Caste in Jaffna

Posted on Updated on


The development of Ceylon society is the same in all respects to South India. The emergence of the first group in the Indian peninsula, according to Mr. V. Kanagasabai who wrote the history of the Tamils using the Sangam Classics were the Villars (the bowmen) and the Meenars (who were fishermen). In the development of South India, land was divided into kurinji (hill), palai (desert), mullai (grassland), marutam (valleys) and neytal (seas). The various  groups developed depending on the work they did.

In Ceylon, the Govigamas emerged as the highest caste. There was no large scale grazing lands and the Govis took over the function of herding. The Govis also indulged in trade. The Brahmins, who came later, were accepted as the highest caste. Other groups also developed. The Karava (fishermen) refused to accept the superiority of the Govis. In Jaffna, the groups developed in this way.  The Paravas (Naga fishermen) founded Jaffna and inhabited the place. It only rained during the Northeast monsoon and there were no rivers. But there was plenty of underground water. The soil was such that it retained most of the water underground. Wells had to be dug to draw water out, and then agriculture was possible. There were groups that came. The first were the Pannikans, described as teachers and workers. They easily took to weaving, agriculture and trade. The called themselves the Pillais. They settled in Madurai and Tirunelvelly and came from the Malabar coast. They are Nagas, or related to them, and could have migrated to Jaffna. If they had acquired land and carried on agriculture, they could claim to be Vellalars. The deep-sea fishermen of the Nagas could have become the Karaturai Velllars. The Pattavans (fishermen who lived in pattinams or towns) could have acquired land and took to farming and called themselves the Varnakular Vellalars. Caste migration could have taken place. Mudhaliyar C. Rasanayagam feels that Kailamalai, Yalpana Vaipavamalai and Vyapadal (all are ancient Tamil texts on Jaffna) are not reliable as they lack historicity. Maylvagana Pulavar, author of Vaipavamalai, indulged in fanciful deduction. Vya Iyer led his imagination run wild. He wrote Vyapadal. According to Tolhapiar, who wrote the Tamil grammar text Tolhapiam, said in it that the Vellalar had no other calling other than to produce rice. This probably led to the Tamil proverb that a Vellalar can never be king. Visvanathan Mudaliyar, the Vijayanagaran ruler of conquered Tamilagam, left out the Vellalars when creating the Palayam system (where the whole country was divided into administrative section and given to various chieftains to govern and defend). Some dissatisfied Vellalars in Tamillagam emigrated to Ceylon and mostly settled in the Singhalese areas of the south of the island.

The Madapalis, the relatives of the Chakravarti rulers claimed a higher caste position as they were Brahmins. The Dutch authorities in Ceylon had been warned by the home Government not to interfere in the disputes of the local people. The Dutch solved the problem by registering the Madapalis as Vellalars in the population Thombus (register of people). There are many proverbs that emerged regarding the Vellalars. The Vellalar is like brinjal, palatable when cooked with any kind of vegetable. The Kallan, Maravan and Akmadyan slowly became Vellalars as they acquired land and started farming. Another proverb says that agriculture is no agriculture unless done by a Vellalar.   


Dr. D. M. Rajanagiam in his book on Jaffna, said the herdsmen (Mullainatars) of South India were the Idayars, the Konnars, the Kovinders, the Kopiars and Koviars. Some of these Mullainatars could have emigrated to Jaffna They sold milk and milk products in Punalai and other places. Dr. Rajanayam disagrees with Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam that Koviars were the remnants of the Singhalese Govi traders. Mudaliyar Rasanayagam is right when he says that there was no such caste in Jaffna before Sankili’s (one of the Chakravarti kings) action of expelling Singhalese Buddhists from Jaffna during the 16th century. It appears that the corruption of the Singhalese word Govi (into Koviar) is correct. It is possible that the Koviars were equated by the Jaffna residents to the herdsmen in South India. When the Naga Singhalese-speaking Buddhist of Valigamam acculturized to Tamil Hindus, which was quite easy for them, they were referred to as Koviars. Ugra Singan, the Kalingan ruler of Jaffna, shifted the capital from Kathiramalai to Singainagar (near Vallipuram) on the East coast of Jaffna because the people of Valligamam were Buddhist Singhalese speakers. Kathiramalai, when it was populated by Singhalese speakers, was called Kathirgoda. Today, the place is known as Kandarodai. Chunnakam, Uduvil, Malakam, Veemagamam were all Singhalese names. Some kanis (rice fields) were owned by Singhalese people and had Singhalese names. According to Michael Banks, who has made a study of this, the Vellalars and the Koviars arose from the same stem. The richer landowners who were agriculturists, considered the poorer ones who lived on their lands and worked for them, as Koviars. In Vadamarachi, Thenmarachi and the islands, this was so. It explains the ritual equality and similarity of customs and cattle brands of the two groups.


The Karaiyars are the descendants of the Naga fishermen who colonized Jaffna. At first, the Paravars carried on fishing as their traditional occupation. Plenty of underground water was discovered and some took to agriculture. Some of the Karaiyars still carried on with the tradition of fishing. When the Portuguese in India had trouble with the Nayak of Madurai, the preachers and the new Catholics went to Mannar and Jaffnapatinam. Previously, the Karaiyars served in the armies of the Annuradhapura and Jaffna kings. During the Chakravarti rule, the Karaiyars of Jaffna manned their powerful navy. The Karaiyars refused to accept the caste superiority of the Vellalars. During the Portuguese period, the Karaiyars along with the Vellalars were appointed village headmen. In the early days when the Catholics came to Mannar and occupied two towns (Periakareapattinam and Sinnakareapattinam), they were put to death by the Chakravarti ruler, Sankili. Within Karaiyur are the Jaffna town proper. Within the town is St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Catholic Seminary, St. Patrick’s College, Holy Family Convent, St. James’ Church and Central College. The Karaiyas claimed direct descent from the Pancha Pandavars (royal family from the Mahabaratha) and in landtitles, they entered their caste as Kurukulam. There are two classes of Karaiyars: the Melongi and the Kelongi. The former are socially advanced, having enjoyed the benefits of higher education and employment in government and the private sector. The other group continues with coastal and deep-sea fishing. According to Reverend Father S. Gnanaprakasar (the author of the history of the Catholic Church in Ceylon), the Karaiyas should be classed as Kshatriyas (warrior caste) They constitute about 15 per cent of the population of Jaffna.


At one time, the Indian peninsula was controlled by the farmer. The farmers, either because of non-payment of rent or by being driven away by others,  became unemployed. The term Paraiyar came into use only after the 10th century AD by the Imperial Cholas. They found that caste divisions would make it easier for the collection of land rent. Tiruvalluvar was one among them. People are aware of this group’s connection with the land from ancient times. The Paraiyar is accepted as an expert on determining land boundaries. His decision is respected. In North Ceylon, many of this group took to weaving. In the Dutch Thombus, the Paraiyars registered themselves as weavers. The cotton industry was very important. There was large scale growing of cotton in Mannar and the Vannis. The town of Parititurai (Cotton Port) is enough evidence of the existence of the cotton industry in north Ceylon. The Nagas were skilled in the art of weaving. The Veddahs learnt it from them. Swami Vivekananda says that caste is not hereditary but depends on qualification. If anyone is qualified, there is nothing to prevent him from reaching a higher status.  The basis for this line of thought is traced to the Baghavadgita. In the village of Chiviateru, the weavers produced fine cloth using the handloom. This group also lives in Kalmunai and call themselves the Valluvarkulam. Mr. Harry Williams, and English planter in Ceylon, wonders why Vellalars say that they have a common origin with the Paraiyars but the Paraiyars are still untouchable. In Jaffna, Paraiyars who lacked the means of support opted for menial work. It would not have been possible for Paraiyars to emigrate from Indian as they lacked money and other means to get to Ceylon. The Paraiyars form about 10 per cent of the Jaffna population.


They are the descendants of the Veddahs. It was the Veddahs who brought the palmyra, coconut, betel leaves and nut to the Indian peninsula. The Nalavars saw service as soldiers for Indian kings. In Jaffna, they are the toddy drawers.


They are the offshoot of the Sanars of India and are recent immigrants to Ceylon. The Sanars of India were oppressed by the higher groups there. Those who emigrated to Ceylon became the Chandars. In Jaffna, Chandars are found in Annaikoddai, Vanarpanai, Navali, Changanai East, Sandalipay and Alaveddi. Their main work is growing sesame and extracting its oil.


The Brahmins form a small percentage in Jaffna. They came in after temples were built. They came in large numbers during Chakarvarti rule.

Saiva Kurrukals

They came from among Vellalars. They were priests in temples. They felt that they are Brahmins. The real Brahmins would not mix with them, considering them lower. The Madapalis, the kin of the Chakravarti rulers, considered themselves Brahmin but the Vellalars refused to accept their superiority.

The Others

The Nagas produced the Tachars and the Kapal Tachars (woodworkers). The blacksmiths (Kullars), goldsmiths (Patthars) probably came from India. It is the same with the barbers (Ambatans) and Vannan (dhobbies). The Natuvars (temple musicians), Pandaram (temple priests) and forty other casts have been identified in Jaffna. They are quite insignificant in numbers and could be recent immigrants in India They form three per cent of the Jaffna population.

People of different castes are so widely diffused that they are prone to cross-fertilization. After sometime, the distinction is forgotten and most people pass off as members of various groups.

According to Dr. Gautam Kshatriya of the University of Delhi, the population of Jaffna consists of a mixed gene pool constituting 55.2 per cent Singhalese, 25.4 per cent Bengalis and 19.4 per cent South Indian genetic origins. The Chandas, the recent immigrants from India, the personal service groups, the temple priests and the Brahmins and the craftsmen form the 19.4 per cent of the population. What is stated as Bengali is Kalingan. In the old days, Angga, Wanga and Kalinga were populated by the same people and they inter-mingled. The Singhalese are the Nagas and the Naga Buddhist Singhalese speakers of Valligama. Vellalars form about 50 per cent of the Jaffna population. Not all of them could have come from India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s