13th February 2000

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Spreading Buddhism, he travelled far

By Gamini G. Punchihewa

Before Colonel Henry Steele Olcott's arrival on our shores in 1880 there were only four Buddhist schools as against 802 Christian schools.

At the time of Colonel Olcott's death in Adyar, Madras, on February 17, 1907, the number had increased to 305 Buddhist schools and three Buddhist Colleges which were all run by the then Buddhist Theosophical Society of Ceylon.

His birth and visit to Ceylon

Colonel Olcott was born in Orange State, New Orleans in U.S.A. on August 2, 1832. He served in the civil war of America where he was assigned the task of eradicating corruption in the navy and military units. He was made a Colonel.

Colonel Olcott first came to Ceylon, in 1880. He arrived at the port of Galle on May 17 and was accompanied by a delegation from the Bombay branch of the Theosophical Society.

His second visit in April 1881, paved the way for the formation of an educational fund. On this mission, Colonel Olcott travelled far and wide under arduous conditions on foot, by bullock cart and even by palanquin.

His priceless monograph

On this visit, Colonel Olcott brought out a booklet, titled, 'Buddhist Catechism' which became a best-seller. This monograph appeared in both Sinhala and English in July 1882. It was later translated into 23 languages.

Olcott's third and fourth visits were in August, 1882 and in 1886, while his last visit was on November 26, 1906. On his first visit he was welcomed at the present Weliwatta Vijayananda Temple in Galle (off Pettigalawatta), close to the Weliwatta rail-halt of the time. His memorabilia and other writings on his visits are still preserved at the Weliwatta Buddhist temple.

His celebrated diaries

Olcott's celebrated diaries are replete with vivid accounts of his movement for the spread of Buddhism and for the establishment of Buddhist schools and colleges. In the course of his travels through land, water and wild country, he gave romantic descriptions of our island.

'Images of Sri Lanka through American Eyes' by Dr. H.A.I. Goonetilleke records the following entry culled from Olcott's memorable diaries.

On May 17, 1880 on his maiden visit to Galle: "Second Series (1878-1883). Before dawn on the 17th we were off Galle Light House and getting out, when the pilot anchored about 500 yards from shore. The monsoon burst and there was tremendous wind and rain, but the view was so lovely that we stepped on deck to enjoy it. A beautiful day: a verdant promontory to the north, against which the surf dashed and foamy jets ran high up against the rocky shore: a long curved sandy beach bordered with tiled roofed bungalows almost hidden in an ocean of green palms: the old fort, customs house, lighthouse, jetty and coaling sheds to the south and to the east, the tossing sea with a line of rocks and reefs, walling it out from the harbour. Far away, inland, rose Adam's Peak and his sister mountains.

"After breakfast in a lull of storm, we embarked in a large boat decorated with plantain trees and lines of bright coloured flowers on which were the leading Buddhists of the Place.

"We passed through a lane of fishing boats tricked out with gaudy cloth and streamers, their prows pointing inwards. On the jetty and along the beach a huge crowd awaited us and rent the air with the united shouts of 'Sadhu, Sadhu'. A white cloth was spread for us from the jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a thousand flags were frantically waved in welcome. The multitudes hemmed in our carriages and the procession set out for our appointed residence of Mrs. Wijeratne, the wealthy widow of a late P. and O. contractor. The roads were blocked with people the whole distance, and our progress was very slow."

Then comes the vivid account of how the Buddhist priests assembled there, blessed his retinue and chanted Pirith.

"At the house, three Chief Priests received and blessed us at the threshold, reciting appropriate Pali verses. Then a levee and innumerable introductions, the common people crowding every approach, filling every door, and gazing through every window ....... Every now and then, a new procession of yellow robed monks, arranged in order of seniority of ordination and each carrying his palm leaf fan, came to visit and bless us. It was an intoxicating experience, altogether a splendid augury of our future relations with the nation."

Visit to city of gems

Olcott's itinerary into the interior of Ceylon, the uplands of Kandy, and Ratnapura is full of praise. The drive from Colombo and beyond towards Kandy and Nuwara Eliya is vividly described.

Ah, lovely Lanka

"The drives around Colombo, the exquisite railway trip by the sea-shore to Mount Lavinia, and the climb by rail at Kandy and Nuwara Eliya are experiences never to be forgotten, but I have seen the island thoroughly, have visited almost every village in the maritime provinces, at all times of the year, and I can endorse every word of praise that Professor Ernest Haeckel had about it as fully deserved. And I saw the people, as they are, at their best: full of smiles, and love and hospitable impulse and have been welcomed with triumphant arches and flying flags and wild Eastern music and processions and shouts of joy."

Apart from his Buddhist and Theosophical work, Olcott even had ventured into prospecting for gems. This was to raise funds for his missionary chores in Buddhism.

"We dug half an hour, and got imperfect cat's eyes by washing the dirt. I took them away in high glee fancying in my ignorance that the whole sum we needed for the fund might be taken from this pit. Alas when I had the gems apprised in Colombo, I found there was not a single stone of any commercial value in the lot...... At 4 o'clock, that day I spoke at the preaching-shed in the town and got Rs. 500/- subscribed ..... A local branch of the Society resulted from my visit to this town."


About the lectures he had delivered on the propagation of Buddhist activities, he wrote: "Another lecture followed on the next day and five most important nilames and ratemahatmayas, chief officials were admitted into the membership of the Society. A Baptist missionary, attended by a grinning black catechist, came to my lodgings for an intellectual wrestle with me upon the respective merits of Buddhism and Christianity. They retired sadder, if not wiser men, and made no converts that time."

As Olcott's bandwagon moved on and on, he entered into many debates in almost every corner of our country. Among them were the famed Vadayas (debates) such as the Gampola Vadaya and Panadura Vadaya which were acclaimed by the people of the time.

Apart from the many Buddhist schools he had sponsored, the English Buddhist Colleges he created included Ananda, Nalanda, Musaeus, Dharmaraja and Mahinda Colleges.

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