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Kumar David at 80: Engineer, Scholar, Socialist



by Rajan Philips

Professor Kumar David will be turning 80 later this week, on July 29. He is most familiar to readers of the Sunday Island as one of its regular columnists – trenchant, funny, irreverent, provocative, but always well informed and substantial. Most readers also know that Kumar David is a great deal more than a weekly columnist. More than occasionally, he has donned his academic cap as a Professor of Electrical Engineering to wade into Sri Lanka’s power and energy sector and its recurrent crises. At least on one occasion he turned his column into a public lecture to his former students at the Ceylon Electricity Board, reminding them of what he taught them at Peradeniya about electricity pricing and asking what on earth they were doing as practicing Engineers in determining consumer electricity tariffs to suit misguided government policy. Often, he uses his space to popularize science in the manner of a dedicated teacher bringing his students up to date with recent advances in science and technology, and revisiting old debates with the enthusiasm of yore but with new information and nuances.

As an Electrical Engineer, Kumar David has scaled the mountain height both in the world of academia and in the power supply and transmission industry. He graduated with First Class Honours in Electrical Engineering from the University of Ceylon in 1963. He was a Commonwealth Scholar for three years (1966-1969) at the Imperial College of Science & Technology, University of London, completing his PhD and DIC in 1969.

He is a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and the USA, receiving citations for his contributions to the restructuring of the electricity supply industry and transmission development, which has been his main research area in recent decades. In Sri Lanka, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Ceylon Electricity Board when he was 29. He has been an industry consultant in Asian and African countries. He has held visiting professorships and research positions in universities in the US and Sweden.

He taught at Peradeniya for over ten years until 1980, in Zimbabwe for three years (1980-1983), and from 1983 for over 25 years in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he retired as Dean, Faculty of Engineering. He was the first non-European to become Dean of Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, which is a centre of excellence for students from China and other neighbouring countries. Kumar David has navigated the rites of passage for generations of students in Sri Lanka, Africa and many Asian countries obtaining their undergraduate and graduate degrees in Engineering.


A Lifelong Sama Samajist

For all his extended sojourns overseas, Kumar David never totally left the country, and certainly not its politics. He remains a Sri Lankan citizen, he is not a (dual) citizen of any other country, and he carries only a Sri Lankan passport. When he began his weekly writings in the Sunday Island 15 years ago, he was beginning his retirement as Dean of Engineering in Hong Kong. To strike a nostalgic note, Kumar David and I belong to a group of Sri Lankans who would be happy to be identified as students of the Hector Abhyavardhana school of political writing. Other and more illustrious members of the group include Tissa Vitarana, Vijaya Kumar, Shantha de Alwis, Chris Rodrigo, Sumanasiri Liyanage, Jayampathy Wickremaratne, Jayantha Somasundaram, and the late Ajith Samaranayake.

Hector, an accomplished Marxist intellectual and LSSP theoretician, never wrote for the mainstream media. First in India (1945-1960) and later in Sri Lanka, he published his own political journals. We wrote for Hector in Sri Lanka. Our foray into mainstream media is a relatively recent development. Interestingly, if not coincidentally, Tissa Vitarana, Kumar David, and yours truly appear practically every week in the Sunday Island. Our political angles are different, but as Bala Tampoe said while appearing on the same platform, in Kandy, with his erstwhile mentor Dr. Colvin R de Silva, soon after Colvin became a United Front Government Minister in 1970, “Our positions may be different, but our priorities should remain the same.”

Kumar David, S. Balakrishnan and I might be the only people alive of the core group that included Fr. Paul Caspersz, Bala Tampoe, Upali Cooray, Jayaratne Maliyagoda, Prins Rajasooriya, Yohan Devananda, and Regi Siriwardena, who launched the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) in 1979. Silan Kadirgamar spearheaded the MIRJE Branch in Jaffna. MIRJE fact finding missions visited Jaffna and documented human rights violations during the 1979 Emergency and the burning of the Public Library in 1981. It is pathetic to see now spurious narratives being bandied to falsify the unfalsifiable truth about the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. Be that as it may.

Kumar has been a lifelong political activist. Indeed, a lifelong Sama Samajist. Inspired by the 1953 Hartal, he joined the LSSP Youth Movement at the age of 12. And 68 years on, he has not looked back, but marched on. He became a full Member of the LSSP as a first-year undergraduate in 1960, and functioned as Secretary of the LSSP University Local (Branch). He was one of the two youngest members (the other being Lal Wijeynaike, Lawyer and now of the NPP) at the historic 1964 Conference of the Party. It was a Special Conference held on June 6 and 7, to resolve the ‘coalition question.’ The majority resolution calling for an SLFP-LSSP government moved by NM Perera and 21 Central Committee Members prevailed.

Those who moved the defeated left-opposition resolution rejecting the SLFP-LSSP coalition, including stalwarts like Edmund Samarakoddy and Bala Tampoe, dramatically walked out of the conference and broke away from the Party. As the dust of drama settled, a devastated Kumar David had sunk to the floor below the stage, when a huge hand reaching from above tapped his head and a deep voice followed: “It’s not the end of the world, young man.” It was Colvin, who with Leslie Goonewardene and Bernard Soysa, had moved the “centrist resolution’ calling for a progressive SLFP-ULF government. That resolution was also defeated but they did not leave the Party.

In 1970, Kumar David was one of a triumvirate of young Sama Samajists who set up a secret internal left faction (Vaama Sama Samaja group) within the LSSP. The prime mover was Wickramabahu Karunaratne (Bahu), and the third member was Vasudeva Nanayakkara. All three were rising stars in the LSSP that had just won a massive electoral victory as a coalition partner of the United Front of the SLFP, the LSSP and the CP. Kumar was 29 and Bahu 27, and both were young lecturers in Engineering at Peradeniya. Vasudeva was 31 and the film star face of the future LSSP. Vasudeva and Bahu were members of the LSSP Central Committee and Kumar David was on the Board of Directors of the (Ceylon) Electricity Board. The aim of the secret faction was to restore the LSSP to its pre-1964 roots through an internal struggle from within the Party, without leaving the Party. By 1977, however, all three were outside the LSSP and had launched the new Nava Sama Samaja Party.

1977 also marked the electoral decimation of the Sri Lankan Left, and decimation, as well, of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary system. The terms of politics changed with the new presidential system, the opening of the economy, and the violent eruption of the national question. The end of the internal war in 2009 precipitated new challenges while old problems have kept pressing for new solutions. The base fundamentals have not changed but new superstructural issues have emerged and become dominant. The old generation of leaders, the old Left leaders in particular, who dominated post-independence politics are now gone, and the new generation of politicians who are filling the vacuum are neither well-grounded in the institutions they have inherited, nor are they particularly well equipped to adapt to new changes occurring locally and globally.

It is this new 21st century situation that provides the context for Kumar David’s current political writings. Often, Kumar David disparages what is left of the Old Left as dead Left, and berates and cajoles the JVP to rise above its past follies and seize the current moment and provide a new progressive, secular and pluralistic alternative. He was perhaps the first commentator to call for a single-issue (abolish the presidency) common presidential candidate in 2014, and he was the only observer to raise the alarm even before the 2015 January election (much to the chagrin of many that Kumar was as usual rocking the boat) – that the common candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena was being opportunistically diluted too much to be able to fulfill its historic purpose and potential. Unfortunately, his critical foresight has been proved to be correct. And worse was to follow and has followed. The country that was supposed to recuperate under a new President after the 2019 presidential election, is now in the worst dystopic spiral ever – doubly bound by a global pandemic and government incompetence.


The Intellectual and the Party

Kumar David was born on July 29, 1941, to Ceylon Tamil parents, Benedict and Amybelle David. Kumar credits his mother to have been the greatest influence in his life. He learnt his values from her – the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. His father was a Hulftsdorp Advocate who joined the Judicial Service, served in different parts of the island, and retired as Chief Magistrate Colombo. His maternal grandfather James Joseph was a District Judge, and his maternal uncle Andrew Joseph was a Sri Lankan and UN Diplomat, who retired as Deputy Director UNDP. Kumar’s paternal grandparents and maternal grandfather were Catholics, while his maternal grandmother was a strong Anglican. Kumar also traces his roots to Hinduism through his mother, whose paternal grandfather was a Hindu, who became a Catholic, changing his name from Murugesupillai to Joseph, to marry the young Catholic woman whom he besotted. Kumar’s Catholic forefathers were a well-established Catholic community in Jaffna town. They were benefactors of the local Church and custodians of Jaffna’s St. Mary’s Cathedral parish.

Kumar grew up in Colombo, living in Ratmalana and later in Thimbirigasaya. He went to school at St. Thomas’s College, Mount Lavinia. His university education in Engineering was also in Colombo, as the Engineering Faculty was then located in Colombo until its relocation to Peradeniya in 1964. Kumar’s fascination for Marxism and Left politics and his path to the LSSP were influenced by his stepfather, Lloyd de Silva, who his mother married in 1953. An LSSPer, Lloyd de Silva had a good library of Marxist texts, open to be devoured by someone young, curious and necessarily intelligent. Kumar also became introduced to almost all of the LSSP leaders. Colvin, Bernard and Hector were frequent visitors to their house. Kumar recalls the day after SWRD Bandaranaike’s election victory in 1956, when Colvin R de Silva walked into their house like a huge giant and booming out “Lloyd, tomorrow we are going to have a new government.”

Political organizations play a socializing role in facilitating shared responses to social situations. A revolutionary workers’ party is set up to play, in Leninist terms, a vanguard role and spearhead the cause of social revolution. The party invariably draws on two contradictory segments of society: the social elites from the upper echelons of society carrying the ‘political consciousness’, and dispossessed workers from the bottom drawers of society carrying the ‘psychological consciousness.’ The resulting fusion is what Georg Lukacs called the “imputed consciousness” of the political party. There is also a process of cultural transformation in which, as Hector once described, the worker “enlarges his vision and understanding and acquires the attributes of the highest contemporary human culture; and the elite member “liberates intelligence and knowledge from the vanity of mere intellectual prowess and mellows it with identification and belonging to society as a whole.”

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, founded in December 1935, was Sri Lanka’s first political party. Its founding leaders, Philip Gunawardena, NM Perera, SA Wickremasinghe, Colvin R de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene – were all young men in their twenties and thirties. Almost all of them were drawn from the highest echelons of Sri Lankan society, but based more on their educational qualifications and accomplishments than by possession of property or any other form of wealth. They were the bearers of a new political consciousness not just for the nascent party but for an entire politically dormant country. For the psychological or experiential consciousness, they turned to the island’s “toiling masses.”

The inaugural manifesto of the Party identified the establishment of a socialist society as “the primary aim” of the Party, the prevailing imperialist rule as the biggest obstacle to political independence and socialist emancipation, and “the toiling masses” as the sole agency to carry out the struggle against imperialism. Thus, the LSSP was born as a bi-modal party, articulating a disciplined cadre component and a positively populist mass base. The founding of the LSSP lit a fire among the island’s intelligentsia and for at least three decades some of the brightest and the best in Sri Lanka were drawn to politics initially because of the LSSP, and later because of both the LSSP and the CP.

The recruitment, or the calling, certainly diminished and dried up presumably after 1964. But during the 1940s, 1950, and even a good part of the 1960s, young pre-university and university students in not insignificant numbers felt inspired to join either of the two Left parties. Kumar David answered his calling when he was twelve inspired by the 1953 Hartal. He was also drawn from the elitist segment of Sri Lankan society, but like many others of his ilk and thanks to the Party he joined, he was able to make a bonfire of inherited vanities and identify his many abilities and attributes with the society as a whole.

Politics without Power

Kumar David and those of his generation joined the LSSP or the CP when the two parties were at the height of their powers. But already in the 1940s, there were developments that would hamstring the Left in general, and the LSSP in particular, in the years after independence. From the very inception of the LSSP, the conservative social and political forces imposed a permanent electoral handicap on the Party by characterizing it as a low-caste, anti-religious, and pro-Indian Party. Another handicap, involving language, would be added after independence.

The proscription (1940-1945) of the LSSP by the colonial government and the attendant expulsion (1940-1947) of NM Perera and Philip Gunawardena from the State Council precluded the Party from open political activity. In their four years in State Council NM and Philip, even without ministerial powers, laid the bedrock foundation for Sri Lanka’s social welfarism. The years of proscription and the expulsion were lost years for the LSSP, which could never be fully recuperated.

Even so, the LSSP resumed politics with a bang and independence arrived in 1948, earlier than anyone expected and accelerated by the 1947 strike. The 12 August 1953 Hartal was certainly the highest point of mass activity in Sri Lanka’s history. The Hartal which began with strike action by workers was soon overtaken by the protesting energy of the “toiling masses.” The Hartal enhanced the political muscle of the Left, but not its electoral fortunes. Its ultimate outcome was the defeat of the UNP government in 1956, and the election of the MEP-SLFP coalition under SWRD Bandaranaike that included the Philip Gunawardena (MEP) faction of the old LSSP.

The SLFP that reaped the rewards in 1956 had stood on the sidelines in 1953. It may not be widely known now, but the only other party in parliament to fully join the Left Parties in the Hartal was the Tamil Federal Party. As well, the victory of the MEP-SLFP coalition was ensured by the no-contest agreement it had with the LSSP and the CP to avoid inter-party vote splitting. In March 1960, the LSSP made an all-out but unsuccessful attempt to form a government on its own. The 1960 failure was the beginning of formal coalition politics that led to the formation of the United Front government in 1970.

The years and decades after 1953 and 1964 have seen recurrent questions and criticisms about the alleged failure of the two Left Parties to seize the apparently revolutionary opportunity that emerged at the height of the 1953 Hartal, and their drift to coalition politics after 1960. In his “Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics,” the late Ranjith Amerasinghe has provided a committedly scholarly assessment of the LSSP’s role both in 1953 and 1964, and locates them in a historical perspective while focusing on the Party’s “ideological and organizational adaptation to a Westminster–model parliamentary system.” But these weighty questions will perennially persist, even though in Sri Lanka’s current situation, when corrupt charlatanism is in the saddle and running (rather ruining) the country, it would be both a tragedy and a farce to raise them even esoterically.

As I noted at the outset, Bahu, Vasu and Kumar attempted to address these questions critically from within the LSSP beginning in 1970. The course of events after 1977 within Sri Lanka and outside have exposed the global forces that have been at play, and over which no Left Party anywhere in the world has been able to have any sway within the traditional revolutionary perspective that Left Parties have been functioning until then. Kumar David has consistently drawn attention to these global changes, principally the collapse of the socialist second world and its integration in the global market, and tried to redefine the terms of engagement for the Left in Sri Lanka. Kumar and Bahu have also been consistent in their criticisms of the LSSP leadership for the 1972 Constitution that was a total repudiation of everything that the LSSP stood for on the national question, in 1956, and dearly paid for.

In fairness, the two Left Parties and anyone and everyone ever associated with the Left in Sri Lanka have rallied to support the Thirteenth Amendment as a constitutional solution to the national question. In addition, the two founding leaders of the LSSP, NM and Colvin, have left behind a powerful legacy of opposition to the wholly abominable albatross created by the 1978 Constitution. It will not be an exaggeration to say that in his own way Kumar David has been carrying the same torch of opposition for nearly 15 years, and constantly reminding those in parliament that it is their business to operationalize this opposition in a practical way.

The LSSP has been a quintessentially opposition party, and it is this characteristic that has made the pursuit of politics worthwhile even when it does not lead to its ultimate consummation with power. At 80, Kumar David is possessed of the same passion for positive opposition as he was when he was 12, at the time of the Great Hartal. Over the years, he has scaled academic mountains, fought the good political fight, kept the socialist faith, but is not ready to call off the race. He deserves a break, at least, to celebrate his 80th birthday with his wife Rohini, son Amrit, his grandchildren, and his extended family. We say: Many Happy Returns!

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‘A Jaffna-man, an eminent surgeon with an European reputation’



Dr. W. G. Rockwood

180th Birth Anniversary of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood

March 13, 2023 marks the 180th Birth Anniversary of the late Hon. Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood, MLC, MD, MRCP, MRCS. Born on March 13, 1843 in Alaveddy, a small agricultural town in Jaffna; was the second of four children born to Elisha and Ms. Jane Backup, based on Alaveddy Church Records in the custody of Rt. Rev. Dr. Velupillai Pathmathayalan, Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI), formerly the American Ceylon Mission. Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood died on March 27, 1909 at the ‘Emms’, Horton Place, Colombo 7.

His father, Elisha born Sinnatambi on April 06, 1820, was one of six children born to a Saivite Hindu, Perumalpillai who migrated from Karaikal, South India to Sri Lanka and married a land-owner’s daughter Ms. Vairavi of Alaveddy. He was baptised ‘Elisha Rockwood’ in 1831 in Tellipallai and was given US $ 200 to complete his education at the Batticotta Seminary, known today as the Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, by the American Congregational Movement, which later became known as the American Ceylon Mission. Elisha completed his education and taught mathematics at the same school. He later joined the Customs Department as a Sub-Collector.

Dr. W. G. Rockwood married Ms. Salome Muthamma Muttucumaru, daughter of Mr. Adam Cathiravel Muttucumaru on November 1, 1871. Mrs. W. G. Rockwood was born in Kalpitiya in the Puttalam District on March 15, 1857 and died at “Pembroke,” Horton Place, Colombo 7 on Saturday, August 29, 1925.

Thus born to humble beginnings, ‘Dr. W. G. Rockwood was a most skilful and distinguished physician and had by rare ability proved himself ‘the greatest surgeon in the East. His reputation was not confined to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or the adjacent continent, but had extended far beyond the seas to Great Britain, where he won the esteem of such eminent members of the medical profession as Dr. Marcus Beck, Dr. Charles Stoiiham, Dr. J. Bland Sutton. Sir Thomas Barlow, Lord Lister, and Sir Frederick Treves’. Dr. Rockwood was also president of the Ceylon Branch of the British Medical Association (BMA).

Early life

Dr. W. G. Rockwood, in 1851 aged 08 years, had his early education at the Vembadi Boys’ School and later at Central College, Jaffna, which was founded by the Methodist Missionaries. In 1855, aged 12 years, he went with his father to Batticaloa and joined Central College, Batticaloa which was also run by the Wesleyan Mission.

Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1862 was in the last year of his teens, when a maternal uncle, Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai told him to come to Madras University for a “good education.” Mr. E. R. Chelliah Pillai died on March 19, 1900 at the “Emm’s,” Regent Street, Colombo 7.

In January 1866, aged 23 years, Dr. W. G. Rockwood passed the Calcutta University Matriculation Examination in Madras and applied for the arts course. His father prevailed on young Rockwood to follow medicine which he did with many misgiving and much reluctance. His disinclination soon disappeared for Rockwood took to anatomy with such interest. In July 1866, he joined the Madras Medical College and received the scholarship of Rs.20 allowed for those who pass the London matriculation Examination.

‘On his obtaining the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Madras, a member of the Board of examiners paid him the following rare compliment, “I have lately had, on behalf of the Madras University to examine a man of the name of Rockwood from Ceylon, for the Degree of Doctor of Medicine, and certainly was quite unprepared to meet a candidate for medical honours of this country so remarkably proficient. I fully believe that in any English or Scotch University he would have carried the highest honours” ’. (Source: Jaffna Catholic Guardian April 03, 1909).

Dr. W. G. Rockwood while he was serving in Puttalam skilfully handled an outbreak of cholera and because of his experience in handling it, he was sent to Jaffna in1868 to control the outbreak of cholera. He returned to Puttalam and then was transferred to Hambantota (June 1875) and later to Gampola (1878). It was while he was in Gampola that the vacancy for the post of Surgeon in the Medical Department of the General Hospital in Colombo arose.

Dr. W. G. Rockwood in 1878 aged 35 years held the post of Principal Surgeon at the General Hospital Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for a period of 20 years. He was the sole surgeon of the hospital and at the same time he was Lecturer in Clinical Systematic and Operative Surgery in the Ceylon Medical College. Besides this what leisure he could snatch from his official duties was given up to the demands of a large and growing practice.

He travelled to London in 1884 when he was admitted as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) and Member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP).

Dr. W. G. Rockwood retired from active service from the Medical Department after 31 years on March 13, 1898 at the age of 55 years. Upon his retirement and in recognition of his long-standing service he was immediately appointed Consultant Surgeon to the General Hospital in Colombo.

It is said of his authority on handling tropical diseases that there was an instance when a colour conscious Englishman who had an ailment was asked to consult Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood of Ceylon while on his way to Australia from England. The Englishman thinking from the name – Rockwood – was an Englishman made an appointment to see him at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo when the ship docked at the Colombo harbour.

On that day Dr. Rockwood was at the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo waiting to see his patient. The patient was informed that Dr. Rockwood had arrived, came to the lobby and was pacing up and down the lobby impatiently when the management of the Hotel who were well acquainted with Dr. Rockwood had to draw his attention to the coloured man in the room. Seeing that Dr. Rockwood was coloured he had returned to his room. A year later the patient was back with his pride in his pocket to consult Dr. Rockwood.

Another story is related where a passenger ship had docked in the Port of Colombo and an SOS was sent out for a surgeon to attend to a German National. It turned out that the German National was the German Consul Freudenberg who was treated and cured of his ailment and later became a very close friend of the family. Dr. Rockwood was also physician to the Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway.

A combination of medicine and politics

The Governor of Ceylon Sir West Ridgeway appointed Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood to the Legislative Council representing the Tamil community for a period of five years from March 14, 1898 to March 12, 1903. Dr. Rockwood succeeded Mudaliyar Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy who was the eldest brother of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who served as the first Tamil representative in the Legislative Council for a single term. Governor Sir West Ridgeway in a private letter to Dr. Rockwood inviting him to join the Legislative Council as the Tamil representative said: ‘The Tamil community could think of no one who has earned the esteem and the admiration not of one community or of two, but of every community, of all men, of all races, as Dr. Rockwood’.

Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood was presented to His Majesty the King of England, Edward VII at St. James’ Palace on June 01, 1902 while he was serving as a Member of the Legislative Council. He was appointed to the Legislative Council for a second term on July 09, 1903. Due to continuing failing health, Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood in1906 laid off from all public activity.

The Legislative Council was the first Assembly set up under the Colebrook Reforms with 15 members in 1833 by the British under Governor Sir Fredrick North. There were two categories of members. Officials numbered nine and unofficial members numbered six. The official members were appointed directly by the Governor and their communities nominated the unofficial members. The six unofficial members comprised one each Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher and three Europeans.

The Legislative Council was altered in 1931 under the Donoughmore Commission and lasted until 1947. Ceylon gained Independence from the British on February 04, 1948. Ceylon changed her name to Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972 when she became a Republic. The second Constitution was enacted in 1972 when Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister. Today we have the third Constitution enacted in 1978 when Hon. Junius Richard Jayewardene became the first Executive President under that Constitution.

‘Dr. Daniel Anthonisz, of Galle had demonstrated the advantage of breaking the monopoly of the legal profession over the unofficial seats in the Legislative Council. Dr. Rockwood’s tenure of the seat emphasised that advantage. Dr. Rockwood illustrated his preferences for his principles at the sacrifice of popularity when he proposed a motion in the Legislative Council on October 18, 1899, asking the salary of the judges of the Supreme Court to be raised high enough to make it possible to secure English barristers for the bench’.

On that occasion Dr. Rockwood said: ‘To have the certainty of even-handed justice is the greatest blessing a community can enjoy and the purity of that administration must be above suspicion. In a small place like Ceylon, where every man is known to every other man, it is necessary in the interests of the public that the Supreme Court Judges, who administer justice between man and man, must be men who have no local or permanent interests or connections. By, these remarks I do not mean to shut out local talent. Those who have established a reputation for efficiency and who have claims for meritorious service are possibly eligible for a higher post and these may be sent to other parts of the Empire where they have no personal interests to serve and no connections’. (Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader: Sunday, March 28, 1909).

Dr. W. G. Rockwood is described as one of Asia’s greatest surgeons who could operate with the use of both his hands (ambidextrous). He also promoted the choice of opium in the treatment of certain ailments. He was a member of the commission appointed by the then Governor of Ceylon to oversee the planning and construction of the Colombo-Chilaw railway line from Negombo. It was later extended to Puttalam. While serving on the commission he also suggested the construction of a railway line to Jaffna.


Six years after his death in 1915, Mrs. W. G. Rockwood donated Rs.20,000 to be utilised towards the construction of a 38 X 26 feet ‘Waiting Hall’ called ‘Rockwood Memorial Hall’ for patients who come to the General Hospital, Colombo now known as the National Hospital, Colombo for treatment. The foundation stone was laid in 1909 and the construction began in the same year. On April 16, 1912, ‘The Rockwood Hall’ was opened by His Excellency the Governor Sir Henry Edward McCallum (1907-1913). The plaque was unveiled in three languages – Sinhalese, Tamil and English to mark the donation: ‘The Rockwood Memorial Hall erected to the memory of Dr. William Gabriel Rockwood MD, MRCS, MRCP, Chief Surgeon of this hospital 1878 to 1898, Consulting Surgeon from 1898 until his death. Tamil Representative to Legislative Council from 1898 – 1905’. It is unfortunate that during the structural alterations made to the original building the three plaques and his photograph have been lost.

His character can be judged by his teaching. Once it is said that he rebuked a somewhat light-minded student and the latter, now an elderly man himself occupying a responsible position, remembers the rebuke. ‘Never make differences in your patients’, said Dr. Rockwood. ‘Every time a surgeon has a life depending upon his knife, it takes a fortnight off his own life, and the sense of responsibility is perhaps the greater when the man is a pauper than when he is a great and wealthy patient. The surgeon dare not take risks with the great man, for the world is watching him; but he fears still more to do so with the pauper, for then it is God who watches’.

He emphasised to his students that the surgeon must regard his treatise on anatomy as second only to the Bible. The words are characteristic of the man whose religion was always a predominant factor in his every thought and deed.

The ‘Rockwood Surgery Medal is awarded to the student who shows the greatest aptitude for surgery by the Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo, Peradeniya and Jaffna in memory of Hon. Dr. W. G. Rockwood.

‘A dutiful son, a faithful husband, an affectionate father, a loyal friend, a skilful surgeon, a good man, not slothful in business, fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.’ – Romans Ch 12; Vs 11-13

(Source: The Ceylon Morning Leader – Extraordinary Edition of Sunday, March 28, 1909).

(Excerpts from the book ‘From Williamstown to Vaddukoddai: The history of the Rockwood family’, published by the author William Sukumar Rockwood, MCPS, PgD. IHL, BA, JP, great grandson on August 21, 2011) -/end – 2280 words

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LTTE writ on coral exploitation more effective than govt. orders



Tragedy and drama in the dry zone jungle

Excerpted from the authorized biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas B. Ranasinghe
(Continued from last week)

North of Thenaddi Bay and a little inland is the village of Kathiraveli. In 1975 Thilo discovered there a folk art not found elsewhere. He described this in an article published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Lanka. For many years he was a Committee Member of that body. As recently as 2004 he wrote a sequel, which was not accepted for publication. Parts of it are reproduced here:

“In 1980 I contributed an illustrated article to the JRAS (New Series, Vol.XXV: 91) in which I described certain remarkable decorations in Kathiraveli, Eastern Province, on the outer walls of thatched mud-and-wattle houses, painted by women on the occasion of the Tamil New Year. The pigments used are lime and natural clays of different colours found in the village environment. The painting lasts about a year and is renewed before the next New Year.

“During the following decade I visited the village once or twice a year. Calamity soon befell the remote area in the form of the ethnic conflict. The village was occupied first by the army, the IPKF and finally the Tigers under whose control it still is. (at the time this note was written) It was, much of the time, in a war zone. My last visit had been in January 1992. By then the spirit of the villagers had been broken by untold tragedy.

“Only one house had still some basic decoration. Compounds were neglected and houses dilapidated, the people apathetic and subdued. Farming had become impossible. An aged couple whose neat and tidy homestead was a model for my paper had lost their only son who was taken to the army camp and never returned. Sadness and grief prevailed.

“In April 2003 I was able to pay a visit to Kathiraveli, although it is in an ‘uncleared’ area. After answering a few suspicious questions and establishing my bona fides, I was allowed to pass the LTTE checkpoint situated a little north of Mankerni. Up to that point the landscape had been devastated by the extensive and far-reaching destruction of all vegetation for security reasons.

“Thereafter I was passing through the familiar countryside which had hardly changed during so many decades, even centuries, in parts. The majestic trees are still standing along the road and on the coast. There are forests and a serene tranquility and seemingly timeless peace. Only here and there a jarring note: the memorial to fallen Tiger heroes, a large ‘military’ cemetery. new LTTE offices and installations with loafing youngsters around them. With considerable curiosity and apprehension I approached Kathiraveli.

“Nothing seemed changed. Soon we spotted the first painted house, rather simple but unmistakably in the traditional style. In all we found about a dozen such houses, each freshly painted, along the main roads, though generally there are fewer inhabited homesteads.

“Unfortunately ‘progress’ has reached Kathiraveli in the form of corrugated metal roofing sheets; two of the painted houses were covered with this material giving them a totally different and far less pleasing appearance than those with the cool and pleasant cadjan thatch.

“But the younger women had remembered the New Year tradition and had revived it in its pure, simple and natural form, some rather tentatively as if still trying to recall the old designs and motifs. The colours and basic patterns give these dwellings a clean, even festive and happy appearance.

“In December 2003 I was again in Kathiraveli, when I distributed nearly 100 colour photographs of decorated houses I had taken in 1977 and 78. They were intended to help strengthen the old tradition.

Otherwise the visit was a disappointment because in the short interval of eight months ‘development’ appears to have overtaken the village. There are glistening roofing sheets on old houses many of which have been replaced by stereotyped cement block constructions.

“For living comfort in this environment nothing can beat a well-constructed and maintained mud-and-wattle house generously covered with a thick and overhanging thatch of cadjan: cool during the hot season, dry and warm and cosy when the north-east monsoon is on.

“In this connection I might be permitted to touch upon another facet of personal contemporary history in this area. Not far away at Kayankerni on the coast I had for 30 years, a house, now a sad ruin. It was wrecked and the material looted in 1992. Even the well rings were dug up and carted away. For decades I had been fighting a mostly losing battle against the mudalalis who openly flouted the laws of the country by breaking and burning corals for lime. As a result erosion set in, the coast was altered and the protective reefs were destroyed, together with the trees and forests which provided the firewood.

“The process was aided and abetted by a lethargic and dishonest bureaucracy and a corrupt police force. Only once for a short few years was my campaign crowned with success when an energetic and honest GA at Batticaloa stopped the rapacious exploitation by ordering the police to destroy all the kilns in Passikudah, Kayankerni, Panichchankerni, and elsewhere in the district.

“When in 1990 the Tigers took over the area after the IPKF, they prohibited all coral breaking. The order was instantly obeyed by all, as non-compliance would have resulted in most dire consequences. Only ‘war widows’ were allowed to collect coral debris washed up on the shore and turn them into `sippi’, a traditional and acceptable ‘soft’ use of the resource.

“When the government regained the area the old abuse was resumed and as late as April 2003 did I note with dismay that more lime kilns than ever were in operation at Kayankerni, under the very noses of the security forces. (Note: The burnt lime is transported mainly to upcountry vegetable growing areas where it is used as a soil conditioner. Other uses are in mortar for construction and for whitewashing. Alternate sources of raw material are Miocene limestone and dolomite). All the more was I surprised when in December of the same year all the kilns had once again disappeared, again on the orders of the Tigers.

“Thus we have the absurd situation that in an area controlled by the Government an order from the LTTE is instantly and scrupulously obeyed, and the ordinary laws are brazenly flouted. Weak and disinterested authorities at all levels have long lost the will to enforce good laws, especially in the field of conservation. `Non- enforcement’ has been elevated to a fine art and policy under the influence of foreign gurus; doing nothing is so much easier than doing the right thing.”

The Vakarai area including Kathiraveli was retaken by government forces in early 2007.

Facets of the jungle

In the wilderness, too, there were aspects other than nature which engaged Thilo’s attention.Among the many parts of the dry zone he visited Wilpattu was a favourite. Several sections in this book describe his involvement with the area.

He explored extensively on foot the former Wilpattu West Sanctuary – now part of the National Park –especially the northern half of its 30 mile (50 km) coastline, between Kollankanatta and Kudremalai Point.

Much of this coast towards the north is formed by a cliff which is being eroded by the sea. To the north of Kollankanatta towards Pallugaturai this erosion exposes and destroys layers of the remnants of an ancient settlement. Thousands of clay and porcelain and worked seashell fragments litter the shore. There was even a clay-ring well. Thilo informed the Department of Archaeology, which then undertook a sample dig, but no further action.

It would have been a trading harbour during the Anuradhapura era, because in the vicinity on the track to Sinna Uppu Villu, not far away, he had discovered several baobab trees, as in Mannar, introduced from Africa. There must also have been, he thinks, a factory to make conch-shell bangles.

On the highest point, 225 feet above sea level, of the coastal ridge stands a chimney-like tower about 50 feet high. This and similar towers near Mullikulam and south of Arippu would have served as beacons during the time of the pearl fisheries.

In Kudremalai, at 123 feet, on the very edge of the cliff is the ruin of an ancient Hindu temple which, too, is fast disappearing with the erosion. Here is found the deep red soil, nearly purple or almost violet, to which is linked the ancient name ‘Tambapanni’ for Sri Lanka. It is said that Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhala race, landed here. A motorable track provided by the Park authorities now leads to this point.

The beacon at Arippu is near the massive brick ruin of the `Doric’, built by Frederick North, the first British Governor of Ceylon from 1798 to 1805, for use as a residence when visiting the pearl fisheries. Again due to the erosion the ruins are now rapidly being lost. In the book The Dutch Forts of Sri Lanka, 2004 update, these are wrongly identified and depicted as being of the small Arippu Fort, the ruins of which are aboutfour km further north in the village.

Thilo also explored the North-eastern sector of Wilpattu which lies between the old Arippu road (now long abandoned) and Tantirimale. The ruins at this site, on the extensive rock outcrop (highest point 298 feet), were originally inside the National Park, the boundary of which in that sector was the Malwatu Oya. The place was entirely engulfed by the dense jungle. He first visited it on Vesak Day of 1966. Later the Park boundary was adjusted, the forest was cleared and people began to settle there.

To enable his explorations, from time to time he exercised walking through thick track and featureless monsoon forest with the help of a compass. The danger of missing the target several miles away was great because of the very restricted visibility, especially, where the nillu (Strobilanthes sp.) had grown high. Nevertheless, he always reached the goal with reasonable accuracy.

Observations at historical sites across the country were recorded in his notebooks, described later.Thilo also took an interest in the villagers who live in or by the jungle. Amidst his memories are tragedy and drama:

In a village called Manawa, some distance from Anuradhapura, Tikiri Bandara and 15-year-old Bandara Menike had fallen in love. Her family opposed the marriage. In desperation he shot to death three members of her clan. Then he took her by the hand and disappeared with her into the jungle, as witnessed by some women bathing in the village tank. He carried only his gun.

Tikiri Bandara was charged with three murders before the Anuradhapura Magistrate, in November 1957. The police mounted a search with dogs but failed to find the couple. Some months after this a poacher waiting for game in the fork of a tree at an abandoned tank observed a young man and woman coming out of the jungle in tattered clothes, she highly pregnant. They had a bath and vanished into the forest. Four years later, two skulls, some bones, two ear-studs and plastic bangles, a knife and the rusted barrel of a gun were found by hunters and produced before the magistrate.

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Jathiaka Namal Uyana Marks 32nd Anniversary



Wanvasi Rahula Thero planting saplings with children

Mother nature welcomes all. She doesn’t judge, she doesn’t discriminate, she just opens her arms to one and all. There is a space and place in nature for all. Nature is filled with breathtaking landscapes and has gifted us some of the most beautiful creatures on earth. All of us love to experience natural beauty and be one with nature. We should give her thanks everyday for being so gracious and kind to us by providing us with the means of survival.

Humans and other fauna and plants have a complex relationship extending far back into our joint evolutionary history. Natural vegetation refers to a plant community, which has grown naturally without human aid and has been left undisturbed by human for a long time. Sri Lanka’s natural vegetation covers about one-third of our total land area.

‘Jathika Namal Uyana’ is the largest ironwood forest and pink quartz mountain in Asia. It is a world heritage site that has gained the attention. Namal Uyana is rich in biodiversity. It provides a healthy and healing environment that has attracted local and foreign tourists. This ecosystem is a national resource of great religious, ecological and geographical value. The Na Uyana forest covers a total more than 2,000 acres.

The pink quartz mountain range in Namal Uyana is the largest of its sort in Asia. It consists of seven hills covering an extent of about to 600-700 acres. According to history, during the construction of Taj Mahal in India, pink quartz from here was taken to carve its windows. An amazing creation of nature, the pink quartz mountain belongs to prehistoric era.

Namal Uyana is an extremely rare phenomenon replanted with Iron Wood trees in the Eeghth century AD beginning during the reign of King Dewanampiyatissa and ended during the reign of King Dappula IV. It has been a sanctuary for Buddhist monks during King Devanampiyatissa’s reign in the eighth century. King Dappula declared it as a human sanctuary and It was decided to establish ‘’Mahamevna Uyana’’ here.

Our country is a blessed with a variety of natural vegetation . Trees are important part of every community. In the 21st century, instead of planting trees, the majority felled existing trees for construction and other uses. Deforestation has many effects on the environment and most importantly it affects biodiversity directly. If we cut one tree , ten trees should be planted in its place.

School children visiting the Namal Uyana

We are fortunate to have people who know the true value of natural vegetation and are committed to protect it. Wanvasi Rahula Thero who came forward with great sincerity to protect The Jathika Namal Uyana is an exemplary Buddha putra. He bravely undertook that great task in the midst of grave privation in the early days.

He said in an interview that he started this historic mission in March 1991. “At that time, this place was devoid of human habitation. When I set foot here, the Namal Uyana had been destroyed by treasure hunters and timber thieves. I built a small wooden house on a ‘Mora’ tree and started this mission for my country. There are no words to describe this journey and the challenges overcome. I am glad to tell you tha the Jathika Namal Uyana celebrates its 32nd anniversary in March.

Ven Rahula said that In order to gain more international attention, we need to improve and protect a world heritage sites like Namal Uyana to attract more tourists. As a developing country, Sri Lanka does not always need to seek loans from elsewhere but develop our own resources to fund economic development.

“From former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to current President Ranil Wickremesinghe all governments have supported this endeavour. I am not a monk who supports any political party. I did all the administrative work here from 1991 to 2018 when Jathika Namal Uyana was brought under the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) which now handles all operations. As a Buddhist monk I understand the true meaning of the word ‘renunciation’. it means ‘doing what must be done with no expectation of any reward. I am not the owner here just a keeper.

“I stared this national mission for the welfare of all beings. This is not something belonging to the Sinhalese but to all the people living on this island. Students of school from all provinces visit jathika Namal Uyana. It gives children of all races and religions the opportunity to marvel at this wonder. The responsible authorities should be directed to provide the necessary facilities to maximize the opportunities available here. It is a place where research on geology , ecology and archaeology is possible.

“All the electronic and print media of the country have supported me to complete this mission successfully. I give my special thanks to the Divaina newspaper for the good work done on its initiative. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported me.

Rahula thero said he has plans to undertake many meritorious projects like providing houses for the homeless, equipping schools, providing clean drinking water and succor to the sick through the Jathika Namal Uyana project. He said in this 32nd anniversary year of the project we must all strive to achieve national unity spurning racial and religious differences.

Fathima Nusra Uvais

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