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When Olcott came to Ceylon

The coming of Olcott to Ceylon towards the end of the 19th century was a turning point in the history of this country. Had he not come then the prediction of James de Alwis that Buddhism would disappear from this country at the turn of the century would have come true.

His timely arrival not only disproved that gloomy prediction but also gave a tremendous boost to Buddhism in Sri Lanka that keeps it rocking even today. Under the British occupation Sinhala and Sinhala Culture had decayed so much that it was not difficult for de Alwis, Sinhala scholar and devout Christian, to make that prediction.

When Olcott visited this island, the Sinhala Buddhists, though a majority in the country, were an underprivileged group in their land of birth. To the 802 Christian schools that had come up there were only four Buddhist schools. Nor was Sinhala taught at a privileged school like Royal College at the beginning of the 20th century.

So delighted were the Sinhala Buddhists when Sir Henry Steel Olcott arrived with his colleague, Helena Blavatsky, that they turned out to give them a right royal welcome. The ship that brought Olcott and Helena Blavatsky had anchored 500 yards away from the shore of the Galle harbour.

A decorated boat with banana trees and colourful strings of flowers fetched the distinguished visitors from ship to shore. When they stepped out of the boat and into the jetty the Sinhala equivalent of the red carpet, pavada, was laid over the steps leading up to the carriage. And to cries of Sadhu! Sadhu! that arose from the people, Olcott and Blavatsky stepped into their carriage.

“The multitude,” Olcott writes, “hemmed in our carriages and the procession set out for our appointed residence...The roads were blocked with people the whole distance and our progress was very slow.

At the house three Chief Priests received and blessed us at the threshold, reciting appropriate Pali verses. Then we had a levee and innumerable introductions; the common people crowding every approach, filling every door and gazing through every window. This went on all day, to our great annoyance, for we could not get a breath of fresh air, but it was all so strong a proof of friendliness that we put up with it as best as we could...”

From the day of their arrival to the time of their departure people turned up in their thousands to see and hear Olcott speak wherever he went.

All such inconveniences Olcott took up with great good humour as you can see in his writings when he sat down to recall them in his book Old Diary leaves. One of his first assignments was to give a public lecture on Theosophy.

“I made desperate attempts to think over my subject and prepare some notes. For I was then quite inexperienced in this business and was afraid to trust myself to extemporaneous discourse.” And amidst all that babel going on around him with friendly mobs going in an out of their rooms throughout the day it was not the best of times to think about a speech.

“I think my first lecture in Ceylon is worth a paragraph. It was delivered in a large room in the Military Barracks, imperfectly lighted, and packed to suffocation. A temporary platform had been erected at one end and a figured canopy suspended over it.

Besides our delegation there were upon it Sumangala Maha Thera, the Chief Priest Bulathgama, Chief Priest Dhammalankara of the Amarapoora Sect who had come 28 miles to meet us, and number more. The whole European colony (45 persons) was present, and, inside and outside, a mob of some 2000 Sinhalese.

“I was not at all satisfied with my discourse, because, owing to the interruptions above noted, my notes were fragmentary, and the light was so bad that I could not read them. However, I managed to get through somehow, although a good deal surprised that not even the taking passages elicited applause: from the unsympathetic Europeans that was to be expected: but from the Buddhists!”

That worried him so much that while moving out of that crowded room with Blavatsky clinging on to one arm, he turned to her and wanted to know how the lecture was. She said it was rather good.

But why was there no applause, he wanted to know, why was it received in dead silence? “It must have been very bad” Olcott repeated. “What? What? What are you saying?” interrupted the host who was holding Blavatsky by the other arm.

He wanted to know who said the speech was bad and went on to reassure Olcott and tell him,

“Why, we never heard as good a one in Ceylon before.” Then why, Olcott asked was there not a hand-clap or a cry of satisfaction. “Well, I should just have liked to hear one; we should have put knife into the fellow who dared interrupt you.” Then he explained that the custom was never to interrupt a religious speaker. He should be listened to in silent respect and think over what he said when walking away.

This was the first of several visits that Olcott was making to the island. In this his first visit, along with Blavatsky; they journeyed to Kalutara after a memorable though exasperating trip with frequent stops on the way, from Dodanduwa to Payagala, to address people who gathered in their hundreds to welcome the white Buddhists. At Kalutara they were welcomed by Ponnambalam Arunachalam who was the Police Magistrate at Kalutara.

Olcott was quite impressed with Arunachalam who says of that meeting: “We made a charming acquaintance today - a graduate of Christ College, Cambridge: one of the most intellectual and polished men we have met in Asia. Mr Arunachalam is a nephew of the late Sir M.

Coomaraswamy [Ananda Comaraswamy’s father] the well known Orientalist...His eldest brother is the Mr. Ramanathan, who is a warm friend of mine, and the official representative in the Legislative Council of the Tamil community. We breakfasted in Mr Arunachalam’s house, and his courtesy drew out HPB’s (Blavatsky’s) most charming traits, so that the visit was in every way a pleasing episode.”

In contrast to this pleasant experience the GA of the district adopted a very hostile attitude to the visitors. He had ordered that no government building or the veranda of a school or even its steps should be given to hold any lectures.

Olcott’s comment on that was, “The poor creature acted as if he supposed the Buddhists could be overawed into deserting their religion, or into believing Christianity a more loveable one, by excluding them from the buildings that had been erected with their tax money and that would be lent to any preacher against Buddhism,” But that ‘poor creature’ could not prevent the people from immediately converting an adjoining field into a hall and rostrum by drawing strings and making a canopy and placing a chair and sounding board on top of a table to make a rostrum.

In Ratnapura, the city of gems, one of his supporters a gem merchant invited him to try his hand at gemming and if successful the proceeds to be given to a fund that Olcott was setting up. He took up a spade and scraped the ground around for a while then tiring he handed it to the more sturdy young men around to do the digging.

They found some stones and Olcott imagined for a moment that the money he could get from this single gem pit would be sufficient to meet all the needs of his fund he was setting up. But his dream collapsed when he found that gem shops declined to even make an offer because the gems were worthless. But Mr Solomon Fernando, the gem pit donor, gave Olcott a much appreciated gift. It was a magnifying glass cut out entirely from a rock crystal.

The work that Olcott set himself to do involved a lot of travelling, and that he did in all sorts of vehicles - “from the railway carriage to the ramshackle little hackney, jutka and ekka drawn by a single pony or bullock.” This was all rather adventurous but a bit hard on the old man’s bones.

“So great was my discomfiture that at last I set my Yankee ingenuity to work and had built for me a two wheeled travelling cart on springs.” Finally it turned out to be the last word in travelling comfort. There was sleeping accommodation for four, lockers on the side to hold table furniture, space for stacks of vegetables and all that is needed to run a mobile home.

Fifteen years later this mobile home was still functioning and many notables like Leadbeater

used it for their work. Among these notables was Anagarika Dharmapala who used it to waken the Buddhists from the stupor into which they had fallen.

 

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