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500 years in retrospect:

The Portuguese advent in Sri Lanka

THE first Portuguese to have visited Sri Lanka was Don Lourenco de Almeida. Driven by adverse winds, he reached Sri Lanka's coast near Galle in 1505 (more correctly, 1506).

Lisbon port as seen today, with a model of an ancient Portuguese ship.

He might have exclaimed ebulliently, "Vive-Veeva" (a Portuguese form of greeting) to the Lankans he first encountered.

But what unfolded subsequently with the Portuguese advent in Sri Lanka was an acrimonious chapter in the island history.

A nation always divided chronically on ethnic, religious and caste rivalries, became a fertile ground for the Portuguese to convert many Sinhalese and Tamils to the Catholic religion.

Traditional Lace patterns (Sinh, Beeralu, Portu Bilros) introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, are displayed today in museums in Portugal.

The Age of Exploration marked the apogee of Portuguese imperial power and wealth. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, Portugal had a population of one and a quarter million and an economy dependent on maritime trade with Northern Europe.

Although Portugal lacked the wealth and population of its contemporaries, it would lead the European community in the exploration of sea routes to the African continent, the Atlantic Islands, and to Asia and South America over the course of the sixteenth century.

Portugal benefited from a relatively stable monarchy whose kings encouraged maritime trade and shipping ventures.

The Crown offered tax privileges and insurance funds to protect the investments of ship owners and builders. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal was a major economic power, its empire stretching from Brazil to the Indies.

Currency note of Portugal issued in 1922, showing ancient merchant ships of Portugal crisscrossing the Indian Ocean.

In the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese were in the full bloom of their power in the beginning of the 16th century.

With Portugal's command of the seas and its supremacy over the Arabs in the spice trade, Goa in India became the jewel of its eastern empire, taking control of the spice trade from the Indian subcontinent.

The advent of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka was quite a different story. It happened accidently. The Portuguese were initially interested in only spice trade with Sri Lanka.

Portuguese children engaged in the traditional art of lace-making which was introduced to Sri Lanka by their forefathers int he 16th century.

From 1540 under the influence of the Counter Revolution in Europe and with the arrival of the Inquisition in Goa, Portugal's liberal policy towards the Hindus in India, Buddhists in Sri Lanka and religions in other Portuguese colonies was reversed.

Many Hindu temples in India and Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka were razed and churches built on them. Ancient place of worship in Brazil and other lands occupied by the Portuguese suffered the same fate.

The Portuguese resorted to unethical practices of converting people to the Catholic religion. With the dawn of the 17th century, the Portuguese zeal for religious conversions in their occupied territories had died down.

In fact, the Portuguese mistrusting the Jesuits whom they viewed as being puppets of the Pope in Rome, banned the order in 1759. By 1835, all religious orders were banned in Goa, while the Hindu majority were "granted" the freedom to practice their religion.

Is there any good left behind by the Portuguese in Sri Lanka? They introduced to us their cuisine which is particularly diverse. It consists of various recipes of rice, potatoes, bread, meat, seafood and fish (which is their staple diet).

They also gave the Sri Lankans the first taste of wine, and induced the Sinhalese entrepreneurs in the western region to take to the lucrative, labour intensive coconut arrack industry. Portuguese wines are some of the world's best and have been exported since Roman times.

The Portuguese cuisine is characterised by rich, filling and full-flavoured dishes that are cheap to prepare. The influence of Portugal's former colonial possessions is clear, especially in the wide variety of spices used.

These include piri piri-small, fiery chile peppers, as well as cinnamon, vanilla and saffron. Garlic is widely used, as are herbs such as coriander and parsley. Those with a sweet tooth may be interested to learn that one of Portugal's best-kept culinary secrets is its vast and distinctive range of desserts, cakes and pastries. We Sri Lankans inherited them all.

The Portuguese especially enjoy rich, egg-based desserts. These are often seasoned with spices such as as cinnamon and vanilla. Perhaps the most popular is a set egg custard. Also popular is rice pudding, Other custards include pudim flan-a kind of creme caramel (the Sinhalese word, 'pudim', is derived from it).

Indeed, the Portuguese have a long history of absorbing culinary traditions from other peoples. The age of discovery was propelled by the desire for exotic spices.

For instance, curry spices form Goa and later Sri Lanka are common seasonings used very sparingly by the Portuguese for adding subtle flavour and depth to dishes. It is these influences that have helped make Portuguese food so markedly different from that of other Mediterranean countries.

If there is one thing that typifies traditional Portuguese food, it is fish. Meat is also widely used by the Portuguese, especially chicken and pork. we Sri Lankans got used to them mostly due to the Portuguese influence.

An old Sinhalese adage had it hat even the cat flesh was very expensive in the Colombo Fort (meaning the fort built by the Portuguese). In those days, whatever meat that could not be served immediately was turned by the Portuguese into a wide variety of cured meats, especially spicy sausages.

These include mouth-watering linguica (the Sinhalese 'lingus' is a word derived from linguica) which is a seasoned pork sausage with onions, garlic and pepper, and chourico which is a spicy dried sausage.

Most towns in Portugal had a local speciality, usually egg or cream based pastry. Sri Lankans who adopted such delicacy, still call it pastela (patis), etc.

Bread and bakery industry were introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese who came from a great bread-eating nation. They also taught the islanders to have religious festivals on an extravagant scale. Festivals play a major role in Portugal's summers.

Even though they have religious connotations, most of these celebrations are, infact, anything but religious. Every city and town has its own festivals. The June Festivities are very popular, these festivities are dedicated to three saints known as Santos Populares (Popular saints) and take place all over Portugal.

Why the populace associated the saints with these pagan festivities is not known. A common denominator in these festivities are the wine and agua-pe (a watered kind of wine), traditional bread along with sardines, marriages, traditional street dances, fireworks and joy.

The Portuguese language enriched the Sinhalese vocabulary to such an extent that hundreds and thousands of Portuguese words came to be used widely in the spoken as well as the written language of the Sinhala people.

Some of them are as follows: almariya (wardrobe), yatura (key), katura (pair of scissors) kanappuwa (teapoy), putuwa (chair), mesaya (table), pastala (patis), anda (bed), buru anda (folding or camp bed), isthoppuwea (veranda), salaya (sitting room), panawa (komb), hettaya (jacket), konthaya (rosary), suruvama (statue), renda rala (arrack renter) etc.

The Sinhala language is a veritable hotchpotch of words borrowed from Pali, Sanskrit, Portuguese and English. Biralu (bilros in Portuguese) lace-making is a unique handicraft introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese.

Once a lucrative cottage industry in the villages situated along the southern littoral belt especially Ambalangoda, Balapitiya, Dodanduwa, Galle, Habaraduwa and the hinterland, it has deteriorated almost to the level of extinction now.

In Portugal, the lace-making industry is till carried out in border fishing villages such as Caminha, Vila do Conde, Setubal and Azurara.

The Sinhalese word, renda, is derived from the Portuguese word rendas. Some of the museums in Portugal, such as the Museu das Rendas de Bilros display specimens of the articles used in the past in lace making. These are well presented.

The Portuguese are a very musical-minded, fun-loving people. They introduced to Sri Lanka a new style and tradition in music, called kaparingha - played with fast tempo and beat, to the accompaniment of a Portuguese musical instrument called Viole.

What we enjoy today as Baila music is a distant shadow or corruption of such musical tradition of the Portuguese.

Being the first western super power to have colonized Sri Lanka, the Portuguese influence was very much evident not only in music, but also commerce, fashion, language, customs, habits and even matrimonial rites (coronchi ceremony being one) among the Sinhalese in the western seaboard of Sri Lanka.

As time passed by inexorably amidst the changing drama of Sri Lanka's history, the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, gradually struck root in the Island and made generations of Sri Lankans law-abiding, disciplined, hard-working, civic-conscious and God-fearing citizens.



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