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No longer 'Others'

Sunday Times Dec 9 2001

The Bharathas of Sri Lanka were recognised as a separate community for the
first time in the Census carried out in July this year
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Pearls lured them across the sea. They came from such areas as Tuticorin in
India first to trade in pearls in Mannar and then even took to diving. They
liked this land so much that they fanned out, along the maritime belt
specializing in trade, especially coconut, real estate development and
arrack renting. Some of them also moved inland settling in areas like Kandy
and Kurunegala.

The earliest records about the waves of migration are buried in the dim
mists of time. Legend also connects them to the time of King Parakrama Bahu
VI of Kotte way back in 1415, indicating that they came from Mohenjadaro led
by eight Aryan warriors and 16 lieutenants whose objective as per the Royal
Charter was to "drive away the Mukkuwars (Arab horse dealers) who were
entrenched in Puttalam and were a threat to the King". The King overjoyed at
the repulsion of the Mukkuwars allowed them to make their homes along the
west coast, from Mannar to Moratuwa.

Many, many centuries later, how and when they came seem irrelevant, for they
have well and truly integrated themselves into Sri Lankan society, while at
the same time retaining their distinct culture and identity. Yes, they have
carved a niche for themselves- the Bharathas of Sri Lanka, who have been
recognized as a separate community, without being lumped as 'Others' for the
first time in the Census carried out in July this year.

Coonghe, Pinghe, Moraes, Croos, Dabrera, Soza, some Fernandos, some
Rodrigos, Paldano, also Feldano, Figuarado, Mirando, Paiva, Victoria and Raj
Chandra, all are proud to be Bharathas.

Their names also link them immediately to the Portuguese and Catholicism.
Though their ancestors were Hindus, they became staunch Catholics when
Portuguese missionaries came to Ceylon, and were bestowed Portuguese names.

But vestiges of Hindu culture still remain, for they tie the thali round the
bride's neck during the marriage ceremony with the older generations
speaking mostly Tamil.

Agitation, done diplomatically and with finesse, for recognition as a
community started in 1937 by the Negombo Bharatha Association.

"Its minutes of November 1937 indicate that a memorandum had been submitted
by a delegation of the association who had gone before the Royal Commission
where the existence of the community called the Bharathas was accepted,"
says active member and former President Selvam Croos Moraes. Then Ceylon was
under British rule.

It didn't end there. A letter dated October 9, 1971 from the then
Registrar-General to J.E. John Rodrigo, Appointed Member of Parliament talks
of circular no. 49/1491 of October 5 where all Registrars of Marriages,
Births and Deaths had been advised that, "the government has since 1940
recognised the Bharatha or in other words 'Parawara' as a race". The
Registrar-General's letter had come after Mr. Rodrigo, who represented the
interests of the Bharatha community in Parliament, informed him that some
Registrars were reluctant to accept "Ceylon Bharatha" as an adequate entry
in the 'race' cage of the forms used by his department.

And the Bharatha aspirations to be identified as a distinct ethnic group
reached fruition when they along with the Sri Lankan Chetties got their
community in print on the recent Census forms, under the category of

They deserve recognition not only for blending so well into the Sri Lankan
mosaic but also for the philanthropy, which has been an integral part of
their lifestyles. The spirit of giving of the Bharathas is evident all over
Negombo - large tracts of land for churches, cemeteries, schools including
Maris Stella College, homes for the homeless, a Paupers' Palace, now a
convent, are there for anyone to see. Did you know that the chapel of St.
Bridget's Convent too had been donated by a Bharatha?

Even the Dutch government had recognised the Bharathas for their commitment.
The story is told of Bastian De Croos whose diligence was so appreciated by
the Dutch that he was named 'Bazaar Mestri' and given the keys to the
Negombo Fort. Another who is mentioned is N.E. De Croos who had donated land
to the Ceylon Government Railway when a railtrack connecting Colombo and
Negombo was mooted. "In appreciation of his gesture the colonial government
invited him to cut the first sod when the foundation was laid for the
Negombo Railway Station," records say.

Many are also the physical monuments such as De Croos Road in the heart of
bustling Negombo town and, of course, the famous 'Coppera Handiya'." In the
olden days they would bring the coppera by bullock cart to the junction
where Maris Stella is now located and then send it to Colombo and other
places using the good canal network," says Mr. Croos Moraes. "Still to this
day, we call it that."

Handed down from generation to generation are also the many stories of
charity. How John Leo De Croos left a thousand acres in a trust so that the
income from the land could be used to give dowries to poor girls,
irrespective of caste, creed and community. Another had donated baths for
the use of the public in Kochchikade, known as Lin Hathara.

What of the Bharathas now? They are active members of the Catholic church,
but have moved away from the traditional businesses of land owning and
renting. "More and more youth are taking to professions and have moved away
from their ancestral lands. There are priests, doctors, engineers and other
professionals. Some have married from other communities. The young ones are
also very fluent in Sinhala. Things have changed," says Mr. Croos Moraes
adding that the Negombo Bharathas are believed to have come from Northern

Adds the present President of the Negombo Bharatha Association, Chervon De
Croos, "We are still a very close-knit community and the association has
about 200 families, but would like to have closer links with Bharathas all
over the country. Then we can preserve our identity while at the same time
contributing much to the growth of the country."

Provisional estimates of the Census indicate there are about 1,773 Bharathas
across the country, excluding the north and the east. So the well-organised
Negombo Association with a recorded history of over 75 years has a starting
point, with the areas identified, to become a unifying force for the pockets
of Bharathas scattered all over the country.

Tending buried generations
The plots are neat and well-tended. There is an air of tranquillity and
reverence. This is all thanks to 71-year-old Canisius de Croos, who takes
pleasure and pride in what he does.

What does he do? He's a retired local government servant who did his duty at
the Negombo Municipality, but now has a speciality he learnt from his
father - he is the keeper of the Negombo Bharatha Association's private
cemetery. He knows his job because his childhood was spent among the graves
of the Negombo General Cemetery run by the Municipality, for his father was
the keeper there for 19 long years.

That was a five-acre plot and his father had eight labourers under him, with
the family living in a bungalow in the cemetery. His father kept a register
of burials and ensured that the cemetery was maintained well.

Canisius loves his voluntary job and does the same. "You must respect the
dead," he adds.

Traditional goodies

"We cook our roast pork, a must for any festive occasion, in toddy instead
of vinegar," says charming Lavinia Croos Moraes making our mouths water. "It
does give a better flavour."

Explaining the recipes handed down from her grandmother, she says they also
have a special 'moju' rice-puller (pickle) made of prawns or dried fish.
"Unlike other communities we use equal quantities of onion and maldive fish
in our seeni sambol to make it really crunchy," she says.

Out come the family cutlery and crockery _ a beautiful rice plate, large
rice spoon and other utensils _ preserved for posterity by her grandparents
and in-laws. "Profegi was a sweet fried in oil, like a cutlet and chatti
dosi was one made with rulang, ghee, sugar, cadju and raisins. We also made
all those Portuguese sweetmeats like bibikkan and kavun," she says relating
a marriage custom connected to food.

Three days before a marriage, all the relatives would get together and cook
kavun, but not take a single bite until the wedding was over. Another custom
was to join three athiraha together to ensure a blissful life for the
couple. If the athiraha got separated, the belief was that the marriage was
not right.

Would the wedding be called off? "Oh no, the womenfolk would hide that and
cook three more," Lavinia chuckles.