The riots started in Kandy in the night of 28 May 1915 and spread to neighbouring villages on 30 May and to Colombo on 31 May and other towns there after. It was suppressed by 9 June with final incidents occurring on 11 May in Chilaw. Taking place at the time when World War I was raging in Europe, the British feared the riots as a possible native upraising, martial law was first declared in the Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces on 2 June, extended to other provinces in the following days, and terminated on 30 August, during which many summary executions and other atrocities where carried out by the colonial forces, including "English volunteers," in attempts to subdue the riots.
By the turn of the 20th century, Ceylon was a British colony. Since its last native kingdom, the Kingdom of Kandy was annexed to the British Empire, the island saw little conflict as in the past century only two anti British uprisings (the Uva Rebellion and the Matale Rebellion) took place. Due to the relative peaceful nature of the colony, the last regular British Army regiment was withdrawn from the island in 1881. Since then the Ceylon Police Force maintained law and order in the island. British military presence in the island was limited to a regular British Indian Army infantry regiment which would be circulated to Ceylon to supplement the garrison units that was made up of a company from the Royal Garrison Artillery, the Royal Engineers and other support units of the British Army. In addition the Ceylon Volunteers functioned as a volunteer reserve.
The native population of the island at this time was predominately Buddhist mostly from the ethnic group Sinhalese. There existed a Muslim minority known as the Moors. The Moor community consisted of two segments, the Ceylon Moors who originated from the Arab traders who settled in the Island about five or six centuries before and the Indian Moors who were at the time natives and residents of South India, who had come to Ceylon for trade. By 1915, the Ceylon Moors who had controlled trade in most parts of the island had been ousted by the Indian Moors. The 1911 Census indicates that Ceylon Moors numbered 232,927 and Indian Moors 33,527. Establishing themselves in rice importation, sale, and distribution, Indian Moors gained much wealth and established themselves across the country.
In Gampola, a dispute arose between the Indian Moors and the Buddhist Temple authorities of Wallahagoda Dewala. The Indian Moors objected to the Buddhist Perahera (religious pageant) procession traveling past their Mosque with music. The Buddhist authorities agreed to alter the time and day of the procession to avoid disruption to their worship, but refused to conduct the procession without the music citing that it was a practice carried-out from time immemorial, safeguarded by the terms of the Kandyan Convention. The Trustees of the Mosque refused to allow the Perahara procession to pass with music when though an other and older Mosques along the same route belonging to Ceylon Moors never objected. Due to this the procession was not held. In 1913, the Temple authorities filed action in the District Court of Kandy against the Crown for a declaration of this right. The judgment was given in favor of the Temple, however on appeal the Supreme Court, it dismissed the action, on the grounds that local legislation had modified religious privileges guaranteed to the Kandyan Sinhalese by the British under the Kandyan Convention. An appeal to the Privy Council was filed against the decision of the Supreme Court by the bench of Justices Walter Shaw and Thomas De Sampayo.
The Supreme Court judgment encourage the Indian Moors to prevent Buddhist Perahera processions from passing their Mosque in Kandy. On the night of May 28, 1915, a Buddhist Perahera procession with music and a police permit authorizing it was proceeding along Castle Hill Street, Kandy when it was opposed by Indian Moors who objected to the Perahera Procession passing their Mosque. At this point Police Inspector F. T. Coore, intervened and directed the procession to turn back. The procession turned back which was followed by hooting and derision of the Indian Moors which provoked the Sinhalese to return and a fight ensued about midnight. The crowd entered the Mosque and did some damage. Several Sinhalese and Moors were injured as well as the Police Inspector Coore and many arrested.