ASOKA WEERARATNA AND MAHINDA COLLEGE “- NOSTALGIC MEMORIES
Posted on September 18th, 2012
by W. P A N D I T A R A T N E
In the year 1942, Mahinda College, Galle was fifty years old and the Golden Jubilee celebration to commemorate its eventful history of the first twenty years at Pedlar Street in the Galle Fort, and the next thirty years in the purpose built school buildings on Elliot Road, Minuwangoda, Galle were due to be celebrated.
Over five thousand students had been admitted to the school during the first fifty years and around six hundred of them with a sprinkling of a few girls, all of them the offspring of the members of the tutorial staff admitted as a temporary measure due to the exigencies of educational service during the period of the second world war, were in the school at the time. I was admitted as a student under admission number 5034, during the post jubilee celebratory period, and joined the forty odd other boarders in the hostel where I lived during my entire school career, at Mahinda College.
The school buildings were on Mahinda Hill and the hostel buildings were on the opposite hill with Elliot Road in the valley between the two hills. The permission to go out of the hostel was limited to attending the class rooms during the school single session, to participate in the games activities in the playground, about half a kilometer from the hostel in the evening. It was a secluded, secure and care free life and the hostellers enjoyed their boarding school life even though for most of them it was their first experience of living away from their homes.
However once a month, or twice a month for a special reason, permission was given to leave the hostel if the “‘EXEAT CARD”‘ was signed by the Warden, who allowed two to two and half hours of free time to visit Galle town. We had to have in our possession the Exeat card during such “‘travels”‘, and return to the hostel by 6.15 p.m.
On such occasions the “‘travel”‘ started with a walk down Elliot Road (now Woodward Mawatha), and along Cripps Road (now E.A. Wijesooriya Mawatha) and later along the broad Wackwella Road leading to the Galle Esplanade and ending in the Galle Fort.
While walking on the right hand side of Wackwella Road, I noticed on the opposite left hand side of the road, the P.J. Weeraratna & Sons Jewellery shop, and on several occasions a lean spectacled gentleman dressed in white long sleeved shirt and white trousers was standing at the entrance to the shop, speaking with some people and smiling with all those who walked in front of the shop. On my return journey along the same roads, I walked again in front of the same shop which was now on my right hand side, but that gentleman was not there at the entrance to the shop on some of those days.
A few months later, while on my return journey from the town, he was at the entrance to the shop and he spoke with me and inquired as to who I was and which school I attended. He was pleased when I told him that it was Mahinda College and he told me that he had also attended the same school. He inquired about a few teachers and whether the subjects Pali and Buddhism were being taught. I answered in the affirmative and added that I too was learning the Pali language. His eyes lit up and he said that a knowledge of Pali would enable one to read and learn Buddhism in the original language in which it was preached and written down. In Mahinda College we were taught Buddhism and Pali in the English Language by our revered teacher Mr. U.G. Handy, whose mellifluous flow of Pali stanzas together with their English translations all recited from memory virtually mesmerized us, and it took me some time to understand the depth and the meaning of what Mr. Asoka Weeraratna meant by the use of the words “‘learning Buddhism in the languages it was written down”‘ and which language I was now learning at school.
On subsequent occasions the topics of discussion included the history of the school and its origin in a building in Galle Fort, about 50 years ago, and about an enlightened and energetic Principal who had engineered the shifting of the school from its congested and uncongenial surroundings to its present place and also about the growth of the school over the past half a century. All this opened a new world, as the history of the school was a new subject which was not taught in school. Even today the inspiring histories of Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka are not taught to young minds even in Dhamma Schools.
With these brief introductions, in later years more information was collected about the school history. THE BUDDHIST, the magazine of the Theosophical Society in its issues of 4th and 11th March 1892, editorially announced that on the 1st of March at 4.30 p.m. the Buddhist English School was inaugurated in a spacious and commodious building and Dr. Bowlers Daly the Manager of Buddhist Schools in his address to the gathering had stated “‘I place the interests of Mahinda College entirely in your hands”‘ and had “‘hoped that Mahinda College would survive him and prove a blessing to the youth of the island when his name would have been forgotten”‘.
The school had a difficult time from 1893 to 1903 during which period several principals who took over from Dr. Bowles Daly, found it difficult to weather the storms of instability. Then on August 1st 1903 there came an English scholar Mr. Frank Lee Woodward as Principal, who was destined to shape the future of the children of the Southern Province.
The new Principal tried his utmost to shift the school to more congenial surroundings that would be conductive to the healthy growth of the school. Luck came his way in 1907 when Mrs. D.F.de Silva of Minuwangoda with the assistance of the members of the Weerasiri family, purchased and donated a land called “…”Devatagawatta”‚ in a salubrious and elevated plot of land in Minuwangoda. It had earlier attracted the attention Mr. F.L.Woodward who had a high sense of aesthetic beauty. The panoramic view of the Sripada (Adam”‘s peak) from the hillock was a re-assurance that the site was ideally the most suitable place for a Buddhist school.
On January 15th, 1908 the foundation had been laid for a building to be named after Colonel Henry Steele Olcott whose death occurred on 17th February 1907. The completion of the Olcott Memorial Hall, the two class room blocks, the first prize giving commemorating the 21st anniversary of the school and the ninth anniversary of Mr. F.L. Woodward arrival, had taken place in August 1912. The science laboratory had been constructed in 1915.
Great indeed had been the contribution of Mr. F.L. Woodward to the Buddhist education of Sri Lanka. As a teacher he took classes in Buddhism, Pali, English, Latin and Art and he was also the architect, builder, financier, benefactor and designer of those stately, majestic and spacious buildings erected on that elevated site at Elliot Road. Buildings alone do not make a great institution. It is the products thereof that add stature to the institution. The homogeneity of the pupils of Mahinda College who all came from the Southern Sinhala Buddhist stock from the hinterland of the Galle, Matara and Hambantota Districts, with their diversity of social ties, kingship, customs and manners and the local history of the favoured sons who came to imbibe and learn at the feet of their educators and what they in turn left behind to the next generation of favoured sons, created that aura of Woodward and later Mahinda tradition that nurtured and sustained us, and in later years gave life and strength to guide us along this adventurous path in Samsara.
It is therefore not surprising that Mr. Asoka Weeraratna set out on his chosen path, having imbibed during his student days the fundamentals of the Mahinda Tradition, of learning what is good in a broad range of disciplines and then passing them on with missionary zeal to others who could profit thereby. Dr. Bowles Daly the first Principal who had hoped that Mahinda College would survive him need not have worried. The school has survived one hundred and twenty years too, and the name of the first principal Dr. Bowles Daly too has not been forgotten, as his portrait and his name occupies a proud place in the picture gallery of past principals displayed in the venerable Olcott Hall.
Towards the end of nineteen forties I informed Mr. Asoka Weeraratna that I had been selected for admission to the University of Ceylon in Colombo and that I would be moving to Colombo in a few months time. He wished me and then informed me that he too intends to move his business activities and that he would be pleased if I could look him up when his new shop is opened in Maradana in due course.
In the early nineteen fifties I joined the Valuation Department which had its head office in Galle Face, Colombo 3 with a small sub office in Jaffna, to attend to work in that peninsula. All the other work in the rest of the country was handled from Head Office, by officers who were sent out on circuit to places where there was work to be undertaken.
This arrangement gave me a wonderful opportunity to travel all over the island at government expense, and in the early years, I volunteered to go to places, where others were disinclined to go, and I spent several months in those difficult areas in the East Coast extending from Pulmuddai in the North to Kumana in the South. I had the opportunity to visit the important religious and historical places from Girihanduseya in Tiriyaya, to Seruwawila, Gokanna Viharaya in Trincomalee District, Kiliveddi bodhi tree, Robert Knox”‘s tamarind tree in Mutur, and in the Ampara District Dighavapi, Buddhangala, Mudu Mahavihara, Magul Mahavihara, Hulannuge, Kudumbigala, Gal Oya Development Scheme and the Panama, Kumana and Okanda Village settlements in the Southern end of East coast, close to the Ruhuna National Park.
While working in one of those outlandish places, I happened to read the previous days Ceylon Daily News, and saw a full page advertisement, advertising the obtaining of an agency and the sale of wrist watches in a shop at Maradana by P.J. Weeraratna & Sons. I then knew that Mr. Asoka Weeraratna had come to the metropolis and opened a shop with a bang. Immediately I wrote a letter and wished him and indicated that I would look him up in the shop when I was next in Colombo.
I made it a point to visit his new shop in Maradana on one of my rare visits from work in the outstations. The shop was in the ground floor of a new upstair building, and displayed a fantastic array of Swiss made wrist watches of all shapes and sizes, and the eager jostling crowds of customers were gazing and some examining and yet others purchasing the items on sale. Swiss made wrist watches having brand names such as “‘Paul Buhre”‘, “‘Boilet”‘ “‘Henry Sandox”‘ and “‘Enicar”‘ sold at P.J. Weeraratna & Sons, Watch dealers, were highly sought after and were the rage of the public in that era. I managed to locate him, and there he was smiling through his spectacles and wearing his white suit engaged in a conversation with a few customers. He was pleased that I had come to see him and his new establishment in Maradana.
Full page advertisements were costly and a rarity in that era, and an agency for a Swiss Watch was an unheard of achievement by a local entrepreneur in that period of uncertainty with the post second world war economic hardships and the prevailing depressed market conditions.
W. P A N D I T A R A T N E
I was present when the German Dharmaduta Society Headquarters were inaugurated at No. 417, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7 on August 7, 1956.
The public meeting was held in the forecourt of the storeyed building which was the Sanghawasa for the bhikkhus. A wooden stage was set up for the Bhikkhus and the distinguished guests and the others were accommodated in the rows of chairs placed under the canopy of trees in the foreground of the one acre property, with its broad frontage to the Bauddhaloka Mawatha. Venerable Nyanatiloka (the well known and highly respected German monk) was seated on the balcony of the sanghawasa, with his benign visage overlooking the historic gathering.
The invitees came in and occupied their seats. The German Ambassador and his wife occupied the seats in the front row. He was in a lounge suit and his wife wore an elegant dress with a solid gold necklace worked out in the shape of a snake with a triangular shaped head, long tapering body and tail, circling her neck. I had never seen such an ornament before and its workmanship fascinated me.
Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara came dressed in white national dress and white shawl and was escorted to a seat in the front row, away from the German Ambassador.
Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike also came wearing a white national dress and shawl and Mr. Asoka Weeraratna escorted him up to the stage and invited the distinguished guest to occupy the seat. He hesitated, looked around saw a few bhikkus in the rear rows of chairs on the stage and said “‘the stage is for the bhikkhus. I will occupy a seat with the audience”‘. He was then escorted to a seat next to the seat occupied by Mr. Kannangara, but Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike said those seats were for the ambassadors and went away and occupied another seat elsewhere.
Mr. Asoka Weeraratna looked at me and gave me a knowing smile and I nodded in response. We understood the embarrassment of Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who had just prior to the General Elections of 1956 gone to the Ratmalana airport to greet and welcome back Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara who had resigned his ambassadorship in Indonesia and returned to the island and was expected to contest the Matugama seat at the General Election, on the S.L.F.P. ticket, but Mr. Bandaranaike”‘s expectations were given the cold shoulder when Mr. C.W.W. Kannangara decided to contest the elections under the UNP symbol. The meeting was well attended by both the public and the distinguished invitees who spoke in support of the proposed activities of the German Dharmaduta Society. At the end of the day Mr. Asoka Weeraratna was a happy man. He was beaming with smiles and looked contented, and confident.
I told him that I would be out of Colombo for a few months. He thanked me for attending the meeting and wished me and said that he would be out of the island for several months and requested me to look him up whenever I came to Colombo. He added that Buddhist missionary work had been neglected during the period of the Second World War and that the people of the West were feeling lost and neglected, and the only solace they will want is the message of the Dhamma. Mr. Asoka Weeraratna said that he intended to work towards the filling of that void in the minds of the people of the Western World.
I became privy to some of his grand designs and plans that were maturing in his mind and realized that very soon he would radically change his vocation and set out on a far reaching missionary programme to spread the Dhamma in the West.
I was sent to Trincomalee and after a few months there, was sent to Batticaloa, Gal Oya and Kalmunai and then returned to Colombo. As Mr. Asoka Weeraratna had left for fresh fields and pastures new, on Buddhist missionary activities, I missed him on that occasion.
When I met him next, he was a Buddhist monk known as Venerable Mitirigala Dhammanisanthi Thero.