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Social structure of Sri Lanka

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Title: Social structure of Sri Lanka  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Kandyan Convention, Dutch Ceylon, Sinhalese–Portuguese War, British Ceylon, Sri Lanka
Collection: Social Class by Country, Sri Lankan Society
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Social structure of Sri Lanka

The social structure of Sri Lanka has clearly changed with the centuries and it is difficult to adequately discuss the topic in a single article. However, there are specific class names, castes, and categories that are helpful to define.


  • Caste 1
    • Kandy Kingdom 1.1
    • Colonial rule 1.2
  • Late 19th century 2
  • 20th century 3
  • 21st century 4
    • Upper class 4.1
    • Upper middle class 4.2
    • The Middle class 4.3
    • The lower middle class 4.4


Much like other South Asian countries Sri Lanka has a complex caste system and as a result extensive caste discrimination, even though its constitution states that all men and women are equal. The history of the caste system in Sri Lanka is unclear since there is very little historical evidence and many research carried out into the subject have been criticized as been biased.

The Sinhalese and Tamil people who make up majority of the population have their own distinctive caste system and veneration of these also exist based on geographical lines.

Kandy Kingdom

The last native Kingdom of the island saw the caste system forming a social structure, since occupation was hereditary and such persons of a common occupation formed a unique social culture. The Kings of the kingdom descended from the immediate relatives of the former king, hence the Royals were limited to the Royal family, this meant that often Royal Princess were brought from South India. The aristocrats who carried out affairs of state were from the caste of Radala. Others in the kingdom belonged to different castes according to their occupation. Social mobility was impossible.

Colonial rule

With onset of the colonial rule in the country different castes emerged with new occupation. However social mobility was present since the colonial rulers didn't impose hereditary occupations as was the case in the Kandy Kingdom. Therefore it is identified that this is the point in which the caste began to be limited to a social culture rather than an occupational group. Newer castes originated at this point such as the powerful Mudaliyar class who loyally served their colonial masters.

Late 19th century

By the late 19th century the upper class natives of Ceylon (called Ceylonese by the British) formed a second class group in their own land, serving their colonial masters. The finest example of this would be the famous second class and third class carriages use by the Ceylonese on the trains due to the first was reserved only for Europeans . This upper class of Ceylonese derived their wealth from land holdings that were passed down the generations and derived their power from severing in posts in the British colonial administration. At first these were limited to post special posts reserved for natives such as Rate Mahattaya in the central highlands and the Mudaliyars in the coastal areas, letter as new generation of these native chieftains grew up educated in the Christian missionary schools, public schools modeled after their English counterparts and at British Universities they were taken in to the Ceylon Civil Service, others took up places in the Legislative and later the State councils. Entering into this upper class were successful merchants who gained wealth in the lucrative mining industry of the time.

A middle class emerged at this period of a bourgeois people who gained their status by Professions or by Business.

20th century

The 20th century brought several changes to the social structure. By the 1940s when Ceylon gained Independence from the British (in 1948) there were four social groups. Upper class made up primary of landowners, the Upper middle class of educated professionals holding traditional jobs such as Lawyers, Doctors, Army officers, Academics, senior Civil Servants and police officers; and merchants. The political leaders of the new Dominion of Ceylon came from these to classes. Lower middle class made up persons who were educated but held less prestigious, but respected jobs such lower level public servants, policemen, teachers.

This order changed dramatically in the 1970s due to the land reforms brought on by the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike who limited private owner ship of land to and ownership of private houses to two (later changed), excess land was nationalized along with many industries. This rendered the wealthiest who made up the Upper class and Upper middle class who greatly dependent on a secondary income void of their income and with it their power. The following the failure of the socialist economic drive of the 1970s the new government of J R Jayewardene open up the counties economy to free market reforms. This along with the civil war saw major change in the social structure.

21st century

The direct result of the changes of the 1970s and the 1980s was witnessed only at the late 20th century and start of the 21st century. Today, Sri Lanka's social structure is based purely on money and power.

Upper class

The upper class in Sri Lanka is statistically very small and consists of industrialists, businessmen, senior executives and serving government ministers. These people are the wealthiest in the land, having in some cases inherited money and position, and in other cases having earned it themselves. Their educational backgrounds may vary, but they typically send their children to national, private or international schools to be educated in English and thereafter send them to overseas universities.

Upper middle class

The upper middle class in Sri Lanka consists of and educated professionals who generally come from educated backgrounds, having been educated at public or private schools and local or foreign universities. Traditional jobs include lawyers, doctors, engineers, military officers, senior civil servants, and managers. They typically send their children (depending on family income, traditions, residence) to national, private or international schools to be educated in English or in their local languages. For university education, they may be sent to overseas universities or local private higher education institutions (depending on family income).

The Middle class

The middle classes include government workers such as university lecturers, teachers, government department workers. Some can afford to put their children into private national schools but refrain from the more expensive private international schools. The Sri Lankan National Universities are mainly for the Middle classes. The middle class university students do travel abroad on university scholarships.

The lower middle class

The lower middle class in Sri Lanka consists of people in blue-collar jobs living in less prosperous suburbs. This class constitutes the largest of Sri Lanka's social groups. Typically they have not have had a university education, and send their children to national or provincial schools to be educated in their local languages (depending on family residence

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