The Don who taught Lord Soulbury to speak Sinhala

by J. B. Disanayaka
Department of Sinhala, University of Colombo

It was the year 1949 when Viscount Soulbury arrived in Colombo to become the second British Governor General of Independent Ceylon. The British Raj had come to an end but the English wanted to keep their goodwill at all costs. As Lord Soulbury set foot in Colombo he made it a point to greet the crowd present at the jetty to receive him by saying in Sinhala ‘ayubovan’: May you live long!

Lord Soulbury’s ‘ayubovan‘’took all by surprise. By the way, who taught him to say this Sinhala word so well? Inquiries revealed that it was a young lecturer of the University of Ceylon, then reading for his PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. It was none other than Professor M. B. Ariyapala who is honoured by the National Arts Council today.

That was half a century ago. Young Ariyapala was working on his thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy of the University of London when he was requested by Lord Soulbury to teach him some Sinhala so that he could do some small talk with his new cabinet headed by Don Stephen Senanayaka. Both Professor Ariyapala and Lord Soulbury got on very well so much so that the Governor General Elect found time amidst his onerous duties to glimpse through Prof. Ariyapala’s thesis titled ‘The state of society in Ceylon as depicted in the Saddharma-Ratnavaliya and other literature of the thirteenth century’.

This thesis appeared, six years later, as a book titled: ‘Society in Mediaeval Ceylon’ which became an authority on the subject. Dr. L. D. Barnet who supervised his thesis at the School of Oriental and African Studies says, in his Foreword to this book that Dr. Ariyapala " has carefully collected and analysed the valuable data throwing light on the social conditions of his native island in the period under review, and the resultant picture is highly instructive."

Today Professor Ariyapala is in his mid eighties, enjoying the bliss of retirement in very fruitful ways. He has just completed the prose translation of Kavsilumina, the best epic poem in Sinhala. Prof Ariyapala was always in love with this epic poem not only because it is the best love poem of the Sinhalese but also because it is the work of a Sinhala king, Parakramabahu.

Undergraduates at Peradeniya still remember nostalgically how young Ariyapala explained the manner in which kings engaged themselves in unrestrained mirthful pleasures while enjoying a cup of wine at the royal palace:

"Seeing mirrored in the cup the lotus-petalled

Eyes and face of the maiden-bearer of the wine,

Whose wish inclined to win the passion of her Lord.

At once enkindled with desire his royal blood"

The year 1990 saw the first English translation in verse of Kavsilumina, ‘The Crest-Gem of Poetry’, the product of a labour of love which he shared with another eminent English scholar and poet, W. R. McAlpine, who was the Representative of the British Council in Sri Lanka. McAlpine, who on retirement decided to settle down in Sri Lanka, was another man who loved Sri Lanka and her literery achievements.

"My years of longing have come to fruition" wrote Prof. Ariyapala in his Preface to the English translation "and I earnestly hope that in a variation of the words used by Kalikala Sarasaviya in the authorship at the end of the poem, the learned will evaluate The Crest Gem of Poetry now set before them in English".

Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, his colleague at Peradeniya, was the happiest when he heard that an attempt has been made to translate the greatest poem in Sinhala literature in the tradition of a Maha Kavya. Wrote Prof. Sarachchandra in his Introduction to the English translation:

"A poem like the Kavsilumina is. I think, almost untranslatable because it is the product of a theory of poetry which will sound strange in the ears of an English reader, and, further; it is replete with conceits and allusions to Indian mythology which are not so well known. But of the two who have undertaken this Herculean task, one is a scholar of repute and the other a poet. No better combination could have been envisaged for the success of this work and I wish it will bring this classic within the reach of those to whom it is not accessible in the original" Prof. Ariyapala who began his academic life at Peradeniya later moved to Colombo to set up the new Faculty of Arts in the metropolitan University. He did not want just another Arts Faculty in Colombo but one that has a distinction of its own, even as a challenge to Peradeniya. With this in mind, he established the country’s first department of Linguistics in Colombo in both media: Sinhala and Tamil. This department was, however, later shifted to the University of Kelaniya as part of an attempt to reorganise university education.

However, when an attempt was made to remove the entire Arts Faculty from Colombo. ProŁ Ariyapala took a firm stand and said that it would be done only over his dead body! Thanks to Prof.Ariyapala, the Arts Faculty remained in Colombo becoming a centre of academic excellence in languages and social sciences. As the President of the Colombo campus of the University (as the Vice-Chancellor was then called) Prof. Ariyapala implemented an extensive programme of infrastructural activities to make the Colombo campus one of the best in the University system.

Prof. Ariyapala’s determination and commitment to do what he thought was right gave him a special place not only in the groves of acadame but also in places outside it, such as the Buddhist Theosophical Society, the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, the Oriental Studies Society and the Royal Asiatic Society.

He earned a name for being a rebel with a cause. His rebellious instincts began to find expression when he was just a young lecturer at Peradeniya where he had the courage to question and challenge the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, Dr. Nicholas Attygalle, who had himself earned the epithet ‘the Iron Vice-Chancellor’ because of his refusal to change his stand on various academic matters. The teaching faculty elected young Ariyapala to represent them in the University Court and the University Council, two of the most prestigeous bodies of the day. In spite of his rebellious nature, ProŁ Ariyapala succeeded in remaining in these two bodies for more than six years.

Prof. Ariyapala posed a challenge not only in the University Court but also in the tennis court. At that time, the Faculty was called the Faculty of Oriental Studies. In spite of the presence of academic stalwarts like Professors Malalasekera, Ratnasuriya and Wijesekera, the Faculty did not enjoy the social prestige that other faculties did. The Faculty was nicknamed ‘the O-Fac’ and even lecturers were considered low in social status. How could this attitude be changed?

Prof. Ariyapala, along with the Head of the Department of Sinhala, Prof. D. E. Hettiarchchi, thought of a unique modus operandi. They decided to go to the lecture rooms in trousers, attend public meetings in the national dress and play tennis in a pair of shorts! They showed that they were as good as any other University don in spite of being in the ‘O-fac’.

Yesterday Prof Ariyapala was honoured by the National Arts Council for his contribution to uplift the Sinhala language, literature, culture and history. It is an honour that he amply deserves. Men of the calibre of Prof. Ariyapala are rare indeed. He spent every hour not for his personal fame or glory but for the good of the many. May I, as a student who learned at his feet, as a colleague who taught in his Department, and as a Senior Professor saying good-bye to University life this very day, wish ProŁ Ariyapala long life to work more for the advancement of humanities studies in this country.