Govigama - This page is here only because there are many who wish to suppress these historical facts and indeed do so - See promotion of Govi supremacy myth by Sri Lankan governments and by ganging up even on the internet deletions on Wikipaedia, on Karava, on Karava timeline, on Karava flags, on Patabendige, on fish symbol, Govi supremacy myth
Govi, Govigama, Goigama, Goygama, Goyigama is now a very powerful Caste in Sri Lanka. However until the 19th century , there are no references as to the existence of a 'Govigama' caste in Sri Lanka. The historical references are only to a 'Govi caste' , which was merely a generic group of peasants of all castes engaged in agriculture. Some castes cultivated whilst pursuing their caste occupations as pot makers, candy makers, drummers, launders etc whilst agricultural serfs were the exclusive cultivators.
Modern Govigama politicians and historians have repeated so often that the Govigama caste is the majority caste and that it comprises almost 50% of Sri Lanka’s population. The 50% may be correct for the percentage of people engaged in agriculture, but the majority of agriculturists are from a large caste group called Bathgama (Also called Padu) and another large caste group called Wahumpura ( the traditional confectioners of Sri Lanka) who also engaged in agriculture while pursuing their traditional craft. As such the size of the Govigama caste - the open to all new identity group that was created only about a hundred years ago - cannot be more than 10% of the Sri Lankan population.
Another myth that has been propagated is that the cultivators of Sri Lanka were land owning nobles. The following historical references show that this myth, although repeated by dozens of misinformed foreign writers is totally unfounded.
As shown by the examples below, traditionally, this 'Govi caste' was the 'lowest of the lowest' in the Raja, Bamunu, Velenda and Govi four fold Sri Lankan social structure. The Govi caste was the traditional peasantry. They were the food production workers of landlords. They produced rice, vegetables, fruits, fish, dairy products, grains and pulses. These peasants were treated as chattels and as such they were bought, sold, gifted and transferred from one landlord to another.
The Dutch and British period Mudaliyar family of De Sarams appear to be the creators of the "Govigama caste' identity - a new identity for the 'new - colonial Mudaliyar' class of the 19th century. These Mudaliyar familes used this Govigama identity to convince the colonial masters that their families were the leaders of the masses. However the De Sarams had no connections nor social interactions with any peasants. The Colombo based De Saram family intermarried with the Illangakoone family from the south (as all other 'koon' families prior to this period were Karavas from 'Koon Karava' clans, this Illangakoon family too would definitely have been Karava at that time. Also see the Samarakoon family in 20th century Impressions with de Fonseka ancestors) and created an exclusive 'Govigama' identity and a closely knit Mudaliyar clan including the Dias Bandaranaikes during the British period. They presented themselves as the local aristocracy to successive batches of young and inexperienced British civil servants who came to the country. Another example of a family embracing the new Govigama identity is the Samarakkodi family with Karava de Fonseka ancestors –This family eventually intermarried vigorously with the Dias Bandaranaike family.
Even after over a century after the fall of the coastal kingdoms and European colonisation, the highest rank of the Govi caste had been that of a 'Rala' (Queyroz pg 94) This probably referred to the elders of small village who were called Gamaralas. There were definitely no Mudalis or Koralas of Govi extraction up to that time.
The De Sarams appear to have derived their Govigama brand from the Kandyan monks who staged a 'Govi only' coup within the Kandyan sangha in 1764. These abbots were clearly from ordinary families and not from the Kshatriya ruling class (nor from the class of 'British Radalas' as that class had not yet been created) but in view of the religious power that monks commanded over the villagers, they appear to have wanted a distinct identity to be exclusive and to rise above other peasants (ie. other service castes such as the Vahumpura and Bathgama who also cultivated rice whilst pursuing their caste occupations). The desire to retain temple lands within their families would have undoubtedly been a catalyst.
The De Sarams helped these Kandyan 'Govi only' Siyam Nikaya to establish itself in the British owned coastal region of Sri Lanka. At the turn of the century, Mudaliyar Don David De Saram had organised an unprecedented Buddhist ceremony lasting for a week on a flotilla on the Nilwala river in Matara and given the Govigama Nikaya his full official patronage and used it to further the Govigama identity of his extended family group.
Preceding these developments in the south of the island, Arumuga Navalar (1822 -1879) a Tamil peasant was tirelessly working to elevate the status of the Vellalar caste in Jaffna. Navalar banished the Karava goddess Kannaki Amman (Pattini) from temples in the North by claiming that she was a heretical Jain goddess; on the pretext of going back to tradition, he popularized officiating by Brahmin priests thereby ousting Karava priests who previously officiated at Jaffna temples; he obtained the right for Vellalars to wear the holy thread so they could pretend to be equal to the twice born Kshatriyas and Brahmins; he collaborated with Christian missionaries to obtain western education for Vellalas; he started schools for Vellalar caste students and admitted a few poor Brahmins and Chetties with them thereby too effectively raising the status of the Vellalars in the ritual hierarchy.
The rise of the Vellalars appears to have preceded the creation of a respectable Govigama identity by a few decades. As such we see many southern families of unknown ancestry describing themselves as Sinhala Vellalas in Arnold Wright’s 20th century Impressions of Ceylon of 1902.
However the following Tamil sayings show that old timers were well aware of how the Vellalar identity was created by ambitious aspirants from many castes: "kallar, maravar, agamudaiyar mella mella vanthu vellalar ahi, mudaliar sonnar"; "kaLLar, maRavar, agamudaiyaar mella mella veLLaLar aanaar."; “Kallarum, maravarum mella mella maruvi vellalar ayinaare!”; “Kalarum maravarum agamuditarum mella mella koodi vellalar aayinere"
Until aspiring politicians of the 20th century merged the wide spread 'Govi caste' with the British period created, elitist 'Govigama' identity of the De Saram family, the 'Govi caste' masses had no inter community networks, regional or local leaders or any common traditions. The addition of the word 'Gama' to create a separate caste and distinguish itself from the 'Bathgama' rice cultivators seems to have occurred during the late 18th century. There are no references to a 'Govigama' caste prior to that. The new rich of unknown ancestry call themselves either 'Govi wanse' or 'Sinhala Vellala', in the monograph 20th Century Impressions published in early 1900. The choice of adding the suffix ‘gama’ to the word Govi, appears to be in emulation of the Salagama caste of the highly respected Rajapakse Mudaliyars of the recently ended Dutch period.
The novel 'Govigama caste' of the De Sarams was meant to be strictly limited and for the exclusive use of the extended De Saram family network of Mudaliyars. Some British officials appear to have actively encouraged the creation of this 'artificial' aristocracy. The peasant masses were classified as "Bathgama caste" and those who rose up in the british colonial social structure moved into the Govigama social identity.
By the end of the British period, the ranks of this Mudaliyar's 'Govigama caste' had been swelled by families of the multitude of minor official and honourary appointees of the British, petty traders who had succeeded in the cities, recent Indian migrants and other city folk with anonymous origins. In present times too the ranks of the Govigama caste are swelled by people from disadvantaged castes, those of unknown provenance and sinhalizing Tamils. Migration to urban centres with anonymity and subsequent absorption into the Govigama caste is most prevalent in urban centers and city slums. Hence the concentration of more Govigamas in and around urban centres rather than in the villages. The majority of the cultivators in un-urbanised villages still mostly call themselves Wahumpura or Bathgama caste
A perusal of 'name change' legal notices in Sinhalese news papers shows the popularity of this wide spread practice of becoming Govigamas. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of families with unknown pedigrees have, over the last 100 years or so, come into the Govigama fold by taking on native surnames that originated in the British era..
For example page 2 of the Janatha newspaper of 19/01/1994 has the following 8 notices of entire families changing their names: Milla- Radage of Gampaha to Millawage, Vahumpura Hakuruge of Colombo to Wijesinghege, Mutugal Pedige of Gampaha to Rajapaksa Pathiranalage, Heva Pedi Gedera to Ratnayaka Mudiyanselage, Sittachari Nekethge of Kurunegala to Samarasinghe Mudiyanselage, Kirage, Pinage and Ganithage of Anuradhapura to Rangadi Pathiranalage, Alagiya Hakuru from Galle to Hettiarachchige, Ran Hawadiyalage and Ran Hamilage of Alawwa to Wijesinghe Ratnayaka Mudiyanselage.
This similar to how castes such as kallar, maravar, agamudaiyar gradually became Vellalars. "kallar, maravar, agamudaiyar mella mella vanthu vellalar aayinere"
During the British period and even now, to give the 'Govigama caste' more acceptability, the Tamil Vellalas and the Kandyan Radalas are included by interested parties in their definition of 'Govigama' . Vellalars (see below for their strategy) and Radalas are two other social groups that socially elevated themselves during the British period by creating elite identities.
The few families that controlled Sri Lanka ’s post-independence politics claimed to be Buddhist as well as Govigama (Govi Buddhist) to be acceptable to the mass voter base. However it is said that they were neither Govi nor Buddhist but were of mixed origin and Anglican Christians.
The traditional occupation of the Govi caste was primarily agriculture, but in addition to cultivating rice they also grew vegetables and fruits, caught fish, produced dairy food and sourced feed for livestock. They were the food producing serfs of the Sri Lankan feudal system. Although released from serfdom with the abolition of the traditional tenurial system by the Dutch rulers and the introduction of the European style private land holding system , most members of the Govi community are still peasants in villages throughout Sri Lanka
The sub-continent’s Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaisya, Sudra (Warriors, Priests, Traders and workers) four fold caste model was practiced in Sri Lanka as:
Therefore the Govi caste was at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in traditional Sri Lankan society. Historic literature and inscriptional evidence from the feudal period show that the above Raja, Bamunu, Velenda and Govi hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period until the collapse of Sri Lankan kingdoms and its social structure under the onslaught of European colonialism.
Ancient texts such as the 'Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya' and 'Yogaratnakaraya' list the four caste categories as Raja, Bamunu, Velanda & Govi in descending order, where the Govi caste is the lowest. The Pujavaliya also says that Buddhas will never be born in the Govi caste as it is a low caste. And it is interesting to note that although there are 550 Jatakas narrating the former births of the Buddha-to-be. In some the Buddha-to-be was even born as various animals. However he has never been born as a cultivator in any of the stories. That may suggest that even a Buddha-to-be was never born in the Govi caste although ironically the Buddhist Siyam Nikaya has become a Govigama only sect in modern times. The 10th century Dampiyaatuvagetapadaya and the 12th century Darmapradeepikava go even further and state that the Govi caste is a 'Neecha' (despised)caste. (Dampiyaatuvagetapadaya 217, Darmapradeepikava 190) . An 11th century lithic inscription of King Vijayabahu I at the summit of Adam's Peak (Samantakuta) says that he caused a higher terrace for the upper castes to worship and a lower terrace further down for these low castes. It shows the social disparity and the low social status of the Govi caste.
Other ancient texts such as the Gavaratnakaraya and Sarpothpaththiya (Sarpavedakama vi, 5 & 123) respectively classify even Sri Lankan cattle and snakes into the same four caste categories as Raja, Bamunu, Velanda & Govi, where again Govi is the lowest form. Ballads sung to-date at ancient Gammmaduva rituals also refer to the above four castes categories in the same sequence and also describes the limits and privileges of each. The domestic utensils of the Raja, Banunu and Velenda categories are specified in it as made of gold (ran kothale); silver and copper respectively and earthenware (maeti kothale) for the Govi caste which is last in the hierarchy (Gammaduwa 13).
Although modern Govigama writers have attempted to dismiss the above four-fold division as a mere classical division unconnected with realities, the consistent repetition of the same caste hierarchy from ancient times to the 18th century British / Kandyan period Kadayimpoth - Boundary books (Abhayawardena 163 to 168), indicates the continuation of this social position right up to the end of Sri Lanka’s monarchy.
A 15th century literary composition, the Ummagga Jataka uses the term Govi in forms such as embala goviya (Hey you ! cultivator) and goviya puth (son of a cultivator) throughout the text as an insult. It shows a continuation of such usage coming from the past. The 14th century Illisa Jataka uses the expression 'embala dushta goviya' as a pejorative. It was a degrading occupation in traditional Sri Lankan society. Being born a cultivator had traditionally been considered a misfortune and Sloka 2201 of the astrology text Mánasagari says that it's a debilitated moon in the horoscope that destines a man to be a cultivator.
The Govis are referred to in ancient Sri Lankan rock inscriptions as Kudin (EZ V.293, EZ I.246, 53 fn 7 etc.) and Väriyan (EZ III.139, 141 etc. ), and in ancient Sri Lankan literature they are referred to as Bälayan, Galayan, Valayan (Govis who fished in fields, streams and lakes), Gonvayan and Gatara (Abhayawardena 167 & 217. Jayathilake.91).
The use of such terms to describe Govi shows that they were serfs and agricultural slaves in Sri Lanka’s history. They were considered chattels attached to the land and were bought, sold and transferred as such (EZ II.140 & 142. Codrington.34). The low esteem in which the goviyas were held is illustrated by other rock inscriptions such as the 10th century Kataragama pillar inscription (EZ III.223), 14th century Niyamgampaya rock inscription (Sahithyaya 1972.130) and 15th century Saman Devala Sannasa (Codrington.27) which groups the Govis together with buffaloes and pack bulls. In the early period they were grouped together with Gavin, Geri meemun Dasun or Gel, Meevun, Veriyan etc. In later periods they were grouped together with Govin Enderan Vahal Sarak, Gam Kumburu Minisa Satha or Gava Mahira Parivara janadeen .
Medieval history records a few instances where the above Raja, Bamunu, Velenda, Govi four-fold caste division was mixed up by foreign invaders to cause confusion and destabilise the established social order. (Kuladaruvan sivasi kara in the Pujavaliya meaning High castes were made cultivators Pjv 122 and Kudi kota in the Rajavaliya meaning made low caste Rjv 231) It goes on to say that subsequent kings and queens quickly restored the social order by clearly re-segregating the four caste groups. There are also recorded instances of nobles being degraded to the status of cultivators by foreign invaders and also by local rulers, for falling into disfavor with the ruler. Although degrading a high caste individual to the Govi caste was possible, restoring such an individual back to nobility was not possible.
The North Gate rock inscription in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa depicts the Govi Kula in its comparative rhetoric as the lowest extreme of society and goes on to say that anyone from such a low caste should never aspire to any high office (EZ II.164). The inscription says " ..raise ye to kingship a member of the Kshatriya families, not the other castes.........as much as the crow envies the swan's gait, the mule envies the Sindhu stallion, the earth worm envies the king cobra, the firefly the sun, the snipe the elephant, the jackal envies the lion,the Govi caste must never wish to ape Kings. No matter how powerful they may become, never look to Govi caste people as rulers......"
Right: The North gate inscription of king Nissankamalla from the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in Sri lanka. ( and a close up below) It equates the Govi caste with jackals, hyenas and crows and says that they should never aspire to any high office. The 'Gal Potha' inscription too has similar references. After the caste controversy of the 19th century many expressed serious concern about the safety of this inscription. It is now planted outdoors, open to the elements and vandals. As can be seen in the photo the exposed inscription is decaying fast under tropical weather. Two more inscriptions with identical texts were also unearthed during the British period, at two other cardinal entrances to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. But the whereabouts of these two inscriptions are now not known.
Right: A close-up of the North gate inscription illustrated above
The gigantic 'Gal Potha inscription too echoes the same message. The fact that these inscriptions were allowed to stand from the 12th century and were not destroyed, obliterated or broken and used as building material by any of the subsequent kings implies that they too confirmed these words.
Above: The gigantic Gal Potha Inscription in Polonnaruwa which also has references that confirm that the Govi Caste was lowest point of the traditional social hierarchy.
Modern Govigama historians (and non-historians) have attempted to give a farfetched theory about these inscriptions in books published with public funding granted by recent Govigama governments. According to these 'historians' (who wrote about their own caste) the references to the Govi caste are in these inscriptions only because the Govi caste was an equal contender to the throne ! However as shown by the historical references given in the text on the left there is absolutely no historical evidence to support such a fanciful assertion. All the historical evidence proves that the Govi caste was the lowest level of traditional Sri Lankan society. The references in the above inscriptions too are used in that context - to illustrate the highest and lowest extremes - not as propaganda against a contender as done under modern democratic systems.
The references in traditional sources is to this 'Govi' category and not to the 'Govigama caste' which was a (initially limited by definition) social identity created during the British period.
Interestinly, one or two modern Govigama writers have attempted to dismiss these inscriptions (in books published by the Sri Lankan government) as words of a jealous king. However, if these writers are right and king Nissankamalla was going against accepted social norms, then one would expect the very next king to either destroy or at least remove these inscriptions from their prominent positions at the entrances to the royal city of Polonnaruwa. But such a thing has not happened.
According to the farfetched theory of these modern Govigama historians writing about their own cast, the Govi caste is referred to in these inscriptions only because the Govi caste was an equal contender to the throne ! However as shown by the continuous historical references given above, there is absolutely no historical evidence to support such a fanciful assertion. All the historical evidence proves that the Govi caste was the lowest level of traditional Sri Lankan society. The references in the above inscriptions too are used in that context - to illustrate the highest and lowest extremes - not as propaganda against a contender as done under modern democratic systems.
The references in such traditional sources is to this 'Govi' category and not to the 'Govigama caste' which was a social identity created during the British period. (see text for creation of the Govigama social identity)
Moreover, the identical description of the low status of the Govi caste is echoed even in medieval literary works such as the 13th century Dambadeni Asna (Jayathilake edition p.135) and the 15th century Parevi Sandésa (Kumaratunga edition verse 188) which are books written centuries after the demise of king Nissankamalla.
The relevant verses in the Parevi Sandesa are:
Ado Kado veni do himi sari kala (the firefly contrasted to the Sun) verse 185;
Kiva Isuruge abiyasa pe ranga isili (A Pretha, hungry ghost contrasted to Lord Isvara) verse 187;
Tepalana Bambuta Govi kiveda maturu kula (Brahma contrasted to Govi) verse 188.
The Purana Namavaliya written by prince Nallurutun of the Kotte royal family says: Suduru sudu me nam danu Govin hata. (meaning: the Govis are sudras) This confirms that in the Kotte kingdom too the Govis were the lowest caste group and called Sudras the equivalent lowest caste in the Indian caste hierarchy. It is also interesting to note that some editions of the Purana Namavaliya published after 1958 have distorted the verse as : Suduru Sudu me nam danu Sudurunta thereby making the verse meaningless in an attempt to suppress evidence that the Govi were the Sudras and were indeed called Sudras.
Traditionally the Govi caste had worked the fields for all castes without distinction and there is evidence even from the recent Kandyan period that they cultivated for castes such as the Wahumpura and the Bathgama caste (Sri Lankáve Ithihásaya III. 287, JRASCB XXXVI No.100.156.etc.) The Govi caste continued to work the fields for all castes without distinction until the Paddy Lands Act was introduced in 1958.
An 18th century etching of Sri Lankan cultivators from An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon by Robert Knox(1641-1720)
The subservient manner in which cultivators approached and interacted even with blacksmiths (the lowest rung of the Navandanna caste) is described by Robert Knox (1641-1720) in his An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. Knox’s description illustrates the relative ritually low positions of the Govi caste even as recently as the Kandyan period.
Valentyn who wrote on the social structure of the coastal region of the early 1700s (which was after over 2 centuries of European rule) notes that the Raja, Bamunu, Velenda and Govi four fold classification was still very much alive at that time.(Valentyn 76 to 80)
The following extract too, from the 'Henerath Bandaravaliya' written in the Kandyan period, confirms that the Sudra staus of cultivators hadn't altered at all even as late as the Kandyan period : " Alakeshvara katuva aa pirisa atara Govi sudayan gen hasiya hetta ata denekun ….". (meaning; there were 678 Govi Sudra serfs among those brought by Alakesvara) This also confirms that Alakeshvara brought agricultural slaves from India and settled them in southern Sri Lanka as recently as the Kotte period. The suburb Battaramulla (Gattara-mulla) bordering Alakeshvara's Kote kingdom derives its name from these agricultural serf settlements.
Contrary to modern Govi Supremacy propaganda that says cultivators were held in high esteem by ancient Sri Lankans. historical evidence clearly shows that they were looked down upon right upto the end of the Kandyan kingdom. The last king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe had sent ineffective soldiers to cultivate rice paddy saying that that was a more suitable occupation for them, (Report of Talagala Unnanse Pieris pg 71 )
However modern Govigama revisionist historians endeavor to say that the Karava, Durava and the Salagama castes are recent migrants, all but the Govi caste are low- castes and that the Govi caste was the only high-caste. They also say that the caste system revolved around the Govigama caste and functioned to serve its needs. (See Govi Supremacy Myth)
The Sri Lankan state sponsored ‘Practical Sinhala Dictionary’, edited by Harischandra Wijetunga (subsequent leader of the Sinhalaye Mahasammatha Bhoomiputra Pakshaya a chauvinistic Sinhala Buddhist political party), and published by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1983 went to the extent of defining 'Govi puth'(son of a cultivator) as ‘ruling prince’ (compare this with the contrasting historical meaning of this term in the Jataka stories given above). The Dictionary also defined all other castes as 'low castes'. These false assertions were challenged in courts and the Human Rights Commission and the publisher (the Sri Lankan state) had to change them.. (SC Appn. 98/82 and Human Rights Commission settlement of 02/12/87)
When the inland reservoirs and tanks that irrigated the rice paddies were full, cultivators fished in them using bait and tackle and nets. When the reservoirs start to dry up during the dry seasons, cultivators caught fish using baskets made of sticks as shown in the illustration here from Robert Knox. This practice had continued for centuries and ancient inscriptions refer to the fishing tax levied on cultivators as ‘matera maji baka’.
An 18th century etching of cultivators fishing in a reservoir during the dry season, from An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon by Robert Knox(1641-1720)
The Govis who fished full time were known as Kevul and indeed there still are many Kevul Gam (Fisher villages) scattered throughout the interior of Sri Lanka. Many of these Kevul Gam and Kevul gederas have now become Kivul gam and Kivule Gedaras thus obscuring their fishing origins.
It is interesting to note that not a single Kevul Gama is to be found around the coast where several castes have taken to fishing for survival after their traditional caste occupations were lost due to colonial occupation. The modern Sinhala name for fishermen, Dheevara is from the Tamil word Theevar which meant people from the islands.
In later periods Govis who fished in fields, streams and lakes had also been called Valayan. Such references are found in old Sri Lankan literature. Raghavan equates Valayan to Valayar who fished with nets. (Raghavan pg 147).
All these show that the Govis were the traditional producers of all food including rice, vegetables, fruits, dairy products and fish. Traditionally there wasn't a separate Fishing Caste in Sri Lanka. The attempt to label the Karavas as the Fishing Caste originates in the 19th century British period. Many Govigama writers attempt to keep this false notion alive. Several ignorant foreign writers have repeated such Govigama writers without independently researching the subject. These writers are now quoted by some as evidence for the Fisher label's validity.
The Niti Nighanduva was published in 1880 by Britis created elite to promote the Govi supremacy myth. It lists the following as sub-castes of the Govigama:
Higher levels of the Goviya caste
The inferior classes of the Goviya caste:
(Niti Nighanduva 6)
Pamunu or Tenant farmers of rice paddy in Sri Lanka’s past. They are sometimes referred to as a sub-caste of the Govigama. Ancient rock inscriptions of Sri Lanka and historical literature refer to this community as Pamunu Parapuruin contexts such as “........vahal, sarak, pamunu parapuru......” which translates into English as "slaves, oxen and heritable agricultural labour" (Epigraphia Zeylanica III.87,105,126& 132)
Based on their region of domicile these communities have now mostly merged into the Bathgama and Govigama castes. The word Pamunu still survives in Sri Lankan family and place names such as Pamunugama, Pamunuvita, Pamunuva etc. However, in the 20th century many of these have been changed to Bamunu, to convey a pseudo association with Brahmins.
The traditional caste of Herdsmen from Sri Lanka’s’s feudal past. They were a part of the feudal land tenure system and a sub-caste of the Govigama caste. Mostly found in the highlands and also the maritime provinces but now gradually merging into the monolithic Govigama caste.
Panna is a minority community of grass cutters connected to the above Patti caste - the caste of Herdsmen. The Panna caste has since been absorbed into larger communities and is virtually non-existent now. They too were a part of the feudal land tenurial system of Sri Lanka's past.
The Porowakara were a minority community of wood cutters and a part of the feudal land tenure system of Sri Lanka but have now got absorbed into larger communities. This community was classed as a sub-caste of the Govigama during the British period.
However most of these sub-groups have since merged, and together with anonymous migrants from other castes who join its rank in the cities, a Mega-Govi caste has since formed.
By the 19th century, large numbers of traditional chiefs had been killed in successive battles with Portuguese, Dutch and British over 400 years of colonialism and the status of the remaining traditional chiefs had been reduced to that of Colonial servants. The Dutch in the 18th century and the British in the 19th century had actively sought ways to curb the power and influence of the native chiefs and headmen.
During the 19th century, the Dutch and British period Mudaliyar family of De Sarams created a novel 'Govigama caste' elite identity. They used this identity to persuade the colonials that their De Saram family was the leader of the masses. However the De Sarams had no connections nor social interactions with the peasant masses. The Colombo based De Saram family intermarried with the Illangakoone family from the south and created an exclusive 'Govigama' identity and a closely knit Mudaliyar clan during the British period. They presented themselves as the local aristocracy to successive batches of young and inexperienced British civil servants who came to the country . (See introduction at the top of the page for details)
Right: The 4th Maha Mudliyar of British Ceylon, Christofel de Saram (assumed name Wanigasekera Ekanayake) and his son Johannes Hendrick.
Johannes was one of two de Sarams sent to England for education at the expense of the British government. He sailed to England as a 14 year old boy, on 15/03/1811, with the retiring Governor of Ceylon Maitland.
The contradictions caused by their attempt to distort history and elevate the Govi caste is quite apparent during colonial period. F. A. Hayley (Hayley 1923, 148) notes that According to Davy who wrote in 1821 the Govi caste belonged to he lowest Sudra category and that according to the later publications Niti Nighanduwa, the three highest categories (Raja, Bamunu and Velenda) never existed and had always merged into the Govi caste!
The late British period saw the proliferation of native headmen appointments and a Mudaliyar class resembling English country squires, complete with large land grants - rewards given by the British for loyal service, residences of unprecedented scale (Referred to by the Tamil word Walauu or Walvoo) and British granted native titles. (Mudaliyar is a South Indian and Tamil name for ‘first’ and a person endowed with wealth.) Particularly in the south, many large residences of departing Dutch officials had been appropriated by these Mudaliyar families during the transition from Dutch to British rule.
The British Governor Gordon (1883 – 1890) and his predecessors effectively used divide and rule policies and created caste animosity among the native elite and finally confined all high native appointments only to the Govigama caste in 1897. The British Government Agent Layard was advocating this as an effective policy for easy governance. Mahamudliar Louis De Saram’s family of Dutch and Malay ancestry had Sinhalised itself during the Dutch period. By the late 19th century they had created an exclusive 'Govigama' identity for their network of Mudaliyar relatives. .
As Kumari Jayawardena notes, the Mudaliyars, were merely "low-country" Goyigama families who rose to prominence under colonial rule, by loyal service to colonial masters. Among them were the De Saram family that had married Burghers, and later through other marriage alliances, created a network embracing the Obeysekere, Dias-Bandaranaike, Ilangakoon, de Alwis, de Livera, Pieris and Siriwardena families. This “Govigama” Anglican Christian network expanded further with the preponderance of native headmen as Mudaliyars, Korales and Vidanes from the Buddhist Govigama section of the community.
The British even appointed non Vanniyars to the positions of Maha Vanniya and other Vanni positions. Until then the rulers of the Vanni were from the Karava Varnakula clan(localised as Vanni kula) and as such the region was called Vanni. Ralapanave Punchirala was the first outsider to be so appointed. His appointment in 1849 to the Nuwaragam Palatha was followed by other outsider appointments to Vanni positions; Ratwatte Loku Banda in 1878 and Ratwatte Dingiri Banda in 1892. They were from the class of ‘New Radalas’ created by 19th century British administrators in the Kandyan provinces. They were not from the vanni region. They were from the far away Sabaragamuwa province near Colombo. (See British Radalas) .
The powerful Mudaliyar class thus created by the British colonials, attempted to keep all other Sri Lankan communities out of colonial appointments. They continued to keep the traditional rice cultivators at the very bottom of the social structure and labeled them as the Bathgama caste to differentiate the cultivator masses from the newly created Govigama cultivator identity of this mixed caste/race group. They also used all possible means to economically and socially marginalise and subjugate all other communities. The oppression by the Mudaliars and connected headmen extended to demanding subservience, service, appropriation of cultivation rights and even restrictions on the type of personal names that could be used by other communities and castes.
Several lower level headmen in the Mudaliyar system used their positions to exploit opportunities in the local liquor trade, formed partnerships and became quite wealthy during this period. Some of the liquor dealers to amass large fortunes during this period were Wevage Arnolis Dep (whose daughter Helena married timber trader Don Philip Wijewardene the ancestor of J. R. Jayawardene and Ranil Wickremasinge) and Don Spater Senanayake the Father of D. S. Senanayake.
The Mudaliyar class that had risen to prominence in the previous century and created this 'Govigama' identity for themselves, were disdainful of this new rich class who had amassed wealth though arrack renting and were now also claiming to be Govigamas. This new rich group was striving very hard to gain power and status. Sir Christoffel Obeyesekere the prominent member from the 'Govigama' Mudaliyar class referred to these new rich D. S. Senanayake, his two brothers F.R and D.C and others as “a few who are nobodies, but who hope to make somebodies of themselves by disgraceful tactics”. It’s this outburst by Sir Christoffel that gives Kumari Jayawardena the title for her insightful book on this period, ‘Nobodies to Somebodies - The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka”. Kumari Jayawardena notices the irony in this outburst because the familes of these Mudaliyar 'somebodies' were, not too long ago, relative 'nobodies' themselves. Before the Govigama caste finally consolidated itself the 1st families to call themselves 'Govigama' were referred to as '1st class Govigama' to emphasizes their difference.
In the early 1900s Village businessmen of diverse origins started to tag onto the Govigama identity. The founder of Harischandra Mills Matara, Canda uda Acharige Odiris de Silva (after changing his ge name to Canda uda Arachchige) recruited employees only from the Govigama caste and publicized his policy with a public sign at his mills.
Around this period, successful Govi caste individuals built Ambalamas (traditional rest houses) at their own costs and introduced a novel concept of having higher seats in them for the Govi caste. The ambalamas at Naranwala and Getakulapadura are two such examples (Dassanayaka 65 & 67)
The rise of the above mentioned, so called 'Govigama caste' politicians, the wealth amassed by these families in recent years, the island wide propaganda campaigns by these individuals and the success of migratory petty traders in regional towns consolidated the peasants throughout the country as one Govigama caste. Caste consciousness of the peasant masses developed as they were told by the political leaders in Colombo that they and the peasant masses were one and the same with the winning tag line that they were the highest caste.
As the consolidation of the Govi caste gathered momentum, individuals from many castes – mostly anonymous migrants in urban centers - joined its ranks. It was near impossible for outsiders to similarly enter castes with strong cultural and kin networks such as the Karava, Salagama, Durava, Navandanne etc without detection by their members. These castes also do not experience defections. Govigama became the default caste open to all who wished to get absorbed into this rising caste. And the political Govigama families of the period (and even their descendants in later times) exploited the voter base of the Govigama masses without sharing power with them.
Two distinct and unconnected communities, the Govi and the Tamil Vellala, two groups that had risen in status during the late 19th century British period, allied together during the early 20th century and pushed out contenders from Karava and other communities from the political arena. Twentieth century strategic political marriages such as low country Govigam, nouveau riche D. S. Senanayake’s marriage in 1910 to Kandyan, Anglican Mollie Dunuwila,his brother D.C.'s marriage to Mollie Dunuwila's sister, newspaper magnate D. R. Wijewardena’s marriage in 1916 to a Meedeniya and finally 42 year old S. W. R. D. Bandaranayake’s marriage in 1940 to 24 year old Sirimávo Ratwatte, appear to have linked the Govigama caste with the 'New Radala' class created by the British, and boosted the status of the Govi caste. These marriages also created the common political power block that has ruled the country since independence from the British in 1948. The Radalas however are still relatively endogamous and even as at date would only rarely marry an average Govigama in an arranged marriage. Nevertheless some writers now refer to the Radala as the upper crust of the Govigama caste. With the rise of the Govi caste in the 20th century, Govi caste history has been rewritten to bolster and complement the now elevated status of the caste. The caste that previously belonged to the land and was gifted, bought and sold with it is now described as the traditional land holding class.
The above developments in the elite circles were of no benefit to the peasant Govi masses who were oppressed even further by the Govigama Mudaliyars. Benefits began to gradually arrive for the Govi peasants with the abolition of the traditional Rarajakariya system ( Sri Lanka’s Tennurial system of land holding). The post-independence Paddy Lands Act of 1958 was another landmark. It empowered Tenant farmers of paddy lands and protected them from eviction. The Landlords were stripped of their power overnight.
The introduction of democracy in the early 20th century transferred political power to the affiliated Senanayake, Wijewardene, Kotelawala, Jayewardene and Dias Bandaranaike (Although not commonly known D. S. Senanayake’s sister Maria Frances was married to F.H.Dias Bandaranaike) families in the Southern part of the country and to interconnected Vellala families in the north. They were all from the Anglicized minority of Sri Lanka and they claimed that they were from the numerous cultivator caste.
Mudaliyar Don Spater Senanayake ( son of Don Bartholomew who had taken the name Senanayake), with son-in-law F.H. Dias-Bandaranaike, sons Don Stephen Senanayake, Don Charles and Fredrick Richard, daughter Maria Frances and wife Dona Catherina Elizabeth Perera. They were Anglican Christians
Despite their Anglican Christian background, these families were respectively accepted by the Sinhala Buddhist mass vote-base and the Tamil voters as their communal democratic leaders and representatives. Since the grant of independence by the British in 1948, Sri Lanka’s political power has rarely slipped away from this closely connected group and even so only for short periods. However, it has always been the Catholic Church and not the Anglican denomination that has been at the receiving end of the religious antipathy of the Sinhala masses. Similarly the Sinhala Buddhists of Sri Lanka are the target of Tamil hostility for the atrocities perpetrated on them by this Anglican minority.
D. S. Senanayake's Govigama Cabinet.
Dudley, JR and DS - Three Govigama Heads of State who succeeded each other. They left no room for other castes.
Although Sri Lanka is considered to be a democracy, the two main political parties have operated throughout as family organizations. Key decisions within the parties are taken by an inner core and democratic processes do not exist within the two parties to elect its leaders. Voting by a show of hands is encouraged, secret ballots are shunned and dissidents within the two parties are regularly disciplined and victimized. For the most part, politics in post-independence Sri Lanka has been an alternating rule between the Anglicized Colombo elite Senanyake-Wickremasinhe clan and the Bandarnaike-Ratwatte clan, all descendants of elite families created by the British in the 19th century. The Anglicized Vellalas were generally happy collaborators
Youth opposing this farce have been regularly eliminated since the 1970’s through Summary executions by the Sri Lankan state.
Non –Govigama representation in Parliament has steadily declined since independence and representation of non-Govigama castes are well below their population percentages. Caste representation in the Cabinet has always been limited to a few very visible, but unconcerned and disconnected members from a few leading castes. However none of these representatives are known to have ever spoken on behalf of their respective communities or done anything constructive for the progress of these communities.
The Buddhist Siam Nikaya of Sri Lanka now grants Higher ordination only to the Radala and Govigama castes. This Caste discrimination practiced by the Siyam Nikaya has continuously received the full support and patronage of the Govigama dominated Sri Lankan State and it’s Ministers and Ministries of Buddha Sasana, Cultural Affairs and others.
The principal places of Buddhist worship in Sri Lanka including the Temple of the Tooth Relic, Adam’s Peak, Kelaniya and over 6,000 other temples are now under the administration of the Siyam Nikaya and brings with it much religious power to the Govi caste and vast personal revenues to Govigama priests.
Restricting higher ordination only to the Govigama caste by the Siyam Nikaya is attributed to the year 1764, just over a decade after the establishment of this sect and re-establishment of Upasampada in Sri Lanka by reverend Upali of Siam. Mandarampura Puvata, a contemporary text from the period, narrates the above radical changes to the monastic order and shows that it was not a unanimous decision by the body of the sangha. It says that thirty two ‘senior’ members of the Sangha who opposed this change were banished to Jaffna by the leaders of the reform.
The Buddha has condemned caste discrimination and preached that creating divisions within the Sangha is a heinous crime. However, the Siyam Nikaya claims to hold a purported royal decree from a Hindu King above the teachings of the Buddha. And as it receives full government patronage it does not appear to have any intention to change it's discrimination on caste. The Siyam Nikaya's un-buddhistic caste discrimination continues to plagues Sri Lankan Buddhism, and as a result the Sri Lankan Buddhist Sangha remains divided on caste lines.
Watch youtube video of Rev. Dodampahala Rahula speaking about the need to end caste discrimination in the Siyam Nikaya, in the presence of Rev. Maduluwave Sobhita, a Siyam Nikaya chief monk. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJhX9XEZA8U
The Govi Supremacy Myth
The ‘Govi Supremacy Myth’ dates from the 19th century and it states that the Govi caste is the highest caste; all other Sri Lankan castes are low castes, and that the caste system revolved around the Govi caste.(Niti Nighanduva )
Although the Govi and the Tamil Vellala were two distinct and unconnected communities in Sri Lanka’s history, politically ambitious individuals from both communities attempted to equate and link the two in the 19th century. As such the ‘Govi Supremacy Myth’ and the ‘Vellala Supremacy Myth’ are inextricably dependent on each other for their sustenance. (See Govi Supremacy Myth)
Although the 19th century creators of the Govigama identity, the de Saram family, eschewed any close affiliation to the peasants, families such as the Senanayakes who forcibly acquired the Govigama identity tried hard to make a show of peasant roots which they claimed to possess. As such the Senanayakes and the Wijewardenes were referred to by Sir Christoffel Obeysekera ( a descendant of Mudaliyar De Saram) as “a few who are nobodies, but who hope to make somebodies of themselves by disgraceful tactics” . D. S. Senanayake, Dudley & J. R. Jayewardene were all very keen to exploit the peasant voter base by stepping into the mud for a few minutes annually for a ploughing ceremony. They coined a new term - Vap magula - for this ceremony.. Above photo is of President Mahinda Rajapakse following suit in July 2009.
These pseudo Vap Magul traditions are promoted in state media as royal traditions. They say that former kings and even the Buddha’s Father ploughed fields. That's a historical impossibility as the king and a ploughman were the two extreme ends of the social structure. Of course royal blessings were always there for cultivation because food was a basic necessity. And kings ensured that the irrigation infrastructure and the tax system to collect the harvest was in place . But cultivation was always the job of agricultural serfs who were at the bottom of the caste system. Kings never stepped into the mud.
Many modern Sri Lankan books, possibly with the intention of promoting the Govi supremacy myth , say that ancient Sri Lankan kings ploughed fields. Such statements cannot be supported by any historical records and as you can see from the historically low status of agriculture in Sri Lankan society. As illustrated by the references in the left column, kings ploughing fields is unthinkable. These Govigama propaganda books also say that the Buddha’s Father, king Suddhodana ploughed fields. This misinterpretation has been created from the Maha Saccaka Sutta. There is no other reference anywhere else in the Buddhist canon to this childhood event . Read the Maha Saccaka Sutta and see for yourself whether it refers to a ploughing ceremony (tip - to find the relevant passage search for ‘Rose apple tree’ in the text)
Thailand from where the Siyam Nikaya came, now has a royal ploughing ceremony but the antiquity of this ceremony is not known. Presently it is organised and managed by the Thai ministry of agriculture. It is a ceremony that takes place near the Thai king's palace with sacred bulls ploughing the king's field with Brahmins and four rice seedling scattering virgins following the bulls. The king and the royal family are only distant observers and they never go anywhere near the mud. However Sri Lankan heads of state seem to love wallowing in mud.
Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Sri Lanka