If you ask most Sri Lankans about the races of Sri Lanka – they will reply that Sri Lanka is home to the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. Yet, Sri Lanka is also home to many other minorities who over the years have contributed greatly to the colourful tapestry of our society. Although their [...]


Proud of their heritage; proud to be Lankans


If you ask most Sri Lankans about the races of Sri Lanka – they will reply that Sri Lanka is home to the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. Yet, Sri Lanka is also home to many other minorities who over the years have contributed greatly to the colourful tapestry of our society.

Although their numbers are small, they are proud of their heritage as well as being proud Sri Lankans. With the gaining of independence, their fortunes changed due to political upheavals, but every community feels they would not have survived if they hadn’t successfully integrated into society.

Here is a glimpse of some of these communities and their lifestyles:

Taslim Rahaman

Also known as ‘Ja Minissu’, the Malays originated in Java. They are known for their bravery and loyalty – traits which the British greatly valued and rewarded with high positions in the military and other government departments. Malay Association President Taslim Rahaman feels that today most Malays do not actually speak Malay, known officially as Bahasa (Sri Lanka). The association is attempting to teach the younger generation their language – a dialect which is

A Malay delicacy

spoken only in Sri Lanka and differs from Bahasa (Indonesia) and Bahasa (Malaysia).

The Malays are also famous for their cuisine, which includes Nasi Goreng, Sirikaya (Watalappam), Cheenakueh (cake) – etc. Taslim feels that the economic status of Malays has improved but migration has resulted in dwindling numbers, although there is a still an 80,000 strong Malay community in Sri Lanka at present.




Colombo Chetties

Taslim Rahaman

This community originated in Kodagu, India and came to Sri Lanka many years ago in the time of the ancient Kings of Sri Lanka. Former President of the Colombo Chetty Association Shirley Pulle Tissera estimates that the current population is around 175,000. He says that the exact number cannot be verified because many people identify themselves as Sinhalese or Tamil based on the majority community of the area they live in. He feels that the community suffered greatly with the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act, which forced the Chetties, who mainly spoke English at the time, to study in Sinhala.

Mr. Tissera recalls a time when the bride and bridegroom would see each other for the first time only during the marriage ceremony, which was arranged by their parents. The Chetties national costume comprising a shervani, chetti cap, sash and sword  is rarely worn today. He feels that the Chettis should be proud of their rich heritage. If you are a peacock you must show your feathers – otherwise they will mistake you for a turkey and cook you,” he says.



Shirley Pulle Tissera

Sindhis originate from the Sindh province in North India (now Pakistan). The province is home to Hindu and Muslim Sindhis, of whom only Hindu Sindhis arrived in Sri Lanka. They are one of the smallest minorities of Sri Lanka, and the Sindhi Association of Sri Lanka estimates that the total population of Sindhis is 500, a decline from the early 1950s when there were about 700.

There are only a few people who speak Sindhi or even understand it in Sri Lanka now.“If you’re lucky and your family speaks Sindhi then maybe you might pick it up,” says President of the Association Mahesh Dadlani, who estimates that the language will die out in one or two generations to come. The Sindhis have retained most of the customs they practised in India, although they have changed certain aspects to suit modern times. For example, the funeral rites require that the body be cremated on a pyre. If wood is not available, they now use gas. The Association allows flexibility in choosing certain rituals of marriage and funeral rites etc. with the understanding that certain aspects of the ancient customs are impractical today.

A shrine room within the association premises


Rumba Karunaratne (nee Sabavala)

There are only 30 members of the Parsi community in Sri Lanka today. This might be because for someone to be a Parsi, both their parents must be Parsi, which means that a number of Parsis who married out of the community are not counted. While this may sound extreme, the reasoning behind this is that the Parsis who fled from Iran to India assured the Indians that they had no intention of colonising and perhaps it was to keep this promise that this strict criterion was established. The Parsis are Zoroastrians – a religion which follows the teachings of the Prophet Zoroaster. “We may be small in number but the Parsis in Sri Lanka have done very well for themselves,” says Rumba Karunaratne (nee Sabavala), who was born a Parsi. She describes some of the famous Parsi dishes – Dhansak – lentils cooked with chicken or mutton, Sali Murghi – chicken with fried matchstick potatoes, and ravo – a semolina dessert. The Parsis celebrate the New Year in August and celebrate weddings by inviting friends and family to a big feast of Parsi food.



Not to be mistaken with the Chinese who have migrated to Sri Lanka in recent times, the Chinese community has lived in Sri Lanka for generations – so long in fact that Wai Tsing Dias

Wai Tsing Dias (nee Paktsun)

(nee Paktsun), a senior member of the community never learnt Chinese because she spent so much time learning English and Sinhala. Her grandfather came to Sri Lanka in the early 1900s and her father opened the first Chinese restaurant in Sri Lanka – ‘the Free China Hotel’.

Textiles and dentistry were also associated with the early settlers.

Although many Chinese came to Sri Lanka for trade and hoped to return to China one day, the advent of Communism deterred them from going back. Mrs. Dias feels that the Chinese community was not always treated fairly by the Sri Lankan Government – they were initially denied citizenship and free education. She also feels that race was not as important in the past as it has become now. She says of her school days at Methodist College, “Nobody cared who we were or what race we were – we were all just girls.”



M.K. Rahulan

Malayalee Memorial Hall

The ancestral roots of Malayalees lie in Kerala, South India from where most of them arrived in Ceylon through the major port city of Kochi (formerly Cochin). As a result, the Malayalees were called “Kochchi Minissu” (Kochchi people) in Colombo. In the pre-Independence era most Malayalees came to Sri Lanka in search of better working opportunities and they lived in “boarding houses”, M.K. Rahulan, President, Sree Narayana Guru Society said. “It was said that you couldn’t walk in Colombo without knocking onto a Malayalee.” Influenced by left wing political ideologies that prevailed in Kerala, Malayalees living in Sri Lanka were strong

communists and supported the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and other leftist parties. Their concerns on creating a society with equal opportunities for all is depicted in the words of the sayings of Sree Naraya Guru Dev. (Malayalee religious leader) one of which,

R.G. Chanassery

“One caste, one religion, one God for mankind”, we see written on the walls inside Sree Narayana Guru Society Malayalee Memorial Hall in Colombo 14. Malayalees have assimilated with other communities and assistant secretary of the society R.G. Chanassery points out similarities between Sinhala and Malayalam words which have the same pronunciation and meaning. Malayalam is still spoken among the families in Sri Lanka while the Society conducts weekly programmes to promote the language.



Predominantly a business community originating from Gujarat in Western India, the Memons migrated to Sri Lanka in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The community benefited

Shiraz Yoonus

following Independence in 1948, and their enterprises flourished with the open economy introduced in the late 70s. Prioritizing higher education is a significant change among Sri Lankan Memons of today. Earlier soon after one left school the next step would be an arranged marriage and joining the family business.

The population of Memons is around 8,000-9,000 and they identify themselves as a patriotic and generous community who easily assimilate with others. Being Muslims, most still practise their traditional customs – at weddings, including the nikah, extended wedding feasts and the traditional dance ‘Dandiya’, performed by young women carrying sticks.

Kutchi is the language spoken by Memons in Sri Lanka. Shiraz Yoonus, a member of the Memon Association of Sri Lanka says, “Even though we are originally from India, we now call ourselves Sri Lankans and are proud to be so.”



Sherin Alex

Known for their colourful outfits, and  love of music and dance, this community is believed to have originated from Mozambique and other South African regions, the Kaffir men being first brought to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese in the 1500s for domestic service. The ancestors of Kaffirs today are considered to be the group that arrived in 1817 and were permitted to settle in Sri Lanka with their wives and children, obtaining land ownership and job opportunities, marking it to be the year of receiving freedom. Approximately 400 Kaffirs live in Sirambiadi, Puttalam today and some are found in the areas of Kalpitiya, Trincomalee and Colombo 13. The majority of the community are Catholics and they have their own unique language, a form of Portuguese Creole which they use in composing songs.

The Kaffirs are keen to pass on their own cultural identity to the younger generation. “Our community, our music is more recognized today,” says Sherin Alex, a member of the Kaffir music group “Ceylon African Manja”. As a result of marrying outside the community, lots of Kaffirs have Sinhala names today, earlier they were chosen from the Bible.

Dawoodi Bohras

The Dawoodi Bohras who first came to Ceylon in the 1800s were known for their expertise in business and trade. They were mostly engaged in imports during pre-Independence times

Khuzaimah Jafferjee

which expanded into exports, post Independence. “The growth has been tremendous after independence but we were no less before,” states Vice President of the Anjuman e-Saiti Trust Khuzaimah Jafferjee. Today with the development in trade, tourism, industry, exports and energy, Bohras have flourished with a population around 3,000. As followers of Islamic principles, Bohras have four distinct mosques in Galle, Pettah, Bambalapitiya and Jaffna. A child’s naming ceremony on the sixth day after birth, burials taking place as quickly as possible and the third day funeral feast to obtain blessings for the dead person are some of the distinctive Bohra customs.

Some familiar eats such as samosa, Bohra Biriyani and Bombay Sweets are Bohra delicacies. The younger generation of the community mostly converse in Sinhala and English though Tamil was mostly used by older generations. In mosques the sermons are preached in Dawat ni Zaban, a religious language that is  a mixture of Gujarati and Arabic.


Therese Motha

The Bharathas are a trading community who hail from Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) in Tamil Nadu, India. The Bharathas are Roman Catholic, and the festival of ‘Our Lady of Snows’ from Tuticorin celebrated at St. Philip Neri’s Church, Pettah in August is a significant event. The closed economy during Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime affected the community as most of them were traders and businessmen. Some Bharathas still own family businesses which have been passed down from generation to generation.

Then in her early 20s and engaged to be married, Therese Motha was invited to the independence ceremony in 1948 as her father I.X.Pereira was an eminent member of the State Council. “It was really crowded at Independence Square. I could vaguely remember that the ceremony lasted around an hour and I wore a saree,” recalls Therese.

Her family was registered as citizens of Sri Lanka in 1949 and she is still a ‘citizen by registration’ even though she was born in Sri Lanka. During her schooldays at St. Bridget’s Convent, Therese was recognized as of Indian origin but there was unity despite ethnic diversity. “There was lot of fellowship among students and I had friends from all the races,” she says.


A Kaffir dance Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara, Ranjith Perera, Athula Devapriya,Priyantha Wickremaarachchi and Sameera Weerasekera

A thing of the past: A national costume of the Chetties

A Parsi wedding:Rumba and her husband at their wedding

Chinese who came to our shores in search of greener pastures: Lam Paktsun with four of his sons and two grandsons

A Bharatha Family

A Memon family

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