The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by Portuguese

By Senaka Weeraratna
Date : 2005-06-28

Series No: 03 (Continuation)

Mass Conversions

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 (49) . 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 (50).

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 (51).

The campaign against Buddhism had the involvement of three principal agencies namely -

(1) The Roman Catholic Emperor of Portugal (2) His Viceroy at Goa and (3) The Roman Catholic priests in Sri Lanka (52)

Dr Tennakoon Vimalananda says:

“ They were all united in the effort completely to destroy Buddhism in our country. As the Portuguese were in possession of the sea coast of Ceylon, the Buddhists could not communicate with any sympathetic power outside Ceylon for help at that hour. Thus the Roman Catholic Church in Ceylon embarked upon a campaign of destruction and bloodshed unopposed by any political power.”(53)

Destruction and Plunder of Buddhist Temples

The Portuguese ransacked and burnt all the Buddhist Temples, Hindu Kovils and Muslim Mosques in their areas of control. Today there hardly exists a Buddhist Temple over 150 years old in areas once ruled by the Portuguese, particularly in the maritime coast.

The destruction of Buddhist Temples can be brought under four categories when examining the evidence (54):

i) Implementation of the decisions of the Portuguese Crown, Vice-roy at Goa, and the Ecclesiastical Council at Goa

ii) War strategy (to cause diversion of armies of the enemy by destruction)

iii) Method of compensation for the soldiery without causing a drain on the Portuguese Treasury (war booty for the soldiers)

iv) Excesses of the Portuguese Captain – General (e.g. Azavedo) and greed of the Roman Catholic Church for Temple Land.

D.G.B. de Silva says that all these four factors had their interplay in Sri Lanka as in other lands under Portuguese control. Therefore it can be surmised that the ‘ policy ‘ was followed.(55)

The involvement of the Portuguese Crown in respect to the destruction of Buddhist temples and images of the Buddha, is best illustrated in a letter that Dom Joao III, the King of Portugal, who was a fanatical follower of the Christian gospel, wrote to his Viceroy in Goa in 1546. An excerpt of this letter reads as follows:

" We charge you to discover all idols by means of diligent officers, to reduce them to fragments and utterly to consume them, in whatever place they may be found, proclaiming rigorous penalties against such persons as shall dare to engrave, cast, sculpture, lime, paint or bring to light any figure in metals, bronze, wood, clay, or any other substance or shall introduce them from foreign parts, and against those who shall celebrate in public or in private any festivities which have any gentile taint, or shall abet them." (56)

In respect to Christian converts, he added, "they should also be encouraged with some temporal favors, such as greatly mollify the hearts of those who receive them." (57)

It must also be noted that the expedition undertaken by the Portuguese General Thome de Souza Arronches to destroy villages, ports, and temples lying in the southern coast during the siege of Colombo by Sitavaka Rajasinghe in 1587 –1588, took place two years after the direction given at the meeting of the Ecclesiastical Council at Goa in 1585 to the Portuguese authorities to destroy the idols and places of worship of the infidels.(58)

Some of the great Buddhist and Hindu temples destroyed by the Portuguese include the ‘thousand pillar’ temples in Devundara, and Trincomalee, Saman Devale in Ratnapura, Sunethra Devi Pirivena in Kotte, Vidagama Pirivena in Raigama, and the Wijebahu Pirivena in Totagamuwe (near Hikkaduwa), Temples at Nawagamuwa, Kelaniya, Mapitigama and Wattala. Some of these Temples were plundered.

In the past, Sri Lanka had faced invaders from South India who sacked the Buddhist Vihares in places like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, but it was never their policy to build their religious edifices on the sites of destroyed Buddhist institutions. In contrast the Portuguese conquistadors in close collaboration with Roman Catholic Church, set in motion a ruthless policy of not only destroying the Buddhist Viharas and monasteries, but also using the materials collected from the destroyed sites to build their churches on the very sites, which once had the Buddhist Viharas. For example, the Roman Catholic Churches at Kalutara, Totagamuwa, Keragala, Wattala, etc., were built on the sites of Viharas.(59)

The Portuguese led by the Captain – General of Colombo, Diogo de Melo attacked and demolished completely the Kelaniya Temple, which was of inestimable value to the Buddhists. This happened in 1575. The villagers who resisted were either killed or thrown to the Kelani river and were drowned. In Kelaniya, a temple building known in classical literature as the Kitsiri Mevan Paya has disappeared without trace. It was part of the Kelaniya Mahavihara. The Portuguese built the Church of St. Anne at the site of the destroyed Temple.

According to oral traditions the Portuguese upon entering any village would systematically destroy the nerve centre i.e. the Buddhist Temple and then erect a Christian shrine in the village some of which were to develop later into big churches. The Portuguese put to the sword all those who resisted the destruction of the temples.

Queyroz in Book 4 (pages 714 – 719) of his monumental work ‘The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon’ provides a comprehensive list of the Roman Catholic Churches built by the Portuguese and he identifies specifically (without a sense of shame or guilt) by name the various Churches (and the localities) that were built on the sites of destroyed Buddhist Vihares and monasteries(60) ( See Appendix for details of this list )

In addition the villages granted to these Temples for the maintenance of the Sangha were removed and re-assigned for the maintenance of Catholic Churches some of which were built on the very sites that earlier had Buddhist Temples. By 1600 this campaign of destruction which had lasted for about 40 years was nearly complete.(61)

Hindu Temples were also not spared from destruction. Fellippe de Oliveria, the conqueror of Jaffna was reputed for having destroyed 500 Temples. (62)

Some of the Temples were converted into Churches, one of which was a famous Temple in the Kingdom of Kotte. Upon Dharmapala joining the Christian fold, Trindade says “and since they lacked a church where they could hear the word of God and assist at Mass and other Divine Services, the servants of God made use of a famous temple, which was there. They removed all the idols, some of which were of metal, others of stone, others of wood. Some of them they burnt others they reduced to powder. They then consecrated it as a temple of God and as a house of prayer, sprinkling Holy Water and reciting prayers which are usually said when a Church is dedicated. In this Church, they taught and they dedicated it to St. Anthony, where we have a Friary and a school for boys”. ( 63)

P.E. Peiris comments

“The Missionary could see in Buddhism nothing but the abhorrent creation of the devil; he did not stop t o inquire what were the principles which were taught by the sages, nor what the ideals after which its lofty philosophy struggled. Buddhism was not Christianity, and since by Christianity alone could souls escape damnation and hell fire, it was his duty to God to destroy Buddhism by every means in this power. He did not ask whether the people were prepared to receive his new wine or whether the destruction of the ancient beliefs might not mean the destruction of all spiritual life; his every idea was centered on the one thought that Buddhism must be wiped out of existence” (64)

G.P. Malalasekera in his The Pali Literature of Ceylon complements P.E. Peiris with the following observations:

“ No trouble was spared to achieve that object; monasteries were raised to the ground, and their priceless treasures looted; libraries were set fire to, or the leaves of the books they contained scattered to the wind; whosoever dared to worship in public or wear the yellow robe of the ascetic was visited with death; the great institutions at Totagamuwa and Karagala, which had long carried on the traditions of Taxila and Nalanda, were destroyed and their incumbents put to the sword. The land groaned in agony as one after another there fell, before the fierce onslaughts of the fanatic missionaries and their dastardly colleagues, the Buddhist religious edifices, those lovely structures which the piety of generations, had strewn broadcast over the country. Never was a glorious civilization and a noble culture more brutally destroyed. The work of centuries was undone in a few years – all that was noblest and best in the heritage of Ceylon was lost, and the damage thus wrought was irreparable.” (65)

The destruction of the shrine at Devi Nuwera or Deundara by the Portuguese provides an illustration of the methods adopted. The Portuguese soldiers on their way to Deundara sacked and committed to flames three great Buddhist Viharas. The Portuguese historian Diogo Do Couto describes the attack on the shrine at Devi Nuwara as follows:

"The inhabitants,…… on seeing the Portuguese, abandoned the city, and betook themselves inland. Our people proceeded to enter it without encountering any resistance, and reaching the Pagoda (Dagaba) broke open the gates, and entered it without meeting anyone to resist them, and went all round to see if they found any people: and seeing that all was deserted, Thomas de Souza delivered it over to the soldiers that they might do their duty, and the first thing in which they employed themselves was to destroy the idols, of which there were more than a thousand of diverse forms, some of clay, others of wood, others of copper, many of them gilt. Having done this, they demolished the whole of that internal structure of Dagabas, destroying their vaults and cloisters, knocking them all to pieces, and then proceeded to sack the store houses, in which they found much ivory, fine clothes, copper, pepper, sandalwood, jewels, precious stones and ornaments of the Dagabas, and of every thing they took what they like, and the rest they set fire to by which the whole was consumed. And for the greater insult to the Dagaba, they slaughtered inside several cows, which is the most unclean that can be, and for the purification of which are required very great ceremonies. And they also set fire to a wooden car made after the manner of a towered house of seven storeys, all large and most beautiful, lacquered in divers colors and gilt in many parts, a costly sumptuous work, which served to convey the idol on a ride through the city to which likewise they set fire, by which the whole was consumed." (66)

Missionaries accompanied Portuguese expeditionary forces

There was a close association between the Portuguese expeditionary forces and the Missionaries. The latter had shown great enthusiasm as much as the Portuguese soldiers in the conquest of the island. This is evident from the available correspondence. Missionaries had accompanied every expedition not merely as army chaplains but also to inspire the soldiers in the name of Christ to conquer territory for the King of Portugal.(67). In one instance in 1611 when the Portuguese army was impeded in their march to Kandy by the swelling of the Mahaweli River, a Catholic friar is said to have dived into the river with a crucifix in hand and this gesture had inspired the army to follow suit (68)

Queyroz says:

“ To arms, To arms, To arms and let not Catholic hearts bear to see Heresy reigning in Ceylon. All these Religious with great zeal served God and the King in the conquest, helping in the campaigns and the sieges of Colombo like any other soldier, and so great was the experience and courage of Friar Antonio Peyxoto the Franciscan, of whom we spoke a short time ago, that in peace and war they made him for some time a Captain of a regiment of the Chingalaz” ( 69)

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 (30) 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’.(70) 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.(71) 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.(72)

Continued Tomorrow-

- Asian Tribune -

Also Read:

* Series 021Repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka by Portuguese

* Series 01 The First Phase of Western Colonialism -The Portuguese Period (1505 – 1658)


49. Abeysinghe, Tikiri, Portuguese Rule in Ceylon 1594 – 1612, …. 210

50. Abeysinghe, Tikiri, Portuguese Rule …. 210

51. Abeysinghe, Tikiri, Portuguese Rule …. 210

52. Vimalananda, Tennakoon, Buddhism in Ceylon…… xxx

53. Vimalananda, Tennakoon, Buddhism in Ceylon…… xxx

54. De Silva, D.G.B, an unpublished paper entitled ‘ Temples, Buildings, etc., destroyed by the Portuguese ( Part 1)’ presented at a Seminar on the ‘ Portuguese Encounter ’ convened by the Royal Asiatic Society ( Ceylon Branch ) on July 4, 2004

55. De Silva, D.G.B., an unpublished paper entitled ‘ Temples, Buildings, etc., destroyed by the Portuguese ( Part 1) …..

56. Peiris, P.E., Portugal in Ceylon 1505 –1658 ( Cambridge: Heffers, 1937) 5

57. Peiris, P.E., Portugal in Ceylon 1505 –1658 ( Cambridge: Heffers, 1937) 5

58. De Silva, D.G.B., an unpublished paper entitled ‘ Temples, Buildings, etc., destroyed by the Portuguese ( Part 1) …..

59. Vimalananda, Tennakoon, Buddhism in Ceylon…… xxxii

60. Queyroz, Fernao de, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon (Translated by Father S.G. Perera), Vol II ( New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1992) 714 –719

61. Abeysinghe, Tikiri, Portuguese Rule ….207

62. Peiris, P.E. The Portuguese Era Vol. II pp. 118 – 166

63. Trindade, Fr. Paulo da, The Spiritual Conquest of the East, quoted in O.M. de Silva Cosme, Fidalgos in the Kingdom of Kottte (1505 –1656), 359

64. Peiris,P.E. quoted in Malalasekera, G.P., The Pali Literature of Ceylon,…265

65. Malalasekera, G.P., The Pali Literature of Ceylon,…265 - 266

66. De Barros, Joan, and Do Couto, Diogo, The History of Ceylon from the Earliest Times to 1600 A.D., ( translated and edited by Donald Ferguson) Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society ( Ceylon Branch), 1908 Vol. XX ( No. 60) 375

67. Abeysinghe, Tikiri ……….212

68. Abeysinghe, Tikiri ……….212

69. Queyroz, Vol II ……………720

70. De Silva, O.S.M. Cosme …..361

71. De Silva, O.S.M. Cosme …..361

72. De Silva, O.S.M. Cosme …..361

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