The Turn to Benevolence: Buddhicisation in Post Conflict Sri Lanka

Ms Catherine West1,2, Mr Samson Keam1,2, Mr Ben Vecchiet1,2

1Deakin University, , Australia, 2University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Buddhist myths, rituals and images are part of everyday Sri Lankan life at different scalar levels, from individual expressions of devotion through to the aesthetics of infrastructure.  This paper draws on anthropological research conducted at three sites between 2016 and 2017.  Polonnaruwa, in the North Central Province, offered a key vantage point for investigating the turn to benevolence in post-conflict Sri Lanka.  Once an ancient hydraulic polity (and now the home town of current-day President Sirisena) development in this district activates tropes of Sinhala history concerned with vanquishing the enemy and restoration of order.  The second site, a pilgrimage route, witnessed a growing Sinhala Buddhist interest in providing sustenance for the predominantly Tamil Hindu pilgrims.  Once only common at Kataragama, the core and terminus of the pilgrimage, this is now also seen at the periphery, indicating Buddhicisation at the margins.  The third site, Colombo, is a long-standing home to Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious minorities.  It has been increasingly conditioned by the Buddhist majority since the country’s independence from the British in 1948.  Today, Sri Lanka’s most powerful international benefactor, China, employs Buddhist imagery in its infrastructural renewal of the capital.  Benevolent Buddhicisation is a striking commonality in these three diverse ethnographic contexts.  A multifaceted assembly of historical ideals and cosmological processes, enacted by state and non-state actors, motivates this material magnanimity.


Catherine West is currently writing her PhD in anthropology, ‘Urban Religion in Colombo’, which aims to understand the relationship between the urban environment, social formation and religious experience. Her research interests include urban futures, creative arts and the externalities of power.

Samson Keam is a PhD Candidate at Deakin University in Melbourne. His research is concerned with the relationship between State formation and hydro-infrastructure in Sri Lanka. Internal to exploring this relationship is a consideration of agrarian social formation, rituals of prosperity and the dynamic of kingship.

Ben Vecchiet is a PhD Candidate at Deakin University in Melbourne. His research is concerned with the ritual of pilgrimage as practiced by the post-conflict Tamil Hindu communities of Sri Lanka. Pilgrimage is anthropologically considered through its relationship to village temple rituals and contemporary Sinhala Buddhist/Tamil Hindu relations.



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