Why Thuppahi

Because I am quintessentially thuppahi, that is, of mixed ethnic-stock, thus low, inferior, mongrel, pariah in the Asian scheme of things. Moreover, by stressing this dimension of my bloodlines as well as my socio-political background I can confront, challenge and undermine the thinking of those who are attached to notions of caste distinction and/or “racial” superiority.  As I have shown in People Inbetween (1989, Sarvodaya), in British Ceylon imported racial theories of a supposedly scientific kind fused with locally prevalent caste theories against admixture to set up exclusivist lines of differentiation.

In adopting this label here I am inspired by American example: remember that Black Americans started undermining the disparaging vocabulary of the Whites when they began to refer to themselves as “Niggers” [while yet confronting those Others who directed the term pejoratively at them].

I have never been called a kāberi to my face; nor ever been called a tuppahiyā or kärapottā by those who mistakenly assumed me to be Burgher because of my surname. Perhaps this may have been due to the fact that I never had a fight during my school days.

My exposure to this terminology began with the researches that led to People Inbetween. The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s (Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services, 1989) Many people assume that this book is a history of the Burghers. Wrong. It is a social history of the emergence of the middle class in the British period of Lanka’s history and an exposition of the hegemony secured by the primate city of Colombo in the island’s socio-political dispensation. Since the Burghers were the vanguard of the Ceylonese middle class in the nineteenth century and made up seven per cent of the city’s population as late as 1921 they figure in the story in a central manner. After all, they were among the earliest Ceylonese nationalists and also dominated the sporting nationalist challenges to White supremacy on the cricket field from the 1880s.

Yet, in the twentieth century the Burghers were also subject to disparagement on occasions as kärapotu lansi or para lansi and, even, though perhaps more rarely, as tuppahi. How come? My first chapter, entitled “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” addresses this issue. This chapter is deliberately placed before the “Introduction” which is Chapter Two because, in that way, I signal the fact that the principle themes that I have outlined above feature in the rest of the book. In contrast the chapter on “Pejorative Phrases” serves as a backdrop that conveys implications for contemporary times, while revealing deep patterns of sentiment that span several centuries. In brief, my argument therein is that long-standing [in the sense “continuously reproduced”] caste values opposed to mixture coalesced in British times with new Western intellectual currents of racist thought that also looked down upon mixtures of “race.”

Some of the material in the chapter, ”Pejorative Phrases,” was derived from anecdotal data collected in the post-1948 era and from my investigations in the 1980s. So I was casting the net backwards from such material, while merging the implications of these findings with information from both the British period and the pre-British periods.

That was how “tuppahi” and its associations were filled out and developed into the argument that caste and racial prejudices became fused in the context of anti-colonial nationalist emotions. But wait: you will still be puzzled and want to know “what does tuppahi mean?”

Well, as employed in the nineteenth century, it meant (a) the Burghers, and particularly the Portuguese Burghers; (b) the outcastes and/or specific outcastes such as the Rodi; and (3) the interpreters, for example those with the genitive vamsa name tuppahigē.

It was not a pure Sinhala word in origin. There are a numerous, interesting theories as to its etymological roots. As far as I could work out, it entered the Sinhala language through the impact of the Portuguese empire. There, in the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the terms Topaz, or its variants Tupasses and Tupaz (all plural forms), emerged as a label for (1) Asian converts to Christianity; and/or (2) those descended from liaisons between Asians or Africans and Portuguese – that is for those also who were also called Mestizos and “half-castes.”

Having stepped backwards in time from the nineteenth century, let me now reverse gear and jump forward into the mid-twentieth century. There, in the heat of political ferment associated with the surge of a Sinhala linguistic nationalism that effected a political transformation in 1956, such demagogues as Philip Gunawardena and WS Karunaratne wielded the epithet tuppahi powerfully to damn the Westernised English-speaking elites. It became a synonym for brown sahibs implicated as collaborators with the Western imperial order and its major sword, namely, good English. This gave the term a socialist edge. It was a tool in the attack on class privilege by those underprivileged or those elites stirring populist support.

But my point remains. Tuppahi has hues of caste and racist thinking that also brought it into line with indigenist fervour. This is where my material from the currents of Sinhalese nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is revealing … starkly revelatory in fact.

Thus on one occasion in 1892 the ardent nationalist, Anagarika Dharmapala, railed against the “hybrids and bastards of Sinhalese, who have become traitors to the country [and were] honoured with Christian names, given ranks and made leaders of society [during Dutch times].”[1] Dharmapala’s thinking captivated one Pedrick de Silva, a Govigama from a coastal village between Colombo and Galle. He became Dharmapala’s protege, changed his name to Piyadasa Sirisena and took to a career of journalist, author, poet and public orator (1875-1946). Sirisena, I emphasise here, was also an activist on the platforms of the temperance movement, the Ceylon National Congress and the Lanka Maha Jana Sabha in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

“Pejorative Phrases” is partly based on the analysis of Sirisena’s first three novels. Three nationalist themes can be said to permeate his works: a critique of the Sinhala people who had become Christians, a critique of the Westernised Sinhalese, and an emphasis on the greatness and purity of the Sinhala civilisation in the past.[2] It is through his novels that I came to the theory that caste and racist ideologies opposed to the mixing of blood was one facet of Sinhalese political thought in this period.

This emphasis was bolstered by the influence of Buddhist philosophical leanings in favour of Stability and Order. Thus I argue that Sirisena’s pet dislikes add up to the following equation: mixed bloods = unclean = unstable and fickle = disordered.  In contrast, to be Arya Sinhala was to be pure (pirisidu) and to be the epitome of Virtue, Stability and Order. As set out in vertical columns, the picture is thus:

Mixed bloods (sankara)[3] Arya Sinhala

unclean (a-pirisidu)                               pure (pirisidu)

unstable (capala)                                   stable

bad                                                         virtuous

disordered                                           ordered

Thus, in many of the plots in Sirisena’s novels it is these virtues of the Sinhala people that were endangered. The spread of foreign power (paradēsingē balaya) was the source of this danger, a danger so enormous that the total disappearance of the Sinhala jātiya could not be ruled out.[4] In this perception, the Burghers were at the vanguard of this threat: themselves mixed and therefore low on the one hand and, on the other hand, a corrupting force drawing Sinhala youth into their degenerate lifeways.

That, then, is the reason why I wear tuppahi on shirt and forehead as shield and counter-weapon. Burgher I am not; but a person of great mix on both paternal and maternal sides, kāberi with liquorice-all-sorts and god-knows-what in my pedigree, I am. Yes, sankara and tuppahi I definitely am.


[1] Dharmapala, Return to Righteousness, ed. by A. Guruge, Colombo: Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1965, p 524.

[2] This summary is based on a reading of his first thee novels, two of his subsequent novels and a conversation with BKA Wickramasinghe of the Sinhala department, Colombo University. Wicktramasinghe has one chapter on Sirisena in his Samskrtika Sangattana: Sinhala Navakatāvē Mukya Tēmāva , Kelaniya: Ph.d dissertation, 1976 [Cultural struggles: The Major Theme in the Modern Sinhala Novel].

[3] This term can also be transliterated as isamkara [I have senn it so transcribed in Indian literature]..

[4] Sirisena, Taruniiyakagē Prēmaya, 3rd edn., Colombo: Gunasena & Company, 1984, p. 12.

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33 responses to “Why Thuppahi

  1. Chris Rezel

    Mixed bloods (samkara) Arya Sinhala

    Your last line: sankara

    Is this a spelling mistake?

    • DEAR CHRIS,

      MIXED BLOODS or SAMKARA (sankara) as opposed to ARYA SINHALA

      just as A-PIRISIDU is opposed to PIRISIDU

      i HAVE SEEN THE TRANSLITERATION BOTH WAYS WITH AN m OR AN n …. DOES IT MATTER WHICH AS LONG AS THE MEANING IS CLEAR?

    • MIXED BLOODS or SAMKARA (sankara) as opposed to ARYA SINHALA

      just as A-PIRISIDU is opposed to PIRISIDU

      i HAVE SEEN THE TRANSLITERATION BOTH WAYS WITH AN m OR AN n …. DOES IT MATTER WHICH AS LONG AS THE MEANING IS CLEAR?

    • Kt webster

      Thuppahi,
      I am researching a case study for my cultural studies unit which is about Tamil refugees finding residency/asylum in Australia. I would reall appreciate a brief synopsis of Sri Lankan history to get me to the stage of civil war and persecution of the Tamils.
      Sounds wafty I know but I have about 250 words to explain how Sri lankan Tamils have ended up displaced.
      Regards
      Kt webster

  2. I don’t think it’s useful to identify with any ethnic group or nation.

    I’m a Buddhist: non-attachment; living in nothingness. Then you can analyze any ideology: they became empty vessels.

    In any case, I’ve lived in New York City for 40 years. Everyone mixes together. No one knows who you are, and no one cares. Everyone mixes together.

  3. Neil Kiriella

    I am interested in sending you articles pertaining Ramayana & Historical Rawana. This book I have authored. I am a firm believer that we don’t hail from Vijaya. I am interested in sending you a copy of the book. Please advise.

    • PLEASE SEND THE BOOK TO ME AT sEPT OF aNTHROPOLOGY, aDELAIDE uNIVERSITY, AUSTRALIA 5005.

      alternatievely to me at 91/18 Hampden Lane Wellwawatte, colombo 6 IF YOU ARE IN LANKA.

      So too your articles.

      michael Roberts

  4. Sorry for the delay. I love to meet you if you are in Sri Lanka. Anyway you will have a copy delivered to your Sri Lankan address,

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  7. Anura Gunasekera

    Dear Michael,
    Just read your comments on the origin of the word thuppahi.Very interesting. Some months ago you gave me unexpected prominence/recognition by citing an article I had written-Of Traitors and Patriots- in your blog and commenting on it . I notice that my most recent effort, Impunity and Civic Irresponsibilty has also been featured. I am an infrequent journalist – I would call myself an anguished citizen- compelled to raise his head above the parapet occasionally and scream. You would not recall it but I have met you many years ago at Trevor Rosmale-Cocq’s home; he has been one of my closest friends for many years. I speak in the past tense as his present condition precludes all communication with him. I saw you at the launch of my friend, Herman’s book ; Herman and I are very good friends and have worked closely together for many years, initially as planatation managers many years ago. I wrote a review of his book which was featured in the Sunday Times soon after the launch. I follow your writings closely and if it is possible would welcome a meeting with you one day. Anura
    soon afterwards

  8. Nigel

    Funny that the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka discriminated the Burghers for ‘not being Aryan’. Did the Sinhalese not know the Burghers were descended, atleast paternaly in most cases(?), from European Aryans? I think it was just an expression of the natural xenophobic tendency you find practically in any group of people wanting to preserve their sense of belonging.

    Besides, racial superiority was not an ideology that held pure and umixed races as superior to any two mixed race. It was/is a view that attributes different qualities to different races. So it was not mixed races per se that is inferior, but what mix the progeny inherited. Hence a good mix would still be superior to a bad mix. Anyway, confusing race with ethnicity and caste is problematic to begin with.

    Do you happen to know the etymology of the word ‘lansi’? Also do you know how the European colonizers, for e.g. the British, looked upon the Burghers aka ‘mixed ones’?

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  10. Andy Sergie

    තුප්පහිය or Thuppahiya as you refer is not what you think. It is an old Sinhalese word perhaps borrowed from South India meaning “Translator”. This is what I found in an old publication that has some writings from 1700’s in the vernacular. It seems that because the way word sounds it has been given a new meaning. Today people say අනිවාර්යයෙන්ම – “Aniwaryayenma” which means compulsory has now become a common word used in colloquial Sinhalese without any rhyme or reason. The word refers to “definite” which in the vernacular is ඒකාන්ත (ekantha) or නියත (niyatha). Thus many are the words that has taken up different meanings down the line. It was not a derogatory term in ancient days.

  11. GeorgeP

    Interesting chatting on Sunday. Do you have a link to a catalogue of your published works? Cheers.

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  13. Annahl

    If you came on a govt. scholarship to Pera from Dominica are you still thuppai? (Mr. Nicholas my Land lord in Dominica said that Mr. Roberts and he got scholarships to Pera and he returned but Mr. Roberts married a Tamil lady and settled down in Ceylon.) I have no problem calling you Tamil and not “mixed” because Tamil’s are about 8% negroid already if not more; so you could be a Tamil Dominican.

    Mrs. Orloff, my mother’s neighbor at Katugastota reserves the term thuppai for dark-skinned Portuguese burghers, thuppai parangi. When my grandfather got transferred to Jaffna she told my mother that she is sun burnt and that people will now take her for a thuppai. The Dutch married into Tamils says Agnes Thambinayagam. Mrs. Molly Schokmann always said my grand mother is surely her people because of their family color though they swear they are vellalah unmixed. My point is that if you do not look an adi vaasi you are thuppai, which the rest of greater India is.
    So why do some people feel superior to you using dubious yard sticks for superiority? May be they have no scholarship to match yours?

    Thank you also for putting on Ondaatje letters. Hoole’s are married into Ondaatje’s and once had a reputation for organizing excellent parties with dancing into the wee hours of the morning in Jaffna. I am told Undhatchchi Chetties wrote their name under the Dutch as Ondaatje. The handwriting on the letter in Tamil is beautiful. So not all Ondaatje’s are thuppai.

    • I wonder how you came to the ideas presented in your first sentence. Remarkable. I am born and bred in Sri Lanka but my father is Bajan and came to Ceylon as it was then in the early 1900s as a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, My mother was a Sinhala-Burgher mix (father being Sinhalese). Quite recently our family (here embracing my elder sister and her progeny by a Sinhale middle class man now deceased) has been disparaged as SAKKILI by Donald Gnanakone in USA who hails from Velvittithurai, and lived in the same street in Wellawatte as my sister’s family Colombo and presently.
      It is common sense principle that the use f of oul lanaguge and disparaging terms says more about the speaker than the targets of his or her vituperation. In the history of Sri Lanka as I argued in the book PEOPLE INBETWEEN, the distaste for marriages across caste was bolstered in British colonial times by racist currents opposed to marriage across colour and ethnicity. So, I urge you Anbini Hoole to read that book and especially the first chapter re “Pejorative Phrases”. That study was derived from data in the south central regions of Sri Lanka and concentrated on Sinhala and English pejoratives.
      It has always been my surmise that the Tamil regions spawned equivalent prejudices that brought caste, race and class prejudices into play in s mix. I am grateful for introducing some wisps of evidence in the latter part of your comment which supports my conjecture. Taken together with the Gnanakone diatribes (his choice of the term “sakkili” for instance) it appears that the presence of depressed castes such as Pallar and Nalavar and Paraiyar in the Tamil regions of Lanka and India contributed powerfully to the fusion of caste, class and racial prejudices and stereotyping and abusive repertoire that has been integral to this horrid body of thinking.

      People Inbetween. The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s (Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services, 1989)

  14. Swinitha

    Hi Micheal
    I found this by accident but it was good. You have missed “Lansiya” I have another friend who says don’t know whether I am a ham burger or a cheese burger. Swinitha :

    • Dear Prof. Michael Roberts: I am a regular reader of THUPPAHI, some thoughts I agree and others – some of your’s – I don’t. But this web site has made me think on issues that I have not forcussed lately. I have known you as a very good student of political thought when I was in your history class in late sixties at Peradeniya apart from your love for rugby football. Since I retired from the US State Department as a political specialist in the American Embassy, Colombo in 1995, I have been a more serious student of political thought. In your web portal, you are doing a great contribution in making others think.
      THUPPAHI is a word we occasionally use in my home town Kandy when we were growing up. And your interpretation/definition is very interesting.
      I will continue to monitor your writings and the web portal.
      I have found your thoughts and other comments in your web site when I write my column in the ASIAN TRIBUNE.
      DAYA GAMAGE

  15. Yasmine Goonerayne

    Hello, Michael,
    I was a student at Peradeniya in the 1950s, when Professor W.S. Karunaratne used the term thuppahi in referring to two members of the academic staff. He clearly used it in a derogatory sense. I asked Professor Sarachchandra (then teaching at Peradeniya, and working on Maname) the meaning of the word. He told me it meant “A speaker of two languages, being a person of mixed parentage”. Since then, I’ve always regarded the term as referring to a (fortunate) person who has inherited two cultures.
    Yasmine

  16. Asitha Karunaratne

    Sinhalese dont care about race, caste or religion unless they create a problem. Tamils are called thuppahi and sakkili because they started terrorism. Otherwise they will be living fine in Sri Lanka. Same thing with Muslims now bringing halal food and sharia law, sharia banking has been called hambaya. If inorities dont create a problem then no problem from Sinhalese. I think there is too much analysis in this blog.

  17. Az Rashed

    Hi Michael,Time flies.I holidaying met you along the Mt Lavina,Dehiwala,beech .I was with.my son.We had a long chat over bottle of arak.you gave me your email address,etc.
    Now lo behold
    Enjoyed your article,factual and making fun of the concept of pure race,with wonderful personal anecdotal stories.
    Your love of SriLanka shines,with nostalgia.
    With fond memories of our meeting in 2013 or 2014
    az

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  19. Gamini Edirisinghe.

    Hi Michael,
    According to what I have heard from a lawyer friend of mine(now deceased)a person who understands and speaks two languages was called “Tholka”.A person who could speak three languages and translate was called “Thuppahi”.In sinhala there are “Ge” names like ‘ Tholka Mudiyanselage ‘ and ‘Thuppahi Mudiyanselage’.Like you said it is possible that mixture of three races were also called “Thuppahi”.Best regards.

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