The Force of the Moors. Reflections Historical and Ethnographic

Wilfrid Jayasuriya

“The Portugese, the Saviours of our Culture?” = This is the title of a scholarly article written in the Ceylon Historical Journal in the 1950s by B. J. Perera BA (History) University of Ceylon who was our teacher in the University Entrance class. It was of course “dead against” the version given by nationalist historians after independence. However his interpretation simply put was that the Mughals had conquered Hindu India and ruled it for a couple of centuries and converted a large part of the Hindu population to the Muslim religion as had happened in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia and the Maldives, which had been either Hindu or Buddhist. The evidence in Bali and Java of the existence of Buddhist and Hindu relics supports this view.

Mattayaas in the Gal Oya and Eastern Province interior

When the  Portugese arrived in Colombo in 1505 the Arab traders were already there. Sailing ships would use the trade winds and ply between east and west in the Indian Ocean. They were perhaps established close to the port and so the existence of Arab colonies along the west and east coast is explained. Beruwala, or the port where “the sail was lowered,” and where the descendants of the Moor traders still remain the majority, is the “living memento,” while perhaps the Muslim settlements in the lands, interior to the East coast, from Batticoloa to Pottuvil are evidence of the same.

Current news items about the finding of bombs, swords and guns in the Eastern region remind me of the people who wore short trousers as their main dress item for men, when I worked in Amparai as District Land Officer in the early 1960s. The women too were much more physically strong and active than was common in the urbanized western region. The men called Mattayas also carried guns in the jungle environment and I employed them once to conduct an elephant drive, when the farmer colonists from the wet zone were harassed by elephants eating their paddy and encroaching on their habitations. The Mattayas were tough and their women were probably from among the original Sinhala and Tamil inhabitants, with whom the newcomers from across the sea intermarried. But they were all farmers in the 1960s except a few traders and fishermen. The miniscule elite were educated in English and the first student from among them to enter the University of Ceylon and graduate won an election to Parliament. They carried him shoulder high acclaiming his “B.A. Econ” as much as his political victory. I enjoyed his friendship.

The argument that B.J.Perera used was that if the Portugese had not arrived in 1505, and thereby forestalled the colonization by the Arabs, by establishing their own colony in Ceylon, the Sinhala Buddhist and Christian/Hindu culture which grew in the 500 years from 1505 to 2000 (five centuries) under the shadow of the Portugese, Dutch and British colonial rule, which was more tolerant regarding religion than Islam, would have been prevented as had happened in the Mohammedan conquests of India, Indonesia, Malaysia etc. where Mohammedanism became the ruling ideology and sometimes the sole religion.

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I could not help looking back on my youthful years as District Land Officer in the early 1960s, working among the whole gamut of cultures that the Gal Oya colonization scheme provided, for one who had known only the western province environment. Looking at the continuous TV coverage after the Easter Sunday event  I remembered Sainthamaruthu (close to Kalmunai), which appears to be the headquarter location of the current Muslim extremism (together with Kattankudy further north)   as the place where some landless people encroached on a cemetery to live there, and we had to intervene and settle them elsewhere. This kind of unusual event remains in the memory for who would want to build his house among the dead? Fortunately I did not have to even visit the place because the Divisional Revenue Officer, Kalmunai, settled the matter. Along the coast where the Batticoloa–Pottuvil road runs for almost 100 miles Tamil and Muslim villages sit side by side interspersed. It is quite likely that the acute landlessness in one village (like Sainthamaruthu) was caused by the inability to reach across the boundary to the next village, because it was another ethnic group that lived there.

The Gal Oya irrigation scheme is based on two main channels bringing water from the dam at Inginiyagala, where the Gal Oya river had been dammed about 30 miles upstream in the late 1940s, to provide hydro power and irrigation water. The left bank channel irrigated about 200, 000 acres for paddy cultivation and the water left over (overflow, mainly drainage water after supplying the new colonization area ) was expected to supplement the existing water supply (mainly rain and floods) which irrigated the existing old settlements of Tamil and Muslim villages along the east coast, through which the Batticoloa-Pottuvil road ran. That was about 25 miles east of Amparai, which was the heart of the new paddy area. The coastal towns of Kalmunai/Nintavur/Akkaraipattu were much older.

The first ethnic conflict in that part of the world happened in the colonization area in 1956, between the newcomers from the Sinhala settlements and the old Tamil settlements/Muslim settlements. Both the latter groups felt that the empty land inland, which they often used for rainfed cultivation in Maha (or the rainy season November/December) to supplement their produce, had been taken away and given with irrigation water, to the Sinhalese colonists from various parts of the country, where land hunger had existed. I remember a Muslim man from the coast ploughing some land, with a tractor, adjacent to the Technical Training Institute in Amparai town area, 20 miles inland, because it appeared to be open territory, though it was urban and now part of a technical training college.

In order to cater to the desire for expansion among the old villagers, Sinhala (who were mostly inland) and the Tamil/Muslim who lived along the coast, the right bank lands had been tentatively set aside and the right bank channel was completed later by the 1960s. The new irrigated territory, on the right bank, was allocated partly to sugar cultivation by the Gal Oya Board, which also constructed a factory and a distillery and made both sugar and rum / arrack,  and partly to village expansion for congested villages from Kalmunai to Nintavur, Oluvil, Akkaraipattu  etc in the south, perhaps right up to Pottuvil. This stretch of seacoast also followed the pattern of alternate Tamil / Muslim old settlements.

I held a land kacheri, around 1963, for all the land hungry people who wanted land in the right bank, which was left over from the sugar project. There were 3000 applicants and the interviews were conducted in Tamil/English through an interpreter from the area, who was also a kacheri clerk, since I could not speak Tamil. It was held in the Sinna Muhatthuwaram Resthouse. “Sinna Muhuthuwaram” means “small waters meet/causeway” (or something to that effect) which conducted the flood waters across the Batticoloa-Pottuvil road, over it whenever it rained hard, because there was no need to build a bridge. The interpreter/clerk who interviewed the applicants with me addressed almost everyone as “Mohammed.” Though the names on the applicants list were more varied, he did not seem to mouth them and when I inquired “why?”  he said, “Everyone is called Mohamed plus a nickname,” and not by the name on the register, which we had copied from the application. So being a “local” he knew the nicknames! This seems to give an insight to us outsiders, how different “identity” was in this community, compared to our own family names and given names. It indicated a bond among them that seemed to liquidate given names written in registers in favour of unwritten communal identities. It was perhaps signified in the Muslim practice of eating from the same plate, placed in the middle of the table, together, in place of taking separate servings to individual plates at the border, by one’s seat, as is the usual way. This is an image of communal feasting which we sometimes saw at Muslim feasts or weddings, in hotels. In one of his books Sigmund Freud talks of communal eating as the closest of ties.

Wilfrid then yesterday

Finally, I selected 600 out of the 3000 applicants after a 3 day marathon land kacheri (kacheri means “meeting” in Tamil) and they were given land on the right bank. That was probably my last interaction with the community in the East, which has attracted so much attention these days.

This community is said to have been formed by Arab sailors etc forming settlements on the east coast and the interior, which was ruled by the king of Kandy before 1815, when the British became the sole rulers. They were quite different from the Muslims on the west coast, who had lived among the Sinhalese and were more likely to be traders. The east coast Muslims spoke Tamil because they had married Tamil women and  were mainly cultivators, especially paddy farmers and hunters and they wore trousers and also carried guns. They were called mattayas. I had occasion to organize an elephant drive within the left bank farming area to chase the elephants, who were eating up the farmers’ crops and destroying the cottages and I employed the mattayas who knew how to do it. They were given a stock of bullets for their guns and they formed a V shaped group of bare bodied, short-trousered men, which moved into the jungle, firing their guns, using the noise of the firing to scare the elephants who moved further away from the settled village areas into the thicker jungle. It was successful.

  Wilfrid today

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A NOTE from Mohammed Mowzil in Colombo:

Dear Professor,  [What you have referred to] is called a “sawan” meal where six or 7 persons sit down to eat from a common dish. Sawan is the large plate where food is placed. Another popular one is called “Kidu” meal which is made out of coconut leaf. When food is served in it, it is quite tasty and you might have seen it because it is a favourite choice of Galle Muslims as you were living there.

If it is a close family unit who eat the food, males and females eat together, but it is certainly not so if outsiders including friends , who are not blood relatives. In that case, it is males only or females only sawans or kidus.

A  NOTE from WILFRID in response to A QUERY:

I  am talking about a wedding on Colombo in a hotel where we were the guests and at a certain stage when the main meal was provided we went over there and sat around small tables holding about 6 diners and I noticed that most of them were taking the chicken from the big buriyani plate in the middle and eating it by pulling parts of it manually like a tug of war and eating it.  Instead of having it ready for each one cut and separate to keep on one’s plate . Whether they were all males? I think so. .

By the way another interesting bit. My guess was that the Muslims are descended from Arabs marrying local women, but another one opined that all those Muslims both west and east in Lanka are Tamils from South India who were converted. And that’s why they speak Tamil.

NOTES from AMEER ALI, 26 June 2019

  • They rarely mix almost never.
  • Sawan is used even now except in Tamil districts. There are separate sawan for males and females. Four will share each sawan. This tradition is not in the Tamil districts because of a variation in the cuisine. In Batticaloa for example curd, sugar and plantains are served as the final dish. When you mix this with rice it is so liquid and difficult to apportion the watery dish. In the Sinhalese districts wattalappam is the final dish.




Filed under arab regimes, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, colonisation schemes, communal relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, Indian religions, irrigation, Islamic fundamentalism, land policies, landscape wondrous, life stories, Muslims in Lanka, population, sri lankan society, travelogue, unusual people, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes

4 responses to “The Force of the Moors. Reflections Historical and Ethnographic

  1. Jayantha de Silva

    Hi Michael,
    I am Jayantha de Silva Samarasinghe from Woolloongabba in Brisbane. I played cricket under your captaincy at Flinders Uni. What a life that was ! Playing cricket in Australia ! It was so nice to know you…. and now I am a fan of your blogs. I learnt a lot from this article…. made me reflect upon my Tamil and Muslim friends at Peradeniya. By the way, Michael Obeysekara & family are living in Brisbane southside.

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