Becoming and Being Sri Lankan: The National Anthem in Our Mother Tongues

Eranda Ginige, on in Lanka News Web, 6 January 2020, where the title is “The Language of the National Anthem”

The Dominion of Ceylon was formed on 4 February 1948 with the singing of Britain’s national anthem “God Save the King” and it continued to be the anthem for another four years

I was studying in grade seven when I joined the Scout Association at my school. Scouts have a list of tasks to complete. When you complete them successively, you get various badges and promotions. One of the very first tasks was to sing the national anthem by yourself. The seniors told us we could do it on the first day itself.

Before I cover them with brown paper every year, I had read the national anthem printed on the back cover of right-off-the-press smelling textbooks. I had also sung it many times loudly with fellow schoolmates to the music played by our school band. “How hard can it be?”, I thought. So I signed up to perform it along with a few other novices.

Standing at attention inside an empty after-school classroom, I had to sing the anthem in front of two senior scouts. I had not sung any song alone in front of outsiders, let alone the national anthem. It was my turn. “Sri Lanka Matha… Apa Sri… Lanka…” I quickly realised that it was difficult to keep to the tune. You don’t have the same confidence when singing with a group and with music.

“Sundara Siri Barini…” I managed to complete the first verse. More than singing, my mind is now desperately trying to recall the next words. So you forget the words you actually remember. “This song is way too long”, I thought.

“Oba Ve Apa Vidya…” Halfway through the second verse, like an unplanned power cut on a midsummer night, my mind just stopped. Everything went silent. I felt all the blood from my lower body gushing to my face. “Oba… Oba.. Apa… Apa…” words weren’t coming. I could see the sarcastic faces of the seniors through my hazy eyes. “Try again next week.” My head turned down in shame.

That night at home I sang the national anthem over and over ever so loudly until I learned it by heart, mind and soul. I wonder how many ladies and gentleman who brag about the national anthem these days could actually sing it by themselves without the music.

Namo Namo Matha

The national anthem used today was written by the eminent musician Ananda Samarakoon (1911-62). However, it is believed that the song was originally composed by his master the great Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Whichever it may be, there is no doubt that the “Gurudev” must have had some creative influence on his favourite Ceylonese student in composing the song.

 Ananda Samarakoon

The national anthems of India and Bangladesh were also composed by Tagore. It is fascinating that Sri Lanka’s national anthem is connected with the modern West Bengal, the area from which the historical Arya Sinhala people originated, and that it is connected with Bengali and Sinhala, two Indo-Aryan languages that evolved in parallel.

The patriotic song was then called “Namo Namo Matha” and was first sung by the students of Mahinda College where Samarakoon taught music. It had become a popular song by the late 1940’s thanks to the radio. As Ceylon was getting ready to change from a colony of the British empire into a Dominion of the Empire (not Free State) there came the need for a national anthem.

“Lanka Gandhrarva Sabha” had held a contest to select a national anthem for the Dominion. Although Samarakoon’s “Namo Namo Matha” was also an entry, the winning song was “Sri Lanka Matha – Pala Yasa Mahima”. But soon the decision was challenged because P. B. Illangasinghe and Lionel Edirisingha the co-writers of the song were also members of the jury.

As our good fellows were going at each other, the Dominion Ceylon was formed on the 4th of February 1948 with the singing of the Britain’s national anthem “God Save the King” and it continued to be the anthem for another four years. People were fighting for songs even back then as they do today. The only difference is that back then both songs were written in Sinhala language.

Nevertheless both above songs and their Tamil translations were sung as National “Songs” in 1949 at the first Independence Commemoration*. (Note that the Sinhala word used for Independence was “Nidahas”. But the correct word should be “Svadheenathva”. Nidahasa means “Freedom”. We became a Free, Sovereign, Independent Republic only on the 22nd of May 1972. Even the use of the word “Independence” is debatable as no such status was granted by the British. This is one of the biggest historical scams created by the UNP.)

The long con of JR

J. R. Jayawardane (1906-96) is the most evil politician in our recent history. He cleverly continued the British strategy of separating the Sinhala and Tamil people, and escalated it into a full blown bloody war which will run for another 25 years ignited by his infamous 1983 Black July. A complete book can be written on his Machiavellian strategies. But it scares me to even think about JR’s unscrupulous long cons and diabolical tactics.

In 1950 as the then Finance Minister, JR proposed to pick one official song as the national anthem. He was also the man behind the making of the national flag which led to another conflict. JR has been meticulously working to make his future political enemy which he thought was necessary when he finally takes the throne.

So a committee was appointed again to select an anthem. Out of several songs, Samarakoon’s “Namo Namo Matha” was chosen with JR’s influence. The Tamil translation of the song was previously done by an award winning Tamil poet M. Nallathambi (1896-1951) who had worked at Zahira College as a teacher.

Both Samarakoon and Nallathambi being teachers, Samarakoon being a baptised Christian who later converted as a follower of Buddha Dharma, and Nallathambi being a teacher at a Muslim school are all humbling coincidences.

Thus “Namo Namo Matha” was sung as the official national anthem of the Dominion of Ceylon for the first time in 1952. I could not find any information whether the Tamil translation was also sung at the state ceremony. If JR’s scheme was in motion, then they would not have sung it.

Sri Lanka Matha

That same year the then Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake died after falling from his horse at the Galle Face Green. From the beginning, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was the scapegoat used by DS and JR in their political power play. Bandaranaike was the “Snowball” to JR the “Napoleon”. After branding him as the icon of Sinhala nationalism, driving him to bring the 1956 Official Language Act (for which the UNP voted), and then violently objecting Bandaranaike’s attempt to rectify his mistake through the Banda-Chelva Pact, JR and R. Premadasa successfully created the first Sinhala-Tamil riots.

V. Prabhakaran who is to become the leader of one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisations, as a young boy had experienced the 1958 riots against Tamils. An experience that would shape his future political ideology. The repercussions of our actions can only be seen in the future. And they return million times stronger. Like today, there were loudmouthed bozos who’s stupid actions led to the destruction of an entire generation of the Republic.

In 1959, a monk named Talduve Somarama assassinated Prime Minister Bandaranaike by shooting him point blank repeatedly with a revolver screaming “Country, Nation, Religion”. As the Dominion Ceylon was failing miserably, some pundits claimed that the cause for this misfortune was the unlucky composition of the national anthem.

So the first couple of words “Namo Namo Matha” was officially changed to “Sri Lanka Matha” in 1961. Ananda Samarakoon protested against the mutilation of his beloved creation. But he had no authority because all rights of the song had already been bought for Rs.2,500/- by the Government. As a result Samarakoon killed himself in 1962 by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Such is the tragic history of our current national anthem. It is really one of the political power tools created by the United National Party. Any rational human being who has an understanding of these facts would never support the UNP nor continue to fall prey to the national anthem’s divisive purpose.

The first birth of the Republic

Anyhow after 24 years of failed experiments of nation building since the making of the Dominion, Sirimavo Bandaranaike along with the only true progressive leftists of this land finally created the Republic of Sri Lanka on the 22nd of May 1972, by constitutionally conferring and equally sharing the Sovereignty of the State among the citizens of all nationalities, amid protests by JR and his UNP. But it was 25 years too late.

If only they had constitutionalised both Sinhala and Tamil languages as official languages at the same time, the history of Sri Lanka would be written very differently. I don’t know why they passed on that wonderful opportunity. And then when the Republic was only started to crawl on its knees, the citizens wanted to eat Moon rice and gave a five sixth dictatorial power to JR and kicked Sirimavo out. The Republic was overtaken by the JR’s National State.

JR’s “National” State

JR constitutionalised the national anthem in his 1978 constitution. It’s etched in the 7th article (and 3rd schedule). It’s a brilliant tactic. Because articles 1 to 11, (except the 4th and 5th) can only be changed through a two thirds majority vote in the parliament and through a referendum, as restricted by article 83 and the connected. (4th article defines the basic structure of State through the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary, while the 5th article defines the geographical territory of the Republic. Both of which do not need a referendum to change! JR is dangerous genius.)

Both Sinhala and Tamil languages were constitutionalised as “National Languages” by JR. But he cleverly kept Sinhala as the Official Language. What he did there was, constitutionally establish the Sinhala and Tamil nationalities based on language, and raise Sinhala nationality higher than the Tamil nationality. That’s the outrageous action when racism (or nationalism) which was unwritten until then was constitutionalised. It was JR who systematically and deliberately pushed the Tamil citizens to separatism.

JR finally received his much-needed political enemy in 1983 with his operation Black July. The poison he was fermenting for decades finally was overflowing the cauldron. It spilled over the Republic burning everything it touched. JR and the UNP destroyed the childhood and youth of the millennials born in the 80’s and 90’s, including mine.

Since we are talking about songs, the famous lyrics by Daughtry “be careful what you wish for, ‘cos you just might get it all and then some you don’t want” comes to my mind. JR’s war became unmanageable. In a desperate attempt to damage control in 1987 he brought in the 13th amendment under the instructions of Rajiv Gandhi. The Republic was divided into nine quasi-federal states. And ironically it was JR who finally brought the inevitable solution to the root cause of the issue. He made Tamil an official language in Sri Lanka. Surely he must’ve done it with reservation. But with that single move, he yet again managed to emerge as the good guy.

It should’ve been done in 1948, it should’ve been done in 1956, it should’ve been done in 1958, it should’ve been done in 1972, it should’ve been done in 1978. It’s a cruel sport of destiny that it had to be JR, the man who vehemently opposed it, finally had to do it. But still it was 38 years too late. JR’s war burned for another 25 years.

One must think thousand times before starting something evil. Those who are shouting these days to win the racist (aka nationalist) votes just to get into the parliament are no different from JR.

Anthems in the Constitution

In the Sinhala version of the 7th constitution it is written that “The national anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be “Sri Lanka Matha”, the words and music of which are set out in the third schedule.” And in the third schedule you find the handwritten musical composition along with the Sinhala version of the anthem.

In the Tamil version of the 7th constitution it is written that “The national anthem of the Republic of Sri Lanka shall be “Sri Lanka Thaye”, the words and music of which are set out in the third schedule.” And in the third schedule you find the same musical composition along with the Tamil translation of the anthem.

National Anthem TamilSince Sinhala and Tamil languages are both constitutionally “National” languages, and since they are both constitutionally “Official” languages, and since they are synonymous in lyrical meaning, and since they are sung in the identical musical composition there is absolutely no rational reason to not sing the Tamil translation of the anthem at official events of the State. And because the anthem is only meaningful when the singer understands the words, it should be allowed to be sung in their preferred language.

But then you have the racists (aka Nationalists) who cannot stand the Tamil speaking citizens of the Republic singing the constitutional National anthem in Tamil language. Although they conveniently call themselves “nationalists”, they are more like JR’s kids. They make various arguments to cover their bigotry. And I will debunk their main arguments below:

1. India’s national anthem

JR’s kids argue that although Indians speak many languages they all sing only one national anthem. It’s a half truth. In modern day India there is an official National anthem and an official National song. The anthem “Jana Gana Mana” was written by Tagore in Sanskrit-Bangali. Their national song is the more popular “Vande Matharam”. It too was originally written in Bengali but is now sung in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu etc.

But more importantly the comparison to India is a false equivalence fallacy. Sri Lanka should be compared to the Bharatha before it was separated into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Bharatha after its surgical separation from the British Empire did not remain as a unitary state as Sri Lanka. The Muslims who spoke Urdu separated through a river of blood and created pakistan. If that did not happen, then Indians too would be singing the national anthem in both Bengali and Urdu.

Besides, different states of India have their own official songs. For example “Thamil Thaye Valudu” is the song of the State of Tamil Nadu. They sing it at the starting of every state function and end with the “Jana Gana Mana” anthem.

Are JR’s kids agreeable to singing different official songs in each of our provinces? Are they happy to make a national song which will be sung in Tamil as well? The Indian anthem recognises their historical kingdoms “Panjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Marat, Dravida, Uthkal, Bengal” in its lyrics itself. They celebrate their diversity. And that’s why India is able to sing one national anthem.

2. Language of the majority

JR’s kids also argue that the anthem should be sung in the language spoken by the majority of citizens. But then to use their Indian example, the Bengali language in which “Jana Gana Mana” is written and sung is spoken only by 8% of the Indians. The Malay language in which the anthem of Singapore is sung is spoken only by 10% of Singaporeans. JR’s kids contradict themselves.

Thus their argument fails to stand. It is really a majoritarian attempt to subjugate others. If we accept their claim then in the near future if not already, the language spoken by a majority of citizens will be English. Because Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, all children are increasingly learning English. If so should we then sing the anthem in English language?

3. Anthems of other states

No state (country) can be compared with another state. Each state has been built by their unique history. Their status quo and future aspirations vastly differ from each other. New Zealand and Denmark has dual national anthems. Finland, Switzerland and many others states sing their anthem in more than one language. Canadian anthem has two languages in one. South Africans sing verses of five different languages in their anthem. Spain’s anthem has no words at all but only the music.

Sri Lanka should decide our national anthem and how we sing it based on Sri Lanka’s history, status quo and future aspirations, and not based on what some other country is doing or not doing. Sri Lanka is a state where two nationalities are having a centuries old conflict. That’s a fact. The only people who want to take that conflict into the future are those arrogant JR’s kids and the separatists who they spawn.

4.Singing in Arabic

JR’s kids then argue that if we allow (notice the superiority complex) to sing the anthem in Tamil language, soon we will have to allow it to be sung in Arabic language because of the Muslims. This is a Slippery Slope fallacy and is mostly driven by their Islamophobia.

In the Republic there is no Official or National language other than Sinhala and Tamil. If the state actually come to the stage where the anthem will have to be sung in Arabic, then we will have far worse political issues to worry about than the anthem. Therefore it is fallacious to prohibit the singing of constitutional national anthem in Tamil language based on hypothetical scenarios.

Calling to sing the anthem only in Sinhala is fodder to the Sampanthans, the Sumanthirans, the Wigneswarans and Sivajilingams. It is a proof for them to claim that the Sinhala people are subjugating the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. That’s why they actually like the UNP and those JR’s kids. They need those big mouthed racists (aka Nationalists) for their survival. That’s why the Tamil political elites still crawl back to UNP’s lap after every time UNP betray the Tamil people.

The Scout

A few years back, I was invited to host a conference held in Colombo. There was a minister, some foreign delegates and many entrepreneurs in the audience. I called everyone to stand for the national anthem.

The usual practice is to wait for the recorded anthem to start playing. And almost always there is a technical delay. But this time the delay was unusually long. For close to one minute I could see the AV technicians desperately trying to play the song. The audience was getting anxious. That minister and the front row delegates were staring at me.

I could not bear it any longer. I got on to the podium and said, “National anthem is supposed to be sung. So please join me everybody.” and started singing. There I was, 20 years later, once again in front of an audience singing the anthem without the music by myself. And that too in front of a microphone! But that day I did not forget the lyrics. The words which I learned by heart, two decades ago flowed so proudly. The audience sang the entire anthem with me.

Language of the National Anthem

My mother language is Sinhala. I love the Sinhala language. Sinhala is the language I use to understand the world, and to make the world understand me. I think in Sinhala. I cry in Sinhala, I love in Sinhala. Sinhala language forms the social-cultural national identity which I have acquired from birth. Similarly, Tamil language is special to the Tamil person. It forms their social-cultural national identity which they have acquired from their birth. Which is why they are called “National” languages.

I don’t sing the anthem merely because it is the “National” anthem. I’m anyway indifferent to the non-existent, unreasonable, artificial “Nation(al) State”. I sing the anthem because its words have beautiful meaning. When those meaningful words are sung loudly my heart is filled with pride. I don’t sing it for others. I sing it for myself. The deep inspiration I gain by singing it is very personal to me.

But if I don’t know the meaning of the words, then I will not gain any of the above. It’s like how some devotees chant “Pali Sutras” without knowing the meaning of the words; empty. Forcing the Tamil or Muslim citizens who do not understand Sinhala language to sing in Sinhala is the same; empty. When they sing it in the language they understand, they will gain everything I gain. They will gain the same pride. They will gain the same inspiration. Thus the purpose of the anthem will be fulfilled.

Factually, there are no two national anthems anyway. It’s only one song. It was probably originally written in Sanskrit-Bangali, then translated into Sinhala and then into Tamil. “The Mother” by Gorkey is still “The Mother” irrespective of the language you read it in. The colour “Red” is still the same in any language. The message in the Bible is still the same no matter which translation you read.

An anthem is meant to be sung. Not to just listen and move your lips as another group sing or while a recorded version is played. Therefore let us all actually “sing” the anthem. Play the music only and let the citizens sing their anthem in their preferred language. Then you will realise if you actually know the words. And if you don’t, then you will at least make an effort to learn it. Then you will understand the meaning of the words. And perhaps then, at least some of you will realise that there is no language to any song.

Eranda Ginige = Republican, Author, Public Speaker, Social Entrepreneur, Democracy Earth Ambassador, Founder of Social Enterprise Lanka,
A COMMENT from Somasundaram Skandakumar, 10 January 2020
It’s all there in our Anthem: that WE Are ALL children of ONE common MOTHER……the very Foundation of mutual respect and trust ! Where has this high rate of Literacy we boast of as a Nation gone that it’s taken more than seven decades and we still do not seem to have realised it ?
In his initial address after gaining Independence Lee Kuan Yew had this to say to his people. “ Today we have the right to Self Rule. You are free to speak in English, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, BUT NEVER forget that you are FIRST a SINGAPOREAN
No better lines to inspire mutual respect and National Pride !


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2 responses to “Becoming and Being Sri Lankan: The National Anthem in Our Mother Tongues

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