The Bharathas of Sri Lanka
By Kumudini HettiarachchiPearls lured them across the sea. They came from such areas as Tuticorin in India first to trade in pearls in Mannar and then even took to diving. They liked this land so much that they fanned out, along the maritime belt specializing in trade, especially coconut, real estate development and arrack renting. Some of them also moved inland settling in areas like Kandy and Kurunegala.
The earliest records about the waves of migration are buried in the dim mists of time. Legend also connects them to the time of King Parakrama Bahu VI of Kotte way back in 1415, indicating that they came from Mohenjadaro led by eight Aryan warriors and 16 lieutenants whose objective as per the Royal Charter was to "drive away the Mukkuwars (Arab horse dealers) who were entrenched in Puttalam and were a threat to the King". The King overjoyed at the repulsion of the Mukkuwars allowed them to make their homes along the west coast, from Mannar to Moratuwa.
Many, many centuries later, how and when they came seem irrelevant, for they have well and truly integrated themselves into Sri Lankan society, while at the same time retaining their distinct culture and identity. Yes, they have carved a niche for themselves– the Bharathas of Sri Lanka, who have been recognized as a separate community, without being lumped as 'Others' for the first time in the Census carried out in July this year.
Coonghe, Pinghe, Moraes, Croos, Dabrera, Soza, some Fernandos, some Rodrigos, Paldano, also Feldano, Figuarado, Mirando, Paiva, Victoria and Raj Chandra, all are proud to be Bharathas. Their names also link them immediately to the Portuguese and Catholicism. Though their ancestors were Hindus, they became staunch Catholics when Portuguese missionaries came to Ceylon, and were bestowed Portuguese names. But vestiges of Hindu culture still remain, for they tie the thali round the bride's neck during the marriage ceremony with the older generations speaking mostly Tamil.
Agitation, done diplomatically and with finesse, for recognition as a community started in 1937 by the Negombo Bharatha Association. "Its minutes of November 1937 indicate that a memorandum had been submitted by a delegation of the association who had gone before the Royal Commission where the existence of the community called the Bharathas was accepted," says active member and former President Selvam Croos Moraes. Then Ceylon was under British rule.
It didn't end there. A letter dated October 9, 1971 from the then Registrar-General to J.E. John Rodrigo, Appointed Member of Parliament talks of circular no. 49/1491 of October 5 where all Registrars of Marriages, Births and Deaths had been advised that, "the government has since 1940 recognised the Bharatha or in other words 'Parawara' as a race". The Registrar-General's letter had come after Mr. Rodrigo, who represented the interests of the Bharatha community in Parliament, informed him that some Registrars were reluctant to accept "Ceylon Bharatha" as an adequate entry in the 'race' cage of the forms used by his department.
And the Bharatha aspirations to be identified as a distinct ethnic group reached fruition when they along with the Sri Lankan Chetties got their community in print on the recent Census forms, under the category of ethnicity.
They deserve recognition not only for blending so well into the Sri Lankan mosaic but also for the philanthropy, which has been an integral part of their lifestyles. The spirit of giving of the Bharathas is evident all over Negombo — large tracts of land for churches, cemeteries, schools including Maris Stella College, homes for the homeless, a Paupers' Palace, now a convent, are there for anyone to see. Did you know that the chapel of St. Bridget's Convent too had been donated by a Bharatha?
Even the Dutch government had recognised the Bharathas for their commitment. The story is told of Bastian De Croos whose diligence was so appreciated by the Dutch that he was named 'Bazaar Mestri' and given the keys to the Negombo Fort. Another who is mentioned is N.E. De Croos who had donated land to the Ceylon Government Railway when a railtrack connecting Colombo and Negombo was mooted. "In appreciation of his gesture the colonial government invited him to cut the first sod when the foundation was laid for the Negombo Railway Station," records say.
Many are also the physical monuments such as De Croos Road in the heart of bustling Negombo town and, of course, the famous 'Coppera Handiya'." In the olden days they would bring the coppera by bullock cart to the junction where Maris Stella is now located and then send it to Colombo and other places using the good canal network," says Mr. Croos Moraes. "Still to this day, we call it that."
Handed down from generation to generation are also the many stories of charity. How John Leo De Croos left a thousand acres in a trust so that the income from the land could be used to give dowries to poor girls, irrespective of caste, creed and community. Another had donated baths for the use of the public in Kochchikade, known as Lin Hathara.
What of the Bharathas now? They are active members of the Catholic church, but have moved away from the traditional businesses of land owning and renting. "More and more youth are taking to professions and have moved away from their ancestral lands. There are priests, doctors, engineers and other professionals. Some have married from other communities. The young ones are also very fluent in Sinhala. Things have changed," says Mr. Croos Moraes adding that the Negombo Bharathas are believed to have come from Northern India.
Adds the present President of the Negombo Bharatha Association, Chervon De Croos, "We are still a very close-knit community and the association has about 200 families, but would like to have closer links with Bharathas all over the country. Then we can preserve our identity while at the same time contributing much to the growth of the country."
Provisional estimates of the Census indicate there are about 1,773 Bharathas across the country, excluding the north and the east. So the well-organised Negombo Association with a recorded history of over 75 years has a starting point, with the areas identified, to become a unifying force for the pockets of Bharathas scattered all over the country.
Tending buried generationsThe plots are neat and well-tended. There is an air of tranquillity and reverence. This is all thanks to 71-year-old Canisius de Croos, who takes pleasure and pride in what he does.
What does he do? He's a retired local government servant who did his duty at the Negombo Municipality, but now has a speciality he learnt from his father — he is the keeper of the Negombo Bharatha Association's private cemetery.
He knows his job because his childhood was spent among the graves of the Negombo General Cemetery run by the Municipality, for his father was the keeper there for 19 long years.
That was a five-acre plot and his father had eight labourers under him, with the family living in a bungalow in the cemetery. His father kept a register of burials and ensured that the cemetery was maintained well.
Canisius loves his voluntary job and does the same. "You must respect the dead," he adds.
Traditional goodies"We cook our roast pork, a must for any festive occasion, in toddy instead of vinegar," says charming Lavinia Croos Moraes making our mouths water. "It does give a better flavour." Explaining the recipes handed down from her grandmother, she says they also have a special 'moju' rice-puller (pickle) made of prawns or dried fish. "Unlike other communities we use equal quantities of onion and maldive fish in our seeni sambol to make it really crunchy," she says.
Out come the family cutlery and crockery _ a beautiful rice plate, large rice spoon and other utensils _ preserved for posterity by her grandparents and in-laws. "Profegi was a sweet fried in oil, like a cutlet and chatti dosi was one made with rulang, ghee, sugar, cadju and raisins. We also made all those Portuguese sweetmeats like bibikkan and kavun," she says relating a marriage custom connected to food.
Three days before a marriage, all the relatives would get together and cook kavun, but not take a single bite until the wedding was over. Another custom was to join three athiraha together to ensure a blissful life for the couple. If the athiraha got separated, the belief was that the marriage was not right.
Would the wedding be called off? "Oh no, the womenfolk would hide that and cook three more," Lavinia chuckles.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, December 09, 2001