Dutch heritage of Sri Lanka

by Asiff Hussein

The Dutch of today are a peaceful, contented nation known for their liberal ways and easy-going lifestyle. Who indeed could believe that here is a nation that only three centuries ago ploughed the seas of the world in search of land and riches, slaves and spices, not to mention converts to their puritan brand of Christianity known as Calvinism.

Whether it was their love for God or the lure of gold that drove this virile and adventurous race to venture forth and conquer new lands we will perhaps never know. Nevertheless, the impress the Dutch left in Sri Lanka following their sway over the island's maritime provinces from 1658 to 1796 has been a lasting one. Many hangovers or rather relicts of Dutch rule survive to this day. This is seen in the spheres of law, cuisine, pastimes, architecture and many other aspects of social and cultural life. Roman-Dutch Law

An important area in which the Dutch have influenced Sri Lanka is in the legal sphere. The Roman-Dutch law which today serves as the general law of the land was introduced by the Dutch during their sway over the island's littoral.

Originally applied to the Burgers or Dutch colonialists and the Sinhalese elite serving the Dutch regime, it was conveniently continued by the British and extended to include all low-country Sinhalese and other ethnic groups that had no law of their own. The application of Roman Dutch law which emphasized on the ideal of monogamy, the sanctity of marriage and the private ownership of property is said to have had a considerable impact on the transformation of Sinhalese society not only in the low-country but also in the upcountry where Kandyan law has traditionally prevailed.

Roman-Dutch law is primarily based upon the Latin and Dutch language treatises of the early Dutch Jurists, the foremost among them being Grotius or Hugo de Groot (1583-1645) whose Inleiding is by far the most authoritative work on Dutch jurisprudence. These Dutch Jurists were considerably influenced by Roman law with which they sought to blend the old Germanic laws prevailing in their homeland. Thus Roman Dutch-law could be said to represent a combination of the Roman legal tradition and Germanic convention. Curiously enough, the only other country where Roman-Dutch law survives today is South Africa, a former Dutch colony. Roman-Dutch law ceased to exist in its home country, Holland, ever since it adopted the Napoleanic Code in the early part of the nineteenth century. Dutch architecture

Another area in which the Dutch left a lasting impression was in the field of architecture. Dutch period buildings still survive in Colombo, Galle and Matara, bearing ample testimony to the fine tastes and aesthetic sense of the Hollander. Many of these buildings were evidently designed after the manner of the townhouses of metropolitan Holland which served to remind the Dutch colonialists of their beloved Vaterland. Some of the finest specimens of Dutch architecture in the island are to be seen in the Fort area of Galle. Besides the old style Dutch residential houses, Galle also boasts of De Groote Kerk 'the Great Church', a gift from Commandeur Casparus de Jong in gratitude for the birth of a long awaited daughter in 1752.

The church, with its two gables and stained glass windows is perhaps the most beautiful and best preserved building of the Dutch period.It was due to its profoundly Dutch character that Galle was recently twinned with the beautiful city of Velsen in Holland. Another remarkable architectural feat of the Dutch is seen in the Star Fort of Matara built by Baron Van Eck in 1763. The fort has been built in the shape of a six-pointed star so that its guns could cover approaches from all directions, a fitting reminder of Dutch ingenuity. The Dutch Church at Wolvendaal in the heart of Colombo is yet another fine specimen of Dutch colonial architecture in Sri Lanka.


The place-names of Dutch origin are not many, but are nevertheless significant. Take for instance Hulftsdorp which is Dutch for 'Hulft's Village'. This area once served as the headquarters of the Dutch General Gerard Hulft during the siege of Colombo in 1656. Although Dutch arms triumphed in this decisive battle against the Portuguese, General Hulft was killed in the ensuing conflict. It was in remembrance of this great soldier that the Dutch named the area Hulftsdorp and developed it into a township which was later to become the country's legal hub. Among the other place-names in Colombo which are of Dutch origin may be included Bloemendahl (Vale of Flowers) and Wolvendaal (Dale of Wolves).

The Beira lake in Colombo probably takes its name from De Beer who is believed to have been an engineer in charge of the Dutch water defences. A granite plaque inscribed with the words 'De Beer 1700' recovered from an old Dutch sluice which controlled the flow of water from the lake has altered the hitherto accepted view that the lake takes its name from the Portuguese beira meaning 'bank or edge (of a lake)'. In the far north, the Dutch term Delft given to the island of Neduntivu still survives. The Dutch names given to the other islands of Jaffna such as Hoorn, Leiden, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Middelburg and Enkhuizen have all but disappeared and have been replaced by their local Tamil names.

Personal names

Dutch influence on Sinhalese personal names became pronounced from about the beginning of the eighteenth century and lasted until about the early part of the twentieth century.The Sinhalese elite of Dutch colonial times commonly bore such names as Philipsz,Hendrick, Cornelis and Jacobus in the case of the males and Apolonia, Cornelia, Johanna and Henrietta in the case of the females. Such names gradually fell into disfavour among the elite following the advent of British rule when English names took their place.

The lower classes of society however persisted in using Dutch names.Names such as Karolis, Harmanis, Girigoris and Tepanis which were still in use in the early part of the last century have arisen from the Dutch Carolius, Hermanus, Gregorius and Stephanus. Such names, though no longer found among the modern-day Dutch were fairly common among the Hollanders of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Culinary fare

The Dutch were also able to influence Sri Lankans in the matter of cuisine. Such fare was extremely popular up to the early part of the last century especially among the upper classes, but has somewhat declined of late.Among the few survivals of the Dutch culinary tradition in contemporary Sri Lanka may be cited bruder 'sugar plum loaf', kokis 'a kind of hard cake made of rice flour and coconut milk which figures prominently in Sinhala New year festivities' and lamprais 'a delectable rice dish featuring savoury rice and a variety of curried meats and vegetables baked in a wrapping of tender banana leaves'. This last named dish has its origins in the Dutch lomprijst which was invented by the Hollanders during their sojourn in Sri Lanka.

Bruder has its origins in the Dutch broodje 'bread' and kokis in the Dutch coekje 'cookies'. Another item which seems to have been introduced by the Dutch is the stew. This is suggested by the Sinhala term for 'stew' ismoru which has derived from the Dutch smoor. There were also a number of Dutch delights widely consumed by the elite of yore, but not commonly partaken of nowadays. These included poffertje 'light dough fritters' and wafel 'waffles made in a fish-shaped gridle-pan from a rich batter and served hot with sugar syrup'.

Customs and habits

There also exist a number of interesting customs, games, speech habits etc bestowed by the Dutch which have managed to survive until recent times. A particularly interesting custom is the koronchi ceremony adopted by leading Sinhalese families such as the Dias Bandaranaikes from the Dutch sometime during the seventeenth century. According to Yasmin Gooneratne, author of Relative Merits. A personal Memoir of the Bandaranaike family (1986), the custom continued among the Bandaranaike clan well up to the latter part of the last century.The koronchi which is a corruption of the Dutch kroontje or 'little coronet' comprised of a jewelled ornament made of precious stones which was pinned into the bride's hair by her bridesmaid immediately after the couple had exchanged marriage vows.

This the bride wore until it was time for her to change her clothes before leaving her parental home with her husband. Gooneratne relates that superstition placed a heavy responsibility on the slender shoulders of the bridesmaid, for if, during the festivities that followed the rest of the day, the koronchi were to come adrift from its moorings,it was regarded as an indication that the bride does not go a virgin to her nuptial bed and that unavoidable misfortune would attend both husband and wife from that day forward.

In the matter of pastimes, it was the Dutch who introduced the playing of cards and hence we find that the names of the cards in the pack are of Dutch origin. Thus asiya 'ace' (D.aas), Buruva 'knave' (D.boer), hera 'king'(D.heer) and porova 'queen' (D.vrouw). The Dutch also introduced the playing of draughts to the country and hence we find that the Sinhala term for 'draughts' dam is in fact a loan from the Dutch language.

There also exist a number of expressions in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages which have been influenced by Dutch. Among the Sinhala expressions of Dutch origin may be cited kapoti 'finished'(D.kapot), bankolot 'bankrupt' (D.bankroet) and puspas 'hotch-potch' (D.poespas). The Dutch duit, an old copper coin of which eight went to make a stuiver, has found its way into the Jaffna Tamil language as tuttu and survives in a number of Tamil expressions involving value.

Thus the English idioms 'not worth a two pence' and 'good for nothing fellow' is rendered in Tamil as oru tuttukutap peratu and oru tuttukkum utavan respectively. The word has also found its way into Sinhala slang as seen in the expression tuttu deke '(worth) two tuttus' which has come to mean 'useless' or 'worthless'. @Sunday Observer

Sunday Observer: Aug 5, 2001