Karava – The early history

The early historical references of the Karava in Ceylon, up to and including the Portuguese period.

The Karava  people of Ceylon claim to be descended from the Kuru  refugees, who scattered after their defeat in the Great War between the Pandavas  and the Kauravas1 or Kurus, related in the Mahabharata. The Kauravas  settled in many parts of India, Bengal and in Ceylon. In Ceylon, the recorded descriptions of the Kauravas  have been few, but mention has been made from around the 11th century to the 15th century due mainly to the military involvements of the Kauravas  (now called the Karavas). In the 15th century more evidence is recorded of the Karava military and social organization. Mention is made to a discovery of three swords probably of the 15th century, bearing the names of the recipients, which are of considerable interest due to the resemblance of the names to Karava  names of later years. The swords bestowed upon the recipients the titles of second king and of a general. These swords were the heirlooms of the Karava  family of ‘de Rowel’. The de Rowels in common with the d’andrados, de Fonsekas, Tamels, Tisseras and Lowes, possess the proud clan name of Varunakula Adittiya Arasanilayitta2. The Varnakula is a clan of the Karava, and is one of the three great Suriya clans of the caste. The clans are Kurukulasuriya, Varnakulasuriya and Arasakulasuriya. The arrival of the Suriya clans (to which we attribute our ancestry) is said to have taken place during the reign of Sri Parakrama Bahu VI of Kotte 1412-1468 AD. As all existing versions of events have agreed that a king of Kotte invited the Karava  clans to fight the Mukkuvars encamped around Puttalam, a date earlier than the commencement of the reign of Parakramabahu VI (the first Singhalese monarch of Kotte), has to be rejected. Having engaged the enemy in battle, they captured the fortress in three months. Undaunted by their loss of 1500 men they carried the war into Nagapattanam and in two and a half months  of fighting captured it. The king who was pleased with their feat, granted them hereditary (paraveni5) lands, mainly the area of Negambo to live as long as their generations shall last. The area north of Negambo, up to Chilaw came to be known as Aluth Kuru Korale.

The standard histories and chronicles of Ceylon do not tell anything about the arrival and settlement of the Karava. One document that chronicles the Karava is called the Mukkara Hatana  and much of the history mentioned in this page has been taken from this. This manuscript is found in the Hugh Neville collection of the British Museum as Or. 6606 (53).

A flag which belonged to Don Pedro Arsecularatna of Maggona, depicting the arrival of a group of Karava chiefs and retainers

The Portuguese came to the island in November 1505 for trade and settled down in the coastal areas and integrated with the rulers of Kotte, who sought protection from the invading armies of the interior. Christianity came to the island with the arrival of the Portuguese and many were to convert to the new faith and assume Portuguese names in the coming years. The king of Kotte showed himself altogether inclined to the  Faith, and his grand son Prince Dharmapala (christened Don Juan Darmapala) declared his acceptance of the Christian faith in the later years.

From the possession of a common clan name in the diversity of surnames, it is reasonable to that on conversion to Christianity the different members of the same clan took the various surnames, by which their descendants are known to date.

 In the Portuguese Tombo3, unfortunately the ‘verige nam4’ is seldom recorded, and it is difficult to record the history of these families in the Portuguese period, although there are references to d’andrados and Tisseras. From the evidence collected it is clear that in Negambo certainly, and probably in other parts, the people were Hindus prior to conversion. The readiness to embrace Christianity arose from many causes. Being comparative new comers, the Karava  were less enmeshed in the intricacies of the Singhalese social structure. Portuguese influence was concentrated in the coastal regions ruled by the kings of Kotte. The Karava  conversion, however was not based solely on self interest becomes manifest in subsequent history, with the arrival of the Dutch and the defeat of the Portuguese.

Once the Portuguese settled in, they began to expand their control over the island, but were unsuccessful in many fronts. The Army of King Mayadunne repeatedly battered Kotte. The Portuguese who had to defend both Colombo and Kotte, abandoned Kotte and withdrew to Colombo with the king Don Juan Darmapala. The fall of Kotte scattered the Karava, who then settled in the coastal areas closer to Colombo, while some migrated to the interior of the country. In these wars the Karava  has fought on both sides divided by their loyalty to the Sinhala monarchy, and their passionate adherence to the Catholic faith. The book ‘Cheiftains’ indicates some of the low country mudaliyars including Don Manuel D’andrado as assisting the Portuguese in the many wars fought with the Kings of Kandy. In the final years the Karava  chiefs and the clans sided with the Singhalese king and the Dutch allies in struggle with the Portuguese. This loyalty to the Singhalese King and the Dutch allies is remarkable because many Karava  were faithful to the Catholic Church and had to fight their co-religionists, the Portuguese. The Dutch landed near Negombo with the help of the Karava, in the year 1640, before the siege of Colombo.

1 – Kauravara; Kaurava: relating to or belonging to the Kurus, descendent of Kuru.” (Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Sir Monier Williams, Oxford, 1899). 2 – Arsanilayitta: endowed with, or possessing kingly status. 3 – Tombo: Portuguese registry for land and royal revenue. 4 – Varige Nam: The clan name 5 – Paraveni: That which has come down from ones ancestors, hereditary in the family.


1 – ‘The Karava of Ceylon’  by M D Raghvan.