Posted by: lrrp | January 1, 2006

That anti-Portuguese feeling in Lanka

Sri Lanka is now seeing an effervescent anti-Portuguese movement, with articles being written in the papers, and seminars being held under the auspices of prestigious institutions, on the perceived ill-effects of Portuguese rule, which spanned over 150 years from 1505 to 1658.

The accent in the articles and seminar papers is on the proselytising activities of the Portuguese and the ruthless manner in which they went about converting Sinhala Buddhists and Hindu Tamils to Catholicism.

The Portuguese destroyed Buddhist and Hindu places of worship all along the Western coastline from Jaffna in the North to Humbantota in the South.

They looted these places and put their priests to death.

It is generally recognised now that if Portuguese rule had continued and spread to the interior of the island, Sri Lanka would have completely lost its Buddhist heritage and become a completely Westernised and Catholic country.

But even with the limited territorial reach (they were strong only in the Western maritime provinces) the impact had been deep, perhaps even indelible.

Deep socio-cultural impact

True, the century-and-half of Portuguese religio-cultural onslaught did not result in mass conversion from Buddhism or Hindusim to Catholicism.

Christians are only 7 per cent of the Sri Lankan population today. But Portuguese rule had changed Sinhala society and culture quite remarkably, with the result, today, the Sinhalas are the most westernised of the South Asian peoples.

It was during Portuguese rule that Western/Iberian names and other cultural markers began to be adopted in Sri Lanka on a wide scale.

To this day, most Sinhala Buddhists have Portuguese surnames like Fernando, Perera, Mendis, Fonseka, Rodrigo etc. Many of the first or middle names are Western if not Iberian. The rituals and ceremonies during marriages and funerals show a marked Western influence, not seen in the rest of South Asia.

The bridal trousseau is distinctly Western. Even Buddhist and Muslim marriages have a Western touch to them. The men will have to be in a suit. Coffins are used in funerals and embalming is common.

The average Sri Lankan woman prefers the Western dress to traditional wear like the Kandyan sari and the sarong and blouse ensemble.

The food and the music too show a strong Western influence. Bread and bakery products are part of the daily diet and the popular musical form Baila is a clear Portuguese derivative.

The Dutch and the British, who followed the Portuguese, built on the firm foundation laid earlier, and in their own way, contributed to the Westernisation of Sri Lanka.

Resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

Though both exploited Sri Lanka in the typical imperialist way, neither the Dutch nor the British excite hostility among the Sinhalas today. Only the Portuguese do.

The main reason for this is a resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist awareness since 1956.

In 2002, there was a further spurt in Sinhala Buddhist nationalist consciousness.

In Sri Lanka today, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is equated with Sri Lankan nationalism because the country is perceived as a Sinhala Buddhist country, primarily.

This adds a further and major dimension to the anti-Portuguese and anti-Christian movement.

The first part of the 2000s saw the rise of Gangodawila Soma Thero, an eloquent Buddhist monk-preacher who wanted Sri Lankan Buddhists to shed alien influences in their beliefs and practices and return to the pristine form of the faith.

Soma Thero’s emergence coincided with three other developments:

(1) The rise in the activities of non-formal, small, Western or South Korean-backed evangelical groups, who were targeting the poor and the youth with their unconventional methods of reaching out.

They exploited the laws of the country which allowed these groups to register as companies and indulge in non-profit economic activity.

There were charges that these groups were using allurements and inducements to gain converts.

The Chandrika Kumaratunga government, at one stage, even drafted a bill to ban “unethical” conversions.

Though the culprits were only the new-fangled evangelical groups, with no links with the established churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, popular anger was directed against the latter too.

(2) The rise of the United National Party (UNP) government, under the Prime Ministership of the pro-West and pro-minority Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2001 December.

Wickremesinghe not only signed a truce deal with the Tamil rebel LTTE, in great secrecy, but also brought in the Western nations into the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict as guarantors of his peace process.

Many Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists see the LTTE as a Catholic clergy-backed, Western-inspired movement to destroy the Buddhist character of Sri Lanka.

They even believe that LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran is a Christian.

Wickremesinghe’s advocacy of the Western model of development and Western cultural attributes (including the use of chewing gum) and the promotion of the Portuguese-inspired Baila music added to the peoples’ anxiety about being swamped by globalisation.

(3) Wickremesinghe’s plan to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka.

His idea was to make Sri Lanka part of a new US-blessed economic grouping which included Portugal.

Both the proposed celebrations and the intended tie up with Portugal, were opposed by the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists, who were reminded of Portuguese efforts to annihilate their religion and culture.

Unlike Dutch and British, Portuguese came to proselytise

According to most Sri Lankan Buddhist historians, the Portuguese came not only for trade and territorial acquisition, but for proselytising.

Historian Dr Lorna Dewaraja says that the Papal Bulls of 1452, 1455 and 1456, gave the clear go ahead to Portugal to acquire territory and convert heathens. The Pope had conferred on Portugal a monopoly on all this.

Since the Muslims of the region were competitors in maritime trade who also fiercely resisted conversion, the Portuguese waged war against them and kept trying to drive them out of the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka.

But they had easier time with the Sinhalas and the Tamils. Force and intrigue were used convert them.

They took sides in the fights between the rulers and princes of Sri Lanka, and in return for military help, they secured rights.

These rights were used for converting people both by force and through inducements.

According to Porf Pandula Endagama, formerly of Peradeniya University, and Prof Malani Endagama of Sri Jayawadanapura University, the Portuguese converted the higher classes of Sinhala society in the hope that the lower orders would follow suit automatically as a way of pushing themselves up the social ladder.

Privileges were extended to the converts, and this also proved to be an incentive for conversion.

In 1543, King Bhuvanekabahu of Kotte appointed his grandson Dharmapala as his heir and placed him under the protection of the King of Portugal.

Sure enough, Dharmapala embraced Catholicism taking the name Don Juan. In 1597, with the death of Don Juan, the Portuguese became the de facto and de jure rulers of Kotte.

Systematic destruction of temples

According to MU de Silva, from 1574 onwards, the Catholic zealots kept destroying Buddhist and Hindu temples all along the Western coast.

The monks and priests over there either fled or got killed or went underground.

A group of militant monks called Ganinnanse discarded the traditional yellow robe and began to wear a white robe instead to hide themselves.

Dr Susantha Goonetilleke, who is spearheading the anti-Portuguese movement, says that the 1,000 pillared temples in Devundara in the deep south and Trincomalee in the East; the Saman Devale (temple) in Ratnapura; and the Kelaniya temple, all very much revered, were ransacked and burnt.

According to Prof Endagama, the Portuguese deliberately built churches over the ruins of Buddhist or Hindu temples.

The present Kochikade church in Colombo and the Madu church in Mannar, both very popular now among Catholics, were Pattini Devales or temples for Kannagi, the famous heroine of Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

Buddhist schools (pirivenas), which were also mini universities, were ransacked and burnt, and their monk-scholars killed.

Among the schools thus destroyed were the Sunethra Devi Pirivena in Kotte, Vidagama Pirivena in Raigama, and the Tottagamuwe Pirivena in Hikkaduwa.

The level of scholarship was so high in these places that the mathematicians there could count up to 10 to the power of 54, while the Greeks knew to count only up to 10,000, points out Dr Goonetilleke.

Their knowledge of medicine was higher as compared to the then level in Europe.

Prior to the advent of the Portuguese, there was much Sinhala-Tamil and Buddhist-Tamil amity in Sri Lanka.

MU de Silva says that Hindu temples dotted the maritime provinces, though these were Buddhist-majority areas. In the Thottagamuwa school, no distinction was made between Sinhala and Tamil, Pali and Sanskrit.

There was a famous Tamil scholar on its rolls. The famous Buddhist monk Buddhaghosha was a Tamil.

The people of Kotte had not liked Dharmapala’s conversion to Christianity and had transferred their allegiance to the King of Kandy.

But the Portuguese were to extend their power to the Kandy area soon. Here again they tried to convert people to Christianity, but with less success than in the maritime provinces.

Tamil-Sinhala divide created by Portuguese

According to Prof Endagama, it was the Portuguese who first created a division between the Sinhalas and the Tamils.

One reason for this, according to Prof Dewaraja, was the fact that the Portuguese found it easier to convert the Tamils.

“They made the Tamils of Jaffna compete with the Sinhalas and the percentage of Tamils who converted to Christianity was more,” adds Prof Endagama.

He blames the Portuguese for destroying the traditional economy and social structure of the Sinhalas.

By introducing trade, they downgraded agriculture. Before the Portuguese, Sri Lanka sent its engineers to India to construct canals and storage tanks.

The ancient Kashmiri chronicle “Rajatarangini” mentions Sri Lankan experts. But all this expertise died out.

The Portuguese introduced arrack or liquor production for profit. Money began to be made on the ruin and misery of others, especially the poor.

They over exploited cinnamon for trade. The concept self-sufficiency, which was the basis of traditional Sinhala village society, was thrown overboard to give place to a regime based on export and import.

Sri Lanka today is heavily dependent on imports even in respect of daily necessities like food.

The family system, based on respect for the elders, and the traditional framework of mutual familial obligations, began to break down because the Catholic converts were told that the only entity to be worshiped was God, Prof Endagama says.

Portuguese contribution

However, the Portuguese contribution to the language and cuisine of present-day Sri Lanka is immense.

Many of the common Sinhala words have a Portuguese origin. Most of the Western goods and artefacts now in use in Sri Lanka came to the island through the Portuguese and go by their Portuguese names.

And many of the Sri Lankan sweetmeats are of Portuguese origin.

But still, only their bad deeds have remained in memory, and all these relate to the cruel ways in which they converted Sri Lankans to Catholicism.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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