Church Building in Sri Lanka

by Uwe Michael Lang, appearing in Volume 37

Thanks to Portuguese missionary activity in the sixteenth century, the Catholic faith took root among the people along the seacoast of Ceilão (as Sri Lanka was known). The Dutch conquest of the Portuguese possessions on the island in 1658 resulted in a particularly harsh persecution of Catholics, and many of them retreated into the central regions belonging to the Kingdom of Kandy. In 1687, Saint Joseph Vaz (1651-1711), the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Goa, and other Fathers of his community began to minister to the dispersed Catholic communities in Jaffna and later moved to Kandy. 

Part of this outstanding missionary work was the construction of churches, which, according to Sagara Jayasinghe, the main author of Remains of Dark Days, are examples of an Indo-Portuguese style that integrates native artistic traditions into the broad stream of Christian sacred architecture. 

Jayasinghe, an architect teaching at the University of Moratuwa, describes his work as focusing on issues of cultural heritage, colonialism, and missionary movements. This small book opens a wide perspective by introducing the reader to the churches of Portuguese influence built in Sri Lanka by Oratorians from India. It is published by ARTIS—Instituto de História da Arte, Faculdade de Letras, Universidade de Lisboa—and sponsored by the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

A Remarkable History

Two preliminary chapters elucidate the background to this remarkable history. In “Portuguese Missionaries in Sri Lanka During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Hélder Carita, one of the co-authors, documents the significant extent of church building under Portuguese dominion, which was undertaken above all by Franciscans and also by Jesuits. 

The monumental scale and exuberant decoration of these edifices must have been imposing, as a contemporary observer, Fernão de Queiroz, attests: “the majority of these parish churches were as magnificent as the best in Goa.” Only the ruins of the Jesuit Church of the Holy Trinity in Chankanai on the Jaffna peninsula remain as a visible testimony to the strength of the Catholic communities before the Dutch conquest.

In “The Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in Portuguese territories,” Joaquim Rodrigues dos Santos offers an overview of the historical Oratorian houses in Portugal, Brazil and Goa, with special attention given to their church buildings.

The main section of the book by Sagara Jayasinghe is dedicated to “Oratorian Missionary Churches in Sri Lanka.” The Fathers of the Goa Oratory constructed places of worship as part of their ministry to the scattered Catholic communities on the island. This building activity was extended when in the early nineteenth century the arrival of British rule saw a gradual relaxation of anti-Catholic restrictions. From this period 280 churches and chapels are documented.

Jayasinghe identifies a specifically “Oratorian church model,” which integrated native elements and enriched the Indo-Portuguese style of church architecture. Such Oratorian churches follow the type of the Christian basilica, with a longitudinal nave divided into a central aisle and two side aisles. Distinctive elements are a triumphal arch leading to a narrow square sanctuary, and two rows of wooden columns on either side of the central aisle. 

Saint James Church in Killaly, Jaffna, uses wooden columns with decorative brackets. Photo: Sagara Jayasinghe

Saint James Church in Killaly, Jaffna, uses wooden columns with decorative brackets. Photo: Sagara Jayasinghe

The author surveys churches of this model in the historical Kingdom of Jaffna in the northern part of Sri Lanka, where the population consists mainly of Tamil Hindus. The most conspicuous feature in the interior of these buildings are the wooden columns: “These columns are surmounted by mortised capitals with four-sided decorative brackets, which carry the load of the large beams, thereby preserving a building method typical of the ancient Hindu tradition.” 

Some Oratorian churches were furnished with a retablo altarpiece of Indo-Portuguese origins, with gilded woodwork, painted reliefs and sculptures. Jayasinghe argues that this pattern of church building, by integrating characteristics of vernacular architecture, was more sensitive to local practice than the Gothic style favoured by European missionaries in the nineteenth century.

A Sober Note

This illuminating book ends on a sober note, as Jayasinghe notes how little care has been shown to the remaining Oratorian churches in Sri Lanka. Of the few buildings that retain some vestige of this religious and cultural encounter (twenty-one were surveyed by the author), some have been damaged in the civil war, while others have been demolished and replaced with churches of a style that has no historical roots in Sri Lankan Catholicism. 


This publication makes this remarkable patrimony known to a wider public. May it also help its maintenance and restoration for future generations.