Posted by: lrrp | May 31, 2011

Probing repercussions of Portuguese era by Janaka Perera

“However ironically in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, it is a different story.  A section of the Catholic community, primarily the Church, seems very uncomfortable when reminded of its connection with Portuguese colonialism. Some non-Catholics too are unhappy about drawing attention to this sordid history in the mistaken belief that ignoring the colonial past is the way to build religious and ethnic harmony.  Most of them are those who cannot identify with Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial history.  No one would have been happier than they when SLFP government (1970-77) took the very shortsighted step of removing history as a subject from the school curriculum in 1972.”

Three centuries after Portuguese colonialism in Sri Lanka ended, they lost Goa – Portugal’s last stronghold in South Asia. That was in December 1961 when their garrisons surrendered to Indian Forces after less than two days of fighting which ended 450 years of alien rule. Goa was an important centre in attempts by Portuguese to destabilise Sri Lanka when they ruled the island’s Maritime Provinces.

Today Portuguese people have the courage to face squarely their country’s dark colonial past in Asia and Africa and the brutal killings of so-called heretics. The hold of traditional Roman Catholicism has declined in Portugal. A tableau in the Inquisition Museum in Lisbon shows two Catholic priests torturing a victim.  The people have not allowed religious prejudices to prevent realisation of the atrocities their ancestors committed in the name of religion.

 

However ironically in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, it is a different story.  A section of the Catholic community, primarily the Church, seems very uncomfortable when reminded of its connection with Portuguese colonialism. Some non-Catholics too are unhappy about drawing attention to this sordid history in the mistaken belief that ignoring the colonial past is the way to build religious and ethnic harmony.  Most of them are those who cannot identify with Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial history.  No one would have been happier than they when SLFP government (1970-77) took the very shortsighted step of removing history as a subject from the school curriculum in 1972.

During the recent launch in Colombo of Dr. Susantha Goonatilake’s book A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations – The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka, Venerable Professor Kollupitiye Mahinda Sangharakkhita Thera of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara gave an example of this mentality.

The venerable monk who chaired the meeting held at the Royal Asiatic Society Auditorium was recalling an incident about 15years ago when a tourist guide was showing around the temple to a group of foreign tourists.  When they were taken to the shrine room the Ven. Sangharakkhita had drawn their attention to the paintings that depicted the destruction the Portuguese caused to the temple which they attacked three times.  During the conversation that followed the tourist guide had asked the monk whether such descriptions would not provoke Buddhists against non-Buddhists.  The latter had politely reminded the guide that understanding history did not mean causing religious tensions.

The dilemma of the Catholics here is that they find it difficult to separate their religion from the political enterprise called the Vatican. Small wonder that the Chinese Government does not allow the Vatican to interfere in the activities of the Church in China.

In the preface of the book it says:

The shyness to tackle the genocidal factor in the Portuguese incursion is also seen in the only film made on the Portuguese presence namely Sandesaya of Lester James Peiris. The theme song of the film depicts the Portuguese as conquerors.  And the art director of the film, Ariyawansa Weerakkody who became a member of the Royal Asiatic Society Study Group on the Portuguese encounter, revealed that the scene where he wanted to depict Portuguese atrocities, were censored out.”

This was hardly surprising, since the director was a Catholic.  And as the preface further notes, “…God fearing Sri Lankan Catholics tend to be more devout followers of Catholicism than those in Europe, and hence follow a restricted and censored intellectual life…”

Many Sri Lankan Catholics and Christians in general live in a time warp unable to comprehend the changes in the mode of thinking that has occurred in Western Europe.  According to Ven, Sangharakkhita, it was this same mentality that led UNP Leader, the supposedly Buddhist Ranil Wickremesinghe  – when he was Prime Minister – to plan celebrations in 2005/6 to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Portuguese encounter in Sri Lanka!   Fortunately his party lost power soon afterwards.

Author and RAS President Dr. Susantha Goonatilake, said that when the Portuguese attempted in 1998 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Vasco Da Gama’s arrival in Goa, Indian nationalists had strongly protested compelling Portugal to abandon the idea. A square in Goa, has a monument to the heretics who were burnt, during the early years of Portuguese rule there.

The wars and armed conflicts that took place in South and South-East Asia before the arrival of the Europeans did not basically change the cultural and religious character of the region. When Buddhism spread across Asia, the author notes, it took cultural elements from the countries that it took root in, while maintaining the core aspects of the religion.  This was far less in the narrow-minded Abrahamaic religions (although after decolonisation attempts were made to add local cultural elements to Catholicism at the 2nd Vatican Council).

Consequently, the Portuguese encounter in the 16th Century was the beginning of the disastrous military adventures that caused cultural and religious upheavals that reverberate to this day.  The Popes sanctioned these conquests in ‘the divine name and exultation of the Catholic Faith” to ‘civilize’ the natives.

Dr. Goonatilake’s book is part of a large scale RAS research project, on the Portuguese Encounter.  It is dedicated to the memory of the millions killed and cultural properties destroyed in the 16th and 17th centuries around the world, including Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim centres in Sri Lanka in the brutal campaigns of the Spanish and the Portuguese under instructions of the Popes.

Quote:

The Portuguese torched all the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim centres. The Buddhist institutions destroyed included some of the world’s oldest university type centres of learning and their collections of valuable books. Portuguese records describe how those who would not convert had their babies publicly spiked.

Unquote

Will any Sri Lankan Government dare to establish a museum depicting such atrocities committed in the name of religious conversion?  Similar crimes the Portuguese and Spaniards committed in Latin Americas led to more enlightened Popes apologising centuries later for the cultural and physical genocide for which the conquerors were responsible. But the Vatican is yet to apologise for the crimes Portuguese committed in Sri Lanka.

The irony of it all is that the descendants of those whom they converted now have the nerve to pontificate on so-called Sinhala Buddhist Chauvinism. To them Sri Lanka’s troubles are rooted not in over four centuries of colonial rule but the year1956 when the Buddhists began to assert themselves for the first time after independence – to fight for full rights that were denied to them not only by the colonial masters but also those who formed governments after 1948.  This revival greatly disturbed many among the Catholic minority – which up to then had enjoyed undue political power and influence.  Its anger and frustration was reflected in the abortive police-military coup of 1962 where almost all the conspirators were non-Buddhists.

Before the Portuguese encounter almost all Tamils were Hindus.  And Hindu deities were accommodated in many Buddhist Temples, although the Buddhist perception of these divine beings was different from that of the Hindus.  Accommodating these deities in Buddhist temples strengthened Sinhala-Tamil amity that remained virtually the same until the fall of Kandyan kingdom to the British.

Catholic or any other Christian church however has no place for Hindu gods.

A Royal Asiatic Society research group associated with the study on the Portuguese encounter in Sri Lanka, included leading members of the Hindu community.  They found that what Portuguese writers described as pagodas (many of which they destroyed) covered both Buddhist and Hindu temples.  Fellippe de Olivera who subjugated Jaffna refers to the destruction by the Portuguese of 500 temples in the peninsula.  These included small virtually wayside Hindu shrines in addition to large complexes. (The invader destroyed a similar large number in Goa).

Catholic Priest Don Peter observed that when the Sinhala King in 3rd Century BC became Buddhist he did not destroy earlier places of worship whereas Dharmapala of Kotte after he was converted to Catholicism, transferred all Buddhist temples in his kingdom with “all their income, lands, gardens, fields, rents” that had been granted to the temples for the purpose of running schools of the Franciscans who began Christian education with loot and legalized plunder.

An important area which the book focuses on is Sinhalese mastery in the manufacture and use of firearms.  This is an area to which historians have paid little attention, causing many to erroneously believe that Sinahalas first came to know about guns from Europeans.  The fact is Arab traders who were in Sri Lanka before the Portuguese arrived, were already using firearms which they undoubtedly introduced to the Sinhalas. The Sinhala word thuwakku for gun and kaalathuwakku for artillery are not European words whereas pistole (for pistol) is.  The Portuguese word for artillery is artilharia.

In the first armed skirmish with the Portuguese the Sinhalas in 1518 the latter had used firelocks. According to Portuguese historian Couto who also states the Sinhalas “came to cast the best and handsomest artillery in the world, and to make the finest firelocks, and better than ours, of which there are in the island today more than twenty thousand.”

This content of this invaluable book is an outcome of joint studies undertaken by  nearly 100 concerned academics including experts in the fields of history, culture, literature, law, religion and science.

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