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Rise and fall of ‘Abraham Lincoln of the East’



D.S. Senanayake

Continued From Last Tuesday

Then turning to Lord Soulbury, the mud-spattered farmer said “How do you do, my Lord? I read in the papers that you are here to give us a new Constitution. Good show! I hope it will be an enlightened and realistic one. Now let me see,” said, that farmer, his brow wrinkled in thought. “Wasn’t one of your forebears made an Earl in the sixteenth century, and didn’t a General, on your mother’s side of the family, fight beside Wellington at Waterloo? And you yourself, my Lord, are, I believe, the 11th Lord Soulbury?”

An amazed and dumbfounded Lord Soulbury tottered speechlessly back to the car and sank limply into the rear seat. The farmer followed him to the vehicle.

“By the way” continued the peasant. “I hear your Prime Minister Attlee is having some constitutional problems and a revolt is predicted in his newly formed Labour Government. But I wouldn’t worry. Attlee has some good men on his side, like Ernest Bevin and Anuerin Bevan. He’ll win through”, the farmer sighed. “But uncompromising colonist though he is, I am truly sorry old Winston Churchill was kicked out.”

“How do you know so much about my family history?” croaked Lords Soulbury, finding his voice at last.

The farmer chuckled. “Oh, we in little Ceylon keep in touch with what’s happening in Old Blighty, and when I read that you were coming to our fair isle I looked you up in Burke’s Peerage – one of my favourite books. By the way my Lord, a few days ago, I read a critical analysis of Beethovan’s Fifth Symphony by the celebrated contemporary music critic, Gensher. What do you think of Gensher’s views?”

“Mr. Senanayake, I really think we should be on our way,” gasped a visibly shaken Lord Soulbury. “Goodbye, my dear chap, so nice meeting you”.

“It was a privilege meeting the scion of a noble family such as yours, my Lord”, said the farmer, courteously closing the door of the limousine. “Goodbye, my Lord! Goodbye, Mr. Senanayake!”

“That mud-spattered, dignified farmer of regal bearing was no other person than that redoubtable Barrister-at-Law, (later knighted by Her Majesty the Queen), Cabinet Minister, Diplomat, and gentleman par excellence, Sir Edwin Wijeratne, who had been “planted”, in the paddy field by D.S.

For those interested in numerology, when D.S.’s son, Dudley, joined his father’s Cabinet, D.S. was 63 and Dudley 36. There is an ancient prophecy that one day a leader (Messiah), who will be called ‘Diyasena Kumaraya’, would be born in Sri Lanka and that he would free us from bondage. Some believed that Diayasena was D.S. Senanayake. To prove it, they keep intoning D.S. Senanayake… D. S. Senanayake above 25 times without a break. It begins to sound like Diyasena.

Soon after he became Prime Minister, in 1947, a Nayaka Thera (of whom are many these days, with some talking through the hat) met D.S. and made some demands. D.S. listened patiently for a while and told the Thera that he could not possibly introduce a sixth precept to the already existing five precepts in the form of “Aanduwa Saranang Gachchami”. (Taking refuge in the government).

One day, one of D.S.’s senior officials went to see the Prime Minister, accompanied by his little son. After gazing at D.S. for some time, the boy had very audibly asked his father, “Who is that old man with the moustache?” The acutely embarrassed official had apologized to the Prime Minister for his son’s rudeness, and D.S. had replied that he was a grandfather and he loved the naive comments of children. “As a matter of fact,” D.S. had said with a twinkle in his eye, “my moustache is my grand children’s favourite plaything!.

Many of us may not have agreed with him, politically, but even D.S.’s greatest political enemies (he never had any other kind), never accused him of chicanery, humbug, double-dealing, dishonesty, shilly-shallying, opportunism or any other such questionable qualities. No wonder Sir John Kotalawela, who virtually grew up under his benevolent eyes, had the same qualities as the old Man.

In the early days of the Minneriya Scheme, D.S. went on a tour of inspection, on foot, accompanied by some of his officials. At one place, a stream that was usually forded on foot, as the water hardly came up to a man’s knees, was a roaring swirl of water as there had been heavy rains the night before. When his officials suggested turning back, D.S. grinned, “I say, a little water never hurt anybody,” and stripping off his clothes, held the bundle well over his head and began crossing the steam. His officials had no alternative but to follow suit.

When Sir Robert Menzies, then Prime Minister of Australia, paid an official visit to Ceylon, Prime Minister D.S. was at the Ratmalana Airport to receive him. But instead of the formal “Welcome to Sri Lanka, Your Excellency”, D.S. said heartily, “Hullo, Robert! You are five minutes early!” D.S. was always a man who spoke from the heart.

Even while he was Premier, D.S. used to go to a humble barber-salon, close to his house, for his haircut. He would take his place with the other customers, and once when one of them offered the PM his turn, D.S. politely declined saying the other was there first. He could very easily have got the barber down to his residence, but to D.S. this was one way he could meet the people who really mattered to him – the ordinary man in the street.

Once an inspections of a state farm had been fixed for 8 am, but D.S. walked into the place unannounced at 6 a.m. to the surprise of a camp surveyor who was about to go to the field. The surveyor went up to receive the Premier, and D.S, who had once worked in the Survey Department, questioned the man closely about how a survey was done, and at the end of it, told the elated surveyor that he, the Prime Minister, had learnt a lot that day.

Once D.S. was at a conference with the GA of the district, G. K. Thornhill, the Surveyor General, and two of D.S.’s close ‘collaborators’, R. L. Brohier and L.G.O. Woodhouse, both very high officials in the Survey Department. D.S. was the Minister of Agriculture and Lands in the State Council. Suddenly, a message was brought to him that a very agitated villager wished to see him. Excusing himself, D.S. left the conference, and went out and spoke to the villager. Then sitting on the bar of the man’s cycle, he went with him and settled the man’s problem.

When D.S. was Premier, a very influential personage asked him for a Mudliyarship. But D.S., with good reason, refused. A few years later, D.S. was at a village function, with the unsuccessful applicant for the Mudliyarship in the chair. One of the speakers, at the meeting, pointed to the Chariman, and said, “I wish to thank the Prime Minister for offering our village VIP a Mudliyarship. But our man is not interested in that sort of thing and he had refused the honour!” At this D.S. had chuckled heartily and whispered to a neighbour. “That is the next best thing to a Mudliyarship”.

One day D.S. took Lord Soulbury to one of his pet colonization schemes, and noticing that the colonists had far too many children. Soulbury suggested that he provide them with electricity. “Electricity” said the Lordship in his fruity tones. “Has a very restraining effect on the production of children?”

When D.S. was Lord Soulbury’s guest in England. They motored down to the zoo. There D.S. heard that there was an elephant from Ceylon at the place. D.S. sought out the animal, and going up to it, said a few words in ‘elephant language’. The beast immediately trumpeted loudly and held up its curled trunk to D.S. in salute. Everyone present was most impressed.

My earliest recollection of D.S. was when he presided at the annual UNP session, which was held in Galle that year. I was then a schoolboy and I could not but marvel at the way this larger than life personage handled the sometimes fiery and acrimonious sessions, with skill and diplomacy, the latter a quality he wasn’t generally credited with, very unfairly, I think.

As the session commenced, D.S. pointed to a red light that was rigged over the rostrum and said that when the light went on, the person holding the floor must stop speaking and resume his seat. The light was blinding, and even if the speaker wanted a continue he would have found it quite uncomfortable to do so. The red light came on many times during the session and I was curious to find out who operated it. During the lunch break, I ventured on to the deserted platform and scouted around, and there, under D.S.’s table was a foot switch.

The next time, I saw him was during the Colombo Plan Exhibition. My father, with his signature Jaffna-cigar stuck in his mouth, was taking our family around when we had to move off the path to make away for an open car going round the exhibition ground. Seated in the car were Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. Seeing D.S, my father respectfully plucked his cigar out of his mouth. D.S. saw the gesture and stopping the car, exchanged a few, cordial words with my father, who was a total stranger to him. That was D.S. all over; the man with the common touch.

One evening, a student of Richmond College, Galle, after a game of cricket, with a bat in his hand was on his way to the railway station where his father was the station master.

All of a sudden, a shiny limousine stopped and a voice from inside asked in English, how to proceed to Mahinda College? The boy gave the necessary directions, in impeccable English. As the driver could not exactly understand what he said and as they were already getting late, the boy was taken in the car as a guide.

After the car arrived at Mahinda College, where there was a waiting crowd, the visitor was heavily garlanded. The boy came to know that the visitor was none other than D.S. Senanayake, the Prime Minister, only after he saw the pandal that had been erected.

D.S. then introduced the boy with the bat as the one who guided them to the school. He, too was then garlanded. This boy was non other than Alec Robertson, who was later to become a Buddhist leader. And, D.S. would never have dreamt that the boy would one day be an MP from his own party.

One day, a friend of D.S, quite agitated, came to see him. “What is this? The leftist fellows are going all over the country saying that the so-called Independence is a fake, as the British continue to have their military bases here.” This is what D.S, told his friend. “The Tamils want to have their share of the national pie. The present Tamil leaders are cultured men of peace and they will never try extra parliamentary methods to achieve it. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who has left us now, with his Sinhala only cry and due place for Buddhism, is going to unleash forces that even he won’t be able to control and this country would go up in flames. Then a new set of Tamil youths, sick of the supineness of their old leaders, are going to have an armed showdown with the government and its forces. And, the British are here to protect the democratically elected government of Ceylon in such event.”

A Cabinet meeting was held, on March 20, 1952. After the meeting, the Premier entertained the ministers and the secretaries to lunch at the Senate Refreshment Room. But there were only 13 present. This figure 13 irked Minister E.A. Nugaweia, also present. His thoughts drifted to the Last Supper with a premonition of disaster. The next morning, while on horseback, D.S, who excelled in horsemanship, fell off his horse and passed away. Of interest is the fact that it was not his horse, Amber, he rode that day but a Police horse named Chitra. No one who lived during that fateful day, March 22, 1952, will ever forget the pall of gloom, and despair that hung over the country when the news of his death was announced. Like Sir Robert Peel, a Prime Minister of England, D.S., too, died after a fall off a horse.

The news came to us in Galle at about 3.30 p.m. that day, during the much looked forward to Richmond-Mahinda big match, and it was immediately decided that the match be abandoned. But, I’m sorry to say, other prestigious schools that were also playing their matches, perfunctorily observed two minutes silence and merrily carried on. D.S. Senanayake deserved a better tribute than that.

Paying a tribute to him, the Galle MP.W. Dahanayake, said, “Considering the fact that some other countries resorted to civil disobedience and violence to achieve Independence from the British, D.S. is the greatest Sri Lankan since 1505.” He added, “I entered the State Council in 1944 and from that time, I have known him for eight years. All that time I was a vociferous critic of the government policies, save that of agriculture. As a Member of the Opposition, I have seen the Galoya Project and verily believe that he is an incarnation of Parakrama Bahu the Great.”

Talking of tributes, the greatest tribute to the fallen warrior came from the American Press, who called him ‘the Abraham Lincoln of the East.”

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Sat Mag

Breathe clean for better health



Air impurities enter the respiratory system via inhalation, causing various health effects in all age groups.

Air pollution and climate change were recognized as the top environmental global threats to human health in 2019 by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Air impurities enter the respiratory system via inhalation, causing various health effects in all age groups. The health of susceptible and sensitive individuals (pregnant women, kids, elderly and people with severe disorders) can be impacted even on low air pollution days.

Short-term exposure to air pollutants is closely related to cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, with high rates of hospitalization. Long-term exposure to these also leads to severe conditions like lung cancer, heart disease and central nervous system dysfunctions.

Nasal hygiene matters

Your nose is a passage to various air impurities; hence it is important to take care of your nose. Air impurities e.g. allergens, pollutants, bacteria or viruses etc. may enter the nose and get trapped, leading to complications.

Take care of your overall health:

*Manage diet – Antioxidants, fibre, protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may help you beat the effects of air pollutants.

*Regular Nasal Washing -Saline sprays wash out the impurities and debris trapped in the nasal passage and helps to prevent allergy symptoms and sinus infections. It also supports natural nose functions.

Benefits of nasal saline wash

* It is a good habit to use a saline wash every day to clean the trapped debris and impurities.

* It also helps to moisturize your dry nose, especially in winter.

*  If you are taking any steroids or medications to treat your nasal allergies, it is suggested to rinse your nose with saline before using them. It will clear out debris/mucus and help medications work better.

Take care of your nose and practice nasal hygiene regularly to breathe cleaner.

Minimise the exposure to air pollutants:

* Shift from motorized to active travel e.g. walking and cycling

* Track the air quality index in your area

*Exercise regularly but moderate outdoor activity when air pollution levels are high

* Ventilate your kitchen or cooking room

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Sat Mag

Places and people



Raddella and Karangoda

By Uditha Devapriya
With input from Roshan Jayarathna

From Panadura to Ratnapura the bus takes three hours to complete the ride. It goes through Horana, Ingiriya, Idangoda, Kiriella, and Kahangama before reaching its destination. The bus stop at Ratnapura is largely empty after six in the evening, and after eight there’s no one. It was raining last December. I was getting late. The clock struck 4.30 when I reached Kiriella. Another hour or so, and there wouldn’t be anyone to take me. I had come to visit Raddella, 25 minutes away. I would be staying for Christmas: I wanted an escape from the fireworks, and I wanted some peace and quiet. Raddella promised both.

Tucked away in a far off corner, Elapatha is one of 17 Divisional Secretariats in the Ratnapura District. The road to it is small, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. Located seven kilometres from Ratnapura Town, it turns and swerves for three more kilometres before you reach a village called Karangoda. From there to Raddella it takes 10 minutes. Filled with forbidding roads and welcoming homes, Elapatha, to which it belongs, is located in Niwithigala, in turn a part of Palle Pattuwa in the Nawadun Korale.

The area is of immense historical interest, though it’s not obvious at first glance. Ratnapura, of course, features in the travels of Marco Polo. Yet this part of the country figured in the country’s history long, long before Polo’s visit, particularly in the reign of Parakramabahu I. In 1156 AD he faced a revolt in Ruhunurata led by the mother of an aspirant to the throne, Manabharana, whom he had defeated and vanquished. The mother, Sugala Devi, provoked an uprising in the South in the hopes of restoring the monarchy to her son.

Parakramabahu was by then engaged in bringing the country under one dominion, a feat unaccomplished since the days of Dutugemunu. Perturbed at the machinations of Sugala Devi, he ordered two of his generals, Damiladhikari Rakkha and Kacukinayaka Rakkha, to traverse to Ruhuna and subjugate her. The mission took years, and it threatened to drain the country’s resources. Yet in the end, the king triumphed.

Codrington speculated that Kacukinayaka Rakkha proceeded to Devanagama, or Dondra, after suffering defeat at Mahavalukagama, or Weligama. From there he and his army made their way through Kammaragama (Kamburugama), Mahapanalagama, Manakapithi, the ford of the Nilwala River, and Kadalipathi. Damiladhikari Rakkha, on the other hand, had taken the route from Ratnapura: Codrington wrote that he may have gone through the mountains between Rakwana and Deniyaya, or the mountains of the Kolonne Korale on the outskirts of the Ratnapura District. Either way, he reached Koggala, and from there to Magama, where he waged a series of battles after which, finally, he won the war.

As they marched through Ratnapura, Damiladhikari’s troops captured the villages of Donivagga (Denawaka) and Navayojana (Nawadun). From there we are told they advanced to Kalagiribanda, or Kalugalbodarata, encompassing the Kukul, Atakalan, Kolonna, and Morawaka Korales; from there, to the Atakalan Korale, Dandava between Kahawatte and Opanayake, Tambagamuwa near Madampe, Bogahawela, Binnegama, and finally Butkanda. Nawadun, roughly the Nawadun Korale of today, hence became the army’s first priority; so impossible to claim did it become that the army despaired of it as “hard to pass through.” During the civil war Parakramabahu had waged with Manabharana, he set about taking the region from Manabharana’s forces, and eventually succeeded in doing so.

The writing of the Tripitakaya precedes Parakramabahu, Manabharana, and Sugala Devi by several centuries. It was in Nawadun that the first puskola poth on which it would be written were made. Two kilometres before Raddella, you stop by the village of Karangoda, which reputedly got its name from the word given to the remnants of ola leaves after they’ve been used to make books. Here, at a temple less well heard of than anything Parakramabahu built and came up with, the first talipot books were put together for the Fourth Buddhist Council. Thus the region from Elapatha to Raddella is linked to two of the most important events in our history: the unification of the Sangha by Vatta Gamini Abhaya, and the unification of the polity by Parakramabahu I a thousand years later.

After Vatta Gamini Abhaya suffered defeat at the hands of a South Indian dynasty, he and a group of his most faithful followers retreated from the capital, Anuradhapura. Among them was a monk, Kushikkala Tissa; he would settle in Karangoda with his disciples and several other refugees from the war torn capital. The village of Weragama is not too far away, and there a sentry by the name of Bodhinayake, who befitting his title had been in charge of the Sri Maha Bodhiya, founded a settlement of his own, giving it its present-day name. Those who hail from the Bodhinayake line, according to local sources, continue to reside in the area. Its history, and the history of the sangha parapura from Kushikkala Tissa, has a great deal to do with that temple in Karangoda: the Potgul Viharaya.

Locals call Potgula the second Sri Pada. There’s no real resemblance: the association with the latter comes off mainly in the fact that locals, and even those passing by the area, tend to pay their respects to it before making their way to the Holy Peak. Not unlike the maha giri dambe at Sri Pada there’s a series of steps – 460 according to a pamphlet issued at the temple, 469 according to Explore Sri Lanka – to ascend before reaching the viharaya. The climb stiffens the limbs, though shorter than Dambulla. Yet despite its reputation, not many seem to have heard of it: an anomaly that proves to be more curious when you consider its history is tied, inextricably, to the history of the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka.

A. H. Mirando has written of the emergence of Ganinnanses or lay monks, comparable to the Achars of Cambodia, in Kandy in the 17th and 18th centuries. With vast sections of land coming into their possession, he observes, they remained priests in name only, contravening the rules of Vinaya and getting involved in the affairs of the laity. Owing to their persecution by the tempestuous Sitawaka Rajasinghe, many Buddhist monks fled to Kotte, contributing to the disintegration of the Sangha in the upcountry further. Dutch and British annexation of the littoral regions distanced the Kandyan priesthood from low country monks, compelling the latter to seek favours from colonial officials.

The descendants of Kushikkala Tissa had made Potgula their sanctuary, and despite the moral decline of the Ganinnanses, the sangha parapura flourished. We next hear of a Chief Incumbent whose contribution to the revival of Buddhism has been as scantily noticed as the historical significance of the Potgul Viharaya itself: Vehalle Sri Dhamadinna. Together with Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti, the last non-Govigama monk to be initiated into the Siyam Nikaya, Dhamadinna began a campaign to breathe new life to the order and the doctrine in the Maritime Provinces. The two of them had been ordained by Kadurupokune Navaratne Buddharakkitha, who resided in Tissamaharama and became one of two monks initiating a generation of reformists to the priesthood; the other, Suriyagoda Kitsirigoda, Rajaguru and Dhammanusasaka of Narendrasinghe, would ordain Velivita Saranankara.

In 1753 when the upasampadawa was finally established under Kirti Sri Rajasinghe and Buddharakkitha’s students underwent the ceremony to symbolise the beginning of the new chapter, Dhammadinna, who took part in it with 22 Ganinnanses from Sabaragamuwa and 20 Ganinnanses from Matara, would have been 74; if so he was 97 when he passed away in 1776. Together with Malimbada Dhammadara and Kumburupitiye Gunaratne, he formed a trio of low country monks who, after Saranankara’s demise, were placed in charge of the Shrine at the Sri Pada. This proved to be a source of contention once they came to hold two offices – Chief Monk of the low country and the Shrine – following the separation of those offices after Kamburupitiye Gunaratne’s passing away in 1779.

Far, far away, 12 kilometres from Raddella, the Sumana Saman Devalaya continues to occupy a preeminent place in the Sabaragamuwa Province. 13 kilometres away in Kuruwita, the Delgamuwa Viharaya, a quiet, empty, yet still hallowed reflection of its past, links the entire region to the patronage of Buddhism. It was to Delgamuwa that Mayadunne moved the Tooth Relic in the early 16th century. Faced with the threat of destruction at the hands of Portuguese marauders and proselytisers in Kotte, it remained hidden beneath a kurahan gala in Delgamuwa for 43 years. Around it an entire culture and way of life came into being: Sabaragamuwa natum, instituted for the perahera of the Relic, and angampora, instituted for the protection of the Relic from thieves, spies, and proselytisers.

Tourists and devotees flock by the hundreds to the Saman Devalaya, yet few, if any, seem to visit Delgamuwa. The road to it is narrow, empty, and quiet: house after house line up along the way, reminding you more of a suburb than a religious site.

Potgula endures the same fate, though more pilgrims make their way there. There, at the viharaya after climbing the 40 or so steps, you come across a well full of holy water – and plastic cups to drink it with, used and reused by devotees and visitors – as well as a stupa, a watering hole, a swarm of wasps said to be descendants of the sentries who had guarded the temple, and a long, winding, though enclosed tunnel which some believe goes up to the Ehelepola Walawwa in Ratnapura town. Regarding the latter, no one really knows where it ends: a local told me someone tried to test the Ehelepola Walawwa thesis and lost his way, never to be found again. Vatta Gamini Abhaya apparently hid himself here, though locals dispute it: according to them, given his contribution to Buddhism, temples everywhere went on claiming that he and his family sought shelter in them.

Living next to these edifices, genuflecting to them, but also dispelling them of the myths surrounding them, are the people of Ratnapura. At least one local I met took me by surprise with his candour. Unlike the people of the South who tend to accept unconditionally the folklore their societies are rooted in, their counterparts here who I met didn’t seem to buy the Orientalist aura visitors conjure up about their surroundings.

Modernity in the Western, cosmetic sense has obviously arrived, and you see it in patches everywhere. The old cohabits with the new. Thus family bonds are reinforced and adhered to, while the lucrative occupations – not just gem mining but also textiles, groceries, and the law – are breaking them apart. Religiosity exists with rationalism: one generation follows the myths of popular Buddhism, while the other spurns them. And of course, there’s the dialect. Osmund Jayaratne, canvassing for the LSSP here, was once offered a maluwa. Expecting fish, he was astonished at being handed a completely vegetarian lunch: “Maluwa,” he was told, “can include anything with rice in it.” Things have in one sense changed from then – a period of half a century – yet in another, they have not: I too could barely conceal my astonishment when, expecting fish, I was handed a maluwa full of anything but fish.

The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

IDIOMS: Befriend Languages and Communities



‘Idioms are the distilled wisdom of a community’

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

While being locked down with the rising high tide of the recent COVID-19 gush in the country, I kept on reading as there was nothing much to do to spend the spare time. This was of course in addition to my legitimate work of the office. In my ponderings while reading I came across a phrase which said “a bad apple would spoil all the apples that surround it”. It struck me that a bad apple would be like someone who would act irresponsibly, without caring a tuppence for the incessant publicity given by the authorities as to how we should behave and act hygienically. In fact, these practices have taken near-mandatory status, as they are that important in our struggle to bring new-normalcy to the society. It is a must that one should get acclimatized to ward off the threat of the current pandemic. Is it that necessity knows no law?

I was imagining what would happen if there’s one rotten apple inside a basket of apples. This picture will help you to convince that a bad apple is someone who creates problems or trouble, or exerts a bad influence on the other people in a group. Herein I was pondering as to how COVID-19 has been capable of bringing back to normalcy certain words and phrases in our attempt to create new normalcy!

Becoming Curiouser and Curiouser to Know More About Idioms

It is but natural that when you come across a peculiar word or phrase, obviously, you become curious to find out more about it. So I accessed the sources at hand, and that search gave me the clue, that ‘a bad apple’ is an idiom. This is how I began to dip my pen to write this short essay. As I became curiouser and curiouser to know more about idioms I searched in every possible nook and cranny to first find how the word ‘idiom’ crept into the English vocabulary. The English language is full of idioms. My university teacher Dr. George Thambaiyapillai, climatologist, writing his research findings on rainfall in Ceylon commenced his monograph with the sentence ‘In Ceylon it never rains but it pours”. I was then wondering whether what he meant by this phrase was the ferocity of the downpour we experience, especially our monsoonal and inter-monsoon tropical thunderstorm weather. However, I little knew then that it’s an idiom he has used to connote a deeper meaning. Now I know that in modern English this is an idiom which means that a series of events, and especially misfortunes never come singly. The Proverb Hunter website elucidates this idiom with an apt episode,

‘What a day it’s been’, sighed Mrs Wood. ‘First, I burnt out the kettle, then the electricity fused, then Mrs Mopp didn’t arrive, then the butcher didn’t deliver the meat in time for lunch, then the doctor called and said Tommy’s got measles. It was one thing after another. They say it never rains but it pours.’

Origins of Idioms – Covered with a Haze Dust

No one has so far been certain as to how ‘Idioms’ entered the English language. It is guesstimated that the origin of idioms goes back to the 14th century. Those who have researched say that the idiom ‘nook and cranny’ had come into usage after the two words first appeared from mid-1300s and 1450s respectively. While ‘nook’ had been used to connote ‘a distant corner’. ‘cranny’ had meant ‘a crack or gap’. It thus becomes pretty obvious that the particular idiom came into being after 1450s.

As we know English is a ‘mixed up bowl’ or a ‘mixed bowl’, and the word ‘idiom’ had got mixed up in this bowl from the French word ‘idiome’, which had been again borrowed from late Latin ‘idioma’, which had again been a word loaned from Greek ‘idiome’, which meant ‘peculiarity, peculiar phraseology’. Fowler, the famous lexicographer writes that “A manifestation of the peculiar” is “the closest possible translation of the Greek word” idiome. He further says that idioms are sometimes treated as ungrammatical. It is normally said that ‘borrowed things will never shine’. But whatever said and done, after the word got into the English-bowl, idioms are ‘shining like nothing’.

Idioms Bemuse All Measures of Grammatical Classification

It is found to be a common trait in any structured language that those who are familiar with that language know at a glance to which part of a speech a word belongs. It is also a common trait in many languages that some words can belong to two or more parts of speech. However, there is a category of words which cannot be readily understood or brought under any part of speech. Their meanings can only be construed through the common usage of years or centuries, for that matter. Such a category of words (or phrases) that bemuses all linguists and grammarians are the so called idioms. Idioms, thus have not only bemused them, but have also brought haziness that challenges all the rules that classify and define the parts of speech.

Idioms as Seen by Sinhala Grammarians

Idioms are common to all communities as they are offshoots or spinoffs (upstarts?) of their total communication process. In the Sinhala language idioms are referred to as ‘prastha pirulu’. (in the spoken dialect ‘pirula’ has been changed to ‘piruvata’. In a verse composed by Veedagama Thero ‘pirula’ appears in a poem starting with ‘Pirulen aragath abarana mangulata’ which means ‘jewellery borrowed/loaned for the ceremony’. Hence, the word ‘Pirula’ means borrowed or loaned. The Pujavaliya of the Dambadeniya period had used ‘pirula’ in the transformed form ‘piruvata’. ‘Prastha pirulu’, therefore, connote words/phrases that are borrowed/loaned for the occasion. ‘Sinhala grammarian, linguist, writer and poet, the late Raphael Tennekoon, explaining Sinhala idioms in his ‘Honda Sinhala’ says that idioms of the language could be categorized under upama and bevahara:


upama’ (Similes) are those words used by learned people of the past, to elucidate or to explain some phenomenon and to make it clear and easy to understand. ‘uru thudehi datha thebuwa se’ is an example cited for a simile by Tennekoon. A pig could dig into the soil with its long snout that is strengthened by a prenasal bone and by a disc of cartilage at the tip. The simile says that ‘placing a tooth in the pig’s snout’ would make its digging much easier.


‘bevahara’ (Vyavahara/Usages) are traditional or popular sayings that have been passed down through ages. These are also rendered into English as ‘proverbs’. For a proverb or a traditional usage Tennekoon refers to the famous saying ‘inguru deela miris gaththa vagei’. which means ‘an injudicious exchange; that is about ditching one invader for another. According to Tennekoon a usage or proverb (bevahara) differs from a simile (upama) as the former derives its origin from a previous event or incident. The idiom referred to above is a well-known saying in the Sinhala language, the origin of which is King Rajasinghe II, in 1656, seeking help of the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese from the coastal areas. It’s an important revelation as a majority of the students and teachers wouldn’t know this difference, and they put everything in one basket.

Logicality and Rationality of Idioms

A deep study of both these categories of idioms would reveal that although the origins of a majority of them are shrouded in mystery, they are, nevertheless, extremely logical and rational. They stand to reason, giving the indication that whosoever had originated these sayings they could, for certain, be men of standing in society. Take for instance the old Arab proverb ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. There’s a similar saying in Sinhala which says ‘Hathurage hathura mithurayi’. Look at this Tamil idiom ‘Aadu nanayuthendru Onai Aluthathu’ which says ‘Wolf crying that sheep are getting wet’. A marvelous gesture from a good-mannered and sympathetic wolf, out of all the other animals! Sheep are said to be eternal prey of wolves. See how rational it is to advise someone to ‘Put on your thinking cap’. If you tell someone to put their thinking cap on, you ask him/her to find an idea or solve a problem by thinking about it. It is certain that Edward de Bono’s concepts of Six Thinking Hats, had its origin in this idiom. Instead of one thinking cap de Bono has twisted it to say Six Thinking Hats. De Bono introduced the concept of using six different coloured hats, so participants can use it for thinking logically as well as creatively to generate and assess innovative and different ideas.

Idioms Build Bridges Across Communities

A comparative study of idioms also unearth several hidden facts, which indicate that amidst the differences that exist among communities there’s a common chord that binds humanity across all the man-made barriers. It is, therefore, heartening to expose such similarities as they, more often, reveal that humans are a single species, although socio-cultural and political factors have kept them apart. The following tabulation clearly shows that irrespective of the differences in the communities they either use almost the same or different expressions to convey similar sentiments/ideas.

Sinhala, Tamil, English

Kimbul kandulu helanava (shedding crocodile tears) Mudalai kanneer (shedding crocodile tears) shed crocodile tears (To display hypocritical sadness) Linde inna mediya vage (like a frog in the well)

Kupa manduka

(in Sanskrit) Kinatruth thvalai (frog in the well) A frog in the well (an individual who cannot or refuses to see the big picture) Betalu hama poravagath wrukaya veni (an insincere pretender) Aadu nanayuthendru onai aluthathu (wolf crying that sheep are getting wet) A wolf in sheep’s clothing

(those playing a role contrary to their real character Poth gulla (book mite/weevil) Puthagam puzhu (Book worm) Book worm (a person reading/ studying more than usual) Have nose in a book (people who always seem to be reading) Gal hithak (stony heart/mind) Kurangu pidy (Monkey grip / stubbornness) Stubborn as a mule (intractable/ refractory) Hulangata desana karannakmen (like preaching to the wind/ a futile act) Eeyotudal (chasing flies away* no occupation) A futile act Pouring water off a duck’s back (a futile act as water doesn’t retain on a duck’s back)

Humour in Idioms

Irrespective of what the language is, a close study of idioms would reveal they have been coined by master-craftsmen, who are both witty and humourous. In this background it becomes pretty obvious that quite a number of idioms are bent on sarcasm as well. As most idioms are products of communities who had enough time to enjoy life idioms reflect that most of their sayings were either witty, humourous, sarcastic or punchy.

If you look closely at the literal meanings of most idioms, you will realize that they are often downright hilarious. Here is a compilation of some such humerous idioms found in Sinhala and English.

Labba degawwayi labu wela gawwayi

– while the pumpkin-creeper is only a gavva away, the pumpkin is two gavvas away. A ‘gavva’ is said to be a league in Sinhala which is taken as a distance of three and a quarter miles.

This idiom is similar to ‘a bridge too far’ in English – a goal or plan which is too far.

Do a Devon Loch –

is an idiom which says a person giving up half way when everybody expects him to succeed. Devon Loch was a racehorse that collapsed just short of the winning line of the 1956 Grand National race in the United Kingdom.

Theetam tinunne pattiku ariyamo oochinde mannam’ is a Malayali idiom which says ‘the dog that eats shit cannot smell a fart’. How similar is the Sinhala idiom which says ‘urulevata uge ganda therenne ne’. It means a civet-cat cannot smell its own smell (odour).

Idioms – A Veritable Palimpsest of a Community

While planning to conclude this short essay with a punchy note, it stuck me that I had come across a very rarely used phrase, ‘a veritable palimpsest’; a phrase which could be used only in very special circumstances related to subjects like geology, topography, architecture or inscriptions where evidence is found of superimpositions on effaced earlier features. They, in fact, still bear the evidence of original surfaces. Based on this premise I strongly think that idioms are ‘veritable palimpsests’, that still show so many facets of a community out of which these had emerged. They either reflect beliefs, virtues, and even habits, behaviours and human relationships built on moral, principles and respect of a community. Moral is related to the standards of what is right or just in behaviour. Or as rightly exposed by Raphael Tennekoon, erudite scholar, many idiom are off-shoots of historical incidents/events. So a ‘veritable palimpsest’ itself is an idiom that could be used on very special occasions as spelt out above.

‘Puhul hora Karin denai’, –

The pumpkin-thief is seen by his shoulder’

‘Raigamayata Gampolaya ekvuna veniyi’,

– Similar to meeting of Raigamaya with Gampolaya.

‘Kana kiri pata keeva se’

– like the blind person told the colour of milk’

‘Straight from the horse’s mouth’

which means getting information from the most reliable source, is said to come from the 1900s, when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth.

Why We Need to Study Idioms in a Language

Every developed language is rich in idioms. Although it is possible to converse correctly in non-idiomatic language, anyone with only a superficial knowledge of that particular language will find himself/herself at a serious disadvantage in his/her reading, and even more so, when he/she takes part in discussions and other means of communication.

Although cultural variables would make differences in the settings or use of words, all idioms help stress particular points. Therefore, cultivating familiarity with and using them often, even a foreigner would sound more like a native, and can also boost his comprehension skills. By now you would have been sufficiently convinced that idioms are a fun subject that will, for certain, help making one’s communication descriptive, colourful, creative, lively, interesting, exciting and at times concise/precise as well. Idioms have, thus, enriched every language. The more one uses idioms in his/her communication, the more he/she becomes closer to a native speaker.

Idioms are Distilled Wisdom of a Community

An idiom is an everyday figure of speech or metaphorical expression whose meaning cannot be taken literary. They often go against the logical “rules of language and grammar” despite being commonly used by the language’s native speakers.

Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1940-1945) who had not stepped into a university in pursuit of higher education, once said that eighty percent of his education had been through the study of idioms. In fact, he referred to idioms as “Distilled Wisdom” of a community.


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