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The Sri-Lankan Malay people


Sunday Observer Mar 25 2007

Malays are an ethnic group referred to people who spoke the language 'Bahasa Melayu', and came mainly to Sri-Lanka, from Indonesia and Malaysia. Although the majority of the Malays who now have made Sri-Lanka their homeland, there had been over the centuries many Malay contacts and influence in the past history of Sri-Lanka.


The Origins


The Malay/Javanese soldiers served in the regular army of the Dutch led by the princely class of Malay/Javanese families. Aside from these soldiers, the early Sri Lankan Malay population was comprised significantly of the Javanese/Malay ruling class who were exiled to the island.


The original Malay population of Sri Lanka consisted of diverse East Indian nationalities, preponderantly of Javanese origin, while others belonged to Sundanese, Bugis, Madurese, Minangkabaus, Amboinese, Balinese, Tidorese, Spice Islanders, and not the least the.


Although Malay social customs such as those pertaining to births, circumcisions and marriages are not significantly different from those of their Moorish co-religionists, there nevertheless do exist a few practices that do differ. A practice peculiar to the Malays until fairly recent times was the singing of Panthongs on such festive occasions.


The Malays have also retained some of their traditional fare such as Nasi Goreng (Fried rice), Satay and Malay Kueh (cakes and puddings). Pittu (rice-cake) and Babath (tripe) is another favourite dish that has found much favour amongst other communities as well.


The traditional Malay dress has however ceased to exist for some time. Local Malay women, like their Moorish sisters, dress in sari (Indian-style with a hood left at the back to cover the head when going outdoors) instead of the traditional Malay Baju and Kurung.

However, it is possible that the sarong which Malay men as well as those of other communities wear at home is a recent introduction from the archipelago.


It appears that in the olden days, Sinhalese, Moor and Tamil folk wore a lower garment similar to the Indian dhoti and not exactly the same garment we know as the sarong, whose name itself is of Malay origin.


The arts of batik printing and rattan weaving, both lucrative cottage industries in the country also owe their origins to the Malay.

Today the Malays remain a very loyal and Patriotic Sri Lankan. Malay Street is currently on at - Mount Lavinia Hotel (23rd March - 1st April 2007). Traditional Sri Lankan Malay food coupled with traditional Malay music at the Governor's rooftop.



Malay Street Cuisine


Daging Chuka




500gms Chunky Beef

2 tbs. Chopped Red Onions

3 cloves Garlic

2 in. piece Cinnamon

2 in. piece Rampe

1 1/2 cups Water

5 tbs. Vinegar

100gms B. onions

1 in. piece Chopped ginger

5 pods Cardamons

1 1/2tsp Pepper powder

2 tbs. Ghee or margarine

Salt to taste




The beef could be prepared in one chunk or cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Fork the meat all around very well and marinate in Vinegar and salt for 1 1/2 hours. Heat the fat, temper the rest of the ingredients except the pepper and B. Onions.

Add the chunks of beef, and let it cook in its own gravy for about 5 minutes. Add the water, let it simmer in a closed pan on a slow fire until soft. Sprinkle the pepper. Lastly, mix in the B. Onion slices to the meat before taking off the fire.

Serves 10 persons.


Sate Daging




1 Kg Chunky beef

1 1/2 tbs. Cummin seeds

1 1/2 tbs. Dried chillie pieces

1 1/2 tbs. Coriander seeds

1 tsp Sweet Cummin seeds (Maduru)

1 in. piece Cinnamon

5 cloves Garlic

A few pieces Rampe

50gms Onions

50gms Tamarind

2 to 5 pieces Aromatic Ginger

5 pods Cardamons

2 in piece Ginger

A few springs Curry Leaves

2 in. piece Lemon grass

1 tsp Sugar

Salt to taste




Wash and cut beef into cubes. Mix the meat with all the ingredients coarsely pounded. Add the tamarind juice squeezed in salt water. Rub the mixture well into the meat. It is a prerequisite that the meat be marinated for at least 2-3 hours.

Thread the marinated beef on skewers over a charcoal fire turning the sate frequently until they are done. It can be grilled in an oven or barbecued. It can be served with peanut sauce.

Serves 10 persons.


Kolak Curry (7 Vegetables)




200gms Pumpkin

200gms Beans

200gms Brinjals

100gms Jak seeds

10gms Bread Fruit

200gms Spinach

200gms Sweet potatoes

1 cup Dhal

100gms Onions

2 in. piece Rampe

2 tsp. Garlic

3 tsp. Ginger

2 tsp. Mustard

1/2 cup Raw rice

1 tbs. Raw curry powder

1/2 cup Scraped coconut

2 1/2 cups Thin coconut milk

1 cup Thick coconut milk

A few springs Curry leaves

Salt to taste

Oil for tempering




Wash and cut all the vegetables into pieces. Wash the dhal and keep aside. Cook all the vegetables together with the dhal in 2 1/2 cups of thin milk, saffron and salt. When cooked, keep aside. Temper separately in oil, the gound ginger and garlic, rampe, curry leaves, onions and add to the cooked vegetables.

Lastly add the finely ground mustard, rice and scraped coconut mixed with one cup of thick coconut milk and let it simmer. Add the spinach to the curry and salt to taste, remove from fire. Serves 10 persons.

Sri Lankan Malays and their coexistence

J. M. M. NIZAM - DN Mar 10 2007

HISTORY: Portuguese who arrived in Sri Lanka in year 1505 captured certain parts of Sri Lanka and brought them under their reign.

In 1638 Rajasinghe II, the Sinhala King who was ruling from Kandy sought the help of Dutch to redeem the country from the rule of Portuguese.

Eastern Dutch Trading Company, which was the representative of the Dutch King was having its Head

Early Malay settlers

 Quarters in Java islands consisting of Malays and Indonesians. Dutch Company which accepted the request of the Sri Lankan King sent a fleet ship to Ceylon under Admiral Rickloff Panhunee.

He recruited some nationals of Java to his army. Portuguese were chased away from Sri Lanka in 1658. Malays of Sri Lanka are the descendants of the nationals of Java who came here to fight for Ceylon against Portuguese. They are called Javas and Malays, after names of those countries.

Lots of Elephants were exported to India. cinnamon, arecanuts, shells, bee’s honey, trees were the major export items. North Indian Kings and Nawabs paid handsome prices for the elephants. Rice and clothes were mainly involved in this business.

Kalpitiya was the important harbour along the wide beach from Negombo to Puttalam. The King communicated with foreigners from this port. Here the trees from which the raw materials for textile colouring are extracted were available in plenty.

Dutch who realised the value of the above specialities captured the Kalpitiya Port. Sinhala King, who was angry over this, proceeded to Kalpitiya with 9000 soldiers to wage war.

As the Malay Army which was with the Dutch refused to fight against the Sinhala King, Walsh, the Captain of the Dutch Army had to give back Kalpitiya. Galle Harbour in the South, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Harbours in the East were the important harbours.

Dutch who built Forts in the harbour cities stationed their armies in those Forts. The Army was mostly consisted of nationals of Java Island (Malays), Dutch put up another Fort at Hambantota.

“Hamban” is a small catamaran in which the people can travel. Muslim merchants mostly travelled by these.

In 1664, British used “Hamban” to send secret messages to King of Kandy. Owner of it was a Muslim. The place where most of the “Hambans” are parked was called “Hamban Thurai” (Hambantota).

The people who travelled in these were called “Hambayo” (This name has been retained as a nickname to call Muslims).

Muslims have also mostly used ships called “Sampan”. The People who travelled in them were called “Sampinar”. Malays still call the Moor Muslims as “Sampinar”. This is the reason that Malays live in numbers in the towns where Dutch built Forts.

Kompanyveediya (Slave Island)

During the reign of Dutch, in 1659-60 period South India experienced severe drought and famine. In some families, members were sold as slaves to avoid death through starvation. Sale of slaves too, commenced.

The Dutch General made efforts to grow paddy inland, with a view of making good money. Workers were needed to work in paddy fields captured by them.

Therefore, he bought hundreds of slaves to serve this purpose. Number of slaves bought rose to 2000 within a year. Until the slaves could be dispatched to paddy fields, a place was required to accommodate them.

Present Kompanyweediya (Slave Island) area is the place where these slaves were kept. The Beira Lake (Constructed by Dutch) was the fort. As the Dutch were attached to Dutch Company they were called Company People.

The street in which Company People were called Kompany Street. The place where the slaves were kept was an island surrounded by the Beira Lake.

So it was called Slave Island. Java Nationals were settled there to protect the slaves under the supervision of Dutch General. Barracks were made for them. They were called Karthel (Old Malays are still calling Slave Island as Karthel). Later Kompanyveediya became Malay Street.

Rights of Malays

Malays came to Sri Lanka as soldiers. Malays were followers of Islam and had great respect and belief in the religion. During the Portuguese regime, hundreds of thousands Sinhala/Tamil people were converted as Roman Catholics.

Dutch who were Protestants were not that successful in converting people. Principal reason for the failure was the conviction the Malays had towards their religion. The Nationals of Java Islands who came with Dutch married Sinhala women, who were family members of high caste officers of the Sinhala King.

These Sinhala wives could not pronounce Malay in the correct way. The Malay language existing in Sri Lanka today is not pure Malay but the mixture that was spoken by these Sinhala wives with the children. Therefore, no one will deny that the blood in present Malays of Sri Lanka is Sinhala blood.

Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka around 2,500 years ago. By that time Buddhism was already in Malaya and it was a Buddhist country. Once the Muslim army of Tharik Bin Ziyath (Rah) captured (Jabal Al Tharik) Gibraltor which divided France and Spain, Islam started spreading to Eastern countries.

The Buddhist King of Malaya was suffering from an incurable disease. One night he dreamt four long robed foreigners and there he heard someone calling him to obey them and that he will be cured.

Therefore, daily he sent a messenger to the Port to find out whether any foreigners had arrived. One day, he heard that four ‘new people’ had arrived and got them down to the courtyard.

These devotees could convince him of the greatness of God. He became a follower of Islam and the countrymen too became the followers of Islam. The soldiers who visited Sri lanka are descendants of these Muslim converted Buddhists.

Dignity of Malays

During the rule of British, after Dutch, Malays became Sri Lanka citizens owing to marriages. Their military experience, courage and honesty helped them to join the British forces and be part of the rulers. Some were promoted Captains of the Forces.

Their fluency in Sinhala, in addition to foreign languages enabled them to be interpreters and translators in the Courtyard. In his autobiography, Robert Knox had stated that the Malay soldiers were performing their religious rites even at the war front.

The grave of Tuan Thunkoos the secretary to the British Governor could be seen in Kandy. He is praised as “Performer of a Miracle” for winning a war almost lost, even without going to the war front.

This is stated on the plaque erected at his graveside. Body of Tuan Pingera The Malay General which was buried in Makam Feersahib - Colombo was exhumed in the present of British Governor. To his amazement, the body was found as fresh as just died. History shows that the General saluted the body and despatched it by sea.

Malays were very keen in putting up mosques in the first instance, wherever they settled down.

When the slaves were kept behind in Slave Island, the Malays were worshipping at a small Thakkiyah, opposite Akbar Mosque (Markaz) which was reconstructed as a Quran Madhrasa some time ago. First siblings of those Malays put up the Jummah Mosque at Wekande, Slave Island.

The Zahira Mosque at Maradana, Jawatta Mosque and all the ancient mosques at Chilaw, Kurunegala and Hambantota were constructed by Malays. Even today, Malays are instrumental in putting up Mosques in Sinhala Villages and settlements. (Some of them are at Mattegoda, Jayawadanagama, Battaramulla, Athurugiriya, Boralesgamuwa).

During the British Regime, Chief Justice was only next to the Governor. The first Sri Lankan to be the Chief Justice was a Malay named “Tuan Akbar”, who was called “Akbar Raja” (King).

One day, when he was about to enter the Courts, a rich Muslim, who knew that the Justice was a Muslim, bowed and greeted him.

Immediately, the rich Muslim was put behind bars until the Court sessions were over that particular day. While releasing him, Justice Tuan Akbar said “No Muslim should bow to another other than Allah - that’s why I put you behind bars. Let this be a lesson for you and your descendants”.

He, who was born in Kalpitiya was buried in the Jawatte Cemetery. He married a widow from Hambantota and his present to the villagers were Bolana village, which is called “Malay Colony” - eight miles away from Hambantota. Thereafter, the Malay leaders like T.B. Jayah did yeoman service to this country and Muslims.

There are fifteen thousand Malay families in Colombo district itself. Other than that around 1000 Malay families live within Hambantota city limits. There are considerable number of Malay families living in the Badulla, Kurunegala and Gampaha districts.

In Parliament

When the Senate was in existence, there was a seat for Malays too. That right too has gone with the wind. President Premadasa appointed Amith as the appointed member of Parliament.

He resigned his membership in Parliament to pave way for Gamini Dissanayake to enter the Parliament. President J.R. Jayewardene, while addressing the gatherings made special mention of the Malays too.

The Malays are the smallest minority community living in Sri Lanka with their history dating back 350 years.

It is notable that where there is a concentration of Malays, the others in the community also spoke Malay fluently. I am from Hambantota, and my father’s Sinhala friends converse with me in fluent Malay.

The Sinhala language is used quite widely by members of the Malay community. They are also well versed in Tamil and English languages. There is no record of the Malays being ever in conflict with other communities in Sri Lanka.

They have had ample opportunities to go back to Malaysia from where they originated or to Australia as migrants, but they opted to remain in Sri Lanka considering it as their beloved homeland.

They respected other religions and other communities help them during their religious occasions. The economy of the average Malay households deeply depends on the Middle East petro dollars, remitted by Malay girls and young women employed in the region.

There comes to mind a pertinent question when we look at the past - Why is that the smallest minority of Malays with a 350 year long history is able to peacefully coexist when the Tamils who constitute the biggest minority with a history dating back several thousand years are living in turmoil?

About ninety nine per cent of Tamils are able to either talk or understand the Sinhala langauge. Conversely, how many Sinhalese among us are able to speak the Tamil language? When the Malays who lives in the palaces of Sinhala kings, having married Sinhala women, on numerous occasions sacrificed their lives for the sake of the country.

We have a chequered history. At one time we were ruled by the Portuguese. Then the Dutch became the Colonial rulers. Then came the British. Some parts of country had been ruled by Tamil kings and at other times by representatives of the Chola or Pandiya kings.

Finally, the Nayakkar family took over the reigns of the country. They ruled without claiming ownership of the Sinhalese country since they did not dispute that it was the land of the Sinhala nation.

Emperor Barbar conquered India and the Mogul rule extended over the length and breadth of India. But it is significant that none of the Muslims claimed that it was their land.

It is equally important that in India where there are thousands of clans, a Muslim from a minority community, Abdul Kalam became the President, serving as a beacon of light to the student generation, urging them to greater heights.

Writing in the same vein, the Chinese who make up 26 per cent of the population of Malaysia, never demanded a separate country.

Therefore, it is the duty of all the sons of this soil, to create the conditions for the Tamil people to live peacefully in this country like in the case of the Malays who constitute the smallest minority community in Sri Lanka.