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Sri Lanka - SOCIETY
The Sinhalese, a distinct ethnic group speaking the Sinhala language and practicing a variant of Theravada Buddhism, comprise the majority--74 percent--of the population, and their values dominate public life. There are, however, substantial minority groups. The Tamils, speaking the Tamil language and generally practicing Hinduism, comprise almost 18 percent of the population. Muslims, many of whom speak Tamil as their main language, make up 7 percent of the populace. Each of the main ethnic groups is subdivided into several major categories, depending on variables of religion or geography. There also are sizable Christian minorities among the Sinhalese and Tamil. People living in the central highland region of the country generally adhere more closely to their traditional ethnic customs than lowland dwellers.
Caste creates other social divisions. The Goyigama caste of the Sinhalese--traditionally associated with land cultivation--is dominant in population and public influence, but in the lowlands other castes based on commercial activities are influential. The Tamil Vellala caste resembles the Goyigama in its dominance and traditional connection with agriculture, but it is completely separate from the Sinhalese caste hierarchy. Within their separate caste hierarchies, Sinhalese and Tamil communities are fragmented through customs that separate higher from lower orders. These include elaborate rules of etiquette and a nearly complete absence of intercaste marriages. Differences in wealth arising from the modern economic system have created, however, wide class cleavages that cut across boundaries of caste, religion, and language. Because of all these divisions, Sri Lankan society is complex, with numerous points of potential conflict.
The population of Sri Lanka has grown considerably since independence in 1948, and in the 1980s was increasing by approximately 200,000 people or 1.37 percent each year. Because of this population pressure, the government has faced a major development problem as it has attempted to reconcile the divergent interests of caste, class, and ethnic groups while trying to ensure adequate food, education, health services, and career opportunities for the rapidly expanding population. Politicians and officials have attempted to meet these needs through a form of welfare socialism, providing a level of support services that is comparatively high for a developing nation. Building on colonial foundations, Sri Lanka has created a comprehensive education system, including universities, that has produced one of the best-educated populations in Asia. A free state-run health system provides basic care that has raised average life expectancy to the highest level in South Asia. Ambitious housing and sanitation plans, although incomplete, promised basic amenities to all citizens by the year 2000. In 1988 the government addressed the nutritional deficiencies of the poor through a subsidized food stamp program and free nutrition programs for children and mothers.
The crucial problem facing Sri Lanka's plural society is whether it can evolve a form of socialism that will address the needs of all groups, or whether frustrated aspirations will engender further conflict. In the field of education, for example, excellent accomplishments in elementary schooling have emerged alongside bitter competition for coveted places in the university system; this competition has fueled ethnic hatred between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. In a land with limited resources, the benefits of social welfare programs highlight the inadequacies of progress for some regional or ethnic groups. In these circumstances, caste, ethnic, or religious differences become boundaries between warring parties, and a person's language or place of worship becomes a sign of political affiliation. The social organization of Sri Lanka is thus an important component of the politics and economy in the developing nation.
<> Living Conditions
During the early nineteenth century, the population of Sri Lanka was small and concentrated in the southwestern part of the island and in the Jaffna Peninsula in the north. The first official census, conducted by the British in 1871, recorded a total population of 2.8 million. Between then and the 1980s, the population increased sixfold. Population growth until around 1900 was given impetus by considerable immigration from southern India, as the British brought in hundreds of thousands of Tamils to work the plantation economy. These immigrants accounted for an estimated 40 to 70 percent of the population increase during the nineteenth century. Another significant factor in the growth of population after 1900 was a decline in mortality rates. The period of fastest growth was the decade after independence, when the annual rate of increase was 2.8 percent. The official total in the 1981 census was 14,846,750, and some projections suggested a total of 18 million by 1991 and between 20 and 21 million by 2001. Furthermore, if the 1980s trends continue, the population will double in forty years.
Although the increase in the number of people remained a major problem for Sri Lanka, there were indications in the 1980s that the country had moved beyond a period of uncontrolled population expansion into a pattern similar to that of more industrialized nations. The crude fertility rate declined from 5.3 in 1953--at the height of the postindependence baby boom--to 3.3 in 1981. Emigration, which outpaced immigration after 1953, also contributed to the decline in population growth. Between 1971 and 1981, for example, 313,000 Tamil workers from the plantation areas emigrated to south India. Increased employment opportunities in the Arab nations also attracted a substantial annual flow of workers from Sri Lanka (a total of 57,000 in 1981 alone). The lowering of the population growth rate was accompanied by changes in the age distribution, with the older age-groups increasing, and by the concentration of people in urban areas. Those phenomena also accompanied lower population growth in Europe and the United States.
Population is not uniformly spread but is concentrated within the wet zone and urban centers on the coast and the Jaffna Peninsula. The country's mean population density--based on 1981 census data--was 230 persons per square kilometer, but in Colombo District density was 2,605 persons per square kilometer. In contrast, the dry zone districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Mullaittivu, and Moneragala had fewer than fifty-five persons per square kilometer. One reason for the unequal settlement pattern was the rainfall distribution, which made it possible for the wet zones to support larger village farming populations. Another reason was the slow but steady concentration of people in urban centers during the twentieth century. The ratio of Sri Lankans living in cities increased from 11 percent in 1871 to 15 percent in 1946 and 21.5 percent in 1981.
By 1985 a slowly declining crude birth rate hinted at a gradual aging of the population and changed requirements for social services. For the time being, however, there was considerable pressure for jobs, education, and welfare facilities from the large number of people who were raising families or pursuing careers. In the remaining decades of the century and beyond there was likely to be greater pressure for housing and health care for an aging population.
Urbanization has affected almost every area of the country since independence. Local market centers have grown into towns, and retail or service stores have cropped up even in small agricultural villages. The greatest growth in urban population, however, has occurred around a few large centers. In 1981 the urbanized population was 32.2 percent in Trincomalee District and 32.6 percent in Jaffna District, in contrast to the rural Moneragala District where only 2.2 percent of the people lived in towns. Colombo District, with 74.4 percent urban population, experienced the largest changes. Between 1881 and 1981, the city of Colombo increased its size from 25 to 37 square kilometers and its population from 110,502 to 587,647.
Since independence was granted in 1948, there have been four main trends in migration. First, every year more people move from rural areas to the cities. Second, the cities have changed from concentrated centers to sprawling suburbs. During the 1970s, the city of Colombo actually lost population, mostly to neighboring cities in Colombo District. Part of the suburban growth has resulted from a planned strategy to reduce urban congestion. For example, a new parliamentary complex opened in Sri Jayewardenepura in the suburb of Kotte east of Colombo in 1982 (although Colombo is still considered the national capital). Much of the growth, however, has been the unplanned proliferation of slums inhabited by poor and unskilled masses and lacking public utilities or services. Third, government irrigation projects attracted many farmers from the wet zone to the pioneer settlements in the dry zone. During the decade ending in 1981, the highest rates of population increase occurred in the districts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, where the Mahaweli Garga Program attracted immigrant farmers. Fourth, SinhaleseTamil ethnic struggles displaced many people during the 1970s and 1980s. During a Tamil repatriation program in the 1970s, large numbers of Tamil plantation workers left for India or moved out of the hill areas toward the north and the east. After the intensification of communal fighting in 1983, an estimated 100,000 Tamil refugees fled to India, where they lived in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu State, and thousands more were relocated through refugee agencies in Sri Lanka. During the counterinsurgency operations of the Sri Lankan and Indian armies in 1987 and 1988, many residents of the Jaffna Peninsula fled their homes for temporary shelter in refugee camps.
As in South Asia as a whole--and in contrast to global patterns--Sri Lankan males outnumbered females in the mid-1980s. In Sri Lanka, for every 100 female births registered there were 104 males. In the past, the gender ratio of the general population was even more unequal--113 men to 100 women in 1941. In part, this imbalance is attributed to the emigration of plantation workers, many of whom were men. Much of the change, however, may be due to a growing sensitivity to the health of women. Since 1963, the average female life expectancy has increased by seven years, while male life expectancy has risen by three years.
The people of Sri Lanka are divided into ethnic groups whose conflicts have dominated public life since the nineteenth century. The two main characteristics that mark a person's ethnic heritage are language and religion, which intersect to create four major ethnic groups--the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, and the Burghers. Ethnic divisions are not based on race or physical appearance; some Sri Lankans claim to determine the ethnicity of a person by his facial characteristics or color, but in reality such premises are not provable. There is nothing in the languages or religious systems in Sri Lanka that officially promotes the social segregation of their adherents, but historical circumstances have favored one or more of the groups at different times, leading to hostility and competition for political and economic power.
The Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group in the country, officially comprising 11 million people or 74 percent of the population in 1981. They are distinguished primarily by their language, Sinhala, which is a member of the Indo-European linguistic group that includes Hindi and other north Indian tongues as well as most of the languages of Europe. It is likely that groups from north India introduced an early form of Sinhala when they migrated to the island around 500 B.C., bringing with them the agricultural economy that has remained dominant to the twentieth century. From early times, however, Sinhala has included a large number of loan words and constructs from Tamil, and modern speech includes many expressions from European languages, especially English. The Sinhalese claim to be descendants of Prince Vijaya and his band of immigrants from northern India, but it is probable that the original group of Sinhalese immigrants intermarried with indigenous inhabitants. The Sinhalese gradually absorbed a wide variety of castes or tribal groups from the island and from southern India during the last 2,500 years.
The Buddhist religion reinforces the solidarity of the Sinhalese as an ethnic community. In 1988 approximately 93 percent of the Sinhala speakers were Buddhists, and 99.5 percent of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka spoke Sinhala. The most popular Sinhalese folklore, literature, and rituals teach children from an early age the uniqueness of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the long relationship between Buddhism and the culture and politics of the island, and the importance of preserving this fragile cultural inheritance. Buddhist monks are accorded great respect and participate in services at the notable events in people's lives. To become a monk is a highly valued career goal for many young men. The neighboring Buddhist monastery or shrine is the center of cultural life for Sinhalese villagers.
Their shared language and religion unite all ethnic Sinhalese, but there is a clear difference between the "Kandyan" and the "low-country" Sinhalese. Because the Kingdom of Kandy in the highlands remained independent until 1818, conservative cultural and social forms remained in force there. English education was less respected, and traditional Buddhist education remained a vital force in the preservation of Sinhalese culture. The former Kandyan nobility retained their social prestige, and caste divisions linked to occupational roles changed slowly. The plains and the coast of Sri Lanka, on the other hand, experienced great change under 400 years of European rule. Substantial numbers of coastal people, especially among the Karava caste, converted to Christianity through determined missionary efforts of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British; 66 percent of the Roman Catholics and 43 percent of the Protestants in the early 1980s were Sinhalese. Social mobility based on economic opportunity or service to the colonial governments allowed entire caste or kin groups to move up in the social hierarchy. The old conceptions of noble or servile status declined, and a new elite developed on the basis of its members' knowledge of European languages and civil administration. The Dutch legal system changed traditional family law. A wider, more cosmopolitan outlook differentiated the low-country Sinhalese from the more "old fashioned" inhabitants of highlands.
The people collectively known as the Tamils, comprising 2,700,000 persons or approximately 18 percent of the population in 1981, use the Tamil language as their native tongue. Tamil is one of the Dravidian languages found almost exclusively in peninsular India. It existed in South Asia before the arrival of people speaking Indo-European languages in about 1500 B.C. Tamil literature of a high quality has survived for at least 2,000 years in southern India, and although the Tamil language absorbed many words from northern Indian languages, in the late twentieth century it retained many forms of a purely Dravidian speech--a fact that is of considerable pride to its speakers. Tamil is spoken by at least 40 million people in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (the "land of the Tamils"), and by millions more in neighboring states of southern India and among Tamil emigrants throughout the world.
There was a constant stream of migration from southern India to Sri Lanka from prehistoric times. Once the Sinhalese controlled Sri Lanka, however, they viewed their own language and culture as native to the island, and in their eyes Tamil-speaking immigrants constituted a foreign ethnic community. Some of these immigrants appear to have abandoned Tamil for Sinhala and become part of the Sinhalese caste system. Most however, continued to speak Tamil and looked toward southern India as their cultural homeland. Their connections with Tamil Nadu received periodic reinforcement during struggles between the kings of Sri Lanka and southern India that peaked in the wars with the Chola. It is probable that the ancestors of many Tamil speakers entered the country as a result of the Chola conquest, for some personal names and some constructions used in Sri Lankan Tamil are reminiscent of the Chola period.
The Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka are divided into two groups that have quite different origins and relationships to the country. The Sri Lankan Tamils trace their immigration to the distant past and are effectively a native minority. In 1981 they numbered 1,886,872, or 12.7 percent of the population. The Indian Tamils are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who came under British sponsorship to Sri Lanka to work on plantations in the central highlands. In 1981 they numbered 818,656, or 5.5 percent of the population. Because they lived on plantation settlements, separate from other groups, including the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Indian Tamils have not become an integral part of society and indeed have been viewed by the Sinhalese as foreigners. The population of Indian Tamils has been shrinking through programs repatriating them to Tamil Nadu.
Ethnic Tamils are united to each other by their common religions beliefs, and the Tamil language and culture. Some 80 percent of the Sri Lankan Tamils and 90 percent of the Indian Tamils are Hindus. They have little contact with Buddhism, and they worship the Hindu pantheon of gods. Their religious myths, stories of saints, literature, and rituals are distinct from the cultural sources of the Sinhalese. The caste groups of the Tamils are also different from those of the Sinhalese, and they have their rationale in religious ideologies that the Sinhalese do not share. Religion and caste do, however, create divisions within the Tamil community. Most of the Indian Tamils are members of low Indian castes that are not respected by the upper- and middle-level castes of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Furthermore, a minority of the Tamils--4.3 percent of the Sri Lankan Tamils and 7.6 percent of the Indian Tamils--are converts to Christianity, with their own places of worship and separate cultural lives. In this way, the large Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is effectively separated from the mainstream Sinhalese culture and is fragmented into two major groups with their own Christian minorities.
Muslims, who make up approximately 7 percent of the population, comprise a group of minorities practicing the religion of Islam. As in the case of the other ethnic groups, the Muslims have their own separate sites of worship, religious and cultural heroes, social circles, and even languages. The Muslim community is divided into three main sections--the Sri Lankan Moors, the Indian Moors, and the Malays, each with its own history and traditions.
The Sri Lankan Moors make up 93 percent of the Muslim population and 7 percent of the total population of the country (1,046,926 people in 1981). They trace their ancestry to Arab traders who moved to southern India and Sri Lanka some time between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, adopted the Tamil language that was the common language of Indian Ocean trade, and settled permanently in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Moors lived primarily in coastal trading and agricultural communities, preserving their Islamic cultural heritage while adopting many southern Asian customs. During the period of Portuguese colonization, the Moors suffered from persecution, and many moved to the Central Highlands, where their descendants remain. The language of the Sri Lankan Moors is Tamil, or a type of "Arabic Tamil" that contains a large number of Arabic words. On the east coast, their family lines are traced through women, as in kinship systems of the southwest Indian state of Kerala, but they govern themselves through Islamic law.
The Indian Moors are Muslims who trace their origins to immigrants searching for business opportunities during the colonial period. Some of these people came to the country as far back as Portuguese times; others arrived during the British period from various parts of India. The Memon, originally from Sind (in modern Pakistan), first arrived in 1870; in the 1980s they numbered only about 3,000. The Bohra and the Khoja came from northwestern India (Gujarat State) after 1880; in the 1980s they collectively numbered fewer than 2,000. These groups tended to retain their own places of worship and the languages of their ancestral homelands.
The Malays originated in Southeast Asia. Their ancestors came to the country when both Sri Lanka and Indonesia were colonies of the Dutch. Most of the early Malay immigrants were soldiers, posted by the Dutch colonial administration to Sri Lanka, who decided to settle on the island. Other immigrants were convicts or members of noble houses from Indonesia who were exiled to Sri Lanka and who never left. The main source of a continuing Malay identity is their common Malay language (bahasa melayu), which includes numerous words absorbed from Sinhalese and Tamil, and is spoken at home. In the 1980s, the Malays comprised about 5 percent of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka.
The term Burgher was applied during the period of Dutch rule to European nationals living in Sri Lanka. By extension it came to signify any permanent resident of the country who could trace ancestry back to Europe. Eventually it included both Dutch Burghers and Portuguese Burghers. Always proud of their racial origins, the Burghers further distanced themselves from the mass of Sri Lankan citizens by immersing themselves in European culture, speaking the language of the current European colonial government, and dominating the best colonial educational and administrative positions. They have generally remained Christians and live in urban locations. Since independence, however, the Burgher community has lost influence and in turn has been shrinking in size because of emigration. In 1981 the Burghers made up .3 percent (39,374 people) of the population.
The Veddah are the last descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka, predating the arrival of the Sinhalese. They have long been viewed in the popular imagination as a link to the original hunting-and-gathering societies that gradually disappeared as the Sinhalese spread over the island. In the 1980s, Veddah lived in the eastern highlands, where some had been relocated as a result of the Mahaweli Garga Program. They have not preserved their own language, and they resemble their poorer Sinhalese neighbors, living in small rural settlements. The Veddah have become more of a caste than a separate ethnic group, and they are generally accepted as equal in rank to the dominant Goyigama caste of the Sinhalese.
More about the <>Population of Sri Lanka.
The different ethnic groups are not evenly spread throughout the island, but live in concentrated areas, depending upon where they settled historically. The Indian Tamils are heavily concentrated in the highland districts, especially in Nuwara Eliya, where they constitute almost half the population. This settlement pattern reflects their strong relationship with the plantation economy for which they provided much of the unskilled labor. The Sri Lankan Tamils, on the other hand, make up more than 95 percent of the population in the Jaffna Peninsula, more than 70 percent of the population in Batticaloa District, and substantial minorities in other northern and eastern districts. This pattern reflects the historical dominance of Tamil kingdoms in the northern half of the island. The Muslims are not in the majority anywhere, although they make up large minorities in Mannar District on the northwest coast and in the east coast districts; their strongest presence is in Amparai District, where they comprise 42 percent of the population. The Sinhalese exist in substantial numbers everywhere except in the Jaffna and Batticaloa districts, and in some southern districts they comprise almost the entire population. Colombo District approaches the closest to an ethnic melting pot, with a Sinhalese majority and substantial Tamil and Muslim minorities. Colombo is also home to most of the Burghers (72 percent) and Malays (65 percent).
In many cases, the different ethnic communities live in separate villages or sections of villages, and in towns or cities they inhabit different neighborhoods. The fact that primary education is in either Tamil or Sinhala effectively segregates the children of the different communities at an early age. Business establishments run by, or catering to a specific ethnic group, tend to broadcast their ethnicity by signs either in Sinhala or Tamil, each of which possesses its own distinctive script. Sports teams tend to include members of only one community, while Buddhist and Hindu religious services are automatically limited to one ethnic group. Relatively few persons are fluent in both Tamil and Sinhala, and accents betray which native community a person belongs to very quickly. Countering the intense pressures favoring segregation, however, are official government policies that treat all citizens equally and numerous personal networks within neighborhoods and among individuals that link members of different ethnic groups and foster friendships.
Ethnic segregation is reinforced by fears that ethnic majorities will try to dominate positions of influence and repress the religious, linguistic, or cultural systems of minorities. The Sinhalese are the overwhelming majority of residents within Sri Lanka, but they feel intimidated by the large Tamil population in nearby India; the combined Tamil populations of India and Sri Lanka outnumber the Sinhalese at least four to one. The recent memories of Tamil prominence in colonial and postcolonial administration, combined with a modern renaissance in Tamil consciousness in south India, are constant reminders of the potential power of the Tamil community. The Sinhalese feel quite isolated as the only group in the world speaking their language and professing their variant of Theravada Buddhism. The Tamils, on the other hand, are a minority within Sri Lanka. They cannot be sure of Indian support, and they experience increasing restrictions on social mobility as the Sinhalese majority increases its hold on the government. AntiTamil riots and military actions in the 1980s alienated a large sector of the Tamil community. In the middle are the Muslims, who speak Tamil but whose religious and cultural systems are alien to both other ethnic groups. Muslim leaders increasingly seek to safeguard the cultural heritage of their own community by adopting a public stance of ethnic confrontation.
When the Portuguese began to trade extensively with South Asia, they quickly noticed a fundamental difference between South Asian societies and those of other world areas. In India and Sri Lanka, societies are broken up into a large number of groups who do not intermarry, who are ranked in relation to each other, and whose interactions are governed by a multitude of ritualized behaviors. The Portuguese called these groups casta, from which the English term caste is derived. In South Asia, they are described by the term jati, or birth. According to traditional culture, every person is born into a particular group that defines his or her unchangeable position within society.
One of the most basic concepts underlying caste is purity. On one level this idea translates into a concern for personal hygiene, but the concept ultimately refers to a psychic or spiritual purity that lies beyond the physical body. A religious interpretation associated with Indian thought asserts that personal salvation or enlightenment is the ultimate goal of life, and that the individual goes through many lives and experiences before attaining sufficient knowledge to transcend the material world. Those beings who have gone farther on this road to enlightenment have purified their consciousness and regulate their lives in order to prevent more gross experiences from interfering with their progress toward salvation. Those groups of people whose life-styles are the purest are farthest along on the spiritual road and are most deserving of respect. These ideas about purity offer a rationale for dividing society into a large number of groups, ranked according to the purity of their lifestyles or occupations. The persons in each group must be careful to preserve the relative purity of their own group and to avoid close contact with persons of lower purity; otherwise, they may sully or "pollute" themselves or the members of purer groups.
The idea of psychic purity blends with a series of traditional notions about pure or polluting substances and about behaviors and rituals, resulting in a rich system that explains caste segregation and modes of caste interaction. It is possible for people to transmit their qualities to others by touching them or by giving them objects. In extreme cases, even the shadow of a very low-caste individual can pollute an individual of the highest, priestly castes. If the physical contact is intimate or if people have manipulated certain objects for a long time, the intensity of the transmitted qualities increases. Simple objects such as tools, for example, may change hands between persons of different caste without problem. Food, however, which actually enters and becomes part of a person's body, is a more serious matter. Cooked food, involving processing and longer periods of contact, is more problematic than uncooked food. There is thus a series of prohibitions on the sharing of food between members of different castes. Members of higher castes may avoid taking food from members of lower castes, although lower-caste persons may not mind taking food from members of the higher orders. The most intimate contact is sexual because it involves the joining of two bodies and the transmission of the very substances that determine caste for life. Sexual contact between persons of different castes is discouraged, and intercaste marriage is rare. When intercaste sexual affairs do occur, they are almost always between men of higher caste and women of lower caste, for it is less polluting to send forth substances than to receive them. In the distant past, women who had sexual contact with men of lower caste were killed, and they would still be ostracized today in some villages. When polluting contacts occur between members of different castes, personal purity may be restored by performing cleansing rituals. In general, these concepts of purity prevent partaking of meals together and intermarriage between different castes, regulate intercaste relations through a wide variety of ritual behaviors, and preserve deep-seated social cleavages throughout Sri Lanka.
There has been a strong tendency to link the position of different castes in the social hierarchy to their occupations. Groups who wash clothes or who process waste, thus coming in contact with undesirable substances from many persons, are typically given low status. In both Hindu and Buddhist thought, the destruction of life is very ignoble, because it extinguishes other beings struggling for consciousness and salvation. This idea has rationalized views of fishermen or leather workers, who kill animals, as low and impure groups. In many cases, however, the labeling of an occupational group as a caste with a particular status has depended on historical developments rather than theories of purity. As the village farming economy spread over time, many tribal societies probably changed from hunters and gatherers to low-status service castes, ranked below the landowning farmers. Many poor agricultural laborers in Sri Lanka remain members of low castes as well. Other immigrant groups came to Sri Lanka, fit into particular occupational niches, and became known as castes with ranks linked to their primary occupations. Castes with members who accumulated wealth and power have tended to rise gradually in their relative positions, and it is not uncommon for members of rising caste groups to adopt vegetarianism or patronize religious institutions in an attempt to raise their public ritual status.
The dominant caste among the Sinhalese population is the Goyigama. Although the government keeps no official statistics on caste, it appears that the Goyigama comprise at least half the Sinhalese population. The traditional occupation of this caste is agriculture, and most members are still peasant farmers in villages almost everywhere in Sri Lanka. In traditional Sinhalese society, they monopolized the highest positions at royal courts and among the landowning elite. In the democratic society of the twentieth century, their members still dominate the political scene. In most villages they might be no richer than their nonGoyigama neighbors, but the richest landlord groups tend to be Goyigama, while the poorest agricultural laborers tend to include few Goyigama.
In the Central Highlands, some traditions of the Kingdom of Kandy survived after its collapse in 1818, preserved in unique forms of the caste system until the postindependence period. The most important feature of the old system was rajakariya, or the "king's work," which linked each caste to a specific occupation and demanded services for the court and religious institutions. The connection of caste and job is still stronger in the Central Highlands, and at events such as the Kandy Perahera, an annual festival honoring gods and the Buddha, the various castes still perform traditional functions. The Goyigama in the highlands differ from those of the low country because they preserve divisions within the caste that derive from the official ranking of noble and commoner families in the old kingdom. Honorific titles hearkening back to ancestral homes, manors (vasagama), or noble houses (gedara) still marked the pedigrees of the old aristocracy in the 1980s, and marriages between members of these families and common Goyigama were rare. In the low country, these subcastes within the Goyigama have faded away, and high status is marked by European titles and degrees rather than the older, feudal titles.
There are still major differences between the caste structures of the highlands and those of the low country, although some service groups are common to both. The southwest coast is home to three major castes whose ancestors may have immigrated but who have become important actors in the Sinhalese social system: the Karava (fishermen), the Durava (toddy tappers), and the Salagama (cinnamon peelers). Originally of marginal or low status, these groups exploited their traditional occupations and their coastal positions to accumulate wealth and influence during the colonial period. By the late twentieth century, members of these castes had moved to all parts of the country, occupied high business and academic positions, and were generally accorded a caste rank equal to or slightly below the Goyigama. The highland interior is home to the Vahumpura, or traditional makers of jaggery (a sugar made from palm sap), who have spread throughout the country in a wide variety of occupations, especially agriculture. In the Kandy District of the highlands live the Batgam (or Padu), a low caste of agricultural laborers, and the Kinnara, who were traditionally segregated from other groups because of their menial status. Living in all areas are service groups, such as the Hena (Rada), traditional washermen who still dominate the laundry trade; the Berava, traditional temple drummers who work as cultivators in many villages; and the Navandanna (Acari), traditional artisans. In rural environments, the village blacksmith or washerman may still belong to the old occupational caste groups, but accelerating social mobility and the growing obsolescence of the old services are slowly eroding the link between caste and occupation.
The caste system of the Sri Lankan Tamils resembles the system of the Sinhalese, but the individual Tamil castes differ from the Sinhalese castes. The dominant Tamil caste, constituting well over 50 percent of the Tamil population, are the Vellala. Like the Goyigama, members are primarily cultivators. In the past, the Vellala formed the elite in the Jaffna kingdom and were the larger landlords; during the colonial period, they took advantage of new avenues for mobility and made up a large section of the educated, administrative middle class. In the 1980s, the Vellala still comprised a large portion of the Tamil urban middle class, although many well-off families retained interests in agricultural land. Below the Vellala, but still high in the Tamil caste system, are the Karaiya, whose original occupation was fishing. Like the Sinhalese Karava, they branched out into commercial ventures, raising their economic and ritual position during the nineteenth century. The Chetti, a group of merchant castes, also have a high ritual position. In the middle of the caste hierarchy is a group of numerically small artisan castes, and at the bottom of the system are more numerous laboring castes, including the Palla, associated with agricultural work.
The caste system of the Tamils is more closely tied to religious bases than the caste system of the Sinhalese. Caste among the Sri Lankan Tamils derives from the Brahman-dominated system of southern India. The Brahmans, a priestly caste, trace their origins to the dawn of Indian civilization (ca. 1500 B.C.), and occupy positions of the highest respect and purity because they typically preserve sacred texts and enact sacred rituals. Many conservative Brahmans view the caste system and their high position within it as divinely ordained human institutions. Because they control avenues to salvation by officiating at temples and performing rituals in homes, their viewpoint has a large following among traditionally minded Hindus. The standards of purity set forth by the Brahmanical view are so high that some caste groups, such as the Paraiyar (whose name came into English as "pariah"), have been "untouchable," barred from participation in the social functions or religious rituals of other Hindus. Untouchability also has been an excuse for extreme exploitation of lower-caste workers.
Although Brahmans in Sri Lanka have always been a very small minority, the conservative Brahmanical world-view has remained strong among the Vellala and other high castes. Major changes have occurred, however, in the twentieth century. Ideas of equality among all people, officially promoted by the government, have combined with higher levels of education among the Tamil elites to soften the old prejudices against the lowest castes. Organizations of low-caste workers have engaged in successful militant struggles to open up employment, education, and Hindu temples for all groups, including former untouchables.
The Indian Tamils are predominantly members of low castes from southern India, whose traditional occupations were agricultural labor and service for middle and high castes. Their low ritual status has reinforced their isolation from the Sinhalese and from the Sri Lankan Tamils.
The divisions between the castes are reaffirmed on a daily basis, especially in rural areas, by many forms of language and etiquette. Each caste uses different personal names and many use slightly different forms of speech, so it is often possible for people to determine someone's caste as soon as the person begins speaking. Persons of lower rank behave politely by addressing their superiors with honorable formulas and by removing their headgear. A standard furnishing in upper caste rural houses is a low stool (kolamba), provided so that members of lower castes may take a lower seat while visiting. Villages are divided into separate streets or neighborhoods according to caste, and the lowest orders may live in separate hamlets. In times past, low-caste persons of both sexes were prohibited from covering their upper bodies, riding in cars, or building large homes. These most offensive forms of discrimination were eliminated by the twentieth century after extensive agitation.
Outside the home, most social interactions take place without reference to caste. In villages, business offices, and factories, members of different groups work together, talking and joking freely, without feeling uncomfortable about their caste inequalities. The modern urban environment makes excessive concern about caste niceties impossible; all kinds of people squeeze onto buses with few worries about intimate personal contact. Employment, health, and educational opportunities are officially open to all, without prejudice based on caste. In urban slums, the general breakdown of social organization among the destitute allows a wide range of intercaste relationships. Despite the near invisibility of caste in public life, castebased factions exist in all modern institutions, including political parties, and when it comes to marriage--the true test of adherence to ritual purity--the overwhelming majority of unions occur between members of the same caste.
Among all ethnic and caste groups, the most important social unit is the nuclear family--husband, wife, and unmarried children. Even when economic need causes several families (Sinhala, ge; Tamil, kudumbam) or generations to live together, each wife will maintain her own cooking place and prepare food for her own husband as a sign of the individuality of the nuclear family. Among all sections of the population, however, relatives of both the wife and the husband form an important social network that supports the nuclear family and encompasses the majority of its important social relations. The kindred (pavula, in Sinhala) of an individual often constitute the people with whom it is possible to eat or marry. Because of these customs, local Sinhalese society is highly fragmented, not only at the level of ethnic group or caste, but also at the level of the kindred.
The kinship systems of Sri Lanka share with most of South Asia and the Middle East the institution of preferred crosscousin marriage. This means that the most acceptable person for a young man to marry is the daughter of his father's sister. The most suitable partner for a young woman is the son of her mother's brother. Parallel cousins--the son of the father's brother or the daughter of the mother's sister--tend to be improper marriage partners. There is a close and special relationship between children and their aunts or uncles, who may become their fathers- or mothers-in-law. Special kinship terminology exists in both Tamil and Sinhalese for relatives in preferred or prohibited marriage categories. In many villages, people spend their entire childhood with a clear knowledge of their future marriage plans and in close proximity to their future spouses. The ties between cross-cousins are so close in theory that persons marrying partners other than their crosscousins may include a special ritual in their marriage ceremonies during which they receive permission from their cousins to marry an outsider. The system of cross-cousin marriage is ideally suited to maintaining the closed ritual purity of an extended kinship group and retaining control over property within a small circle of relatives.
The vast majority of marriages in Sri Lanka are monogamous, that is, they involve one woman and one man. Unions between one man and more than one woman (polygyny) are neither illegal nor unknown, however, and wealthy men can take several wives if they can afford to support the families. Unions involving one woman and more than one man (polyandry) are also legal and possible.
In the Kandyan region, descent and inheritance are traced through both spouses: both husband and wife possess their own property and may bequeath at in equal shares to their descendants. In the low country, where Dutch Roman Law is in effect, marriages create joint property between husband and wife, which on their death is divided among their heirs. On the east coast, Tamil Muslim families trace descent and inheritance through the mother, and men will typically reside with their inlaws . There is a preference for living near the husband's family in most areas of the country, although a family with no sons may prefer that a son-in-law live nearby and manage their lands. Among all the variations of inheritance and descent, the husband is typically the manager of the nuclear family's property and represents his family in most public duties and functions.
In the rural areas of Sri Lanka, traditional marriages did not require a wedding ceremony or legal registration of the union. The man and the woman simply started living together, with the consent of their parents (who were usually related to one another). This type of customary marriage still survives, although it has been declining in recent years. In 1946, about 30 percent of marriages in Sri Lanka were not registered, but in 1981 that figure had declined to 10 percent. Most such unions were concentrated along the north and east coasts and in the Central Highlands. Legal divorce is easy to obtain, and divorces of customary marriages occur through mutual consent of the partners in consultation with their extended families. Most marriages, however, are quite stable because of the considerable social pressure and support exerted by kindred of both the husband and the wife. In 1981 the divorce rate per 10,000 persons amounted to only 30.5.
Most Sri Lankan families have small means and do not spend large sums on wedding parties. Among wealthier families in both the countryside and the cities, marriages occur more often between families that were not previously related, and more elaborate ceremonies take place. In such cases the bride may receive a substantial dowry, determined beforehand during long negotiations between her family and her future in-laws. Preceding these well-publicized affairs are detailed discussions with matchmakers and astrologers who pick the most auspicious times for the marriage. Except for some of the well-educated urban elite, the parents arrange all marriages, although their children may meet future spouses and veto a particularly unattractive marriage. The average age at marriage has been increasing in recent years because of longer periods required for education and establishing a stable career. In 1981 the average age of grooms was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and the average age of brides was twenty-four. Betrothals arranged by parents could begin much earlier, and in rural areas marriages between persons in their early teens still occurred. Whatever the arrangements, however, marriage and the propagation of children were the desired state for all groups, and by age thirty-nine, 86 percent of both sexes had married at least once.
All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka preserve clear distinctions in the roles of the sexes. Women are responsible for cooking, raising children, and taking care of housework. In families relying on agriculture, women are in charge of weeding and help with the harvest, and among poor families women also perform full-time work for the more well-to-do. The man's job is to protect women and children and provide them with material support, and in this role men dominate all aspects of business and public life. At the center of the system are children, who mix freely until puberty and receive a great deal of affection from both sexes. As they enter their teens, children begin to adopt the adult roles that will keep them in separate worlds: girls help with household chores and boys work outside the home. Among the middle- and upper-income groups, however, education of children may last into their early twenties, and women may mix with males or even take on jobs that were in the past reserved for men. There has been a tendency to view the educational qualifications of women as a means for obtaining favorable marriage alliances, and many middle-class women withdraw from the workplace after marriage.
The founder of Buddhism was a man named Siddartha Gautama, a prince of the Sakya clan in what is now Nepal during the sixth century B.C. Popular stories of his life include many miraculous events: before his birth his mother experienced visions that foretold his future greatness; when he was born, he could immediately walk and talk; wise men who encountered the child predicted that he would become either a great sage or a great emperor. Behind these legends is the tale of a young man reared in luxury, who began to question the meaning of life. At the age of thirty, he abandoned his home (including his beautiful wife and child) and wandered throughout northeast India as a beggar, searching for truth.
Gautama studied under several religious teachers and became adept at techniques of meditation and self-imposed austerity. Finally, he sat down under a bo (pipal) tree and resolved not to move from that spot until he had achieved perfect enlightenment. He entered into deeper and deeper concentration, until he finally reached an understanding of the nature of existence and the purpose of life. He thus became the one who knows, the Buddha (from the verb budh, to know or understand). At first he debated whether other beings would be able to comprehend the knowledge that he had gained, but compassion moved him to bring his message to the world and lead others to enlightment. He spent the next fifty years traveling throughout northeast India, discussing his knowledge with all sorts of people. By the end of his life, his message and example had attracted large numbers of converts, from kings to beggars, from rich men to robbers. At his death around 483 B.C., he left behind a dedicated group of disciples who carried on his work.
The Buddha summed up his message in Four Noble Truths that still form the core of Buddhist belief. The first truth is that life is suffering (dukkha). The material world, thoughts, emotions, and ideas are all transitory and do not express or contain any eternal truths. All beings repeatedly experience pain and loss as they pass through innumerable lives, never able to emerge from a conditioned existence (samsara) created through their own consciousness. The second truth describes the cause of suffering as attachment to the world and the products of one's own consciousness. This attachment, or craving for existence, causes beings to create mental views of the world and believe they are correct, to form relationships with other beings, to struggle and desire. Such efforts are in vain because none of these strategies allows them to escape from their limited, suffering world. The third truth says that the way to break the limiting trap of samsara is to stop attachment. Once one has concentrated awareness so intensely that all material and spiritual phenomena appear empty, without real substance, then existence becomes liberated and suffering ceases. The fourth truth is the Noble Eightfold Path of behavior, which roots out attachment and the conditioned view of the world and leads toward the state of enlightenment ( nibbana) gained by the Buddha. The true follower of the Buddha rejects the world, becomes a full-time searcher after truth, and practices meditation that concentrates awareness.
In the absence of the Buddha, the custodian of his message is the assembly (sangha) of monks who carry on his work. The members of the Buddhist assembly practice the discipline (vinaya) set forth by the Buddha as a system of rules for a monastic order. The discipline calls for strict control over the senses and dedicated meditation by the individual monk (bhikku). Following the Buddha's example, the monk should spend the morning begging for food from the lay community, then abstain from meals after noon. He should shave his head, wear orange (or yellow) robes, and own only his clothes and a begging bowl. He should avoid all sexual contact or any other forms of sensual pleasure. The bhikku should rest in one place for an extended period only during the rainy season, when groups of mendicants may stay together in communal houses (vihara). Elaborate rules evolved for admitting novices to the monastic community and conferring ordination on bhikku who passed through a period of initiation and training. The strict organization of the monastic order created a solid basis for the preservation of the Buddha's message and a readily adaptable institution that was transplanted in a variety of social environments throughout Asia.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka has its roots deep in one of the earliest variants of Buddhism that survives in the world today. The Sinhalese call their beliefs Theravada, or "the doctrine of the elders." Their tradition, frequently described as Hinayana (meaning "lesser vehicle"), preserves a clear understanding of the Buddha as a man who achieved enlightenment and developed monks (arhat) as accomplished followers of his teachings. This tradition differs from the more widespread Mahayana ("great vehicle"), which often treats the Buddha as a superhuman being and fills the universe with a pantheon of enlightened figures (bodhisattvas) who help others achieve enlightenment. In Sri Lanka, people do not officially worship the Buddha, but show reverence to his memory. The most striking expressions of public reverence are dagoba or thupa (stupa), large mounds built over sites where relics of the Buddha or a great monk are buried. The dagoba in Sri Lanka preserve a spherical shape and a style of architectural embellishment that link them directly to the monuments originally erected over the Buddha's remains in ancient India. The traditions of the Sinhalese indicate that their oldest dagoba are at least 2,000 years old, from a period when genuine relics of the Buddha came to Sri Lanka. The conservative nature of Sinhalese Buddhism is strengthened through the preservation and living tradition of ancient scriptures in the Pali language. A dialect related to Sanskrit, the classical language of India, Pali is probably close to the popular language in northeastern India during the Buddha's time. The monks of Sri Lanka have kept alive an unbroken Pali transmission of monastic rules, stories of the Buddha's life, and philosophical treatises that may constitute the oldest body of written Buddhist traditions.
For people who do not become monks, the most effective method of progressing on the road to enlightenment is to accumulate merit (pin) through moral actions. One who performs duties faithfully in this world, who supports the monastic order, and who is compassionate to other living beings may hope to achieve a higher birth in a future life, and from that position accumulate sufficient merit and knowledge to achieve enlightenment. Meritorious activities include social service, reverence of the Buddha at shrines or at dagoba, and pilgrimage to sacred places. Gifts to monks rank among the most beneficial meritmaking activities. Lay devotees invite monks to major events, such as a death in the family or the dedication of a building, and publicly give them food and provisions. In return, the monks perform pirit, the solemn recitation of Pali Buddhist scriptures. Although the average person may not understand a word of the ancient language, simply hearing the words and bestowing presents on the monks accumulates merit for the family or even for deceased family members. Some wealthy donors may hold giftgiving ceremonies simply for the public accumulation of merit. The monks thus perform important roles for the laity at times of crisis or accomplishment, and they serve as a focus for public philanthropy.
There is no central religious authority in Theravada Buddhism, and the monastic community has divided into a number of orders with different styles of discipline or recruitment. The broad outlines of the modern orders originated in the eighteenth century. By that time, monastic personnel came entirely from the upper levels of the Goyigama caste, and enjoyed easy lives as recipients of income from monastic estates worked by lower castes. The official line of monastic ordination had been broken, since monks at that time no longer knew the Pali tradition. In 1753 the Kandyan king fulfilled his duty as a protector of Buddhism by arranging for Theravada monks from Thailand to ordain Sinhalese novices. These initiates set up a reformed sect known as the Siyam Nikaya (the Siamese order), which invigorated the study and propagation of the ancient Sinhalese heritage. The order remained a purely Goyigama enclave. By the nineteenth century, members of rising low-country castes were unhappy with Goyigama monopoly over the sangha, and rich merchants arranged for Karava youths to receive ordination from Thai monks. These initiates formed a new sect called the Amarapura Nikaya, that subsequently split along caste lines. Disputes over doctrinal matters and the role of meditation led to the establishment of another order, the Ramanna Nikaya, in the late nineteenth century. In the 1980s, the Sinhalese sangha of 20,000 monks fell into three major orders, subdivided into "families": the Siyam Nikaya contained six divisions; the Amarapura Nikaya, twenty-three; and the Ramanna Nikaya, two. Each family maintained its own line of ordination traced back to great teachers and ultimately to the Buddha. Caste determined membership in many of the sects.
The members of the Buddhist monastic community preserve the doctrinal purity of early Buddhism, but the lay community accepts a large body of other beliefs and religious rituals that are tolerated by the monks and integrated into Sinhalese religion. Many of the features of this popular religion come from Hinduism and from very old traditions of gods and demons. Sinhalese Buddhism is thus a syncretic fusion of various religious elements into a unique cultural system.
There is a thin boundary between reverence for the Buddha's memory and worship of the Buddha as a god, and the unsophisticated layperson often crosses this line by worshiping him as a transcendent divine being. The relics of the Buddha, for example, have miraculous powers; the literature and folklore of the Sinhalese are full of tales recounting the amazing events surrounding relics. During the construction of a Buddha image, the painting of the eyes is an especially important moment when the image becomes "alive" with power. At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, where the Buddha's Tooth Relic is enshrined, rituals include elements from Hindu temple worship, such as feeding and clothing of the Buddha. In general, devotees believe that the Buddha's enlightenment makes him an all-powerful being, able to control time and space and all other supernatural beings.
The Buddha is so pure and powerful that he does not intervene personally in the affairs of the world. That is the job of a pantheon of gods (deva) and demons (yakka) who control material and spiritual events. The Buddha never denied the existence of the gods or demons, but said that attention to these matters simply detracts from concentration on the path to enlightenment. The Sinhalese believe that the all-powerful Buddha has given a warrant (varan) to a variety of spiritual entities that allows them to regulate reality within set boundaries (sima). For help in matters of everyday life, the Sinhalese petition these spiritual entities rather than the Buddha. Near many dagoba, or shrines of the Buddha, there are separate shrines (devale) for powerful deities. After reverencing the Buddha, devotees present prayers and petitions to the gods for help with daily life. The shrines for the gods have their own priests (kapurala), who practice special rituals of purification that allow them to present offerings of food, flowers, or clothing to the gods. Propitiation of demons occurs far away from Buddhist shrines and involves special rituals featuring the assistance of exorcists.
The popularity of different deities changes over time, as people come to see particular deities as more effective in solving their problems. The principal gods include Vishnu (also a Hindu god, identified by Buddhists as a bodhisattva, or "enlightened being," who helps others attain enlightenment), Natha, Vibhisana, Saman (the god of Adams Peak and its vicinity), and the goddess Pattini (originally an ordinary woman whose devotion to her husband, immortalized in poetry, elevated her to divine rank). During the twentieth century, the god Vibhisana has declined in popularity while the god Kataragama, named after his hometown in Moneragala District, has become extremely powerful. The annual Kataragama festival brings tens of thousands of worshipers to his small town, including Hindus who worship him as a manifestation of the god Murugan and Muslims who worship at the mosque there. This common devotion to sacred sites and sacred persons is one of the most important features of popular religion in Sri Lanka.
Another example of this religious syncretism is the cult of Sri Lanka's leading oracle, Gale Bandara Deviyo, who originally was a Muslim prince slain by the Sinhalese to prevent his accession to the throne. He is revered by Buddhists and Muslims alike at his shrine in the town of Kurunegala (in Kurunegala District). As transportation and communication facilities have expanded in modern Sri Lanka, there has been a big expansion of major pilgrimage sites that are jointly patronized by Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, thus providing a commonality that may lead to closer cultural cooperation among competing ethnic groups.
Buddhism plays an eminent political role in Sri Lanka and serves as a unifying force for the Sinhalese majority . Although the monks must renounce worldliness, they of necessity maintain close relationships with the lay community, whose members must supply them with food, shelter, and clothing. During the past century, as Sinhalese nationalism fueled lay devotion to Buddhism, there was a proliferation of lay support organizations, such as the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society, the All-Ceylon Buddhist Women's Association, and the Young Men's Buddhist Association. The state has similarly retained close ties with the sangha. Since the time of Asoka, the first great Indian emperor (third century B.C.), the head of state has been seen by Buddhist thinkers as the official protector of Buddhism, the "turner of the wheel of the law". One of the recurring problems in the history of Sri Lanka has been a definition of the state as the official supporter of Buddhism, which in turn has been the religion of the ethnic Sinhalese. To be successful among the Sinhalese, a government must provide visible signs of its allegiance to the sangha by building or maintaining dagoba, judging disputes among the orders of monks, and fostering education in the Pali Buddhist tradition.
Individual monks and entire sects have involved themselves in party politics, but seldom do all families and orders unite behind a coherent policy. When they do unite, they are a potent political force. In 1956, for example, a rare union of monastic opinion gave crucial support to the election of the Sinhalese political leader Solomon West Ridgeway Diaz (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike. As of 1988, the sangha controlled extensive estates in the interior of Sri Lanka and retained an independent power base that, combined with high status in the eyes of the Sinhalese population, gave the Buddhist orders influence as molders of public opinion. Monks remained prominent at rallies and demonstrations promoting ethnic Sinhalese issues.
Whereas Buddhism claims a historical founder, a basic doctrine, and a formal monastic structure, Hinduism embraces a vast and varied body of religious belief, practice, and organization. In its widest sense, Hinduism encompasses all the religious and cultural systems originating in South Asia, and many Hindus actually accept the Buddha as an important sectarian teacher or as a rebel against or reformer of ancient Hindu culture. The medieval Arabs first used the term Hindu to describe the entire cultural complex east of the Sindhu, or Indus, River (in contemporary Pakistan). Hindu beliefs and practices in different regions claim descent from common textual sources, while retaining their regional individuality. In Sri Lanka, Hinduism is closely related to the distinctive cultural systems of neighboring Tamil Nadu.
Classical Hinduism includes as a central tenet of belief the concept of nonviolence (ahimsa), a concept that was of great importance to the Buddha and to such reformers as Mahatma Gandhi some 2,500 years later. Veneration of pure life, especially of the cow, has come to be intimately associated with orthodox Hinduism of all sects. The cow is regarded as, among other things, the sacred embodiment of motherhood and fruitfulness. The deliberate killing of a cow is scarcely less terrible than the killing of a Brahman. For the miscreant it results in immediate and irrevocable outcasting; even the accidental killing of a cow requires elaborate purification ceremonies.
The earliest and most sacred sources of Hinduism are the Vedas, a compilation of hymns originating in northern India around 1,500 B.C. They are the oldest surviving body of literature in South Asia, created by the culture of the Arya (the "noble" or "pure" ones) in northwest India. Composed in an archaic form of the Sanskrit language, the Vedas were sung by a caste of priests (Brahmans) during sacrifices for the ancient gods. Families of Brahmans have passed down the oral recitation of these hymns for thousands of years, and Brahman claims to high status ultimately rest on their association with Vedic hymns. The vast majority of Hindus know almost nothing of Sanskrit or the Vedas, but even in the late twentieth century Brahmans frequently officiate at important ceremonies such as weddings, reciting ancient hymns and making offerings into sacred flames.
By the time of the Buddha, intellectual speculations gave rise to philosophical concepts that still influence all of South Asia. These speculations became books called Upanishads, originally written as commentaries on the Vedas but later viewed as sacred works in their own right. The Upanishads discuss brahman, an impersonal, eternal force that embodies all good and all knowledge. The individual "soul," or atman, partakes of the same qualities as brahman but remains immersed in ignorance. Action (karma) is the cause of its ignorance; reason continually searches for meaning in the material world and in its own mental creations, instead of concentrating on brahman, the one true reality. The individual soul, immersed in action, migrates from life to life, until it achieves identity with brahman and is released. There is a close relationship between the Buddha's understanding of suffering and enlightenment, and the ideas of atman, karma, and brahman that became basic to Hindu philosophy. The Buddha, however, claimed that even the idea of the soul was a mental construct of no value, whereas Hindu thought has generally preserved a belief in the soul.
As India became a major center of civilization with extensive political and economic systems, Hinduism became associated with new visions of the gods and worship in temples. Tamil Nadu was a major center of this transformation. By about A.D. 1000, the Tamils had reworked Brahmanical culture into a southern Indian type of devotional (bhakti) religion. This religion claimed to be based on the Vedas and the philosophy of the Upanishads, but its roots lay just as deep in strong attachments to local deities and a desire for salvation (moksha) through their intercession.
Several gods predominate in the many myths, legends, and styles of worship. One of the main Hindu gods is Vishnu, often represented as a divine king accompanied by his beautiful wife, Lakshmi, the bestower of wealth and good fortune. Besides presiding as a divine monarch, Vishnu periodically descends to earth, assuming a physical form to help beings attain salvation. Vishnu has ten main incarnations, two of which--Rama and Krishna- -are particularly popular. Rama was a great hero, whose exploits in rescuing his wife from the demon king of Lanka are recounted in the epic Ramayana. Vishnu's most popular incarnation is Krishna, who combines in a single divine figure the mythic episodes of a warrior prince and a rustic cowherd god. As warrior, Krishna figures prominently in what is perhaps the single most important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he stresses the importance of doing one's duty and devotion to god. As divine cowherd, Krishna served as an inspiration for a vast body of religious poetry in Sanskrit and the regional South Asian languages. From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, Tamil devotees of Vishnu (alvars) composed poetry in praise of the god. These Tamil poems, collected in anthologies, are still recited during worship and festivals for Vishnu.
The second major Hindu deity, and by far the most important god among the Tamils in Sri Lanka, is Siva. He differs considerably from Vishnu. In many stories he reigns as a king, but often he appears as a religious ascetic, smeared with ashes, sitting on a tiger skin in the jungle, with a snake around his neck. He is the lord of animals. Although he is an ascetic, he is also a sexual figure, married to the beautiful Parvati (the daughter of the mountain), and his image is often a single rock shaped like a phallus (lingam). He is often a distant figure whose power is destructive, but paradoxically he is a henpecked husband who has to deal with family squabbles involving his sons. His devotees enjoy retelling his myths, but worshipers visualize him as a cosmic creator who will save his creatures when they have abandoned themselves totally to his love. One of the most powerful expressions of his creative role is the image of Nataraja, "Lord of the Dance," who gracefully manifests the rhythm of the universe. Great Tamil devotees (nayanmar) of the early middle ages created a large collection of poems dedicated to Siva and his holiest shrines. These collections are still revered among the Tamils as sacred scriptures on the same plane as the Vedas.
Female deities are very important among the Hindu Tamils. At temples for Siva or Vishnu there are separate shrines for the god and for his consort, and in many cases the shrine for the goddess (amman) receives much more attention from worshipers. Hindu philosophy interprets the goddess as the Shakti, or cosmic energy, of the god in the world and therefore the most immediate creative or destructive force, to be thanked or placated. Many of the manifestations of the goddess are capricious or violent, and she is often seen as a warrior who destroys demons on her own or whom Siva himself has to defeat in combat. As Mariamman, she used to bring smallpox, and she is still held responsible for diseases of the hot season.
In addition to the main gods, there are a number of subordinate divine beings, who are often the most popular deities. Ganesha, or Pillaiyar (or Ganapati), the elephant-headed son of Siva and Parvati, is the patron of good fortune and is worshiped at the beginning of a religious service or a new venture, such as a business deal or even a short trip. Murugan, his brother, is a handsome young warrior who carries a spear and rides a peacock. He is worshiped near hills or mountains, and his devotees are known for fierce vows and austerity that may include self-mutilation. Every village has its own protective deities, often symbolized as warriors, who may have their own local stories and saints.
Worship of the gods is known as puja. Worship can occur mentally or in front of the most rudimentary representations, such as stones or trees. Most people assemble pictures or small statues of their favorite deities and create small shrines in their homes for daily services, and they make trips to local shrines to worship before larger and more ornate statues. Public temples (kovil) consist of a central shrine containing images of the gods, with a surrounding courtyard and an enclosing wall entered through ornately carved towers (gopuram). During worship, the images become the gods after special rituals are performed. Worshipers then offer them presents of food, clothing, and flowers as they would honored guests. The gifts are sanctified through contact with the gods, and worshipers may eat the sacred food or smear themselves with sacred ash in order to absorb the god's grace. In public temples, only consecrated priests (pujari) are allowed into the sanctum housing the god's image, and worshipers hand offerings to the priests for presentation to the god. Most of the time, worship of the gods is not congregational, but involves offerings by individuals or small family groups at home or through temple priests. During major festivals, however, hundreds or thousands of people may come together in noisy, packed crowds to worship at temples or to witness processions of the gods through public streets.
The religion of Islam began, like Buddhism, with the experience of a single man, but the religious environment of early Islam was the Judeo-Christian world of Arabia. Many of the basic premises and beliefs of Islam are thus quite different than those of Buddhism or Hinduism and more closely resemble the systems of Judaism or Christianity. During the last 1,000 years, however, Islam has played a major part in the cultures of South and Southeast Asia, including Sri Lanka. Islam in Sri Lanka has preserved the doctrines derived from Arabia, while adapting to the social environment of South Asia.
During the early seventh century A.D., Muhammad experienced a series of messages from God in the city of Mecca, a trading center in western Arabia. He became a prophet, one of the line of Biblical prophets including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ (in Arabic, Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa), and he conveyed to the people of Mecca the last and greatest of the revelations given by God to the world. The message was simple and powerful: "submission" (Islam) to the mercy of a single, all-powerful God (Allah). God exists for eternity, but out of love he created the world and mankind, endowing both men and women with immortal souls. Human beings have only one life, and when it ends their souls go to either heaven or hell according to their behavior on earth. Correct behavior is known through the revelation of prophets inspired by God, and Muhammad is the last of these prophets. To believe in Islam, to become "one who submits" (a Muslim), one must accept the will of the one true God and the message of Muhammad, which is encapsulated in the shahada: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet." His message is immortalized in the Quran, a series of revelations conveyed by the angel Gabriel, and in the hadith, the sayings and example of the prophet Muhammad.
Muhammad described some of the most important actions necessary for a believer who wished to submit to God's love and will. In addition to commandments against lying, stealing, killing and other crimes, the moral code includes prayer five times daily, fasting, giving alms to the poor, pilgrimage to Mecca if financially possible, abstention from gambling and wine, and dietary restrictions similar to those of Judaism. The Prophet linked behavior to salvation so closely that bodies of Islamic law (sharia) grew up in order to interpret all human activity according to the spirit of the Quran. In practice, to be a Muslim requires not simply a belief in God and in Muhammad's status as the final prophet, but acceptance of the rules of Islamic law and following them in one's own life. Islam thus encompasses a rich theology and moral system, and it also includes a distinctive body of laws and customs that distinguish Muslims from followers of other faiths. Islam is theoretically a democratic union of all believers without priests, but in practice scholars (ulama) learned in Islamic law interpret the Quran according to local conditions, legal officials (qazi) regulate Muslim life according to Islamic law, and local prayer leaders coordinate group recitation of prayers in mosques (masjid, or palli).
By the fifteenth century, Arab traders dominated the trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Some of them settled down along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, married local women, and spoke Arabized Tamil rather than pure Arabic. Their families followed Islam and preserved the basic doctrines and Islamic law, while also adopting some local social customs (such as matrilineal and matrilocal families) that were not part of early Islamic society in the Arabian Peninsula. When the Portuguese took control in the sixteenth century, they persecuted the Muslim traders of the southwest coast, and many Muslims had to relocate in the Central Highlands or on the east coast. They retained their separate religious identity, but also adopted some aspects of popular religion. For example, pilgrimage sites, such as Kataragama, may be the same for Muslims as for Hindus or Buddhists, although Muslims will worship at mosques rather than reverence the Buddha or worship Hindu gods.
The growth in ethnic consciousness during the last two centuries has affected the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Muslim revivalism has included an interest in the Arabic roots of the community, increased emphasis on the study of Arabic as the basis for understanding the Quran, and an emphasis on separate schools for Muslim children. Whether there should be an independent Islamic law for Muslims, preserving the distinct moral culture passed down from Muhammad, is a continuing issue. On a number of occasions, agitation has developed over attempts by the Sri Lankan government to regulate Muslim marriage and inheritance. In order to prevent further alienation of the Muslim community, in the 1980s the government handled its dealings with Muslims through a Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department.
According to Christian traditions, the Apostle Thomas was active in Sri Lanka as well as southern India during the first century A.D. Small Christian communities existed on the coasts of Sri Lanka during the succeeding centuries, flourishing on the edges of the Indian Ocean trade routes as Islam did in later times. Christianity made significant inroads only after the fifteenth century, as aggressive Portuguese missionary efforts led to many conversions, especially among the Karava and other low-country castes. When the Dutch took control of Sri Lanka, they encouraged their own missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church. Under their patronage, 21 percent of the population in the low country was officially Christian by 1722. The British, in turn, allowed Anglican and other Protestant missionaries to proselytize.
The relative number of Christians in Sri Lanka has declined steadily since the end of colonial rule. In 1900 a reported 378,859 people, or 10.6 percent of the population, were officially Christians. Although in 1980, the number of Christians had increased to 1,283,600, the percentage of Christians in the total population had declined to approximately 8 percent. This decline occurred primarily because the non-Christian population expanded at a faster rate. Emigration abroad, conversions of some Christians to Buddhism and fewer conversions to Christianity among Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims also were reasons for the decline. In the 1980s, Christians still were concentrated heavily in the low country in the southwest. They comprised 30 percent of the population in Colombo.
Some 88 percent of the Christians were Roman Catholics who traced their religious heritage directly to the Portuguese. The Roman Catholic Church has a well-established organization that encompasses the entire island. In 1985 there were 9 dioceses comprising 313 parishes, 682 priests, and 15 bishops (including two archbishops and a cardinal). The remainder of Christians were almost evenly split between the Anglican Church of Ceylon (with two dioceses) and other Protestant faiths. The Dutch Reformed Church, now the Presbytery of Ceylon, consisted mostly of Burghers, and its numbers were shrinking because of emigration. Other Christian communities--Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists--were small in number. Since the 1970s, there has been a movement of all Protestant Churches to join together in a united Church of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese community, however, has strenuously opposed this movement.
The education system of Sri Lanka until colonial times primarily was designed for a small elite in a society with relatively low technology. The vast majority of the population was illiterate or semiliterate. Among the Sinhalese, learning was the job of Buddhist monks. At the village level, literate monks would teach privileged students in the pansal, or temple school. The curriculum there, still taught to young children, included the Sinhala alphabet and memorization of elementary Buddhist literature--the Nam potha (Book of Names) of Buddhist shrines, the Magul lakuna (Book of Auspicious Symbols on the Buddha's body), and classic stories of the Buddha's life. The pursuit of higher education typically was reserved for men who became monks and took place at universities (pirivena) dedicated almost exclusively to memorization and commentary on the Pali scriptures. Among the Tamil population, village schools, which were located near temples, were run by literate Brahmans or educated Vellalas. Technical training was highly developed for students of the arts (such as architecture or sculpture); for engineers, who applied geometry to problems of irrigation; and for craftsmen in various trades. This training, however, was generally the preserve of closed corporations, castes, or families. Knowledge was often passed down from fathers to sons.
Although colonization brought European-style education to Sri Lanka, especially to prepare students for positions in the colonial administrations, few women went to school and most people remained uneducated. During the sixteenth century, Portuguese missionaries established up to 100 schools designed to foster a Roman Catholic culture among the growing Christian community in the low country. When the Dutch took over in 1656, they set up a well-organized system of primary schools to support the missionary efforts of the Dutch Reformed Church. By 1760 they had 130 schools with an attendance of nearly 65,000 students. The British takeover led to the closing of many Dutch schools and a short-term contraction of European-style education in the low country. By the mid-nineteenth century, government-funded schools and Christian schools were again expanding; in 1870, however, their combined student bodies had fewer than 20,000 students. Because they were educated in English, the graduates of the European-style schools, a large portion of them Christians from the low country in the southwest, went on to fill lower and middle-level positions in the colonial administration. Apart from the European-style schools, education continued through the traditional system in Tamil and Sinhala.
In 1870 a series of events revolutionized the education system in Sri Lanka. The government began to expand the number of state-run schools and instituted a program of grants for private schools that met official standards. Medical and law colleges were established in Colombo. There was a big increase in the number of students (which totalled more than 200,000 by 1900), but the lopsided development that had characterized the early nineteenth century became even more apparent by the early twentieth century. Private schools taught in English, which offered the best road for advancement, were dominated by Christian organizations, remained concentrated in the southwest, and attracted a disproportionate number of Christian and Tamil students. Although institutions that used Tamil and Sinhala continued to function as elementary schools, secondary institutions that taught exclusively in English attracted an elite male clientele destined for administrative positions. The education of women lagged behind; by 1921 the female literacy rate among the Christians was 50 percent, among the Buddhists 17 percent, among the Hindus 10 percent, and among the Muslims only 6 percent.
The colonial pattern began to change in the 1930s, after legislative reforms placed the Ministry of Education under the control of elected representatives. The government directly controlled an ever-larger proportion of schools (about 60 percent by 1947) and teacher-training colleges. As part of a policy to promote universal literacy, education became free in government schools, elementary and technical schools were set up in rural areas, and vernacular education received official encouragement. In 1942 with the establishment of the University of Ceylon, free education was available from kindergarten through the university level. When independence came in 1948, Sri Lanka had a welldeveloped education infrastructure. Although still hampered by gross ethnic, geographic, and gender inequalities, it formed the basis for a modern system.
Since independence in 1948, the government has made education one of its highest priorities, a policy that has yielded excellent results. Within a period of less than 40 years, the number of schools in Sri Lanka increased by over 50 percent, the number of students increased more than 300 percent, and the number of teachers increased by more than 400 percent. Growth has been especially rapid in secondary schools, which in 1985 taught 1.2 million students, or one-third of the student population. Teachers made up the largest government work force outside the plantation industry. The literate population has grown correspondingly, and by the mid1980s over 90 percent of the population was officially literate (87 percent for those above ten years of age), with near universal literacy among the younger population. This is by far the most impressive progress in South Asia and places Sri Lanka close to the leaders in education among developing nations.
The government has taken an ever larger role in education. Because private institutions no longer receive grants from the government, they are forced to charge fees while competing with free state-run schools. The percentage of students in the state system has grown constantly, and by the 1980s 99 percent of female students and 93 percent of male students at the primary school level were being trained in government-run schools. The government did not have a monopoly over education because Buddhist pansala and pirivena, Muslim schools, and Christian schools still thrived (the Roman Catholic Church alone operated several hundred institutions from kindergarten to secondary level, teaching over 80,000 children). The education system of the state, however, had an overwhelming influence on the majority of the population, especially the Sinhalese.
The state has tried to change the language of instruction in its primary and secondary schools from English to Tamil or Sinhala. By the 1960s, the vernacular languages were the primary medium in all government secondary schools. In the 1980s, English remained, however, an important key to advancement in technical and professional careers, and there was still competition among well-to-do families to place members in private English-language programs in urban areas. Ethnic minorities long associated with European-style education still formed a large percentage of the English-speaking elite. In the 1980s, for example, almost 80 percent of the Burghers knew English, while among the Sinhalese the English-speakers comprised only 12 percent.
Children from age five to ten attend primary school; from age eleven to fifteen they attend junior secondary school (terminating in Ordinary Level Examination); and from age sixteen to seventeen they attend senior secondary school (terminating in the Advanced Level Examination). Those who qualify can go on to the university system, which is totally state-run. In the late 1980s, there were 8 universities and 1 university college with over 18,000 students in 28 faculties, plus 2,000 graduate and certificate students. The university system included the University of Peradeniya, about six kilometers from Kandy, formed between 1940 and 1960; the universities of Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya, formed in the 1950s and 1960s from restructured pirivena; the College of Advanced Technology in Katubedda, Colombo District, formed in the 1960s; the Colombo campus of the University of Ceylon, created in 1967; the University of Ruhunu (1979); and Batticaloa University College (1981). There was also the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka, established in Colombo in 1982.
Among the major problems still facing the educational system in the late 1980s were a serious dropout rate in the primary grades and a continuing bias toward urban environments at the expense of the countryside. The median level of educational attainment in Sri Lanka was somewhere between grades 5 and 9, and almost 40 percent of the students dropped out of school after 9 years. The reasons were not hard to discern in a primarily agricultural society, where many young people were more urgently needed in the fields or at home than in school once they had achieved an operational level of literacy and arithmetic skills. Many urban youth from low-income backgrounds also dropped out at an early age. This pattern provided two-thirds of the students with an education through grade 5 but less than 10 percent of the population with a high school degree and less than 1 percent with a college diploma. Despite government efforts in the 1980s to expand opportunities for youth from rural areas and more sparsely inhabited districts, the pressures for early dropout were more pressing in precisely those areas where illiteracy was most prevalent. In Colombo, for example, the overall literacy rate was 94 percent in 1988, while in Amparai District it was only 75 percent. Rural schools were more widely scattered, with poor facilities and inadequate equipment, especially in the sciences. Teachers preferred not to work in the countryside, and many rural schools did not even go up to the level of twelfth grade.
The most dynamic field in education during the 1970s and 1980s was technical training. In the late 1980s, the Ministry of Higher Education operated a network of twenty-seven technical colleges and affiliated institutes throughout the country. Courses led to national diplomas in accountancy, commerce, technology, agriculture, business studies, economics, and manufacture. Other government institutions, including the Railway, Survey, and Irrigation Departments, ran their own specialized training institutes. The Ministry of Labour had three vocational and craft training institutes. The number of students in all state-run technical institutes by the mid-1980s was 22,000. In addition, the government operated schools of agriculture in four locations, as well as practical farm schools in each district. A continuing problem in all fields of technical education was extreme gender differentiation in job training; women tended to enroll in home economics and teaching courses rather than in scientific disciplines.
During the first fifteen years after independence, students sought a university degree primarily to qualify for service in government, which remained by far the major employer of administrative skills. Liberal arts, leading to the bachelor of arts degree, was the preferred area of study as a preparation for administrative positions. Because the university exams were conducted in English--the language of the elite--the potential pool of university applicants was relatively small, and only 30 percent of all applicants were admitted. By the mid-1960s, the examinations were conducted in Sinhala and Tamil, opening the universities to a larger body of applicants, many of whom were trained in the vernacular languages in state-run secondary schools. At the same time, university expansion slowed down because of lack of funds, and it became impossible to admit the increasing numbers of qualified candidates; by 1965 only 20 percent of applicants were admitted, and by 1969 only 11 percent. Those students who did manage to enter the university followed the traditional road to a bachelor's degree, until neither the government nor private enterprises could absorb the glut of graduates. In this way, the direction of educational expansion by the late 1960s led to two major problems surrounding the university system: the growing difficulty of admissions and the growing irrelevance of a liberal arts education to employment. The big losers were members of the Sinhalese community, who were finally able to obtain high school or university degrees, but who found further advancement difficult. Frustrated aspirations lay behind the participation of many students in the abortive uprising by the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna--JVP) in 1971.
During the colonial period and the two decades after independence, the Sri Lankan Tamil community--both Hindu and Christian--outstripped the Sinhalese community in the relative percentage of students in secondary schools and university bachelor of arts degree programs. As the government increasingly fell into the hands of the Sinhalese, however, possibilities for government service declined for Tamil students. Tamil secondary schools then used their strength in science curriculums to prepare their students in science and medicine, and by the 1960s Tamils dominated the university student bodies in those fields. Thus, at precisely the time when Sinhalese bachelor of arts candidates found their careers thwarted by changes in the job market, Tamil science students were embarking on lucrative professional careers. Sinhalese agitation aimed at decreasing the numbers of Tamil students in science and medical faculties became a major political issue.
Overt political favoritism did not eliminate the dominance of well-trained Tamil students until 1974, when the government instituted a district quota system of science admissions. When each district in the country had a number of reserved slots for its students, the Sinhalese community benefited because it dominated a majority of districts. Tamil admissions ratios remained higher than the percentage of Tamils in the population, but declined precipitously from previous levels. In the 1980s, 60 percent of university admissions were allocated according to district quotas, with the remaining 40 percent awarded on the basis of individual merit. This system guaranteed opportunity for all ethnic groups in rough approximation to their population throughout the country.
Although the admissions controversy and the quota system resulted in a more equitable distribution of opportunities for Sri Lankans in general, they damaged the prospects of many excellent Tamil students coming out of secondary schools. The education policies of the government were perceived by educated members of the Tamil community as blatant discrimination. Many Tamil youths reacted to the blockage of their educational prospects by supporting the Tamil United Liberation Front and other secessionist cells. Large-scale improvements in education had, paradoxically, contributed to ethnic conflict.
Sri Lanka has one of the most effective health systems among developing nations. The crude death rate in the early 1980s was 6 per 1,000, down from 13 per 1,000 in 1948 and an estimated 19 per 1,000 in 1871. The infant mortality rate registered a similar decline, from 50 deaths per 1,000 births in 1970 to 34 deaths per 1,000 births in the early 1980s. These figures placed Sri Lanka statistically among the top five Asian countries. Improvements in health were largely responsible for raising the average life span in the 1980s to sixty-eight years.
Traditional medicine ( ayurveda) is an important part of the health system in Sri Lanka. The basis of traditional medicine is the theory of "three humors" (tridhatu), corresponding to elements of the universe that make up the human body: air appears as wind, fire as bile, and water as phlegm. Imbalances among the humors (the "three ills," or tridosha) cause various diseases. The chief causes of the imbalances are excesses of heat or cold. Treatment of disease requires an infusion of hot or cold substances in order to reestablish a balance in the body. The definition of "hot" or "cold" rests on culturally defined norms and lists in ancient textbooks. For example, milk products and rice cooked in milk are cool substances, while certain meats are hot, regardless of temperature. Treatment may also involve a variety of herbal remedies made according to lore handed down from ancient times. Archaeological work at ancient monastic sites has revealed the antiquity of the traditional medical system; for example, excavations have revealed large tubs used to immerse the bodies of sick persons in healing solutions. Literate monks, skilled in ayurveda, were important sources of medical knowledge in former times. Village-level traditional physicians also remained active until the mid-twentieth century. In the late 1980s, as part of a free state medical system, government agencies operated health clinics specializing in ayurveda, employed over 12,000 ayurvedic physicians, and supported several training and research institutes in traditional medicine.
Western-style medical practices have been responsible for most of the improvements in health in Sri Lanka during the twentieth century. Health care facilities and staff and public health programs geared to combat infectious disease are the most crucial areas where development has taken place. The state maintains a system of free hospitals, dispensaries, and maternity services. In 1985 there were more than 3,000 doctors trained in Western medicine, about 8,600 nurses, 490 hospitals, and 338 central dispensaries. Maternity services were especially effective in reaching into rural areas; less than 3 percent of deliveries took place without the assistance of at least a paramedic or a trained midwife, and 63 percent of deliveries occurred in health institutions--higher rates than in any other South Asian nation. As is the case for all services in Sri Lanka, the most complete hospital facilities and highest concentration of physicians were in urban areas, while many rural and estate areas were served by dispensaries and paramedics. The emergency transport of patients, especially in the countryside, was still at a rudimentary level. Some progress has been made in controlling infectious diseases. Smallpox has been eliminated, and the state has been cooperating with United Nations agencies in programs to eradicate malaria. In 1985 Sri Lanka spent 258 rupees per person to fight the disease. Although the number of malaria cases and fatalities has declined, in 1985 more than 100,000 persons contracted the disease.
Sri Lanka had little exposure to Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) during the 1980s. As late as 1986, no Sri Lankan citizens had contracted the disease at home, but by early 1988 six cases had been diagnosed, including those of foreigners and of Sri Lankan citizens who had traveled abroad. Government regulations in the late 1980s required immediate expulsion of any foreigner diagnosed as an AIDS carrier, and by 1988 the government had deported at least one foreign AIDS victim. Government ministers have participated in international forums dealing with the problem, and the government formed a National Committee on AIDS Prevention in 1988.
Mortality rates in the late 1980s highlighted the gap that remained between the urban and rural sectors and the long way good medical care still had to go to reach the whole population. Over 40 percent of the deaths in urban areas were traced to heart or circulatory diseases, a trend that resembled the pattern in developed nations. Cancer, on the other hand, accounted for only about 6 percent of deaths, a pattern that did not resemble that of developed nations. Instead, intestinal infections, tuberculosis, and parasitic diseases accounted for 20 percent of urban deaths and over 12 percent of rural deaths annually. The leading causes of death in rural environments were listed as "ill-defined conditions" or "senility," reflecting the rather poor diagnostic capabilities of rural health personnel. Observers agreed that considerable work needed to be done to reduce infectious diseases throughout the country and to improve skilled medical outreach to rural communities.
In the late 1980s, vast differences remained in the wealth and life-styles of citizens in Sri Lanka. In urban areas, such as Colombo, entire neighborhoods consisted of beautiful houses owned by well-off administrators and businessmen. This elite enjoyed facilities and opportunities on a par with those of middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Europe or North America. In the countryside, families that controlled more extensive farms lived a rustic but healthy life, with excellent access to food, shelter, clothing, and opportunities for education and employment. In contrast, at lower levels in the class pyramid, the vast majority of the population experienced a much lower standard of living and range of opportunities. A sizable minority in both the cities and rural villages led a marginal existence, with inadequate food and facilities and poor chances for upward mobility.
Intervention by successive governments has had marginal success in decreasing the differences between income groups. In the rural sector, legislation has mandated a ceiling on private landownership and has nationalized plantations, but these programs have provided extra land to relatively few people. Although resettlement programs have benefitted hundreds of thousands of people, they have not kept pace with population growth. In rural environments, most people remained peasants with small holdings, agricultural laborers working for small wages on the lands of others, or landless plantation workers. Migration to the cities often did not lead to a great improvement in people's life-styles because most immigrants had little education and few skills. As a result, urban slums have proliferated; by the 1980s almost half the people in greater Colombo were living in slums and shanties. Because economic growth has not kept pace with these population changes, double-digit unemployment continued with the poorest sections of the urban and rural population suffering the most. A hard-core mass of poor and underemployed people, totalling between 20 and 25 percent of the population, remained the biggest challenge for the government.
Cramped and insufficient housing detracted from the quality of life in Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, most housing units in Sri Lanka were small: 33 percent had only one room, 33 percent two rooms, and 20 percent three rooms. More than five persons lived in the average housing unit, with an overcrowding rate (three or more persons per room) of 40 percent. In urban areas, permanent structures with brick walls, tiled roofs, and cement floors constituted 70 percent of houses, but in the countryside permanent houses made up only 24 percent of the units. The rural figures included a large number of village dwellings built of such materials as thatch, mud, and timber, designed according to traditional styles with inner courtyards, or verandas, and providing ample room for living and sleeping in the generally warm climate. The rates of overcrowding were declining in the 1980s, as the government sponsored intensive programs for increasing access to permanent housing.
Many of the infectious diseases that caused high mortality in Sri Lanka were water-borne, and improvements in water facilities occupied a high priority in government welfare programs of the 1980s and planning for the 1990s. In urban areas, about half the drinking water was piped and half came from wells, while in the countryside 85 percent of the water came from wells and 10 percent from unprotected, open sources. Almost one-third of the well water was also unprotected against backflows that could cause leakage of sewage. Only about one out of three houses had toilets. With help from United Nations Childrens' Fund (UNICEF), United States Agency for International Development (AID), Britain, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and the Netherlands, the government of Sri Lanka set a goal of clean, piped water and sewage facilities for the entire urban population and for at least half the rural population by 1990. Observers doubted, however, that this goal could be reached in the northern and eastern districts torn by ethnic conflict.
Food was another major issue. Beginning in the 1940s, the government ran a food subsidy program that paid farmers a minimum price for their crops and also operated a rationing system that allowed people to obtain rice at a guaranteed low price. The importance of this program to the people was dramatically demonstrated in 1953, when the state's attempt to reduce subsidies led to food riots and the fall of the government. Since 1979 when the subsidy program was abolished, the government has operated a food stamp scheme that allows people in lower-income brackets to obtain free rice, wheat flour, sugar, milk powder, condensed milk, dried fish, and kerosene for cooking. This program has reached almost half the population, accounting for approximately 7 percent of the state budget. The government also operated supplementary feeding programmes, including a School Biscuit Programme designed to reach malnourished children and a Thriposha Programme to provide for 600,000 needy infants, preschool children, and pregnant mothers. (Thriposha is a precooked, protein-fortified cereal food supplement.)
Despite government intervention in the food market, malnutrition continued to be a problem among the poor, the bottom 60 percent of the population who earned less than 30 percent of the national income. As in so many other sectors, the problem remained worse in rural areas, although urban slums possessed their own share of misery. In Colombo city and district, 1 or 2 percent of preschool children experienced severe symptoms of malnutrition, while the rate was 3 or 4 percent in Puttalam District. Mild forms of malnourishment, resulting in some stunted growth, affected around 33 percent of the young children in Colombo but up to 50 percent in rural Vavuniya or Puttalam districts. Malnutrition also affected adults: one out of three agricultural laborers consumed less than 80 percent of recommended calories daily. This problem became worse after the inflation of the early 1980s that reduced the real value of food stamps by up to 50 percent. Observers doubted that poverty and malnutrition would be alleviated during the 1980s or early 1990s, while the country experienced economic uncertainty and the government was forced to spend more on security matters.
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