Sri Lanka Still Wed to System

Times Staff Writer

Every Sunday, newspapers here are filled with classified ads for marriage partners. But for Americans accustomed to the personals staples “SWF” and “must love cats,” the descriptions can be mystifying.

“Sinhala Buddhist Govi mother seeks professionally qualified partner for youngest daughter,” read a recent ad in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer. “Reply with caste and religion material, horoscope.”

The ad, referring to the elite land-tilling Govi Gama caste, spotlights a system that locked islanders into a rigid social hierarchy for centuries.


But numerous chisels are chipping away at its power, including better education, increasing wealth, fewer arranged marriages, a stronger civil service recruited on merit and the shift from agrarian to urban life. As young Sri Lankans gravitate to big cities in search of opportunity, they inevitably mix in wider social and ethnic circles, helping shed the straitjacket of village life.

Vasuki Somarathnam, 19, is a bank clerk from the Nadar caste, relatively low in the hierarchy. She says that when it comes to friends, business relations and voting, caste plays little, if any, part in her daily life. Her views on marriage are far more progressive than those of her parents’ generation, with character at least as important as caste in the choice of a future husband.

Still, as a good daughter, she said, she would never defy her parents’ wishes that she marry within the caste. If it came to it, she would work hard to convince them but leave the final say to them.

“God gave them to me. I must respect that,” said Somarathnam, who works at a bank that is “caste blind,” as are most businesses, at least officially, in Colombo these days. Ultimately, she acknowledged, it would be easier if she found someone from the same group.

This is part of the dilemma for many people. “Educated Sri Lankans know the caste system is irrational and shouldn’t exist,” said Kalinga Tudor Silva, a sociologist at the University of Peradeniya. “But when it comes to marriage, it remains very important, the head versus the heart.”

Each passing year sees the caste system weaken a little more in this nation of 20 million people. Some, unwilling to see the system die a slow death, have taken an activist approach.


A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of the nonprofit Sarvodaya group, which focuses on community development, micro-credit and other charity work, has made caste elimination a cornerstone of its mission. To that end, the group brings so-called high-caste children to lower-caste villages, and vice versa, encouraging them to eat and play together.

Yet caste lingers along with other prejudices, affecting decisions in quiet ways few speak about.

The devastating tsunami in December 2004 underscored the caste system’s subtle resilience. In the immediate aftermath, caste, ethnic, religious and other divisions melted away as people rushed to bury the dead and care for survivors.

Over time, however, prejudices crept back. Aid workers say some refugees from the Govi Gama caste refused to help in the rebuilding, viewing manual labor, especially cleaning toilets, as beneath them, despite the need. Now, with the relief effort shifting to permanent housing, members of different castes are balking at living together.

Resistance to change is not surprising considering that the caste system’s fundamental role in South Asian society goes back thousands of years.

Sri Lanka has a less onerous caste system than its giant neighbor, India, from whence it spread. This is a blessing and a curse, sociologists say. On one hand, it has meant greater social mobility than is common in India, where caste can still determine access to education and jobs.


Yet Sri Lanka’s milder version has led fewer people to tackle the issue head on or even talk about it, social scientists say. In India, the groundbreaking “untouchable rights” movement has challenged the established order. Nor have the Sri Lankan courts been an agent for change. Article 12 of the constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of caste, race or religion, but it applies only to government policy. District courts are authorized to hear employment, housing and social discrimination suits, says Colombo attorney Chanakya Jayadeva, but in practice it’s virtually never done.

Sri Lanka actually has two broad caste systems reflecting the minority Tamil and majority Sinhalese cultures. Various regional differences add another layer of complexity.

Still, there are common elements. All consider Sri Lankans with land-owner or tenant farmer ancestors near the top of the hierarchy. Those whose relatives once worked in trade groupings, such as alcohol brewers, jewelry makers, laundry men and fishermen, make up the middle. Descendants of such groups as beggars, mat weavers and funeral drummers are near the bottom.

Generally, the Sinhalese caste system, which was softened by Buddhism, is losing its grip faster in part because the Buddha preached against castes. The Sinhalese system tends to identify caste members by their family name.

Sri Lankan Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, generally identify caste members by ancestral village or neighborhood, and the system remains stronger in part because of direct links to Hinduism in India.

Over the centuries, prejudices have developed around the castes. Members of the Govi Gama caste are said to be honorable, the Hali alcohol brewers loud and abrasive, the Karawa fisherman overly aggressive.


Anusha Rajakaruna, 25, an employee at a nonprofit education group in Galle, recalls her mother and neighbors singing a song after a Hali proposed to her older sister years ago. “Halis are no good. No matter how beautiful they may be, they don’t have a nice aroma,” the song went. Her sister ultimately rejected the suitor.

Some brought up in mixed-caste marriages say prejudices were revealed when their parents fought. “Oh, you’re just like all Halis,” they recall hearing, or “You Govi Gama are all so arrogant.”

Lower-caste parents are often as wary of their children marrying into upper-caste families as the other way around, fearing social conflict or humiliation. Sebba Kuttige Priyangani, 44, from the Karawa caste, was beaten and harassed by her grandmother after a higher-caste man proposed to her when she was 14. She eventually broke it off. A few years later, however, another suitor showed up, this time a foreigner, and she eloped. “I was always a bit wild,” she said.

Some believe caste endures because people find it comforting. “Psychologically people depend on it,” said Prasanna Ratnayake, a director with the film production group ScriptNet SL, whose father was from the farmer caste and mother from the lower fisherman community. “They’ll rationalize, ‘Well so and so may be rich, but he’s from a lower caste, so I’m still better than him.’ ”

Others recall only gradually becoming aware of the system as children. Dilrukshi Handunnetti, an editor with the Sunday Leader newspaper, was born into the elite farmer caste and remembers visiting her grandparents in Galle and wondering why she wasn’t allowed to socialize with some children.

Lower-caste people were expected to stay out of sight of the high castes in the morning, she recalls, to avoid bad luck during the day. Her grandfather would blanch if anyone “beneath her” used her first name. When she asked, she was told she’d understand someday.


“What’s really sad is that many in so-called lower castes have come to terms with it,” she said. “Essentially they accept their so-called inferiority. There’s a karmic element, a belief that they must have done bad things in the past life to be born lower-caste in this one.”

Privilege had its so-called responsibilities, however. Banker N. Ramanan says the same family of lower-caste barbers had cut his family’s hair for generations and, if any of them died, Ramanan’s family was expected to care for the widow and children. But this practice is quickly disappearing along with other traditions, he adds.

Some lower-caste Sinhalese trying to shed their unfortunate heritage are opting for a legal name change. They’re in good company. The late president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, born into the lowly caste of washermen, adopted the Premadasa moniker associated with farmers early in his career.

The government doesn’t make such identity shifts easy, however. The process can take up to four years, with a person’s father required to change his name as well. That doesn’t seem to deter a steady flow of applicants at Colombo’s Registrar General’s Department.

“Almost all are from lower-caste name holders,” said an official who asked not to be identified, surrounded by dusty ledgers beneath a slow-turning overhead fan. “Otherwise, why would they do it?”

Cross-caste marriages are becoming more common, but they’re not always easy. Nonprofit employee Rajakaruna is from the fisherman caste and her fiance from the elite farmer caste. Both sets of parents were less than delighted. The couple hid their relationship for years, but the secret got out when the tsunami hit and he immediately rushed to check on her.


She still hopes the older generation will soften. “Going against your parents’ decision is not good,” she said. “I’ll wait as long as necessary to convince them. If not, I’ll remain single until I die.”