The Caste System in Sri Lanka

Pictures of Sri Lanka and its people

The Caste System and the Rodiya community in Sri Lanka

Extracted from Human Rights Watch

The Caste system is perhaps the world's longest surviving social hierarchy. A defining feature of Hinduism, caste encompasses a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity. A person is considered a member of the caste into which he or she is born and remains within that caste until death, although the particular ranking of that caste may vary among regions and over time. Differences in status are traditionally justified by the religious doctrine of karma, a belief that one's place in life is determined by one's deeds in previous lifetimes.

Traditional scholarship has described this more than 2,000-year-old system within the context of the four principal varnas, or large caste categories. In order of precedence these are the Brahmins (priests and teachers), the Ksyatriyas (rulers and soldiers), the Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and the Shudras (laborers and artisans). A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as "untouchables" or Dalits; they are often assigned tasks too ritually polluting to merit inclusion within the traditional varna system. Almost identical structures are also visible in Nepal and Sri Lanka

Within Sri Lanka's majority Sinhala community, the Rodiya were historically excluded from villages and communities, forcing them into street begging, scavenging, and roving. Moreover, Rodiya could only wear caste-specific attire; were restricted from schools and public facilities; segregated at gravesites; and made to drink out of disposable coconut shells from local teashops so as not to contaminate the glasses of others. A history of exclusion has carried forward into present-day practices-Rodiya continue to reside in segregated communities with little to no interaction with upper-castes.

According to the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights' working paper on work and descent-based discrimination:

In Sri Lanka there are two caste systems, one for the Sinhalese and the other for the Tamils. Although they both have their origin in India, the Sinhalese caste system is not linked to the Hindu varna. It was an aspect of a feudal society which divided people "according to Descent and Blood" or according to their hereditary roles and functions. The caste system was a secular hierarchy.... Social distance was practised but the notion of pollution hardly existed. As an American scholar concluded, "The absence of the Hindu concept had rendered the Sinhalese caste system mild and humanitarian when judged by Indian standards."

The exception is the caste of Rodiyas or Rodi (meaning "filth") from very early times. Many legends surround their origin, all agreeing that they were banished for a heinous crime and condemned to a life of begging or, more accurately, soliciting for alms. They were denied land and work and subjected to many disadvantages and degrading treatment.

Caste differentiation occurs in both of Sri Lanka's main Tamil communities (those descended from plantation workers of Indian origin brought to Sri Lanka by the British colonial government, as well as those with ancestors in Sri Lanka). Marriage bars persist, as do other social bans. Caste-based discrimination is sometimes applied to non-Hindus-including Tamil Christian and Muslim converts, and members of other minority groups. These tensions are exacerbated by conflict-driven displacement, which can place groups of varying caste backgrounds in closer proximity to another.

In both the Tamil and Sinhala communities of Sri Lanka, intermarriage between upper-caste and lower-caste persons is still socially discouraged. Matrimonial ads in Sri Lankan newspapers placed by Tamils and Sinhalese both routinely specify the caste background of the match that the family is seeking.

Allocation of labor on the basis of caste is one of the fundamental tenets of many caste systems, with lower-castes typically restricted to tasks and occupations that are deemed too "filthy" or "polluting" for higher-caste communities.

Indian-origin Tamils in Sri Lanka continue to face severe social discrimination. For many of the country's minority Tamils, little has changed occupationally since the eighteenth century when members of lower-castes from southern India were brought to Sri Lanka as captive labor to work on plantations and as city cleaners. To this day, the traditional division of labor continues to be perpetuated. At the bottom of the caste hierarchy in the Indian Tamil community are three untouchable castes. While Pallas and Nalavas can work on upper-caste land for wages, Paraiyars are predominantly engaged in "unclean" sanitation work. Plantation laborers also remain marginalized from economic, educational, and social opportunities, and suffer from poor health care and an inability to participate in political life.

A recent allegation of discrimination based on descent is that made by Tamils of Indian origin employed mainly as tea estate workers in the hill country. With regard to wages, housing, sanitation, health and educational facilities, they were an oppressed group. Improvements have slowly been made as a result of government policies and powerful trade union action. Integration with the rest of society is more difficult owing to prejudice, but this is breaking down. There are signs of upward mobility through education and non-discriminatory laws. Caste distinctions exist among themselves and complaints have been made that workers (mostly Dalits) are kept out of trade union office by high caste supervisors.

The Sri Lankan government's development and social welfare programs have also failed to integrate the Rodiya into mainstream society, leaving many to rely on menial wage labor as sanitation workers and hospital attendants.

Rodiya children in Sri Lanka rarely study past elementary levels, if at all. Instead, their parents require them to realize their income-earning potential even as young children, and often prematurely take them out of school. Lower-caste Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin in Sri Lanka also have low literacy levels. According to a Sri Lankan activist only 65 percent of plantation workers can read or write, compared to a high 90 percent national average. Higher drop out rates among children of plantation workers stems partly from the employment of these children as domestic workers, hotel workers, or sanitation cleaners

In Sri Lanka, Indian-origin Tamils-who have resided in the country since the nineteenth century-can only become citizens through registration. They are denied the right to citizenship by descent to which the rest of the Sri Lankan population is entitled

Lower-caste women are singularly positioned at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies. Largely uneducated and consistently paid less than their male counterparts worldwide they invariably bear the brunt of exploitation, discrimination, and physical attacks. Sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women are often used by landlords and the police to inflict political "lessons" and crush dissent within the community. Lower-caste women also suffer disproportionately in terms of access to health care, education, and subsistence wages as compared to women of higher castes. Gender-specific violence is a problem of epidemic proportions among low-caste plantation workers in Sri Lanka

In 1957 the government of Sri Lanka passed the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act making it an offense to deny access to various public places to persons by reason of their caste. A 1971 amendment imposed stiffer punishments for the commission of offenses under the 1957 act. According to the U.N. Subcommission's working paper: "Initially there were some prosecutions in the North but there was a tendency for the police not to take action against violations. In a celebrated temple-entry case, the Act was challenged as interfering with customs and ancient usages that prohibited defilement of a Hindu temple by the entry of low-caste persons. This argument was rejected by the Supreme Court and Privy Council."

Unlike India's constitution, Sri Lanka's 1978 Constitution does not provide for community-based affirmative action. It does however prohibit discrimination on the grounds of caste, including caste-based restrictions on access to shops, public restaurants, hotels, places of public entertainment, and places of worship of one's own religion. Despite these constitutional prohibitions, serious problems remain.

The story of the Rodi: Sri Lanka's `untouchables'

Asiff Hussein -

 No Sinhalese caste has aroused so much wonder and curiosity as the Rodi once the `untouchables' of Sri Lanka.

 Indeed there is something mysterious about this people who claim descent from Sinhalese royalty but who have for centuries been despised and down trodden by society.

 Theirs is a very sad story indeed and their plight a yet sadder one. It is only today that this folk are emerging to take their due place in society after centuries of oppression thanks to the progressive legislation and social welfare policies of successive governments since independence.

 Rodi legend holds that they are descended from Ratnavalli (also known as Navaratna Valli) the daughter of King Parakrama Bahu 1 (12th century).

 About 100 years ago Hugh Nevill, a prominent British civil servant recorded the following tradition current among the Rodi as to their origins:

 `At Parakrama Bahu's court the venison was provided by a certain Veddha archer. Who during a scarcity of game substituted the flesh of a boy he met in the jungle and provided it as venison for the royal household.

 Navaratna Valli, the beautiful daughter of the king discovered the deception and fascinated by a sudden longing for human flesh ordered the Veddha hunter to bring this flesh. The Veddha accordingly waylaid youths in the woods, and disposed of their flesh to the royal kitchen. The whole country was terrified by the constant disappearance of youths and maidens. It happened that a barber who came to the palace to complain of the disappearance of his only son while waiting was given by the servants of the royal scullery a leaf of rice and venison curry.

 Just as he was about to eat he noticed on his leaf the deformed knuckle of the little finger of a boy. Recognizing it by the deformity as that of his son he fled from the palace and spread the alarm that the king was killing and eating the youths of the city.

 The facts then came to light and the king stripping his daughter of her ornaments and calling out a scavenger then sweeping out a neighbouring yard gave her to him as wife and drove her out to earn her living in her husband's class.'

Somewhat different is the original legend narrated by Robert Knox in his `Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681).
Says Knox `The predecessors of these people from whom they sprang were Dodda Veddhas which signifies hunters: to whom it did belong to catch and bring venison for the king's table.

 But instead of venison they brought man's flesh. Unknown; which the king liking so well commanded to bring him more of the same sort of venison. The king's barber chanced to know what flesh it was and disclosed it to him. At which the king was so enraged that he accounted death too good for them; and to punish only those persons that had so offended not a sufficient recompense for so great an affront and injury as he had sustained by them. Forthwith therefore he established a decree that both great and small that were of that rank or tribe should be expelled from dwelling among the inhabitants of the land and not to be admitted to use or enjoy the benefit of any means or ways or callings whatsoever to provide themselves sustenance; but what they should beg from generation to generation from door to door, through the kingdom, and to be looked upon and esteemed by all people to be so base and odious as not possibly to be more.' Many were the restrictions placed on the Rodi during the Kandyan period.

 Says Knox: `And they are to this day so detestable to the people that they are not permitted to fetch water out of their wells; but do take their water out of holes or rivers. Neither will any touch them lest they should be defiled.' Until fairly recent times till about 100 years ago this was still true of the Rodi in the Kandyan areas.

 During Kandyan times both Rodi men and women were compelled to go bare-bodied and forced to reside in separate hamlets known as kuppayam. Their rajakariya (duties to the state) included the supply of rope made of animal hide for trapping wild beasts. During Knox's time the primary occupation of the Rodi was mendicancy and hardly anyone refused them. In more recent times the folk were given to professional entertainment. The women would sing hymns in praise of their legendary ancestress Ratnavalli and spin brass plates while the men played a one-sided drum known as Bum-mendiya.

 Rodi women are renowned for their extreme beauty and this may perhaps be explained by the following statement of Knox:

 `Many times when the king (i.e. Rajasinghe II) cuts off great and noble men against whom he is highly incensed he will deliver their daughters and wives unto this sort of people reckoning it as they also account it to be far worse a punishment than any kind of death.'

 Constant intercourse with the women of the Kandyan nobility may well account for the aristocratic looks and stately carriage of Rodi women to this day though the same cannot be said of their menfolk.

 This may perhaps also explain the claims of the Rodi to royal status.

 M.D. Raghavan (Handsome Beggars. The Rodiyas of Ceylon. 1957) believes that the Rodi are descended from totemistic eastern Indian aboriginal hunting tribes who came to Sri Lanka along with the sacred Bo-sapling (today the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura) about 2000 years ago.

 Raghavan connects the term Rodi to the Palli rudda (Sanskrit. rudra) meaning hunter.

 As for their outcaste and untouchable status Raghavan has an explanation that is worthy of consideration.

 He believes that the ancestors of the Rodi were worshippers of the `Black Goddess' Kali whose cult of human sacrifice was prevalent in eastern India until fairly recent times.

 He is of the view that in former times the Rodi too were given to human sacrifice as may be gleaned from the invocatory hymns sung by Rodi women to their legendary ancestress.

 `The name Ratna-tilaka-valli befits you; with rituals awe-inspiring I propitiate you. And you whose twentieth year has passed you shall not go without the taste of flesh.'

 Another verse attributed to Ratnavalli says `prosperity do I bring you with blood flowing like the river waters ' while yet another verse refers to Ratnavalli as one `who wears the fearsome strings of coral `which Raghavan says is `the garland of human skulls round the neck of the awe-inspiring Kali.' In India statues of Kali are traditionally depicted with a garland of human skulls.

 Added to all this, the tales of cannibalism attributed to Princess Ratnavalli in the traditions of the Rodi themselves also support this theory. As for their outcaste status Raghavan notes: `That a form of worship in which human offerings formed the essential ritual would have been anathema to the Buddhist way of life goes without saying; and it needs no stretch of imagination that any class of people in whom the cult prevailed or survived even in an attenuated form would have been pronounced by the sangha (i.e. the Buddhist clergy) as exiles from the social order.'

 Another indication that the Rodi were originally a nation apart from the Sinhalese is their distinct language which savours of a tribal origin.

 The language which is neither Indo-Aryan (like Sinhala) nor Dravidian (like Tamil) has been connected to the Austro Asiatic group of languages spoken by the aboriginal Munda tribes of eastern India.

 Raghavan believes the language to be connected to the Munda language spoken to this day by primitive tribes in Orissa and Bihar.

 In the olden days, the Rodi chieftain was known as Hula-valiya (lit.torch-bearer) which Raghavan believes is `a traditional institution from the days when the Rodiya was a tribe of hunters.'

 Unlike in the olden days, today Rodi have lost their sense of clanishness.

 In former times, the Rodi in the Vanni regions were divided into 12 exogamous clans (eg: Mahappola Vapolla and Alpaga) while those in other areas also had distinct clan identities. The Rodi are found concentrated in the up-country areas (the former Kandyan kingdom) especially in the central north western Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. Today they number a few thousands islandwide.

 The last census which enumerated the Rodi as a separate community was in 1911. It returned a total of 1.572 Rodi.

 The traditional life-style of the Rodi is fast dwindling though some characteristics peculiar to Rodi culture still live on.

 Rodi women are said to have enjoyed a high social status in the past. Even to this day these enterprising and progressive minded women are said to dominate domestic life.

 They commonly arrange the marriages of their children and earn a considerable income from entertainment and agriculture. The allure of the charming Rodi girls have captivated the hearts of many an `upper caste' youth.

 A modern day Sinhalese poet thus sings the charms of a Rodi girl

Fair of face like the full blown lotus
Thy rosy lips match the red lilies
Thine eyes blue as the induvara flower
With swelling swanlike breasts;
Shine resplendent
the livelong day,
Rodi girl; the full moon over Ratnapura sky
(Kavsangarava. 1928).


Myth and Mystery of the Rodi

By Richard Boyle


Sri Lanka is fortunate in being home to a diverse array of ethnic groups. Apart from the more obvious communities, there are other, smaller groups that still exhibit some tribal traits and that live mostly outside the mainstream of society. Undoubtedly, the best-known of these are the Veddahs, who conform most readily to the aboriginal, hunter-gatherer archetype. As a result, the Veddahs have generated much interest in academic circles., attracting the attention of anthropologists and documentary film-makers from afar.


A lesser-known community, but one which perhaps stirs the imagination even more, are the Rodi. Indeed, the Rodi's intriguing myth of origin, their tragic early history, and the much-renowned beauty of their women, have combined to distinguish them from every other community in Sri Lanka. Although their beginnings are far from certain, it is possible that the Rodi were originally a hunting tribe from India. One possibility is that the first members arrived as bowmen in the retinue that accompanied the sacred Bo-tree sapling on its journey to Anuradhapura, 22 centuries ago.


However, the Rodi also have an ancient, and somewhat gruesome, oral tradition that ascribes to them a local origin and, indeed, a royal lineage. Over the generations, this myth of origin has acquired subtle variations characteristic of such traditions. Nevertheless, the commonest version is that which was recorded by Hugh Nevill in the 1880s:


"At (King) Parakramabahu's court, the venison was provided by a certain Veddah archer, who, during a scarcity of game, substituted the flesh of a boy he met in the jungle and provided it as venison for the Royal Household. Navaratnavalli (or Ratnavalli), the beautiful daughter of the king, discovered the deception, and fascinated by a longing for human flesh, ordered the hunter to bring this flesh daily."


Youths and maidens began to vanish with alarming regularity until one day a barber, who had come to the palace to complain of the disappearance of his son, discovered the child's finger in a meal given to him by royal servants. "The facts then came to light, and the King, stripping his daughter of her ornaments, and calling up a scavenger then sweeping out a neighbouring yard, gave her to him as wife and drove her out to learn her living in her husband's class." Nevill though it possible that the King Parakramabahu mentioned in the myth was an actual historical figure. Unfortunately, any investigation was hindered by the fact that several kings of this name reigned in Sri Lanka between the 12th and 13th centuries AD. Nevertheless, subsequent history confirms that the Rodi were indeed outcasts, who suffered from many socially, as well as legally, sanctioned prohibitions under the laws of the island's Kandyan Kingdom during the Middle Ages. They were forbidden to enter a

Buddhist temple, to till the soil, use a ferry, or even draw water from a well. Men and women alike were not permitted to wear any clothing below the knee or above the waist. They were compelled to salute everyone they met by raising their joined hands above their head and then making low obeisance. Even their homes were subject to restrictions and had to be constructed with only a back wall of mud, and a lean-to roof of palm leaves for shelter.


Unlike the Veddahs, the Rodi had been effectively integrated into the caste system of the island. Most significantly, they had been placed a at the bottom of the hierarchy, as well as having been given the status of outcasts and virtual untouchables. There was even a form of punishment under the Kandyan law whereby miscreants, and the families of noblemen who had fallen out of favour with the King, were consigned to live with these unfortunate people, whose specific function was to weave nooses and ropes from hide for use in the capture of elephants and tethering of cattle. From the fibre of a species of aloe they also made long whips used in ceremonial processions, such as the Kandy perahera.


Under the caste system the Rodi were given the right to live off the surplus of others, especially cultivators. In fact, at harvest time a portion of rice ws required to be put aside for the Rodi. This right was considered by both giver and taker as being akin to the time-honoured custom of soliciting for alms, rather than begging.


In addition, the Rodi were permitted to accept coins in exchange for any entertainment they performed - in particular singing, dancing, plate-spinning, and drumming. Indeed, the Rodi myth of origin recounts how their ancestors received these talents directly from King Parakramabahu in order to help them survive banishment. The King is said to have given the sweeper a drum and told him to play it. To Ratnavalli he gave a brass plate ordering her to spin it on her finger, and to sing and dance. Interestingly enough, these gender-defined roles have been assumed by the Rodi for centuries.


Why then did the Rodi suffer their fall from grace? How was it that a tribe of hunters came to be reduced to an exiled caste of licensed beggars? Could it be due to the episode of cannibalism in King Parakramabahu's palace, as enunciated in the myth, or might there be another reason?


Some of the answers to these questions appear to lie in religious and mythical traditions of the Rodi. For example, the narration of the Rodi myth is usually followed by the recitation of a set of invocatory verses to Ratnavalli, who is portrayed in them more as a deity than a princess:


Leaning against the tree of thick green foliage, Oh! Woman, 

With your heavy bluish braided tresses,

Oh! Ratnavalli, like the peacock resplendent,

Descend from the green telambu tree.

Wrapped in wreaths of cool, balmy sal flowers,

Oh! woman,

At whose incantations diseases vanish,

Who wears the fearsome string of corals,

Oh, Ratnavalli, respond to our call and descend.

The name Ratna-tilaka Valli befits you;

With rituals awe-inspiring I propitiate you;

And those whose twentieth year has Passed,

You shall not go without the taste of flesh.


As the anthropologist M. D. Raghavan pointed out in a 1950s' study, the references in these verses to the worship of Ratnavalli in a sacred grove of trees, her braided hair and frightening necklace of human skulls, together with the offering of human flesh, are all aspects associated with the cult of Kali. Significantly, the cult has its origin in the early forms of worship practised by tribal groups in India.


Hugh Nevill conjectured that the Ratnavalli described in the verses is actually a form of the goddess Pattini in her role as Kali. In any case, Ratnavalli seems to have been a goddess worshipped in the north-central area of the island. Tradition has it that her abode was a telambu tree at Anuradhapura, and when the site was chosen for the construction of the magnificent Ruwanvali Dagoba in the 2nd century BC, the mastermind behind it, King Dutugemenu, is said to have offered sacrifices to appease the goddess. Indeed, the dagoba was apparently named after Ratnavalli, for ruwan and ratna have the same

meaning - golden or precious.


If a Ratnavalli cult existed, as seems likely, then the exile status and the stigma attached to the Rodi might be due to their membership of it. Buddhism was going though a period of consolidation during Dutugemenu's reign, and a cult that involved human sacrifice would have been anathema to the Budhist population. However, the Rodi have not worshipped Ratnavalli for a considerable time, even though the women are still able to recite the invocatory verses to their former goddess. Nowadays, the Rodi are mostly Buddhist by faith and they insist that Ratnavalli was nothing more than a princess, the daughter

of king Parakramabahu, and not a deity.


Whatever the interpretation of the myth, there are aspects of the Rodi that are indisputable, such as their beauty. As Raghavan commented, "Of worldly wealth they have none, but they are endowed with a good deal of womanly charm." The Rodi themselves attribute this to their descent from a royal princess, as well as the occasional introduction of noble blood. The fact remains that Rodi women have an appearance and an allure that has especially captivated visitors to the island.


The Russian traveler, writer, and artist, Prince Alexei Soltykoff, painted several pictures of them in 1841 and enthused of his liaison with a Rodi girl whose "charm was irresistible" and "whose figure, graceful movements and uncertain glance I still remember." Writing on "Types of Oriental Beauty" in 1892, Ernest Bowden provided a typical appreciation of the Rodi women: "Who will not admire her dark expressive eyes, her well-chiseled lips and the slightly wavy hair? There is in her face a touch of sadness as well as sweetness . . .


Few faces that I have met with in the East have more charmed me." This appeal has even been explored in English fiction, in particular the romance between a Rodi girl and a tea planter in the novel Elephant Walk (1948) by Robert Standish, which was subsequently adapted as a film starring Peter Finch and Elizabeth Taylor: "Wilding had seen the beauty of women in the sophisticated centre . . . Now in the hills of Ceylon there stood before him the loveliest creature of them all. Here was innocence."


Rodi beauty moved the indigenous population too, as is clear from a traditional ballad:


Fair of face like the full-blown lotus

Thy rosy lips match the red lilies

Thine eyes blue as the induvara flower

With swelling swan-like breasts;

Shine resplendent, the livelong day.

O, Rodi girl; the full moon over Ratnapura sky.


Of course, these romanticized outpourings failed to reflect the true nature of existence of Rodi women, whose forebears were used to a life of wandering and performing. What is more they were - and are - neither meek nor submissive, but strong and resourceful individuals. Perhaps this strength is derived partly from the belief in their descent from Ratnavalli, and partly from the identity figure she provides.


During former times the Rodi entertained devotees attending many of the island's religious festivals. Even today, Rodi women travel from villages in the northwest province to the famous temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Munneswaram, near Chilaw, for the annual festival during July and August.


Seated in a row, they ritualistically spin their plates while reciting the invocatory verses to Ratnavalli, hoping that the

devotees' hearts will melt towards them, Curiously, although the myth is generally learned by both sexes, the verses are almost exclusively handed down through the female line.


However, the value of such traditions is rapidly diminishing in Rodi eyes. In a more enlightened age, with a new social and economic order, the Rodi are rightly rejecting their former status - although they risk losing with it many of the positive aspects of their past that afforded them a distinct group identity. Now they wish to assume a new identity, mostly as crafts-persons engaged in cane-work in which they have always excelled. In fact, these changes are not new but part of a process that began in 1815 with the capitulation of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, after which the social structure, including the occupational demarcations of the caste system, began to erode.


Representing far less than one per cent of Sri Lanka's population, the Rodi today are poised for assimilation. While this may be

inevitable, let us hope they manage to retain their traditions. Otherwise there may come a time when they will no longer consider themselves to be the children of Ratnavalli. And Sri Lanka's remarkable heritage would be the poorer for that.


To the west of Kurunegala there are situated several villages inhabited by one of Sri Lanka's most interesting but socially

disadvantaged communities, the Rodi.