Portuguese Imprints in Sri Lankan Culture

 Dr Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, in The Island April 25, 2020, Tracing the Portuguese Cultural Imprint on Sri Lanka”

Way back in 1998, I theorised on the extent of Lusitanisation in Sri Lanka, in my paper entitled The Portuguese Cultural Imprint on Sri Lanka, published in Lusotopie (Journal of Sorbonne, Paris), de Silva Jayasuriya (2000):  “The Portuguese era marked the end of medieval Sri Lanka and the beginning of modern Sri Lanka. It changed the island’s orientation away from India and gave it a unique identity moulded by almost 450 years of Western influence due to the presence of three successive European powers: the Portuguese (1505-1658), the Dutch (1658-1796) and the British (1796-1948). The Portuguese cultural imprint can be analyzed by examining: (a) those who claim Portuguese descent (the Portuguese Burghers), (b) those who do not claim Portuguese descent but who follow the Roman Catholic faith, (c) those who are neither of Portuguese descent nor follow the Catholic faith but nevertheless underwent a sociocultural transformation. Language is a necessary element in the set of culture. The other elements are subjective and could include religion, food, dress, music and dance.


The interaction of the Portuguese and the Sri Lankans led to the evolution of a new language, Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole, which flourished as a lingua franca in the island for over three and a half centuries (16th to mid-19th). Pidgins and Creoles are contact languages; they evolve when people who do not speak each other’s mother-tongue come into contact. Pidgins only survive as long as the interlingual contact lasts and are generally shortlived. The etymon of Pidgin is business. A Creole is a Pidgin which has become the mother-tongue of a speech community. Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole, a subset of Indo-Portuguese (the Portuguese Creole that flourished in coastal India), has been the solution to the inter-communication problems that arose when the Portuguese and Sri Lankans came into contact. In Sri Lanka, miscegenation reinforced the Creole as the mestiços (offspring of a Portuguese father and a Sri Lankan mother) were bilingual – they were proficient in the Creole and Sinhala or Tamil.

Boxer (1961: 61) comments that the Eurasians (mestiços), or even slave women, kept alive the use of the Portuguese language in places like Batavia, Malacca and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which were under Dutch control.” (de Silva Jayasuriya 2000: 253).

Creole Portuguese lost its position as an international lingua franca and gave way to English as the language of external trade and communication.  But even during the late nineteenth century, elite Sri Lankans such as John Eaton and William Goonatilleke were fluent in Creole Portuguese which they referred to as ‘Ceylon Portuguese’ (de Silva Jayasuriya, 2015).  Although the dynamics of the linguistic landscape marginalised Sri Lanka Portuguese, the Lusitanian legacy can be traced through Portuguese words adopted into Sinhala, Tamil and Sri Lanka Malay (de Silva Jayasuriya 2009; Don Peter 1978; Saldin 2001).

Portuguese words were also adopted by Tamil (Don Peter 1978) and Sri Lanka Malay (Saldin 2001).  For example:

Standard Portuguese            Sri Lanka Malay       Tamil              Sinhala           Meaning

Ananás                                    nenas                    annāsi              annāsi              pineapple

Banco                                      bangku                 vangu              banku(va)        bench

Camara                                    kamar                  marai               kāmara(ya)      room

Lâmpada                                 lampu                     lāmpu              lāmpu(va)        lamp

Renda                                      renda                    renda               renda               lace

Sácu                                        saku                       sakku               sākku(va)         pocket

Tínta                                        tinta                             tīntai                tīnta                 i

Moreover, semantic fields reveal areas of culture contact (de Silva Jayasuriya 2001):

Semantic fields                       Sinhala           Standard Portuguese            Meaning

Civil administration                abertu(va)        aberto                                      vacancy

Judicial administration            petsam(a)         petição                                     petition

Military structure                    bayinettu(va)   baioneta                                   bayonet

Land administration                tōmbu(va)        tombo                                      archive/record

Architecture                            kuluna             coluna                                      pillar

Furniture                                 mēsa(ya)          mesa                                        table

Cuisine                                    pān                  pão                                          bread

Dress                                       sāya                 saia                                          skirt

Religion                                   anju                 anjo                                         angel

Education                                iskōla(ya)         escola                                      school

Names                                     Pēduru             Pedro                                       Peter

Music                                      Kapiriñña        Cafrinha                                  Kaffrinha

Flora                                        Pipiñña            pepino                                     cucumber

Fauna                                      Būru(va)          burro                                        donkey

Social                                      Dādu(va)         dado                                        die

Transport                                 Nav(a)             nau                                          ship

Portuguese linguistic impressions are in vogue and have not been obliterated by the later Dutch and British waves that washed over the shores of Sri Lanka.  The tangible heritage is easier to recognise.  But the Portuguese legacy has been remarkably durable in the intangible heritage of the Island’s sociofabric.  The most vibrant Portuguese influence is on popular music expressed through the hybridised postcolonial genre chorus baila, generally known as baila (de Silva Jayasuriya, 2013).  The Lusitanian legacy is contained within Sri Lanka’s diversity.

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Filed under centre-periphery relations, commoditification, cultural transmission, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, travelogue, world events & processes

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