Hinduism in Sri Lanka

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

Hindus currently make up approximately 15% of the Sri Lankan population, and are almost exclusively Tamils apart from immigrants from India and Pakistan such as the Sindhis, Telugus and Malayalees. In the 1915 census they made up almost 25% of the population. Due to assimilation, emigration (over 1 million Sri Lankan tamils have left the country since independence) and conversion to various sects of Christianity and Buddhism, 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 practiced 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) though this may be a serious under-count.

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). Vaya then blew strong winds at the mountain for a year, which was shielded by the Garuda, a mythical bird. When the Garuda took respite for a while however, Vaya 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 life of Rama), written around 500 B.C.E. The Ramayana tells of the conquest of Lanka 2,500 years ago by Rama, an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu.The Ramayana also mentions about a bridge between India and Sri Lanka, known as Rama's Bridge, constructed with rocks by Rama with the help of Hanuman and other vanars. Many believers view the sand bar islands connecting Sri Lanka to India as the remains of the bridge as seen in satellite images.

Historic roots

The earliest Hindus were Prakrit speaking immigrants from India who settled amongst the indigenous people. 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. Military activity by South Indian and Orissan 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.

Conflict and coexistence

From 400 AD onwards, military campaigns by rulers from South India and Orissa (then known as Kalinga Desa) counter-attacks by the Singhalese Buddhists rulers from the Sri Lankan interior, heralded a period of great turmoil wherein the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Singhalese would struggle for territorial control and supremacy. In 1017, Rajaraja Chola annexes Lanka to India but the Sinhalese ousts the Cholas again in 1070. In 1200, South Indians briefly rule Lanka once again.

In time, a form of bloody stalemate was reached wherein Tamils 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 indigenous Tamil kingdom centered around Jaffna, in 1400.

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

Further many Hindu deities who have ethnic Tamil origins such as Kannaki and Ayyanar have become as 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.

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 Lourenco de Almedia, 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 and was duly sentenced to death. Ultimately, the last Tamil Hindu king 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. 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. This officially ended Tamil sovereignty 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 majority of Sri Lankan Tamils still remain loyal to their ancestral Hindu religion.

" '"Since the Sinhala Buddhist Government in Sri Lanka took control of the island after Britain left, said the statement, it has systematically destroyed Hinduism and its culture in the island," the LTTE release stated. The North-East Hindu Priests' Association, a previously unheard of organization, has alleged that the Sri Lankan Government is bombing Hindu temples, arresting Hindu priests and using temples as army living quarters and checkpoints." ' [ [http://www.indianexpress.com/res/web/pIe/ie/daily/19980326/08550454.html Sri Lankan Hindu organizations accuse govt. of persecution] ]

Philosophical roots

The elite and the upper classes 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 [http://www.hinduismtoday.com/archives/2003/7-9/36-37_fire_walk.shtml] , trance due to possession by local gods and animal sacrifices to appease local gods or spirits.

But all Hindu students are taught Hinduism as a compulsory subject from Grade 1 to Grade 11 will learn Saiva Siddhanta as the preferred religious sect. Due to this many traditional believes and rituals may eventually fade away to be replaced by an "accepted" mode of worship.

ocial reformers & religious teachers

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{ [http://www.tamilnation.org/sathyam/east/yogaswamy.htm] stands out whose direct sannyasin sishya, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, founded Saiva Siddhanta Church in Hawaii in the United States.

Well known Hindu temples

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

* Naguleswaram in the North
* Ketheeswaram in the North West
* Koneswaram in the East
* Muneswaram in the West and
* Tondeswaram in the South.

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 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 Adams 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
*Kopay Hindu College
*Manipay Hindu College
*Muthur Kalaimagal Hindu College
*Pandatharippu Hindu College, Pandatharippu
*Puliyamkulam Hindu College, Puliyamkulam
*Ratmalana Hindu College, primary to high school
*Ramanathan Hindu Ladies College
*Senguntha Hindu College [http://www.senguntha.com/]
*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 appears uncertain for the survival of a community after almost 2,500 years of continual presence in Sri Lanka. The effects of the Black July induced civil war, lower fertility rates, emigration and gradual conversion and assimilation into the mainstream Sinhala Buddhists way of life will eventually spell doom for the community. Meanwhile the religion is surviving in its ethnic enclaves both in Sri Lanka and abroad.


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. [http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/PDF/p7%20population%20and%20Housing%20Text-11-12-06.pdf] [http://www.statistics.gov.lk/PopHouSat/PDF/p5%20Population%20and%20Housing%20Schedule.pdf] [http://www.statistics.gov.lk/Abstract_2006/Tables/chap%202/AB2-13.pdf] 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.


External links

* [http://www.kokuvilhindu.net/ Kokuvil Hindu College]
* [http://www.hindudept.gov.lk/ Department of Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs]
* [http://www.gov.lk/public/office.asp?xi=207 Department of Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs]
* [http://www.statistics.gov.lk/ Department of Census and Statistics]
* [http://www.hinducongress.org/index1.asp All Ceylon Hindu Congress]
* [http://www.tchr.net/religion_temples.htm Damage caused to Hindu Kovils (Temples) in the North-East of the Island of Sri Lanka]
* [http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/fr/2002/12/06/stories/2002120601140600.htm Tiruketheeswaram Temple]
* [http://www.dailynews.lk/2003/09/06/fea04.html Muneswaram Temple]
* [http://kataragama.org/sacred/munneswaram.htm Mueswaram Temple History]
* [http://lankabhumi.org/koneswaram.htm Tirukoneswaram Temple History]
* [http://www.nallur.org/ Nallur Kandswamy Temple]
* [http://kataragama.org/hindu_voice_katirkama.htm Katirkamam Temple from Hindu Voice]
* [http://kataragama.org/research/neelakandan.htm Selvasanidhi Temple]
* [http://udappu.org/9.htm Draupati Amman Temple Procession in Udappu Village in the West]
* [http://www.lakpura.com/articles/polonnaruwa-sri-lanka.html Shiva Temple Ruins in Ancient Polonnaruwa city]
* [http://www.amazon.ca/dp/9053836446 Book:Manipulating Histories and Modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu Temple]
* [http://www.hiddenmysteries.org/mysteries/reports/ceylon-vel.html Hindu Traditions of the Indigenous Vedda people]
* [http://www.tamilnation.org/tamileelam/fundamentalism/hindutemples.htm Modern destruction of Hindu Temples in Sri Lanka]
* [http://www.artsrilanka.org/hinduart/body.html History of Hindu art in Sri Lanka]

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