SRI LANKA: a brief history of Christianity 

By Dr. Leonard Pinto

In recent years the History of Sri Lanka has become an important subject, not only because it is in school curriculum, but also because it has been used to shape politics and justify the ethno-religious basis for State policies. Sri Lankan history has been rewritten, amplifying Portuguese atrocities, making authoritative claims on myths and mere conjectures and overlooking historical facts and archaeological discoveries.

Some Buddhist monks and nationalists are preaching an exclusive Buddhist-Sinhalese history that ends in intimidation, verbal abuse and violence against minorities. Prof. W.I. Siriweera, (Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Peradeniya) expressed his concerns on the misuse of History in Sri Lanka in saying that “the challenge for Sri Lankan historians today is to study, teach and write history, stripped of its myths, distortions, deformations and communal or religious bias…We are one people. Patriotism should encourage living in harmony” (The Sunday Times, March 17, 2013).

The History of Christianity in Sri Lanka can be divided into 3 eras;

(1) Pre-colonial (72-1505)
(2) Colonial (1505-1948) and
(3) Post-colonial eras (1948- current).

The history of the pre-colonial era is aptly described by Archbishop Emeritus Dr Oswald Gomis (2004), in his book, ‘Some Christian Contributions in Sri Lanka’. During the pre-colonial era, two groups of Christians, St. Thomas Christians and Nestorian Christians lived in Sri Lanka, and later they established union with the Catholic Church. Historia Ecclesiastica of Nikephoros Xanthopulos written from Constantinople (present Turkey) states that St. Thomas the Apostle of Jesus preached to Brahamins on a hill at Ginthupitiya in the island of Taprobane. In the 5th century during the Sigiriya period, 75 ships carrying Murundi Christian soldiers from Mangalore (India) landed in Chilaw at the request of queen Sangha to protect her son King Dhatusena, after he defeated the Pandyans. Migara, King Dhatusena’s nephew and the commander of army was a Christian. His wife, the sister of Mogalan and Kashyapa was also a Christian. The discovery of coins of King Dhatusena with Christian symbols, statues of ‘Abissheka Buddha’ (Paranavithana 1972) and a carved cross on a granite column in Anurhadapura testifies for the presence of Christians in the 5th century. This was the 3rd such cross to be discovered, as De Queyroz (1688), the Jesuit Portuguese historian referred to a cross discovered by the Portuguese in the ruins of St. Thomas Church at the Mouth of Kelani River, Mutwal. When the Anurhadapura cross was discovered in 1912, the Archaeological Commissioner R. Ayrton thought that it was a Portuguese Cross, as it resembled the 2nd cross, found at Kotte, and Kotte was associated with the Portuguese. Later W. Cordrington confirmed that Anuradhapura cross was indeed the cross of St. Thomas Christians found in Mylapore, Chennai and not a Portuguese or Nestorian cross as previously thought (Figure 1).

Cosmos Indicopleustes, an Egyptian monk who visited Sri Lanka in 550 wrote “The island has 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”. Muhammad Al-Idrisi, the Sicilian cartographer, who visited Sri Lanka between 1100 and 1166, found four of the16 advisors of the king were Christians. After Yahbalaha III, the Nestorian Primate accepted the union with the Catholic Church Fr. Jordanus Catalha arrived in Sri Lanka in 1329 and Fr. Giovanni de Marignolli as Papal Legate in 1348/49 to assist the Christians in the country. So, there were Christians in Sri Lanka before the arrival of Portuguese in the 16th century.

Fig.1. (A) Anuradhapura cross, (B) St. Thomas’ cross, India (C) Nestorian cross, China, (D) Portuguese cross, Colombo Jetty. Note the typical lotus at the foot of the oriental crosses (St. Thomas’ & Nestorian crosses).

Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka by accident in 1505, and established friendly relations with King Vira Parakramabahu VIII. Portuguese were involved in trade for the next 13 years. In 1521 the three sons of Vijayabahu VI killed him, divided the kingdom to three and ruled from Kotte, Sitawake and Raigma. When the ambitious Mayadunne of Sitawaka became a threat to Kotte of Buvanekabahu VII, he requested military aid from the Portuguese. In 1542 King Buvanekabahu sent a delegation to Portugal with a silver effigy of Prince Dharamapala, his grandson to be crowned by the king of Portugal and Franciscan missionaries were welcomed in Kotte. When Don Juan Dharmapala died in 1559 without an heir, he bequeathed his kingdom to the king of Portugal, the greatest betrayal of the country. The invitation of the Portuguese for assistance turned into a Portuguese invasion, as Portuguese claimed the right to the kingdom.

When Rajasinghe I, son of Mayadunne invaded Kandy in 1581, King Karalliyadde Bandara, baby daughter Kusumasana Devi and nephew Yamasinghe escaped to Portuguese territory. Following the death of Karalliyadde Bandara, Kusumasana Devi was brought up by the Portuguese as Dona Caterina in Mannar. Yamasinghe became Don Phillip and went to Goa. When Rajasinghe I conquered Kandy and appointed Virasundara Bandara of Peradeniya to govern Kandy, Rajasinghe imposed the policy of persecuting Buddhist monks. Rajasinghe had embraced Hinduism after killing Mayadunne and monks have rebuked him that he will be punished in his next births. The Hindu priest Arittakeevendu Perumal had offered an alternative through animal sacrifices. As Virasundara Bandara did not obey king’s orders, he was killed and his son Konappu Bandara took refuge with the Portuguese. He was baptized as Dom John of Austria and trained in Goa. In 1592, Portuguese took over Kandy, installed Yamasinghe (Don Phillip) as the king and Konappu Bandara (Dom John of Austria) as the commander of the Gannoruwa Fort. Shortly, Yamasinghe was poisoned by Konappu Bandara. When the Portuguese proclaimed his 12-year son, Dom Joao as king, Konappu Bandara overthrew him and chased away the Portuguese from Kandy.

In 1594, Portuguese brought the 13-year old Dona Catarina to Kandy, hoping to make her the queen of Kandy. Konappu Bandara defeated the Portuguese at Danture and took Dona Catarina as his queen becoming king Vimaladhrmasuriya I. Dom Joao, the son of king Yamasinghe joined the Portuguese, studied at the University of Coimbra, Portugal and was ordained a Catholic priest. He was the parish priest of the Church of Our Lady of the Gate of Heaven that he built at Telheiras Portugal, which exists to date. The King of Portugal looked after him well, with a royal grant. Prince Nikapitiye Bandara of Sitawaka also studied at the University of Coimbra, but died before his ordination. Vimaladharmasuriy I instituted the Temple of the Tooth. As they were familiar with Catholic environment, they had their children educated by Franciscan priests. When Vimaladharmasuriy I died in 1604, his cousin Senarat, an ex-Buddhist monk married Dona Catarina. King Senarat poisoned Dona Catarina’s eldest son Mahastane by Vimaladharmasuriya, and she spent the rest of her unhappy life at Wellimantotta, Kegalle. Before her death in 1613, at the age of 35 she called Marcellus Boschouwer, the Dutch Envoy and Kuruwita Rala and handed over the children to their care. She was given a Royal Catholic funeral. The perpetually burning lamp and the Mausoleum built by Kuruvita Rala and the 7 acres archaeological site set aside by H.C.P. Bell, the Archaeological commissioner in Rock Hill Estate have disappeared.

Portuguese also invaded Jaffna in 1560 after King Cankili I of Jaffna Kingdom killed 600 Catholics, the ‘Mannar Martyrs’ for their faith. Fishermen of Mannar had invited St. Francis Xavier from Goa to preach and baptize them in 1543. Paranirupacinkam, the elder brother of Cankili and king Pararasesekeram, princesses Dona Clara and Dona Antonia and prince Dom Constantino of the Jaffna became Catholics. The Catholics of the Kandian royalties included Jayaweera Bandara, Karalliyadde Bandara, Yamasinghe, Dona Catarina and her sons Kumarasinghe and Wijepala.

Church law forbids forced conversion to Catholicism, then as it is now. The spiritual values that the missionaries preached, their example, preference for life-style and some fringe benefits may have contributed to their conversions. The destruction of temples by the Portuguese needs to be assessed in the context of thinking of people (paradigm) about 500 years ago, when idolatry was considered to be an evil and when there was no international Human Rights Law or International Humanitarian Law. War is a great evil, and we have experience its atrocities, even in the 21st century. The recent ethnic war in Sri Lanka killed more than 100,000 and fully destroyed 93 churches and affected 2076 Hindu temples and shrines. Sri Lankan kings made the mistake of fighting among the brothers for power rather than co-operating, invited a foreign military force and bequeathed Sri Lanka to a foreign country.

Vimaladharmasuriya I invited the Dutch to evict the Portuguese. Admiral Joris van Spilbergen landed in Batticaloa in 1602 and by 1658 Admiral Rykloff van Goens captured Jaffna, evicting the Portuguese from the entire island. The Dutch banned Catholicism, expelled all Catholic priests and took over Catholic churches and schools. After 30 years in 1687 an Indian priest, Fr. Joseph Vaz came to Mannar, disguised as a coolie. In 1689 Dom Pedro, a layman had secretly arranged Christmas masses to be celebrated in Jaffna houses by Fr. Vaz, when the Dutch apprehended the Catholics gathered for the mass. Dom Pedro was badly beaten; he succumbed to flogging, becoming the ‘first Martyr of Jaffna’. Fr. Joseph Vaz escaped to Puttalam and then to Kandy. He was imprisoned by king Vimaladharmasuriya II, but later he was released. When an outbreak of smallpox occurred and people fled, Fr. Vaz and Fr. Carvalho cared for the sick and buried the dead, without contracting the disease. Fr. Vaz was allowed to build a church in Kandy, but his church was destroyed in 1745 after his death in 1711. Another scholarly priest to arrive from India was Fr. Jacome Gonsalves, who learnt Sinhala from the Buddhist monks of Malwatte. He excelled in poetry and music, and wrote 22 books in Sinhala, 14 in Tamil, 4 in Portugues and 1 in Dutch. He introduced simile to the Sinhalese literature. The Nayakkar king, Sri Vijay Rajasinghe expelled all the Catholic priests from Kandy in 1746. When king Kirti Sri Rajasinghe went to war with the Dutch in 1762, they brought mercenaries from Europe that included Catholics. As a result, Catholics were allowed to practice their religion.

British were also invited to replace king Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, the tyrannical king of Kandy, by the Kandyan chieftains who escaped to Colombo. Governor Thomas Maitland gave freedom of religions in 1806. British conquered the entire Sri Lanka in 1815. Interested in developing the colony, the government invited institutions that could help in education and welfare. As the pirivena education did not provide secular education, foreign missionaries were welcome. The American missionaries who went to Jaffna established the first medical school in the country in 1848, twenty-two years before the Colombo Medical School. Dr. Samuel Fisk Green translated 8 medical books, including Gray’s Anatomy to Tamil and opened a hospital in Manipay, before the Colombo Hospital was established. The government adopted the denominational school system, which helped the Christian schools to expand rapidly. In 1886 missionary nuns were invited to work in public hospitals.

A surge of nationalism against the colonialists occurred towards the middle of 19th century, which took diverse forms. The anti-Christian feelings were high among the Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalists, and the expression of such feelings in debates as in the Panadura debate of 1862 turned into a violent clash at Kotahena in 1883 and the burning of a Catholic Church in Anuradhapura in 1903. After independence, anti-Christian sentiments were institutionalized in the take over of the Christian schools in 1960, removal of nuns from all public hospitals and cancellation of visas of missionary priests, Brothers and Sisters. During the 26 years of ethnic war, there was another surge of Buddhist-Sinhala nationalism, which was characterized by the direct involvement of monks in politics, particularly through Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). After the end of the war, triumphalism is directing Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalism in confrontational and mutually exclusive direction through radical organizations, such as Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya. The government shows little interest in applying the laws of the country to Buddhist monks, for their political advantages. Catholic Church in Sri Lanka is handling these issues calmly, prudently and judiciously.

(A summary of the presentation delivered by the author, to the Ceylon Society of Australia, Sydney on 25 Aug 2013)

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Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-109-2013
Countries : Sri Lanka,