A Study On The Buddhist Revival In 19th Century In Sri Lanka

Speech by 

According to the Kandyan convention of 1815, the governor of the British government became the official protector of Buddhism. After conquering the Kandyan Kingdom the British had to interfere the issues regarding Buddhism in the country. In order to win the favour of Buddhist monks and Kandyan elites, the British had to work according to the fifth sentence of the Kandyan convention of 1815. Also they promised to preserve the traditions of Buddhists. (De Silva, K.M. 1965:64) According to Governor Brownrig’s report to England, the fifth sentence of the convention was included to console the Kandyans. After the convention the governor was in charge of assigning the chief monk for the ownership of temple of the tooth relic. (De Silva, K.M. 1965:64-65) Yet the Christian missionaries were stating that the British rulers should stop supporting Buddhism.

During this period several revenants from various Christian and Catholic sects came for missionary activities in Sri Lanka. Some of such sects were Baptist missionary who came to Sri Lanka in 1814, Weslian Missionary who came in 1814, American missionary who visited in 1816, and Church missionary who came to Sri Lanka in 1818. With the use of printing press they printed many Christian books and distributed them. In addition, European priests learned Sinhala and translated English books to Sinhala. Also they started schools in the villages to educate children about Christianity. English missionary societies have maintained small press for the publications of religious books and tracts in the English and native languages. (The Colebrooke Cameron papers, Vol I. 1956: 75)

In 19 century Christians give the priority to education. Though there were government schools, the administration supported missionary schools as well. In all these schools attention was given to teach Christianity. In 1854, the Baptists realized the main aim of their school is to convert students to Christianity. (Jayawardana Kumari, 1978: 32) Till 1880, the schools were managed by the government or missionary. Buddhist and Hindu didn’t have financial stability to start schools. Does during this era it was only one or two Buddhist Schools that work under private administration.

Mainly Christianity was promoted through education. Because of the competition between several missionary groups in Sri Lanka, the Christian schools were drastically increased. Simultaneously even the Buddhist and Hindu parents in North their children in Christian schools in order to give them a better education. Nonetheless, in 1833 the Colebrooke Commission assigned the responsibility of schools to the missionary groups. As a consequence, though the number of Christian schools increased, Buddhist schools were only limited to Pirivena education. In 1840, according to the advices given by Governor McKenzie to be Central School Commission, it shows that they should pay more attention on establishing Christian education in Sri Lanka. (Ruberu, Ranjith, 1971:18)

The main schools that were started like that was St. Thomas College (1851), St. Peter’s College , St. Benedict’s College, Wesley College (1874) St Joseph’s College (1896). These Schools were started by several Christian missionary groups. (Bandara, Nawarathna, :219)

According to the recommendations by the Colebrooke commission, they suggested that using the funds that are allocated for the Buddhist Temples, an English seminary should be started. (Colebrooke-Cameron papers, Vol 1, 1956, 73) Because of this less support from the government, the education in Buddhist Pirivena was degraded. (Ven. Rathnapala, 1970:73)

The Christians consider Buddhism as a heretic religion. Hence, they tried to convert Buddhists into Christianity using various chaotic ways. (Jayawardana, Kumari.1978 :33). Those people who were forcefully converted to Christianity were known as “Christian Buddhists” or “Government Christians”. They did so in order to return favors from the government such as getting good government jobs or to gain other social benefits. Mostly, the jobs were given to these Christians as they were prioritized. As a consequence, Buddhists didn’t receive any favors from the government and basically disregarded. The Christian became the powerful people in the society. (Bandara, Nawarathna,:225)

All the marriage and death registrations of Buddhists were asked to be done at the Churches. The Wesleyan missionaries were in charge of these registrations. In order to assign the properties or to solve matters regarding ownerships, it was compulsory to do these registrations beforehand. (Buddhist Theosophical Society, Diamond Jubilee of the Buddhist Theosophical Society, 1880-1940: 35) If a Catholic priest has not registered a marriage, the marriage was not considered as legal. In the case of children, to legalize a child birth, Baptism was considered a must too. Though the parents were Buddhists, when baptizing, the children were supposed to have baptized names. (Bandara, Nawarathna. :225) Many rich Buddhist businessmen didn’t agree with these rituals and they were reluctant to follow Western cultural norms. However, some of the Catholic Sri Lankans who converted, disliked the rights and rituals of the Sri Lankan culture as well their Sri Lankan names after the conversions. (Jayawardana, Kuamri.1978: 34)

Though the British rulers promised that they would protect Buddhism in 1815 Kandyan convention, after the uprising of 1818 the situation changed. According to the proclamation of 1818 the government did try to showcase their right to support other religions. Through this the British government did pay attention to preserve Buddhism as well. Yet, they did not take the income from the properties of the Buddhist temples. (Proclamation of 21st November 1818-clause 16 , Wimalananda, Thennakoon, 1963:94)

With regard to the royalty of Sri Lanka, the sacred tooth relic played a major role. The Kandyans worshipped the sacred tooth relic with massive respect and the temple of the tooth relic owned a considerable amount on land and properties. Due to these reasons, the British government had to legalize when positions were appointed in the temple. In addition, as done by the previous kings, the British government had to legally appoint the Buddhist religious positions in Kandy. Moreover, the government had to allocate the necessary funds for the annual Esala Perahara or procession, which is done as a tribute to the sacred tooth relic. (De Silva, K.M. 1965:67-69) Furthermore, the government allocated a monthly fund of 150 pounds for Buddhism (De Silva, K.M. 196567) :

Though the government was doing all these as the successor of the Kandyan king, the Christian missionaries were against this support. This caused a conflict between Sri Lankan administration and the British government during 1840’s. Christian priests protested to stop these connections with Buddhism and especially the priest named Spencer Hardy released a statement regarding this in 1839. According to this statement, he mentions it is unnatural and sinful for the British administration to connect with Buddhism the way they did it and it helped the growth of Buddhism. This statement was published and distributed by the English Wesleyan Mission. Later on, the Church Mission too joined the protest.

Thereafter this conflict was informed to the Colonial secretary in 1841. Followed by this, governor Collin Campbell (1841-1847) tried to stop this connection between the government and Buddhism. He did so by not appointing the religious appointments. This caused a chaotic situation with regard to the income and the administration of the Buddhist temples. However, in 1843 the vacancies were filled again. (De Silva, K.M. 1965:78-79)

Moreover, the government officials including the governor has also participated to an Exhibition organized by several Siamese Buddhist monks. Yet, this could cause another protest started by the missionaries. When the Colonial secretary general questioned this from the governor, he had stated he participated to the exhibition merely to show the presence of the governor. He also emphasized that the owner of the sacred tooth relic is supposed to rule Sri Lanka. In addition, he stated that in order to stop the corruptions in temple incomes and finance, he is ready to appoint Nilames. (De Silva, K.M. 1965: 81-83)

However, in 1843 Sri Lankan administration received an order from the British to stop the connections with Buddhism. As a consequence, the sacred tooth relic and the ownership of the temple of tooth relic were given to the Bhikkus in 1847 and the appointments of the temples were not done. (Rev. Wajira, Kamburugamuwe, 1989:163 , De Silva, K.M. :84). Yet, the Buddhist bhikkhus were against this decision stating that it does not tally with the promise made by the Kandyan convention of 1815. (De Silva,K.M.. :104). As a result, neither did the temple of the tooth relic or any other temple received any support from the Sri Lankan government. This religious conflict became a major reason to start the uprising of 1848.

Likewise it was the aim of the missionary priests to stop the connection with the British government and the Buddhists. Not only in Sri Lanka, had the priests also started protests in India requesting the support towards Buddhism in Sri Lanka. As a consequence, the governor of Sri Lanka made a note stating that as a Christian he cannot offer the credentials for the High priests. (SLNA, 3/4 Governor in Council 1840 October 16) As a result, beginning from 1841 march the governor stopped signing the documents. (SLNA, 3/4 Governor in Council 1841 March 13)

Another major strategy in promoting the religion was through distributing of leaflets with religious facts. This was started in Sri Lanka by the Colombo Auxiliary Bible Society in 1812.It was stated that the missionaries had printed more than 200 000 books and leaflets to promote the religion during five years’ time.

According to the proclamation of 1818, there were several changes that were done to the current religious policy. However, according to the 16th sentence of the proclamation the British government should pay respect to Buddhist Bhikkhus, Processions and the religious rituals as earlier. In addition the right was given to follow other religions except Christianity as well as with the permission of the governor, other religious places could be built in Kandy without any interference. (Proclamation of 1818 )

Except for the people who converted to Christianity with the intention of wanting positions and occupations, there were rarely anyone who converted with a faith in Christianity. Due to this reason, in the gatherings, the priests distributed several sweets and liquor among the crowd to attract them. In addition, preaching was done at the junctions. Also they showed that it is futile to worship statues and trees. Yet many people left the place without listening to these preaching.

There were several instances in which where the Christian priests invaded the Buddhist occasions in order to harm the events. Such incidents were reported at Kelani Rajamaha Vihara as well as in Dondra. (Silva, M.U.2000:14) In addition, they tried to disrobe the Buddhist bhikkhus to disgrace Buddhism.

However, in order to preach Buddhism to indigenous people, the Christian priests had to learn indigenous languages. There, they received the support from the bhikkhus. They compiled dictionaries and grammar books for the Christian priests to learn indigenous languages in Sri Lanka. Since many of the priests knew Portuguese, in 1818 Rev. John Callowe compiled the first Portuguese-English-Sinhala Dictionary. Simultaneously, they learned Pali to understand the concepts in Buddhism. In 1824 Rev. Benjamin Clope compiles a Pali grammar book. Thus, the Christian priests were able to refer the Buddhist books.

During this period, the Bible was translated to Sinhala and was distributed among the public along with selected Christian books. Missionaries got the help to translate the Holy Bible into Sinhala from Rev. Korathota Dhammarama and Rev. Korathota Dhammananda.In most of the magazines they printed, they highly disgraced Buddhism whilst emphasizing the importance of Christianity. Few of such publications were Spencer Hardy’s “Lanka Nidhanaya” (1839), Rev. Jay Harris’s “Uragala” (1842) and John Prera’s “Sastra Nidhanaya” (1849).

Because of these incidents, several Sinhala elites sent a petition to the governor informing about the protests against Buddhism. (De Silva,K.M. 2000:19) As a consequence, the governor advised Rev. Benjamin Clope not to distribute publications disgracing Buddhism.

As a result, there were several protests from the Buddhists to save Buddhism and this started from the downsouth of Sri Lanka. During the 1840-1850, there was a revival in the Pirivena education in Sri Lanka. In 1839, Rev. Walane Siddhartha started the “Paramadhammachethiya Pirivena” . Followed by in 1873, Vidyodaya Pirivena and in 1876, Vidyalankara Pirivena was started.(Nawarathna,Bandara:200)

There were several public disputation among the missionaries and the Bhikkhus starting from mind 1840’s. Through these disputations, the intention of the Bhikkhus was to show the superiority of Christianity and state inconsistencies and contradictions of the religion in opposition. Most of the times, who led this campaign was the Weslian missionaries. Because they have had experience and confidence in public debates. In addition, they had priests well equipped in knowledge of Buddhism and Christianity such as Rev. D.J. Gogerly and R. Spencer Hardy. (UCHC vol 3,1973:198)

During 1864-1890 there were five public debates between Christians and the Buddhists. Each of these has generated more eloquent and emotion. The Rev. george Parsons of the C.M.S. spokesman was taken aback by this unexpected defiant attitude of his opponents. He has stated that “The result fully justified their anxieties, for never before in Ceylon there was such a marshalling of the enemy against Christianity. The one aim of the fifty priests and their 2000 followers assembled here on February 8 (1865) was not to defend Buddhism, but to overthrow Christianity.” (UCHC vol 3,1973:199)

The first two debates in Baddegama and Waragoda were done in writing. Thusm they were not called as proper debates. The public debates that were spoken were: “Udanvita” (1866), “Gampola” (1871) and Panadura (1873). Amongst them, the most noticeable was the Panadura debate. In this debate, Migettuwatte Guananda Thero proved to be a witty and erudite spokesman. Anagarika Dharmapala viewed this debate as “the great historical controversy between the Christian missionaries and the Buddhist yellow robed monks …. [where] the Christian party was ignominiously defeated. (UCHC vol 3,1973:199)Newspaper reports of the Panadura debate has reached USA where they have attracted the attention of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, the founder of the founder of the theosophical society. Olcott began a regular correspondence with Migettuwatte Gunananda and later the translations of these correspondences reached his Russian associate Madame Blavatsky. Through these they became familiar with Buddhists and their arrival in Ceylon in 1880 caused a great excitement and was very remarkable. Both Olcott and Blavatsky embraced Buddhism in front of an enormous audience. Though they both had converted to be Buddhists in New York, the ceremony has been held in Galle. At first Olcott started the Buddhist education fund with the help of bhikkhus and then he contributed in making the Vesak festival an official holiday. In 1885 he contributed to the agitation of the Buddhist flag. The first step of the prolonged process in improving nationalism, which reached its peak in the twentieth century, was taken in the second half of the nineteenth century which in turn helped in regaining the lost pride of the nation in that time. The traders who were part of the rising non-goyigama cast of the littoral, the karava, durawa and kaligama , had the leadership of the Buddhist revival. Due to the defects of the leadership Olcott and Theosophist movement took a decision to change the leading parties of the movement and they gave this new leadership a confidence and self-assurance in itself to make it more effective. Because of the stage the movement was in at that point, the ‘charisma’ of a westerner could easily push the movement forward more purposefully. (UCHC-vol 3,1973:201)

The Kotahena riots which took place on Easter Sunday in 1880, was considered as the first outbreak of physical violence completely directed towards the Buddhists on account of the actions taken by the Buddhist revival to regain what was lost. The Government Agent of the Western Province related about these riots as “a large number of unoffending [sic] Buddhists were proceeding in procession to their temple [at Kotahena] when they were set upon by a mob of Roman Catholics, who killed one man and severely beat and injured the others, slaughtered the bullocks burnt the carts and their contents on the public high road and defied the police until military was called out. For this serious riot committed in broad daylight and attended by murder and bloodshed, not a single person was even put upon his trials.” in his Administarion report for 1883.

After these incidents, an inquiry was conducted and Olcott and Madame Blavatsky returned to the island for a second visit to organize the presentation of this case. On the second day of Olcott’s arrival, a Buddhist Defense Committee was formed and was decided Olcott was to be the representative of the committee. It was fruitful in many ways. Later, 1886, Olcott returned again and supported the Buddhist educational fund for the improvement of Buddhist education in Sri Lanka. Later in the same year, Anagarika Dharamapala joined Olcott and C.W. Leadbeater. This combination led to the establishment of Ananda College. (UCHC vol 3,1973:202)

During these years, Buddhist revival continued apace yet they were more concerned on the cause of education. In the last quarter of the 19th century, a network of Buddhist schools were established in Sri Lanka as a result of the Buddhist Revival. It is mentioned that the “and so close with this connection between educational activity, Buddhist revival and nationalist resurgence that the administration, not to mention missionary organizations, was inclined to be deeply suspicious”. (UCHC vol 3,1973:203)

In addition, when the press of Kotte Church missionary was sold on 1885, Buddhists bought it. Moreover, with the support of the Thailand King and queen and several indigenous people, the Lankoparakara press in Galle was bought. Through these press, the answers to the accusations made by Christians could be answered. The leadership of this movement was taken by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumanagala Thero. Support to him was given by Mohottiwaththe Gunannada Thero of Kotahena Deepa Duththararama Temple. In 1862, Gunananda Thero published a book named “Durlabdhi Winoadani” against the Christian publications. (Malalgoda,K,1976:221) Simultaneously, Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero too published several books named: “Wak Saraya”, “Sumathi Sangrahaya”, “Labdhi Thulawa” against the Christian publications. Some other books by Gunananda Thero include: “Christhiyani Wada mardhanaya”, “Samyak Darshanaya” etc. These publications caused direct verbal fights between Christians and Buddhists.

Simultaneously, with the leadership of Theosophical society, a movement was started to initiate Buddhist schools. As a consequence, there was a drastic increment in the number of Buddhist schools and there were several volunteers working there as well. The manager of these Buddhist schools was an Irishman named “Bolls Dally”. During this period, Ananda College in Colombo was started with the leadership of Lead Beater. He also worked hard to start Mahinda College, Galle and Dharamaraja College, Kandy. (Bandara, Nawarathna. P.240)

In this period, a lady named Annie Besant visited Sri Lanka to help the theosophical society and she also played a major role in the society. For the sustainment of the theosophical society, rich businessman and the Buddhist elites contributed. At the same time, a magazine named “Sarasavi Sandarasa” was started by the theosophical society and this became the first Sinhala Buddhist paper in Sri Lanka. This magazine had a major influence to plant positive attitude about Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Thus, it is clearly visible that the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka gained a clear aim with the influence made by the Englishmen in theosophical society. With the leadership of Sir Henry Steel Olcott, another movement was started to regain the rights of the Buddhists.

This was the period where the Buddhist flag was designed with the leadership of Sir Henry Steel Olcott. In 1891, Mahabodhi society too was initiated with the aim of starting a temple in Buddhagaya.( Guruge, Ananda, 1991:610-611) To pass the knowledge of Buddhism to the urban young men educated in English, “The Young Men’s Buddhist Association” (YMBA) was started in 1898. Simultaneously, a fund was started and several Buddhist schools were started. In January 1891,Anagarika Dharmapala came to Buddha Gaya on a pilgrimage. After seeing the place being neglected he adapted the measures to restore the holy site and to have Buddhist monks stationed permanently. He remained at the holy site and started corresponding with the Buddhists in Ceylon, Burma ,Siam, Japan, China , Arakan, Chittagong and in May 1891 the Maha bodhi Society was established under the president ship of the late High Priest Sumangala. ( Guruge, Ananda, 1991:619)

However, after the 19th century, many of the Englishmen and ladies in theosophical society drew their attention into Indian national movement and the religious movement. Thereafter the leadership of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka was taken by Sri Lankans such as Anagaraika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harischandra, Piyadasa Sirisena and W.A Silva.

From these Sri Lankan leaders, the most prominent was Anagaraika Dharmapala. He promoted Buddhism in the general public whilst accusing the westernized rites and rituals of the people. He was against eating meat and consuming liquor. Also he blamed Sinhalese for their laziness. His intention was to start local businesses and uplift the lives of the Sinhalese Buddhists in the country. In order to support this cause, he started the magazine: “Sinhala Bauddhaya”. Moreover, he fought to gain the ownership of Buddagaya in India back to the Buddhists from the Hindus. In addition, under Mahabodhi Company, several schools were started in Sri Lanka. The magazine of Mahabodhi too had a positive impact on the Buddhists. In June 1893, Anagarika Dharmapala started to attend the Chicago Parliament of Religions which was held in September 1893. ( Guruge, Ananda, 1991:619)

Therefore, to conclude it can be stated that the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka started in many sectors during the 19th century in various ways. The main intention of this revival to reject the westernized rites and rituals in the Sri Lankan society and to regain the lives of the indigenous people where the ancient Sinhala traditions sustained. However, it can be mentioned that the Buddhist revival in the 19th century was a success and could plant a positive attitude towards Buddhism in Sri Lanka.



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