The “Island In The Sun” is the title song of the 1957 movie bearing the same name. It was written by Irving Burgie and sung by Harry Belafonte.
Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand
As morning breaks, the Heaven on high
I lift my heavy load to the sky
Sun comes down with a burning glow
Mingles my sweat with the earth below
Oh island in the sun
Willed to me by my father’s hand
All my days I will sing in praise
Of your forest waters, your shining sand
I see woman on bended knee
Cutting cane for her family
I see man at the waterside
Casting nets at the surging tide
Though this song addresses the island of Jamaica, it is equally applicable to Sri Lanka the pearl of the Indian Ocean and nature’s treasure chest.
The island paradise, formerly known as Ceylon until 1972, is in the northern Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent in South Asia. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest. It is one of the most delightful destinations in the world to visit.
Sri Lanka is the home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Though the island’s documented history spans over 2,550 years, evidence shows that it had prehistoric human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years. Its history boasts of planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, and monasteries, expansive reservoirs, green forests and gardens, monuments and works of art.
Sri Lanka due to its geographic location and endowed with natural harbours has been the cynosure of strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II.
Today, Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a presidential system. The capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city.
Sri Lanka is home to many races speaking diverse languages, and following different religious faiths. It is the land of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the aboriginal Veddas.
The island has a rich Buddhist heritage spanning from the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BC) of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all the Indian subcontinent from circa 269 to 232 BCE. The first known Buddhist writings of Sri Lanka, the Pāli Canon dates back to the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE.
The island is one of the most beautiful and delightful destinations in the world for tourists to visit. Its historical planned cities, magnificent palaces, temples, dagobas, monasteries, monuments, sculptures and other works of art, expansive artificial reservoirs, green gardens, etc., illustrate the characteristic rich history of its ancient rulers.
Here is a video titled “Heritage of Sri Lanka” produced by The Ministry of National Heritage Sri Lanka, which I enjoyed viewing and I hope you too will be delighted to view it as well.
During the last months of 1709, Joseph Vaz suffered from a peculiar kind of fever, which subsided for a short time and then recurred with renewed force. Though weak, during the periods when the fever subsided he visited the Mission. He went even as far as Kottyar on the southern coast. He had no proper lodging there. Years of continuous work and hardships fatigued him and broke his constitution.subsided he visited the Mission. He went even as far as Kottyar on the southern coast. He had no proper lodging there. Years of continuous work and hardships fatigued him and broke his constitution.
In January 1710, Joseph Vaz became seriously ill and there was no physician to attend to him. As soon as he felt a bit better, sent him off on a bullock cart. After eight days, he reached Mahanuwara.
In the capital, he was given good medical attention. After careful nursing, infections and fever left him, but he was found himself weak. Though he regained a bit of strength, his legs were partly paralyzed.
He asked Father Jacome Goncalvez to come to the capital and entrusted him with the care of the Catholics.
Inspite of partial paralysis, Joseph Vaz never ceased to work. He could no longer go on distant excursions as before. People saw him daily on the streets of the capital, dragging himself in extreme pain with the help of a stick. He visited the sick in their houses.
Every morning sitting in front of his door, he taught children Catechism. When his sufferings did not allow him even to do that, he spent the whole day in prayer.
Though Joseph Vaz recovered, he was weak. From then on, he was unable to leave the Church premises again, but whenever a call came to attend the sick and if Father Jacome Goncalvez or any other priest was not there, then he would immediately set out, but carried in a dooly (a kind of litter suspended from men’s shoulders, for carrying people or things; a modified stretcher).
On one occasion, when the bearers were descending a hill, he fell off the dooly. He was unconscious when the bearers picked him up. They brought him back to the church. He suffered body pain for about four months. He bore his illness with great fortitude.
In spite of his illness, Joseph Vaz undertook eight days of spiritual exercises prescribed by the Oratorian Rule. He considered himself a great sinner. He received the Sacrament of Penance every day as well as Holy Communion.
Joseph Vaz realized that it was time to resign from office, both as Vicar General and Superior. From then on, he spoke of death only.
On January 15, 1711 Joseph Vaz wrote the order of change of charge from him to Father Jose Menezes.
On the morning of January 16, 1711, Joseph Vaz wanted to make his confession. He dragged himself to the church as usual, attended Mass, received Holy Communion and went through his daily spiritual exercises. That day, he requested a stunned Jacome Goncalvez to have the holy oils ready for the last anointing.
When Father Goncalvez anointed him, Joseph Vaz made all the responses to the prayers for the sick and the dying. He kissed the crucifix which Pope Clement XI had sent as a gift to him through Monsignor Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, the Papal Legate. He requested Father Jacome Goncalvez to send the Crucifix to the Oratory in Goa.
Fathers Goncalves and Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda asked Josep Vaz to give them a message that they could etch on their stricken hearts. After a few moments of thought, the dying priest said in Sinhalese:
“Remember that one cannot easily do at the time of death what one has neglected to do all his life. Live according to the inspirations of God.”
Just before midnight on Friday, January 16, 1711, Joseph Vaz expired with Fathers Jacome Goncalves and Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda, beside his deathbed.
The young King Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha, greatly affected by the death of his friend, the saintly priest Joseph Vaz declared a three-day mourning. He ordered all Catholics of his Court to attend the funeral. Many Catholics came from Colombo and other parts of Ceylon to attend the grand funeral.
After a solemn funeral ceremony, the body of the great Missionary was laid to rest in front of the high altar in the church he had built on the shore of the Bogambra lake.
Later on, a rumour spread that the Oratorian priests had exhumed the body of Joseph Vaz and had taken the remains to Goa. This distressed the King. However, Father Jacome Goncalves opened the tomb in the presence of a few nobles of the Court and show them that the body was still lying there.
King John of Portugal bestowed the highest praises on Joseph Vaz in a letter dated April 11, 1726. He called him:
“The model of Missionaries, a great servant of God, and founder of a truly apostolic Mission.”
During the Portuguese rule in Ceylon, the attitude of the rulers towards non-Christians had been oppressive and destructive. The concept of the time was that all religions except Christianity were wrong and had no right to exist.
The Portuguese forces pillaged and plundered Buddhist and Hindu temples and converted a few into Catholic churches. They gave the Franciscans all the lands of the Buddhist and Hindu temples.
Although Joseph Vaz desired people to convert to Christianity, he followed a policy of tolerance, co-existence and friendliness towards the adherents of other faiths. When nursing the sick during the smallpox epidemic or distributing alms to the poor, he treated both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He never resorted to the destruction of their temples nor offered favours and privileges to converts. He convinced the non-Christians by his self-sacrificing charity, service to fellowmen, and by leading an exemplary saintly life.
Joseph Vaz demonstrated to the Church of his time an alternate way to approach the non-Christians, different from that followed by the Church in alliance with the state.
In the olden days, people in India and Ceylon considered their kings divine. Hence, the rulers rarely appeared before their subjects. Even great dignitaries and nobles of the land prostrated on the ground when they approached the king.
Buddhism is an ancient and tolerant religion. It never obstructed the dreams and passions of Joseph Vaz. He revealed this aspect of Buddhism in his communication with the Kings. He never made any distinction of faiths while serving the people on the hostile Island of Ceylon. The unbounded charity of Joseph Vaz was one of the reasons, why King Vimaladharmasurya II respected him. The King considered the priest as an awesome supernatural being. For him, the priest was an enigma.
The way the King conversed familiarly with Joseph Vaz and taking him to his private chambers for chatting astonished the nobles, dignitaries, and the people.
Father Emmanuel de Miranda was stationed in Colombo, the most dangerous and exposed place. He had organized the Catholics of that town so well that they came out openly and even protested against the Dutch penal Laws.
In 1706, when Joseph Vaz wanted to visit Kottiyar on the eastern coast with Father Jacome Gonsalves, he fell mortally sick and was unable to walk. Yet, placing his full trust in God, he continued the 14 days long journey on foot until he arrived in Puttalam.
King Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha of Kandy
King Vimaldharmnasurya II of the Kingdom of Kandy, patron of Joseph Vaz died in 1707. His 17-years-old son Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha succeeded him and reigned for 32 years. He was the last Sinhalese King of the Kingdom of Kandy.
Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha was a pious monarch, and like his father lived in peace with the Dutch invaders. He devoted himself to the furtherance of literature and religion.
The young monarch proved to be an even greater supporter of Joseph Vaz and his Missionaries than his father.
A few days after the death of Father Joseph Carvalho, the young King passed before the church with a large retinue. He ordered his elephant to stop in front of the church. He then sent one of his courtiers with his condolences to Joseph Vaz, saying that he would like him to bring more priests of such great virtue as his deceased nephew to Kandy.
According to the law of the land, the dead ought to be buried outside the towns and villages, but the King allowed Joseph Vaz to entomb the body of Father Joseph Carvalho in the church. Later on, the King extended this privilege to all the Oratorian Fathers. Such instances of royal favour made a great impression on the people. It helped to boost the Apostolate of Joseph Vaz and his Indian Catholic Missionaries from Goa.
However, persecution of the Catholics by the Calvinist Dutch raged outside the Kingdom of Kandy. Without the protection given to the Missionaries by the Buddhist Kings of Kandy, it would not have been possible to establish the present flourishing Catholic communities in Ceylon.
Having now resident Missionaries in all the principal towns of Ceylon, Joseph Vaz was continually on the move. In 1708, the health of Joseph Vaz began to decline, and yet he visited his Missions.
In 1709, there was a rebellion against the young King Narendra Sinha headed by his own uncle. At that time, Father Manoel de Miranda and Jacome Goncalvez were with him in the capital. Sensing that there would be inevitable robberies and sacking of properties, the priests distributed beforehand everything that was in the Church to the poor, without keeping anything for themselves. Keeping the doors of the Church open, the three priests committed themselves to prayer and sung the office of the dead during the rebellion.
None of the rebels or looters attacked the Church and its properties. After the rebellion was over, a great amount of help from unexpected quarters came to them, which was more than what they had distributed before the rebellion.
Joseph Vaz carried his mission to the main centres of the island with his group of Goan Bammon (the Roman Catholic Brahmin) priests. As their Superior, Joseph Vaz directed the work of all the Missionaries. The priests under his leadership and inspiration moved about undercover and served the persecuted Catholic population in Ceylon. Joseph Vaz paid them frequent visits, encouraging them with his indefatigable zeal. He was cherished and venerated by all.
As there were resident Missionaries in all the principal towns of Ceylon, Joseph Vaz was continually on the move. He visited the Missions along with one or two priests and a few devoted Catholics. He went from village to village wherever there were Catholics or the hope of converting the Buddhists and Hindus. Sometimes, he went out of his way to visit a single Catholic.
Many former Catholics, who under compulsion or for worldly interests apostatized, returned to the Catholic Faith after performing required penance.
Joseph Vaz had taught the Christian Faith to a young man from an influential family. He was a page at the Royal Court and was bound to go wherever the King went. As the lad wished to become a Christian, it was not always possible for him to avoid going to the temples along with the King.
Seeing the precarious position of the young man, Joseph Vaz advised him to withdraw from the Court. Following the advice of the priest, the lad went to a remote village to live. Sadly, because of the idle life in the village, the young man, now living far from the saint, lost his innocence. By and by, he plunged into vice. Eventually, he got married.
When Joseph Vaz came to know the fate of the young man, he prayed to God for him, and hoped that he would one day become an instrument in the hand of God for the salvation of many.
One night when the young man tried to sleep, he remembered his early youth, of the saintly priest and of his pious instructions.The thoughts tormented him. Struck with remorse at his apostasy, and at the wicked life he had led since, he spent the rest of the night in prayer. At dawn, he along with a Catholic neighbour went to the capital.
Since Joseph Vaz had gone to visit the Missions, the young man found Father Pedro de Saldanha whom he did not know. So, without revealing his identity to the priest, he humbly begged the priest to admit him among the catechumens.
After a few days, Father Saldanha on observing the young man’s piety and knowing he was perfectly instructed in the Christian Faith wished to baptize him. Then, the young man prostrated himself at the feet of the priest and told him his story. He made a general confession and resolved to expiate his crime by working for the glory of God and left.
Some days later, Father Saldanha went to his place, baptized him and his family, and blessed their marriage. The once recalcitrant young man now brought over to the Catholic Faith forty more people.
The news of such the mass conversion infuriated the anti-Christian mob. They were afraid that the conversion of the young man would induce others to follow his example, and that he would use his influence to help the priests in their Apostolate.
The Buddhist mob knew from their past encounters with the King that neither political considerations nor their threat of rebellion could move him from his sincere affection for the Catholic priests. So, they sought to rouse his religious and his superstitious sensitivity.
At that time, as even now, the Buddhists of Ceylon were imbibed with all the superstitions of the Hindus. For the Hindus, the cow was most sacred. In many countries in India, killing a cow was the greatest and heinous crime that one could ever commit. It was equal to murdering three Brahmins on the shores of the sacred Ganges. And, the punishment decreed for the crime of killing a cow was death.
The mob told to King that Father Pedro de Saldanha had baptized the young man, once a page of the King and all his companions with the blood of a cow. As such, it was clear that his Superior Joseph Vaz and his Missionaries too were killing many cows. The Buddhist King, in dire indignation, ordered the last six converts, whom Father Saldanha had baptized, thrown into prison and to confiscate their properties.
This was a great setback for Joseph Vaz. Fearing a renewal of persecutions, he prayed to God to avert this new danger from His Church. Fortunately, there were then two factions at the Royal Court: one opposed to the Catholics and hostile to the Catholics, and the other enlightened, or indifferent, and hospitable to the Catholics. The latter faction approached the King and proved to him that the Catholic Missionaries had been slandered; that the Catholic Missionaries never killed cows; and that they baptized the converts with water to which they added a little oil with balm.
The King, realizing his folly immediately ordered the release of the six prisoners and restored their properties. The released men went straight from jail to the church to thank God for their liberation.
It was the last persecution that the Catholics of the Kandy Kingdom had to suffer during the lifetime of Joseph Vaz. From then onwards the saintly priest was able to spread the Catholic Faith in peace in the whole kingdom.
.In 1668, after the smallpox epidemic ceased entirely, life turned back to normal in the capital. Leaving Father Joseph Carvalho to take care of the Catholics of the capital, Joseph Vaz went visiting the Missions and the villages.
In 1699, Joseph Vaz went to Gurubevelle, a village to the east of Colombo. There he met Father Jose Menezes, appointed by him as the missionary of Puttalam, Negombo and its districts up to Sitawaka and Colombo. Despite the vigilance of the Dutch, Father Jose Menezes and the Catholics there had instructed their Buddhists brethren in Christianity in and around Gurubevelle. In the short space of 13 days, Joseph Vaz baptized more than a thousand.
The Dutch Governor of Colombo, on knowing what was taking place in Gurubevelle, ordered the arrest of the two priests. A company of Dutch soldiers came to the village and surrounded the house in which Joseph Vaz was staying. At that time, Jose Menezes was not there.
The soldiers then barged in and searched the house, and although Joseph Vaz remained all the time among them, they did not see him.
The anxious Catholics who had assembled outside the house saw Vaz in the midst of the Dutch soldiers. They expected the arrest of the priest at any moment. But the soldiers could not see him. Joseph was invisible to them. Joseph Vaz, with the box containing the requisites for Mass, passed among the soldiers, but they did not see him.
The Dutch soldiers were sure that the priest was hiding somewhere in the house and searched every nook and corner. But they did not find him nor did they find any incriminating evidence to prove that people had assembled there for a Catholic service. However, in one room, they saw a lady and were bewildered. The lady asked them whom they sought. But the officer and the soldiers seized with terror fled from her sight and found themselves outside the house.
Ashamed for having run away from a woman, they once again entered that particular room and found nobody there. And, they saw on the spot where the lady had been standing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Filled with awe, they went away without touching the statue. The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.
At once the news spread throughout the region that the Blessed Virgin had appeared in that house, and people came in haste to venerate the statue.
The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.
Joseph Vaz left Gurubevelle on a boat on the Kelani River. He went to Seethawakapura (now known as Avissawella), the capital of the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Though the Dutch territory was only a few miles away, Vaz established his headquarters there.
On knowing that Joseph Vaz had gone away from the capital, a group of Buddhists decided to take strong measures to prevent the progress of Christianity in the kingdom. They approached the King and asked him to arrest Father Joseph Carvalho and also forbid Joseph Vaz to set foot again in the Kingdom of Kandy. When they saw that the King would not give in to their demands, they threatened him with rebellion.
Since the leader of this Buddhist faction was a powerful Kandyan Chief, the King out of fear of being the cause of a rebellion yielded to their demands. He agreed to exile Father Josep Carvalho from Kandy. However, the King sent one of his Catholic officials to the priest to assure him that he would suffer no harm and that he was free to take along with him whatever he possessed.
Yet in spite of the King’s assurance, the Buddhist mob manhandled the priest. Carvalho took refuge in a country house that belonged to a Catholic named Anthony de Herta, a few miles from the capital, on the other side of the river.
Twenty-five days after Carvalho’s departure, the Buddhist mob led by their Chief, razed the church to the ground.
On learning about the events in Kandy during his absence Joseph Vaz wept.
A few days later, a dreadful malady afflicted the Chief. He was unable to move his legs. A hideous ulcer appeared on his tongue, and putrid pustules covered his entire body. People considered his fate as a just punishment from God for driving away the priest and demolishing the church after desecrating it.
At the end of 1699, Joseph Vaz returned to Mahanuwara with Father Joseph Carvalho, who had been expelled from the capital at the instigation of Buddhist Bhikkus. The two priests constructed a new church. Joseph Vaz then went into service for the king, translating Portuguese books into Sinhalese. From this vantage point, Vaz intensified his ministry and converted some Sinhalese nobles to Catholicism.
Joseph Vaz declines the office of
the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon
Pope Clement XI received news of the Apostolate of Joseph Vaz conveyed from Goa. The Pope, sent a Papal Legate, Monsignor Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, Patriarch of Antioch (and afterwards Cardinal), with instructions to make inquiries about the work of the indefatigable Joseph Vaz in Ceylon and the Mission he founded and render him every assistance.
In December 1703, Maillard de Tournon arrived in Pondicherry, India. Deputed by the Bishop of Mylapore, Father Paulo de Sa, the Parish priest of Kodulur, welcomed him. The Papal Legate inquired from the priest about Joseph Vaz and his Apostolate work in Ceylon. Impressed by what he gleaned, the Papal Legate proposed to make use of his extensive powers to appoint Joseph Vaz the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon.
The Papal Legate sent a letter to Joseph Vaz through Father Francisco da Cruz, an Oratorian priest stationed in Tamilnadu. The latter sent a courier to Joseph Vaz along with a beautiful crucifix inlaid with silver sent by the Papal Legate as a present to Joseph Vaz.
Being a humble person, Joseph Vaz had not taken pains to describe much about his Apostolate work and had avoided taking the credit for himself. So, he deliberated over what this appointment could lead to. He had seen enough of the ecclesiastic squabbles that resulted from the appointment of the Vicars Apostolic in the Padroado regions. Since his Mission in Ceylon belonged and had its seat in Padroado territory of Goa, he feared that accepting the Papal Legate’s nomination would mean the ruin of the Church in Ceylon, which he had planted and nurtured with great personal sacrifice.
Replying to the letter of the Papal Legate, Joseph Vaz said he was confused when he received the letter, which in his humility he felt unworthy of and signed his reply as an unworthy servant. He excused his delay in replying saying that he was not worthy of corresponding with persons of so high dignity and submissively thanked him for the crucifix.
On receipt of the reply from Joseph Vaz, Monsignor Maillard de Tournon wrote to the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda Fide that he had proofs of the virtues the humble priest and the “modesty with which be brushed aside some miracles which are said to be operated by God through him“.
This explains why Saint Joseph Vaz is commonly portrayed in a simple surplice with a bishop’s mitre and crozier beside him.mitre and crozier beside him.
Six more Missionaries come from India
In 1705, the Superior of the Goa Oratory sent six more priests to Ceylon. They were: Pedro de Saldanha, Manoel de Miranda, Joseph de Jesu Maria, Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda, Basil Baretto and Jacome Goncalvez.
After reaching Ceylon and meeting Joseph Vaz, Father Jacome Goncalvez wrote to his Perfect in Goa:
“That ejaculation ‘Oh my Jesus‘ which he used in his sermons in Goa to excite fervour in our hearts, I have now heard many times repeated by him by day and night…
He always carries with him a piece of white cloth to wipe his face for he often sweats due to fatigue or has tears of compunction…
He is always absorbed in God and forgets himself…
At the first sermon we heard from him in Tamil, we saw the people crying because they understood him. Even though we could not understand him, we felt also like crying because the way he was preaching he was moving our hearts..
During the journeys, he always holds fast to the beads of the rosary and recites it alternately with his companions with great devotion.”
Of these six priests, we have more information about Father Jacome Goncalvez than the other five priests.
Father Jacome Goncalvez
Jacome Goncalvez was the eldest son of Thomas Goncalvez and Mariana de Abreu. They lived in the parish of Our Lady of Piety (Piedade), Divar, Goa. Though the Goncalvez were Konkani Brahmins, they had been Christians for more than two generations. They were among the first converts at the beginning of Portuguese rule in Goa.
Jacome studied at the Jesuit College of Goa. He enrolled in the University of Goa, probably Collegio São Paulo, and obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. In 1696, he joined the Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Goa to study theology. He also held the post of an organist, and this led him to appreciate poetry, prose and music.
In 1700, Jacome Goncalvez was ordained a priest of the Oratorian Order in Goa, India. On January 1705 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Collegio São Paulo, but he relinquished it the same year to go to Ceylon.
Father Jacome Goncalvez left Goa on May 9, 1705 and arrived at Talaimannar, Ceylon on August 39, 1705. At the time, he knew Konkani, Portuguese, Latin and Spanish.
During the long journey from Goa to Talaimannar, he studied Tamil. He improved his knowledge of Tamil by reading Tamil classics written on ola leaf (palm leaf manuscripts).
There were now ten Oratorian Missionaries in Ceylon, all natives of India. Joseph Vaz was now able to organize the Catholic Mission in Ceylon. He divided the Ceylon Mission into eight districts and appointed a priest to each, to serve the needs of the Catholics. Soon, the number of adherents to Catholicism grew rapidly.
Father Jacome Goncalvez mastered the Tamil language during his first assignment on the islands of Mannar, Arippu, Musali and other places in the Mannar district. He also learnt Dutch. Joseph Vaz then sent him to Mahanuwara to learn Sinhalese in the Malwatta Chapter, known for their high and elegant mastery of the Sinhalese language. He also studied Sinhalese under the tutelage of educated laymen like Gaskone Adikaram.
Joseph Vaz and Jacome Goncalvez worked on the creation of Catholic literature comparable to that of the Buddhist literature.
Jacome Goncalvez, became a specialist in Tamil and Sinhalese languages. He won name and fame in the literary history of Sri Lanka, as a classical poet in Sinhalese and as a writer of about forty books. He is rightly called “the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon”. He wrote many of his works at Bolawatta, near Negombo. Since there was no printing press, he employed 12 Sinhalese clerks to copy his works.
S.G. Perera, in his book “Life of Blessed Joseph Vaz Apostle of Sri Lanka” says:
“[Jacome Goncalvez has been called] the most successful missionary that this island [Sri Lanka] ever had, the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon, whose name is still held in benediction and whose literary works in Sinhalese and Tamil are still in daily use in the church of this island.”
The identity of the ruler in power in Kotte at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese has been a matter of dispute for some time. The accepted theory, propounded by historians S.G. Perera and H.W. Codrington was that the ruler of Kotte at the turn of the 16th century was Veera Parakramabahu VIII.
In 1961, Senerat Paranavitana using evidence from the Rajavaliya, the 17th-century Sinhala historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, and evidence from Portuguese sources made a strong argument that the ruler was not Veera Parakramabahu VIII but Dharma Parakramabahu IX and he fixed his reign from 1491 to 1513.
G.P.V. Somaratne in his 1975 monograph accepted this conclusion though he concluded that Dharma Parakramabahu IX ruled from 1489 to 1513. Most scholars have accepted this theory.Somaratne in his 1975 monograph accepted this conclusion though he concluded that Dharma Parakramabahu IX ruled from 1489 to 1513. Most scholars have accepted this theory.
King Veera Parakramaahbu VIII, also known as Ambulagala Kumara, became King of Kotte after killing King Parakramabahu VII. He had two queens. The chief queen bore him three sons: Bhuvanekabahu, Sri Rajasinghe, and Vijayabahu. The second queen bore him two sons: Sakakala Valla and Taniyavalla.
After the death of Veera Parakrama Bahu VIII, his eldest son Bhuvanekabahu became King of Kotte, under the name “Dharma Parakramabahu IX”. He ruled the Kingdom of Kotte from 1489/81 to 1513.
In 1513, when King Dharma Parakramabahu IX died, the people of Kotte wanted his half brother, Sakalakala Valla, then reigning as sub-king at Udagampola, to become their king. However, according to the Rajavaliya, Sakalakala Valla, the half-brother crowned Vijaya Bahu VII as King of Kotte since his older brother Sri Rajasinghe had died.
Vijayabahu had two wives. The first was Anula Kahatuda, also known as Keerawelle Mahabiso Bandara, who Vijayabahu had cohabited along with his older brother Sri Rajasinghe. Through this incestal intercourse, three sons were born: Pararajasinghe later known as Raigama Bandara, Bhuvanekabahu and Mayadunne. Sri Rajasinghe later died at Menikkadawara.incestal intercourse, three sons were born: Pararajasinghe later known as Raigama Bandara, Bhuvanekabahu and Mayadunne. Sri Rajasinghe later died at Menikkadawara.
After Anula Kahatuda died, King Vijayabahu married another princess from the Keerawelle royal family called “Biso Bandara” who had a son named Devarajasinghe from her previous marriage. When Sakakalavalla died, this queen wanted her son to be made the sub-king of Udugampola though he was still seven years old. The king was excessively fond of his new queen, so much so, when she persuaded the King to make her son the king after his demise, the King planned to murder his three sons to fulfil her wish.
Vijayabahu then plotted with Ekanayake Mudaliyar and Kandure Bandara to kill his three grown up sons. When the sons came to know that their father planned to kill them, the fled the kingdom and sought safety in Kandy. King Jaya Vira II of Kandy, married to their cousin, provided them army to fight their father.
Vijayabahu then plotted with Ekanayake Mudaliyar and Kandure Bandara to kill his three grown up sons. When the sons came to know that their father planned to kill them, the fled the kingdom and sought safety in Kandy. King Jaya Vira II of Kandy, married to their cousin, provided them army to fight their father.
In 1521, the three brothers led their army to Kotte and ransacked the palace while their father, Vijayabahu, hid with his wives in the highest point of the palace. It was decided that the king should die, but no Sinhalese came forward to do the task of killing him. Eventually, a Muslim man named Salman killed King Vijayabahu VII.
As advised by the great minister Illangakon the kingdom was divided into three parts. Mayadunne, the youngest, received Sitawaka, Denawaka, and Four Korales as the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Pararajasinghe received Raigama, Walallawiti, and Pasyodun Korale excluding the sea ports as the Principality of Raigama. From then on he was known as Raigama Bandara. Mayadunne, the youngest, received Sitawaka, Denawaka, and Four Korales as the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Pararajasinghe received Raigama, Walallawiti, and Pasyodun Korale excluding the sea ports as the Principality of Raigama. From then on he was known as Raigama Bandara. Bhuvanekabahu ruled the rest of the territory as King Bhuvanekabahu VII.
When Raigama Bandara died in 1538, Mayadunne seized his kingdom. He became a sworn enemy of his eldest brother Bhuvanekabahu.
Saint Francis Xavier and the plague in Mannar
In mid 16th century, Saint Francis Xavier the Delegate of the Pope in the East. In a letter he wrote from Cochin addressed to King John III, King of Portugal, dated January 20, 1548, he mentions:
“As to the state of religion and the Christian people in India, the pious and religious men who are going from these parts to you, with the purpose of advancing the service of God, will most fully inform your Highness concerning them. Moreover, Father Joam de Villa Conde, a faithful minister of God, who has had much experience of what is going on in the island of Ceylon, is writing to your Highness concerning them certain things which it is of importance that he should tell you, and that you should know…”
Father Joam de Villa Conde had complained bitterly that the 80-year-old King Bhuvanekabahu VII was placing all possible obstacles to the progress of Catholicism in his Kingdom of Kotte. So, Francis Xavier decided to visit Ceylon and meet with the aged king.
In early February 1548, Francis Xavier chartered a small vessel from Manapad to Jaffnapattinam. He first landed at Mannar, where he prostrated himself on the ground and kissed the earth.
The plague was raging on the Island and people were dying at a rate of more than a hundred a day. Older writers often gave the generic name “plague” to all epidemics including smallpox.
As soon as the people knew that the ‘Great Father’ had come to Mannar, they came running to him, weeping and begging him to deliver them from the plague. Most of them were Hindus. The priest told them to wait three days. He retired to a quiet place and started praying. After three days, the plague disappeared miraculously and the sick recovered.plague disappeared miraculously and the sick recovered.
Considering the event as a miracle, many asked Francis Xavier to baptize them, and he acceded to their request. He then asked a priest of the Franciscan order from Jaffnapattinam to take charge of the neophytes.
From Mannar, the saint went to Jaffnapattinam to see King Sagara Raja of Jaffna. The King received the saint kindly.
In Jaffnapattinam, Francis Xavier boarded a ship sailing to Galle. The day after reaching Galle, he left for Colombo.
Saint Francis Xavier meets King Bhuvanekabahu VII
From Colombo, Francis Xavier left for Kotte to pay his respects to the aged King Bhuvanekabahu VII.
King Bhuvanekabahu VII was a weak king. During his reign, his younger brother Mayadunne, along with his son Prince Tikiri Bandara (later King Rajasinghe I), fought the Portuguese incessantly hoping to drive them out of Ceylon. They also attempted to get rid of Bhuvanekabahu and annex the Kingdom of Kotte. This resulted in Bhuvanekabahu allying with the Portuguese since he required their power to defend himself against his younger brother and his son.
Though he was their ally, Bhuvanekabahu was vehemently against the Portuguese, when it came to the spread of the Christian religion in his kingdom..
When Francis Xavier appeared at his Court, the crafty old King understood from the very first that he had to deal with a man could not be easily deceived.
When Francis Xavier discussed the conversion of his religion the King spoke openly with the saint.
A Jesuit priest, Father Fernão de Queiroz, in his bulky manuscript “Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon” has described the conversation between them. The King said:
“I understand father that your religion is the only true one. All others have so much errors and is clear to anyone. I know fully well that continuing the path that I follow I can end only in hell. It is true that my father and my ancestors died pagans. But I see that the religion of Buddum contains errors as intolerable as they are incompatible with reason. I have come to understand that the penitence of the Christians is the true remedy for sins. Though I know the truth Christ, on account of the place which I hold, I am unable to receive Baptism at once, for the least suspicion that they should have of me in this regard would be enough to ruin the whole of my realm. I beg you to patronize cause in front of the Governor of India, that he may come to my assistance more readily and give me 100 soldiers to protect my person, lest my adversaries prevail against me as well as against the prospects of the total conversion of my lieges”.
King Bhuvanekabahu VII was reluctant to become a Catholic since he did not want to incur the wrath of his subjects who were mostly Buddhist. Also, he did not want to be portrayed as a puppet of the Portuguese. Finally, the Portuguese gave up their effort to baptize the King.
Epidemic of Small Pox in Mahanuwara
The mummy of the Egyptian Pharoah Ramses V indicates that more than 3000 years ago, around 1145 BC, the Pharoah, after contracting smallpox succumbed to the disease. It has been speculated that Egyptian traders brought smallpox to India during the 1st millennium BC, where it remained as an endemic human disease for at least 2000 years.
The Hindus worship the deity controlling evil spirits, sores, pustules, measles, chickenpox and the dreaded smallpox, as the goddess Sitala Mata in North India and as the goddess Mariamman (also known as Amman) in South India and Sri Lanka.
In South India and Sri Lanka, measles, chickenpox and the dreaded smallpox, are collectively known as “ammai” meaning “mother”. Smallpox is known as “peria ammai” (“big ammai“) and chickenpox is called “chinna ammai” (“small ammai“). Smallpox is more virulent than chicken pox. These diseases are traditionally believed to be ‘visitations’ caused by the wrath of the goddess, and people take measures to pacify the deity. People believed that one should not seek or take any medicine or treatment, and only poojas should be offered to the goddess.
Towards the middle of 1697 smallpox ravaged Mahanuwara, the Capital of the Kingdom of Kandy. As soon as a person showed signs of being infected, that person was abandoned by the whole family and left alone somewhere to die of starvation. Often the afflicted was left in the jungle, to be devoured by jackals and other wild animals. The dead were not buried, but flung away into some ravine.
The epidemic spread rapidly.
King Vimaladharmasurya II, the nobles, and all the wealthy people left the capital and sought refuge in the country. The poor fled to the surrounding hills and lived in huts made of branches and foliage.
The abandoned houses of the city sheltered only those stricken by the plague, left to their doom by their kith and kin. Heaps of corpses littered the streets, with dogs, jackals and crows feasting on them.
Joseph Vaz and his nephew Joseph Carvalho refused to leave the city. Day and night they attended to the needs of all, irrespective of whether they were Catholics or not. They went house to house and performed the most menial services. They sought out those abandoned in the jungle and built them shelters of foliage.
They administered the Sacraments to the Catholics and opened the doors of the Catholic Faith to the others. They converted many in their last stages of life to Christianity. They baptized many dying children. When the pestilence gained ground, the two priests selected four abandoned houses near the church and converted them into a hospital.
The Catholics of Colombo sent them alms that helped them provide the necessities for the afflicted.
After saying Mass before sunrise, they prepared food and carried it to their patients. They did the cooking because Joseph Vaz had sent John, his faithful companion, to Goa with letters to the Archbishop and to the Superior of the Oratory.
Whatever time they did not spend in their hospital, was used by the two priests to bury the dead. More often they carried the corpses on their shoulders to their last resting place. There was an average of ten to twelve funerals a day. When possible they buried the Christians with the religious pomp they could afford in such circumstances. After consigning the dead Catholics to their graves, they buried the others.
The non-Catholics admired the charity and self-denial of the two Catholic priests.
The pestilence lasted for almost a year. After the disease had ceased, those inhabitants who had left the capital, returned to their homes along with their King.
King Vimaladharmasurya II spoke highly of the two priests before his courtiers. He had decided to reward the two priests, but was much astonished when his officials told him, that the two priests would not accept any money or wanted any high post in his court.
The King more than once declared in public that if it were not for the charity of the two priests, not a living soul would have survived the epidemic in the Capital of the Kingdom of Kandy.
Saint Francis Xavier is said to have ended the plague in Mannar in three days resorting to the miracle of prayer. But, Father Joseph Vaz and Father Joseph Carvalho served humanity by toiling almost a year among the diseased and the dying.
The Dutch Governor came to know about the happenings in Colombo among the Catholics. He ordered a Dutch Dissawe to apprehend the priest. By the time the Dissawe got his orders, Joseph Vaz had left Colombo and was in Negombo, preaching there.
After a few months, Joseph Vaz returned to his church in Kandy. Then he received two letters from two Missionaries who had just arrived in Puttalam. Joseph Vaz was happy that his superiors in Goa had finally acknowledged his request for helpers.
In February 1696, after obtaining testimonial letters from the Archbishop of Goa and from Dom Pedro Pacheco, Bishop of Cochin under whose jurisdiction Ceylon was, two priests, Father Jose Menezes of Sancoale and Father Joseph Carvalho from the Oratory of Goa set out towards Ceylon. Both were able men, full of zeal and tried in virtue. They were Konkani Brahmins. Joseph Carvalho was a nephew of Joseph Vaz, the son of one of his sisters and his first pupil at the Sancoale School.
On March 18, 1696, the two priests reached Quilon. They stayed for six months at the Jesuit Seminary in Ambazhakad (Sambalur) as guests of the Jesuits. They studied Tamil that would help them to enter the Northern part of Ceylon with ease. They also learned the art of disguise.
On August 18, 1696, they wrote a letter to their Superiors in Goa in which they said that they had sent a letter to Joseph Vaz through a Venetian merchant requesting him to send his servant John to help them in their journey.
On September 30, 1696, they left Ambazhakad Seminary. Travelling along the Coromondal Coast they arrived in Tuticorin on October 5, 1696.
From Tuticorin, they set out on a canoe and after four days at sea reached Nagapattinam. Due to the severity of the travel from Goa to Nagapattinam, on land and on the rough sea, Joseph Carvalho fell ill.
Leaving Carvalho in Nagapattinam, Menezes decided to proceed alone. He boarded a ship bound for Jaffnapattinam in the guise of a merchant. A Dutch sergeant traveling in the same ship suspected Menezes to be a priest and not a merchant and enquired about his baggage. He also tried to glean about him by the manner of his speech. To avoid the risk of imprisonment by the Dutch authorities. Father Menezes threw his baggage into the sea along with the Breviary and some books he had brought for the mission in Ceylon.
Jose Menezes arrived in Jaffna on November 12, 1696. In the meantime, Joseph Carvalho having recovered, arrived in Jaffna a month later on December 15, 1696. After passing through Mannar and Mantota, Carvalho arrived at Puttalam on January 19, 1697.
Joseph Vaz went to Puttalam to meet the two priests who had arrived there. After giving thanks to God for their safe arrival, he approached a highly placed official in Kandy to get the permission of the king to enable one more priest to enter Kandy. The official informed him that permission was not necessary.
As Superior and Vicar General of the mission in Ceylon, Joseph Vaz had to decide who was more suitable for the missionary work in Kandy and who could be in charge of the Dutch territory. He appointed Jose Menezes as missionary of Puttalam, Negombo and its districts up to Sitawaka and Colombo, and he took his nephew Father Joseph Carvalho along with him to Kandy.
Since his intention was to visit all the Catholics on the Island of Ceylon Joseph Vaz did not want to have a fixed abode. So, he appointed Father Joseph Carvalho as the Parish Priest of Mahanuwara.
Joseph Vaz then sent John, back to Goa with a letter of recommendation to the priesthood. At that time, the Portuguese Church Councils reserved the priesthood only for the two higher castes in Goa. Since John was a member of the Indigenous Kumbi tribe, he was not accepted for the priesthood.
A third Missionary, Oratorian Father Pedro Ferrão arrives
Joseph Vaz went to the Jaffna region. This was his second visit after the persecution of and the ordeal he had undergone after the Christmas Day of 1689.
He entered Jaffna and laboured day and night administering the Blessed Sacraments. But everything did not go smoothly. A Catholic maidservant, to avenge the punishment meted out to her by her mistress in whose house the priest was about to celebrate the Mass that night, tipped off the Dutch captain of Jaffna.
However, the vigilant Catholics seeing the soldiers approaching, hid Joseph Vaz in a hut and had time to dismantle the altar and hide the statues. But the soldiers searched not only that house but also all the houses on the way, but it did not occur to them to search the hut, and so Joseph Vaz escaped, narrowly.
About this time, a third Oratorian, Father Pedro Ferrão of Margao, came to Jaffna from India and slipped into the Vanni region. Joseph Vaz met him. Father Pedro Ferrão brought with him letters from Dom Pedro Pacheco, Bishop of Cochin, to whose diocese Sri Lanka had been attached since 1558.
In a letter dated February 10, 1696, the Bishop appointed Joseph Vaz as his Vicar General with all the powers and full jurisdiction, spiritual as well as temporal, to administer the Church over the entire Island of Ceylon. Joseph Vaz accepted this appointment reluctantly saying “though I am not worthy of it“.
Joseph Vaz told Pedro Ferrão to remain in Mantota in charge of the mission of Jaffna, Mantota, Vanni and other places in the North of the Island.
Now there were four Catholic Missionaries in Ceylon!
Today, Colombo is the largest city and the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. It is located on the west coast of the island and next to Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the official capital of Sri Lanka. Colombo is often referred to as the capital since Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is a satellite city of Colombo.
In the days of the Sinhalese kings, Colombo was one of the many seaboards frequented by Arab Moors and South Indian traders.
In 1505, when the Portuguese explorers led by Dom Lourenço de Almeida first arrived by chance on the island they called the town “Colombo”.
Some say the name “Colombo” is derived from the classical Sinhalese name Kolon thota (කොලොන් තොට), meaning “port on the river Kelani”.
Another group says the name is derived from the Sinhalese phrase “kola ambiathota” (කොල අඹ තොට) meaning “Leafy mango grove”.
A coat of arms of Colombo from the Dutch Ceylon era has a leafy tree with a dove perched on its branches. In addition, the Dutch have included a dove (Latin: Columba), thus creating a pun on the town’s name.
In the 13th century, the author of the oldest Sinhalese grammar, Sidatsangarava, wrote about a category of words that belonged to early Sinhalese. He lists words such as “naramba” (to see) and “kolamba” (ford, harbour) as belonging to an indigenous source. Hence, “kolamba” may also be the source of the name of the commercial capital Colombo.
On realizing how Colombo was strategically located, and control of Ceylon was necessary for protecting their coastal establishments in India, the Portuguese made a treaty with King Parakramabahu VIII (1484 -1508), the King of Kotte. The treaty enabled the Portuguese to trade in the island’s crop of cinnamon and gave them full authority over the coastline in exchange for the promise of guarding the island’s coast against invaders from other countries across the seas. After expelling the Arab Moors from Colombo and establishing their trading post, the Portuguese built a fort – a small stockade of wood, in 1517.
This part of Colombo is still known as Fort (Sinhalese: kotuwa ; Tamil: koattai). The area immediately outside Fort, a commercial hub even now, is known as Pettah (Sinhalese: pitakotuwa ; Tamil: purakoattai) meaning ‘outside the fort’. Colombo soon became a grand town fortified by twelve bastions.
The Kingdom of Sitawaka (Sinhala: සීතාවක) located in south-central region of the Island, emerged from the division of the kingdom of Kotte following the Vijayaba Kollaya (Spoiling of Vijayabahu) in 1521. King Mayadunne, the chief antagonist of the Portuguese, established the new Kingdom of Sitawaka, with Seethawakapura now known as Avissawella as its capital.
Sitawaka offered fierce resistance to the Portuguese. Before long, King Mayadunne annexed much of the Kotte kingdom and forced the Portuguese to retreat to Colombo. He repeatedly besieged Colombo forcing the Portuguese to seek reinforcement from Goa in India. Over the course of the next seventy years, the Kings of Sitawaka dominated much of the island. Despite its military successes, Sitawaka remained unstable. It had to contend with repeated uprisings in its restive Kandyan territories. With its often devastating conflict with the Portuguese, the Kingdom of Sitawaka collapsed soon after the death of its last ruler, King Rajasinghe I, in 1593.
Following the fall of the Kingdom of Sitawaka, the Portuguese, with Colombo as their capital, established complete control over the coastal area of Ceylon.
In 1638, the Dutch signed a treaty with King Rajasinghe II of Kandy. Through this treaty, the Dutch assured the King assistance in his war against the Portuguese in exchange for a monopoly of the island’s major trade goods. The Portuguese resisted the Dutch and the Kandyans, but from 1639, they were gradually defeated in their strongholds.
The Dutch captured Colombo in 1656 after an epic siege. The 93 Portuguese survivors were given safe conduct out of the fort. Although the Dutch initially restored the captured area back to the Sinhalese kings, they later refused to turn them over. Thus, they gained control over the island’s richest cinnamon lands. They took possession of Colombo and all the other maritime ports on the Island of Ceylon.
The Dutch altered the fortifications of Colombo. They laid out the streets in a more regular grid pattern and are still so today. They reduced and confined the fort to the western part of the town. Since they found the present Pettah area to be the active centre when they captured Colombo, they called it ‘Oude Stad‘ or ‘Old Town’. Thus, they divided Colombo town into two parts.
Johann Jacob Saar, a German sailor, soldier, and author, served 15 years as a mercenary in the service of the Dutch East India Company in Southeast Asia. He spent about eight years in Ceylon. In 1662, he published an acclaimed account of his journey. He wrote:
“In 1656 we cut off the beautiful town of Colombo, the finest houses of the town were entirely demolished, only one-third of the town near the sea was fortified, while on the landside the town was surrounded by water, and when these works are completed which were expected to take ten years, the place will be twice as strong as before.”
The Dutch allowed the walls and fortifications around the ‘Oude Stad’ to remain, but they were subsequently removed. The only remnant that now exists of Portuguese Colombo is a huge boulder of rock that bears a cross and the Coat of Arms of Portugal. This was discovered by workmen in 1875 when the south-west breakwater of the Colombo harbour was being built. It was then removed from its original site and set up in Gordon Gardens adjoining the house of the President.
Joseph Vaz visits Colombo
After the miracle of the rain, when restrictions on his movement was removed, Joseph Vaz sneaked into the territories possessed by the Dutch. He availed himself of the freedom to pay a visit to Colombo.
The Catholic community of Colombo, which flourished under the Portuguese, was now a complete wreck. The Dutch desecrated some of the elegant churches built by the Portuguese and the were now in ruins. They transformed many others into Reformed churches.
All Catholic priests were banished.
The Portuguese Catholic schools were replaced by Calvinist schools. Under heavy penalties, the Dutch forced the Catholic parents to send their children to those schools, where the children were made to lose their faith in the Catholic Church.
On Sundays, all Catholics were forced to attend the Calvinist services.
The Catholics had to practice their faith in the greatest secrecy. Prayer in common was considered a crime, and if found, the Calvinist meted out heavy penalties.
When Joseph Vaz came to the Colombo, the Catholics gathered around him. He beseeched them to persevere in their Faith. He met the Catholics at night, in houses situated in remote areas. Vaz heard their confessions, offered Mass and administered Holy Communion. His words inspired them to face the persecution by the Dutch. Many apostates asked to be reconciled with the Church.