“Punchi”: A Font of Cultural Knowledge so Generous in His Aid to One-and-All

Michael Roberts

Punchibanda Meegaskumbura would not demand a Professor’s title before his name if he could see us today. He was of the Sinhala people and a man for all peoples – rooted in simplicity, but blessed with many skills. These knowledges he readily made available to all and sundry as his colleague in arms within the Sinhala literary field, KNO Dharmadasa has made clear in The Island. My own plaudits will appear below…. BUT Chandra R. de Silva has provided the world with as succinct and incisive summary of Punchi’s contribution to research and scholarship as anyone could ask for.

An Appreciation from CR de Silva, 22 October 2020

  I am fortunate to have known Punchi for over a quarter century while we were both at the University of Peradeniya. The History Department office was right next door to the Sinhala Department and we saw each other quite often. Punchibandara Meegaskumbura was a dedicated and beloved teacher. His deep knowledge of Sinhala language and literature was a treasure to all of us because of his willingness to share his expertise with us. I particularly benefitted from his comments on sixteenth and seventeenth century Sandesa Kavyas (Messenger Poems). Above all, he was kindly, generous and full of good spirits. His passing away leaves a void in our hearts. Chandra R de Silva  

Michael Roberts: Many a Tale in Appreciation of Punchi’s Expertise and Generosity in Aid

My interaction with Punchibanda Meegaskumbura in our undergrad days at Peradeniya University and when I was teaching there from 1966-75 were limited, albeit friendly. It was when I began analysing Sinhala nationalist thinking at some point in the 1990s that I sought hm out during my research visits to Sri Lanka and benefited immensely — in fact immeasurably– from his knowledge of Sinhal literature and the living culture of the Sinhala people.

As the phrase “living culture” indicates, his readings were not just bookish but embodied – that is, they were rooted in daily lifeways and living practices. As my work moved backwards beyond the British period to the pre-modern period extending from the 13th century to the early 1800s, the practices of oral communication involving such modalities as teravili and hatan kavi[1] became vital. And Punchi became one of the hands[2] vital to the expansion of my knowledge of Sinhala culture. As proof, note the index of “names” in the book eventually produced in 2004 entitled Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815.

To this day I remember one moment when I was picking his brains about these oral modalities of exchange and he indicated that during the night in his village area –I now gather from KNO’s essay that this was Ravatagoda in Kotmale — one heard a sound of drums followed by the chant of a verse from one house in the neighbourhood which was then met with another verse in response from some other household in the vicinity. These, in my speculative reading, would have been “everyday exchanges of viewpoints, perhaps even ripostes, that impinged strongly within the memory of listeners.

Thus, at one point in my study I present this statement: “ On the authority provided by Meegaskumbura and Dolapihilla,[3] it can be noted that in the long duration of Indian civilisation performances of song and poetry precede written media in conveying key messages of powerful forces,” (2004: 22). This sentence is just one illustration in support of two key assertions:

A “Speaking broadly, I assert that in the middle period 1232-1818 oral forms of communication were of greater significance among the generality of people than palm-leaf texts.” (2004: 22)

B “On the basis of twentieth century personal and teaching experience I cleave to one axiom in the study of ethnic relations …. namely, that face-to-face exchanges centred around verbal communication are of critical significance in the emergence, reproduction and/or amendment of identity, especially identities of a collective sort.” (2004: 22).

Again, further along within the same chapter in Sinhala Consciousness, I dwell on a famous poem extoling the manner in which Leuke Disava confronted the Portuguese enemy forces and draw upon the expertise of Ananda Wakkumbura, CR de Silva, Asoka de Zoysa and Meegaskumbure. De Zoysa and Meegaskumbura both underlined the importance of the last line in Sinhala poems. Thus interpreted I was led by these two scholars to the conclusion that “the poem likens Leuke’s fate to that of the Buddha in sturdy isolation confronting Mara” [his arch enemy].[4]

Those seeking further detail should visit my book. For my work in this field Punchi was a godsend. But, let me now move at a tangent and record an amusing ethnographic incident which involved Punchi and presents a reading of cultural difference that – in my appraisal – is itself a contemporary ethnographic ‘fact’ of the type that anthropologists and sociologists deploy.

An Aside: This incident occurred when I banged into Punchi at London University at some point in the 1990s. We greeted each other like long lost brothers and stood in the corner of a hallway and chatted. There was a staircase leading down into the hallway which brought people down to join streams of university personnel moving in all directions – at pace. The hustle and bustle of movement was intense, hectic. Whereupon Punchi deviated from our chat and noted in wonderment: “pudhuma lōkaya nēdha!”

What Punchi was marking here was the difference in the pace of life between personnel at Peradeniya University and those in the British world. Note my restricted compass: not a difference in the lifeways of Sri Lanka and England; but rather the difference in the university worlds that does involve ethnic contrasts.  There is pedestrian hustle and bustle in Sri Lanka’s cities yes. But is it of the same character as British cities? I cannot answer that question. But that the student population of Sri Lanka’s campuses did not (and do not?) rush to lectures or rush here and there in the same frenetic manner that we observed at that moment is an ethnographic contrast that I will stand by. A minor point of cultural difference? Yes.

Whether it is a contrast that carries wider import is an issue we must address. Punchi has begotten this issue. Thank you, good man! The academic world will miss you.

[1] Teravili are riddles in verse – usually in quatrains (viz. sivpada); while hatan kavi are war poems.

[2]  Others included Ananda Wakkumbura, Srinath Ganewatte, KBA Edmind, JB Disanayake, RC Somapaala, Sumanasekera Banda, Darshani Gunatlleke, Asoka de Zoysa, Ananda Tissakumara.

[3] P Dolapihilla; “Sinhalese Music and Minstrelsy,” in Ralph Pieris (ed.) Traditional Sinhalese Culture. A Symposium, Peradeniya, Ceylon University Conference on Traditional Cultures, 1956, pp. 34-46.

[4] Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 2004, p. 35.

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Vale: Remembering & Appreciating Professor PB Meegaskumbura

     KNO Dharmadasa, in The Island,  2 October 2020, …. https://island.lk/prof-meegaskumbura/            


Professor P.B.Meegaskumbura, who passed away on the 20th of October after ailing for sometime, is well known among Sri Lankan scholars as an academic who has contributed immensely to expand the vistas of Sinhala Studies. His research and publications include studies of the many branches of Linguistics, the study of Sinhala Classics, Buddhist History, Semantics, Stylistics, and the Society and Culture of the Veddas. Whatever he wrote, whether in Sinhala or English, bore the hall mark of high quality.   


Punchi Banda Meegaskumbura was born in Ravanagoda, Kotmale in 1938.  During his primary education in the village school, he had the good fortune to obtain the first lessons in Pali and Sanskrit from his uncle, the Ven. Ravanagoda Dhammapala Thero. Subsequently he attended the  Handunawe Central School and later, the Walala Central School where he mastered the English language which was the medium of higher education at the time. In 1958, he entered the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya.

Reading for the Special Arts Degree in Sinhala, Meegaskumbura ‘topped the batch’ at the final examination held in 1962. He was soon recruited to the academic staff. Attracted to linguistics studies, then taught by Prof. D. E.Hettiarachchi  and Dr. M. W. Sugatapala de Silva, Meegaskumbura launched his first research work which was about the Noun Phrase in Colloquial Sinhalese. Presenting this study, he won the M.A (research) in 1966. For his doctoral, studies he proceeded to the Deccan College of the University of Pune. He worked on a dissertation entitled “Proto New Indo-Aryan Phonology: A Comparative Re- construction of the Phonology of the Parent Indo-Aryan Language based on Sinalese, Sindhi, Bengali, Oriya, Gujarati, Marati, Punjabi, Bhojpuri and Hindi,” which won him thedoctorate in 1970.

Returning to Peradeniya, Doctor Meegaskumbura was entrusted with the task of teaching the courses in Historical Linguistics earlier taught by Prof. Hetiarachchi, which he did with great skill and dedication.  Also, he was a very active teacher in the ISLE Program conducted at Peradeniya in collaboration with several University Colleges in the US.  He also worked as Visiting Professor in the Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages in China (1985-86) and in SOAS, University of London (1994-5) In 2018, he was a Visiting Scholar at the Asian Research Institute in Jerusalem, Israel. Being an excellent translator, he has translated into Sinhala several scholarly works, most notably, Prof John Holt’s The Buddha in the Crown : Avalokitheshvara in the Buddhist Tradition of Sri Lanka (1994), Prof. David Blundell’s  Masks: Anthropology of the Sinhalese Belief System (1997) and  Prof. Hajime Nakamura’s The Way of Thinking of the Asian Peoples (2003).

Prof. Meegaskumbura has been an ideal  Guru who has given silpa dana (the gift of knowledge) to over forty generations of students in Peradeniya. He has selflessly spent his time, knowledge and energy in the service of others, especially in editing their writings. At times this extended beyond the correcting of language and this is gratefully acknowledged by those who thus benefitted. Professor Meegaskumbura receives our salutation as a teacher who upheld humane values and a savant of high distinction.        

One of his last scholarly undertakings was the editing for a second re-printing of the great 12th century Classic Visuddhimarga Sanna, first edited by Ven. Matara Dhammarama Thero in 1929. Meegaskumbura added a lengthy introductionand the complete work extended to 1226 pages. This work was published a few weeks before his death by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy which he diligently served as a member of the Governing Board.

We can truly say of Prof. Meegaskumbura, (slightly changing the aphorism) rupan Jirathi maccanan–kusala dhammam najirathi  (the form will perish with the flesh but meritorious deeds will never perish) 

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana

Prof. K.N.O.Dharmadasa


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The Economy: Potential Impact of 20A

Sam Samarasinghe aka SWR de Samarasinghe, in Daily Mirror, 20 October 2020, where the title reads “Socio-Economic Implications of the 20A”

  The draft 20th Amendment (20A) to the Constitution is being opposed by the main opposition parties and some segments of civil society and professional groups. The most politically significant opposition comes from some leaders of the Sangha who played a major role in the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President. They want a new constitution as the SLPP promised, but not the 20th Amendment. In general, the main criticism of 20A is that it would create an authoritarian Government run by the Executive President without the usual checks and balances that the three main branches of government, legislature, executive and judiciary have in a normal democracy. 

It is also public knowledge that some of the leading monks who back the SLPP and are critical of 20A are very close to premier Mahinda Rajapaksa

The most politically astute player in Sri Lankan politics is Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The 19th Amendment vastly empowers the prime minister and sharply reduces the powers of the president. It also ensures several essential features of good governance such as limiting the number of ministers that is popular with the people. It is the prime minister who stands to lose the most from 20A. It is also public knowledge that some of the leading monks who back the SLPP and are critical of 20A are very close to the prime minister.   
Justification: Supporters of 20A advance two main reasons to justify it. The first is that a more powerful president (commander-in chief) will be better equipped to strengthen national security. I will leave that to national security experts and won’t discuss it here. The second is that the economy would benefit if the president is empowered to make quick decisions unencumbered by red tape and any other delays that the other two branches of government, the legislature and the judiciary could cause, if they act independently. Singapore is usually suggested as the example of a powerful executive steering a country towards economic success.   
Singapore model: There are substantial differences between Singapore and Sri Lanka that make it very hard for us to copy the essential features of Singapore. Singapore has a population of 5.7m people occupying a land area of 700 sq km. Sri Lanka’s population of 21.8m occupies a land area of 65,600 sq km. Singapore is a city state. Singapore’s first prime minister Lew Kuan Yew established a system of governance that has some authoritarian features. For example, freedom of speech is limited in the country. But it also has some features that help good governance. It has zero tolerance for corruption, has honest and competent technocrats to run the government, and has one of the most open economies in the world. None of these features are currently found in Sri Lanka. Given Sri Lanka’s current political culture, favoured economic and nationalist ideologies and the limited availability of resources, it is hard to believe that 20A would lead to the creation of a Singaporean model in Sri Lanka.   
Ethnic diversity: There is one important similarity between Sri Lanka and Singapore; the ethnic diversity of the two populations. In Sri Lanka, about 75% are Sinhalese, 10% Muslim and 15% Tamil. In Singapore, 74% are Chinese (C), 9% Indian (I), 13% Malay (M), and 3% “Other” (O). This demography provides what is called the CIMO framework for public policy. S’pore is not a post-racial utopia. But it has maintained remarkable ethnic harmony. Lee Kuan Yew explicitly stated that the country would be a multi-racial and multireligious nation where all would be treated equally. Legislation such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, laws that require all public housing to be integrated and all political parties to nominate candidates belonging to the different ethnic groups help maintain ethnic harmony and understanding. Sri Lanka’s model of governance is nowhere near this in handling the concerns of the minorities. 20A also does not directly address such issues.   

The security consideration apart, the only justification that one could think of for 20A is that, in theory, a more authoritarian regime could produce better results in economic and social progress than the democracy we have had over the last seventy-two years. But whether that theory is valid or not depends on the evidence that is available.   
Economy: It is a myth to assert that Sri Lanka made no economic progress in the last seventy years. Between the early 1950s and 2019 Sri Lanka’s GDP grew at an annual average rate of about 5% under democratic governance. Per capita GDP increased from about $200 to $4,000 over seven decades. In 1977/78 the country moved up from being a “low income” country to a “lower-middle” income country. The economy had the potential to do even better. But external factors such as high oil prices, and fluctuating prices for tea, rubber and coconut exports were an impediment. Internally, the war diverted money from investment in development to the military. Bad policy choices such as nationalization of plantations, excessive state control of the private sector and inward-looking economic strategies in the 1960-77 period retarded economic growth. After 1977 the public has supported a more market-oriented economy. There is no convincing evidence to suggest that an authoritarian regime is a necessary condition to boost growth. Better economic policies that are more equitable and have the support of all ethnic groups under democratic governance should be able to accomplish that goal.   
Human development: For a relatively poor developing country Sri Lanka did very well in human development in the past seven decades. The adult literacy rate increased from 63% in 1953 to 92.5% in 2018. Life expectancy at birth rose from 57.6 years for males and 55.5 years for females in 1952 to 72.0 and 78.6 respectively in 2012. It is reasonable to argue that democracy played a critical role in producing these results. Having to ask for the vote at least once every five years compelled the rulers to respond to the needs of ordinary people ranging from better schools, better healthcare, better roads and public transport, better housing and so forth. The fact that the state provided education from primary school to university and healthcare using tax funds is testimony to that fact. 20A could lead to a break in this vital link between the rulers and the ruled.   
New elite coalition: The 1956 “People’s Revolution” ushered in an informal coalition consisting of the Sangha (Buddhist monks), Veda (Ayurvedic physicians), Guru (Sinhala schoolteachers), Govi (Farmers), Kamkaru (manual workers) known as the Pancha Maha Balawegaya (Five Great Forces). There are signs that this is being replaced with a new and more elitist “national security” coalition that consists of western doctors, university professors, lawyers and other professionals, military officers, business owners, and company directors and executives drawn mainly from the Sinhalese community. This is the more privileged segment of society. They are especially concerned about national security. Although one incident is not a reliable sample, one member of this coalition who is a political novice and now state minister asking the treasury to fund a list of items including an umbrella that she needs for her official duties betrays a lack of sensitivity to the needs of the common people, many of whom are suffering from the negative economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Sangha shares the national security concerns of this new coalition and supports the demand for a new constitution. But the objection that some of them have expressed for 20A may be a hint that they are not too happy how a more authoritarian regime that the 20A is likely to produce would respond to the needs of the vast majority of ordinary Sri Lankans who are their Dayakayas (followers).  
Economic crisis management: It is possible that the drafters of 20A may also have thought of strengthening the executive to better able to handle the looming economic crisis. The second phase of the Covid-19 pandemic that the country is currently facing will have serious economic consequences unless brought under control quickly. The IMF in its latest World Economic Outlook assessment issued two weeks ago expects Sri Lanka’s GDP to fall by 4.6% this year and grow back to the 2019 level in 2021. This is not good for jobs and incomes. Between 2021 to 2025 each year the country needs about $4.5b. to service its foreign debt. With earnings from tourism and remittances from Sri Lankan migrant workers down it would be difficult to meet this commitment. The possible solutions include debt restructuring in negotiations with lenders. That can lead to politically unpopular decisions such as handing over Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease. The government may be forced to accept the USA MCC grant of $480m. that many who support president Rajapaksa strongly object to. Negotiating a new Extended Fund Facility with the IMF will force the government to accept conditions such as limits on government spending that can also be unpopular. All of the above and more will be a little easier to handle if 20A is enacted to increase the powers of the presidency.   

Conclusion: From an economic perspective the case for 20A is weak. An authoritarian government that it is likely to produce is most unlikely to make Sri Lanka a second Singapore. Sri Lanka has achieved significant economic growth under democracy. Growth can be further improved with better policies under democratic governance that has the support of the people. An authoritarian government that is not accountable to the people and may begin to cater to a small privileged segment of society may even undermine the substantial degree of equity and human development that we have achieved in the past seven decades.



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Portuguese Names in Sri Lanka and Their Meanings

Roel Raymond, in RoarMedia, 26 February 2018, with this title “Portuguese-Sri Lankan Surnames And Their Meanings” ….. https://roar.media/english/life/history/portuguese-sri-lankan-surnames-and-their-meanings


The Portuguese arrived in Ceylon, or Ceilão, as they called it, by chance. In 1505, a fleet commanded by Lourenço de Almeida—the son of Francisco de Almeida, the first viceroy of Portuguese India—was blown into Galle by adverse winds. It was thirteen years later, in 1518, that the Portuguese established formal contact with the Kingdom of Kotte, ruled by Vira Parakrama Bahu, and were permitted to build a fort in Colombo.


Although the Portuguese were primarily interested in exploring trade and commercial opportunities in Sri Lanka, an opening for greater exploitation presented itself in the form of seven warring kingdoms within the island. With time, the kingdom of Kotte began to depend heavily on the Portuguese for defense against the other kingdoms, leading to an  enhanced role for the Portuguese in Sri Lankan affairs.

An agreement in 1543 between King Buvenaka Bahu of the kingdom of Kotte and the Portuguese resulted in his grandson Prince Dharmapala being educated in the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church. The conversion of Dharmapala heralded sweeping changes in Sri Lanka’s social landscape, as the Portuguese embarked on a mission to convert the local populace.

Sri Lankans in the western coastal areas were particularly susceptible to the changes, with conversions occurring en masse,  but conversions occurred interior and in the northernmost parts of the island as well. As Portuguese culture permeated the island, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese took on many Portuguese names as their own, suffixed to their personal names.

A traditional Portuguese-Sri Lankan wedding in the Batticaloa area. Image courtesy natgeotourism.com

Here are a list of some of the more popular Portuguese-Sri Lankan surnames and what they mean:

  • Silva / de Silva: The surname ‘Silva’, and its derivative ‘de Silva’, meaning ‘from Silva’ or ‘of Silva’ is a popular Portuguese surname and means ‘forest’ or ‘woodland’. It is a wide-spread surname in Portuguese-speaking countries as well as regions formerly under the control of the Portuguese empire (like Sri Lanka, India, America, and Africa.) ‘Silva’ and ‘de Silva’ are very common surnames in Sri Lanka, but doesn’t necessarily mean the holder is of Portuguese descent—just that the holders ancestors subscribed to the cultural hegemony perpetuated by the Portuguese.
  • Fernando: The surname ‘Fernando’, although perpetuated in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese, is the old Spanish form of a Germanic name meaning ‘adventurous’ or ‘bold journey’. It is made up of the elements ‘fardi’, meaning ‘journey’, and ‘nand’ meaning ‘daring and brave’. In addition to being a popular name in Portugal, the name is common in Western India which was colonised by the Portuguese, and of course in Sri Lanka, where it is one of three most popular (the others being ‘de Silva’ and ‘Perera’) surnames taken on by Sinhalese.
  • Perera / Pereira: The surname ‘Perera’, and its variant ‘Pereira’ is derived from the Portuguese surname ‘Pereira’, meaning ‘pear tree’. Perera is a very common surname in Sri Lanka, taken on by Sinhalese converts to Roman Catholicism with the advancement of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka. ‘Perera’ is also a Spanish name with a number of variants (Perer, Perero, Pereros, Pereyra, Pereyras, Das Pereiras, Paraira)  in the Iberian peninsula.
  • Almeida / de Almeida: ‘Almeida’ and its variant ‘de Almeida’, meaning ‘of’ or ‘from’ Almeida is a Portuguese surname derived from the town of Almeida (in the Beira Alta province) in Portugal. Portuguese explorer Lourenço de Almeida who ‘discovered’ Sri Lanka, was the first of his kind to arrive in the island. In the subsequent decades, with the expansion of Portuguese powers in Sri Lanka, the surname ‘Almeida’ took on prominence with many Sinhalese and Tamil families taking on the name.
  • Costa / de Costa: ‘Costa’ and its variant ‘de Costa’ meaning ‘from’ or ‘of’ Costa is a Portuguese surname derived from the Latin word ‘Costa’ which means ‘rib’. With time, the surname came to mean ‘side’, ‘slope’, or ‘coast’ denoting the holder was from the coastal area. The surname ‘Costa’ and ‘de Costa’ are also Italian and Spanish surnames. In Sri Lanka, the surname was adopted by many Sinhalese and Tamil families, with the adoption of Portuguese mores in Sri Lanka.
  • Fonseka: “The surname ‘Fonseka’ is derived from the Portuguese surname ‘Fonseca’, which comes from the Latin ‘fōns siccus’, meaning ‘dry well’. It refers to a spring that has dried up during the hot summer months and is today a well-known Sinhalese surname in Sri Lanka.
  • Correa / Corea: The surname ‘Correa’ or ‘Corea’ is a derivative of the Portuguese word ‘correia’ meaning ‘leather strap’. The surname is of occupational origin, meaning the holder was originally a maker or seller of leather straps (or belts). The surname is popular in Portugal and in Spain and is adopted by Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese families for further advancement under Portuguese rule.
  • Tissera: The surname ‘Tissera’ is derived from the Portuguese surname ‘Teixeira’  which refers to a ‘texio’ or ‘yew tree’. Variants ‘Texeira’ and ‘Técher’ are also common in Portugal. Although less common than the ‘Perera’, ‘de Silva’, and ‘Fernando’, ‘Tissera’ is today a well-known surname in Sri Lanka.
  • Cabral / Cabraal: The surname ‘Cabral’ and its variant ‘Cabraal’ are Portuguese and Galician surnames that are derived from the Latin word ‘capra’ meaning ‘goat’ or  ‘capralis’ which means ‘place of goats’. The surname is an occupational one, meaning the holder was engaged in work relating to the care of goats, possibly a goatherd. In Sri Lanka, the surname is has been adopted mainly by Sinhalese families.
  • Thabrew / de Abrew: The surname ‘Thabrew’ and its variant ‘de Abrew’ meaning ‘from Abrew’ or ‘of Abrew’ is a derivative of the Portuguese name ‘Abreu’. The origins of the name is debated; some argue that it is a reference to the phrase ‘Abraham the Hebrew’, while others claims it refers to a ancient branch of the House of Normandy.

There are countless other Sri Lankan names of Portuguese origin, like Peiris, Nonis, Gomes, Suwaris, Mendis,  Sigera, Pigera, and others. In addition to these surnames, Sri Lanka assimilated many of the Portuguese names for everyday items such as ‘kalisama’ (trousers), ‘kamisaya’ (shirt), ‘almariya’ (wardrobe), ‘bonikka’ (doll), ‘bottama’ (button) and so many more. In parts of the island, especially the north, a Portuguese creole is spoken by a small population of those of Portuguese descent. It is clear that the 153 years the Portuguese spent in Sri Lanka affected the cultural composition of the country, even to this date.

Cover: The Portuguese manner of dressing was adopted by the Ceylonese. Image courtesy sundaytimes.lk

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Jeronis Pieris and His Times

A de luxe edition of FACETS OF CEYLON HISTORY THROUGH THE LETTERS OF JERONIS PIERIS, by Michael Roberts, has been printed by Bay Owl Press in 2020 to replace the 1976 edn and is available for Rs 6500/ at Turf Equipment Ltd,  17A,  Swarna Road, Colombo 6 as well as Barefoot,  Cargills Book City,  Sarasavi,  Vijitha Yapa,  Gallery Café bookshop, JamFruitTree, Kalaya,  Pendi & Urban Island…. while foreign purchases could be secured via http://www.pererahussein.com.

The main text is the same as in 1976; but the index has been extended and numerous photographs of historical value have been added.

A vintage photo-album kept by Louis Pieris illustrates the social milieu associated with the
Hānnādigē Pieris and Warusahānnādigē De Soysa families

The Bridge of Boats over the Kelani River just beyond Colombo marks the process of rad building that was so vital to capitalist growth and exploitation. It was consturcted in 1822 by Lt. Genl John Schaeffer.

HERE the Thuppahi site presents some of the illustrative photographs that adorn this production — several of them quite rare and providing insights into the difficulties and developments within the expanding capitalist economy of British Ceylon in the coffee and coconut plantation era — 1830s to 1890s.

Pl 60 -entitled “hrd Yards on Rough Tracks” illustrates one avenue of capitalaccumulation pursued by the De Soysa-Pieris combination: namely. Bullock transport …. using bulls imported from teh sindh which were refered to locally as “soysa harak”

The mountains of capital they accumulated enabled these families to apportion portions of the monies towards charitable institutions in their home localities as well the Hanguranketa area …. and, last but not least, in the burgeoning capital city of Colombo where the property holdings of these two families impacted the shape of the new city around Kollupitiya and Cinnamon Gardens, while institutions such as The  Bacteriological Institute, the De Soysa Lying-in-home and the De Soysa Medical Institute are a testimony towards their sense of social responsibility.

Jeronis de Soysa –multimilionairre & philanthropist

Jeronis Pieris attended the Colombo Academy in the 1830s and secured a facility in the English language that is evident in his letters. But, unlike such compatriots as Charles Ambrose Lorenz and James Alexander Dunuwille, he joined the Warusahānnādigē de Soysas in the trading and plantation fields in the highlands and in their home arena inland from Panadura and Moratuwa.

That the photographs of Lorenz, Richard Morgan and Dunuwille adorn the VINTAGE ALBUM along with Revd. Barcroft Boake, his Principal at the Colombo Academy, serve as testimony to the value which Jeronis Pieris and his kin attributed to this foundation. It is well-known that (Sir) Richard Morgan was instrumental in securing a socio-political coup de grace for the De Soysas when the Prince of Wales visited Ceylon in 1870: they were given the privilege of hosting the Prince and his entourage in the only non-official function within th capital city — a decision which would have aroused great chagrin amidst the Obeyesekere-Bandaranaike clans of the Govigama ‘aristrocracy’.

Bacteriological Institute in Colombo
Prince of Wales College in Moratuwa

The Genealogies of the Jeronis Pieris family and the Charles Henry de Soysa family have also been updated and included in this new version of the book.

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Sir John Kotelawela in Australia and New Zealand in 1955

Earlson Forbes,** Courtesy of The Ceylankan, XXIII: 3, August 2020, where the title differs a mite

Ceylon’s third Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawela, was known as an outspoken, strong  and, as some would say, a flamboyant leader.  He had a chance of being the second Prime Minister of Ceylon when the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon, D. S.  Senanayake, passed away in 1952.  Sir John was a strong contender for the vacant position.  However, he was overlooked for appointment and the son of D. S. Senanayake , Dudley Senanayake,  was appointed to the position.  As fate would have it, Sir John did not have to wait long for his second shot at the Prime Ministership.  Dudley Senanayake’s period as Prime Minister was riddled with civil unrest.  In 1953, he resigned and this time around Sir John was chosen as the third Prime Minister of Ceylon. 

Sir John (1895-1980)
John Kotelawela Snr 1865-1908

Sir John’s elevation to the highest political position in the land had not been a textbook smooth ride.  His family had undergone a period of difficulty in his early years.  His father accused of murder, committed suicide while the murder trial was underway.  John was only 11 years old at this time.  However, the family fortunes in the form of graphite deposits and extensive land holdings, wisely managed by his mother, ensured Sir John had an easy economic ride in his youth and the early years of manhood.  He had his education at Royal College, Colombo.  Leaving Royal College, under circumstances which were considered to be dubious, he spent several years mostly in France and the United Kingdom.  In the U K, he attended Cambridge University to study Agriculture.

On his return to Ceylon Sir John pursued his two great interests in public life: politics and the Army.  In 1922 he joined the Ceylon Light Infantry (CLI) and over the next two decades rose to the rank of Colonel.  During this time there was a complicated relationship between the Ceylon Defence Force and the British Army.  As a consequence, most of Sir John’s service in the Army was considered to be one of a ‘reservist’.

Sir John’s political career began in 1931, when he was elected to the State Council seat of Kurunegala.  Later in his political career he was the elected member for the seat of Dodangaslanda.  Before his elevation to the position of Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John served as Minister of Communications and Works, Minister of Transport and Works and as the Leader of the House of Representatives.

Much has been written about Sir John’s attendance and performance at the Bandung Conference held over a period of 6 days.   However, comparatively little is made of the nearly four weeks he spent in Australian, New Zealand and Thailand in the latter part of 1955.  What did Sir John do during this visit and what may have motivated him to devote so much of his limited time primarily to the tour of Australia and New Zealand? 

On the international front, the late 1940s was a momentous period as a very large part of Asia attained independence or established completely new governments.  India and Pakistan gained their independence in 1947 and Ceylon followed in early 1948.  In late 1949, Sukarno wrested power from the Dutch after centuries of Dutch rule and in the same year the Peoples Republic of China was proclaimed by the Communist Party of China under Mau Zedong.

Post World War 2 or post independence, domestic problems were much the same for war torn Europe or the newly independent nations of Asia.  There was the rising need to achieve economic and social development through the modernisation of industry and agriculture, the building of infrastructure, and the establishment of education and health services for all or most of the population.  Western Europe was able to make progress in its drive for re-construction and development due to the establishment of the Marshall Plan.  Initiated by America and operating from 1948 the Marshall Plan made available millions of dollars for development projects in Western Europe.  Russia did not wish to participate in the Marshall Plan and prevented some Eastern European Nations from joining.  As a consequence the benefits of the Marshall Plan substantially flowed to Western Europe. 

There was no Marshall Plan for the development of Asia, but very soon after the Marshall Plan was operational, Britain and Australia were looking to establish a scheme to assist the British Commonwealth and Asia in its economic and social development.  Communism was far from dead in Asia and among other things a fundamental motive in establishing a scheme to aid development was to stop the spread of Communism.  The view was held that the most effective soft way to stop the spread of Communism was to raise the living standards of populations in the poorer Asian countries. 

In 1950 a Commonwealth Conference was held in Colombo to formalise plans for the establishment of a permanent body to tackle the question of re-construction and development and alleviation of poverty in Asian member countries and even beyond member country borders.  Britain ‘as the mother country’ was planning to take the lead in this matter.  However the initiative was momentarily seized by the Australian Minister for External Affairs, Percy Spender, who was a strong advocate of an ‘Aid’ scheme for developing member Nations.  Minister Spender’s scheme was advanced and he had even given it a name, viz, ‘the Spender Plan’.  As things turned out Mr. Spender did not have his way and it was decided to name the scheme the ‘Colombo Plan’.  The Colombo Plan was officially launched on 1st July 1951.  The headquarters of the organisation was to be situated in Colombo and this remains unchanged to this day.

The founder member countries of the Colombo Plan were Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Pakistan and Ceylon.  Although the flow of funds under the Colombo Plan covered major development infrastructure projects, its intent was to also focus on education and individual advancement by providing a variety of scholarships and educational grants to individuals and educational institutions.  Out of an initial total allocation of 31 million pounds sterling, Australia gave Ceylon nearly 20 million pounds.

The emerging importance of the Colombo Plan as a resource for the development of industry, agriculture, infrastructure and education in Ceylon was apparent to Sir John.  It could be said that his keen interest in the potential benefits of the Colombo Plan was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, for his prolonged visit of three weeks to Australia and New Zealand in October and November 1955.  The itinerary of this visit is outlined below.  For the details the author has relied mainly on photographic records and accompanying narrative held by the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and the New Zealand Government Archives.  A few examples of the photographic records are appended   below. 

 In general terms Sir John’s visit is described in NAA records in the following manner.

The Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John Kotelawala in Australia on an official visit from 26 October to the 8 November. The tour programme covered four States and visits to important centres of learning, scientific institutions, primary and secondary industries and the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme under construction. Sir John met leaders of various Governments and civic dignitaries.’

The four States visited were New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria.  The tour also took in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). 

In New South Wales Sir John was feted by the Premier, Mr J. J. Cahill at a State Luncheon given in his honour.  In Sydney there was also a Civic Reception given in honour of Sir John by P. D. Hills, Lord Mayor of Sydney.  The Lord Mayor’s Reception was held at the Town Hall. The High Commissioner for Ceylon at this time, Mr. P R Gunesekera, accompanied Sir John on these occasions.  (See figure 1).

As in New South Wales Sir John was treated as an honoured guest of the State of Victoria. The Lord Mayor of Melbourne held a function in his honour. It was that time of year in Melbourne; yes Melbourne Cup time and Sir John attended the Flemington racecourse to witness the running of the Melbourne Cup.  Melbourne was also making final preparations for holding the 1956 Olympic Games.  Sir John was taken on extensive tours of the building works in progress; the new stadium, swimming pool, velodrome and sports arenas.  It afforded an opportunity for Australia to display its construction skills so important for Ceylon in any future plans for infrastructure developments.  (See figures 2 and 3).

Not much is available by way of photographic record of the time spent in South Australia and Western Australia.  There is one record of Sir John inspecting names at the War Memorial at famed King’s Park in Perth.

By far the greatest interest is in the time spent by Sir John in the ACT.  Apart from the formal occasions, the places visited mirror both Sir John’s political and personal interests.  The visit to the Snowy Mountains Scheme was of particular interest as Ceylon was undertaking its own hydro electric scheme (Laxapana). The commissioning of the Laxapana Scheme was just completed at this time.  Agriculture and farming were observed when a visit was made to, ‘Uriarra Station’, a sheep farm approximately 30 kilometres out of Canberra. Here he was treated to an exhibition of sheep shearing in which he showed great interest.  He had a conversation with the owner of the station (Mr. D. Hyles) wanting to know the detail of sheep station operation and management.  Also, Sir John had commented on the high quality of the wool produced from the merino sheep at this station. 

There also was a visit to the Royal Military College, Duntroon, which apparently aroused his interest in military matters. Sir John commenced his visit inspecting the Guard of Honour. He then spent hours touring the College with the Commandant, Major- General R.  Campbell. The tour was not completed until Sir John had also walked around the College grounds and looked at points of interest outside. 

Another of Sir John’s many appointments in Canberra was a press conference with members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The Sydney Morning Herald of Thursday November 3 1955, reported a summary of Sir John’s speech in the following words:- ‘after eight years of independence Ceylon remained happy with her membership of the British Commonwealth.  It had meant practical benefits for her and the Colombo Plan was one of the finest things done. In Ceylon it was helping in the general rise in living standards the main reason why Communism was fast disappearing there.  Sir John said it was essential that the upward movement of living standards should continue because empty stomachs were the one thing Communism could thrive on’.

Along with the above, the formal events associated with a state visit by a Prime Minister took place.  On his arrival in Canberra, Sir John was greeted by the Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies.  Whilst in Canberra Sir John called on Sir Robert Menzies and Dame Patti Menzies at the latter’s residence, ‘The ‘Lodge’. In reciprocation the High Commissioner for Ceylon, Mr. P R Gunasekera, hosted an official reception for dignitaries and guests.  The final formal event was a visit to the War Memorial where Sir John laid a wreath on the Stone of Remembrance.  

On the completion of his Australian Tour Sir John flew directly to New Zealand.  It is not intended to cover his itinerary in detail in New Zealand.  Suffice to say Sir John was accorded formal honours extended to a visiting Head of Government. The Government of New Zealand hosted a grand luncheon for Sir John on 10th November 1955. Sir John toured parts of New Zealand including the Capital, Wellington. Figure 4 shows Sir John attentively inspecting a dental procedure being performed at a Wellington dental school.          

Before Sir John left Ceylon for Australia and New Zealand the Indian Daily Mail carried a news item to say:- “Sir John Kotelawala has accepted invitations to visit Australia, New Zealand and Thailand.  He will leave on October 25th and return one month later’.

The author has not been able to get details of Sir John’s itinerary in Thailand.  This visit was most likely connected with the formal establishment of diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Thailand which occurred at this time (November 1955).    

Much valuable knowledge, networking contacts, and useful personal experience about the Colombo Plan as a crucial future resource would have been gained by Sir John and his official party on this long visit.  However very soon after Sir John’s return to Ceylon the political landscape altered dramatically and ensured he would not be in a position to direct government policy any longer.  Less than five months after Sir John’s return, a General Election was held in Ceylon. This was in early April 1956.  The United National Party (UNP) led by Sir John suffered a devastating defeat at this General Election. The Election was won by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike whose victory reduced the seats held by the UNP from 54 to 8.  This humiliating electoral loss meant that, ‘the lights were switched off permanently’ on the political career of Sir John. 

Earl Forbes    

** Earlson Forbes was among my circle of pals at Peradeniya University in the late !950s. In Sydney he seems to have become an “Earl.” I prefer the old Peradeniya ways.

ALSO NOTE https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kotelawal

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Lewis Cartoon hits Nail on the Aussie Head

Fair Dinkum


This cartoon depicts a horrified Scott Morrison gazing at the wonderful NZ leader Jacinda Ardern, who stands for true political values, humanity and descency – i.e. the kind of values Scott Morrison and the far right detest.

 It explains why the Murdoch media,  including the load of baloney that passes for news in our national newspaper called The Australian,  has become the propaganda Cheerleader for the Australian Government.
MURDOCH, his media Mafia and Scott Morrison are clearly disturbed by the massive landslide win by a left of centre parry in NZ– the biggest in 50 years. They don’t want the same thing to happen in Australia.
As a result, the stream of anti-Ardern articles published in The Australian, written by Greg Sheridan and a Golf Puppy from the Institute of Public Affairs, are designed to create tremendous fear,  to serve as a warning that such good leadership should never occur in Australia — to maintain power for far right extremists who are trying to depict themselves as moderates.
New Zealand has chosen a good path in a world that continues to lurch to populism and the extreme right. We saw an example of that extremism when a right-wing White Australian murdered over 50 peace loving Muslims in Christchurch NZ in 2019. 


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Beware Anti-Chinese Covid Propaganda Videos

NOTE from Michael Roberts, 20 October 2020:

About a week back a Sri Lankan circuit of avid emailers presented an You Tube Video re China and the Covid virus. SEE ….

While I circulated it, I had immediate reservations –albeit without expertise on China. For ONE. The tentative speculative style of the charges levelled at China raised my suspicions: I read that as a technique meant to cajole readers into accepting the allegations. For ANOTHER, I had enough knowledge on China to laugh at the claim that Shanghai and Beijing were/are close to Wuhan – I have visited both cities as a tourist.


So, among those I sent the item to was/is an Australian who speaks Chinese and has considerable know-how on that arena. Here are his reports – memoranda of importance in raising consciousness about the dirty propaganda war that is being waged all over the world vis a vis Mr Covid — a war that is a continuation of longstanding contests and power-plays.

Beware the media –whether Western, Ukrainian, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Tamil-Diasporic, Rajapaksa-clones or One-eyed HRW advocates.

NOTE ONE, 18 October 2020

I laughed watching this film because it is so obvious the filmmakers are attempting to manipulate viewers to take up the view that China is to blame for everything happening in the world. It is not artistic, but a propaganda film. Any form of manipulation involves propaganda, and this film is about manipulating viewers. The film contains a series of premises leading to the conclusion “something is fishy!!!” The premises taken together have a particular structural relationship. However, the premises and assumptions, taken together, do not justify or support the conclusions, and do not provide us with a good reason for believing the conclusions. This is partially because some of the premises are untrue but mainly because the film ignores many other relevant factors. One claim made in the film is: “The Coronavirus originated from the city of Wuhan in China and has now reached every corner of the world, but the virus did not reach China’s capital Beijing and China’s Economic Capital Shanghai…. the virus had no real effect on Beijing and Shanghai” When the virus started in Wuhan, the Spring Festival was just starting with billions of people travelling all over China back to their hometowns to celebrate the festival with their families. As a result, all of the major cities throughout China were affected, including Beijing and Shanghai. The reason why the virus did not take hold in Beijing and Shanghai, or other provinces outside Hubei was due to the effective and harsh measures adopted by the Government of China to stop the spread of the virus. I won’t detail those measures here. I find this film fails to understand China and the system of China.  In China, the government adopted extremely harsh measures to stop the spread of the virus. For two months, the entire country was in lockdown, not just Wuhan city or Hubei province. As China has a very different system to the West, the Chinese people are very good at following instructions and therefore followed the advice of the government to save lives and livelihoods. However, Western countries do not want to learn from China’s experience. Many Westerners have chosen (wrongly) to regard the coronavirus as a political issue – i.e. that somehow it is about democracy and freedom rather than as a health issue to save lives and livelihoods. Many right-wing Westerners and the camp followers of right-wing conspiracy theorists went against lockdown and protested against measures that are needed to curb the spread of the virus on the basis that freedom is more important than people lives. These people cannot understand China’s system and the type of measures they are prepared to adopt to save lives and livelihoods and this explains why Shanghai and Beijing were spared and why their economies are quickly recovering. This shows the Chinese people are not stupid, but clever in responding to a new challenge and threat to protect themselves. It has nothing to do with biological weapons or plots to shut down the world economies and assert global dominance.  That is so wrong and stupid thinking. In this pandemic, there are two choices. Do you want freedom, or do you want to live?  As health experts know well, in this pandemic, you cannot have both; that for the greater good of communities, cities and countries, restrictions on freedom are needed to save lives and livelihoods.  If you don’t fix the health challenge, you cannot fix the economic challenge. Many Westerners realize this, but those on the right-wing of politics continue to demand freedom over life; that there be no lockdown, that businesses should remain open through the pandemic. Many, including some right-wing US and Australian politicians, have proudly asserted that if old people die as a result, then that is acceptable.  Many countries are now forced to go into lockdown, not just to save lives, but because their hospitals cannot cope with the huge numbers of people needing to be hospitalized.  There are different choices that countries and individuals can make about this pandemic. Those choices have nothing to do with China, and so the argument and conclusions of the film are patently false. It is a propaganda film. The reason why the virus did not spread to other parts of China in a big way was not due to some sophisticated plot, but because of the harsh measures implemented by the Chinese government, which the West are not willing to accept. That these measures are not acceptable in the West is not China’s fault. Every country and individual must take responsibility for their own choices. There are many other factual errors in the film, for instance, it wrongly claims no political or military leaders in China have had the virus, but there have been cases from these groups in a number of provinces in China. It wrongly states Beijing and Shanghai are next to Wuhan.  Wuhan is in Hubei province and is 840 km from Shanghai and 1,153 km from Beijing. Distance is not relevant.  These are a few examples, but most of the premises are untrue. The argument the filmmaker is trying to persuade us is that because the virus spread around the world, that economies around the world have been “ruined” and the share-market has fallen, but China’s market has remain stable and that the virus is a biological weapon invented by China to give it global dominance is laughable nonsense. A major factor in the shrinking of the global economy has to do with a failure of many Western governments to manage the crisis. China’s success has come from going very hard in the early stages, adopting extremely harsh measures over two months, all over China, not just Wuhan, and they got on top of the virus and have since managed it well.  But because China is controlled by the CCP, no Western leader, no right-wing politicians, filmmaker or journalist will give China credit because of ideology. Those on the right-wing fringe thus find comfort in creating silly conspiracy theories like the one manufactured in this film to compensate for their own failures.  Many of the best leaders in the west to have demonstrated good leadership in getting on top of the virus have come from the left or left of centre side of politics. My advice to this filmmaker and to those watching it is if you are genuinely interested to improve your lives, livelihoods and economies quickly, the best course of action is to stop judging China, stop playing cheap nasty politics like this film does, and learn from China’s experience.
NOTE TWO: Westerners are quick to judge China, but slow or incapable of understanding it.  We should be slow to judge China, and quick to understand it    Life in China is now normal.  People have more freedom, no restrictions, normal life, economy doing well, and much of this has to do with China’s response to the virus in early 2020.    China was the only country to impose a nationwide lockdown for 2-3 months.  It was painful for their economy, but it was the right path, and they avoided the problems Western countries are experiencing, and their economy is recovering well  It is stupid to think this is some crazy plot to overthrow the world and James Bond will save us. 

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Rudd denounces the Murdoch Juggernaut

Kevin Rudd (former Australian Prime Minister) in Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October 2020, where the title runs “Murdoch’s sway on politics warrants royal commission” …..https://www.smh.com.au/national/murdoch-s-sway-on-politics-warrants-royal-commission-20201016-p565wc.html

Living in Australia, many now habitually think our national media landscape is normal. It isn’t. No other Western democracy has the level of print media monopoly that Rupert Murdoch has secured for himself in Australia.

Chairman and CEO of News Corp Rupert Murdoch.
Chairman and CEO of News Corp Rupert Murdoch.


A single American billionaire has now seized control of almost 70 per cent of daily newspaper circulation. In my state of Queensland, which determines most federal elections, this monopoly is almost 100 per cent with every newspaper from Cairns to Coolangatta and Australia’s only commercial 24-hour ‘news’ channel.

But Murdoch is not just any old businessman. He’s not just interested in money but also in political power and far-right ideology. For Murdoch, it’s long been his triple-aphrodisiac. And the habits of a lifetime lead him to destroy anybody who gets in his way. That’s why people are frightened of him.

Where would Murdoch like to take Australia? Look no further than Fox News in America, which remains the epicentre of the Trump phenomenon, polluting Americans’ minds with bullshit narratives about widespread voter fraud, climate hoaxes and other wild conspiracies. This parallel-universe model is now unfolding in the pages of his Australian newspapers and on Sky News.

Even Rupert’s previous heir-apparent, James Murdoch, has called out his father’s empire for its hidden agendas, legitimising disinformation and wilfully sowing doubt to obscure facts in public debate. Yet despite this bombshell, not a word of it has been published in Murdoch’s publications. Such brutal censorship of politically embarrassing news is something we’d expect of a one-party state, not a vibrant democracy. Yet in Australia we just brush this off as “normal”, such is the slippery slope we’re on.

Murdoch’s Australian newspapers – including The AustralianDaily TelegraphHerald-Sun and Courier-Mail – have all been weaponised to protect Murdoch’s commercial and political interests. Politicians, businesspeople and others know that if they cross Murdoch, they will be destroyed. They’ve seen it happen so many times that they’ve lost count. This well-resourced protection racket will also defend politicians who advance his objectives. Exiled News Corp journalists speak openly about their articles being suppressed or re-written.Play Video

"There is no reward without risk"

Play video4:10James Murdoch resigns from News Corp board

James Murdoch has resigned from the board of his family’s company News Corp over “editorial disagreements”.

Over the last decade, News Corp has ceased to be a news organisation. It functions as a political party in coalition with the Liberals and Nationals. It is the government’s primary communications arm. Murdoch dailies have campaigned for the Coalition at every single federal and state election for the last decade – 18 out of 18 elections – and are now onto their 19th in Queensland. News Corp’s executive chairman holds an effective veto over who can, and who cannot, lead the Liberal Party. Look no further than the Turnbull saga and Murdoch’s notorious interventions at the height of the Liberal leadership crisis in 2018.

James Murdoch has spoken out against his father's empire.
James Murdoch has spoken out against his father’s empire.CREDIT:GETTY

Some claim News Corp’s power is waning amid the rise of online news. However this is a scam. Despite others’ best efforts, Murdoch’s newspapers continue to set the agenda, the framing of stories and the questions to be asked by the rest of the media – including the ABC and evening TV news. Legitimate news organisations struggle amid collapsing business models and new platforms – like Facebook, Google and Twitter – that reward the most sensational, polarising or outright false news. Yet, despite losing money, Murdoch uses his empire’s enormous wealth to keep these newspapers running and therefore maintain political and commercial influence.

Rupert Murdoch's influence is nowhere more prominent than in Australia with roughly two thirds of Australian daily newspapers under Murdoch's company NewsCorp. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has launched a petition to change that.

A free, independent and balanced national media is the essential infrastructure of democracy. And that infrastructure is now under threat. That’s why a royal commission, with full powers and independence, is needed to examine our entire media landscape, weigh alternative regulatory models and make recommendations to ensure a strong, diverse news media for the future. There is no parliamentary committee capable of doing this systemic, arms-length analysis; they are too close to the problem and too vulnerable to Murdoch’s power. In less than a week, 300,000 Australians have added their voice to the official parliamentary petition I launched calling for such a commission.

In fact, Parliament House tells us the petition was visited almost a million times in the first few days, crashing the website. It’s impossible to know how many Australians were unable to sign, or mistakenly believe their signature has been registered. I encourage them to try again before the the petition closes at midnight on November 4.

This commission is not all about News Corporation. Many Australians are concerned by Nine’s takeover of this newspaper and its subsequent decision – with Murdoch – to cease funding the independent AAP Newswire, jeopardising its future. Worrying new monopolies are emerging online, including Google and Facebook. The ABC is also under attack. And professional journalists have legitimate concerns including about unjust searches, official secrecy and freedom of information that should all be addressed.

Some have attacked my motives for launching this petition. Sour grapes is the usual complaint. My answer is: no, the problem is that Murdoch’s bias has only increased since I left office and has now reached industrial scale.

They cry hypocrisy, noting that I sought Murdoch’s support in 2007. You betcha. If you were the Labor leader, you’d try to reduce the level of bias as well – even from 75-25 for the conservatives to something approaching balance – although the record shows Murdoch’s papers did everything they could over 2007 to destroy my leadership with one confected scandal after another.

Then there’s academic Rod Tiffen who, in a Herald opinion piece last Tuesday, attacked my role in the Gillard government’s decision to invite News Corp to tender to provide Australia’s international broadcaster. In fact, I never suggested putting Australia Network to tender. I first learned of it when the then-PM told me in September 2010 that she had already promised News Corp a shot at the 10-year, $233 million con

I recused myself from any involvement in the process and handed it to the head of my department, Dennis Richardson, and a panel of officials selected by him, to assess the tenders before cabinet would make the final call (I again recused myself). Personally, as a lifelong supporter of the ABC, I would have preferred we allocate the contract to the national broadcaster, as ultimately happened. Turnbull’s subsequent abolition of Australia Network wrought havoc with the ABC budget and ceded our diplomatic clout in the Asia-Pacific to China – all to the clinking of champagne flutes at News Corp.

The bottom line is: it’s time for the people to have their voice through this petition to Parliament. Otherwise this giant cancer on our democracy, the Murdoch media monopoly, will suffocate the democracy itself.

Kevin Rudd is a former Labor prime minister of Australia.

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Obeyesekere’s Second Excursion into Images of the Kandyan Kingdom

Uditha Devapriya reviewing The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom (1591-1765) by Gananath Obeyesekere  …. printed by Perera-Hussein, 2020, [200 pp., Rs. 1,200] …. with his chosen title being “All kings and all things Kandyan


In 1602, the year of the Dutch East India Company’s founding, Joris van Spilbergen reached the shores of Sri Lanka after setting sail from the seaport of Veere in Holland a year earlier. Tasked with opening up trade negotiations with the King of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya, Spilbergen bore with him a letter from the Prince of Orange, acknowledging their willingness to counter the Portuguese. Not for one moment underestimating the Portuguese presence in the island, though, they disembarked at Batticaloa, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Kandyan Court. They anchored off the coast on May 31.

Vimaladharmasuriya’s seal
Spilbergen meeting Vmladharamasuirya -n 1602

From there, having proved that they were not of Portuguese extraction, they began their journey to the capital of the Sinhala Kingdom on July 6, after receiving word from the king. Taking 10 of their countrymen with him, Spilbergen’s entourage was flanked by elephants, palanquins, and every hour, gifts of fruits and vegetables and inquiries from messengers sent by the king. Among those gifts were flasks of wine: made, they learnt, from grapes in the country under the guidance of Jesuit priests. Paul E. Pieris tells us that they relished the wine, and even compared it favourably with the Portuguese variety.

A foreign envoy to the Court of Kandy in the 17th century would have to go through certain formalities before obtaining an audience with the king. Not even Spilbergen could spare his embassy from these protocols.

On the river crossing Kandy, they met Manuel Dias, a Portuguese Mudliyar in the king’s service. A thousand or so armed soldiers, some of them Turks, Moors, Kaffirs, and Portuguese, the rest Sinhalese, then accompanied them to a Rest House built in Western fashion. Hours later, in the afternoon, the king sent three saddled horses with a message that he was ready to receive the group. The rendezvous between the envoy and the monarch, as drawn by Dutch artists, depicts Vimaladharmasuriya as bulky, lanky, and powerful, yet friendly. This was the impression Spilbergen had of him too. What he didn’t realise at the time was how immensely cosmopolitan he was.

Vimaladharmasuriya had been consecrated as King of Kandy in 1591 under circumstances both peculiar and significant in the context of the country’s history. With his reign began the period of the last citadel of the Sinhalese kings. And yet, as scholars have identified, its first ruler was neither totally Sinhalese nor totally Buddhist. Having been baptised and brought up by Catholic missionaries, and christened Dom João of Austria, the man who would be king distinguished himself by his fencing skills, serving the Portuguese.

The pretender of Sitavaka, Rajasinghe, had executed his father years before. Taking on his earlier name of Konappu Bandara, he and a confidante of his called Salappu Bandara joined Don Juan Dharmapala’s campaigns against Rajasinghe. Later, in one of those campaigns, he entered the Kandyan highlands, where he reneged on his loyalties, proclaimed himself as a sovereign ruler, took on a new name, and embraced Buddhism.

Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom, lucidly written and accessible, delves into this chapter in our country’s history. It is more than a prequel to his earlier published The Doomed King, which focuses on the last ruler of the kingdom, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe. Taking up several vantage points from the perspectives of its rulers, Obeyesekere’s latest work captures the contradictions which were very much a part of the cosmopolitanism of Sri Lanka’s last capital. He begins with Spilbergen’s expedition, the banquet Vimaladharmasuriya hosted for his entourage, and the encounters the latter had of his Court. What is striking is not the deeply entrenched cosmopolitanism, but how that cosmopolitanism evolved, changed, and faded away under its later rulers.

In The Doomed King Obeyesekere endeavoured to portray Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe as more schemed against than scheming, the victim of a conspiracy hatched by his own courtiers. His prose, at once pugnacious and polemical, remains as pugnacious and polemical as ever here. The problem with the compiler of Kandyan history, he implies, is not that there isn’t a lack of sources, but that there’s so much of them. The task of the compiler and historian, which Obeyesekere fulfils until the end, is to disentangle these and distinguish between the reality and the myth. That’s where the prose becomes so pivotal.

Among the more contemporary accounts of Kandyan history which the author critically assesses here are Lorna Dewaraja’s The Kandyan Kingdom, 1707-1760, C. E. Godakumbura’s Sinhalese Literature, S. N. Arasaratnam’s Ceylon and the Dutch, and even Paul E. Pieris’s celebrated Ceylon: The Portuguese Era and Sinhale and the Patriots. While mounting a thinly veiled yet highly impassioned defence of the Kandyan rulers, he counters the Portuguese, Dutch, and British accounts from then as well. The main issue with these, he concludes, is that they simplify an otherwise multifaceted, complex reality: the Kandyan Kingdom was neither as Sinhala Buddhist as the Pali Chronicles, which celebrated the Sinhala kings, made it out to be, nor opposed to Sinhala Buddhist values as the Portuguese and the Dutch, who found in the later Nayakkars a formidable foe, imagined it to be.

The Pali Chronicles which valorise the pre-Nayakkar rulers make almost no mention of their sensual pursuits. As Obeyesekere rightly points out, “erotic practices and popular temple dancing… were hardly the stuff of monastic interest.” And yet, they were very much a part of secular life, even in the Anuradhapura Period; no less an account than the Dalada Sirita tells us of Parakramabahu IV organising a harem, among other festivities, in honour of the Tooth Relic.  Even Dutugemunu, the hero of the Mahavamsa, once “disported himself in the water the whole day together with the women of the harem.”

The absence of such references to the pre-Nayakkar rulers of Kandy has led to two assumptions today: either that these rulers were Sinhala Buddhist, or, on the evidence that some of them indulged in what must to a prudish mind be un-Sinhala, un-Buddhist activities, that their frolicking distracted them from their role as protectors of the faith. Obeyesekere unequivocally debunks both these views.

The author engages in a defence of Narendrasinghe, widely perceived to be a playful king (or sellam rajjuruwa). Not unlike A. H. Mirando’s defence of Rajasinghe I and critique of the widely prevalent view of that king’s anti-Buddhist personality, Obeyesekere conjures up a counter-narrative. Much of Narendrasinghe’s image as a playful ruler, he suggests, comes from a distortion of the very word sellam. While it did include “erotic enticements, mostly by dancing women accompanied by drumming and singing”, this was hardly peculiar to the ruler of Kandy. Indeed, “sellam” embraced music, poetry, and the arts too, and the heroic pose of the king, as celebrated by poets, did not necessarily exclude these material exploits. One can quote Cameron Dokey here: “for surely a king is first a man.”

There’s no doubt that the freewheeling spirit of these monarchs, so scandalising that after the 19th century, under the influence of Protestant Buddhism, it was sidelined if not excised by nationalist historians, endeared them to European diplomats. Indeed, it helped them to acquaint with European and Western customs.

One recalls Vimaladharmasuriya’s aside on the question of faith with the Dutch: he pointed to the city and declared that “all this has God given me.” Receding briefly in the reigns of Senarat and Vimaladharmasuriya II, by the time of Narendrasinghe this cosmopolitan streak starts to crop up again. In the interregnum between these monarchs, moreover, we have the colourful figure of Rajasinghe II, who collects, as Paul E. Pieris once wrote, “a perfect menagerie of the various European races which visited his dominions.”

Even Senarat’s reign is not free from this tendency; it is during his time that a Dutch envoy is appointed as a nobleman in Negombo: Marcellus de Bochouwer, or Meegamu Rala. It is also during his time that many of these European races start to marry local women, “enhancing the complexion of many a fair Kandyan.” Not just Robert Knox, but also De Lanerolle, figures in as key witnesses to his successor’s more complex polity. One can’t unconditionally accept them, of course, but many of their insights into the kingdom have survived.

Given the evidence, Obeyesekere seems quite justified in his assertion that much of our understanding of the Kandyan Kingdom stems from “a three-way antagonistic discourse” between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Sinhalese, which picked up after the Nayakkars moved in. The conflict between the kingdom’s ideal of “Tri Sinhale” – “the three parts of the Sinhala land” – and the reality of European presence had brought in missionaries, envoys, musicians, and military officers from various parts of the world to the highland territories. When the Dutch annexed the Maritime Provinces, Portuguese missionaries found an ally of sorts in the king, who let them preach and convert. Right until the last Sinhala ruler of the territory, Narendrasinghe, Catholic priests coexisted with Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. With Narendrasinghe’s demise, the situation changed drastically.

Here the author departs considerably from scholars, historians, and compilers who see in the enthronement of the Nayakkars a turnaround in the Kandyan polity. While not denying the veracity of their views, Obeyesekere argues that the demonization of the Nayakkars as not just un-Buddhist but also anti-Buddhist was mostly the doing of Dutch officials hostile to them; he cites two Dutch governors, Jan Schreuder and the more militant Baron van Eck, as they plan out and mount campaigns to annexe the highland territories.

Meanwhile, conscious of their foreignness in a Buddhist polity, the Nayakkars from the reign of Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe begin to compel not only envoys absorbed into the kingdom like De Lanerolle, but also Catholic priests like Jacome Gonçalves (“a more problematic figure”), to leave the territory. What replaced the cosmopolitanism of the earlier rulers, most historians conclude from that, was a Dravidised territory.

While this thesis is accepted by most, Obeyesekere rejects it. He posits two reasons for his refutation: one, that the Nayakkar influence in the Kandyan Court preceded the arrival of the Nayakkar kings, and two, that Dravidisation was nothing new to the Sinhala polity. It is true, as historians have pointed out, that the Pali Chronicles accepted them as Sinhala rulers owing to their disavowal of their “false beliefs” – recalling the Mahavamsa’s valorisation of Elara despite his “false beliefs” – and it is also true that Western observers, not mindful enough of how race operated in the upcountry, failed to see how Telugus from North India could be incorporated as Sinhala monarchs.

But the reality was far more complex than this, and it is to Obeyesekere’s credit that, in his chapters on Muslim presence in the Kandyan territories, the demonization of the Nayakkars by militant Dutch Governors, and the reordering of “the cosmic city” in line with the rules and symbols of kinship by Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, he acknowledges it throughout his study. It was here that British designs on the island began to materialise as well; under the last two kings, these designs reached their logical end, culminating in the deterioration of relations between the ruler and his Chief Ministers. That is where the narrative of The Doomed King takes over, and where this work, a fine if not original prequel to it, ends.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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