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William Gopallawa:

Gentleman par excellence

The 31st death anniversary of William Gopallawa the first President of the Republic of Sri Lanka falls today (January 30)

William Gopallawa was born on September 17, 1897 at Dullewa Maha Walauwa, in Dullewa Village, Asgiri Udasiyapattuwa in Matale district. His mother was Tikiri Kumarihamy Dullewa from Dullewa Village and Tikiri Bandara Gopallawa, his loving father was from Gokerella in Kurunegala district. When little William was only three years old, he lost his father.

Young William had his early education at Dullewa village and later at Getambe, St John's College, Kandy. In 1909, he entered Dharmaraja College, Kandy and later continued his education at St Anthony's College Katugastota. Having passed his Cambridge Senior he joined, Matale Buddhist School (now named Vijaya College) as an assistant teacher in 1917. He took the initiative to organize the first boys’ scout platoon at Vijaya College and started the first library in the school.

In 1920, he joined the Ceylon Law College and qualified as a lawyer in 1924. He entered local politics, contesting Matale Urban Council in 1926 and was elected as the youngest chairman of Urban Councils in the island and served the people of Matale town for 13 years till 1939.

Diplomatic relations


William Gopallawa

William Gopallawa got married to Seelawathie Rambukwella on March 8, 1928. They were blessed with two sons and two daughters, named Iranganie, Asoka, Chintha and Monty (Late Governor of Central Province). Gopallawa joined local government administration and was appointed first Municipal Commissioner, Kandy in 1939 and from 1951 to 1957 the Municipal Commissioner Colombo.

In recognition of his services late S W R D Bandaranaike appointed him as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the Republic of China, it was very significant as Sri Lanka had just established diplomatic relations with socialist countries. Sirimavo Bandaranaike appointed Gopallawa as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States, Cuba and Maxico in 1961. The greatest achievement of his career was his appointment as the Governor - General of Ceylon on March 2, 1962. Gopallawa had the distinction of being the first Buddhist and the second Ceylonese Governor - General. When National State Assembly promulgated the first Republican Constitution in 1972, he became the first President of the Republic of Sri Lanka and served the country till 1978.

As the first Buddhist Governor - General he introduced the Buddhist religious, cultural and traditional customs and values to the President's House after many centuries. Even his dress, he wore, the Sri Lankan white national dress. He never wore the colonial white hat and the white-tunic which his predecessors used to wear. He opened the doors of the President's House to the public, and the ordinary villagers from remote villages used to visit their loving Head of State any time of the day.

Religious and cultural activities

President Gopallawa was truly a great Buddhist who diligently practised ‘Meththa’, ‘Muditha’, ‘Karuna’ and ‘Upekka’ and was a gentleman par excellence, who knew no political, social or religious barriers in his public or private life. He used to say, many times, that his education and upbringing at Dharmaraja College, Kandy made him truly religious and cultured person. Apart from being engaged in activities of Boys’ scout in school, he took keen interest in dramas and acted as Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe in the school drama which was staged at Dharmaraja College. He was very much interested in radio dramas and listened to ‘Muwan Pelessa’ and ‘Monara Tenna’ his favourite prgrammes and never missed a single episode, Monty Gopallawa my good friend told me.

His outstanding trait was his composure which reflected in his character of good will and kindness to all around him with a generous smile and a kind word. He had no difficulties whatsoever when dealing with persons of religious, ethnic or political groups. Gopallawa used to have lunch with Prime Minister Dudly Senanayake every Wednesday at President's House and used to discuss the problems of the country in a very friendly and cordial manner.

His outsanding religious and cultural activity was the installation of the first ‘Ran Weta’ around Sri Maha Bhodiya in Anuradhapura in 1969. He was also very much interested in social service. Differences based on race, caste or creed did not exist in him. This innocent villager from a far off village in Dullewa, Matale fulfilled his obligations towards his motherland and without any fear or favour. Sirimavo Bandaranaike writing an article to the William Gopallawa centenary volume (1897-1997) said that “I have been a beneficiary of mature guidence, good advice of Mr Gopallawa in his capacity as ambassador, Governor-General and the President of the country. His vision was broad and his thinking was always full of compassion and vigiteousness. He was guided by the thoughts of the Buddha, he never had a partisan outlook in any issue of national importance. As the Prime Minister I had many dealings with him on a variety of issues, and I found him to be the elder statesman I could look up to and obtain guidance”. (Pages 13-14)

Family residence

Gopallawa spent his retirement at his family residence at Dharmapala Mawatha, Matale, and used to walk around Matale town and village around the town dressed in a white bush-shirt and a pair of white trousers with a walking-stick without any security guards around him.

He used to visit his friends, relations and the ordinary people of far off villages and also temples, kovils, churches and mosques when invited.

Former President William Gopallawa was made a member of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth the IInd (MBE). He was accorded LLD University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) in 1962. LLD Vidyalankara University in 1962 and D Litt. Vidyodaya university in 1962. He was a keen follower of scouting and also functioned as chief scout of Sri Lanka during his tenure as Head of State.

William Gopallawa passed away on January 30, 1981 at the age of 83 years. According to his wishes his eyes were donated to two needy dones of Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society. His funeral was held in Matale town and ashes were interred at the family burial grounds in Dullewa village. Madam Gopallawa had predeceased him on October 4, 1977, her eyes too were donated and ashes were also interred at the family burial grounds in Dullewa village.

Although 31 years have passed since you left us, we all still remember you with great honour, love and respect. May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana, towards which you practised in your life!

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