A land where five empires have met and clashed and left remnants of themselves behind. Here and there a monument, a temple, a church, a road, a plant and everywhere the most vivid remnant of all, chunks of humanity. And so you often stumble on Sinhalese endowed with features that seemed to have stepped out of a picture by Velasquez. Similarly, most of the Sinhalese of one district (Negombo) talk not Sinhalese but Tamil, while the intelligentsia of all Ceylon know English better than they know their own languages.
About the earliest people of Ceylon, we know nothing. They are left of them a few hundred Veddahs, a primitive folk with an unclassifiable tongue of their own, whom the Sinhalese invasion has driven into the heart of the forests. There they just manage to exist by hunting, sometimes by growing a little grain and ganja. They achieve nothing. They build nearly nothing. They will not assimilate civilization and they cannot conquer Nature. In three or four generations, alas! They will cease to exist.
Their conquerors, the Sinhalese, came over from North India some 2500 years or more ago. Some say from Bengal, some say from Rajputana. But the Sinhalese in feature and disposition resemble neither Rajput nor Bengali. They and their language are Aryan. No language is closer to Greek than Sinhalese in construction.
The men wear their hair as long as the women. A brown-skinned race. Features irregular, but their ready smile, their kindly outlook, their courtly manners and something open in their eyes make many of them handsome. See them at their best, for example, when they go forth on pilgrimage. I have watched them pass my door in tens and of thousands on their way to lay the foundation stone of Maiyangana Temple. Gorgeously gay in garments of divers colours, they marched chattering, laughing, joking on that three days tramp. A truly live and happy throng. At the temple they laid their mite, offerings of every sort, from one gift of 10,000 rupees to a multitude of other donations. Some poor village women threw their humble jewels into the trenches where they laid the shrine. Then back again they came, weary and bedraggled; in garments they had slept in and tarnished. On that journey there are no inns; pilgrims bed where they can. Altogether, a marvelous faith inspired them all.
Watch the mendicant priests on their rounds. They halt at each door in silence. From every house, some women bring half her lunch and pours it into priestly bowl.
See them at home. They give to their children and parents devotion second to none. A cleanly race, too: they love their bath in sea and river. Paterfamilias goes forth with his sons and his cattle to the banks of the stream. All soak themselves to their hearts content. They rub down the cattle and the juniors of the family with equal zeal and go cheerfully home to sleep.
Treat them kindly, if they are your servants; and they repay that kindness hundred-fold in a deep attachment like that of a retriever dog. To their friends and their clan they are faithful with a feudal sort of fidelity.
Gifted naturally with a keen brain, they learn everything fast. At a play they catch each point as soon as it is made. Catcalls greet the blunders. A ready humour appreciates each jest and hit. They make a splendid audience if the play is good but are grim critics of all stupid and shoddy work. I imagine the that the Athenians were just like that.
But there is another side. In thousands of ways their customs are feudal customs and they still live in the Middle Ages. Superstition is one example. Few Sinhalese do anything without consulting the stars. When the horoscope goes wrong they put it down to a blunder in the astrologer’s calculation. Some few know how to make capital of this simple faith. Sometimes when A and B have arranged to wed, some jealous suitor will hire an astrologer to conduct a false horoscope and pronounce a verdict from the stars that such a marriage must end in sorrow. Then there is a great to-do. Another half dozen start-gazers must be consulted, and God knows how it will end.
Yet another of their mediaevalisms is an ardent faith in the existence of devils, who invade the bodies of men. A whole caste earns a livelihood by the practice of dancing, supposed to cast out the devils. So, if your daughter is ill and the doctors fail, you call in the devil-dancers. They beat drums and dance all night and work themselves up to a terrific frenzy with terrific night-long noise till the devils get alarmed and take flight. Such noise and fury is theirs that other folk marvel that any patient survives.
But the worst feature of all in Sinhalese life is ungovernable temper. Not one mother in ten of the unkempt masses teaches discipline to her children.
A NOTE by Michael Roberts, 23 November 2019
This item from the Times ofCeylon Christmas Number of 19135 was sent to me by Dr Srilal Fernando of Melbourne as a photocopy set. I had not seen it before. It has been typed up by one of TW Roberts’s great-granddaughters Anushya Abeyewardene (my niece once removed).
TW Roberts from Barbados came out to Ceylon as a member of the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service in 1901 and served till 1935 – choosing to retire and live in Galle where he had served as a District Judge during the last phase of hiss ervice career. His first wife was a Tarrant of English lineage. She bore him many children – of whom seven survived to adulthood. After his wife passed away in the early 1920s, he married Miriam Perera (also spelt as ”Pereira” by her siblings) and had four children with the youngest being myself (born at Pedlar Street, Fort, in 1938). TW and Miriam divourced circa 1944/45.
In what may be quite an unique ‘tale,’ his best-man at his wedding to Miriam Pereira was none other than his second son, Gilbert Clyde Roberts (who completed his education in Barbados, but migrated to Ceylon and served for many years as a teacher at St. John’s College, Panadura, while playing cricket for that town’s team and coaching at school and town) while the bridesmaids were two of his daughters, Sheila and Dolores (Dodo).
TW Roberts: Problems of Public Life in India and Ceylon, Colombo Associated newspapers of Ceylon,  running to 87pp.
TW Roberts: Our Present Discontents, Galle, Albion Press, n.d.
Taped Interview with TW Roberts conducted by his son Michael Roberts, 9 November 1965 at Streatham, London in UK, is one item in the Roberts Oral History Project and is now available in a digitalized form courtesy of the Special Collections Unit of the Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide.
T. W. Roberts A Memoir, typescript [written in 1963 at the behest of his son Michael] … available in Barr Smith Library Special Collections, University of Adelaide.
Roberts, Michael 2003 “The Bajan Connection in Sri Lanka,” in BCCSL Cricket Souvenir for West Indies Tour.
Rohan Bastin: The Domain of Constant Excess: Religious Pluralism in the Munneswaram Temple, New York, Berghahn Press.
Prabath de Silva: “Leonard Woolf as A Judge in Ceylon,” 20 November 2016 https://thuppahis.com/2016/11/20/leonard-woolf-as-a-judge-in-ceylon/
Asoka de Zoyza: “Covering the female Body Transition seen in Buddhist Murals from the 18th to 20th Centuries,” 22 August 2013, ……. ……… https://thuppahis.com/2013/08/22/covering-the-female-body-transition-seen-in-buddhist-murals-from-the-18th-to-20th-centuries/
Bruce Kapferer: A Celebration of Demons, 1983
Obeyesekere, Gananath: “Sorcery, Premeditated Murder and the canalization of Aggression,” Ethnology, vol 14, pp. 1-23.
Michael Roberts: Potency, Power & People in Groups, Marga Institute, 201.