SIR PONNAMBALAM ARUNACHALAM (1853-1924)

On the 97th Death Anniversary which falls on 9th January 2021

Compiled by Sega Nagendra and Suresh Murugaser, great grandchildren of Sir P.Arunachalam

FAMILY

Ponnambalam Arunachalam was the youngest Son of Gate Mudaliyar A.Ponnambalam.

He was born on 14th September 1853 to a highly respected and a well-educated professional family originally from Manipay, Jaffna.

Gate Mudaliyar Arumuganathapillai Coomaraswamy, his maternal grandfather, was the Tamil representative of the first Legislative Council established in 1834, following the recommendations of the Colebrooke-Cameron report of 1832. Colebrooke, coming from England, which was agitating for reform of the electoral system, was surprised at the autocratic powers exercised by the Governor of Ceylon since 1802.  He effected a reduction of those powers by setting up an Executive and Legislative Council.

Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, who was Arunachalam’s mother’s brother, had been a friend of Lord Houghton, Palmerston and Disraeli, in the London of the 1860’s.  Sir Muttu was the first Ceylon Tamil (and probably, the first Asian) to receive a Knighthood, and the first non-Christian Asian to be called to the English Bar. 

Sir Muttu’s only son, Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, world-famous art critic and author, who played a pivotal role in the cultural revival of India and Ceylon (including the proliferation of Buddhism in the latter), died in 1947 in Boston USA where he had worked in the Fine Arts Department for many years.

Both the elder brothers of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam were educated at the Colombo Academy (now Royal College), and then at Presidency College, Madras.

His eldest brother Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy had a distinguished career as a Proctor and was the Nominated Tamil Member of the Ceylon Legislative Counsel from 1893. 

The next eldest child of the family, his brother, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, an Advocate, succeeded their uncle, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy as the Nominated Tamil Representative, serving from 1879-1893, and later on from 1921 to 1924.  Ponnambalam Ramanathan was also elected to the Legislature as Member for the Northern Province (Northern Division) seat, and occupied it from 1924 till his death in 1930.  In addition to this appointment, Ramanathan was the island’s Solicitor-General from 1893-1906 for a period of 13 years, acted as Attorney-General on several occasions, and retired as a pensionable officer in 1906. 

EDUCATION

Like his older brothers, Ponnambalam Arunachalam had his early education at the Colombo Academy, but, having won the English University Scholarship in 1870, he entered Christ College, Cambridge.  He took with him a reputation as a student of exceptional merit, recommended by Sir Walter Sendall, Director of Public Instruction. At Cambridge, he proceeded to annex the Foundation Scholarship.

While at Cambridge, Arunachalam distinguished himself in both Classics and Mathematics.  In the records of Christ College he is referred to as a “brilliant mathematician and an able classics scholar”. 

As a student, Ponnambalam Arunachalam was in a position to watch the changes made by Disraeli to the voting system in Britain, and stored his observations for future reference.

Arunachalam had qualified for the Bar in England and was looking forward to a legal career, but on his return to Ceylon in 1875 his uncle Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy persuaded him to sit for the Civil Service examination.  He did so, and his talent and academic excellence ensured that he was the first Ceylonese to enter the prestigious Civil Service through open competition.

GOVERNMENT CAREER

Arunachalam was not appointed to the Government Agent’s office in Colombo and then to a series of judicial posts in various parts of the island.  This was a policy unofficially adopted by the British Government of the day, which effectively debarred outstanding Ceylonese from taking high office in Government and instead appointed them to various parts of the Island in different capacities, such as District Judges, Police Magistrates, and Commissioners of Requests.

When he was District Judge of Batticaloa and in the Fourth Class of the Civil Service, Sir Arthur Gordon appointed Arunachalam over the heads of about thirty seniors, among whom was Mr. (later Sir) Alexander Ashmore, to act in the office of the Registrar-General and Fiscal of the Western Province.  A protest memorandum was lodged with the Secretary of State.  But Sir Arthur Gordon, who obviously recognized merit when he found it, had his way and Arunachalam took office as Registrar-General.

Arunachalam now set himself to reform the Fiscal’s office which had become a den of corruption and inefficiency He reorganised the departments of Land Registration and Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages, for which he was warmly congratulated by the Governor.  The Times of Ceylon, reporting at the time Arunachalam entered the departments, on the Administration Reports on Land Registration and Vital Statistics, observed that they were places where chaos and corruption held merry sway.  Fraud was rife.  Dishonest deals often took precedence over genuine dealings, and everybody’s property and title were endangered. 

The measure of the man may be seen in the way he set about reforming the Registrar-General’s Department.  Sitting by the side of the various clerks as they performed their tasks, he patiently learned their work before launching the reforms by which he stopped the unconscionable delays and dishonesty prevailing in the registration of deeds, and ended the practice by which official work was being conducted as a form of private practice with fees levied privately for its discharge. He started a real Record Room, supplied it with a system and an index, and founded a Benevolent Society which saved many a clerk from the grasp of money-lenders as well as from social disgrace and penury, paid many widows and orphans, and made clerical lives lighter and brighter.  These activities were noticed by a distinguished American statistician, who informed the Governor of Ceylon that “there is not published in the entire United States a report equally valuable and comprehensive”.

Governor Sir West Ridgeway entrusted the organisation of the 1901 Census of Ceylon to Arunachalam.  The report elicited the thanks of both the Governor and Secretary of State.  But it was Armand de Souza, Editor of the Ceylon Morning Leader, an influential paper of the day, who wrote:

“The curious reader…. will find the Report which introduces the Census of 1901 perhaps the most luminous dissertation on the ethnological, social and economic conditions of the Island.  In Sir P. Arunachalam’s Account of the history and religions of the Island in his Census Report would be found the language of Addison, the eloquence of Macaulay and the historical insight of Mommsen”.

In 1906 Arunachalam was appointed to the Legislative Council.  In 1912 Governor Sir Henry McCallum nominated him to the Executive Council, as a personal appointment; and on his retirement from the Public Service in 1913, he was knighted in recognition of his distinguished service to the country.

POST-RETIREMENT

In 1913, a new phase in Arunachalam’s life began.  In this year he joined a political movement demanding self-governance for the people of Ceylon.  In an historic lecture entitled ‘’Our Political Needs”, given at the insistence of D.R.Wijewardene, Arunachalam crystallised the arguments for self-government.

In 1915 he was elected the first President of the Ceylon Social Service League for the upliftment of the poorer classes in Ceylon.

In 1917 he founded the Ceylon Reform League, and

In 1919 he delivered an address to a Sinhalese conference under the patronage of F.R.Senanayake, for the purpose of organising Peoples’ Associations throughout the Sinhalese districts of the Island for political, social and economic improvement.  This movement directly gave birth to the Lanka Maha Jana Sabha.

HIS VISION

Arunachalam’s unstinted commitment to his dream of “Unity is Strength” illustrates the strong unity that existed at that time amongst the people of Ceylon, when Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers were united in their approach to social reform. Unfortunately, the country now marches to a different drum resulting in mass exodus of many talented individuals and their progeny!

NATIONAL ORGANISATIONS

On the 11th of December 1919 the Ceylon National Congress was inaugurated, with the unanimous election of Arunachalam as its first President.  It was he who advised various political organizations such as the Ceylon National Association, the Ceylon Reform League, the Chilaw Association, and the Jaffna Youth Association to unite into one body and lodge a joint appeal for political reform.

The Jaffna league joined the Ceylon National Congress on a condition: namely, that in a reformed Legislative Council there would be a special seat for the Tamils of the Western Province. 

LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL

The reformed Legislative Council of 1921 did not have a seat for a Tamil. 

The Low Country Association, with 11 voters elected Sir Henry De Mel in 1921, whilst the Town of Colombo with an electorate of 4,325, elected his Brother-in-Law, Sir James Peiris, unopposed.  The vast number of people felt this to be the cause of Sir Ponnambalam’s untimely resignation from being the first President of the newly formed Ceylon National Congress (CNC), to form which he had exerted so much effort, persuasion and energy for quite some time.  They all expected Sir Ponnambalam to be elected as the member for Colombo Town and Sir James Peiris who was a prominent member of the Low Country Products Association, to be elected by that body.

FATHER OF UNIVERSTY EDUCATION AND “SWABASHA”

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s contribution to the field of education was that of a pioneer.  In his notes to the Director of Public Instruction, he stated that the fundamental defect in the system of elementary education in Ceylon was that English was employed as the medium of instruction.

In a real sense, as has been pointed out, he was the father of the concept of ‘Swabasha’.  Unfortunately, this idea was worked upon by later politicians who mis-read it, totally rejecting English, which could have been the link language unifying the different ethnic groups of Ceylon.  Since at that time the people of Ceylon were still functioning as a united family, the need for a link language did not assert itself.  The paths of History are littered with missed opportunities, and sadly, this was one of them.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam has been rightly called the Father of the Ceylon University Movement as he was responsible for the Ceylon University Association which was formed in January 1906.  In his memorandum to the Governor, Sir West Ridgeway, requesting the Government to appoint a Commission to report on educational progress and needs, Arunachalam appealed to the Government to create a “Ceylon University”; or at least to raise Royal College to the status of a University College, which would be of lasting benefit to the people and a fitting monument to His Excellency’s rule in Ceylon.  He suggested that Ceylon and Indian History and Geography could replace English History and Geography on the curriculum of such an institution.  “His Excellency on 15 October decided to take no action” was the negative response he received from the Governor’s Secretary.

ACHIEVEMENTS IN A NUTSHELL

Looking back on Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s career, we contemplate a life studded with immense contributions in a range of different fields of endeavour. Those contributions by which he will always be remembered include

  • His membership and Presidency of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • His role as Founder President of the Ceylon Saiva Paripalana Sabhai (a religious organisation which encourages the practice of Hinduism)
  • The re-organisation of the Registrar-General’s Department (a Herculean task, magnificently performed)
  • The formation of the Ceylon National Congress, whose real potential for national unity was destroyed by the petty self-interest of some influential sections of the Sinhalese
  • His original and outstanding contribution to the establishment of the Ceylon University College.
  • The steadfast belief in the unity of his country’s various communities in a single sovereign state, which he carried with him throughout his life.

THE FINALE

By then, Sir Ponnambalam was an exhausted and tired genius, perhaps disillusioned, yet one who understood human nature and became more forgiving and gracious. Towards the end of 1923, he undertook a pilgrimage to visit the Sacred Shrines in India. In the midst of his devotions at Madurai in South India, he passed away on 9th January, 1924, leaving behind him memories of a noble life well spent in the service of his Country and his people. 

THE TRIBUTES

The day after his death, the “Ceylon Daily News” described him in an Editorial as ‘’the most powerful personality in Ceylon’’ and the “Times of London” described him as ‘’Founder of modern Ceylon’’. 

When Professor Marrs, the first Principal of the University College, heard of Arunachalam’s death at Madurai on 9 January 1924, while on a pilgrimage worshipping at the Hindu temples in South India, he summoned the students of the University College to the main hall and addressed them in these words:

“Gentlemen, I have asked you to assemble here at this hour as a mark of respect to the memory of one who was in a very real sense the Father of the University project in Ceylon.  Little or nothing has been said of that side of his activities which to those who were in close touch with him was the inspiration of his latter days – the side which concerns you and me as members of an institution so dear to his heart, the Ceylon University College Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam presided over the Public Meeting which was called to consider the question of the establishment of a University in Ceylon on 19 January 1906.  From that day to the day of his decease Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam has pursued his object to use his own words, “without let or restraint”, undeterred by the doubts of men without vision or the delay to which an untried project must, I suppose, always be subjected by conservers of tradition”.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam has been honoured by the erection of his statue in Parliament Square in 1930, and by the unveiling of his portraits at Royal College and at the Offices of both the Ceylon National Congress and the Ceylon Social Service League.  His name graces Arunachalam Hall, the first Hall of Residence to be opened to students at the University of Peradeniya in 1951, and a commemorative one-rupee postage stamp was issued in his memory on 10 March 1977.  His philosophical and religious contributions were collected and published in 1937, with the title “Studies and Translations”. 

In his ‘’Message to the Country’’ published by his good friend D.R. Wijewardene (who had returned from Cambridge with a degree in Law and as a Barrister, and persuaded Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam to resume his political activities) in the very first issue of the ‘’Ceylon Daily News’’ of 03rd January 1918, he declared :

‘’ In our zeal for political reform we must be on our guard against making it an end.  We seek it not to win rights but to fulfil duties to ourselves and our Country.  People have a distinct task to perform.  Our youth will seek their own well-being.  They will work in unity so that all the intellectual forces defused among men may obtain the highest development in thought and action.  With our youth inspired by such ideas, I would like to see our Country rise with renewed splendour to be a beacon light to all lands. ‘’

The next substantial reference to him was by the late, great Mr. D.R. Wijewardene himself, who was his great friend and admirer.  On the occasion of Ceylon’s independence, he rose from his sick bed, whilst in retirement in 1948, and in ‘’Ceylon Daily News’’ reflecting on events over 32 years earlier, he wrote: –

‘’ In those days, the national consciousness was dormant and there was nothing in the spirit of the times to stir it to life and activity.  Later, largely as a result of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s work, the fire of the national soul was quickened.  When he delivered his epoch-making address on 02nd April, 1917 on ‘’Our Political Needs’’ at the Masonic Hall, that leader of imperishable memory set in motion influences that were to change the history of this Country.  It was both a starting point and a blue-print for the important Constitutional changes that followed.

The immediate outcome of that meeting was the formation of the Ceylon National Congress.  It was then that the national movement which has brought Ceylon to the threshold of Independence received its stimulus.  Public opinion began to speak for the first time with a firm tone’’.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam stands out as an outstanding leader of honesty, integrity and achievement, and is a beacon to us all.

Most of us would have been satisfied by association with one or other of such monumental endeavours.  But Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam seems to have been a human dynamo – a true nationalist and patriot of Ceylon.

A short time after Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s death, grateful people honoured his memory by erecting his statute in the grounds of Parliament House.  It was unveiled by the Governor, Sir Herbert Stanley on 03rd April 1930.  It was the first statute to adorn these premises, and stood in solitary splendour till the statute of his brother Ramanathan was erected in 1953.  The inscription of the statute reads as follows: 

SIR PONNAMBALAM ARUNACHALAM  

1853 -1924

Scholar, Statesman, Administrator, Patriot

Erected by a Grateful People in

Testimony of a life nobly spent

In the service of his country and

Signal services as the champion of

A reformed legislature and of

His matchless devotion and

Steadfastness in the cause

Of the Ceylon University