Church History Documentation Centre
- Deepa N. Rajaratne and Sarah J Niles -
As early as the fifth century AD, an officer was in charge of the King’s Archives in Sri Lanka. The nineteenth-century account of Hay Macdowall reveals that an officer called “Maha Mohotti” maintained the archives of the Palace of Kandy during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Systematic record-keeping, however, was introduced by the Dutch who occupied the coastal districts of Sri Lanka between 1640 and 1656 and after that period in Colombo. In 1901, under the Britist, the post of archivist was created, and the Department of Government Archives was established in 1947. After independence in 1948, the National Archives Law no. 48 was enacted in 1973 and the Department of National Archives was established. In 1981 the Presidential Archives and reference service was created to preserve the official and semi-official records of the Executive Presidents. The current repository is an impressive building that was constructed between 1970 and 1976. Subsequently, the archives were transferred to this building. Since 1986, the repository’s capacities have fully utilized.
TCL – Church History Documentation Centre
The Theological College of Lanka, Pilimatalawa, launched a very exciting programme with the creation of the Church History Documentation Centre (CHDC). It is only about 15 years old. Until then the resources for writing and studying history were found in archives in Europe. Most of the resources on the history of Christianity in Sri Lanka were in Lisbon (Portugal), The Netherlands, and Britain. Further, the few local resources available were scattered in different denominational headquarters in Sri Lanka or with individuals. The CHDC takes an ecumenical approach in collecting together various resources scattered all over the island and preserves them. It was said that some time back, a certain individual of a particular denomination was destroying old records when another official walked into the headquarters. This official was not able to save those records. Further, after the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981, and during and after the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka, many other documents, mainly from the north of the country, were destroyed. If all the valuable documents could be collected, stored, and preserved in one place we can avoid such situations.
We have a major uphill task to identify the persons who have important documents. For that purpose someone has to be in the field, constantly travelling to different parts of the country. Once we identify documents, then we have to collect and preserve the documents of all Churches, events and individuals in an ecumenical setting. A researcher will have the opportunity to refer to most of the resources in one place. For this reason the CHDC is important. We are only at the initial stages, and we have to collect and preserve the prevailing documents. In this way, we can find many interesting documents by which to write our history using the resources of our people. We presume that this history is both connected and disconnected with the history of the colonial period.
The history of Christianity in Sri Lanka is an exciting history. To make it even more interesting and exciting, we need to identify new resources, and preserve them in an ecumenical setting for use by our present historians and by future historians.
A story from the Pre-European period
From 1505 three European powers, namely the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, captured Sri Lanka (then known by many other names). The Christian story of Sri Lanka is generally known from the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese. There is, however, another story we can date back to earlier times. This story is an ancient story. According to this story, there were Christian communities long before the missionaries arrived in the 16th century.
a. A cross was found during excavations in 1912, in Anuradhapura, one-time capital of Sri Lanka. This cross is now in the Anuradhapura museum. It is similar to those found in India. Persian Christians lived in Sri Lanka from the 5th century, and brought this cross with them.
b. A bowl used for religious cleansing can be found in a museum in Vavuniya, to the north of Anuradhapura. Persian Christians are supposed to have used it for baptisms.
A story from the Dutch period
The Dutch captured the coastal area of Sri Lanka in 1656. The Portuguese had been in control of this area since 1505 and had introduced their faith. Because of that, there were a number of Roman Catholics. The Dutch harassed the Portuguese and Roman Catholics during the Dutch rule. Joseph Vaas arrived in Sri Lanka during this period in disguise, and strengthened the faith of the Roman Catholics. The king of Kandy welcomed him. He travelled around, mainly keeping to the border of the Kandyan kingdom. The Dutch also persecuted the Buddhists during this period. They destroyed many Buddhist places of worship. It was a time of persecution. This history torments our people up to now, and for the slightest thing, people of other faiths refer to the harassment during the Dutch period.
There is a very unusual story relating to this period. There is a Buddhist Vihara called Ride Vihara at Ridigama on the border of the central part of Sri Lanka. The Vihara has some interesting ceramic tiles, on the flower table in front of the sleeping Buddha. There are about 100 of them. Pictures on some of those ceramic tiles depict certain incidents in Christ’s life. One of the tiles has a picture of two people carrying an infant. Some say that the infant is the baby Jesus. Another marble has a picture of Christ doing a miracle from the sky in front of two persons. These tiles are not fixed in any proper manner. They face in different directions. It could be that even the masons did not have any idea what these pictures were.
How did pictures depicting Christ come into a Buddhist place of worship? A Dutch Governor is supposed to have donated these ceramic tiles. Probably the Buddhist Sangha would have accepted these tiles because it was the Governor who gifted them. Although Ridi Vihara was in the Kandyan kingdom, there was some connection between the Dutch government and the Kandyan kingdom. The Dutch government supplied ships to send Sinhala envoys to Siyam (Myanmar) to bring upasampada when Buddhism was at a low level. It could be that the Dutch Governor donated these ceramic tiles to the Sangha at Ridi Vihara in appreciation of their work.