In January 1948, the long evening of colonialism was drawing to a close in that smug little “model Crown Colony” of Ceylon. The dawn of Independence glimmered ever brighter on the horizon. For us, however, freshly released from the bondage of school boyhood on passing the University Entrance exam, what shone even brighter was the [...]


Runners, royalty and ‘Rali Palam’

Tissa Devendra recalls Independence Day 1948

In January 1948, the long evening of colonialism was drawing to a close in that smug little “model Crown Colony” of Ceylon. The dawn of Independence glimmered ever brighter on the horizon. For us, however, freshly released from the bondage of school boyhood on passing the University Entrance exam, what shone even brighter was the prospect of undergradhood.

Serendipitously Saldin, Shan and I – Malay, Tamil and Sinhala – had bonded when we joined the school in Race Course Avenue from our earlier schools in Kandy, Jaffna and Ratnapura. We were not very moved by the hosannas to imminent Independence in the daily press. However, as we watched the race horses thunder past Bullers Road we could not help noticing the various preparations going on in the vicinity of the race course for Independence Day, February 4.


A spacious quadrangle had been cleared on the old Spitfire airstrip opposite the former Lunatic Asylum. A towering flagstaff was erected with four clear avenues leading up to it  from the cardinal directions. Multi-coloured bunting fluttered from lamp posts. A capacious airport hangar, on the outskirts of the war-time airstrip was being given a new lease of life as the  venue of the ceremonial “award” of Independence. An army of humble Kandyan artisans clambered on scaffolding creating rali-palam [ruffled bridges], the traditional temple arches of pleated red and white cloth, whose splendour camouflaged the bilious khaki of the hangar’s corrugated iron roof.

Cinnamon Gardens Bloom

Meanwhile, in the rarefied environs of Cinnamon  Gardens enthusiastic preparations were afoot for the “Pageant of Lanka”. Sinhala matrons and their daughters, rehearsed tableaux depicting the courts of King Dutugemunu and Kasyapa. Their Tamil friends prepared to enact the ladies of Elara’s harem. The good ladies of the D.B.U. rehearsed dancing 17th Century quadrilles and cotillions presumed fashionable in the residences of Dutch Governors.

Choirs of elite girls’ schools rehearsed at full throttle wrestling their genteel vocal chords round the unaccustomed Sinhala of the strange new anthem-in-waiting – “Namo, Namo, Matha”. It was a heady period for those who held the reins of power. Cinnamon Gardens and its environs were abustle. So were government offices and newspaper offices, abuzz with the expectation of encountering exotic foreign VIPs, never before seen in Ceylon, except in newsreels. However, Maradana, Kotahena, Dehiwala and other backwaters of the (then) garden city seemed absolutely immune to Freedom Fever and showed no signs of celebratory excitement.

The Great Run

The great day dawned to banner headlines in the few newspapers then around, and special broadcasts from Radio Ceylon: The three of us stashed our bikes away and mingled with the crowd to infiltrate ourselves into ringside positions. There was a crowd alright but far thinner than the packed throngs in the kovil ground during Vel. We had no difficulty in working ourselves to the front in Torrington  Square to admire four charming and self-conscious young ladies facing long cleared avenues headed North, East, South and West. Swarnamali was in Kandyan saree, Siromani draped in Jaffna style, Ayn Sally in the full skirted Muslim garb of those pre-Hijab days, and June in a stylish frock. This salute to multi-ethnicity was further emphasized when, to loud cheers four athletic young men – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher – ran up with synchronized grace to their respective young ladies and handed over scrolls of solidarity from the four corners of Ceylon – to the yet unaccustomed ululation of conch shells.

The Ceremony

We next ambled along to the enormous hangar which was venue of the formal ceremony. Its Spartan bareness had been overlaid with an unaccustomed opulence. The floor was carpeted in crimson. Rali Palam arched overhead. The throne of Sri Wickrama, our last king, (on loan from the Museum) occupied the highest pedestal symbolizing our once lost sovereignty about to be regained. Ornate chairs, framed by an arch of massive tusks, seated the main protagonists. The elite of colonial Ceylon filled the hall with a riot of colour. Kandyan chieftains stole the show in their regalia of gold brocade and tricorne headgear, leading Tamils favoured turbans and long sherwanis draped with shawls, leaders of the Moors wore red velvet fezzes and Malays in batik caps.  The ladies outdid everybody in a riot of colour and fantasy. In stiff dignity for their last hurrah, there was a sprinkling of English ladies in white gloves and wide-brimmed hats.

No elaborate security barred the curious, so we had no difficulty in trickling into the hall and lining its wall to watch history in the making. The rather bumbling Duke of Gloucester stood in for his brother King George VI. Sir Henry Monck Mason Moore the Governor, and the Duke, were in full colonial rig of gold braided white with plumed solar helmets. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake stood burly in a well-filled cutaway coat and sensibly handed over the main oration to Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

In striking contrast to all the surrounding colonial flummery his slight figure was dressed in simple white Ariya Sinhala. When he spoke we were transfixed by his impassioned and impeccable oratory – absolutely appropriate to that historic occasion. The Union Jack was lowered for the last time with the time honoured solemnity that Brits are so good at. The rampant Lion Flag of now independent Ceylon was proudly run up the flagstaff, for the very first time, to the yet unfamiliar blowing of conch shells, the roll of “magul bera” and massed school choirs singing the new national anthem “Namo, Namo, Matha”.

That night Cinnamon Gardens recaptured the limelight with its long-rehearsed “Pageant of Lanka” performed on a huge open air stage, where Independence Hall now stands. Statuesque matrons and their nubile daughters, in a rainbow cavalcade of “ancient” costumes, re-enacted dramatic scenes from olden times. Gallant police officers, bare-chested and begirt with swords and period pantaloons pranced on stage with their Police horses. Humble constables carrying spears and swords provided background colour. We were treated to dances galore – Kandyan, Manipuri, Bharata Natyam, Minuets and quadrilles – from various periods of our history.

The revels ended at last and we strolled back home, not (I confess) adequately appreciative that we had been eye witnesses to history in the making.

(Extracts from the writer’s book ‘ A Fiery Finale’)


Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.