Posted on December 27th, 2022


This essay gives a quick resume of the story of Sri Lanka‘s national anthem and then records the developments up to 2021 regarding the Tamil version.

A ‘national anthem’ is a western invention of the 18th century. European countries acquired ‘national anthems’ during this period. The British national anthem simply asked God to save the king and send him victorious, happy and glorious.  The composer is unknown. It was adopted as the national anthem in 1745. The national anthem of France, La Marseillaise was originally a war song, adopted as the national anthem in 1795.

The subject of a national anthem for the soon-to-be-independent Ceylon came up in State Council in 1941, said historian Haris de Silva.  Lanka Gandharva Sabha organized a competition to find a national anthem. The panel of judges was SLB Kapukotuwa, LLK Gunatunga, Lionel Edirisinghe, PB Elangasinghe, OH de A Wijesekera, and Multiyear EA Abeysekera.

The competition was held on January 31, 1948. Among the entries were Namo Namo Matha by Ananda Samarakoon and Sri Lanka Matha Pala Yasa Mahima by P. B. Illangasinghe and Lionel Edirisinghe. Samarakoon was then in India holding an exhibition of his paintings his wife and brother had submitted Namo Namo Matha” for the competition.

 The song by P. B. Illangasinghe and Lionel Edirisinghe won the competition but the public protested since Illangasinghe and Edirisinghe were on the panel of judges.  Their song was broadcast over Radio Ceylon” on the morning of Independence Day as the national song but it was not sung at the official Independence function.

Attention then turned to Namo Namo matha. Tissa Kariyawasam said Namo Namo Matha was sung at the 1948 Independence celebration by the students of All Saints Girls’ School trained by the Rev Fr Marcelline Jayakody   who was a violinist. (Sunday Island. 2.2.03 p 3). There is however no corroboration of this statement.

The composer of Namo Namo Matha, Ananda Samarakoon was born on January 13, 1911 in a small village, Liyanwela, near Watareka in the Padukka area. His parents, Samuel Samarakoon and Dominga Pieris were Christians. The son was christened George Wilfred.

He attended Christian College, Kotte (now Sri Jayewardenepura MMV).In 1934; he joined the staff of Christian College, as a teacher of art and music. In1936,   he went to Shantineketan and studied art under the famous Bengali artist Nandalal Bose, and music and singing under Shanti Devi Gosh. He came back in 1937 without completing his course and started teaching. Upon his return George Wilfred became known as Ananda Samarakoon. In 1940, he joined the staff of Mahinda College, Galle.

Ananda Samarakoon had composed Namo Namo Matha in 1940 as a patriotic song for the pupils of Mahinda College, Galle, where he was the singing teacher. Vini Vitharana said he had been a student at Mahinda College Galle, at the time. Samarakoon had ‘got the boys to sing it’.

Dr. Nihal  Karunaratne  of Kandy said that  Samarakoon  had presented a painting to his mother and on the back of the painting had pasted a paper cutting of an article published in the  Sunday Times where had had said that the song Namo Namo  Matha was composed by him in 1940 when he was a teacher at Mahinda.  He had composed it to instil patriotism in the students. 

Namo Namo Matha became popular and began to be seen as a potential national anthem. In 1946 the song was recorded for the HMV gramophone company. Being a fine singer himself Samarakoon recorded the song with his partner Swarna de Silva, the sister of famous flautist Dunstan de Silva.

The song became famous after a 50 member choir from Musaeus College; Colombo sang it on a public occasion. It was also broadcast on Radio frequently. Namo Namo Matha” though without official recognition was now becoming popular as a de-facto” national anthem.

The song was included in a book of poems published by Samarakoon called Geetha Kumudini”. Samarakoon was unable to pay the printing costs and instead gave the printer RKW Siriwardena the copyright to the songs. When the song was selected as the national anthem, Samarakoon did not get the prize of Rs 2500, awarded to the winner. It went to the publisher who had published it in the song book and insisted that he must get the money. Attorney general decided in his favor. 

In 1950 the then Finance minister JR Jayewardene presented a cabinet memorandum that the widely popular Namo Namo Matha” be formally acknowledged as the official anthem. Prime Minister DS Senanayake set up a select committee under the Home Affairs and Rural Development minister EAP Wijeratne to decide the matter. The committee considered Namo Namo Matha” and some other lyrics and recommended that Samarakoon’s song should be the national anthem.

However, the committee wanted a slight change in the words. The song had originally been composed when the country was under the British. Now the island was independent. Therefore the 10th line needed altering. Samarakoon, who was in India, was summoned to Ceylon by Sir Edwin Wijeratne. He returned home and agreed to change the line. Wijeratne then presented a cabinet paper in August 1951, recommending Namo Namo Matha” as the national anthem.

A Cabinet memorandum of 22.11.1951 proposed that Namo Namo Matha be accepted as National anthem.  It was unanimously approved by cabinet and formally adopted on November 22nd 1951.  

Namo Namo Matha was first sung as Ceylon’s official national anthem at the Independence Day ceremony in 1952.The music score was provided by George Perry, bandmaster of the 1st battalion of the Ceylon Light Infantry, attached to the army head quarters.

In 1952 the song was printed as a booklet    with translations in English and Tamil.  Instructions were issued as to how and where it was to be played. There were three versions, whole, abridged, and abbreviated and the occasions where each version was to be used was given.

Namo Namo Matha was now being sung as the official anthem but there was no uniformity in the melody or manner of singing. Different choirs and singers were rendering it in different ways.

In 1953 standards were set for the singing of the national anthem.   A Committee of 8 persons including GDA Perera, Deva Suriya Sena and Ananda Samarakoon was appointed.  They decided on standards for indigenous, western and band versions.

This committee set out guidelines as to how the anthem should be sung and also defined the exact tune for it. The melody was a refined version of the original tune composed by Samarakoon.

The indigenous version was demonstrated by the School for the Blind, trained by Saranagupta Amarasinghe. The western version was by the   Radio Ceylon orchestra, band version by the army band.

The reputed firm Cargills, then agents for HMV (His Masters Voice) was given the order to make records of the national anthem. The version sung by the School for the Blind accompanied by the army band was recorded by HMV in 1954.

In 1956 the government acquired the copyright. It paid Rs. 2500 to PKW SIriwardene, the publisher of Kumudini, in which the song first appeared in print. Once again, Samarakoon did not get anything.

Towards the end of the 1950s there was a controversy over the gana in the first line of the anthem.  A ‘gana’ is the placing of the first three syllables. Critics said the Gana” at the beginning of the national anthem, Na-mo-na” was inauspicious and that was the cause of all Sri Lanka’s troubles.

As criticism mounted over the national anthem, Ananda Samarakoon defended himself against the charges. He engaged in many newspaper debates and also spoke at public meetings in defence of Namo Namo Matha”. In February 1961 the government changed the line to “Sri Lanka Matha, despite Samarakoon’s strong opposition.

At the time, Samarakoon was facing financial difficulties. Although he conducted a regular program on the Educational service run by Radio Ceylon” his creative compositions did not meet with much commercial success. He produced a song and dance pageant Amaraneeya Lanka” in 1957 but it was a major flop. The onslaught against Namo Namo Matha” added to his troubles. Samarakoon committed suicide in April 1962, leaving a note complaining that his anthem had been mutilated.

Tissa Kariyawasam noted in 2003 that the first letter was changed because ‘na’ was considered inauspicious. This was nonsense, he said. Namo thassa  bagawatho’ also began with the same letter.  ( Continued)

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