Social Scientist. v 25, no. 294-295 (Nov-Dec 1997) p. 3.

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The European Factor in the Caste System: The Sri Lankan Model

The caste system is, generally, accepted as the sine qua non of the cultural dimensions of society in the Indian sub-continent and several other countries in Asia. To most European observers, it is the most striking feature, whether repulsive or otherwise. For instance, the 16th century, Portuguese Captain Jaoa Ribeiro, who saw active service in Ceylon, saw the caste system in strictly functional terms.1 He wrote, alluding to different castes

These which follow are the lowest castes: the tom-tom beaters go in war to beat their drums and they come back with their company. The wood cutters live in separate villages which also belong to the King; they cut the trees which they are commanded to, and they have to convey the stores and baggage of the army: and of this work they are so proud that in defeat they would lose their lives before their stores. There are the workers in clay, the washers, the latter of whom wash theclothes, and the former supply pottery to all in the village free of charge. Thejagreiros make a kind of sugar from the liquor which they draw from some trees, and of this they give a fixed quantity to the Lords of the village. The shoemakers, Pachas, and barbers are all very low in caste and they also have similar duties each according to his grade. The Cornacas are those who tame and look after the elephants; they live in sepai**te villages the same as the Pachas, the villages'of both of whom belong to the King...2

Other European observers have seen the caste system in terms of methodology of rule or control; the expression of a philosophic ideal or an accidental (random) conferment of favour or disfavour.

This article attempts to classify and analyse the gamut of European 'attitudes' to the caste system and to see whether these attitudes gave permanence and rigidity to the caste system, as it operates. This article is, mainly, concerned with the Sri Lankan version of the caste system, though some of the matters discussed here may not be without relevance to the caste systems in other countries.


The upholders of this attitude view castes 3$ a bundle of specified kinds of work. Whatever iniquities or inequalities the system engenders are rational-

4 Coordinator, South Eastern University Addlachenai, Sri Lanka

Social Scientist, Vol. 25, Nos. 11-12, November-December 1997

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