You Can Call Me A Hambaya, But…

Indonesian_Sampan

Do you know what it means?

Most pejoratives have origins in completely acceptable descriptive words. ‘Negro’ comes from the Latin ‘Niger which means black, ‘Paki’ is shortened from ‘Pakistani’. Terms like Chinaman, Coolie are also derived from relatively innocent descriptive origins. They get their pejorative connotations after being repeatedly used in an insulting manner.  Other names originate directly from a desire to put down and insult, but the word ‘Hambaya’ belongs to the former category.

‘Hambaya’ is derived from the Malay ‘Sampan’. The word for a somewhat flat bottomed boat, also used by the Chinese. Pictured above is an Indonesian sampan, coming back from a fishing expedition. Sampans were frequently seen in Sri Lanka’s South Eastern coast when Javanese people stopped en route while migrating to countries like Yemen and MadagascarMany of them stayed back here as well. The term was eventually associated with South Indian traders who were also Muslims like the Javan people, and who adopted the same style of boat. And eventually, as ‘Sampan’ became ‘Samman’ in Tamil and ‘Hamban’ to the Sinhala people, a collective term ‘Hambankaraya’ was used to describe them as a whole.

According to ethnologist Asiff Hussein, author of Sarandib: an Ethnological Study of Muslims in Sri Lanka, the word did not acquire its derogatory connotations until the beginning of the 1915 riots, the first ever incident of tension between Sinhalese and Muslims. According to Asiff, the riots were sparked by ‘coastal moors’ of Indian residence temporarily ensconced in the center of the country (the riots started at Gampola) for trading purposes. They were not as accommodating as Sri Lankan moors (the term used for resident moors in the country) and objected to the procession of the perehara (Buddhist festival) near their mosque (contrarily, resident moors were long known to have facilitated and supported perahara activity).

The ensuing tensions spread the  use of the word ‘Hambaya’, shortened from the rather more respectful ‘Hambankaraya’, as a wide derog to describe all Muslims even the ones that hadn’t migrated on a boat. But then again, everyone in Sri Lanka, except maybe for the aadivasi, migrated on a boat, and a lot of us still continue the proud tradition, but I digress. The word ‘Thambiya‘ probably acquired its seedier usage around about that time as well. Just like in ‘hambaya’ the problem is the suffix ‘ya’ which basically turns an endearing term that refers to a younger brother into a racial slur.

Signs that ‘Hamban’ was once a respectable term are everywhere. Take Hambantota for instance, what will probably soon be Sri Lanka’s on-paper capital. The whole place is named after the Hambankarayas or at least, their boats.. Hambantota basically means ‘Port of Hambans’. Further to the East, ‘Sammanthurai’ means exactly the same thing. ‘Samman’ is the Tamil version of ‘Hamban’ and ‘Thurai’ means port.

Many Malays still live in the Hambantota area. My uncle was married to a Malay there. Almost his whole family (and wife’s extended family as well) and nearly the entire neighborhood were wiped out in the tsunami. Malays have more than a passing influence on Sri Lankan culture, language and history. But this is often overlooked because of the small size of the Malay community in the country today. They are usually cast in the same cultural bucket as Sri Lankan Moors, who are themselves a pretty diverse lot to begin with.

Not all of the Hambankarayas were Muslim. Chandrabhanu was a Javanese king who spent some 30 years of his reign trying to invade Sri Lanka. He probably used many sampan in his invasionary forays. He was a Buddhist.

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11 comments
  1. ruhan said:

    Malays are known as Javas

  2. Nisi said:

    Muslims had been in Ceylon since the eighth century, a composite group of Arabs, Persians and Muslimized Indians who came to be known as Ceylon Moors. The most recent arrivals, Indian Moors from Cochin and Malabar coast labeled ‘Coast Moors’, earned an undesirable reputation among Sinhalese while the older order of Ceylon Moors lived at peace among the Sinhalese, even attaining the status of headmen in some Kandyan villages. The charges against the Coast Moors were that they were unscrupulous, alien (some compared them to Jews; others, in 1915, to Germans), and they loaned money at usurious rates. De Souza notes that before the 1915 riots, Sinhalese had boycotted Coast Moormen’s boutiques (general merchandise shops and food counters) as a warning to them to desist from attempting to seduce Sinhalese girls. He also noted that the buying public of Ceylon blamed the Coast Moors for creating artificial increases in the prices of necessities….”

    “…The riots sprang from the religious fanaticism of a small section of the Muslims known as the Hambayas, who insisted that all non-Muslim religious processions should proceed in silence when they passed their mosques. The Hambayas were Mohammedan immigrants from the East Coast of South India and then numbered nearly thirty three thousand. They formed an exclusive community and did not at that time intermarry with other Mohammedans in the island.

    The time for the celebration of the great Buddhist festival – the anniversary of the birthday of Buddha – fell on the 28th of May, 1915. With much trepidation of heart, those who had hitherto conducted the carol procession in Kandy applied to the Government Agent, Central Province, for the usual licence, but the Hambayas of Kandy, who owned the mosque at Castle Hill Street, objected to its issue. The elected members of the Municipal Council unanimously recommended the issue of the licence. The Government Agent, having ascertained from the trustees of the Castle Hill street mosque that the hour for closing it on Friday, the 28th May, was twelve midnight, issued the licence subject to the condition that the procession should not enter Castle Hill Street before midnight.

    He, however, neglected to take the precaution, suggested by the District Judge of Kandy in the Walahagoda Devale case, of having the aggressive Hambayas bound over to keep the peace. He also failed, as the head of the police in the Central Province, to have a sufficient number of properly armed police officers and constables in the streets of Kandy, so as to prevent any sudden outbreak of riot.

    It was about 1 am, when the first carol procession with a band of musicians in a decorated cart turned from King Street into Castle Hill Street. The Sinhalese crowd were amazed to see the Hambayas’ mosque open and lit up, and a crowd of Mohammedans, including Afghans, standing on either side of the street. Inspector Cooray, observing from the junction of King Street the defiant attitude of the Mohammedans, desired the carol party not to go forward, but to pass into a cross street so as to avoid the mosque altogether. The conductors of the procession obediently turned the carol cart into the street indicated.

    Just then the Hambayas and the Afghans clapped hands, jeered and boohed, which was more than the Sinhalese could bear. They halted indecisively, looking towards the mosque, when a still larger crowd, headed by another party of carol-singers in a second cart, came and entered Castle Hill Street. The first party then followed the second party.

    As they advanced, a number of stones and empty bottles fell on the people, hurled from the upper storeys of two boutiques near the mosque and from the platform of the mosque. The Sinhalese crowd were infuriated. They rushed forward, picked up the stones lying on the street, pelted them at the boutiques and the mosque, chased the Mohammedans, who fled into the mosque, pulled down its iron bars and smashed its glass panes, broke into the adjoining boutiques and flung into the streets the boxes of grain and groceries.

    During all this disturbance, there were no more than one Inspector and six constables, who, of course, could not control the crowd. Mr.Cooray sent for help from the Police Station, and a squad of police who arrived seized about twenty-five men on charges of riot and house-breaking. The surging crowd passed into other streets about 2 pm and disappeared with their battered cars. Thus ended the national Wesak festival of the Buddhists in 1915, undertaken in all piety and reverence to celebrate the birthday of the great peace-maker, named Goutama Buddha….

    To outline the true dimensions of the disturbances in Kandy town, the first riot occurred between 1 and 2 on the morning of the 29th May 1915, in consequence of the intolerance and aggression of the Hambayas and Afghan Mohammedans assembled in and about the mosque in Castle Hill Street. No lives were lost, nor any serious bodily injury inflicted. Some boutiques were damaged and their contents turned out, which were mostly made a bonfire of in the streets, and the glass shutters of the mosque and some iron bars were also damaged.

    The second riot took place between 8 and 10 pm on the same day (29th May) provoked directly by the failure of the police to arrest the murderer of an innocent Sinhalese youth, whom a Hambaya brought down with a bullet from a revolver fired from the upper storey of his master’s shop. No other persons were killed. Some shops and boutiques were damaged, and their contents thrown into the streets to be burnt.

  3. sach said:

    I remember watchin Malay cultural shows in TV back then. 😀 Do they still air them. Anyway I wonder how many of Lankans actually knw abt the diverse cultures that exist in SL

  4. Nilooka said:

    Excellent post. Followed a link in Dr WAW’s article in which he referred to this in explaning the root of Hambaya… I was thinking Hambantota came from that too. Glad that you’ve mentioned it here.

    I am following your blog now. Thanks.

  5. :”Not all of the Hambankarayas were Muslim. Chandrabhanu was a Javanese king who spent some 30 years of his reign trying to invade Sri Lanka. He probably used many sampan in his invasionary forays. He was a Buddhist.” lol

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