The ‘Govi Supremacy Myth’ dates from the 19th century. Basically, it says that Govigama caste is the highest caste; all other Sri Lankan castes are low castes; and that the Sri Lankan caste system revolved around the needs of the Govi caste. This is contrary to all historical evidence but successive, Govigama dominated Sri Lankan governments have spent public money to promote this unfounded myth.
The Dutch and British period Mudaliyar family of De Sarams appear to be the creators of this "Govigama caste' identity. They used it to persuade the colonials that the De Saram family were the leaders 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 a 'Govigama' Mudaliyar clan during the British period. They presented themselves as the local aristocracy to the successive batches of young and inexperienced British civil servants who came to the country .
Until the consolidation of a segment of the 'Govi caste' as the 'Goyigama caste' in the 20th century to meet the political needs of emerging leaders, the Govi group 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 occured during the late 18th century. There are no references to a 'Goigama' caste prior to that.
However the novel 'Govigama caste' of the De Sarams was initially limited only to their extended family network of Mudaliyars. And British officials appear to have actively encouraged the creation of this 'artificial' aristocracy.
By the end of the British period, the ranks of this 'Govigama caste' had been swelled by families of the multitude of 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.
Although the Govi and Tamil Vellala castes were two distinct and historically unconnected communities, politically ambitious individuals from the Govigama and Tamil Vellala 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
Creation of the Myth
Several caste lists were produced during the 19th century by the leaders of the British colonial appointed Mudaliyar class. These lists purpoted to tabulate Sri Lankan castes according to a so called traditional caste hierarchy. However their intention was to convince the British rulers that they were the highest caste and that they alone should be appointed to headmen positions. These lists differ from each other in their sequence of listing castes and that alone is the greatest indicator of their unreliability.
The purpose of compiling these lists was to place the Govi caste right at the top - as the highest. And all these lists do so. The Niti Nighanduva was another spurious work from this period published to support the Govi caste's 'exclusive claim' to headman positions . Inexperienced British civil servants of the period appear to have accepted all these as accurate representations of the caste system.
However even in this modern era (despite the lack of any evidence from Sri Lanka’s feudal history that such status hierarchies ever existed), these tables are still regarded by some writers as accurate representations of the Sri Lankan caste system. Interestingly enough, Harischandra Wijayatunga, (the editor of the offensive 'Practical Sinhala Dictionary ' referred to below) has republished the Niti Nighanduva of 1880 in 1998 as 'the authentic vocabulary of Law as it existed in the last days of the Kandyan Kingdom.
Sri Lankan history suggests that the many occupational castes had worked together in cooperation rather than as a stratified hierarchy. British Historians, from the period too have noted how the various castes co-existed in co-operation and with respect to each other. Some examples are the endearing terms of ‘Redi Nanda’ (Aunt) and ‘Hene Mama’ (Uncle) that had been used to refer to and address members of the Washerman’s ( Rajaka or Radha )caste.
Similarly, members of the Drummer (Berava) caste had been addressed as ‘Gurunnanse’ or ‘Aedura’ (Respectful terms for a Teacher). A Navandanna Blacksmith was referred to and addressed as ‘Acari’ (Another respectful term for a Teacher). All castes including the Govi caste had used these forms of address and it is still the same in Sri Lankan villages. Barter, with goods as well as services, had been the accepted form of inter-caste exchange of services.
Efforts of prominent Sri Lankan Historians
Several prominent Sri Lankan historians from the Givigama Caste have allowed their desire to create a respectable history for their caste has got the better of their professionalism. P. E. Pieris (later Deraniyagala Siriwardene) was a notorious example. P. E. Pieris' 'Portuguese Era' was a plagiarized version of Queyroz's 'Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of the island of Ceylon'. Fr. S. G. Perera in his translation of the original Portuguese record has highlighted several of Pieris' interpolations and distortions.
Modern historians lament about the lack of information on the Kotte period. However Mudaliyar Wijesinghe who translated the Mahavamsa during the British period has noted that original pages were missing from the ola leaf book and fictitious pages were found in their place.
Hugh Neville the respected British historian has noted on the Janawamsaya " I have a rare version which contains an authentic passage referring to the Karava caste, suppressed now from most copies. ...and doubtless comes from the same source as the other traditions regarding Vijaya, fund in the Jafna chronicles, but now unknown to he Sinhalese" ( reproduced in Ariyapala 1969 Appendix V)
When Arumuga Navalar, the rabid Vellala propagandist from Jaffna translated the Skanda Purana, he has omitted all references to the Varunakula / Kurukula from it as these were Karava clans. (Kurukula Charitaya part II page 388 ) Arumuga Navalar had dedicated his life to make the Vellala caste the premier Hindu caste and to keep all other Tamil castes out of the system.
The respected historian Senerat Paranavithana too tried his best to give a decent pedigree to the Govi caste. One among the many theories he promoted in this regard, was an attempt to establish that the 'Yoke' (as used on bulls in ploughing) was a royal symbol of ancient Sri Lanka. With this end in mind he saw the Ola book in the hands of the famous Potgul Vehera statue as a ' yoke of state' and as such the figure was identified as King Parakramabahu the great. Although Paranavitana's theory of a yoke did not gain any currency his misidentification of the statue is now too far embedded in the popular Sri Lankan psyche to correct.
Paranavitana's misreading of the Panakaduwa Copper plate inscription illustrated below is an interesting example.
This is a grant issued by king Vijayabahu I in the 11th century . In interpreting the word Yahalu on this inscription, Paranavitana appears to have deliberately read Yahala, and then attempted to interpret that the king held up a yolk (plough shaft)
How Paranavitana could have read Yahalu as Yahala is really intriguing when the same inscription had two other words demalabalamulu and mululakdiva with the character lu and Paranavithana managed to read those two words without any confusion. The character Lu has a clear and distinctive loop at the bottom which makes it Lu in contrast to the letter La. Click to see larger image and note the 3 occurrence of the character Lu marked in blue. The inscription also has a word pamilikala with the letter La (sans the loop at the bottom) and Paranavitana has read this too without any difficulty or confusion. Having misread Yahalu as Yahala and bringing in a non-existing agricultural ‘yoke’ into this royal grant, Paranawithana thereafter proceeds to create strange grammatical rues by translating “....sihavikum yahalu yuvalathin ukaha…” as “…he of lion like prowess lifted up the Yoke in both hands …” rather than the correct “…having drawn close to him, his friend, possessed of a lion’s proves …”.
To quote Fernando “ … First, Paranavitana has translated the word pramukhayen as “in the presence of “ as if the word had been pramukhayehi , whereas it should be translated as “from the preens of”. Secondly, though Paranavithana has taken the word sihavikum as being in apposition to the words Sirisangabo Vijayabahu rajapavahanse, such a use of an apposition far removed from the noun it refers to is inconsistent with Sinhalese usage, except in verse. The word sihavikum here has certainly to be taken in an adjectival sense qualifying the next word which has been read by Paranavitana as yahala to which he has given the meaning “yoke” or “iron mace”. But here the word sihavikum can hardly qualify either the word “yoke” or the word “iron mace”. It would therefore appear hat he was constrained to interpret the two words pramukhayen and sihavikum as he has done, because of his failure to decipher correctly the letters which he has read as Yahala. On the basis of his reading Paranaviana has attempted to give what appears to be far-fetched derivations of the word and also to explain it in terms of a theory that he had advanced earlier that the representation of a yoke was considered the symbol of justice and administrative responsibility in Sri Lanka in ancient times” (see Epigaphia Zeylanica Vol. V p1 - 27 Government Press Sri Lanka 1966 & P. E. E. Fernando 1975 The Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities p57 - 60)
As if to make amends for a lifetime of theorizing against the Kshatriya ancestry of ancient Sri Lankan Kings and Queens, in his old age Paranavitana saw ancient Sanskrit interlineal messages on several inscriptions and these inscriptions purportedly narrated the obliteration of Kshatriya history in Sri Lanka. ( see Ceylon and Malaysia)
Role of supervising Professors
The sub-continent’s Kshatriya, Brahmin, Vaisya, Sudra (Warriors, Priests, Traders and workers) four fold caste model was practiced in Sri Lanka as Raja, Bamunu, Velenda and Govi . 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 the Sri Lankan social structure under European colonialism
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.
However when M. B. Ariyapala published his Society in Mediaeval Ceylon through the Sri Lankan Ministry of Cultural Affairs, senior Govigama Profesors have prevailed upon Ariyapala to insert out of context castes such as Chandala and Pukkusa in two different places thereby giving him a curious five fold caste structure. The order of the castes has also been changed by swapping the 3rd position of Velenda with Govi. (pages 288 - 292) The book is supposed to be based on mediaeval sources. However it extensively quotes from the above noted 20th century Vellala propagandist, art enthusiast, Ananda Coomaraswamy and concludes that the Govi caste is the highest caste.
Targeting foreign researchers
Many unsuspecting foreign writers who do not understand the Sinhala language and are unfamiliar with the vast sources of un-translated historical literature in the Sinhala language, have knowingly or unknowingly incorporated this myth into their books and research papers. Such sources are now quoted by the proponents of this theory as evidence for confirmation of the theory.
Myth debunked in the 1980s
The ‘Govi Supremacy Theory’ was debunked in the 1980s with the overwhelming and consistent historical evidence (see Govigama) spread right across all the various historical periods of Sri Lanka. (see Daily News, Sunday Observer, Sunday Leader and Ravaya from that period)
No historical evidence has yet been produced by anyone to contradict the low historical status of the Govi caste or to even show that there were at least a few exceptions.
Despite the total absence of any historical basis, revisionist history which states that the Govi caste was the highest caste can now be found in several state sponsored books, dictionaries, glossaries and encyclopaedias published by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Buddhist Affairs and the Universities of Sri Lanka. (See column on right for examples of books promoting the 'Govi Supremacy Myth'. published by the Sri Lankan state.)
The oldest so called evidence produced in support of the 'Govi Supremacy Theory' is from the 19th century and all such documents are either written by or influenced by the createers of the myth themselves.
Promotion of the Myth by Sri Lankan Governments
Sri Lanka has many castes and communities and the Constitution of Sri Lanka states that it guarantees equality to all citizens and all castes. However Govigama dominated Sri Lankan Governments have published numerous books at state expense to falsely state that the Govi caste was historically higher than all other castes.
See column on right for examples of books promoting the 'Govi Supremacy Myth'. published by the Sri Lankan state.
The the Human Rights Commission settlement on the Practical Sinhala Dictionary issue between the Kshatriya Maha Sabha and the Ministry of Culture.
Objections by the Kshatriya Maha Sabha on other history distorting publications
As the Sabha lacked the resources to challenge these publications in court, the matters weren't pursued any further.
Some examples of books that promote the 'Govi Supremacy Myth' as a 'fact'
- all published by Govigama dominated Sri Lankan Governments:
Madyakalina Sinhala Kala - Ananda K. Coomaraswamy - 1962 - Published by the Department of Culture. And the original Mediaeval Sinhalese Art reprinted in 1992 by the State Printing Corporation.
Society in Mediaeval Ceylon M. B. Ariyapala - 1868 - Published by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The decline of Polonnaruwa and the rise of Dambadeniya ( in Sinhala and English)- Amaradasa Liyanagamagé - 1968 - Published by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Social History of Early Ceylon ( in Sinhala and English).- H. Ellawala - 1969 - Published by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Modern Ceylon Studies - S. U. Kodikara - 1970 - Published by the University of Ceylon.
University of Ceylon, History of Ceylon, vol. I - 1971 - Published by the Vidyalankara University.
The infamous Practical Sinhala Dictionary - Edited by Harischandra Wijayatunga - 1982 - Published by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The Panel of Reviewers (above) and The Panel of Advisors (below) of the Practical Sinhala Dictionary Click to zoom
The Practical Sinhala Dictionary - Edited by Harischandra Wijayatunga - 1982 - Published by the Department of Cultural Affairs defined the Karava as the 'Fisherman Caste' and the Durava as the 'Toddy tapper' caste
These offensive and inacurate definitions of castes were challenged in the Supreme Court by offended parties at their own cost (SC Appn. 98/82), and also reported to the Human Rights Commission (Settlement of 02/12/87).
The Editor, Harischandra Wijetunga (subsequent leader of the Sinhalaye Mahasammatha Bhoomiputra Pakshaya ) and the Publisher, The Ministry of Cultural Affairs, defended themselves using public funds and finally agreed to correct the offensive definitions .
However by then the dictionary had been distributed countrywide. The copies in school libraries throughout the country and regional libraries remain uncorrected.
Kalyáni - Journal of the University of Kelaniya - 1982 to 1987 - Published by the University of Kelaniya.
Wealth Power and Prestige - S. T. Hettige - 1984 - Published by the Ministry of Higher Education.
The Kandyan Kingdom - Lorna Devaraja - 1988 - Published with a grant from the President's fund.
Madyakálína Lanká Ithihásaya - Amaradasa Liyanagamagé - 1989 - Published by the Department of Educational Publications.
Udarata Rajadhaniya - Lorna Devaraja - 1997 - Published by the State Printing Corporation
Sri Lankáve Ithihásaya part III - 1997 - Published by the Educational Publications Department.
Udarata Viththi P. M. P. Abhayasinghe - 1998 - Published by the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Polonnaruwa (in Sinhala and English)– Anuradha Seneviratna– 1998 - Published by the Archaeological Survey Department. In this publication, the author, a Professor of Sinhala (- not history or archaeology although both books were published by the Archaeological Survey Department) goes as far as to say that King Parakramabahu was from the Govigama caste. He makes this claim despite the great chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa (see MV 76 48 -51) saying that King Parakramabahu was from the Kshatriya Surya wansa.
The king himself says in several of his own rock inscriptions that he was from the Kshatriya Surya wansa.
How Anuradha Seneviratna, the learned professor, missed all these facts and gave king Parakramabahu a Goigama (Sudra - low caste) pedigree is indeed a mystery. This book has been widely distributed in Sri Lanka, introduced to school libraries throughout the country and is still on sale in government bookshops in Sri Lanka.
are matters for a Presidential or Public inquiry.
Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Sri Lanka