Who’s Afraid of Wimalasurendra?
Posted on August 18th, 2020

B.D. Witharana

In a series of speeches made at the State Council, especially during 1933-34, Wimalasurendra identified the broad alliance that worked against the Hydroelectric Scheme. He used different names at times to identify this alliance: ‘Big Business’, ‘Oil and Coal Combine’, ‘Almighty Oil Interests’, ‘Big Business and Alien Combines’, ‘Imperialistic Element’, ‘Big Business Element’, ‘Big Business Party.’ – B.D. Witharana

• Wimalasurendra came upon the massive waterfall, which he brilliantly named,  Laxapana – 100,000 Lamps – and engineered its hydroelectric scheme, but the English erased his name, claimed it as their invention, and screwed it up!

    ee highly recommends this week’s story about DJ Wimalasurendra, the founder of hydroelectricity in Sri Lanka”. His absolutely fascinating contribution to early industrialization – thwarted and delayed to prevent us creating our own energy sources – appears almost erased. The metanarrative of imperialist suppression and white supremacism continues to this day, to prevent transformation of this colonial import-export plantation farce! (see ee Focus)  

The Censored Story of D. J. Wimalasurendra: Imagining the Industrial Nation of Ceylon

B.D. Witharana (Part 1)

Excerpts from Negotiating Power & Constructing the Nation: Engineering in Sri Lanka:


The streets of Colombo were provided with a few gas lamps in 1872 by the Colombo Gas & Water Co. Electricity was generated using diesel and was first introduced symbolically to the island in 1882 by illuminating the Billiard Room of the Bristol Hotel in the capital Colombo. It was provided on a commercial basis by Boustead Brothers Ltd since 1895 (Phillips 1981). Electricity was generated on a limited scale by generators of 5-122 horsepower scale for the use of plantations even by 1885…

Aberdeen-Laxapana Hydroelectric Scheme (1900-36) – My main interest is to revisit the idea about the non-emergence of a discourse on developmental nationalism in Sri Lanka, as witnessed in neighbouring India. Why did the demand for an industrially developed independent Ceylon made by Ceylonese leaders such as Marcus Fernando, Anagarika Dharmapala and Cumaratunga Munidasa not evolve into a mature ‘plan’ leading ultimately to the establishment of a Sri Lankan developmental nation? Or was there, in fact, such a ‘plan’ which escaped the gaze of historians for some reason? Exploring Land, Labor, Capital & Sectional Interests in the National Politics of SL, in the first part of the 20th century, a study on peasantry and agriculture, V Samaraweera (1981) observes… Ceylonese nationalists began to look towards a realistic program of industrialization for the country” only by the 1940s.

     By selecting the first mass-scale hydroelectricity generation scheme, the Aberdeen-Laxapana Scheme as my ‘worksite’, I discuss… how a widespread campaign for a Ceylonese developmental state was, in fact, present. The discourse anchored in the Aberdeen-Laxapana Scheme proposed an alternative future for the island against the romantic peasant agriculture based vision that succeeded…

     The hydroelectric scheme that was under discussion for decades during British colonial rule. and began operations in the mid-20th century, was the terrain for a range of important colonial – anti-colonial  – and nationalistic ideas and counter-ideas that have largely gone unrecorded in the discourse of Sri Lankan nationalism so far. The biography of DJ Wimalasurendra, the key Ceylonese behind the scheme, opens an avenue for one to visit this hidden past and to observe that a realistic program of industrialization was present long before the 1940s.

       Both Marcus Fernando and Cumaratunga Munidasa were influenced by the ideas forwarded by Wimalasurendra. The initial ideas of industrialization presented on a ground of Sinhala nationalism, eg by Dharmapala, seem to have transformed into a clear narrative of developmental nationalism by 1920-30s, thanks to the contributions made by Wimalasurendra.

     Anagarika Dharmapala, who had a more radical approach in comparison to most of the political and social elite, loyal to British at the time, was the leading figure who mixed social morality with Buddhist agitation and was hence instrumental in politicizing the movement. Dharmapala contrasted Buddhist values with the moral failings of missionaries, e.g. meat and alcohol consumption and lack of a norm against killing animals…

     DJ Wimalasurendra (1874-1953) dedicated his entire life, from the days of his early career as a District Engineer of the Public Works Dept to his later life as a politician in the first State Council of Ceylon, to seeing the Scheme pushed through, amidst numerous obstacles. In the early 20th century he investigated in detail the possibility of developing the hydro potential of the island, made important contributions to design… The paper he presented in 1918 at the Engineering Association of Ceylon, Economics of Power Utilization in Ceylon” which linked hydropower with the development infrastructure for industrialization, can be considered as the first draft of a vision for a developmental nation, that evolved further during the following decades. Wimalasurendra who, out of frustration, took early retirement from the Dept of Electrical Undertakings in 1930, tried his best to campaign for the recommencement of construction of the Scheme, as a member of the first State Council 1931-36. Speeches made by Wimalasurendra at the State Council are a testimony to the advanced imagination of a Ceylonese developmental nation underpinned by the industrial potential provided by the Hydroelectric Scheme.

One can argue that this delay of almost half a century in implementing the Laxapana Scheme, which under normal circumstances would have taken just 4 years, could have prevented a possible early industrialization of Ceylon.

     Wimalasurendra was born in 1874 as a member of the Navandanna, the caste that historically specialized in ‘engineering’, according to the division of labour defined in the local caste system… His father, Don Juan Wimalasurendra, earned recognition for his master-craftsmanship and was awarded the title ‘Mudaliyar’ by the colonial government. His family tradition can be seen as the original influence on Wimalasurendra’s practical skills. After completing his secondary education at the prominent Sinhala Buddhist school, Ananda College, Wimalasurendra received his initial education in engineering at the Ceylon Technical College. [He became] a Chartered Civil Engineer and Chartered Electrical Engineer, a rare achievement even by today’s standards. In 1924 he was appointed Head of the Electrical Engineering Section of the Public Works Department.

     A detailed discussion of the evolution of the Hydroelectric Scheme is required to appreciate the nuances of the imagination of a technologically advanced Ceylon – an imagination in which Wimalasurendra takes centre stage…

A closer look at these sources spread over the span of half a century leads one to identify 2 rather incompatible narratives that highlight the important tensions that defined the final shape of developmental nationalism in the first half of the 20th century. The clarity of the ‘facts’ that are relatively clear in retrospect, may not have been so apparent in the heat of the controversies that surrounded this developmental imagination at the time…

     Almost all the officials who held high office during the first half of the 20thC were British. Some of the post-independence sources… reflect some features of this first narrative as a result of their dependence on the colonial sources from the first half of the century. The 2nd narrative that contests the 1st colonial-narrative draws mainly from local sources and is interwoven closely with the life story of engineer DJ Wimalasurendra. Information can also be found to strengthen this second narrative in official colonial sources. However, when they are from colonial sources they do not appear in the main text but in the annexes produced by locals. There are also some colonial texts produced by Englishmen that can be used to strengthen the second narrative when they were written especially for the readership of locals (e.g. motions presented for approval of the Legislative Council, dominated by Ceylonese members).

The important feature that differentiates the 2 narratives from each other is the place reserved for Wimalasurendra. While narratives that use colonial sources underplay the role of Wimalasurendra, the 2nd narrative highlights it. 1910 is given as the date of the origin of the Hydroelectric Scheme in the first narrative: …Nov 1910, that FB Rylands, the Government Electrical Engineer attached to the PWD, reported, sufficient hydropower was available near Laxapana for the total electricity requirement of the government. The 2nd narrative, however, marking an extended history takes the origin of the Hydroelectric Scheme further back to the year 1901, and hence transfers the credit from Rylands to Wimalasurendra and the time when the idea of generating electricity from the Laxapana falls was conceived by Wimalasurendra.

     While involved in a government assignment to search for minerals and particularly gold, Wimalasurendra, as an acting District Engineer, is said to have found the new ‘mine of gold’ in 1901 when he saw by chance the falls of Laxapana and realized their potential to generate electricity. It was this thought from 1901 that had led to his investigation of the hydroelectric potential of the island, which he published as a technical paper in 1918. Interestingly some of these important years do not appear as milestones in the colonial narrative on the Scheme…

     After being appointed on 22 Aug 1904 as an Acting District Engineer and posted to Diyatalawa, a small town in the central hills, Wimalasurendra was assigned with 2 tasks: to build camps to house the South African Boer prisoners of war, and to search for prospects for minerals in the island. A Boer prisoner Ian Van Geyzel, who was an engineer himself, was selected by the government to accompany him on excursions in search of minerals. Wimalasurendra gives credit to his companion, who had the opportunity of traveling worldwide and experiencing hydroelectric power generation, for suggesting the possibility of tapping Laxapana for electricity generation.

     The waterfall which was known till then as Kiriwan Eliya Falls was renamed by Wimalasurendra as Laxapana to mean 100,000 light bulbs”. Arumugam finds this new name as a proof of Wimalasurendra’s engineering genius. Based on the overall water-head (520m) and the installed capacity (100MW) of the present scheme, Arumugam calculates backwards to estimate the possible installed capacity of the water-head (129m) Wimalasurendra must have observed in 1901/4. The figure 11.6MWs Arumugam derives as the installed capacity is, in fact, equivalent to illumination of 116,000 of 100W light bulbs…

     Another interesting contrast between the 2 narratives becomes apparent when the reasons for the delay in construction are discussed. The first narrative avoids discussion by just attributing it to ‘various reasons’ without further explanation, or just refers to the ‘unsatisfactory position’ with regard to the status of the Scheme. The 2nd narrative, however, adds clarity to the ‘mystery’. While some describe the delay within a framework of a personal conflict between Rylands and Wimalasurendra or between the white colonial government and Wimalasurendra, others point to a larger picture of institutionalized racism at work in the government service at that time. Wimalasurendra took it even further to position the delay in a discourse on the business and economic interests of the British imperialist project…”

see also


One Response to “Who’s Afraid of Wimalasurendra?”

  1. Nimal Says:

    I vaguely remember this gentleman visiting our homes in Mirihana,Kandy at Laxapana where my father was one of the superintendent Engineers that helped to build up the hydro power plant in stages. I think the head of the whole scheme was one English man name Saunders who seem to have a short temper but he was like a kid dressed up like Santa and gave Christmas gifts to all the kids in DGEU.The gentleman mentioned above was a construction engineer that helped or advised in constructing the second stage.Other engineer who did much work to develop second stage is MR Thalis(EE) who missed our company keeps coming to play cards to our home in Kandy every evening and drive back to Laxapana every night.
    From our home at Laxapana we could see the Norton bridge where we could see people working on the bridge, which was on the dam.
    Years after we left that area there was a big tragedy where a passenger plane flying from Indonesia crashed killing many.

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