By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Hundred years ago, on 1st May 1923, at the height of British Colonialism, when the education of Sinhala Buddhist children greatly suffered, the foundation was laid for a major change that ultimately pervaded beyond the Matara District. A small Buddhist school, with 54 pupils and nine teachers, started in a rented accommodation at Main Street, Matara, and it was named Parakramabahu Vidyalaya, but soon moved to Saram Mudali Walawwa, gifted by C. A. Odiris de Silva, and its name was changed to Rahula College. That school, which is celebrating its centenary, has produced leaders in many fields, be it arts and drama, economics, journalism, science, medicine, engineering and even politics; far too numerous to mention in a short article like this.
No doubt the establishment of Rahula College, too, was spurred on by the Buddhist Theosophical movement, started by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, an officer of the Army, during the American Civil War, and, subsequently, a member of the panel investigating the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Initially, he was interested in spiritualism and met Helena Blavatsky, a Russian mystic, through that common interest, but, subsequently, they studied Buddhism, leading them to start the Theosophical Society in 1874. Having been in correspondence with Sri Piyaratana Tissa Mahanayake Thera, he, and Madam Blavatsky, arrived in Ceylon, on May 16, 1880, and became Buddhists at the Wijayananda Vihara in Weliwatta area of Galle, three days later. What the Sinhala Buddhist leaders could not achieve, as they were kept continually suppressed by the British, Colonel Olcott achieved, through the Buddhist Theosophical Society, establishing several Buddhist schools in Ceylon, starting with Ananda College, in 1886, followed by, among others, Dharmaraja College, Kandy, in 1887, Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala, in 1888, Dharmadutha College, Badulla, in 1891, Mahinda College, Galle, in 1892, and Nalanda College, in 1925.
In 1921, Frederick Gordon Pearce, Principal of Mahinda College, Galle, D.T.W. Rajapaksha Ralahami, and Sir R.S.S. Gunawardana, established the “Matara Buddhists Society”, which took upon the task of establishing the school that became Rahula College, a beacon of knowledge in the Southern province; my alma mater. It is said that on that historic commencement day, a century ago, Gordon Pearce wrote, with a piece of chalk, across the blackboard “May I be a true Buddhist.” This motto was subsequently changed to “Aththanan damayanthi panditha”, which translates as “A wise man controls himself”, a motto by which many Rahulians have lived by. Having had the fortune of studying, from the kindergarten to the first term of HSC (1945-1957), before joining the pioneer institution of “The Olcott Brotherhood,” for the last lap of my entry to the Colombo Medical School, I can vouch that the one thing Rahula College excelled in, is imparting discipline. This was due entirely to a remarkable Principal who turned the fortunes of Rahula, at a time of great difficulty, and made it one of the best schools in the country today, with over 5,000 students, in two sections, the primary, sited a little distance away from the original site, which still sites the secondary school.
The first principal, from 1923 to 1932, was G. William de Silva, who had the onerous task of getting the new school recognised, amidst objections from the authorities, and was succeeded by Dr. C. Amirthalingam, one of the famous ‘Lingam’ brothers, who left, after only four years, due to problems created by outsiders, which threatened the very survival of Rahula. Fortunately, J. R. Bhart, an Indian Brahmin, agreed to take over, in 1936. Though he served only for 18 months, he is credited for having steadied the ship before handing over the reins to D. J. Kumarage, who presided over the ‘Golden Age’ of Rahula, from 1937 to 1956, to be succeeded by B. P. Ariyawansa, the first pupil of Rahula to become principal.
The transformation of Rahula occurred during the Kumarage era and I was fortunate enough to witness a major part of it. When he took over, there were only 296 students, and 18 teachers, despite Rahula being in existence for 14 years. When he retired, 19 years later, there were 1694 pupils, with parents, from all over the Southern province, clamouring to send their sons to Rahula. With increasing popularity of the College, more buildings were needed and Kumarage looked to philanthropists in the area. He had a close friendship with my father, C Justin Wijayawardhana, who was a teacher from the inception of the school, and my earliest memories of life is Kumarage visiting our place, driven in his buggy cart, for the ceremonial reading of letters (Akuru Kiyaweema) after which he gifted me a Dhammapada. Kumarage used to visit our house to pick up my father to go to meet donors, and his success in adding buildings to Rahula is unparalleled. The first, Wijetunga Building was opened in 1950, followed by Wijesinghe Building in 1952, Goonetilleke Memorial Hall in 1953, Wanigasekara Building in 1954, and the Budu Medura in 1955. C. A. Ariyatilleke, the eldest son of C. A. Odiris de Silva, who set Rahula on a firm footing by donating the property for establishment, was the manager, and was a tremendous source of support for all these endeavours.
Kumarage was a strict disciplinarian and was much respected by the pupils. Sometimes he walked to school and as he entered through the gate, all rushed to classrooms and remained in pin-drop silence. If he was travelling by buggy, the seniors, who used bicycles, would not overtake his buggy, and a row of bicycles following him was not an uncommon sight! Youngsters of today, reading this, may laugh at us, but it was the discipline and the respect for our teachers that was instilled in us, that has served us in good stead. Many schools were providing good education but what set Rahula apart was that it was instilling discipline and the value of honesty, etc., in addition. At a time like the present, when we are paying the price for lack of discipline, we can see the need of people like Kumarage.
From the time of D.J. Kumarage, Rahula has prospered and Principals, with the staff, that followed have contributed to what it is today; a school with over 5,000 students and 180 teachers producing success in every field, a beacon of education in the South that has lived up to the name Rahula: the son of Prince Siddhartha and Princess Yasodhara, who was looked after by his mother till he opted to follow the path of his Noble Father and earned a reputation for his humility and discipline.
May Rahula College prosper continuing to educate the youth of the south!