The Life Cycle of a Legend


Dr. (Mrs) Thelma Gunawardane

A brilliant, beautiful, radiant star has faded, its light no more. The world is a darker place today than it was before January 23, 2015, the day that Dr. Thelma Gunawardane left this world, extinguishing the magnificent light of her presence. However, her legacy, the impact she left, the service she rendered this nation and the world, will forever be immortalized in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved her.

Thelma De Alwis was born in 1934 to Emily and Leslie De Alwis of Bambalapitiya. Even at a young age it was apparent that she was a remarkable force among her siblings Dunstan, Stanmore, Susantha, Sushila & Daisy. She attended Visakha Vidylaya for her primary education and completed her A-Levels at Holy Family convent. Colombo University, was where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree with an upper second in Zoology (Honours), Entomology being her speciality.

Thelma was also a brilliant pianist, a talent that was nourished at a young age and had matured into excellence in music theory and performance. This resulted in her parents urging her to pursue a career in Music. However, she had other ideas. Her love for science and nature compelled her to strive to be a scientist. She was not deterred by her parents’ wishes or the challenges women faced in careers dominated by men. Culture and tradition were not to stand in the way of her dreams. Even in her early twenties she was shaping up to be a wonderful role model for women in Sri Lanka.

In 1961 Thelma was married to Eng. G. J. P. Gunawardane and joined the National Museum to commence her post as the assistant director in charge of the department of entomology, determined to make a success of both career and marriage. In 1962 she added motherhood to her already busy life with the birth of her eldest son Vajira, and handled that challenge with amazing alacrity. Although she had numerous family responsibilities she was unfailingly loyal to the National Museum and provided an immense service to Sri Lanka and the preservation of national artifacts, until her retirement in 1995.

In 1965 she was awarded a Commonwealth scholarship to pursue postgraduate research studies in Entomology at the Imperial College of Science and Technology leading to a PhD. Though she was overjoyed at this opportunity, the decision to go to England was the hardest she had ever made in her life. As a mother of two small boys, Vajira and Thusitha, parting from them to advance her education was not painless. Luckily, with the support of her husband and parents who encouraged and reassured Thelma that her children will be well cared for, she left for England. Despite heartache and sorrow over the separation, in 1968, she became Dr. Thelma Gunawardane with a PhD in entomology from the Imperial College of London. She was offered several post-doctoral research positions in England, which she declined in favour of returning to Sri Lanka.

Dr. Gunawardane’s illustrious career began with her experiments and research in the field of entomology. Her research was key to the identification and classification of several classes of insects and discovery of many different species. In 1981 she was awarded membership to the International Museum Committee by Japan which led to her participation in several research studies at the Tokyo Museum. Her accomplishments, knowledge and experience were vital to the success of the entomology department and subsequently to all Sri Lankan museums as she took the helm as the Director of National Museums in 1982. She was the first woman in the world to hold such a post.

As director she was keen to update and revitalise the Colombo National Museum, which she accomplished with much satisfaction to all concerned. It was during her tenure of office that the following museums were established: the Dutch period Museum Pettah, the national Museum Galle, the Natural History Museum Colombo, Maritime Museum Galle and the relocation of the Ratnapura Museum to Ehalepola Wallauwa. She even opened the first Children’s museum in Sri Lanka in 1985 with weekly puppet shows and programs that educated and instilled a love of science and heritage in the next generation of young Sri Lankans.

Dr. Thelma’s love for Sri Lanka and the preservation of Sri Lankan heritage had no bounds. She was determined and relentless in her quest for preserving our national treasures. So much so that she undertook the bold and unprecedented task of conserving the elephant Raja’s body, the noble tusker that had carried the Buddha’s Tooth Relic in procession for decades. This was an enormous feat of taxidermy that involved the contribution of many parties and was skillfully executed due to Dr. Gunawardane’s perseverance. Her dedication was such that when King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’s throne was to be part of a travelling heritage display, and she feared its ruin in the process, she vehemently protested, threatening to resign. She managed to succeed in everything she attempted due to sheer boldness and determination, which she had in abundance.

In 1970 Sri Lanka was facing a threat to its economy by the devastation of the coconut plantations due to a pest attack by a beetle. Dr. Thelma who was appointed to the campaign committee tackling this problem, not only strongly recommended biological control of the insect pest but also gave her unstinted support to implement the proposal which met with complete success. This service and several more that required her expertise in insects that were beneficial to our agriculture and her expertise in cultural heritage, was commended and recognized by the government. In recognition of her services to the country she was the recipient of the Golden award in 2013 at the Uruma Prasada Sammana organized by the Ministry of National Heritage

Even after retirement from Government service, Thelma Gunawardane relentlessly provided service to our country. In 1996 she joined the executive committee of the Lanka Mahila Samithi movement and formed numerous programs to educate young women in rural Sri Lanka. She dedicated her time and energy to teach vocations to housewives in order for them to be able to contribute to their family economy and gain independence.

In 2004, in the devastating aftermath of the tsunami, Thelma who was determined to help those affected, spearheaded a committee of the Mallika Nivasa Society to build 35 houses for those who lost theirs in the tidal wave. Mallika Niwasa Gammane, the fruits of this labour is now a flourishing village, complete with a school and temple. Until her last day she was a servant of society, and also a leader of the world.

Dr. Thelma Gunawardane will be missed by the world for her dedication in preserving Sri Lankan heritage, the incredible service she has rendered to women in rural Sri Lanka and her entomology expertise benefiting Sri Lankan economy and agriculture. But mostly she will be missed for the wonderfully loving person she was to all those who crossed her path.

While I admire, respect and marvel at all she has accomplished, the woman I have described above is not the woman whose loss I feel. The charming lady whose loss I bear is not Dr. Thelma Gunawardane, for, to me, she is simply Achchi. The devastating grief that I experience is for the lady I called my grandmother and whom I miss above all else. The one who taught me music, who instilled in me a love for science, who brought me Japanese dolls and let me play with her beautiful collection, who told me how to differentiate a butterfly from a moth, who held my hand as she dragged me to countless functions and proudly introduced me to everyone she met, who told anyone who would listen (and even those who did not) how proud she was of her granddaughter and spouted off my accomplishments until I was embarrassed. I miss sitting by Achchi’s vanity table and watching her get dressed to go out, the beautiful lady who wore bold, brightly colored sarees and red lipstick and commanded the attention of everyone in any room she stepped into. I miss the times when I would come home from school and she would let us watch teledramas while Seeya fed us lunch. I miss her voice, patiently teaching me something she had already taught me before, telling me that I could achieve anything I set my mind to.

I miss her and yet I cannot accept that Achchi is truly gone. For me, she is still here. She is smiling at the breakfast table, watching TV. She is walking up the stairs and I can hear her small huffs and puffs. She is looking out at the garden and humming a tune. She is in the blossoming flowers that I see when I walk to school. She is in the fresh breeze that I breathe. She is in the notes that I play on the piano. She is in my every thought, my every tear that flows through my being. She is with me always.

Dearest Achchi you have been a great example, and the four sons and nine grandchildren that survive you, can only hope to be fraction of what you were. You have been a beacon of hope and a source of love to everyone blessed enough to know you. We miss you immensely and wish you were with us. It is truly a privilege to love you and it has been an honor to call you my grandmother.

May your journey through Samsara be a short one and attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana.

Kavisha Gunawardane

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