HK Dharmadasa passes away; A Tribute

From The Nation, 14 August 2011

When working on the process of social mobility  and class formation in British times, and thus delving into familial histories, I encountered many tales of mudalilies who earned a fortune in their lifetime as Sinhala-speaking entreprenuers but had their wealth iddipated by profligate sons. I was informed by someone of the homily: “They made their money in Sinhalese and lost it in English.” This did not occur in the tale of “Kalu Mahatttaya” or HK Dharmadasa who could also be described as “Navaloka Mudalāli.” He ensured that his sons Upali and jayantha learnt business administration so that they could assist the conversion of his entrepreneurial activities through modernization that morphed the enterprise into corporate establishments that could emulate such individuals as Upali Wijewardena and Chandra Schaffter from among the older generations of “Ceylonese’ who survived and prospered in the era of liberalisation since the 1970s/80s. Michael Roberts.

 A Tribute in The Nation

Sri Lankan business tycoon Deshamanya H. K. Dharmadasa, who came up to the very top of the indigenous business community, rose from humble beginnings to the chairmanship of the Nawaloka Group of Companies with 21 constituent companies. It was a story of grit, determination and hard work that brought this soft spoken, down to earth human being popularly known as Nawaloka Mudalali.
   Born in June 1920 at Sultanagoda, Matara, his parents were simple village folk. When his father Dandiris Appuhamy took the time of his birth to the village temple to get the horoscope set, the chief monk remarked that this was not a mere village boy but a king. The father was overjoyed but did not see how simple village folk could groom their son to become a king. Later his father died but the village lad who was fondly called ‘Kalu Mahattaya’ decided to leave for Colombo in search of greener pastures at the age of 14. He left home one dawn without telling his mother and sister and boarded a bus to Colombo with only a little more than his bus fare. He had remembered an uncle of his who was running a tea kiosk at Wellampitiya catering to the bullock carters who were like the lorry or container drivers of today.
   Once in Colombo he found his way to the uncle’s kiosk doing brisk business. He helped the uncle who welcomed him in doing all the chores of the kiosk and soon learnt the trade and the little money he got from his uncle was saved. Then young Dharmadasa crossed the Kelani River and reached Peliyagoda where he opened a small kiosk with two tables. Gradually the small kiosk that became Nawaloka Hotel flourished. In those days logs were brought floating down the Kelani River and his next venture was the Nawaloka Timber Mill on the other side of the river. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold but Deshmanya Dharmadasa never lost his common touch.
  Among his flourishing business ventures are the Nawaloka Construction Company, Sri Lanka’s pile driving and building specialist, Nawaloka Hospitals, Nawaloka Polysacks and all the other companies he managed with his wonderful business acumen and management skill. He has served the community donating a number of public playgrounds, houses for the poor, construction of classrooms for schools and donated lavishly for Buddhist temples.
   Deshamanya H. K. Dharmadasa passed away on Wednesday August 10, 2011 at the age of 92. The funeral was held yesterday amidst a large gathering that included family members as well as VIPs.


Nawaloka Mudalali: an Icon passes away 

By Faraz Shauketaly in The Sunday Leader, 14 August 2011
The passing away on Wednesday (10) of Deshamanya H.K. Dharmadasa, marked the demise of Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent entrepreneur – who in a remarkable commercial career – extending over 65 years – was responsible for the creation of a diverse group that includes plastics, construction, hospitals, industries, timber and automobiles, operating on two continents.

Hewa Komanage Dharmadasa was the epitome of the rags to riches story: having left his home outside Matara aged 15 and with just a few rupees in his pocket to ending up as the Chairman of the Nawaloka Group, part of which is listed on Sri Lanka’s stock exchange. Not many in commercial society in Colombo missed the irony that the man who set up a workman’s café – still in operation – went on to own a significant portion of the Galadari Hotel Colombo, when the Nawaloka Hospital purchased a stake of just over 25 percent some years ago.
Popularly known as Nawaloka Mudalali, Dharmadasa initially worked in a cousin’s tea shop, moving on to running his own – still in operation in Peliyagoda as ‘Nawaloka Hotel’. He was one of the first local businessmen to supply tea chests to the colonial tea trade. His initial purchase of a few perches of land in Peliyagoda saw him steadily expand his base – now measured in acres.
‘Mudalali’ was known to all of Sri Lanka’s Prime Ministers and Executive Presidents and despite being a victim of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s unfortunate brand of economic stratagems, managed to record steady progress and expansion throughout the various stages of Sri Lanka’s post independence development. In an unpublished interview granted two years ago, Deshamanya Dharmadasa admitted that he had known most of the national leaders but added that even though he was not ‘politically’ involved he felt that he had to record the achievement of Mahinda Rajapaksa in terms of the ending of the war on terrorism as ‘most significant.’ Some months later, for the first time in his life, Dharmadasa made it a point to be seen on a stage during President Rajapaksa’s Presidential campaign.
Much of the Nawaloka Group’s activities centred around serving the people of Sri Lanka: timber, construction, manufacture of nails, screws; heavy equipment, plastics and of course the Nawaloka Hospital. Dharmadasa admitted not long ago that of his many businesses the one that gave him the most personal satisfaction was the creation of the fully equipped hospital. We pressed him as to why that was, was it the most profitable financially. “It is not financial satisfaction. It is the satisfaction of seeing a person ill, going home fully recovered and the happiness of that person and his family that gives me my own personal satisfaction about the hospital.” In the same interview the iconic businessman, added that “people were the most important – you have to treat people properly and with respect”. I was told much later on that he almost always referred to everyone as “Mahatthayo”.
   Nawaloka Mudalali was a fanatical time manager: ensuring he was always on time for meetings and always leaving his office in time to tune into the SLBC news in his car. Always keen to minimise wastage, the Nawaloka Chief is said to have kept a very close eye on the books, which he looked at every working morning. Deshamanya H.K. Dharmadasa, is survived by his daughters Malani, Rukmani, Pushpa and Priyani and his sons, Jayantha and Upali. (

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