The history of the Colombo Chetties
of Sri Lanka
by Shirley Pulle Tissera
The Colombo Chetties form an integral part of Sri Lankan society. They are a separate ethnic group different from the Tamils, Moors, Malays, Burghers, and the majority Sinhalese community.
In the census of 1946 (Vol I Para I) the Superintendent of Census, Mr. A.G. Ranasinghe, states that the Colombo Chetties must receive mention in a racial distinction of Ceylon. The term does not include the Nattukottu Chetties who have formed themselves into a guild for carrying on business in Ceylon and are only temporary residents of the Island.
The Colombo Chetties belong to the Tana Vaisya Caste. The Vaisyas compose nobility of the land, and according to the classification made by Rev. Fr. Boschi, were divided into 3 distincts tribes or castes. The highest sub-division being the Tanya Vaisya or merchants followed by Pu Vaisya or Husbandmen and Ko Vaisya pr Herdsmen. The Tana Vaisyas are commonly called Chetties. Their earliest ancestors inhabited Northern and North Western India near Coorg and Benares. In the eleventh century they were driven to the South of India by the conquest of Muhammad of Ghazini and settled in places like Nagapatnam, Tanjore, and Tinnevelly. It is from here that they traded with Ceylon from the Malabar and Coramandel coasts.
The present day term Chetty is identified with the original term Sethi in Pali, Hetti or Situ in Sinhalese. This is how the community is recorded in history. There is an association of the term Hetti in Sri lankan nomenclature in names like Hettiaratchi, Hettigoda, Adihetty, Paranahetti, Hettige, Hettigamage, Hettipathirana, Hettihewa, and Hettimulla. A nursery rhyme used a 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 pothak garala..."
According to Professor H. Ellawala (Social History of Early Ceylon), Sethis first came to Sri Lanka just after the arrival of Vijaya and his followers. The account goes on to show that some maidens sent to Lanka by the King of Madura at the request of Prince Vijaya were Sethis (Vaisya Stock). In the same edition Profesor Ellawala goes on to state that Prince Sumitta and his seven brothers who came to Lanka to guard the sacred Bo Tree were sons of a Deva Sethi from Vedissa City in Avanthi. Therefore their sister (Queen of King Asoka and mother of Mahinda and Sangamitta) was also a Sethi.
Reference is also made in 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 XIV No.47 Page 126). In an article in the same edition a comprehensive write up is given of Setthi's (page 104). It also refers to Setthi's during the time of Vijayabahu I (CV 59.17)
The Nikaya Sangrahaya (ed Kumaratunga), the Madavala rock inscriptions refers to a high official by the name of Jothy Sitana who set his signature to a grant of land.
In the year 1205 AD there existed a minister of great influence among our forebearers named "Kulande Hetti". His name is engraved on a rock in Polonnaruwa.
The Gadaladeniya slab inscriptions of the 16th century mentions Situ in a list of officials. The Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte (1400-1521) by Dr. G.V.P. Somaratne (page 51) states that the Alakeswara family of Kotte originated from Setthi stock.
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 Setthi's but we do not get a clear notion of their social position, probably they were like the Setthi's in the Jatakas (ref R. Fick 1.1 pages 257) the gerat bankers and stood in close proximity to the Royal Court."
Of the three brothers who rebelled against King Wijayabahu I, one was Sethinatha, a chief of the Setthi's, since the other two were court officials of the highest rank, the three were evidently Sinhalese noblemen (18.104.22.168). Sethinayake is the name of Lambakanna. It was probably his title.
The Mahavamsa Vol III 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 the moon endure". Among the Chetties who presented gifts to the Kings were Epologama Hetti Bandara and Modattawa Chetty. The donors were honored with titles such as Rajah Wanniah, Rajaguru Mudiyanse and Mallawa Bandara.
The late President, His Excellency J.R. Jatawardena's first paternal ancestor was a Colombo Chetty. In the mid 17th century one of his male ancestors married a Sinhalese by the name of Jayawardena from Welgama, a village near Hanvalle, and from that time took the name of Jayewardena acording to his biogrpahy written by Prof. K.M. de Silva and Howard Wriggins. The mother of his grandchildren is also a Colombo Chetty.
The Chetties were a community dealing in trade and commerce and would naturally see the advantage of adopting the religion of the rulers. Being a cultured and educated community, the colonisers found an useful link between themselves and the indigenous population, although many prominent Chetty families during the eighteenth and nineteenth century were converted to Christianity.
Many Churches were built by the Chetties. The Church of St. Thimas was built in 1815 facing the Colombo Harbor by the Protestant branch of the Chetties. It is traditionally maintained that St. Thomas the Apostle preached here on his journeys to preach the Gospel on his visits to the Malabar and Coramandel coasts.
Some of the dress of the Colombo Chetties was aptly described by John Capper in his 'Sketches of the Old Ceylon". He wrote that they appeared in peak cornered hats, short jackets, cloth and slippers or jutas. They had rings in their ears. Another picturesque description was by L.P. Leisching in his "Account of Ceylon". He described the educated class of Colombo Chetties of older times who were mostly employed in Government Services as wearing a neat dress consisting of a curiosuly folded turban of white cloth, a short bodied and full skirted white coat and white trousers with a silk handkerchief or scarf around their necks with socks and shoes. This was their regular costume. On important occasions they appeared in gold trimmed turbans and shawls and very rich material for their suits.
The Colombo Chetty ladies of that period were
very conservative in their apparel and dressed gracefully without exposing their
limbs. Their original dress consisted of a sort of cloak (Sarasa) worn over the
head. t was very heavily starched abric of bluish black or deep reddish brown
color. The "Sarasa" had an overall printed floral pattern also of a
very dull color edged with a border of the same color. The blouse was of white
cotton or could be lace on a special occasion. The sleeves were three-quarters
length with cuffed ruffs or edged with lace. They wore a camboy or cloth of
similar color as the "Sarasa" which had a decorative weave of
gold or silver thread for special occasions like weddings. They wore no
shoes but had ornamental rings on their toes. The neck was decked with gold
ornaments. They wore a chain called "Arriyal" with a jewelled pendant
called "Padakkam". The married ladies wore the "Thali"
different in design to the ones worn by married Tamil ladies. Their ears were
pierced both on the upper and lower parts. The "Koppu", a coin like
ornament adorned the upper part and the lower lobe with earrings called "Thodu".