Saturday Magazine

The Colombo Chetties -- II
by Shirley Pulle Tissera
Part I of this article appeared last Saturday

Contribution to SL society

Although a majority of Colombo Chetties are Christian, their contribution to Buddhism is significant, starting with the role played in the advent of Buddhism to Sri Lanka to the contribution of Ven Soma Maha Thera (Victor Perera Pulle). He wrote 30 books on Buddhism and was responsible as the first monk to carry the Dhamma to Germany, he was the founder of the German Dharmaduta Society, the Sasanadhara Kantha Samitiya, the Banks Asoka Society and the YMBA in Shanghai.

Peter Philip Jurgen Quint Ondaatjie 1758 – 1818 was the first Asian to figure prominently in modern European history. In 1811 Napoleon 1 nominated him to the Imperial Council of Prinses and in 1814 was named a High Court Judge in the Netherlands. He died in 1818 while on his way to take up the highest civil service office in Batavia.

Simon Casie Chitty the first Ceylonese Civil Servant, was elected a member of the Legislative Council in 1845 at the age of 38, he is credited with publishing the first Ceylon Gazetteer and was a writer of great repute, a linguist with mastery of English, Sinhalese, Tamil, Sanskrit, Hebrew and Arabic and a fair knowledge of Portuguese, Dutch, Latin and Greek.

Mr. J R Jayewardene’s first paternal ancestor was a Colombo Chetty as mentioned in the "Biography on President J.R.Jayawardena" by Prof K.M.de Silva & Howard Wriggins.

Colombo Chetties have made great contributions to the Sri Lankan society, in trade they were among the first importers and exporters of traditional and non-traditional goods.They introduced and pioneered teak plantations.

I will highlight the achievements of a few to show the diversity of their contributions to our society:

R I Fernandopulle was considered a pioneer and expert in the Coconut industry in Sri Lanka. He has served as Chairman of the Coconut Cultivation and Coconut Research Boards.

Deshabandu Reggie Candappa was considered the doyen of advertising in Sri Lanka, being the founder Chairman of Grant McCann Erickson. He has held positions as Chairman and Director in many establishments.

Talking of business and finance mention must be made to Sir Christopher Ondaatjie, recently knighted by HM Queen Elizabeth. In addition to his achievements in the field of business and finance, he is probably the only born Sri Lankan to win a Gold medal in an Olympics when as a member of the Canadian Bob-Sledge team they won gold at the 1964 Olympics.

In the field of literature are many Colombo Chetties. Michael Ondaatjie achieved world fame as an author when his novel "The English Patient" won the coveted Booker Prize.

The film version was acclaimed as one of the most outstanding films ever made and created history by winning a record number of academy awards.

The Chetties have contributed substantially in the intellectual realm. De Melho translated both biblical testaments into Tamil. John J. Casie Chetty’s translation of Voet’s Roman Dutch Law into English is considered a distinct contribution to the legal literature of Ceylon. Many Chetties have claimed several ‘firsts’ for Ceylon. Among them are Simon Casie Chitty the First Civil Servant and Publisher of the first Gazetteer, Dr. Peter Philip Jurgen Quint Ondaatje was the first Asian to figure in modern European history: Rev. Philip de Melho was the first Ceylonese to be admitted to the Christian ministry; Henry Francis Muttukrishna was the first Tamil Barrister in Asia. Dr. William Charles Ondaatje was the first Ceylonese director of the Botanical Gardens. He introduced the olive to Sri Lanka, Dr Simon de Melho Aserappa was the first Ceylonese who obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine from a British University; John J Casie Chetty was the first Bachelor of Civil Laws (Oxford) in Asia, Arthur L R Aserappa was the first Ceylonese who won the Cambridge Junior Exhibition and Philip Pulle Tissera was a renowned scholar & educationist, He also served as private tutor to Rev Daniel Poor the founder of the famous Jaffna Library.

Community Service

The Colombo Chetties have also contributed by way of social service programmes, Multi service health camps and the donation of books and stationery to Tsunami effected children are a few of the major projects undertaken in recent times. The Vimukthi Niwasa project which provides Education and economic assistance to hundreds of children of low income families in 20 villages in the Kurunegala and Puttalam districts, empowerment programs for women, Self employment and vocational training, pre schools and housing is a stand out program which is being conducted over the last 16 years. This project is unique because it does not benefit the Colombo Chetties but all other communities who inhabit these areas.

Most of the above information is extracted from the lead article written by me in the publication titled "History of the Colombo Chetties" which was launched by the Prime Minister, Hon Ratnasiri Wickremenayake in December 2000 at the BMICH.

The first copy was ceremoniously handed over to Prof G V P Somaratne in recognition of his assistance towards this publication. Wide publicity was given in the local media to this event and also to the historical facts contained in it.

Communal harmony

The Colombo Chetty Community prides itself in its ability to live in perfect harmony with all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.

This has resulted in close affinity and mutual respect between the Chetties and the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. Over the years there have been instances of inter-marriage. Despite this there are still around 175,000 members of the community residing in Colombo, Chilaw, Puttalam, Negombo, Welihena, Kochchikade, Dankotuwa, Gampaha, Kelaniya, Galle & Matara. They are recognized as a distinct ethnic group ratified by the registrar General’s Department which notice was published in the Observer newspaper of 17th October 1984.

Considering the above credentials the Colombo Chetty Community is ever willing to assist in whichever way possible to bring peace and amity in our beloved Sri Lanka.

The writer is Shirley Pulle Tissera. JP - General Secretary / Vice President Colombo Chetty Association of Sri Lanka (1984- 2004), Chairman- Board of Trustees of Vimukthi Niwasa, District Governor of Lions District 306C (1991/92), President -South Asian Federation of NGO - SAFNGO 1995 (membership of all SAARC countries), President -International Federation of NGOs -IFNGO 2003-2005 (membership of 45 Countries and Regional Bodies), President of the Community Front for Prevention of AIDS - CFPA, Co-ordinator / Treasurer Congress of Religions, Vice Chairman of the Global Fund, Ministry of Health GFATM and Company Director.

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