‘Goan’ but not forgotten


This week’s Heritage page will offer you something novel, interesting, and lesser-known about Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage. Although Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage is predominantly Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Islamic, arts and architecture, beliefs, and practices add diversity, colour, and volume to the rich heritage of Sri Lanka. Thus, these various cultural, ethnic, and religious beliefs are celebrated, cherished, and preserved as the Sri Lankan cultural heritage.

Ceylon Today will embark on a journey to appreciate some lesser-known, lesser admired, and lesser protected early Catholic churches, known as the Goan Oratorian churches in Sri Lanka, to bring them to the limelight and to emphasise on their importance in being preserved and studied.

It was during the 16th century that the Portuguese, for the first time, introduced Catholicism to Sri Lanka. Since then, extensive and large-scale conversions have happened in the island’s coastal areas, especially in the Western and Northern regions. It is reported that the local rulers in Jaffna, including the entire ruling family, baptised and showed their submission to the king of Portugal. The Kotte Kingdom was also heavily influenced by the rising power of the Portuguese and their missionaries.

During these earliest missionaries or conversions, a considerable number of churches were built in Sri Lanka. The earliest Catholic churches by Portuguese missionaries, later the Catholic churches by Oratorian missionaries from Portuguese Goa, are identified as unique by art and architectural historians.

Architect Sagara Jayasinghe, noticing the importance of these architectural edifices, embarked on a journey to explore them, document them, and raise awareness of the importance of preserving them as a unique Sri Lankan architectural heritage.

Jayasinghe is a doctoral candidate at the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Moratuwa. And he is also the Honorary Secretary of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka and the Chairman of the Board of Architectural Publication, Sri Lanka Institute of Architects.

To know more about this exciting study and local heritage, Ceylon Today contacted Jayasinghe.

Below is the conversation we had with him.

What is an Oratorian church?

“In the Christian missionary history of Sri Lanka, the period between 1687 and 1857, is generally known as the ‘Oratorian Mission’ because the sole Catholic missionaries of this period were from the Oratorian congregation of Portuguese Goa,” started Jayasinghe.

He also said that this congregation is considered the first native Christian order founded in a colony, and it is also the only Asian missionary order that conducted Christian missionary work in another Asian country such as Sri Lanka.

“These churches built by the Oratorians played a crucial role in establishing the Catholic Church’s territorial network, and these church buildings, which followed the previous Portuguese and contemporary vernacular building traditions, display unique architectural features, making them the only Oratorian religious structures of its type in the world.”

As Jayasinghe would explain, the first episode of building Oratorian churches in Sri Lanka began with the arrival of the first Oratorian missionary to the island, Father Joseph Vaz, in 1687, which continued until the end of the Dutch rule that was 1796.

The second episode began after the British rule. It continued till the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka was taken under a new jurisdiction administration of European missionaries of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in 1857. Jayasinghe explained that the Propaganda Fide refers to the Department of Roman Curia, which the Holy See erected in 1622. This was done as an attempt to reclaim authority over evangelisation across the globe. 

Consequently, the Oratorian mission in Sri Lanka lasted for 170 years and was legitimately ended in 1874 with the demise of Father Mateus Caetano, the last Oratorian missionary.

“The VOC or the United East India Company, during the Dutch rule in Sri Lanka enforced a harsh anti-Catholic policy which greatly impacted the Oratorian missionaries in the coastal areas,” he said. He further noted that although the Kandyan kings took measures to safeguard the Oratorian missionaries at certain times, Oratorian missions in two political divisions had suffered a lot from these anti-Catholic acts of the Dutch.

The British, during their time, revoked the bans on the practice of Catholic religion on the island imposed by the Dutch, and then again, the Oratorian missionaries engaged in their mission freely. As a result, they revived their missionary activities all over the island.

“The Oratorians reached the height of their missionary activities in 1834 when Sri Lanka was constituted as an autonomous ecclesiastical territory after being a part of the Dioceses of Goa and Cochin for nearly 300 years.”

Art and architecture

As Jayasinghe explained, these churches display unique architectural vocabulary and are very different from other Catholic churches in Sri Lanka.

“In architectural terms, these Oratorian Churches are ‘less sophisticated’ and ‘more vernacular’ than the famous colossal churches with a distinct preference for the Roman architectural styles around other parishes in the regions,” he furthered.

He also said that the interior decorations and elements of these churches could be seen as influenced by the local vernacular buildings of Northern Sri Lanka. The wooden columns, masonry altars, and altarpieces are examples of this claim.

He also said that even after the Congregation of Propaganda Fide encouraged the Classical Roman architectural styles, and even though the master builders were Europeans, the Oratorian style continued to influence the new churches of the Propaganda Fide mission.

The architect was of the view that the ‘Oratorians model churches’ in Sri Lanka range from the simplest form of a single nave to larger churches of three naves. Moreover, the larger churches of three naves fall into two variants.

Talking about the distinctive architectural features of these churches, Jayasinghe said that the specific type of wooden columns that is used to widen the internal space had become one of the distinguishing traits of their architectural experiments.

“Especially in the church buildings in Northern Sri Lanka, architectural richness is well centred on these wooden columns, and these columns display an influence of the architecture of the buildings of Hindu tradition.”

At the same time, the decorative masonry altars in the chancel depict Portuguese influence, and these altars are filled with several landings and levels. Sometimes, the top level has niches framed by round arches in which three-dimensional images of the saints are placed. In addition, the decorative altarpieces are ornamented with gilt work, painted relief work, and sculptures and they are evidence of the Portuguese arts that influenced Goa and Sri Lanka during the 16th – 17th centuries.

Global significance of Oratorian Churches in Sri Lanka

“The Goan Oratorian Churches in Sri Lanka is a rare collection of universally significant architectural phenomena,” said Jayasinghe.

The Oratorian congregation in Sri Lanka was somewhat isolated from other global missionaries of the colonial period. Also, the deprived financial situation and the prevailing political condition, along with an adaptation to the environmental conditions of the region, altogether gave birth to a novel building technique with a distinctive style. Adding to this, the intangible culture woven around these churches, such as religious liturgical drama and hymns, with a local essence, makes these churches places of universal importance.

The need to preserve them

Most of these remaining Oratorian churches in the Jaffna and Mannar districts have suffered great damage due to the three-decade war in Sri Lanka, while the rest of the churches are in a run-down state as a result of lack of maintenance. Some of them are completely abandoned as new churches are built and are in use, while some are modified to meet novel demands.

Jayasinghe said that almost all the churches’ façades had been exposed to significant modifications and repairs, sometimes with extreme elements like false towers.

Two-side verandas have been built in many church buildings, as can be seen at the St. Anne’s Church in Keerimalai, and in certain instances, verandas of totally different architectural styles are added, as at the Sts. Peter & Paul Church in Palakuda. Similarly, there have been many modifications that have changed the churches’ original features.

Considering all these factors, there is an urgent need to take measures to protect the Oratorian churches of Sri Lanka before even the remaining ones ruin entirely.

Jayasinghe is also of the view that since the Oratorian missionary enterprise was introduced to Sri Lanka and not a locally originated tradition, further research on the Oritorain missionary architecture will reveal that these churches are examples of a fusion of local and foreign cultures, religions, beliefs, and arts. Thus, the potential ‘Outstanding Universal Values’ of these buildings would also result in subsequently listing them in the ‘World Heritage’ tentative list and gaining international recognition.

“If that happens, the people of northern Sri Lanka will undoubtedly appreciate the legacy of a minority ethno-religious community,” he concluded.

The Research on Sri Lanka’s Oratorian Churches

In 2010 with the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, Jayasinghe’s involvement in a post-war resettlement project for displaced communities in the North-Western districts kindled his interest in historic church buildings in the northern region of Sri Lanka. During the first visits, he was able to identify a set of humble church buildings in remote villages in the mainland of the Mannar District.

In 2011, an initial itinerary of places with the Catholic clergy’s help served in those old mission stations was prepared. In 2017 he commenced a proper study of the first set of identified church buildings under the initiation and financial support from ICOMOS – Sri Lanka and the Central Cultural Fund.

Further, a group of Portuguese experts, led by Jayasinghe prepared a project titled, ‘Oratorians in Ceylon’ to identify and survey the rest of the church buildings in the northern region. The preliminary results of the project of Oratorians in Ceylon have been already disseminated as two publications in the Tamil and English languages, discoursing the imminent danger in the disappearance of Oratorian churches. Those books have been distributed among the clergy and Catholic communities in northern to raise awareness about the importance of preserving this heritage. Under the same project, several international symposia and travel exhibitions were organised to inform international scholars and researchers about global awareness.

According to Jayasinghe, the Oratorians in Ceylon project was initiated by the ARTIS – Institute of Art History of the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. He further appreciated the support of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia) for his further studies of Oratorian churches in Sri Lanka.

Despite the insights and achievements accomplished by Jayasinghe, the acquaintance of the Oratorian missionary churches in Sri Lanka still goes mostly unnoticed. Therefore, it is crucial we understand that these architectural structures are an essential aspect of our heritage, celebrate the diversity of our culture, and take urgent measures to ensure their preservation.  

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy