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
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
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
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)