23 September, 2023


How Did The Kulinas Rule Sri Lanka?

By Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

By way of illustration, let us engage in a thought experiment.

Suppose some powerful but small group of people emerges tomorrow and imposes the following rules. Power over life and death of all those who are outside their group, that is all those who are considered as kulaheenas, not only on an individual’s life but also the life of entire families, if one of them transgresses any of the rules imposed.

That the power over land is with them and that there could be no challenge to this position.

That every aspect of the life of the kulaheenas will have to be lived according to the strict rules imposed by the kulinas: that is what dress that they are allowed to wear, that any kind of ornament is forbidden to be worn by any of them, and that they are not allowed to sleep on beds but only on mats.

That any form of social mobility from the place given to the kulaheenas would be a transgression of the highest magnitude and therefore will be punished in the same manner.

That the bargaining over anything between the kulinas and the kulaheenas is forbidden as the value and price of things will be entirely decided by the kulinas.

That all these could be enforced by way of the application of the principle of disproportionate punishment meaning that even the least amount of transgression by the kulaheenas could be punished with the highest possible punishment not only for themselves but also for their entire families. On the other hand, whatever wrong that a kulina does to a kulaheena will not be followed by any form of punishment.

The thought experiment is how long do we think it will take to have these rules enforced to an extent that everybody that belongs to the kulaheenas accepts them as normal rules of living? That these rules will be imparted to their young by the kulaheenas themselves so that everyone will clearly know what they can do and they cannot do and what they will be punished for and how they will be punished if such transgressions take place.

Thinking of today, it is not even possible for us to imagine whether such a situation could be brought about at all. It is beyond the imagination of people who have acquired a certain degree of the ideas of the individual, of personal freedoms, of just laws and of institutions that are meant to protect these just laws.

It is from that point of view that we have to look back and ask how was it possible that in Sri Lanka from at least around 800 Anno Domini (AD) to the 19th Century, there was such a world. All those rules that were mentioned above were the rules by which that society was ruled during the entirety of those 10 centuries.

The question that will arise is how long would it have taken to get this situation grounded in a manner that it will remain the social order of the day without any questioning. Whatever disagreement, anger or frustration or despair that the people who suffered from those rules had, had to be kept without being expressed in any way. Any expression of such feelings of disagreement or protest would only lead to the punishment of death or other punishment not only for the individual but for the whole of that family or even the number of families who are related to each other.

We are talking no longer about an imaginary situation but about history. The way the country kept a social order on strict conditions of compliance and obedience and without any form of public space for protest or even the expression of frustration or despair.

That in short explains the manner in which the kulinas dominated and ruled Sri Lanka in every village, in every corner of the country whether it be among the Sinhalese, among whom there was this distinction of kulina and kulaheena and also among the Tamils where they had classifications which were different but where the social order was based on the same principles.

That kind of social order remained for a much longer time in India, maybe for even 3,000 or 4,000 years or more. In places like Nepal, these rules which were imposed in a distant period probably with the influence of India, remained in a more draconian way that may give a feature of what Sri Lanka was like between 8th Century AD to the 19th Century. In the 19th Century, particularly with the development of the British administrative system, there was a huge conflict between the way the social order remained earlier and the new social order that has been engineered by this new administration. The principle on which the new administration was based was different and in fact the opposite of the principles of the old social order. Equality before the law, at least from a theoretical point of view, was the foundation of the new administration. The notion of social immobility and the prohibitions against mobility were abolished at the beginning at least in theoretical terms. Personal freedoms for dress as in any way they like, to wear ornaments that they could afford and liked, and at least theoretically, the choice of marriages and personal relationships were part of the new principles of the new social order. Above all, the idea of punishment of entire families for the transgressions of one person was completely abolished. The transgressions that could be punished were well defined and at the same time, these punishments had to be carried out through processes that themselves have also been laid down by way of laws and rules.

This undermined the old order. The new order progressed to some extent though the coming century. By way of practical imposition of the law and also by methods of education particularly within the civil administration, these rules were spread into the society.

However, even up to date, this is an incomplete revolution. The old order and the new order clashed. The new order was legally recognized and became the legal order. However, the old order had its influence in the psychology, in the behaviour patterns, in the thought patterns, and in the value systems of the country. While there was compliance externally with the new order at least for some time, the new order was all the time undermined by systems of values that belonged to the old order. For example, the old order did not have a principle against corruption as far as the kulinas were concerned. The kulinas were not bound by any ethical principles. The kulinas were not subjected to any kind of discipline even in terms of financial or any other social matters. That old order did not have any concept of accountability or transparency.

In that old social order, the new principles were uneasy, but so long as the colonial influence remained, they were enforced by law enforcement means and thereby a certain degree of the new principles prevailed in the society in the civil administration, in governance and also in personal relationships. However, this uneasy existence was disturbed after Independence when gradually, the habits of the old order began to shake off what was imposed from outside by the new order that was established through the British administration. So gradually, whatever achievements that had been made in terms of creating a system based on the rule of law which is founded on the principle of equality before the law and the principles of transparency and accountability were lost gradually and then drastically. The arbitrary behaviour which was the privilege of the kulinas once again came back to the rulers of the county.

Thus, in order to understand what happened to Sri Lanka to bring it to the kind of crisis that it is facing, it is essential to go deeper to understand what the social order was from the 8th Century AD to the establishment of the British administrative system.

*This article is linked to the earlier article publish in Colombo Telegraph – 

The Need For A Pedagogy For Former Kulinas & Kulahinas Who Are Not Yet Free Men/Women

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