What The Portuguese Left Behind


By 1505 then Ceylon Island, known to the civilized world as Serendib, had over the centuries, experienced a variety of cultural influences, mainly because it became the natural focal point at the southernmost part of the sea routes that connected Asia with the Mediterranean. So it was that Chinese, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab and Indian sailors and merchants converged on the Island and left their cultural imprint to a greater or lesser degree.

But the year 1505 saw the beginning of an utterly different type and intensity of cultural influence. A Portuguese fleet in pursuit of ships belonging to Moorish and Arab traders was blown off course near the Maldives and ended up at Galle. It was the first contact the Islanders had with Europeans and their dissimilar way of life and advanced military equipment.

So alien were the Portuguese that the Sinhalese chronicle Rajavaliya described them when they built a fort at Colombo in 1517 as “exceedingly fair of skin and beautiful. They wear boots and hats of iron: they rest not a minute in one place: they walk here and there. They eat hunks of white stone (bread) and drink blood (wine): and give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime. The report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts upon the rock of Yugandhara: their cannon balls fly for a gawwa (a gawwa roughly equals 6.5km, so this distance is an exaggeration) and shatter fortresses of granite.”

At a time when Serendib was vulnerable to invasion from the north, the arrival of the Portuguese prevented the Island from becoming an Indian province. Instead, Ceilão as they named it gained a unique identity as the they were the first of three colonial powers to have an imposing influence on the culture over a period of 450 years. Not all of the Portuguese influence was beneficial, but the positive aspects have contributed to an extraordinarily diverse society in which traditional aspects have thankfully survived.

Music and dance
Apart from Buddhism, the second biggest influence on Sri Lankan music, is Portuguese, for the colonials brought with them western instruments such as the ukulele and the guitar, and introduced musical forms such as the ballad. More significant, though, was the importation of the rhythmic instrumental dance music called baila. Characterised by its upbeat 6/8 time, baila has today become a fashionable genre of Sri Lankan music.


Those who assume that Sri Lanka’s hot curries were the creation of the Islanders will be surprised to learn that the Portuguese introduced chillies to the local cuisine. Until then, pepper had been the means by which curries were given a ‘heaty’ taste. Not so surprising, considering the local lack of knowledge regarding bread revealed in the comment that the Portuguese ate “hunks of white stone”, is that they were responsible for the establishment of bread-making. They also introduced the tomato. The Islanders took to Portuguese cakes, such as the bolo fiado or bolo folhado, a layer cake filled with cadju (cashews), and sweets such as boruwa and fuguete.

Illustrations in Portuguese and Dutch descriptions of the Island in the 16th and 17th centuries reveal that the Sinhalese soldier’s dress was of Portuguese influence. There is an engraving from Description of Malabar and Ceylon (1672) by the Dutchman Philip Baldaeus that depicts the reception of his fellow-countryman, explorer Joris van Spilbergen, by King Vimaladharmasuriya I. The king’s guards are shown wearing a Portuguese-type helmet, white jacket and kilt.

These are the type of cultural influences the Portuguese left behind when they were ousted by the Dutch in 1658. They may have been the earliest colonials in the Island, but their influence was not diluted or eradicated by that of the Dutch and British as it had become an essential component in many aspects of the life of the Islanders.