Everyday Lankan History


This glossary is based on a similar one in Luc Bulten’s dissertation.


land granted and attached to a service, formally only tied to one person performing the said service, not inheritable.

caste of artisans and craftsmen, for example black, silver and goldsmiths, stonemasons and carpenters, see also: badähala.

boiled/cooked, or prepared foods that had to be supplied as provisions to travelling chiefs or colonial officials (see pingo and pyhindu).

rest house for travellers.

caste of barbers.

amuna, or amunam
local standard of measurement, used by VOC and indigenous officials alike, when related to grains or paddy it refers to the sowing capacity of a field (which was dependant on the type of land, but typically 1 amuna stood for approximately 2 acres), for areca nuts 1 amuna consisted of approximately 25,000 nuts. See also: kuruni.

tax rate, half of the produce, often used as a penalty tax if a piece of land was cultivated without the VOC’s consent, or for highly fertile lands.

one of the highest honorific titles amongst the goygama caste, often serving as indigenous commissioners for the VOC (see saparamādu).

spelled ‘araatje’ by the VOC clerks and officials, a minor indigenous headman or tasked with administrative duties, or as a sergeant of a small group of lascarins under a mohandiram.

guards or servants of a high official, e.g. serving the disāva.

deputy kōrāla, often occupying this title next to other services to the Company, see kōrāla.

potters caste, artisan, see also: āchāri.

Dutch for baptism. Christian ritual in which a person is either sprinkled with water or dipping completely under water to be officially recognised as a part of the church, and spiritually marked by God. For adults baptism often is paired with a confession of their own personal faith. When children get baptised, often before their first birthday, their parents promise to raise the child in a Christian way.

Dutch for barber, see ämbättayo.

sculptor, stonemason, referring to the caste of stone-cutters, see āchāri.

bellale (or wellale)
Dutch corruption of the Tamil word for the landowning caste, vellālar, also used for the highest caste in the Sinhalese context (see: goygama).

caste of (spiritual) healers.

‘lord of the lands’, the sovereignty claim of the Sinhalese feudal kings as proprietors of all the lands within their domain, over which rājakāriya was to be paid or performed in taxes or labour services by the people cultivating a share of the landed property. Later used by the European colonists to legitimise their right to exploit taxation, and caste-related duties and labour services.

uxorilocal marriage where the wife continued living on her family’s estate where her husband joined her (see: diga).

burger (or burgher)
also ‘vrijman’ or ‘vrijburger’, European or Eurasian citizens, often former employees of the Company now settled on the island privately, or descendants from the Portuguese.

Colourful, luxurious cloth, often decorated with flowers. Made of cotton, linen and/or silk, and worn in various ways on special occasions. Southeast Asian ‘Serasah batik’ is related to this type of cloth, and the Dutch used the terms interchangeably for these and other South Asian textiles.

see: hunu.

Chettiar (or Chetty)
plural: Chetties, social group predominantly associated with trade and artistry, of South-Indian descent.

chiando (or ciando)
see: durāva.

a plot of land with a type of service attached to it, similar to accommodessan, but inheritable and belonging to one family exclusively.

virilocal marriage where a woman would live with her husband on his family’s estate (see: binna).

or its Dutch corruption ‘dessave’, originally one of the highest ranking political officials directly under the Sinhalese kings, commander of a disāvany, since the Portuguese period and throughout the VOC’s reign this official was of European descent. First in the chain of indirect rule, and last European official in that chain, (except for the captain of the Mahabadde).

or the Dutch corruption ‘dessavonij’, province or district, originally subdivision of the Sinhalese kingdoms, later also as the provinces of the VOC’s coastal territories.
Dominee Dutch word for protestant minister.

durāva (or ‘chiando’)
caste of toddy-tappers (toddy being the highly fermentable sap of palm trees, used for the distillation of e.g. arrack, or palm wine). They were also supposed to aid during hunts for live elephants.

duria (or duraya)
headman of lower caste group, chief and overseer of minor group of cinnamon peelers, tasked with the administration of the cinnamon collection.

Company officer responsible for policing and maintaining public order, also acted as prosecutor in legal cases.

generally spelled as ‘geregtigheid’ in the VOC documents, refers to the Company’s self-proclaimed ‘right’ to tax all cultivated lands, except paravēnis, as the bhupati (see also rājakāriya).

garden surrounding the home, often filled with fruit-bearing trees.

highest caste in the Sinhalese social hierarchy, landowners and high-ranking peasants.

hakuru (or wahumpura)
lower-caste known for the production of jaggery (suiker branders, ‘sugar burners’), had to perform several menial services as well.

lower sub-caste of the salāgama, grasscutters and suppliers of fodder for elephants, also washers for the salāgama and occasionally peeled cinnamon themselves.

caste of lime burners, who harvested and dried corals before placing it into a lime kiln. The resulting material was used in the construction of local houses and temples, but also of colonial forts and walls.

see hakuru.

Dutch for lime burner, see hunu.

kangān (or ‘kangaan’)
low-ranking indigenous official sorted under an ārachchi, e.g. as corporal amongst the lascarins, or as overseer.

known in southern India as a social group of scribes, often used by the Dutch to describe (village-level) clerks throughout the island. Possible Chola-era origin.

caste group, traditionally fishermen by trade, but during the colonial era increasingly active in other occupations and economic niches. Placed by some in the Sinhalese caste system, by others as a separate social group.

indigenous chief, high official within the VOC’s system of indirect rule as headman of a kōralē.

subdistrict or province under a disāvany or commandement (commandment).

paddy field.

local standard of measurement, 40 kuruni makes 1 amuna.

rural council, from 1745 onwards every disāvany had such a council which consisted of both European and indigenous councillors and commissioners. Responsible for administrative and legal matters, primarily regarding the hinterlands.

lascarin (or ‘lascorijn’)
indigenous soldiers and guardsmen mainly tasked with policing and guarding locations and officials, sometimes employed as messengers.

lēkam miti
land registers kept by the bureaucracies of the indigenous kingdoms of Kotte and Kandy on ola leaves, the first Portuguese tombos were based on translated lēkam miti records.

malapālu lands that were escheated back to the king, and later the Company, upon the tenant’s death without heirs, also see: nilapālu.

meaning ‘great’ or ‘greater’ in the context of local titles, e.g. mahamudaliyār, mahamohandiram, etc. Also in ‘greater court’, for example Mahanaduva, Greater Court in Kandy.

the cinnamon department, during the reign of the VOC its captain was a European official.

known locally as kāriyakaravanno (‘those organising rājakāriya’), oversaw the execution of labour duties in a village or region. Also acted as low officials in VOC’s system of indirect rule, hosting visitations by VOC officials and performing several administrative functions for the Company.

indigenous chief sorted under a mudaliyār or kōrāla, military officer of a division of lascarins, or a secretary/scribe.

mohotti (or mohotiar)
secretary of a kōrāla, also used to described the clerk of the Political Council.

Muslim communities in Sri Lanka, considered the descendants of Arabian and South-Indian traders who were practitioners of Islam.

often spelled as ‘modliaer’ by the VOC clerks and officials, one of the highest ranks of indigenous chief in the Dutch-controlled southern regions. Originally a military title, but in the Dutch system of indirect rule primarily tasked with policing and several administrative tasks.

lower subgroup within a caste-group (e.g. goygama, salāgama), performs several labour duties for higher fellow caste members and the VOC.

one of the highest ranks amongst the goygama, permanent indigenous commissioners who inspected gardens and fields (see saparamādu and panividakārayā).

Native catechist
A specific teaching function within the Dutch church. This term was used in the 18th century to distinguish lecturers in the church who were of Lankan decent. Catechists taught the fundamentals of the Christian faith to adults and children, supported the ministers in their work as pastoral leaders and in church services.

the taxation of rice/paddy fields.

lands that were returned to the king, and later the Company, upon the end of a service term that was either annulled or of which the tenant failed to find or produce a male heir to take over the service and thus the land.

untaxed lands, category in the thombo typically used to describe the size of ‘ancestral’ (see: paravēni) lands – specifically sowing fields.

dried palm leaves used by local communities for writing. Often in the form of testimonies or deeds.

tax rate, one-tenth of the produce.

often slightly higher-elevated meadow lands on the banks of a river or stream that are relatively dry. Used periodically for the cultivation of different kinds of crops (not suitable for rice).

lower caste of cultivators and farmers, often cultivating lands belonging to goygama families while living on a parts of these lands and taking some produce in return.

South-Indian golden coin, worth 2 rijksdaalders, primarily used by merchants active in the Indian Ocean World.

messenger with a higher-ranking status, recruited from appuhamies, (see saparamādu and nanayakkāraya).

paravar (or ‘parua’)
seafaring social group from South India, mostly fishermen and merchants by trade.

‘ancestral land’, inheritable and alienable land permanently granted to a family, exempted from taxation.

known in Dutch as pattangatijn, indigenous chief of the karāva caste, similar in function to a mohandiram.

pattu (or pattuwa)
subdivision of a kōralē.

raw/uncooked food supplies that had to be supplied as provisions to travelling chiefs or colonial officials (see pingo and aduku).

provision that had to be supplied to high officials (originally local chiefs, later travelling envoys of the VOC), specifically see aduku and pyhindu.

‘placard’, published legal proclamations in the VOC’s overseas territories.

caste of woodcutters.

also spelled as ‘pottebackers’, Dutch for potters, see: badähala.
Protestant Western Christianity is divided into two main denominations, Catholicism and Protestantism. The latter was dominant in the Netherlands. In Sri Lanka it was specifically the Dutch Reformed Church, a protestant form of Christianity that functioned as the official church of the VOC.

puran (or ‘poerang’)
fallowed paddy-lands.

Raad van Justitie
council of justice, highest legal institutions in the Dutch territories, one for every district/disāvany. Exclusively European VOC officials acted as judges for the most severe, or repeatedly appealed, criminal and civil cases.

washer caste, named ‘wassers’ by the VOC clerks and officials, predominantly subsistent farmers by trade, but had to perform certain ritual services for both higher castes and VOC officials.

tax/duty, either paid in share of the produce from a land or through obligated labour services, to the ruler of a land for cultivating a plot of land (see, bhupati).

abandoned lands, waste lands, could be cleared for cultivation upon request to the VOC in return for ottu for three years.

‘rix dollar’, principle conversion coin used by VOC and in the Dutch Republic, 48 heavy stuivers or 60 light stuivers made one rijksdaalder.

Old standard to measure the size of an area, different standards were maintained in the Lowlands, but the Company likely used Rijnlandse roeden (1 roede equals 14.19 m², 45 voeten make 1 roede) Used in the thombos to measure the size of a plot of land.

generally spelled as ‘rolle´ in the VOC documents, literally translates as ‘roll’, list or register.

spelled ‘saffermadoe’ by the Dutch, indigenous commissioner or envoy employed directly by several different VOC offices and officers, sent into the hinterlands to investigate and report on affairs there, or to settle local conflicts. Also sent to Kandy in name of the VOC.

caste of cinnamon peelers, traditionally mostly low-caste subsistent farmers who were seasonally bound to perform the harvest of cinnamon for local political elites, during colonial period increasingly influential and peeling for the Company on a nearly full-time basis.

a deed confirming a formal gift (often a plot of land), traditionally inscribed on a copper or silver plate but in the time of the Company’s governance usually recorded on an ola. VOC also used ‘sannas olas’ to publish new laws or proclamations.

school thombo
The school thombo was a church register in which not only school children were registered, but also their families, as well as when each member was baptised, married and deceased. Not related to the Land and Head Thombo.

bronze coins used in the Dutch Republic and by the VOC.

drummers, announced the arrival of newly published ordinances or other declarations.

land and population registers compiled throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the Dutch East India Company in Sri Lanka, based on the Portuguese tombos and the lēkam miti. See also ‘school thombo’

carpenter, commonly, but not exclusively, referring to the artisan caste, see āchāri.

Portuguese creole word referring to people of Portuguese-Asian descent.

Portuguese for ‘register’, ‘tome’, or ‘book’, in the Sri Lankan context they were land and population registers strongly inspired by the local lēkam miti system (see: thombo).

tuin (or ‘thuijn’)
garden, plantation, see: gewatta.

obligated labour service for Muslims, Chetties, and other ‘foreigners’ (vreemdelingen, frosteiros), could be bought-out with a monthly fee.

one of the highest castes amongst the Sri Lanka Tamils, landowning class, see bellale.

lower-ranking headman, administrative chief of an appointed region or village within a kōralē or pattu.

literal translation means fishermen, but mostly related to certain seafaring social groups in the Dutch sources, specifically see karāva and paravar.

Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company, existed formally from 1602-1798.

see roede(n).

see: radā.

commonly as described as ‘wibadde vidāne’, lower, village-level officials who were responsible for the collection of rice paddy tax (see nely) on behalf of the VOC.

sowing field, see: kumbura.

literally translated as soursop, but in the Lankan context used to refer to jackfruit (trees) by the Dutch.