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Sri Lanka’s Religious History Re-imagined

Modern Religious Identity Formation examines how the religious community identities were consolidated through the early years of the 20th century.

During this time, Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon, was occupied by the British colonial powers, and administered as part of the British empire. Its economy had become consolidated to this effect, with the establishment of the plantation sector as well as cementing the island’s status at the crossroads between ‘East’ and ‘West’ as a bustling port in the Indian Ocean. Modern religious identity formation in colonial Ceylon must be understood in line with the rapid global transformations taking place during this period.
 
These include the travel and work of Euro-American missionaries belonging to various Christian denominations, expansion to infrastructure and technologies of travel and documentation, as well as the systematization of colonial administrative and educational practices which sought to ‘civilize’ and govern native populations. As a result of a burgeoning anti-colonial consciousness and movements in various parts of the colonized world as such, the island continued  ‘Modern’ ethno-religious identity formation in line with global transformations bound to the colonial/missionary project/expansion to technologies for travel as well as dissemination (printing + image-making) and their subsequent local appropriations. Transformation also to the ‘outward’ visual/material articulations of religion (architecture and painting, as well as a dress which variously drew on/resisted Western aesthetic conventions) shaped by colonial encounters as well as broader global connections. 
 
Over the centuries, Sri Lanka's social, economic, political, and religious landscape was actively shaped by the arrival of diverse traders, travellers, emissaries from around the world, as well as the violent occupations of competing European colonial powers.
 
Ceylon's forceful 'unification' under the British crown in 1815 marks a significant juncture in its eventual consolidation as a 'state'. The signing of the Kandyan Convention established a formal recognition of the association between the state and Buddhism. This would have far-reaching implications for modern-day Sri Lanka. This historical juncture determined the religious 'identity' of the state and the relationship between the state and its citizens of diverse faith and belief. It was a relationship that was contrastingly defined by both patronage and violence. The identities and practices of Sri Lanka’s ethno-religious communities became more firmly demarcated by colonial administrative categorizations of race, ethnicity and religion, as well as local and global conflicts and connections. 
 
By foregrounding a series of landmark events that took place between 1815-1915, we explore the legislative legacies of the colonial state and the 'modern' conception and socialization of Sri Lanka's ethnoreligious communities. Where local religious practices and rituals were viewed as sites of potential anti-imperial dissent, we invite visitors to reflect on inter-religious tensions exacerbated by repressive policy and the aftermaths of colonial oppression and state atrocity.
 
CW/TW: Descriptions, depictions and discussions of colonial and communal violence, death, derogatory language and visuals, discriminatory attitudes or actions.

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