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Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam:

True nationalist and patriot of Ceylon

The Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam Memorial Oration, delivered by Dr. Brendon Gooneratne on January 19, 2009

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam

Ponnambalam Arunachalam was the youngest son of Gate Mudaliyar A. Ponnambalam. He was born on September 14, 1853 to a highly respected and very well-educated, professional family from Manipay.

His eldest brother Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy had a distinguished career as a Proctor and was the Nominated Tamil Member of the Ceylon Legislative Council from 1893.

The next eldest child of the family, his brother, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, an Advocate, succeeded their uncle, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, as the Nominated Tamil Representative, serving from 1879 to 1893, and later on from 1921 to 1924.

Ponnambalam Ramanathan was also elected to the Legislature as member for the Northern Province (Northern Division) seat and occupied it from 1924 till his death in 1930. In addition to this appointment, Ramanathan was the island’s Solicitor-General from 1893 to 1906 for a period of 13 years, acted as Attorney-General on several occasions, and retired as a pensionable officer in 1906.


Both the elder brothers of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam were educated at the Colombo Academy (now Royal College), and then at Presidency College, Madras.

Like his older brothers Ponnambalam Arunachalam, had his early education at the Colombo Academy, but, having won the English University Scholarship in 1870, he entered Christ College, Cambridge.

He took with him a reputation as a student of exceptional merit, recommended by Sir Walter Sendall, Director of Public Instruction.

At Cambridge, he proceeded to annex the Foundation Scholarship. As a student, Ponnambalam Arunachalam was in a position to watch the changes made by Disraeli to the voting system in Britain and stored his observations for future reference.

Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, who was Arunachalam’s mother’s brother, had been a friend of Lord Houghton, Palmerston and Disraeli, in the London of the 1860s. Disraeli’s unfinished novel, Falconet, which was published in the London Times after the author’s death in 1881, featured a character named Kusinara, ‘an inhabitant of Ceylon’, who, although a Buddhist, is thought to have been modelled upon Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy. Sir Muttu was the first Ceylon Tamil to receive a knighthood, and the first non-Christian Asian to be called to the English Bar.

Lord Houghton had this to say of him: “I held him in great esteem. He has never received due credit for the energy with which he opened the Bar of England to all Eastern subjects of the Empress of India.”


Sir Muttu’s only son, Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, world-famous art critic and author, who played a pivotal role in the cultural revival of India and Ceylon, died in 1947 in Boston USA where he had worked in the Fine Arts Department for many years.

The three Ponnambalam brothers and their cousin Ananda Coomaraswamy grew up in the cultural atmosphere provided by Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, under his kindly protection and guidance. They thrived on it.

While at Cambridge, Arunachalam distinguished himself in both Classics and Mathematics. In the records of Christ College he is referred to as ‘a brilliant mathematician and an able classics scholar’. Among his tutors at Cambridge were Fletcher Moulton (afterwards Lord Chief Justice), Professor Reid, Dr. Peile and Rev. Skeat.

He moved in some interesting circles which included the two Lyttletons, Gerald and Eustace Balfour, Professors Maitland and Foxwell, Rev. Cunningham, Lord Tennyson (eldest son of the Poet Laureate), Alexander Harris and Edward Carpenter.

Carpenter, a notable radical, cherished a warm, life-long friendship with Arunchalam and paid a most eloquent tribute to his friend after his death by publishing a selection of Arunachalam’s letters to him in a book entitled ‘Light from the East’.

Arunachalam had qualified for the Bar and was looking forward to a legal career, but on his return to Ceylon in 1875 his uncle Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy persuaded him to sit for the Civil Service examination. He did so, and his talent and academic excellence ensured that he was the first Ceylonese to enter the Civil Service through open competition.


Arunachalam was now appointed to the Government Agent’s office in Colombo and then to a series of judicial posts in various parts of the island. This was a policy unofficially adopted by the British Government of the day, which effectively debarred outstanding Ceylonese from taking high office in Government and instead appointed them to various parts of the island in different capacities, such as District Judges, Police Magistrates and Commissioners of Requests.

Another talented person who was given the same runaround was Paul Pieris, later Sir Paul, the scholar and historian.

Sir Paul Pieris put his time in the provinces to good use, by researching and writing excellent books on successive periods of Ceylon’s history, of such distinction that he was later to become the first Asian to receive a Doctor of Letters degree from Cambridge University.

Arunachalam’s talent and hard work attracted the attention of Sir John Phear, a great Chief Justice of Ceylon, who specially commended his work to the Governor and the Secretary of State. Sir John said that only two men in Ceylon rose to the standard of what judicial officers ought to be one was Berwick, the other was Arunachalam.

When he was District Judge of Batticaloa and in the Fourth Class of the Civil Service, Sir Arthur Gordon appointed Arunachalam over the heads of about thirty seniors, among whom was Mr. (late Sir) Alexander Ashmore, to act in the office of the Registrar-General and Fiscal of the Western Province. A protest memorandum was lodged with the Secretary of State. But Sir Arthur Gordon, who obviously recognized merit when he found it, had his way and Arunachalam took office as Registrar-General.


Arunachalam now set himself to reform the Fiscal’s office which had become a den of corruption and inefficiency. He reorganised the Departments of Land Registration and Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages, for which he was warmly congratulated by the Governor.

The Times of Ceylon, reporting at the time Arunachalam entered the departments, on the Administration Reports on Land Registration and Vital Statistics, observed that they were places where chaos and corruption held merry sway. Fraud was rife. Dishonest deals often took precedence over genuine dealings, and everybody’s property and title were endangered. Not very different, I am afraid, from the Sri Lanka of today.


The measure of the man may be seen in the way he set about reforming the Registrar-General’s Department.

Sitting by the side of the various clerks as they performed their tasks, he patiently learned their work before launching the reforms by which he stopped the unconscionable delays and dishonesty prevailing in the registration of deeds, and ended the practice by which official work was being conducted as a form of private practice with fees levied privately for its discharge.

He started a real record room, supplied it with a system and an index and founded a Benevolent Society which saved many a clerk from the grasp of money-lenders as well as from social disgrace and penury, paid many a widow and orphan and made clerical lives lighter and brighter.

These activities were notices by a distinguished American statistician, who informed the Governor of Ceylon that “there is not published in the entire United States a report equally valuable and comprehensive”.

Governor Sir West Ridgeway entrusted the organisation of the 1901 Census of Ceylon to Arunachalam. The report elicited the thanks of both the Governor and Secretary of State. But it was Armand de Souza, Editor of the Ceylon Morning Leader, and influential paper of the day, who wrote:

“The curious reader .... will find the Report which introduces the Census of 1901 perhaps the most luminous dissertation on the ethnological, social and economic conditions of the Island. In Sir P. Arunachalam’s Account of the history and religions of the Island in his Census Report would be found the language of Addison, the eloquence of Macaulay and the historical insight of Mommsen”.

(To be continued)


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