building was burned down. Some years ago the Education Department arranged to supply midday meals to school children. This created certain difficulties even in those schools to which only `clean ' caste children go, but the employment of a high caste cook and the grouping of children into caste groups for the, actual eating of the meal met the situation. The children bring their own plates and so avoid pollution. On an estate, there is usually only one school which all children attend, whether they are regarded as clean or unclean, but invariably these children are separated into caste, groups for their lessons as well as for their midday meal. The opening of many new Government Central Schools, in which free education is provided for every child, irrespective of caste, will tend to bring children of all castes together. This has long been taking place in the Christian denominational schools, and now the Government Schools are pledged to extend this reformation.

Now and again very unpleasant clashes take place between the high castes and the low castes. According to Hindu custom, the high caste cremates his dead, whilst the law castes buries his dead. Legally, however, all castes can claim to cremate their dead. At Viloondy, in Jaffna, in 1945, a number of people belonging to the Nalava caste claimed the right to cremate a corpse in the cremation grounds used by the Vellalas. The Vellalas raised an objection to this, but the Nalavas ignored them. Then followed a skirmish in which two members of the Nalava caste were shot and killed.

In April, 1947, very near to Jaffna town, another low caste man was shot by a boutique keeper. The unclean castes are permitted to buy tea to drink at the boutique (a small street shop), provided they bring their own vessel into which the tea is poured. On this occasion a man of an unclean caste failed to bring his vessel, but seeing an empty cigarette tin inside the boutique, he suggested that this be given him for his tea. The boutique keeper, to whom the cigarette tin belonged, shot and killed this low caste man for his insolence and forgetfulness of his station. Both these incidents subsequently came before the law courts.

On the estates the South Indian Tamils are not subject to the manifold caste restrictions that appertain in South India In South India, the Paraiyars and other outcaste groups are obliged to live in separate villages, and they are not permitted to draw water from the well which is used by other castes. In Ceylon, though a planter takes note of caste when arranging to accommodate his workers in the "lines", there is nothing like the same segregation, and all castes draw water from a common spout. Most of the labourers employed on an estate have access to the estate Hindu temple. The conditions under which they live and work have tended to break down many of the caste distinctions.

Non Hindus and Caste

Theoretically Christian Tamils, Europeans, Burghers and Muslims are outcastes, and as a general rule they are treated as such as far as temple ritual and worship is concerned. In practice there is little evidence that any of these groups are so treated. But Muslims are really outcastes because they are beef- eaters, so also are the beef-eaters among Christians. In the majority of Hindu temples in Ceylon, a European is permitted to enter provided he removes his shoes, and, in some instances, provided he washes his feet before entering. There are some Hindu temples where the European is not welcome, especially at the festival season. Buddhists. who theoretically are heretics, are not regarded as outcastes.3 For Hindus in Ceylon, Buddhism is a tolerated religion. The Buddhist is commended because he is not a beef-eater. The Vaddas, strangely enough, are regarded as fairly good caste, for though they eat many kinds of meat, they do not eat beef. The regard for them may be due in part to the legend of Skanda the favourite god, and the Vadda princess, Valli, whom he weed and married. Nevertheless, according to Hindu writings, a man can only be a Hindu if he is actually born a Hindu. Others who wish to become Hindus can, in their present life, arrive at a right conception of Hinduism, and then, in the next birth, they will be born a Hindu.

1. Lewis D. Green, op. cit., page 3.
2. A Ceremony of Atonement, cf Crown of Hinduism, J.N.Farqubar page 171
3. Most of the villagers who support the Sivan Temple at Munnesvaram are Sinhalese.

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