Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by Portuguese

By Senaka Weeraratna, The Buddhist Channel (Abridged version), June 28, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The Portuguese landed in Colombo in 1505. Within a few years of their arrival they were able to establish permanent trading settlements and then indulge in a game of intrigue and blackmail with the various rulers and minor chiefs of the country.

They harassed Bhuvenakabahu (King of Kotte from 1521 ?1551) to a great degree and kept him in a state of dependence on both the military and sea power of the Portuguese. The Portuguese conspired with minor chiefs who owed allegiance to the King of Kotte and offered them various inducements to turn against the lawful sovereign of the country.

The Portuguese imperial agenda was to create discord in the country and then take maximum advantage of the situation for their benefit in terms of siphoning off wealth from Sri Lanka and converting Buddhists into Christianity, who then in their calculation would remain loyal to the Portuguese Crown rather than to the Sinhalese Kings of the land. The Portuguese period particularly from 1540 onwards witnessed a series of military conflicts in its most revolting form that left the maritime provinces of the country devastated and desolate.

Events moved in such a manner that Bhuvaneka Bahu was forced to rely totally on his foreign allies for his survival and that of his Kingdom. In 1543 Bhuvaneka Bahu desiring to make his grandson Dharmapala his successor dispatched a statue of his grandson made of ivory and gold and silver, and carrying on its head a jewelled crown studded with Lanka?s finest gems, to Lisbon, where a ceremony marking the coronation of the effigy by the Portuguese King Dom Joao III, was held.

The Portuguese exacted a heavy toll from the besieged royal house of Kotte. In return for this recognition of Dharmapala as heir to the Kingdom, the Portuguese demanded an open door to preach the Christian gospel anywhere in the dominion of the Sinhalese King. A party of Franciscan monks accompanied the envoys of Bhuvenakabahu on their return from Lisbon to Colombo in 1543. This group was led by friar Joao de Vila de Conde. They immediately set about their task of converting the Sinhalese. They brought undue influence on Dharmapala whom they had tutored in his youth, to renounce Buddhism, hitherto the State religion of Lanka and embrace Christianity. Dharmapala was baptized under the name Don Juan Periya Bandara and his Queen was baptized as Dona Catherina.

With the conversion of Dharmapala in 1557, members of the Sinhalese aristocracy followed suit. Dharmapala became a willing collaborator in the systematic repression of Buddhism. Such conduct generated hostility against Christianity.

Mass Conversions

Following the conversion of the aristocracy, many coastal communities in Sri Lanka underwent mass conversion, particularly in Jaffna, Mannar, and among the fishing communities living north of Colombo such as in Negombo and Chilaw. Roman Catholic churches with schools attached to them served Catholic communities all over the country. These schools also contributed to the spread of the Portuguese language particularly among the upper classes of society.

The efforts of Roman Catholic clergy particularly the harsh methods adopted by them to convert Buddhists and reduce the influence of Buddhism among the public were viewed with great alarm by the Buddhist Sangha who had fled from Kotte to the Kingdoms of Sitavaka and Kandy, upon the conversion of Dharmapala and the seizure of Buddhist Temples.

But there was not much that the Sangha could do. The state of Buddhism and the political condition of the country were at low ebb. There were petty feuds and jealousies between the rulers of various principalities. There was no paramount figure that commanded the allegiance of the entire country. There were regular revolts and insurrections. Patriotic zeal for public welfare was severely lacking. It was a sad situation for the people and the country. These were ideal conditions for the Portuguese authorities to intervene with the help of the Roman Catholic Church and unleash an aggressive campaign of proselytization and repression of Buddhism.

Why did Buddhism collapse in Portuguese held territory without striking a single blow in self - defense?

Ever since the advent of Arahant Mahinda in 3rd century B.C. there has been a close relationship between the Sinhalese monarchs and Buddhism. State patronage and heavy reliance on the State by the Sangha on every important matter including Sangha reform left no room for the development of independent and voluntary Buddhist organizations. The Sangha itself was amorphous.

Further there was no doctrinal or scriptural endorsement of self ? defense or holy war as found in religions such as Islam or Christianity. Therefore when State patronage was removed and later the State became an instrument of terror, the collapse of Buddhism as a public religion in Kotte was inevitable.

The other important reason is that the competitor for the religious allegiance of the Buddhists, namely the Roman Catholic Church had the full backing of the economic strength of the State and military and sea power of the Portuguese

Execution of Buddhist monks

Oral history contains accounts of the indiscriminate murder of Buddhist monks by the Portuguese in areas under their control. The deliberate destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples is unlikely to have taken place without some protest by the incumbent monks. The Portuguese, given their medieval upbringing and uncompromising stance on matters religion, would not have brooked any opposition to their use of force to obliterate non?Christian religions.

The destruction of the Wijebahu Pirivena at Thotagamuwa (near Hikkaduwa) had also resulted in the death of some of the incumbent monks who could not escape in time.

Thirty monks were arrested from a Temple and executed soon after some monks and civilians had protested in front of the King?s Palace at Kotte upon the conversion of Dharmapala.

Three monks from Kandy were punished when they had appealed to the people of Alutkuru Korale and adjoining villages to revert to Buddhism and asked for contributions ?for the decoration of the shrine of Kandy?. The Captain ? General Nuno Alvares Pereira had ordered the Buddhist monks to be arrested and the leader of the group of monks had been condemned to be thrown to the man- eating crocodiles of the Rosapane river, while the two other monks had been removed as slaves by Phillip de Oliviera, the Conqueror of Jaffna. The Jesuit Friar Pelingotti had tried to convert them to Christianity much to the annoyance of the people of the area according to the Jesuit Emmanuel Barradas in his annual letter of 1617.

Inducements to convert

The Portuguese while pursuing a policy of destruction and plunder of Buddhist Temples held out various inducements for Buddhists to convert to Christianity. Conversion meant a sure means of exemption from taxes due to the Government. For example, Christians were exempt from the marala.i.e. death duties. This meant that they could leave the entirety of their property to their heirs upon death. Therefore death - bed conversions became quite common to enable one?s kinsmen to secure property upon death. This was a privilege granted only to Christians.

Further becoming a Christian also meant receiving preferential judicial treatment. Murderers and thieves upon embracing Christianity were able to escape severe punishment such as the death penalty. King Bhuvanakabahu VII himself had complained to the King of Portugal that criminals were converting to Christianity purely to obtain lenient punishment. The King of Portugal had issued standing orders to the Viceroy of Goa to pursue a policy of lenience towards converts accused of crimes. This policy was followed in Portuguese ? held areas of Sri Lanka. In 1618 pursuant to Jesuit intervention an order that ?no Christian prisoner be put to death? was said to have been issued.

The local aristocracy was enticed to convert on the basis that they would be accepted into the fidalgo class (upper class) of Portugal and allowed the use of the honorific title ?Dom? . For example the well-known Sitawaka court poet Alagiyawanna upon baptism became known as Dom Jeronimo Alagiyawanna.

Ordinary Sinhala people saw in the newly introduced religion ways and means of acquiring benefits including placing themselves outside the jurisdiction of the civil and criminal laws of their King. In a letter dated 21st January 1549 addressed to the King of Portugal, Friar Antonio do Casal informed the King as follows: ?those of the country do not want to become Christians except through interest and ask before baptism what benefit there is.?

Upon baptism the converts began to see themselves as coming within the legal jurisdiction of the monarch of Portugal and such attitudes were re-inforced by the keen interest shown by the Portuguese Crown in the welfare of Sinhala converts.

The process of conversion did not stop at baptism. The Missionaries also promoted with zeal intolerance of practices, which are rooted in Buddhism. Any compromise with Buddhism or Buddhist way of life was to be avoided e.g. the eating of beef, slaughter of animals, consumption of liquor and the like were openly promoted on the assumption that such conduct would put the convert altogether out of the pale of Buddhism.


450 years of colonial rule and particularly the Portuguese period (1505 ? 1658) constitute a long and poignant chronicle of oppression and injustice meted out to the Sinhala Buddhists. It is a sad and tragic chapter. The Portuguese success might have become irreversible if not for the heroic resistance offered by the Kings of Sitavaka and Kandy against foreign aggression.

Sri Lanka might have become another ?Philippines? ? an Asian country that has been stripped of its traditional religion and culture and to complete the humiliation the indigenous people i.e. the Filipinos, have to bear the ignominy of that country being named after a Spanish King i.e. Phillip.

The threat to Sri Lanka?s sovereignty and the pre-eminent position of Buddhism in the country?s religious and cultural landscape, has again re-surfaced from quarters both within and without the country.

It is a hackneyed truism but worth re-asserting that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to live through a re-enactment. In such a context a wider examination and earnest study of Sri Lanka?s history under western colonial rule and more particularly the factors that contributed to Buddhism becoming almost extinct in Portuguese controlled territory may prove invaluable.

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