A Nestorian Baptismal Font - Sri Lanka

This was @ Vavuniya museum: about 40 years ago this photograph was given to me by the former Archdeacon of Jaffna The Ven Canon Dr Donald Kanagaratnam.

Christianity before the Portuguese era in Sri Lanka (before the 16th century)

The island of Sri Lanka, located in the Indian Ocean, and situated at the southern tip of India, has been influenced by many cultures and religions of the world, at least from the era of the Indo, Chinese and Mesopotamian civilisations, the three great civilisations of the world. People, especially traders, travelled to Sri Lanka, due to its geographical location, which gave strategic importance to this country. Archaeological evidence has been found which proves beyond doubt that this island nation was not isolated from the rest of the world in the course of human history. This shows that many cultures and religions were moving across this island, influencing and reshaping the activities of the country.

A book called Christian Topography (in Greek - Χριστιανική Τοπογραφια), written in Greek in the 6th century by a person named Cosmos, records the existence of a Christian community in Sri Lanka. According to the author of this book, there was a Church with a Priest, a Deacon and the equipment necessary for the worship of Christians in Sri Lanka. In this work, first published in the original Greek by a Benedictine, and now translated into several languages, Cosmos says,

“ Even in Taprobane, an island in further India, where the Indian Sea is, there is a Church of Christians with clergy and a body of believers,”

This Taprobane is undoubtedly Ceylon, for Cosmos says, “It is called Seilediba by the Indians but by the Greeks Taprobane”.

Referring to this Christian Church, he says again in the Eleventh book, in which he describes Ceylon:

“The island has also a Church of Persian Christians, who have settled there, and a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia, and a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual. But the natives and their kings are heathen.”

There are two archaeological finds in Sri Lanka that may be considered parallel to the above account of the existence of Christians in the country. The first evidence, coming from Anuradhapura, is a Persian cross belonging to the Nestorian Church; archaeologists unearthed this in 1912. A Baptismal font found in Mannar, and kept in the Vaunia museum, is the second evidence, and is also an artefact likely to belong to the Persian Nestorian Church. The popular belief is that even if there were Christians they were foreigners who did not have much to do with the affairs of Sri Lanka. But this popular belief is challenged by the discovery of the Mannar baptismal font, which was most probably used to baptise Christians in Sri Lanka.

According to Chulavamsa, the supplement to the Sinhala great chronicle Mahawamsa, a minister called Migara built a temple and dedicated it to a person called Abisheka Jena. In the Pali language, Jena means a person who has conquered himself, and Abisheka is anointed or the enthroned one. The quotation from the Culavamsa is given below:

“The Senapati by the name Migara built a parivena called after himself and a house for the victor Abiseka. He sought (permission to hold) a consecration festival for it even greater than that of the stone image of the Buddha.”

Professor Senarath Paranavithna, the first Sri Lankan Archaeological Commissioner, says that this Temple was dedicated to Christ, which means the anointed or enthroned one in Greek. In the scholarly account of the story of Sigiriya by Professor Senarath Paranavithna, the author shows that this minister, Migara, from South India, was a Christian who laboured to spread Christianity in Sri Lanka. Migara had served in the courts of both the kings Kashshepa and Mugalan in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Along with these records, among the archaeological discoveries there were Greek, Roman and other Near Eastern objects of Christian influence from the 1st century, found in Sri Lanka. From the 6th century to the beginning of the 16th century there are isolated records that could be connected with the existence of Christians in Sri Lanka. Hence it is clear that Sri Lanka was not isolated from the influence of Christianity before the arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. Yet unlike India, when the Portuguese arrived here there was no clear evidence of the existence of Christian communities in Sri Lanka.

Fernando, Keerthisiri (2009), Integrity and Integration of Christian Community in Sri Lanka –A Sociological Analysis, Godage Brothers, Sri Lanka.


• Geiger, Wilhelm (Translator), (1953), Culavamsa, Volume I, The Ceylon Government Information Department, Colombo,p.43

• Somaratne, G. P. V.(1992), Sri Lankan Church History (In Sinhala), Marga Sahodaratvaya, Nugegoda, p.2 [Quotation is from – Paranavitarana, S. (1972), Story of Sigiri, Colombo, pp 45-46.]

• Perera, S.G.(1962), Historical Sketches(Ceylon Church History), The Literature Committee, Colombo Catholic Diocesan Union, Colombo, pp.9-10 [Quotation from Migne Patrol Grae, Vol.88: J.W. McCrindle, The Christian Topography.]