Selestina Rodrigo - Mrs Jeremias Dias

The first building at Visakha

By Dr Harsha Boralessa (UK)

The Past Pupils Association of Visakha UK (the Association) is now in its 31st year. A new committee and president were elected in March. In keeping with our tradition, we started 2014 by remembering the founder of Visakha Vidyalaya, Selestina Rodrigo. So, on the 20th of April, we held a Mal Pahan Pooja at the London Buddhist Vihara. We were privileged that two of Selestina Rodrigo’s great-grandchildren, as well as our families and friends, were able to join us in this ceremony.

Ms Chitra Perera introduced the programme and invited the chief incumbent Ven. Seelawimala, Ven. Bandula and the resident monks to open the ceremony. Following the pooja, Ven. Seelawimala highlighted the importance of the day: it enabled the Association to express its gratitude to Selestina. In turn, the President of the Association, Dr Kanthi Raveendran, thanked the London Buddhist Vihara for supporting and participating in this important event over the years. A tribute to Selestina Rodrigo followed.

Tribute to Selestina Rodrigo

"Ven Seelawimala, & Maha Sangha of London Buddhist Vihara, Past pupils of Visakha and friends.

Today is a special day to all Visakhians.

Special, because we are here to celebrate a special lady: Selestina Rodrigo our founder and to thank her for giving generations of Visakhians the platform to be what they are today.

Why was Selestina so special?

In 1929 in King George Vth’s birthday honours list, Selestina was invested with an MBE. This was in recognition of her role as a philanthropist who had made a significant contribution to improving education for girls by founding Visakha Vidyalaya, a school for Buddhist girls on par with English medium denominational schools.

The magnitude of her financial contribution was highlighted at the inauguration of Visakha in 1927: 4.5 lakhs, the largest contribution made to any one institution by a single individual. What this amounts to today can be estimated very easily.

Several questions surface:

1. Firstly: What motivated her? At a time when a woman’s role was relegated to the home and family, educating girls was certainly not considered a priority.

2. Secondly: Why was she so passionate about educating girls?

3. Finally: What drove her to invest a sizeable fortune on a venture that did not seem necessary?

Let’s focus on answering these


To appreciate her motivation it’s helpful to understand her background.

I will say a few words about her childhood, her marriage to Jeremias Dias and life as a mother and businesswoman.


Selestina Rodrigo was born in 1858 on the 11th of July, third in a family of seven girls and two boys. Both her parents came from two well- known wealthy families in Panadura.

Selestina grew up in the ancestral home of the Rodrigo family which her father Salaman Rodrigo inherited from his Uncle Johannes, who had no children. Johannes laid down one condition on this inheritance: that an organisation, set up by him to support the needy, The Rodrigo Family Friend in Need Society was supported and funded.

Ironically, although women were pivotal to organizing the activities of this Society, they were denied formal membership.

So from her very early days, although Selestina saw the importance of social service and the responsible use of wealth, her conscience would have been raised to the disparate roles men and women played in society.

A woman’s role was seen solely as that of a wife and a mother. Schooling for girls was not a priority even in the well-to-do Sinhala families during this period. In the 1860s denominational English medium girls schools had not yet been established even in Colombo. So, most children attended small vernacular state run schools. It is not surprising then, that Selestina studied only up to the fifth standard, in a vernacular school close to her ancestral home in Panadura.

This may have driven Selestina to make education a priority for girls.


Selestina was just 15 when she married Jeremias Dias. Jeremias Dias was her first cousin and came from a wealthy family. He was a well-established businessman. When he was in his teens he had started his own business in the arrack trade. Later he diversified his business interests and invested in plantations and graphite mines. Business aside, he was an ardent supporter of the Buddhist revival movement, and masterminded the "Panadura Debate". He supported Buddhist causes throughout his life. So, Buddhist values were ingrained in Selestina and spawned her determination to incorporate these values in the school she was to set up in later life.


The Dias’ had eight children. Selestina was a-typical of women of this era. She was not terribly domesticated. She did not enjoy sewing, cooking or household chores but managed and looked after her staff to whom these duties were delegated. Their lives were traditional and unsophisticated. Their palatial home became home to scores of Selestina’s less well-to-do young relatives whom she undertook to educate. So even in early life she considered education a priority.

Selestina’s role changes: from housewife to business woman

Although marriage brought wealth, Selestina’s life was not easy. In 1902, 29 years after she married, Jeremias died suddenly. Selestina at 44-years became sole heir to a huge business empire, considered very much a male preserve.

In addition to the arrack renting and distilling business, her estate comprised significant landholdings. Just to give you an idea of the extent of her wealth: 167 properties (including several estates) in Kalutara, 10 in Colombo and three in Ratnapura.

Family business

Her eldest son, who joined to help, introduced new practices and almost ruined her. Following his departure, her second son Edmund Wilson stepped in to fill the breach. He salvaged the business and got it on a sound footing but unfortunately contracted tuberculosis, and succumbed to it. His sister who came to nurse him also contracted the disease and died shortly after.

So, in a short space of time Selestina had to cope with the death of her husband, two of her children and the huge stress and responsibility of being thrust into a business with considerable risks.

A further catastrophe compounded her problems: her two surviving sons were imprisoned and put on trial for their lives following the 1915 Buddhist-Muslim riots.

In spite of these misfortunes, Selestina doggedly pursued her belief that education for Sinhala Buddhist girls needed to be made a priority. It was in 1917, just two years later, in the throes of these personal tragedies, that she founded Buddhist Girls’ College (later Visakha Vidyalaya).

So it is clear that Mrs Jeremias Dias’s resolve to establish a school for girls never diminished despite huge changes in her circumstances over the years.

Four important factors contributed to this absolute focus:

Firstly, she saw education as a priority, and educating girls as an absolute priority. She wanted to set up a memorial to her late son Edmund Wilson, and had the vision to see that the establishment of a girls’ school would be a fitting and lasting tribute.

Secondly, her innate sense of Social Responsibility. Selestina grew up realising that wealth entailed social responsibility. It had been a tradition in the Rodrigo family for the wealthy to support the less well-to-do as well as support each other in distress. She was sensitive to the needs of the less well-off. So it was not surprising that she set up a fund to provide dowries for girls whose parents were unable to do so. She also provided a hearse which the poor Panadura residents could access free of charge. It was poignant that she made contributions to institutions associated with tuberculosis. She set up a sanatorium for Buddhist monks and gave the anti-TB Institute at Ragama a generous donation of Rs 10,000.

So, she would also have seen education for girls as part of her social responsibility.

Thirdly, for reconciliation

Selestina saw the opening of Visakha in 1927 as a platform to facilitate dialogue and reconciliation with the colonial regime.

After the 1915 riots (after which two of her sons had been imprisoned), Buddhist leaders were incarcerated as they were thought to spread anti-British feeling.

Following their discharge, Sinhala Buddhist leaders and their colonial masters sought to reconcile differences.

Selestina invited the Governor, as chief guest. She also invited all the colonial dignitaries involved in the Post Buddhist-Muslim riots who were perceived as hostile to the Buddhist movement. Consequently, at the opening ceremony of Visakha the entire proceedings were in English. There were no specific Buddhist ceremonies, neither pirith nor a dane for Edmund Dias. This was seen as an attempt to not emphasize religious or cultural differences. This was testimony to Selestina’s far sightedness.

The Governor Sir Herbert Stanley acknowledged this stand and said that although people were apt to think that a predominantly Ceylonese institution will have an anti-British flavour, he was present to show how fully he disbelieved it. He said that he was confident that these schools would raise an educated younger generation tolerant to other religions and acknowledged that nationalism does not equate to being anti British, and that Buddhism teaches tolerance.

Lastly, and most importantly, the need for education

As a business woman, Selestina would have realised the value of education and that its lack was a handicap.

How did she finance her ambition?

At the inauguration of Visakha Vidyalaya in 1927, Selestina had spent 4.5 lakhs on the school.

How was this possible?

Many focus on Selestina’s benevolence and generosity but forget that it was the successful management of her business empire that made this generosity possible. She was probably one of the most successful business women in that era.

The funds for setting up the school were derived from the profits from a rubber estate in Matugama: Good Hope Estate. Being the smart business woman she was, she allocated the funds as follows: Rs 100,000 was put on trust to set up a school. Out of this, Rs 50,000 was to be deposited with the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) and used to acquire land on which to build the new school and also to furnish it. The remaining Rs 50,000 was to be used for its upkeep.

Selestina did not want to take the easy option by handing over the project totally to BTS. She wanted to be involved to from conception to completion.

The Vision of a school for Buddhist Girls becomes a reality

While premises were being looked for, in 1917 Buddhist Girls’ College, the forerunner to Visakha Vidyalaya opened at Firs: a spacious rented house on Turret Road Colombo. On establishment it had only 20 girls. Its first principal was Dr B.T. Banning M.A.PhD.

There were some teething problems. At the beginning it was difficult to retain staff and equally difficult to attract students. Both staff and students gravitated to well-established denominational schools. Huge amounts were spent on recruitment drives leading to overspends.

Despite this, the school developed and expanded. It moved to its new premises on a three acre site on Vajira road. At its opening, the Chief Guest, Governor Sir Herbert Stanley, declared the building open and Lady Stanley renamed Buddhist Girls’ College - Visakha Vidyalaya. Visakha Vidyalaya after 10 years from its inception had 180 students enrolled - 80 were boarders. The principal was Miss Pearce (after marriage, Mrs Dawes). The education was English based. Not only was the medium of instruction English, but the school was accredited to have Cambridge Junior and Senior classes and to award the English School Leaving Certificate (ESLC). Students were expected to communicate in English.

The emphasis was on a well-rounded education. Thus Music, Drama and Art were included in the curriculum.

Good examination results soon followed. This enabled the school to meet the criteria for a government grant to become a state- assisted school.

So, 10 years after its establishment, in 1927 while still under colonial rule, the Buddhist middle class now had a girls school teaching Buddhist values, yet providing an English-based education, producing socially accomplished women able to compete with their counterparts from the elitist Colombo denominational Schools.

In conclusion, Selestina’s absolute priority was education. Although she and her family contributed substantially to setting up many schools both for boys and girls, her focus was to ensure that education for girls was made a priority.

It is clear that Visakha was her passion and her greatest gift to education.

Today, Visakha Vidyalaya stands as a memorial to Selestina and her son Edmund Wilson. However, a true and fitting memorial to Selestina would be us - we that Visakha has moulded and nurtured to become the women we are today. Our contributions to this and succeeding generations in the future would be unquestionably the most fitting tribute to a very special lady.


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