8th July 2001
Carving a niche with a distinct contribution
"History of the Colombo Chetties", edited and compiled by Deshabandu Reggie Candappa. Reviewed by Anne Abayasekara
In the mosaic that forms the Sri Lankan na- tion, we are privileged to have - apart from the two major communities of Sinhalese and Tamils - several small ethnic groups who have made their own distinctive contribution to the country.
Most of us are aware of the term "Colombo Chetty" but are rather vague as to who the people are and to whom it applies. Since this community has intermarried with both the Sinhalese and Tamils and since some of them have adopted Portuguese names during the Portuguese period here, there has been some confusion in identifying them.
It was due to representations made to the Government by the Sri Lanka Chetty Association in 1983, and prolonged deliberations held between the Ministry of Home Affairs and a delegation from the Colombo Chetty Association, that the Colombo Chetties received official recognition as a distinct ethnic group on January14, 1984. This was announced in a Govt. circular "which also ensured that thereafter Chetties will be registered as such in all Govt. documents."
I gleaned all this from the excellently produced and informative book, "History of the Colombo Chetties" that was published in December, 2000. Those of us who are comfortably ensconced in the majority communities are often insensitive to - or unaware of - the struggle that small ethnic groups may have in gaining recognition as a separate entity within the larger framework of a nation. Books such as this one give us the opportunity to learn about the traditions, culture and customs that are unique to one particular group of whose identity we may have been in ignorance. As a child growing up in my 'home' village, I heard the term "Hetti" used and thought it applied to Indian traders. Now I gather that the term Chetty is interpreted as Setthi in Pali, Hetti or Situ in Sinhalese, Etti in Tamil and that in all historical records Colombo Chetties are referred to as Setthi or Situ.
The book is lavishly illustrated with interesting photographs, both ancient and modern. The frontispiece of a Colombo Chetty gentleman in traditional garb - peak cornered hat, bangle-like rings on his ears and a silk scarf loosely knotted round his neck - is very impressive. The back cover is adorned with a somewhat amusing (to modern eyes) sketch of a Colombo Chetty shown full-length in flowing attire and pointed slippers and carrying a distinctive kind of parasol, taken from a series of sketches of "The Sir Lankan Law Court Types" executed by Van Dort. Illustrious members of the community and some well-known families - the Chittys, Alleses, Muthukrishnas, Perumals, Vidurampulles and Candappas are featured.
The Editor has also reproduced one of the late E.C.B. Wijeyesinghe's delightful articles in his series "Of Men and Memories", entitled 'The Story of a King'. Written in his own inimitable style, E.C.B. relates the old story that one of the Three Kings who followed the star to the stable in Bethlehem where the Christchild lay, came from the East and that legend has it that he was a Colombo Chetty by the name of Perumal-"not a common or tea-garden Perumal, but an Ayyam Perumal whose offsprings are found in executive suites in many parts of the World."
ECB goes on to say that there have been many claimants to this role among the Chetties, among whom are the Candappas, Anandappas, Aserappas, Rodrigopulles, Casie Chettys, Alleses, Fernandopulles, Brittos, Babapulles, Ondaatjes and Cadiramens. Colombo Chetties weren't confined to the capital city but spread their roots in other parts of the island and for the record there are clear group photographs with captions, of Chetties of Dankotuwa, of Thoppuwa, Welihena and Puttalam.
To pick a few notables at random from the long and impressive list compiled here, there was Dr. Michael Ondaatje (not to be confused with today's famous author of that name who must be one of his descendants). This eminent physician came to Sri Lanka in June 1659 on the recommendation of the Maharajah of Tanjore to attend on the wife of the Dutch Governor Van de Mayden who was stricken with a rare disease that had baffled both Dutch doctors and native ayurvedic physicians. She responded to his treatment and the grateful Governor not only rewarded him with money and jewels, but appointed Dr. Michael Juri Ondaatje the first Doctor of Colombo, the first Colombo Chetty to hold this post. He died in Colombo in 1714.
The late President J.R. Jayawardene's first paternal ancestor was a Colombo Chetty and there is an excerpt from the biography of J.R. authored by Prof. K.M. De Silva & Howard Wriggins, in support of this. Don Adrian Jayawardene, J.R.'s paternal great-grandfather, descended from a Chetty family, but two or three generations earlier, a male of this family had married a Sinhalese by the name of Jayawardene from the village of Walgama near Hanwella and had taken on the name of Jayewardene and by the time Don Adrian arrived on the scene at the tail-end of the 18th century, "the process of 'Sinhalisation' of his family had been completed."
In a community well-known for its Christian (particularly Roman Catholic) links, and for the many priests and nuns it produced, it may be news to some, as it was to me, to learn that the Ven. Soma Thero of Vajirarama Temple, Bambalapitiya, and founder of the German Dharmaduta Society was born Victor Pulle, the son of Colombo Chetty parents. Many illustrious names are mentioned , among them: E.C. Alles, the first Colombo Chetty to obtain the F.R.C.S (England), and one-time President of the Ceylon Medical Association; George Chitty, Q.C., Justice M.F.S. Pulle, Justice Christie Alles, George Candappa, P.C., Chevalier L.A. Perumal, Dr. Christopher Ondaatje, CEB, financier & philanthropist, who has written the foreword to this book; Mano Muthukrishna-Candappa, Managing Director of the Polytechnic and much else besides Abraham Peter Casie Chitty, an outstanding businesman of the early 20th century. This should suffice to show how members of the Chetty community have made their own unique contribution as citizens of Sri Lanka.
The preface to this book contains a quotation from a speech made by Sir Herbert Stanley, KCMG, Governor of Ceylon, when he addressed the students of a college in Colombo in January 1928. I cannot refrain from reproducing it here because it sounds almost tailor-made for us in the tragic position in which we find ourselves today. These are the words that Governor Stanley spoke 73 years ago and they sound prophetic.
"If the communities preserve their own traditions and are prepared to put into the common stock the good which they have inherited from their ancestors, there is every hope that we may build up, here in Ceylon, a happy and united Ceylon; ....... by our common devotion to Ceylon and our common desire to make her a better country for our children, than she has been for our fathers." I say 'Amen' to that.
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