CASTE CONFLICTS AND DISCOURSES DURING THE KANDYAN KINGDOM-Gananath Obeyesekere
“We know that loyalty of the Väddas to the king continued until the 1817-1818 rebellion against the British under their chief Kivulegedera Mohottala of Valapane. Eventually this resulted in the decimation of the Vädda communities by the British forces when they reestablished their control. The sad relics of this past is reflected in the loss of population and the general malaise of the Väddas driven to seek refuge in forests and caves and recorded by later ethnographers, unfortunately as being their normal condition. We are indebted to Paul E Pieris for a detailed discussion of the Vädda role in the rebellion, but little or no reference to their decimation during the British conquest of the Kandyan provinces is available in orthodox histories written by later colonial writers such as the Seligmanns in 1911 as well as Sri Lankan scholars………………A servant caste of the Malvatta monastery known as Malvatte Duraya (“servant belonging to the monastery”) was found skinning a buffalo and placing it near in his bellows (for later practical use). This apparently was a heinous act and was seen by a henaya or washerman who while returning from the palace during that night after cleansing that place informed the king about it. The king appraised of the details interrogated Malvatte Duraya in detail and then gave the following order: “For the offence of keeping the buffalo skin on the bellows and for skinning the buffalo body they (his extended family) were ordered to bury cattle henceforth” and they are to be degraded and known as “geri padda,” geri mas or beef being utterly reprehensible, and padda being a contemptuous term for that particular caste that would normally be addressed and referred to in more respectable terms. There is implicit knowledge underlying the reference here because it is the lowest of the low, the roḍiya or canḍāla who generally had to bury dead animals and this family is in effect de-casted in the most drastic fashion by being identified as someone akin to a canḍāla or actually de-casted as canḍāla.”
Keynote Speech by Gananath Obeyesekere at the conference on caste held at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo on the 19/20th November 2016
ries of the nation to smaller entities: provinces, districts and villages that are described in a variety of texts, many of them still available in palm leaf manuscripts in the Peradeniya library, in the Kandy and Colombo archives, in the Hugh Nevill collection of the British Library and many other lesser known sources in British, US and European collections and among private collectors. Much of my own work in this paper is from texts known as vitti pot, books of events, many of them in palm leaf manuscripts (puskola pot). Within that larger category of vitti pot are what are known as kaḍaim pot or “boundary books” full of description of districts, towns and villages and homes of distinguished persons but, unhappily, remains as a neglected resource to this very day. My own recent work is on Sinhala puskola pot but I assume similar ones are also available in Tamil sources. Among these vitti pot are those that deal with the boundaries of the nation (as for example Sri Lanka dipe kadaim pota) and those of villages and districts such as those in the district of Matale. My plea is this: a different perspective on our history is available when we move from our classical histories formulated in such texts as the Mahavamsa, the various of versions of history in classical Sinhala (for example the Pujavaliya, Saddharmaratnvaliya) to lesser known Sinhala histories. We get a different perspective on history when we shift our focus to nearly forgotten places and study them, as for example Hanguranketa, the vast area of Bintanna-Alutnuvara (the second home of many Kandyan kings) and of course the district of Matale. Matale was a center of resistance in both Kandyan and British times and it is sad that such histories of resistance are mostly forgotten even by the current residents of Matale and many of us scholars. One of the most fascinating sites is Mundukondapola, a well-known fortress is the Kotte period but now forgotten although the place exists to this day. History to be remembered must be recreated in the popular imagination and when that fails it is left for a few us to resurrect the past from the dregs of history.
Let me give one example of the fate of Matale from colonial history. During the regime of Governor Torrington (1847-1850), there was a resistance in Matale against British rule that was brutally suppressed and the country laid waste by British soldiers with rape and murder as the order of the day. Torrington, was an influential British Viscount who was assisted in his destructive campaign by the well-known colonial scholar Emerson Tennent. We know that Torrington was recalled by Westminster but never punished for his crimes. History has turned out to be a peculiar business when we realize that an important area in the city of Colombo is named after Torrington, surely not on the basis of his work as governor but more likely on his aristocratic pedigree. The fashionable places names in Colombo 7 that continue to be named after him must at least be partly related to our own ignorance of the past or maybe because Torrington was a very distinguished of British aristocrat, and that is good enough for the colonial imagination and the post-colonial imagination of our new rulers and the ruling class of Colombo.
Matale became a separate political entity when the first consecrated king of Kandy, Vimaldharmasuriya married the Catholic queen Dona Catherina who bore him two sons and one daughter. When he died in 1604, his kinsman Senarat (1604-1635) also married Dona Catherina from whom she bore a son who later became Rajasinha II, perhaps the greatest of Kandyan kings. Even when these royal princes were minors, Senerat distributed his kingdom to the three heirs around 1621, the large district of Uva to the eldest Kumarasinha, the key kingdom of Kandy to his own biological son Rajasinha and the kingdom of Matale to Vijayapala, the second son of Vimaladharmasuriya. When Kumarasinha died Uva was appropriated by Rajasinha and Vijayapala had to be content with the district of Matale. Vijayapala was an extraordinary able ruler who as king of Matale reorganized the Matale district in his own terms. He recruited a Vädda chief (simply referred to as Bandara Vädda) and with his help enlarged and redrew the political boundaries of Matale sometime between 1635 and 1641 carving out a large area, of mostly forests and incorporated it into the kingdom of Matale, assisted by the Vädda chief. It was in his reign that the first boundary book of Matale written with the assistance of a local chief and the distinguished Vädda aristocrat (Bandara Vädda) mentioned earlier. But not for long because war broke out between the two brothers and Vijayapala had to flee to Goa and became a Catholic convert. The vitti pota I employ deals with Viyayapala’s brief but important reign. I list below the Vädda chiefs in charge of the districts in Matale or in control of them (hirakaragena) or guarding the frontier during the first period of Vijayapala’s reign when he was planning to oust the local Sinhala aristocrats whom he distrusted.
1. Kannila Vädda in control of (hira kara hitiya) at Kanangomuva [Matale South]
2. Herat Banda in control of Nikakotuva [current location unknown]
3. Maha Tampala Vädda at Palapatvala [Matale North]
4. Domba Vädda at Dombavela gama [Matale South].
5. Valli Vädda at Vallivela [location unknown]
6. Mahakavudalla Vädda at Kavudupalalla [Matale South, Asgiriya Pallesiya Pattu]
7. Naiyiran Vädda (some texts Nayida) at Narangamuva [either Matale East or South]
8. Imiya Vädda at Nalanda [well known village, Matale North]
9. Dippitiya Mahagē (a female) controlling an area of nine gavuvas (“leagues”) in length and breadth in the district known as Nagapattalama [location unknown but not to be confused with the identical name in South India]
10. Makara Vädda and Konduruva employed in the watch of the boundary (kadaima). [The reference is to a mountain known as Konduruva in Matale East]
11. Mahakanda Vädda controlling Kandapalla [today’s Kandapalla Korale. Matale North]
12. Hempiti Mahagē, a female, controlling Galevela [the well-known village in Matale North]
13. Baju Mahagē, a female, controlling the Udasiya Pattuva of Udugoda Korale [Hunnasgiriya range]
14. Minimutu Mahagē, female, controlling the Pallesiya Pattuva of the same district [a vast area of 56 villages in Matale East]
15. Devakirti Mahagē, also a female, controlling Melpitiya, [Matale North two miles from Nalanda.]
Five of the named Väddas are female chiefs in control of part of the king’s frontier (but we lack information whether they were heads of matrilineal groupings). Herat Banda in this list has a typical Sinhala name, either a non-Vädda guarding the frontier or more likely a Vädda whose name has a been Sinhalized, a common enough phenomenon. What is remarkable about this first Matale boundary book is that outside the three prominent Sinhala aristocrats listed in or near Godapola (Matale), are the Väddas guarding the frontier. It is not that Matale lacked the traditional Kandyan aristocracy but from the king’s viewpoint they cannot be trusted. Thus, says the text, although these aristocrats “are powerful it is not possible to (order them to) collect men and animals” for the wars envisaged by the king and his brother Rajasinha, especially to capture the Portuguese fort of Trincomalee, one of the stated objectives of Vijayapala and his brother. Once the king gets rid of the doubtful persons, he then employs several Kandyan chiefs to take their place and the Väddas go back to their traditional locations, either in the forests or in villages controlled by them. Much of the information on the district of Matale comes from the second “boundary book” (kadaim pota) on the Matale district composed in the long reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782). In this text the king asks the conventional question raised by Vijayapala earlier, namely, “What kind of jāti live in this Mihitale (Matale)?” As before the king’s primary informants are a Vädda chief of Opalgala assisted by a Sinhala official. We are given now a wonderful haul of over two hundred individuals as well as head of households in the Matale district, sometimes detailed information on a particular family but at other times only the name of the village, perhaps because the details were known to the two officials. Let me remind the reader that this is an important but unpublished text culled from our vitti pot and one that anticipates modern historiography in its concern with detailed empirical, even statistical, information. At this time, Muslims and so-called low castes such as lacquer workers and grass-cutters are all included and referred to as jāti (rather than kula), literally meaning “kind” but implying they are part of the Tri Sinhala, the three parts of the Sinhala “nation.” Although their jāti (“caste” if you want to use the familiar Portuguese label casta) might be considered “low” they can be given high titles such as mudiyanse or muhandiram, ignoring our stereotypical notions of caste and ethnicity. (This incidentally is also true of low castes serving in the king’s military who can be given high titles and land for bravery). Several castes in our list were listed as Oli, because they supposedly came from oli-rata, an alternative name for soli rata, the Chola country. Our text adopts a somewhat contemptuous attitude to these people. “A huge multitude of oli people have been shoved into the district of Dumbara.” They are āgantuka or “outsiders” because their myths of origin state that they were brought here by king Gajabahu, a famously mythic king who brought them over from the Tamil country along with twelve thousand Sinhalas captured in a previous reign by the Tamil king. Although settled here, says our text, they are āgantuka or outsiders, presumably because they have been brought from the outside, namely, the Tamil country, within the living memory, imagined or real, of the authors of our text. It is interesting that their caste status in nowhere listed; it seems what is significant here is category, not genealogy in any conventional sense. Jāti makes sense but not caste as we now designate that indispensable term and are perforce compelled to use. As Edmund Leach has pointed out in an important essay, castes as jāti constitute an interdependent system and Kandyan society could not have functioned without a division of labor based on that principle of interdependence.
Let me now deal with some of the information provided to the king by his two main consultants, bearing in mind once again that one of them was a distinguished Vädda chief (a descendant of the Vädda consultant mentioned in the time of King Vijayapala). One of the conclusions that we can draw from our text is that the king alone can reduce, deprive or change a person’s caste. This seems to have been a prerogative of kingship in Kandyan times. Our text has several example of the king “de-casting” a person owing to some fault. The important technical term is gattara, whereby owing to some offense the king can place a person and his family in a lower position from his original one and then given a new name commensurate with that degraded status. While this seems to be a terrible degradation our text provides no example of execution by the king although this must occur in respect of traitors, ignored in our text. Note that I use the term “de-casted” because no one can really be “out-casted” and indeed no such category is found in our text. There is no way to escape from jāti unless one becomes a renouncer, of which there were several types in the kingdom. Often enough our cases mention one of the reasons for “de-casting,” namely owing to an intended or unintended pollution of the king consequent to the violation of court rules. Our text has only a few cases of de-casting simply because few would consciously dare to insult the king although we have several cases of unintended insult by persons unacquainted with the rules. Sometimes the reason for de-casting by the king is implicit and part of public knowledge of the time. Let me refer to the case of a Tamil who, because he had no determinate jāti had been placed in a gattara village, namely, a village that has already been designated as a de-casted village. (This is not an unusual case because until very recently there have been named castes labeled demala gattara.) Unfortunately, much of taken-for-granted public knowledge is missing in our account. Thus we do not know the reason why a whole village of Imbulpitiya, near today’s town of Matale had been de-casted by the king. So is it with a village known as sudu-hakuru gama, “a village providing white jaggery, quite unlike the brown stuff you and I generally consume. White jaggery is well-known to specialists even today and involves a complicated process of purifying the brown. I assume that the jaggery was meant for the king and was improperly or badly made or polluted in some way. Offenses are sometimes unsaid because they were known to the public of our text.
Another instance from our text: A servant caste of the Malvatta monastery known as Malvatte Duraya (“servant belonging to the monastery”) was found skinning a buffalo and placing it near in his bellows (for later practical use). This apparently was a heinous act and was seen by a henaya or washerman who while returning from the palace during that night after cleansing that place informed the king about it. The king appraised of the details interrogated Malvatte Duraya in detail and then gave the following order: “For the offence of keeping the buffalo skin on the bellows and for skinning the buffalo body they (his extended family) were ordered to bury cattle henceforth” and they are to be degraded and known as “geri padda,” geri mas or beef being utterly reprehensible, and padda being a contemptuous term for that particular caste that would normally be addressed and referred to in more respectable terms. There is implicit knowledge underlying the reference here because it is the lowest of the low, the roḍiya or canḍāla who generally had to bury dead animals and this family is in effect de-casted in the most drastic fashion by being identified as someone akin to a canḍāla or actually de-casted as canḍāla.
Once we move from the king to the views of ordinary people we get a different picture of public relationships. This included Muslims who we know were favored by the Kandyan monarch but apparently not in Matale. Note that there are no references to Muslims in the previous text composed in the reign of Vijayapala. Absence of reference in that text does not mean that there were no Muslims in the Matale district at that time but theirs was at best a minor presence. By the time of Kirti Sri Rajasinha we know that there were many Muslim physicians in the court and one of them Gopala Mudali, a Muslim with the Hindu name of Krishna (Gopala) was a favorite of the king. It was Gopala who informed the king of a planned assassination by a few of his chiefs in Saka 1682 or CE 1760.[i] There were large Muslim communities in the Kandyan provinces, many given to cross cousin marriage modeled on Sinhala norms. Such a strategy of kinship favored intermarriage between Muslims and Sinhalas. However, parallel cousin marriage adopted in parts of the Middle East was tantamount to incest. The relation between Muslims and Kandyans in Matale seem much more ambiguous, if we can rely on our text. Muslim traders and merchants certainly existed but were numerically insignificant at that time. Nevertheless, some distinguished Muslims were given high caste names such as mudiyanse or mudali. These were probably high caste titles endowed by the king from his royal court: hence the title marakkala mudiyanse (“Muslim lord” to loosely translate this term). Given the peripatetic nature of Muslim communities, it is possible that wealthy and respected Muslims came from the area of the king’s court but rarely traveled to the Matale district where they were less welcome. Nevertheless, there is reference to a distinguished Muslim who had eloped with a Sinhala lady and then returned to his Buddhist kinfolk carrying a load of gifts and provisions hoping no doubt to be reconciled with them. But it did him no good because on hearing of this seemingly unseemly visitation the Sinhalas fled to the forest! It is likely that while interethnic marriages did occur they were rare in the Matale district at this time, quite unlike the situation elsewhere in the Kandyan kingdom. By contrast marriages between members of the same caste, even with low status men were acceptable and our text has a case where a such male is employed by the father-in-law in agricultural work. We know from other sources that this is common enough practice and known as binna marriage in contrast with diga where equivalence in marital status is enjoined as the ideal.
Inter-caste marriages did occur but there seems little public outrage quite unlike the situation in respect of the king where such persons could be degraded by being shoved into gattara villages. There are at least two cases in Matale relating to the lowest of the low, namely roḍiya. In one instance a daughter of a gamarāla of the highest (goyigama) caste had eloped with a rodiya male. In this case, and similar ones, there is no punishment recorded, perhaps because such actions would have to be referred to this king via a high official. It would therefore seem that in such cases it was perhaps best to ignore the ignominy. Moreover, at that time (as is the case even today) rodiyas were considered to be practitioners of black magic, a source of power to a caste considered to be the lowest of the low in the official hierarchy. What emerges from our Matale data is that a high caste woman could marry a rodiya but she had to live with her husband’s kinfolk in a rodiya village. Our data also refers to a rodiya woman names Subhanimittā, literally meaning “auspicious prophecies.” It seems that this low caste woman was given to uttering prophecies to high caste clients, something I was familiar from my own research notes taken many years ago from a man married to a rodiya woman and engaged in black magic in the city of Colombo! He claimed to have obtained his considerable and very impressive magical powers from his rodiya kinfolk.
By contrast, the Vädda presence was important in this text as with the previous one. We have reference to a Vädda of high status given extensive lands by the king for his service in warfare. In another scenario the king is given gifts of rare rice from a Vädda chief in Laggala and the king reciprocates with gifts of land. The sense of loyalty of the Väddas to the king can be recorded as far back as the reign of Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186) who employed Väddas in his wars against his Ruhuna enemies. Parakramabahu gave these Väddas black clothes to distinguish them from their Sinhala counterparts and no doubt to scare the hell out of the latter. We know that loyalty of the Väddas to the king continued until the 1817-1818 rebellion against the British under their chief Kivulegedera Mohottala of Valapane. Eventually this resulted in the decimation of the Vädda communities by the British forces when they reestablished their control. The sad relics of this past is reflected in the loss of population and the general malaise of the Väddas driven to seek refuge in forests and caves and recorded by later ethnographers, unfortunately as being their normal condition. We are indebted to Paul E Pieris for a detailed discussion of the Vädda role in the rebellion, but little or no reference to their decimation during the British conquest of the Kandyan provinces is available in orthodox histories written by later colonial writers such as the Seligmanns in 1911 as well as Sri Lankan scholars.
Let me conclude this brief discussion with reference to members of the highest caste in the Indian set-up, namely the Brahmins mentioned in our text (kaḍaim pota). According to our text, one of the nation’s leading families, the Ratvattes, originally came from Maddadesa (Madya Pradesh) in India and some accounts of say that they brought with them the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved his “awakening.” Because this latter claim is made by other castes and ethnic groups we cannot attribute any historical veracity to this myth of origins. Nevertheless, the accounts of Brahmins settling down in Sri Lanka ought to be taken seriously. Thus we are told that several Brahmans have settled down in the Matale district, as for example, Sri Vishnu Brahmana Rala in Aluvihara, Sri Rama Brahmana Rala in Ratvatta, Sri Danta in Moneruvila (Matale north), Vädande Brahmana Rala, also in Matale North and the only non-Vishnu Brahman, a Shaivite named Madiva Viramahesvaraya in Madipola. We have to take these statements of Brahmins settling in Matale seriously because of the public knowledge of what occurred in history of that time and the presence of some of their descendants in our own times. One important figure is Brahmana Ranmenika Ratvatte, the daughter of Kopuru Brahmana Rala originally from Maddadesa (Madya Pradesh). Many other Brahmanas are listed as settling down in Matale, including an interesting figure Hirigot Brahmana (“gōtra of the sun”) resident at Kappetipola, the home of the famous resistance fighter of the 1818 war, Kappetipola of Monaravila. I cannot get into the details of this fascinating movement of Brahmins in this paper except to assert that they have dropped their Brahmanic names and become part of the radala or aristocratic segment of the large broad-based caste, the farmer or goyigama. This capacity to absorb the two classic varnas of the Indian scheme has been going on for a long historical period such that the highest varna in the Indian scheme of things, that of the Brahmins continue to exist as a sub-caste of goyigama which is also the sub-caste or varna of the Kandyan kings. Remember once again that the category sub-caste is our convenient invention and does not exist in empirical reality anywhere in the Matale district or for that matter anywhere in the Kandyan kingdom. (For further details read my paper “The coming of Brahmin migrations: The Sudra fate of an Indian elite in Sri Lanka,” a paper published by the Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, Delhi.)
[i] I must remind the reader that if these caste names might sound offensive some in this audience but I think we can take for granted that we are dealing with times past and not the present and indeed I assume with others here that we can take for granted our notion of species equivalence, just as the Buddha surmised ages ago. The present paper is based on an earlier study written in honor of my friend Professor K.D. Paranavitana in much more detail and will be published soon with the title Historical Revaluations: the boundary books of the Matale district. I have used that material in this essay.
[ii] I have an unpublished paper on the monk conspiracy to assassinate the king that I will be happy to send to those interested.