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Conversions, sycophancy and custom in 'Ceylon' names

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i am no scholar or researcher— just a 'common reader' with an abiding interest in our history and culture. This article may, perhaps, provoke informed criticism, which I welcome.The variety of family and personal names in our homeland has always fascinated me. Sinhala kings of ancient times were known by simple names such as Gamini, Abhaya and Tissa with prefixes indicating status or virtues such as Jetta [eldest], Saddha [Pious], Maha [great]. Later kings, wielding less power over smaller kingdoms, consoled themselves with grandiloquent names as Rajadhi Rajasinha.

The commonalty, as recorded in the Sigiriya graffiti, signed their 'verses' with such simple names as Piyal, Budal, Kasaba, Kit, Mital. As centuries passed, better sounding personal names, as Somapala, Piyasena, Siripala, came to be adopted by the higher castes. Interestingly, the lesser castes retained many ancient names, which thus lost caste. Their names such as Sirin-a, Lapa-ya, Pani-ya and Gunay-a were often saddled with the contemptuous suffix,'ya'.

The Portuguese

Ceylon's first European invaders were the Portuguese who, with sword and bible, left an indelible imprint on our maritime provinces, both Sinhala and Tamil. Their greatest impact was on the Sinhala fishing community/caste in the coastal areas and took to the Catholic faith with alacrity and hope of advancement under their new rulers. At the behest of their Catholic priests and village leaders, most of these converts adopted Portuguese [and some ex-Jewish] names such as Fernando, Mendis, Vaz/Waas, Perera, Silva and many such. However, as Sinhala society tends to be patriarchal and family-proud, they prefaced these foreign surnames, and biblical Christian names, with their original family names - some of which [e.g. Bodiya-baduge] even date from ancient times.


Interestingly enough, Portuguese/Catholic influence did not penetrate inland where there was no fisher community. Thus, not too many of the farmer community/caste adopted Portuguese surnames. They, however, expressed a great affinity to the names Perera and Silva, thus rather confusing caste-identity when arranging caste-based marriages. A few other Portuguese names were strangely, popular among such aristocratic Sinhala families as Pieris, Dias, de Alwis who also clung, often by hyphen, to their traditional family names.


After a bloody massacre of recalcitrant Hindus the Portuguese succeeded in converting masses of the Tamil fisher community/caste in the North. Pre-Portuguese Tamil society was not patriarchal and, as such, had no family names. They only carried their fathers' names prefacing their own personal names. The Catholic clergy changed all that and insisted that these converts adopt names that proclaimed their Christian faith. These converts now developed an interesting adaptation. They proclaimed their Catholicism with a Tamil profession of faith tagged on to their Christian name e.g. Jesu-dason, Maria-dason, Anthony-muttu, Saveri (Xavier)-muttu. These now became their family names and have lasted for five centuries. Their personal names were also adopted from the Bible and the lives of Saints.


The Dutch


The Dutch maintained strict apartheid. Their personal interaction with the natives was minimal and they never shared their names with them. The only bearers of Dutch/European names were the community of Burghers. There is, however, a partial exception. Sinhalese teachers in Reformed Church schools were entitled to adopt the family name of Palliye-guru [Church teacher].


The British


The first century of British occupation unleashed an amazing upsurge of sycophancy in the adoption of personal names. The Sinhala people, both in the maritime areas and the recently subdued Kandyan provinces, seem to have competed in adopting the personal names of their Governors while retaining their old family names. Among the best known are West Ridgeway, Barnes, Clifford, Stanley, Wilmot, Robert. The patriarchal Sinhalese, however, never gave up their age-old family names and regarded these Governors' (and other English) names only as personal first names. Admiration of the British, however, rarely led to conversion to Christianity as Buddhists had always been free to pick and choose their own names. Those who sought conversion, in most instances, did so for personal advancement in the Colonial hierarchy. Most, if not all, Sinhalese Mudaliyars in the 'low country' were, thus, Anglican Christians.


In the early 20th century, many Sinhalese, inspired by Anagarika Dharmapala's Buddhist revivalism, moved away from admiring the Brits and named their sons after the kings of the Mahavansa, Gamini, Tissa, Sena, Mugalan and many such. A few others, in the 1930s, developed anti-British sympathies and admiration for the radical movements in Europe -Communism, Fascism and Nazism. These closet-radicals named their sons Hitler, Lenin and Benito - who remained burdened with these 'pariah' names after the defeat of their namesakes in WW II.


Traditionally, Sinhalese names had three components. The first was the village name. Next was the caste/occupation. Finally, came the personal name. As capitalism flourished and ‘lesser castes’ became more prosperous, the new rich found an easy way to camouflage their ‘lowly’ origin. They just dropped the second (caste) component of the family name and began using the village name as their surname - to the chagrin of the old aristos who had considered themselves to be the only persons 'entitled' to this custom.


Bourgeois Sinhalese ladies of this period also began adopting English (or English-sounding) names such as Charlotte, Elizabeth, Margaret, Eleanor, Alice and Jane. The last two names were those of English princesses but, for some unknown reason, "lost caste" and were used to "rechristen" village women domestics in well-off homes. Humbler women also decided to imitate their betters and adopted fractured versions of English names such as Magilin, Asilin and Teslin. An interesting footnote is the impact that Queen Victoria, the great 'Bisava' had on Kandyan village women’s names. One was 'Biso (bisava) Menika'. The other was 'Koin (Queen) Menika.

American Influence

In the late 19th century WASP [white Anglo-Saxon Protestant] missionaries planned to launch a mighty proselytisation programme in Ceylon. But, the Colonial authorities, and their ally the Anglican clergy, looked upon this offer with disfavour and instead, gave the Americans the consolation prize of Jaffna District. Wealthy American missions now lost no time in establishing churches, schools and hospitals. Unlike the Portuguese, who had concentrated on converting humble fisher folk, the American "trained their guns" on the upper caste Vellalas, They had felt left out of the modern developments in the Southern Sinhala areas. The American missions gave them the ladder of the English language to a better life. Hinduism was not yet militant, nor did Tamil culture revolve round patriarchal family names. These two elements enabled the American missionaries to sweep like a hot knife through butter in converting upper class Tamils. The absence of family names in this class made it child's play for the missionaries to persuade the willing victims to adopt the Anglo-Saxon names of the godfathers who converted them, and also to discard Hindu family structure for the WASP nuclear family. This is how the top rungs of Christian Tamil society abound in such names as Mather, Hitchcock, Crosette, Wilson, Anketell, Watson, even Shakespeare, and many more. It did not take very long for affluent Hindus, often schooled in Colombo, to realize the advantages of possessing a recognisable 'family' name instead of the age-old practice of identifying yourself by your father's personal name. We now had prominent Hindus passing on to their sons as surnames, their well respected personal names, such as Ramanathan, Ponnambalam and Mahadeva.


A sad footnote to the work of these missionaries, from the land of equal opportunity is that they completely ignored the poor outcastes of Jaffna. Their Christian charity seems to have fallen victim to the ingrained prejudices of their valued Vellala converts.


Moors and Malays


Moors and Malays are two distinct ethnic groups although who share the brotherhood of Islam. Both groups are thus, Muslims but two different peoples. The Moors trace their origins to the Arabs of West Asia and have lived for centuries in scattered enclaves in Sri Lanka. Although the ancient Sinhala kingdoms had dealings with the rulers of Java and Malaya, these links faded away with European invasions. Interestingly, today's 'Malays' are descendants of mercenary soldiers and political exiles from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.


Moor names are classically Muslim - Mohammed, Abdul, Majeed, Maharoof, Mukeesh etc- but they, customarily, have no family names to pass down the generations. This is, probably, an Arab tradition. There has been a recent trend to adopt the names of such world famous Muslim leaders as Zulfikar, Gaddafi, Zia but customary names yet prevail. However, business and politics have led prominent Muslims to realize the advantage of adopting an easily recognizable family name to ensure business stability and continuity in political life. On this account there are the Cader family in trade and the Kariappers, Bakeer Markars and (Rauf) Hakeem in national politics.

The ancestors of 'Malays' were converted to Islam in the 12th century but retained a bed rock of their centuries old Hindu/Buddhist customs and practices. They traced their roots to particular families, whose names they yet proudly carry, occasionally with a personal Muslim name. Among the .Among 'Malay' family names ,yet prevalent in Sri Lanka, are Drahaman, Nallawangsa, Cuttilan, Saldin, Mohothar, Sourjah, Bangsa Jayah , Miskin and many more. These family names guarantee instant recognition in society and politics.

Missionaries, conquerors and mercenaries - with what a fantastic cornucopia of names did they enrich our native speech!

by Tissa Devendra

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