Their life stories are songs to remember 1910-1950

Admirable Buddhist Women


"Their great endeavours brought immense happiness, in a back drop of colonialism and Christian activity. The fruits of their labour is seen in the smiling faces of thousands, whether they seek solace in Temples or when benefiting from education and caring."

By Upali K. Salgado

It has often been said that, behind the success of many a man is a woman, who could be one’s mother or wife or daughter. However, at the beginning of the last century, several Buddhist men of Sri Lanka, encouraged women who had hitherto for ages been by tradition confined to their homes, caring for the family and looking after the family silver, to come out openly into society and make a meaningful contribution in the fields of Buddhist education find social welfare. In that hour, it was the nationalist Anagarika Dharmapala of Matara, his friend, the fiery orator and nationalist, Harischandra Walisinghe of Andiambalama, (near Negombo), Great Mudaliyar Samson Rajapakse of Balapitiya, Peter de Abrew, Mudaliyar Sri Chandrasekera of Moratuwa, Jeromias Dias of Panadura and Sir D. B. Jayatilleke of Kelaniya who urged educated women of respectable families, together their friends and relations and uplift Buddhist causes. It meant great personal sacrifice, and devotion to duty. This essay covers a forty year span (1910 to 1950) when the Holy Bible was being taught in all major schools established by Christian Missionaries, such as Christian College, Kotte (in about 1835), Southlands Girls School, Galle, Richmond College, Galle, St. Thomas College, Colombo (1851), Christ Church College, Matale, Bishop’s College (in about 1880), Wesley College and Ladies Colleges Colombo (in about 1902) and Trinity College, Kandy. Prior to 1910, the only Buddhist Schools of note were Ananda College, Museus College, Mahinda College, Galle, Dharmapala College, Kandy, and a small Vernacular School at the Panadura Rankot Vihare, all associated with Col. Henry Olcott. Many of them were managed by The Buddhist Theosophical Society of Ceylon, with Public support.

In that era, Christian Missionaries had the patronage of the British Government and also of Plantation Agency Houses, to finance their projects. Trusts were created and much money flowed from Tea Auctions to Missionary Societies. However, unethical conversions to Christianity as seen today, were absent. Many a Christian school had students of the Buddhist faith, and they did well for their schools and for themselves in life.

The writer has selected four Buddhist women whose outstanding ability contributed in a big way with their strength and resources for the welfare of Buddhists. They remain in our hearts as admirable unsung ‘dutiful Mothers of Lanka’, who worked in an unostentatious manner. Their hearts grieved for the orphans, the infirm and other Buddhist children of Lanka.


- A woman of great piety -

Don Charles Wijewardene, a son of Muhandiram Tudugalle Don Wijewardene of Sedawatte, Colombo said, ‘Nobody made Kelaniya the Capital city, and through the history of Lanka, we see that Kelaniya was one of the cradles of our civilization’. History records that, King Uttiya (267 BC), one of the younger brothers of King Devanampiya Tissa, reconstructed the original chetiya built by King Maniakkahita, and maintained a fraternity of over 500 Bhikkhus at Kelaniya Temple. Much later, when Jayawardenapura Kotte became the Capital city, the Kelaniya Vihare became the principal shrine of the Kings. It was therefore called a ‘Raja Maha Vihare’. This Vihare had at that time, a five storeyed building and the temple lands extended to the present day settlements of Gongitota, Wattala, Mabole, Wanawasala, Waragoda and Kiribathgoda. The Portuguese colonialists who came here for ‘Spices and Christians’, destroyed the Raja Maha Vihare, vandalised the area and unethically using force, converted many people to the new faith. Only the central Buduge (Image House - Shrine Room) of the temple remained, but neglected.

Four hundred and twenty two years later, MRS. HELENA WIJEWARDENE (nee Dep) though born to Christian parents studied Buddhism on her own from Venerable Sedawatte Samaramoli Maha Thera, and the Chief monk of the Adam’s Peak Vihare, who were frequent visitors to her Walauwa.

She embraced the Teachings of Sakyamuni Gotama Buddha and offered dane to the Maha Sangha. Being a pious lady, who had in her home a shrine room, where she herself daily offered Buddha Pooja (dane) on an exquisitely decorated silver bowl and tray she one day resolved, though being a widow (well past her sixtieth birthday) to muster the help of her seven well educated sons and two daughters, to lay the foundation stone, for the complete-restoration of the partly destroyed old Kelani Vihare Buduge. Also, have built imposing additions to the historic Kelani Raja Maha Vihare. The Vihare was to have architecture and art in keeping with traditional Sinhala Buddhist art motifs .Being a woman of strong character and determination, having imbibed ‘sardha’, she motivated her family members to take an interest in her project. Her sons were educated in a Christian School, (S. Thomas’ College which had the Etonian traditions) she saw that they actively supported her ambitions to become a reality. Don Richard Wijewardene, her husband, the Newspaper magnate, provided finance periodically to complete the building work during the economic depression (1930-33) whilst Dr. Don Edmund Wijewardene, Don Charles Wijewardene and Don Walter Wijewardene helped her in her monumental task. The other male embers Don Albert and Don Philip Wijewardene, Don Louis Wijewardene supervised the family Coconut and Rubber plantations and ensured that the produce was transported by river to Sedwatte Waluwe, sited on the river bank. These sons also took leadership to organise the annual Keleni Temple Duruthu Perahera. The principal dayakes were Don Walter Wijewardene and Don Charles Wijewardene. Her grandson Nanda Senewiratne was another who helped greatly to organise this annual event.

The decorating of the Vihare with frescos was entrusted to Walimuni Solius Mendis of Madampe (near Chilaw). He was sent by the Wijewardene’s to see for himself the soft shades used at Bhag and at the Ajantha Caves, in North India. Solius Mendis was a very talented man; a maestro in his own field of creative art, and produced murals well away from the Kandyan Art and the Nilagama tradition seen at Dambulla. He used no imported paints and made his own decoction of shades of paint, boiling roots, leaves and bark of trees etc. He stood on high scaffolding for eighteen long years to complete all what he did, except the backdrop of the new main shrine room where the guilded Buddha Image is. These wall paintings are today considered to be masterpieces of art. Helena, Wijewardene is today a household name, and Buddhists of Sri Lanka are truly proud of her efforts and contribution for the preservation of Buddhism, under Colonial rule.

MRS. JEREMIAS DIAS (Nee Selestina Rodrigo) of Panadura

- The Visakha of modern time -

Panadura which is well known for people of philanthropy, produced a woman of rare qualities. She was born to give, and to give without fuss to the poorest of the poor, was always her way of life. With that great quality, she made the lives of thousands of young women happy and contented. The greater number of them were educated at Visakha Vidyalaya, Bambalapitiya, the school she founded. Other girls who were too poor to educate themselves, were given in marriage with dowries and jewellery provided by her. When necessary, this lady who had a heart of gold, even provided coffins and a private hearse which she owned and kept at her residence backyard, to be requisitioned when necessary by the poor folk of the area. That was not motorised, but hand drawn hearse, which she deemed be used for her own funeral, as well. She lived close to the sea and often repaired and renovated others small houses by sea, when unkind monsoonal weather had its toll. The large hearted lady was none other than MRS. SELESTINA RODRIGO, also known as Mrs. Jeremias Dias or SELESTINA DIAS. Born in 1918, at the age of fifteen years she witnessed the great Panadura Debate that took place in August 1873, near the Rankot Vihare, and was inspired to work for Buddhist causes. In all her endeavours, JEREMIAS DIAS had the financial backing of her husband who was a successful Arrack Renter, Merchant and cash crop Plantation owner. The BUDDHIST GIRLS COLLEGE, COLOMBO,-national school for young maidens of the island founded by her on her own initiative on 16th January 1917, in memory of her son Bertie, was sited at ‘The Firs’, Turret Road, now Dharmapala Mawatha (at the now popularly known "Pittala handiya"), with Miss B. T. Banning M.A. Ph.D as the first School Principal. The first days roll: at school numbered twenty two students. As the numbers increased, Mrs. Jeremias Dias decided to move to more spacious premises at Vajira Road, Bambalapitiaya, where she donated four acres of land. The school was renamed VISAKHA VIDYALAYA on 21st November

1927. On the first day of school, all present took Pansil and that was followed by recitation of the Blessing ("Maha Mangala Sutta"). In the school Report of 1928, it is recorded that Sinhala was taught in earnest and the standard was ‘good’. (It is worth noting that Sinhala was made a compulsory language for the Public examination - only in December 1948) She donated the large lope Estate, Matugama, for the welfare of the school. Soon after shifting the school to Bambalapitiatya, the great economic depression took place (1930-33). Nevertheless, the building work to go-on unabated. For that reason, she as a Trustee of the school, mortgaged the Good Hope Rubber Estate to Walker Sons Ltd, the builders of the school for Rs. 62,000/-, which then was considered to be a princely figure. Venerable Naradha Maha Thera, for the Vajiraramaya (located closely in the precincts of the school) was a regular Preacher, and visitor to the school.

Mrs. Jeremias Dias was a woman who had a great vision. She became a widow rather early in life, (in 1902) but managed the family fortunes admirably. She was always photo-shy, and refused -any a time to be photographed. She was one of the few wealthy people who owned a custom built’ Rolls Royce’ motor car, but seldom used it even to attend important school functions. Her modesty and simplicity was admirable. The public knew that she was sincere in her endeavour, and for that reason she had the willing support and advise of the highest in the land to serve as Trustees and Administrators of the School; namely D. S. Senanayake, Dr. W. Arthur Silva, N. E. Weerasooriya QC and Sir Baron Jayatilleke. They were responsible for selecting a capable University educated tutorial staff. With the quality of education, often reflected by the examination results published annually, and ever since the stewardship of and Mrs. Clara Motwani and, Mrs. J. Pulimood, as Principals of the school (prior to the Government "take over") the numbers on the roll swelled within a short time. The country today is having professionally educated women in all walks of life. Many of them had their primary and secondary education at the school founded by Selestina Dias MBE. This grand old lady passed away on 26 March 1933. It has been said in print that, "In her demise we (Visakians) feel that we have lost the Visakha of modern times. It has been a National loss".


- A woman with foresight and great comment -

Muhandiram Andiris Perera Dharma Gunawardena of Matara, had several educated children, One of them was Mrs. MALLIKA HEWAVITHARANA, a noble mother of Ceylon’s most admired and loved son Anagarika Dharmapala, now a legendary figure. He was a model Buddhist Leader, a Teetotaller with high ethical principles, a spirited Buddhist nationalist who fought not only the Mahantha (the Hindu overlord at Buddha Gaya) but also the British masters, to wrest from their control the holiest of holy places known to over three billion Buddhists all over the world. Mrs. Mallika Hewavitharana is also remembered with gratitude for her foresight to establish, when she was 74 years of age, in 1920 the MALLIKA NIWASA SAMITHIYA for elderly women (Senior citizens). The Samitiya today has an Orphanage known as the Parakrama Home for boys (land donated by Sir Earnest De Silva) at Kandana, and a paying guest female Elders home for those who desire to live alone in a contented way, away from their families. Two acres of land was at first donated by Mrs. Hewavitarana at Visakha Road, Bambalapitiya. In her ‘great endeavours’ she was assisted by a group of ladies who devoted much time, over several years. One of the first Committees of Management

consisted of Mrs. Mallika Hewavitharana, Mrs. A. P. Hewavitharana, Mrs. M. J. C. Fernando, Mrs. A. E. de Silva Snr, (Treasurer), Miss Laura de Mel (Co-Secretary), Mrs. Vimala Hewavitharana, Mrs. Newton A. de Silva, Ms. A. E. de Silva Jnr., Mrs. D. M. Gunasekera, Mrs. H. M. Gunasekera, Mrs. S. N. Moonesinghe, Mrs. E.L. Wijegoonewardena (Co. Secretary), Mrs. Sumana Hewavitharana, Mrs. Charlotte Hewavitharana, Lady D. B. Jayatilleke, Mr. Harry de Mel (Secretary) and Miss Abeyeratne. Further, Dr. W. Arthur Silva (State Councilor who resided at ‘Sravasthi’), Dr. C. A. Hewavitharana and Mr. A. E. (Later Sir) Ernest de Silva were the Trustees of the Samitiya. Mrs. Mallika Hewavitharana, being conscious that work begun should continue unabated rallied round several women, who were educated to several numerous Committees. She herself, whenever possible supervised the comforts of inmates and made them happy during the Sinhala New Year Festival was one such occasion, when she was always present to direct the programme, and make the inmates happy as they were all in the evening of their lives. It is recorded that the following Ladies held high Office in the Society, and much success was due to their personal attention. From 1920 to 1929 Mrs. Mallika Hewavitharana served as President; from 1929 to 1932 succeeded by Mrs. Mallika Batuwanthudawa Jayatilleke as the President. Thereafter for 21 years, which could be considered a difficult period the history of the Samithiya, Lady Evadne de Silva, served as President. That was between 1933 to 1954, which included the difficult Great War II period (1939-45).

The prime mover of the home for the destitute and the great benefactor Mrs. Mallika Hewavitharana died at the ripe age of 91 year.


- Remembered for her personal sacrifice and leadership -

Kandy Girls High School, The Kandy (RC) Convent and Hillwood Girls School were for over 50 years the leading Christian Girls Schools in Kandy. Encouraged by Anagarika Dharmapala who founded Dharmaraja College, Kandy, and with the guidance of Venerable Attadassi Thera of the Mulgampola Temple, Kandy, a lady from the low-country having great ability, resolved to provide Buddhist education for girls in Kandy.

She stepped forward in about 1920 to found the first Buddhist Girls School in Kandy, named MAHA MAYA COLLEGE, KANDY. She was greatly helped n her endeavour by LADY CHITRAVO RATWATTE, wife of Sir Cuda Ratwatte, who commanded much respect amongst the up-country Kandyan kingsmen. Lady Chitravo was elected the first President of the Sadachara Kulagana Samithiya, which was to provide a good education for Buddhist girls. The founder, ‘Live-wire’ of the project and the responsibility of organising the new school, rested squarely on the shoulders of SARAH CAROLINE ZOYSA (nee PEIRIS) a good looking daughter of a Notary Public, who hailed from Aluthgama. She donated a sizeable, valuable block of land with a large building overlooking the Kandy lake, to establish the school. Sir Bennet Zoysa (one time Mayor of Kandy and later Knighted), provided most of the required finances, school furniture, medical attention for Boarding House residents, and times, the Teachers’ salaries. Sir Bennet Zoysa was a successful Merchant, who had come from Panadura to Kandy, as a young man to establish himself. The Zoysa took a keen interest in Buddhist affairs, and even donated the guilded pinnacle for the Mahiyangana Chetiya, at time of its restoration in 1947.

Author Indrani Meegama, who was educated at Mahamaya Girls School, Kandy in her inspired writings (spanning 255 pages) with illustrations, in her book WITH A FISTFUL OF RICE says most women especially middle class women in the early 1920’s where not wage earners. Their contributions had to come from the generosity of their husband pockets or money set a aside after meeting household expenses. To give people an opportunity to participate in the finance drive for the new school, they were requested to the set aside every day, a fistful of uncooked rice into a clay pot. These pots when filled, were later auctioned . at carnivals during the Esala festival and brought in much needed money for the school.

To assist Sarah Soysa, for several years there was a capable Graduate teacher on the staff of the School. She was SOMA PUJITHA GUNEWARDENA. She introduced Science to the school, was a strict disciplinarian and gave the school a new outlook for her betterment. Today, the school is considered to be one of the largest and best educational institutes in the Central Province. With education imparted in a Buddhist atmosphere, these three untiring Buddhist women gave HOPE FOR A BETTER LIFE and "LIGHT" to thousands of homes in the Central Province.

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