The Ramifications behind Philanthropy in Colombo

Kalinga Tudor Silva, ** whose original title reads thus: “Ethnicity and Religion as – beinga chapyDrivers of Charity and Philanthropy in Colombo: Implications for Social Harmony in Sri Lanka” – being achapter in Taejong Kim and Anthea Malakala (eds.): Social Mobility: Experiences and Lessons from Asia. Seoul: Asia Foundation and Korean Development Institute, 2015. pp. 151-174.


1 — Introduction: Charity and philanthropy act as important welfare mechanisms in all societies. Charity is defined as the impulse toward disinterested private giving (Bornstein 2009), while organized philanthropy reflects notions such as corporate social responsibility, humanitarian values, and concerns about the efficacy of assistance (Fontaine 2007). Both charity and philanthropy (CP) complement and supplement the welfare services of the state, mobilizing the reservoir of goodwill and mutual caring in society. While both may involve universal human values and emotions, such as compassion and sympathy towards those in distress, research has highlighted ethnicity and religion as important drivers of CP in various societies (Bornstein 2007, 2009; Korf 2006).

What implications does this have for social harmony in multi-ethnic societies, where the ethnic divide has increasingly become a key fault line and a major parameter of political alignments and conflicts? How does CP connect with and affect patterns of social mobility? Do upwardly mobile individuals turn toward charitable action as a means of self-expression, as an assertion of identity and social responsibility, out of obligation to those left behind on the mobility ladder — or all of the above? This essay will consider these questions in the Sri Lankan context, focusing on CP in the capital of Colombo.

As drivers of CP, ethnicity and religion play complementary roles in most societies. The Buddhist idea of dana, the Hindu practice of danam and the Islamic practices of zakath, sadaqa and waqaf call for compassion and generosity towards fellow human beings. Religion shapes the meaning, scale and patterns of charitable giving (Ossela, Stirrat, Silva, Kabir, Alikhan and Widger 2014). Ethnicity, on the other hand, classifies fellow human beings as “us” and “them,” with corresponding notions of brotherhood, generosity, and assistance towards collective and individual social mobility (Fassin 2012). Religion and ethnicity do not, however, entirely demarcate the world of CP; larger upsurges of generosity that cut across these lines — particularly during large-scale human disasters – implicitly or explicitly imply a broader notion of humanitarianism and moral responsibility. This also calls into question how much religion- and ethnicity-motivated CP contributes towards human welfare, social harmony, social mobility, and development in general. To the extent that CP arises from the bond between the giver and the recipient, it cannot be treated as the “disinterested giving” that Bornstein considered the hallmark of charity (Bornstein 2009). Disinterested giving may be the ideal, but in reality charity takes many forms and shapes, with donor self-interest – including the emotional relief gained by helping someone in need — often playing an important role.

According to recent estimates, Sri Lanka ranks high on the global index of giving, the tenth most generous country in the world in 2013 (Ossela et al. 2014) and, with Myanmar, one of the more generous societies in the developing world. Considerable speculation has arisen as to why this might be the case. Not only has Sri Lanka developed a comprehensive welfare state (limiting, at least intuitively, the need for private charity), but its reported higher levels of generosity seem to conflict with its ethnic tensions and other contemporary manifestations of social strife. This context framed a major research project on charity, philanthropy and development in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, conducted in 2012-13 by a team of researchers from the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka.[1] The project sought to map the “philanthroscape” of Colombo, and to understand how it has changed over time; it assesses the developmental and welfare impact of CP against the background of Sri Lanka’s shift to economic liberalization in 1977, its nearly three decades of ethnic war, and the devastating tsunami disaster in 2004.

A variety of reasons make Sri Lanka a suitable venue for exploring contemporary forms of giving and ensuing relations between givers and receivers. Two sectors define the avenues of upward mobility in the post-independence period: first, government and political positions, fuelled by expanded state-funded free education and largely controlled by the Sinhala Buddhist ethnic majority; and second, trade and commerce, often controlled by specific ethnic minorities. Sri Lanka also experienced upsurges in international philanthropy because of the 2004 tsunami and its decades-long civil war. These events changed the texture of local forms of giving, also influenced by the country’s long exposure to international and local charities in the colonial and post-colonial periods (Silva 2014b; Fernando 2007). Moreover, globalization and economic liberalization have led to the emergence of a dynamic private sector, one now pursuing a range of activities under the heading of “corporate social responsibility.” In the post-war era, a form of “philanthronationalism” (Widger 2013) has emerged, through state celebration of “war heroes” and efforts by the Tamil diaspora and Sinhala Buddhist and Islamic foundations to assist “victims and survivors of war.” All these factors require that we assess the role of ethnicity and religion as drivers of CP in Sri Lanka.

Methodology of the Study

The current paper will present two case studies addressing different ethnic and religious contexts as drivers of CP in the Colombo area. The first discusses CP efforts rooted in the Indian Tamil community, and the second CP efforts centered on the Gangarama Temple, a leading Buddhist center in Colombo. These case studies formed one component of the larger “philanthroscape” project, which used a range of quantitative and qualitative procedures:

  • An analysis of secondary data on population and charitable organizations in the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) area.
  • A survey of 747 households in Colombo city, selected through the cluster sampling method. Employing a structured questionnaire, this survey assessed household engagement in CP as donors and recipients over a specified period and their motivations for charity, including religious, political and social and humanitarian concerns.
  • An organizational survey covering 250 businesses, 50 public sector agencies, and 50 charities selected through snowball sampling technique. This survey assessed philanthropic practices, sources of funding services provided, and impact achieved.
  • A series of case studies analyzing the social processes involved in formation of charities, the involvement of stakeholders, the pursuit of social, cultural and political agendas, and the outreach of the services provided. The ease studies employed Key Informant Interviews with leaders of the relevant organizations, collection and analysis of secondary data from these organizations and group discussions with selected beneficiaries of their CP.

The case studies presented in this essay, which come under the heading of (4) above, must be understood in the light of the larger ethnic and religious profile of the Colombo urban population and ethnic monopolies in trade, employment, and national politics.

  1. Ethnic and Religious Composition of the Colombo Urban Population

The presence of four global religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) in Colombo provides a useful context not only for the relationship between religion and charity, but also for the circulation of aesthetics and practices between religious groups and between religious and secular organizations. Demographically, central Colombo has a preponderance of ethnic minorities connected with trade and commerce, while the urban fringe has an overwhelming majority of Sinhala Buddhists. In recent decades, the inflow of war-displaced Tamils and Muslims has further reinforced these patterns. In the population census of 2012, the Tamils and Muslims together constituted 74 percent of the population in the Colombo Divisional Secretariat Division (DSD), followed by 44.7 percent, 37 percent and 32 percent in the adjacent divisions of Thimbirgasyaya, Dehiwala and Kolonnawa respectively. In contrast, the Sinhalese constituted over 90 percent of the population in all suburban DS divisions. Correspondingly, Muslims, Hindus and Christians together constituted over 80 percent of the population in Colombo DSD, followed by 51 percent in Thimibirigasyaya DSD, while Buddhists comprised over 90 percent of the population in most suburban DSDs (Silva 2013a).

Ethnic Monopolies and Niches

Ethnic monopolies in commerce add a further dimension to the potentially volatile ethnic composition of the Colombo urban population. Much of the commerce in central Colombo is controlled by Muslims, Sri Lanka Tamils, Indian Tamils, and trading groups of Indian origin. In Pettah, the central business district of Colombo, each street specializes in a particular trade controlled by a minority ethnic group.[2] For instance, Sea Street is famous for jewellery businesses, owned mostly by Indian Tamil traders. Similarly Keiser Street, famous for electronic appliances, is primarily controlled by Jaffna Tamil traders. Further, many of the newly established clothing chains in Colombo are owned by Muslim businessmen, who also control overseas employment agencies sending workers to the gulf region. Few powerful Sinhala business interests exist in Pettah; a handful of Sinhala traders who import fruit in 4rd Cross Street provide one exception.

Urban Colombo therefore provides a classic case of “market dominant ethnic minorities” (Chua 2004: 2). Even though many ethnic minorities, Muslims in particular, live in inner-city low-income neighbourhoods in Slave Island. Pettah and Maradana,[3] their compatriots — those who have accumulated capital, business acumen, contacts and trade secrets — control the pulse of the urban economy. These minorities benefitted disproportionately from the newly-created opportunities that followed Sri Lanka’s shift to economic liberalization in 1977 (Gunasinghe 1996). While some Sinhala businesses have also emerged in response to market incentives, they often find it difficult to break into economic niches and business cartels with well-entrenched ethnic minorities.

On the other hand, democratization has concentrated political power in the country in the hands of the Sinhala ethnic majority. The tensions between the economic power of commercially-oriented ethnic minorities and the state apparatus controlled by the ethnic majority underpin much of the broader social tension in urban Sri Lanka. Amy Chua usefully elaborates this process on a global scale: “Markets concentrate wealth, often spectacular wealth, in the hands of a market dominant minority, while democracy increases the political power of the impoverished majority” (Chua 2004: 6). The actual pattern observed in urban Sri Lanka appears more complicated: each ethnic community is internally differentiated along class lines, with a strong ethnonationalism as a unifying force across classes within each community. For instance, the Sinhala-Buddhist suburban population in Colombo has upwardly-mobile Sinhalese dominating government employment and small businesses, while poorer Sinhalese largely comprise the shanty neighbourhoods on the urban fringe. Much of the support for pro-Sinhala Buddhist political parties (such as Jathika Hela Urumaya, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and the newly-formed Bodu Bala Sena) tends to come from these suburban Sinhala Buddhist concentrations, irrespective of their social class background.

The ethnic minorities controlling certain businesses in Colombo consider them hereditary ethnic entitlements. Similarly, the middle-class Sinhalese who have benefitted from state policies in education, official languages, and business nationalization have largely appropriated public-sector employment, with its regular salaries and employment security. Lately, some Sinhalese have also set their sights upon breaking into the trade monopolies of ethnic minorities. This in turn has led to incidents of anti-minority sentiment among Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, with ample support from emerging Sinhala traders (Silva 2013a).

  1. Case Study One: CP among Sea Street Traders[4]

The Indian Tamil traders in Pettah have an active voluntary organization aimed at promoting education among plantation youth. This organization rests upon the ethnic sentiment and social concerns of the Indian Tamil business community in Pettah, concentrated in Sea Street (SS).

(1) The Social Context of Sea Street

As the locus of the high-end jewellery business in Colombo. SS is one of the richest streets in the city. Some 2000 jewellery shops reportedly existed in SS at one time,[5] but many of them closed down during 1983 riots. In 2013, SS had around 400 functioning jewellery shops, with an estimated average daily turnover of Rupees 50 million (Perera and Parathalingam 2013). The jewellery business drives a layered bazaar economy that includes jewellery workshops, valuation and certification outlets, and eating houses.

Of the estimated 400 jewellery shops, roughly 350 are owned by Indian Tamil trading families. The shops originally belonged to Chettiars of Indian origin, who returned to India following passage of the Citizenship Act in 1949. The ownership of these businesses gradually transferred to Indian Tamils, many of whom had initially worked as assistants in the same shops (Hullop 1994: 237). The contemporary Sinhala name for SS, Hetti Vidiya, indicates that the street was originally under the control of Chettiars. Many of the current traders are Indian Tamils originating from the up-country plantation regions of Nuwara Eliya, Hatton, Dickoya and Talawakale. Typically, these traders had humble beginnings, first moving to Pettah as shop assistants, but gradually moving up the ladder to become jewellery Shop owners through sheer hard work, frugal lifestyles, wise investments, and exploitation of commercial niches. A good number of SS traders are related to each other.

Employers typically select shop assistants and jewellery workers from within the ethnic community, using existing contacts. This has promoted trust, loyalty and honesty, qualities deeply appreciated in the jewellery trade. An estimated 4000 to 5000 workers, largely of plantation origin, live and work in SS. Their living quarters on the crowded upper floors of shop buildings add to the community spirit. An ethnographic study in the 1980s traced the pathways through which plantation youth exploited ethnic, caste and kinship relations in their upward social progress (Hullop 1994). On the whole, ethnicity, kinship and caste play vital roles in the formation of social and trading networks among traders in SS jewellery business.

Even though Muslims control most commercial activities in Pettah, they have not been able to gain an upper hand in the SS jewellery trade. Muslims own roughly about 50 jewellery shops in SS, some of which specialize in the gem trade. Ethnic tensions from 1983 onwards did serve to undermine the trade monopolies of both Jaffna Tamil and Indian Tamil entrepreneurs in Pettah, with corresponding advances by Muslim and Sinhala traders. However, they have not succeeded in displacing Indian Tamil interests in the jewellery business. Sinhalese jewellery traders own only two shops in SS, indicating a definite underrepresentation in this particular trade.

The social organization and culture in SS has a distinct Indian Tamil flavor. The New Kadiresan and Mutuvinayagar Kovils (Hindu shrines) attract many devotees. The Kadiresan Hall in a nearby street often hosts Hindu weddings and cultural activities. The Indian Tamil business community also celebrates key events in the Hindu calendar, such as the annual vel festival.

Gold jewellery creates material and symbolic capital for all Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity and social class. It constitutes the main mobile asset owned by women, who often receive it as part of their dowry; women customarily visit SS prior to marriage and puberty ceremonies. Widely advertised in mass media, the SS gold houses try to establish a permanent clientele across ethnic divisions. Regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, sales workers have a good command of Sinhala and Tamil. Thus, in spite of the ethnic monopolies the jewellery trade caters to a multiethnic clientele, a fact that explains its market success and survival over the years.

(2) Charitable Activities

The diverse charitable activities of gold houses defy neat classification. They include actions designed to promote smooth interpersonal and business relations across ethnic divisions, as well as activities by community leaders to assist fellow co-ethnics.

We identified four types of charity among jewellery traders:

  • Distribution of alms to beggars who visit the shops on Fridays (dharmam). This is perhaps the commonest charitable activity in Pettah. Roughly 1500 beggars visit each shop in Pettah on Friday and each shop gives a coin (Rupees 1-5) to each. The identity of these beggars remains unknown; staff dispense with them quickly, simply leaving a coin on a tray for silent collection by each visitor. The label dharmam identifies this custom as a morally prescribed Hindu practice.
  • Contributions for welfare (orphanages, elderly and disabled homes) and religious activities (e.g. Wesak, Poson), for which program organizers solicit funds from individual shops. Typically, fundraisers visit gold houses already known for their generosity.
  • Sponsorship of kovil activities in Pettah and in plantation areas.[6]
  • Contributions promoting education for plantation children. A number of jewellery shops used to make individual contributions to plantation schools from time to time. Since 2006, this has become a more systematic joint activity of all Sea Street Indian Tamil shop owners, as we shall see in the next section.

In contrast to charitable activities listed above under and 1 and 2, which are open to everyone regardless of ethnicity and religion, kovil sponsorships and educational contributions by SS gold houses primarily target their own ethnic community. The next section focuses on these educational initiatives and the vital question of why SS traders have jointly embarked on sponsorship of plantation youth.

(3) Charitable Operations through the Upcountry Education Development Society (UEDS)

The UEDS was established by six Indian Tamil SS merchants on August 26, 2006. Gradually, the membership has increased to over 1000 registered members from various streets in Pettah, with SS as its primary hub. Registered as a public enterprise under the Registrar of Companies, the UEDS has a 48-person Management Committee, which elects the Board of Directors and key office-holders from its members for three-year terms. The Management Committee meets once a month and the Board of Directors once every three months. The organization has four paid workers, consisting of the Director, Assistant Director and two secretaries. Members serve voluntarily in various capacities as organizers of specific events or providers of services — including, for example, a legal advisor, media secretary, and sports coordinator. While membership is not limited to the Indian Tamil community, Tamils constitute the organization’s largest constituency. When the organization needs additional funds for specific programmes, it always approaches the three leading gold houses in SS, which typically comply. The President and the Executive Director in 2013 were jewellery merchants who had been with the organization from its inception.

The motto of the UEDS is “opening eyes through education.” At its inception, the organization identified education as a key to empowering the community and diversifying their livelihoods away from plantation labour. While the Indian Tamil jewellery merchants had moved out of plantation work through the business route — the only avenue available to them given the restrictions imposed by the plantation system — this could only liberate a small fraction of the community, as Hullop noted (1994). The traders felt that they had a moral obligation to help those remaining on the plantations to explore other avenues of advancement and other means of escaping an oppressive system. They also clearly understood that this could not be achieved through private charity targeting specific individuals (characteristic of their earlier charitable practice), but rather though a process of social mobilization from above.

In order to facilitate educational development, the UEDS carried out several activities during 2011-2013, as discovered during our field investigations.

  • The organization awarded scholarships to deserving undergraduates of plantation origin. In 2013, some 140 scholarship recipients attended various higher educational institutions in Sri Lanka and abroad. Each scholar received Rupees 1000 per month from the UEDS as support for their education. Newspaper advertisements informed potential applicants about the scholarships; a committee of university academics connected to the community selected the scholars, taking into account their academic merit and parental income level. The scholars contacted by the researchers felt that this financial assistance— though not sufficient to cover all their expenses — had helped them continue their university education.[7]
  • The UEDS financed several activities designed to improve the quality of education in plantation areas. These included construction of library buildings, latrines, and classrooms in selected underserved schools; supplying books and computer facilities; payment of salaries for a total of 20 volunteer teachers; and providing school bags and uniforms to selected students from impoverished families.
  • The UEDS organized coaching classes for Year-Five Scholarship Examination[8] and seminars for GCE (AL) students in up-country areas. It engaged some 45 qualified teachers from Colombo and elsewhere to provide tuition to schoolchildren on the plantations. Some of the invited teachers provided their services voluntarily as a community service. These coaching sessions, in turn, aimed to help plantation children enhance their prospects in Sri Lanka’s intensely competitive educational system.
  • The organization took steps to register sports clubs on plantations and provide them with some basic sporting equipment. It also organized cricket tournaments to encourage youth to take up sports. In a cricket tournament organized on 3 July 2012, some 40 teams participated, mostly from plantation areas. Several star cricketers from Colombo also attended as guests.

In addition to educational services, the organization provided immediate relief to plantation residents caught in disasters such as earth slips and floods.

Unlike most institutional CP programs in Sri Lanka relying on overseas funding, the UEDS manages itself through member contributions. The organization draws from four funding sources, namely a monthly membership fee Of Rupees 200 (paid by 400 out of 450 active members in 2013), voluntary contributions by former scholars who have found employment, fundraising activities, and extra grants by larger gold houses. In 2012, cricket lovers who visited the annual tournament paid an entrance fee. According to information provided by UEDS staff, in 2013, a concert by visiting Indian artists (led by a blind musician) took place in Kadiresan Hall as a UEDS fundraiser. As noted above, additional funds for events often come from solicitations to leading SS gold traders.

The UEDS leadership stresses that it is not a political organization and has no affiliation with any political parties. During our interviews with UEDS leaders, they maintained that the organization did not benefit Indian Tamils alone, but extended some services to deserving persons in other communities as well.

Thus, we may consider the WEDS an ethnically-driven charity, one that has opened up avenues of upward mobility for fellow co-ethnics still anchored in manual labour on colonial-era plantations. What is striking is that a group of affluent merchants collectively decided to use a portion of their profits to help the plantation children overcome the prevailing barriers to their educational and social advancement. The trade monopolies deploy ethnicity to promote self-interest and avert business competition; the UEDS actions, by contrast, invoke ethnicity to promote social responsibility and mobilize generosity among affluent Indian Tamils. In this instance, social networks within the ethnic community do the fundraising, while an organized charity with specific ethnic and social concerns disburses the educational funds. To the extent that a sense of social responsibility towards their poorer co-ethnics motivates these traders, their efforts certainly represent something more than “philanthrocapitalism” (Bishop and Green 2008) with business interests driving CP.

This first case Study describes the genesis and gradual institutionalization of CP arising within a specific ethno-religious community; the next addresses an existing religious institution where CP has evolved to embrace various communities.

  1. Case Study Two: the Role of Gangarama Temple in CP[9]

The Sri Lankan Buddhist temples receive large amounts of devotee donations (Samuels 2007, Gombrich 1991). In popular Buddhism, dane (almsgiving) and contributions towards the upkeep of temples and monks appear as deeply meritorious acts, with positive consequences for the donors (Spiro 1970). Some Buddhist temples also engage in philanthropy targeting disaster victims and needy people in general. Examining the social services of the Hunupitiya Gangarama Temple (GT), this ease study explores the changing role of Buddhist temples in the Colombo “philanthroscape.” Building on the work of Obeyesekere (1970), Gombrich (1991), Seneviratne (1999) and Malalgoda (1976), we examine Buddhist engagement with CP in modern Sri Lanka. Our primary data come from key informant interviews conducted from November to December 2013 with the chief monks, lay devotees and donors of GT. along with group discussions with selected beneficiaries, analysis of temple records, and first-hand observation.

Located in the heart of Colombo on the bank of Beira Lake and close to the central business district, GT has multiple linkages with various business houses. Its proximity to the official residence of the Sri Lankan President, and a deliberate policy of cultivating good relations with all political leaders regardless of party affiliation, have added to its visibility and significance.[10]

The population around GT is multiethnic and multi-religious, with a significant presence of Muslims, Tamils and Christians. The local Buddhists actually form a minority, as per the demographic profile discussed earlier. Similarly, Muslims and Malays outnumber the Sinhala Buddhists in local congested low-income neighbourhoods. GT has traditionally relied on a range of Buddhist and non-Buddhist patrons, both from the city and abroad.

(1) History of the Gangarama Temple

The scholar-monk Hikkaduwe Sumangala founded the temple in 1885, sometime after establishing the Vidoyodaya Pirivena.[11] Initially, it was a small asapuwa (an urban monastery with one or more Buddhist monks) in a marshy area bordering the Beira Lake. Over the years the temple established good rapport with local Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.

In tracing the history of Sri Lankan Buddhist revival, Seneviratne (1999) identified two lineages, namely the Vidyodaya tradition of social service and rural development and the Vidyalankara tradition, representing militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Emanating from the revivalist spirit of Anagarika Dharmapala, these two traditions merged and intersected at various points. Modern Buddhist philanthropy in Sri Lanka started during the malaria epidemic of 1934-35 through the rural development movement of the Vidyodaya group. (Silva 2014b).

Many patrons of this temple are members of the Colombo elite. In addition to elderly female devotees, all temple activities have strong youth participation. The temple has received various donations from patrons in Sri Lanka and abroad, including numerous non-Buddhists. For instance, the distinguished Sri Lankan architect Jeffrey Bawa designed the Seema Malaka (used by monks during their higher ordination ceremonies) on a small island in Beira Lake, with funding from the Muslim Musarjees family.[12] Similarly, in 1890 a Christian businessman donated the first printing press used for Buddhist texts printed at GT. The temple owns an extensive tea plantation of 999 acres in Akurassa (the gift of a private donor) and several crown lands donated by politicians in power.

On the other hand, the temple has organized a range of social services, development and philanthropic activities targeting the poor, elderly, disabled and orphans. From its inception, the temple encouraged the resident monks to engage in social services. A senior monk noted that as a young monk he received training in such services at the Tewatta Church in Ragama. The routine religious activities conducted by the temple include sathipirith (week-long pirith chanting to bless devotees). pindapatha (monks going house to house seeking alms), Navam Perahera (annual procession organized by the temple) and Wesak celebrations to mark important life events of Buddha, and free food (dansal) for devotees visiting these celebrations.

(2) The temple as a leader in Buddhist philanthropy

GT has embarked on a number of social services in collaboration With the government, private sector, and international donors.

(3) Vocational Training Programs

In the aftermath of the JVP uprising in 1971— and citing youth underemployment as one of its main causes — the temple initiated a vocational training programme for school dropouts and jobless youth, using a nearby building supplied by a private donor. The year 1973 saw the establishment of the Sri Jinarathana Vocational Training Centre as an independent institution affiliated with the temple. In 2013, this Centre had 7000 trainees following a total of 40 courses, offered in training locations in Colombo and elsewhere and covering a variety of fields motor mechanics, welding, plumbing, driving, electronics, IT, and printing. The temple secured the equipment needed for training programmes at concessionary rates from known suppliers in Colombo. The training is provided free of charge, with some companies covering the costs involved in order to attract trainees for their own workshops. Selected through public advertisement, trainees come from varied ethnic and religious backgrounds. Buddhist religious instruction does not appear in the curriculum, reflecting the ethnic and religious diversity of the trainees. A leading vehicle importer in Colombo, Demo Limited, supports the training of drivers. The temple assists in the job placement of trainees, using its contacts in the private sector. It also promotes self-employment after training through financial support, marketing services, and other follow-up activities.

(4) Assistance to Rural Temples and Pirivenas

In 2010 and 2011, GT initiated a number of activities to assist underserved rural temples. A devotee from Thailand funded this program, proposed by chief temple prelate Podi Hamuduruwo during a visit to that country. This initiative includes the distribution of stainless steel bowls and money for monks in remote areas, and upgrading their water and sanitation facilities.

(5) Assistance to Devotees of the Temple

The temple has established a wedding hall on its premises to permit devotees to conduct “Buddhist weddings”[13] free of alcohol, as a way of encouraging newlyweds to adopt a Buddhist lifestyle. The temple also provides a free breakfast consisting of milk, rice and herbal drinks (kolakanda) every day to about 100 persons visiting in the early morning, usually for religious observances. This breakfast, however, is not restricted to Buddhists; some local Muslims also take advantage of the free meal.

(6) Tsunami Response

GT carried out its own tsunami response in Seenigama (southern Sri Lanka), an area severely affected by the disaster. Under the leadership of Podi Hamuduruwo, devotees provided immediate relief to tsunami survivors by supplying cooked food, dry goods, clothing and medicines, along with emergency shelter for those displaced. Nine hundred families, identified through local contacts, received prefabricated building materials, and trainees from the Jinarathana Training Centre came forward to assist shelter construction.[14] Impressed by this emergency housing response, the widow of Edwin Thilakaratna, a leading local politician, donated a five-acre land for a permanent housing project for the tsunami survivors; GT built 50 housing units using funds generated in Sri Lanka and abroad, and distributed them among the more deserving families[15] as temporary shelter.

(7) Homes for the Elderly, the Disabled, and the Abandoned Children

GT administers a number of homes for the destitute, mostly outside of Colombo (Gangarama Temple 2011). The Suhada Nivasa orphanage in Madiwela, Kotte accommodates a total of 50 disabled or abandoned children; Kataragama has a similar establishment. GT maintains these houses through voluntary contributions from devotees. The beneficiaries belong to various ethnic and religious backgrounds; Tamils and Muslims displaced by the tsunami and by war in eastern Sri Lanka account for many of the residents in the Kataragama Home. These homes provide accommodation, food, clothing, and medicine and attend to other needs, such as eyeglasses for elderly, wheelchairs for disabled and school education for children.

(8) Heritage Project

The temple has pioneered the collection and preservation of valuable cultural artifacts, including ola leaf manuscripts and photographs of temple paintings. Sri Jinaratana Thero began these efforts in the 1960s, identifying them as an important national priority and implicitly acknowledging a cultural conservation role for the temple. This also touches on the concept of “philanthronationalism” (Widger 2013), and suggests that the temple also subscribes to the cultural preservation aims of Sinhala nationalist ideology, along the lines of the Vidyalankara tradition. Some of these artifacts have come to the temple via devotee donors, who identify GT as the most suitable venue for preserving these national treasures. The temple has also purchased some antiques and religious paraphernalia from various dealers who would otherwise have exported them to foreign collectors.

In summary, GT’s pathway to Buddhist philanthropy points to the continued engagement of Vidyodaya Buddhist temples in social services, with increased vigor following the 2004 tsunami and the end of war. Further, the temple also shares in the Sinhala Buddhist ideology inherited from the Vidyalankara tradition. indicating the interpenetration of these different revivalist Buddhist orientations.

As for drivers of CP. this study found that religious motivations often combined with secular and humanitarian concerns as well as political and social interests. Significantly, the chief monks have collaborated with Colombo business families, the political leadership, and international partners wherever possible. A combination of support from private philanthropists, private businesses, temple funds, government agencies and international patrons has collectively facilitated GT’s CP work. Much of the temple’s success derives from its strategic position for attracting funding and institutional support from a variety of sources, and its ability to mobilize volunteers not only from its devotees but from a range of other actors, including beneficiaries.

There are also elements of “philanthrocapitalism” in the business-centric nature of many services provided by the temple. One might cite vocational training, efforts promoting loyalty to employers, linkages with the tourist industry, and temple involvement in profit making operations, such as plantations and pilgrim services.

Finally, “philanthronationalism” only plays a limited role in the CP efforts of this leading Buddhist temple in Colombo. Temple outreach did not limit itself to Sinhala Buddhists, either in terms of fundraising or in selecting beneficiaries. Even though its linkages with the ruling political elites and its concern for preserving cultural heritage may point to nationalist tendencies, the social constituency of the temple is multiethnic and multi-religious, preventing a parochial ethno-religious orientation in its activities. This appears an important lesson of the present study, and one that has broader relevance in policy debates surrounding CP.

  1. Conclusion

The two case studies presented here describe how ethnic and religious sentiments along with various other motivations drive CP in Colombo. In conclusion, we may explore the social mobility and harmony implications of our findings.

As regards social mobility, both case studies illustrate the perception that education and training provide pathways for upward social mobility, for disadvantaged youth in particular. In the UEDS, this entailed provision of scholarships and other services for plantation youth to assist them in their educational pursuits. Given their disadvantaged position, stemming from their hereditary bondage to plantation labour, this assistance appears as a radical move to open up education for the socially and ethnically marginalized. In this instance, ethnic sentiments towards poorer co-ethnics merge with generosity among the Indian Tamil traders in Colombo. To the extent that these inducements expanded educational opportunities for plantation youth, they facilitated their upward social mobility along pathways that had historically excluded them. Similarly, vocational training initiated by the GT sought to train unemployed youth, as a means both to wean them away from JVP and help them enter the workforce. Despite quite different circumstances, in both instances support for education and training came from the privileged layer of society to promote the upward mobility of disadvantaged youth.

In both the UEDS and GT, CP actions clearly mobilize ethnic and religious sentiments to varying degrees. The UEDS fell more in line with an ethnically-driven generosity, in that the rich Indian Tamils collectively embarked on assistance for plantation youth, primarily targeting their poorer co-ethnics. This is understandable, given that the plantations have limited facilities for education and continue to experience bottlenecks towards educational advancement; moreover, as an ethnic minority, Indian Tamils have traditionally faced obstacles to upward mobility, due to poor facilities for Tamil-language education in plantation areas, low enthusiasm for education, and prior inclination to join plantation labour (Little 1999). While its programs certainly did not benefit Sinhala Buddhists alone, GT practices a CP that shares the hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist ideology of the state. Contributions by GT to the celebration of war heroes and its provision of religious services and blessings to the predominantly Sinhala Buddhist military indicate that the temple has established a niche in the philanthronationalism that has evolved since the civil war. The leading monks of the temple, however, have stressed that its services cater to the urban population in general, irrespective of their ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The two case studies reaffirm that the landscape of CP in the city of Colombo by no means maps along ethno-religious lines alone. The charity of jewellery traders in Colombo extends to those outside their ethnic network as well, in gifts to beggars and many others seeking their donations. In the case of GT, some Malay and Christian business families rank among the leading patrons of the temple, and its social welfare schemes tend to accommodate Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike — according to their needs rather than on the basis of their ethno-religious identities. In many ways, the temple has sought to transcend the ethno-religious as well as class divides in society, by cooperating with the Sinhala-Buddhist political elite on the one hand and the largely non-Sinhala business elite on the other. Its success largely rests upon the intricate ways in which it has won the trust of diverse interest groups, including the urban elite and the urban poor, the Sinhala Buddhists, and ethno-religious minorities.

At the policy it must be recognized that CP driven by ethnicity and religion plays a useful role not only in social welfare and social support but also in facilitating social mobility of the underprivileged. The state may even support such charitable activities where they have a transformative impact by opening pathways to upward social mobility for the historically underprivileged. Tax relief for financial contributions to organizations such as the UEDS might help the state stimulate such activities. On the other hand, GT illustrates how CP may invoke a humanitarianism that transcends religious and ethnic divides, in fundraising as well as in serving war victims, unemployed youth, and the disabled, regardless of their origins. This in turn warns us against any state policies or programs, such as the celebration of “war heroes,” that may hinder social harmony among ethnic and religious communities by turning one community against the other, and undo some of the good that CP has fostered.


** Tudor Silva is Professor of Sociology, University of Peradeniya.


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[1] This research received financial support from the Department for International Development (DFID) through the UK Economic and Social Research Council. For a summary of findings of this study see Osella, Stirrat, Silva, Kabir, Alikhan, and Widger 2014.

[2] Field research conducted by the author on charity and philanthropy in Colombo city. For details see Silva (2013b).

[3] The Urban Development Authority (UDA) has targeted these inner-city slum communities for clearance and housing improvement. At the time of this study the UDA was headed by Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the President of Sri Lanka, who also served as Defence Secretary.

[4] An earlier version of this case study was presented in a CPD project dissemination workshop held in Colombo on 2 July 2013 (See Silva 2013b).

[5] Based on anecdotal accounts received during fieldwork interviews.

[6] Kovils are Hindu shrines devoted to one or more designated gods such Skanda or Vishnu. The kovils engage in fundraising for annual festivals, shrine restoration work, or for their own charity work among their devotees.

[7] As part of the current study, we conducted Focus Group Discussions with a number of UEDS—supported plantation-origin undergraduates at University of Peradeniya.

[8] The students who obtain marks above a set cut-off point are admitted to popular schools with better facilities for the rest of their primary and secondary education. This is one of the avenues allowing gifted children from low-income families to move up the education ladder.

[9] A preliminary version Of this case study was presented in a workshop on Charity, Philanthropy and Development held in University Of Sussex. 14-15 May, 2014. Sec Silva 2014b.

[10] These statements are based on the interviews conducted by the researcher with chief monks of the temple during November-December 2013.

[11] A monastic college (pirivena). forerunner of Vidyodaya University. According to Seneviratne (1999). Vidyodaya Pirivena was founded in 1873.

[12] Personal communication with Reverend Assaji of Gangarama Temple.

[13] Gombrich and Obeyesekere (1988) report that this idea of Buddhist wedding has arisen in other Buddhist establishments in Colombo. The authors argue, however, that this practice has no basis whatsoever in tradition: Buddhist monks committed to a life of celibacy and free of secular engagements had no involvement whatever in wedding ceremonies.

[14] For details See Gangaramaya (2011).

[15] The GT defined “more deserving” the tsunami-displaced families who had the chief breadwinner, those who had nowhere else to go, and larger families; all received priority over others in selecting beneficiaries of the housing scheme.


Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, charitable outreach, communal relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, governance, historical interpretation, island economy, life stories, politIcal discourse, power politics, religiosity, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “The Ramifications behind Philanthropy in Colombo

  1. Alexander Van Arkadie

    Wed.17 Feb. 2021 — to Thuppahi’s

    ‘The Ramifications behind Philanthropy in Colombo’

    What a pity ! This writer seemingly remains unaware of, or wantonly excludes – other than those he cares to remember here – hundreds of other Lankan Philantrophists or established charitable institutes who from centuries back have pledged to serve our ailing abandoned and destitute in the Island, not merely in Colombo ? Oooops … I’m just thinking aloud. Comments welcome.
    Stay well. /alex

  2. Bunchy

    Did not read except here and there, not disputing what you say Alex but how to go forward? There are many whose charity is not confined to religion or community. It is a dire need for such to come together in a group to establish villages such as Diyagala Boy’s town – start with pilot project. This is also the way out for the country. Over and above Govt. programs, we need to teach our youth trades and not leave them to drive metered tuk tuks – should be allowed only for over 45’s. Programs for girls should take pride of place. Let specific community/religion based charities look after the under-able, sickly and aged.

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