Sri Lanka was once a haven of religious and ethnic harmony


By P. K. Balachandran

Like many other post-colonial States, modern Sri Lanka is a divided country where ethnic entities and religious groups are pitted against each in bitter rivalry fostered by politicians indulging in competitive mass mobilization to capture and retain power.

But during monarchic rule when power was entirely in the hands of a King, and the King was powerful and fair-minded, ethnic and religious harmony, tolerance of differences, and even a celebration of diversity prevailed. The Kandyan Kingdoms between 1591 and 1765 were illustrative of such an idyll, if one were to go by social historian Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere’s latest book: The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom 1591-1765 (Sail Fish, Colombo, 2020).

Obeyesekere, who is Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, says that Kandy showed a remarkable degree of cosmopolitanism. The ethnic and religious boundaries were not as rigid as they are today. People of all faiths and ethnic groups, from the island and outside, were welcome to settle down, trade, work, inter-marry and prosper.

Obeyesekere says people (and kings too) effortlessly slipped in and out of Buddhism and Catholicism. It was possible to be a Catholic outwardly and a Buddhist deep inside. Places of worship of different faiths were constructed without let or hindrance. Kings and commoners spoke more than one language. While the hoi polloi spoke Sinhalese (the language of the majority) and Tamil (the language of trade), a section of the elite were familiar with Portuguese and Dutch as well.


It was during the reign of Jayavira Bandara (1511-1552) that European Catholic priests got a place in the Kandyan court. In order to please the Portuguese, who were a force in the Kotte Kingdom, Jayavira Bandara became a ‘nominal’ Catholic. Jayavira was deposed by his son Karalliyadde Bandara (1552-1582), who became a ‘devout’ Catholic, publicly embracing Christianity around 1562-64. But such a public display of the conversion alienated him from his Buddhist subjects and he had to flee to Trincomalee with his daughter Kusumasana Devi. He died of small pox there but Kusumasana Devi was rescued by the Portuguese, baptized and renamed Dona Catherina.

After Karalliyadde Bandara’s death, Kandy became a bone of contention between Rajasinha l of Sitavaka and Virasundara Bandara of Peradeni (now in Kegalle district). Rajasinha I killed Virasundara. Subsequently, Virasundara’s son Konappu Bandara took the help of Dharmapala of Kotte in order to capture Kandy. Dharmapala had converted to Catholicism, gifted the Kotte Kingdom to the Portuguese King in Lisbon and ruled Kotte as his vassal.

Konappu Bandara, married the daughter of Sembagaperumal, a Catholic prince and brother of Vidiye Bandara, the father of Dharmapala. This marriage (the first to be referred to by the Portuguese term Kasaada) was performed as per Catholic rites in Dharmapala’s palace.

However, Konappu Bandara was removed and sent away to Goa in India by the Portuguese for murdering his confidante Salappu Bandara. In Goa, Konappu was officially baptized and renamed Don Joao of Austria. He came back to lead a Portuguese campaign to oust Rajasinha I from Kandy. But after ousting Rajasinha I, he ditched the Portuguese and crowned himself as Vimaladharmasuriya I, the King of Kandy.

To be consecrated, he reverted to Buddhism. Angry with this, the Portuguese invaded Kandy with an intention to place Dona Catherina, the Catholic princess and daughter of the late Karaliyadde Bandara, on the throne. But Vimaladharmasuriya destroyed the entire Portuguese regiment, captured Dona Catherina and married her.

The interesting factor is this narrative is that while Vimaladharmasuriya remained a strong Buddhist after marriage, Dona Catherina, his wife, remained a staunch Catholic. She brought up her children as Buddhists though.

In 16th.Century, changing religion was not uncommon in Sri Lanka. People also had dual religious affiliations. “Buddhists could become Christians and some would even go to church. Yet at the same time, they could continue to be Buddhists,” Obeyesekere says. Further, Jesus could be easily adopted as one of the Hindu gods like Vishnu and Natha and looked upon as benevolent beings. Virgin Mary could be absorbed as Pattini, he points out.

Heavily exposed to the Portuguese and the Dutch, Vimaladharmasuriya and Dona Catherina led a partially Western style life. Don Catherina and her children wore Western dresses. The King spoke Portuguese fluently, learnt to speak Dutch too. But at the same time, he dedicated himself to the promotion of Buddhism by housing the Buddha’s Tooth Relic in a grand temple and sending a mission to Arakan in Burma to get monks to come to Sri Lanka and ordain Sri Lankans. But Vimaladharmasuriya was not dogmatic. According to the Dutch chronicler P. A. Baldaeus, he sincerely believed in freedom of religion. To cement ties with the Tamil Hindus of the East coast, he also married one of their princesses.

Kandy’s tolerant culture continued under King Senarat (1604-1635). Senarat who was a cousin of Vimaladhramasuriya, was a Buddhist and a former monk to boot. But he married Vimaladharmasuriya’s widow Dona Catherina. He was kind to Muslims. When 4,000 Muslim were driven out of the Western coast by the fanatically Catholic Portuguese, Senarat settled them on the Eastern coast. When the Dutch persecuted the Catholics in their dominions, Senarat gave them shelter in Kandy.

Demographic Mosaic

Under Vimaladharmasuriya and his successors, Kandy was a “veritable display of diverse humanity,” says Obeyesekere. The visiting Dutch Admiral J.V. Spilbergens ays: “Among the Singales there live many Moors, Turks and other heathens, who all have special laws. Brahmos (Brahmins) are there in large numbers, who are superstitious and respected by the other nations. These Brahmos never eat anything that has life.”

There were also Malays, Javanese, North Indians, and Hindu ascetic wanderers such as Andis and Pantarams, notes Obeyesekere, going on to add that King Rajasinha II (1629-1687) loved to have foreigners his domain.  Kandyan Kings sometimes ‘forced’ many European prisoners to settle there and encouraged them to marry Sinhalese women “enhancing the fair complexion of many a fair Kandyan.”

Jesuits from Goa

Vimaladharmasuriya II (1687–1707), son of Rajasinha II, allowed Joseph Vaz, a Jesuit missionary from Goa, to settle in his Kingdom and preach Catholicism when the Dutch were persecuting the Catholics in areas under their control. Vimaladharmasuriya II and his son Narendrasinha (1707-1739),   ignored the 1638 treaty between Rajasinha II and the Dutch, which had enjoined the Kandyan King to drive Catholic missionaries out of the Kingdom.

Like his predecessor Francis Xavier, Fr.Joseph Vaz was a great success among the poor because he was sworn to a life of simplicity, service and poverty. Like Francis Xavier, Fr. Vaz wore no shoes, wore a tattered black gown and slept on the floor like a Sanyasi. His simple ways earned him the title Mahaswami. People respected him also because he was originally a Brahmin, a caste much respected in Sri Lanka.

King Narendrasinha, grew up in the company of Fr. Vaz and his disciple and successor Fr. Jacome Goncalvez, also a Konkani Brahmin from Goa. Fr.Goncavez contributed immensely to Catholic literature in both Sinhala and Tamil. Narendrasinha, sought the company of both Vaz and Goncalvez, even as he was a devout Buddhist. He put up Samaneras (student monks) in his abode. He constructed shrines for Vishnu and Natha, renovated the Temple of the Tooth and had 32 Jatakas painted on its walls.

Indian Nayaka connection

No account of the liberalism of the Kandyan Kingdom will be complete without a reference to the three-King Nayaka dynasty from Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The Nayakas entered Kandyan royalty through marriage as Sinhala Kings married Nayaka princesses. Sinhalese Kings used South Indian troops in their military campaigns. These took part in Rajasinha II’s successful battle against the Portuguese in Gannoruva in 1638.  The Nayaka Kings assiduously fostered Buddhism. If the last in the line, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, was unpopular, it was because he was a tyrant and had failed to carry the Kandyan chiefs with him.

 -P K. Balachandran is a senior Colombo-based journalist who in the past two decades, has reported for The Hindustan Times, The New Indian Express and the Economist

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