Published: August 8, 2023
August 8, 1954
On the morning of Sunday, August 8, 1954, a Catholic Mass was held in Matiyalamulla, a small village in the Payagala area. The location was a temporary structure that would, in time, become a full-fledged church. That afternoon, a mass meeting of Buddhists was held in Payagala, and the chief topic was the undue growth of the Catholic church in Ceylon. A Buddhist monk complained that the Buddhists of Payagala had been duped into voting for the Catholic P. A. Cooray, and this led to a church being planned for a Buddhist village. Another electoral victory for Cooray would lead to more churches. The principal of Sri Lanka Vidyalaya, Colombo, Baddegama Wimalawansa Thero, alleged that the Catholic church had a stealthy modus operandi: build a church, then a school, help the poor, and finally, at the end of it all, convert the Buddhists to Christians. He said that though peace was desirable, even the Buddha did not always call for silence. Rajah Hewavitharne, a prominent businessman, claimed that the Buddhists had shown too much maitriya.1
The sequel to this meeting was a crowd of over one thousand Buddhists, led by bhikkhus, marching to Matiyalamulla. The crowd dispersed near the temporary church structure, crying sadhu. Then firecrackers were lit, and the structure and some statues were set ablaze. Eventually, all the structure’s sheds were burnt, though some bhikkhus attempted to stop the conflagration.2
Catholics of the area quickly took to the roads with knives and clubs, stopping cars with bhikkhus in them. Armed police were sent to the area and managed to bring calm to the area quickly.3
Before the burning, the Archbishop of Colombo had visited Matiyalamulla and deemed that the Catholics there did not have their spiritual needs sufficiently met. One man promised to donate land for a church, but this land was an undivided share of a property co-owned by some Buddhists. The week before the burning, the additional district judge of Kalutara issued an interim injunction to halt construction of the church.4
Catholics of the area argued that, given that there were over two hundred of them in Matiyalamulla, a church was needed. However, the Buddhists had argued that there was already a church in the area, and that the erection of a new church may be part of a proselytization attempt by the Catholics.5
The next morning, Catholic women had complained that, on their trip to get fresh water, they were obstructed by Buddhist villagers. The villagers broke water pots and snatched a necklace from one woman. In turn, the villagers complained that all Buddhists were indiscriminately blamed for the arson incident. Subsequent to this, armed police escorted Catholic women.6 However, the wells used by Catholics then had oil dumped into them, forcing the Catholics to get water from a Christian home in nearby Maggona. After this, the statue of St. Sebastian at Maggona had cow dung smeared on it.7
“Buddhism needs no rowdies”
At a meeting at a nearby school two days after the burning, Dambadeniya MP R. G. Senanayake, who had recently resigned from his post as commerce minister, condemned the incident. “Buddhism does not require bauddha maravarayas for its propagation or for the preservation of progress because it had still the great impelling force of maitriya which has stood it in good stead for over two thousand years,” he explained.8 He continued by noting that fighting had never been glorified in the history of Buddhism in Ceylon, not even in time of Dutugemunu. Lamenting that there was a trend of Buddhists using force in the name of religion in recent times, he asked Buddhists not to follow this trend as it would only harm Buddhism.9
In the same meeting, U Ba Lwin, a Burmese ambassador, asserted that violence of any sort was not part of Buddhism, and that tolerance was Buddhist policy. Deviating from maitriya was a paramount disservice to Buddhism.10
However, at another meeting held by Panadura MP D. C. W. Kannangara, a Buddhist monk accused the government of pursuing a pro-Christian policy. He alleged that there had been several Catholic churches built in Buddhist villages from Polonnaruwa to Payagala. In Payagala, despite the Catholics comprising only a fifth of the population, they had four churches. The government was also supporting the construction of Christian schools in Buddhist villages. He went on to explain that the government’s efforts to sponsor the Buddha Jayanthi were part of a front to mask its pro-Christian policy.11
Kannangara retorted that Ceylon was a multireligious country and spiritual leaders had an inviolable right to support their followers. Christian parents had the right to care for their children via Christian schools, and Buddhist parents had the right to refrain from sending their children to them.12
Sadhu at court
Two weeks after the burning, twenty four people were charged with “unlawful assembly, destroying a place of worship, damaging objects held sacred to Roman Catholics, house trespass and setting fire to the Church.” Of the accused, four were bhikkhus.13 On the second day of court proceedings, a crowd, including over one hundred bhikkhus, arrived. The actual inquiry was postponed for late September, but there were cries of sadhu from the crowd, leading to one man being taken into custody.14
Due to the Matiyalamulla incident, along with another religious incident at Pattampitiya a month earlier, a meeting of representatives of all major religions was held on August 20. At the meeting, Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala lamented that religious clashes were a frequent occurrence in Ceylon. “There is no place in this country for a militant religion, whether among the majority or among the minority. There is no question of one religion trying to oust the other,” he asserted. He continued by declaring that “the country belongs to all religions alike and that every individual should be allowed to practise his faith without let or hindrance, and without giving provocation to others.” The meeting went on to express that people should be taught to respect other religious views. Kotelawala received a memorandum from the Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters asking that “steps should be taken to promote amity among the people of our country.” However, it denied that Buddhists were responsible for instigating religious disharmony and offered the “whole-hearted co-operation” of the maha sangha to the government to investigate “the real causes which have given rise to the present state of unrest.”15
At the end of August, a peace committee was appointed by the Payagala and Maggonabadde village council to restore harmony between Buddhists and Catholics of the area. The village chairman proposed that the committee should be comprised of elected members from both religious groups. Most Catholic committee members supported the idea. However, another speaker warned that there were signs that the religious tensions would diffuse to other parts of the country, leading to a mass conflict.16
Baddegama Wimalawansa Thero, the principal of Sri Lanka Vidyalaya, and a speaker at the meeting that preceded the church site burning, would go on to become a prominent member of the EBP, a collective of political Buddhist monks that supported the MEP in its 1956 parliamentary election campaign and subsequent governance. The EBP was strongly nationalistic and took an anti-Christian stance. For example, an EBP publication authored by L. H. Mettananda accused the Times group and Lake House press of being owned and controlled by Christians. Anti-Buddhist and indecent lines were toed in their publications, he alleged. Mettananda called for a boycott of the Lake House press on these grounds.17
Payagala Saddhawasa Thero, one of the accused in the church attack, was free by May 1958. Two days before mass rioting against Tamils started in Kalutara that month, he presided over a meeting that called for the boycott of Tamil boutiques. He remarked that the Tamils could cook rice with dried cow dung as fuel when they returned to Jaffna. In his efforts to boycott Tamils, he found a Christian ally: Reverend Mendis of the Methodist Mission. At an earlier meeting, Saddhawasa Thero had criticized the Kalutara police for intervening in their anti-Tamil demonstrations. However, after that meeting, the police did not stop demonstrators from placing sri boards in front of Tamil boutiques, an inaction for which he thanked them.18 Saddhawasa Thero later had charges laid against him for some action he took during the communal disturbances of that year.19
Mercifully, there was no widespread religious rioting in the coming years as feared by the councilor. However, there was instead a destructive ethnic conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils. As demonstrated by the Matiyalamulla incident, chauvinistic forces that would contribute to those tensions were present before and ever ready for an opportunity to rise to the surface.
Weerawardana, I. D. S. Ceylon General Election, 1956. Colombo: M. D. Gunasena, 1960.
- “Buildings on Church Site Set on Fire,” Ceylon Daily News, August 9, 1954. Hereafter, Ceylon Daily News will be abbreviated as “CDN.”
- “Calm in Riot-Torn Village,” CDN, August 9, 1954.
- “Armed Police Escort Women: Tension Air in Arson Village,” CDN, August 10, 1954.
- Paiyagala Case: 24 Charged,” CDN, August 20, 1954.
- Bauddha maravaryas translates to “Buddhist rowdies.”
- “‘Buddhism Needs No Rowdies’—Ex-Minister,” CDN, August 12, 1954.
- “M. P. Answers Charges Made by Bhikkhu,” CDN, August 18, 1954.
- Paiyagala Case: 24 Charged,” CDN, August 20, 1954.
- “Cries of ‘Sadhu’ During Paiyagala Arson Case,” CDN, August 27, 1954.
- “Religious Amity: A Pledge,” CDN, August 21, 1954.
- “Peace Committee for Paiyagala Appointed,” CDN, August 30, 1954.
- I. D. S. Weerawardana, Ceylon General Election, 1956 (Colombo: M. D. Gunasena, 1960), 133.
- “They Urge Boycott of Tamil Boutiques,” Ceylon Observer, May 26, 1958.
- Ceylon, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, vol. 37, col. 251.