The Socio-Historical Context of the Christian community in Sri Lanka

v  Christianity before the Portuguese

The island of Sri Lanka, located in the Indian Ocean, and situated at the southern tip of India, has been influenced by many cultures and religions of the world, at least from the era of the Indo, Chinese and Mesopotamian civilisations, the three great civilisations of the world. People, especially traders, travelled to Sri Lanka, due to its geographical location, which gave strategic importance to this country.[1] Archaeological evidence has been found which proves beyond doubt that this island nation was not isolated from the rest of the world in the course of human history.[2]  This shows that many cultures and religions were moving across this island, influencing and reshaping the activities of the country.[3]

A book called Christian Topography (Ancient Greek: Χριστιανικὴ Τοπογραφία, Latin: Topographia Christiana) written in Greek in the 6th century by a person named Cosmos, records the existence of a Christian community in Sri Lanka. According to the author of this book, there was a Church with a Priest, a Deacon and the equipment necessary for the worship of  Christians in Sri Lanka. In this work, first published in the original Greek by a Benedictine, and now translated into several languages, Cosmos says,

“ Even in Taprobane, an island in further India, where the Indian Sea is, there is a Church of Christians with clergy and a body of believers,” [4]

This Taprobane is undoubtedly Ceylon, for Cosmos says,

“It is called Seilediba by the Indians, but by the Greeks Taprobane”. [5]

Referring to this Christian Church, he says again in the Eleventh book, in which he describes Ceylon:

“ The island has also a Church of Persian Christians, who have settled there, and a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia, and a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual. But the natives and their kings are heathen.” [6]

 There are two archaeological finds in Sri Lanka that may be considered parallel to the above account of the existence of Christians in the country. The first evidence, coming from Anuradhapura, is a Persian cross belonging to the Nestorian Church; archaeologists unearthed this in 1912.[7] A Baptismal font found in Mannar, and presently kept in the Vaunia museum, is the second evidence, and is also an artefact likely to belong to the Persian Nestorian Church. The popular belief is that even if there were Christians they were foreigners who did not have much to do with the affairs of Sri Lanka. But this popular belief is challenged with the discovery of the Mannar baptismal font, which was most probably used to baptise Christians in Sri Lanka.[8]

According to Chulavamsa, the supplement to the Sinhala great chronicle Mahawamsa, a minister called Migara built a temple and dedicated it to a person called Abisheka Jena.  In the Pali language Jena means a person who has conquered himself, and Abisheka is the anointed or the enthroned one. The quotation from the Culavamsa is given below:

The Senapati by name Migara, built a parivena called after himself and a house for the victor Abiseka. He sought (permission to hold) a consecration festival for it even greater than that of the stone image of the Buddha.” [9]

Professor Senarath Paranavithna, the first Sri Lankan Archaeological Commissioner, says that this Temple was dedicated to Christ, which means the anointed or enthroned one in Greek. In the scholarly account of the story of Sigiriya by Professor Senarath Paranavithna, the author shows that this minister, Migara, from South India, was a Christian who laboured to spread Christianity in Sri Lanka.[10]   Migara had served in the courts of both the kings Kashshepa and Mugalan in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Along with these records, among the archaeological discoveries there were Greek, Roman and other Near Eastern objects of Christian influence from the 1st century, found in Sri Lanka. From the 6th century to the beginning of the 16th century there are isolated records that could be connected with the existence of Christians in Sri Lanka.[11] Hence it is clear that Sri Lanka was not isolated from the influence of Christianity before the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. Yet unlike India, when the Portuguese arrived here there was no clear evidence of the existence of Christian communities in Sri Lanka.

The introduction of Christianity and its impact  in the context of Western Colonialism -The arrival of the Portuguese

v  Divided and devastated Kingdoms of Sri Lanka

When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 16th century it was a time of great political instability in this country. During this period Sri Lanka was divided into three kingdoms, namely Kotte, Kandy and Jaffna.[12] However, the goodwill between the kingdoms was not healthy for the integrity of Sri Lanka. Not only between the kingdoms, but also within the kingdoms, there were power struggles which brought the Sri Lankan context into a very much weaker position politically and economically. At the beginning the Portuguese did not have any intention of getting involved in the affairs of the divided and devastated kingdoms of this land. Their two main intentions involved their interest in spices and the spread of Christianity. To win new lands for Christ was a responsibility given by the Pope in the context of the Christian reformation in the west. The official statement issued by the Pope, outlining this responsibility through the Vatican, was called Padroado. Regarding the Padroado and the King of Portugal, F.Houtart has observed,  

“Just as the Papacy had granted to the Portuguese sovereigns the right of conquest, so also it granted to them the right to supervise the ecclesiastical organisation. The king, a political actor, the organiser of the commercial enterprise, and consequently an economic actor, became by this fact a religious actor too” [13]

v  The kingdom of Kotte.

The Kotte kingdom became the most important and powerful kingdom of Sri Lanka during the reign of King Parakrama Bahu VI (1414-1467A.D.). This was a period of revival and of great cultural activity, where agriculture, religion and literature flourished. King Parakrama Bahu VI was called “chakravarti” or the Emperor of Sri Lanka, and other sub-kings or rulers of the other areas paid tribute to this great King and honoured him. After him six kings ruled Sri Lanka from 1468 to 1521. However, none of them were powerful enough to exert power over the other kings and rulers of this country. This was mainly due to the conflicts and crises of the royal families.

After the above historical era one of the main tragedies in the history of Sri Lanka took place during the reign of King Vijaya Bahu (1509-1521). This was the murder of King Vijaya Bahu, and it led to the division of his kingdom into three parts, each ruled by his three sons. Buvaneka Bahu became the King of Kotte, Mayadunne the King of Sitawaka, and Raigambandara, the King of Raigama. Mayadunne was a man who, wanting to expand his kingdom, with one stroke of his sword annexed Raigama and established his power and authority. This made Buvaneka Bahu, a weak ruler, afraid, and so he invited the Portuguese to protect him from his brother Mayadunne.[14] During this era, since the Portuguese dominated the affairs of the Indian Ocean by diminishing the authority of Muslims, they welcomed this invitation gladly. This paved the way for the Portuguese to enter into the internal politics of our country. Ultimately this invitation of Buvaneka Bahu, instigated for a political purpose, became a landmark in the history of the Christian Church in Sri Lanka.[15]

v  The Portuguese and Christianity in midst of political instability in Sri Lanka

When the Portuguese began to understand the great political instability of Sri Lanka, they gradually penetrated the political arena of the country by using this instability as their main weapon. In the midst of this political instability, Portuguese missionaries wisely kept their distance from the power struggle within Sri Lanka. Even though the missionaries maintained this distance, they were supported and protected by the Portuguese colonial power. Portuguese missionaries and their mission were very clearly a part and parcel of the Portuguese colonial expansionism. [16]

v  The impact of Conversion to Christianity

Conversion of the members of the royal family and elite

Though King Buwanakabahu of Kotte enlisted the assistance of the Portuguese he did not become a Christian. This may be due to the fact that he did not want to displease the ordinary Buddhist people of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, he invited Christian missionaries to come to Sri Lanka. As a response to this invitation five Franciscan missionaries came to Sri Lanka and began their work in the kingdom of Kotte. These missionaries were entrusted the task of educating the young prince Dharmapala who was the heir to the throne of the kingdom of Kotte. The King of Portugal enthroned this prince according to the invitation by the King Buwanakabahu. Regarding this enthronement, Silva has observed,

“The embassy despatched by King Bhuvaneka Bahu VII of Kotte entrusting the custody and protection of his grandson Prince Don Juan Dharmapala to the King of Portugal reached Lisbon in August 1541. The envoy carried a royal sannasa or ola requesting that King John III of Portugal be pleased to acknowledge and proclaim Prince Dharmapala as the rightful and lawful heir to the Sinhala Throne after the demise of King Bhuvaneka Bahu. The King of Kotte also sent an effigy of the Prince which was deposited in an ivory casket, the panel of which were carved with historical scenes relevant to the Kingdom of Kotte.”[17]

Therefore the prince Dharmapala had a Christian upbringing right from the beginning of his childhood. This created a new page in the history of the royal dynasty in Sri Lanka. Here we see how a tension between two brothers, Mayadunne and Buwanakabahu, brought into existence a Christian royal court, which became a decisive factor in the future history of Sri Lanka.

In the kingdom of Jaffna at the beginning of the 16th century the King of Jaffna, Pararajasekarm VII, gave the Portuguese freedom to spread Christianity in his Kingdom. He even donated lands to Portuguese missionaries and allowed them to build a Church and a monastery. Although this King of Jaffna did not become a Christian, because of his assistance the missionary work of the Franciscans became successful. The next king of Jaffna, Chekarasasekaram, commonly called Sankili, was against the Portuguese and Christians, because he thought that the Portuguese and Christians were a threat to him and to his Kingdom.[18] Under the above circumstances the son of the former King escaped to Colombo and begged the protection of the Portuguese. From the Portuguese missionaries he received baptism as Don Constantine. Later he went to Gova in India and studied theology, becoing a Roman Catholic priest. He became the first Sri Lankan Franciscan priest, and two of his sisters became nuns in the Roman Catholic Church. These members of the royal family of Jaffna received their baptism on June 18, 1623, in a ceremony organised by the Portuguese[19] . There is a tombstone in Lisbon which can be seen even today of a Prince called Don Joao who became a priest and died in 1642 in Lisbon. With a picture of the above tombstone S.G. Perera has observed,

“ This is the translation of what is inscribed:  “ Here lie buried the bones of Prince of Kandy who built this sacred edifice to Mary.” [20]

According to T. Kolamunne the below mentioned are some of the other members of the royal families in Sri Lanka who received baptism from the Portuguese:

Jayaweera Bandara:  He was the son of King Wickramabahu, the King of Kandy. He was baptised by the Portuguese in order to get protection from king Rajasinghe of Seetawaka.

Karaliyadde Bandara:  Just like his father, King Jayaweera Bandara, he also received baptism from the Portuguese so as to get protection from King Rajasinghe of Seetawaka.

Weerasundara Bandara: Another prince of Kandy who needed the protection of the Portuguese as he was frightened of King Rajasinghe of Seetawaka. He was sent to Gova in India and received baptism as Victor Lepano.

Dona Catarina (Dona Kusumasana Devi):  She was the Daughter of Karaliyadde Bandara. She was baptized as a small child and brought up by the Portuguese in the Roman Catholic faith. Later the Portuguese tried to make her the King of Kandy but failed. Consequently she became the queen of King Wimaladharmasooriya and King Senerath. [21]

Here we see that the conversion of the members of the royal family took place due to various sociological circumstances of that time. In this manner the wisdom of the Christian church began to influence the royal court of Sri Lanka. On the other hand the wisdom of the Sri Lankan royal court was able to influence the Christian church through the members of the Sri Lankan royal court who became priests and nuns of Christendom. [22]

v  Conversion of the ordinary people in Sri Lanka.

At the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, conversion from one religion to another was quite strange to the people in Sri Lanka. During that era almost all the Sinhalese were Buddhist, the Tamils were Hindus and the Muslims believed in the Islamic faith. The caste system among Tamils decided the place of individuals and families in society and religion. They inherited this position by their birth, and no factor, religious or social, was influential enough to change this so-called unchangeable place given to them by their birth. Even in Buddhism, though Buddha vehemently rejected the caste system, caste played a decisive role in establishing the positions of Sinhala people in society. This caste system decided the employment that they should get involved with for their livelihood. Therefore during this period the class structure in society was entirely decided by the caste system of both Sinhalese and Tamils. In both set-ups, farming communities were considered as the highest caste and class in society.[23]

In the light of all this, when Christianity was offered to the people of Sri Lanka, those who became Christians did so due to various reasons. The Portuguese coming from the West paid no regard to the caste system that prevailed in Sri Lanka. They were willing to work with people from any caste, and so this gave a marvellous opportunity for people from the so-called lower castes to step into the main stream of the affairs of Sri Lanka. To have this paradigm sociological shift some people from the so-called lower castes embarrassed Christianity and entered into the main stream of affairs in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the conversion of the Karava caste ( fisher folk of the coastal area),  M. D. Raghavan has observed,

“The readiness to embrace Christianity arose from many causes. Being comparative new comers, the Karava were less enmeshed in the intricacies of the Sinhala social structure. Lesser involvement in the feudalism of the time gave them greater freedom of action.” [24]

This shows that, in the conversion of the fisher folk of the Karava caste, there were two main sociological factors involved. First, they were relative newcomers to the area. Most probably they started migrating from the 11 century AD. [25] On the other hand their lives were not rooted in the agricultural feudal system that grew up with the influence of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. These factors made the context ready for these people to embrace Christianity more easily than most of the other people in Sri Lanka, who were well-established in the Sri Lankan feudal set-up. [26]

When the members of the royal family became Christians some ordinary people in Sri Lanka were driven towards Christianity. This was mainly due to the unwritten norm that the people should believe in the religion of the rulers of the country. 

Portuguese Christian missionaries were unmarried celibates who led a simple lifestyle. They came to Sri Lanka, leaving their relations and wealth in their country. They dedicated their lives to the service of the common people. They lived among common people, looking after their needs and wants. Though they were supported and protected by the Portuguese government they did not depend on them entirely. At the same time they did not work for a monthly salary from the government or elsewhere. They always kept the tension and balance with the Portuguese government with regard to religious matters. The above factors brought the common people closer to the Portuguese missionaries, which resulted in some common people becoming Christians. In this set up it became inevitable that the common folk in Sri Lanka compared the Buddhist monks with the Christian priests. It is in the  nature of Buddhism that Buddhist monks depended on the alms given by the lay people. Monks in Buddhism should be respected and venerated by the lay people as the protectors of Dharma. In this manner lay people saw a difference between Buddhist monks and Roman Catholic priests in society.

In Mannar, which was part of the Jaffna Kingdom, there were Christians within the fishing communities even before the arrival of the Portuguese, through the missionary work of Francis Xavier, an effective missionary in India. [27] The main reason for this was the geographical closeness of Mannar to South India. During the reign of King Chekarasasekaram or Sankili, who thought that the Portuguese and Christians were a threat to him, he requested the Christians in Mannar to come back to their former faith, which was Hinduism. When the Christians in Mannar did not listen to the request of Sankili he sent an army to Mannar in 1544 and massacred about 600 Christians including children and women. In  1560 the Portuguese sent once again an army to Mannar and established their power, building a fort there. The Christians whom Sankili had affected and whose relations he had killed welcomed this victory by the Portuguese. These poor fisherfolk, who were very angry with Sankili, became stronger in their Roman Catholic faith and supported the Portuguese. Sociologically, we see how the colonial government of the Portuguese, who were considered as the oppressors, became the saviour of the poor people oppressed by a Sri Lankan King.   Against this background the Portuguese used the Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries to win more people to the Roman Catholic faith.[28]

v  Sri Lankan Spirituality and 16th Century Christianity of the Portuguese rule. 

The Portuguese, at the time of their arrival in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the 16th century, had the notion that they were a nation chosen by God to carry His name to the ends of the earth for the extension of His kingdom. Therefore when the Portuguese established their power in other lands it was viewed as a divine work fulfilled by them for God. According to them God was omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, and therefore none could question Him or His activities. With the above context of concepts the Portuguese came to the conclusion that Sri Lanka was a barbarous nation under the power of the devil, and so they tried to bring this nation on to the correct path by abolishing the religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, which, according to them, were the sources of the power of the devil.[29] This attitude of the Portuguese was a strange religious phenomenon for the people in Sri Lanka, who found it extremely difficult to understand this. Commenting on the Portuguese influence in the social sphere through Christianity, G. C. Mendis has observed,

“Their main contribution was in the social sphere. They introduced a new form of religion - Roman Catholic Christianity - which differed from Hinduism and Buddhism in organisation, dogmas and doctrines, ritual and forms of worship, while some of their manners and customs adopted by the upper classes who came into contact with them and by the converts to Christianity.[30]

v  Portuguese influences on Sri Lankan society with the Christian values.

With the Portuguese Sri Lankan society received the Gospel of Christ along with the descendents of the Portuguese. With this change Sri Lanka society inherited the Christian churches with new forms of music, and festivals such as Christmas and Easter. This music was powerful enough to create a new form of music called “Kapiricha” which is very popular in Sri Lanka. It is accepted that “Kapiricha” is a combination of Latin church music and folk music of Sri Lanka. Today many scholars accept this form of music as one of the traditional forms of music of Sri Lanka [31]. Even the modern Sri Lankan theatre is greatly influenced by Portuguese dramas, which have been staged on religious themes [32].  Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter have become national events making an impact on the life of Sri Lankan people. Schools and hospitals for the general public and homes for orphan children are permanent institutions that Sri Lankan society inherited from this colonial power of the 16th and 17th centuries through the Christian ethics of that era.

The architecture of buildings, both homes and official building, underwent a drastic change with the influence of the Portuguese. The family life of ordinary people was changed in a number of areas that are very important in the affairs of the country. Marital rites changed with Christian customs and practices, among which the encouragement of monogamy and the registration of marriage became vital. Habits and practices, food and dress, personal names and words in the languages used by people are other areas where the Portuguese have left an inseparable imprint on the society of Sri Lanka. Habits such as having parties with music and dancing, and burying the bodies of dead people in one common place called a cemetery (the root meaning of cemetery being the churchyard) are a few among many practices that Sri Lanka common people inherited from them. Portuguese dress like the skirt and blouse, trouser and shirt have remained in Sri Lanka going through various stages of change.  The eating of the flesh of the pig (pork) and foods such as kokis, cutlets and patties are also some of the food customs that the people of Sri Lanka inherited from them. Many words like dora for door, bitti for walls, pigan for plates and sabattu for shoes got into the ordinary languages of the people of Sri Lanka.[33] Many personal names and surnames became popular under the influence of the Portuguese. Surnames such as Perera, Fernando and Silva and personal names like Peduru, Simiyon and Davith can be identified in this regard.  [34]

Regarding these influences and the social change that they brought about G.C. Mendis has observed,

“…. The Portuguese brought about changes in the areas they occupied and to small extent even outside. They did not look down upon the Sinhalese and the Tamils but mixed with them and intermarried with them. As a result many persons including some of the upper class, followed Portuguese customs and manners. They followed Portuguese forms of architecture in building houses, adopting the broad window called Janela and the round form of tile still commonly used in the island. In their houses they sometimes adopted furniture of the type uses by the Portuguese. Words like janela, mese (table) and almariya (wardrobe) are derived from Portuguese. It became also the fashion to adopt the Portuguese forms of dress. Words such as kamisa (shirt), kilisan (trousers), mes (stockings), lensuwa (handkerchief), alpenetti (pins), bottama (button) are also derived from Portuguese.” *

Arrival and influence of popular and Protestant Christianity in the context of Dutch colonisation

v  The Dutch and Portuguese in the background of European reformation and the impact on the Sri Lankan Christian church.

* Mendis G.C.   -1956- Ceylon today and yesterday P.53, Associated newspapers of Ceylon LTD, Lake House Colombo. 

In the 16th century there was a great renaissance in Europe. In this renaissance there was an awakening in three main areas, these being the passion for new knowledge, inventing new lands, and the rise of nationalism. The main religion of Europe of that time, Christianity, underwent a great change in the context of the European renaissance. Many European countries, including Holland from where the Dutch people came to Sri Lanka, challenged the Pope and the church centred around Rome. In this conflict the first colonial power to Sri Lanka, the Portuguese, took the side of the Pope and the church centred around Rome. The second colonial power, the Dutch, belonged to the Reformed Church, which was against the Pope and the church centred around Rome. Therefore when the Dutch took over Sri Lanka from the Portuguese in 1658 they were not just taking over political power from the previous regime. The Dutch hated the Portuguese who supported the Roman church. At the same time they hated the religious practises of the Portuguese that had became common in most of the reformed churches in the West.

In this particular set-up, after capturing power from the Portuguese the Dutch did all that they could to wipe out all the political and religious influences of the Portuguese from Sri Lanka. The Dutch prohibited the Roman Catholic faith along with the other faiths and destroyed all their churches and institutions. The entire population of Roman Catholic priests was banished from Sri Lanka. Roman Catholic priests who lived secretly were killed, and people who gave protection to Roman Catholic priests were punished. [36] Reformed rites of marriage and baptism were made compulsory. The Roman Catholic children were forced to attend the Dutch schools. Those who did not reject the Roman Catholic faith were isolated from society and were not given any government employment. Under the above circumstances most of the converts to the Roman Catholic faith gave up their new faith. Of these, some embraced the Reformed faith of the Dutch while others went back to their former faiths of Buddhism and Hinduism. Whoever remained faithful to the Roman Catholic faith underwent suffering and persecution under the Dutch. A considerable number of Roman Catholics from the coastal areas escaped to the upcountry kingdom and begged the protection of King Ragasinghe II; they settled in Ratnapura, Ruwanwella, Kandy, Wagoda and Wahakotte. Later these settlements became Roman Catholic villages [37].

These conflicts between the Dutch and the Portuguese could not be understood by the people of Sri Lanka. It was hard for the Sri Lankans to understand why one Christian nation was persecuting another. The influence of these conflicts on the Christian church in Sri Lanka can be analysed from different angles.

The visible numerical growth of the Roman Catholic population in Sri Lanka suddenly decreased[38], but those who remained faithful to Roman Catholicism became integrated into the realities of Sri Lanka. So these people who embraced the Roman Catholic faith due to various reasons during the colonial era of the Portuguese redefined their faith in this new context of persecution.

v  Dutch impact on the life of Sri Lankan people and the Christian Church

When the Dutch people conquered the Island of Sri Lanka in 1658 the coastal areas that were in the hands of Portuguese came under their power. The Dutch did not get involved in as many wars as the Portuguese people did in Sri Lanka, and therefore they had a relatively peaceful stay in this land. Yet in the field of proclaiming their brand of Christianity they were not successful. At the beginning of Dutch rule in Sri Lanka, priests such as Pilippu Baldeus tried to evangelise fisher folk both in Galle and Jaffna, but the fact that they were directly under the Dutch colonial rule and that the Dutch Trade Company was paying them controlled their activities according to the wishes of the Dutch Governor and the high officials [39]. On the other hand, their brand of Christianity was that of a middle class Church that did not have many visual aids in their worship, and because of that the Dutch brand of Christianity could not make a remarkable lasting impact on the life of the people of Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, through their form of Christianity they were able to make an impact, changing the life of Sri Lankan people to a different direction. They had a fairly well-organised school system under their missionaries in Sri Lanka. In these schools Sri Lankans were used as teachers. To train these local teachers and to train pastors for their local congregations they established seminaries in Sri Lanka. In the coastal areas under Dutch power the Dutch imposed a rule making it compulsory to send children to school for their education. The Dutch took steps to introduce a systematic way of registering births, marriages and deaths for the first time in Sri Lanka. It became important in the areas controlled by the Dutch to get these three important events of one’s life registered to become a real citizen of that area. To find employment in the Dutch Government these registrations became a necessary qualification. Under Dutch Government locally trained people called Palliaguru did all these registrations in their Churches or Church school buildings under the supervision of the Dutch priests in Sri Lanka. According to the Christian faith of that time, the registration of birth or so-called Christian baptism was especially the symbolic entry to the Christian Church. [40] Therefore when the Dutch registered a birth or baptised a person they counted that person as a Christian. But when Sri Lanka people received baptism they had a very little understanding of becoming a Christian through baptism, and so the registration of birth or so-called baptism could not make a strong religious impact, although it was able to have an influence on the society of Sri Lanka.

In the Christian church marriage is an important activity of faith. When local people came to church to register their marriage it confirmed the fact that these people had accepted the Christian faith, yet in the minds of most people who came to church to register their marriage it was just another ritual and a way of getting acceptance for their marriages in the new form of Government in Sri Lanka. 

In 1737, for the first time in Sri Lankan history, the Dutch introduced the printing press and made the printed document available. Even this was introduced mainly through the Christian Church. The first and foremost printed documents available in Sri Lanka were the prayer books, hymn books