In praise of Tissa Abeysekera

Tissa Devendra, from Daily News, 19 April 2011

Having been named ‘Tissa’ by my parents, without recourse to astrology, I basked in some reflected glory as a schoolboy, in the 1940s, whenever the name of a King Tissa popped up in our Ceylon History lesson. We are now in the month of Poson when Arahat Mahinda transformed Lankadvipa into a Dharmadvipa beginning with his famous summons to our hunter king – “Tissa! Tissa!” As such, my wandering mind has been inspired into thinking about others, both famous and infamous, who share my name. ‘Tissa’ has been a name of some of the Buddha’s early disciples such as Moggaliputta Tissa.

But post Parinibbana it seems to have lost popularity and rarely appears in our scriptures. (This amateur observation may need correction by serious scholars). However, in Sri Lanka the name Tissa has been so greatly admired that it had been adopted by no less than 20 kings – far more than any other names such as Gamini, Abhaya or Mahinda. I leave the unravelling of this phenomenon to historians, as I have neither the intellectual equipment, nor the scholarly aptitude, to do so.

The First Tissa

Till recently I was under the impression that Sri Lanka’s first king to bear this name was Devanampiya Tissa who answered Arahat Mahinda’s famous summons and changed the course ofSri Lanka’s history. Recently re-reading the Rajavaliya I discovered it refers to Devanampiya Tissa’s father as Mota Tissa (not Mota Siva as some other sources do). Not only that, Mota Tissa’s father, son of Pandukabhaya II, was yet another Tissa – Gana Tissa. This goes to show that the name Tissa did not come here at the same time as Arahat Mahinda’s mission. It has had a pre-Buddhist usage among our kings.

Names of distinction

There were so many (20!)Tissa Kings (or King Tissas) that the chronicles had to give up the usual description I, II, III etc and resort to attaching prefixes to Tissa such as ‘Saddha’ (pious), ‘Sura’ (fierce),’Deta/Jetta’ (Senior), ‘Upa’ (junior), ‘Kuda’ (little) describing their personal qualities or seniority. Other prefixes gave their place of origin e.g. ‘Kelani’ ‘Yatala’. Some had double-barrelled names such as Bhatiya-Tissa. My favourite prefixes, however, are those delightfully irreverent nicknames (which even slipped into the Mahavansa) such as ‘Kavan’ (crow-black), ‘Mahadaliya’ (big beard), ‘Vankanasika’ (crooked nose) and ‘Voharaka’ (loud mouthed) – a description which aptly described my boyhood self according to my historian father.

The last recorded king to bear this time-honoured name was DalapaTissa, a rather obscure ruler whose sole claim to ‘distinction’ according to the Rajavaliya is that he “renovated already existing Viharas and reigned for nine years”. My meagre knowledge of archaic Sinhala and ancient geography gives me no clue as to what ‘Dalapa’ meant.

‘Tissa’ now disappears from the chronicles as a name of kings. But this was in common with the other simple names popular in theAnuradhapurakingdom such as Gamani, Abhaya, Sena and Mugalan. The drift away from our first capital, which had held sway for over a thousand years, was marked by our kings using the most grandiloquent names such as Parakrama Bahu, Vijaya Bahu, Vikrama Bahu, Vimala Dharma Suriya and Sri Vikrama Rajasinha. The length of the name often paralleled a diminution of the kingdom.

Buddhist monks, however, continued to occasionally use the name Tissa till today. But the chronicles of kings had little space and no need to record the names of “hewers of wood and drawers of water” and their names remain unknown, unhonoured and unsung. Only in the Sigiri Graffiti do we hear the voices and learn the names of ordinary people. But there is no Tissa here. It is unlikely that the common people would have committed the lese majeste of assuming names, such as Tissa, hallowed by Royal and priestly usage. The name Tissa now goes into hibernation for well-nigh a thousand years.


In the early 20th Century, Anagarika Dharmapala’s relentless campaign, against the trappings of Colonialism – customs, costumes and names had a tremendous impact on the Buddhist public. English names were discarded enthusiastically – David became Dharmapala, George became Gunapala and so on. The first Sinhala names assumed were traditional, such as Buddhadasa, Dharmadasa, Sanghadasa,Wijayapala, Sugathapala, Gunasiri etc – all redolent of Buddhist virtues integral in village life.Meanwhile Olcott’s vision was bearing fruit – to lift Buddhist education out of the rut of ill-equipped village schools and to establish modern Buddhist Colleges on par with the best Missionary schools – which had been creaming off the Buddhist elite and weaning them away from their roots.

These new Buddhist schools, Mahinda inGalle, Ananda in Colonbo and Dharmaraja inKandybegan teaching in English, in the best Public School traditions, but with a distinctive emphasis on Buddhist and Sinhala culture.

In the process of studying the new discipline of Ceylon History and the Buddha Dhamma both teachers and students were enthused by the famous, inspiring and crisp names of our ancient kings – such as Gamini, Tissa, Abhaya, Mahinda and Upali. It is now that the names of our ancient kings got a new lease of life when boys, born from around 1915 or so, were named after them.

This trend went into full swing in the 1920s when most of us named Tissa, Gamini, Upali, Mahinda etc, after our ancient kings and prelates, were born. These overtook the Western names of our seniors named after British Kings or Governors such as Edward, George, Robert, Wilmot, Stanley, Neville etc. The old kings’ names popular in my generation now seem to be fading away – and replaced by Hindi sounding, or other ‘Sinhala’ (but so far non-existent) names concocted to conform to astrological demands.

Coming back to the name I share with a dwindling band of old stagers – I think it is very likely that the first of the ‘new’ (post Mahavansa) Tissas was my friend the late Tissa Amerasekera in Kandy, active till his late 90s, and doyen of Dharmaraja’s ‘Old Boys’. adding lustre to the royal name we have in common – Tissa.

A sad farewell

Little did I imagine when I began this article many months ago and shared my thoughts with my dear friend and namesake Tissa Abeysekera that I would write this postscript in remembrance of this most wonderful man. I can confidently assert that he has been the most outstanding Tissa for the last century. His achievements in literature and film have left an indelible imprint on these genres to be long remembered and studied. Tissa’s brilliance in Sinhala and English writing is unique and will never be matched. His writings on literature, art and film form a body of work of sensitive critical judgement in limpid language. He fully deserved the academic honours and national recognition bestowed on him while he was yet around to appreciate them. He was a brilliant conversationalist and, above all, a wonderful friend. It isSri Lanka’s tragedy that Tissa Abeysekera left us at the height of his creative powers. April, was, truly our cruelest month. I dedicate this brief tribute to the memory of this greatest Tissa of our age.

Born: May 7, 1939
Died: April 18, 2009 (aged 69)
Education: Dharmapala Vidyalaya

Occupation: Film Director/ Writer, Chairman National Film Corporation, Board member University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Board member University of Kelaniya, Visiting lecturer University of Peradeniya/Ruhuna

1 Comment

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One response to “In praise of Tissa Abeysekera

  1. Dhamitha Perera

    Lovely reading your article. But I am sad that one of Tissa Abeysekeras master pieces – teledrama ( based on Late Gamini Dissanayaka’s work) Dolos Mahe Ganga – is lost to the present society. This was telecast circa 1995. Also lost is Piyasiri Wijeratna’s unique voice in the haunting patriotic lyrics and tune of the song ” ira gala udin payana ira mala ganga ” in this teledrama. U hope the family will give their rights to someone to publish this song. Also the teledrama. If not soon it will be lost forever. Please follow up. Thank you. Dhamitha Perera.0777289802.

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