The Process of Indigenization of the Christian Church In Sri Lanka

Roman Catholics who had to practice their faith secretly pioneered indigenization under Dutch rule. Here the pioneer was Fr. Joseph Vaz who was assisted by Fr. Jacom Gonsalves. When the Dutch prohibited the Roman Catholic faith in Sri Lanka the majority of the Dutch population at that time were living in the coastal belt of Sri Lanka where the Portuguese were powerful before the Dutch rule. In this situation, existence became difficult for the Roman Catholics.

Those who were new to the Roman Catholic faith left the faith and went back to their former faiths of Buddhism and Hinduism. Most of those who decided to remain in the Roman Catholic faith gradually migrated to the Kandyan kingdom, seeking the protection of the King of Kandy. This geographical move led these people to a psychological and philosophical change, which reshaped their faith in a new direction. In the new areas, these Roman Catholics had to survive without the government patronage which they enjoyed for over one and a half centuries.

With the prohibition of the Roman Catholic faith, by the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch had got rid of all the Roman Catholic priests from Sri Lanka. In this particular set-up, the Roman Catholic believers in Sri Lanka survived for over thirty years without the help of priests. In this situation, Father Joseph Vaz, a Bramine Oratorian priest from India, came to Sri Lanka secretly and protected Roman Catholicism in Sri Lanka.

Later he was assisted by another Bramine Oratorian priest named Jacom Gonsalves. These two priests were able to promote a more indigenous way of practicing Christianity in Sri Lanka. They wrote books in the Sri Lankan languages to promote the Roman Catholic faith in Sri Lanka. In these books, they were able to use Sri Lankan idioms to make their faith more meaningful to the Roman Catholics of Sri Lanka. Considering these factors one may come to the conclusion that the Dutch persecution of Roman Catholics was a blessing in disguise.

After the Dutch era, at the beginning of the British era in the latter part of the 18th century, Roman Catholic Christians began to enjoy religious freedom in Sri Lanka. This freedom paved the way for more and more European priests to come to Sri Lanka. With the majority of priests from Europe operating in Sri Lanka the indigenization begun by the Oratorian priests, pioneered by Father Joseph Vaz, came to an end.

Under the British government, it became important for the Roman Catholics to be immersed in the English way of life, so they did not try to review the Portuguese language with which Roman Catholicism was introduced. Here once again the Roman Catholic Church became more identified with the colonial power than with the ordinary people of Sri Lanka. This trend continued in the Roman Catholic Church almost until the Second Vatican Council in the sixth decade of the 20th century.

Although there were efforts made by Father Joseph Vaz and others in the 18th century in the direction of indigenization under Dutch persecution, the modern trends towards indigenization sprang up in the 19th century in the Protestant Church. The effects of this trend were visible in some Protestant churches in Sri Lanka in the early part of the 20th century.

The classic example of this is the effort made at Baddegama in Galle, under the leadership of Lakdasa de Mel, an Anglican priest who later became the assistant Bishop of Colombo, Bishop of Kurunegala, and the metropolitan Bishop in the Anglican church for the Indian subcontinent. At Baddegama the use of the music of folk songs such as the boatmen’s song, cartmen’s song, and the songs of the farmers became part of Christian worship. This process began at Baddegama in 1929.

The musician Devar Suriyasena achieved this under the leadership of Rev. Lakdasa de Mel. The importance of this order of worship is that it was created when most Sri Lankan musicians held the view that all types of Sri Lankan music are from India. The national importance of this experimental liturgy is that it was done by Devar Suriyasena even before the revival of Sinhala folk music by W.B. Makulloluwe, who is considered to be the pioneer of Sinhala folk music in Sri Lanka.

Since the Christians of Moratuwa use Sinhala as their mother tongue these efforts of Devar Suriyasena and Lakdasa de Mel became established in some Anglican churches in Moratuwa. Even today these Christians in Moratuwa carry out this type of worship service using folk music. This was especially visible in Kadalana, the rural area of this research.

The effects of this process of indigenization can be identified especially in the areas of church architecture and music of the life of the Church. In the area of church architecture, efforts were made to change the Gothic style to the Sri Lankan style. The theory behind this was the indigenization of Christian church buildings in the Roman Empire. When the Christian church gradually became the official church of the Roman Empire the architectural style of the ordinance halls with their gothic architecture influenced the church buildings of the Empire.

Following this pattern, in places such as Panideniya Training College, Trinity College Kandy; the Church of the Healing Christ in Kadalana, Moratuwa, and in the Anglican Diocese of Kurunegala, churches were built with an indigenized architectural style, similar to the ordinance halls of the Sinhala court and the octagonal shape of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, incorporating this style into the church architecture of Sri Lanka.

With this architecture indigenous decorations such as Sesath were placed inside some churches in Sri Lanka. Instead of candles, oil lamps came into churches where indigenization was accepted. Sitting on the floor inside the church, the pews having been taken away, and removing one’s shoes inside the church were some other efforts that became visible in this process of indigenization. In this regard observations concerning the Church of the Healing Christ in Kadalana, Moratuwa, are considered important.

Following the pattern of Pattirippuwa of the Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy, the central section of the church is built according to the octagonal shape. People sit on the floor for worship, and the church is decorated with traditional Sinhala patterns of art. The two lecterns on either side (for reading the Bible and for delivering sermons) are decorated with two lions and two elephants respectively. Two lions hold two crosses and there is a cross between the two elephants. These decorations are included in the context of the lion as the totem of the Sinhala race and of the elephant as the venerated token of the majesty of the Sinhala race.

Where church music is concerned, traditionally the organ was used in all main churches following the pattern of Western churches. With indigenization, experiments were made using traditional local musical instruments inside the church, instruments such as the violin, sitar, tabla, and esraj. Local and folk tunes became the base for creating lyrics to be sung in churches where these efforts were being made. These efforts were able to bring local Christians closer to the feelings of the common people in Sri Lanka.

This really happened especially in the rural areas of the Christian church. For this, the best example in Moratuwa is the Church of the Healing Christ at Kadalana, where traditional folk tunes are used. When the Christians began to use traditional carpentry tunes for worship, worship became more meaningful to them as those tunes are connected with their profession, which was carried out with their sweat and blood.

Through such Christian worship, these carpenters were able to keep alive these tunes connected with carpentry. Today these tunes have become popular throughout Sri Lanka through musical groups such as the Gypsies in Moratuwa. Among these songs, one of the most popular songs is called “Waduweden devirakine”, which means, “Carpentry keeps us alive.”

In all the above efforts it is very apparent that they involve the new use of old elements of the culture. This type of effort can be identified as an invention in society. Regarding this P.B. Horton and C.L. Hunt have observed,

“An invention is often defined as a new use of old elements of the culture………….. In each case, old elements are used, combined, and improved for new applications.”

It is clear that the new use was new in principle, form, function, or meaning, as Gillin pointed out in 1948. Where Christian doctrines are concerned the new use was different in principle. When folk music was used to praise the Christian God the principle changed since earlier this music was used to praise Lord Buddha or local tribal gods such as Vishnu or Kataragama.

In the new use of the old element, the forms often varied. When Christians used the Sinhala language in places such as Moratuwa, the language form became new in their usage. For instance, the greeting of Sinhala Christians, “Jesu Pihitai”, gave a new form to the word “pihitai” in the Sinhala language. The meaning of “pihitai” in Sinhala is something like “getting help“, but in the new form, it replaced the word “blessing” in the Western thought-form.

Therefore in Moratuwa among Christians “pihitai” is commonly used for blessings from their God. In church buildings in places such as the Church of the Healing Christ, Kadalana, and Moratuwa, the functions became new in their usage. In ancient times, the octagonal pattirippuwa was used by kings to address their subjects. Yet in the church, this architectural style was used by Christians to worship God. In all these inventions the meaning presented to society was new, as the context in which they have been done was entirely different.