Caste among the Tamils
The caste system of the Sri Lankan Tamils resembles the
system of the Sinhalese, but the individual Tamil castes differ
from the Sinhalese castes. The dominant Tamil caste, constituting
well over 50 percent of the Tamil population, are the Vellala.
Like the Goyigama, members are primarily cultivators. In the
past, the Vellala formed the elite in the Jaffna kingdom and were
the larger landlords; during the colonial period, they took
advantage of new avenues for mobility and made up a large section
of the educated, administrative middle class. In the 1980s, the
Vellala still comprised a large portion of the Tamil urban middle
class, although many well-off families retained interests in
agricultural land. Below the Vellala, but still high in the Tamil
caste system, are the
Karaiya (see Glossary),
occupation was fishing. Like the Sinhalese Karava, they branched
out into commercial ventures, raising their economic and ritual
position during the nineteenth century. The Chetti, a group of
merchant castes, also have a high ritual position. In the middle
of the caste hierarchy is a group of numerically small artisan
castes, and at the bottom of the system are more numerous
laboring castes, including the Palla, associated with
The caste system of the Tamils is more closely tied to
religious bases than the caste system of the Sinhalese. Caste
among the Sri Lankan Tamils derives from the Brahman-dominated
system of southern India. The Brahmans, a priestly caste, trace
their origins to the dawn of Indian civilization (ca. 1500 B.C.),
and occupy positions of the highest respect and purity because
they typically preserve sacred texts and enact sacred rituals.
Many conservative Brahmans view the caste system and their high
position within it as divinely ordained human institutions
(see Sri Lanka - Hinduism
, this ch.). Because they control avenues to salvation by
officiating at temples and performing rituals in homes, their
viewpoint has a large following among traditionally minded
Hindus. The standards of purity set forth by the Brahmanical view
are so high that some caste groups, such as the Paraiyar (whose
name came into English as "pariah"), have been "untouchable,"
barred from participation in the social functions or religious
rituals of other Hindus. Untouchability also has been an excuse
for extreme exploitation of lower-caste workers.
Although Brahmans in Sri Lanka have always been a very small
minority, the conservative Brahmanical world-view has remained
strong among the Vellala and other high castes. Major changes
have occurred, however, in the twentieth century. Ideas of
equality among all people, officially promoted by the government,
have combined with higher levels of education among the Tamil
elites to soften the old prejudices against the lowest castes.
Organizations of low-caste workers have engaged in successful
militant struggles to open up employment, education, and Hindu
temples for all groups, including former untouchables.
The Indian Tamils are predominantly members of low castes
from southern India, whose traditional occupations were
agricultural labor and service for middle and high castes. Their
low ritual status has reinforced their isolation from the
Sinhalese and from the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Data as of October 1988