Social Scientist. v 28, no. 330-331 (Nov-Dec 2000) p. 40.

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A Conspectus of Tamil Caste Systems in Sri Lanka: Away from a Parataxis

It is usual to define Sri Lanka as a multi-faith (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam), multi-ethnic (Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers) and multi-linguistic (Sinhala, Tamil, English) country. To the last, may be added such 'particular' languages as Malay, Arabic, too1. Such plethora extends to caste systems as well. The Sinhalese have two, the Low-Country (i.e. littoral) and Kandyan (i.e. up-country) caste structures, which have since coalesced. I have discussed these matters elsewhere2.

The Tamils have three caste systems and a fugitive fourth one. These three are the Northern Tamil (Jaffna) system, the Eastern Province system and the Plantation (Estate) system. The fugitive one is that of a narrow segment of urban scavenging workers.


Though this article is primarily concerned with the description, classification and tentative analysis of the Northern Tamil (NT) caste system, a brief description of the other Tamil 'casteism' seems necessary, in view of their mutual interaction or, alternatively distancing. While the NT system is largely a Vellala (farmer) phenomenon, in which characteristic it is similar to the Sinhalese caste structure, the other two have different affiliations.

The caste system of the Eastern Province, or more specifically the District of Batticaloa, seems to have been influenced or embodied by the Mukkuwas. A specialist writer says.

The Mukkuwas came from the present Malabar district of South India in the early period of Ceylon history and therefore brought with them the pristine principles of the old Marumakathayam law. The incidence

* Academic Project Centre, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, Colombo.

Social Scientist, Vol. 29, Nos. 11-12, Nov.-Dec. 2000

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