Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan - 160th birth anniversary:
National figure with international reputation
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was born in 1851, to a noble and
illustrious Tamil family already highly distinguished in public service.
In fact, he qualified as an Advocate at the age of 22, practised the law
with considerable distinction and entered the Legislative Council at the
age of 28 as the member nominated to represent the Tamil community in
succession to his uncle Sir Muthucoomarswamy. As a legislator he
achieved great deal. In 1880, he moved that a Post Office Savings Bank
Buddhists, as a national sect owe Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan a deep
debt of gratitude. His interest in the question of the Vesak holiday and
the Buddhist Temporalities Bill, his encouraging words to the Buddhist
students of the Pali College and Theosophical Society and a host of
other services to Buddhism have endeared him immensely to the Buddhists
Further, he did much for the Hindus. He had the Ponnambalavaneshwarar
temple in Colombo, originally built and endowed by his father Ponnambala
Mudaliyar, renovated and rebuilt by granite. He founded the Ramanathan
College for girls and the Parameswara College for boys in Jaffna. He was
the President of the Thiruvalluvar Maha Sabai in Madras, a leading Tamil
cultural body of that time. He was considered the father of the Hindu
Board of Education.
His work in the field of legal education was also outstanding. It was
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who was instrumental in re-organizing the
entire scheme of legal education in 1888. He was the Solicitor-General
of Ceylon for 14 years during which time he had to leave the
legislature. It is said that the government of the day was anxious to
have him out of the Council. He returned later as the Representative of
the Educated Ceylonese. In 1904, he translated the Bhagavad Gita from
Sanskrit into Tamil. In 1906, another work, ‘The Culture of the Soul
among Western Nations’ was published in New York.
His work on the establishment of a national university was widely
acknowledged. A hall of residence at the Peradeniya campus was named
after him. He was always in the vanguard of the great movements of the
day - for constitutional, legislative, educational, social, political
He believed passionately in national unity. He always believed that
noble means, noble ideas, noble actions will certainly have noble
consequences. Convulted thinking and contorted behaviour would lead to
calamitous consequences. He often used to quote the famous stanza from
‘Purana Nooru’ which runs thus:
“All villages are mine, all human beings are my relatives. Good and
bad are the outcome of our own actions and not of others. Wrath and
calmness too are of similar nature. Death is not a new phenomenon.
Neither are we captivated by life nor do we reject it as miserable. It
is our understanding from the wise men of yore, that like the boat which
travels across a dashing river, our lives will certainly reach their
destination for sure. This poem had taught us and certainly Sir
Ponnambalam Ramanathan too, not to be daunted by the ephemeral incidents
of life. The Bagavad Gita ideal of absolute detachment in action or
disinterested devotion to duty appealed to Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan.
He called such ideal as Mother India’s most precious gift to us. It was
a gift accepted gratefully by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He shared by
his illustrious life, how men in the midst of storm and stress of
worldly life could achieve the full and perfect development of his
Further, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan shared throughout his life, at
every turn, courage of the highest order - indomitable courage in the
face of daunting odds and overwhelming obstacles. These qualities were
never displayed by him more vividly than in his defence of the Sinhala
people after the riots of 1915. In fact, he was the champion of the
Sinhala people. It was in the legislature that Sir Ramanathan rendered
the greatest service to his country. On him fell the burden of defending
the people of the country against the British government.
He delivered a series of six memorable and passionate speeches, each
one a feat of oratorical endurance, denouncing the ill-considered and
highhanded measures taken by the government to suppress the riots and
the tyrannical and oppressive conduct of its officers.
Indeed, it was a perilous time. But, Sir Ramanathan laid the whole
blame for the outbreak of the riots and their subsequent spread, fairly
and squarely at the door of the government.
The British rulers were really the guilty ones, he argued. They were
the villains of the piece not the people. Had the Government Agent of
Kandy, having granted the Esala procession a licence to pass the mosque
after midnight, taken the rudimentary precaution of providing sufficient
safeguards against a possible breach of peace in view of the hostile
attitude of the Muslims the Muslims would not have acted so lawlessly or
so high handedly as they had done.
When once the riots broke out, Sir Ponnamabalam Ramanathan argued,
had the Government Agent and the Police taken prompt action to nip them
in the bud, had the Government Agent granted the Sinhalese and Muslim
leaders the audience they so eagerly sought, and taken them into
confidence, had he addressed words of encouragement to the panic
stricken crowd, and given them an assurance, as was his duty by them,
that everything possible would have been done to end the riots, and
bring the offenders to book, the riots would never have spread to five
provinces or wrought so much havoc.
In his speech Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan emphasized his point that it
was the inefficiency and passivity of the Police coupled with the
lethargic and weakened attitude of the Government Agent that gave a free
rein to the passions of the rioters. Further, Sir Ponnambalam’s second
speech was a passionate plea for ending the horrors of Martial Law and
the operation of Military Courts and for restoring the jurisdiction of
the ordinary courts of justice.
Indeed, there was nothing Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan did which he did
not dignify, there was no position he held, which he did not adorn,
there was no cause he espoused which he did not ennoble.
In fact, he was a statesman and sage, scholar, jurist, author,
philosopher and a man of religion, patriot, philanthropist, educational
reformer and benefactor, idol of the nation, his versatility was
astounding. Undoubtedly, his life had a sweep of breathtaking majesty.