Ishara Jayawardane in The Daily News, 16 April 2013
As a young boy standing in the shadow of the Galle Fort, what thoughts would have passed through the mind of K. D. Paranavitana? He had looked at the ramparts of the massive and splendid Galle Fort created by Dutch ingenuity on his countless visits to Galle. But why return countless times? What was the fascination with these stone structures that compelled him to study Dutch? That put him on the path to a career in the Department of National Archives in Sri Lanka? That he would be knighted by the Queen of Netherlands for his contribution to the study of the historical relations between The Netherlands and Sri Lanka?
“I was born in Ginimellagaha, a small village by the side of Gin Ganga, in Baddegama. I had my early schooling in the Telikada Government School. Subsequently, I joined Ratnasara Vidyalaya in Baddegama. The high priest was Ven. Ganegama Saranankara, who studied at Shantiniketan in India. He was a prolific writer, honoured with the National Literary Award.He was really my guru at that time. As there were no higher classes in the village school, I got admission to All Saints’ College in Galle which was later converted to Galle Central College from where I entered the University in 1964. During my childhood I used to visit the City of Galle occasionally. Since 1952 onwards from time to time, I went there with my parents and relatives.
The Galle Fort is a massive construction created by the Dutch and I was very curious about it. So I continued my reading about the Galle Fort,” said Paranavitana. “I first joined the University of Ceylon, Colombo, where at the end of the first year, I was selected to do a special degree in Sinhala language. As the special degree courses were not conducted at Colombo at the time, prospective students were transferred to Peradeniya. There in addition to my major subject which was Sinhala, I also studied Ceylon History and Archaeology as subsidiary subjects. With this background, I thought of a future career in the Department of National Archives, Department of Archaeology or in the National Museum as those three departments were related to the subjects I had studied. After graduation I applied to the National Archives and I was taken in 1970 as an Assistant Archivist.”
Sri Lankan history: At the National Archives there are about 8,000 volumes of Dutch records relating to the Dutch period of Sri Lankan history which spanned for almost 150 years. Among them there is also a unique collection of land registers which are called Tombos. You don’t find such collections anywhere in the world where the Dutch East India Company had ruled like Indonesia or South Africa. Registering lands in the Tombos were started by the Portuguese and improved by the Dutch. The system was improved by the Dutch in order to collect as many taxes as possible from the produce of the village folk. The Dutch documents constitute a very important part of the colonial archives available at the National Archives.
“The Dutch burghers who were employed in the National Archives earlier were well versed in Dutch. After their terms of office, interest towards the Dutch archives gradually diminished. When I joined the National Archives, there was no officer who was competent to read and translate Dutch documents such as Memoirs of the Dutch Governors or the Minutes of the Council Meetings. Therefore, there was a great need to have a specialist in 17th and 18th century Dutch language and I was encouraged to fill this gap.”
European languages: Dr. Paranavitana has a natural inclination to learn languages. “I tried to learn several European languages – Portuguese, French, and Dutch – and I found Dutch relatively easier. I did a self study here in Sri Lanka and later I got a scholarship from the Foreign Ministry of The Netherlands. I spent one year for the post graduate diploma and another six months to learn 17th and 18th century Dutch language. The environment there was very conducive to learn the language in a natural setting. My colleagues at the National Archives of The Netherlands did not allow me to speak in English. My teachers all spoke in Dutch and my lessons and examinations were all in Dutch. So my dissertation was also in the Dutch language.”
Subsequently he obtained his Ph.D. from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, for the research thesis written on the topic “The Archives of the Dutch East India Company Administration in Ceylon 1640-1796.”
Explaining the nature of the Dutch records, he said that the reading of those documents was no easy task because the language of that period was not standardized. “One sentence can run through the whole document, so one has to really understand where this sentence has to be broken. When I translate, I always do that; I split the sentence and take part by part and try to grasp the correct rendering of what the original writer meant. It is his view that we ought to translate.
The other problem is the calligraphy – the writings. There are lots of abbreviations and various words borrowed from other European languages such as French and German and even English. The Dutch East India Company employed people from different parts of the Netherlands. Also there were people from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany and France.”
“It was the world’s first multi national and limited liability company. Sri Lanka’s maritime districts were governed by the Dutch East India Company, a trading organization. The Portuguese rulers were appointed by the Crown of Portugal and they were government employees, so they had to report to the Portuguese Crown. Whereas the Dutch officers were obliged to report to their Board of Directors in Amsterdam.”
Archival work: According to Dr. Paranavitana, there is an agreement between the governments of Sri Lanka and The Netherlands which has been referred to as “The Netherlands and Sri Lanka Cultural Cooperation Programme” under which funds were provided to translate certain important documents. There are many publications to his credit. Among them are: An Inventory of Sri Lanka Maps in the General State Archives in the Netherland; Journal of Spilbergen, The First Dutch Envoy to Ceylon 1602; Land for Money: Dutch Land Registration in Sri Lanka.
He has also written a very interesting book on the Galle Fort, a place which he was fascinated with since his childhood (Galle Fort: The Heritage City). He has also edited The Dutch and Sinhalese Dictionary authored by Dutch clergyman Simon Cat. Recently he has made an English translation of “The Travel Diary of the Dutch Governor of Ceylon Isaac Augustine Rumpf (1719)”. Even though he has retired from the National Archives, one could still see him there occupied with Dutch documents.
Dr. Paranavitana was also instrumental in organizing the Presidential Archives during the tenure of office of J. R. Jayewardene. “President Jayewardene was very fond of his library and wanted to establish a Presidential Archives. He had a discussion with the then Director of the National Archives who asked me to be in charge of that work. I had the privilege of working with President Jayewardene for about twelve years. I was very happy to be associated with that project. This institution is now known as J. R. Jayewardene Centre.”
Besides his interest in archival work, he also had a fascination for academic teaching. After serving the National Archives for 27 years, he decided to join the academic staff of the Rajarata University in Mihintale in 1996 where he functioned as the Head of the Department of Humanities. “Many of the Arts subjects came under the purview of the Department of Humanities. I loved teaching. After serving 13 years I retired from the university service in 2010 as the Professor of Humanities.”
In recognition of his contribution to the study of historical and bilateral relations between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka, he was decorated by the Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands with Knight of the Order of Orange Nassau. “I never expected any honour or anything at that time. I worked with dedication and commitment, and I am happy that my contribution has been recognized by the Dutch monarchy.”