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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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