Search billions of records on Ancestry.com

96th Birth Anniversary of late Deshamanya

Dr. H. W. Tambiah, QC. : The 'family' is sacred to mankind

Following are excerpts from the Presidential address delivered on April 23, 1976 by Dr. Tambiah, President, Royal Asiatic Society (Sri Lanka Branch) and High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Canada. The subject was 'The Family - The 'Gedera' of the Sinhalese, and the 'Kudumbum' of the Tamils and Muslims. In the current situation in Sri Lanka when efforts are being made by the Government to promote unity among the different communities, the late Dr. Tambiah's address may be of high relevance.

In this lecture I propose to deal with the fundamental unity which exists between the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims of Sri Lanka. In our cultural pattern there is unity amidst diversity. The concept of the family has undergone many changes in Sri Lanka. From the patrilineal and matrilineal systems, individual families emerged, and today signs could be seen of the disintegration of the family.

The notion of a family among the Sinhalese and the Tamils is basically the same. The long associations, inter-mixture, the cross-currents of cultural intercourse, and the influenced of religions have brought about a fusion of culture and a common mode of life. The mode of ways, aspirations and ideals of these two linguistic groups are the same.

It is not proposed to deal with the Muslim family, since, despite certain differences due to the influence of the Muslim religion, the closely-knit character of the Muslim family is the same as those of the rest of Sri Lankans.

The strict Arabian concept of the agnatic family was tempered by the more humane innovations made by the Prophets in Koranic injunctions. To the (pre-Islamic,pagan) Arab his family consisted only of the males who took part in the blood-feud. For this reason, under the strict (pre-Islamic, pagan) Arabian law, only males could be heirs to a deceased person. Even distant agnatic relations could succeed to the deceased's property to the exclusion of his own wife, daughters and grand-daughters. The Prophet brought about humane rules which introduced the concept of consanguine relations. The Muslim rules of intestate succession are complicated and vary according to the sect to which the deceased belonged. Therefore, it is not intended to deal with the peculiar rules applicable to the family in Muslim Law in this lecture.

The family of the Sinhalese and the Tamils-the two major communities of Sri Lanka - is considered. The evolution of the family, its enlargement by marriage, adoption, birth of illegitimate children, the part played by slaves and the dependants of the family, the family and feudal tenures, succession, the influence of foreign domination on the indigenous family, and the disintegration of the family in modern times are topics dealt with in this lecture.

The Family

The Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim family is closely-knit. The "gedara" of the Sinhalese and "kudumbam" of the Tamils had the same connotation. The next intimate group were the "pavula", the immediate collaterals consisting of brothers, sisters and their children. Beyond these vertical and lateral divisions, the family may be variable in certain localities.

The structure and classificatory systems of kinship were identical in both societies. Thus brothers' children called themselves brothers, or and sisters' children regarded themselves as brothers or sisters. The father's elder brother was regarded as an elder father and the younger brother as a younger father. Some sociologists are of the view that this classificatory system is a relic of group marriages where brothers of one family married sisters of another family and had a common household.

This theory is supported by the existing of group privileges in Sri Lanka during this early period. But it however, is not the only explanation for the classificatory system. The cross-cousin marriage between a brother and sister's child was not only welcomed but made obligatory in both societies. This institution was devised not only to knit the two different families together but to preserve the ancestral property. But this device, property which the parent gave to a daughter as dowry and which the sons inherited, merged together.

Polyandry and polygamy were practised in both societies. Polyandry was usually of the fraternal type in the Kandyan provinces, but among the Mukkuvars of the Eastern Province no such restriction was observed. During the early period the Tamils of the north, however, were polygamous and polyandrous. Marriage in all civilised societies is the rock-bottom on which the family rested. According to some sociologists, monogamous marriages evolved from polygamous and polyandrous unions, but this is not a universal rule. Among the Kandyan Sinhalese there were two forms of marriage; the 'deega' and the 'binna'. In the 'deega' marriage the husband conducted his wife after the marriage ceremony to his or his parents' house. The wife belonged to the household of the husband. In the 'binna' marriage, the wife remained at the parents' house, the 'mulgedara'.

The husband had an inferior status. It is said that such marriages could be contracted with a wink and ended with a kick. The children of such unions were regarded as the children of the maternal grandfather and grandmother in whose 'mulgedera' the marriage took place. Even today, the husband who marries in 'binna' has a precarious perch. The Kandyan saying that a 'binna' married husband should always have ready an umbrella (a talipot palm leaf), if he is sent out during rain, an amude (span-cloth) if he is shut out after being deprived of his clothes, and a hulu aththa (torch) to walk out any time, if he is sent out in the night, is still a truism.

The 'binna' form of marriage was found among the Tamils of South India and in northern and western India. Divorces among both societies were easy, till the Roman-Dutch Law, which was applied to the Tamils and the maritime Sinhalese, made it difficult.

Enlargement of the family by adoption

Under the Sinhalese and Tamil law the family may be enlarged by adopting any number of children - unlike the Dharma Sastras (Hindu Law) which allowed a childless parent to adopt only a male child, provided the child was of suitable age. The Dharma Sastras (Hindu Law) allowed adoption as a religious necessity, so that the adopted child may take part in the funeral ceremony of the adopter. Without such participation, it was believed that the adopting parent had no salvation. Since adoption in the Dharma Sastras was of religious significance, it was performed by elaborate religious ceremonies.

But adoption in the Sinhalese and Tamil societies of Sri Lanka was purely secular. The ceremonies were simple. In Sinhalese customary law adoption took place when the adopter made an open declaration in the presence of his friends and relations that he is adopting a child with such intention. Among the Tamils of the north, the concept was the same, but the ceremony was more colourful. The adopting parent made such a declaration and made the relations, who would otherwise have been heirs, to dip their fingers in a bowl of saffron water. Thereafter, the adopting parent drank the saffron water. It is unfortunate that the Tamil form of adoption is obsolete now.

The consequences of adoption were the same under both societies. The adopted child was regarded as a legitimate child of the adopting parents. While the Sinhalese law insisted on the adoption of a child of the same caste as the adopter, the Tamil law was more lenient and allowed the adoption of a child of a different caste; the adopted child assumed the caste of the adopting parent. By the device of adoption, relations who strictly did not come within the purview of the family, were incorporated into the family.

Family and legitimacy

Both in the Sinhalese and Tamil societies, concubinage was allowed. Therefore, the dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate children became blurred. The Sinhalese recognised three classes of offspring, viz, the legitimate, illegitimate and semi-legitimate. The legitimate are the lawful children by a marriage between people of the same caste. The semi-legitimate were the children of parents who married without parental blessing or who offended caste rules. The illegitimate were children of unions born out of wedlock. Children of incestuous unions were prevented from inheriting the parents' estate. But to the estate of the mother different rules applied since the mother makes no bastard.

In Tamil customary law, a distinction has to be drawn between illegitimate children of the matrilineal and patrilineal societies. In matrilineal societies, such as the Mukkuvars of the Eastern Province, both legitimate and illegitimate children were treated alike. The only relations one knows sprung from the mother's womb. Therefore all were legitimate children who were the offspring of her womb and were connected by the 'bond of the womb'-'vaittuvar'. But in a patrilineal society the mother makes no bastard. The father's property was only inherited by the legitimate children. Subsequent marriage of both parents could legitimise the children. The family in the Sinhalese and Tamil society included the legitimate and illegitimate children.

The Muslims who came and settled down in Ceylon in the 9th and 10th centuries had the same concept of a family. Since the Muslim law allowed four wives and any number of concubines, as he could reasonably have acquitted himself and perform his obligations, the Muslim family is a large one including the poor relations.

From the above description it would be seen that the family organisation among the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim societies was almost the same at the time of foreign domination.

The Family and Property

The joint family system in its rudimental form existed both among the Sinhalese and Tamils. The eldest male member under the patrilineal form of society became the manager of the family property. The descendants could not ask for a division of property, but are entitled to be supported by the eldest male member. The earnings of male children before marriage were pooled, and became the common property of the family. An exception however was made in the case of ornaments and personal belongings, such as dresses, etc. On marriage the sons formed their own families. This is the typical pattern of the joint family system which existed among the Sinhalese and Tamils of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There were, however, families organised on the matrilineal pattern both among the Sinhalese and Tamils. The 'binna' form of marriage, the existence of polyandry and the customs of the Sinhalese inhabitants of the Sabaragamuwa Province, clearly showed the matrilineal pattern.

Among the Tamils, the Mukkuvars of the Eastern Province were clearly organised on a matrilineal pattern. The eldest female was the ruler of the house. All relationships were claimed through the mother. Under Mukkuvar language, the family centering round the mother is called 'vaittuvas' meaning persons attached by a string connected to the womb. The males earned not for their children but for their sister's children.

The Tamils of the north went through a matrilineal system of society when the Chera chiefs became the dominant ruling class under Magha who retained the northern part of Sri Lanka after being driven away by the Sinhalese kings. Later a mixture of the Tamils from the Eastern Coromandel Coast of South India, who became influenced by the patrilineal system, changed the structure of the Tamil society of the Northern Province. The law and customs of the Tamils of the North have both patrilineal and matrilineal components.

In both societies, the dowry system was prevalent. The 'deega' form of marriage among the Kandyans correspondent with the form of marriage among the Tamils of the North. The dowried daughter went out of the family and became a member of the husband's family. She could not claim any inheritance from her parents' properties if she had brothers or unmarried sisters. A dowried couple established a separate family.

In the 'binna' form of marriage which is prevalent among the Sinhalese, the property remained with the wife's parents and the children belonged to the wife's family. Under the Kandyan customary law, the children of the 'binna' marriage were regarded as the children of the grandfather or grandmother, as the case may be according to the person in whose house the marriage was celebrated.

Family and Feudal Tenure

Even before Buddhism was adopted, there were traces of feudal tenure. The Brahmins occupied an important position during the earlier period. According to Dr. Paranavitane there were animistic beliefs during pre-Buddhist times and Brahminical practices are also occasionally referred to. They formed corporate bodies and occupied specified areas known as Caturvate Mangalams. After the advent of Buddhism their power was on the decline. When the Cholas occupied Sri Lanka and even thereafter for a few centuries, their powers were restored.

During the medieval period 'melatchi' (the word is derived from the Tamil meaning overlordship) meant overlordship. The inscriptions contain words referring to feudal tenures. Terms such as Purapar, Pamunu, Gamladda, Kebila ladda, Kaballe, Panguwa, Ukas, show that a regulated form of feudal tenure existed in the later Anuradhapura period and thereafter.

The Kandyan period ushered in the Rajakariya system. It was not an innovation but a continuation of the medieval system of land tenure. Following the ancient practice, lands granted by the king in perpetuity in his capacity as paramount lord of the soil for the performance of civil, military or other services, or by way of grants for meritorious services, were known as "Nindagama' (ninda, perhaps derived from the Tamil world 'nindam', full enjoyment as opposed to divided interest, and gam, or gama tract of land or village). The king also granted land to Buddhist Vihares (Viharagams) and to Devalas (Devalagams) which were entitled to the same services as a nindagama lord.

The Kandyan village usually consisted of a "muttettu", which is either a "ninda muttettu" or "ande muttettu". "Ninda muttettu" were lands given by the king to an overlord which the latter cultivated for himself, and "ande muttettu" was land acquired by the overlord by way of gift, or purchased, in respect of which, he is not entitled to exact free services, but the cultivators was under an obligation to give half the crop to the proprietor.

A "gama" may contain a residential land, known as the "Walauwa" where the house of the overlord is built, and also other lands given to cultivators for the benefit of the overlord. In the case of "Viharagam" and "Devalagam", the "Viharas" and "Devalas" correspond to the "Walauwa" of the "ninda" lord. The absolute property of the overlord consisted of the "Walauwa", the "muttettu" and the highland appurtenant thereto. The chenas attached to the "muttettus" were cultivated by the "Nilakarayas" (derived from Nilam (land), karayas (workers).

The "Nilakarayas" were obliged to give a tribute known as "otu", or ground share (usually it was 1/10th of the crop) to the proprietor. Highlands belonging to the overlord were brought under cultivation as paddy fields by the people. Such lands were called "asweddumas" (fields ) or "dalupatha". There was also a form of tenure known as "maaruvena" (meaning change). By this form of tenure is meant an allowance or share of land in a "gama" cultivated by tenants at will. When a royal grant was made, the right of the sovereign to demand services from the service tenants was included in the grant and passed on to the grantee or overlord.

The tenants or "nilakarayas" had a right to possess the land, subject to the obligation to perform certain services to the overlord. Such tenants were called "paraveni nilakarayas" as distinguished from "maaruvena nilakarayas", who are tenants at will of a portion of land called "maaruvena pangu". "Maaruvena pangu" is usually given to tenant for a cultivation season and for the next season tenents may change. For this reason such lands are called "maaruvena pangu", meaning "changing tenure". The overlord of "maaruvena pangu", can terminate the tenancy at will, but the paraveni "nilakaraya" has a permanent interest in the land and they and their tenants can possess the land and cultivate as long as they performed satisfactory services.

The tenants' services may vary. It usually consists of a share of the produce or it may sometimes be the performance of a specific service, such as lighting of the oil lamp in a vihare or temple, tom-toming at a vihara or "devale". In some cases the services are very light, as for instance where, on a festive season such as the New Year, the service tenant carries a pingo of some produce to the overlord. But the "paraveni" tenant is entitled to cultivate the "muttettu" of the separate land of the overlord and also performing the customary services whenever called upon to do so by the overlord. In the performance of these services, it was the members of the family who helped.

In the Tamil society there is evidence that lands were also given on feudal tenures. The king granted villages to his nobles and lords and military chiefs, who in turn gave them to tenants. The grant by one of the Ariya Chakravartis to one of the Wanni Chiefs is of great interest. The Chiefs in turn distributed the lands to cultivators.These cultivators had hereditary right to remain in the land if the grant was a "paraveni pangu". If it was a "maaruvena pangu", the over-lord had a right to change the tenancy at his will and pleasure. Even among the Tamils, it was the family which was the backbone of the Tenurial System.

Ownership in the sense of a freehold, as known in the United Kingdom or in Sri Lanka today, was unknown. When an overlord or tenant dies, there were rules of intestate succession, both among the Sinhalese and Tamils which enabled the heirs of the deceased to occupy the deceased's lands according to the shares allotted to them. When the British took over the Kandyan provinces, the old service tenures continued till 1844, when it was abolished by the Service Tenure Ordinance which provided for a form of compensation in lieu of services.

as in the Sect there is this show of honour and others which we pointed out, those who follow it are very obstinate, excepting Japan for other reasons,and China and other maritime kingdoms as far as Siam,because the Bonzos are little esteemed there and (excepting Ceylon because of the dependence in which it was held by the Portuguese) in the kingdom seemed to be foredoomed people and rare is the man who becomes a convert and unless God intervenes with the might of his armies the conversion of these people is very difficult".

Portuguese influence was greatly felt in the western littoral among the Catholic converts but it had little influence in the south and in the north. The north was more resilient, although a considerable number of Hindus became Catholics. The Tamils of the north retained their social habits and family attachments.

During the Portuguese period the structure of the family remained the same. Queyroz observes that both among the Sinhalese and Tamils group marriages existed. Fraternal polyandry was practised when a number of brothers married a woman and polygamy also flourished particularly when one man married a number of sisters. Referring to the Sinhalese, De Queyroz says, "They have also taken from the Malvarez (Tamils) the most barbarous custom that exists among those nations, for it is common practice for 4 or 5 brothers or more to marry one single woman, and on the contrary a single man may marry many sisters and the youngest even bolds the first place in authority and power in the house even in love". This institution accounts for the taboo which exists, even now, both amongst the Sinhalese and the Tamils not to inter-marry among brothers' children or sisters' children.

One's father's brother's children or mother's sister's children were and are still regarded as brothers and sisters and the same nomenclature is applied to them. Marriage among brothers' and sisters' children is even now regarded as something akin to incest. The children of a brother and sister are considered to be the most appropriate relationship for marriage.

The Dutch ousted the Portuguese and became rulers of the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka from 1656 to 1796 A.D. During the Dutch occupation vast changes were made in the structure of the family, both among the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils. Their influence was chiefly felt both in the north and west of Ceylon. A number of Protestant churches were established in this area and some of the leading citizens came under the Dutch influence. The concept of a family too underwent a profound change. Polyandry and Polygamy disappeared in the western and southern parts of Ceylon but polygamy, in a limited way, appears to have been practised among the Tamils of the North.

The Thesavalamai, collection of customary laws of the Tamils by the Dutch, made provision for succession of children by different wives of deceased persons, who are not Christians. Crosscousin marriages became the most accepted form of union. The joint family system still prevailed in the north, although there is no evidence that in the west and south of Sri Lanka it survived. Despite these changes, the concept of a family did not disintegrate. The "gedera" of the Sinhalese consisted of a person and his descendants, but those who were close to his heart were the brothers, sisters and their children and were known as the "paula".

Among the Tamils of the north and eastern provinces the family was regarded as a sacred unit. Even the brothers' and sisters' children were regarded as members of the family. It was the bounden duty of an able bodied person to support and dowry not only his own sister's but also his father's brother's children as well as his mother's sister's children. The cross-cousin marriages were frequent and this kept the family together.

From the above survey, it is clear that the unity of the closely knit family in Sri Lanka was based on an agrarian economy based on land ownership which compelled the younger members of the family to implicity obey their eldest living uncle or female ancestor. Under the powerful influence of the paterfamilias or materfamilias fissiparous tendencies could hardly occur. A recalcitrant member would have been expelled from the family. The edifice of an egalitarian, economic society based on rocky foundations based on the ownership of land and feudal tenure was built. The family disintegrated under the British occupation.

The British started capturing Dutch territories in 1795 and completed the process the next year. They became masters of the maritime provinces when Ceylon was ceded by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 and Ceylon became a Crown Colony. After the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom, there was a separate administration of the Kandyan territory till it came under the Central Administration of Ceylon in 1833. The British planters arrived in Sri Lanka and built large estates mainly in the Kandyan provinces. The villagers of these areas became landless. They either cultivated small plots of land or became hewers of wood and drawers of water.

With indented labour from South India, the British planters planted tea on a large-scale and Sri Lanka became known as Lipton's Estate during the early British occupation. The British introduced a system of education to produce white-collared quill-drivers who could serve either the government or the mercantile sector.

After a tortuous period of colonial rule Dominion status was granted in 1947. During the colonial rule, statutes such as the Partition Ordinance, the Matrimonial Rights Ordinance, and married Women's property Ordinance, etc. led to the disintegration of the family. The family centering around the paterfamilias or materfamilias and an economy based on feudal tenure and land ownership collapsed. The wife or the child need not be dependent on the father but could own separate properties. Government Servants as well as those who worked in the Mercantile Service bought properities themselves and severed their connections with the parental home. The old family system broke down but still it was considered as immoral if a person did not support uncles or cousins.

This was a period during which a number of leading men amassed considerable wealth. Education was imparted in a number of Christian schools. The younger generation desired to emulate the English in their ways. The constant impact the younger generation had with their English teachers, and the impact of the Ceylonese who returned from England after their studies all tended to look at the family through western eyes. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer. Recent statistics show that more than 95% of the wealth was owned by 5% of the opulent classes. Naturally there was a seething protest by the younger generation against this unjust distribution of wealth. The youth became restless.

Recent sociological and economic changes have deeply affected the unity of the family. The Insurgency of 1971, where a number of young people in their teens armed themselves and started a fight with the military and the police was a grim reminder to the Government that there should equal distribution of wealth. A new policy had to be adopted. The vast estates where cash products were cultivated by multi national Companies and individuals were taken over by the State. The fertile estates remained in the hands of the State but others were parcelled down and distributed to landless people. Under the Land Development Ordinance, large tracts of land reclaimed from the jungles have been parcelled out into smaller plots and given over to cultivators who had no land.

The Ceiling on House Property, on Incomes, and the higher rates of Taxes (Income Tax, Gift Tax, Capital Gains Tax and Death Duty) had brought about a complete redistribution of wealth and a metamorphosis in the family. A new class of peasantry emerged. The income of the new class will not be adequate to support members of the family other than his own children. The family today consists only of one's parents and children. During the Insurgency the evidence led before the Criminal Justice Commission and statements recorded by the Police clearly revealed that the young insurgents were even prepared to assassinate their parents.

The family is sacred to mankind. It will disintegrate further unless the religious beliefs taught to us by our forefathers are still retained. "The old order changes yielding place to the new" but it is hoped that the concept of a family as members united by blood to help one another in times of distress would be retained.