Sri Lanka’s identity is vast and fluctuating. But not many are aware of how each of the various ethnicities and communities that live alongside each other have contributed to the larger identity of the island. This series focuses on the ethnic minorities that make up just 2% of the country’s population; the Parsi, the Malay, the Portuguese and all the others and what they have contributed in song, dance, food, education and more. The Chetties- Whether it’s a Pulle, Alles, or Perumal, everyone in Colombo knows a Chetty, but while most of us have a vague notion of their being their minority group, they are – more often than not – incorrectly assumed to be a branch of the Sinhalese, Tamil, or Burgher communities. The Chetties can trace their lineage back to the Tana Vaisya trading caste in India, who inhabited areas in and around Coorg and Benares until they were driven to the South of India following the Mogul invasion of the North.
Their presence in Sri Lanka is said to be the result of trade connections that go back centuries. Today, the Chetty community – variably referred to as the Setti, Hetti, Etti, or Situ community – is composed of approximately 150,000 individuals domiciled in the Western and North-Western provinces of the country. It is commonly believed that the earliest ancestors of the Chetty community engaged in trade with Sri Lanka, resulting in mass migration to the island during the colonial periods. However, while it is historical fact that a large number of Chetties moved to Sri Lanka during the Portuguese and Dutch periods of rule, some historical texts indicate that their presence on the island can be traced back much further. Professor H. Ellawala, in his book Social History of Early Ceylon, writes that the arrival of the first Chetties in Sri Lanka occurred shortly after Prince Vijaya first set foot on Lankan soil – according to him, some of the maidens sent to the prince by the King of Madura were of Tana Vaisya, or Setthi, stock.
Over the years, the Chetties’ place in society became so well established that even a traditional Sinhalese nursery rhyme is sung by generations of children at play – “athuru, mithuru, dambadiva thuru, raja kapuru hettiya” – makes a reference to the Chetties and their traditional connection to royalty. More recent records identify the Chetties as a prestigious merchant class, and W. Geiger, in his book Culture in Ceylon in Medieval Times, draws a connection between the Chetties mentioned in the earliest historical texts and the Chetties in medieval society, writing, “a prominent part of the mercantile society in Ceylon was the Setthis… probably they were like the Setthis in the Jatakas, the great bankers, and stood in close proximity to the royal court”. From their origins as a prestigious merchant class to their presence in the island today, the Chetty community has always been a distinctive one, and despite the fact that intermarriages and identification with other ethnicities have seen their numbers dwindle, the Chetties continue – in their own unassuming manner, to form an integral part of Sri Lankan society.