Pathans of Sri Lanka

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Pathans of Sri Lanka
Total population
551[1] (1946)
Regions with significant populations
Colombo · Kandy · Batticaloa
Pashto · Tamil · Sinhalese
Islam (Sunni)
Related ethnic groups
Pathans of Tamil Nadu · Pashtun diaspora

The Pathans of Sri Lanka were a Muslim community in Sri Lanka of Pashtun ancestry.[2]


Early history[edit]

Pathan traders from what is now modern Afghanistan and Pakistan arrived by boat in eastern Sri Lanka as early as the 15th century, via Colonial India.[3][4] They landed in Batticaloa, which was a key port.[3] Economic competition at the time led to frequent conflicts between Tamil fishing castes, particularly over control of resources.[4] One nearby village known as Eravur, inhabited by Mukkuvars, was the target of multiple attacks and looting during harvesting seasons by Thimilar folks from Batticaloa.[3] The Mukkuvars established an alliance with Batticaloa's Pathan warriors, enlisting their help to fend off the incursions and protect the village. The Thimilars were defeated and retreated northwards.[3][a]

The Mukkuvar–Pathan alliance became a key part of local folklore and temple mythology.[3][4] The Pathans were rewarded through marriages with local women, and settled in Eravur.[3] Their settlement may have been deliberate, so as to form a buffer against future invasions from the north.[4] They achieved a strong social status, becoming prosperous landowners and merchants in the Batticaloa region.[3][4] As the Pathans were small in number, they assimilated into the wider Muslim community and commonly self-identified as Moors.[4][5][6]

A similar history is recorded in Akkaraipattu, where itinerant Pathan traders helped the Mukkuvars quell a group of Vedda bandits, thereafter settling there.[4]

Colonial period[edit]

The arrival of Pathan settlers continued during the colonial era, mainly for purposes of trade.[2] Difficult economic conditions in their native homelands may have prompted their migration to the subcontinent's southern regions in the 19th century.[2]

Culture and religion[edit]

Locally, the Pathans were also known as Pattani, Kabuli, or simply Afghan.[4][7][8] They were adherents of Sunni Islam, and mainly originated from the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan in British India (modern Pakistan).[1][9] Others came from Afghanistan.[10] The Pathans spoke Pashto and usually settled their disputes amongst themselves through a jirga system.[2] Because they were predominately men who had migrated for employment, leaving their families behind, most only stayed for a temporary period.[9] Those who remained back established their households by marrying local women.[9]

According to M.M. Maharoof, the colonial era Pathan immigrants were able to maintain their separate cultural identity.[2] Their relationship with other Muslims was mostly confined to "the precincts of the mosque."[9] However, those who intermarried with local Muslims such as the Moors and Malays became completely integrated into their respective communities over time.[2][9] Consequently, they adopted the local dialect and customs, and lost much of their ancestral links.[2]


Historical population
1881 1,000—    
1911 466−53.4%
1921 304−34.8%
1946 551+81.2%
Source: Census of Sri Lanka.[11]

In 1880, the Pathan population numbered around 1,000 in what was then British Ceylon.[2][b] They included horse keepers, textile merchants, traders, money lenders, and plantation workers in up-country estates.[2][7] Around 300 of them were based in Kandy, 100 in Trincomalee and Batticaloa, 150 in Colombo, and the remaining 450 in Jaffna, Kurunegala, Badulla, Haldummulla and Ratnapura districts.[10] Patrick Peebles states that the Pathans were recognisable by their physical and facial features, their distinctive clothing and turbans,[8] and were the subject of discriminatory usury laws.[7] They were notable for their skills in sport,[10] and usually lived together.[12]

A 1911 Census report described them as follows:

In addition to plying trade in provincial cities like Colombo (including Slave Island)[8] and Kandy, the community was also scattered itinerantly across hill country towns like Passara and Bandarawela.[2] In 1921, the population was recorded at 304 individuals, decreasing from 466 in the previous census.[11] Many Pathans returned home during the 1940s, while some migrated to India.[7][8]

The 1946 Census identified 551 Pathans living on the island, the majority of them concentrated in Colombo and urban centres.[1][9] They were primarily money lenders and creditors, a profession not traditionally occupied by natives.[1][5][13] Some were recruited as guards, or worked in the postal service.[9] K. P. S. Menon notes that the Ceylonese "did not mind borrowing money" from the Pathan lenders, but kept them at a distance as they were known to charge high interest rates. In fact, "almost the entire railway staff was in debt" to them, and "shut their eyes when their creditors traveled without tickets."[1] The non-payment of dues was a matter that often invoked the taking of law into their own hands, which made the Ceylonese wary of them a great deal.[10][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In addition to the Pathans, it is known that there were also other Muslim trader groups who formed the alliance including Indian Moors, Turks and Arabs.[4]
  2. ^ The Census of Ceylon used the term "Afghan" to refer to individuals of Pathan extraction.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e Chattopadhyaya, Haraprasad (1994). Ethnic Unrest in Modern Sri Lanka: An Account of Tamil-Sinhalese Race Relations. M.D. Publications. p. 11. ISBN 9788185880525.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Mahroof, M. M. M. (1986). An Ethnological Survey of the Muslims of Sri Lanka: From Earliest Times to Independence. Sir Razik Fareed Foundation. p. 9. The term "Afghan" refers to those people of the North-West Frontier region of the Indian sub-continent who have settled in the island. This includes Pathans and Baluchis who form the largest group amongst them.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Essed, Philomena; Frerks, Georg; Schrijvers, Joke (2004). Refugees and the Transformation of Societies: Agency, Policies, Ethics, and Politics. Berghahn Books. pp. 50–51. ISBN 9781571818669.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i McGilvray, Dennis B. (2008). Crucible of Conflict: Tamil and Muslim Society on the East Coast of Sri Lanka. Duke University Press. pp. 73–77, 375. ISBN 9780822389187.
  5. ^ a b Smith, Llyn (January 1997). "Islamic Ideology and Religious Practice Among Muslims in a Southern Sri Lankan Town" (PDF). Department of Anthropology, University College London. p. 28. Retrieved 26 January 2017.
  6. ^ Sivarajah, Ambalavanar (1996). Politics of Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka. South Asian Publishers. p. 23. ISBN 9788170031956. Besides Moors, the Muslim community in Sri Lanka contains a sizeable number of Malays, Bohras, and Memons as well as recent migrants such as Coast Moors, Khojas and Afghans.
  7. ^ a b c d e Peebles, Patrick (2015). Historical Dictionary of Sri Lanka. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 27. ISBN 9781442255852.
  8. ^ a b c d Careem, Tuan M. Zameer (13 November 2014). "The forgotten Afghans of Sri Lanka". Asian World News. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Shukri, M.A.M. (1986). Muslims of Sri Lanka: Avenues to Antiquity. Jamiah Naleemia Institute. pp. 54, 312. At one time there was a flourishing group commonly referred to as "Afghans." These were Muslims from Baluchistan who carried out small money lending businesses... Along with their money lending business, there were others who worked as Watchers.
  10. ^ a b c d Pippet, G. K.; Dep, A. C. (1969). A History of the Ceylon Police, Volume 2. Times of Ceylon Company. p. 144. The Afghans had originally come to Ceylon as horse- keepers from different parts of Afghanistan. On arrival some of them took to petty trading and penetrated into the remote Kandyan villages, taking for sale textiles of Indian manufacture... In 1880 on 13th and 14th November, nearly 150 Afghans gathered in Kandy for a festival and indulged in games of skill.
  11. ^ a b c Turner, Lewis James Barnetson (1923). Census Publications: Ceylon, 1921. H.R. Cottle. p. 228. Their numbers in 1921 show a decrease from 466 to 304, but it is clear that the persons generally known in Ceylon as " Afghans " have, in many cases, rightly or wrongly, been described as Baluchis, or some other Indian race.
  12. ^ Natesan, G.A. (1935). The Indian Review, Volume 36. G.A. Natesan & Co. p. 232. There are the Muslims from Baluchistan who are called Afghans in Ceylon. They are chiefly engaged in lending money at high interest...
  13. ^ a b Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006). Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Indentities. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 133, 139. ISBN 9780824830168.

Further reading[edit]