By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Jaffna is known as the stronghold of Saivism, a branch of Hinduism centered on the worship of Lord Shiva. It has been so all the time except during Portuguese rule in the 17th century, when it was dragooned into being entirely Catholic.
The fascinating story of how and why Jaffna became Catholic en masse, and why it reverted to Hinduism with equal alacrity when the Dutch replaced the Portuguese in 1658, is told by Prof Tikiri Abeyasinghe in his book Jaffna under the Portuguese, published in 1986.
“Portuguese documents reporting conversions in Jaffna do so invariably in multiples of thousands. Even allowing for exaggeration, natural to this type of document, the success achieved by the missionaries was striking,” says Abeyasinghe, who was Professor of Modern History in Colombo University.
Between 1624 and 1626, Franciscan missionaries alone converted 52,000 Jaffna Tamils. Later, the Jesuits joined to make a clean sweep of the place.
Referring to detailed statistics in Friar Paulo da Trinidade’s work, Abeyasinghe says that there were in Jaffna, in 1634, over 70,000 adults and children being instructed in Catholicism in 25 Franciscan parishes.
“Taking that figure as a rough basis for the calculation of the total number of Christians in Jaffna under the care of the 42 parishes, one gets the figure 115,000,” he concludes.
Antonio Bocarro’s report of 1634 states that in Jaffna, “nearly all natives are Christians”. Fernao de Queiros, the renowned Portuguese chronicler of Ceylon, had also described Jaffna as being “wholly Christian”.
Reasons For Conversion
There were many reasons why there was en masse conversion in Jaffna. The first and foremost of course was, of course, the proselytizing zeal of the Portuguese, who unlike the Dutch and the British who followed, were hell-bent on converting people to Christianity or Catholicism to be precise.
The second reason was the strategic importance of North Sri Lanka, especially Mannar, for trade as well as the security of the Portuguese in South India and Sri Lanka. The Portuguese, who were on the Indian side of the Palk Strait also, were trading with Sri Lanka through Mannar.
The third reason was the anti-Christian stance of some of the powerful rulers of Jaffna, which infuriated the Portuguese.
The last, but not the least, was the fact that the Jaffna man was non-aggressive, non-militarized, and towards the end, leaderless also. Philip de Oliveira, who led the expeditionary force which captured Jaffna in 1619 to firmly establish Portuguese power there, described the Jaffna man as being “generally passive or weak”. A top Portuguese official, Lancarote de Seixas, described them as “quiet and mild, without any military training,” and therefore less likely to rebel unless instigated by “outsiders”.
The outsiders, according to the Portuguese, were mainly from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Kings of Jaffna traditionally used South Indian mercenaries, who the Portuguese called “Badagas”, in their military campaigns. The soldiers were either from the Nayak kingdom of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, or they were Muslims from Calicut in Malabar, Kerala.
In his paper “The Kingdom of Jaffna before the Portuguese conquest” (Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka) Peradeniya University historian Prof. S Pathmanathan says that the Portuguese intervened in Jaffna for the first time in 1543, when Sankili, the King of Jaffna, seized wrecked Portuguese cargo vessels and began persecuting Christian converts in Mannar.
In 1543, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier had visited Mannar and converted 600 Paravas, who were fishermen and pearl divers. The Paravas were oppressed by Jaffna’s caste conscious and rapacious officials and were also persecuted by Arab traders who eyed the pearl fisheries.
Since the converts were automatically deemed to be Portuguese subjects and could get Portuguese military help as such, King Sankili was worried. Pearl fisheries would be out of his control, if the Paravas were under Portuguese control. He sent an expedition to Mannar and slaughtered the Parava converts.
Fr.Francis Xavier, who was then in the Fishery Coast on the Indian side, appealed to the Portuguese King to punish Sangili. But he got no response because at that time the Portuguese King was more interested in economic benefits and territorial control than in propagating Christianity or protecting Christians. It was only in 1558 that the Portuguese, under Constantine de Braganca, captured Jaffna.
Sankili escaped to Trincomalee but subsequently made peace with the Portuguese and came back to power. However, the Portuguese would not give back Mannar. Having lost Mannar, Sankili lost control over the shipping and trade in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, a major source of revenue for the Jaffna kingdom.
The Jaffna Kingdom then went into a period of great political instability. Rival claimants to the throne were using the Portuguese to press their claims. In 1570, the Portuguese put Periyapulle on the throne. But in 1582, Periyapulle was overthrown by Sankili’s son, Puviraja Pandaram.
Like his father, Puviraja Pandaram followed an anti-Portuguese policy. He sought the help of the Zamorin of Calicut and attacked Mannar. But the expedition failed. In 1591, the Portuguese took the battle to Jaffna and massacred 800 of Puviraja Pandaram’s soldiers who were South Indian mercenaries, including Muslims from Calicut.
The Portuguese put Edirmanasingham on the throne. But Edirmanasingham, who ruled as “Pararasa Sekaran”, came under pressure from his Hindu subjects to resist the Portuguese. Pararasa Sekaran then struck alliances with the Nayaks of Thanjavur and also the Kings of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya I (1593-1604) and Senarat (1604-1635) who were anti-Portuguese. He also took on the Catholic converts in his domain.
After Pararasa Sekaran died in 1617, the Jaffna throne was usurped by Sankili Kumaran who sought recognition from the Portuguese. But when the latter did not respond, he invited the Nayaks of Thanjavur to teach the Portuguese a lesson. This forced the Portuguese to take over Jaffna completely.
According to Abeyasinghe, Sankili Kumaran, his sister, his four nephews, and the heir to the throne, were captured and exiled to Goa in India, the seat of Portuguese power in the region.
“In Goa, these royal exiles lived under surveillance, many of the younger members being lodged with religious orders – males in the College of Kings at Bardez, and the females in the Convent of Santa Monica in Goa. Eventually, many of them, like the younger (Sinhala) royalty from Sitawaka and Kandy, entered holy orders,” Abeyasinghe says.
Although Fr.Francis Xavier had begun conversion in Mannar in 1543, it was only after the complete takeover of Jaffna in 1619, that conversions took on a mass character, Abeyasinghe says.
In order to increase the number of converts rapidly, the Portuguese resorted to what Abeyasinghe calls “general baptism”. Quoting Trinidade and Queiros, he says that in a typical case of “general baptism” the announcement of the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries would be made by tom tom. Villagers would be asked to assemble and then a missionary would ask them to reject their “false gods” and accept “one true God”.
“But it was not a request; it was almost a command backed by the authority of the Portuguese government” Abeyasinghe notes. This is because the missionary would invariably be accompanied by the local Portuguese officials and the native chiefs who supported them.
“Fear of a fine or corporal punishment with cane and stock would ensure their regular attendance at church on Sundays and feast days,” Abeyasinghe adds.
Reversion to Hinduism
But such forced conversions were utterly useless. The Jaffna Tamils reverted to Hinduism without a second thought when the Portuguese and the Dutch quit and were replaced by the liberal British. Only the coastal Paravas, who apparently saw Catholicism as a liberation theology, stuck to Catholicism.