When the term conflict is applied to Sri Lanka, it is often preceded by the term “ethnic”. While this may have rung true in the past, post-war conflicts in the country currently tend to stem from religion instead, marking a shift in the conflict dynamics of the state. To examine this claim, ICES undertook a study of multi-religious heritage sites in Sri Lanka to discern whether conflicts have indeed taken on a religious turn.
Multi-religious sites, in this case, of the Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims in central Sri Lanka, reveal the dual character of religion. This is based on the premise that religion is neither inherently violent nor inherently peaceful, but instead has the potential to be used as a tool to further either of these ideals. Thus, these religious sites could serve as sources of solidarity as well as confrontation, depending on various circumstances. Two such examples are the Galebandara shrines in Kurunegala, and the Kahatapitiya Mosque in Gampola.
Galebandara, at its most simplistic level, seems to be a cross-cultural religious tradition, characterised by Buddhist and Muslim worship of a deity believed to be part-Sinhala and part-Muslim in origin. Both communities pray to Galebandara in times of need, whether in regard to personal issues (such as marital problems or praying for children), or more civil matters such as identifying wrongdoers. It exists as part of the Bandara cult in Sinhala Buddhism, as well as under Islamic Sufism.
In reality however, the worship of Galebandara has several layers to it, both unifying and divisive. For instance, it is unifying as it is an instance of a group deifying and worshipping an entity that partly belongs to another group, but it is also divisive in that the Buddhist origin myth distinctly exhibits Sinhala nationalism. Each community has built their own shrine to Galebandara within a short distance of each other, in the town of Kurunegala, yet neither cooperates in the participation of rituals despite these rituals being dedicated to the same deity.
The Kahatapitiya Mosque near Gampola is dedicated to the Sufi saint, or Awliya, Bawa Khauf. Stories abound of prayers made at this mosque being answered by way of divine justice, and fascinatingly, these prayers are made not just by Muslims, but by Buddhists as well. The mosque is typically Muslim, and not a secular or hybrid space. There is also a widespread belief that the Awliya arrived there from Mecca. Yet, Muslims and Buddhists alike have been frequenting his shrine throughout the ages, praying for his divine intervention in matters such as catching and punishing wrongdoers, and fuelling the shrine’s legend of sorcery.
These sites have not been without some amount of conflict. The Muslim Galebandara shrine was targeted by a local Wahabi group and warned that it needed to desist the worship of Galebandara as it ran counter to orthodox Islam. The Kahatapitiya Mosque was similarly the focus of a Wahabi-youth group in the ‘90s who labelled the mosque as a perversion of pure Islam and sought to have the mosque shut down. Contrary to their intended effect, these pressures merely resulted in the shrine being more low-key in the case of Galebandara, and of temporarily reducing pilgrimages to Kahatapitiya. It is worth noting that both shrines have managed to withstand these efforts at purification and in fact the popularity of Kahatapitiya has even increased to some extent.
That efforts to distort and dismantle the religious syncretism that surrounds Galebandara and Kahatapitya have failed stands as a testament to inter-religious peace and resilience. These sites of religious harmony have stood the test of time and immutability, and continue to demonstrate that faith in the divine transcends ethnoreligious boundaries. Peacebuilding initiatives must therefore look to protect these age-old multi-faith traditions, as they have a two-fold potential – on one hand, these sites may be politicised, distorted or otherwise manipulated so as to kindle communal tensions, whereas on the other, they can be used to inspire models of peaceful and non-discriminatory coexistence, and to enhance cooperation rather than divisiveness.
This article is based on in-depth primary research conducted by International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in 2016. To read the full report please visit www.ices.lk.