Cultural revival, education reform, and study of history – The

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By Uditha Devapriya
(with Uthpala Wijesuriya)

Most accounts of education reform in British Ceylon focus on officials and administrators, rather than the people on the ground and the historical forces they had to contend with. Very little effort, indeed next to no effort, is made to situate reforms in a broader historical context. Works like Ranjit Ruberu’s Education in Colonial Ceylon (1962) and the Education and Cultural Affairs Ministry’s Education in Ceylon: A Centenary Volume (1969) do explore these areas, but these remain more the exception than the norm.
Whether scholars have gone beyond a colonial-centric reading of education reforms in 19th century Ceylon is of course debatable. But the need to go beyond such a frame of reference is evident enough. By paying attention to official accounts, we tend to view those reforms through the lens of colonial administrators, whose intentions may not have been as clear-cut as what their biographers would have us assume. On the other hand, we also fail to note the socio-cultural forces that shaped these reforms, including nationalist agitation, religious revival, and progressive forces within the administration itself.
The truth is that, like the society in which they came to be enforced, these reforms were riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. Hence, while colonial officials could dismiss vernacular education at the beginning of the 19th century, events like the 1848 Rebellion resulted in their successors viewing it less unfavourably.
At the same time, the administration distinguished between elementary and secondary education, limiting vernacular schooling to the former. The government did endeavour to expand facilities, but these conformed to the imperatives of confining superior education to a Westernised bourgeoisie. As Swarna Jayaweera has observed, “British policy consistently stressed quality rather than quantity in secondary education.”
Perhaps more than anything else, colonial reforms bequeathed a set of elite secondary schools to the country. The Donoughmore Commission noted this when it stated that the island was fortunate “in possessing a remarkable number” of such institutions.
These schools were run by the State, Christian denominational bodies, and other private interests. Many of them had been set up between 1835 and 1860, while schools founded by Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim revivalists were set up in the latter part of the century. It was only in the Donoughmore period (1931-1947), when Ministers exercised more powers over their areas of specialisation and a radical Left entered the legislature, that facilities for which these institutions had gained a reputation were extended to the poorer masses.
It is from this standpoint that we need to assess the contribution of cultural and religious revivalists, progressive educationists, and historical forces to the education and curriculum reforms of late 19th British Ceylon. As the evidence makes it clear, these figures and forces played a part in reforming the face of education in colonial society, even if they did not bring about, much less promote, radical change within that society.
Preoccupied with the issue of the country’s finances, the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission recommended the establishment of a public school in Colombo, the reform of government schools, and the setting up of a Commission to administer education reforms. Established in 1834, the latter body collapsed seven years later due to various disagreements and clashes. It was followed by another Commission in 1841, which in turn gave way to a more successful institution, the Department of Public Instruction, 28 years later.
By this point in time, the colonial administration in Ceylon was being guided by two contrasting ideological impulses: utilitarianism and orientalism. On the one hand, colonial administrators gave priority to reforms that were practicable and in line with the objective of creating a class of Westernised elites. On the other, not a few of them found themselves drawn to the history of the country they were governing. These developments blended in with the tenor of education reforms and the Buddhist revival of the late 19th century. Their effects were to be felt more fully in the early part of the 20th century.
Probably the most crucial development at this time was the excavation of Anuradhapura. Coming in after centuries of neglect, the restoration of the former capital of the country left a deep impression on people, evoking memories of a lost civilisation and a lost grandeur. It awakened no less than a desire to reclaim a national heritage.
Fittingly, the publication of an Archaeological Commission of Inquiry in 1870 fed into a clamour to know more about the country’s past. Ceylon history, as it came to be called, soon preoccupied officials and elites, leading to the formation of groups like the Ceylon Reform League and provoking much debate among educationists.
These debates centred on a rather pressing problem. Since their establishment, secondary schools had exuded a literary bias, with curricula which placed emphasis on the classics at the cost of other subjects. Long noted as a weakness by officials attached to the Department of Public Instruction, there was very little done to change the situation.
The teaching of history, in particular, limited the child to Europe and India. At the Colombo Academy in the period under discussion, for instance, the two textbooks in use were John Murray’s Guide to India and John Marshman’s Brief Survey of Ancient History. The situation remained much the same elsewhere, with the exception of schools set up by the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS), where the revivalist objectives of the organisation mingled with a personal interest among foreign teachers and principals in local culture.
Two developments conspired to extend the teaching of these subjects to the island’s elite schools. Firstly, the Governors in charge at this point, in particular William Gregory, took an interest in studying the country’s past and setting up institutions for that purpose. Indeed, the likes of Gregory did not just direct funds to digging up ancient sites, they also financed the establishment of institutions like the Colombo Museum despite the misgivings of their more fiscally conservative colleagues. Under Gregory, moreover, science and art education was prioritised, though progress remained frustratingly slow.
Secondly, while Buddhist schools saw their share of teachers dedicated to the study of local history, at the turn of the century other schools also began employing such figures. The most prominent among them was W. G. Fraser, Principal of Trinity College for 20 years. Described as “the finest colonial headmaster of his day”, Fraser oversaw the teaching of Sinhala at Trinity and abandoned subjects imported from England.
Less well heard of than Fraser, but no less significant, was Charles Hartley. A classics and language master who had taught at a number of English public schools, Hartley served as Principal of the Colombo Academy, now renamed as Royal College, for 16 years. During his tenure he oversaw several reforms, including starting Sinhala and Tamil classes on Saturday mornings at “a fee of Rs. 2 per month.” Anne Blackburn notes that the school employed the brother of Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera as its first Sinhala teacher.
Hartley’s experiments became successful, and in 1908 “vernacular teaching was instituted in the time table of the lower forms.” Despite his classical training, he also took an interest in science education, commencing physics classes for Technical College students in 1907. That same year, he introduced Ceylon History “to the three upper forms.”
Such reforms continued to influence students even after Hartley’s term ended. In 1913 at the College, for instance, two prizes were offered for Ceylon History, pointing to a growing enthusiasm for the subject. Whereas oriental studies had been neglected in the early 19th century, in the early 20th century such subjects were being taught with much interest. More pertinently, towards the end of the 1920s the results of the Cambridge Examination began to record impressive improvements in history.
Noting these achievements, in 1930 a group of students and teachers conferred with each other and presented a proposal to the principal that led to the establishment of a Historical Association. For its inaugural meeting the Association invited G. C. Mendis to speak on “The study of history with special reference to Ceylon”, underscoring the interest in local history that had led to the founding of the society. Predictably, other public schools followed suit: S. Thomas’ College, for instance, formed such an association in March 1936.
These years and decades saw the publication of a number of history books. They included Paul E. Pieris’s Ceylon and the Portuguese (1913) and The Kingdom of Jaffnapatam (1920), H. W. Codrington’s A Short History of Ceylon (1929), L. E. Blaze’s History of Ceylon (1933), and G. C. Mendis’s The Early History of Ceylon (1940). Needless to say, they had a profound influence on the local curriculum, even at the elite secondary schools.
To say that is not to overrate these works. For the most, the early historians favoured a chronology that divided the past into a series of dynastic periods. It was much later, in the 1960s, that a new generation of historians departed from such frameworks and delved into the material base of society. In its own way, however, it is a testament to the influence of the early historians that our schools still adopt their chronology, with the syllabus focusing on ruling dynasties and clans. Whatever the limitations of such an approach are, there’s no denying that it has penetrated the classroom today, as it did in their time.
These developments were a product of the political, cultural, and social forces that came together in colonial society in the late 19th century. While the work of colonial officials and commissioners, who had their own peculiar motives in the field of education reform, have been noted and can’t be denied, the work of other individuals, including educationists and revivalists, is more significant than what they are given credit for.
What needs to be noted in conclusion is that the reforms overseen by these individuals reflected the ideological impulses of British colonialism. So long as they did not contradict the broader aims of the colonial project, these reforms by and large gained official support, begrudgingly though it was often given. This is not as astounding as it may seem: not even in the 1930s, on the eve of the Donoughmore Reforms, did the most ardent revivalist imagine a Ceylon falling outside the British orbit. It is this, essentially, that guided education reforms, within the framework, and the limits, of a plantation colony in Asia.
(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations scholar and columnist, who can be reached at Uthpala Wijesuriya is a student and the outgoing Chairman of the Royal College History Club, who can be reached at

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Indomitable Kate, lonesome Vinitha
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The Chairman of Litro Gas Lanka, Mr. Thesara Jayasinghe, is certainly a big power – the mighty muscleman in Pohottuva governance. He was brought back as head of Litro less than a day after his removal from the position by Secretary to the Ministry of Finance.
Well, by whom and how did this happen?
It was by none other than the President of Sri Lanka himself – Gotabaya Rajapaksa!
az mobile notaryLet’s forget (if possible) all those gas blasts – especially during the festive season. Just rub off your mind the news about more than 800 blasts from Litro gas cylinders, the several persons – mothers and children killed, and many more injured. That is not the stuff of importance for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Just keep in mind that anyone appointed by President G, can and should only be removed by him. Not even by the Treasury Secretary, who directly serves under the President’s brother, Basil Rajapaksa.
This is the show of the new trend and trail of governance in Sri Lanka.
It is certainly a reminder to many, and even all, that we are not governed by any democratic process, but by the aim and goal of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
In fact, 20 Stuff – is the substance of governance in Sri Lanka.
This should certainly remind Susil Premajayantha MP, how and why he was removed from his ministerial rank, even without a letter to him. Premajayantha was among the SLPP members who so gladly and loudly supported and voted for the 20A. What else could he have expected, other than the stuff of a dictatorial 20A?
There are others too who must also understand and respect this reality.
Just think of former President Maithripala Sirisena. He certainly did a lot during his presidency, spending hours in Parliament, too, to get the 19th Amendment passed. It was the legal move to remove the authoritarian and near dictatorial powers that the Rajapaksas gained through 18A.
But it is the same Sirisena who voted for the 20A, which removed all the democratic advances of the 19A.
All other members of the SLFP, in parliament, too, had better bear this in mind. They too did give their “ayes” to the Gotabaya driven 20A, and saw the complete reversal of what party leader Maithripala Sirisena did in passing the 19A.
Would Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and his present allies in a Cabinet member protest on the New Fortress energy deal of the Rajapaksas, also not recall that they gave their glad and bubbly ‘ayes’ to the 20A – which also allowed dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa to be an MP, Minister and even President, too.
The people of Sri Lanka are now caught in the Vissey Ugula or the 20-Trap.
It is a trap that keeps the Pohottuva governance alive and strong in its powerful and cheerful swing to corruption in all its forms, the manipulation of contracts, the cheating of the Cabinet, the appointment and keeping in place of failures, crooks and huge swindlers, and the swing and sway of the Rajapaksa Pavula.
With the speedy re-appointment of the Litro boss, by none other than President Gotabaya himself, we are clearly told that enough is enough about gas blasts. We will soon have Pohottuva Pundits – even in yellow or any other robes – tell us that gas blasts are part of the historic traditions that kept our kings in place and power, with plenty of “Jaya Hoovas” and no gas at all.
Let’s just see how the judiciary functions in the coming months, it being the only hope that people can have about the democratic process; a situation blatantly challenged by the Attorney-General’s Department itself, as well as the Commission of Bribery and Corruption.
As the Litro boss is assured of presidential blindness about the suffering of the people from gas blasts, such massive blindness on all aspects of governance from the Central Bank downwards, is the rising substance of Rajapaksa Governance.
It is the massive rise of failure, with the 20-Trap having its sway in the dirty governance of Sri Lanka.
By Ransiri Menike Silva
Holidaying together in Sri Lanka with their families were my son and a friend, both domiciled in Australia. For greater enjoyment they usually planned their trips here together, when they could catch up on belated family news and visits. That was how my son learnt that his friend was looking for an elders’ home for his mother, and his friend was relieved to hear that I myself was already in one. He immediately decided that she should apply to the same elders’ home, facing opposition with, “I don’t have to see it. If it is good enough for my friend’s mother then it is good enough for mine.” It was the best recommendation.
As my grandsons were schooling, my son had to return before school reopened, while his friend opted to stay on a little longer. I already knew him as his parents were known to my elder brother and I had already met him at his place.
He contacted me soon after to inquire whether there were any vacancies in our complex. He arranged to bring his mother, a widow from a young age, to show the place that evening. I awaited the meeting eagerly. He stopped the car near the quadrangle, got off and came up to me asking to see the room, which was already fully furnished. I pointed it out to him as it was directly opposite mine which was an added attraction. I unlocked the door and waited outside to welcome her. Then he gave me the surprising news that she was disabled and unable to walk, and therefore he would carry her in. I placed the chair at a convenient spot for her and waited. After carrying her in he placed her on the chair. The son went to the landlord’s office to get all the details he needed, finalise arrangements and make payments. I sat beside her on another chair and we conversed until his return. She was rather frail but pleasant, and spoke about, among other things, her connection with my brother’s family.
She moved in soon after, having found an efficient and loving personal carer. Each evening this girl would wash her, dress her up and wheel her out to the garden under the shady trees. I would join her there and we would sit watching life around us and comment on the passing scene. It was during these sessions that I learnt how she had been disabled. She had been widowed early, with a young son and daughter. Her husband’s death had hit the headlines at the time, for he had been a top official in the state plantation sector, who had informed the CID of the anti-state activities of those working under him. In retaliation, their party, now pretending to be a peaceful organisation, had brutally assassinated him.
The young family was destroyed with no income of their own. However, the state did not let them down. But found her a job, and along with help from family and friends she had a regular income that enabled her to live fairly comfortably, while educating her two children. Time passed. The children became adults and wage earners, who now rewarded their mother in every possible way for all the hardship she had endured on their behalf. The daughter married and settled down. The son, in order to better his professional prospects, applied for a profitable position in an Australian firm, which was accepted. He migrated with the intention of getting his mother to join him there later. By this time he was married with a young child. The mother was happy. She had already experienced life in Australia on previous trips and she could once again become part of her own family.
The final move involved a lot of work which only she could attend to, not only concluding her personal affairs but also providing all the necessary official information about the family, which only she could provide. The son had already been there for some weeks helping out and now they were seated in the airport lounge ready to emplane. It had all been tiring work, both physically and emotionally and she was exhausted. Then, without warning, the mother suddenly collapsed! When she was rushed to the emergency unit at the nearest hospital it was found that she had suffered a stroke.
She could not immigrate to Australia now, even if she fully recovered, which she did not. She was partially paralysed and confined to a life between bed and wheelchair. It was at this stage she came into my life. After moving in she settled in comfortably with us. The son flew in for brief visits whenever his work permitted, bringing his family along on their annual Christmas vacation for a longer stay. It was during such times that my son’s family also joined them on their combined visits to their respective mothers and we had an entertaining time together. Then she fell grievously ill and had to be hospitalised where she was finally relieved of all the physical and emotional trauma she had had to endure during her lifetime. My brother and I attended her funeral.
Her son continued to keep in touch with me through phone calls, letters and gifts sent through others and visiting me whenever he was in Sri Lanka. This is how he found me in the annexe I had moved into after leaving the elders’ home complex. He was delighted after inspecting the unit and learning of all the conveniences at hand banks, supermarkets, hospitals, my personal GP and regular trishaw man, and best of all, my brother in the lane directly across ours. “K will be thrilled,” he said, referring to my son, and began taking photos to show my son on his return.
We continued to keep in touch, though now unable to meet due to the pandemic situation. But I shall always remember him, for there they all are along with my son’s family, grinning cheerfully from the pages of my photograph album.
By Punya Heendeniya
The era was the mid-sixties. The transitional period of ocean travels to air travels. No hand phones and children read story books and played board games with the adults and sat for dinner together. No phone lines to the rural areas. Electricity was just installed. Roads widened with and given names of the local dignitaries. The only form of communication was by post or by telegrams.
We were invited to a world film festival held in Mexico, and the reason was Gamperaliya, a masterpiece written by the peerless writer Martin Wickremasinghe and transformed into celluloid by Dr. Lester James Peries; it won the Golden Peacock award at the international film festival in New Delhi in 1965. I was the main actress and Henry Jayasena played the male lead in the film.
The invitation was sent to me by Dr. Lester J Peries via a trusted crew member. My father started pacing up and down the sitting room murmuring, “How can we send you to the other side of the world alone? You never even go to the “lindha” (the water well) alone. Send a message saying that you cannot accept this invitation.”
Such was the atmosphere I grew up in. My mother as usual kept “mum”. My elder brother, an ardent admirer of my artistic career, came to my rescue.
In an unusually confident and assertive manner, he told father, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for someone like Nangi and she should make use of it. If you do not allow her to participate, I will take a transfer and move out of the house”. That did the trick and my brother’s firm statement had the desired impact on the situation.
Dr. Peries heard about my problem and devised a plan to make things easy for me.
He transferred his invitation to his wife Sumithra, who also was a co-producer and the editor of the Gamperaliya. All is well, that ends well. I managed to join Sumithra and Henry as part of the smallest group of invitees to the festival.
Foreign exchange
az mobile notaryThree of us had to find foreign exchange for the trip even though the air travel was paid for. Only four pounds was allowed per person for foreign travel. We got together and appealed to the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, who very generously allowed each of us to carry one hundred pounds. That was just our pocket money.
Sumithra and I appointed Henry as our delegation leader.
As state guests of the Mexican government, at dinner in Hotel El Cano, in Acapulco, and other banquets, three of us said in Sinhala, that we would have stopped with the sumptuous starter itself if we had to pay for our meals.
A mink coat
It was the height of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Coming from a tropical country we were short of warm clothes. Sumithra having been in France had a few warm clothes and she very willingly gave me a pair of old gloves and a flannel vest. A very affluent fan of mine, who became one of my best friends later, came to my rescue. She offered me her mink coat.
A mink coat to Punya Heendeniya was manna from heaven those days.
If I had been offered that coat today, I would have turned it down, given the sheer number of innocent minks killed to make that coat.
Eighth Resenna Mundial
That was how the Mexican festival of festivals was named in Spanish. All the award -winning films of the world of the year were invited and the festival was held on a very grand scale in an ancient battlefield. We were able to mingle with the most famous stars of the world. I kept the then Ceylon (Sri Lanka) flag flying by wearing only the osariya and cloth and jacket for two to three weeks. This was highlighted in bold letters in the national newspapers. In an article written by Henry, at a later date, he mentioned, “Punya created history in Acapulco by refusing to wear a swimsuit.” That was my upbringing and Sumithra in her nonchalant, casual, and calm way supported me by saying we did not show flesh to attract attention.
The newspapers were all full of pictures of me in cloth and jacket and osariya.
Meeting the Asian film giant Satyajit Ray
Our delegation comprising just the three of us was assigned a limousine for travel purposes and it was named “Ceilan delegation
To the adjoining multi-starred hotel to our Hotel El Cano, came a one-man delegation. That was none other than the Satyajith Ray with his Charulatha. His appearance was majestic. He was tall, dark, and handsome. His visit made the three of us feel as if we had a close relationship with him. He very happily refused his limousine and travelled with us until the end of the festival. It was remarkable that he was one of the judges of the panel, at the New Delhi International Film Festival, where Gamperaliya was adjudged the best film. So, he had some understanding about the members of our delegation.
We attended experimental matinee film shows almost daily and one day we gave a lift to an American film critic in our Ceilan vehicle. He was seated with Ray in front and our topic of conversation was Asian films. He talked about Akira Kurosava and Satyajith Ray. All four of us were silent. He said he has seen the Opu trilogy. Ray in his elegant style said, “I am Satyajith Ray”. I do not have words to express the American’s reaction. He was elated.
On the day of the screening of our film, we draped our guide girl Christina Godard in a saree, and she carried it in a real stylish way. I wrote a short speech for myself, and Christina translated it to Spanish. I memorised it and when I addressed the audience in fluent Spanish “Saludos mees Amigos”, the audience went into a rapturous applause. Sumithra in her genteel manner, appointed me to collect the trophy for the film, “The Golden Palanque Head”.
Our sojourn in New York City
az mobile notaryHaving left Acapulco city’s warmer climes, our next stopover was New York. The Ceylon Mission of the National Assembly was aware of our arrival. We landed at the snow-covered John F Kennedy airport in the early evening. We were warmly welcomed by the staff members of the Ceylon Mission.
Among them was another tall, dark, and handsome figure I had seen in only pictures but never met. That was none other than our very own Mahagama Sekara. The funny side to it was, he was from Siyane Koralaya and I was from the adjoining Hapitigam Koralaya. We both were gamayas from rural Mirigama and Radavaana. We had to meet for the first time, in the John F Kennedy airport in New York!
From then onwards it was one full impromptu programme with dinners and sing songs. At one point we were singing “Mey Sinhala apage ratai, mulu lova ey ratata yatai” (lyrics by Mahagama Sekara) from the 42nd floor of a sky scraper. After that we all were walking along the Fifth Avenue to our lodgings. Unusual for the time of the year in the winter sky, the moon appeared through the skyscrapers. That was a very familiar sight for all of us and our very own poet Mahagama Sekara murmured, “Gamey andurana kenek dekka vaage”. (As if we have seen someone known to us back from home”)
That time the ambassador to the Ceylon Mission was Mr. R.S.S Gunawardane. He joined most of our get-togethers and invited both Henry and me to perform at the World Human Rights Day, which fell on the 10 December. The scheduled agenda had Sidney Poitier as an invited speaker. Our very own Shantha Weerakoon was to perform a Kandyan dance item. The Ceylon Mission made use of our unexpected presence at the right time to invite us to perform. We most willingly agreed. A separate printout was made available introducing us as the main actors of the award winning Gamperaliya and also mentioned our most recent and fresh participation at the Mexican festival from which we had just returned after winning the Golden Palanque Head Award.
Henry and I discussed what to perform and we sang our own Maestro Amaradava’s ” Piley pedura henata aragena enavaa“. Again lyrics by Mahagama Sekara. This opportunity proved to be a feather in our cap as we would never have dreamt of such a heaven-sent chance like this to perform on the main stage of the UN assembly. Credit to our great Dr.Lester J Peries and Gamperaliya. In a way it was all possible due to my brother’s support as well. I could not imagine getting garlanded on the UN stage in appreciation of the participation.
Meeting legendary Sir Sidney Poitier
az mobile notarySir Sidney in his speech to the assembly, very humbly recalled how he had been coached to read and write by a senior Jewish waiter, when he was employed as a child in a menial job as a dish washer. He mentioned that his journey from dust to gold, and to hold the prestigious Oscar, was rough and full of hurdles.
Then followed the photographic session. We lined up and I was hidden a little behind, and suddenly I felt two iron tongs lifting me from my waist and placing me in front saying, “Your place is there” and positioned me next to the Secretary General Mr. U Thant. Immensely flabbergasted, I looked back. I could not believe my eyes; it was none other than Sir Sidney Poitier, the heartthrob of the galaxy of Hollywood stars, and at that time he was at the apogee of his distinguished career.
We enjoyed the Green Room hospitality of the Secretary General. I saw this unassuming Knight in shining armour, mixing with the crowd like a well chiselled, well- polished ebony statue that had come to life.
We as artistes adored this trailblazing, ground-breaking Oscar winner’s performances, in films like “Guess who is coming to dinner”, “To Sir with Love” and “In the heat of the Night”.
Sir Sidney is no more. But he will live in the hearts of everyone.
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