Ethnic Issues

Caste in Jaffna

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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.

Development of Malaya: Agriculture

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Development of Malaya: Agriculture


Workers in a rubber estate (RRI)

The Malay population remained in their villages where they pursued rice cultivation and other forms of agriculture. Every able-bodied man and woman helped in the planting of rice. Fruit trees and spices were for own consumption. Surplus rice was sold to others. Malay agricultural production remained the same as before the British. The plan of Swettenham to introduce Chinese rice farmers failed to materialize. The administrators wanted to increase rice production and improve the economy of the Malays.

The Krian Scheme

At the insistence of the British Resident, E. W. Birch, the Government got an irrigation expert from India for the Krian irrigation scheme. It was proposed to irrigate 50,000 acres. The scheme was implemented in 1906 at the cost of 1,600,000. The reservoir was 10 square miles. It could discharge six-and-three-quarter million cubit feet of water per minute. The main irrigation canal was 21 miles long. The town water supply also improved. Krian thus become the rice bowl of the country. The Krian Scheme served as example for the Sungei Manik and Tanjong Karang Schemes. After independence, the same principles were used for the Kemugu Scheme and the Muda Scheme.


After 1890, coconut growing by farmers became popular. The coconut tree needs very little care. As assisted by a German from Singapore, R. Angler. Mr. Angler bought some land in Port Dickson and planted it with coconuts and introduced oil manufacture. He established his factory in Kuala Selangor. In 1909, the FMS had 215,000 acres of coconut plantations valued at 85 million dollars. Copra export became an important source of revenue. Indian labourers in lower Perak also worked on coconut estates.

Sitiawan Methodist Scheme

The Chinese immigrants proved to be versatile and supplied much needed labour of all kinds. The Methodist Mission started a scheme in Sitiawan. Jungle land was cleared. Though some left for better jobs, particularly tin mining, the scheme was a success. Lifestock was reared, especially pigs. Rubber was also planted.

Market Gardening 

As townships grew, the Chinese squatters cleared the land and started market gardening. They produced fresh vegetables, reared pigs and poultry, and produced eggs. The Government though aware that the squatters were using the land illegally, did not take any action as they were satisfying a much-needed service. Indians also moved into Cameron Highlands and began producing vegetables for export. Flowers were also available in Cameron Highlands, Frasers Hill, Maxwell Hill and Penang Hill. During the Japanese occupation, some Indians from the estates took to market gardening.

St. Joseph Tamil Settlement

St. Joseph Tamil Settlement, sponsored by the Christian Missionaries, was established in Bagan Serai, Perak in 1882. Settlers were given eight acres each, and land was planted with paddy, coconuts and other crops.

Indians were also settled in Chua, Negri Sembilan. They were assisted by the Government Veterinary Department to obtain the TOL (or Temporary Occupation License), where they could get title for a payment of 10 dollars. Quit rent was fixed at two dollars per annum. In the lower Perak district, 100 Indian families were sponsored for various schemes. Indians also benefitted from the Tanjong Karang Project.


Ceylon coffee planters came to Malaya and tried their hand at coffee planting. insect pests destroyed The coffee plants were by. They were convinced by Ridley, the director of the Botanical gardens in Singapore, of the commercial prospects of rubber. The rubber, hevea brasiliensis, is a native of South America. A few saplings were smuggled into the Kew Gardens in England and some were sent to the Botanical Gardens in Singapore. They were experimented on by Ridley. Seeds were also planted at the residency at Kuala Kangsar. Many coffee planters turned to rubber planting.


H. N. Ridley and rubber tree (National Archives of Singapore)

In the 20th century, rubber became an important raw material for industries. Rubber was used for the manufacture of bicycle tyres, in addition to the earlier uses of the manufacture of rubber foot ware, various types of rubber hoses, hot water bottles and waterproof clothing. The price of rubber kept increasing. In 1915, the price rose fro two shillings and six pence per pound to three shillings per pound. Between 1892 and 1905, 50,000 acres were planted with rubber. In the 20th century, 100,000 acres were planted. By 1916, rubber had become a big revenue earner for Malaya. Plantations were not able to get sufficient workers from south India. Earlier, the indenture system was used, as in the sugar and gambiar plantations. The worker had to work for a certain period, normally five years, until his debts are cleared. Then the Kangani system was implemented. Under the Kangani system, the employer would name the number of workers required. The Kangani went to his village in south India to recruit his own people. The Kangani was reimbursed the charges for passage and other expenses. The Kangani got a commission. In 1907, as a result of representation by the United Planting Association of Malaya, an Indian Immigration Committee was set up. There were three official members, five from the planting industry and one from Singapore. The Immigration Committee was to import labourers for the Government, for the rubber industry and for private employers. The rubber planters were required to pay for the importation of labour. The Government benefitted. Government required labourers for the PWD, the Sanitary Boards and the Railways.

The Government provided accommodation for its workers in lines, like the estates. The workers had to work for one year. It was the intention of the Malayan Government to encourage free labour. The Government required intending immigrants to present themselves at the depots in south India. Assisted immigration came to an end in 1935 with the Government of India banning all assisted immigration.

In 1937, 237,300 Indian labourers were working in Malaya. A typical European estate was managed by a European manager (Periathorai) planting assistants were referred to a Sinnathorai. Dressers, clerks and conductors assisted them. The early ones were Ceylon Tamils. By 1920s, they were being replaced by the Malayalees. In every estate, there was a toddy shop and a temple controlled by the manager. The labour lines provided were filthy. There was over-crowding. One room was given for each family. Water supply was erratic. Latrines were communal. Workers were treated worse than animals. After 1935, with the intervention of the Labour Department, cottage type houses with four rooms were built. The labour code of 1927 provided for estate labourers entitled to one acre of land for part-time gardening. This was not implemented. The estates would not part with any land. The estate management was more interested n the high dividends for the British shareholders. After the war, labour conditions were further improved. Medical attention with doctors and dispensaries were implemented. Maternity benefits were added. Sanitary conditions were improved. Creches were also provided. It was intended to make estate labourers part-time agriculturalists.

Oil Palm

The plant which is a native of Africa, elaies guineensis was first introduced in 1850. In 1917, it began to be planted on a commercial basis. Its uses are for the manufacture of soap, candles, margarine, vegetable oils, grease and as an alternative fuel.  Rubber prices fell after the First World War. In 1924, the Guthrie Group began planting oil palm. It flourished in the country. In Malaya, it could be planted throughout the year. In 1930, 3350 tonnes were produced. At the outbreak of the Second World War, 36,000 hectares were planted. In 1939, 58,300 tonnes was produced. After the war, natural rubber faced competition from synthetic rubber and prices fell. It started the process of converting rubber estates to palm oil estates. Today, Malaysia, the successor of Malaya, is the world’s leading producer of palm oil. Estate Tamil labourers and their families drifted to urban areas and lived as squatters. Other races, particularly the Indonesians, became oil palm plantation workers. Today in Malaysia, 57 per cent of oil palm workers are of Indian descent and the country leads in pal oil production.

India and Ceylon Affairs

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India’s involvement in Ceylon goes back to many years. India gave its culture, religions and languages to the Ceylonese. Indian rulers particularly those from South India, carried out conquests and got involved in the dynastic struggles of Ceylon rulers. The most important conquest of the early days was the conquest of Ceylon by Kalingan Megah. It is believed that the Pallavas started from Ceylon, got themselves established in an area between the Godavari and Krishna rivers. They learned the Aryan methods of administration and accepted Aryan practices. They then expanded into India. The Nayaks from India had later become kings in Kandy.

Indian involvement in Ceylon particularly politics came about with the formation of the Ceylon National Congress modeled on the Indian National Congress in the early part of the 20th century by Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam. The Jaffna Youth Congress was established. Indian leaders like Nehru addressed the Jaffna Youth Congress in Jaffna. The Youth Congress became very much influenced by the Indian National Congress’ call for full swaraj (full independence) from the British. It was this demand for full swaraj from the Indian National Congress that prevented Gandhi, the sole representative of the Congress at the Roundtable Conference in 1930, from accepting the offer of dominion status that was offered by the British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald. The Youth Congress became of the refusal of the British to give full swaraj, decided to boycott the Donoughmore Constitution in Ceylon. The Jaffna population was taken in by the Youth Congress, which was led by the people in Jaffna and not Colombo. It boycotted the Donoughmore Constitution. No one was elected from the Northern Province to the State Council set up by the new Constitution. It was to the detriment of the Ceylon Tamils.


Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam

After independence, the Ceylon Government disenfranchised the Indian workers who were brought by the British to work on the estates, both rubber and tea. They had helped in the economic development but this was not considered important. The Indian government protested. After negotiations, it was decided to repatriate workers that were willing to go back. The problem was partly solved.


Former Sir Lankan President, Jeyawardene

There were grievances felt by Ceylon Tamils. They felt they were discriminated against in jobs, university education and in the use of their language. Earlier, the State Council had decided that Singhalese and Tamil would replace English as the official language after independence. But with pressure from Singhalese chauvinists, the Singhala Only Act was passed. There was a demand for a separate state by the Tamils. Youths, under the leadership of Prabakaran, were preparing for an armed struggle. The Tigers who were first trained y the Palestinian George Habash, later began training in South India. Mrs. Indira Gandhi feared the pro-Western government of Jeyawardene. She had hoped that the Tigers would destabilize the government of Jeyawardene. She denied any knowledge of the Tigers’ training in South India. After the pogrom in 1983 where thousands of Tamils were killed,  Mrs Gandhi sent one Parthasarathy. Later there was the Chitamparam Natwar Singh visit. During Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, the Indo-Ceylon accord was signed in 1987. One provision of the Accord was to confer Ceylon citizenship on stateless Indians but this was never implemented. With the signing of the accord came 100,000 Indian troops as a Peace Keeping Force. It was intended for the rebels to surrender their arms. Provisions in the Accord stated that the rebels should hand in their arms to the Indians. Mr. Jeyawardene believed that eventually the Tigers would fight the Indian troops and he was proved right. This was the best chance of settling the ethnic question and the Tigers should have sided with the Indians. The Tigers fought the Indians and this was a big mistake.


Former Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi

In the election for the Northeastern (the merged Northern and Eastern) Province provided for, the Tamil United Liberation Front (or TULF) did not take part. As the TULF was already discredited in the eyes of the people. Only the EPRLF-ENDLF, a pro-Indian coalition took part. Mr. Varadaraja Perumal was elected Chief Minister. The Tigers did not support the Northeast Government and again fell into the trap of Mr. Jayawardene. The administration of the Northeast was taken over by the President. During an election rally, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by what was believed to be a Tiger cadre. The Tigers were banned in India. India was keen to destroy the Tigers. In the war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Tigers, India sided with the Sri Lankan forces. The Tigers were finally defeated in 2009, with Chinese arms and Indian radar assistance.

The Singhalese-Tamil Ethnic Tension

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Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the first President of the Ceylon National Congress, which he helped to establish, found that the chauvinistic group in the Congress failed to keep their word earlier given that a seat would be reserved for the Tamils in the Western Province. He then left the Congress as a result.

He felt that the best solution for the Tamils would be to go back to the administrative set-up that existed during the rule of the Portugese and the Dutch, where the Tamil and Singhalese areas were ruled separately. He did not advocate a separate Tamil state as claimed by some. He still believed in the unitary state. If he had advocated a separate Tamil state, why did his son, Mahadeva join the United National Party, which was formed by DS Senanayake.

Earlier, Tamil legislators had spoken in favour of Singhalese interests. Sir Muthu Cumarasami had spoken about the powers and privileges of the Anglican Church in Ceylon. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan had got Wesak Day declared a public holiday and he also got the Buddhist Temporalities Bill passed which protected Buddhist properties. He also questioned the excesses of the authorities in Ceylon under martial law after the Singhalese-Muslim riots of 1915. He went to England during the dangerous First World War years to present his case. On his return, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was put in a carriage and pulled by grateful Singhalese leaders. Mr. DS Senanayake the first Prime Minister of Ceylon, described Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan as the greatest Ceylonese who ever lived.

Mr. GG Ponnanbalam, a prominent lawyer and Cambridge graduate, proposed 50-50 solution for legislative representation. This may have angered the Singhalese leaders, who may have had hope of living peacefully with the minorities. As the cry got louder, the opposition to this increased.

The Solbury Commission had assured the minorities that their rights under the Constitution would be protected. Section 29 of the Solbury Commission stated that no legislation should be enacted;
1) the prohibits the free exercise of religion
2) makes people of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions for which persons of other communities and religions are not liable
3) confers on persons of any community privilege or advantage which is not given to other communities and religions
4) Alters the constitution of any religious body without the permission of the governing authority of that body.

It also provided for an upper house, the Senate, to which members of unrepresented interests can be appointed. The Jaffna paper, the Hindu Organ, called the 50-50 Proposal a mirage. It is difficult to understand why other Tamil leaders failed to convince Mr. Ponnambalam that his proposal is unattainable. During the discussions of the Solbury Commission, Mr. GG Ponnambalam also failed to support the Kandyan-Singhalese demand for federalism, which would have been good for the Tamils.

The unofficial Buddhist Commission of the 1950s made two important recommendations. One is that only Singhala should be the official language and that Section 29 of the Solbury Constitution should be inapplicable.

The chauvinistic Government of Mrs. Bandaranaike declared Ceylon a republic without consulting the other communities. Earlier, there was the standardization of University entrance. The matter was not handled properly. The minorities, particularly the Tamils felt that it was a discrimination against them. Tension was further increased. There was already a demand by Mr. Chelvanayakam for a Federal Government. It finally led to a civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Government. There was destruction in Tamil areas as a result of the war. Houses and farms were destroyed. The civilian population was subjected to daily shell bombardment. There was also bombing which included places of worship and hospitals.

Peace talks were held between the Tigers and the Government, and one sponsored by India. All failed. Later Indian intervention and the Norway-sponsored talks also failed.

In 2009, the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated. India gave radar assistance. Chinese provided arms. Karuna, the former Tiger commander who defected to the Government, gave valuable information. The military was sent to Tamil areas. The civilian population was subjected to all kinds of harassment. The military also interfered with internal trade and all other kinds of social activities.