The ‘Gampola Perahera’ Case, Riots and Martial Law
Posted on October 6th, 2014


The Gampola Perahera Case, which occurred nearly 100 years ago is of great historical significance. Firstly, the Riots and Martial Law of 1915 can be traced to this case. Secondly, the facts of the case show the commitment of our Buddhist people to their religious festivals and ceremonies. Thirdly, and very importantly, it shows how the Supreme Court ‘toyed’ with the historic Kandyan Convention of 1815 – like a cat playing with a mouse it had caught! Fourthly, how the then Governor Sir Robert Chalmers had to be recalled prematurely and a new Governor (Sir John Anderson) appointed.
The new Governor was able to tactfully and successfully solve the issue that had resulted in the litigation and the riots. Regrettably, Sir John died two years later, while in Nuwara Eliya, the only British Governor to die in the colony. The unfortunate Sinhala-Muslim Riots that occurred in mid 1915 and the imposition of Martial Law by the British Government to quell the riots is considered the darkest period of British rule in the island. All these matters are briefly discussed in this article.

It is significant to note and record here that the most prominent Ceylonese of that time to speak on behalf of the Sinhala – Buddhists on these tragic events was a Tamil. He was none other than Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1853-1924), who was at that time one of the leading members of the Ceylon’s Legislative Council. Ramanathan delivered six memorable and impassioned speeches in the Legislative Council on this event. These speeches were later published as a book entitled Riots and Martial Law in Ceylon. Another excellent account of these events is found in Hundred Days in Ceylon under Martial Law 1915, by Armand de Souza, first published in 1916. Armand de Souza was a Goanese Indian and the then Editor of the Ceylon Morning Leader. He is the father of well-known University don Doric de Souza and reputed journalist and former editor of the Times of Ceylon, Tori de Souza.
‘Coast Moors’ and ‘Ceylon Moors’

As stated by Ramanathan the cause of the riots was the opposition by a section of the Hambayas (Bora men) or ‘Coast Moors’ to a Sinhalese Buddhist Perahera (pageantry parade) passing in front of their newly built mosque at Gampola. Ramanathan quite rightly, differentiates the ‘Coast Moors’ from the ‘Ceylon Moors’. Though both categories are Muhammadans and profess Islam, the Ceylon Moors had settled in the Island for several centuries even before the Portuguese. They were a composite group of Arabs, Persians and Muslimized Indians who had come here since the eighth century. The Ceylon Moors lived in peace among the Sinhalese and some of them had even attained the status of Headmen in some Kandyan villages during the region of the Kings. In 1915, the Ceylon Moors numbered about 235,000.
As distinct from the Ceylon Moors, were the Coast Moors whom Ramanathan describes as Muhammadan immigrants from the east coast of South India. They are not permanently settled in Ceylon. They do not as a rule bring their wives and families to the Island. Sojourning in it for a year or two at a time for purposes of trade, they return periodically with their savings to South India. They do not also normally inter-marry with any other Muhammadan communities of Ceylon. These ‘Coast Moors’ who in 1910, numbered only about 33,000 were disliked by the Sinhalese. They were considered unscrupulous. They used to loan money at usurious rates. Many Sinhalese had boycotted Coast Moor men’s boutiques (general merchandize shops and food counters) and the consumer public of Ceylon also blamed the Coast Moors for creating artificial increases in the prices of necessities.
The ‘Gampola Perahera Case’
By 1910 the Coast Moors, apart from other mosques, had built two new mosques in Gampola and Kandy. In 1912, the trustees of the Gampola Mosque objected to the traditional Buddhist Esala Perahera procession, passing their newly built mosque with the customary beating of drums, the blowing of conch shells and horns. From time immemorial this was the customary practice for all such processions throughout the Island.
However, in this matter, the British Government agent (George Saxton) acted both hastily and imprudently. He directed the police to mark signposts a 100 yards alongside of the mosque, and directed the police to inform the Basnayake Nilame of the Buddhist temple, from which the Esala Perehara was to start, that in taking the procession through the town, no drum or other musical instrument should be played within the hundred yards indicated by the signposts. The Basnayake Nilame, astonished at this order of the Government Agent, stopped all preparations for the perehara and after consulting Buddhist leader, filed an action in the Kandy District Court.
For purposes of historical record the District Court Case Number is D. C. Kandy 22,466. The complaint was that the order made by the Government Agent was against the Fifth Article of the Kandyan Convention of 2nd March, 1815, entered into in Kandy between the British Sovereign and the Chiefs of the Kandyan Kingdom, whereby the religion of Buddha, professed by the chiefs and other inhabitants of the Kandyan Provinces, was declared inviolable, and its rites, ministries and places of worship were to be maintained and protected by the British Government.
Judgment in favour of the Buddhists
The District Judge of Kandy (Paul Peiris), having heard many witnesses and considered a large number of documents, held by his judgment, pronounced on 4th June 1914, that the Esala Perahera was a rite of the religion of Buddha, which was undertaken to be maintained and protected under the Kandyan Convention of 1815; that the accustomed route of the Perahera and the continuance of the music was an essential part of that rite; that the Kandyan Convention constituted a binding contract unaltered in all following times; that the plaintiff, as Basnayake Nilame and trustee of the Walahagoda Dewale,was entitled to conduct the procession with elephants to the accompaniment of drums and other musical instruments through all the streets of Gampola, including that portion of Ambagamuwa Street where the Coast Moors had built in recent years a mosque; and that the directive of the Government Agent was a violation of the rights conferred upon the plaintiff by the Kandyan Convention. The Buddhists felt deeply thankful that they could thereafter hold their national festival as of old without obstruction.
The AG challenges DistricJudge’s decision
The satisfaction and happiness of the Buddhists of Ceylon by the District Judge’s decision was short-lived, as for some reason (not yet divulged by historical records) the Attorney General of that time (Anton Bertram, who later became Chief Justice) appealed to the Supreme Court challenging the District Judge’s decision. The case is cited as Basnayake Nilame Vs The Attorney General (1916) 18 New Law Reports p.193. When this appeal was filed the Buddhists became as depressed and downcast, while the Coast Moors now grew in buoyancy and defiance. The citation in the law report is also wrong because it was the Attorney General that had appealed.
Audacious attack by
Muhammadans …
After the appeal was argued in the Supreme Court and pending the delivery of the Supreme Court decision, there was a serious religious incident of significance in Kurunegala. On the 27th of January 1915, a group of Muhammadans attacked a religious procession of Buddhists undertaken to dedicate an image of Buddha to a vihare situated a few miles from Kurunegala, on the road to Kandy. The procession had to pass the village called Telliagommuwa, where the majority of the inhabitants were Muhammadans. On the Perahera approaching a school, which the Muhammadans, from want of means used as a place of worship, they attacked the Buddhists and caused some damage to the image of Buddha. This incident was reported in the daily newspaper called The Ceylonese of 2nd February 1915. The Kurunegala Police were immediately summoned and they arrested 14 Muhammadans who were produced before the Police Magistrate and charged with rioting with being members of an unlawful assembly. Further hearing of the Magistrate’s Court case was fixed for 2nd February 1915.
On that very day (2nd February 1915), the Supreme Court, consisting of Justice Shaw and Justice Thomas De Sampayo, delivered its judgment. The Supreme Court reversed the decree of the District Judge of Kandy in favour of the Buddhists and gave judgment upholding the order of the Government Agent. All Buddhists in the entire Island were dismayed when they heard the Supreme Court decision.
Muhammadans attack Buddhist procession in Kandy
on 28 May 1915
Bearing in mind this animosity of the Sinhalese Buddhists to the Coast Moors, which was fermenting, another serious incident occurred three months later on 28th May 1915 in Kandy and it can be said it was this incident together with others that followed which triggered the Riots and Martial Law of 1915. Buddha’s birth anniversary (Vesak) fell on 28th May 1915 and a Buddhist Vesak procession, when passing the mosque of the Coast Moors at Castle Street, Kandy had been attacked by them in the early hours of the morning at about 1:00 a.m. The attack was in the form of a number of stones and empty bottles being hurled at the Buddhist procession from the upper storey of two boutiques near the mosque.
This attack infuriated the Sinhalese in the procession and other onlookers, who then picked up the stones lying on the street and pelted them at the mosque and the boutiques adjoining it. They also smashed the iron bars of the mosque and flung out boxes of grain and groceries from the boutiques. A short while later the police arrived on the scene and the situation was brought under control.
More unrest and Martial Law imposed
On the next day – Saturday 29th May 1915, there was unrest in Kandy town especially near the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) where large crowds had gathered. Rumours had been spread that the Muhammedans were coming from Colombo to retaliate against the Sinhalese who had stoned their mosque and boutiques. No disturbances however, took place during the day. But at nightfall, one of the principal owners of a Coast Moor shop, in order to disperse a crowd that had gathered outside his shop, had fired a revolver at about 8:00 p.m. from the shop’s upper storey. Sadly, that shot had killed an 18-year-old Sinhalese youth, who was only a sightseer, being a domestic employee at Hillwood Girls College, Kandy.
This killing infuriated the crowd, which soon turned into a mob and they began to indiscriminately attack Muhammedan shops in Kandy town especially along Trincomalee Street. It was the above two incidents – both of religious origin that triggered the ‘Riots’ that soon spread to many other parts of the Island and resulted in Martial Law being imposed on the island for the first time in its history on 21st May 1915: Martial Law was lifted only at the end of August 1915.
The country’s future leaders jailed under Martial Law
In Sri Lanka: The Untold Story by Asia Times Online Co. Ltd, 2001 (which can be accessed through the Internet) there is a chapter on the Riots and Martial Law of 1915 by several contributors. It states that these riots occurred at a time when England was at War with Germany and in the House of Commons in London, the statement was made that ‘it was quite possible that German intrigues were at the bottom of the uprisings in Ceylon’.
It is also noteworthy that Turkey (a Muslim nation) had allied with Germany and in that situation Britain did not want to give the impression that they will look aside when Muslims were attacked in one of its Colonies. These were the international implications of a situation that arose as a result of a Buddhist Vesak procession been first attacked.
Sir Robert Chalmers (1913 – 1916) was the British Governor at that time. Though himself an Oriental and Pali scholar with considerable goodwill towards the native population, he overreacted to the situation and brought in Punjabi (Muslim) soldiers from India. The government also arrested and put in jail several prominent Ceylonese on the charge of treason. Some of them were the future political leaders of the country, such as D. S. Senanayake (the first Prime Minister in 1948) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake, D. B. Jayatilleke (soon, the Leader of the State Council, A. E. Gunasinghe (soon, a Labour Leader) and Dr. C. A. and Edmund Hewavitharana – the two brothers of Angarika Dharmapala, who was in India at that time. Dharmapala was also jailed while in India.
Settlement of the dispute…
Sir John Anderson replaced Sir Robert Chalmers (1913 – 1916) as the Governor. Sir John who was a lawyer, was a very experienced official at the Colonial office in London. He was also one of the officers who had previously accompanied the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George V and Queen Mary) on their Royal visit to Ceylon. One of the first official acts Sir John accomplished after his arrival in Ceylon on 15th April 1916, was to proceed to Gampola and meet with both the Buddhist leaders and the Coast Moors about the conduct of the ancient Buddhist Gampola Perahera.
The Coast Moors by now had learnt a bitter lesson. Many of them had suffered by the Riots – both financially and by loss of life and other injuries. Sir John persuaded the Coast Moors not to object or lay down restrictions as they had earlier done about the Perahera and the accompanying music and beating of tom-toms when passing their mosque. The Coast Moors agreed to let the ancient Perahera pass without objection or impediment. The Buddhists in turn undertook to respect the susceptibilities of the Coast Moors and their mosque. To ensure the peace he brought about, Sir John as the British Governor, was personally present at the event when the Perahera was recommenced in Gampola in May 1916 during the Vesak period.
Next, Sir, John set about to settle the legal appeal, which the Buddhists had filed in the Privy Council against the Supreme Court judgment of Justices Shaw and De Sampayo. That appeal was pending when Sir John arrived in Ceylon. He succeeded in this as well. He arranged for a distinguished English lawyer of that time, Sir John Simon to appear free of charge for the Buddhist appellants before the Privy Council in London. Sir John Simon did so and appeared with the well-known Ceylonese lawyer, Mr. E. W. Perera and the appeal was settled

2 Responses to “The ‘Gampola Perahera’ Case, Riots and Martial Law”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    DR. WICKREMA ! Good to see your name flashing around. Brings back nostalgic memories of yester years. If I remember right, you were the author of that sensational Obituary Notice that went viral in Sri Lanka, vis-à-vis ..The Death is announced of D.E.M.O. Cracy, father of L.I. Berty etc. I cannot remember the rest. I also remember Sirimavo going bananas over that.
    Also remember going with your brother Norman, and CCT Fernando, Chairman of Consultant Engineers, to Pulmoddai, Trinco etc, looking for suppliers of Vinca Rosea, which your Company wanted to export to Germany by the ship load.
    I was in Kandy for a very long time, and do remember the Muslims having a problem with the Kandy Perahera too.
    Susantha USA.

  2. Nimal Says:

    So you deleted my just comment about the colonials never allowed sectarian divisions in the country and the first perahara in Kandy for the enjoyment of the humble people was created by governor Manning in 1828.? Just go to Maligawa and see the evidence on the walls.It was opposed by the upper class and the new rulers had to protect the public with some Malay troopers.

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