23 June, 2024


A Brief History Of Christianity In Sri Lanka

By Leonard Pinto

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).

(A) Anuradhapura cross

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.

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.

(B) St. Thomas’ cross, India

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.

(C) Nestorian cross, China

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.

(D) Portuguese cross, Colombo Jetty. Note the typical lotus at the foot of the oriental crosses (St. Thomas’ & Nestorian crosses)

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 to the Ceylon Society of Australia, Sydney on 25 Aug 2013

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Latest comments

  • 7


    It is good to be inquisive and share ideas and opinions as long as we keep them to the intellectual realm. As much as you saw racism in England, I was insulted on my way to London from the University of Southamton after delivering a paper at an International Symposium. We see such persons of low morals in any part of the world. But, my concern is the duty of the State to protect the Rights of every citizen, irrespective of race and religion, not by lip service, but by action. The need of the day is not to ravel in the negative side of history, the superiority of the majority Buddhist-Sinhalese and replacement of democracy with authoritarianism but to build a sustainable Sri Lanka based on mutual trust, confidence and appreciation of the differences of other religions and ethnic groups. Remember Colvin R. de Silva’s saying on national languages of Sinhalese and Tamil. “Have one language and you will have two States. Have two languages and you will have one State”. The principle applies to religion, race and other things that divide us, if not by war, atlest by riots. I don’t see the need for Buddhist monks to be in the Parliament or rioting on streets or intimidating other people or invading private properties causing damage and assaulting people. Monks should be in temples, meditating and preching men and women to be good citizens. I saw in a facebook a Buddhist monk verbally abusing Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the Basilica at Tewatte. I like to see Acts to control religious and racial vilification. I like to see Sri Lanka a secular State as India in not discriminating the rights of all citizens. Buddhism should be given the most important place through the Buddha Sasana Ministry. Buddhist monks should be treated as equal citizens before the law, with no exception.

    We can learn a few lessons on multiculturalism, uniculturalism and monoculturalism from Singapore. The State of Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, because the Chinese in Malaysia felt that their future was bleak with the Bhumiputra policy that favoured the Muslim Malays in a monocultural policy. But, when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a first class Chinese Cambridge graduate became the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Malay people in Singapore were treated equally and Malay language was made one of the four national languages. But, in due course English became the preferred language. He kept the Muslim symbol of star and crescent in the Singapore flag and his parliament elected Mr Devan Nair, an Indian Tamil as the President of the new Republic. Mr Lee Kuan Yew admired Sri Lanka of 1940-1950s and commented, “I will make Singapore another Ceylon”, but after 1960s when he saw the ethno-religious policies of Sri Lanka, he concluded that Sri Lanka is a good example for bad policies. His success was in winning the confidence of all ethnic groups (i.e. Chinese, Malays, Tamils and Eurasians) by eliminating corruption, inducing discipline and developing robust financial and economic strategies that benefited all by creating a true multicultural society.

    Now to Albert Schweitzer’s observations. The occurrence of other religious leaders at the time of Jesus is a fact, as John the Baptist was one of them. Critical historians agree that the baptism of Jesus was a fact, as it satisfies the criteria of embarrassment, for the leading role in this scene is played by John the Baptist and not Jesus. Jesus stood above all the other preachers of the time. Historical Jesus is a fact, and Schweitzer’s reference is to the Jesus of Faith. Gospels agree that Jesus was the promised one, foretold by the prophets, on his birth, on his preaching, miracles and life, on his crucifixion and resurrection. Though a carpenter’s son and without formal educated as Scribes, he left such a strong impression on the lives of many people who were willing to die for him rather than give up the belief in him. All this happened after his death. Paul, who persecuted the followers of Jesus became the Apostle of the gentiles. This is true conversion. The change of heart to the core. The problem for the sceptics, especially for the Jesus Seminar is the difficulty with his divinity. Our reason can only take us close to him, but it is faith that establish the ultimate bond in the Jesus experience.

    Now about the Bible as the “Word of God”. Traditional Christians believe that Bible is the “Word of God in the words of men”. They don’t believe in the Bible word to word. This means genre arising from the culture, language, symbols, understanding of the physical world, etc. must be filtered before abstracting the Word of God. Biblicl comentries and teachings/sermons of priests help the faithful to understand the Word of God correctly and apply it to their lives. That is what makes it difficult for non-Christians to understand Christianity by reading the Bible.


    • 4

      Leonard, this is one of the most thoughtful and insightful things I have ever read on the internet. Thank you for your level-headedness sir.

  • 0


    Thank you for clarifying.

    “But, my concern is the duty of the State to protect the Rights of every citizen, irrespective of race and religion, not by lip service, but by action. The need of the day is not to ravel in the negative side of history, the superiority of the majority Buddhist-Sinhalese and replacement of democracy with authoritarianism but to build a sustainable Sri Lanka based on mutual trust, confidence and appreciation of the differences of other religions and ethnic groups. “

    Well said and articulated.

    The core problem in Sri Lanka is Sinhala Buddhism and the Monk Hegemony. It is Ethno-Religious racism. This has nothing to do with Buddhism and the Tipitaka.

    Buddhism is foreign to Lanka. There were Jains, Animists and Hindus before Buddhism. Ravana was Hindu. However, Sinhala Buddhism has become the culture. However, Buddhism is not needed for the Sri Lanka Civilization, any more than Buddhism is needed for the Chinese or Korean Civilization, but part of its history.

    There is no question, Sri Lanka needs to follow the Singapore model, and be part of the world community. If the Sinhala Buddhist racists follow this correct Mara-ism, more and more Buddhists will leave Buddhism and will seek refuge in other faiths or in Atheism with no Nibbana, Nirvana, Rebirth, Samsara and Kamma etc.

    A brief history of religion. An excerpt from Zeitgeist.


    “So this basically says all the big religions are nothing but ancient tales through different cultures, based on nothing but astrology…? Is there a God then? What is the truthful religion to follow?”

    “If there is a god, it doesn’t relate to any human religion. I don’t think there are any ‘Truthful Religions’. Buddhism probably comes the closest. It doesn’t have any deities or miracles or heaven, but it has other unproven thoughts on Nirvana, Nibbana, Samsara, Rebirth and Kamma”

  • 7

    Dr. Pinto,

    Is it OK to translate this to sinhala and add to my blog (http://dreamsofharee.blogspot.com/2014/09/blog-post_12.html) ? There is a discussion going on regarding this. I think this will be an answer for some questions of my readers.

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