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September 17 is the 96th birthday of late President 
J.R. Jayewardene : 

Remembering the most dominant Lankan political figure

by Padma Edirisinghe

President J.R. Jayewardene was born in 1906 and passed away in 1996. The JRJ Centre has organised a seminar and exhibition of photographs, documents and books and other items aligned to his long life. The writer who is a co-organiser of this exhibition here reveals to the readers some obscure facts about the life of this great statesman as gleaned from these documents.


The Jayewardene family is initially of Chetty descent. The source is a Government Gazette itself issued on May 15, 1830, three months after the death of Don Adrian Jayawardena, a powerful progenitor of the Jayawardena family. The government not only publicised the death but went on to give a full account of the family history.

Here is a quote, 'The Mudaliyar (Don Adrian Wijesinghe Jayawardena) descended from a respectable family of the Chetty and merchant caste. At the early period of the Dutch possession of the country his ancestors migrated from the Coromandal coast (of India) and settled down in Colombo.'

The account goes on to narrate how two or three generations later this family intermarried with a Sinhala family named Jayawardena living in Welgama off Hanwella. After this the Chetty members soon adopted not only the Sinhala names but the Sinhala customs and ways, substantiating the 'myth of Race' for which 10,000s are killed all over the world.

JR as an actorJR was a youth of versatile talents. He displayed his acting talents through plays as ‘The Wandering Jew’ and ‘The Tyrant,’ produced by the Ceylon Dramatic League of which he was the treasurer. Here he is in a scene from one of the plays in which he acted. These plays were staged at the Regal Theatre, Colombo, Empire Theatre, Colombo and Kandy.

This unusual eulogy of a citizen in the Government Gazette later made the Jayewardenas unpopular with the patriotic genre. The criticism also was made that the British praised Adrian jayawardena to the skies since he had helped in the capture of the king of Kandy which is almost baseless as already the king was in the hands of Ekneligoda and his retinue when the ancestors of the Bandaranaike and Jayawardena families accompanied the British contingent sent over. Actually these two had been very courteous to the King and Queens.

The Jayawardena family were initially Christians. As the Chetty religion is not Christianity their adoption of the Anglican religion would have been motivated by the lust for top posts in the State, a tendency shared by many of the top low country families as the Bandaranaike and Soysas. Adrian Jayawardena was made Mudaliyar of Chilaw by the British and by the act of appointment 1803 was made Mudaliyar of the Guides or Thombi Mudaliyar.

The similarity of the word Thombi (current Dutch Indian term for guide) to Thambi (Moor) made his enemies ascribe Moorish origins to him as was freely done during the Kelaniya elections of 1940 & 1947. Junius Richard Jayewardene himself was baptised as a Christian for his father, E.W. Jayewardane, great grand son of Adrian Jayawardena too was a Christian. Ten children were born to E.W. by his matrimonial alliance with Agnes Helen Wijewardena and subtly as E.W. was embroiled in his law profession and politics as ward member of New Bazaar, Agnes Helen converted all the children to Buddhism except one girl who remained a Christian. Agnes Helen came from a deeply fervent Buddhist family.

In fact her mother Helena Wijewardena of Sedawatte walawwa who was also the mother of D.R. Wijewardena (founder of Lake House) was the chief benefactress of Kelaniya temple who raised the temple from the rubble into which it was decimated by the Portuguese into the grand edifice it is today. JR in addition to his mother's influence also became fascinated with Buddhism due to his extensive readings. Many are unaware that he has authored a number of books on Buddhism. Corbett Jayawardena, one of his brothers was ordained as a Buddhist monk by the name of Sedawatte Seelakkanda thera.

Brilliant student

JR was a brilliant student. He not only excelled in the varied fields as sports, drama, music, but was also the editor of the Royal College magazine and ended up as the Head Prefect. Earlier he attended Bishop's College as a Primary school child.

From Royal he went over to University College and then to Law College. The legal profession was almost a family legacy.

JR baptised Junius Richard (Junius after a paternal uncle and Richard after the maternal uncle DR) apparently hated his two names. He began to call himself Ravee. But only he called himself that. Not even his mother called him so. His friend called him Dickie. In his youth he formed a Club with political motives.

It was called the Push Cannon Club and had only four members. In a fit of patriotism he later changed its name to 'Priya sangamaya'. In all the documents issued by this Club he had signed his name as Ravee. He later mollified himself by naming his son (only child) Ravindra and called him Ravee.

At one phase of his life JR even exhibited Marxist tendencies. Perhaps this explains his helping to transport tarmacar strikes during the famous tram car strike. He had used his father's car for this purpose. The reception he got from home that night can only be imagined.

JR was a great admirer of the Indian Swaraj Movement and adored Mahathma Gandhi. He was responsible for the 'Very rash act of hanging' Gandhi's picture in the Law College library. The Ramgarh assembly of India that he attended proved a turning point in his career, making him emulate Indian freedom fighters.

It can be surmised that JR picked up his patriotism mostly from his mother, Agnes Helen. Though an old student of Musaeus College and quite fluent in English she had spoken in English only with foreigners. With her husband, children and others she always spoke in Sinhala.

The early death of his father threw the burden of shouldering the family responsibility on JR who was the eldest. One of his sisters too died at the age of six.

The family was almost doomed to face a troubled phase for E.W. had taken a huge loan to build the palatial Vaijayantha mansion (with a room for each of the ten children and a massive library) when he suddenly passed away. But JRJ's Home parliament plan and the smart way he payed off the debt thus retrieving family fortunes is too known history.

In the Kelaniya Sate Council elections his uncle, D.R. Wijewardena took the side of his opponent, Mr. E.W. Perera due to a pact made earlier. Yet JR won the Kelaniya seat.

JR was almost a fanatic collector. He collected not only his school texts and exercise books, his prize books, his trophies but later all documents relating to his foreign travels as invitations received, newspaper clippings, and even bills paid. All these can be viewed at the exhibition.

The plea he made at the San Francisco Conference for a merciful attitude to Japan (on the aftermath of the second world war) quoting Buddha's words 'Hatred ceases not by hatred but by love' earned him the eternal gratitude of Japan. A statue is said to be erected in japan in his honour while the Sri J'pura Hospital was a gift made in recognition of this service. He quoted the exact number of beds he needed, 2001.

JR's diary

JR made a diary entry in his later life giving the directions as to how his funeral should be conducted. He requested that he be cremated on the banks of the Kelani river within the sight of the site of the Kelaniya dagoba which according to legend has been sanctified by Buddha's presence. This diary entry too is on display at the exhibition. Till his death, his gracious wife Elena Bandara Rupasinghe Jayewardene stood by him, like his very shadow and went along with him thick and thin through all the vicissitudes of his long and multi faceted life.

He lived in four houses, the Grandpass Walawwa (built by Adrian Jayawardena on dowry property got from Kolombage Christofell Corea) Park House, Colombo 7, Vaijayantha Mandira and finally 'Braemer' Ward Place that he received as dowry. Weerakesari Press is housed in Grandpass Walawwa today.

JR could be dubbed the leading political figure of the 20th century. His political career spanned from 1940 to 1989 except for four years (1956-1960).

HNB-Pathum Udanaya2002

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