“Exploring ethno-religious identity formation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Sri Lanka” — March Reading List

Curated by Shamara Wettimuny who is a Beit Scholar in History at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral thesis is on identity formation and religious conflict in British colonial Sri Lanka. She is also a Tutor in Global and Imperial History at Worcester College, University of Oxford.

iStock — Sri Lankan Ethnicity stock illustrations

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed the growth of national, political and ethno-religious consciousness among various groups across the island. These groups had historically identified themselves at different times with different labels. For instance, at certain times groups saw themselves as Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors and Burghers, but at other times they identified through religious identity markers: Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims for example. In the preceding centuries and millennia, these identities were not fixed or unchanging. However, certain changes took place in the nineteenth century that appeared to solidify these identities in some way. What changes occurred in the nineteenth century to consolidate identities within and between different ethno-religious groups on the island? What was different about the period of British colonial rule, particularly when compared with the colonial rule of the Dutch and Portuguese before them? And how were labels such as ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ and ‘nationality’ used in this period?

Following the total occupation of the island in 1815, the first modern attempts at classifying or categorizing the population took place. And here, groups were first separated by color and level of freedom: ‘whites’, ‘slaves’, ‘free blacks’ — which referred to Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims who were not enslaved.

For more on slavery in Sri Lanka, read Nira Wickramasinghe’s Slave in a Palanquin: Colonial Servitude and Resistance in Sri Lanka (2020). Sri Lanka is not a region that is not typically associated with slavery — and understandably so given the lower numbers of enslaved — even though it was a key port through which slaves were transported across the Indian Ocean. Slave in a Palanquin centers the island of Sri Lanka in the trans-Indian Ocean movement of slaves and pulls back the cobwebs on previously obscured narratives of enslaved men and women.

Stunning Paintings Based On Sri Lankan History — RoarMedia

But about the rest of the population, including Europeans, and local groups? Historian John Rogers has convincingly argued that social classification during early British rule was used as a tool to establish a more centralized, unified, and self-consciously modern framework of government. As the British began experimenting with more sophisticated Census making, they decided to use ‘race’ as the identity marker that would categorize people or order the populations they had subjected under their rule. So, people were categorized as either Sinhalese, Tamils, or Moors for example. The use of ethnic labels as the primary mode of classification in Sri Lanka can be contrasted with religious identity labels that the British gave more prominence to in neighboring India. For an insight into the process of census making and the rationale behind the specific labels used, see John Rogers, ‘Early British Rule and Social Classification in Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies 38(4), (2004), pp. 625–647.


In the first representative body established in 1833, the Ceylon Legislative Council, ‘native’ groups were represented by three Members in Council, a Sinhalese member, a Tamil member, and a Burgher member. You can have a look at the original discussions and documents that formed the first attempt at constitutional reform in Sri Lankan history in the compilation by G.C. Mendis (ed.) ‘The Colebrooke-Cameron Papers: Documents on British Colonial Policy in Ceylon 1796–1833, I & II’ (1956: Oxford).

Muslims were not given separate representation until 1889 because they typically spoke the same language as the Tamils, and although they were of different ethnicity, it didn’t bother the British too much because it was ‘close enough’! For an exploration of the process through which a separate seat for a Muslim Member in the Legislative Council was created, see Shamara Wettimuny, The Origins of Muslim Political Representation and the Shaping of a Ceylon Moor Identity.

In addition to official, state-driven processes of identity formation such as constitutional reform, other changes taking place in the nineteenth century shaped ethno-religious consciousness across the various population groups in Sri Lanka. The religious revival was one such broad feature of the nineteenth century. Importantly, the British colonial state was officially ‘neutral’ in religious affairs, while it offered to Buddhism a greater degree of protection, as per the Kandyan Convention of 1815. To understand the complex, changing relationship between religion and the colonial state, explore the Virtual Museum of Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka, where you can look at key moments or episodes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that advanced or challenged the state of religious freedom in the island.


But let’s return to the topic of religious revival. Anne Blackburn (Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth-Century Lankan Monastic Culture, 2001) traces Buddhist revival back to the mid-eighteenth century with the reform of the Sangha, and heightened intellectual exchanges with Buddhist clergy in places like Siam. By the mid-nineteenth century, Buddhist revival took the form of confrontations with Christian missionaries, including the watershed Panadura Debate between monks and Christian actors. Meanwhile, a renewed sense of pride and organisation around a distinct (ethno-) religious identity also manifested through the growth of societies like the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, schools like the Buddhist English School (later Ananda College), and the proliferation of newspapers like Sarasavi Sandaresa and Sinhala Bauddhya. Revival by the turn of the twentieth century was embodied by Buddhist nationalist figures, such as Anagarika Dharmapala and Sinhalese writers/playwrights like Piyadasa Sirisena and John De Silva.

The many facets of Buddhist revival are discussed in the historiography, including in:

Kithsiri Malalgoda, ‘Buddhism in Sinhalese Society 1750–1900: A study of religious revival and change’ (1976: Berkeley)

David Scott, ‘Religion in Colonial Civil Society: Buddhism and Modernity in 19th Century Sri Lanka’ Cultural Dynamics 8(1) (1996), pp.7–23.

Tessa J. Bartholomeusz and C.R. De Silva, ‘Buddhist Fundamentalism and Identity in Sri Lanka’, in Tessa J. Bartholomeusz and C.R. De Silva (eds.), Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka (1998: Albany)

Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (1988: New Jersey).

K.M. de Silva, ‘Religion and Nationalism in 19th Century Sri Lanka: Christian Missionaries and their Critics’ Ethnic Studies Report XVI(1) (January 1998), pp. 112–117.

L.A. Wickremeratne, Religion, Nationalism, and Social Change in Ceylon, 1865–1885 (1993: Colombo).

Kumari Jayawardena, Labour, Feminism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka: Selected Essays (2017: Colombo).

Harshana Rambukwella, The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity, (London, 2018)

Antique Hindu Religion Illustration Ganesh — Etsy

The nineteenth century was not just a period of religious revival for Buddhists, but also for Hindus and Muslims. The period of Hindu revival was largely limited to the North of the island and was driven by actors such as Arumuga Navalar. Hindus in Jaffna invested significant resources in establishing Hindu schools that provided education in English, to counter the influence of Christian missionaries who ran the largest number of English-language schools across the island. Similar to the Buddhist revival, the Hindu revivalists saw a need to establish their own printing presses to counter missionary pamphlets and leaflets that sought to delegitimise Hindu beliefs among its adherents. Despite the similarities in the Buddhist and Hindu revivals and the fact that they were taking place during much of the same period, I haven’t yet come across any evidence that revivalists coordinated their efforts, or organised across religious lines. So, I often wonder why that is: did it (coordination) simply not happen or has the research not been done yet? If there was no effort to ‘join forces’, was it because of a lack of awareness of what the other religious revivalists were doing, or because of a concerted decision to maintain distinct trajectories?

For some further reading on the Hindu revival, see:

D. Dennis Hudson, “Arumuga Navalar and the Hindu Renaissance among the Tamils” in Kenneth W. Jones (ed.) Religious Controversy in British India: Dialogues in South Asian Languages (1992)

P K Balachandran, How Jaffna Hindus met the Challenge of European Missionaries (2019)

T. Sabaratnam, Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Religious Revival (2010)

GPV Somaratna, American Missionary Contribution to the enhancement higher quality of life in Jaffna Tamils in the first half of the nineteenth century (Web, undated).

MuslimSG — Islamic Calligraphy Facts

The Islamic revival started relatively later than the Buddhist and Hindu revivals, in around the 1880s. The Islamic revival, too, contained parallels to the Buddhist and Hindu revivals that preceded it, with the growth of an indigenous press, and the establishment of schools for Muslim boys (and to a lesser degree, girls). Curiously, one of the symbols or figureheads of this revival was not a local Islamic leader but a foreign, nationalist exile from Egypt, Arabi Pasha. Arabi Pasha, together with the lawyer and educationist M.C. Siddi Lebbe, and the construction magnate Wapiche Marikkar, spearheaded the establishment of Islamic schools that provided English-language education in Sri Lanka, beginning with what is known today as Zahira College. This revival, and the emergence of a Ceylon Moor identity, was largely confined to elite Ceylon Moors, who were typically Southern, bourgeois traders who, according to Qadri Ismail, dominated the ‘Muslim social formation’. It is, thus, perhaps a misnomer to refer to it as the ‘Muslim revival’ as it is often known as, because it did not necessarily include non-Ceylon Moors (i.e. perhaps the term ‘Ceylon Moor revival’ is more accurate).

For an analysis of the construction of this Ceylon Moor identity against the backdrop of religious revival, see:

Lorna Dewaraja, ‘The Muslims of Sri Lanka: One thousand years of ethnic harmony, 900–1915’ (1994: Colombo).

M.A. Nuhman, ‘Sri Lankan Muslims: Ethnic Identity within Cultural Diversity’, (2007: Colombo).

Ramla Wahab-Salman, ‘A History of the “Ceylon Moor” Press (1882–1889)’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka 61(2) (2016), 55–79.

Ameer Ali, ‘Muslims in harmony and conflict in plural Sri Lanka: A historical summary from a religio-economic and political perspective’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 34(3) (2014), pp. 227–242.

Vijaya Samaraweera, ‘The Muslim Revivalist Movement, 1880–1915’ in Roberts M. (ed.), Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, Vol. 1. (1997: Colombo). Marga Institute, 293–322.

Qadri Ismail, ‘Unmooring identity: the antinomies of elite Muslim self-representation in modern Sri Lanka’, in P. Jeganathan and Q. Ismail (eds.) ‘Unmaking the Nation: The politics of identity and history in modern Sri Lanka’ (1995: Colombo). Social Scientist’s Association. pp. 55–105.

Shamara Wettimuny, Imagining a ‘National Headgear’: Islamic Revival and Muslim Identity in Ceylon (Web, 2021).

For discussions on the identity and group consciousness of non-Moor Muslim communities, such as the Malays, see:

Ronit Ricci, Banishment and Belonging: Exile and Diaspora in Sarandib, Lanka and Ceylon (Asian Connections (Series): Cambridge, 2019).

B.A. Hussainmiya, ‘Baba Ounus Saldin: An Account of a Malay Literary Savant of Sri Lanka (b. 1832- d. 1906), Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 64/2 (261) (1991), pp. 103–134.

Dennis B. McGilvray, ‘Arabs, Moors and Muslims: Sri Lankan Muslim ethnicity in regional perspective’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 32(2) (1998), pp. 433–483.

Mahroof, M.M.M. ‘The Sub-Communities of the Muslims of Sri Lanka: a Classificatory Narrative’ in Cader, M. L.A., editor. Exploring Sri Lankan Muslims: Selected Writings of M.M.M. Mahroof, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka, 2015, pp. 1–13.

Asiff Hussein, Sarandib: An Ethnological Study of the Muslims of Sri Lanka (Colombo, 2011).

These revivals have typically been discussed from a national, or local perspective. However, as the study of history has expanded to include transnational connections, comparisons, and exchanges, it is useful to ask how religious identities in particular were affected by global revivals or movements taking place beyond Sri Lanka’s borders. Such research has been done on figures like Anagarika Dharmapala, to ‘rescue’ him from the nation, and position him within broader, global histories in Asia and America.

This approach to history is known as global history. Here’s a short, 3-minute clip that discusses what global history is, why it is a useful approach to thinking about a local issue, and how it can change the way we understand our own histories. You can stop watching after 2 minutes as I think it turns into a university-specific discussion thereon!

Daily News — National integration: one nation, one people, one destiny

Now, this brings us to a fundamental question — why study identity formation in the nineteenth century? If we want to tackle current problems, we need to understand what lies at the root or source of those problems. And often, we can find those answers in history. For instance, some of the nationalist identities that are held in Sri Lanka today can trace their origins back not 2500 years ago but just over 150 years ago, during this period of religious revival. History is important then, not just for understanding the past, but also the present. Some may even say, it can help us to chart the future. To end, this clip with sufficiently dramatic music tries to illustrate why history is important, and not just from an academic point of view, but for anyone.

About the Curator — Shamara Wettimuny

Shamara Wettimuny is a Beit Scholar in History at the University of Oxford. Her doctoral thesis is on identity formation and religious conflict in British colonial Sri Lanka. She is also a Tutor in Global and Imperial History at Worcester College, University of Oxford. Before beginning her DPhil, she was Team Leader of the Politics Research practice at Verité Research, where she focused on contemporary religious violence. She has a Masters and Bachelors in International Relations and History, both from the London School of Economics and Political Science.



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Everystory Sri Lanka

Everystory Sri Lanka


Everystory Sri Lanka (formed in 2018) is a collective of young Sri Lankan feminists identifying as a storytelling collective.