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Sat Mag

Sinhala surnames



By Usvatte-aratchi

Dr. Rohan Wickremasinghe’s query on 01 July is interesting and someone who has systematically studied the subject may have satisfactory answers to it. My first reaction is that Sinhala have had no surnames until quite recently. The Sinhala until recently have traced their ancestry using a signification where they came from. My name appeared in the school register as Usvatte Aratchi ge Geedreck …. I was Geedreck, who came from the home of Usvatte Aratchi house. Usvatte is not an uncommon place name in our country. So were the names of my fellow students: Yaddehige Premaratne, Tuppahige Piyasoma, Alutgama Guruge Dayawanse and Amugoda Ruhunage Kusumavathie. This is still very common. Bhikkhu carry names identifying where they came from: Polvatte Buddhadatta, Baddegama Samita, Maduluvavae Sobhita, etc., although the Buddha’s disciples were not so identified: chunda, angulimala, devadatta, sari putta, etc. When we started ‘surnames’ itself may be an interesting search.

Names like Salgado, Fernando, Silva that serve as surnames among us appear among the names of sailors from Portugal who forayed into the ‘dark green sea’ (the Atlantic Ocean) in the 15th century, hoping to go to India after rounding the Cape. These names appear in Brazil now, not necessarily as surnames: Luis Ina`cio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. You can see the formation of surnames among us. Sajith Premadasa’s grandfather’s name was not Premadasa but his father’s name was. Maitripala’s father’s name was not Sirisena but his son’s name is. I recall someone counting the frequency of surnames in our telephone book in 2000(?) and Perera won the prize.

There are three lists of kings and queens in our country from Anuradhapura to Mahanuvara: those prepared by Polvatte Buddhadatta, by K. M de Silva and by Haris de Silva, all eminent scholars. These lists differ one from another. Buddhadatta’s list is from the Pali Mahavansa, that he edited in 1939. K. M de Silva’s list appears is in A History of Ceylon, published in 2005. Haris’s is in a slim volume that he published earlier this year and I was privileged to review here. (I sent my copy to a friend in Batticaloa and cannot read from it today.) None of the kings seem to have had surnames. There are many whose name ends with naga: Cora naga (63-51 CE) Khallata naga, Ila naga and Abhayanaga, which name disappears in Polonnaruwa. They came from a tribe that went to form this community. Two names recur in these lists: tissa and abhaya (Tisa (Tisha) and Aba in Sinhala). The name of the king after Vijaya was Upatissa. Most of you have heard of devanam piya (pleasant to gods Tissa (reminding me of ‘Luis the well beloved’ [Luis XV of France). Tissa recurs among king’s of Anuradhapura and disappears in Polonnaruwa. The other name that recurs is abhaya (aba in Sinhala). The fifth king in Silva’s list is Pandukabhaya; de Silva restraints himself from giving the regnal years to him. Duttha Gamani Abhaya is in B’s list but KM mentions him as Duttha Gamani. It is well to remember that duttha was an appellation given to Gamani Abhaya for being disobedient to his father when the former was very young. (Shakespeare’s Richard III of England might have earned that name having worked hard for it.) It appears again in another famous king’s name: Vattagamaniabhaya (Valagamba). There also was a king Gotabhaya (Golu aba in Parakumba sirita) {249 CE}. The first bahu king in KM’s list is Vijayabahu (Vijaya-ba) (1055 -1100 CE). The interesting transformation in the name lies in the change from aba or abbhaya which meant freedom, liberty to a term which commonly signifies arm for valour. Thereafter bahu takes the place of abhaya and tissa until Mayadunne (1521-1581) comes in, in Sitavaka. His son was Rajasinghe and there were five other Rajasinghe kings, including the last who was captured by the British, ending the long line of rulers that began in Anuradhapura and that lasted for more than 2200 years. The name Wickremasinghe does not occur in those illustrious lists. I faintly remember reading in Vijyaba kollaya, a novel by W. Silva, in which a ‘general’ in the army named Vickremasingha, in death bed, complained of betrayal by his king, perhaps, Mayadunne or Rajasinghe.

The best place to start with may be the Roman Catholic Churches’ baptismal records. Perhaps they contain information on the parents’ name and the name given to the child. They will also contain the names of parents and children in succeeding generations. We might then learn when and how de Zoysa, Salgado, Fernando and Peiris came to be surnames among the Sinhala. These churches may be in Wattala, Katuwapitiya or thereabout. If that does not help, the Dutch Reformed Churches will help. In Europe the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries have the best historical demographic data and they have been constructed using church records of births deaths and marriage. The credit for much of that go to pastors who kept those records. It is most likely that the Dutch Reformed Church here followed the same procedures. There one may find the advent of V(W)ickremasinghe.

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Sat Mag

Around and about in Kurunegala



By Uditha Devapriya

Photographs by Manusha
Lakshan and Uditha Devapriya


Covering 65 kilometres, the road from Colombo to Ambepussa is fairly straight. From there it turns left and right, up and down. To get to Kurunegala via Ambepussa, you have to pass Alawwa and Polgahawela. Between these regions, the terrain rises, offering you a passing if fleeting glimpse of the hill country. Then the mountains recede from view, the mist settles, and the helter-skelter of urban life returns. The shops teem with life, the clock-tower looms over drivers and pedestrians, and the heat rises. From afar, the faintest outline of Ethagala catches your eye. This is your first glimpse of Kurunegala.

Ethagala (Elephant’s Rock) is a stiff climb, though we had a van at our disposal. At the very top, a fairly large statue of the Buddha looms over the region. It is perhaps the highest point of any rocky outcrop in Kurunegala. A plaque near the statue informs us that it is recent and is a replica; the original lies at the Archaeological Museum in Lahore, dating back more than 1,800 years to the time of the Kusana kings. With its distinctly Hellenic touch, the statue is an enduring testament to a profound artistic renaissance that swamped the country, under the Kushana kings, between the first and third centuries AD. The replica is no less majestic; in its own way, it reminds us of the close cultural links between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Is it any coincidence that the author of that remarkable study, ‘An Enduring Friendship: Sri Lanka and Pakistan’ (Arshad Cassim, 2017), hails from this part of the country?

There was no special reason for our sudden sojourn to Kurunegala. Part of my family hails from there, but the connection was interrupted very early on. Kurunegala entranced me for other reasons: The history, the culture, the literature, and perhaps more than any of these, the people. There were the rocks, many of them inviting onlookers to climb them, even in the heat of the hottest days. There were the temples, too many to list out, and a great many unexplored. How could I resist these temptations?

Kurunegala’s importance has not been fully appreciated by scholars. It was the last of the Wayamba kingdoms after Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa, perhaps the weakest among them. Their rise coincided with the expansion of the Jaffna kingdom under the Aryacarkravartis. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Sri Lanka’s irrigation civilisation was on the verge of collapse. Having stamped out particularism and unified the country under his rule, Parakramabahu I, the most resolute of the Sinhala kings, ironically ensured the deterioration of the polity after his demise. His most illustrious predecessor, Vijayabahu I, had been much more pragmatic in matters of state; for him discretion remained the better part of valour.

Under Parakramabahu I, and to a lesser extent Nissankamalla, these policies changed.

The historian describes these monarchs as ambitious, ruthless, and reckless. It is in the interests of scholarship not to pass arbitrary judgement on the past, and yet it cannot be denied that in Parakramabahu’s time, the state concentrated its powers to itself. Not only did it stamp out any and all particularist tendencies on the part of Ruhuna, it also diverted tax revenues to the construction of agricultural works that justified its centralisation; these more or less provided the raison d’etre for its entrenchment. But in entrenching itself, it undermined its existence, it weakened severely any regional power it could have relied on in the event of an external invasion. Without these powers, no resort was possible.

The expansion of the Aryacakravarti dynasty in the north proved two facts: One, that the defeat of Kalinga Magha had not led to the recovery of Sinhalese power, and two, that the growth of an adversary in the north meant the kingdom had to shift elsewhere. Even before the Aryacakravartis solidified their position, it was very clear that the days of the tanks and irrigation networks in the Sinhala heartland had passed by. The result was to push the kings further to the south-west. Not that their enemies to the north stopped pursuing them once they made this shift: Even in Gampola, there were Tamil tax collectors at work, extracting if not forcing tributes from the land. According to an inscription at Madawala, in Harispattuwa, one collector, Ariyan of Singai Nagar or Mathandan Perumal, “cause[d] tribute to be brought from the hill country.” He had taxes from no fewer than five villages.

The absorption of Wayamba to the Kandyan kingdom followed from its earlier position as a dependable, if weak, fortress against external invasion. In this Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa proved their mettle better than Kurunegala, which may be why not much has been written on the latter.

Yet Kurunegala did not just come into prominence with the shift of the Sinhala heartland there. This was a place teeming with history even before that shift. The number of temples, caves, dwelling places, and ruins attest to the fact that monarchs patronised these places long before the collapse of Anuradhapura. These temples, caves, and ruins stand out perhaps more in the Vanni Hatpattuwa than they did elsewhere. The ruins at Toniyagala and Padigala date back to the first century BC and first century AD respectively, while the Torava Mahilava Viharaya traces its origins even earlier, to the second century BC.

Kurunegala, in fact, bore witness to some of the more peripherally important events in the history of the land. Mogallana, who rebelled against Sanghatissa in the seventh century AD, set up camp at Nikawaratiya, then known as Mahagalla; it was from there that he made his advance towards Anuradhapura. Its reputation for rocky outcrops came in handy as kings, and chieftains, turned those outcrops into formidable fortresses. Yapahuwa, for instance, was chosen as a fortress centre not by a king but by a local chieftain. It was the site of the Janavese king Candabhanu’s defeat. Climbing Yahaphuwa is, of course, not as tough as one might be led to believe from this piece of historical information, but back then, an army of invaders, marching hundreds of miles from Salavata (Halawata, Chilaw), and Puttalam, may have exhausted their energies ascending its steps.

The proximity of these centres of power to the ports of Chilaw and Puttalam sealed their reputation as commercial and trading hubs. This was not really wet country, but it lay far away from the dry zones of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in which the Sinhala kings had flourished. With the fragmentation of the polity into several regional powers, Kurunegala, with Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa, served as useful transit points between Kandy and the north, just as Sabaragamuwa served as a transit point between the Kandyan regions and the Maritime Provinces to the south.

As such the cultural and religious renaissance that swept through Kandy made its presence felt in these parts too. Perhaps the most enduring tribute to the influence on Kandyan culture on Kurunegala is the Ridi Viharaya. BSuilt in the second century BC and rebuilt, repainted, and reconstructed on the orders of Kirti Sri Rajasinghe in the 18th century AD, it attests to a revival of the arts in the kanda uda rata.

Under the British Kurunegala gained some prominence for its agriculture and prosperity, yet it lagged behind other regions in other domains. By 1907, the North-Western province was fifth on the list in size, fourth in population, and third in revenues obtained. Striking as these achievements are, what is more striking is the absence of a proper communications network which could explain them. That they were achieved at all without proper railways and roads is perhaps a testament to its position as an economic hub in the time of the kings. That they went hand-in-hand with increasing mortality rates, arising from epidemics and diseases, is a testament to the decline it underwent under colonial rule. It is true that coconut cultivation thrived in these parts, as did a rush for rubber that considerably improved the fortunes of elites in the early 20th century. But these achievements, if they can be called achievements at all, merely confirmed colonial biases towards particular parts of the economy.

Friendly and open, the people of Kurunegala are hospitable. There is an aura of abundance in almost every corner. Agriculture remains, for many, a peripheral pursuit, but also a part-time occupation. It is difficult to escape the past here, because the past lingers everywhere; in the temples, caves, ruins, and rivers. Starting our journey out in the town, we made our way across Tittawella, Wasiwewa, Panduwasnuwara, Yapahuwa, Deduru Oya, and Arankale. This is a journey one trip can never hope to complete. A land of history, Kurunegala belongs the past. In a big way, it belongs to the present too.

The writer can be reached at


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Sat Mag

Sir Ernest de Silva – the Laird of Ratgama



About seven miles to the north of Galle — the capital of Ruhuna, is the village of Ratgama. It is a historic village which is referred to in the Mahawansa and Mayura and Thisara Sandesa Kawyas.

It abuts the sea. The Galle-Colombo High Road runs across it. It has areas of surpassing beauty, with coconut palms and stretches of paddy fields and the placid waters of the Ratgama Lake.

Devapathiraja – the viceroy of King Parakrama Bahu IVth – had reigned in this village which was then Rajagama (meaning King’s village), later to become Ratgama.

Ratgama is also a village which has traditionally supplied warriors and weaponry, during the times of the Sinhala kings, and some of the Ratgama wasagama – names (surnames) like “Agampodi” means king’s bodyguard of soldiers or a regiment of warriors.

Among its main vocations are the coir industry, the fishing industry and agricultural pursuits.

Sir Ernest de Silva was born in the Ratgama village to a very wealthy and distinguished parents –

Emanuel de Silva and Alice de Silva Gunasekera, on 26th November 1887, with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth.

After his early education at Royal College, Colombo, where he excelled, both in studies and sports, he proceeded to England and entered Cambridge University, where there were students from elite families and eminent scholars from various countries in the world.

In 1912, he came to his Motherland in a blaze of glory as a Barrister-at-Law at the age of 25.

Before long he joined the select band of English Educated Barristers who devoted their lives (and their wealth) to win freedom for their Motherland.

He was also a planter and a wealthy land owner of large extent of lands running into acres. During the World War Two, some of the refugees, from Colombo, were accommodated in his Salava Estate.

He had a pleasing personality. His charm and simplicity won the affection of all those who came in contact with him. As an honest social worker and a phlonthrophist and his munificence knew no bounds contributing lavishly to many a worthy cause.

A great human being, he once declared that he derived immense satisfaction in helping those in distress.

Though he had no ambitions as a politician, he was elected to the Colombo Municipal Council is 1919.

In 1920, he founded the Devapathiraja College, the leading school at Ratgama, managing it and meeting all its expenses. That was 25 years before the Free Education Scheme.

It is said that the day after the foundation was laid, the stone was found missing. It was later discovered thrown to the sea which abutted the proposed school.

When Sir Ernest was told about it, he had merely said that it showed the high standard of illiteracy in the area and the need to expedite the opening of the school.

One day, in later years, the timepiece of the school was found missing and all the evidence pointed to a villager having stolen it. On hearing it, Sir Ernest had taken steps to supply every village home, in that area, with a timepiece.

Shri Jawaharlal Nehru and his family visited this college in 1929.

At the reception, held in their honour, Shri Nehru said “Ernest is a friend of mine who was with me at the Cambridge University. I am happy to see him engaged in serving the people.”

He was a popular turfite. The Governor’s Cup Day in 1927, at the Boosa race course, attracted easily the biggest crowd present at a meet of the Galle Gymkhana Club.

The scene was a spectacular one. The big enclosure was comfortably crowded, while thousands were present at the other enclosures and the hillsides studded with village folk, presented a setup seldom seen.

Lippia, Sir Ernest’s horse, with the rider Corkhill, won the race in splendid style and in record time, giving Sir Ernest his first Governor’s cup.

Of interest some names of horses at the time were; Goldon Day, Lady Canteen, Vin, Goodbye, Luck, Lily of the Valley, Slippery John, Come Soon, Cash Box, Miss Mount, Little Tom, Silly Billy.

He helped several sports bodies and was a keen spectator at cricket, football and tennis matches. He excelled as a billiard player at the Orient Club.

On the 1st of August 1938, he became the first Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon. This Bank catered to the needs of the Ceylonese in the agricultural, industrial and trade spheres, when most of the foreign Banks were reluctant to do so.

He was a renowned philatelist who had a rare collection of world stamps, as equal to those of King George the fifth and King George the Sixth, who were also reputed stamp collectors. He very willingly exhibited them to local and foreign philatelists, when necessary.

When a delegation of the Colombo Fort YMBA, led by Sir Cyril de Zoysa, walked into his gracious home Sirimathipaya, for the first donation of their fund, Sir Ernest greeted them cordially. The visitors then stated the nature of their visit. For a moment or two, Sir Ernest was lost in thought. Then rising to his feet, he went upstairs.

Returning a few minutes later with an envelope, he took out of it a simple postage stamp in a transparent protective wrapper.

“This is an old and rare Mauritius stamp,” he told the delegation. “Send it to H.R. Hamers, the leading stamp dealer in London, and ask them to sell it for you. Whatever the stamp fetches, is my donation to your fund”.


Trying not to show his disappointment (and disgust), Sir Cyril thanked Sir Ernest and he and his men took his leave.

A few weeks later, to everybody’s astonishment, Sir Cyril received a cheque from H.R. Hamers of London (in pounds sterling) which when converted came to 100, 142 rupees and 13 cents!

When the Government of the day decided to confer him a knighthood, he vehemently refused such honour. But, Sir Oliver was not prepared to take “no” for an answer. He organised two bus loads of villagers from his native village of Ratgama, who implored him to accept the knighthood, as he was worthy of that honour.

The newspapers of the 1st January 1946, highlighted the conferment of a knighthood to him in that year’s New Year Honours List.

Soon afterwards, a largely attended public reception was held to felicitate Sir Ernest, presided over by an erudite monk from the Siam Nikaya, who spoke glowingly of the wonderful qualities and the meritorious work of Sir Ernest, and wound up his oration by asking Sir Ernest to crown his good life by becoming a monk!

In the course of his speech, Sir Ernest the laird of “Ratgama” the outspoken man said “Your suggestion is a good one hamuduruwane, but despite all the wonderful things you said about me just now, you will never admit me to your Nikaya!”

(Cast divisions were rife in the community of monks at the time).

During World War Two, there were several German bhikkus at the famous island hermitage of Polgasduwa nestling on the placid waters of Ratgama Lake and they were interned under war regulations as enemy aliens. When the war was over, the British Imperial Government auctioned off this beautiful island. Sir Ernest de Silva bought it at the auction and gifted it to the German bhikkus who were meditating there.

Sir Ernest de Silva and Lady Evelyne de Silva were proud parents of two sons and four daughters. Lady de Silva, too hailed from a very wealthy family and was also a munificient patroness in her own right. A livewire of the Mahila Samithi Movement, she once served as a Senator.

On the 09th of May 1957, a grateful people came in flocks to “Sirimathipaya” to pay homage to a patriotic son of Mother Lanka!

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Sat Mag

Can we advance if culture holds us back?



By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

I cannot remember the exact dates, though I ought to because it was the most traumatic experience of my life. Around six months before my final MBBS examination, I noticed a little lump at the base of my right index finger. Though it was not tender, I wondered whether it could be an infection but as it did not settle after a fortnight, I walked in to the surgical clinic of Dr R A Navaratna, Senior Lecturer in Surgery who later became Professor. ‘Nava’ as he was fondly referred to. Son of the famous Ayurvedic physician R Buddhadasa, he had already established the reputation not only as one of the best surgeons but also as one of the most approachable. I introduced myself and requested him to have a look at the lump. He readily agreed and after very careful examination told me “Wijayawardhana, frankly I do not know what it is. Please come back next week, so that I can have another look.”

I saw him the following week and after a thorough examination he said, “It has not changed but I still do not know what it is. As we are totally in the dark, shall we remove it and get the pathologists to have a look.” I readily agreed and he wanted me to come the following day, as he happened to have a list of surgeries. At the end of his list, sitting on either side of the operating table, with my hand on the table, he injected a local anaesthetic and carefully dissected out a fleshy lump. “It looks like a lymph gland but there are no lymph glands in this area. It is still puzzling. Let us see what the histology (appearance under the microscope) shows,” he told me.

Two weeks later, just before an Obstetric lecture, I went to the Pathology Department to collect the report and hit the ceiling when I read the diagnosis: Malignant Synovioma. Even with my limited knowledge I knew it was a death sentence; giving me, at most, eighteen months. Deciding immediately that I should die a qualified doctor, I went to the lecture but my lecture notes were botched with tears flowing down my eyes. ‘Nava’ was shocked and referred me to Dr. H.K.T Fernando, Radiotherapist, who told me that he could give me high dose radiation but that would lead to permanent damage to my right hand. Though I was prepared to take that risk, for the sake of dear life, he insisted that I got a second opinion on the histology, though both Professors of Pathology were in unison. By a stroke of luck, a cousin of my mother, Dr. A.G. Abeywickrama, who later became a Paediatrician, was a demonstrator in the Department of Forensic Medicine and knew the former Professor of Pathology who agreed to look at the slides. He was not convinced and wanted the slide sent to a colleague of his in London which I did with great difficulty, as it was no easy task to send even a small parcel abroad in the sixties.

Few weeks before my final examination, my uncle gave me the good news that the lady Professor has informed that what I had was ‘Pseudosarcomatous fasciitis’, an inflammation due to a virus, which can mimic a Malignant Synovioma. But, as he did not show me the letter, I always had a lingering doubt whether it was a ploy to reassure me! In fact, on many occasions I prevailed upon friendly radiographers to do a chest x-ray, looking at them with my heart pounding, to see whether there are ‘cannon-ball’ secondaries; the characteristic finding of Synovioma spreading to the lungs, before it kills you. Obviously, I have been paranoid as I am still alive but whether I would have done even better in the final examination, if not for this hassle, is another question.

I have gone into great detail to show the fallibility, at times, of science but, more importantly, the openness which science encourages, as it does not depend on faith. I never went to any Temple or Kovil for vows or prayed to anyone for a cure. Had I been to a Catholic priest, my miraculous recovery would have helped his path to sainthood!

The doctor who has jumped to the defence of the Minister of Health, challenging my view that she does not deserve to hold that portfolio (On ‘misinformation’ against Minister of Health, The Island 23 July) asserts that her unscientific actions could be totally justified on our cultural practices and goes on to state:

“One would be hard pressed to find anyone in this country who has not fulfilled a vow; be it for himself or herself/siblings/parents/children with regard to examinations, illnesses, promotions, etc.”

Surely, I cannot be the only one who dared not take a vow even when the grim reaper was staring in the face!

Many have wondered why we had such superb control at the beginning of the pandemic and lost the plot later. The good doctor provides the answer:

“From the onset of this pandemic a multitude of rituals have been conducted and they are still in force; all night Pirith, Bodhi Pooja, continuous chanting of the Ratana Sutta,” etc. The MOH releasing pots to the rivers that would wash down the ‘pandemic’ to the sea was one such ritual. A salient point to be appreciated is that while there is the possibility that the MOH herself believed in the effects of releasing these pots; this ritual was done primarily for the country/public rather than herself, hence the coverage on TV and news.”

Is there any basis for these practices other than blind belief? Whilst the only way to overcome this pandemic is the application of scientific methods, it is unfortunate that emphasising on these ‘cultural methods’ only dilutes the efforts of those fighting the pandemic. Even my compliment to these has been ridiculed by his following statement:

“As a side note, I am amused by the use of the term ‘Sri Lanka is blessed with’. Based on UW’s logic ‘who are highly trained in Sri Lanka’ ought to have been a more appropriate term as blessings have nothing to do with a scientific reality!”

One of the dictionary definitions of ‘blessed with’ is ‘to have something that you feel is special’ and I personally feel very special as three physicians in the forefront, fighting the pandemic, have had their compulsory foreign post-graduate training with me!

May I stress that I have nothing personal against Minister Wanniarachchi. In fact, having watched her in the musical programme on Rupavahini, ‘Sihinayaki Re’ I developed a great respect for her. Further, considering the politicians we are ‘blessed with’, she deserves to be a minister but not hold the portfolio of Health. Just like the British Secretary of Health who resigned when he was caught flouting his own regulations, she should have had the decency to resign when the ‘peniya’ she helped to promote was found to be useless. I reiterate that her actions fall far short of what is expected of a Minister of Health.

Whereas heritage cannot be changed, culture is a dynamic process and could change, provided we are willing. Instead, if we use culture to justify unscientific practices there is no hope for us. Let us stop using culture as an excuse to retard progress!



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