By editor - 2.8 2018

The northern Sri Lankan city of Jaffna - Vishnu temple

The origins of Hinduism in Sri Lanka have not been conclusively determined. However, it is known that the development of a multiethnic modern day Sri Lanka, primarily influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religious worldviews, has unfortunately resulted in devastating ethnic and religious conflict. Currently, it is believed that the expansion of Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka occurred relatively close to the evolution of the major ethnic group identified as the Sinhalese (Holt 70).  The Sinhalese are thought to have originated from the assimilation of various tribal or aboriginal ethnic communities that occupied Sri Lanka during the early Iron Age, approximately 600 to 500 BCE (Holt 70). However, some scholarly sources state that the Sinhalese may in fact have migrated to and colonized Sri Lanka around 500 BCE (Nubin 95). Despite these variances, it is accepted that the Sinhalese developed sophisticated civilizations with innovative technological advancements such as water tanks, reservoirs and irrigation canals (Nubin 95). Most importantly, the Sinhalese would help establish, spread and safeguard the traditions of Buddhism that would eventually be protected by the governing states of Sri Lanka (Nubin 95).

In regards to the spread of Hinduism from south India to Sri Lanka, the earliest inscriptions and texts from the Pali chronicles (the Mahavamsa) state that the primarily Hindu Tamils occupied Sri Lanka from the early Iron Age onward, directly parallel to the evolution of the Sinhalese (Holt 71). It is important to understand that there is a distinction between Sri Lankan Tamils, considered a native minority, and Indian Tamils, who later immigrated to Sri Lanka or are the descendants of these immigrants (Nubin 146). With their migration, the Indian Tamils brought with them their own Tamil language and spread their Dravidian cultural influences amongst the people of Sri Lanka. Additionally, since Tamil Nadu, India and northern Sri Lanka are closely connected in terms of geography, this physical link has supported the continual spread of Tamils in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). These Tamil immigrants comprised various castes and positions of power in the Hindu societies of south India, and “brought with them a kaleidoscope of religious myths and rites reflective of Hindu worldviews” (Deegalle 39). Archaeological evidence supports this migration model for the spread of Tamil language and culture in Sri Lanka (Holt 71). Eventually, some Tamil traders became elite and their significant influence in northern Sri Lanka allowed Tamil language and Hindu culture to become dominant (Holt 71). However, the Hindu Tamil influence was not as strong in the central and southern regions of Sri Lanka, where most Tamils were assimilated into the majority, Sinhalese Buddhist tradition (Holt 71). Additionally, as the Sinhalese slowly gained control of Sri Lanka, they started to view both Tamil language and culture as invasive and foreign to their native Buddhist traditions (Nubin 146). This tension between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Hindu Tamil minority has resulted in severe conflict throughout the history of Sri Lanka, even up to the past few decades (Mainuddin and Aicher 26).

The peak of these clashes between the Sinhalese and Tamils occurred between the 5th and 9th centuries CE, when the Cola (pronounced Chola) dynasty, a Hindu empire of south India, increasingly pushed towards the Sinhalese-Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka (Nubin 101). Under the rule of Rajaraja the Great (983 – 1014 CE), the Cola Empire, which had already established hegemony over south India, proceeded aggressively to conquer Sri Lanka (De Silva 25). The Cola Empire gained near complete control of the Buddhist Sinhalese kingdom by removing the Sinhalese king at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka and subsequently, Rajaraja’s son Rajendra completed the conquest of the island (De Silva 26). A significant and relatively permanent change created by the Cola Empire, which outlasted its period of rule, was the shifting of the capital from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruva (De Silva 26). The Cola Empire’s primary motive behind shifting the capital farther south was to protect their empire from potential invasion from southern Sinhalese kingdoms (Nubin 102). However, the southern Sinhalese kingdoms would eventually overthrow the Cola Empire, but the crucial shift of the political and religious capital allowed certain aspects of Hinduism established during the Cola rule to be maintained in Sri Lanka (Holt 87).

Importantly, the Cola conquest resulted in significant changes in the religious and cultural dynamics of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). The rule of the south Indian Tamils of the Cola Empire allowed Hinduism to prosper in Sri Lanka, while Buddhism receded (Nubin 102). A crucial consequence of the Cola conquest was that it allowed Hindu-Brahmanical traditions and religious practices of Saivism to become dominant in Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Furthermore, various characteristics of Dravidian (south Indian) culture including notions of art, architecture and the Tamil language, collectively had a substantial impact on the religious and cultural structures of Sri Lanka (De Silva 73). Under the Cola Empire, many Siva temples were built in major centers of worship in the Anuradhapura kingdom. These temples in Polonnaruva, Kantalai, Tirukkovil and other cities further assisted in enhancing Hindu Saivite traditions in Sri Lanka (Carter 164). Interestingly, despite the large amount of evidence about Saiva religious practices in Sri Lanka that arises after the Cola conquest, earlier inscriptions from the Mahavamsa indicate that the origins of Saivism in Sri Lanka may date back to the pre-Buddhist period (Carter 162). During this time period of around 400 BCE, the majority of Sri Lankans likely followed religious practices that closely adhered to Hindu Brahmanic and Saivite traditions (Carter 162). Archaeological studies of these religious practices in early Sri Lanka suggest significant phallic (Sivalinga) worship and worship of Saivite deities that closely resemble the principal religious practices of Hindu Tamils at the time (Carter 163).

Once the Sinhalese kingdom regained power approximately a century after the invasion by the Tamil Cola Empire, under King Parakramabahu I, the city of Polonnaruva was transformed into a dynamic center of cultural evolution (Holt 87). Although certain cultural aspects concerning literacy, art and fashion seemed to resemble or evolve from Anuradhapura roots, the city of Polonnaruva allowed for an extensive Hindu community to flourish (Holt 87). Sculptural and archaeological pieces indicate that a significant Hindu Saivite presence was maintained in Polonnaruva (Holt 11). This Hindu community followed Brahmanical traditions that were supported by the matrimonial alliances between Parakramabahu’s royal court and Hindu political elite in south India (Holt 87). Smaller, localized communities of Hindus also continued to thrive and their origins are likely based on Hindu mercenaries that served military interests of south India (Holt 87). Modern day archaeological evidence of religious figures that were worshipped during these times in Sri Lanka indicate a high degree of connection to the practices of Hindu Tamils in south India. Many sculptures depict the Hindu deities Siva, his wife Parvati, and their elephant headed son Ganesa (Holt 87). Importantly, these Hindu deities as well as Skanda (or Murugan) were widely worshipped by the Cola Tamils. These statues also strikingly resemble deities worshipped in south India and are likely derived from the Thanjavur styles of Tamil Nadu (Holt 87).

Modern day, pluralistic Sri Lanka is shaped by four main religions, and primarily two major ethnic groups (Carter 149). Currently, approximately 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 15% are Hindu, 8% are Christian, and 7% are Muslim (Nubin 9). Importantly, we find that many characteristics of Hinduism in India are different from the Hinduism established in Sri Lanka. Among the Hindus of Sri Lanka, Saivism is predominantly practiced, whereas other Hindu sects are essentially absent (Carter 175). One reason for such a lack of diversity in the Hindu communities of Sri Lanka is due to the migration of largely Saivite Tamil Hindus from south India. Furthermore, the historical and geographical events that collectively established Saivism in Sri Lanka have also produced differences from Saivism practiced in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 175). Specifically, Vaisnavism and Saivism are thought to be contrasting systems in India, whereas in Sri Lanka, Visnu and Siva worship is complementary (Carter 175). Additionally, there are some temples in Sri Lanka devoted to the worship of Visnu even though there is not a significant number of Vaisnavites in Sri Lanka (Carter 175). Despite some of these differences, the established religious practices and traditions of Hindus in Sri Lanka have remained relatively unchanged until recent times. Many components of Hinduism in Sri Lanka including religious, cultural and linguistic factors can also be traced back to Hindu religious and political practices of south India. For example, Brahmin priests, who conduct rituals and ceremonies in social settings and in Hindu temples, do not involve themselves in the politics of public affairs (Carter 149). It is believed that this indifference towards public affairs by Brahmins can be traced back to the construction of Hindu society in India (Carter 149). Conversely, the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka has held a key voice in political issues and has received major support from the state (Carter 149).

Nearly all Sri Lankan Hindus are Saivites and adhere to the Saiva Siddhanta School that was developed during medieval times in Tamil Nadu, India (Carter 150). Specifically, Saiva Siddhanta reveres the Vedas and the texts known as Agamas, whereas in south Indian Saivism, the collection of hymns referred to as Thirumurai and other texts including philosophical treatises comprise the canonical literature (Carter 150). This literature has also influenced Saivism in Sri Lanka, which in the broader sense can be thought of as “a blend of the Vedagama tradition with that of the Saiva Siddhanta” (Carter 150). Hindus in Sri Lanka have also maintained many of the cultural and linguistic characteristics of their Tamil Hindu counterparts in south India. For example, alongside the worship of similar deities, Hindus in Sri Lanka have also constructed temples, sculptures and other architectural monuments by employing south Indian artisans and architects (Carter 150). Additionally, many components of south Indian culture, such as the classical art of Bharata Natyam, have been established and sustained in Hindu communities in Sri Lanka (Carter 150). Sri Lankan Hindus also make pilgrimages to Cidambaram, Madurai, Ramesvaram, as well as other major Saivite centres in south India (Carter 175). Furthermore, many major religious festivals, such as the Kataragama festival celebrating the highly venerated deity Kataragama (or Skanda), occur in Hindu temples built at holy pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka (see Welbon and Yocum 299-304).

Although, possibly countless gods constitute the Hindu pantheon, for Tamil Hindus in both India and Sri Lanka, the gods Visnu and Siva are highly revered (Nubin 162). Visnu is referred to as the all-pervading god or “Blessed Lord,” who is the defender and creator of Dharma (Rodrigues 509). Visnu is usually depicted as a king with his wife, Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune (Nubin 162). One of Visnu’s ten incarnations is Rama, who is the central character in the epic Ramayana. The other most popular incarnation of Visnu is the god Krsna, who is a cowherd and a warrior prince. Krsna appears in the highly important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he primarily conveys fundamental teachings regarding devotion and following one’s duties (Nubin 162).  Siva is considered to be the most important Hindu deity for Sri Lankan Hindus (Nubin 162). Siva is referred to as the lord of the yogis or sometimes as Pasupati, “Lord of Animals” (Rodrigues 37). Siva is married to Parvati, the daughter of the mountains, and Siva is often depicted as an ascetic being, covered in ashes, meditating in the jungle with animals surrounding his presence (Nubin 162). For Tamil Hindus, the most powerful and creative expression of Siva is as Nataraja, “Lord of the Dance” (Nubin 163). Large collections of literature and poems dedicated to Siva are held by some Tamil Hindus to be as sacred as the Vedic scriptures (Nubin 163). Although the primary focus for Sri Lankan Hindus is on the worship of Visnu and Siva, the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa (non-canonical narrative on the religious history of Sri Lankan royalty) also references the Hindu deities Brahma, Laksmi, Indra, Kuvera, Skanda, Visvakarman, Brhaspati, and Sarasvati (Deegalle 41). However, since much of the content of the Mahavamsa-Culavamsa is of Buddhist legend, myth, or folktale, searching these texts for connections to Hinduism in Sri Lanka can feel like trying to find information on Taoism by reading Confucian histories (Deegalle 41). Notably, female deities are also important amongst Hindu Tamils of south India and Sri Lanka, and they often receive more devotion by worshippers (Nubin 163). These goddesses are the Sakti, or cosmic energy, that has the ability to be both a creative and destructive force (Nubin 163).  Additionally, many small Hindu villages in Sri Lanka may also have their own local stories or origins based upon the presence of a specific deity. Therefore, they may have built specific temples for worshipping these deities, which usually include Ganesa, Muruga, Vairavar, and Kali (Carter 183).

In the more recent colonial history of Sri Lanka, Hindu religious practices have become less extensive due to the persecution of these religious worldviews by European colonizers, and also due to an increasing Buddhist influence (Carter 165). Specifically, the Portuguese colonizers persecuted Saivites, who in turn responded by fleeing to India. The Saivites that remained in Sri Lanka found themselves struggling to assert their Saiva religious practices, as they were unable to participate in fundamental religious observances such as temple worship (Carter 165). The Dutch imposed similar restrictions, but eventually British rule near the end of the nineteenth century allowed for greater religious freedom for Saivites in Sri Lanka (Carter 165). Nowadays, Sri Lanka faces problems of segregation based on caste (“caste-ism”) and untouchability that continue to be prevalent because of the absence of social reforms in Sri Lanka that are, however, taking place in India to fight the hierarchical division of groups into classes (Carter 155). On the political forefront, the proportional representation that Hindu Tamils enjoyed in the Sri Lankan government was eliminated with the 1949 Indian and Pakistani Residents Act (Mainuddin and Aicher 35). Additionally, the 1978 Constitution enshrined Buddhism with the state, further increasing the political tension between the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). In the next few years, radical Tamils formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and led an armed combat against the Sri Lankan government during the Sri Lankan Civil War to protect their Tamil statehood (Mainuddin and Aicher 37). Furthermore, the continued warfare by the Hindu Tamil militants against the Sri Lankan government in the 1990s indicates that the separatist self-determination issue is not yet resolved. These constant struggles illustrate the extent to which the heterogeneous society of modern day Sri Lanka continues to sporadically encounter clashes between the revivalist Sinhalese, Buddhist majority, and the separatist Tamil, Hindu minority (Mainuddin and Aicher 28). These struggles will likely resurface in the future as the relatively young sovereign nation of Sri Lanka continues to address conflicting political and religious powers in attempt to define its true national identity.


References and Further Recommended Readings

Bastin, Rohan (2005) “Hindu Temples in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict – Capture and Excess.” Social Analysis 49: 45-66.

Carter, John R. (ed.) (1979) Religiousness in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Marga Institute.

De Silva, Kingsley M. (1981) A History of Sri Lanka. London: C. Hurst.

Deegalle, Mahinda (ed.) (2006) Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka. New York: Routledge.

Holt, John (ed.) (2011) The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, USA: Duke University Press.

Jayaram, Narayana (ed.) (2004) The Indian Diaspora: Dynamics of Migration. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Kumar, Pratap P. (ed.) (2013) Contemporary Hinduism. Durham, UK: Acumen.

Mainuddin, Rolin G., and Joseph R. Aicher (1997) “Religion and self-determination: A case study of Sri Lanka.” Indian Journal of Asian Affairs 10:26-46.

Nubin, Walter (ed.) (2002) Sri Lanka: Current Issues and Historical Background. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Olson, Carl (2007) The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Schwarz, Walter (1988) The Tamils of Sri Lanka. London: Minority Rights Group.

Welbon, G. R., and G. E. Yocum (eds.) (1982) Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. Delhi: Manohar.

Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006) Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.