Village notables in colonial Ceylon



By Tissa Devendra

I write today of forgotten people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose deeds have been hidden from history. These are those officials who once lorded it over little villages in late Colonial Ceylon. These are vignettes retrieved from memory and oral history.

My career in government service began just five years after Ceylon extricated itself from British rule. I had the good fortune to work in District Kachcheries, far from big cities, and staffed by old stagers most of whose working life had been in the Colonial era - when the Government Agent [GA] was king and politicians his humble supplicants. [When I retired thirty years later, these roles had been reversed.] The great advantage of working in these old Kachcheries was the rich store of anecdotes of a lost 'way of life' that I learned from their veteran officers. Another source of such knowledge was during my field trips to distant hamlets and the long evening conversations, of bygone days, with Village Headmen on the verandah of the Circuit Bungalow, my temporary home during 'circuits'. What I write here is no official report but, rather, some vignettes rescued from the mists of fading memory.

The centre of local/village government, from olden days, had been the Gam Sabhava [Vilage Council] composed of local worthies chosen, apparently, by consensus - not by divisive elections [no thanks to Donoughmore]. The Sabhava was staffed by a handful of officers assigned to them by the Government in Colombo. The most important of these was the Sanitary Inspector, popularly called 'Santy Bode Mahattaya', harking back to the earlier institution of the Sanitary Board, composed of officials. It is hard to imagine what were the 'sanitary' problems that these officers [and their successor Public Heal Inspectors] had to deal with in these farming villages where the garbage was organic and 'bio-degradable' [in today's jargon] - as were toilet habits. But, these officials tramped the village roads to, hopefully, improve village sanitary habits.

Perhaps the most interesting job was that of the 'Atender Opisera' [Attendance Officer]. Even in that era a benevolent Colonial government had been determined to educate the natives and decreed that school education was compulsory. In true colonial tradition, a disciplinary mechanism was established to impose this regulation. An Attendance Officer [AO] was appointed to the "catchment area" of every village school. His duty was to stalk stealthily along footpaths and fields looking out for truant schoolboys engaged in raiding fruit trees, splashing in waterways and such interesting boyish pursuits. Once collared, the miscreant was smacked with the cane the AO carried and hauled off to school to sit alongside his 'tame' but envious , class mates

The Village School Headmaster [HM] was an imposing figure dressed in cloth and coat. The school occupied a long hall surrounded by half walls with one lockable room for stores. The classes ranged from Standards 1 to 5. Students sat on long benches and wrote at long communal desks. No individual desk or chair was available to them. The school's minuscule staff, apart from the HM himself, consisted of his wife, a young Assistant and the lady Dancing Teacher, fondly called 'Natana Miss' by her pupils. The 'Grow More Food' campaign of WW II days heralded the glory days of the village school and its HM. The school's dusty compound was dug up and converted into vegetable 'beds' watered from the school well which quenched schoolboy thirst. Before long, these blossomed into flourishing growths of assorted vegetables, grown from seeds distributed by the Agricultural Officer. I seem to remember a 'Best School Garden Competition' in each Education Region, where the school gardens were inspected by an Agricultural Officer and the winning school was awarded a trophy. The HM also had it good, as he was entitled to sell the school's produce in the local 'pola'. Bookish studies, inevitably, declined in importance. The designation 'headman' is nowadays associated with primitive tribes in the wilds of Papua and the Amazon. However, in Colonial Ceylon, and till 1956, the Village Headman [VH] was the uncrowned king of the village. He was appointed by the Government Agent from a traditional leading family in the area, in order to ensure that the VH received customary respect from villagers. The VH's office was his home and flaunted a bright blue metal sign board topped with the British Crown and carrying his Designation of 'Village Headman' in English and, below it, 'Gam Mulaadaeni' in Sinhala. The VH was also empowered as a 'Peace Officer' entitling him to handle the duties of a police officer in villages where there was no Police Station.

The VH, as the sole representative of the Government had a uniform of a crimson sash with a large brass badge of office to be worn at formal functions. The VH carried out a bewildering variety of duties that required official approval. These ranged from mediating in boundary disputes and domestic strife to the protection and maintenance of government buildings as well as the apprehending of petty offenders and the implementation of government directives. He also had to 'orchestrate' the field visits of senior Kachcheri officials on official duty. The VH himself was occasionally summoned to the distant District Kachcheri. The government had, considerately, provided for the VH's welfare with a spartanly equipped hostelry grandly designated 'Headman's Lodge'. It was staffed with the Lodge Keeper-cum-Cook. In this latter capacity he eked out his meager stipend by providing 'take-away' lunches and dinners to bachelor Kachcheri officials.

The Registrar of Marriages was also an important official, though not very busy as the registration of births and deaths was done at District level. As a mature and well educated gentleman who presided over an important 'rite of passage' he was respectfully honoured with the traditional, though non-official, title of Registrar 'Ralahamy'. He performed this duty in his home which proclaimed his designation in white lettering on a black wooden signboard .The front veranda was furnished with a few straight-backed chairs opposite his desk, for the registering couple,flanked with a small cupboard for assorted forms and a wooden Notice Board on which were pinned Notices of Marriage. Not uncommonly, the Registrar was a kinsman of the VH.

The most important of the buildings that had to be maintained by the VH was the Village Tribunal building. This was a fair-sized, squarish 'open' building. A waist high wall surrounded by a verandah enclosed the podium and desk of the presiding officer. Below this were two wooden railed 'docks', one was for the prosecuting officer, complainant or witness while the respondent/ accused stood in the other.. A little room behind the presiding officer's podium provided him privacy (and lunching) space The half-walled verandah gave inquisitive sightseers a close-up view of the proceedings. The Village Tribunal [VT] was headed by the VT President, a provincial Proctor who preferred a quiet life in the countryside to the intellectual thrust and parry of a Magistrate's Court. The cases he adjudicated were minor misdemeanours, petty crimes, assaults, land disputes and domestic troubles - too problematic for the VH to settle but not complicated enough to require formal judicial action . Generally speaking, VT proceedings were straightforward, commonsensical and devoid of "law points". Sentencing or acquittal was prompt. No lawyers were permitted to argue here. Looking back at these Tribunals what strikes me as even more significant is that all proceedings were in Sinhala - fully understood by all the participants - unlike in the 'English Only' of the higher Courts.

The Government Dispensary provided modern medical care in the village as distinct from the traditional Ayurveda of Vedaralas , the dispensary was staffed by a Government Apothecary - a qualified Medical Practitioner, though not a Medical Graduate. He was a transferable officer, but often served many years in the same village, by popular demand. The dispensary was a small well built building equipped with a chairs, benches and cupboards. There were no beds as there were no indoor patients. The apothecary, respectfully addressed as 'Dosthara Mahattaya', rendered first aid and attended to the ailments of village folk. Every morning a little cluster of 'patients' sniffling, coughing, moaning and whimpering, sat on the verandah benches till the 'Dosthara Mahattaya' arrived to attend to them. His sole Assistant was the Dispensary's basically trained Hospital Orderly who, in addition to dressing wounds, also served as dispenser of the few basic prescribed 'medicines' stocked in the dispensary. The apothecary was assigned a comfortable little official bungalow near the dispensary. It was traditional that the kitchen lady who prepared his meals also shared his bed at night.

The Sub Post Master 'Tappal Mahattaya' was the village's main link with the outside world. He was a 'son of the village' and not a permanent government officer, though he received a stipend for his services and earned a commission from the sale of stamps and Postal Orders - the most popular, and simple, method of cash transfer in that era. An accessible room in the SPM's house was furnished as the Post Office, separated from the public by a wooden counter and a brass grill behind which business took place. An old jam jar full of gum was on the counter for pasting envelopes, receipts etc. There was also a damp purple stamp pad for illiterate villagers' thumbprints on official forms. The Post Office was equipped with the only telephone in the village - used mainly by local officials. The SPM's sole assistant was the Postal Peon who collected village addressed mail from the town Post Office, helped him to sort out letters and, most importantly, ride his bicycle delivering letters at their homes - a people-friendly service of a 'nanny state'.

On the outskirts of the village was the PWD compound where a sort of 'line room' housed a gang of 'Indian' Tamil labourers, employed by an Overseer addressed by villagers as "Writer Mahattaya" [I never learnt the origin of this inexplicable 'clerical' term for a field officer]. The Overseer lived alone in a house nearby and was reputed to be accumulating wealth to be given as dowry to his daughter expected to marry a CCS man from Jaffna. This compound contained heaps of rubble , bags of cement, tubs of tar and wheelbarrows - 'tools of trade' in the repair of roads, and government buildings in the village - the school, dispensary and VT court house.

I briefly toyed with including the Railway Station Master in this story - but did not do so as the Railroad did not pass through this village and the nearest Station was in a town and no SM lived here.

I hope I have given readers a flavor of those notables who ran the village in late Colonial Ceylon - but whose actual 'way of life' does not feature in official records or learned research.


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