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That anti-Portuguese feeling in Lanka

If Portuguese rule had continued, SL would have completely lost its Buddhist heritage, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2005 20:42 IST

Sri Lanka is now seeing an effervescent anti-Portuguese movement, with articles being written in the papers, and seminars being held under the auspices of prestigious institutions, on the perceived ill-effects of Portuguese rule, which spanned over 150 years from 1505 to 1658.

The accent in the articles and seminar papers is on the proselytising activities of the Portuguese and the ruthless manner in which they went about converting Sinhala Buddhists and Hindu Tamils to Catholicism.

The Portuguese destroyed Buddhist and Hindu places of worship all along the Western coastline from Jaffna in the North to Humbantota in the South.

They looted these places and put their priests to death.

It is generally recognised now that if Portuguese rule had continued and spread to the interior of the island, Sri Lanka would have completely lost its Buddhist heritage and become a completely Westernised and Catholic country.

But even with the limited territorial reach (they were strong only in the Western maritime provinces) the impact had been deep, perhaps even indelible.

Deep socio-cultural impact

True, the century-and-half of Portuguese religio-cultural onslaught did not result in mass conversion from Buddhism or Hindusim to Catholicism.

Christians are only 7 per cent of the Sri Lankan population today. But Portuguese rule had changed Sinhala society and culture quite remarkably, with the result, today, the Sinhalas are the most westernised of the South Asian peoples.

It was during Portuguese rule that Western/Iberian names and other cultural markers began to be adopted in Sri Lanka on a wide scale.

To this day, most Sinhala Buddhists have Portuguese surnames like Fernando, Perera, Mendis, Fonseka, Rodrigo etc. Many of the first or middle names are Western if not Iberian. The rituals and ceremonies during marriages and funerals show a marked Western influence, not seen in the rest of South Asia.

The bridal trousseau is distinctly Western. Even Buddhist and Muslim marriages have a Western touch to them. The men will have to be in a suit. Coffins are used in funerals and embalming is common.

The average Sri Lankan woman prefers the Western dress to traditional wear like the Kandyan sari and the sarong and blouse ensemble.

The food and the music too show a strong Western influence. Bread and bakery products are part of the daily diet and the popular musical form Baila is a clear Portuguese derivative.

The Dutch and the British, who followed the Portuguese, built on the firm foundation laid earlier, and in their own way, contributed to the Westernisation of Sri Lanka.

First Published: Dec 19, 2005 19:19 IST