“My youth is the secret of my success,” said he. As a youth he shouldered the responsibility of guiding numerous youth towards success. He is ‘the youngest school Principal in Sri Lankan education history’, and perhaps in the world, being selected for the position at 22 years. An educationist and religious and social worker turned freedom fighter Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka (D.B.) was a great statesman present day Sri Lanka could never match.

Born on February 13, 1868 at Waragoda, Kelaniya, D.B. was the eldest male child in the family of Don Daniel Jayatilaka and Dona Elisiyana (Elisa) Perera Weerasinha. His mother was known to have had an interesting dream when she was expecting him. A few versions of the story existed in his day, among the villagers. However, one lesser known and related by the family to Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekera who wrote D.B.’s biography could be the one close to reality - where in her dream, “a person in ascetic garb handed Elisa a flower full of petals embedded in which was a precious bright gem.” D.B. was born at a time when the revival of Buddhism and Nationalism was taking place.

Early life

Devout Buddhists, D.B.’s parents brought him up with care and attention, hoping all that was predicted by astrologers would come true. Ven. Ratmalane Sri Dharmaloka Maha Nayaka Thero, the founder of Vidyalankara Pririvena set him on the path of education with the reading of first letters. At seven, he was enrolled at the Baptist School at Waragoda for his early education. At the same time he learnt Buddhism, Pali, Sinhala and Sanskrit at Vidyalankara. When he was 13, he was admitted to Wesley College, Colombo for further education. His mornings were spent at Wesley and evenings continued to be at Vidyalankara which was closer home. At Wesley, his knowledge and efforts were recognized with double promotions, a form used to promote high achievers in academics. Neither the hardships suffered, travelling by cart to Colombo nor any other obstacle could stop him quench his thirst for erudition.

Devotion to studies and deep focus on the task at hand sometimes made him forgetful. The story goes that he had drunk a cup of ‘kasaya’ (a herbal decoction used in native medicine) instead of his cup of tea. As a young boy, D.B. had been used to walking up and down in his home, memorizing various passages from books. His mother used to leave his cup of tea on a particular table. One day, another member of the family had left a cup of ‘kasaya’ on the same table. With his mind on the passages D.B. had drunk the ‘kasaya’ on the table instead of his tea, without feeling any difference.

At 22, when he left Wesley College he had completed the highest level of education which could be obtained within the country at the time. The story of the Head of the Land Settlement Department, rejecting his application on recognizing his potential is well known. Vowing then and there not to apply for any ‘government’ jobs, he had decided to pursue studies and registered himself for the Bachelor’s Degree from the Calcutta University, India.

The educationist

By this time, D.B. was acquainted with Col. Henry Steel Olcott, a great supporter of Buddhism and a pioneer in founding Buddhist schools in the country. D.B. had joined Olcott in this new Movement. After supporting Olcott and the Budhdist Theosophical Society (BTS) to establish the Buddhist High School in Kandy (Dharmaraja College), D.B. was appointed the first Principal of the school. He was 22 years at the time, but with a vast amount of knowledge, both, in Western and Buddhist education systems, he was seen fit to play a leading role in the new Buddhist Education Movement, spearheaded by Olcott.

In Kandy, he pursued two of the subjects close to his heart – History of the Sinhalese and Literature. Starting a paper, “Sathyodaya” he wrote many articles to the paper. Further, he studied the past lives and achievements of the Sinhalese. ‘Welivita Sangharaja Thero’ was one such hero he researched and wrote about. Meanwhile, these ‘hobbies’ did not deter him either from his duty, managing and developing the new Buddhist School in Kandy or from achieving his personal goals. In 1896, he passed his Bachelor’s examination with honours in English and Latin. In 1898, his indomitable efforts in raising the standards of the School in Kandy won him the position of Vice Principal of Ananda College, Colombo. Two years later, he became the first Sri Lankan Principal of the College. With D.B.’s fervor, foresight, experience and effort Ananda students were on par with students of other leading colleges in Colombo. In 1902, the BTS appointed D.B. as the General Manager of Buddhist Schools in addition to being the Principal of Ananda College.

At the time he got his appointment in Ananda was his marriage to Mallika Batuwantudave, the daughter of a prominent Buddhist scholar and activist, Don Andiris de Silva Batuwantudave. At a time where women received very little education, Mallika was an exception. Well educated in Sinhala, Pali and English, she became an active partner and ardent supporter of her husband’s activities.

Raised in a family of devout Buddhists, D.B. was no stranger to social work. ‘Dana’ (alms giving) was a concept inculcated in him through his mother’s actions. The 1890s was a time of great religious fervor. D.B’s interest in raising youth to be leaders made him establish the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, (YMBA) in the fashion of the YMCA, a forum for youth voice and leadership. The founder president of the YMBA, its members continued to elect him president in gratitude for his services, till his death.

The work with BTS as the GM of Buddhist Schools in establishing and developing the standards of the schools, took him around the country by rail, coach, cart or most of the time on foot, raising money and securing support for the cause of Buddhist Education. He became a well known public figure in the country. Around this time, along with D. R. Wijewardena, he was instrumental in establishing the Dinamina newspaper and was a regular writer to the paper. He also accrued membership in various societies such as, the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch.) He was appointed General Manager of BTS in 1905. A few years later, he was affected by a few setbacks. In 1909, his mother, and in 1910 his father, passed away leaving an emotional void. Factions in the BTS and a lawsuit against the same, was bothering him. D.B decided to leave the country in pursuit of the dream of his heart, to become a graduate in law at Oxford University. Leaving the country in July 1910, he stated “I worked with all my strength, with all my heart, for the cause of education and Buddhism… This trip to Oxford is not for myself alone. It is to benefit my religion and the Sinhalese. My success depends on my physical strength. I am not too well now although I am only 42 years of age. If I succeed I will work even more devotedly for the progress of my religion and race.” However, he stayed healthy, spending three years in England. He not only achieved this purpose and was admitted a member of the Lincoln’s Inn, he was accepted as a scholar in many societies and propagated Buddhist doctrine wherever and whenever he had an opportunity.

It was around this time that the British Government brought in the Toddy Ordinance in Sri Lanka and the Temperance Movement was born. Though far away, in Western shores, D.B. supported the cause rallying sympathetic parliamentarians, societies and individuals around the cause. At a time almost impossible to get an interview with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, he was the person who secured an appointment for the delegation from Sri Lanka with the then Secretary. Coming back to Sri Lanka in 1913, he took oaths as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon, before Mr. Walter Pereira, Judge of the Supreme Court at Hulftsdorp and practised at the Bar in Colombo, Kandy, Ratnapura and Kurunegala. However, the Temperance Movement was a priority and together with F.R. Senanayake, he was instrumental in the closure of many taverns throughout the country, raising the ire of the then government. He was a strong supporter of Buddhism and oriental lifestyle. Along with friends and activists he founded the Buddha Arakshaka Sabhava(Buddhist Protection Society), Praceena Bhashopakara Samithiya (Society for Oriental Studies). He contributed much to raise the ‘piriven’ education establishing Dhamma Schools in temples. He was also a fervent supporter of Ayurveda and spoke at the first Exhibition in Ayurveda, held at Ananda College.

It would be correct to say, his entry into politics was through adversity. D.B. was one of the Buddhist leaders incarcerated by then British rulers without evidence or trial, on false charges, after the Sinhala-Moor riots of May, 1915. Struggling to free them from prison E.W. Perera and P. Ramanathan left for England to plead for their cause before the British Government and the Privy Council. The order to “shoot at sight”, by the authorities was hidden in E.W. Perera’s shoe. After 46 days, the local Temperance leaders were released without trial. In an attempt to seek justice, D.B. left for England in December 1915. His efforts in releasing the innocent prisoners and his stance on reforms made him a politician and a freedom fighter overnight. While the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) an alliance of all ethnic and religious groups in the country was formed agitating for reforms, he was their representative in England working hand in hand with Indian and Burmese freedom fighters. While the British government promoted separate rights for different groups, he opposed the move arguing that Sri Lanka had been a multi ethnic and multi cultural society for well over 2,000 years.

By the time D.B. returned to the country in November 1919, he was a national hero and many receptions were organized. Getting wind of the welcome parties, D.B. got off the ship at Bombay and travelled by train to Colombo through Mannar. However, he could not hide himself. A great multitude gathered welcoming him to the country. There, at the gathering he said, “I have decided not to have receptions and processions. I believe in giving of my best to my motherland without expectation of any praise or demonstration of any kind. I believe in humility and simplicity. I believe in being one with the common man.”

In 1923, he was elected unanimously as President of the CNC. When the elections were held under the new reforms in 1924, he was elected uncontested to the new Legislative Council, as the member from Colombo. In carrying out his duties in the Council, he raised three questions which would later become important in independent Sri Lanka – the reduction of salaries of the Public Servants, Ceylonization of the Public Service and the appointment of qualified Ceylonese to higher scientific posts. These were addressed by the Donoughmore Reforms which came into effect in 1931. Together with F.R. Senanayake, he was influential in establishing and furthering ‘Mahajana Sabhas’ throughout the Western Province. It was D.B.’s determination that brought the Sinhala Etymological Dictionary and the establishment of the first University in the country into fruition.

His was a busy life with many a committees and commissions to serve. The Salaries Commission, Buddhist Temporalities Commission, University Commission, Teachers Commission, Education Advisory Committee, University Council, Dictionary Committee, Labour Advisory Committee, Teachers Pay Advisory Committee, Finance Committee, Mahajana Sabhas, Teachers’ Association, Y.M.B.A., National Congress, Vidyalankara Dayaka Sabha and Dharma Prasada Society were some of the government, public and civil society organisations that he served with diligence. During this time, he was elected to fill in the post of Vice-President of the Legislative Council on the death of Sir James Peiris.

When elections were held in 1931, under the Donoughmore Reforms, D.B. was elected uncontested from the Kelaniya electorate. He was elected Leader of the House, Minister of Home Affairs and Vice-President of the Board of Ministers. In September 1931, he made the Budget Speech in the First State Council stressing the importance of education and the elimination of poverty.


Malaria started its attack on this spirited leader around this time. He was stricken for the first time in 1932. During 1934, when the country had its worst epidemic, D.B. visited the furthest villages, organizing medical care, relief work, and providing food and clothing for the sick and needy. These exertions had its toll on him by way of another malaria attack. Though needing rest and recuperation, he went on bravely executing his responsibilities not thinking of himself. The first volume of the Sinhala Dictionary was published in 1937 almost 10 years after its commencement and he made representations of the country at varied occasions in different countries. He also resumed the demands for constitutional reform. His love for the people was the main force driving him on. Elimination of poverty took centre stage in his agenda. Busier than ever, it was another attack of malaria and the strict advice of his medical doctors which made him take a 2 month holiday in 1938. Though it helped him regain health, driving himself beyond reasonable limits had a toll on his health.

It was during World War II that his character and health was really tried. As the Leader of the State Council and Minister of Home Affairs, he was responsible for the peace and order in the country. He started preparing the country for defence. When Japan bombed Colombo in April 1942, the city dwellers fled. None was left in Colombo and food ships at the harbour needed unloading. D.B. went to Kelaniya and appealed for help, which was answered by 400 volunteers, averting a possible crisis. However, food was a sensitive issue as the country relied on imports. When India refused to send food to Sri Lanka and two government missions failed to secure support, D.B. was the last choice. In August 1942, he went to India to plead for food imports and his request was adhered to by the Indian leaders and he returned to the country in September.

However, the food crisis raged on. The then government decided to send D.B. as the first High Commissioner to India, under the war emergency. Though his age and health were not conducive for this mission, D.B. accepted the challenge “for the sake of my country,” and departed to India. Yet, in a few months his health started failing. In 1943, he was conferred Knighthood by British Royalty considering his long years of service to the country and peaceful cooperation in bringing in the reforms. When he wished to return home for treatment the Viceroy of India reserved a special plane for his journey. Nevertheless, on his way to his beloved country, on May 29, 1944 he breathed his last. His last rites were performed on June 1, with state honours.

After his death, G. G. Ponnambalam, then member for Point Pedro paid him a tribute stating, “Sir Baron remained to the end of his days a student; and what is more, a scholar — in the remarkable combination of the qualities of scholarship, statesmanship and erudition. I think Baron Jayatilaka will be difficult to be surpassed in the near future.” Nearly 74 years after, none has matched him.

Pix: Saman Mendis