Posted on March 8th, 2014

Dr. Tilak Fernando

When the word ‘Teeth’ is analysed, it can be used in many forms and phrases such as ‘kick in the teeth, fed up to the back of teeth, etc., but my attempt in this episode is to get my teeth into a Sri Lankan who was very much proficient in dental science in the UK. I do not, however, wish to discuss the 2007 comedy horror film Teeth directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein.


According to the Indus Valley Civilization evidence, dentistry was first practised as far back as 7,000 BC. This earliest form of dentistry involved the curing of tooth related disorders with bow drills operated by skilled bead craftsmen. It was believed to be reliable and effective. The earliest dental filling, was made of beeswax, discovered in Slovenia 6,500 years ago.

Ancient Greek scholars Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about dentistry, including the eruption pattern of teeth, treating decayed teeth and gum disease, extracting teeth with forceps, and using wires to stabilize loose teeth and fractured jaws.

Bow Hawke Hazel Hawke

It is also believed that the first use of dental appliances or bridges came from the Etruscans in the early 700 BC. In ancient Egypt, Hesi-Re was the first person to be named as a “dentist” . The earliest dental amalgams were first documented in a Tang Dynasty medical text written by the Chinese physician Su Kung in 659, and appeared in Germany in 1528.

Lankan dentist

Nalaka Fernando had his early education at Ananda College, and qualified as a dental surgeon in Australia. Upon returning to ‘Ceylon’ he set up his first private practice in Colombo, later migrated to the UK with his family and joined the National Health Service where he worked in Reading, Heertsfordshire and finally moved to London. His success was attributed not only to his competence as a dental surgeon but his caring disposition endeared his patients.

The former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke and his first wife Hazel were close friends of Nalaka Fernando. A friendship which commenced as a student in Australia remained intact even after he left Australia. Much to his surprise, Bob Hawke in his autobiography never forgot to mention Nalaka Fernando’s name and their experiences.

Bob Hawke in Moratuwa

Bob Hawke once visited Nalaka Fernando’s ancestral home in Moratuwa. He was deeply touched by the Sri Lankan warm hospitality which, in his own words, he described later, I quote: “Nalalaka’s home is a heaven of peace producing an atmosphere so serene and whose inmates were ardent devotees of Buddhism” .

Added to his extensive knowledge on dental and medical subjects, Nalaka Fernando was well read on English Literature and Mathematics. This enabled him to help his friends’ young children in London on Sundays when he was free. Nalaka’s library comprised first editions of books on a wider range of subject-sources which helped him to draw on to establish himself as a knowledgeable and competent tutor. I once used to take my son Channa on Sundays for English tuition to Nalaka Fernando when I too thoroughly got engrossed and enjoyed English poetry by merely listening to his explications.

Nalaka’s deep and wide knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and other religions enabled him to compare and contrast the basic tenets in each religion and strengthened and reinforced the view that ‘Buddhism as the most scientific religion in the world’. His erudition sat lightly on him in that it was not in his nature to impress upon people in order to boost his ego! He was much sought after for giving talks on Buddhism, and he always very kindly obliged whenever a request was made to him.

One of his lectures delivered at the London Buddhist Vihara on July 12, 1992 on the subject, “The evolution of a Buddhist from childhood to adulthood” was warmly cherished by the large audience that was present on that occasion, and it opened a new avenue for him to share his Buddhist views in the form of lectures.

On Vesak day in 1992, Nalaka Fernando gave an interesting and informative discourse on Buddhism at the Watford Sri Sai Centre where he highlighted the Buddha’s message of tolerance and never to speak disparagingly of any other faith or persecute those who differed from theirs. The audience that comprised devotees of various faiths was impressed with the content of his speech that they requested copies of the text of the oration, which was made available to them subsequently. This led him to another new area of further talks on Buddhism at various other inter-faith centres.

Man of wit

Nalaka’s wittiness had no bounds. Once the Sri Lankan High Commissioner extended an invitation to Nalaka Fernando to attend the Buckingham Palace Garden Party in summer, which is much sought after by the Sri Lankan community in London!

Usually the Queen Elizabeth II never misses a single diplomatic marquee while intermingling with the guests at the garden party. On this particular occasion when the Queen gracefully walked towards the Sri Lanka High Commission marquee, the High Commissioner formally introduced Nalaka to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, stating:

“Your Majesty, meet one of our eminent Sri Lankan dentists in London, Dr. Nalaka Fernando”.

While shaking hands with Nalaka, the Queen politely said to Nalaka: “Mr. Fernando, how reassuring it would be….., if we all didn’t have to visit the dentist and the hair dresser from the time we are born?”

Nalaka’s quick humour had no bounds, thus making use of the rare opportunity he quipped:

“Yes, your Majesty! It’s absolutely true ……. But, I have heard of an adage which is slightly different to your Majesty’s version, which says, Pain is both mental and physical, but the one that is both physical and mental is dental!”

“Can you repeat it again, I want to remember it’ was the Queen’s response as an infectious laughter spread inside the Sri Lankan marquee.”

On September 10,1997 Nalaka Fernando answered the inevitable call from above. On November 1, 1997 a commemorative sangika dana to eight Buddhist priests were offered by his friends at the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre to transfer merit to the departed ‘ soul’ according to Buddhist religious rites. It was considered quite a meritorious deed as it happened to be a very rare opportunity to find eight Buddhist monks in a London temple at any given time, especially during the Vassana (Kathina ) season.

Even today, all those who associated Nalaka Fernando miss him for his anecdotes, witticisms and interesting stories which used to enliven social gatherings.

Nalaka not only cared for his patients, but always had time for others whether it was for advice on dental, medical, children’s education, or information on abstruse philosophical issues relating to Buddhism or on multi-faith.

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One Response to “Life Abroad – Part 69 MENTAL AND PHYSICAL IS DENTAL!”

  1. Nanda Says:

    “On September 10,1997 Nalaka Fernando answered the inevitable call from above. On November 1, 1997 a commemorative sangika dana to eight Buddhist priests were offered by his friends at the Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre to transfer merit to the departed ‘ soul’ according to Buddhist religious rites. ”

    The writer, a Buddhist by birth (unless converted later in life) is writing this like a non-Buddhist. Why ?

    “Call from above” – what nonsense from a Buddhist ?
    ” departed ‘soul’ ” – Buddhism teachs no soul ( anaththa)

    Otherwise an interesting writing spoiled by lack of knowledge.

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