A Tribute
Deshamanya Dr. Nissanka Parakrama Wijeyeratne
by A. C. B. Pethiyagoda

One of the most outstanding Sri Lankans of our times passed away on at the age of eighty four on Sunday 7th January this year. Outstanding? Yes, Nissanka excelled in whatever he did. In school, Royal College, Colombo, he was among the first few in his group taking a special interest in Ceylon History- winning both the Junior and Senior Special Prizes. Through University and thereafter as well History was his main interest outside his official duties. At any meeting, given time for conversation, he would hold his listeners virtually spellbound speaking softly and slowly of major historical events of the world from the dim distant past and their repercussions up to these times on civilization itself.

Relating the history of religions particularly Buddhism and Hinduism also he was unmatched recounting the spread of Buddhism in India itself, to distant Russia. The Middle East, Far East and also to the near by Maldives Islands . Of this country’s past there was little he did not talk about with authority. Incidents, places and unrecorded folk-lore made one want to read or see for oneself these places. Coming closer to our times he knew the family trees of scores revealing hitherto little known laudable deeds or the rattle of skeletons in the cupboards of a few of his vast circle of relatives, friends and acquaintances. Also he knew who married whom, the number they added to the population and what they did to enrich or develop their society or themselves; many through dint of hard work and just a few by bending the rules!

From among these families he introduced quite a number of the younger ones to others ending in matrimony and watched their progress in life with interest. The numbers whom Nissanka helped in various other ways are innumerable taking those not as favours but as assistance rendered.

Sometime in the early 1970s at the commemoration of the birth and work of Ananda Coomaraswamy held at the USIS Library at Flower Road a speaker shuffled several pages of typed script in an attempt to introduce Coomaraswamy. He failed in his task. Nissanka, the guest speaker followed and held the audience in pin drop silence for over an hour speaking only of Coomaraswamy’s work. He did not carry even a postage stamp sized scrap of paper on this occasion; nor at the numberless similar events before and after. This is just one of the numerous such occasions on which Nissanka held his audience whether on political platforms, Parliament, informal meetings or at social gatherings — spontaneous applause was always the result.

To celebrate his seventy seventh birthday on 14th July 2001 Nissanka’s sons Neranjan, Manodha, Anuradha, Lankesh and daughter Nishanganie brought out a book titled ‘An Anthology of our Father’s Poems’ It was a truly unique birthday gift and event at the Russian Centre in Colombo with a few addresses by Nissanka’s admirers followed by a short variety entertainment . The book consists of about 125 poems composed over a period of about twenty five years on his visits to Malta, Belgrade, Barbados, Sicily , Havana, Belgium and many more destinations and of persons whom he had met such as Queen Elizabeth II, General Zia Ul-Haq, Sir Denis Roberts, Prince Akihito, Marshel Tito, Mother Teresa and of course of Nita his wife who stood by him in good times and bad. The latter were perhaps when he was banished to the ‘pool’ to which senior public servants were relegated to when out of favour with the political party in power at the time and also prior to Parliamentary elections and before the election to the position of Diyawadana Nilame.

The book includes about a hundred photographs starting with a formal family group with Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne (our first Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London as the late Tissa described the position) Lady Leela (nee Pethiyagoda), sons Tissa, Nissanka and Cuda — the men in smart western attire which both Tissa and Nissanka subsequently gave up for the white national dress. When Tissa first appeared in this attire in the Kegalle District Court years ago there was quite a stir in legal circles and Nissanks’s colleagues in the highest echelons of the then exclusive club, the Ceylon Civil Service, would have raised many an elite administrative upper crust eye brow.

Nissanka as a public servant held very many positions including Government Agent, Secretary to the Public Service Commission, in the Port, Department of Import Control , Radio Ceylon and about dozen or so more . A future biographer could do justice to this aspect of Nissanka’s contribution to the country adding a few stories like the one of a habour worker on strike, no doubt after a few ‘ shots’, came up to Nissanka with sarong raised high above the knees and his quick disappearance into the crowd after Nissanka smilingly walked up to him and whispered a few words in the ear of the Chandiya.

As a parliamentarian and as a Cabinet Minister also Nissanka had numerous anecdotes which space does not allow repetition here.

Mention must be made of his achievement as Government Agent of Anuradhapura when he implemented to near perfection and in record time the restoration and transformation of the sacred city into modern town while enhancing its sanity and past glory at the comparatively young age of about 30 years . The project was initiated by Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike, and completed during Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s period as Premier. At about the same time Nissanka organized the Baudha Jathika Balavegaya with a view to helping Buddhists, particularly among the marginalized, in various ways to learn and practise their religion and correct the veiled discrimination against them in the educational, social and economic spheres.

As Diyawadana Nilame, the chief lay custodian of the Sri Dalada Maligawa — the highest position a layman can hold in the Buddhist World — Nissanka virtually revolutionized the management of all assets of the temple by way of land and other resources. All the priceless items of jewellery and other offerings made by devotees from ancient times up to then were meticulously inventorized and large numbers displayed in a museum in the Maligawa premises. The day to day administration of the scared precincts was streamlined in consultation with the then Most Venerable Mahanayaka Theros of Malwatta and Asgiriya while keeping intact the age old customs and traditions. A sense of orderliness and discipline was introduced helping the thousands of devotees, specially on Poya days, to worship in a quiet and peaceful atmosphere.

The annual Esela Perehera was also conducted in keeping with tradition and made more spectacular year after year in spite of escalating costs. These improvements helped Nissanka’s son, Neranjan, who succeeded him as DN to swiftly repair the extensive damage caused to the Maligawa by the barbarous LTTE on January 25, 1998 as the administrative machine set up earlier still ran smoothly and effectively.

Nita, the children and brother, Dr. Cuda, and their families can console themselves that their sorrow is shared by thousands from all walks of life and from all parts of the country, many of whom filed past Nissanka’s bier at Meeduma Walawa prior to his cremation on Wednesday January 10.

May this much loved, respected, admired humanist, thinker, friend, relative, raconteur, administrator and politician’s journey through Sansara be brief and he attain the Bliss of Nirvana.


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