Holi Redux

I keep thinking about our experience of Holi yesterday. It’s a Hindu holiday, and of course, my parents are Tamil Catholics, mostly a legacy of Portuguese colonialism. Portuguese presence in the island lasted from 1505 to 1658, and their arrival was largely accidental; they were looking for control of commerce, not territories to conquer.

“On 15 November 1505 a Portuguese fleet commanded by Lourenço de Almeida, having been driven by a storm to the shores of Sri Lanka, landed in Colombo. With the permission of the king of Kotte, Dharma Parakramabahu IX, Almeida erected a trade station and a small chapel in Colombo. The chapel was dedicated to St Lawrence. Franciscan Friar Vicente, the chaplain of the fleet, celebrated Mass. This is the first record of a Catholic Mass on Sri Lankan soil. Over the next few centuries, Portuguese, Dutch, and Irish missionaries spread the religion in Sri Lanka, most notably on the western and northwestern coast, where in some places Catholics are half the population.” (Wikipedia)

So I’m not sure how many generations back exactly my ancestors converted — my impression is that many of those who did, converted not because of a sincerely held belief, but because converting offered access to good schooling for your children, good jobs under colonial government. Of course, over a few generations, that religious belief became sincere; Sri Lankan Tamil Catholics are as devout as any Catholics today.

But for me, an agnostic who left the church when I was twelve, I feel a little sadness about it all. Not that I’d likely be a devout Hindu either, if the Portuguese had never come to Sri Lanka. Plus, I actually don’t think Holi is widely celebrated among Sri Lankan Hindus. I know it’s not a national holiday in Sri Lanka (I was reading that it’s a Buddhist holy day, so perhaps that’s why…?) It’s all a little confusing to me.

But seeing the joy in everyone’s faces yesterday, at my first Holi, my children’s first Holi, it’s hard not to feel that something was stolen from us. Traditions interrupted, cut short. Unintended consequences.

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