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One Nation:
diversity and multiculturalism-Part I

St. Mary’s Church Negombo

No nation could be welded together with mere slogans however often repeated. The welding together of a Nation should be a consciously directed programme based on an understanding of the ground realities that obtain. This writing focuses on the diverse segments that go to make up Sri Lankan society. It was garnered from the most authoritative and credible sources in the public domain.

It is this diversity and its concomitant multicultural mosaic that makes it so inherently rich. It is a yet untapped resource of enormous potential if harnessed properly—with visionary leadership at the helm. For convenience and in order not to give any community either prominence or precedence, the segments have been listed alphabetically.

Bharathas: The Bharathas or Bharatakula identity is maintained by a relatively prosperous merchant group from India that settled amongst the Sinhalese in the Negombo area.

According to the census categories in July 2001, Bharatakula has been moved out of Sri Lankan Tamil category to simply stand as a separate ethnic group Bharatha, thus currently they are neither Sinhalese nor Tamil.

They are primarily found in the commercial capital, Colombo and in towns north of it, particularly Negombo in the Western Province.

Common last names adopted by Bharatakula include Fernando, Croos-Moraes, Peeris and Rubeiro. Fernando is the commonest last name.

In India they were traditional fishers’ merchants and traders. Most are Roman Catholics although a significant minority has remained Hindus.

They have always been a peaceful and law-abiding community that is socially and economically active.

Dawoodi Bohras: The Dawoodi Bohras are a very closely-knit community.

While the majority of Dawoodi Bohras have traditionally been traders, it is becoming increasingly common for them to become professionals. Within Sri Lanka many choose to become doctors. They are encouraged to educate themselves in both religious and secular knowledge, and as a result, the number of professionals in the community is rapidly increasing.

They believe that the education of women is equally important to that of men, and many Dawoodi Bohra women choose to enter the workforce. Today there are approximately one million Dawoodi Bohras worldwide. The majority of these reside in India and Pakistan, but there is also a significant Diaspora resident in the West Asia, East Africa, Europe, North America and the East Asia.

Besides speaking the local languages, the Dawoodi Bohras have their own language called Lis?nu l-D?‘wat ". This is written in Arabic script but is derived from Urdu, Gujarati and Arabic.

They have lived and worked in Sri Lanka for hundreds of years and pioneered in establishing many industries and businesses, mainly in the sphere of export-import.

Burghers: The Burghers are a Euro-Asian socio-cultural group, indigenous to Sri Lanka, consisting for the most part of male-line descendants of European colonists from the 16th to 20th centuries (mostly Portuguese, Dutch, German and British) and local women, with some of Swedish, Italian, Flemish, Spanish, French and Irish origin.

Today the mother tongue of the Burghers is English, but historically other languages were spoken by the Community, in particular the Sri Lanka Indo-Portuguese, a Creole language based on Portuguese and both Sinhala and Tamil. While much vocabulary is from Portuguese, its grammar and syntax is based on that of Tamil and Sinhala.

In the Census of 1981, the Burgher population of Sri Lanka was enumerated at 39,374 persons, about one third of one percent. This has now grown to about 47,000 souls. The highest concentration of Burghers is in Colombo (0.72%) and Gampaha (0.5%). There are also similar, significant communities in Trincomalee and Batticaloa, with an estimated population of 2,700.

The Burghers were legally defined by law in 1883, by the Chief Justice of Ceylon, Sir Richard Ottley, given before the Commission which was appointed in connection with the establishment of a Legislative Council in Ceylon. They determined that Burghers were defined as those whose father was born in Sri Lanka, with at least one European ancestor on one’s direct paternal side, regardless of the ethnic origin of one’s mother, or what other ethnic groups may be found on the father’s side. Because of this definition, Burghers almost always have European surnames (mostly of Portuguese, Dutch and British origin, although it is not uncommon to also find German, French or Russian surnames).

Burgher culture, which defines them best, is a rich mixture of East and West, reflecting their ancestry. They are the most westernized of the diverse groups in Sri Lanka. Most of them wear western clothing, although it is not uncommon for a man to be seen wearing a sarong, or for a woman to wear a sari.

A number of elements in Burgher culture have become part of the cultures of other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. For example, baila music, which has its origin in the music of 16th century Portugal, has found its way into mainstream popular Sinhalese music. Beeralu lace making, which began as a domestic pastime of Burgher women, is now a part of Sinhalese culture too. Even certain foods, such as love cake, bol-fiado (layered cake), ijzer koekjes, frikkadels (savoury meatballs), and lampries have become an integral part of Sri Lankan national cuisine.

Burghers have a very strong interest in their family histories. Many old Burgher families kept stamboeken (from the Dutch for "Clan Books"). These recorded not only dates of births, marriages and deaths, but also significant events in the history of a family, such as details of moving house, illnesses, school records, and even major family disputes. An extensive, multi-volume stamboek of many family lineages is kept by the Dutch Burgher Union.

Colombo Chetty: The Colombo Chetties are a relatively small community domiciled in the Western, North Western and Southern Provinces; many of them have been assimilated into or identified with the Sinhala and Tamil Communities Today the number stands at around 175,000 with high concentrations in the Western and North Western Provinces.

In 1984 on a representation made by Shirley Pulle Tissera who was then the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Chetty Association, the Government of Sri Lanka decided to classify the Colombo Chetties / Sri Lanka Chetties as a separate and Distinct ethnic group in all official documents, ratified by the Registrar General’s Department which notice was published in the Observer Newspaper of 17 October 1984. The National Census on population conducted in 2001 enumerated the Colombo Chetties as a separate and distinct ethnic group.

Part II tomorrow

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