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Religious fervour and communal harmony in Negombo

NEGOMBO called 'Little Rome' is a traditional fishing centre and a principal town in the coconut triangle in Sri Lanka. Being 4 miles from the Bandaranaike International Airport with shimmering beaches in the sea-cost, it has developed into a tourist centre as well.

The Dutch Fort at the centre of the city, the lagoon that surrounds a part of the town, the island of Duwas situated between the lagoon and the sea and fascinating scenery have made Negombo one of the beautiful places in Sri Lanka.

Negombo has been a Catholic fortress from the times of the Portuguese. There have been over 70,000 Catholics in the Western coastal belt during the Portuguese era. The majority of them were found in Negombo and the surrounding districts.

It is on record that in 1628 there were many churches in and around the city of Negombo. The most prominent among them are - a large and beautiful church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Negombo town, the church of the Most Holy Trinity at Hunupitiya, the Church of Our Lady of Remedies at Bolawalana, the church of the Holy Spirit at Pitipana and St. James' Church at Pallansena.

The Catholics under the Dutch rule in Sri Lanka were subject to severe oppression, victimisation and humiliation. For both political and sectarian reasons, the Dutch set their face against the Catholics, proscribed the religion, drew away the priests and took over Catholic churches and schools. Yet nothing could shatter the faith of Catholics in Negombo.

The people of Negombo kept on agitating for their religious freedom until the Dutch extended some sort of religious tolerance on towards the end of their rule. In March 23, 1734, the Catholic fishermen in Negombo and their wives took the initiative, dared to come open and go in a procession carrying banners, candles and statues.

On this occasion the Dutch authorities refrained from taking any action. Finally when in 1796, the Dutch handed over the maritime provinces to the British, it was estimated that there were over 14,000 Catholics in Negombo.

When the religious freedom dawned under the British, once again Catholic faith flourished in Negombo. According to the Census in 2001 65.5 per cent of the population in Negombo are Catholics.

Today there are nearly 50 Catholic churches and shrines within the municipal limits. The majority of the native Catholic Bishops and the only Cardinal in Sri Lanka have hailed from Negombo.

Negombo has been a centre of Catholic cultural activity as well. The traditional Passion Play of Duwa performed with the outstanding statue of Christ in the past was the greatest passion show in Asia. Till recently the Pitipana Passion Play was a synthesis of Christian passion drama with Nadagam aspects.

Till 1950's a Tamil natakam on the life of St. Sebastian was enacted for five consecutive nights at Sea Street church in Negombo. 'Raja Tunkattuwa', a traditional Sinhala Nadagama cherished by the people of Duwa is enacted now and then at Christmas.

At one time Catholic women from Negombo who chanted Tamil 'Oppari' composed by Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez which contained pathos said to be seldom found in prose or verse in any language were misunderstood as 'hired mourners'.

The attractive paintings on the life of Christ by the Buddhist artist N.S. Godamanne in St. Mary's Church, Grand Street, Negombo are a class of its own. St. Sebastian's Church, Sea Street, Negombo designed on the model of the famous Reems Cathedral in France is one of the most beautiful churches built in Gothic style in Sri Lanka.

St. Stephen's Christian Church over the Dutch Fort with its shadow falling on the Negombo Lagoon is a wonderful picturesque sight.

Although there are only 12.5 per cent Buddhists in Negombo, their religious activity is not second to that of Catholics.

The renowned Buddhist leader and patriot Brahamachari Walisinghe Harischandra was born in Thimbirigaskatuwa, Negombo. A leading national school in Negombo, Harischandra Vidyalaya is named after him.

Bhodirajaramaya, the well-known Buddhist Temple surpasses all the shrines in Negombo as a popular religious centre.

The beautiful Buduge, which contains magnificent sculptural works and paintings on the life of Buddha and Jathaka stories, the Pilimage that contains the statues and pictures of all the Sinhala Kings from Vijaya to Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, the colossal Buddha statue within the frame of a Makara Thorana attracts devotees all over the country to Bhodirajaramaya.

Popularly known as "Angurukaramulla Temple" it is never missed by the Buddhist pilgrims who pass through Negombo.

Abhayasekeraramaya Temple situated within few fathoms from Bhodirajaramaya is a well-known centre of learning. Many non-Buddhists including Catholic clergy have studied Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit there under the learned Buddhist monks.

This writer too has studied Sinhala for the University Entrance there at the feet of Meegamuwe Jinawansa Nayaka Thera. Baudhda Mandiraya at the heart of Negombo town is a well-known social and cultural centre for all Buddhists and non-Buddhists. There have been a strong Muslim community in Negombo from the time of the Arab traders.

Today they comprises 12.0 of the population in Negombo. The Mahahunupitiya ward in the Negombo Municipal Council was a Muslim stronghold. There are several mosques in Negombo and the grand mosque at Mahahunupitiya is one of the most beautiful work of Muslim architecture in Sri Lanka.

According to the legend Hindu activity in Negombo harks back to the time of Rama-Ravana battle.

The reservoir where Rama and Lakshman washed their offerings before the battle is said to be found in Kamachchode in Negombo.

They say that Kamala the wife of Vishnu is referred to as Kamachchi and there was a shrine in her honour at Kamachchode.

The Catholics in Negombo have always elected their representative to the supreme legislature without any religious or caste considerations.

In the first Parliamentary elections in 1947, they elected a Buddhist H. de Z. Siriwardena as their MP. Again in 1952 the well-known Buddhist leader A.N.D.A. Abeysinghe became the MP for Negombo.

In 1956 with the swing against the UNP a Marxist Dr. Hector Fernando of the LSSP was elected as the MP for Negombo.

In local politics at the beginning it was the personal relationships that mattered more than party politics.

Even here religious, communal and caste considerations have not dominated in Negombo. In 1950, Mr. A.N.D.A. Abeysinghe, the Buddhist became the first Mayor of Negombo.

In 1954, he was succeeded by Mr. S.R. Wijayratnam who was a Hindu. At his death in 1955, Mr. Wijayapala Mendis, who again was a Buddhist, was elected the Mayor of Negombo.

In 1957 at a meeting of Catholics in Negombo when one of the speakers suggested that Catholic Negombo should have a Catholic Mayor, his Eminence Thomas Cardinal Cooray remarked that a good Buddhist is better than a bad Catholic.

All throughout there have been perfect religious and communal harmony in Negombo. However of late there have been some friction among Buddhists and Catholics in Negombo over the erecting of a statue.

For a number of years there was a small statue of Buddha in the Pelwatta junction in Negombo and no one bothered about it. Recently there was an attempt to place a colossal statue of Christ close to it in Municipal Council premises so as to belittle the Buddha statue.

The Buddhists were offended and the matter went upto the Supreme Court. There it was agreed to fix the statue of Christ further away from the Buddha statue and the matter was settled. It is a great relief that it ended this way.

It should be realised by extremists of both sides that there are forces with hidden agendas to blow up conflicts like this to bring disrepute to the country.

It is the duty of the clergy, the politicians and civil leaders to prevent such occurrences and to maintain much cherished religious and communal harmony in Negombo.

(The writer is a former High Court Judge)

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