Chandra Ranaraja (nee Mahadiulwewa)


by Sumangalika Dharmadasa

It is difficult to believe that Chandra Ranaraja is no more. She passed away as peacefully as she had lived, on March 3, 2016 after a brief illness. She leaves a void which is difficult to fill as people of her calibre are hard to come by in the present era.

Chandra Ranaraja was perhaps the most well-known and highly respected female political figure in Kandy. Immaculately dressed in a Kandiyan saree, with a string of beads or a chain around her neck and a ‘ Konde,’ one would meet her wending her way to Hillwood College, or striding energetically to the Municipality or to the market. I think she enjoyed walking because she could meet people and talk with people from different walks of life.

Her devotion and service to our beloved hill-capital are unsurpassable. Even when she left home to enter hospital on February 29, she was talking of plans regarding her pet project the ‘Heritage City’. Like everything she undertook, for example the OGA of our alma-mater Hillwood College, Kandy, her involvement in this too was wholehearted and absolute. Another institution to which she devoted her energy was the Kandy Municipal Council of which she was a member, the Deputy Mayor and finally the Mayor.

Chandra akka, the eldest in a family of seven children, hails from the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura. She took pride in the fact that she was from Rajarata. Her roots lay in the ancient village of Mahadiulwewa in the Medawachchiya electorate. Her grandfather, D.P.B. Mahadiulwewa, was Chairman of the Village Tribunals which functioned during British Colonial times. Her father was S.H Mahadiulwewa, Kachcheri Mudliyar of Anuradhapura and the MP for Kalawewa in 1947 and 1952. Her mother too was an amazingly versatile lady of Rajarata who was deeply involved in religious and social activities, holding many responsible positions like being a member of the Mirisawetiya Restoration Committee, the founding president of the Dayaka Sabha of the Viharamahadevi Upasikaramaya of Anuradhapura to name but a few.

My cousin Chandra was one of the first women to enter the University of Peradeniya from the NCP. When she graduated in 1961, the whole family attended the Convocation because we were so proud of her! To her great delight, her first teaching appointment was to a school in Anuradhapura, the Holy Family Covent. It was a friend of mine who was amongst the first batch of students she taught who told me that Chandra akka was one of the most popular teachers in school at the time.

After her marriage to Shelton Ranaraja, who was then the MP for Senkadagala, she came to live in Kandy and taught at Girls’ High School, Kandy where she was fondly called "Visakha" (after the great Buddhist Upasika) because of her kindness, calm ways and sedate walk! She gave up teaching to look after her five children (Premila, Aruni, the twins Siromi and Shamila and Anjali).

Although she gave up teaching, she continued to serve in the sphere of education in various capacities. When the Universities Act of 1978 came into effect, every University was required to have a Council where non-university people of eminence who were appointed to the Council had a decisive voice. Chandra Ranaraja was thus appointed a member of the first Council of the University of Peradeniya by the government of the time.

Chandra akka rose to be a leading figure in the social and political life of Kandy. It was however, not merely because she was the wife of Shelton Ranaraja. She had a stature of her own, moulded by her selfless and dedicated work which was widely acknowledged. Even in her undergraduate days, she was thoroughly involved in politics as she came from a family tradition of politicians. During her time in the University of Peradeniya, she was an active member of the "Demsoc" (Democratic Society, the UNP sympathiser group) which had a difficult time in the face of opposition from the Marxist groups which dominated student politics at the time. Steadfast in the principles she believed in, she campaigned for the UNP candidates in the two General elections of 1960.

Her most active period in politics was in 1977 and after, when she worked beside her husband who became MP for Senkadagala and Deputy Minister of Justice in the J.R Jayewardene Government. She was also a member of the Working Committee of the UNP. Due to her popularity and proven efficiency, she was persuaded to enter local politics and was soon elected a Member of the Kandy Municipality. Because of the yeoman service she rendered during her tenure, she was elected the Deputy Mayor and later, the Mayor of Kandy as I mentioned before.

Chandra Ranaraja made history by becoming the first and only lady Mayor of the Hill Capital of Sri Lanka. As a political figure, she followed the high standards of honesty and integrity set by those honourable people she emulated like her own father, Mr. S.H Mahadiulwewa, her husband Mr Shelton Ranaraja and her uncles Mr M.D Banda and Mr. Asoka Mahadiulwewa.

She was a true democrat, ready to accommodate the just views of the opposition and accept constructive criticism. There are anecdotes about her integrity and sense of fair-play narrated to us by her political opponents that amply prove this point. This, coupled with her incredible store of knowledge and capacity for hard work is perhaps why she was much sought after even after retiring from active politics. Until the very last, she was an active member of the Heritage group, a pillar of her old school and an Advisor of the Kandy Municipality amongst many other things.

She was a friend to the friendless, a benefactor to the needy and a tower of strength to one and all. Above all, she was a caring mother to her children and an unfailing source of support to everyone in the family circle.

Akka, you are one of the finest people I have known and I consider it a great honour to have been born your cousin.

May you attain the supreme Bliss of Nirvana.

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