Sri Lanka was under the foreign domination for several centuries; especially the country was under the administration of Portuguese, Dutch and English, during which people had to bear the treachery of this colonial administration. Each of these colonial rulers was very keen on using the island’s natural resources for the benefits of their mother country, apart from the economic benefits they were very interested to introduce their native religions and languages to the island. They were successful up to a certain extent on their venture on propagating religions and languages.
Persecution of Catholics
When the Dutch assumed the administration, the lowlands of Sri Lanka were inhabited by Buddhists, Hindu and Muslims. But the Dutch East India Company professed the special form of Christianity prevailing in the mother country and sought to make all the people of the island conform to the religion of the Reformed Church of Holland. For this purpose they first of all passed an edict against Catholicism, seized the Catholic churches and schools, expelled Catholic priests under pain of death, and forced all Catholics to come to the Dutch kirk for baptism and marriage, to send the children to be instructed in the Dutch religion and to bury the dead according to the rites of the Dutch Church.
This especial hatred of Catholics was due to the fear they entertained that the Catholic religion was a bond of sympathy between the Sinhalese and the Portuguese. For this reason, they had prescribed the Portuguese religion in 1659 ordered all slaves to study the Dutch language under pain of having their heads shorn. This thoughtless plakaat could not well enforce and by an irony of time, the Portuguese language soon became the home language of the Dutch descendants themselves. And “notwithstanding every persecution, the Catholic religion was openly professed by the descendants of the Portuguese, who were in consequence reduced to misery and degradation, and by large numbers of Sinhalese and Tamils whom neither corruption nor coercion could force to abjure it.”
Father Joseph Vaz
Very soon a heroic band of priests from abroad came to the rescue of the Catholics. The foremost of these was Father Joseph Vaz, a Konkani Brahman and member of the Congregation of the Oratory of Goa. After great hardships, he eluded the Dutch guards, reached Jaffna in disguise in 1687, and began secretly to minister to his fellow Catholics in the district. But on Christmas night, 1689, while he was getting ready to say Mass in a private house, the Dutch Commander made a raid, dispersed the crowd and arrested, scourged, and imprisoned eight of the prominent Catholics for harbouring a priest. Father Vaz, whom they could not seize, soon realized the difficulty of carrying on his work safely within Dutch territory and decided to seek the protection of the king of Kandy.
Obtain the king’s protection
He came to Puttalam which was in the king’s domains and made his way to the interior. At Veuda he was denounced for a spy by De la Nerolle and taken the prisoner to Kandy, where after some time he succeeded in gaining the king’s veneration and favour. The church of Kandy became his headquarters, from which he visited Jaffna, Mantota, Chilaw, Colombo, Kalutara, Ratnapura, Sitawaka, Ruwanwella and other places, fleeing into the Kandyan kingdom whenever the Dutch attempted to seize his person. His appeals brought many other priests to his aid, and the Catholics of Ceylon began to look up to the kings of Kandy as their protectors.
Persecution of Buddhism
Towards the Buddhists and the Hindus, the Dutch attempted a similar course. They tried to impose the Dutch religion on all and sundry by forbidding the exercise of the Buddhist religion within their territory by legislation and by obliging all the subjects of the Company to attend the catechism schools and receive baptism and be married according to the Dutch rule, and above all by refusing any office under the Dutch government to those who did not conform to their religion. The people soon came to realize that little more was expected of them than to submit to certain ceremonies at stated times. Baptism and marriage in the Dutch church was nothing more than registration of birth and marriage, and those who wished to be mudaliyars or arachchi found no difficulty in submitting passively to a harmless ceremony, as the exercise of their religion in private was not interfered with. Thus the Dutch Church counted thousands upon thousands of converts, without the trouble and expense of supplying an adequate number of clergymen.
The clergymen, of whom there were seldom more than a dozen, were scandalized to find that their converts continued to practice their own religion in private, and called upon the Company to pass edicts against the free exercise of religion and to forbid the erection of the temple. These edicts could not easily be enforced; but when the Company sought to make friend with the king of Kandy and even assisted him to obtain Buddhist priests from Pegu, the people sought the aid of the king.
Demand for religious toleration
Accordingly, an embassy arrived in Colombo in 1688 to demand the people in Dutch territory the free exercise of religion and the restoration of the temples. This was an embarrassing demand. The company did not dare to displease the king or the maha nayaka who had shown them a favour. On the other hand, the Dutch clergy was greatly opposed to any concession. The governor, therefore, pleaded for time, while the clergy appealed to the home country to enforce the decrees. The request was subsequently refused on orders from Holland. But the state of affairs continued to be the same.
The 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 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.