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                    BY  SHIRLEY PULLE TISSERA


They are a relatively small community domiciled in the Western, North Western and Southern Provinces, many of them have been assimilated into or identified with the  Sinhala and Tamil Communities,  the National census in 1814 shows the total population as 492,083 of which Malays were 736 and Chetties 2459, again in 1824 the total population was 851,940 of which Malays were 1806, Burghers 5803 and Chetties 8471, in the population census of 1871 total population was 2,401,066 of which the Moors were 6839, Burghers were 5771 and Chetties were down to 3114.  The National Censuses conducted since then had included the Colombo Chetties into the Sinhala, Tamil & Burgher populations. Today the number stands at around 175,000 with high concentrations in the Western and North Western Provinces.


In the National Census on population conducted in 2001 the Colombo Chetties were rightly shown as a separate and distinct ethnic group. Questions have been raised in recent newspapers articles by a few interested persons as to why this was done  ? -  The following facts will I am sure answer these questions.





The term chetty is interpreted as Setti or setthi in pali, Hetti , Situ or Sitana in Sinhalese and as Etti in Tamil, this is how the community is refereed to in all historical documents or records. The Colombo Chetties are of the Tana Vaisya stock, according to Rev Fr Boschi the Vaisyas were the nobility of the land and were devided into various sub-divisions or castes, the highest of these sub-devisions was the Tana Vaisya or Chetties followed by the Pu Vaisya and Ko Vaisya etc: The Tana Vaisyas originally inhabited  areas close to Coorg and Benares, were driven by the conquests of Mohammed of Ghazini to the South of India.  Being merchants they then commenced trade with Lanka and this eventually gave rise to migration.                                          




Earliest historical records indicate that Sethies / Chetties first came to Lanka just after the arrival of Prince Vijaya (Social history of early Ceylon by Prof H Ellawala) the account narrates that some maidens sent to Lanka by the King of Madura on the request of Prince Vijaya were of Tana Vaisya stock or Sethis.                                                                                 

Prof Ellawala goes on to mention that Prince Sumitta and his seven brothers all setthis were  sons of Deva Setthi of Vedisa in Avanthi and that their sister Videesa Devi was the wife of King Asoka and mother of Prince Mahinda and Princess Sangamitta.  The eight brothers of Videesa Devi the uncles of Mahinda Thera and Sangamitta Theri, Princes Bodhigupta,Chandragupta,Devagupta, Dharmagupta, Suriyagupta, Sumitta, Gotama  and Jutindra had accompanied the Prince and Princess to offer protection to the Sacred Bo tree (Sri Maha Bodhi), it is stated that King Devanampiyatissa aptly rewarded them for their service to Buddhism. 

Bo treeHistorians believe that King Vasaba (BC 65-100) who inaugurated the Lamba karana dynasty from Dumbara Minipe Valley is a descendent of Prince Sumitta. The Lamba Karana dynasty ruled Sri Lanka for nearly 350 years up to King Jattagahaka (BC. 432), a total of 26 Kings.  Vessagiri (Vaisyagiri) Vihara was built by King Devanampiyatissa and has connection to the Vaisya – Setthis who were to finance many Buddhist structures.

These instances are the earliest historical records of setthis in Sri Lanka.  There have been many other references to Setthies/Chetties in Historical records among them are those made by Prof M B Ariyapala’s Society in Medieval Ceylon to Setthi’s participation in the inauguration of kings in ancient Ceylon. (C.M Fernando JRASCB Vol 14 No. 47 Page 126). In an article in the same edition a comprehensive write up is given of setthis (Page 104). It also refers to setthis during the time of Vijayabahu 1 (CV 59.17)


The Nikaya Sangrahaya (ed Kumaratunga) the Madavala rock inscription refers to a high official by the name of Jothy Sitana who set his signature to a grant of land, also in the year 1205 AD there existed a minister of great influence among our forebears named “Kulande Hetti” His name is engraved on a rock in Polonnaruwa.


The Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte (1400-1521) by Dr. G.V.P. Somaratna (page 51) states that the Alekeswara family of Kotte were  Chetties. It was Alekeswara  who was the first to revolt against the King of Jaffna,  later another Setthi, Sembha Perumal known to the Sinhalese as Sapumal Kumaraya led an expedition to the Wanni first and then Jaffna. Where he lead the Sinhalese army to victory against the Ariya Chakravati and was crowned King of Jaffna.  After ruling in Nallur, the seat of the Jaffna kings for 17 years 1450 - 1467, he returned to Kotte and captured the throne crowning himself as Buvanekabahu V1 1469 – 1477.

The conquest of Jaffna by Sapumal Kumaraya is the only instance of an army from the south conquering a Jaffna king. The ruler of the day Kanagasooriya Singai Aariyan fled to Thirukovilloor in Tamil Nadu. But after Sapumal installed Vijayabahu in Jaffna and returned to Kotte, Kanagasooriya Singai Aariyan returned with an army, killed Vijayabahu and recaptured his kingdom.. Vira Alekeswara is credited with the building and development of the city of  Jayavaddhanakotta which is today the administrative Capital of Sri Lanka.


In the book titled Culture in Ceylon in Medieval Times by W. Geiger (page 110): “A prominent part of the mercantile society in Ceylon were the Setthis but we do not get a clear notion of their social position, probably they were like the Setthis in the Jatakas (ref. R. Fick 1.1 pages 257) the great bankers and stood in close proximity to the royal court. Of the three brothers who rebelled against King Vijayabahu 1, one was sethinatha a chief of the

Setthis, since the other two were court officials of the highest rank, the three were evidently Sinhalese noblemen. (59.16, 69.13) Sethinayaka is the name of Lambakanna, it was probably his title.


The Mahavansa Vol 3 p 238 records the arrival in Ceylon of seven sons of King Mallawa of Mallawa Rata Accompanied by Chetties who carried suitable gifts for the King of Ceylon. In return the King bestowed titles and also grants of land engraved on slabs in villages such as Kelaniya, Toppu, Ballagala, Bottala, Hettimulla etc; marked out and granted free from duties “ to remain as long as the sun and moon endure”. Among the Chetties who presented gifts to the Kings were Epologama Hetti Bandara and Modattawa Chetty. The donors were honoured with titles such as Rajah Wanniah, Rajaguru Mudianse and Mallawa Bandara.


It is of course an accepted fact that Chetties migrated to Sri Lanka during the Portuguese and Dutch periods as well. 


A nursery rhyme used at play by children down the centuries has reference to Chetties and their connection to royalty – “Athuru, mithuru, dambadiva thuru, raja kapuru hettiya, alutha gena manamalita haal pothalk garala….”


The Former Diyawadana Nilame and Former Cabinet Minister Hon Nissanka Wijeyeratne had this to say about the Colombo Chetty Community in the Sunday Observer of 19th November 1995.


Quote –


“ You call them as they do themselves as Colombo Chetties, but in reality they were widespread for example, Hettigoda in Galle, Hettipola in Kurunegala, Hettiyamaluva in Dedigama, Hettimulla in Kegalle.


And they link with our culture antedate even Vijaya’s arrival in Sri Lanka, was not Anathapindikassa the great benefactor of the sangha and the pre-eminent Dayaka of the Buddha who endured Jetavanarama, where the Buddha dwelt longest and now so lovingly preserved by the great Indian Government, a distinguished Sitano or Chetty. Perhaps even the noble Upasika Visaka too belonged to this Clan.


The Chetties deserve, therefore, a new designation. Not “Colombo” Chetties but “Uthum” (Nobel) Chetties”    


end quote




Although a majority of Colombo Chetties are Christian, yet their contribution to Buddhism is significant, starting with the role played in the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka to the contribution of Ven Soma Maha Thera (Victor Perera Pulle),  he wrote 30 books on Budhism and was responsible as the first monk to carry the dhamma to Germany, he was the founder of the German Dharmaduta Society, the Sasanadhara Kantha Samitiya, the Banks Asoka Society and the YMBA in Shanghai.


Peter Philip Jurgen Quint Ondaatjie 1758 – 1818 was the first Asian to figure prominently in modern European history. In 1811 Nepoleon 1 nominated him to the imperial Council of Prizes and in 1814 was named a high Court Judge in Netherlands, he died in 1818 while on his way to take up the highest civil service office in Batavia.




Simon Casie Chitty was the first Ceylonese Civil Servant, was elected a member of the legislative council in 1845 at the age of 38,  he is credited with publishing the first Ceylon Gazetteer and was a writer of great repute, a linguist with mastery of English, Sinhalese, Tamil, Sanskrit, Hebrew and Arabic and  a fair knowledge of Portuguese, Dutch, Latin and Greek.


His Excellency J R Jayawardena first paternal ancestor was a Colombo Chetty as mentioned in the “Biography on President J.R.Jayawardena” by Prof Silva & Howard Wriggins


Colombo Chetties have made great contributions to the Sri Lankan society, in trade they were among the first importers and exporters of traditional and non-traditional goods, they introduced and pioneered teak plantations.


I will highlight the achievements of a few to show the diversity of their contributions to our society:


R I Fernandopulle Was considered a pioneer and expert in the Coconut industry in Sri Lanka, he has served as Chairman of the Coconut Cultivation and Coconut Research Boards.


 Deshabandu Reggie Candappa Was considered the doyen of advertising in Sri Lanka, being the founder Chairman of Grant McCann Erickson he has held positions as Chairman and Director in many establishments.


Talking of Business and Finance mention must be made to Sir Christopher Ondaatjie, recently knighted by HM Queen Elizabeth,   in addition to his achievements in the field of business and finance, he is probably the only born Sri Lankan to win a Gold medal in an Olympics when as a member of the Canadian Bob-Sledge team they won gold at the 1964 Olympics.


In the field of literature are many Colombo Chetties,  Michael Ondaatjie achieved world fame as an author when his novel “The English Patient” won the coveted Booker Prize, the film version was acclaimed as one of the most outstanding films ever made, it created history by winning a record number of academy awards.


The chetties have contributed substantially in the intellectual realm. De Melho translated both biblical testaments into Tamil.  John J. Casie Chetty’s translation of Voet’s Roman Dutch Law into English is considered a distinct contribution to the legal literature of Ceylon. Many chetties have claimed several ‘firsts’ for Ceylon. Among them are Simon Casie Chitty the First Civil Servant and Publisher of the first gazetteer,  Dr. Peter Philip Jurgen Quint Ondaatje was the first Asian to figure in modern European history: Rev. Philip de Melho was the first Ceylonese to be admitted to the Christian ministry;  Henry Francis Muttukrishna was the first Tamil Barrister in Asia. Dr. William Charles Ondaatje was the first Ceylonese director of the Botanical Gardens he introduced the olive to Sri Lanka,  Dr Simon de Melho Aserappa was the first Ceylonese who obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine from a British University; John J Casie Chetty was the first Bachelor of Civil Laws (Oxford) in Asia,  Arthur L R Aserappa was the first Ceylonese who won the Cambridge Junior Exhibition and Philip Pulle Tissera was a renowned scholar & educationist, He also served as private tutor to Rev Daniel Poor the founder of the famous Jaffna Library.




The Colombo Chetties have also contributed by way of social service programs, Multi service health camps, Donation of Books and Stationery to Tsunami effected children are a few of the major projects undertaken in recent times.  The Vimukthi Niwasa project which provides Education and economic assistance to Hundreds of Children of Low income families in 20 villages in the Kurunegala and Puttalam Districts, Empowerment programs for women, Self employment and Vocational training, Pre Schools and Housing is a stand out program which is being conducted for the last 16 years, this project is unique because it does not  benefit the Colombo Chetties but all other communities who inhabit these areas.

Most of the above information is extracted from the lead article written by me in the publication titled “History of the Colombo Chetties” which was Launched by the Prime Minister, Hon Ratnasiri Wickremenayake in December 2000 at the BMICH, the first copy was ceremoniously handed over to Prof G V P Somaratne in recognition of his assistance towards this publication, wide publicity was given in the local media.





The Colombo Chetty Community prides itself in its ability to live in perfect harmony with all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, this has resulted in close affinity and mutual respect between the Chetties and the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. Over the years there have been instances of inter-marriage,  despite this there are still around 175000 members of the community residing in Colombo, Chilaw, Puttalam, Negombo, Welihena, Kochchikade, Dankotuwa, Gampaha, Kelaniya, Galle & Matara. They are recognized as a distinct ethnic group ratified by the registrar General’s Department which notice was published in the Observer newspaper of 17th October 1984.


Considering the above credentials the Colombo Chetty Community is ever willing to assist in whichever way possible to bring Peace and amity in our beloved Sri Lanka.


The writer is Shirley Pulle Tissera. JP  -  General Secretary / Vice President Colombo Chetty Association of Sri Lanka (1984- 2004),  Chairman- Board of Trustees of Vimukthi Niwasa,  District Governor of Lions District 306C (1991/92),  President -South Asian Federation of NGO - SAFNGO 1995 (membership of all SAARC countries),  President -International Federation of NGOs -IFNGO 2003-2005 (membership of 45 Countries and Regional Bodies),  President of the Community Front for Prevention of AIDS - CFPA,        Co-ordinator / Treasurer Congress of Religions,  Vice Chairman of the Global Fund, Ministry of Health GFATM  and Company Director.