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Ceylon Malay: A vanishing minority?

by Tuan M. Zameer Careem

The ‘Ceylon Malay’ community which is rich in culture and religious traditions is an important ethnic minority that has played a major role in shaping the history and diversity of Sri Lanka. Howbeit, Ceylon Malays have been facing a relentless demographic decline & their numbers have plummeted, falling by approximately 8 per cent a decade. Alas, there are only 40,000 Malays in Sri Lanka today and they comprise less than 0.18% of the country’s population. That fact itself is so alarming that it demands measures to help the community from fading away.


History has it that large proportion of them came as mercenaries from the Indonesian Archipelago (then called Dutch East Indies) and Malayan Peninsula (former British Malaya) during the Dutch Colonial Era. Some were exiled Royals, princes, their entourages, their retinue of servants, courtiers, and those of distinction, who were condemned to Ceylon, then a Dutch Colony as state prisoners. The Dutch referred to them as ‘Oosterlingen‘ meaning easterners as they hailed from Dutch East Indies. They belonged to different ethnic groups, tribes & castes and they spoke different languages & practiced different religions including animism. In contrast to the past almost all Malays living in present day Sri Lanka are Muslims. After the advent of the British Colonists, the easterners were identified as “Malays”, in spite of the fact that, most were not “ethnic Malays” by origin. Because majority of them came from the Island of Java & were ethnic Javanese, the Malays are still known as “Ja Minussu” by the Sinhalese folks & as “Ja Manissar” by the Tamils & Moors. They can be distinguished from the rest of the Ceylonese population thanks to their distinctive ‘Mongoloid’ physiognomy, traditional clothing, patois, cuisine, music, culture, unique rituals and by their peculiar surnames. Amit, Allang, Booso, Bongso, Bucker, Bangsajaya, Dulapandan, Dewangso, Jumat, Jayah, Lantra, Lappen, Kayat, Ossen, Sally, Sampan, Savanghan, Singhawansa, Sinnen, Raban, Rawdin, just to name a few. Unlike their Muslim counterparts, the Malays use distinctive prefixes along with their rare sounding surnames. The prefixes Tuan/ Maas/ Raden/ Tunku/ Den are used by the male folks while their women use Gnei/Nona/ Sitti Nona before their names. The Peranakan Malays, a separate clan of Ceylonese Malays of mixed Chinese & Malay ancestry use different prefixes, Baba (for males) & Gnonya/Nonya (for females) to differentiate them from the rest of the Ceylonese Malays. Alas, there are no pure Peranakans left in Sri Lanka, but, however there are several mixed raced Peranakan Malays. Lye, Saldin, Bohoran, Burhan, Jainudeen, Jurangpathy, Sainon, Dole, Chunchie, Doole, Amjadeen, Kutinun and Hallaldin are some examples of families that claim Peranakan lineage.

Though a small minority, Malays played a pivotal role in the security forces & bureaucracy of Colonial Ceylon. The Dutch originally imported large numbers of Malay and Javanese lascarins for military service, mainly to fight the natives of the Island, to suppress the revolts against colonial rule and to protect economically important maritime forts from foreign incursions. According to Lankan history, the Malays not only protected these impregnable fortresses but also built them. The Island’s forts eventually became prisons for those who opposed colonial presence in Dutch East Indies & from 1700 onwards Malay/ Javanese Royals, aristocrats, their entourage of courtiers, retinues of servants & slaves were exiled to Ceylon. In Colombo, the Malay/Indonesian exiles lived in Hulftsdorf in an area known as Kampung Pangeran or Princes’ quarters. After the advent of the British, the Malays joined the English troops and under the British rule, they became a ‘privileged minority’ who formed a socially exclusive intermediate stratum between the natives of the Island and the British/ Burgher elite.

They practically composed the well-known Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR) which became the first Asian Regiment in history to be bestowed with the prestigious King’s colours in 1802. After the disbandment of CRR in 1873, a great many of the Malay Riflemen joined the Police Force of which they became the most efficient members with their distinctive horsehair-like whiskers and moustaches. In the Report on Ceylon Police for 1877 by George Campbell, there were 420 Malay constables alone in the force and by 1879; there were 493 Malays in the Police Constabulary. Every Police station became a “Malayu kampong” meaning Malay village. In fact, the first police officer who died during the course of his duties was a Malay Constable named Sabhan who was shot dead on March 21st, 1864 in an attempt to apprehend the Highway Bandit Saradiel. Many Malays have been bestowed with higher ranks in the armed forces in recognition of their yeoman services. The appointment of Brigadier T.S.B. Sally on the 1st of December 1977 as the Chief of Staff of Sri Lanka Army helps affirm the fact. He also holds the distinction as the last ex Ceylon Defence force veteran to leave the army after his service tenure that ended in 1979. Later he was appointed as acting Commander of the Army on two occasions, thus being one of the first and only Malay to serve with such distinction. The present Commandant of the Special Task Force Snr DIG M. Ruwaiz Latiff is yet again a Sri Lankan Malay. The war records of World War II help exemplify the enormous contribution of Malays in Ceylon’s Security Forces back then. One-sixth of all Ceylonese troops that fought in the ghastly battle were Malays. At the turn of the 20th C. Malays formed 75 % of Ceylon’s police force, 90 % of the staff of the Prison Service, 95 % of Colombo Town guards and almost 100 % of the Colombo fire brigade.


Their service to the local Nayakkar monarchs has also played an imperative role in historic battles such as the Kandyan British conquests in 1803 & 1815, in which they served as valiant soldiers in both the Kandyan and British belligerents. In 1810, the British Resident in Kandy, John D’Oyly, who famously depended on spies disguised as monks and traders to discover the workings of the Kingdom, noted that the Kandyan king’s paid soldiers included 300 to 350 Malays. The Sinhala term Padikara Peruwa meaning a stipendiary class of paid levies was used to refer to the Kandyan King’s Malay troop freighted with those of Malay & Javanese descent, who had escaped from the clutches of the Dutch. During the reign of King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, the Kandyan Malay regiment had raised its strength to 22 companies with 32 men each and by the turn of 19th C. these Malay soldiers made up half the Kandyan King’s force.

Even the military chief of ‘Padikara Peruwa’ was a Makassarese Malay Captain, Karaeng Sankilang referred to as “Sankelan” by Prof.Paul E.Peiris, son of the exiled King of Gowa [Celebes], Batara Gowa Amas Medina II. Prince Sankelan was killed by Major Davie in the 1803 Kandyan- British war. Chief Assana Kapitan, Chief Kuppen, Chief Greasy (some books refer to him as Creasy) and Kaladay Kaya (Kayat) are few notable Malay/Ja Chieftains appointed during King Wickrama Raja Singh’s reign. Malays were occupying far too many official positions i.e. disproportionate to the strength of their population. It is gratifying to know that the 1897 Ferguson’s Census shows that the Malays in Ceylon stood first among the native races in the number of their boys & girls at school. In fact for long periods of time they had a monopoly of literacy.

During the last two centuries, the Malays in Ceylon have come to play a noteworthy role in the domain of economics, politics, science and the arts which is out of proportion to their negligibly small number. In 1947, Dr. T.B. Jayah was appointed as the Minister for Labour and Social Services and was the first Muslim Malay to be exalted to such an esteemed position. Dr M.P. Drahaman MBE, Senator M.K. Saldin, Baba Zahiere Lye and M.D. Kitchillan are examples of Malays who excelled in the political arena. The first non-Christian appointed to the Supreme Court bench in 1929 was a Malay Judge, Puisne Maas Thajon Akbar, who was responsible for the introduction of the first Muslim marriage, divorce and wakfs ordinance in Ceylon. Justice M. T. Akbar established the Crime Prevention Society in Ceylon and organised frequent meetings to address the issue of Narcotics in the Island. It is his family that built the Akbar Mosque, on Kew Road, Slave Island. Under the British rule, Malays were conferred with native titles & peerages, and they became an integral part of the administration of the island. Baba Hakim Muthaliph of Magampattuwa and Baba Thajon Arifin Doole of Hambanthota were appointed as Maha Wasala Mudaliars (Gate Mudaliyars). Mudaliyar Ahamath Ibrahim Jainu-Deen of Badulla, Mudaliyar Baba Junoor Haji Bahar & Muhandiram Tuan Kitchil Abu Cassim Burah are examples of other Malay feudal chiefs of British Ceylon. Even the famous De Seram family is of mixed Sinhala & Malay ancestry.



In the field of theatre Malays were the pioneers. Tuan Ibhan Saladin Saldin, a Malay dramatist organized the first ever Sinhala Ballet “Vijaya & Kuveni” in 1936. Kalabushana Vernon Saldin, Kalavibhooshana Tuan Alaldeen Ibbon Saldin, Marquez H.H. Saldin, Gemini Kantha, Fareena Lye, Kalabushana Raheem Saheed and Kalabooshana Tuan Ruffin Saldin are other notable artists who have left an indelible mark on theatre history. Malay musicians also have a notable presence in the Lankan music scene in relation to the size of the community. Kalabooshana Stanley Oumar, G.S.B. (Gnei Seenar Bangsajayah) Rani Perera, Haroon Lanthra, Lakshmi Bhai, Umara & Umaria Sinhawansa are few notable examples.

The Malay community of Ceylon was most sports-conscious and pioneered many activities in a variety of sports in the Island especially the game of Cricket. In point of fact, Colombo Malay Cricket Club founded in 1872 is the oldest Cricket Club in Sri Lanka and in 1907, it became the first Ceylonese club to embark on a cricket tour overseas. In later years Malay club cricketers added finesse to their play & in 1920, Malays became Ceylon’s club champions in cricket. Former Captain of the National cricket team, Tillakaratne Dilshan (Tuan M. Dilshan), Baba Roshan Jurangpathy, Tuan Nishan Sampath, AC Amath, Allal Careem, T.K. Burah, A.A. Deane, Dr. A. Sourjah,Dr A.R. Deane & Sharmila Kitchill are some of the notable cricketers of Malay descent. Malay sporting zeal was not restricted to cricket alone. They took up a number of other European sports, including football, rugby, hockey, tennis, boxing, horse-racing and swimming. Swimming Champion Geoffery Dulanpandan & mermaids of Sri Lanka, the Raheem sisters Mayumi, Michiko & Kimiko Raheem are Sri Lankan Malays. In the bygone days Malay men in the Ceylon’s Police Force & Rifle Regiment were known for the game of ‘tug of war’, an ancient & dynamic contest in tugging known amongst Ceylon Malays as, “Tarek Tambang”. According to the books authored by Colonial powers, some of the ponderous men of the Malay Rifle regiment engaged in epic fights known as “Pukulan Cheena”, which was a combination of bare knuckle fighting, wresting & traditional Malay martial art known as “Silat”. While the playing of wicker ball known as “Sepak Raga”, a novel game very much like football was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Malays of the CRR.

Members of Malay Community are largely Muslims. The Colombo Grand Mosque and the Jawa Mosques located at Kirinda, Slave Island, Nanu Oya, Kalpitiya, Kandapola Wekanda, Bogambara, Kinniya, Jawatte, Alopotha, Bakinigahwela, Kurunegala, N’ Eliya, Badulla and other well known edifices were built and donated by the pious forefathers of the Malay community. Even the Kandarodai Buddhist temple in Jaffna was built under the patronage of a Malay/ Javaka Buddhist Conqueror, Chandrabhanu the ruler of Tambralinga, a state in the Malay Peninsula. Noteworthy, however, is that Methodist Minister & WWI veteran, Kamal Athon Chunchie, a world renowned British humanitarian & political activist was actually a Ceylonese Malay born in Kandy. As a matter of fact the first Sri Lankan to have set foot on Australian soil was a Ceylonese Malay non Commissioned Officer, Drum Major William O’Deen who was banished with his family to Australia in 1816. As we delve deep into the history concerning the etymology of anchorages such as Hambanthota, Kinniya, Samanthurai, Chavakachcheri, Jaffna (Java Pattinum) & villages/towns like Jagama, Jakotuwa, Ja- Ela, Jawatte, Jagoda, Kartel (Slave Island), Bandagiriya, Bolane, Cassimgama, Akbar Town, Taiyiddi (Jaava-veedi), Thachathopu (Jaava-thopu), Thavady & Tavasikulam it is evident that the names of these places were either derived from Malay literature or named in memory of Sri Lankan Malays.

When Malays came from the Indonesian Archipelago, they brought their drums, music and their dances, ancient ways their parents taught them, their culinary habits, literature & fashion. They introduced kite flying, rabana, the large single-faced circular drum, Anklung a musical instrument consisting of two to four bamboo tubes suspended in a bamboo frame bound with rattan cords, Cadjan palm matting, rattan weaving, and the art of making the Beeralu lace and the fabled cloth of Java, “sarong” to Sri Lanka, which is the traditional garment of Indonesian / Malay origin. In strict usage, the term sarong or “sarung” is based on the Indonesian and Malay word for “sheath”. The art of batik printing which has come down the ages in Indonesia and Malaysia has become a lucrative cottage industry in Sri Lanka, thanks to the Malays who brought Batik to Ceylon. The word batik originates from the Javanese tik meaning ‘to dot’. Sinhala women wear the “ja-hatta” and the “cambaya” introduced by the Javanese. Unlike their co-religionists (Moors/ Marakkar), Malays do not wear the thurukki toppi, (Moroccan Fez/ Turkish hat) instead Malay men wear a special headgear known as “Stangan Kepala” or “Songkok”.The Kebaya is the traditional attire for Malay woman, but they also wear “Baju Melayu” & “Baju Panjang”. Research has confirmed that the Nilama dress worn by the custodian of the Kandy’s Temple of Tooth also has several Malay, Javanese and Southeast Asian influences. Meanwhile, the seven-looped chain ‘maala hata’, the padakkama-pendant, daggers worn by Kandy Nilames, the tuppodiya-tippotiya, the long white muslin cloth tied repeatedly in folds around the waist of the Kandyan aristocratic Radala men and the raeli kalisama or the frilled trouser of plain white were introduced to the Island by the exiled Malay/ Javanese Royals who settled in the Kandyan Kingdom.

When we speak about tantalizing delicacies of Malay Origin much of the Lankan food we know and love isn’t Lankan at all. Throughout the subcontinent’s history, new foods have been introduced through foreign invasions, trade and colonialism, creating the rich tapestry of cuisine we enjoy today. Wattalappan (sirkaya in Malaya), kokis (kembang goyang in Indonesia), bibikan (bikan cake in Indonesia), sambol, nasi goring, cina kue (introduced by the Peranakans), kavum (cucur), laveriya, dodol, the soft and spongy Idli and of course the Malay Pickle are of Malay/ Indonesian origin. Unlike many other ethnic groups living on the Island, Malays have their own language, which they have preserved for over four hundred years. However, it is sad that most Malay youngsters do not speak Sri Lankan Malay language known as, “Bahasa Melayu Sri Lanka” and it is predicted to disappear in the next ten years if the current trend continues.

The age old Malay traditions, customs, rites & rituals might seem unusual, unique, or exotic to Sri Lankans. Unfortunately many Lankan Malays have abandoned their Malay/ Kejawen customs, adats & traditions, for the reason that Malay culture is based on Hinduism, Buddhism, animism & folk traditions. Islamisation is not about Arabisation, but what we are seeing in this country today is the process of Arabisation of the Malays mainly by Wahabis & other religious extremist groups. Their numbers have dropped dramatically in the past few decades & it is evident that the future of Malays in Sri Lanka remains uncertain.

Tuan Mohammed Zameer Careem is a final-year Medical Student at National Medical University, Ukraine. He is an avid researcher, a freelance Journalist and a regular contributor to the local & International Print Media. He has written extensively on the Malay community and also authored two scholarly tomes on SL Malays, namely, “Persaudaraan (Brotherhood) & Malay Life in Sri Lanka”.

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