Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe (1865-1937) — Savant, Linguist and Epigraphist … with Notes about HCP Bell, Archaeologist (1851-1937)

Thiru Arumugam, courtesy of The Ceylankan, Journal 67, vol XVII:3, August 2014, pp. 18-22.

Thiru photoThiru Arumugam

Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe was born in the Southern Province in 1865. He passed away in 1937. He was educated at Richmond College, Galle, which was originally called ‘The Galle School’. It was founded on 25 July 1814 by the Weslyan Methodist Missionaries and is the oldest English medium school in the country. Although he did not have a Bachelor’s degree, Wickremasinghe was appointed Lecturer in Tamil and Telugu by the University of Oxford. Subsequently he became Head of the Dravidian Department, University of London. He lectured at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London which was renamed in 1938 as the School of Oriental and African Studies. It has been described as the world’s leading Institution for the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle-East. The jewel in its crown is the Library with over a million volumes. Wickremasinghe was completely fluent in the following languages and lectured in most of them at University level: English, German, Sinhala, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit.

Wickremasinghe photo2 a grainy image of Wickramasinghe taken in London in 1899

Harry Charles Purvis Bell (1851-1937) was the son of a Major-General of Irish/Scottish descent, who was stationed in India. He was sent to England in 1864 for a public school education at Cheltenham College. After schooling, he did not enter University but spent two years tutored by a ‘Crammer’ who specialised in preparing students for the Civil Service examinations. He sat for the examination and passed it, being posted to the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) in 1873. After several miscellaneous postings in the CCS, Governor Gordon appointed him in 1890 as the first Archaeological Commissioner and Head of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon. Incidentally it was called a ‘Survey’ and not a Department as the Government then believed that all items of archaeological interest could be completely surveyed in about twenty years and after that all operations could cease! Bell continued in the post of Archaeological Commissioner until 1912 when he retired after nearly 40 years of service in the CCS. Although during this period of time he was entitled to several paid furloughs in Britain, he never availed of them, preferring to spend his leave in his beloved Ceylon. Even after his retirement he chose to live in Kandy.

In 1884/5 Bell was stationed in the Southern Province and came to know Wickremasinghe, the young Pandit, and was impressed by his intellectual promise. In 1887 Wickremasinghe was appointed Assistant Librarian in the Colombo Museum Library where he worked under F H M Corbett. His main duty was to catalogue the Museum items. In 1887 Wickremasinghe compiled a “List of the ‘Pansiyapanas Jataka’, the five hundred and fifty Birth Stories of Gautama Buddha” and this was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch (RASCB), Vol. X, No. 35 of 1887, pp 205-218. To prepare this list, Wickremasinghe had to consult many ola manuscripts in temples all over the Island. Subsequently this was published as a 16 page booklet with Reinhold Rost named as a co-author. The latter was an Indologist who was the Librarian of the India Office, London.

Wickremasinghe’s next publication was in 1890 when he edited Nikaya Sangrahawa or Sasanawataraya, which was a book written about the history of Buddhism in India and Ceylon. The original work in Sinhalese was written by Dewarakshita Dharmakirti Mahathera who lived during the reign of Bhuwaneka Bahu V (1378-1397 AD). Wickremasinghe dedicated the book to the Governor, Hamilton-Gordon, “who, during the administration of the Government from 1883 to 1890, encouraged the study of Oriental Literature“.

By 1890 Bell was firmly established as the first head of the Archaeological Survey with his Office in Anuradhapura. He asked for Wickremasinghe to be released from the Colombo Museum to be his Native Assistant and Wickremasinghe arrived in Anuradhapura in March 1891 and was appointed Clerk/Interpreter. Meanwhile Corbett, the Head of the Colombo Museum, had arranged for his protégé Wickremasinghe to proceed on scholarship to study archaeology and philology at the German Universities of Erlangen, Munich and Berlin. Bell records in his Administrative Reports for 1893 and 1894 that Wickremasinghe left the Archaeological Survey “on 28 February 1893 to proceed to Erlangen University to fit himself for advanced philological research. His loss has been very much felt by the Department, to which he rendered valuable service at the expense of his health“.

During his stay in Germany, the RASCB which Wickremasinghe had joined in 1889, deputed him to search the Libraries and Archives of Holland for certain Sinhalese MSS believed to have been taken from Ceylon by the Dutch during their occupation of the maritime provinces. Wickremasinghe left Germany in 1895 but had not spent sufficient time in any of the German Universities to qualify for a degree.

In 1895, Wickremasinghe moved to England and his first task was to catalogue Sinhalese material in the British Museum Library. Under the Colonial Copyrights Act, a copy of every book or manuscript published in the British Empire, in any language, had to be sent to the British Museum Library, which therefore had a comprehensive collection of Sinhalese books and manuscripts.

Wickremasinghe’s book Catalogue of the Sinhalese Manuscripts in the British Museum was published by the British Museum in 1900. This 199 page book includes details of about one thousand Sinhalese Manuscripts. His next book was Catalogue of Sinhalese printed books in the Library of the British Museum. This 307 page book was published in 1901 by the British Museum and describes about 2000 titles.

During the period 1895 to 1908, Wickremasinghe published about nine articles in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. The tiles of the articles include “The Thupavamsa”, “The Avestic Ligature for hm”, “Ceylon Epigraphy”, The Semitic origin of the Old Indian Alphabet”, “The several Pali and Sanskrit authors known as Dhammakitti”, “Water (vatura) in Sinhalese”, “Catalogue of the late Prof Max Muller’s Sanskrit Manuscripts”, “Sinhalese Copper Plate Grants in the British Museum”, and “The Rev G U Pope DD”. The articles that he contributed to the Journal of the RASCB included “List of Pansiyapanas Jataka”, “Etymological and Historical notes on Ritigala”, “Notes on a Sinhalese Inscription of 1745-46 AD”, and “The antiquity of stone architecture in India and Ceylon”. He also wrote the Chapter titled Ceylon 1215-1527 AD which appeared in the Cambridge History of India, Vol III, which was published in 1928.

Richard Pischel (1849-1908) was a famous German Indologist and was Professor of Indology and Comparative Linguistics at the University of Halle, Germany from 1885 to 1902. In 1900 he published a 429 page book titled Grammatik der Pratik-Sprachen (Grammar of the Prakrit Languages). Prakrit is the Indo-Aryan language used for inscriptions from the time of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century BC, and appears in literature in the form of the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhists. Wickremasinghe was thoroughly fluent in German following his two year stay in Germany. He studied Pischel’s book and in 1905, Wickremasinghe published a book titled Index of all the Prakrit words occurring in Pischel’s Grammatik der Prakrit-Sprachen. At 204 pages, Wickremasinghe’s book was almost half the length of Pischel’s book!

Meanwhile in 1899, Bell’s Administration Report says that the Report of the Committee reporting on the Archaeological Survey, chaired by Major-General F T Hobson, and appointed by the Governor, says that the “Archaeological Commissioner considers an Epigraphica Zeylanica (publication in full with facsimiles and translations). The Committee adopts Mr Bell’s suggestion that Wickremasinghe be appointed to do the epigraphical work in England and that B Gunasekera, Mudaliyar, Chief Translator to the Government be instructed to verify, or revise, Mr Wickremasinghe’s conclusions. The Committee concludes that the work of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon can be completed in 15 to 20 years”. The last sentence is interesting. The Government of the day still believed that the Archaeological Survey of old Ceylon could be completed in a few years time and that there was no need to set up a permanent Archaeological Department!

Following the above mentioned Committee’s recommendation, Wickremasinghe was appointed Epigraphist to the Government of Ceylon in 1899 and ceased to be a Colombo Museum employee. H C P Bell was very keen to publish a series of volumes of Epigraphia Zeylanica (hereafter referred to as EZ in this article) which was to be modelled on the Indian equivalent, Epigraphia Indica, the first volume of which had already appeared in 1892 and was printed in Calcutta. The EZ was to consist of reproductions of lithic and other ancient inscriptions, the text of the inscriptions, the transcripts and translations plus notes setting out the background and significance of each inscription.

Wickremasinghe was expected to work in England on the EZ, under the direct supervision of Prof A A Macdonell who was Boden Professor of Sanskrit and Keeper of the Indian Institute in the University of Oxford. Wickremasinghe moved to Oxford and started work, he was also appointed Librarian and Assistant Keeper of the Indian Institute. The arrangement was that Bell would send to Wickremasinghe ‘estampages’ or ‘squeezes’ of the inscriptions. Wickremasinghe would decipher the inscriptions and translate them and write notes about them. An estampage is a method of taking an inked impression of the inscription. The inscription is carefully washed clean and an inked paper is pressed on the inscription and an impression obtained, which is then ‘mirror imaged’ to provide a reproduction of the original.

Bethia Nancy Bell (born 1918) and Heather Margaret Bell (born 1920) were both daughters of C F Bell, the second son of H C P Bell. They were both employed as Library staff in the British Museum Library, and decided to write a biography of their illustrious grandfather which was titled H C P Bell: Archaeologist of Ceylon and the Maldives. It was published in 1993 and has 318 pages. This book will be described hereafter in this article as the ‘Bell Biography’. As the sisters were both working in the British Museum Library they had access to the books and articles written by their grandfather and also to his annual Administration Reports. To complete their material for the book they decided to visit Ceylon.

When they visited Ceylon around 1990, it was already over fifty years since Bell had passed away in Kandy. They were therefore unable to meet anybody who had actually worked with Bell. However, they were cordially received by the staff of the Archaeological Department and invited to deliver a lecture about Bell at a meeting of the RASCB. As a result of subsequent newspaper coverage of the meeting, they made a totally unexpected discovery. It appears that Bell had a relationship in 1908 with Saveri Amma and had a daughter. He also had a relationship with Perumal Akka in 1916 and had a son. The descendants of these two branches of the Bell family were living in Ceylon and the Bell clan in England were totally unaware of the existence of these two branches of the family tree. Full details are included in the ‘Bell Genealogy’ section at the end of the Bell Biography.

The working relationship between Bell and Wickremasinghe regarding the production of EZ soon turned sour. Full details are given in Bell Biography Chapter 19 titled Epigraphia Zeylanica. Wickremasinghe complained that Bell was slow in sending estampages to him, and Bell complained that Wickremasinghe was far behind schedule in writing up EZ and hinted that this may be due to Wickremasinghe engaging in other more financially lucrative activities, meaning his lecturing duties and writing other books which will be mentioned later. The Bell Biography describes it as a “contest by mail over thousands of miles between the Lion in the Anuradhapura jungle and the Unicorn in the Indian Institute, Oxford”.

To these accusations by Bell, Wickremasinghe replied with dignity enclosing letters about his work from seven scholars of worldwide reputation, including Dr J F Fleet, a retired ICS Officer and the most distinguished living Epigraphist of India. Wickremasinghe wrote to Bell, “Allow me to submit respectfully my protest against the antagonistic attitude you continually take towards my work in spite of all my endeavours to work with you harmoniously, paying due regard to your official position as Head of the Department. It seems I can in no way please you now and I note with regret the want of that consideration which you showed me when I was your Assistant about fifteen years ago”.  

   In 1907, a Clerk in the Colonial Office, London had entered a Minute in the file that “Whatever the abstract merits of the controversy, it seems to me clear that with so offensive a Commissioner as Mr Bell, no qualified person can be expected to work as his subordinate Officer”. Even Governor Henry McCallum entered the fray with the comment that “Mr Wickremasinghe is an expert, Mr Bell is not. The best course will be to put a stop to unnecessary squabbling”. Finally the Colonial Office resolved the issue by asking A B Keith to supervise the work of Wickremasinghe. Keith had three first class degrees from Oxford and was Secretary to the Crown Agents for the Colonies. He was later Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Edinburgh.

Meanwhile in 1908, Wickremasinghe was appointed Lecturer in Tamil and Telugu by Jesus College, Oxford, and later promoted as a Reader. He was also an External Examiner for other Universities in the subjects of Sinhalese, Pali and Sanskrit. All this without having a degree, but this was adjusted by Oxford awarding him an Honorary Masters Degree. This must have been particularly galling to Bell, who had never entered the portals of an University.

In 1912, Bell retired from his post of Archaeological Commissioner, having reached the age of sixty years. His annual Administration Reports were some years in arrears when he retired. He completed writing these after he retired. He lived in Kandy until he died in1937. Epigraphia Zeylanica, being Lithic and other Inscriptions of Ceylon, Volume1, was finally published by Oxford University Press in 1912, the same year that Bell retired. EZ was edited by Wickremasinghe and consisted of reproductions of inscriptions, the deciphered text of the inscriptions, the English transliteration of the inscriptions, the translations of the texts and copious notes and comments on the inscriptions and their significance in charting the history of the country.

Wickremasinghe had also started on another venture. The London Publishers, E Marlborough & Co had started a ‘Marlborough Self-Taught Series’ of books for learning different languages. Wickremasinghe was commissioned to write for them and his first book of 120 pages was Tamil Grammar Self-Taught which was published in 1906. This was followed by the 96 page Tamil Self-Taught which was published in the same year. No doubt these books would have been popular with British Tea Planters wishing to learn spoken Tamil.

In 1916, Wickremasinghe followed up the above books with a 119 page book titled Sinhalese Self-Taught. The author is described as ‘Lecturer in Tamil and Telugu in the University of Oxford, and in Pali and Prakrit for Jesus College, Oxford’. In the Preface to this book he refers to a separate grammar and an etymological and historical lexicon founded on the latest results of Prakrit philology being under preparation, but this was never published. Also in 1916 his 136 page book titled Malayalam Self-Taught was published. The author is described as ‘Epigraphist Lecturer in South Indian Languages in the London School of Oriental Studies’. The only book missing in this series is Telugu Self-Taught. One wonders why he never got round to writing it.

Wickremasinghe moved to London and continued to work on epigraphical studies. In 1928, the 348 page Volume II of EZ edited by him was published. Wickremasinghe is described as ‘Reader in Tamil and Telugu in the University of London, Lecturer in Sinhalese and Head of the Dravidian Department at the London School of Oriental Studies’. Wickremasinghe generously dedicated this Volume to Bell “as a small token of recognition of his eminent services to Ceylon epigraphical and historical studies”.

Volume II consists of reproductions of inscriptions and follows the same pattern as Volume I. A typical sample of the study of an inscription is given in Figure 1, and consists of the first ten lines of a slab inscription of King Nissanka-Malla (1187-1196 AD) at Ruvanvali Dagaba, Anuradhapura, with Sinhala text and translation. An English transcript of the text is also included in the original book but has not been reproduced here.

Parakrama Bahu I reigned in Polonnaruva from 1153 to 1186 AD. He built many religious edifices and irrigation projects such as Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama). Wilhelm Geiger’s translation of the Culavamsa devotes 124 pages to Parakrama Bahu’s reign. He was succeeded by Vijayabahu II who reigned for only a year and then by Nissanka-Malla who ruled from 1187 to 1196 AD. He must have had an efficient publicity organisation because he left behind many inscriptions of which 18 were edited by Wickremasinghe in EZ Vols I and II. Nissanka-Malla does not seem to have been popular with the author of the Culavamsa because Geiger’s translation devotes only two pages to his reign, compared with 124 pages for Parakrama Bahu I.

The content of the Inscription in Fig I is interesting. Culavamsa states that Vijayabahu II “in his great mercy released from their misery those dwellers in Lanka whom his Uncle, the Sovereign Parakrama, had thrown into prison and tortured with stripes or with fetters”. However, according to the Inscription, Nissanka-Malla went further and rewarded these ex-prisoners with precious gifts and wealth so that they would desist from a life of robbery. In short, he bribed them! He also cancelled taxes for several years and permanently waived taxes on chena cultivation. It would be nice to have a Finance Minister like that!

By 1929 Wickremasinghe had failing health and eyesight problems and had to retire from his post in the University of London and return to Ceylon. He had, however, been working on material for Volume III of EZ, which was included when this Volume was published in 1933. This Volume was edited by Senarat Paranavitana, the first Ceylonese Archaeological Commissioner, who says in the Preface that “Dr Wickremasinghe in the first two Volumes of Epigraphia Zeylanica has set up a very high standard of scholarship”. Note that by this time Wickremasinghe had acquired a Doctorate. Volume III includes “A Chronological Table of Ceylon Kings” from Vijaya (483-445 BC) to the last King of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (1798-1815 AD). This Table was prepared by Wickremasinghe and runs to 44 pages. In comparison Geiger’s list of Sinhalese Kings over the same period, in the Culavamsa, runs to only seven much smaller pages.

Wickremasinghe and Bell both passed away in 1937, within a few months of each other. Volume IV of EZ was edited by Paranavitana and published in 1943. In the Preface he refers to Wickremasinghe’s work on the EZ and says, of whom “it can truly be said that he laid the foundations of the scientific study of Ceylon epigraphy on a firm basis.. In the midst of his multifarious duties, first at Oxford University and later at London University, he edited and published, between 1903 and 1927, thirteen parts of this Journal, consisting solely of his own contributions. The scholarly and able manner in which Dr Wickremasinghe carried out this onerous task earned for him a first class international reputation among Indianists; but it is sad to reflect on the indifference of his own countrymen towards the great service he has rendered his country by his researches into the history, language, and culture of the Sinhalese people, incidentally bringing credit to Ceylon scholarship”.

In 1962 on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the deaths of Wickremasinghe and Bell, D T Devendra wrote an article in the Journal of the RASCB (Vol VIII, Pt 1) in which he referred to the two of them and said that “Of neither of these men has there been an obituary account worthy of their unforgettable labours in the Island’s archaeology – a likely reason being that they remained in a sense, outside the world of those who later pursued the same studies”. This is particularly true of Wickremasinghe – the significant part of his work was all done in England. Since then homage has been paid to Bell by the Bell Biography, but an account worthy of Wickremasinghe is still awaited.

A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country ……..” (Mark 6:4)

Slab Inscription and translation — click to view


The illustrious King, distinguished by a multitude of virtues, liberality, truthfulness, heroism, and the like, His Majesty Nissanka-Malla Kalinga Parakrama-Bahu, who was born in Simhapura as a tilaka ornament to the royal dynasty of Kalinga Chakravarti, descended from the line of kings of the Okkaka family, brought the Island of Ceylon, his family’s heritage, under one canopy of dominion. And seeing many persons oppressed by the excessive and illegal punishments inflicted by King Parakrama-Bahu the Great, in violation of the customs of former sovereigns, and being impoverished, are eking out an existence by robbery and these men commit robberies, even at the risk of their lives, through their desire for wealth, he bestowed on them gifts of gold, silver, coins, pearls, precious stones, clothes, ornaments, and the like, whatever wealth each one desired, and also cattle, villages, and lands; and granting them security, he made them desist from stealing. He relieved a great number of other people also, each from his own misfortunes, and by similar manifold gifts of diverse kinds he gave them his patronage. Desiring that what he had given should not only be maintained but also be increased, he graciously remitted taxes for several years, and abolished the taxes on chena cultivation in the three kingdoms for all time.

Fig 1: Lines 1-10 of a Slab Inscription of King Nissanka-Malla (1187-1196) at Ruvanvali Dagaba, Anuradhapura, with Text and Translation, taken from Epigraphia Zeylanica, Vol. II, 1928, Pt. 18.




Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, heritage, historical interpretation, life stories, literary achievements, sri lankan society, unusual people

2 responses to “Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe (1865-1937) — Savant, Linguist and Epigraphist … with Notes about HCP Bell, Archaeologist (1851-1937)

  1. chandre DW

    Thus we have stone inscriptions providing evidence that in olden times kings gave money and wealth to robbers so that they don’t have to rob. Today, the robbers are kings, and so they help themselves !

  2. Devan S Warusavitarne

    Tks very interesting

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