Galle’s Eternal Charm

Bandu de Silva, a reprint from The Island, 26 August 2012 … A Review Article on Galle As Quiet as Asleep by Norah Roberts

The title Galle as Quiet as Sleep made me reflect for a long time. I asked myself how this title could fit in. Finally, I reconciled myself to it. Yes, Galle’s heritage is a quiet one. The people of Galle as Norah Roberts will tell us made their contributions quietly. Even now, the town after dusk or at early dawn is so calm and placid that one does not get the feeling of being in a big city. Certainly not like Kandy which has lost its old charm. Kaluwella with its old Kittange with the Kovil adjoining it still reminds one of the 19th century or early 20th century. One could still have a glass of plain tea served by a Tamil boy in an old style tea kiosk as one met with in Batticaloa at Habarana twenty years ago. The Tamils do good business thee without any problem.

Norah Roberts’s book which takes its title from her first essay, is an odyssey steeped in history about this southern capital of Sri Lanka. The legends of the past associated the place with Ramayana. There are records that point to Galle as an important port and emporium from very ancient times.

The author, who was the daughter of the distinguished Civil Servant, T. W. Roberts who served in several capacities including the post of District Judge of Galle, is a person who was fully competent to undertake a comprehensive work of this nature. Born at Panadura she attended St. Bridgets Convent and taught there from 1930 to 1932, before increasing deafness forced her to retire from teaching. She resided in Galle with her father who retired there and served as the librarian for 40 years at the Galle Library established in 1871. That is where she collected all the material for this comprehensive volume. It took her further a ten years to put them together filling up gaps from archival records in Colombo and information gathered from knowledgeable persons like Visiting Agent Mervyn de Silva and May Brough on plantations, L. P. T. Manjusri on temples and visits to plantations and places of cultural interest.

The fifteen chapters under which the nearly 500 pages of material is arranged, each vie with the other for the interesting and informative details they contain. There is no aspect of life in Galle and its environs which has not been covered and no important family or individual that has been left out of the account. The only exception I found was the absence of a reference to the family of the scholar Don Martino Z. Wckremesinghe, the first editor of the Epigraphica Zeylanica, whom I once referred to as the scholar that the country forgot.

Another omission is a reference to Mr. Mendis among those who ventured out of Unawatuna in search of fortunes round the world. He migrated to Australia around the turn of the 19th century and later took several hundreds of men to work in Queensland. Missing is also a reference to the Windsor family of Galle which established itself in Hong Kong. However, Norah does refer to B. P. de Silva who settled down in Singapore, Tranquell de Silva who settled down in the Cannery Islands and H. M. de Silva who established himself in Aden, Mombasa, Nairobi and Zanzibar.

Dutch connection

The history of Dutch times in the south is introduced as a background to introducing several famous Dutch families that continued to make Galle their home. These included the de Voses, which produced distinguished lawyers. The Anthonisz family, one of whom, J. E. Anthonisz, was the first Principal of Galle Central College (afterwards All Saints College), Dr. P. D. Anthonisz (1822-1003) who was the first Ceylonese MRCP, London, and FRCS Edinburgh. R. G. Anthonisz (born in 1852) was the first Government Archivist who translated Dutch records into English and the pioneer in establishing the Dutch Burgher Union. Other Dutch families include the Boggar family who became hoteliers; the Euphraums who produced businessmen and hoteliers; the Andre’ family; a musical family that produced medical men and civil servants; the Ardnts and the Barholomeusz family that too produced medical men and teachers; the Janszs, who moved to Colombo and suburbs (Cyril Jansz, famous Principal of St Jones College, Panadura and his wife became legendary teachers who produced eminent personalities like Dr. G. P. Malalasekera and Dr. Colvin Silva); the Kales who ran the horse-carriages, some becoming famous teachers; the Ludovicis who produced the Editor of the Ceylon Examiner newspaper and wrote learned articles, several distinguished policemen and a medical man; the Ludowykes who produced teachers and notably, Prof. Lyn Ludowyke; and the family of Collin-Thome, which too became illustrious. This is only a fraction of the Dutch Burgher contribution from Galle.

The book contains a chapter on the Muslim connection with Galle followed by details about their well known families from the 19th century onwards.


It was chapter ten that drew my attention immediately as it gave an account of the European and Sri Lankan plantation community it discusses. This was partly because of the interest I developed in planting over 25 years. Besides, some places the author describes and some planters she mentions were familiar to me from my childhood days, which I remember with nostalgia. My ancestral village in the Galle district was where the plantations district began. The village was skirted by a 18 hole golf course of the Elpitiya Club which also became the only golf club in the district where some famous golfers from the south played.

As Norah describes, the Chetties as money lenders were very hard on local planters especially during the depression and her father as District Judge of Galle had to rescue many of them from their clutches. She quotes cases where the Chetties had exacted more than what was due and how the judge made them pay back some of the money and relieved others of bondage. The saga behind the transfer of the two rubber estates in my village from the Asarappa family to the Chettinad Corporation of India is a very tragic one that is still retained in the memory of the people in the area. The young Miss Asarappa who was fond of fast and good looking horses became so destitute after the Chettiyar take-over that her dead body was found in a drain in the town of Ambalangoda. She had died of hunger. How did the author miss that tragic saga?

As a little child I remember Freddie Northway (Northy Mahattaya to the villagers) and his wife coming in their red sports car to our village from where their chauffeur came. Charles Northway, his father, a former dental surgeon, came from Mauritius with his three brothers along with the Hawkes, the Gottelliers and Count de Mauney, all of whom were of French extraction. They first grew sugar cane at Baddegama and made good profits from sugar and the sale of molasses. As the Temperance Movement caught up they had to switch to other crops. Charles’s two-stroke engine car and another single-stroke engine owned by another planter had created much curiosity and negotiated the hills of Nawalakanda with help from labourers. Freddie who was sent to England for education became a school teacher for some time and returned in 1924 to learn creeping and to take over the estate from the father. Perhaps, it was his early interest as a teacher that made him to drop in at the school which was on the periphery of the Estate at Ethkandura, earlier known as Demalagama, where my mother was a teacher for over 25 years and I myself attended school for a year. Freddie retired and settled down at Weerawila.

Norah explains the names Diviturai and Demalagama asking if it was due to historical reasons or because a camp of Indian Tamil labourers was there. The whole area from Baddegama up the tributary of Gin Ganga to Ethkandura is of some historical significance as there are other names like Sandarawala and Hedi-Demalakanda near Baddegama, which history associates with some South Indian soldiers. General Pathiraja who had become the Governor of the south in Parakramabahu II’s time is remembered in places like Pathiraja (estate), Batapola, Ethkandura, Balapitiya and Kosgoda which village was given for his enjoyment (The Mahavamsa). The tradition makes sense as even the Senanayake family of Baddegama who were late comers were earlier Kandappas (Senadhipathi), as Norah observes, who entered into matrimony with the old Senanayake family (Lambakarnas) and fortified their Senanayake name.

The book is full of interesting accounts of the spread of plantations in the Galle district and the entry of local entrepreneurs from Galle into it.

Sinhalese families

The last chapter containing 70 pages sums up the accounts of a number of notable Sinhalese families, the walawwe people, Mudalalis and professionals. However, in discussing walawwe people, the author seems to have missed those of Wellabada Pattu of Galle District, which expanded from the Gin Ganga to Bentota river hugging the coastal area. Maha Kappina Walawwa of Wasala Mudliyar Sampson Rajapakse comes into the picture in the discussion of the Amarapura sect. The Walawwas mentioned are mostly from Galle and Talpe Pattu.

The story of the Perera family of Closenberg who were Buddhists, tracing their ancestry to a man of learning and eminence and a protégé of the Dutch Commandant, Johannes von Haytonburgh intermarrying with C. H. de Soysa’s family of Panadura /Moratuwa, with de Mels and Pereras (Wilmot Perera) and Jayawickremas of Weligama, is related in detail along with the fortunes of Closenberg to date. The author does not fail to mention that one of the progeny, Guisse Perera, a lawyer by profession like his brother C.G.A.Perera, an Inner Temple barrister and son of a millionaire, died following a heart attack holding on to a strap in a CTB bus!

The Amarasuriya family, is treated in great detail both in this chapter and under plantations. The author deviates to discuss the family legend of Lorna de Silva (based on the text Aditya-Wansa) her classmate at St. Bridgets who married Francis Amarasuriya whose fortunes were seriously affected by land reforms. She says Lorna’s father John R. de Silva claimed to be of the ninth generation of the ancient Indian clan of Adityas of Suriya wansa. The Thakura Artha Devage Aditya, a Ksatrya group (Rajputs) had come in the time of King Panditha Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya. from Jaya province in Rajputana. King Bhuvanekabahu VII invited the family to Kotte and they became the chief of the King’s Guard. Thakura Artha Deva Gavidiya-wansa Linda-Mahage Peduru de Silva was the first in the family to become a Roman Catholic in 1558. As I said in the article “What is National Heritage?” in The Island, the Portuguese knew to whom they were conferring Lusitanian names like “de Silva” applied to the highest of royalty in Portugal. I may not have been off the mark; Norah says aditya wansa (clan) means royal descent.

The first part of the story finds corroboration in The Mahavamsa, which refers to the commander of the royal body guard of Bhuvanekabahu of Yapahuva as Thakura who showed his loyalty to the king (in true Rajput tradition) when the Sinhalese generals attacked the king and made him flee. Thakura refused to take part in the spoil and his men killed the Sinhalese soldiers at a given signal. How the family came to be confirmed as Linda Mahage (is it Linda Mulage?) by Don Juan Dharmapala, who contemptuously conferred that name, is discussed. This de Silva family resided in the house that became St. Bridgets Convent. The grotto at the Convent is also a contribution from this family. Norah says that the family of C. H. de Soysa also belonged to the same Suriya Wansa clan with the affix Linda Mahage.

Another notable family was the Goonetileke family of Richmand Hill to which Tyrell Goonetilleke who joined the police belonged, with its interesting anecdote of a treasure in the garden protected by a snake, a member of whose family married an aunt of Don Bradman Weerakoon, CCS. The family was also connected to that of E. W. Perera (the “Lion of Kotte”, who too was born at Unawatuna), and to the Batuwantudawes through marriage, to the Sirimannes of Bentota, and to the family of Charles David de Silva of Bentota Walawwa. Another family that figures in the book is the Atapattu Walawwa and its Gooneratne and Dias Abeysinghe families. Others who figure are the Obeysekeras, Jayawardenes of Talpe pattu, Illangakoons of Weligama, the Edirisinhe family group of Kitulampitiya, the walawwa of Hikkaduwa; the Wijesinghe family; the Goonetilleke family and Wickremanayake family of Kitulampitiya, both of which traced their ancestry from Manikoe de Zilva of Mawelle, Talpe pattu. The Wicremenaikes had matrimonial links with the Senanayakes. Others dealt with are the Abeysundera family of Galle. Finally, the family of Muhandiram Dionysius Sepala Pandita Dahanayake comes into the picture with the colourful personality of Wijayananda Dahanayake.

The four Sinhalese Mudalalis of Galle, “honest honourable men” who did not know a word of English and knew little Sinhala, became leading importers and exporters. Two of them were Davith Mudalaili who dealt in rice imports and Juanis Mudalali, in whose shop Martin Wickremesinghe worked as a clerk. One of Davith Mudalali’s daughters married Henry Amarasuriya and the other married Proctor W. J. de Silva of Ambalangoda, who opened the first film theatre in Galle in 1924. The third was Samitchi Mudalali (V. D. S. Fernando) of Bope, who opened the first pharmacy and was a generous man who patronised the Kumbalwella temple. The last of the Mudalalis was Lechiman Chettiyar, who was an importer of rice and ran a bullock cart station. Of the Kittanges (pawn brokers) of Kaluwella only this Chettiyar’s Kittange survives adjoining the kovil.

Others who succeeded in the jewellery business are Theodoris, Weerasiri, H. M. M. de Silva, B. P. de Silva and Tranquell de Silva. The Mendis family which moved to Brisbaine and Thursday Island is not mentioned. Mr. Mendis, who later became the advisor to the Australian government on pearl industry was made the first Asian JP in Australia. One of his two sons, Siri Mendis, who continued the business in Brisbane was introduced to me by Major General Anton Muttukumaru. The other son took care of the business in Thursday Island.

Galle as a cultural centre

The book is not all about business and plantation owning families and walawwa families. It has a chapter on “Sinhala Lakuna” “Identity of the Sinhalese” in which the history of Aggabodhi Vihare at Weligama and the Kustarajagala statue is given. The author takes the reader on a tour with L. P. T. Manjusri, the artist “of gentle eye and probing mind” who made his own “enchanting selection for a volume for posterity”.

This takes one from the paintings of the Totagamuva temple with its famous Makara Torana where the Maha Kappina and other Jatakas were delicately painted by Gunadawe Sittara Gurunnanse in 1885 to bring back the glory of the paintings of this temple, which the kings of Dambadeniya and Kurunegala had executed but the Portuguese under Captain Aronches destroyed in 1557. Next, the visit takes one to the Ambalangoda Maha Pansala. Manjusri is quoted saying that the art of murals and textiles is so integrated that every scrap of somana is invaluable to the student of temple murals and that Javanese and Persian designs are traceable. She says that the place for Manjusri’s collection is the National Museum and not boxes in a flat in Narahenpita. When Barbara Sansoni sent me to meet him he had very few copies. Later when I wanted to mount an exhibition of his paintings in Paris, his wife old me that most of them were sold to people in Switzerland! Norah gives a vivid description of Manjusri’s painstaking work over forty years. If she only knew what I wrote in these columns once, that in World War II when Manjusri set out from the temple in my village one late evening going pass our house on his painting mission he was stopped at Wellassa by British troops and his binoculars were confiscated. Furthermore, he and his companion were pulled out from a temple in Kandy at midnight on the claim that there was no lodging there for “pattayas” (low country people).

Quoting Yvonne Hannaman and Paul Bowels, both American scholars, Norah describes the devil dancing of Matara, the gammaduwas for devol and other deities performed along the coastline and the mask dances of Galle and Matara, which Sarachchandra missed when he wrote his folkplay. She quotes my late colleague Karen Breckenridge who believed that the true Sinhalese dances were those of the Yak or demon tribe of pre-history and Vedda origin; and Kenneth Somanader who said the Yak dance was a carbon copy of the Vedda dance he saw in the Eastern province.

She recalls that when Rabindranath Tagore watched a performance of kolam at Ambalangoda in 1920 he took away a mask of the Annaberakaraya (drummer / messenger). The mask carver was T. G. Penis, father of T. G. Gunadsa leading mask dancer of Ambalangoda (before Ariyapala).She also goes to describe the drums with their primary sounds: “tat-dit tit-ton” and “don-kita”…”tika-tak-kita”. She moves to the modern ballet produced by Chitrasena and Vajira and picks Karadiya (over 300 performances) with the music played by Amaradeva “Hey-ya, Hoy-ya” as the best.

The author refers to the contribution of Sarachchandra, another son of Galle (Dodanduwa), who made Sinhala theatre respectable for English-educated intelligentsia. Maname, the “trial-blazer”, was produced with Charles de S. Gurusinghe Gurunnanse from Ambalangoda whose melodies he used in the reconstruction of Maname and Luwaris from the same place who demonstrated the steps. Quoting Dhamma Jagoda the author places Sinhabahu above Maname in poetic intensity.

The author does not leave out the writer J. Vijetunge or archaeologist Dr. S. Paranavitana (incidentally a Christian by birth), also products of Galle.

Finally, the story and contributions of Martin Wickremasinghe, who had a vision of a multi-racial culture, is presented to the reader in detail in this section. Norah says he contrasted the Buddhist folklore tradition that brought out the genius of the Sinhalese with the recessive Hindu urban strain which has become the urban Western strain, did not quarrel with the borrowing of cultural elements, but with the failure to maintain our own cultural independence. In this assessment she sees the echoes of Anagarika Dharmapala, another man from Galle who questioned the validity of trying to transplant Brahmanical cultural and intellectual ethos.

In a chapter named “Revival of Culture traditionally Buddhist” the author discusses the introduction of the Upasampada by the Amarapura Sect and critically discusses the different traditions. The author goes into details of the contribution of Wasala Mudliyar Sampson Rajapakse of Maha Kappina Walawwa, who brought the Amarapura sects together and of his other contributions to the Buddha Sasana. She also discusses the contribution of Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananada thera in the revival of Buddhism and Buddhist education, and that of the scholar Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, whose pupils were Angarika Dharmapala, Henry Steel Olcott, Rhys Davids and others from Germany, Japan, Thailand and India. She then discusses the role played by Olcott, the designing and raising of the Buddhist flag, his contribution to Buddhist education, and how he inspired Woodword of Mahinda, Ledbeater of Ananda and Marie Higgins of Museaus. When he died there were 205 Buddhist schools under BTS.

Anagarika Dharmapala receives far more positive treatment by this author than by any other Christian writer. Other scholar monks referred to by the author are Aggamaha Pandita Polwatte Buddhadatta Thera, and Ven. Weliwitiye Soratha thera.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, Minister of Education in the State Council is referred to as a product of Richmond College. His early days at the Ambalangoda Weslyan School, which produced a number of southern luminaries; nor his election to the State Council at a bi-election first against de Zoysa, the nominees of the Colombo elite led by the Senanayakes, have been missed. The southern anti-elitism and pro-imperialist tendencies has remained strong to date.

The author does not miss the temples around Galle. Besides the Kumarakanda Temple and another at Dodanduwa, and the two at Dadalla, she gives descriptions of other modern temples and takes the reader on a tour to the Polgasduwa hermitage. In conversation with the Maha Thera she divulges that she was not a Buddhist but a Roman Catholic. “Ah,” said he, “the RC priests make the best Buddhist monks.” When she asked why, he replied that they are well disciplined men. He proceeded to tell us of an RC Priest who had become a Buddhist monk and lived there. The Maha Thera had said the convert was a pious man who never spoke a word against Roman Catholicism or any other religion. She also speaks of the Parappaduwa hermitage in an adjoining island for Sil-matas established by Sister Khema. The churches receive equal mention.

The handicraftsmen and women of Galle receive equal treatment. That includes the women who beat coconut husks, lace makers, tortoise shell and ebony wood craftsmen, the jewellers and mask makers. The only people missed again are the cinnamon peelers of the former Mahabadda, north of Galle, and Hulan Badda (south of Galle) who provide the spicy ingredient and the fisher folk of the coast with their Madel fishing and periodic violent fights over territory.

The fondness of the southern man for litigation occupies a separate chapter. This brought about a thriving legal community in Galle and Balapitiya the latter of which had a record of crimes, not so much because of the disposition of the Balapitiya people, some of whom are descendants of the famous Agampadi mercenaries but because the Courts for the whole area were at Balapitiya.

The schools in Galle are covered in one chapter. They include Southlands Girls, Richmond College, St. Aloysius College, Sacred Heart Convent, Mahinda College, Sanghmitta Balika and Womens Training College for which the Amarasuriya family donated their ancestral Amaragiri walawwa. The medical faculty of Ruhuna University was established at the Karapitiya hospital. The details are too long to be recaptured here.

Other matters discussed are the industries of Galle, the plywood factory, the cement grinding factory and the Galle fisheries harbour built at a colossal cost that remains a white elephant.

The book is a virtual encyclopedia of information on the Galle area. Norah writes sympathetically. She was fully involved in life there with her over forty years of residence and dedicated involvement in church work and social work as a member of the Lanka Mahila Samithi. She fully understood the Sinhalese cultural ethos as manifest in the South. She is indeed a southerner in every sense! When I read the book, as a man from Galle district, I felt dwarfed by the information it contained and of my ignorance. I purchased the book to be treasured as a family memento for my progeny who would know even less of our connection to the south.

A tribute must be paid to the author and the publisher Vijitha Yapa for bringing out a second edition with a forward by Prof. Michael Roberts, the author’s younger brother and historian. Those who love Galle to whom the book is partly dedicated should not miss it. It should be of equal interest to others to understand the men and women from Galle who have been playing a quiet role in the life of many parts of the country or the world at large. The title seems very appropriate in this sense. I have provided only a summary of the contents and cannot claim to have translated the spirit of the writing. The book must be read in full.

The southern feeling is a strong one, not necessarily confined to Galle. Once at the Gaya station in India I met a gentleman who was waving frantically at me. The first question he asked me was “Are you from the South?” He was from Bangalore. We were both strangers. The need for security brought us together. We slept together on a bench at the platform keeping watch since no hotel rooms were available at that ungodly hour. Next morning we went together to the Sacred Bo Tree to perform our respective rituals, he as a Hindu, I as a Buddhist.


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