The Mudaliyars Explained:
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These pages examines the life and times of the Mudaliyars, their background, the social and administrative function performed by them, their status in society, duties, details that gives us a better understanding of our ancestors some of whom were Mudaliyars. The second page in this series gives the numbers and distribution, their salaries and allowances and the financial regulations which governed them, and some interesting insights into their lives.

Early nineteenth century sources unanimously agree that the highest status Singhalese in the low-country were those men known as Mudaliyars. However the administrative system they manned, known as the ‘Native Department’ in the British Administration, faded rapidly since its abolition in 1938. This page hopes to provide some background information on the Mudaliyars and other native headmen from the time of Manuel D’andrado in 1658 to the last of the De Fonseka Mudaliyars Henry Frederick de Fonseka in 1911.

The functions of the mudaliyars varied over the various colonial eras. During the later periods their duties centered on the recruitment of labor  under the Rajakariya system (compulsory service), revenue collection, and the maintenance of local control. They served in ranked competitive offices as interpreters, bookkeepers, translators, tax collectors, foremen, and advisors to the rulers on traditional law, scouts, messengers, and commanders of the local militia. However their origins goes somewhat past the colonial period, into the Kotte period.

On left: Mudaliyar and Lascorijn by J. L. K. Van Dort.

The term Mudaliyar is an old Dravidian word for a chieftain, derived from mutal,  ‘first’. In Singhalese, Mudali Peruva  refers to the ‘mudaliyar class’, and ‘mudiyanse’ refers to an individual mudaliyar.  They have been assumed to be the creation of the colonial rule by many, and some even think of them as descended from the court nobility of Kotte. The truth lies somewhere between the two.

The kings who reigned at Kotte commonly mentioned mudaliyars as retainers at their courts, and the term appears in a fifteenth century slab near the bo-tree in Kalutara. The office of the mudaliyar was adopted along with other aspects of the Kotte administration by the Portuguese. Their colonial outposts were isolated and outnumbered. They subjugated the population with their military might. But to carry out their primary functions of commerce and conversion, they had to win the acceptance of the masses. One way they did this was to enlist the active loyalty of their local leaders. This account for the rapid rise in the status of the mudaliyar class, and the impression that they were a creation of the colonial rule.

Very little information is available of the mudaliyars in the years preceding direct colonial rule. The Portuguese seems to have adopted the Kotte system in essence, but replaced all the higher officials with Portuguese ones. This enhanced the importance of the Mudaliyars and Korala, who became the highest surviving indigenous officers. The Mudaliyars and Aracchi continued as commanders of the lascarins (militia), but were subordinate to the Disava, a Portuguese officer who assumed a Singhalese name. They created a new office called a Vidana, that were in charge of a korale. This separated the military aspect and the civil administration duties. The Dutch Governor Willem Flack joined the military and civil authority between the Mudaliyar and Korale into the person of the mudaliyar.

The Dutch drove out the Portuguese in the years 1638 - 1658, but stayed to rule a larger portion of the island. Unlike the earlier Portuguese the Dutch were concerned primarily with trade and commerce. It is in this connection that the Dutch found the Chief Headmen an indispensable body for the promotion of trade. The enlarged territories precluded the appointment of Dutch officials to every post. Thus they appointed natives of high standing to various posts. Our first recorded ancestors Louis D’andrado went on to become an Adigar at Kalutara, the highest post to be held by a native. Don Manuel D’andrado was appointed a Sabandaar in the court of Jaffna. Don Michael de Fonseka succeeded Don Louise as the Adigar of Kalutara. The Dutch also created the ‘Gate’ mudaliyars, those attached to the administration as interpreters and translators to the higher officials.

From what has been stated so far, it can be seen that the Chief Headman were a less favored section of the executive during Portuguese times. However during this period there has been a distinguished community in the field of war. Having been military officers already, their martial character and bearing, intimate knowledge of the country and influence over their feudal levies, rendered the chieftains powerful allies of the Portuguese Governors in their incursions and retaliatory wars with the Kandyan Kings. These Mudaliyars of the low country espoused the cause of the invaders, owing to community of interests and religious ties that developed with their arrival. Prominent amongst the Mudaliyars who loomed large in the pages of  Portuguese History are Domingos Corea, Manuel D'Andrado and Don Cosmas, two of whom later went over to their own war weary countrymen. Corea however was re-captured and having recanted in penitence died the death of a traitor on the scaffold. (see The Chieftains of Ceylon - Reference Page). Manuel D'Andrado went on to fight against the Portuguese in the Dutch siege and capture of the fort of Jaffna.

From the days of the all powerful mudaliyars in the time of Manuel D’andrado, the powers declined gradually and in the later years with the granting of titular mudaliyar and muhandiram posts. Looking at our genealogy chart, we could see many Maha Vidane and Muhandirams  up to the time of Johannes de Fonseka in 1819. Governor Brownrigg presented Johannes with a gold medal and the title on the 21st of November 1891. The home page displays a version of this, and S. R. de Fonseka’s page displays the photograph published in the book ‘20th Century Impressions.’

The families of the chiefs and some of the village headmen prospered from land grants and from favoritism in trade over their Singhalese competitors. The payment received by a mudaliyar was called an ‘accomodessan’ which consisted of a certain amount of land attached to each office in the mudaliyar system. Their profits were used in land investments which helped to raise the family wealth and status. Service tenure evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as lifetime grants of land which eventually became heritable. Regular service was expected of the holder as a condition of tenure, and the land reverted to the government on the failure of male heirs of the non performance of duties. In certain cases it is said that these lands were illicitly appropriated as Paraveni  land.

The Dress of the Karava Headmen in the early nineteenth century :

Mudaliyar Silk or Cloth Silver Buttons & Loops Hilt and Scabbard of Silver and the Eyes and Tongue of the Lion’s Head of Gold Gold or Silver Lace but not spangled
Muhandirams Cloth or Linen Silver Buttons & Loops Hilt and Scabbard of Silver. In the middle of the Scabbard a plain plate of Tortoise Shell Gold and Silver Lace
Arrachies Cloth or Linen Silver Buttons & Silk Loops Hilt of Horn, embellished with Silver, with 3 Tortoise-shell plates Colored Ribbon embroidered with Silk
Canganies Cloth or Linen Silver Buttons & Silk Loops Hilt of Horn, embellished with Silver, the Scabbard of Horn or wood with 2 Silver Plates Plain Colored Ribbon

Source: Abraham de Seram, 1906 Reproduced from The Ceylon Almanac, 1811.

HEADMEN - Numbers and Distribution, Salaries and Allowances etc          Next Page


  1. Peebles, Patrick. 'Social Change in Nineteenth Century Ceylon', Navrang, 1995.
  2. Roberts, Michael. 'Caste Conflict and Elite Formation', Navrang, 1982.
  3. Van Sanden, 'The Chieftains of Ceylon', 1936, Navrang 1994.
  4. Sessional Paper XXVII of 1935 'Report of the Commission on the Headmen System - November 1935'.