Monday, December 5, 2011

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

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Hindus currently make up more than 15% of the Sri Lankan population, and are almost exclusively Tamils apart from small immigrant communities from India and Pakistan such as the Sindhis, Telugus, Kannadigas and Malayalees. In the 1915 census they made up almost 25% of the population, which included the indentured labourers the British had brought. Due to assimilation, emigration (over 1 million Sri Lankan tamils have left the country since independence) and conversion to various sects of Christianity and Islam, today they are a smaller and still dwindling minority. Hinduism is dominant in the Northeastern province, where there is a significant number of Tamil people. Hinduism is also practised in the central regions (where there are significant numbers of people of Indian Tamil descent) as well as in the capital, Colombo. According to the government census of 2001, there are about 1,500,000 Hindus in Sri Lanka (including estimates for the districts in Northern and Eastern Provinces, in which the census was not carried out).



Theological origins

According to legend, Sri Lanka was formed when sage Narada persuaded the God of Wind and Air, Vayu, to humble his close friend, Mount Meru (a huge mountain where the Gods lived). Vayu then spent the next year blowing strong winds at the mountain, which was shielded by Garuda, a mythical bird. When Garuda took respite for a while, Vayu caused part of the apex of the mountain to fall into the sea, forming the island of Sri Lanka.

The first major Hindu reference to Sri Lanka is found in the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The Ramayana tells of the conquest of Lanka by Rama, an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu. The Ramayana also mentions a bridge between India and Sri Lanka, known as Rama's Bridge, constructed with rocks by Rama with the help of Hanuman and others. Many believers view the sand bar islands connecting Sri Lanka to India as the remains of the bridge as seen in satellite images. Archeological evidence is also found to support worship of Lord Siva in parts of Sri Lanka, from pre-historic times, prior to the arrival of Prince Vijaya.

Historic roots

The earliest Hindus were the indigenous Tamils who were traditional worshippers of Lord Shiva and followers of Saiva Siddhantam, the oldest existing Hindu school of thought. However, this assertion is not proven with evidence. Evidence states the earliest inhabitants of the island worshipped demons (Yakshas)[1], serpants (Nagas) [2] and spirits. The Prakrit speaking immigrants from North India - Prince Vijaya and his followers, also joined with the Hindu Tamils. But they were converted to Buddhism during King Ashoka's rule in India due to Buddhist missionary activities in Sri Lanka. However it was activity from across the Palk Strait that truly set the scene for Hinduism's survival in Sri Lanka. The invasion of Sri Lanka by the South Indian and Orissa rulers followed by slow and steady migration of people from the Deccan Peninsula brought Hindu religious practice and tradition to Sri Lanka. Shaivism (devotional worship of Lord Shiva) was the dominant branch practiced by the Tamil peoples thus most of the traditional Hindu temple architecture and philosophy of Sri Lanka drew heavily from this particular strand of Hinduism. Thirugnanasambanthar mentioned the names of a number of Sri Lankan Hindu temples in his works[3]

Conflict and coexistence

Hinduism in Sri Lanka based on 2001 census data except for when the percentage is given in cursive; these are from 1981 census instead

From 400 onwards, military campaigns in the form of invasions, by rulers from South India and Orissa (then known as Kalinga Desa) and counter-attacks by the Singhalese Buddhists rulers in Sri Lanka, heralded a period of great turmoil wherein the Hindu Tamils from the affore mentioned areas in India and the Buddhist Singhalese would struggle for territorial control. In 1017, Rajaraja Chola annexes a large part of Lanka to Tamilakam but later the Sinhala dynasty were able to oust the Cholas in the year 1070. In 1215 Cholas again briefly ruled SriLanka, for a period of well over 16 years and made to retreat into the Northern area of Jaffna Peninsula.

In time, after the mentioned invasion in 1215 and the retreat, a form of bloody stalemate was reached wherein Tamils from South India began to get firmly established in the Northern and Eastern areas, with the Singhalese inhabiting the South and Central regions. This period also saw the establishment of an Tamil kingdom centered around Jaffna.

There is also evidence, throughout history of Tamil kings from South India and Kalinga Hindus becoming Buddhists and ruling over both Hindus and Buddhists. Some such as Chola King Ellalan or Elara reigned as a Tamil but in a manner acceptable to the Buddhist. Great Sinhala Buddhist kings such as Nissanka Malla had Tamil ancestry and were born Hindus. This practice continued till the elapse of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815. Also Buddhist kings were also known donate resources towards the upkeep of great Hindu temples.

Further many Hindu deities who are Tamils such as Kannaki and Ayyanar have become part of the Sinhala Buddhist worship system. These deities are known as Pathini and Ayyanayake respectively. Along with other traditional gods within the Hindu pantheon such as Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. It is norm for Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka to have shrines to Gods such as Skanda, Vishnu and Ganesha, who have now become part of the Sinhala Buddhist pantheon. Thus, hinduism although not the dominant religion of the majourity has had a central place in Sri Lanka, throughout history, showing the historical connections between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

European invasion

The arrival of European colonialists brought profound consequences to both Hindu and Buddhist communities. In 1505, a Portuguese fleet, under the command of Captain–major Don Lourenço de Almeida, arrived off the coast of Sri Lanka. Eventually deals were struck between rival native rulers and the Portuguese. Formal treaties between the two groups thereby formerly heralded the entry of the alien forces in the political arena of Sri Lanka.

Eventually over time, the Europeans were able to take advantage of the fractured nature of Sri Lankan politics, eventually culminating in successful military wins against the rebellious natives, most notably against the Hindu Tamils in the North, whose leaders were made to swear allegiance to the king of Portugal in return for maintaining their distinct laws and customs.

However, any so-called rulers had merely become puppets of their European overlords until in the end, further rebellion caused the Tamil Jaffna Kingdom to fall in the hands of the Portuguese in June 1619, when the incumbent ruler and his family were arrested and taken prisoner. According to the Portuguese administrative arrangements, the jurisdiction of Jaffna came directly under the Viceroy at Goa. In Goa, the deposed ruler was tried for high treason by the Portuguese High Court (Relaco), found him guilty of all charges leveled against him by the Europeans and the ruler was sentenced to death. Ultimately, the last Tamil Hindu king of the Jaffna Kingdom (1215 to 1619) was hanged in the year 1621.

Conversion attempts

While attempting to control their newly-won lands in Asia, the Portuguese were also actively encouraging Hindu Tamils to convert to Catholicism. Force conversion was also practiced. In 1618(??), following some serious Tamil revolts, the Council of the Jesuit Society had resolved that those Tamils who converted to Christianity would be spared of death. Others encouraged to embrace the Catholic creed included the wives and children of murdered Tamil leaders.

Tellingly, the surviving three children of the executed Tamil King of Jaffna, had been converted to Catholicism when young and were later sent to Portugal for their studies. The eldest of these children officially signed a declaration form handing over full control of Jaffna to the King of Portugal[citation needed]. This officially ended Tamil sovereignty, in Sri Lanka which began as an invasion in 1215, and permitted Catholic conversion activity in those formerly Tamil areas. The result of these actions explain why there are today Tamil Catholics to be found in Jaffna and surrounding parts.

Portuguese were marginally more successful in converting numerically more Tamils of the coastal regions of Both Sri Lanka and India as they were able to intercede on behalf of these fishing communities against the machinations of the Muslim merchant guilds who had monopolized pearling and other trading activities till then. By eliminating the Muslim middlemen, the Portuguese won the loyalty of these people. But further inland their attempts would yield only minimal results.

During the British colonial period a large scale attempt to convert Tamil Hindus to Protestantism by American Baptist, Presbyterian missionaries along with British Methodist and Anglican was attempted via building schools and hospices. Again they were only marginally successful. Conversion attempts today by various Buddhist, Christian sects, Bahá'ís, and Mormon missionary activity is still ongoing. The ongoing civil war and the recent Tsunami has given further impetus to these efforts. Nevertheless the vast majority of Sri Lankan Tamils still remain loyal to their ancestral Hindu religion.

Philosophical roots

The elite and the upper classes, consisting of the higher castes, amongst the Tamils adhere to what is known as the Saiva Siddhanta or Dvaita school of Shaivism. Sidanta is opposed to the mainstream Vedanta school of India. Adherents of various Dvaita school both amongst the majority Vaishnavites and minority Shaivites can been seen across India. But amongst Sri Lankan Hindus, it is the Dvaita Siddhanta school of thought that commands elite loyalty. Dvaita Saiva Siddhanta school differentiates between the soul, god and actions or Karma as opposed to the unity of the soul and god as expounded by the Vedanta school. Most elite temples follow what is known as Agamic rituals which are highly Sanskritzed rituals along with usage of Tamil hymns by specialized singers known as Ootuvar.

Most other Sri Lankan Hindus follow what is commonly known as folk Hinduism without the baggage of philosophical school of thought They usually worship a village, clan or tribal deity within or outside the accepted pantheon of Hindu deities. Some local Deities are Kannaki, Mariamman, Draupadi, Ayyanar, Vairavar and worship of weapons such as Vel or the lance. They might worship it in a formal temple structure, forest grove or an open plain. They might or might not use the help of Brahmin priests. Localized rituals are employed but share common features across India, specifically South India. Some such rituals are Kavadi Attam or penance dancing, Tee Midi or fire walking [1], trance due to possession by local gods and animal sacrifices to appease local gods or spirits.

Religion is compulsory subject in Sri Lankan schools and Hindu students can chose from either Hinduism or Saiva Siddhanta as a compulsory subject from Grade 1 to Grade 11. Sri Lankan Tamils mostly study Saiva Siddhanta while upcountry Tamils mostly study Hinduism.

Social reformers & religious teachers

Arumuka Navalar
As a reaction as well as effort to arrest the conversion efforts of missionaries there arose many religious reformers that wanted to modify the existing Hindu practices to better able to stand up to western Christian critique. Few of them are prominent, such as Arumuka Navalar and Vipulananda Adigal. Amongst religious teachers or Gurus, Kaddai Swamy and Yogaswami[2] stands out whose direct sannyasin sishya, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, founded Saiva Siddhanta Church in Hawaii in the United States.

Well known Hindu temples

Hindu temple, Colombo
As most prominent Hindu places of worship were concentrated on the coastal areas, all were destroyed by the Portuguese zealots during the post 1505 AD colonial era. Hindus in Sri Lanka believe that the Island once had 5 prominent temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. Namely
All were destroyed by the Portuguese during the colonial period. Of these apart from the temple in the South all have been rebuilt during the British or post independent era.

Apart from these temples there are other prominent temples such as the newly constructed Ponnabalvaneswarm temple in the capital Colombo, the ancient Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman Kovil and the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil constructed in Jaffna during the medieval period that are still important to current day Hindus.

There are also places of worship and temples that are sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka. The prominent one is Katirkamam also known as Kataragama temple dedicated to Lord Murukan or Skanda. Also Adam's Peak a mountain top that is also known as Sri Pada by the Buddhists and Sivanolipada Malai by the Hindus.

Well-known Hindu post-secondary institutions

  • Attiar Hindu College or Aathiya Hindu College
  • Batticaloa Hindu College or Batti Hindu College
  • Chavakacheri Hindu College, Sangathanai
  • Colombo Hindu College, primary to high school
  • Jaffna Hindu College, primary to high school
  • Jaffna Hindu Ladies College
  • Jafnna Hindu College Old Boys'
  • Kilinochchi Hindu College
  • Kokuvil Hindu College
  • Kokuvil Ramakrishna M.V
  • Kondavil Hindu Maha Vidyalayam
  • Kondavil Ramakrishna Vidyalayam
  • Koneswara Hindu College or Sri Koneshwara Hindu College
  • Manipay Hindu College
  • Muthur Kalaimagal Hindu College
  • Pandatharippu Hindu College, Pandatharippu
  • Parameshwara College, Thirunelveli,Jaffna(1921-1974)
  • Puliyamkulam Hindu College, Puliyamkulam
  • Ratmalana Hindu College, primary to high school
  • Ramanathan Hindu Ladies College
  • Senguntha Hindu College
  • Sithy Vinayagar Hindu College, Mannar
  • Thevarayali Hindu College
  • Trincomalee Hindu College or Trinco Hindu College, primary to high school
  • Trincomalee Sri Koneswara Hindu College
  • Urumpirai Hindu College
  • Vaddukoddai Hindu College or Vaddukoti Hindu College
  • Valaichchenai Hindu College or Valaichenai Hindu College
  • Vivekananda Hindu College or Vivekananda College

Civil conflict and exodus

In the long term, as a dwindling minority, the future could appear uncertain for the survival of a community after almost 2,500 years of varying degrees of presence in Sri Lanka. The Tamils of recent Indian origin, in the plantations, which constitute over half of the Hindu population in Sri Lanka continues to exist, unaffected of the consequences of the civil war. The prohibition of naval travel between Sri Lanka and India has isolated Srilankan Hindus from their Indian neighbours.


According to the 1981 census, there were 2,297,800 Hindus in Sri Lanka. The 2001 census reported 1,312,900 Hindus in all of Sri Lanka except for the Northeastern Province. According to the 2001 estimates there were a total of 2,233,624 Ceylonese Tamils and 859,052 Estate Tamils in all of Sri Lanka. It is widely believed that the estimates for Northeastern province were inflated. The Govt. gives total Tamil population in Sri Lanka as 3,092,676 constistuting 16.45% of the total population. (In 1981 18.5% of the total population). Outside the Govt. Census, 1,505,502 Tamils were estimated to be living in Northeastern Province (Excl.Amparai). Out of these Tamils it can be estimated that 1,285,000 are Hindus. Thus the total Hindu population in Sri Lanka stands at 2,597,000 as of 2001, making 13.81% of the total population (Down from 15.48% in 1981). It should be noted that 20,000 people died during the 2004 Tsunami in LTTE held areas alone. [3] [4] [5] In 1981 close to 85% of all Tamils were Hindus. However this figure is probably lower now due to large scale conversions to other religions.

Hindus constitute the overwhelming majority of Tamils in Sri Lanka. However in the district of Mannar, Christians slightly outnumber Hindus. Highest proportion of Hindus are found in Eastern Sri Lanka (Close to 91% of all Tamils, with 92% in Amparai and Batticaloa and 87% in Trincomallee). In the Central Province also the proportion of Hindus is more than 90% of the Tamil population. (91% each in Matale and Nuwara Eliya and 88% in Kandy). In Uva province the proportion of Hindus is 91.3% of the Tamil population. However in 1981 93.15% of Uva Tamils were Hindu. In Northern Province 84% of all Tamils were Hindus (90% in Vavuniya, 87% in Jaffna and Mullaitivu and 42% in Mannar).
The below table compares 2001 census with the 1981 census.

Total 1981 Total 2001 Ceylonese Tamils Indian Tamils Tamils 01 Hindus 01 H% 01 Hindus/Tamils C Tamils 81 I Tamils 81 Tamils 81 Hindus 81 H% 81 H/T 81
SL 14,846,750 18,797,257 2,233,624 859,052 3,092,676 1,312,970 6.98% NA 1,886,864 818,656 2,705,520 2,297,806 15.48% 84.93%
Colombo 1,699,241 2,251,274 247,739 24,821 272,560 194,743 8.65% 71.45% 170,590 19,824 190,414 130,215 7.66% 68.39%
Gampaha 1,390,862 2,063,684 65,302 7,621 72,923 42,356 2.05% 58.08% 48,182 5,919 54,101 26,750 1.92% 49.44%
Kalutara 829,704 1,066,239 12,665 28,895 41,560 34,678 3.25% 83.44% 9,744 33,659 43,403 37,035 4.46% 85.33%
Kandy 1,048,317 1,279,028 52,052 103,622 155,674 134,438 10.51% 86.36% 52,791 98,436 151,227 132,943 12.68% 87.91%
Matale 357,354 441,328 24,320 23,493 47,813 42,433 9.61% 88.75% 20,579 24,912 45,491 41,352 11.57% 90.90%
N Eliya 603,577 703,610 46,066 355,830 401,896 359,135 51.04% 89.36% 76,449 257,478 333,927 303,571 50.30% 90.91%
Galle 814,531 990,487 11,079 9,275 20,354 14,934 1.51% 73.37% 7,271 11,056 18,327 15,086 1.85% 82.32%
Matara 643,786 761,370 5,161 16,672 21,833 17,339 2.28% 79.42% 4,683 13,875 18,558 15,356 2.39% 82.75%
Hambantota 424,344 526,414 1,869 424 2,293 1,369 0.26% 59.70% 2,500 284 2,784 2,174 0.51% 78.09%
Jaffna 738,788 490,621 975,789 2,847 978,636 0 0.00% NA 790,385 19,980 810,365 705,705 84.97% 87.08%
Mannar 106,235 151,577

54,474 13,850 68,324 28,885 27.19% 42.28%
Vavuniya 95,428 149,835

54,179 18,714 72,893 65,574 68.72% 89.96%
Mullaitivu 77,189 121,667

58,209 11,215 69,424 60,117 77.88% 86.59%
Killinochchi 91,764 127,263

Inc. Jaffna

Batticaloa 330,333 486,447 362,431 727 363,158 0 0.00% NA 233,713 4,074 237,787 218,812 66.24% 92.02%
Ampara 388,970 592,997 109,188 715 109,903 100,213 16.90% 91.18% 77,826 1,411 79,237 72,809 18.72% 91.89%
Trincomalee 255,948 340,158 163,255 453 163,708 0 0.00% NA 87,760 5,372 93,132 80,843 31.59% 86.80%
Kurunegala 1,211,801 1,460,215 17,585 2,972 20,557 13,303 0.91% 64.71% 14,920 6,616 21,536 15,133 1.25% 70.27%
Puttalam 492,533 709,677 48,072 2,227 50,299 29,482 4.15% 58.61% 32,282 2,289 34,571 18,997 3.86% 54.95%
Anuradhapura 587,929 745,693 5,073 443 5,516 3,459 0.46% 62.71% 8,026 719 8,745 6,843 1.16% 78.25%
Polonnaruwa 261,563 358,984 7,034 194 7,228 6,592 1.84% 91.20% 5,267 124 5,391 4,781 1.83% 88.68%
Badulla 640,952 779,983 29,542 143,535 173,077 158,473 20.32% 91.56% 37,520 129,498 167,018 156,037 24.34% 93.43%
Moneragala 273,570 397,375 5,754 7,493 13,247 11,623 2.92% 87.74% 5,346 8,859 14,205 12,778 4.67% 89.95%
Ratnapura 797,087 1,015,807 28,740 82,591 111,331 96,738 9.52% 86.89% 19,094 84,740 103,834 92,156 11.56% 88.75%
Kegalle 684,944 785,524 14,908 44,202 59,110 51,662 6.58% 87.40% 15,074 45,752 60,826 53,854 7.86% 88.54%


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