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Ariesen Ahubudu Accomplished wordsmith of our time



By K. A. I. Kalyanaratne
Consultant – Publications,
Postgraduate Institute of Management,
University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
Vice President, Hela Havula

Who would not be enthralled by the songs ‘Purthugeesi Kaaraya Rataval Allanna Sooraya’, ‘Ko Hathuro Ko Hathuro Ko Apage Hathuro’ and ’Dakuna Nagenahira Batahira Uthura da Eka Kodiye Sevane? Such verbal creations were only possible as he was a Wordsmith par Excellence.

Wordsmiths are men of letters who possess some unique qualities among which are performance of the specialty to the highest standards, with unmatchable skills, and also malleability to use words, to turnout creative and original pieces of work, conforming to the norms of the language. Their writings are eloquent due to the variety and richness of the vocabulary they are able to draw. Such specialists have acquired this skill through a life committed to experimenting with words, particularly their usage in different settings, and continuous researching the meanings of words. Ariesen Ahubudu made use of his wordsmithery through his exhaustive array of roles as writer, playwright, lyricist, poet, lexicographer and journalist.

Ariesen Ahubudu – His initial
guiding influence

Under the tutelage of that master wordsmith Kumaratunga Munidasa, Ariesen Ahubudu tasted the richness of the Sinhala language in all its varied facets. His ‘Kumaratungu Asura’ (Association with Kumaratunga Munidasa) spells out in sufficient detail Kumaratunga’s influence over the shaping of Ahubudu’s character, and how he became an accomplished wordsmith. Of course, his close association with such scholars like Jayantha Weerasekara, Jayamaha Vellala, Abiram Gamhewa and Raphael Tennekoon, had for sure, a marked impact on his future literary works.


Ahubudu – The Lexicographer

One of the main tasks of a wordsmith is to indulge in lexicographic pursuits. Words being the basic component of a language, a key mission of a wordsmith is to explore and inquire into the etymology of words; i.e. how they are formed and the rules followed in their formation. The clarity of a sentence is determined by correct word-usage and syntactic perfection. Ahubudu was on a crusade to zealously discover the etymology of the two major components of the Sinhala language, namely, nouns and verbs.


Two Epic research publications: ‘Lanka Gam Nam Vahara’ and ‘Arutha Nirutha’

Two of his publications that showed his etymological prowess are ‘Lanka Gam Nam Vahara’ and ‘Arutha Nirutha’. ‘Lanka Gam Nam Vahara’, a monograph of the place names of the island is an epic research on the origins of the island’s place names. Aelian de Silva, Chartered Engineer and Linguist, providing an introduction to this lexicon says

“The author has brought to bear his extensive knowledge, not only of the Sinhala language, but also of the long history of the Sinhala people. His knowledge of Sanskrit, Pali and English has placed him in good stead to handle this important task. Such attributes are very essential to intelligently collate the place names, to study the effect on them of linguistic norms, and to analyse them in the light of the historical background…”

Herein Ahubudu’s task had been a painstaking one. In many instances, where the correlation of words and their meanings have got blurred due to subsequent historical developments, he went to the extent of correlating their meanings with the topography and other features. This has been, indeed, a ‘very intelligent approach, and one that has shed much light’ on the origins of place names. The index to this lexicon provides a collection of 1730 place names, and this collection, for sure, would provide a base for any future undertakings of a similar nature. As exposed in this lexicon Bimtenne (Bintenne) is now known as Mahiyangana, which is the Pali translation. From it our Sandesa poets coined Miyungunu. Bimtenne and Miyungunu are now considered as two different places!

Commonalities adopted in the
coining of Place Names

A further step taken in his ‘research’ has been to expose the common grammatical norms/structures that had been followed by our forefathers in coining place names. This exercise itself elevates Ahubudu’s endeavour to much greater heights. This is a task which would have been accomplished by a higher seat of learning. In short it is a monumental task. He has brought these names under nine categories, depending on the rules of grammar followed in their formation, and under each category he cites examples.

For example kirillapane has been formed by the combination of kirilla (cork-tree) and Pane which means ‘a place’. Herein he cites several other place-names that have originated in this manner, namely, Marapane, Tumpane (Tumbapane), Walapane, and Ulapane.

His second lexicon is ‘Arutha Nirutha’, (Meaning and Etymology) an exposition revealing a new dimension in the art of formation and understanding the meanings of the terms in the Sinhala language. Ahubudu, in producing this lexicon worked on the primary premise that “Language used by the various people also helps us to deduce certain facts about their thoughts and aspirations and their knowledge of arts and crafts. That is because man and his language are always connected with words that reflect the environment in which man lived.” Preface to Arutha Nirutha). Herein he quotes Samual Johnson who said that “Language is the pedigree of the nation.” Thus, while Ahubudu brings to light the nation’s broad cultural environment by unearthing the hidden facets of the people, “examines the repetitive patterns relating to the formation of composite words in the language, and elicits the associated principles.

Given below is one of his etymological analyses:

Karawila (kariwila): (gourd = memordica charantia). This word derives its name taking into account its two main features. ‘kara’ is knot or cone. ‘wili’ is wrinkled or corrugated. Hence, Karawila is a combination of ‘kara’ and ‘wili’. (‘wili’ in the Sinhala Bodhi Wamsaya gives the meaning ‘wrinkled’ or ‘folded’).

A Wordsmith’s armoury of words sans grammar and idiomatic usage

If there is no grammar and idiomatic usage of a language only a jumble of words, utterly incapable of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings will remain. Ahubudu while enriching his diction over the years to ensure that he was rich and fully capable of expressing the nuances as well as the shades of meanings, mastered the grammar and idiomatic usage of the language. It is certain that Kumaratunga Munidasa’s two seminal works on Sinhala grammar, i.e., Vyakarana Vivaranaya and Kriya Vivaranaya, played a decisive role in strengthening Ahubudu’s acumen in the usage of Sinhala grammar. However, he had enriched the findings of these two researches, by creating a style of his own, with a fine blend of both classical and spoken idioms. This creative language, stood him in good stead, in his literary works, which included prose, verse as well as drama. J. E. Metcalfe in his ‘Improve Your English” says “Grammar is the basis of a language, the framework on which ideas are hung, and the loftiest imagery of thought can fall flat if ungrammatically expressed. … In all phases of human life there is a need, indeed a desire, for discipline, …The discipline of language is the thing called grammar.”

However, Ahubudu’s approach in disciplining Sinhala was quite different from that of many other publishers of grammar-books. What he did was to re-express grammatical rules in a simpler manner, targeting the young ones, especially school children. As he had been a successful teacher for long years, he knew the art of expressing even knotty grammatical rules in a manner that appeals to the young ones. ‘Detu Rukula’ is mainly aimed at students sitting the GCE ordinary level examination. Ahubudu had also judiciously decided to have a separate publication on ‘separation of words’ in Sinhala, titled, Sinhalaye Pada Beduma. (jointly authored with Liyanage Jinadasa). His decision had been primarily induced by the confusion the students faced in the separation of words in their writings.


Realization of Unique Characteristics
of the Sinhala Language

Every language has its own unique characteristics. This, in fact, is the personality of a language. It is this realization that helped Ahubudu to create literary works without debasing the grammar, language-structures as well as word-forms, as well as to create new words to express new ideas without making them feel as ‘foreign bodies’ or intrusions. The principle followed is to adopt Sinhala verb-roots in the coining of words; a principle that is being adopted by world languages like Russian, French, German and Japanese.

The following verse appended from the song ‘Dakuna – Nagenahira’ alone would be sufficient to show how clever Ahubudu had been not only in the coining of words but also in elucidating completely new meanings to the traditional meanings.

“Ipaduna apa hata lak polove – Suru viru kam upatin huruwe.

Dakvamu daskam lakkam viskam – Vismavamin mulu lo.”

This verse provides a set of new meanings to the traditional renderings provided by our lexicographers. Viskam = marvels; Lakkam = products of Lanka ; Vismavamin (coined as a single word from the two words vismaya and mavanava. Resultantly, in place of two words to express ‘creating wonders’ the Sinhala language has now been enriched by a new word ‘vismavayi’ to express ‘creating wonders’. This word could either be used as a verb by conjugating it as vismavayi, vismavati,vismavami, vismavamu… or as a noun which could be declined as vismavanna, vismavanno, vismavannee…

Malleability of Language

Malleability of language is the capability of stretching a language into different shapes, as demanded of by the occasion or the literary genre, similar to how William Shakespeare began to adapt the traditional styles to suit his own purposes. Any writer who is rich in his diction when uses a language constantly and consciously the ultimate result would be the development of a writing style of his own. In fact, his style of writing becomes unique to him. It is why the style of Gurulugomi (in the Amavatura) differs considerably from that of Dharmasena thero’s Saddharmarathnavaliya. Raphael Tennekoon’s writing style is a product of his own, which is full of satire and locally spun words, as seen in his ‘Gemi Bana’.

Ariesen Ahubudu, in his long years of engagement as a writer, had developed that quality of language-malleability, the end-product of which has been his unique style of writing. The base of his language is the richness of his diction which suits different occasions and different literary genres. A writer’s most prized possession is his or her own unique writing style, which is the single most valuable investment a writer can make. The rules are about what a writer does; style is about how the writer does it. 


Vocabulary and Style to suit
All Literary Genres

Unlike prose which is the most common form of writing, Ahubudu, armed with his rich vocabulary and styles discovered through long years of indulgence in versification, showed his prowess by producing works belonging to a host of literary genres: mainly poetry, lyrics and drama. Poetry is accepted as the most intense form of writing among a nation’s literary works.


Ahubudu’s Usage of Words
in Song-lyrics

His poetic and lyrical creations are so exhaustive, that it would not be possible in the space provided to comment on every one of them. The ‘Sakvithi Kith Resa’ (The Collective Fame of the Universal Monarch) compiled and edited by Shrinath Ganewatta, President, Hela Hawula, contains a near total collection of Ahubudu’s song-lyrics. Appended below are two stanzas from the song lyrics of ‘Ko Hathuro’, a song coming in the film ‘Sandesaya’. Ahubudu being blessed with an unboundedly rich vocabulary did not come across any impediment in expressing his sentiments. How wonderful are the new word-clusters he had created to express new meanings as well as to teach a lesson to budding lyricists as to how words could be selectively used to generate new tastes and experiences. Aren’t Kaduwata kaduwai heeyata heeyayi Papuwata papuwai new expressions to accentuate sentiments? A further secret is the choice of words, and that too, to fall in line with the tune.

“Ekakuth apa gen nesuwath hathuran
Un gen seeyak helapiyav
Kaduwata kaduwai heeyata heeyayi
Papuwata papuwai dee palayawu.”


The word combination ‘maruwatath maru wune” in this song expresses several meanings. It’s a literary device normally referred to as ‘pun’. The literary meaning of the combination of these words is that they surpassed even Mara in the act of killing. However, the hidden and subtle meaning Ahubudu wishes to convey is that ‘they brought death even to Mara (demon causing death and destruction to others.)

Ahubudu’s Poetic Compositions

Even if taken as a separate entity, his poetic compositions could be considered as an ‘industry’ of its own. His poetic compositions by way of its volume is incomparable. Two of his compositions that stand tall among the rest of his works are ‘Rasadahara’, an epic poem, and ‘Pareviya – Sama Asna’ a poem that is akin to our Sandesa poems of the Kotte period and the period immediately thereafter, as it contains all the ingredients of the compositions of that genre; the only deviation being that while all our Sandesa poems are happenings confined to the country, Pareviya is devoted to the loadable act of getting a pigeon to carry a message of peace to the three leading countries of China, Russia and the United States of America.

Here again Ahubudu performs miracles with his rich diction and creative-clustering of appropriate words. This is, indeed, a miracle that could only be performed by a high caliber wordsmith. Through his rich verbiage and masterly use of words he draws an enthralling imagery. The messenger ‘pareviya’ (pigeon) is made to realize the rejoicing atmosphere borne of the spring-time by painting a colourful picture, through such words as,

“Mal gomu gumu gumu ganvannee
Mee vadavale peni puravanne
Kurulu sarin kan pinavannee
Mulu lova uyanak karavannee”

Through this verse Ahubudu makes the spring-environment dance in ecstasy. These words also manifest how supple the Sinhala language is. In the same poem the pigeon while flying over Africa he hears the agitation of the Africans against their European rulers, as the African natives now remain a downtrodden community. See how ferociously the poet expresses their feelings:

“Sudda udda padd lav
Bellen alla holla lav
Atten yutten beri nam ovu
Ketten pollen sun kerelavu

Negita varo negita varo
Rotta ma negita varo”

This is a combination of short words and a unique metric composition.

The reader sees through the word-drama the native Africans getting their men to rally round to defeat their oppressors! Herein Ahubudu has become a verbal artist. It is said that an artist dreams a picture and then pictures his dream.

Kalanaruwan Sumandas, a critique, providing an introduction to Ahubudu’s ‘Rasadahara’ says that the services rendered by Ahubudu to amplify and broad-base Sinhala poetry could only be compared to what Ravindranath Tagore did for Vanga poetry. Every line of every verse in the ‘Rasa Dahara’ manifests the poet’s cleverly coined word-clusters and imagery.

Ahubudu’s Contribution to the Sinhala Language and Literature

A recent publication titled ‘Viritha ha Arutha’ jointly authored by Prof. Wimal Disanayake and Shrinath Ganewatta, President, Hela Havula, attempts at establishing the harmony between meter and meaning. Meaning is based on lyrical composition. A poem is a piece of writing in which the words are chosen for their beauty and sound to produce an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject. Based on this definition Ahubudu as a wordsmith, through his wondrous lyrical compositions has, for certain, stolen the hearts of the reader.

Cited below is an instance Ahubudu became a word-artist through his pen-brush to command a river to flow for the service of humanity. The poet while challenging the river to empty its waters to the sea, without helping the mankind, also indirectly challenges anyone to make a lyrical composition expressing the same sentiments, within the same or similar metric composition, to this effect!


“Emba ganga
Navatinu navatinu navatinu navatinu gangave.

Kanda kapav
Gal peralavu
Veli bandiv
Gamana bindiv


Conclusion – A Cursory Treatment

Ariesen Ahubudu’s life-long commitment delving deep into the origins of Sinhala words, unearthing the grammatical bases of our place names, rendering a yeoman service by reproducing rules of grammar to the younger generation, setting examples by way of showing how the language could be used malleably to express innate, inner and deep thoughts and sentiments, and making Sinhala both a lovable and lively medium that could be moulded to suit all occasions, demand a deeper analysis and research. Ariesen Ahubudu is a living embodiment of executing what he had found and preached, for the furtherance of the Sinhala language and literature. In this committed attempt he hailed through example that the Sinhala verse as a medium of expression is equal to such attempts that have been made by any other world language. Herein, his indirect message is “a nation which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except the cleverness of a decadence”. It is, therefore, apt to conclude this short essay with a quotation of Goethe (considered as the greatest German literary figure of the modern era), as it fits in well with the tasks and the mission Ariesen Ahubudu fulfilled during the tenure of his life.

“Knowing is not enough;
We must apply.
Willing is not enough;
We must do.”

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More than a doctrinal problem:The Buddha and his stepmother



Ambapalika offering a meal to the Buddha and his disciples, and donating a mango grove (British Library)

By Uditha Devapriya

The Buddha’s response to Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for permission to enter the Buddha Sasana forms one of the more controversial episodes in the Buddhist pantheon. The story, as told in countless narratives and chronicles, essentially makes his acceptance of a female Buddhist or Bhikkuni order contingent on two things: his stepmother making the request twice, then traversing a distance of 150 miles with her followers in defiance of his response, and Ananda Thera’s pleas, which eventually convince the Buddha to change his mind.Viewed from a certain perspective, the episode stands out prominently in the Buddha’s life, for two reasons. Firstly, it marks the first time he makes an explicit pronouncement on the role of women within the Buddhist clergy. Secondly, it takes his Chief Attendant to resolve a paradox in that pronouncement: the Buddha doesn’t accept his stepmother’s request, yet he isn’t necessarily opposed to the ordination of Buddhist nuns.

Ananda Thera’s question is very clear on this point: he doesn’t mention specific names, but rather asks whether, in general, women are “capable of realising the state of a stream-winner, never-returner, and an arahant, when they have gone forth from home to the homeless state.” Only after receiving a positive response to his question does Ananda bring up the issue of the Buddha’s stepmother: “If then, Lord, [women] are capable of attaining Saintship, since Maha Pajapati Gotami has been of great service to the Exalted One… it were well, Lord, that women should be given permission …”

In other words, the appeal to personal ties follows from a philosophical question: if women are allowed in, then why not accept Gotami’s request? I find this highly fascinating, for two reasons. Firstly, Buddhist stories usually have the Buddha turn an encounter with a specific individual into a homily or a sermon: thus it is only upon engaging with Sunita that he makes a pronouncement on caste. Similarly, it is his encounter with Sigala that makes him expound his most significant sermon for the laity (the bourgeoisie?). The Dhammacakkana Pavattana Sutra, his first discourse, can in that sense be viewed as a response to the need to convince his first five disciples, residing at Sarnath, of his attainment of Enlightenment. The encounter with his stepmother turns this on its head: it is his philosophical position on a doctrinal issue – in this case, the ordination of women – that resolves the personal encounter.

Secondly, unlike the bulk of the Buddha stories in the Pali and Sinhalese Chronicles, here he changes his mind over a dilemma concerning the Sasana. However, he doesn’t really confess or admit that he was wrong over the issue. Instead, Ananda’s questioning compels him to remark that what holds true in general (women entering the Buddhist order) must hold true in the particular (Mahaprajapati Gotami and her followers entering the Buddhist order). Most crucially, the Buddha doesn’t reach this conclusion on his own: it takes Ananda Thera, his Chief Attendant no less, to help him take the proverbial leap.

To be sure, his encounter with Mahaprajapati Gotami episode is hardly the only one where the Buddha revises his positions and opinions. There is at least one other occasion where he does so: when his father, Suddhodhana, requests him to seek parental permission before ordaining children, and he agrees. This too is a response to a personal encounter: he converts his son, Rahula, without notifying his mother. What is unique about his encounter with his stepmother, however, is that it concerns a doctrinal issue: the question of allowing females into an order seen, until then, as an exclusively male preserve.

Having asked a number of ordinary Buddhists what they thought of this episode, I can only conclude that no one has any real answers to the issue as to why the Buddha had to be led into an ideological impasse for him to agree to admit Buddhist nuns, or Bhikkunis. The Buddha is generally acknowledged as farsighted and pragmatic. He is not one to revise his opinions, even on the request of a person so close as his Chief Attendant. Indeed, even after accommodating his stepmother’s request, he frankly tells Ananda that the admission of nuns would reduce the lifetime of the Dhamma from a thousand to five hundred years. This does not, however, belittle the fact that he accommodates them.

How do these ordinary Buddhists I talked with perceive and resolve this problem? One of them admitted that he had been grappling with it all his life, and that since his Daham Pasal days, he had been trying to find a satisfactory answer, to no avail. On the other hand, my mother, hardly the Daham Pasal going type, suggested that it shows that the Buddha, far from embodying an all-knowing ideal, had to rely on another person – his Chief Attendant – to reach a compromise over a difficult doctrinal issue. This is not an opinion shared by too many Buddhists, since it contradicts their view of the Buddha as infallible and beyond question, but it is shared by several ordinary laypeople I talked with.

In response to what many may see as the Buddha’s inborn prejudice against women – sexism, plain and simple – a leading Buddhist monk-writer has this to say.

“In making these comments, which may not generally be very palatable to womankind, the Buddha was not in any way making a wholesale condemnation of women but was only reckoning with the weaknesses of their sex.” (Venerable Narada Thera, “The Buddha and His Teachings”, Fourth Edition, 1988, Chapter 9, Page 156)

Narada Thera, however, is touching on only one aspect to this controversy. This aspect has been covered by a number of scholars, most prominently by Uma Chakravarti, who in an insightful essay (“Buddhism as a Discourse of Dissent: Class and Gender”) remarks that while the Buddha, in his volte-face over the question of female ordination, reveals his recognition, even acceptance, of women’s potential for salvation, by laying down eight rules, and making a rather pessimistic prediction regarding the Dhamma, he reflects the prejudices of his time, where women were expected to serve a subservient role to men.

Although Chakravarti doesn’t discuss it, the Buddha’s encounter with his former consort, Yashodhara Devi, tells us much about the times he hailed from. Bhikkhu Narada’s account tells us that Yashodhara, upon hearing that he had returned to Kapilavaththu, does not visit him herself, hoping that “the noble Lord Himself will come to my presence.”

When this eventually does happen – he enters her chamber and takes a seat – she goes to great lengths to reverence him, ordering her courtiers to wear yellow garments. When Siddhartha Gautama’s father Suddhodana informs his son of the extraordinary lengths to which she has gone to greet him, the Buddha merely replies, “not only in this last birth, O King, but in a previous birth, too, she protected me and was devoted and faithful to me.” He then goes on to relate the Candakinnara Jatakaya, in effect reiterating and re-emphasising values like loyalty and faithfulness that are seen as ‘becoming’ of women.Chakravarti’s argument is frankly disconcerting, but it is the most accurate from those that tackle this issue which I have read so far. While other scholars, like Kumari Jayawardena, trace Buddhism’s hostility to women, and to female activism, to the Buddhist Revival of the 19th century, in which a socially and culturally conservative (petty) bourgeoise took the lead, Chakravarti traces it to the Buddhist Chronicles that relate the Buddha’s life, as it was lived or is supposed to have been lived, themselves. My only critique of Chakravarti’s approach is that she makes no real attempt to relate those Chronicles – many of which, after all, were written after the Tatagatha’s passing away – to the context of their times.

Of course, one can hardly blame or single out the Buddha for these problems. In any case, the India of the Buddha’s time accepted gender and class oppositions. Moreover, it wasn’t just on issues concerning women where he was, to put it mildly, ambivalent. Even on the thorny issue of caste, he didn’t adopt a straightforward position: while he did condemn Brahmin caste structures, he also added that “by deed is one born a Brahmin”, thereby distancing himself from the kind of political critique of caste pioneered by, inter alia, Ambedkar. I suppose one can make the same case for liberation theologists: Christ, after all, did implore to render unto Caesar’s the things that were Caesar’s, a position liberation theologists would hardly adopt today.This aspect, as I mentioned earlier, has been covered. I am more interested in its doctrinal and philosophical dimensions. For the first and probably only time in his life, the Buddha is admitting to a theoretical lapse without really admitting to it. Perhaps to make up for his shortfall, the Buddha justifies his earlier position by attributing the decline of Buddhism – from a millennium to half a millennium – to the very gender he admits to the order. Even if that is not, according Narada Thera, a “wholesale condemnation of women”, we must admit that between the Buddha’s rejection of Gotami’s request, his acceptance after Ananda’s intervention, and his sober prognosis following his acceptance, there was an intellectual leap. I believe this issue needs to be investigated, more deeply.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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The Man P. Rajanayagam was – Remembered by Nirmala Rajasingam



With the passing of Periyathamby Rajanayagam, another stalwart of the vintage days of left activism in Sri Lanka, is now gone. Rajanayagam was a trade unionist, human rights lawyer, journalist, writer and most importantly a life-long left political activist, to whom social justice, democracy and, with increasing authoritarianism, the right to dissent were consuming passions that he lived out daily until his health failed him in his 86th year. Born in Chunnakam, as the second child in a family of five, Raja’s political activism began at a young age, while he was studying at Skandavarodaya College, in Jaffna. In his teens, Raja joined the Youth League of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), often distributing LSSP publications, with his older brother, to their supporters. His teachers, N.S. Kandiah, and ‘Orator’ Subramaniam of the Jaffna Youth Congress fame were great mentors, who inculcated the spirit of egalitarianism in the young Rajanayagam. Raja entered the Ceylon clerical service when he finished school to support the family, financially. He threw himself into union activism, as a member of the GCSU, the most powerful union backed by the LSSP at that time. Raja soon became the editor of the union magazine The Red Tape, and its Tamil magazine Nava Uthayam.

From this time onwards Raja’s personal life was marked by the twists and turns of the history of the left movement. Raja graduated with a BSc degree from the University of London, as an external candidate, while still an active union representative. Soon after, he became a central committee member of the LSSP and published The Federal Party and the Tamil Speaking Peoples, an important document of the LSSP, for its campaign for the 1960 general election.Raja’s political career experienced a dramatic shift when the LSSP joined the SLFP, in a coalition government in 1964. In his 20s, Raja joined Bala Tampoe, Edmund Samarakody and many others, and helped found the LSSP- Revolutionary Party. The LSSP–R was now in control of the formidable Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) and Raja became a central committee member of the LSSP–R. At this time, he passed his law exams with a first class, qualified as an attorney-at-law, and brought out the textbook titled Criminal Procedure in Sri Lanka, encouraged by his law lecturer, as there was a dearth of such textbooks.

Shunning lucrative practice in other areas, Raja naturally became a trade union lawyer. He was to be found in the Sri Lankan labour tribunals almost daily, defending workers, and published The Labour Tribunal Digest, summarising leading tribunal precedent cases that established important labour law principles.
When the 1971 JVP uprising was crushed by the coalition government, Raja also became a human rights advocate, representing newly incarcerated JVP leaders. He visited prisons in Jaffna, Bogambara and Welikade to meet Rohana Wijeweera, Gamanayake, Lionel Bopage, and others. He represented 13 of the top JVP leaders in the courts that were specially set up with no due process to deal with these ‘terrorist’ cases. His representation of JVP leaders came under scrutiny. His erstwhile left comrades were now in power with the coalition government and were prosecuting the JVP youth vigorously. In 1972, the Republican constitution was enacted, giving Buddhism a foremost place, and the members of the LSSP, and CP fully participated in this exercise. Raja, disillusioned by the developments within the mainstream left, and the corresponding rise in majoritarianism and the shrinking democratic space for alternative left forces, decided to take a break from politics and left for London in 1973.

Raja began work as a solicitor for the Bexley Heath local authority in Britain. Soon, Raja and other kindred souls set up the Ceylon Solidarity Movement. Raja wrote and published a pamphlet, The Island of Terror, based on his experiences of representing JVP detainees. From that time onwards Raja’s home became a welcoming place for many left activists who visited London from Sri Lanka, stayed with him, spoke at meetings, met parliamentarians and always paid the obligatory visit to Marx’s grave, all of which Raja organised. Rohana Wijeweera, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and even Mahinda Rajapakse has stayed in the home of Raja. When Mahinda Rajapakse went to Geneva to complain to the UNHRC about Sri Lanka’s human rights violations he was assisted by Raja.
When under the Jayewardene government the militarisation of the north and violent attacks against Tamils increased, Raja became drawn into yet another phase of his activist career, and was one of the leading figures in forming the Standing Conference of Tamils (SCOT) and its human rights arm in London. A smaller group within SCOT became the nucleus for the Tamil Times, an English language monthly magazine that was launched in 1981. The editorial responsibilities fell mainly on Raja’s shoulders. In the next 25 years or so, the Tamil Times emerged as the foremost voice of Sri Lankan Tamils living in the diaspora in the English language with N.S. Kandiah as its managing director. Its initial aims were to make a stand in support of the beleaguered Tamil community in Sri Lanka, and to keep the Sri Lankan diaspora communities around the globe abreast of developments.

In a few years, developments in Sri Lanka created a divergence of perspectives within the editorial group, where some supported militant Tamil nationalism unequivocally. Raja and others were perturbed by the intolerant nationalism, militarism, Tamil-on-Tamil violence and the crushing of dissent within the Tamil polity. Raja found the LTTE’s claim to be the sole representative of the Tamils abhorrent. By around 1987, the disagreement was settled in Raja’s favour, and he continued as the editor until January 2006. As Raja’s editorials became increasingly critical of armed violent actors, he was subjected to threats and intimidations. For a period, the Tamil Times was the only one of its kind, offering critical support to the Tamils in their quest for justice and democratic rights. It was read with interest for Raja’s editorials but not just by Tamils but also by various representatives of governments, members of the human rights fraternity, journalists and academics. The magazine was supported by subscriptions entirely and from across the globe.

Raja was also a pioneer and consistent advocate for Sri Lankan human rights in the UNHRC, spanning over two decades. He began this work as the representative of the human rights arm of SCOT to highlight the plight of the Tamils. He produced two publications, Law and Practice of Arbitrary Detention in Sri Lanka and Arbitrary Killings in Sri Lanka, which were based on various submissions he had made to the Human Rights Council. As his perspective gradually changed, he began to openly express his misgivings over the direction of the Tamil struggle, and raised questions about Tamil-on-Tamil violence at the UNHRC sessions. Between the prevarications of the Sri Lankan state on its human rights record and the deeply partisan and selective human rights accounts from Tamil nationalists, Raja often cut a lone figure in his commitment to truth-telling. Raja viewed the LTTE’s ascendancy, and its implications for the Tamil people with great trepidation. He was much affected by the many political killings of dissenters by the LTTE. Some were his friends.

I had the great fortune to be a fellow steering group member of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, (SLDF) with Raja from 2002 to 2009, during the peace process. It was a tightly knit group that campaigned for peace, democracy and justice. During these years Raja was a frequent visitor to my home. He would be up for robust political discussions that would begin at 6pm and end around 5am the next day. His involvement with SLDF was the last stint of activism in a long line of campaigns he had set up. Raja’s eloquence as a writer and public speaker, often trenchantly critical of armed actors, and the senseless violence of the civil war, endeared him to many within the dissenting Tamil community in London. He remained a towering figure of inspiration to many of us.
The Raja we all knew was a man of much warmth, compassion, humour, and political integrity. He loved engaging with people, especially activists, of all ages and backgrounds. This is what he found most pleasurable. When Raja’s wife of 25 years, Regina, died he had to start life again, but he sustained himself through writing, campaigning, befriending people and speaking truth.
(Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan British national resident in London. A political activist and artiste, she was a close ally of P. Rajanayagam)

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Situating the woman in Buddhist Revival Female Buddhist education and the Buddhist Revival



By Uditha Devapriya

The Buddhist revivalists of the late 19th century placed great emphasis on female education. Colonel Olcott spoke of the need for Buddhist girls’ schools, claiming that “the mother” as “the first teacher.” This was echoed by Buddhist men who argued they wanted “companions who shall stand shoulder to shoulder with ourselves.”

The rise of a Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, comprising of traders, merchants, teachers, and professionals, had a considerable say in the clamour for education for Buddhist women. As Kumari Jayawardena has observed, “there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois colonial society, as well as educated mothers who would reproduce… the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists.”

The clamour, in other words, was for the daughters of the Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie to stand on equal terms with their Christian and Westernised counterparts, the latter of whom had been either tutored at home or sent to missionary enclaves.Before delving into how schools for Buddhist girls came to be, though, it’s important to make a distinction between two kinds of education: monastic and secular. Female monastic education dates to the time of the Buddha, when, after much cajoling by his chief disciple Ananda, he permitted the establishment of a female Buddhist order.

As with every other philosophical-mundane dilemma, the question of women entering the sasanaya, transcending their traditionally defined roles as wives and mothers, was resolved in an ambiguous way: while the Buddha informed Ananda that there was room in the Order for nuns, he had earlier rejected his stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for female ordination. Nevertheless, with his recognition of a female order, the Buddha foretold that his teachings would last so long as monks and nuns practised mindfulness.

Female monastic education came to Sri Lanka with the arrival of Sanghamitta in the third century BC and the ordination of Devanampiya Tissa’s queen, Anula. The Bhikkuni order lasted for 15 centuries, until the Chola invasions in the Anuradhapura period. Until that point, several strides would be made in the sisterhood, including the writing of the Theri Gatha (“Psalms of the Sisters”), a compendium of 522 gathas by 73 nuns dating to the sixth century BCE. At one level, these gathas contain strong feminist undercurrents.

Unfortunately, no attempt was made to revive the order after the fall of Anuradhapura. Not until the 19th century were such attempts made. This was largely due to the work of one woman, the first dasasil matha (“Ten Precept Nun”) of Sri Lanka, Sister Sudharmācārī (née Catherine de Alwis), and of a group of Bhikkus and dasasil mathas, who, in 1998, went on to initiate a Bhikkuni Order despite protests from the more conservative sections of the clergy. Regarding the latter, the efforts of Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, who filed a case at the Human Rights Council arguing that the State should recognise Bhikkunis and their monasteries, must be noted.Secular education for Buddhist girls preceded the ordination of the dasasil mathas. As far as monastic schools went, no clear-cut distinction prevailed between religious and secular instruction, since monks were at the forefront of education. Here, however, a clear gender bias persisted: as Ananda Coomaraswamy has observed, monks oversaw education only for boys. Education for females thus remained a neglected affair.

As the very first British commentators on the country noted, “the greater part of men can read or write” (Cordimer), and education was confined chiefly to “the male part of the population” (Davy). Given that works like the Kavyasekara and the Selalihini Sandeshaya idealised women who stayed at home and played a subordinate role to their fathers and husbands, we can take the lack of interest in their education to have been culturally and religiously sanctioned, especially in the post-Kotte period. This contrasts with revisionist accounts, such as Sinhala Geheniya, which contended that in the pre-colonial phase Sinhala women had been elevated, if not honoured, by their male brethren.

The “debut of the bourgeois woman” (as Kumari Jayawardena has termed it) was a phenomenon unique to 19th century colonial society. Sri Lanka was no exception. While most elite schools cropped up after the government abandoned English education as per the recommendations of the Morgan Committee Report of 1870, female education had more or less picked up decades earlier in Jaffna, with the establishment of the American Ceylon Mission in 1816 and Uduvil Girls’ School in 1824.The latter establishment, which began with 22 students, became Asia’s first boarding school for girls. Set up as a counterpart to the Batticotta Seminary in Vadukoddai, its first principal happened to be a missionary from Connecticut, Harriet Winslow.

As with Sinhala society, however, Tamil society remained averse to the idea of female education. In that sense the success of the school (followed by establishments in Varany in 1834 and Nallur in 1841) owed much to how it reinforced traditional patterns (most girls hailed from the Vellala caste) while breaching them (the school allowed common dining between castes, upsetting not a few powerful families in the region).This paradox – of reinforcing traditionalism while breaching it – was seen in girls’ schools in other parts of the country as well. Moreover, while doing away with traditional practices, most of these schools kept intact the gender-class structures of colonial society, grooming women to be devoted mothers, daughters, and wives. Female education in the 19th century hence followed either of two paths: courses for ladylike pursuits, like music and needlework, and academic courses and professions, like medicine.

In 1881, for the first time, a girl sat for the Senior Cambridge Examination, while five girls sat for the Junior Cambridge Examination. The number would rise to 15 and 77 respectively at the turn of the new century. This was around the time when the women’s movement had begun picking up in England: the suffragette campaign officially commenced in the 1870s. This was also around the time when another movement picked up at home: the Buddhist revival. The contradiction embedded in colonial female education, between conservatism and emancipation for women, thus spilt over to Buddhist schools.Modern Sinhala Buddhist secular education, for women, began with the establishment of the Sanghamitta Girls’ School in 1891. According to Kumari Jayawardena, there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the school. When tensions between the two managers, Alfred Buultjens and Peter de Abrew, peaked, the principal, Marie Musaeus Higgins, left. Supported by de Abrew, she started her own school.

Meanwhile, Sanghamitta was relocated to Foster Lane (at a cost of more than Rs. 30 million today, according to Vinod Moonesinghe), and administered after 1898 by the Maha Bodhi Society, under Anagarika Dharmapala and the principalship of Miranda de Souza Canavarro. The school, run on Catholic lines (with a Buddhist sisterhood that conformed to Convent practices), was soon superseded by Musaeus College; the friendship between Dharmapala and Canavarro having deteriorated, it continued without the sisterhood. Notwithstanding these rifts and ruptures, its impact on Buddhist education was considerable.Gananath Obeyesekere’s and Richard Gombrich’s classification of Protestant Buddhism is not without its critics – read, in particular, Irving Johnson’s comprehensive critique, “The Buddha and the Puritan: Weberian Reflections on ‘Protestant Buddhism’” – but it explains, in part at least, the clamour for a larger role for the laity, the emphasis on hard work, and the “urbanisation” of Buddhism after the late 19th century.

This was felt in education as well, even in the domain of female education. An article in a Buddhist magazine in 1914 rejected traditional perceptions of women: “Our Sinhala men are still trying to confine us to the kitchen.” At the same time, the petty bourgeoisie, without whom the revival would not have happened, vehemently opposed the idea of a wider role for females: Piyadasa Sirisena’s diatribes against mixed marriages (“mishra vivaha”) and female activism lay bare this contradiction very clearly.Upward aspiring and conservative as they may have been, however, the revivalists couldn’t oppose the trend towards female education for long. Simply put, they wanted to educate their daughters. In that sense the founding of Visakha Vidyalaya, in 1917, marked a zenith in the history of female education, and not just Buddhist, in the country.

In her account of Selestina Dias, the founder of Visakha Vidyalaya, Manel Tampoe details the development of the school. By the time of her death, Dias had contributed Rs. 450,000 (nearly Rs. 500 million today). To celebrate its opening, “a sumptuous garden party” was held “to which those in high society flocked in gay attire.” Jayawardena has described it as “an important, though overdue, day for the Buddhist bourgeoisie.”

The first principal of Visakha Vidyalaya, Bernice T. Banning, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and a graduate of Wisconsin University, served for a year before leaving for Madras “for the purpose of study and recreation, on behalf of the Theosophical Society.” Banning would be succeeded by several other foreign, non-Buddhist, women, including the great Clara Motwani. As Kumari Jayawardena has noted, it would take another 50 years for the school to employ its first Sinhala Buddhist principal, Hema Jayasinghe.

Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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