Ponnambalam Ramanathan designated as ‘the greatest Ceylonese of
all times’ by D. S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of
independent Ceylon, was born on 15th April 1851, and passed away
on 30th November 1930. He dominated the public life of this
country like a colossus for well over 50 years during the last
quarter of the 19th century, and the first quarter of the 20th
century, as aptly stated by Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, a senior
Cabinet Minister. His 75th heath anniversary fell on 30th
November 2005 and his 155th birth anniversary will fall on 15th
He was a lawyer par excellence, a legislator of
the highest probity championing the causes of all communities in
the Island and a highly cultured philosopher-statesman, as
envisaged in Plato’s ‘Republic’ and a devout spiritual seeker.
He was enrolled as an Advocate in 1873, and enjoyed a lucrative
practice at the Bar until 1886.
The Governor nominated him to the post of
Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council in 1879, on the
retirement of his illustrious uncle Sir Muthucoomaraswamy. (Who
himself was an international figure, having been knighted
personally by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in London, for
his services to the comity of nations, and who was the father of
Ananda Coomaraswamy, the well known international scholar).
Ramanathan functioned as an Unofficial Member of the Legislative
Council until 1892 and was hailed as a doughty fighter for the
rights of all communities in the Island.
He was then appointed by the Governor as
Solicitor-General in 1892 and functioned as such until 1906, and
acted as Attorney-General on several occasions during this
period. He availed himself of this period of service as a senior
Law Officer of the Crown to introspect and produce very
illuminating writings on Christian and Hindu spiritual themes.
The Governor at that time Sir Henry Blake was so impressed with
the depth of his spiritual writings, that he gave him one year’s
leave from 1905 to 1906 to go on a lecture tour of USA to
deliver talks on spiritual topics at the request of over 200
signatories to an invitation, calling upon him to enlighten the
intelligentsia in the United States, in the wake of Swami
Vivekananda’s spiritual awakening of the people of America 12
years earlier, in 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions.
Earlier during his tenure of office as
Solicitor-General, he was nominated by the Government to
represent Ceylon as a delegate to the Golden Jubilee
celebrations of Queen Victoria in 1897 at London. At the request
of Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister at that time, he delivered
an eloquent speech at the celebrations, dressed in his
immaculate long coat and turban, which was greatly appreciated
by all present. Lord Salisbury described him as the most
accomplished speaker in the British Empire and the Queen awarded
him a gold medal on the occasion. It is interesting to note that
this appellation was subsequently conferred on Srinivasa Sastri
of India in the 1930’s, when he was known as ‘the silver-tongued
orator of the British Empire’.
Ramanathan entered active politics again in 1911
on being elected by the people as the first Educated Ceylonese
Member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon by a sweeping
majority. It was a historic event, as he was the very first
candidate to be elected to the Legislature of the country by an
all-Ceylon electorate, prior to the introduction of universal
franchise in. 1931 under the Donoughmore constitution. He was
re-elected to this seat in the Legislative Council in 1916 and
held it until 1921.
Ramanathan was not only steeped in Hindu and
Christian mysticism, but was deeply involved in the revival of
Buddhist activities in Ceylon. He was responsible for the
Government declaring Wesak a public holiday, and was closely
associated with Col. Henry Olcott, the co-founder of the
Theosophical Society, in promoting Buddhist education in
schools. Olcott had said ‘From the time Buddhists of Ceylon
began to take into their own hands the education of their
youths, we have had a staunch friend and co-operator in the
person of my friend Mr. Ramanathan, the Solicitor-General of
Sir Baron Jayatilaka, the Head of the Cabinet in
the State Council, referred to Sir, Ponnambalam Ramanathan on
one occasion as ‘the greatest man Ceylon has produced during the
past 50 years.’ (The writer had the good fortune of meeting Sir
Baron at a Colombo University Students’ Union dinner in 1940
where the writer as the Chairman happened to receive and toast
Sir Baron as the Chief Guest at the dinner).
A. Ratnayake, President of the Senate, (whom the
writer knew personally, as his home at Frankfurt Place, Colombo,
was the venue for several J. Krishnamurti group discussion
meetings organized by the writer) once described Sir Ponnambalam
Ramanathan as ‘the father of Ceylonese Renaissance’.
Ramanathan himself has been reported earlier as
saying, about his dedicated service to the people of Ceylon:
‘Take the Sinhalese nation. I have served the race all my life.
In my twenty-eighth year I entered the Legislative Council and
never once have I thought myself to be a member of the Tamil
community only — I supported the Sinhalese interests and every
other interest and treated every subject with the same sympathy
and desire to do the best for all communities I knew through and
through the men and women of the Sinhalese community of all
classes. They have all the characteristics of a great people.
They are decidedly considerate and peaceful.’
It is reported that during the widespread and
prolonged Sinhalese-Muslim Riots of 1915, the British Governor
unjustifiably came down with a heavy hand on the Sinhalese
community and declared Martial law and ordered the Police and
the Army to arrest and imprison several prominent Sinhalese
leaders arbitrarily. Among those imprisoned were D. S.
Senanayake, D. R. Wijewardena, Dr. Cassius Pereira, E. T. De
Silva, F.R. Dias Bandaranaike, H. Amarasuriya, A.H. Molamure and
several others. It is said that some other leaders were shot
without trial. Ramanathan thereupon came to the rescue of the
Sinhalese community and fought hard and long against the tyranny
of the British Government.
Anagarika Dharmapala who was in India at that
time wrote to Ramanathan thanking him for his valiant efforts in
pressurizing the Government to do justice to the Buddhists of
Ceylon, both in and outside the Legislative Council, and
requesting him to persevere with his agitation. Ramanathan then
made a special trip by ship to England, in October 1915, braving
the German submarines that were attacking British ships at that
time during World War 1, and made cogent representations to the
Secretary of State for the Colonies in London and to several
British Parliamentarians and politicians, and had the Governor
and the Army Brigadier recalled and replaced, and all the
Sinhalese leaders duly released from prison.
When he returned to the Island, Ramanathan was
given a hero’s welcome at the jetty by a grateful public, A. E.
Goonesinghe and Lionel (later Sir John) Kotalawela and a few
others went on board the ship to receive him and later as A. C.
Seneviratne, a prominent Sinhalese, related ‘No horses, but
relays of men thirty number drew his carriage through the
streets to his residence at ‘Sukasthan’, Ward Place, Colombo, as
a mark of deep gratitude’. Among these grateful men who drew the
carriage were some of the elite in the Sinhalese community.
As regards to his personal life, Ramanathan
married Chellachiammal, daughter of Nannithamby Mudaliyar, a
wealthy businessman of Colombo, in 1874 and had two sons
Rajendra and Varnadeva. He was awarded the prestigious title of
C.M.G (Commander of the Order of St. Michael & St. George) by
the Imperial Government in 1889, and was made a King’s Counsel
in the legal profession in 1903. He was conferred a Knighthood
by the Imperial Government in 1921. After the death of his first
wife, he married in 1906 an English lady by the name of Miss.
Harrison, who was his devoted secretary during his American
lecture tour and who later came to be known as Lady Leelawathy
Ramanathan, and was Principal of the Ramanathan Ladies, College
in Jaffna for several years after Sir Ramanathan’s demise. Their
only daughter Sivakamy later married Natesa Pillai, a very
cultured person of Indian origin, who became a Member of
Parliament in Ceylon, (and whom the writer had the good fortune
to meet and get to know personally).
The Ponnambalavaneswara Temple at Kochchikade,
Colombo, was originally built by Ramanathan’s father in 1856 out
of brick and mortar. Ramanthan demolished it in 1906, and he
built a new splendid granite temple with delicately carved
rockstone pillars and images on this site between 1907 and 1912
at a cost of two million rupees. He also later built two small
temples at the Ramanathan Ladies College campus at Chunnakam and
at the Parameswara Boy’s College campus at Tinnevely, Jaffna,
both founded by him, the great Philanthropist that he was.
The writer, who is now 86 years old, had the
good fortune, as a schoolboy of 11 years, to listen to one of
the last talks of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan at the Saiva Maha
Sabha hall at Kandy in 1930. One still vividly remembers the
stately turbaned figure of the speaker beginning his English
speech with a rendering of Saint Manickavasagar’s famous Tamil
hymn: ‘Muthineri Ariyatha Moorkarodu Muyalvenai’ and explaining
how the saint ‘in an ecstatic mood marvels (Achovey), at the way
the Lord so graciously purifies his mind of all the dross and
grants him ineffable joy and liberation.