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Govi, Govigama is the largest and the most influential caste in Sri Lanka. They and the Bathgama have traditionally been responsible for cultivation in accordance with the traditional tenure system of land-holding known as Rajakariya (duty).

While Govi, meaning paddy farmer, derives from the root word goyam, meaning paddy plant,[1] Govigama originated in the Dutch era. Traditionally all land was owned by the king and the rajakriya system meant you were duty bound to work the land.[2] Private land ownership by ordinary folk came about only after European colonisation.[3]

An 18th-century etching of cultivators fishing in a reservoir during the dry season, from An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon by Robert Knox(1641–1720)



The Govigama are a caste[4][5] whose traditional occupation is paddy cultivation, and they were the tenant farmers in the Sri Lankan feudal system. The Sinhalese caste system was based on the service to the king or 'raja kariya',[4] and land ownership. The monarch owned all the lands of the island and Govigama people cultivated these lands at his behest. The contribution to rice production and service in royal service gave Govigama people an important role in the ancient agrarian society. Kings are said to have participated in harvesting festivals held end of each Yala (dry) and Maha (wet) season.[6]

Only in the present era, it has been the norm that the head of the country is a Govigama caste member, though President Premadasa was not. Some Anglican Govigama that turned Buddhist in the past century popularized the myth that the colonial occupiers, including the Portuguese, Dutch and British, tried to change Govi dominance by giving prominence to other castes by granting government posts and education under them. Yet the evidence points other wise and the post monarch colonial era saw the rise of the ordinary/majority caste populace. The Dutch and the British introduced the ideas of Republicanism.

Many members of the Govigama community are still farmers in villages throughout Sri Lanka. However, some farmers other than rice farmers are not considered to be Govigama. A good example is the caste Salagama. Bathgama farmers are apparently a 'lesser' brand of rice farmer. Govigama women participate in the harvest work.


An important characteristic in the Sinhalese caste system is that the family name or the surname details the ancestry. The original name was given based on where one lived. Later, honorary terms, granted by the king based on a person's service to the kingdom, were added to the original name. This continued for generations and resulted in very long names. In general, Mudiyanselage , Appuhamilage among up country people, and Arachchilage , Vidanelage , Pathiranage among low country people, are considered to be names taken up by Govigama and others to improve their social standing, and these names were extended according to the ranking in the service of the kingdom. Further variations exist due to changes during the colonial period. Historic literature and inscriptional evidence from the feudal period show that this hierarchy prevailed throughout the feudal period until the collapse of Sri Lankan kingdoms and social structure under the onslaught of European colonialism. However, even in the present day, Sinhalese people look at surnames and ancestry when it comes to marriages.[citation needed]

As for name and religious conversions, Govigama families too became Christian and had Portuguese/Christian names (some strangely adopted during British/Dutch times) such as Don Davith (Rajapaksas)[7][8], Barthlamew (Senanayakes), Ridgeway Dias (Nilaperumal/Bandaranaykes), Arnolis Dep (Wijewardane), de Sarem, de Alwis, etc. It is also why all elite Lankans of the British period be it farmer or other wise had English first names. The Goyigama also were pioneer arrack renters of the colonial era.[9]

Social status[edit]

In traditional Sinhalese society Buddhist monks are placed at the top. Irrespective of the birth caste of a monk, even the king had to worship him. However, this led to some Buddhist sects in Sri Lanka allowing only Govigama people to join, contrary to Buddha's instructions. Other castes such as Karava, Durava, Salagama and Wahumpura have their own Buddhist sects, but they do not impose any restrictions based on caste creed or race, upon anyone who wishes to join. These practices imposed by the Govigama-only sect against the wishes of the Buddha had brought a negative reputation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, especially when the largest Buddhist converts today are the Indian Dalit community, a practice that had also been common in the history of Buddhism. Though largely overlooked, the Govigama caste have historically incorporated south Indian migrants.[10][11][12][13][14]

Ancient period[edit]

Ancient texts such as the Pujavaliya, Sadharmaratnavaliya and Yogaratnakaraya list the four caste categories as Raja Kshatriya, Bamunu Brahmana, Velanda Vaishya, and Govi in descending order. However, the current caste system in Sri Lanka disempowers the Raja, Bamunu, and Velanda castes, and establishes the Govigama caste as the highest extant caste in the hierarchy (Govi, Karave, Durava, Salagama, etc.). The Pújavaliya[citation needed] also says that a Buddha could be been born into the Govi caste, although in reality he was born into the Kshatriya caste. Theravada says there is only one Buddha per human era. The 10th-century Dampiyaatuvagetapadaya and the 12th-century Darmapradeepikava already state that the Govi caste is a middle caste compared to the kings. (Dampiyaatuvagetapadaya 217. Darmapradeepikava 190), indicating gradual rise from the bottom of society.

Other ancient texts such as the Gavaratnakaraya and Sarpothpaththiya (Sarpavedakama vi, 5 & 123) respectively classify even Sri Lankan cattle and snakes into the same four caste categories as Raja, Bamunu, Velanda, Govi, where again Govi is the lowest of them all. Secondary castes such as Durava and Salagama are not mentioned in these texts since they were later Dravidian migrants to Sri Lanka or small communities. However, the Govi community also has incorporated Dravidian latter migrants.[10][11][15][16] Ballads sung to date at ancient Gammaduva rituals also refer to the above four castes in the same sequence and describe the limits and privileges of each. The domestic utensils of the Raja category are described as made of gold; silver and copper for the next two, and finally earthenware for the Govi caste (Gammaduwa 13).

King Nissanka Malla, who managed to chase out the Indians who destroyed the Raja, Bamunu, Welanda, and Govi castes by forced intermarriages,[citation needed] authored a stone inscription, "Gal Potha", in Polonnaruwa, which clearly states that people of Govi caste should not even think of becoming the King of Ceylon.

Although modern writers have attempted to dismiss the above fourfold division as a mere classical division unconnected with reality, the repetition of the same caste hierarchy even as recently as the 18th century, in the British / Kandyan period Kadayimpoth – Boundary books (Abhayawardena 163 to 168) as well, indicates the continuation of the tradition right up to the end of Sri Lanka’s monarchy or even further. It should be noted that no well known Karava / Salagama families existed in the Kandyan kingdom, the Govigama caste is considered as the highest caste in Sri Lanka not because of its numerical superiority, it is known as the one of the oldest cast in Sri Lanka. The "Karava" caste considered second in Sri Lanka was the specialist mariners/navigators also some of them are brought to Sri Lanka as Dravidian warriors throughout history,[17] the "Salagama" caste has its origin in Kerala as "Saligrama Brahmins" who are even today considered as among the highest castes in Kerala & the "Wahumpura" descending from the Deva (mountain people) of the Mahavamsa. Even though ancient literature such as "Pujavaliya" suggests that the Buddhas might be born in Govi Kula, ancient Indians believed that Buddhas are born only in the kshatrya(Raja kula).

Kandyan period[edit]

For the past 1.700 years the only undisputed symbol of Sri Lankan Royalty and Leadership has been the sacred Tooth Relic of Gautama Buddha. Whosoever possessed this was acknowledged as the rightful ruler of Lanka, and thus the Tooth Relic was a possession exclusive to the ruling dynasty of Sri Lanka. Upon each change of capital, a new palace was built to enshrine the Relic. Finally, in 1595 it was brought to Kandy where it is at present, in the Temple of the Tooth. However, even in the land-locked Kandyan kingdom 'Unambuwe' a son of a concubine of some considerable background was deemed not of 'royalty', hence a Telugu of royalty was imported from Madurai. This last Kandyan royal dynasty (four kings) of Nayake origin was from the Balija caste[18][full citation needed] Even King Senarat Adahasin's regent, Antonio Baretto Kuruwita Rala, Prince of Ouva, was not from the Govi cast[19][20]

The oldest Buddhist sect in Sri Lanka, the Siam Nikaya (established on 19 July 1753) are the custodians of the Tooth Relic, since its establishment during the Kandyan Kingdom. The Siam Nikaya uses caste-based divisions, and as of 1764 grants higher ordination only to the Radala and Govigama castes, excluding other castes from its numbers,[21] Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti (Durawa) was the last non-Govigama monk to receive upasampada. This conspiracy festered within the Siam Nikaya itself and Moratota Dhammakkandha, Mahanayaka of Kandy, with the help of the last two Kandyan Telugu Kings victimised the low-country Mahanayaka Karatota Dhammaranma by confiscating the Sri Pada shrine and the retinue villages from the low country fraternity and appointing a rival Mahanayaka[22]

Current political power[edit]

Non–Govigama representation in Parliament has steadily declined since independence and representation of non-Govigama castes are well below their population percentages. Caste representation in the Cabinet has always been limited to a few very visible, but unconcerned and disconnected members from a few leading castes.[23]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 15th century Janawamsaya on caste
  2. ^ An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies by Robert Knox, p. 122
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Sri Lankan Caste System
  5. ^ Castes & Tribes at the time of Sanghamitta (Populations of the Saarc Countries: Bio-Cultural Perspectives By Jayanta Sarkar, G. C. Ghosh, p.73)
  6. ^ Dewasiri, Nirmal Ranjith. The Adaptable Peasant. p. 246.
  7. ^ "The Rajapaksas and Ruhuna". Archived from the original on 2 January 2016. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Nobodies to somebodies: the rise of the colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka by Kumari Jayawardena (Zed Books) p.190-191 ISBN 1-84277-229-5
  10. ^ a b J.R. Jayawardena family History of the Colombo Chetties, edited and compiled by Deshabandu Reggie Candappa, Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara (Sunday Times, 8 July 2001)
  11. ^ a b Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka By Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, p. 152-3
  12. ^ A SHORT HISTORY OF LANKA by Humphry William Codrington, CHAPTER I; THE BEGINNINGS 'The princess and her retinue/dowry (service castes)'
  13. ^ 'Pandyan retinue of Prince Vijaya': Sea: Our Saviour By K. Sridharan, p.19
  14. ^ Pre-Vijayan Agriculture in Sri Lanka, by Prof. T. W. Wikramanayake
  15. ^ Kshatriya, GK (December 1995). "Genetic affinities of Sri Lankan populations". Hum. Biol. 67: 843–66. PMID 8543296.
  16. ^ Mitochondrial DNA history of Sri Lankan ethnic people: their relations within the island and with the Indian subcontinental populations, L Ranaweera, et al; Journal of Human Genetics (2014)
  17. ^ Sinhalese Naval Power, C. W. Nicholas (1958)
  18. ^ Pre-Nayake kings of Kandy (children of Kusuma Devi) and their marriages to south-Indian Nayakes
  19. ^ Description of the Great and Most Famous Isle of Ceylon, Philip Baldaeus, p. 693-7
  20. ^ Ceylon of the Early Travellers, by H. A. J. Hulugalle (1965); 'Kuruwita Rala, a relative of our last royal Queen'
  21. ^ Two Great Needs of Buddhists
  22. ^ Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750–1900: A Study of Religious Revival and.... By Kitsiri Malalgoda, p. 84-87 & 91
  23. ^ Fonseka, the political arriviste–a historical irony


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  • Peebles Patrick 1995 Social Change in Nineteenth Century Ceylon Navrang ISBN 81-7013-141-3.
  • Pfaffenberger Bryan 1982 Sudra Domination in Sri Lanka Syracuse University
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  • Roberts Michael Caste conflict and elite formation
  • Sahithyaya 1972 Department of Cultural Affairs, Sri Lanka
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  • Sri Lankáve Ithihásaya Educational Publications Department Sri Lanka
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