Deciphering Chauvinism through Incidents of Confrontation

Michael Roberts

In recently facing up to internet challenges and clarifying the term “chauvinism,” I proceeded at a general level and presented definitions within a comparative framework that brought the concepts of “racism” and “tribalism” into our framework of analysis.[1] I now provide instances of ethno-religious confrontation from Sri Lankan history that illustrate this phenomenon.

Pics from Gerald Peiris 2017

I deploy my detailed study “Marakkala Kolahālaya: Mentalities directing the Pogrom of 1915” (2009, Yapacan ) towards this end.[2] The spark for these widespread attacks on those identified then as “Mohammedans” (in English) or “yoni’ and “marakkala” in Sinhala developed from an incident beside the mosque at Castle Street in Kandy on the 28th May 1915. Tensions had been building up between the Sinhala peoples and the resident Mohammedan peoples[3] in the days prior to the Vesak celebrations that year (see below for pertinent elaboration). Sinhala thugs from Wanawāsala near Colombo (where the Wahumpura prided themselves as ardent Buddhists) had been brought into Kandy to stiffen Sinhala muscle. The Vesak carol parties had official permission to proceed, but the police officer at the junction near the mosque noticed an aggressive body of Mohammedans at the mosque precincts and decided to divert the carol groups eastwards along a cross street.

When this move took place, the Mohammedans jeered. In Asia, a jeer is an act of triumph that sends currents of humiliation through the bodies of those so targeted and despised. The Sinhalese carol party turned and attacked the mosque. They were no doubt aware that they had a majority in Kandy town.

This was what we can call a Kavuda Rajā moment: “let one see who is king”? From this initial moment, it became a tale of Kavuda Rajā through the length and breadth of the south-western quadrant of Sri Lanka with the Mohammedan Moors attacked ‘in punishment’ (guti dhheema) in many urban centres and wayside bazaars. Other than such spots as Maradana in Colombo, their capacity of resistance was minimal and at one point on 2nd June affrays were reported to be occurring simultaneously at 116 “centres”. Over the course of about ten days of rioting, 10 Moors were killed and 189 wounded; while 350 houses or boutiques were fired, 17 mosques burnt and 86 mosques damaged.[4] A few mosques were also defiled with faeces and pork.

Take one paragraph from my detailed study: “Large crowds were involved in the attacks on the Moors: mobs of over a thousand were reported at Matale, Wattegama, Kadugannawa, Gampola, Rambukkana, Panadura, Godapitiya, and Akuressa; while the crowd at Gewilipitiya-Aranayake was variously estimated at 800 to 4,000. At Gampola and Panadura the authorities (both police and British civil servants) were forced to retreat, and in Gampola the missiles directed at them included bottles filled with sand12 On at least five occasions the crowds, by sheer weight of intimidation or by storming (at Pasyala) a police station, effected a release of individuals who had been arrested; while a “village sergeant” was killed at Kottawa when attempting to quell a riot.[5]

The violence went beyond urban centres to distinctly rural localities and on at least one occasion the assailants were yelling “sādhu! sādhu!”. At one gathering prior to an attack the speakers inciting violence contended that the Moors were “insulting our nationality and our religion.”[6]

It was not only a defence of Buddhism. There was an ethnic dimension Indeed, in some localities in the north of Colombo church bells were rung in order to assemble personnel for defence from rumoured Moor mobs.[7] As in other areas, it is likely that this defensive step became the foundation for attacking surge.

Nor were the Moors the only source of indignation. Cries of “ingrīsi anduwa näta!” and proclamations decreeing that “The Western Province belongs to the Sinhalese” were among the slogans disseminated. “There is no more British Government. There is no more British flag. Sinhala Nation” indicate that, in a few minds at least, the eruptions were a Sinhalese indigenist protest against the British Raj taken as the rock on which the intolerable Mohammedan claims were founded.

So: let me raise these questions: were the Moor personnel who jeered the Buddhist carol party being chauvinist? And was the attacking response of the crowd of Sinhala Buddhists a chauvinist work?

Yes, perhaps to both questions – with a question-mark. However, I have fewer qualms in claiming that this clash was the outcome of a broader struggle over the years that developed from a course of provocative demands by specific bodies of Moors who used British cultural premises encoded in local regulations to press the boundaries of community living to their advantage.[8]

To comprehend this broader dimension, one must take note of the Gampola perahära confrontation of 1907 and the high-profile court case that followed – a judicial battle that provided the pathway to the tensions in Kandy in May 1915 and the widespread violence that followed. The long-drawn out Gampola Perahära Court Case involved Moor one-upmanship of an aggressive chauvinist character – provoking Sinhala Buddhist nationalist responses which embodied skeins of chauvinism and eventually punished the Moors quite severely in May-June 1915.

Fundamental Cultural Differences generating Status Struggle

The British believed that resounding noise was an unacceptable practice at night time and incorporated regulations banning such practices in urban settings via the Police Ordinance of 1864 – an act of legislation which also required the local perahära to cease music-making in front of places of worship. Herein lay fundamental cultural differences. For Hindus and Buddhists certain specified forms of music are panchaturyanada — or sabda puja …  acts of worship.

A few mosques in specific towns chose to flex their mosques by demanding the cessation of perahära music as they passed in front. While this may seem a basic courtesy, it was, in my assessment, a flexing of muscles within the prevailing cultural backdrop. When a new mosque at Kahatapitiya in Gampola town insisted on the rule, a local affray was one outcome and a court case followed This was the famous Gampola Perahära Case pitting the Moors and their backers in Colombo against the Wallahagoda Temple, a cause celebre if ever there was one. Paul Pieris – a Sinhalese Christian judge — decided in favour of the temple authorities. However, the Supreme Court overturned this verdict in February 1915.[9]

This decision was regarded by the bhikkhus of the Wallahāgoda Temple as an amāruvak (hardship).[10] Their letters in response are characterised by deep hurt at the manner in which the British government was disturbing practices pursued “since time immemorial” – a reading that I consider quite justified and one that was also supported by Salvation Army religiosi versed in the ways of the East.[11] There is little doubt that the Moors of Gampola backed by other big-wigs in Colombo and elsewhere were flexing their muscles. Kavuda Rajā indeed! This is chauvinist is it not.

The Background Then

The cause celebre that developed at Gampola must be deciphered within the context of the dominations exercised by the British Raj, including instances of White racist action and the searing disparagement of the Buddhist and Hindu religions over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These conditions generated virulent opposition in some quarters. This backlash included Hindu and Buddhist revitalization activity[12] that was not only combative, but as chauvinist/racist as some of the missionary voices.

One therefore witnesses many examples of vituperative speech and the denigration of foreigners in the writings of the activists within the Sinhala Buddhist movements of revitalization seeking to safeguard indigenous culture. Here, then, in the late 19th and early 20th century we come across numerous instances of Sinhalese intolerance – that is “chauvinism.” That this strand of thinking was facing “English racism” and British colonial domination does not make it any less a “chauvinism.” The story is the usual one of excesses from a dominant grouping stimulating extreme reactions from those subject to these pressures.

This hostility among some elements in the Sinhala populace extended to all foreigners who were seen to be part of the colonial baggage train. What is more, the migrant Indian working-class personnel at the bottom of the social ladder in towns were despised as “sakkili” and “kocci demala.” In other words, the ridiculing and rejection of others worked in many directions across class-divisions and in favour of those deemed proper Sinhala or “natives” (dhēsheeya).

In these outpourings, foreigners were identified in demeaning manner as paradēsakkāra (low and vile foreigners), suddho or para suddho (Whites, vile Whites) kocci (Malayālis), hamba (Indian Moors), hetti (Chettiyars), javo (Malays) and/or bhai (Borahs).[13]

On occasions this vituperative denigration extended to domiciled others of long-standing; namely to the marakkala (all Moors) and para demala (low and vile Tamils). In one of Anagārika Dharmapala’s essays in 1911 there is even an indictment directed at the kocci demalā.[14] As Obeyesekere notes, in the thinking of such zealots as Anagārika Dharmapala there was no place in Sri Lanka for anyone other than the Sinhalese. It is noticeable that in many of his writings the term “Ceylonese” shades off imperceptibly and insidiously into “Sinhalese.”[15]

The patriot political activists also looked inward and castigated those Sinhalese who were aping the Westerner. In Piyadāsa Sirisena’s writings such Sinhalese are even rendered into a distinct ethnic category: the samkara (mixed) and/or the thuppahi (low and mixed).[16]

Towards the Present-Day

The disparaging epithet thuppahi was among the weapons wielded effectively during the Sinhala Buddhist upsurge of the 1950s-and-theerafter – identifying the Sri Lankans, including Sinhalese, who were Anglicized and English-speaking at home and in society.

However, we must spread our investigative web wider hostility to and focus on the ways in which all the ethnic and ethno-religious communities in Sri Lanka in the period 1931 to 2019 wielded epithets in pejorative manner in attacking other communities. Such research must also attend to the internal differentiation within each ethno-religious grouping and the disparagement of castes deemed low and ‘dirty’.

For a variety of reasons our information on the political processes in the Sinhala-majority areas is more extensive and the chauvinistic operations over the decades are better known. The hostility in Sinhala areas to the Malaiyaha Tamils (the “Indian Tamils) and the Sri Lanka Tamils has been charted in many studies. While Jane Russell’s work has given a glimpse of the caste and communal prejudices among the leading Sri Lankan Tamil movements of the State Council period and we have occasional glimpses of Muslim hostility at the local level in the post-independence era from anthropological work or sporadic instances of clashes, there is an imbalance in the published work in these fields. We know less about the prejudices prevailing among the SL Tamils, the Malaiyaha Tamils and the Muslim Moors.

Pica from Gerald Peiris 2017 

The recent incidents of Sinhala-Muslim confrontations and/or clashes at Mawanella (2011), Dambulla (April 2012), Pepiliyana (March 2013), Aluthgama (June 2014), Gintota (November 2017) Maharagama and Digane are clearly pertinent to out inquiry.[17] I have not deciphered the details to the degree that enables me to specify the causes and to mark the instances of chauvinism embodied in the expressions and actions of those involved.

However, let me focus on the violence that developed from a road accident Digane in March 2018 as an illustration of the issues associated with confrontations of this sort. The road accident resulted in a fight that hospitalised a driver. It was an instance of road rage. But the hitmen were Muslims and the injured driver was Sinhala. And the latter died. That set of events mobilized ethnic subjectivity – that is, underlying ethnic prejudices.

This deep-seated force promoted ethnic violence of a chauvinist character. We need reliable data on the initial verbal exchange at the road accident before we can determine whether ethnic sentiments of a chauvinist kind threaded that exchange. But the flow-on was along ethnic lines and highlights the power of that incendiary motivating force known as RETRIBUTION.

That power – the force of retribution— can be personal or “communal.” The subjective force of communal retribution can be organised on caste, ethnic or class lines. Down in the southwest of Sri Lanka the rivalry between the Karava of Ambalangoda and the Salagama of Balapitiya used to be quite legendary in the 20th century. A car load of Karava people who were unfortunate enough to cause a fatal accident at Balapitiya were well advised to drive away quickly to the nearest police station in order to avoid immediate assault from local bystanders.

Where they have localised concentrations, as in say, Maradana, Alutgama and Beruwela, the local Moor people are as sturdy as fierce in defence of their honour as well as their rights and rites. In such situations it is not easy to disentangle the origins of ethno-religious confrontations or to work out the force of chauvinism and the degree of blame. The incendiary sparks are, as often as not, two-way.  That was clearly the case in the confrontation near Castle Street in Kandy on the night of 28th May 1915.


Amunugama, Sarath 1979 “Ideology and Class Interest in One of Piyadasa Siris­ena’s Novels: The New Image of the “Sinhala Buddhist” Nationalist,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp 314-36.

Amunugama, Sarath 1985 “Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) and the Transformation of Sinhala Buddhist Social Organization in a Colonial Setting,” Social Science Information, Vol. 24, pp.697-730.

Dharmapala, Anagarika 1965 Return to Righteousness, (ed. by A Guruge) Colombo: Ministry of Education & Cultural Affairs.

Gombrich, Richard & G. Obeyesekere 1988 Buddhism Transformed. Religious Change in Sri Lanka, Princeton University Press.

Jayasekera P. V. J. 1970 Social and Political Change in Ceylon, 1900-1919, PhD dissertation, University of London.

Malagoda, Kitsiri 1976 Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1765-1900, Berkeley University of California Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1979 “The Vicissitudes of the Sinhala-Buddhist Identity through Time and Change,” in M Roberts (ed.) Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Institute, pp. 279-313.

Obeyesekere, Gananath 1995 “Buddhism, Nationhood, and Cultural Identity: A Question of Fundamentals,” in M.E. Marty and R.S. Appleby (eds), Fundamentalisms Comprehended, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peiris, Gerald H. 2017 “A Study of Contemporary Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka,” 14 September 2017,

Police Inquiry Commission 1916 “Report of a Commission appointed by H.E. the Governor to inquire into the organization of the police…,” being Sessional Paper XVI of 1916, Colombo: Government Printers.

Roberts, Michael, Raheem, Ismeth and Colin-Thome, Percy 1989 People Inbetween, Vol. I, The Burghers and the middle class in the transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1960s, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the MEP Coalition of 1956,” in C R de Silva and Sirima Kiribamune (eds) K W Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, Peradeniya University, pp. 185-220.

Roberts, Michael 1994 “The Imperialism of Silence under the British Raj: Arresting the Drum,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 149-82.

Roberts, Michael 1994 in “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 183 212.

Roberts, Michael 2011Marakkala Kolahālaya: Mentalities directing the Pogrom of 1915,” in Roberts, confrontations in Sri Lanka, Colombo, Vijitha yapa Publications, pp. 113-53.

Roberts, Michael 2019 Addressing ‘Chauvinism’ and  Primacy in Modern Lanka,” 24 February 2019,

Roberts, Michael 2019 “Confronting Chauvinism,” 5 March 2019, Daily FT,

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1982 Maha Viyavula [The Great Chaos or Calamity] Colombo: Gunasena [orig., 1916]

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1954 Apata Vecca De! [What happened to Us!] Colombo: Gunasena, 1954

Sirisena, Piyadasa 1958 Sucaritadarsaya, Colombo: Gunasena, 1958.

Wickremeratne, L A 1969 “Religion, Nationalism and Social Change in Ceylon, 1865-1885,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, GB & I, LVI: 123-50.


[1] See Roberts 2019 (also presented in Daily FT on 5 March 2019.

[2] This article appeared initially in 1994 under a different title, viz. “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians, and the Pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading, Harwood academic Publishers, 1994, pp.183-212.

[3] The term “Mohammedan” was widely used in English to designate those who were referred to as “yoni” in Sinhala (as distinct from the “ja” (Malays).

[4] Dowbiggin in Police Inquiry Commission 1916: 5 and Roberts 1994, pp. 187-89.

[5] Detailed citations can be found in Roberts 1994: 187…… Or Roberts 2011: 117.

[6] Report from a British civil servant named Izat cited in the IGP Dowbiggin’s report, viz. Administration Reports, 1915, Police, 20 May 2016.

[7] See Roberts 2011: 114; Jayasekera 1970: 267-68 & 293; and Police Inquiry Commission 1916: 27, 32.

[8] As clarified in detail in Roberts, “The Imperialism of Silence under the British Raj: Arresting the Drum,” in Exploring Confrontation, 1994, chap seven.

[9] Full details are set out in Roberts, “Imperialism of Silence” (fn 7 above).  But also see New Law Reports, 1915 and 1918; and the letters from PB Nugawela within the Gampola Perahara Case 1916.

[10] See Letters from TB Keppitipola et al, especially those dated 11 and 22 Sept. 1915 in DNA 18/3462.

[12] For these developments, see such works as Wickremeratne 1969; Malalgoda 1976; Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988: 44; Jayasekera 1970: 106-11; Wickremeratne 1969; Sinhala Bauddhayā, 2 Jan. 1915; the series of articles serialised in the Hitavādi from 11 February 1914 as well as the article on “marakkala kada” (Moor shops) in Hitavādi, 20 July 1914.

[13] See “Ratē tibena ävul, apatama ve tävul” in Sinhala Jātiya, 1 June 1913. Sinhala Jātiya 30 March 1915: Sinhala Bauddhayā, 2 Jan 1915: translation of article by W. D A. Gunatilaka in the Sinhala Jātiya, March 1915.  Also see Roberts et al. 1989: 10-21, 43.

[14] Kocci Demalā (Malayālam Tamil) is the title of his piece too – in Sinhala Bauddhayā, 14 Jan. 1910.

[15] Obeyesekere 1979: 304 and Dharmapala 1965: 501- 44.

[16] See Sirisena, Apata Vecca Dē, 1954: 9ff. and Sucaricādarsaya 1958: 126 & 130. Also see Roberts et al. 1989: 10-21.

[17] There is a large literature (existing and emergent) on the various incidents. See Gerald Peiris 2017 for one extensive study.

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