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A Historical background and the Origins of Sri Lankan Malays

Archeological findings as well as literary records suggest that relationships between Sri Lanka and countries of South East Asia; the Malay Archipelago, extends into several centuries. In S. L. Kekulawala’s account it is said that ancient iconographical findings in West Java dating as back as the 6th or 7th century point to connections between Java and Sri Lanka (Kekulawala, 1979). The Directory on Sri Lankan Malays (2008) also states that Kalinga Magha arrived with 24,000 Malay soldiers in 1214. Yet the most cited earliest recorded reference to people of Malay origin is in the Culawamsa which narrates the invasion by Chandrabanu, the Buddhist king of Tambralinga near the Isthmus of Kra in the Malay Peninsula in the 13th century; during the reign of King Parakramabahu II (AD 1247). Two invasions have been recorded and the Malay king is said to have ruled Jaffna for a short while (Hussainmiya, 1990). Chandrabanu and his Javaka army are a familiar fact in Sri Lankan history. It is important to note that before the invasion Chandrabanu as well as the rulers of his neighbouring countries had relationships with Sri Lanka through religion. A Pali chronicle of Siam, according to Saldin, has recorded that Chandrabanu and the king of Siam sent a joint envoy to Sri Lanka and obtained a famous Buddha image. Parakramabahu himself sent envoys to the king of Tambralinga and persuaded the latter to send a saintly thera to Sri Lanka (Saldin, 2003). Paranaviatana also claims that the Kalinga dynasty which ruled from the capital of Polonnaruwa (1184-1235) had originated from Kalinga in the Malay Archipelago (Paranavitana, 1961).

The latest discovery which connects Malaysia and Sri Lanka as Saldin notes in Portrait of a Sri Lankan Malay is the discovery that Veddahs of Sri Lanka and the Senoi tribesmen of Malaysia belong to the same blood grouping as mentioned in the Royal Anthropological Institutes report (Vol. 93, 117-125, 1963) on ‘The Blood groups and Haemoglobin Types of Veddahs’. The occurrence of the abnormal haemoglobin viz. Haemoglobin E in these two ethnic groups located geographically so wide apart, and the total absence of this among tribes in South India, would indicate that the Veddah stock received contributions from South East Asia and not India (Saldin, 2003). Saldin cites this information from R. L. Wickremasinghe’s article ‘Origins of the Veddahs’ published in The Daily News, 29th January 1994.

However the ancestors of the present Sri Lankan Malays are those who were forcibly brought during the Portuguese and mainly the Dutch period. The earlier arrivals like the descendants of Chandrabanu’s army probably assimilated into the indigenous population. One should remember that they too were Buddhists whereas the Malays brought from South East Asia from the 16th century onwards were Muslims. A majority of the Malay Archipelago had undergone a religious change, first from Buddhism to Hinduism and then to Islam.

Sri Lanka and the Malay Archipelago were under the same colonial master in the 16th century; the Dutch East Indies Company. The colonizers often found that the locals did not take kindly to their rule. The best solution to stifle rebellion was banishment. The kings, rulers, princes and other chiefs who posed the biggest threat to colonial authority were therefore exiled to Ceylon and to South Africa. Some of them who were thus banished to Ceylon included namely, Susuna Mankurat Mas – former king of Java, Javanese prince Pengeran Adipathi Amang Kurat III, Chief Minister Danuraja, Arya Mankunegara – a brother to King Pakubuwana, Radini Adipati Nata Kusuma – a Javanese noble Susanan Kuning – King of Java and Batara Gowa Aman Madina II – former king of Gowa. In most instances families of these exiled rulers accompanied them to Ceylon. Along with the royalty large groups of rulers and rebels were also exiled.

The present Sri Lankan Malays can trace their roots to either these royal exiles or the mercenary soldiers who were brought from these countries to serve under the Dutch and later the British armies. Malay troops were brought to Ceylon as early as 17th century. The Malay Company was formed in 1763 consisting of deportees and 31 slaves. More regiments were formed later with Malays which included the Ceylon Malay Regiment and the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. Malay soldiers were brought to reinforce the battalion in numerous occasions. Some of them brought their families with them who settled down in and around the camps. The Malay troops served under Dutch governance for almost 150 years until the Dutch surrendered their colony to the British. The British East India Company took over in February 1796. Under Article 21 of the Terms of Capitulation, the Dutch stipulated that “Malays who do not choose to remain in Ceylon shall be transported on English ships with their women and children to the island of Java”. But the British replied that “Malay troops shall be sent home with their wives and children…they shall be subsisted whilst they remain prisoners and if not taken into the British Service”. Except for a few, most Malays preferred to join the British army in Ceylon rather than go back to the Dutch rulers in Java once more”. Thus the Malays opted to continue in Ceylon which they had by now begun to accept as their home. The British formed four Malay regiments; the first in May 1802, the second in January 1803, the third in November 1805 and the fourth in February 1811. The Malays later on joined the Police, the Railway, the Tea Plantations and the Civil Service. They were at an advantage because they were fluent in English.

Apart from these two methods a smaller number of Malays also voluntarily migrated during the colonial period. The Malays therefore have an origin (or origin myth) which is distinctive from any other ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Their origin hence becomes one of the main factors in determining them as a separated ethnicity.


Hussainmiya, B. A. Orang regimen: The Malays of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. Malaysia: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan, 1990

Paranavithane, S. “The Dambadeniya Dynasty”. Concise History of Ceylon from the Earliest Times to the Arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. Colombo: University of Ceylon Press, 1961

Saldin, B.D.K.. Portrait of a Sri Lankan Malay:Warisan Melayu Hidup Di Sri Lanka (Malay Heritage is still alive in Sri Lanka). Kurunegala: Nihon Printers, 2003

Write up by – Tinaz Amit