The “Colombo Bharathas”: A Merchant Community

Joe “Malli” Vaz ***

The ghosts of forgotten family histories haunt the children of immigrants, pressing us to take on the role of scribes to recover and record those enduring tales implanted deep within our childhood memories.

Iruthamma De Votta kin

This experience loosely corresponds to what social scientists studying diasporic identity describe as an interesting rule of three: The first generation to immigrate tries to “blend in,” often leaving their traditions and culture behind. Their children—the second generation, who are born in the new country—become superficially curious about their identity and ancestry. But surprisingly, it’s the third generation that struggles to figure out who they are and where they came from, showing a strong desire to connect with the old country, language, culture and cuisine.

Periamar. Paiva jpg


In the arc of my family’s narrative, the generations of my great- grandparents and grandparents have been the principal actors, shouldering weighty risks as they left their Indian homeland in the nineteenth century, crossed the gulf and settled in Sri Lanka. They helped to transform the island and were themselves changed as a result. Though unfailingly gracious to neighbours and friends, they were fiercely opposed to assimilation. A closed marriage network, kinship ties and devotion to the religion sustained a common-caste community. It is for this generation—mine—that this minor epistle attempts to answer a frequently asked question:

‘So, who or what is a Bharatha? A “Colombo Bharatha? ‘’

In my adult years, because of an avid interest in migration, I became absorbed in my roots and the spirited details of my ancestry. My curiosity about the history of this socioeconomic group in Sri Lanka, however, failed to elicit meaningful answers from my extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles and others in the clan. (We are an ‘Indian family,’ so everyone’s an uncle, aunt or cousin, even when he or she’s not.) Most pleaded it was outside their field of interest and politely moved on to other themes. For me, it is a persistent quest; other people’s stories are the stories that may clarify my unsettled family chronicle.

In the Beginning: India’s Coromandel Coast

A little research has turned up the following: The Bharathas[1] are a traditional fisher community, since ancient times inhabiting the regions on either side of the Gulf of Mannar—that is, both southern India and north-western Sri Lanka. Here, an endowment of nature gifted the Bharathas with a homeland full of lucrative natural resources: storied pearl banks and chank (conch) fisheries, with opportunities for other related ventures. Yet from the earliest years, fishing, pearling and chank fishing as primary occupations were considered by Hindus to be ritually polluting callings, since they took life and touched blood. Therefore, Hindu Bharathas were excluded from participating in sacred temple rituals.

 Coromandel Coast

The Bharatha migration to the island from India can be deciphered  in   three phases. From the earliest times, the seafaring Bharathas were naturally drawn to migration and trade along the coast of the Gulf of Mannar. Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the Bharathars were recruited by Sinhalese kings as mercenaries. These warriors and their families settled in coastal areas north of Colombo and elsewhere, and came to be known as the ‘Negombo Bharathars’. They were augmented by a migration to the west coast organized by the Jesuits and the Portuguese  in an effort to promote Catholic expansion and military stability.

During the nineteenth-century British colonial period, economic disruption from port and road development  in Tamilnadu and the pull from  plantation  expansion on the island brought another wave of Bharathas from across the gulf who came as immigrant- traders. Distinctly a middle-class socioeconomic cluster, they were educated, thanks to missionary schools and were experienced  in retail, shipping and other commercial activities. These new citizens informally branded themselves as the ‘Colombo Bharathars’.

I had heard the term Bharatha and its vernacular synonyms Parava and Paravan, or the affectionate geographic nickname Paravanadu. In Dravidian languages, there is no equivalent for /Bh/; hence the appellation Parathar was pronounced phonetically. In Sri Lanka, the preference is to be referred to as Bharathas, a name suggestive of a military pedigree harking back to Bharatha, brother of Rama and king of the city of Ayodhya. Another theory attaches the Bharathas to the Jewish culture, suggesting connections to one of the lost tribes of Israel. Despite these folkloric assertions, the Bharathas are better described as a caste or lifestyle group within the Catholic Church, a view that considers the community’s close association with the Portuguese colonizers of the sixteenth century.

In keeping with their nautical traditions, the Bharathas were highly regarded as shipbuilders. In point of fact, their catamarans (from Tamil kattu ‘to tie’ and maram ‘wood, tree’) were the first craft with two hulls, an innovation unknown in the west until the seventeenth century. Their long tradition of seafaring seems to be linked to their early lifestyle as warriors and members of the Tamil navy who fought for the kings and dynasties from whom they claim their descent.

In the immediate pre- and post-colonial periods, the Paravas’ monopoly on these lucrative maritime trades provided them a springboard to move up the socioeconomic ladder. The entrepreneurial types set themselves up as chank and pearl traders as well as boat owners employing large numbers of low-wage divers. Susan Bayly, a Cambridge anthropologist, notes that ‘by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Paravas had emerged as one of South India’s most highly organized caste groups.’[i]

My earliest primary source on this rich but mysterious heritage was my grandmother, Mary Iruthyammal Devotta Paiva. Born in Tuticorin, South India, in the late 1800s, she found herself in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with her husband, Jeronimus Nazarene Paiva, when both were barely out of their teens. Periamma, as we called her (Tamil for ‘elder sister’, an odd misnomer), had a vivid sense of history: social history, community history and some dabs of political history. She routinely offered me verifiable stories, and occasionally dismissive comments on persons and places, with insights worthy of a social anthropologist. She recalled colonization, which she accepted as God’s endowment to this poor littoral on the South Indian shore—‘poor’, of course, being only her cavalier characterization of her homeland.

In the details of her telling, Periamma’s ancestral home, Tuticorin on the Fishery Coast of the south-eastern Indian seaboard, was a magical location not unlike the fictional Brigadoon—a place barely affected by time. Situated on the Coromandel Coast, it has a frontage that covers 68 miles of coastline. Historically defined by seven port cities (yelu ur, in Tamil) and a contiguous basketful of smaller ports, this stretch of coastline was home to the Parava people and affectionately referred to by them as Paravanadu.

The Bharathars and Their Homeland in Literature

The Fishery Coast, a segment of the Coromandel Coast that forms the western boundary of the Gulf of Mannar, is celebrated in natural history for its marine ecology and its famed pearl banks. The Portuguese name for this littoral area was costa de pescaria while the Dutch toponym was visserijkust. This idyllic corner of South Asia and its pearl industry were also immortalized in the intellectual and literary world—in global literature by science fiction writer Jules Verne (1828–1905), in economics by English sociologist Harriet Martineau (1802–1876), in music by composer Georges Bizet (1838–1875), and in verse by poet and Indian freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949).

In Verne’s magnum opus, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the narrator, Dr Arronax, accompanies Captain Nemo to the seaboard of the Gulf of Mannar near Tuticorin to dive for pearls. After viewing a gigantic pearl in an underwater cave, they return to the surface and stop to observe a man from the Fishery Coast plundering the vast pearl bank:

It was a man, a living man, an Indian, a Black, a diver, a pearl-fisher, a poor devil no doubt who had come early in the season to fill his net. I could see the bottom of his boat, which was moored a few feet above his head. He dived and resurfaced repeatedly. He carried a stone carved in the shape of a sugar loaf, which he gripped between his feet and was attached to his boat by a rope. It enabled him to reach the bottom more quickly. It was the only tool he used. When he was on the sea-bed in about 5 metres of water, he quickly got on to his knees and filled his net with pinctadas grabbed up at random. Then he returned to the surface, emptied his net, hauled up his stone and recommenced the operation, which lasted no more than thirty seconds.[ii]

From 1832 to 1834, Harriet Martineau, England’s first woman sociologist, published the nine-volume Illustrations of Political Economy, a series containing fables about colonial negligence and the destructive effects of monopolies on local populations and the environment. In Volume 7’s ‘Cinnamon and Pearls’, she asserted that the pearl divers of the Gulf of Mannar were ‘the natural native owners of the wealth of the region’, who had been ‘kept bare of almost the necessaries life’ by an overbearing and extractive colonial regime.[iii] Martineau wrapped her story about a lowly pearl diver in Ceylon in the liberal theories of the day and a readable style, arguing in favour of her choice to study Ceylon because its people had been ‘more thoroughly and ingeniously beggared than any dependency’.[iv]

Ceylon became the setting for the 1863 French opera Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) under mixed-up circumstances. The key word ‘Orient’ in nineteenth-century Europe had become a standby for almost any place deemed ‘foreign and exotic’. Inspired by the exploits of Napoleon Bonaparte in Egypt (1798–1801) and Charles X’s invasion of Algeria in 1830, the opera lionized the Orient. Its backdrop, however, initially northern Mexico, had to be switched to Ceylon on realization of the faux pas. Once in the proper setting, the libretto described the superstitions of the island, highlighting scenic fantasies and descriptions from the recently published book L’Ile de Ceylan et Ses Curiosités Naturelles (The Isle of Ceylon and Its Natural Curiosities) by traveller Octave Louis Marie Sachot.

Finally, ‘The Coromandel Fishers’, an inspiring 1905 poem by Sarojini Naidu, interprets the gruelling lifestyle of the fishermen along India’s eastern seaboard, underscoring the devotion of the fishermen to the ocean, personified as a mother figure. Reviewing the work in its historical context, we cannot fail to recognize the imagery as an allegory for its times: This is Naidu the poet-activist at her best, in a strident call recruiting her countrymen to the cause of freedom from colonial rule, so distinctly expressed in these stanzas:

Rise, brothers, rise; the wakening skies pray to the morning light,
The wind lies asleep in the arms of the dawn like a child that has cried all night.
Come, let us gather our nets from the shore and set our catamarans free,
To capture the leaping wealth of the tide, for we are the kings of the sea!

No longer delay, let us hasten away in the track of the sea gull’s call,
The sea is our mother, the cloud is our brother, the waves are our comrades all.
What though we toss at the fall of the sun where the hand of the sea-god drives?
He who holds the storm by the hair, will hide in his breast our lives.

Religion: Conversion by Choice

The North Star of Bharatha culture is the Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Snows in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, South India. Built in 1582 and known to Tamil-speaking locals as the Periya Kovil (‘Big Church’), it is centrally situated within sight of the old harbour, where in olden days commodities from the country’s major port cities, including barrels of drinking water, would be unloaded and local products hauled aboard: pallets of textiles and salt- fish destined for Colombo and South Asian ports.

The Basilica is also the community’s cultural icon, deriving its fame as the repository of a statue known by its Portuguese name as Senhora das Neves, or Our Lady of Snows—in Tamil, Panni Maya Matha—gifted to the Parava people by the Augustinian nuns in Manila. The impressive edifice is painted bright blue and white in the Iberian tradition, resembling a larger, ornamented version of many Sri Lankan coastal churches.

Each year, around the fifth of August, a raucous weeklong festival emulating Hindu practice takes place in Tuticorin, proclaiming the history of the pearl fishery coast and its familial bonding with this South Indian community. The shrine, statue and festival are an integral part of the community’s life here.

The Bharathas’ association with the Catholic faith is both a compelling and an illuminating part of their story. In an example of historical irony, Christianity in this instance was embraced not at the point of the sword but in fulfilment of a diplomatic coalition. For several years in the early sixteenth century, the fishermen of the neighbouring Muslim Kayalar caste, supported by local chieftains, had hijacked the community’s livelihood by plundering their pearl banks. Tensions between the two castes were naturally simmering, with the Paravas unable to battle the invaders militarily or politically.

In a highly risky move, a deputation of Parava leaders appealed to the Portuguese general, who, under the Padroado system (an arrangement between Rome and Lisbon), represented both king and pope. The new colonial power was now the superior firepower on the Indian coast, able to take on the Muslims and restore the locals’ livelihoods. The ensuing agreement was a straightforward one that satisfied both king and church. It required the Paravas to convert to Christianity and pay an annual tribute in exchange for the Kayalars’ being expelled from the coast.

In 1535, the Portuguese successfully expelled the Muslims and, in keeping with their agreement, approximately 20,000 Paravas accepted the Christian faith in an overnight mass conversion. ‘The great ceremonies of mass Baptism which followed this move were really declarations of tactical alliance rather than religious conversions as the term is usually understood.’[vi] The descendants of these new converts—and thousands more family members who were later baptized by St Francis Xavier—have come to be known as known as ‘the children of Xavier’.

This swift adoption of Christianity by the community would inevitably result in problems of adaptation. In point of fact, in the absence of Christian instruction in the local language, the new religion was more or less a veneer applied to Hindu customs and caste traditions. The resulting syncretism, or blending of two religions, was evident at several levels, and with the passage of time, some worthy practices have persisted while others have been given a new life through diversion.

For example, in current practice, we see the use of the gold chain, or thali, in marriage ceremonies. It is a tangible symbol, similar to the ring in western culture. In the Hindu liturgy, it is a sacred symbol of marriage presented to the wife by her husband. In the revised Christian (Bharatha) version, the thali contains the image of the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, incorporating the presence of the Holy Trinity, a crucial element of Catholic doctrine.

Equally prominent is the use of an opulent gold cart, known as the pon ther, in the August festival—it is the iconic standard-bearer in Hindu festivals. The Parava version is a cumbersome gold-encrusted chariot, 75 feet long[vii] and drawn through the streets of Tuticorin just once every five years, bearing the Our Lady of Snows statue. In the gap years, the statue is transported in a big golden palanquin, and on the first Saturday of each month the sacred image is set forth on a smaller palanquin.

Another consequence of the near-total absence of Tamil-speaking catechists and resulting ignorance of Christian doctrine among the new adherents, was that the Paravas continued to worship Hindu goddesses, such as Meenakshi Amman and Bhagavathi Amman. Francis Xavier understood the community’s ingrained affection for the mother goddess traditions and, in an act of psychological diversion, successfully introduced the role of Mary, replacing one maternal goddess with another. The practice of mother goddess worship was thus converted into the veneration of Mother Mary. Half a millennium later, Jesuit evangelization has successfully produced a vibrant Christian community in South India.

Caste Lifestyle and Christian Caste Lifestyle

The code of social gradation in Indian society, colloquially referred to as the caste system, is best understood through its abutting companion, the caste lifestyle—a rigid dogma of Hindu edicts in dress, dietary habits, marriage customs and traditions of worship. The Hindu holy books are a lexicon of the castes’ lineage, from which we learn the origins and stratification of the four main caste groups (themselves divided into Brahmins and non-Brahmins), plus approximately thirty thousand lesser and subordinate castes (called jatis). The texts may also be referenced as a sacred writ of hereditary entitlement which endows higher castes, while those in the lowest castes are frequently subject to ingrained inequities and, sadly, even violence.

The Portuguese entry into India was destined to have a transformative impact on the future life of the Bharathas and their Hindu caste lifestyle. The conversion to Roman Catholicism eventually culminated in profound Jesuit missionary activity devoted to eliciting worship of and compliance with the church’s magisterium (declared doctrine). The clan’s life was therefore consistently instructed in Christian truth, which established the new religious culture as a Christian caste lifestyle: The catechism displaced the Vedas, and the diurnal rituals of the pujas were forced out by the sacrament of the Catholic Mass. In marriage preparation, the consanguineal Hindu practice of union between first cousins was an early casualty, being promptly proscribed by church edict.

The rituals of baptism and the other sacraments had far-reaching clan repercussions imprinting on all, without exception, Portuguese first names and surnames (patronyms) sustaining a sense of distinct jati or caste identity. In its routine execution, it had all the trappings of a proud rite of passage. In Fishermen of the Coromandel, historian Patrick Roche writes,

So completely have Portuguese Patronymics been absorbed into the Paravar fabric that no Parava can have even the faintest recollection of what his or her indigenous occupation or clan name might have been.[viii]

The unique ‘Christian name’ given at baptism was a forename that was a Tamilised European name: Suroni (Jerome), Soosai (Joseph), Xaviermutthu (Xavier), Yagappan (James), Pavel (Paul), Annamma (Anne), Arulappar (John), Lorthusaamy (Lourdes), Matheyu (Matthew), Maatha (Mary), Rayappar (Peter), Saviriyar (Xavier), Thevasakayam (God’s help), Thomayar (Thomas), Thiresamma (Theresa). The patronyms, of which there were approximately seventy-two, were indiscriminately borrowed, usually from Portuguese soldiers who stood in as godparents in the baptism of a child or adult. Examples include Alvarez, Miranda, Pereira, Gomez, Motha, Vaz , Fernando, Corera, Roche and at least sixty-four others.[ix]

The Bharatha Exodus, the Bharatha Arrival

Looking back with a wide angle on the nineteenth century, we witness the Raj in South India converting the Tinnevelly District hinterland into cotton plantations. Meanwhile, across the ocean in Sri Lanka, their counterparts were aggressively transforming the colony from subsistence farming to large-scale plantation agriculture. These two forces, on opposite sides of the Gulf of Mannar, were the push and pull factors leading to an exodus in the nineteenth century of Bharatha families from the Fishery Coast and the surge onto the island of an energetic trading diaspora.

For two millennia, the South Indian Fishery Coast had been the principality of Paravanadu—the land of the Paravas. Now, in the space of a quarter-century, the British Raj not only supported misplaced development but stripped the very foundation of an ancient people’s way of life. Newly integrated rail and road networks, rather than connecting the seven port cities, bypassed six of them, with port modernization limited to Tuticorin all to expedite the delivery of cotton to the Birmingham and Lancashire mills. The bottom line is vividly captured in the words of historian Patrick Roche:

… these port towns were divested of their older roles as centres of commercial activity and education, and the void created in their maritime economy rendered them ghost towns, inhabited largely by a few fishermen, females and retirees from Government service or trade in Ceylon.[x]

The gateway to the new country, from the early 1860s, was the jetty of the Colombo harbour, with settlers usually arriving by boat mail—that is, aboard the steam-powered mail ships that plied between Tuticorin (on the India side) and Colombo (on the Ceylon side), a 16- to 18-hour journey across the 170 miles separating the two ports. On arrival, Bharatha immigrants followed the well-beaten trails of their pioneers, heading—usually by horse carriage, bullock cart or rickshaw—to their new homes in the precincts of Pettah, Kochikade, Mutwal and Kotahena, or by rail to the hill country or coastal towns with their plantation environs, all locales with a developing familial population.

At their destinations, the settlers surveyed their neighbourhoods like tourists, fascinated by the shop houses and the multi-cultural citizenry, both strikingly different from the unicaste townships of their former homeland.[xi] Predictably, some were conflicted between memories of the world they left behind and the challenges of acquiring a new language and coping with unfamiliar situations. The Colombo Bharathas were ahead of the adaptation curve, however, because their culture in many ways dovetailed with that of the local Karave, a fisher caste community that shared a colonial past and were acknowledged forerunners in the commercial world. Mutually comforting were the two groups’ western names and other Portuguese and Dutch influences which had found their way into the languages and dress. Most of all, both communities had converted to the Latin rite of the Catholic religion, the focus of their social well-being, with commitment and devotion displayed in familiar religious traditions and rituals.[xii]

Pettah: The Perfect Landing Spot

The commercial area of Colombo known as Pettah, a Tamil name meaning ‘area outside the military fort’, was the perfect backdrop for demonstrating the immigrant trader’s business skills—both formal and informal—to a robust assembly of multi-ethnic competitors. Here Bharatha merchants would have interacted face-to-face with every Indian trading ethnicity—Borahs, Gujarathis, Hyderabadis, Keralites, Malays, Memons, Moors, Nattukottai Chettiars, Parsis and Sindhis, to name a few.

Pettah was a compact area laid out in the symmetry of an oversized crossword puzzle. Ambling down its premier conduit, Main Street, the immigrants would have encountered the diaspora’s well-distributed pockets of specialised economic activity: exotic goods and services, wholesale and retail distributorships, middlemen, jobbers, salesmen and other functioning parts of the supply chain. At first, with untrained eyes, those ‘fresh off the boat’ from across the gulf may have been repelled by the din; history makes it clear, however, that they soon accepted the raucous atmosphere as a race towards price equilibrium.

The Colombo Bharathas made use of Pettah as a kind of home planet to satellite operations in the hill country and the coastal towns. First and most entrepreneurial among the visionary merchants was Paul Soris, who in 1861 founded a provision store in Nuwera Eliya and within a few short years added a model storehouse with well-stocked inventories of wines, spirits and imported foods. These operations plainly generated sizeable cash flows, encouraging Soris to branch out into fresh produce and flowers with the launching of a ten-acre garden near his hill-country operations. He followed it up with the construction of the small Pedro View Hotel for upper-class visitors to this incomparable resort in the hill country.[xiii]

The family firm of M.P. Gomez started its life in Ratnapura and rapidly opened branches in Colombo, Negombo, Chilaw, Avissawella and Balangoda. The energy and drive of the Gomez family encouraged   its extended kinsfolk, and in short order, franchises were opened in Kandy, Bandarawela, Nuwara Eliya and the suburbs of Colombo, with the addition of gas stations to their business archetype.

Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement by a member of the tribe was that of Santiago de Mel, also known as ‘Godfather’ (Aiya or Periva in Tamil), who rose from status as a minor clerk in a forgettable commodity house, first to become the leading agricultural importer of onions from his own farms near Tuticorin, and then to innovate the distribution of cooking oils and kerosene by bullock carts throughout the island under the Rising Sun brand. The entire operation was staffed by his Bharatha relatives from the defunct port city of Vembar.[xiv]

By the turn of the twentieth century, Sri Lanka was beginning to realise the increasing presence of an industrious Indian diaspora: These were ‘the Toilers’, ‘the Traders’ and ‘the Entrepreneurs’ so vividly brought to life by S. Muthiah in his masterpiece The Indo Lankans: Their 200-Year Saga.[xv] Muthiah quotes G.A. Crowell, a nineteenth-century Sri Lankan planter (the editorial emendations are Muthiah’s): ‘Wherever new roads have sprung up …, towns spring up and commerce establishes itself.… [Who] that saw Matale 20 or 25 years ago [could have imagined] it with its long street of thriving bazaars and its “Miranda”’—here Muthiah interjects his opinion of this Portuguese-derived (and thus clearly Bharatha) surname, with its Shakespearean ‘brave new world’ association, as ‘not a bad name for its principal merchant and hotelkeeper’.[xvi]

In these years, the massive expansion of Sri Lanka’s plantations, focusing on the cultivation of tea, rubber and coconut, was a turning point in the island’s economic life, negating the contraction of livelihoods just across the ocean. As this trade opened the country to commerce with the rest of the world, it created prototypical small towns with government offices which provided employment for a new class of workers, especially those with an English-language education, whose wages and salaries were paradigms of a nascent middle class. This was an environment perfectly suited to the Bharatha trader invested in the culture of merchandising provisions, food, liquor and all the essentials of life to the new populations in and around the plantations island-wide and the rapidly growing city of Colombo.[xvii]

[The  Colombo Bharathas’ contribution] to Ceylon was immense, particularly through the retail stores they established in small towns throughout the island to provide the middle class and the wealthy [with] imported household goods, from food and drink to furnishing and clothing. What the British-owned shops offered in Colombo, the Bharatha shops offered in other towns in Ceylon.[xviii]

Pettah: The Home of Commerce

Pettah endures as a crucible for the collective memories of the Indian diaspora. The precinct’s boundaries, enclosing approximately a square mile, are easy to make out if eyeballed from the pedestal of the iconic Khan clock tower.

I have walked the streets of this district several hundred times. Today, I resolve to slow down and see them afresh, realizing that the diaspora’s history informs my family’s story, welcoming my ancestors to this island in a way that is deeper than a scroll in the parish register. The sociologist Ronald Takaki encourages immigrants to remember that ‘In the sharing of our varied stories, we create a community of a larger memory.’[xix] I love this sentiment.

My nostalgia for the past spurs me to seek out the iconic names that once gave this this locale its cohesive energy, the numerous well-positioned Bharatha houses of commerce that once arose in this milieu, among them X.P. Paiva & Sons, known for imported foods and instructional books on Western classical music (full disclosure: X.P. was a member of my family); F.X. Pereira & Sons, the standard-bearer for department stores, insurance brokers and shipping agents; its subsidiary, The Rupee Stores, a worthy iteration of Woolworth’s dime stores; J.L. Carwallio & Sons, retailer of high-end ladies’ garments; and Victoria Caterers, exclusive provisioner of the restaurant cars in the long-distance trains of the Ceylon Government Railway.

One could catalogue numerous others owned by members of the tribe, including those secluded behind nondescript signage promoting their individual specialty. A well-known example is the ‘Fernando’ businesses, including Dry-Fish Merchants on Old Butcher Street, now renamed as I.X. Pereira Street, memorializing a charismatic businessman-politician. I recognize more small and large imprints of Colombo Bharatha history in shopfronts and marquees , in transport conduits and side streets, in Pettah’s pathways and aisles, in fact everywhere. And so, I accrue that history in my brain as I travel through the quarter.

Pettah in the years following World War II was also the community’s cultural zone, where the endogamous marriage tradition frequently surfaced, always illustrated in the simple fact that everybody was seemingly connected to you or your family. That same fact earned you a special welcome in any Bharatha household if you or a sibling were accomplished and of marriageable age—and therefore assumed to be primed for ‘an arrangement’.

Eventually I find that I have covered the main streets and the cross streets, and have gravitated to a well-attended evening service at St Philip Neri’s Church—the Colombo Bharathas’ church where, in the immediate postwar years, my father’s several siblings were baptized or married, or both. Centuries ago the shrine of Philip Neri on the western boundary of Pettah served the religious needs of the Bharatha Catholic seamen who called in at the Port of Colombo. Senior members of the community recall an opulent iteration of the feast of Our Lady of Snows, in which a statue was—and still is—paraded through the streets of Pettah. Rose petals would be placed in its path by pious Bharatha traders and their families. In some years, the prestigious Ceylon Police Band would provide the orchestral backdrop for the devotional and formal services through the generosity of several Bharatha families. St Philip Neri’s Church persists as a cultural touchstone in a way that most religious shrines do not, reminding the remaining Bharatha families in the city to explore their ethno-religious identity, as I have come full circle to do now.

Benediction and Bon Voyage

 In Sri Lanka, the Bharatha story, in a phrase, is one of immigrant success, for which we look back with gratitude on the long-sightedness of our ancestors. Beyond Sri Lanka, Bharatha toilers, traders and entrepreneurs have continued to settle as emigres in Australia, North America and Europe especially in the  post second world war  years , disrupting traditional barriers through assimilation or education.

In these early decades of the twenty-first century, the clan is still on the move, now led by the demographic cohorts known as Gen X and the Millennials—the children and grandchildren of my own generation. I now understand nature’s purpose for the curious sociological ‘rule of three’. As a third generation immigrant of “Colombo  Bharatha “ancestry, I am in a unique position to both preserve the genetic memory of our proud clan, and pass it along to those whose grandchildren, born in yet another corner of the world, will ask them, ‘So, who or what is a Bharatha?’

*** Joe ‘Malli’ Vaz grew up in Colombo and was educated at St Joseph’s College and Aquinas University College, Colombo. An Economics graduate of the University of London, he received an MBA in International Management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix, Arizona. Over the years, he has worked in banking and finance, and graduated from several banking studies programs, including the School of International Banking at the University of Colorado Boulder. For the past twenty years he has been an adjunct instructor in business studies at colleges in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, where he lives with his wife, Nimal Wickramaratne.

** The refinement of the PIX for preesentatsion here was sorted out by Johnny De Silva of Melbourne, an old schoolmate who is not a Bharatha but a good citizen of the world.


[1] I have used Bharatha for the Sri Lankan side of the chronicle and the typical Indian spelling and pronunciation, Parava, for the Indian narration. Occasionally a neutral context may make the epithet incidental.

[i] Susan Bayly. Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700–1900. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 322.

[ii] Jules Verne. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Trans. David Coward. London: Penguin Classics, 2017, p. 255.

[iii] Harriet Martineau. “Cinnamon and Pearls.” In Illustrations of Political Economy, Vol. 7. London: Charles Fox, 1832, p. 22.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Sarojini Naidu. “The Coromandel Fishers.” In The Golden Threshold. Hyderabad: William Heinemann, 1905.

[vi] Bayly, p. 328.

[vii] Bayly, p. 343.

[viii] Patrick Roche. Fishermen of the Coromandel. New Delhi: Manohar, 1984, p. 27.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid., p. 92.

[xi] Ibid., p. 72.

[xii] Ibid., p. 68.

[xiii] Arnold Wright, ed. Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon. London: Lloyds, 1907, p. 833.

[xiv][xiv] S. Muthiah. The Indo Lankans: Their 200-Year Saga. Colombo: Indian Heritage Foundation, 2003, p. 95.

[xvi] Quoted in Muthiah, p. 19.

[xvii] E.F.C. Ludowyk. The Modern History of Ceylon. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966, p. 95.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ronald Takaki. Civil Rights Journal, Fall 1997, p. 50.

ALSO SEE …. ….. courtesy of Jayantha Somasundaram in CANBERRA


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9 responses to “The “Colombo Bharathas”: A Merchant Community

  1. EMAIL COMMENT from ANOMA ABEYEWARDENE in UK, 26 June 2021: …. “Amen. Apart from some very scholastic work by Raghavan, written in the 60s about minority communities and castes and a paper submitted to the Royal Asiatic Society in the 1890s with mentioned The Ceylon Kaffir, Sri Lankan sociology used to be a desert when it came to this sort of information.”

  2. John Gerald Artie Paldano

    Any further details on the family portrait, like it’s origin and the people in them would be highly appreciated.
    Gerald Paldano.

    • Joe "Malli" Vaz

      Studio photograph circa August 1946, Tuticorin.All are Iruthyamma’s nephews -nieces.
      Seated front row :”JN”Paiva; Iruthyamma Paiva- Devotta;Fr Francis
      (?)Mel;Sr Mary Mel (?).Mrs Peter Mel and Mr Peter Mel.
      Others are Mel adult siblings , in-laws and grandchildren.

      • Joe Malli Vaz

        In the interest of accuracy I have researched Gerald Paldano’s inquiry and with his input I offer these corrections

        Standing from left to right.
        Lucy Paldano (nee Mel / sister) , Lazar Mel (younger brother), Violet Fernando (nee Mel / sister)
        Seated from left to right.
        Jerome Mel (father), Kanikkai Mel (nee Valdaris / mother), Rev. Fr. Xavier Mel (elder brother), Rev. Sr. Meltius Mary (elder sister), Iruthayammal Mel (nee Valdaris / wife), Peter Mel.

  3. Joseph fernando

    Thank you for the article. It is our Bharatha history no one can deny it. We are a close knit clan. Some one is related to some one somewhere type clan. Even though we are miles apart from our homeland we still follow most of our traditions in our adapted land. Let our children continue follow those traditions.

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  5. Dharmar Rodrigo.

    Quite interesting to read.

  6. Jerome Fernando

    Excellent work !

  7. Rayen

    Shout out from the Rayens, Mascarenhas,DeCruz and the Machados

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