Posted on December 13th, 2013

Dr. Tilak Fernando

Cdn-2010-tag---In-Focus---i.jpgIf I were to sieve through all the Sri Lankan personalities I have come across in the UK, over a period of time, Prof. Lakshman Perera comes on top of the list as an intellectual and a patriot. I met this former Professor of History, who was attached to the Colombo University in the eighties, when he was holding the post of Education Officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.

Prof. Perera had taken an interest in Sinhala culture and the language from the time he was an undergraduate at Peradeniya University. Having identified the traditional history of the Sinhala language dating back to the 9th century, he became mindful of the fact that the Sinhala language had been in touch with and influenced by ‘Vedda’, the original language of the pre-Aryan population of Sri Lanka (Veddas).

Prof. Lakshman Perera


I managed to ‘pick his brains’ on the history of teaching the Sinhala language in London at the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies of the London University), which dates as far back as the beginning of the 20th Century where many Sinhala scholastic mentors had taken their turn to pass on their knowledge to post and under-graduates who showed an interest in the Sinhala language in England.

Dr. D.M.D. Wickremasinghe who took the initial plunge, between 1916 and 1932, to visit England to teach Sinhala has been regarded as ‘the grandfather of teaching Sinhala in the UK’. He has been succeeded by Prof. M.D. Ratnasuriya till 1944. A line of lecturers such as Dr. C.E. Godakumbura (1944-47), M.B. Ariyapala (1947-1950), P.E.E. Fernando (1950-53), E.W. Adikaram and P.B.S. Wijeratne (1932 – 1933) and 1944 – 1946) etc.

Englishman’s commitment

Attracted by the rich literature spinning over one thousand years, an Englishman by the name of C.H.B. Reynolds mastered the Sinhala language. He subsequently became an expert and took over the responsibility of teaching the language from Sinhala lecturers who arrived in the UK as visiting lecturers at the SOAS. Consequently Reynolds spent a considerable amount of time (from 1953 to December 1987) discharging his committed duties until his retirement.

Teaching Sinhala at the SOAS has always been associated with Pali and Theravada Buddhist studies. Pali and Theravada are still a living academic and religious tradition in Sri Lanka. For staffing considerations, however, SOAS had to link Pali and Buddhist studies on a ‘half-post’ basis with Burmese.

Unlike students in Sri Lankan universities those who were studying at the SOAS had the opportunity to reach and study within the context of linguistic methodologies applied to a wide range of Asian and African languages. Nowhere in the world was the study of Sinhala done to the same extent as in the SOAS within the broad spectrum of linguistic studies, especially to a greater advantage of scholars from Sri Lankan universities.

Impending demise

The sudden decision to cutback in universities in the UK, coinciding with the impending retirement of C. Reynolds in 1987, showed the way to the proposal of terminating the teaching facilities of Sinhala at the SOAS. This caused a great concern, as far back as 1986, to a group of Sri Lankan scholars in London who had the hindsight to see the alarming calamity and the danger as they realised the abolition of the post of lecturer in Sinhala at the SOAS would certainly be the demise of a long and valuable tradition at the SOAS, as much as bringing about a permanent termination on the aspect of research in this field which had been built by scholars over the years in the UK from Colonial times.

The group could foresee an ominous situation looming up as a direct result of such decisions that would make the vast array of valuable research material in the form of manuscripts, documents in Public Records Office and at the British Museum Library, backed up by excellent library facilities of SOAS, remain unutilised.

The situation helped to form an ‘unofficial ad-hoc committee’ of Sri Lankan scholars under the Chairmanship of the late Ven. Dr. Hammalawa Saddhatissa, Nimal Fernando (Secretary) and Prof. Lakshman Perera (consultant) to campaign against the closure and for the continuance of Sinhala as a taught subject at the SOAS with a staff provision for the development and understanding its literature and culture, Pali and Theravada Buddhist studies.

They made representations to the SOAS authorities, University Grants Commission and to the Government of Sri Lanka with the help of the High Commissioner Chandra Monerawala and the late Premaratne Abeysekera (the education officer at the Mission) who channelled communication between the ad-hoc committee and the Colombo Administration.

The Committee met with the late President R. Premadasa (Prime Minister at the time) and K.H.J. Wijedasa on two occasions in London. This was followed by further meetings with Ranil Wickremesinghe (Minister of Education) and Dr. F.S.C.P Kalpage, Chairman of the UGC and Secretary to the Minister of Higher Education at the time.

With stringent cuts in Education in the UK, SOAS was unable to continue with Sinhala teaching despite many representations made in the absence of any financial provision for staff retention. UGC in Sri Lanka could not do much either with their limited funds which left the problem ultimately to be resolved at Cabinet level – to be decided whether the Sinhala teaching in London should be continued!

Prime Minister’s involvement

Prime Minister R. Premadasa became concerned upon hearing of the dire consequences and became enthusiastic and determined to revive Sinhala studies in London. He managed to convince the Cabinet stressing upon the importance of having to retain a Sinhala lecturer at the SOAS out of Sri Lankan Government funds which paved the way for a government financial allocation from the Sri Lanka treasury with the option of continuing subsequently on a regular basis.

The Director and Secretary of SOAS Prof. C.D. Cowan and D L. Edwards were very cooperative in the negotiations to revive Sinhala again from London and expressed their gratitude to the Sri Lanka government and to those who worked hard to work out a formula to generate sufficient funds for the purpose.

Consequently Prof. D.D. Wijayawardhana attached to the University of Colombo was appointed as a ‘visiting professor’ to teach Sinhala, Theravada Buddhism and Pali at the SOAS followed by eminent Sinhala scholars such as Chancellor Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thera, Prof. J.B. Dissanayake, R. Wijeratne, Udaya Prasanga Medage, Anuruddha Seneviratne, Dr. Gunasena etc.

In the dark

In the absence of any reliable information about the continuation of this position currently (despite email requests to the SOAS and also to a prominent visiting lecturer based in Colombo who once served in London and taught Sinhala at the SOAS), one could only assume that Sinhala, Theravada Buddhist teaching and Pali teaching at SOAS appear to have been gradually phased out and left with a limited option of two courses only, one under Code 15PSAC310 and Sinhala Language 2 (Postgraduate) Course Code:15PSAC307 which are displayed in the SOAS website with the message “Not Running 2013/2014”; regrettably Prof. Lakshman Perera, who is regarded as a mine of information about the subject, was unavailable on the telephone, being very senior in age at present.

However, the description of the two post graduate courses were described as follows: “Code 15PSAC310, a 10-week, 20 hrs per term, part time course: A specific learning outcome for Post Graduate students who are keen on languages to make themselves understood in everyday spoken Sinhala and to build up a basis for conversational ability with the understanding of basic Sinhala grammar, essential Sinhala vocabulary and the knowledge of the appropriateness of basic Sinhala structures and expressions in a given context to understand short passages in written Sinhala and the ability to produce short passages on everyday topics; taught in English and Sinhala and limited to fifteen students to allow close involvement”.

Sinhala Language 2 (Postgraduate) Course Code:15PSAC307: Full Year (specific learning outcome for PG students). “The course provides students with intermediate knowledge of Sinhala and practice of using Sinhala in a variety of everyday and more specialised situations, including the understanding and expression of opinions and different points of view.

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate… knowledge and understanding of intermediate Sinhala grammar familiarity with the Sinhala script including most conjuncts, ability to use a Sinhala dictionary knowledge and understanding of a range of Sinhala vocabulary; the ability to produce passages in written Sinhala of medium length on everyday and some specialised topics; the ability to understand spoken Sinhala and to engage in spoken dialogue of medium complexity on everyday and some specialised topics knowledge and understanding of the role of language in general, and Sinhala in particular, in language-based scholarship and research”.

The SOAS website, while introducing those two Sinhala language courses, carries the following notice too:

Sinhala Language 1 (Postgraduate) Course Code: 15PSAC310 Not Running 2013/2014
Sinhala Language 2 (Postgraduate) Course Code: 15PSAC307 Not Running 2013/2014

– See more at:

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