16 August, 2022


The Portuguese As Demonic Mārayo

By Michael Roberts

Dr. Michael Roberts

This essay* decodes a sixteenth century folktale which records the Sinhalese reaction to the arrival of the first Portuguese. Where the historiography has interpreted this tale as benign wonderment in the face of exotica, a piecemeal deconstruction of the allegorical clues in the ‘story is utilised to reveal how the Sinhalese linked the Portuguese with demons and with Vasavarti Mārayā, the arch enemy of the Buddha. In this fashion the Portuguese and the Christian sacrament of communion were represented as dangerous, disordering forces. The Piecemeal reinterpretation of this short text, however, must be overlaid by a holistic Perspective and the realisation that its rendering in oral form enabled its purveyors to lace the story with a satirical flavour: so that the Portuguese and Catholicism are, like demons, rendered both disordering and comic, dangerous and inferior—thus ultimately controllable. In contending in this manner that the folktale is an act of nationalist opposition, the article is designed as an attack on the positivist empiricism which pervades the island’s historiography and shuts out imaginative reconstructions which are worked out by penetrating the subjective world of the ancient texts.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Portuguese did not make any territorial conquests within Sri Lanka in 1505. Formal control over the maritime districts was secured only during the period 1597—1619.[1] What took place in 1505 was the appearance of Dom Lourenco de Almeida’s fleet of caravels and batels in the bay and open roadstead of Colombo, which was located about six miles from Kotte, the capital of the principal Sinhala kingdom. This may or may not have created a lasting impression. We will never know. What we do know is that it subsequently became the focus of a folk story, a jana katā. It is my speculative assertion that this story partakes of the modus operandi of certain Sinhala folk stories and is marked by the language of riddles and the language of allegories. It is a picture in which meanings are symbolically represented. In this allegorical form, I further assert, it is a genesis story in the same tradition as the Vijaya legend. It is a condensed representation of the primordial Portuguese.

This symbolic presentation, I believe, depended on its performative context and phonetic intonation for its allegorical method to achieve full effect. When written down in literary texts, this power deteriorates. And that is what happened. This oral folk story entered the ‘pages’ of the ola-leaf book known as the Alakēśvara Yuddhaya (AY) which was composed during the late Sitawaka period, probably around 1592.[2] In its turn a large section of’ the AY entered the ola-leaf books known as the Rājāvaliya as they were written down in various recensions in and around the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and so, this story was implanted word for word in the Rājāvaliya, a Sinhala work “written in a popular language” (Godakumbura) rather than a classical literary style.[3] Significantly, neither this story nor any mention of the first appearance of the Portuguese appears in the ‘official’ Pali chronicle, the Cūlavamsa. This is indicative of its rootedness in folk stories.

The incorporation of oral tales into the historical chronicles of the Sinhala people in this manner was no novelty. Both the AY and Rājāvaliya have a disjointed, pot pourri character. They include fragments culled from other stories. The legendary form of many of’ these fragments suggest that both books include a significant number of’ folk tales. Be that as it may, the legend of the arrival of the Portuguese passed down the centuries via the conduit of the AY and the Rājāvaliya. Versions of the Rājāvaliya were edited in English by Upham in 1833 and Gunasekara in 1900. Gunasekara’s translation of this story runs as follows:[4]

“There is in our harbour in Colombo a race of people fair of’ skin and comely withal. They don jackets of iron and hats of iron; they rest not a minute in one place; they walk here and there; they eat hunks of stone and drink blood; they give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime; the report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts upon the rock Yugandhara. Their cannon balls fly many a gawwa and shatter fortresses of granite.”

In this form the story entered an early history book written in the English language by Codrington (1926). It became part of the popular fare for the educated in the early twentieth century.

Among the English-educated middle class in Sri Lanka there were some who interpreted this story as a pointer to the simpleness of the ancient Sinhalese: the local people were godayās (rustic yokels) who did not know what bread and wine were. Such an interpretation, of course, was a, symptom the Anglophilia which permeated the middle class and the distance which separated some of them from the generality of the people. It was also a mark of their ignorance. They had absorbed the Western world’s vision of mankind’s civilisational progress to such a degree that they were unaware of the extensive Indian Ocean trading network in precolonial times, of the flourishing shipbuilding industry in Sri Lanka in both pre-Portuguese and Portuguese times, and of the island’s trading contacts with the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.[5] Against this background, of course, it is simply unthinkable that anyone could sustain such a snooty interpretation of the story describing the advent of the Portuguese. Ironware and wine in amphorae were not unfamiliar commodities for either the Maldivians, the Sinhalese or the peoples on the western coast of India.

A more considered interpretation by a leading historian, C. R. de Silva, holds that this account marks “the sense of wonder” occasioned by the arrival of exotic newcomers.[6] At a seminar held in Perth in December 1984, both C. R. de Silva and Shelton Kodikara reiterated this understanding in challenging my initial steps in the direction of a new interpretation. Inspired by the challenge, I reaffirm that even a straightforward reading of the text would suggest that the story has other resonances. The Portuguese were indeed a curious phenomenon, but to restrict one’s interpretation to this point is to perpetuate a distortion. The visual novelty of the Portuguese appearance, I insist, was submerged by other features, such as their restless energy and shattering power, their demonic potency and greediness.

Their ironware and their thunderous cannon lent added weight to their alienness. As directed by this story, to the Sinhalese of the sixteenth century, as well as those of subsequent centuries, the Portuguese were inhumane and demonic. They were eaters of stone and drinkers of blood.

I shall now proceed to elaborate upon this sixteenth century Sinhala perception by unpacking the allegorical style of the parable. It is my contention, moreover, that this perception was sustained in subsequent centuries by the poetical and prose works of the Sinhala literati as well as oral traditions. Through these media, elements of this perception have passed down into the twentieth century. It is evident today that in the popular writings the Portuguese are held up as greater monsters than the Dutch or British colonial intruders. This is marked out by the manner in which they are referred to as paraňgi.[7] It is not only illustrated in such lurid histories as D. B. Dahanayake’s Laṃkā Vṛttāntaya Part I: Siṃhala Saturo (Colombo: Gunasena & Co, 1964), but even in the prosaic work by K. D. P. Wickramasinha entitled Apē Saṃskṛtika Urumaya (Colombo: 1976).[8]

The Parable Contextualised

In reviewing a legend or a treatise it is customary for scholars to pay a great deal of attention to its composer or author. It is not known who authored the Alakēśvara Yuddhaya. Its editor, A. V. Suraweera, speculates that the author may have been a Christian because the work does not begin with the traditional namaskāra (obeisance) to Buddha and because the Christian chronology is utilised on occasions (an unusual act), but this is by no means certain. Nor do we have any indication as to where the author was located, whether in the territory of the Sitawaka kingdom, that of Kotte or that of Kandy. All we know is that it appeared around 1592.

In this instance the authorship may not, however, be a critical consideration. Because the AY incorporated tales from other works and from oral traditions, it is in effect the work of many hands. More than its authorship we have to focus on its intended readership. Because it was, as I contend, a folk story related verbally, we have to focus on its audience. This demands an attentiveness to the context of this folk tale: the period when it originated, probably the latter half of the sixteenth century.

By the third quarter of the sixteenth century, as we know, the Kingdom of Kotte had split apart. That was not all. Bhuvenaka Bahu VI had been accidentally felled by a Portuguese bullet in 1551. His son and heir had become a Portuguese military puppet and his kingdom was propped up by Portuguese military support against the onslaughts of the Sinhalese forces led by Mayadunne and Rajasinghe I of the Kingdom of Sitawaka. At the same time the Portuguese were successfully extending the Catholic religion among the people residing in the maritime areas, some of whom were recent immigrants and presumably Tamil or Malayalam speakers. Thus, in the year 1556 on one occasion “more than 70,000 careas [Karāva people] with their Pantagatim [headman]” accepted the Catholic faith.[9]  

Every conversion involved a baptism. In some of the Portuguese colonies it would seem that baptism involved the wearing of European vestments. For male converts, this included a cap known as carapuca (a cap which even became a marker of indigenous converts in everyday life). Those who sponsored the baptisms were expected to ensure that their protegés adopted these new vestmentary insignia.[10] The new dress symbolised the new person. The question at issue is the extent to which such practices entered Portuguese Ceylon. A refernce in Schurhammer and Voretzch indicates that the carapuca was worn by Asian converts in Sri Lanka in the 1540’s and it is significant that one theory regarding the origin of the label, Topaz, meaning “native convert” or “European descendant”, argues that it derives from their practice of wearing topi or hats, so that they were called topi-walas.[11] 

In any case, even if Asian Catholic converts were not marked out by the clothes they wore, the incidence of mass conversions could not but generate lasting impressions among the people residing in the maritime districts as well as those in the interior who heard about them. It is also known that the Portuguese spread their religion at the point of the sword. The destruction of temples and the seizure of monastic land was one part of this policy.[12] In a word, then, the advance of Catholicism was at the vanguard of the Portuguese colonial intrusion.

The symbolic expression of the Catholic religion was its principal ritual, the mass with its sacrament of communion. The communion involved the evocation of the Lord’s Supper, the ingestion of bread and wine. In the sixteenth century, or, rather, before Pope Pius X and the Sacred Congregation of the Council issued the Decree on Frequent Communion on the 20th December 1905, it was not the practice of Catholics to receive communion more than once a year.[13] Such infrequency notwithstanding, the act of communion was no less central to the faithful than it is today.

I believe that it is this sacramental act which is allegorically invoked in the legend of the arrival of the Portuguese. The central ritual of the Catholics is depicted in a manner which brings it into disrepute according to the standards upheld by Buddhist ideals. The restless Portuguese are said to be

kudugal sapākamin lē bona [minisun], i.e. people that devour kudugal and drink blood.

The key word here is kudugal or “crumbled stone”. It is possible to present an explanation on functionalist and rationalist lines, arguing that the stone had to be presented as soft stone in order to make the story credible. This explanation does not satisfy me. I believe that there is far more to this reference than meets the eye, indeed, that I have not fully uncovered the allegorical possibilities in this regard. In the first place, the question is whether, in the past, kudugal could refer to a “deposit” and in this manner point to deeper meanings, meanings relating to the sacred or to essences; it is significant that in Upham’s translation of the Rājāvaliya in the early nineteenth century, a work in which leading scholar-monks participated, the term used is “Budhugal” not kudugal.[14] Secondly, in archaic Sinhala kudugal was also a synonym for mas (meat), being employed in this sense in such fifteenth century works as the Purāna Namāvaliya

And the Ruvanmala.[15] For another, the Sinhala verbal form used to describe the act of consumption in this instance, sapākanava, is normally associated with the eating habits of dogs, hyenas, wolves, monitor lizards and other such animals; and should therefore be read as “to gobble” or “to devour” (not as “eat”).

It is also used to describe the strike or bite of certain species of snakes. Among those whose venomous bite is described by this verb is the māpilā snake. Significantly, in Sri Lanka one category of the māpilā, the species known as  māpilā (Boiga Forsten’s or Forsten’s snake cat), is widely believed to be a snake which does a person to death by sucking blood, even combining with fellow māpilā to constitute a chain which hangs from the roof and proceeds to suck blood from an innocent sleeper. Few Sinhalese have not heard this old wife’s talc. So much so that greedy merchants and Shylocks are metaphorically described as māpillo. Again, few Sinhalese have not been informed that the demons and perētayo which inhabit the underworld are beings with an intense craving for flesh and for blood.[16] Such beings stand for Disorder and Craving. They represent all that is opposed to the Buddhist ethic.

Within the context of such a belief system, therefore, the description of the Portuguese in the legend of their arrival had far-reaching implications: they were being held out as vile, fearsome and ridiculous. To the extent that this representation was understood to be an embodiment of the Catholic sacrament of communion, the legend also held out the Catholic religion as a phenomenon that was vile.

The derogatory implications attached to this sentence may conceivably have been underlined

by the reference to the Portuguese in the third person plural as “ungē”. This is, admittedly, a problematical item of evidence. Today, such a form of reference would usually be pejorative in its implications. But in classical literature in the past the term was widely utilized in a neutral descriptive sense.[17] If the AY and Rājāvaliya were unequivocally classical there would be no doubt that the latter interpretation would hold. But the fact is that they partake of both classical and popular styles and that the inclusion of folk tales has given scope for the entry of colloquialisms. Unfortunately, we have no means of ascertaining whether “un” carried disparaging meanings in oral discourse in the sixteenth century.

Pursuing a suggestion mooted by Haris de Silva, it is possible to inquire whether un was used widely in other parts of the AY and Rājāvaliya, and in what manner it was deployed. My preliminary investigation indicates that the term was used on only five other occasions. On one occasion in the RV (page 220) the reference was again to the Portuguese; on another (page 158) it was to mice and frogs; and on the third and fourth occasions, within the same paragraph on page 72, the references are to the Kaka Mukkaru and to Tamils.[18] On the only occasion in which un is employed in the AY, it is in the context of the Vijayabā Kolahālaya and refers to the activities of the three sons who killed their father and sized the throne. This evidence is by no means conclusive and will have to be supplemented by a closer reading of these texts by those who are more expert than I am in this sort of work, a reading which attends to other ways in which the third person is rendered. On balance, it would appear that there is some disparagement attached to the pronoun which has been selected for the Portuguese within the story about their arrival.

In any event, the derogatory implication of the devouring meat, drinking blood episode was driven home within the legend by the allegorical sentence that follows: “they give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime”. Lime may have been much desired by ancient seafarers as an antidote for scurvy. But why did the legend focus on fish and lime rather than, say, vegetables? Why emphasize the extent to which the Portuguese desired such items?

As with meat, fish is a food item that is depreciated by Buddhist ethics: apart from the fact that it is possible to cite texts which emphasize the injunction against the killing of fish,[19] there is no doubt that the spirit of the Buddhist doctrines runs counter to such practices; and among the popular beliefs that prevail in southern Sri Lanka today is the story that the Buddha visited all but two of the eighteen castes during his visitations to the island, the two exceptions being those whose typified occupational tasks involved the killing of fish and the killing of lice.[20] To the degree that the Portuguese and the Catholics in Sri Lanka had been enjoined to partake of fish on Fridays, this particular selection within the story of the Portuguese arrival gains added weight as an elliptical reference that held them up in a disparaging way.

And lime? This, I assert, was not picked out by happenchance. In the popular culture of the Sinhalese, lime is used as a protection against sorcery and demons. This capacity, I believe, as in the case of many antidotes the Dehi Upata, or “The Story of the Birth of Limes”, recorded by Hugh Nevill, one finds Oḍḍisa Kumāra using limes to break a spell cast by Vasavatu (that is Vasavarti Mārayā).[21] Furthermore, dehi päňgiri, or lime shreds, are popularly associated with the smell of the viper, the dreaded polaňgā.[22] The viper in its turn is associated with the Hūniyaṃ Yakā, a powerful dēvatāvā (godling) who can take either godlike or demonic form. Thus, traditional representations of Hūniyaṃ (or Sūniyaṃ) depict the yakā with vipers in his mouth. Hūniyaṃ in his turn is an avatar of Vasavarti Mārayā, the original Tempter or Force who attempted to prevent Buddha from achieving nirvāna. Thus, in “The Story of the Mahāsammata” one finds Vasavarti Mārayā creating a viper in order to attack Mänik Biso, the wife of Mahāsammata (the Great Elect, whom we can think of as a primordial king in the Buddhist Theravāda tradition).[23] 

Finally, the legend of the Portuguese arrival ends by referring to the threat posed to Yugandhara by their cannon. Yugandhara is the first of the seven mountains around Mount Mēru or Mahā Mēru, the cosmic centre of the world and, as such, a sacred centre that epitomizes Harmony. Thus, here, the Portuguese arc presented as a force with the thunderous capacity to shatter this centripetal, harmonic order.

Towards a Holistic and Imaginative Interpretation 

 In attempting to provide a revision in the reading of the story of the Portuguese arrival, I have been forced to dissect the text in piecemeal fashion, one step at a time. These steps should not be seen as links in a chain. Rather, the general direction in which each of them points must be evaluated in a holistic manner. This evaluation must consider the likelihood that it is, indeed, an allegorical folk tale. This evaluation must therefore be sociologically imaginative.

In contending in this holistic and imaginative manner that the story of the arrival of the Portuguese is a representation of the primordial Portuguese which is as hostile as allegorical, I am aware that I am challenging the traditional modes of interpreting this tale (see above: p. 70). These latter have relied on a straightforward reading of the text. They have been especially influenced by the description of the Portuguese in the first sentence of the story: “A race of people fair of skin and comely withal”. This is a highly favorable picture of the newcomers, quite unlike the representations in the seventeenth century war poems or the Cūlavaṃsa, where the Portuguese arc depicted in polemical language as all that was evil.[24] The contrast raises suspicions. The suspicion increases when one recalls that in tovil (exorcisms) and other stories within the Sinhala Buddhist tradition the demons and other Tempters often make their initial appearance in other forms. They are masters of false appearances, veritable Tricksters. It is part of the logic of each exorcist ceremony for the specialists to unveil this facade and to trick the Trickster, thereby holding him up for ridicule.[25] 

In the text under our scrutiny this process of unveiling seems to begin with the second sentence: vigasak eka tänaka nosita sakman karanavāya kiyat (it is said that they rest not a minute in one place). Apart from the fact that restlessness is viewed with disfavour in Sinhala Buddhist thinking, the word “sakman karanavāya” is perhaps indicative of something abnormal. I am aware that in recent times it could be used as a synonym for “oba moba ävidhinava” (pacing meditatively), a phrase that is attached to ordinary people’s restless tread. But even today sakman karanavāya can be deployed more specifically: to describe the measured tread of royalty or the meditative walk of Buddhist monks. Oba moba ävidhinava would be totally inappropriate for the latter, and if used to describe a specific monk’s style of proceeding, would be wholly condemnatory. Contrariwise, to say “chandiyō sakman karagena sititi” (the thugs are pacing restlessly) could bear an ironic twist and, through this implication, raise suggestions of incongruity. That is why I regard the vigasak eka tänaka nosita sakman karanavāya sentence as a question raising hint which heralds the allegorical unveiling of the true character of the Portuguese in the rest of the text.

In seeking to unveil these hidden motifs I am in effect challenging the methodologies which have dominated the work of historians in Sri Lanka during the twentieth century. The point is that twentieth century historiography, whether practised by historians or Oriental scholars delving into the history of their literature, has been dominated by empiricist rationalism. The methodology associated with this philosophy has undoubtedly yielded many benefits and remains pertinent to the scholarly endeavour. But it also has its blind spots. It has distanced several generations of scholars from the world view of the Sinhalese and other Asian peoples in the precolonial and early colonial epochs. It has hindered the deciphering of myths, legends, folk tales and tēravila (riddles in verse). The positivist standards of evaluation favoured by the school of British empiricism, in brief, have been hostile to approaches which cleave to imaginative and speculative paths that are of a different order to their inferential reasoning. One index of this hostility has been the immediate response to the oral presentation of my thesis at seminars.[26] In continuing to confront this opposition, therefore, my essay raises a fundamental issue for historiography, one that reaches beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. In this thrust it joins the work of Gananath Obeyesekere, whose book The Cult of the Goddess Pattini (1984) has been hailed by David Shulman as a work which carries “a messagc full of meaning for the historian who seeks to analyze change and cultural development”; for it decimates the historians’ traditional practice of picking “reasonable” elements out of myth and argues for a “more imaginative interpretation” which uses a broad variety of sources and does not rest upon the assumption that written, recorded material is necessarily the most significant data.[27]

With these caveats, I am now in a position to present a concluding elaboration of my re-interpretation of the story about the Portuguese arrival. To reiterate, the reading of this tale must be both holistic and imaginative. It must be alive to the riddles and symbolic forms, as well as the nature motifs, that permeate the Sinhala genres known as sivpada and tēravila kavi.[28] Appraised in such a light, I believe that this story represents the Portuguese Catholics as restless, meat-craving, demonic beings; as phenomena of the same order as Vasavarti Mārayā, alias Hūniyaṃ, sorcerer extraordinary, the embodiment of Evil.

Thus appraised as a genesis story which employs allegorical modes to achieve a didactic purpose, the story generates a series of ‘simple’ oppositions:

  • Images of craving or rāga  : the passionless stateof virāga
  • VasavartiMārayā    : the lord Buddha
  • the Viper    : the Nayā(that is, the Cobra, Nāga-rāja, the protector of the bo tree)
  • a vision of Disorder: Order.

The Portuguese, and the Catholic sacrament, are placed squarely within the left column, with the forces of Disorder.

It would be wrong to assume that the spirit which animated such a legend during both its recitation and comprehension in Portuguese times was that of abject fear. Demons may be feared by the Sinhalese, but they are also regarded as beings which are amenable to control—indeed, the Sinhala people believe that demons can be tricked and subject to ridicule in ways which restore them to their proper place below humans in the hierarchical cosmos.[29] Because we, today, are confronting this story as a written text, this aspect of the tale, namely, the perception of the silly face of the demons, is not easy to discern. I believe that in their performative context the lilt and tilt of oral recitations would have made the ridiculous side of those vile demons only too evident.

One way in which readers who are familiar with native Sinhala speech may attend to this possibility is by recalling popular, modern doggerel. For illustration, let’s look at one limerick which depicts the Sinhala person’s response to the intrusion of the technological age, to Progress as it was embodied in the steam railway engine. It runs thus:

aňguru kakāvatura bibī               Eating (fiery) coal, drinking water,

Nuvara duvana yakada yakā         Iron demon that runs to Kandy.

Its affinity to salacious limericks, its tune, and its performative moments rendered this doggerel into a satirical representation of the new technological monster, a pointer to its vulnerability. In this sense it embodied its composer’s, and thus the Sinhala’s, spirit of independence. The story of the arrival of the Portuguese, I suggest, partakes of this spirit. It is a symbolic expression of the Sinhala person’s resistance to colonial intrusions during the mid-late sixteenth century.

*This article was originally published in 1989 in ETHNOS, vol. 55: 1-2, pp.69-82 …. with the title “A Tale of Resistance: The Story of the Arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka”. For a critical review in a wide-ranging and brilliant essay see Kitsiri Malalgoda,”1505 And All That: Varied Views of a First Encounter” in Home and the World: Essays in Honour of Sarath Amunugama, Colombo, Siripa Publishers, 2011, pp. 227-56.


[1]. See Abeyasinghe 1966 and K. M. de Silva 1981:100-29.

[2]. Suraweera 1965:vi-vii & 28.

[3]. Ibid: viiiff; Suraweera 1976; Godakumbura 1961 and Somaratnc 1975:3—19. Our focus, here, is upon what are known as the Mahārājāvaliyas as distinct from the provincial chronicles and vitti-pot which are also called Rājāvaliyas and which can be found from the fourteenth century onwards. Each recession of a Mahārājāvaliya is not necessarily the work of one hand. See Godakumbura 1961:81 for comments on the style of language in the Rājāvaliya.

[4].Gunasekara, The Rājāvaliya, 1954:63. Also sce Codrington 1926:94. Cf. C. R. de Silva 1983:14.

[5]. See Nilakanta Shastri 1939; passim; Kiribamune 1986; C. R. de Silva 1986; Hornell 1920:158-59 & 220-21; and C. R. de Silva 1975:99-101, 105 & 111-113.

[6]. C. R. de Silva 1983:14.

[7]. For instance, in the Paraňgi Hatana; the Cūlavamsa 1953, II:231; and Piyadasa Sirisena 1954:133 and 1984:94. Also see the Alakēśvara Yuddhaya, ed. by A. V. Suraweera, 1965:37.

Paraňgi  is a word that has entered both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. It derives from the Persian word “Firinghee” or “Firangi” (also Farangi) which was used originally by the peoples of India to describe any European. In early colonial times it appears to have acquired a narrower meaning, being used specifically for the Portuguese, the Indian-born Portuguese and/or the native Christian converts. By the late nineteenth century, however, it had recovered its original meaning in British India. See Hobson Jobson 1886:269 and Whitworth 1885: 97 & 95.

Interestingly, among Tamil-speakers in twentieth century Sri Lanka Paraňgi  denotes the Burghers. In Sinhalese, Paraňgi  is also a synonym for yaws and syphilis, and has been used in this fashion since the seventeenth century.

[8]. See the bibliography for the English translation. Dahanayake’s book is written in a florid style. It also has a melodramatic cover with a burning lion flag and flames eating up the word “Sinhala”. It is an anti-colonial diatribe directed against Asians (especially South Indians), Arabians, Portuguese, Dutch and British. Its strongest polemic is directed against the Portuguese (information and reference kindly conveyed by Ms Serena Tennakoon).

[9]. Queyroz 1930:326—27 and Abeyasinghe 1966:102—05. There may have been about 100,000 to 175,000 Catholics in the Sinhala segments of the Maritime Provinces by the early seventeenth century, that is, roughly one-third the population (C. R. dc Silva 1975:84 and personal communication.

[10]. Personal communication from Fr. V. Perniola, S. J., who generously contributed the impressions he had gained from a reading of the sources. He also provided the first reference in note 11 below.

[11]. “Duarte Teixeira to D. Joao de Castro, 5 October 1545 from Ceylon” reprinted in G. Schurhammer and E. A. Voretzch 1928:309; Hobson Jobson 1886: 711—12; S. G. Perera 1916b: 125 and 1917:282.  Carapuca became karpus in Malacca and Sumatra, and karpus or krapus in Javanese (S. Rodolfo Dalgado, Influencia do Vocubulario Portugues em Linguas Asiaticas, Coimbra: 1913, 43).

It is strange that this word does not seem to have entered the Sinhala language.

[12]. Boxer 1958 & 1961.

[13]. Personal communication from Fr. V. Perniola, S. J., with further elaborations in a letter dated 19 December 1986.

[14]. See Upham 1833:277—78. That kudugal means “deposit” was suggested to me by R. A. L. H. Gunawardena, but he could neither locate or recall the reference nor the historical context in which he had come across its usage in this fashion.

[15]. Practical Sinhala Dictionary 1982, II:1280; Sorata Thera 1952:706, and Revata Thera 1926:500.

[16]. For example, Ekanayake 1926: passim; Woolf 1961:21; Nevill, Sinhala Verse 1955, III:327 and Kapferer 1983:118-19 & 224.

[17]. I am indebted to Lorna Dewaraja and J. B. Dissanayake for pointing this out during the course of the discussion at the seminar on this subject under the auspices of the Royal Asiatic Society.

[18]. The adjective kaka means “black” and is hardly complimentary. The “Mukkaru” probably refers to the Mukkuvās, a Dravidian people who appear to have migrated, or intruded, into the island in bodies at various times in the early modern period. A palm-leaf document known as the Mukkara Haṭana purports to describe a struggle between the Mukkuvās and a Sinhalese caste group, the Karāva, in the fifteenth century. Internal evidence suggests that this document was written in the seventeenth or eighteenth century (personal communication from G. P. V. Somaratne).

[19]. E.g. the Hattavanagalla Vihāravaṃsa (a mid thirteenth century work) as quoted in Liyanagamage 1968: 18 and Nevill, Jana-Wansa, 1886:88—89. Buddhist doctrines only prohibit the eating of flesh which one has seen or heard being specifically killed for one’s table, thus providing scope for laymen to consume such food (Sinhala Śabda Kōshaya, 1985, vol. 10: 142— 45 & 223-27).

[20]. Personal communication from Chandra Vitharna.

[21]. Nevill, Sinhala verse, 1955, III:343.

[22]. Personal communication from Chandra Vitharna and letter from Bruce Kapferer, 31 October 1985.

[23]. Nevill, Sinhala verse, 1954, II:124.

[24]. C. R. de Silva 1983:15—18 and Cūlavaṃsa 1953, II:231.

[25]. Kapferer 1983:220.

[26]. At the International Conference of Indian Ocean Studies held in Perth in December 1984 and at the Royal Asiatic Society Seminar in Colombo in late 1986.

[27]. Shulman’s review in Numen, March 1987, XXXIII.

[28]. I have been assisted in this regard by conversations with A. V. Suraweera, J. B. Dissanayake and R. K. W. Somapala as well as a memorable session with Edwin Kottegoda, the island’s foremost exponent of folk poetry, arranged through the good offices of A. V. Suraweera.

[29]. Kapferer 1983:116-17, 124 ff., 218 ff.


ABEYASINGHE, T. B. H. 1966. Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1594—1612, Colombo: Lake House Investments Ltd.

BOXER, C. R. 1958. Christians and Spices: Portuguese Missionary Methods in Ceylon, 1518-1658. History Today, 8:346-54.

— 1961. A Note on Christian Missionary Methods in the East. Ceylon Historical Journal, 1960— 61:70—90.

CODRINGTON, H. W. 1926. A Short History of Ceylon. London: MacMillan & Co.

CŪLAVAṂSA. 1953. The Cūlavaṃsa, trans. by W. Geiger. Colombo: Ceylon Government Information Department.

DAHANAYAKE, D. B. 1964. Laṃkā Vṛttāntaya, Part I: Sinhala Saturo. Lanka’s History, I: Enemies of the Sinhala. Colombo: Gunasena & Co.

DE SILVA, C. R. 1975. The First Portuguese Revenue Register of the Kingdom of Kotte— 1599. The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, 5: 71—153.

— 1983. The Historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka: A Survey of the Sinhala Writings. Samskṛti, 17:13-22.

— 1986. Muslim Traders in the Indian Ocean in the Sixteenth Century and the Portuguese Impact. In Muslims of Sri Lanka: Avenues to Antiquity, edited by M. A. M. Shukri. Beruwala: Naleemiah Institute, pp. 147—65.

DE SILVA, K. M. 1981. A History of Ceylon. London: C. Hurst & co.

EKANAYAKE, U. P. (comp). 1926. Hrēta Vastu Varnanāva Hevat Prēta Vastu Prakaranaya. (2nd ed.), Colombo: Sri Bharati Press.

GODAKUMBURA, C. E. 1961. Historical Writings in Sinhalese. In Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, edited by C. H. Philips. London: O. U. P. pp 72—86.

GUNASEKARA, B. (ed.). 1954. The Rājāvaliya. Colombo: Government Printer, being a reprint of a version printed earlier in 1900.

HOBSON JOBSON. 1886. Hobson Jobson, being a Glossary of Anglo-Indian Colloquial Words and Phrases. London: John Murray.

HORNELL, JAMES T. 1920. The Origins and Ethnological Significance of Indian Boat Designs. Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 7:138—256.

KAPFERER, BRUCE. 1983. A Celebration of Demons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

KIRIBAMUNE, SIRIMA. 1986. The Muslims and the Trade of the Arabian Sea with Special Reference to Sri Lanka from the Birth or Islam to the Fifteenth Century. In Muslims of Sri Lanka: Avenues to Antiquity, edited by M. A. M. Shukri. Beruwala: Naleemiah Institute, pp. 89—112.

LIYANAGAMAGE, A. 1968. The Decline of Polonnaruwa and the Rise of Dambadeniya (circa 1180-1270 A.D.) Colombo: Government Press for the Department of Cultural Affairs.

NILAKANTA SHASTRI, K. A. 1939. Foreign Notices of South India from Megasthenes to Fa Huan. Madras: University or Madras Press.

NEVILL, HUGH. 1886. Jana-Wansa of Maha Thera Sri Buddha-Rakhita (c. 15th century A. D.). Taprobanian 1:74-53, 103-14.

— 1954. Sinhala verse, Vol. II

— 1955. Sinhala verse, Vol. III

OBEYESEKERE, GANANATH. 1984. The Cult of the Goddess Pattini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

PERERA, FATHER S. G. 1916. Derivation of ‘Tuppahi’, Ceylon Antiquary & Literary Register, II. Part 2:124-25.

— 1917. Tuppahi Again. Ceylon Antiquary & Literary Register, II, Part 4:282.

PRACTICAL SINHALA DICTIONARY. 1982. Prāyōgika Simhala Sabdakōshaya, 2 vols, Colombo: Ministry or Cultural Affairs.

QUEYROZ, FERNAO de. 1930. The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, transl. by Fr. S. G. Perera, Colombo: Government Printer.

REVATA Thēra, BORUGGAMUVĒ. 1926. Sabdartha Ratnakāra. Colombo: Granthaprakasa Press. Transl. Great Dictionary of English Words.

SCHURHAMMER, G. and E. A. VORETZCH. 1928. Ceylon: Zur Zeit des Königs Bhuvenaka Bahu und Franz Xavers 1539-52. Leipzig: Verlag der Asia Major.

SIRISENA, PIYADASA, 1954. Apata Vecca Dē, (2nd ed.). Colombo: M. D. Gunasena & Co.

— 1984. Mahā Viyavula, (9th ed.). Colombo: M. D. Gunasena & Co.

SOMARATNE, G. P. V. 1975. The Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte, 1400-1521. Nugegoda: Deepanee Printcrs.

SORATA Thēra, WÄLIVITIYĒ. 1952. Sri-Sumangala Sabdakōshaya: a Sinhalese-Sinhalese Dictionary, Colombo: Maha Bodhi Press.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Dr. Roberts,
    ” 18.The adjective kaka means “black” and is hardly complimentary. The “Mukkaru” probably refers to the Mukkuvās, a Dravidian people who appear to have migrated, or intruded, into the island in bodies at various times”
    Above appears in your appendices. There is another possible interpretation. “Kaka” is also used to describe Muslims in Kerala. There is also a place called Kakapalliya near Chilaw, which presumably refers to a mosque used by Keralite immigrants.
    Muslim fishermen from Kerala then?

    • 0

      Also KakkaVanna Tissa is not derogatory..

    • 0

      Kaakkaa is a term that refers to brother among Muslims and is interchangeable with naanaa.

  • 3

    At the time of the Portugeuse arrival, Sri lankans were Sihala – Buddhists. So, the lack of understanding by the author about Sinhala buddhists has made to write a different story. The best way is not through theorizing and based on what you believe. If you really get into this,you understand story would be different. Even right now, there are dried bread for sale in the west. Those look very much like what we call biscuits in Sri lanka. I think, those kudu gal (there is a kind of stone found in Sri lanka) are dried bread. Most probably that was the best arrangement of food for those who are in ships for months. I think, porttugeuse soldiers walked fast in order to avoid arrows coming from different sides. The word kaka is used often in the literature and it means black. Portugeuse were animal like. There are so many stories about that. The story you are talking about ?demons and perethayas (those who were deprived) are also wrong. Talk to some buddhists, youlearn another side. At least, the ay I understand is different.

  • 1

    “Carapuca became karpus in Malacca and Sumatra, and karpus or krapus in Javanese (S. Rodolfo Dalgado, Influencia do Vocubulario Portugues em Linguas Asiaticas, Coimbra: 1913, 43).
    It is strange that this word does not seem to have entered the Sinhala language.”

    It might indeed have entered the Sinhala language. I believe that the (now derogatory) term “karapoththa” used to describe Burghers (who are Christians to a man) is a corrupted version of this. It is more reasonable to assume this is the case than to think it has something to do with cockroaches.

    • 0

      Old codger,

      Karapotthas are the dark skinned burghers who have no trace of Dutch or English blood but think their horrible commandment of the English language will help them identify as true burghers.

      Why they are called Karapotthas is because on the outside they are dark but on the inside they are white. Like when a Karapoththa is killed.

      True burghers are much better folks and their women, don’t even get me started on that subject now.

      • 0

        ‘Ret. Lt.’ ?

        This guy is an impostor. He is neither an officer, and certainly not a gentlemen. A retired Lt. won’t dare use his rank. He has suddenly turned into an authority on our Burgher community. He is nothing of the sort and he insults them just like he and his ilk insults the Tamils and Muslims and other minorities.

        • 1

          Spring Koha

          Is he the Black and Decker the army boy who later materialised as Shiva Shankaran Sarma, senior journalist ?

      • 0

        Rtd Lt
        “…their horrible commandment of the English language….”
        Your ‘commandment’ of English is interesting.
        Why are you reluctant to talk of ‘their women’ the way you do of others? Did any spit on you?

  • 1

    Fantastic write up……….Now I know where Careas and Coreas come from…….But, don’t hear much about the latter……….Are there still any in Dr Ranil’s UNP Faction………

  • 1

    I believe Old Codger is quite right about the use of ‘karapoththa’ in Sinhala – but it refers to all white people not just the Burgher clan who incidently are referred to as ‘lansi’ sometimes as ‘lansi laffai’ which is derogatory of course. ‘Careas’ is enlightening – there is a vulgar meaning to it too, used as a swear word by those who indulge in such language. And finally, could the current reference to Muslims as ‘marakkala’ have come from the word ‘Makkaru’ ? By the way Portuguese were a nasty lot, barbarians in knickerbockers.

  • 0

    While there are many works on how Sinhala people in SL conceived the portugese why it is so rare to find works on how the Tamil society perceived the Portugese? Can Prof. Michael look into it?

  • 0

    You may say that the Portuguese were demons but I say to you sir that you were savages waiting for teachers. How dare you shit on the Portuguese when the Dutch and English were so well adjusted. Your nation is degenerate because of ignorant people like you. Viva Portugal!!!

    • 0

      Dom Joao,
      “You may say that the Portuguese were demons but I say to you sir that you were savages waiting for teachers. “
      Allow me to modify your sentiments. The Portuguese impacted our culture much more than any of the subsequent colonizers. Language, music, names, clothes, food , religion all bear witness to this 500 years later. They were not racist in the same way as the Brits or the Dutch. They were quite prepared to marry local women. They did have this demonic zeal to eradicate heathens, but that was par for the course in the 16th century. They themselves had cast off Muslim domination a hundred years earlier, so they were more anti- Muslim than anything. Some among us might consider it lucky that the Portuguese arrived in time to stop creeping Islamization of South Asia.

  • 0

    “Some among us might consider it lucky that the Portuguese arrived in time to stop creeping Islamization of South Asia.”
    I wonder who.
    The Portuguese had no serious impact on India, although they held on to Goa.
    It was mainly the Moguls and not Arabs that spread Islam in India. Arab trade links were important in Southern India, especially Kerala.
    The Portuguese converted Tamils and Sinhalese to Catholicism, but not Muslims. Their rivalry with Arabs was over trade rather than religion.

    • 0

      ““Some among us might consider it lucky that the Portuguese arrived in time to stop creeping Islamization of South Asia.””
      I wonder who.?”
      Well, let me make it clear that I am not among that number since I view religion with a jaundiced eye. On the other hand the Portuguese themselves might have been Muslims if they arrived a bit earlier!
      As to Kerala Muslims, the Zamorin of Calicut (now Kozhikode in Kerala) supplied naval help to Sinhala kings against the Portuguese.

      • 0

        I am sorry if my question sounded offensive. I raised it as I rarely come across such ideas even from virulent anti-Muslim propagandists here, as they are also mostly anti-Christian.
        The Muslims of the West coast fought on the side of the Sinhalese rulers against the Portuguese and were also rewarded for their service.

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