Colombo Chetties

Colombo Chetties

Colombo Chetty, also known as Colombo Chetties, Colombo Chittis or Colombo Hetties, are a formerly endogamous Sri Lankan social group or caste.



Colombo Chetty are mostly Roman Catholics or Anglicans and are found in almost all niches of Sri Lankan society. The Colombo Chetties known historically as Sethi, Situ or Sitano started migration to Lanka during and after the Vijayan period, their original places of inhabitance being North East India in areas in or close to Coorg and Benares. Historians mention the presence of chetties during the arrival of Prince Vijaya, they are also prominently mentioned and played a significant role in the Arrival of the sacerd Bo sapling and also the advent of Buddhism to Lanka, in all probability they were the original Buddhists of Sri lanka, The accounts as written by Prof H Ellawala narrate that the seven princes who were brothers of Queen Videshi Devi were sons of Devasatthi of Avanthi and were the uncles of Prince Mahinda and Princess Sangamitta. The Lambakarna Dynasty which ruled Sri lanka for over 350 years beginning with King Vasaba and up to King Mahasen were descendents of one of these sethhi princes, namely Prince Sumitta. The greatest dayakaya of the Buddha known to all as Anathapindika was a sethi by the name of Sethhi Sudatta; however several Colombo Chetties migrated to Sri Lanka in the Portuguese and Dutch period often became members of the Dutch Reformed Church, few if any of that faith remain today. Members trace their origins to mercantile groups (belonging to the Tanya-Vaishya or mercantile varna in India with mames such as Setti and Chetty) of various ethnicities from India. Most were Tamil speakers with a smattering of Malayalee or Telugu speakers. Although Indian traders have been visiting and settling down in Sri Lanka for more than 2,500 years,

According to Aserappa (1930), the earliest ancestors of the Chetties were likely to have dwelt in various regions of the Indian sub-continent (identifying locations such as Varnasi, Gersoppa Falls and Coorg. He takes the view that after the conquest of parts of the North by Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030), that many Hindu nobles migrated to Negapatam, Tinnavelly and Tanjore (Thanjavur), the latter remaining as a Marathi principality. He further states that it was during the period in which they were in Malabar and the Coramandel coasts that they began to visit the island of Sri Lanka, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, for purposes of trade.

Citing the Mahavamsa Vol III, Aserappa describes Chetty settlers as having migrated to Sri Lanka from various places, settling on the island at different times. The earliest record is of Epologama Hetti Bandara and Modattawa Chetty who accompanied seven sons of King Mallawa to the island, bearing gifts and being rewarded by the King with titles and villages such as Keleniya, Toppu, Ballagalla, Botalla and Hettimulla.

Nissanka Alagakonara (minister of the King Vickramabahu III) is said to have been a Chetty-Setti who migrated to Sri Lanka from Kanchipuram, in the wake of Muslim invasions. He translated his wealth, accumulated through mercantile activities, into political power in the Kingdom of Gampola. Alagakomara, Kumara Alakesvara (half-brother to King Buwanekabahu V) and Vira Alakesvara controlled the area of Sri Jayawardenepura in succession from the mid 14th C until 1411, when he was abducted by the visiting Chinese Admiral Zheng He. The Sinhalese warrior Sapumal Kumaraya was Sembha Perumal, a member of the Chetty or Setthi community, he was king of Jaffna for 16 years and later crowned King of Kotte in 1556.

Independent identity

The ethnic distinction between Burghers and Colombo Chetties is somewhat blurred. Many Colombo Chetty families trace themselves to Hindu South Indian roots in the 17th C. The famous Ondaatje Family is descended from a physician of the Court of Tanjore, Michael Jurie Ondaatje (see below) whose descendants married freely amongst Colombo Chetties - though the family later acquired a Burgher ethnic admixture. (See Michael Ondaatje.) But until about 75 years ago most were educated in English with Tamil as the second language and were grouped by the British under the broad term "Malabars", a term which at the time was meant to include the Tamil people of the Colony of Ceylon. However, Colombo Chetty families married into both elite Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamil families.

Most early Sri Lankan pioneers in the colonial civil service, doctors, educators and religious leaders were in fact of Colombo Chetty origins. The author of the definitive modern history of the Tamil Jaffna Kingdom was a Colombo Chetty. But in modern times they speak English, rather than Tamil, at home and are considered to be neither Sinhalese nor Tamil in the official census.

Current condition

As an elite and prosperous group they no longer strictly marry amongst themselves. In addition, migration to Australia, England and Canada has tended to dilute their numbers.

Common last names

Some common Colombo Chetty last names are Alles, Anandappa, Cassichetty, Candappa, Fernandopulle, Sangaramoorthypulle, Savundranayagam, Mickem Perumal, Babapulle, Ondaatje, Pulle Tissera, Mutucumaru, Emanuelpulle, Rodrigopulle, Tissera,Tavarayan and Sylvesterpulle. It should be noted that Pulle is a Sinhalese version of the common Tamil and Malayali title Pillai. Cassichetty is a clan name amongst Telugu or Tamil speaking Komati Setties of Andhra Pradesh origin in Tamil Nadu, South India.

Prominent Colombo Chetties

See also



  • Aserappa, Anthony, F. A short History of the Colombo Chetty Community and Various Facts of General Interest. Colombo Catholic Press. 1930
  • Casie Chitty, S. The Ceylon Gazetteer. Cotta Church Mission Press, 1834.
  • Casie Chitty, S. The Castes, Customs, Manners and Literature of the Tamils. Colombo: Ceylon Printers, 1934.
  • Pulle Tissera, Shirley. History of the Colombo Chetties. 2000
  • Thurston, E. Castes and Tribes of Southern India

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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