For the first time, a detailed record of the history of Ananda College, covering the first 125 years, will be published by the Ananda College Old Boys’ Association. The fascinating story of this great institution is documented in one publication after much painstaking research. The book will be launched at the Faculty of Graduate Studies [...]

Sunday Times 2

Ananda College: The first 125 years


For the first time, a detailed record of the history of Ananda College, covering the first 125 years, will be published by the Ananda College Old Boys’ Association. The fascinating story of this great institution is documented in one publication after much painstaking research.

The book will be launched at the Faculty of Graduate Studies Auditorium of the University of Colombo at 6 pm on March 28.
This year marks the 110th death anniversary of that noble American, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, one of the central figures in the struggle to consolidate the Buddhist revival movement of the 19th century and a prime mover in establishing the College.
The publication is an objective, readable record of Ananda’s aims, its trials, its inspirational successes and achievements, and the lasting contributions it has made in and beyond education. The men and women who made and moulded Ananda are also brought to life. Many rare photographs are included to make it a book to savour, cherish and pass on to the generations to come.

The hard cover version of the book is priced at Rs. 5,000 and the proceeds will be credited to the Ananda College Development Fund.

The founding of Ananda College in 1886 was the high point of the national revival, which stretched throughout the 19th century — a period of extraordinary progress and unexpected coincidences. Blatant discrimination against Buddhists (or, more correctly, non-Christians) and efforts to deny their children modern education in an environment free of proselytisation pressures, were to a great extent defeated. Ananda, and the many schools it inspired, under a formidable band of principals and teachers changed the face of education over the ensuing decades providing opportunities for the exempted masses to compete on an equal footing.
The key event that triggered and accelerated the formation of Ananda’s forerunner, the Buddhist English School in Pettah, was the famous final debate held in Panadura in August 1873. Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda, another promoter of Ananda, was the representative of the Buddhists. He was supported by senior erudite monks including one of the pre-eminent scholars of the day, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, who was also intimately involved in the birth of Ananda.

The event attracted a lot of attention and soon afterwards the editor of the ‘Ceylon Times’, John Capper, published a booklet titled “Buddhism and Christianity in Discussion Face to Face”. Through a serendipitous and circuitous route a copy made its way to Colonel Henry Steel Olcott in far-away New York. Olcott was impressed and started an elaborate correspondence with prominent Buddhist monks in Ceylon, during which he learned more about Buddhism, realised the predicament of the Buddhists in the country and decided to participate directly in the conflict.

In the oppressive climate that existed following centuries of subjugation, most Ceylonese had lost their self-esteem. At the time Olcott first arrived in Galle on May16, 1880 the Buddhists were still a long way behind in terms of modern education and competence in English, the official language. Olcott in his diary recorded his arrival as “the beginning of the second and permanent stage of the Buddhist revival begun by Megittuwatte, a movement destined to gather the whole juvenile Sinhalese population into Buddhist schools under our general supervision”. Thus, it is clear that the discussions between Olcott and the venerable monks had already recognised modern education as a high priority. It was one of the stated aims of the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) which was formed on 17th June 1880.

The BTS decided to follow the successful example set by the Christian missionaries and immediately started setting up Sunday schools for Buddhist children including one at No. 54, Maliban Street, Pettah. After a few years, and with Olcott’s encouragement, a decision was taken to establish a regular daily school and on the 1st of November, 1886, the Buddhist English School, Pettah was started at 61, Maliban Street with 37 children. Charles Leadbeater, an English Christian priest turned Theosophist, was the first Principal.

It was during the term of the next principal, James Alfred Ernst Buultjens that the school moved to more spacious premises away from the congestion of Pettah. On August 17, 1895 the school, re-named Ananda College, was established at its present site in Maradana. The student strength was 300 and academic results were impressive for such a new school of very limited means. D. B. Jayatilaka, who was principal of Dharmaraja College, Kandy later took over from Buultjens with the dawning of 1899. By this time there were 100 BTS schools with a student population of over 27,000, but 75 percent of the school system was still under the control of Christian missionaries.

Ananda continued to progress despite the severe limitations imposed by lack of funds through the determined efforts of a succession of illustrious principals. Some, such as Kularatne, Mettananda, Wijayatilake and Rajapaksa, were national figures in their time. The College also became more active in national issues beyond education, a role it was to increasingly assume with the passage of time. For instance, the personalities associated with the school were also active in the Temperance Movement that agitated country-wide against the consumption of alcohol. And during the so-called Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915, Ananda was adversely affected and even the College magazine was subject to government censorship. The principal at the time, American Theosophist Fritz Kunz, was also involved with the national struggle and was a close associate of personalities like Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, incurring the wrath of the colonial government.

In the early days many Buddhists still preferred to send their children to established, better-equipped Christian schools. Funding was a perennial problem since the meagre government grants were insufficient for the rapid growth that was needed to produce large numbers of competent men to take up national duties. As described in the book, the College and the BTS combined forces and launched country-wide funding campaigns, collecting mostly small contributions from well-wishers. The campaigns also advertised Ananda among the population at large. As Principal Kularatne said on the 50th anniversary of the College, “The story of these years is the story of the struggle to find money to provide the necessary buildings and the equipment the school and its large numbers demanded”.

Ananda attracted an ever-expanding team of excellent teachers to add to Ananda’s image and they were from many communities and religions – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Burghers, British and Indians. The student population too included all communities and religions, since religious freedom was accepted. Nalanda College was formed in November 1925 to accommodate the great demand for places at Ananda, which had already been filled to capacity. Students numbering around 440 in 1918 almost tripled by 1925 and quadrupled by 1928.

Although the medium of instruction was English, Sinhala and Pali were given emphasis and traditional arts and crafts, music and drama were included in the curriculum. Tamil was also given a leading place and an active Tamil Association and a Tamil Literary Society operated in the College until the mid-1950s by which time the opening up of more Hindu English-medium schools in the north reduced the number of Tamil students at Ananda. The College magazine too had a section in Tamil. Workshops were established to encourage and develop manual skills through working on wood and metal and instil an appreciation of the dignity of labour. These were all novelties in the established schools at the time. Another innovation at Ananda was the conducting of English classes for Buddhist monks. Although controversial at first, the beneficiaries formed the vanguard of monks that helped spread Buddhism abroad.

Most importantly Ananda produced a stream of educated Sri Lankans with national aspirations, proficient in local languages. They went on to fill the various technical and intellectual positions in the country before and after the transition to Independence. Without them, Independence would have made very little difference as the masses would have been largely excluded.

The State takeover of schools was an event that changed the character of the College. The principal at the time, S.A. Wijayatilake, acknowledged the economic rationale but warned all concerned openly and regularly about the risks of ending up with ‘soul-less’ State schools, which would not have the right incentives to sustain excellence in education in the broader sense. He has been proved to be prescient with the passage of time.
Ananda College is a venerated national institution, with a hard-earned and unparalleled reputation among the vast majority of Sri Lankans for education and inculcation of national values. It has contributed to national life during a long and tumultuous period, equally balanced out on either side of Independence.
Now that Sri Lanka is at peace after decades of senseless violence, it’s a good time for us to learn from our own history and reflect on the future role of Ananda in national life. The challenges we face are nothing compared to those our founders confronted and overcame.

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