Subsequent to introducing the Parliamentary system to Ceylon as Sri Lanka was then known, there was a need to familiarise policy-makers and public servants on the art of Parliamentary procedures and debating. To address this need, the YMCA Forum was started by the British with its inaugural session held in 1908. Back in the day, [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Step into a building with many firsts

Dhananjani Silva discovers a number of historical rooms at the YMCA in Fort

Subsequent to introducing the Parliamentary system to Ceylon as Sri Lanka was then known, there was a need to familiarise policy-makers and public servants on the art of Parliamentary procedures and debating.

Many innovations: The YMCA’s gym, billiards room and far right, the Red Triangle library

YMCA President: Lal Withanage

To address this need, the YMCA Forum was started by the British with its inaugural session held in 1908.

Back in the day, the YMCA Forum, had been instrumental in shaping the oratorical skills of many fledgling politicians, among them S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, G.G. Ponnambalam, Anandatissa de Alwis, Lalith Athulathmudali, J.R. Jayewardene, K.N. Choksy and others of their ilk. Since its inauguration, the tradition has been continued to the present day with every Friday of the week set aside to convene the Forum.

Colombo Fort has changed much in recent years with its pre-eminence as the nerve-centre of the city being diminished but certain landmark buildings continue to play their part in the life of people.

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) building in Bristol Street, Fort, has stood solid since 1924, with its familiar triangular logo, offering its many services to the people.

The YMCA Forum is just one of the pioneering initiatives the YMCA launched through its 133-year existence. It houses the country’s first gymnasium, the country’s first billiard club, one of the oldest libraries in the country, a restaurant which has been functioning for 125 years and a barber salon that has been operational for over 90 years, says the current President of the YMCA Lal N. Withanage.

On the first floor of the YMCA building is the special room where the weekly Forum, open to YMCA members, takes place. The room is set up like a mock Parliamentary chamber with a Senkolaya kept in front of the Speaker’s table. On the walls are panels displaying the names of Speakers elected from 1908.

There is also a row of black and white photographs on the wall showcasing eminent figures who have graced the Forum, including Mahatma Gandhi in Novmber 15, 1927 and Rabindranath Tagore in 1934. Both Gandhi and Tagore delivered their public speeches here when they visited Sri Lanka, according to Withanage.

The Forum follows its own Constitution and the appointment of Speakers is done following a vote by the membership each year.

Old-style barber shop: Janaka Fernando awaits clients. Pix by Athula Devapriya

Interestingly, the YMCA history books also document the enrolment of a Buddhist monk as a member on 7.11.1958 for the first time in the history of YMCA Forum, he adds.

The YMCA movement was initiated in the UK, in 1844 by George Williams, a devout Christian, who moved to London at a young age to work in a drapery store.

“He got together with a few of his friends who worked in this trade for prayer meetings and Bible studies. During the time of the Industrial Revolution, many youngsters came to London in search of jobs and there were many social vices affecting these youngsters.

So Williams came up with the idea of harnessing their talents by inviting the youth for sports activities, in order to get them on the correct path. The concept spread not just in London but also to other countries,” he explains.

The Colombo YMCA movement was started on June 24, 1882 by a ten-member group including founder President James C. Jansz who was a Royalist and William Chapman, an associate of George Williams who came to work at Millers in Sri Lanka following a meeting that they held at Wesley College.

Initially they operated out of a rented hall and from 1894 from the De Soysa building in Slave Island, after which they used the Racquet Court building in Pettah until that was required by the Government.

Offered the lease of the present site in Fort, the YMCA building as we now know it took shape and was opened on February 22, 1924. Among the eminent Ceylonese of yesteryear who were presidents of the YMCA were Sir Henry de Mel, S.J.C. Kadirgamar, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Dr. J.H.F. Jayasuriya and Dr. Paul E. Peiris.

The Colombo YMCA also houses Sri Lanka’s oldest Billiard Club which dates back 130 years. Inside the club are billiard tables used from its inception and faded photographs depicting the championships held back in the day.

“Originally, billiards was a sport for planters. During their leisure they used to play billiards at home. It was the YMCA that initiated the ‘club’ concept after they set up the YMCA billiard club,” says Mr. Withanage.

In this modern age when gyms are springing up faster than mushrooms, it’s interesting to find that the YMCA started the first gymnasium in Ceylon 90 years ago.

The YMCA at this time was moving to introduce many sports such as table tennis, judo, aikido, karate, badminton, carrom, and was instrumental in launching all-island competitions for billiards, wrestling, table tennis, carrom etc in the country.

The gymnasium, with its old equipment is fully functional to date, according to the President.

There is also a chapel in the YMCA building which is about 90 years old and it is not only Christians but people of all faiths who gather for the services conducted here.

The Colombo YMCA also houses what is known as the Red Triangle Library (the name derived from YMCA’s logo) – considered the oldest library of English books in Sri Lanka.

The library is dedicated to the first General Secretary of the Colombo YMCA, R.O. Buell. Started in December 1883, the present library has about 15,000 volumes.

It is said to be the first library in Ceylon to have been organised according to the well known Dewey Decimal Catalogue system introduced by an American who worked in the library at the inception.

On the ground floor of the YMCA building is a barber salon. Here from the inception, the salon is still equipped with the old chairs and mirrors. In the old days a hair cut cost 75 cents.

In the old days: A game of chess

Janaka Fernando who has been working in the salon for the past 30 years says it was his grandfather and father who manned the salon. “I remember my father used to talk about the well-known parliamentarians, actors and actresses who used to frequent this place for hair cuts,” he recalls.

Next to the salon is the YMCA’s restaurant which goes back 125 years. Mr. Withanage says that during the World War period all hotels in the city were closed and people did not have places to eat but YMCA records indicate that the restaurant was open till late at night to cater to the demand.

“The place was frequented by soldiers who came to have a cup of coffee and to play a game of chess or draughts,” he says showing us an old photograph.

The YMCA’s record of firsts is impressive: the first broadcast of Radio Ceylon was from the YMCA building in 1924. Sri Lanka’s first poppy day, the much anticipated inter- school Shakespearean drama competitions are also some of the other initiatives by the Colombo YMCA over the years.

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