Breathing knowledge | Sunday Observer

Breathing knowledge


The Malalasekera English-Sinhala dictionary was originally published in 1948 by M.D Gunasena and Company (Pvt) Limited. This first edition had 1,056 pages and 45,000 words and cost Rs. 12. It has since undergone many revisions and is used by many thousands of Sri Lankans today. This was also the year in which Sri Lanka obtained independence from British Rule.

The Editor of this dictionary, Prof. Gunapala Malasekera, (Dr. G.P. Malalasekera) was a very learned, much respected teacher, Buddhist scholar and writer.

Prof. Malalasekera was born on November 11, 1899 at Malamulla, Panadura in the Western Province of Sri Lanka. His father was Dr. Malalage Siyadoris Peiris Malalasekera Seneviratne, a reputed Ayurvedic physician, and his mother was Dona Selestina Jayawardene Kuruppu. He was the second in the family and was named George Peiris Malalasekera originally.

Influenced by the nationalism inspired by Anagarika Dharmapala, George Peiris Malalasekera changed his name to Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera. The child Gunapala showed a remarkable intelligence from an early age.

When he was to be admitted to St. John’s the Principal put him to Grade Three instead of Grade One. At the age of 13 Gunapala Malalasekera was placed first in the island at the London Matriculation Examination.

He had a prodigious memory and was a keen student of the Pali, Sanskrit and English languages and of Ayurveda medicine which he learnt from his father.

After a brilliant school career, Gunapala Malalasekera entered the Medical Faculty at the age of eighteen. Unfortunately, he could not continue his study of medicine as his father passed away and he faced difficulties.

However, young Malalasekera did not give up his studies and registered with the University College and obtained a BA (London) with first class honours.

He was appointed as an assistant teacher at Ananda College, Colombo and then promoted as Vice Principal and Acting Principal. He joined Ananda College when the late P. de S. Kularatne was Principal and the two of them are credited as being the architects of the national costume.

Dr. G.P. Malalasekera left the teaching profession in 1923 to follow postgraduate studies at the University of London and in 1925 simultaneously obtained his Master of Arts (MA) and his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Oriental languages majoring in Pali. In 1938 he obtained his Doctor of Letters (D Litt).

Dr. Malalasekera returned to Sri Lanka in 1926 and became the first Principal of Nalanda College. In 1927 he was appointed lecturer in English, Sinhala and Pali at the University College and in 1942 was appointed Professor of Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit and Buddhism and Head of the Department of Pali at the University of Ceylon. He was appointed the Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Studies. He also held the post of Chairman, National Council of Higher Education.

In 1958, Dr. Malalasekera became Sri Lanka’s first Ambassador to Russia. He subsequently served as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada and then to the UK. While in Canada he also served as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

He also held the posts of Secretary, Vice President and President of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC). He also founded the World Fellowship of Buddhists and was a President of the Fellowship.

He was also Editor-in-Chief of the Buddhist Encyclopaedia which task he commenced in 2005 to coincide with the Sambuddhajayanthi celebrations.

Dr. Malalasekera has many articles and publications to his credit.

He was awarded the honour Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Britain in 1953.

Dr. .Malalasekera passed away on April 23, 1973. At the time of his death he had completed three volumes of the Buddhist Encyclopaedia.