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 Madagascar. Many 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.