30 January, 2023


The Impact Of The Kulinas

By Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

Chandra Richard de Silva, in his book Sri Lanka A History”, mentions about the rise of the Kulinas in the following words: “A hereditary class of nobles holding pamunu land called the kulinas seems to have grown in strength during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.”………………..The Polonnaruwa period also saw increased social stratification. Reference has already been made to the rise of a powerful landholding group known as the kulinas. These were apparently people of the govi (farmer) caste who held many important offices of state. Nissankamalla tried to curb their power and poured scorn on their aspirations to the throne, but soon after his death they became the power behind it. Caste gradations were becoming more rigid. An inscription of Vijayabaha I at Ambagamuwa indicates that he had constructed a separate platform at Adam’s Peak for use by persons of law caste. An inscription of the twelfth century refers to obligations due from the washermen’s caste to the caste of black smiths.(Pgs82-83)

According to him, this group that identified itself as the Kulinas emerged in the 11th Century. In the previous Centuries preceding the 11th Century, Sri Lanka was subjected to continuous invasions from India. The impact of the Indian invasions was so fundamental that it virtually changed the religion of the majority itself. Chandra de Silva writes “with the advent of Cola rule and the rise in the number of South Indian settlers in Sri Lanka, Hinduism came to be a major religion within the island.” (Pg 84).

From this it is obvious that the Kulinas during this period also had embraced Hinduism. Original pure teachings of Buddha which prevailed during the Anuradhapura period was thus replaced with Hinduism for external purposes while the influence of Buddhism survived in the hearts of the ordinary people of Sri Lanka.

It was through this transformation that the Indian influence of caste was introduced into Sri Lanka. It took a modified form as compared to India which had a few thousand years of history in terms of caste. The Indian system consisted of the Brahmin at the top, soldiers and merchants in the second ladder and all those who engaged in physical labour as the fourth category. In Sri Lanka, it was the landlords who were at the top and everyone else was considered to be below them. Thus, while there were many castes in terms of hierarchy, there were two main categories, the landlords and all others who were engaged in whatever the work that they did.

However, the root of the Kulina concept and practice was not the mere holding of large portions of land. It was a combination of the caste related notions borrowed from India, combined with the land holdings.

It was not the mere ownership of large lands that created the kind of oppression that was meted out to everyone else other than the Kulinas. The way that those who were considered to be Kulinas were treated and the way that all others were to be treated were designed in terms of borrowed notions of caste based practices which were prevailing in India.

The two basic notions around which the Indian caste system had been based were the complete prohibition against social mobility. This meant that a son was expected to do the father’s job and that there could be no exemption to that. The notion of change of position through achievements or merit was not permitted.

The second principle was the principle of disproportionate punishment. The disproportionate punishment meant that anyone who was not a Kulina, if he or she engaged in any transgression, would be punished by way of extremely harsh punishment such as death. However, the more harsh aspect was that it would not be the individual who would be punished but the whole family and even the clan.

These two principles when it is practiced rigourously in a society for a long period of time as over the course of many Centuries, it creates the kind of mentalities that have a permanent impact on the mind, soul and character of the people.

The study of the emergence of the Kulinas and their impact is important from a contemporary perspective of engagement in attempting to explain the kind of behaviour that prevails among Sri Lankans as a whole. While the Kulina concept was basically among the Sinhalese, a similar conception and practice was also there in terms of the Tamils.

The question that is being posed often contemporarily is as to how Sri Lanka during the latter part of the 20th Century became one of the most violent places in the world. It has been pointed out that when compared to the size of the population, the number of people who were killed since the early 1970s may far exceed the number of people who have been killed in terms of other countries.

It is the attitudes regarding killing that were nurtured within the cultural dominance of the Kulinas that could throw light on understanding the kind of mentalities that were needed to be created in order to maintain a social order in which the position of the Kulinas was never challenged in any significant way.

The role of cruelty in creating the kind of mentalities that makes people obey and do work which is very hard for the body and also for the mind, clearly shows the role played by cruel practices in generating those kinds of attitudes which make people engage in such activities.

By now, we have considerable knowledge about the manner in which slavery was maintained in the United States (US) as well as in some countries in Europe including the United Kingdom. The people who were made to be slaves were in fact free and independent people living in their own environment in some of the African countries. They were forcibly taken away from their countries by slave traders and brought in ships and sold to employers who were looking for slave labour in the US. The life stories of slaves written later by some former slaves themselves like Frederick Douglass and many others, as well as by the people who organized themselves as the abolitionists, were able to leave a lot of details about the manner in which the slaves were tamed, how they were kept under the fear of lashing, how they were prevented from even having families of their own and every kind of humiliation that these slaves were made to suffer.

The imposition of the Kulina dominance over the rest of the population in Sri Lanka happened also through similar methods. Without cruelty, it was not possible to tame people. To create a mentality of fear that is so deeply internalized is a necessary condition to have absolute obedience from those over whom the Kulinas have dominance.

One of the questions that is posed by Sri Lankans themselves, more and more, is to how such deep levels of insensitivity exist among the people themselves about the sufferings imposed on their own. Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this in terms of modern times is the practice of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. In terms of Asian countries, Sri Lanka has the highest record of enforced disappearances perpetrated by State agencies. That was done not only with official approval but with a great deal of detailed planning in terms of a common enterprise in order to ensure that as large a number of persons as possible would be forcibly disappeared in order to create intimidation in the rest of the population.

The question of insensitivity in terms of the experience of enforced disappearances is many sided. On the one hand, the number of people who would have engaged in causing such a large number of disappearances has to be quite a lot of people. How could such a lot of persons who are officers of the State or who worked under the direction of the officers of the State engage in the killing of persons who were taken into their legal custody? What we know as enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka is the arrest of persons by way of kidnapping, torture and interrogation of people in places of detention which are not the approved places of detention under the law, the killing of such persons and the subsequent disposal of the bodies. The people who were engaged in each of these activities were not robots. They were other human beings. There is no record of a protest on the part of those who were ordered to engage in such killings. There were no moral protests and there was not even a sort of disgust for having to engage in such low forms of human behaviour.

The studies done about World War I in particular showed that many soldiers who went to war, when confronted with shooting their enemies, often shot in a way so as to not hit the target. Despite many preparations in military school, when the people were confronted directly to kill another person deliberately, many found that an impossible task to do. Much of the changes in weapons in later times such as to be made into automatic weapons were developed after military experts recognized this human aspect of the soldiers’ behaviour.

However, when we look into large scale killings by way of disappearances, we do not see expressions of such human sensitivity. That is not shown when the people were called upon to do it or when they were doing it and even after they have done it.

There are many records for example of American soldiers who were mobilized in Vietnam and who later expressed a grave sense of guilt and regret about what they had to do during that war. The problem became so large that special programs had to be developed to deal with the trauma of those returnees from the war.

However, in Sri Lanka, we do not see any significant work done by anyone in order to record the impressions of the Police and the military which were engaged in the killing of the people, particularly killing after arrest. Killing after arrest means the killing of unarmed people. Somebody is completely in one’s control and is unable to offer any kind of resistance. Such a person is incapable of creating any impression of a threat to the officers who are keeping them under custody. Within such a completely neutral situation, a person is subjected to severe forms of torture and is killed either by shooting or by other means and the body is subsequently disposed of.

How is it that all of this can be done without a sense of guilt? It is not possible to explain this merely in terms of obedience to orders and/or purely as an unavoidable consequence of the requirements of the job. There has to be much deeper cultural roots for creating such kind of a person who could comfortably carry out such horrible acts of cruelty towards another human being who happened to also be a national of his own country.

The examination of the cultural roots of this takes us back to the impact of the Kulinas in Sri Lanka’s history. The culture of cruelty was nurtured over Centuries. And almost everyone including the religious establishment got adjusted to this culture of cruelty. We do not find any writers or poets or anyone who deeply rebelled against the kind of cruelty that the Kulinas perpetrated in Sri Lanka. This only means the depth of the impact of violence that has gone into the psyche of the Sri Lankan people.

Understanding of the kind of behaviour not only in terms of killing but also in many other forms of violence including the violence of the rebels is not possible without understanding the deep impact of the fear syndrome that was created by the Kulina’s dominance. The rebels who had a history of victimization under this system of dominance acquired the same characteristics as the dominant group, and when confronted, they acted with even greater cruelty because of the fear of annihilation that is inbuilt into the mentality of the rebel.

Rebels who fear instant annihilation also act with the same ferocity to annihilate the enemy. Then the battle becomes one involving annihilators. And that in fact is what has happened in Sri Lanka not only during the time of insurgencies but also in the political field.

The mentality of the competitor and the mentality of the annihilator are two different kinds of things. The competitor prefers a peaceful environment to compete. In the process of one’s own assertion of the right to compete, he or she also preserves the rights of others to compete. The competition takes place in terms of skill development and other intellectual forms and many other forms of development where the ultimate test becomes one of merit. Merit based competition requires a high level of ethical principles.

What was developed under the dominance of the Kulinas was not that kind of competitive environment within the context of merit. Those who dominated knew that they were not in that position due to any merit. They were fully aware that they could maintain their position only by way of the use of naked force. And they developed various methodologies of maintaining an environment within which the actual use of extraordinary violent means or the threat of the use of such was the dominant factor.

That created the mentalities and the spiritual makeup of the dominant group as well as of those who were being dominated. The dominant group showed ferocity in every possible way. The way they talked to those whom they thought were inferiors, the way they expected various forms of demonstration of respect to them from their perceived inferiors, they way they were paid for their jobs, and also the way they even maintained relationships with others including women, all revolved around the use of their superior position and capacity to enforce extreme forms of violence on the rest.

On the other hand, as a response to this, what developed within the larger population which was considered inferior was a sense of fear. They learnt to make all the demonstrations of obedience and even faked loyalties to their superiors. At the heart of the relationship between this inferior-superiority complex was an extremely corrupt form of human relationship. Inferiors did not consider themselves as owing any kind of deeper, emotional loyalties to their superiors. They had to learn to play the double game of on the one hand showing respect, and on the other, carrying within themselves a great hatred and contempt for those whom they called their superiors. This went into the formation of the character within Sri Lanka.

The inability of people to consider themselves as one people is not merely due to divisions in terms of race, religion and the like. It is far deeper. There is no human bond of friendship among the people because the culture of distrust is so deeply embedded into the very innermost souls of the people. The inhumanity shown by people to each other is a matter that is being taken for granted. The expectation is that at one point or the other, violence will erupt, cruelty will manifest itself and the mentalities that lead to the annihilation of each other will come to the surface.

Fearing this aspect of their inner self, they take precautions, often extraordinary precautions, to safeguard each other from one another.

Without understanding these character traits, all kinds of ideologies that try to portray a pseudo unity are itself products of the recognition of these deep divisions within the society itself. De-humanized human beings expect de-human reactions in everything. And they learn to deal with these inhumane reactions by taking shelter in many ways and where it fails, by themselves behaving as humanely as possible in order to maintain survival.

At the heart of it is the way human beings attempt to survive in an environment where cruelty is deeply embedded. Since survival is a higher instinct, the people thereby develop various means of coping with the expectations of cruelty, often by behaving as if they are completely passive people. The appearance of passivity is in itself a plea for peace. By demonstrating themselves to be very humble, they try to protect themselves from the aggressiveness of others. However, this passiveness is a facade. When challenged beyond a point, these facades break and the same mentality of the annihilator emerges.

That is what creates the kind of mentalities which have dragged Sri Lanka down to the point where it has been, as of present times, dragged down to.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    An intriguing and interesting set of opinions expressed by the writer. In the absence of evidence to validate his opinions, by way of research data and established theories or laws in human psychology or abnormal psychology associated with deviance, violence and aggression, his interpretations and explanations have less merit than if accompanied by credible sources. It would be interesting to note the behaviour of King Leopold II of Belgium in amputating the hands of inefficient rubber tappers in the Congo, or Adolf Hitler’s use of the Nazi doctors to open living Jewish women’s wombs to examine fetuses, experimenting with cloning an army etc or indeed gas chambers for annihilating a perceived enemy in addition to atrocities with millions of deaths (Hiroshima) or napalm in Indochina all of which happened outside Sri Lanka and the “kulina” theory in some measure although equivalents are available.

  • 2

    A fascinating article. The vilification and persecution of the Jews was a feature of life in Christendom for centuries before Hitler appeared. Was this too based on the same mindset or was it merely that they were considered to be the killers of Christ?

  • 1

    I have read somewhere that the Chief of a cannibal tribe in African jungle was horrified to hear of world wars in Europe where millions were being killed FOR NO PURPOSE. He simply couldn’t comprehend that wanton waste, leave aside the cruelty and immortality- they would kill only of necessity.
    One can imagine how these people would now be behaving since ‘CIVILIZATION’ dawned on them.


  • 2

    No monkey, no computer is as easily programmable as humans.


  • 4

    Yes intriguing article., especially to me who did not now about the Kulinas.
    Who are the presumed descendants of the Kulinas today What is their connection
    with the current Govigamas? In the first para Basil suggests the Ks were a
    low (misspelled “law”) caste but the rest of the piece suggests they were
    cock of the hoop. Clarification needed.

    I have been fascinated by why Buddhist nations have been among the worst
    violators of human rights in the world – Pol Pot Cambodia, Burma since 1948
    and Sri Lanka since the mid 1950s. This is in contradiction with the
    philosophy of the world’s most tolerant religion.

    • 2

      Religion is a crown people wear on their heads. Like Peacocks they are proud of it. It is very heavy and keep falling off. They want to pass it down as inheritance.
      Sinhalese are a tribe evolved from a group of people migrated from India some 2600 years ago.
      The crown also was received as a state gift from mother country.
      Now they are proud of it.
      It had been a difficult task keeping it balanced on head for 2500 years owing to various, incessant external incursions and intrusions.
      True, if you shine a light on the crown it reflects compassion and tolerance .
      But the primate who wears it, being relatively small in comparison with other tribes around the globe, feels all the time insecure and reacts to external proddings and internal disturbances that threaten the group cohesion the same way all primates do.

      May all living beings be happy and free from suffering.


    • 3

      That’s because people are Human first and Buddhist, Hindu etc second. Why were two world wars started by Christian countries contrary to the teaching of Jesus?

      • 1

        ….and Crusades, Inquisition, Church vs. Protestants, Colonisation, Incas, Red Indians, Australian aborigines, Holocaust, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Vietnam, Middle East, Latin America, amassing WMDs daily , the list goes on endless while pouring billions to keep the word of Christ alive and waiting for the second coming!


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