ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 32

Remembering ‘Ape Thaththa’

100th Birth Anniversary of Leelananda Caldera

Leelananda Caldera was not only Thaththa to my sister Manel and me but to hundreds of other orphaned or destitute children.
He was born a century ago on January 6, 1906 in Induruwa. When his mother died, his father came to Colombo with his young family and took up residence with relatives in Rajagiriya. His uncle's, the village headman's house was next to a school now re-named Hewavitharana Maha Vidyalaya. One day he was planting the seed of a mango he had eaten when a stranger in the school compound approached him and wanted to know what his name was.

He said he was Leopold and the stranger said "Apo, eka thuppahi namak. Umba ada indala Leopold nemei, Leelananda" (Oh! That is a westernized name. As of today you are not Leopold but Leelananda). That's how he came to be known henceforth, just like George Peiris (Malalasekera) became Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera. The stranger who gave him a new name was none other than David Hewavitharana, later known as Anagarika Dharmapala who became his mentor. Educated at Carey College, the young Leelananda carried away many school prizes and medals, most memorable being a tiny Bible inside a tin box of 2"x1 ½" for being the best student in the S.S.C. class. He met his soul mate, Evelyn Weerasinghe, then a teacher at Musaeus College who fully supported him in all his endeavours.

My earliest memories of my father were watching him bent over a magnifying glass, looking at his butterfly collection at the National Museum, where he was the Curator. Another of his pet schemes was the display of ancient coins of Sri Lanka. My sister Manel and I spent most of our afternoons at the Museum which became our childhood playground. We played with the live huge ancient tortoise which lived in the compound, played hide and seek amongst the many artifacts or simply gazed at the royal throne, the crown and the huge scabbard which contained the sword used by the last King of Lanka, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, and speculated how any individual could wear them along with those royal robes on display and be comfortable on that seat.

As curator of the National Museum he took almost childish pleasure in showing us a new coin that was found at an excavation site or taking us through the room where the ancient paintings were restored.

He arranged lectures and film shows and I got my partiality towards History and Archaeology at the lecture hall across the road from the Museum. He undertook many excavations, especially in the Ella area and one memorable excavation was at the Ravana Lena. When he retired, the Ven. Walpola Rahula Thero who was then the Vice Chancellor of Vidyodaya University invited him to introduce Archaeology as a subject for specialization at the University.

He played many roles. In addition to his duties at the National Museum as its Curator and as a lecturer at the University, he subscribed routinely to the newspapers. His numerous articles on the History of Ceylon and Archaeology appeared often in newspapers. His name in print as the author of the many articles was seen so often by us that once when my sister was asked who her father was she said "Leelananda Caldera Visini". At that time she truly believed that was his full name. Unfortunately his collection of articles and books were damaged by the floods of 1993. He authored a book "Lankaawe Mila Mudal" (Coins and Currency of Ceylon -1959 Colombo National Museum) which even today is used as reference on ancient coins of our country. He used to take part in broadcasts at Radio Ceylon and was the choice for commentaries at various religious activities such as expositions of relics and pageants.

Then came the Buddhist revival in the early 50s. He joined personalities such as Dr. G.P. Malasekera, Sir Cyril de Zoysa, Thomas and Henry Amarasuriya, B.H. William and Albert Edirisinghe (now Ven. Kihimbiye Devamitta). It was during this time that the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) was started and my father became the Secretary and a year later he had the able assistance of P.C. Perera who became a Joint Secretary. Thaththa is on record as the longest serving Secretary with 35 years of dedicated service out of the Congress's present lifespan of 88 years.

He was associated with many important chapters of Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka such as the creation of the Buddhist Flag, The World Buddhist Congress and the Buddhist Commission. Right throughout his tenure as Secretary, the Congress had its annual sessions at a town far away from Colombo with the intention of spreading its message throughout the country. There was no proper office at the time and most of the time the meetings took place at our house. There were days when Albert Edirisinghe used to arrive at our house at 5.30 in the morning., and over a bowl of kola kenda, discuss matters related to the Congress.

The ACBC pioneered Children's Homes, Homes for the Aged and vocational training centres for the needy and one of the oldest that come to my mind is the Viharamahadevi Home in Biyagama. Once a week we travelled across the country visiting one or two Homes. Funding was always a concern and one of the initiatives taken by the office bearers was to hold an annual Flag Day. Small Buddhist flags with the Congress emblem were printed and brought to our house in bulk. We made them into bundles of hundreds, packeted pins and made tills out of discarded tins collected throughout the year for just this purpose. We, along with children from the Homes and other volunteers were assigned routes to sell the flags and it was fun to see whose till was the heaviest. A one rupee note in the till was like a fortune and a ten cent coin was the norm. The tills were brought to our house and we made little mounds of 10x ten cent pieces to help the adults count the collections.

The Gangodawila YMBA donated its land to the ACBC and my parents made it their pet project. I still remember standing under the huge Goraka tree in the compound, watching Dr. G.P. Malalasekera, the then President, and his gracious wife Lylie lay the foundation stone for a Girls' Home. There was a very small building with a thatched roof and 5 girls were registered as the first inmates. There was also a community centre where milk and breakfast were served for the needy. This gradually expanded into a Home for over 150 children, and was upgraded to a vocational training centre as well.

Thus my father set himself a routine. He would wake up at 5 a.m. and water the plants in our garden. We usually rose to the wet "flip-flop" sound of his slippers when he returned to the house. Next was the ritual of starting his car, a Hillman, EY 502 which became a legend in our neighbourhood and at Gangodawila. He would bring it under the front porch, test the level of petrol with a special stick he had marked (there were no petrol gauges installed in cars half a century ago) and kick each wheel to see if the tyre pressure was correct. After breakfast, he would drop Amma at school and then drive to the Gangodawila Girls' Home. On his way he would pick up two other pensioners, Mr. Kuragama and Mr. Epasinghe and the trio were amiably known as national-three-in-one because all three wore the national dress. They would check on the day-to-day activities of the Home, see to the welfare of the children and even do the marketing for the children once a week by going to the Saturday pola in Maharagama.

Thaththa fixed a hood-rack on his Hillman merely to transport the gunny bags of vegetables and groceries for the children. He returned home for lunch and took a nap which was always for 20 minutes. It never varied and under no circumstances would anyone dare disturb him. He would then drive to the Buddhist Congress and start work there at 2 p.m.

By this time, Mr. B.H. William and his family had donated a land and a building for the Congress on Bullers' Road, now renamed Bauddhaloka Mawatha, for its headquarters. Amma used to say that when he returned late in the evening we were asleep and Thaththa used to wake us and talk to us no matter how late it was.

He passed away after a brief illness on November 20, 1981 at the age of 76. The mournful wails of the children of the Girls Home crying "Ane Ape Thaththa" would, I am sure have been the epitaph he would have wished for.
Thank you Thaththa for being there for the helpless and the needy.

By Nelum Caldera-Senadira

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.