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Documenting Sri Lankas Ethnic Minorities: The

Other 2%

Published Fri 27th October 2017

Sri Lanka is home to 21 million people, 19 ethnicities, and four officially


recognized religions. For the longest time, however, there were no official
records of most of the islands ethno-religious minorities. The ones we know
about are the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Moors, given that they are taught in
school. Everyone elsewho make up two percent of the populationis
categorised as other.
Who though, are the others? In January this year, the Ministry of National Co-
existence, Dialogue and Official Languages released People of Sri Lanka, a
publication which officially documents all ethnic communities in the country.
In this two-piece series, well be taking a look at the other 2%: the minority
otherwise overlooked. Click on the titles for longer pieces of the communities
already featured by Roar Media.

The Parsis of Sri Lanka

1. Remember the Khan Clock Tower in Pettah? The landmark monument,


standing right across the iconic Hunters building, was constructed by one
of Colombos oldest Parsi families. Despite being one of the countrys
smallest communities, their contributions are quite the opposite: from
leading the construction of Sri Lankas first cancer hospice to chairing the
Abans Group.
2.
The community, however, is miniscule and consists of only about 40 people in
total.
Having initially migrated due to persecution of their faith, the community
emigrated from Persia to India and the East over ten centuries ago. They landed
in Sri Lanka for trade around the late 1700s, before establishing themselves in
Colombo as business leaders.

The Bharatha Community


A sea-faring group from South India also known as Paravar, it is said that the
Bharathas were recruited by coastal Sri Lankan kings to strengthen their armies.
This was apparently between 12-15 AD, though there are no solid sources to
confirm when they first arrived to the island.
According to People of Sri Lanka, the two main Bharatha groups consist of the
sea-faring people settled along the Chilaw-Colombo stretch, and those who
were brought down by the British to work in the Colombo harbour and are now
settled in and around Kotahena.
Though Bharatas are ancestrally Hindu, many of them converted to Catholicism
and took on Portuguese names shortly after Portuguese missionaries arrived in
Sri Lanka.
As of 2011, there were 1,688 Bharatas in the country, though this may be an
inaccurate estimate as many families in the North and East register themselves
as Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Tamil.
Verdas: The Coast Veddas
Believed to be a semi-nomadic tribe, the Coast Veddas settlements are mainly
along the East Coast between Trincomalee and Valachchenai. A population
numbering 2,460 as of 2015, most of them are native Tamil speakers, and claim
to have no ties with the other vedda communities in Sri Lanka.
The Verdas means of livelihood is laborious: from day labour, to fishing, animal
husbandry and agriculture. They are also honey-collectors, an activity limited
exclusively to the menfolk. The women are mostly housekeepers and tend to
cooking and child-care, even though a few engage in fishing and agriculture as
well.
The Veddas

2. According to legend, the Veddas result from the incestuous relationship


between Vijaya and Kuvenis children. The children, having run away to
the jungle after their mother was rejected by her consort and tribe,
managed to survive in the jungle and eventually procreated to beget the
line of Veddas present today. However, academics state otherwise: they
believe that the Veddas are mixed group of humans dating back to the
stone age.
3.
Currently, the community has broken off into three identifiable groups: the niri
vedda (naked vedda), kola vedda (those who wears leaves), and gam
vedda (those who have embraced modernity to a certain
extent).mModernisation and assimilation have played major roles in disrupting
their traditional lifestyle, and has compelled part of their community
representatives to request their rights be included in any new constitutional
reforms.
The Sri Lankan Kaffirs

3. Originating from East Africa, the Kaffirs were brought to Sri Lanka not just
by Arab and Portuguese traders of old, but also by the Dutch as
slaves. Additionally, the Dutch and the English brought thousands upon
thousands of these East Africans to strengthen their regiments while in Sri
Lanka. However, their numbers currently stand at 1,500 or less today.
Many are said to have returned to their native lands, or perished during
numerous battles which took place in Ceylons past.
Concentrated around the coastal areas, the Kaffirs of Sri Lanka are scattered
around Sirambi Adi in Puttalam, Pallai Uththu in Trincomalee, and in Kalpitiya,
Batticaloa and Negombo. A unique characteristic amongst the community
many who have now intermarried with other Sri Lankan ethnicitiesis the fact
that some of them speak in Portuguese Creole in addition to Sinhalese and
Tamil. Theyve also carried forward a tradition of song and dance particular to
their culture, known as Manja.
The Dutch Burghers

4. Interestingly, the Dutch first arrived in Sri Lanka as a Chartered Public


Company, the VOC, (Vereenigde Oost- Indische Companie) also known as
the Dutch East India Company. King Rajasinghe VI sought their assistance
to drive out the Portuguese who were in Ceylon at the time.
The early 1950s were considered the Burgher Zenith, where there were
numerous professionals in nearly all aspects of public service. Burghers held
senior positions and virtually ran the railways, customs, inland revenue, and
port. However, things changed abruptly with the Sinhala Only Act in 1956.
Largely English educated, Burgher government employees were compelled sit
for Sinhala proficiency tests and many failed. With English Medium classes also
being done away with, many Burgers felt unwelcome and emigrated to
Australia, the UK, and Canada. Those who chose to stay have assimilated, and
learnt Sinhala.
The Portuguese Burghers
The union between the Portuguese and local communities saw the birth of Sri
Lanka -Portuguese Creole, which was used in the island from the 16th Century
to the mid 19th century. This is still used in certain areas of the country,
especially by a segment of the Batticaloa Tamils and the Kaffirs.
Most of them are craftsmen, as they carried on skills left over by their
ancestors: one would find blacksmiths, key makers, printers, tailors, master
carpenters and mechanics to name a few. Strong Catholics, the Portuguese
Burgers are more often than not indistinguishable from their Sinhala, Tamil, and
Moor neighbours in terms of skin colour and language. Unlike the Dutch
Burgers, the Portuguese were not against intermarriages; when forming their
colonies, Portuguese men married Sinhala and Tamil women, creating
Mestios: an Euro-Lankan mix who were ostracised by the Sinhalese, Dutch,
and British in future generations, but whose descendants are the Portuguese
Burghers of today.
The Burgher population (of both Portuguese, Dutch, and other European mixes)
number to 38,000 according to the census carried out in 2012.
The Sindhis
5. Originally hailing from the Sindh province in what is currently Pakistan,
the Sindhis were displaced during the Partition in 47. They settled in
North India, and then eventually moved to different countries, including
Sri Lanka, where they had a reputation for trade. There are approximately
500 Sindhis in Sri Lanka, mostly concentrated in Colombo. Numbers
continue declining due to their practice of marrying within the
community; the lack of options within Sri Lanka has resulted in Sri Lankan
Sindhis marrying abroad.

The Sindhis first arrived in the mid 1800s for trade. They established themselves
around Fort and Pettah, selling silks and artefacts before becoming wholesale
businessmen. Currently, many Sindhis still work in three main business sectors:
hotel, industry, and retail.

Stay tuned for part II, where we will explore more Sri Lankan minorities.

Cover image courtesy: Naresh Moorjani


Posted by Thavam