Beyond 1658 . . .
- The caste claims to be of Ksatriya origin, and look upon the ancient Kuru kingdom of North India as their ancestral domain whence their forbearers, the Kauravas migrated to South India and thence to Sri Lanka following their defeat by the Pandavas in the great battle described in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata.
- Tradition has it that King Parakrama Bahu (Probably Parakrama Bahu VI of Kotte who reigned 1412 – 1467) invited the Karava of Kancipura in South India in order to defeat the Mukkara (i.e Mukkuvars) who had occupied Puttalam. Over 7740 men is said to have arrived and defeated the Mukkuvars, and the delighted king is said to have granted areas such as Negombo, Munnesarama, Kamala and Tambaravila.
- A. F. S Weerasuirya in his Kurukula Charithaya cites considerable evidence to show that Kauravas from India had settled in Sri Lanka well before the Vijayan migration. He also cites the Janawamsa to show that some Karava would have also arrived with Vijaya, the founder of the Singhalese nation. He also sites that the Karava arrived with the Sacred Bo Tree in the reign of King Devanam Piyatissa and sites Ge-names connected with the event such as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiyage.
- A great antiquity for the Karava presence in Sri Lanka has also been argued by Lionel De Fonseka who seeks to connect the people of the four Korales to the Karava based on the basis of the Sun and Moon flag.
- Michael Roberts has argued that the advent of the Karava does not seem to have been a single step affair, and that they appear to have trickled in continuously or migrated en bloc from time to time in a period extending from 15th to 18th centuries.
Clan Structure and Names
- Karava comprise of three great clans, the Kuru-Kula Suriya (means Sun of the Clan of Kuru), Varuna-Kula Suriya (means Sun of the Varuna, the ancient Indo-Aryan god of water) and Mihindu-Kula Suriya (means Sun of the Muhudu).
- Within these clans one would find sub-clans. For example, Mihindukulasuriyas comprised of five sub clans in Chilaw of Fernando, Perera, Peris, Pintos and Costas.
- The proud clan name of Varnakula Adittiya Arasanilayitta (of the clan of Varuna of the Sun, endowed with Kingly status Arasa) was borne by the d’Andrados, de Fonsekas, de Rowels, Lowes, Tamels and Tisseras.
- Karava clan names usually precede the proper names of persons while surnames of Portuguese origin might follow it ex. Kurukulasuriya Rodrigo.
- Modern day Karava surnames are often of Portuguese origins such as De Fonseka, Soysa, Mendis etc and many others are suffixed with ‘Suriya’ such as Amarasuriya, Vickramasuriya etc.
- According to Fernando (1920), the Ira-handa flag, Makara flag, Muthu Kuda, the two Alavattams, trident, sword, bugle drum and kettle-drum formed the ten insignia of the Karava people and were still largely used among these people especially south of Colombo, at weddings and funerals.
- The Karava are largely Christian people following the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church which was introduced to the country by the Portuguese in the 16th Century. Most of the Portuguese names Queyroz (1687) says that in 1556 more than 70,000 Karava with their Pantagatim were converted to Christianity. Members of the clan embraced the religion and took on different names of Portuguese origins. The name most probably would have been the name of the ‘sponsor’ who took part in the baptism ceremony, or would have been a name assigned by the Portuguese Authorities. From the possession of a common clan name in the diversity of surnames, it is reasonable to assume that on conversion to Christianity, the different members of the same clan took the various surnames, by which their descendants are known to date.
- The readiness of the Karava to embrace Christianity according to Raghavan (1961) arose from many factors;
- Being comparative newcomers, the Karava were less enmeshed in the intricacies of the Singhalese social structure, and gave them a higher freedom of action.
- Portuguese influence in Ceylon was concentrated on the coastal regions, which was ruled by the kings of Kotte, and being a coastal population the Karava was influenced more.
- A group that served the Kotte kings and looked to them for support, would be particularly sensitive to the decline in the power of that monarchy. A closer alliance with the Portuguese based on a common religious interest, was therefore desirable for reasons of security.
- A significant number of Karava south of Moratuwa, from Panadura to Tangalla is Buddhist. One such notable Karava Buddhist was Kataluwe Gunaratana Thera, who having proceeded to Hansavati in the Ramanna country with seven novices, obtained higher ordination before returning to the island to establish the Amarapura Kalyanivansa Nikaya in 1810. It was the Karava who had trading lines with other coastal countries up to Burma, that transported the monks to and from.
- Conversion to Christianity not only led to a new mindset receptive to Western ideas based on capitalist values and free enterprise, but also gave them the impetus necessary to rise up the social ladder by gaining the favor of the Portuguese colonial authorities. As such they were also entrusted with important administrative positions, among them Government Agents, Mudaliyars, Muhandirams and Judges.
- The Karava are a predominantly coastal population, inhabiting the western and southern parts of the country from Chilaw to Hambantota.
- The Karava however originally seem to have settled in the region in and around Negambo, and it was only in later years that they dispersed to other areas such as Moratuwa to the south and Chilaw to the north.
- A census of the British-ruled maritime districts of South and West taken in 1814 returned as many as 15.2 percent Karava in the total population., with as many as 19.5 percent Karava resident in the Kalutara district. The de Fonseka’s were a prominent Karava family from Kalutara.
- Roberts (1982) basing his conclusions on the censuses of 1814 and 1824 roughly estimates the population percentage of the Karava in the total Singhalese population of the 1820s to be 8.4 percent. Ivan (1990) however estimates the same to be 10 percent and it is unlikely that this has changed much today.
- The military tradition which was largely a mercenary one and probably inherited from their Kaurava forbearers however does not appear to have lasted long as the upkeep of an army of foreign warriors out of state funds was very likely not a viable one. Land grants to the Karava by the Singhalese royalty not only encouraged them to settle down here, but also provided them the means for a more stable lifestyle.
- The military tradition of the early Karava nevertheless continued among some of their descendants, especially those able-bodied men who had chosen to follow the calling of their ancestors by supporting the established order with military power. Valentijn (1726) refers to the Karava having a militia under them such as Mudaliars, Muhandirams, Aratchches and Lascorins while Loten (1757) informs us that some of the Karawa perform Lascorin’s service, chiefly in the district of Negombo. Thus, we find Michael de Fonseka and other family members in the services with the Dutch in 1658 and beyond (Baldaeus).
- The Karava as a body were not only faithful to their colonial masters but were faithful to the Sinhalese kings they worked for. Among the Karava chieftains who rose to prominence in the Kandyan kingdom were Varuna Kula Aditya Arasa Nila Ittan Manuel Dias Andradi Mudali who was appointed Maha Adigar (Maha Adikaram) of the Kingdom by Don Juan Vimaladharmasuriya in 1590.
- Another prominent member of the caste was Antonio Baretto alias Kuruvita (Kurukula Vira Ittan) bandara (Kuruvita Rala) who won several battles against the Portuguese and was appointed Viceroy of Uva. He along with his kinsmen, Admiral Pedro Baretto was also given charge of the royal navy, commanding warships such as Kistena, Olanda and Vasanava which operated off Kottiyar Bay and defeated many a Portuguese vessel.
- Many also played an important role in the struggle against British Imperialism. Jayasuriya Artha Deva Guneratne Patabendige Francisco Fernando known as ‘Puran Appu’ led the Matale rebellion in 1848 against the British (Kurukula Charithaya).
- Valentijn (1726) notes that Karava are the most important fishermen, who also make their chiefs as they are experts at war. He also mentions nine different sub-castes based on the fishing methods used. Tennent (1859), an early British writer, tells us that the means of the living of the Karava was not restricted to fishing alone and that the numbers are employed with everything connected with the building and management of boats, catamarans and coasting vessels.
- Many Karava folk also entered skilled crafts such as carpentry and woodworking, especially in the southern coastal areas such as Moratuwa.
- Maritime commerce also seems to have figured prominently among the wealthier Karava. The Karava in a petition in 1830 included among their occupations ‘Merchandisse in Merchant Dhonies or Boats (sailing to coast with the produce of this country, and returning from thence with the produce of those countries)
- Karava folk of areas such as Kataluva, Koggala, Malalagama, Weligama etc owned huge sea faring vessels known as Yatra (Dhonies) which could accommodate 200-300 men and around 100 tons of goods. These transported food items, onion, pepper, arecanuts to Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Jaffna. The thriving business however gradually declined due to introduction of lorries.
- Besides trading, the Karava made good use of the laisse Faire economic system introduced by the British colonial regime, investing their monies in industrial and commercial ventures that yielded high returns, such as the import and export trade, mining, plantations and arrack distillation.
- Karava entrepreneurs of old were ship chandlers (S.P.D.B.D de Silva), sawmill owners and barrel manufacturers (Simon Fernando), timber contractors (The Lindamulage de Silva Wijeratnes), citronella oil dealers (B. Samaraweera) and Jewelers (B.P. de Silva). Among the other industries were graphite mining (Vidanalage de Mels, Gabriel Fernando and others) and the production of arrack (Mahawaduge Cornelis Perera, Y.B.M Perera).
- By the time the country received independence from the British in 1948, the Karava were a well-established community with a considerable stake in the country’s commercial and industrial sectors.
The information presented the above summary has been taken from the excellent book
‘Caste in Sri Lanka – From Ancient Times to the Present Day’,
Asiff Hussein, 2013, Neptune Publications.
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