Banishment and Belonging: Exile and Diaspora in Sarandib, Lanka and Ceylon

By Ronit Ricci

How are the plights of Adam, first man and, according to Islamic tradition, also first prophet; Sita, heroine of the Ramayana; and the 18th century Javanese king Amangkurat III linked to one another and to the theme of banishment? The answer, this book suggests, lies in thinking about the small, drop-like island to the southeast of India’s coast, its different names and its historical and metaphorical associations with exile and diaspora.

To begin with the island’s names: Lanka, Ceylon, Sarandib. Are these merely three disparate names for a single site? Perhaps. Yet the three diverge in the historical echoes, language worlds, literary cultures, maps and memories they evoke. Names that have occasionally intersected and overlapped – in a treatise, a poem, a document – only to then go their own ways. Still, despite their different trajectories, all three are tied, inextricably, to narratives of banishment and exile. Banishment and Belonging proposes that the island known variously as Ceylon, Lanka, and Sarandib served as a concrete exilic site as well as a metaphor for contemplating and imagining exile across religious traditions, languages, regions and time.

Drawing on Malay manuscripts and documents from Sri Lanka, Javanese chronicles, and Dutch and British archival sources, the book considers histories and imaginings of displacement as they relate to the island through a study of the Sri Lankan Malays, and their historical, genealogical and literary connections to an exilic past.

Beginning in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) used the island of Ceylon as a site of banishment for those considered rebels in the regions under Company control in the Indonesian archipelago, many of whom were of royal lineage. Convicts and slaves from these territories were also sent to Ceylon, as were native troops who served in the Company’s army. After the takeover of the island in 1796 the British, too, brought to Ceylon colonial subjects from the archipelago and the Malay Peninsula, primarily to serve as soldiers in the Malay Rifle Regiment. It was from these early political exiles and the accompanying retinues, soldiers, servants, convicts and slaves that the community known today as the Sri Lanka Malays developed. Its cohesiveness has been based, above all, on an ongoing adherence to Islam and to the Malay language, while living in a Buddhist majority society in which Sinhala and Tamil are linguistically dominant.

Like the island, so the community at the heart of this study does not fit neatly under a single designation. Although at present known as “Malay,” its forefathers came from diverse, far flung places including, among others, Java, Bali, Makassar, Ternate, Ambon, Penang and Timor. Archival records show clearly that in the past this diversity was reflected in naming practices. With time, however, “Malay” became the dominant category and the Malay language replaced the many tongues the early arrivals must have spoken, and became a unifying force. The vast majority of written documents produced by this community and extant today were composed in the 19th century, in the Malay language. Such documents, including manuscripts, letters, mosque deeds, diaries and more are for the most owned by families across Sri Lanka and were surveyed and documented by the author in the framework of an Endangered Archive Programme project, now available on the British Library website. Many of these, as well as microfilmed Malay manuscripts from the National Archive of Sri Lanka, formed the database for writing the book. The manuscripts, most of which are of an Islamic character, show us how well integrated the Malays in colonial Ceylon were within the wider Indonesian-Malay world of Southeast Asia, sharing many textual traditions, intellectual genealogies, writing genres and styles. This is important because the Sri Lanka Malays have for the most part been left out of studies of Malay literature and Malay history. They have also been forgotten within the history of modern Indonesia. And the disciplinary and institutional lines that nowadays divide South Asian Studies and Southeast Asian Studies mean that the Sri Lanka Malays, whose history and affiliations traverse these two regions, have been little studied in both.

Back to nomenclature. What exile-related echoes did the names Sarandib, Lanka and Ceylon carry, especially for a diasporic community?

The Sri Lankan Malays’ roots lie in a past of colonial exile, but the island was associated with banishment long before the seventeenth century when the Dutch turned it into a penal colony of sorts. Sarandib, the old name employed by the Arabs for the island, was the spot where according to the old Arab tradition Adam fell to earth upon his banishment from Paradise, a tradition that was known and retold across South and Southeast Asia. Exiles and their descendants engaged with this exilic geography, one that implied that they were not only banished individuals but also returnees to a primordial sacred site. Lanka, the fabulous demon kingdom of the Ramayana, was also a site of banishment, where Sita was forcibly taken by Ravana, far from her husband Rama, his kingdom and subjects. The Ramayana was widely known in the Indonesian archipelago, where its story was recast in stone, expressed through dance and theater, and written down in a range of genres, and it would have been intimately familiar to Javanese exiles. To consider if and how these nomenclatures, as well as that of Ceylon, the name employed by successive European rulers and closely associated with exile during the colonial period, were linked, is to ask whether these were parallel, synonymous or perhaps competing names for a single place, or, possibly, names employed for what their users believed to be distinct sites rather than a shared location. A main axis of the book explores whether and how the different exilic narratives of Adam, Sita and eighteenth century banished were, or could have been, linked in people’s imaginations, affiliations and lived experiences. Another, related theme, follows spatial connections between the banished and their long lost homes, relatives, and communities, kept alive in concrete and imaginative ways despite distance, the time elapsing and hardship.

The following are two examples, and there are many more: first, a letter written in 1724 by the exiled Surapati to his mother, wife and children who remained on Java. In the letter Surapati described his location as being not far from Mt. Sarandib (known today as Adam’s Peak), “the mountain where Adam fled when he had angered God, and stayed there separated from our mother Eve…but was again, through the mercy of Exalted God, after acknowledging his sins… restored to his wife’s side and accepted in mercy…” (p.146) Here Surapati, a Javanese Muslim entirely conscious of the relationship between Sarandib and Ceylon as sites of banishment, situated himself in relation to Adam and his fate, conveying the loneliness and pain of exile but also the hope and resilience provided by Adam’s example.

Another instance is a description found in a Javanese historical chronicle, Babad Giyanti, that recounts the experiences of Raden Ayu Juru, a high status woman who returned to the central Javanese court of Surakarta after years of exile in Ceylon (Javanese sources constitute an important element of the study, for their offering perspectives of exile “from the other shore”). She tells the king, Pakubuwana III, about weekly gatherings of Muslim disciples of diverse origins around a charismatic sheikh who was able to offer the exiles comfort and encouragement, in part through the delivery of Javanese fruit and delicacies every Friday, made possible by his special powers and closeness to God. The food, a basic yet profoundly important reminder of home, symbolized all those flavors, scents, events and human interactions that were no longer available in Ceylon, and its method of delivery confirmed for those gathered their ongoing ties to Java and its powerful mystical traditions of belief in the unseen. The passage thus highlights the religiously inspired contacts that offered solace to the exiles and their links to larger, transregional devotional Indian Ocean networks.

It is to such diasporic connections and imaginings, and their textual representations, as gleaned from multiple perspectives, that the book is dedicated. What emerges are fragments of a history, of a literary culture, lives lived individually and in a community, the ways in which they were documented, retold, imagined, remembered and forgotten in different places and moments, embedded in stories ranging from the cosmic to the mundane. The study suggests that there is still much to investigate about diasporas formed in the colonial period (which have been explored to a much lesser degree than more recent diasporic communities), in part because of their potential to open up new ways of thinking about transregional mobilities and identities, and it also testifies to the Malays’ remarkable resilience as they inhabited Sarandib, Lanka and Ceylon.


Ronit Ricci is the Sternberg-Tamir Chair in Comparative Cultures and Associate Professor in the departments of Asian Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is also Associate Professor at the School of Culture, History and Language at Australian National University in Canberra. Her research interests include Javanese and Malay manuscript cultures, Translation Studies, and Islamic literatures of South and Southeast Asia. She was a participant of the Winter Academy “World Scripts: Concepts and Practices of Writing from a Comparative Perspective” (Cape Town, 2015) that was organized by the Forum Transregionale Studien in the framework of the research program Zukunftsphilologie.


Citation: Ronit Ricci, Banishment and Belonging: Exile and Diaspora in Sarandib, Lanka and Ceylon, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.10.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25249.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search