Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 25 October 2015





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette


What's in a name?

The field of nomenclature in our island is indeed a fascinating area to explore, further providing a mirror to her rich diversity as regards her population make-up, even going on to astonish those alien to this aspect. For example, that leading mentor in our Buddhist renaissance movement, Colonel Henry Olcott had once protested at leadership being conferred on two Portuguese in a Buddhist procession. But soon he was informed that the two were staunch Buddhists who only carried alien names germaine to the Iberian peninsula.

A fact rather unknown is that one of our famed literati, Alagiyawanna Mohotti was officially entrusted by the Porto administration, with this changing of names. I too was enlightened about this fact while attending a felicitation ceremony of Lanka's literati who lived and live in a rather obscure part of the island.

Colonel Henry Olcott.       pic:

Geographically and according to the territorial divisions of the time hailing from Dutch times, this area coincided with the rubber infested terrain that was sited between Thun Korale and Siyane Korale. Remember, I had to get my facts straight for I was representing the Ministry of Education at this gathering. Among those felicitated that day (including the dead and the living ) were K. Jayatileka, Mahagama Sekera and Alagiyiyawanne Mukaveti.


This last was a figure rather unknown to me except for the facts that he authored Kustahntheenu Hatana, the only Sinhala work that glorified a Portuguese general, Constantine De Saa by name. It was evident that the author was stooging to the foreign rule and that he himself had embraced the Xtian faith for he invokes the blessings of Jesus at the beginning of this Hatan Kavya or war panegyric.

The traditional mode at the beginning of a literary production was to invoke the blessings of Thisarana or the Three Gems which was rudely overlooked in this instance and grossly substituted. I had known these facts earlier.

What I learnt at that function when odes were sung to these writers (never mind the traitor acts of some), that certain roles they played too were highlighted. For example, Alagiyawanna Mohotti, in recognition of his literary potential had been made a high state officer and one of these was conferring names to the nameless.

Interestingly or not so interestingly, society had got so dishevelled at this time owing to centuries of tri-power conflict among the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Sinhala factions that many did not own names. It also led to a phenomenon when several shared a common name as Banda and Menika. This proved a headache to the Porto administrators and so was begun a campaign for issuing new names that naturally smacked of Xtian flavour.

A drama was enacted around the situations regarding this name changing process, one of which I remember for its sheer frivolity. Students of Radawana School dressed as Portuguese officials were dishing out names as Perera and Silva and Boteju and Gomez till the very stock of names was coming to an end and the officers were putting in order their files when a group of Sinhalese walked in late to obtain their names. But all names were over and the head haughtily bellowed, the Portuguese word for GET OUT which that group mistaking it for a name carry on yet. Such was the drama of bestowing names.


Besides the Vasagam and Ge names endemic to Sinhala society, there were also titular names conferred as Don and Dona which were held in high regard and usually given to the highest caste. In fact the Portuguese had carried out this practice in India too and so much weightage was given to these names that some had bought them at very high prices. Anyway this practice of buying titular names had not been adopted here but some sort of adoption of names took place when many Sinhala men and women of Kotte area and maritime areas went over to the new faith and this conversion was followed by change of names leading to a seething plethora of Pereras, Fernandos, Diazes, Gomezes, Peirises and Silvas. Today many opt to adopt local names and discard the alien names.

Before concluding, these two facts need mention. Name changing in the highlands was much less prevalent since there were fewer conversions and fewer social upheavals, the traditional society remaining more or less static. But electoral lists in the Kandyan areas reveal a strange phenomenon when purchasers of land from the upcountry bought them along with the vasagam or Ge name of the former owner. Hence, Innawela Mudianselage Lebbe.

After all, WHAT IS IN A NAME?

"A rose would have smelled just as sweet, if called by any other name."


And I cannot refrain from mentioning something a Lankan visitor to Portugal had made when perusing the Porto directory. It contained fewer Pereras and Fernandos and Silvas than our directory!


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