History behind the 1915 ethnic riots that inflamed Gampola
Posted on April 16th, 2018

This article is being translated & commented from the Sinhala article appearing in the Lankadeepa newspaper by Pushpanath Jayasiri Mallikarachchi. Pushpanath Jayasiri Mallikarachchi brings out some previously unspoken facts which demands comparison of similarities with the present in Sri Lanka as well as similar sentiments presently emerging across UK, Europe, Australia and even throughout US & Canada.

As in all cases activists & supposed rights-groups purposely ignore the background to animosities. They conveniently avoid mentioning what initially looks innocent & unimportant but when consistently & regularly added creates a larger issue & outcome.

The scenario brought out by the author is of a date on 28 May 1915 where a group singhing Bhakthi songs (Buddhist songs) accompanied by musicians were making their way down Ambagamuwa Street having obtained approvals from police & relevant authorities. Not mentioned is that pre 1505 and arrival of western Christian colonial invaders such approvals were not necessary. Buddhism was part of life & governance while non-Buddhists practiced their faiths respecting the state religion. There was no Christianity or local Christian followers (Sinhalese or Tamils) before 1505.

As happens presently even within the police there are questionable characters & it is their actions that often lead to bigger issues. Likewise, a policemen had informed that the procession had no authority to sing along Ambagmuwa Street. The police had also instructed that the procession had to stop their music 100 yards from the mosque. Though the Basnayake nilame objected, the police were influenced by the mosque.

What also needs mentioning is that in 1911 the Government Agent approved the procession to take its original route. However, in 1912 the Moors obstructed to the procession and it had turned violent. The case was heard by Paul E Pieris in 1914 & he upheld the rights of the Buddhists which were however opposed by the British Attorney General who challenged the verdict and the verdict was reversed in the Supreme Court of Ceylon on 2 February 1915.

The Buddhists made an appeal to the Privy Council in London arguing that centuries old Buddhist customs were being denied as it was part of the 1815 Kandyan Convention to protect Buddhism. 1915 was the centennial of that 1815 Convention but the failure of the colonial British to uphold the assurances of that Convention disappointed the majority Buddhist populace. The British Privy Council rejected the appeal by the Buddhist leaders in Gampaha and orders were given against the Buddhist procession passing the Muslim mosque.

British were taking the side of the Muslims while curtailing and obstructing Buddhist rituals & rights. These discrepancies are highlighted by Michael Roberts.

Why were all these objections emerging after arrival of colonial rulers? Were there such objections by Moors to Buddhist processions before 1505? None that we can historically find. So what was the reason for these objections to come so suddenly & so consistently?

Heeding orders, the group proceeded along another street and when they were going 120 yards down that street people from inside a mosque (which was opened only in 1907) started hooting at them and when the procession immediately turned, stones were hurled at them from the mosque. Who threw the first stone is guilty of igniting the fire and cannot complain thereafter. Was this not the same allegation that came in Aluthgama before the riots broke out? It was the stones hurled from the mosque that resulted in the attack upon the mosque. As a result of people throwing stones from the mosque, the eventual outcome was damage to property of both sides and loss to lives of both sides too. Innocent people suffered because of the actions of a handful both in 1915 and in 2014 as well as more recently in 2018. As in the case in 1915, 2014 & 2018 the whole narrative is written omitting key facts & the usual culprits engage in planting sentiments for further and future chaos.

Alleged suspects were arrested but the incident justified the white colonial administrators to bring down the Punjab Army from India, just the way they brought Indian sepoys against the natives that defended their island in 1818 and 1848. We can also recall the damage the Indian Peace Keeping Force caused by killing not only Sinhalese & Muslims but Tamils as well. The colonial British concluded the attacks were against them by the Sinhala Buddhists – they got an opportunity to justify their main aim to squash the majority populace that were against colonial rule and they informed London that the freedom struggle had taken a religious dimension.

Thus the 1915 riots became categorized as an ethno-religious riot between Sinhala Buddhists & Muslims/Islam

The similarities in actions are also noteworthy after the 1915 riots the damage to Muslim (Moors) lives and property were exaggerated (25 dead, 189 injured, 4 raped, 86 destruction of properties, 4075 thefts, 350 shops guttered) In 2014 and recent 2018 the damage to the Sinhala Buddhists & temples hardly got any attention by supposed unbiased press!

The British saw the Sinhala Buddhists as a threat for it was only they who were defending the nation and so the British took inhuman measures against them. Notice the similarities in the usage of the term ‘extremists’ the colonial British were quick to brand the Sinhala Buddhists as ‘extremists’ no different to how they are presently being labeled even by so-called smart ‘patriots’ acting as sepoys. This was how D S Senanayake, DB Jayatilake, W A Silva, A E Gunasinghe, Anagarika Dharmapala were all arrested and put into prison.

The role of Britain in fanning these communal flames cannot be overlooked. Their divide & policy meant dividing people and keeping them at each other’s throats. As a result of this policy the British brought Malayalees, South Indians & Indian Muslims to work on their plantations as labor in 1800.

What often gets omitted from mention is that since 1833 Colebrook Commission, the Muslims were represented through Tamil representation and were categorized as Coastal Yonis, Lanka Malay Yonis. Moor traders who arrived from South Indian Malabar coast & migrated to Sri Lanka were known as Indian Malabars.

Malays thereafter forged their own identity. Only after 1889 that the identity of Muslims was treated separate to that of the Tamils.

The first moor mosque was opened in Ambagamuwa in 1907 and immediately afterwards began opposing the annual procession that started near the Wallabhagoda Devale and passed the mosque. It is also one of the valid reasons why non-Muslims object to new mosques being built close to other religious sites as Muslims have a tendency to use power of money as influencers to curb religious events of others who have been holding theirs far before their mosques became erected. These are good food for thought for fair-minded Muslims to ponder.

There was a background story to the riots that resulted which many chose not to connect with and that continues to occur even presently.

Another key element that added to the animosity built up between Muslims & Sinhalese was the monopoly of foods & commodities by the Muslims. Taking advantage of the food shortage accrued following World War 1 the Muslims were manipulating the prices of food & goods to their advantage and profit. Muslims were excellent tradesmen. They were masters at charging unfair high interest against loans which gave rise to calls to resentment among non-Muslims to stop frequenting Muslim owned shops & eateries.

That the Sinhala-Muslim conflict was not ethno-religious and was associated & as a result of trade-competition is revealed by K. M. de Silva.

The rise in price of coconut & rubber & unemployment together with the shortage of food & essential commodities led to social unrest among Sinhala Buddhists & that automatically directed attention towards the Muslims who were unfairly profiting in manipulating the system. This was highlighted by Kumari Jayawardena in her writings on the Sinhala-Muslim conflict too.

According to Michael Roberts to address the threat of Buddhist cultural heritage the British used & manipulated the Muslim minority against Buddhist cultural events thus artificially creating an ethno-religious conflict.





Shenali D Waduge


Sinhala version of the Article that appeared in the Lankadeepa newspaper http://www.lankadeepa.lk/diyatha_news/අතීතයේ-ගම්පොළ-ඇවිළුණ-ජාතිවාදී–ගිනිමැලය/48-525587


Also read

  • A vignette of British Justice in Colonial Ceylon
  • “Riots and Martial Law in Ceylon 1915’’ by Sir P. Ramanathan, K.C.,


7 Responses to “History behind the 1915 ethnic riots that inflamed Gampola”

  1. SA Kumar Says:

    ethnic riots- As Hon Sampanthan said in parliament ” law and order not carry out by enforcement officers” in Sinhela Lanka (7PCs).

    If you need training, please sent to Saiva TE (NPs) to get training from enforcement officers (99% Bhuddist Sinhales) ! -99% No crime area .

    how this is possible ? may be these officers trained by VP & co before May 2009 ? who knows? …..

  2. Vaisrawana Says:

    I wonder why a knowledgeable journalist like Shenali Waduge chose such a weakly written Sinhala language newspaper article about the subject for translation into English. The writer (Pushpanath Jayasiri Mallikarachchi) does not bring out any previously ‘unspoken facts’ about the 1915 incidents, contrary to Waduge’s claim. His uninformed reference to the very well known historic annual Esala Perahera of the Walahagoda Devale near Gampola (in association of which the riots started) as “a group singhing Bhakthi songs (Buddhist songs) accompanied by musicians…” suggests the poor quality of his preparatory research. Who (interested in legal history) hasn’t heard about the famous ‘Gampola Perahera case’?

    “The police had also instructed that the procession had to stop their music 100 yards from the mosque. Though the Basnayake nilame objected, the police were influenced by the mosque.” The involvement of the government was much more complex than this would suggest. No doubt, the imperial government responded to Muslim sentiments much more than it did to the religious sensitivities of the Sinhalese Buddhists. But, to say that ‘the police were influenced by the mosque’ is utterly wrong; it is tantamount to trivializing an important issue of great historical significance. The police acted responsibly under proper authority, though the rulers were remiss in dealing with the issue the way they did (They were in violation of the age old religious traditions of the Sinhalese in order to please the Muslim minority as a result of pressure from external causes).

    “That the Sinhala-Muslim conflict was not ethno-religious and was associated & as a result of trade-competition is revealed by K. M. de Silva.” The history professor is not making any revelation; he is only assisting concealment. Actually, he is just repeating a myth that other colonial clones of the post-independence intelligentsia love to propagate against Sinhalese Buddhists; these Anglo-centric scholars want to conceal the truth which had everything to do with the reviving nationalist fervor for independence among the Sinhalese of the day.

    Of course, there are similarities between 1915 and today. However, Mallikarachchi has made no genuine attempt to delineate these adequately correctly.

    The reader may look back at Rohana R. Wasala’s essay ‘What happened in 1915?’ (Lankaweb/posted November 6, 2014) for a clearer idea about the subject.

  3. Dilrook Says:

    The world context is also important. Gallipoli Campaign was on during this time. British troops including troops from Commonwealth countries along with French and Russian troops battled Turkish (and German and Austrian symbolic contribution) troops. Ottoman Empire won.

    This global context would have favoured Buddhists or lessened a tougher response from the British.

    Also note the killing of a national hero (Henry Pedris) was not approved by the British. It was carried out under the orders of a local.

    Following the incident, the grand procession continued freely in subsequent years. 1911 to 1921 population changes show a sharp reduction in the trend of the Muslim population. These stubborn facts indicate the real outcome of the incident.

    1915 is not the first riot between diverse religious groups. 1883 Kotahena riot between Buddhists and Christians is an earlier religious riot.

  4. SA Kumar Says:

    1883 Kotahena this remind me 1983 kotahena riot – so history repeat after 100 years !!!!

    so right to say We both are fighting last 2,000 years or more ( since Elra (Eela Raja) time 106 BC) .

    Sinha & Kodiya live in forest last 2,000 years more…. but never live together !!!

  5. Vaisrawana Says:

    Dilrook writes:

    “This global context would have favoured Buddhists or lessened a tougher response from the British.”

    This is the exact opposite of the truth. The global context did favour the local Muslims, not the (Sinhalese) Buddhists. The reason was that at that time Turkey/the Ottoman empire and Germany were allied against Britain. The British were reluctant to appear to favour the Buddhists against the Muslims for the simple reason that they didn’t want to antagonize the latter by being seemingly inimical to them. This was because the British thought that such an impression would provoke the millions of Muslims in India (the small island territory was an insignificant part the vast British India) to an uprising because of their affinity with their Turkish coreligionists. It is the culturally deracinated locals who have always been anxious to pretend that the riots were a byproduct of competitive business interests rather than an ethno-religious clash. The view of unprejudiced British commentators is that the British ‘overreacted’ to the unpremeditated disturbances which were provoked by some stone throwing Muslims of an extremist sect who had recently arrived in the island from India. (These violent Muslim fanatics had little connection with the local Muslim population.) Victoria Glendinning, author of ‘Leonard Woolf – A Life’ (Simon & Schuster Ltd, 2006), a meticulously researched biography of probably the most humane colonial civil servant that Ceylon ever had) comments on the 1915 riots thus: “The colonial government, misinterpreting the riots as seditious revolt (instead of inter-ethnic disturbance), overreacted, and imposed martial law. Eighty-three people were condemned to death, and sixty to life imprisonment. Public servants were dismissed and professional men harassed………”. (p.195). Ultimately, the British relented, allowing justice to prevail.

  6. Dilrook Says:


    Although the British lost that battle they won the larger war (WW1) so they had no respect or fear of Muslims. British also knew increasing problems between the large Hindu population and the small Muslim population of British India which meant that cannot be any threat. British never feared local Muslims! This global context lessened the impact on Buddhists. Compared to how Wellassa, Vera Puran Appu, etc. incidents were handled, violence employed by the British was marked less in 1915. Sikh regiments brought to country were brutal mainly due to lack of knowledge but they soon came to know the other party was Muslims! In fact, Sinhalese intervened to save Muslims.

    British also followed a low key approach to state violence in the 1883 Buddhist Christian riot of Kotahena.

    Some of the atrocities were carried out by local Sinhala administrators including Sir Solomon Bandaranaike. Henry Pedris was executed by his orders contrary to British orders. He was told thereafter in no uncertain terms not to repeat it. He also displayed the blood drenched chair to the rest of our national heroes wrongfully arrested as a threat.

    Sinhala lawyers refused to represent them when a Tamil lawyer (Ramanathan) stood up for them.

    The last two points are seen even today. During the recent Aluthgama, Gintota and Kandy disturbances, it was Sinhala politicians and NGOs that most blamed the Sinhalese.

  7. Fran Diaz Says:

    The killing of Henry Pedris was done under British Rule of Lanka. Young Pedris was from a well to do Sinhala family during those times. He excelled in horsemanship and marksmanship and was part of the British Army in Lanka. There was some jealousy over the fact that he excelled in his profession. He was unjustly accused by the colonial powers of that time of conniving with the rioters, court martialled and shot by the British. You can read these facts in the historical accounts. During the time of the then riots, even D.S. Senanayake, Baron Jayatilleke and other patriots were jailed.
    Of course, British colonial leaders of those times used a few of the local leaders too in all their acts against the nation ! The local leaders were forced into some of those acts as colonial death threats hung over their lives and the lives of their families as well as their property. All these seemingly unpatriotic acts were done under Duress.

    Lesson Learnt : Colonisation brings Misery to all.

    Similar acts continue by foreign countries which still hold power over Lanka. Fear & Greed still continue to cause grave damage in Lanka, as does the ‘Divide & Rule’ from abroad.
    The 13-A was forced on Lanka by INDIA. An act done under Duress is null & void, as far as the Law is concerned. Therefore, the 13-A must be removed.
    But then again, there is no real Law & Order in Lanka, nor is there a just Democracy, is there ?
    Also, it was INDIA that trained the LTTE in Tamil Nadu, during Cold War times.

    History repeating itself because all Lankans are yet to be truly PATRIOTIC and UNITED, for a peaceful, united, unitary and prosperous Lanka.
    All suffer due to such negative unpatriotic traits …. a pathetic state of affairs in Lanka.

    All foreign problems ought to be taken back to the source of the problems.
    Hammering Lanka will never solve problems brought into Lanka from outside.
    Lanka had nothing to do with the creation of the 3,000 yr old Tamil CASTE problem.

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