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Sri Lanka Still Wed to System

The nation's ancient caste structure with its rigid social hierarchy is waning, but prejudices are hard to shed when choosing a mate.

January 23, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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