Chapter 1. 1505 – The Portuguese.

The Portuguese who took possession of the Maritime Provinces of Ceylon in 1505 obtained enormous financial benefits from the spices of Ceylon that they traded in Europe and after 150 years left behind an Eurasian race of Portuguese speaking people who would become known as Portuguese Burghers. 

In 1500, there were three kingdoms in Ceylon, Vira Parakrama Bahu (1484-1509) was the King of Kotte in the South-west, Senasammata Vikrama Bahu (1469-1511) was King in the Hill Country and Pararajasekeran (1469-1511) was the King of the Tamil Kingdom in the North-East.

Portugese Caravel

In 1505, ships of the fleet of the first Portuguese to visit Ceylon, with Dom Lourenco de Almeida were accidentally blown into the Port of Galle. In the last months of that year Dom Lourenco’s fleet anchored off Colombo and a memorial of this first landing called a “Padrao” with a cross above the Royal Arms of Portugal surmounting it, was erected on a boulder overlooking the Bay of Colombo. They entered into a treaty with the King of Kotte and built a factory to process cinnamon that was in abundant supply. In 1518, the Viceroy Lopo Soares de Albergaria landed at Colombo with a large fleet and began building a small triangular fort named “Noosa Senhora das Virtudes” or “Santa Barbara”

Padrao in Colombo Harbour

In 1524 they dismantled it and kept an agent in the Island under the protection of the Sinhalese King of Kotte. They established royal Monopolies in Cinnamon, pepper and musk. Giving up Colombo was a mistake as the colony of Muslim merchants immediately attempted to win back their supremacy in the Kingdom of Kotte and to re-conquer the cinnamon trade. However, they were defeated by the Portuguese still present on the Island. The Mappillas (Malabar Muslims) who up to 1539 nourished a dynastic conflict in the Kingdoms of Sitawaka and Kotte, opposed the Portuguese until in 1538 at Vedelai, Martin Afonos de Sousa and in 1539, Miguel Ferreira at Negombo, defeated the Mappillas and took away their cinnamon trade.

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, the kings of Ceylon were facing a Muslim Arab invasion from the West and a Mogul invasion from the East. Ceylon was under the protection of China and Sinhalese kings were paying ‘Kappam’ just before the Portuguese came. The Portuguese presence was a blessing in disguise as they hunted down and wiped out the Muslim Arabs throughout the island and the Chinese parasitism on Ceylon came to a halt. With the encouragement of the King of Kotte, the missionaries began the work of converting the peoples of Ceylon to Christianity and churches were built in the fishing villages on the western coast. It was a time of almost constant warfare, especially against the Kandyan Kingdom which resisted strongly the Portuguese attempts to promote Roman Catholicism. The main export commodities also included cardamoms, sandalwood, arecanuts, ebony, elephants, ivory, pearls and small quantities of tobacco, silk and kapok.

St Don Bosco Church, Wattala

In 1544, the King of Jaffna massacred more than 600 Christians in the island of Mannar. However, in 1545, when the Portuguese threatened retaliation, the King of Jaffna submitted and paid tribute to the Portuguese. In October 1550, the Viceroy Afonso de Noroha arrived in Ceylon and sacked Sitawaka with 500 Portuguese soldiers who were stationed at Kotte. But the Viceroy lost a good opportunity of establishing the supremacy of Portugal over the entire Island by not stationing soldiers in the captured towns. The treaty was renewed with the King of Kotte and in 1551 the Portuguese assumed the role of Protector of the Kotte Kingdom.

In November 1554, Duarte de Eca with 500 soldiers built a new fortress in Colombo. In 1556, 70,000 people who lived in the communities of fishermen on the sea coast north and south of Colombo were converted to Christianity. The King of Kotte, Darmapala was re-christened as Dom Joao Perya Bandara and the Queen re-christened as Dona Catherina. Following the king’s example a few nobles adopted the Portuguese title of Dom (Sir), the Portuguese manners and language.

In 1560, Viceroy Dom Costantino de Braganca with 1,200 men conquered the town of Nallur, the Capital of the Kingdom of Jaffna and soon after proceeded to the island of Mannar where a fort was built. In July 1565, the Portuguese transferred their Court and Capital from Kotte to Colombo. The conversions to Christianity had alienated the majority of Sinhalese on the West coast who then surrounded the Portuguese at Colombo. In 1574, the Portuguese took the offensive and they plundered Negombo, Kalutara and Beruwela and drove out the Sinhalese garrisons at Nagalagama and Mapane and ravaged the districts of Weligama and Chilaw. In 1587, Raja Sinha, the King of Kandy and Sitawaka began a siege of Colombo. The fort was protected by fortifications with 12 bastions that the Sinhalese assaulted many times but always failed. In February 1588, they abandoned the siege and until the end of the seventeenth century the Portuguese were masters of the coast forts of Colombo, Galle, Kalutara and Negombo.

In 1591, Andre Furtado de Mendoca invaded Jaffna and set up a new king at Nallur. The Portuguese also attempted to occupy Kandy but were met with failure.

In 1597, the Portuguese began to fortify Galle. The same year, King Dom Joao Dharmapala died without heirs and in accordance with his Will his Kingdom was donated to the King of Portugal. Thus, King Philip of the then united Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal was proclaimed the King of Ceylon and the whole territory of the Kingdom of Kotte, only Kandy was still not under Portuguese rule.

The Portuguese then attempted to unify the island under their control. In 1603, Dom Jeronimo de Azevedo attempted to occupy the abandoned fort at Balane, the key to Kandy, however a few days later he was forced to withdraw and the fort was lost. In 1611, De Azevedo marched with 700 Portuguese and Lascarins to Kandy re-taking the Fort at Balane, where he left a garrison. He was also successful in taking Kandy, which he then proceeded to burn and the King of Kandy submitted himself to the Portuguese. Although not destroyed, the Kingdom of Kandy had been neutralized.

In 1621, the Tamil Patriarch and Pretender to the Throne Cankli Kumaran fought the Portuguese forces under the command of Felipe De Oliveriya and were defeated. The soldiers destroyed hundreds of Hindu temples and left the Tamil kingdom in ruins.

The Tamils thereby lost their Kingdom, their sovereignty, independence and homelands.

In 1624, the Portuguese occupied and fortified Trincomalee.

In 1630, Dom Constantino de Sa, under pressure from the Viceroy, began a march with a small Portuguese army of 400 Portuguese soldiers, 200 Portuguese Casados (married men of the army reserve) and about 4,400 Lascarins to attack the Capital of King Senarata at Badulla by crossing the jungles of Uva. They sacked and burnt the deserted town but on the return to Colombo, were attacked by the Sinhalese and nearly 4,000 Lascarins deserted the Portuguese and joined the enemy. For the Sinhalese this was a decisive victory from which only 130 men survived and surrendered. After this victory, King Senarat captured Saparagamuwa and set Colombo under siege, but after three months the Sinhalese army was forced to withdraw.

Ceylon during the Portuguese Period

Thereafter, the Portuguese occupation of the country that was to last 150 years under a military form of government where martial law chiefly prevailed was weakened and vulnerable to the Dutch forces.

The Portuguese were from the beginning (Alfonso de Albuquerque) the first to experiment a colonization based on colonies of Portuguese citizens “Casados”. Since the Portuguese women were few, mixed marriages were encouraged between the Portuguese and Asians. Albuquerque tried to create a new Portuguese nation in Asia to make up for the lack of people from Portugal. This method of settlement was extremely successful.

After a century of this colonization, in practically every outpost of the empire, there were colonies of mixed Portuguese, that spoke Portuguese, were Catholic and were better suited to the tropical climates that the European born Portuguese. Thanks to this strategy, the Portuguese succeeded in withstanding the siege of the Dutch in Ceylon for sixty years.

The Portuguese left a Eurasian community (Portuguese Burghers) with surnames like Perera, Silva, Pieris, de Mel, de Soysa, etc, the Roman Catholic religion, Music (Baila), dress, food and Titles such as Sinno, Dona, Don, etc and a Portuguese Creole language, a dialect of which until recently was spoken by people of mixed African decent who are descended from a Portuguese regiment of soldiers from Mozambique who settled in the village of Sellankandal near the town of Puttalam, sometime in the seventeenth century.

In the presentation below their descendants sing in the creole language.

An interesting presentation about the Kaffir community in modern Sri Lanka.

The Portuguese brought western culture into Ceylon. The Kandyan Kings were educated by the Portuguese teachers. The Kandyan Royal Court had Portuguese ministers as advisers. But King Rajasinghe II was not happy with the Portuguese. The Portuguese came to trade with Ceylonese, but because of the foolishness of the natives, the Portuguese became their masters. The trade commodities were bought at minimum prices and the Portuguese made a huge profit selling the spices at European markets.

In the presentation below a dance that has lasted over 500 years is enacted by the descendants of the Portuguese.

The Ceylonese were unhappy about losing their freedom and lands to the Portuguese and they were totally distressed at seeing the Government from Lisbon hijacking the country. A beautiful country and culture was being vandalized by the Portuguese and Catholicism and the Portuguese language was being forced down their throats. They wanted religious freedom and political freedom from Portugal. They wanted Holland, a powerful enemy of Portugal to come to their aid. Even though Denmark offered to help, the King of Kandy wanted the help of the Dutch as there was a Dutch-Portuguese War raging.

When the Dutch ships landed in Batticaloe and communicated with the King of Kandy for allied action against the Portuguese, King Rajasinghe II immediately seized the opportunity to remove the Portuguese out of Ceylon.

An extract from a document about Western Colonialism is reproduced below.

Western colonialism: Portuguese and Dutch

The Portuguese arrival in Ceylon was an accident, a rude quirk of destiny. In 1505, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Don Lourenco de Almedia, forced by winds and waves, was tossed into Galle, the harbor located on the southern coast of the island. He learned that the island was the famous land called Ceilao, and he sailed on to Colombo, the port in the Kotte kingdom. When the Portuguese arrived in Ceylon, Vira Parakrama Bahu (1484-1509) was the king of Kotte, Senasammata Vikrama Bahu (1469-1511) was the king of the Hill country and Pararajasekeran (1469-1511) was the king of the Tamil kingdom.

In the beginning, the Portuguese desire was for trade, chiefly in cinnamon, but it also wanted a foothold on the island as it was strategically located to control the sea routes of the Indian Ocean. Accordingly, they entered into a treaty in 1505 with Vira Parakrama Bahu under which they were assured of a supply of cinnamon and also permission to build a factory. In 1518, the treaty was renewed, which drew the Portuguese into the local political arena owing to the internal rivalries and quarrels of the Sinhalese princes. From 1551, the Portuguese assumed the role of protectors and began to direct the affairs of the kingdom of Kotte, and from 1597 to 1658 the entire maritime regions of the country came under the domination of the Portuguese, except for the Kandyan kingdom, which remained an independent entity.

The last Tamil patriarch, who was a pretender to the throne of the Tamil kingdom, was Cankli Kumaran, who fought decisively with the Portuguese forces under the command of Filipe De Oliveriya. At Vannarponnai, Cankli Kumaran's forces were defeated. He and his family set to sail to Tanjore, in South India, to seek assistance from King Ragunatha Nayakar.

Unfortunately, adverse winds blew his boat towards Point Pedro, where he was accosted by the Portuguese and captured. With him were his queens, children and his retinue. Portuguese soldiers confiscated 8,000 milreis (Portuguese currency) found in the boat and ran amok with the royalty, stealing their jewelry. When Cankli Kumaran saw this ruthless behavior, he took off his own jewels and gave them to the soldiers. This episode is a sad illustration of Portuguese barbarism of the time.

The Tamil kingdom, which extended up to the eastern province, came under Portuguese domination in 1621, and this was how the Tamils lost their sovereignty, independence and their traditional homeland.

Nevertheless, after 1560, the Portuguese began destroying Hindu temples located in other regions. Destruction and vandalism by the Portuguese gathered momentum after the capture of the Tamil kingdom in 1621. Filipe de Oliveriya, the Portuguese governor, was acclaimed for destroying more than 500 Hindu temples, which were also the cultural treasures of the Tamils. These acts of vandalism and destruction were never censured, and they still have not, even today, 343 years later.

In 1638, the Dutch came to Ceylon at the invitation of Rajasingha II (1635-1687), the king of the hill country called the Kingdom of Kandy, and entered into an accord with the monarch. The Dutch agreed to drive the Portuguese out of the maritime provinces of the island. They first captured Batticaloa, and in 1639 they captured the harbor city of Trincomalee. The Dutch carried on their war and utterly destroyed the power of Portuguese in Ceylon by capturing Colombo in 1656 and finally the Tamil kingdom in 1658, thus bringing the entire littoral areas of the country under their domination.

The Portuguese, when they captured the Tamil kingdom, appointed a captain-major as the governor of Jaffna and administered it as a distinct political unit. Accordingly, for the purpose of administration, the Dutch divided the maritime regions into three "commanderies" - Colombo, Jaffna and Galle. Three different lieutenant-governors administered these regions, with the one responsible for Jaffna administering the region based on the traditional laws of the region.

I also reproduce a very interesting document by Archbishop Emiretus Dr Oswald Gomis of St Thomas the Apostle and the coming of Christianity to India and Ceylon.

The Cross of Anuradhapura

Archbishop Emiretus Dr Oswald Gomis

A portrait of the cross which was found during excavations in Anuradhapura

The Cross is the primary symbol of the Christian faith representing the cross on which Jesus Christ died. It is the most venerated symbol among them. In fact every Catholic commences prayer, both public and private, making the ‘Sign of the Cross.’ The veneration of this symbol is a very ancient devotion among Christians and this veneration reaches a climax during the Holy Week on Good Friday. The most ancient representation perhaps, of this symbol on stone, is attributed in our part of the world, to an Apostle of Jesus Himself who came to India in 52 A.D.

It is a fact clearly admitted that Christianity entered the South Asian region through India. In a recent article published in India Perspectives - Vol 24 No. 4/2010 Balmiki Prasad Singh, currently Governor of Sikkim and a distinguished scholar, thinker and public servant is quoted writing Christianity came to India well before it went to several European countries. He writes further - Both Judaism and Christianity came to India in the first century itself. (Pgs 40-41)

A symbol of a Cross attributed to this Apostle is the most ancient symbol of Christianity found so far, in Sri Lanka too. It is the Cross discovered during archeological excavations in Anuradhapura. This was discovered in 1912 first by the then chief draughtsman of the Archeological Department Muhandiram P. D. A. Wickremasuriya.

Wickremasuriya quickly informed the Archeological Commissioner at the time E. R. Ayrton of this unusual find. Ayrton who examined the object hastily concluded that this was a Portuguese Cross, and said so. Ayrton died soon and was succeeded by A. M. Hocart. Hocart was more careful in examining the object and made reference to it in his publication the Archeological Survey of Ceylon dated 1924. He wrote - In F,7, lying on the floor level, was a fragment of a rectangular column on which is cut in sunk relief, a cross of a floreate type standing on a stepped pedestal from which emanate two fronds on each side of the cross like horns. (A frond is an organ-like leaf usually bearing fructification.) He adds further - It is extremely improbable that this column belongs to the house, rather I should suppose that it, and four fragments in room 2, were carried off from some ruined building in the vicinity and that building probably a church. (Archeological Survey of Ceylon, 1912 - 13, pg. 5)

Hocart too was of the opinion that this Cross belonged to the Portuguese period because of the similarity that it had to a Cross discovered in Kotte (Kingdom). Because of this similarity he concluded that the Portuguese had penetrated Anuradhapura at the time, and that the ancient citadel was then largely inhabited.

Hocart had been completely wrong in this latter presumption and this could be easily proved. The first reason to prove his presumption erroneous is the fact that the Portuguese could not locate Anuradhapura until the beginning of the 17th century as our historical records clearly indicate. A Franciscan missionary named Fr. Francisco Negrao, who worked in Sri Lanka from 1610 - 1629, was the first European to mention the ruins of Anuradhapura.

Fr. Negrao was the first European to count the 1,600 pillars of the Brazen Palace. The famous historian of the Portuguese period Fernao De Queyroz himself mentions the futile attempts made by the Portuguese on the orders of the King of Portugal to discover Anuradhapura, and describes how he later got all the information about Anuradhapura from Fr. Negrao.

Portuguese Cross

The second reason for the erroneous supposition of Hocart is the fact that the ‘Portuguese Cross’ of Kotte, to which he compared the cross discovered in Anuradhapura, was in fact not a Portuguese cross but a second cross of St. Thomas origin, which was already here in Sri Lanka, and discovered by the Portuguese on their arrival.

Besides the Cross in Anuradhapura there had been two other crosses of St. Thomas origin in Sri Lanka. Fernao de Queyroz in his book “The Spiritual and Temporal Conquest of Ceylon” has recorded this as follows - “In the suburb of Colombo the church of the Apostle St. Thomas, where resided the father of the Christians...........there was preserved a Cross on a small column stone; one of those which the glorious apostle worked with his own hands, and it was the second which they had in Ceylon.” (The Spiritual and Temporal Conquest of Ceylon - p. 715)

H. W. Codrington, well-known for his intimate knowledge of Sri Lankan history and matters Syriac, was very positive that the Anuradhapura Cross belonged to the Persian Christians of St. Thomas. He says that this is really “a Persian Christian Cross” and is almost identical with the cross of St. Thomas discovered by the Portuguese in 1547 on the Mount of St. Thomas in Mylapore, South India.

During the early period after the discovery of the Anuradhapura Cross there was much discussion and doubt as to whether this was a symbol of the Catholic community or whether this was something of the Nestorian sect. In fact some of our eminent historians like His Lordship Bishop Edmund Peiris OMI described it as the Nestorian Cross of Anuradhapura. This is quite understandable because much of the research that has been done in recent times was not available to them in their time.

It has to be remembered that the Portuguese, due more to political expediency than ignorance, presumed any Christian community that preceded them in these parts of the world to be heretical and branded them so. The most convenient brand at hand in this region at the time was the ‘heretical Nestorian.’ The clearest case of such branding was with the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Christians (St. Thomas Christians) in Kerala.

Ronald Roberson, CSP, who holds a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and was a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for promoting Christian Unity, in his book The Eastern Christian Church - a Brief Survey, dealing directly about The Thomas Christians, writes “Portuguese colonization was the beginning of a sad history of forced latinization that caused unrest and schisms......Today their descendants, who number about 800,000, are divided into five churches.....” (pg. 18)

Lorenzo Cappelletti contributing an article “From Mesopotamia to China” to the journal ‘30 Days’ - In the Church and the World - N. 12 Year 2010 writes - “Marco Polo’s surprise when he came across Christians in the far off lands of China is matched today by that of the majority of Christians in the West when they hear of the existence of Christian communities surviving from very early times to the east of the Roman Empire, in the boundless territories of Central Asia, from Persia to India and China.

These communities are somewhat hastily described as Nestorian because at the time of the Council of Ephesus (431), which condemned Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, they remained faithful to the theological tradition of Antioch, from where Nestorius came, against the radicalization of the Alexandrian theological current (with foresight since, it must be said it was leading to Monophysite distortions). But also because, even before the Council of Ephesus, they aimed to distance themselves from the Roman State Church.” (pg 36 - 37).

Remarkable resemblance

In this background one could well imagine that the cross found in Anuradhapura could also be easily attributed to a Nestorian community that lived at that time in Sri Lanka. However, Bishop Edmund Peiris OMI admitted that there was a remarkable resemblance between the ‘Anuradhapura Cross’ and the ‘Bleeding Cross’ of St. Thomas, in the ancient chapel of St. Thomas’ Mount near Madras (now Chennai). (Ref: Catholic Christmas Annual - 1956 pg. 5)

Fr S G Perera S.J., the renowned Sri Lankan historian, has also made reference to this Cross. He says - “The more satisfactory confirmation of the presence of Christians in Anuradhapura is the Persian cross found in 1912 by the archeological department while excavating the citadel of Anuradhapura.” Having described the format of the Cross Fr. Perera states further - “It had been used as the foundation of a house and probably belonged to some ruined Christian building in the neighbourhood. The cross is undoubtedly Persian, and is very similar to the crosses found in the Syrian churches of Malabar. Another cross, described by the Portuguese a cross of St. Thomas, was found at Mutwal, a suburb of Colombo, at the mouth of the Kelani River, in early Portuguese times. As the Kelani was the outlet for the produce of the Kelani valley, and as the ancient township of Kolamba also stood at the mouth of a flood-outlet of the Kelani and was the chief mart of the Moors who succeeded the Persians in the carrying trade of Ceylon, it is not improbable that the Mutwal cross is also a relic of the presence of Persian traders in Ceylon.” (Fr S G Perera SJ, Historical Sketches - Ceylon Church History - pgs. 10 - 11).

Making specific reference to the Cross in Colombo Fr. Perera states - “ far the most ancient fact recorded of Colombo is that it once possessed a cross dating from the early period of Christianity. In the church of St. Thomas at Mutwal, there was preserved in Portuguese times a cross carved on a column of stone, which was ascribed to St. Thomas the Apostle.” (Idem - pg. 71)

Recent researchers have discovered a Christian presence in Asia long before the arrival of the Portuguese or any other ‘evangelizing’ Western Power. Besides a volume of other interesting facts and artifacts, it is interesting to note here that a number of other Crosses have been discovered also in other countries in Asia. Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler in their book “The Church of the East” - A concise history - refers to some of these. Having made reference to the Cross in Anuradhapura they go on to state - “Other stone monuments include six surviving East Syriac crosses with a Pahlavi inscription - one on Mount Thomas in Mylapore near Madras, four in the vicinity of Kottayam, and one in Travancore in Kerala - which all bear the same Middle Persian inscription, including the appeal of Gabriel, son of Chahabokht, that the Messiah have mercy on the donor of the cross. The crosses may date from the period of the sixth to ninth centuries.” (Wilhelm Baum and Dietmar W. Winkler - The Church of the East - pg - 53). In May 2000 a further Cross of the same period was discovered in Goa.

The great scholar and historian Bishop Edmund Peiris OMI was referred earlier in this article to have admitted a close resemblance of the Anuradhapura Cross to that of the ‘Bleeding Cross’ of Mylapore. The ‘Bleeding Cross’ also called the ‘Miraculous Cross’ was one that was accidentally discovered by the Portuguese on the Big Mount in 1547.

“Already in 1923 the Portuguese are said to have hit upon the ruins of an old chapel lying east-west on the Big Mount and in that year itself they had erected an oratory there (it was the year in which the old church of St. Thomas was rebuilt.) In March 1547 while digging the foundations for a new church, other ruined foundations were unearthed and a stone-cross was found face downwards among the ruins. This was on 23 March 1547. (M. A. Mundadan -History of Christianity in India - Vol. I, pg 422)

This cross is believed to be that on which St. Thomas laid down his life. It is said to have had traces of his blood and said to change colour periodically and sweat water. This unusual phenomenon is reported to have happened on 18th December almost every year in the course of a few years. These miracles are clearly recorded by the pastors of the shrine and witnessed by thousands of pilgrims. What happened in 1558 on the feast day of the Expectation of Our Lady is recorded in detail with references also to the scientific examination of this event by the renowned Indian historian A. M. Mundadan. (A.M. Mundadan - History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, pgs. 422-24).

Martin Palmer the director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC) and author of many books on religious topics clearly shows that the Cross seems to have been a great symbol used by the early Christians in Asia. In one of his latest publications (2001) he writes extensively of early Christianity in China and also the Crosses of Ladakh, Tibet (now part of India.) He writes -”Carved into a large boulder in Tankse, Ladakh, once part of Tibet now India, are three crosses and some inscriptions. ....The crosses are clearly of the Church of the East....” (Martin Palmer - The Jesus Sutras, pg. 9).

Manuscript evidence

According to John England, “There is now some agreement that amongst the Episcopal and metropolitan sees recorded for the churches of the East from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries, those for India and China include in their jurisdiction a number of South East Asian episcopates. Some manuscript evidence in early chronicles and correspondence confirms this for such places as Ceylon, Malaya, Indo-China and Indonesia.” (John C. England and Archee Lee - The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia - 1993 p. 133)

Mentioning some of the places in Asia where crosses have been found John England refers to the cross in Anuradhapura too. He writes - “By the sixth century, we have crosses and inscriptions from Sri Lanka and Turkistan....” In the next three centuries would be added the large collections of crosses ....from Kirghizstan (ninth to fourteenth centuries).....Tibet and South China.”

Most of our historians have relied on the evidence of Cosmos Indicopleustes who wrote in the sixth century that - “Even in Taprobane, and island in Further India, where the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians, with clergy and a body of believers, but I know not whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it.” (Cosmos Indicopleustes - Christian Typography, edited with English Translations by J. M. McCrindle, London: Hakluyt Society, 1897 p.118 quoted by T V Philip p. 155).

Main interest

Dr. T V Philip an Indian Church historian and ecumenist making his observations on this statement of Cosmos says - “From the above observations of Cosmos it is often assumed that in Ceylon in the sixth century there were only Persian Christians who settled there and there were no indigenous Christians. We need to remember that Cosmos was a Persian and a Nestorian and it is understandable if his main interest was in the Persian Christian communities in places which he mentioned in his book. Moreover, he did not personally visit all the places he mentions and did not claim to have made a complete survey of Christianity in those places.” (T V Philip, East of the Euphrates - Early Christianity in Asia, p.155). By the very fact that Cosmos writes “I do not know whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it” it is clear that he is not making a blanket observation about all the Christian communities in Sri Lanka at that time. Furthermore, there is no evidence to connect the Anuradhapura cross with a Nestorian community that is supposed to have lived in Sri Lanka.

Once again as Dr. Philip says in his book - “We do not know when Christianity came to Ceylon, probably earlier than the sixth century as there were Christian communities in South India from the first century onwards.

It is also probable that there were indigenous Christians in Ceylon (other than the Persian Christians who settled there) from the beginnings of Christianity in Ceylon. Just as it happened in South India the East Syrian influence might have been felt in Ceylon through Persian merchants and missionaries, and/or perhaps through the St. Thomas Christians in South India at least from the fifth century onwards. A series of stone inscriptions and coins record the ‘presence of foreign Christian high officers at the service of Sinhala kings’ from AD 473 to 508 and the conversion of one of these kings.” (John England - p. 118, quoted by T.V. Philip, p. 155).

This article does not warrant a full exposition of the presence of Christians in pre-Portuguese Sri Lanka. However, very briefly it could be stated that Catholic missionaries have been in Sri Lanka from the first century. And this includes one of the Lord’s twelve Apostles - St. Thomas. If he was here, it could be safely concluded that subsequently his own disciples and converts from India also continued their interest in Sri Lanka, a country in such close proximity to South India.

A document found in China gives a very interesting description of the Cross as also seen in the Anuradhapura Cross and now symbolized in our Catholic Flag. It is described as follows - “In the cross rising from the lotus, the passion of Christianity finds its place in the Eastern symbol of being rooted in this world but rising above it to full beauty and fulfillment.” (Martin Palmer - The Jesus Sutras, pg. 9).

The pedestal on which the cross stands represents the earth which has high land and low.
Out of this earthly pond arise two lotuses (on either side) which symbolize the wisdom of the world (its thinking, philosophies etc). In other words beautiful lotuses sprout out of the earthly pond. But, just as the lotus comes to fullness in bloom only when it receives the rays of light from the sun, the wisdom of the world blooms only when it receives enlightment from Christ the Light of the World (symbolized by the cross which is shown shedding light at the upright top extreme and transverse beams).

From the above it could be safely concluded that the Cross in Anuradhapura is a cross of St. Thomas design, and not a Nestorian Cross.

It could have well been either from a religious building of Persian merchants resident in Sri Lanka or a group of St. Thomas Christians, local or non-local, resident in the city.

St Thomas' College, Sri Lanka "The Collage of St Thomas the Apostle"

No comments: