Piyadasa Sirisena

1875 – 1946
The great communicator and his reformist zeal


Piyadasa Sirisena

BY Jagath Savanadasa

The writer was fortunate to take possession of Ramachandra Guha’s landmark book "Makers of modern India’ published recently. Guha is a prolific author of Indian history. One of his latest works ‘India before Gandhi and after Gandhi’ is considered a classic study of the Subcontinent’s past.

Ramachandra Guha’s worldwide esteem could be judged by what the internationally renowned ‘Time magazine says of him that Guha is the pre- eminent chronicler of Indian history .

In the first book referred to, Guha has identified 16 great communicators indeed a cross section of them, whose writings have shaped India an emergent world power today.

Of the 16, four in this writer’s view, stand out. The first is Mahatma Gandhi the greatest of all pacifist and freedom fighters of pre-independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, statesman, who too was a freedom fighter and historian, Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel laureate whose sublime poetry has had a global outreach and B.R. Ambedkar, constitutionalist and pioneer in the battle against India’s wretched and rigid caste system that was, and is the bane of progress.

Looking back at the history of Sri Lanka of roughly a parallel period, you cannot but feel that we too had at least three outstanding communicators whose oratory and writing skills during the first crucial decades of the twentieth century influenced the mindset of the indigenous people. This gave a fresh lease of life to those who were under the yoke of colonialism.

The three were Anagarika Dharmapala, the great Buddhist reformer, Piyadasa Sirisena, whose writings awoke our people, and the notable dramatist John de Silva.

This essay will deal with the career of Piyadasa Sirisena, whose 73rd death anniversary was on 22nd May. He passed away on 22nd may 1946.

Sirisena , authored 22 novels which reached back to the country’s rich history. Contrastingly Sirisena was highly critical about those who blindly followed the British who ruled at the time.

His first novel ‘Roslyn and Jayatissa’ was emblematic of the above in theme. This novel had unprecedented popularity among the Sinhala masses of the time, so much so that critics consider it a game changer in the history of Sinhala writing.

Two other social ills of the time Sirisena disliked intensely and fought against were Communism and leftist thought. He was of the view that any political ideology should have religious leanings. Religion, in Sirisena’s view, was a great moral and ethical force.

He also attacked the caste and class system that seemed to be of primitive sectarian origin devoid of rationality. His novels constantly dealt with caste and class issues. One such, the pioneering detective novel in this country ‘Dingiri Menika’ written more than 100 years ago, dealt with the highly interesting theme covering an elite Kandyan family an upper class Nilame from Gampola and his lovely daughter. She had fallen in love with an ordinary Kandyan boy. It was a well woven and popular story. The novel became ‘a hit’ for generations, among the Sinhala masses.

When the country was into the last years before independence, there appeared a trend towards political formations. The Sinhala Maha Sabha. the Ceylon National Congress were among them.

According to Professor Vishva Warnapala, Anagarika Dharmapala and Piyadasa Sirisena were the two nationalists whose initial revivalist endeavour created the environment for political formations in this country.

Sirisena through the weekly newspaper he published, ‘The Sinhala Jatiya’ dealt with some of the topics referred to above which was also a powerful organ in the protracted battle against British imperialism. ‘Sinhala jatiya’ had to face a ban during the Sinhala- Muslim riots in 1915 during which many Buddhist leaders, including Piyadasa Sirisena, was imprisoned.

During the last years of his life Piyadasa Sirisena was seriously ill and virtually bed-ridden. His final goal was to pay a tribute to Ruwanweli Seya and its history through poetry comprising 1000 verses.

Sirisena, in the late 1930’s had undertaken several train journeys to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. His idea was to gather as much information as possible through field research about the history associated with Ruwanweli Seya-that great edifice of Buddhist civilization-particularly about the construction of this ‘Seya’.

The Ruwanweli Seya, according to history, is one of the great Stupas located in Anuradhapura.

One of history’s outstanding researchers, Ananda Coomaraswamy, states that "King Dutugemunu’s spirit lived on and manifested itself continuously in the religious and architectural activity of successive kings to the very beginnings of the 19th century."

The foremost Buddhist chronicle Mahawansa notes that the restoration of Buddhism commenced in Anuradhapura and the city ascended to be the greatest in the island.

King Dutugemunu (161-130) commenced construction of Ruwanweli Seya but was unable to complete it during his lifetime. King Dutugemunu’s brother Saddhatissa went on to complete this colossal structure that remains an architectural wonder. Saddhatissa’s other works, the great irrigation schemes, led to a new era of prosperity in the country.

In the course of his visits to Anuradhapura, Sirisena was depressed by the state of the Stupa. It had faced the vagaries of weather and also neglect.

The Stupa was in a state of disrepair and the Buddhist clergy in Anuradhapura, during that last phase of colonial rule were despondent. They urged Sirisena to begin a campaign to fund its restoration. They were aware of his stature and his influence in the country.

Following the publication of the state of the Stupa and the need to restore it, there were a number of responses from wealthy and devoted Budhists of that period.

In the course of the tribute to the Stupa, Sirisena inter-alia had not failed to mention the names of people who had contributed towards restoration of the Stupa.

Unfortunately Sirsena was unable to complete his 1000 poems before he died in 1946. He had done 750. He was hopeful that his daughter Sumana Savanadasa, whom he considered talented and inclined towards literary work, would be able to do it. In point of fact the Preface in the book of poetry, he had stated that Sumana should be able to complete the work.

But Sumana too was constantly ill. In her early 20’s she had entered the teaching profession after her Matriculation, but frequent bouts of illness affected her work and also put paid to her chances of completing the 1000 verses on Ruwanweli Seya. Sumana died at the age of 35. (In those days, medical treatment was a far cry from what its today –more than 80 years later)

The 1000 verse tribute was unfortunately not published. If it had been completed, it would perhaps have been a landmark and symbolic tribute to the island Buddhist civilisation.

In conclusion of this essay it needs to be mentioned that Piyadasa Sirisena is one of the most notable and admired of Sri Lankans of that era before independence.

There had been many researches and publications pertaining to his literary and nationalistic contributions to this country.

However so far a complete study on Sirisena’s life and times has not been written. Thus there remains a big gap.

Fortunately this gap will shortly be filled.

A lifelong admirer of Sirisena, Dr. B.G.A. Vidyatilleka is in the process of completing a widely researched book in Sinhala titled Piyadasa Sirisena Vimarshana which should be an important publication in the history of modern Sinhala literature.

This writer is aware of the of the deeply investigative and researched efforts that had gone into the writing of this book. It will indeed be a literary tome of more than 700 pages. Dr. Vidyatilleka ,a busy Consultant Obstetrician and Gynacologist had obviously sacrificed his professional time to compile the book. To cite one aspect, I believe he had visited the National Archives more than 25 times besides temples and other religious institutions, libraries and also the descendants of Piyadasa Sirisena in the course of collecting information and documents pertaining to his life and work.The release of this publication is likely to be a much looked forward to literary event this year.


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