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British government in Ceylon & its religious affairs

It was the king of Ceylon, who regulated the Buddhist ecclesiastical affairs in the country. It was thus the privilege of the kings of Kandy to appoint the chief priests of the temple, the lay dignitaries of the devalayas, and the king regulated the custody and exhibition of the dalada (temple of the tooth relic). After 1815, the British government exercised these sovereign rights and appointed the Maha Nayakas of Malvatte and Asgiriya and the Diyawadana Nilames, by warrants under the hand of the governor. The British Resident in Kandy even gave the dana (alms giving) as the king used to do, and the dalada was in the custody of the board of commissioners.

The interference of the British government in these religious affairs observed Colebrook, though induced by consideration of policy, was attended by much inconvenience and cause displeasure. Governor Stewart even felt the inconsistency of a Christian governor signing the acts of appointment and protested against it in 1841. Orders accordingly came from the home government to discontinue the practice, and the Buddhist monks were invited to elect their chief whom the government would recognize. Instead of the allowances, the government was in the habit of paying, the crown land was granted to the temples. The dalada likewise was handed over to the custody of the Nayaka priests and the Diyawadana Nilame in 1847, on the understanding that possession would be resumed if the relic were used for any other than religious purposes. In the rebellion of 1848, the dalada was secreted away, and the government resumed possession for a time and finally handed it over to the same custodian as before.

But though this dissociation of religion from the government was a relief to the government, it was a disaster to the Buddhist temporalities. In the beginning, the government exempted the temple lands from tax. Many thereupon dedicated their lands to the temple in order to evade the taxes. Brownrigg then issued a proclamation requiring all temple lands to be registered. Though this registration was made, the extent of the lands was very inaccurately stated, Colebrook inspected the registers and was informed that the tenants were very lax in fulfilling their service owing to the remissness of government officials in exacting them. Tenants at a distance like those of Sabaragamuwa expressed their readiness to commute services by payment, but the chiefs and priests were opposed to innovation. Accordingly, in the abolition of rajakariya, service to temples was expressly excluded.

Colebrook recommended the government to secure the cooperation of the chiefs and priests for a reform of temple services and suggested that the service should be commuted for payments and that the revenues be used for the maintenance of an English seminary for the education of Buddhists. This suggestion was taken up by the government but it led to nothing. Temporalities are always a bane to ecclesiastics of all faiths, and the temple lands soon degenerated into the permanent property of the priesthood, though as Sir Charles Macarthy observed in 1847, the teaching of the Buddhist religion offered an insurmountable bar to such a conversion.

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Sanjeewa Padmal (Seerendipity tours)

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