A great Literati and Statesman | Sunday Observer
Sir D.B. Jayatilaka

A great Literati and Statesman

13 February, 2022

Today (February 13) marks the 154 birth anniversary of one of Sri Lanka’s greatest sons, Sir D. B. Jayatilaka. It is very difficult to introduce Sir D.B. Jayatilaka in a single word, because he was a pioneer in many things.

However, he started as a school teacher and became a Principal, so we can identify him as an educationalist. But then, things unfolded, he became a multilingual scholar, erudite, critic, writer, speaker, barrister, attorney, social activist, Buddhist leader, freedom fighter, administrator, diplomat, statesman and philanthropist. In fact, he was an epoch maker who was successful in every field he stepped on.

So, there are commemorations everywhere to mark his anniversary.

Firstly, the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi on February 4 named its chancery building after Sir D.B. Jayatilaka because he was Sri Lanka’s first representative to India.

It coincided with the event to mark the country’s 74th Independence Day held at its premises. In addition, this year also celebrates the 80th anniversary of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) sending Sir D.B. Jayatilaka as its first representative to India in 1942. And on Wednesday (9), the Public Trustees Department also unveiled their program to commemorate the birth anniversary of Sir D.B. Jayatilaka with the participation of the Public Trustee and Archaeological Director General. In this scenario, it is noteworthy to discuss the background of this great man and the service he rendered for Sri Lanka.

The beginning

D.B. Jayatilaka, in full, Don Baron Jayatilaka, was born on February 13, 1868, at Waragoda, Kelaniya. He was knighted as Sir D.B. Jayatilaka in 1943. Baron Jayatilaka’s father was Wickramarachchi Imia Rajakaruna Liyana Atukoralage Don Daniel Jayatilaka Senanayake Liyana Aratchi.

He was a Public Servant from Pattalagedera, Veyangoda. His mother was Liyanage Dona Elisiana Perera Weerasinghe, the pretty daughter of the celebrated oriental scholar, Don Andiris de Silva Batuwantudawe of Werahena, Bentota. Both families commanded respect of the people and were wealthy.

Baron Jayatilaka had two brothers and two sisters, of whom Baron was eldest. However, both sisters died young, and Baron was brought up with two brothers in a Buddhist way of life as his parents were devout Sinhala Buddhists. The father’s great ambition was to enlist Baron as an engineer in the Public Works Department (PWD), because those days the Government service was regarded highly.

Early education

When Baron was 6 years old, at the auspicious hour, he was accompanied to Ven. Ratmalane Sri Dharmaloka Maha Thera, an erudite scholar and orientalist who later became the Head of the Vidyalanka Pirivena (established in 1875) at Peliyagoda. Hence, Dharmaloka Thera read the first letter of the Sinhala alphabet to him. Baron learnt Buddhism, Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit from the erudite Ven. Dhammarama Thera. But to study English and other subjects in English medium, he was sent to the local Baptist Missionary School at Waragoda.

While attending this school in the morning and in the evening he also went to learn Buddhism, Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit from Ven. Dhammarama Thera. This was done by erudite by Ven. Dhammarama Thera.

In 1881, when Baron was 13 years old, he was admitted to Wesley College which was at Pettah at the time. He travelled from Waragoda daily, crossing the Kelaniya by boat and then proceeding by cart. From Wesley, he passed the junior and senior Cambridge examinations becoming the very first winner of the Hill Medal in 1887.

After leaving the College in 1890 at the age of 22, he looked for a job in a State Department, because of the glamour of the Public Service in those days. He applied to become a clerk in the Land Settlement Department. But at the interview, he was told “Look young man! You are too good for this kind of job. You have a good future. So strive with endeavour”. After that, Baron never applied for a Government job.


At this time, Christian schools in the island were preparing students to sit for the junior and senior examinations, conducted by the Cambridge University Examination Syndicate, England. Though Baron was successful in both examinations, he couldn’t pursue a degree course from the London University in Ceylon, because they didn’t conduct an examination for it.

Thereafter, he went to Calcutta University and obtained a B.A. degree in Latin and English subjects in 1896. According to an article written by Graham Dissanayake, during this time, Baron Jayatilaka was a brilliant student, a fluent debater and an impressive speaker in his university days. On one occasion during a class exercise he had argued with the Principal Rev. Thomas Moscow who graciously conceded that he had got the better of him.

After obtaining the BA degree from Calcutta University, D. B. Jayatilaka went on to gain a BA in jurisprudence from Jesus College, Oxford in 1913 which was later upgraded to a MA some years later. Next, he was called to the bar as a Barrister from the Lincoln’s Inn and became an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon – he was the first Sinhala Buddhist to be called to the bar in the Lincoln’s Inn.

Principals of Dharmarajah and Ananda D.B. Jayatilaka was on the staff of Wesley College for a short period. Then, in 1898, he joined Dharmarajah College (then Buddhist High School in Kandy) straightaway as its Principal. In 1890, he met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and joined his campaign to establish English medium Buddhist schools in the country. So it was the main factor for his new post.

After taking new responsibilities in Dharmarajah College, D.B. Jayatilaka raised the educational standards of the school and introduced Western classics to the school curricula, which he himself conducted. This proved his skills as an educationalist and the BTS (Buddhist Theosophical Society) administration highly commended of him.

Thereafter, they decided to give him the responsibilities of Ananda College (then English Buddhist School in Colombo), because its education level and school administration were not so good at the time. So he first became the Vice Principal of it under Principal A.E. Buultjens, and in 1900, after his retirement, D. B. Jayatilaka succeeded him as the Principal.

The first thing, he has to do was to raise funds to run the school. So he went all over the country by rail, coach, cart, for the most part on foot, and collected money. There he spent the nights at the homes of friends and relatives to build up the school. However, with the funds collected, he was able to improve the college beyond expectations. It is recorded that his monthly salary was also spent on the school. Eventually, Ananda’s educational reputation once again soared, drawing students from all parts of the island and even from India.

In the meantime, because of his onerous duties as Principal of Ananda, he was also appointed as the manager of the schools run by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. And next, he became founder of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) at Borella. In 1898, he was appointed as its president, and held the post until his death for 46 years.


In 1898, D. B. Jayatilaka married Mallika Batuwantudawe who was from Warahena, Bentota. It was solemnised at Waragoda, with all pomp and ceremony, befitting their social status. The nuptial celebrations lasted for over a week, entertaining their kith and kin from far and near. The marriage took place on August 12, 1898, when Baron Jayatilaka was 30 years old. They had five children (three daughters and two sons).


During the 1915 Sinhala - Muslim riots, Jayatilaka was arrested under orders of General Officer Commanding, Ceylon for seditious speeches and writings and was imprisoned under the martial law.

Then followed the arrests of F. R. Senanayake and D.S. Senanayake and other activists, all of whom agitated for the emancipation of the country from colonial rule.

Then, Rev. Henry Highfield intervened on behalf of the arrested persons, and he wrote a letter to the Governor stating that British sense of fair play and justice had not been observed.

Very soon thereafter, they were released. But on his release, D.B. Jayatilaka left for Britain where he campaigned against the injustices of Ceylon, and called for a Royal Commission to investigate the 1915 riots. When the National Congress of Ceylon was formed, he became its representative in London.

State Council

Then, D. B. Jayatilaka became the leader of the State Council. As a member, he presented the first budget, thus entering the record books as the first Ceylonese to do so. During the budget he said that every child should receive education and that a Government elected by the uneducated can be dangerous.

Many progressive policies were introduced especially in the fields of irrigation, land development and agricultural development. In 1932 D. B. Jayatilaka was knighted by the king thus entering the record books once again as the first Buddhist to be awarded with such an honour.

The second election to the State Council took place in 1936 and Jayatilaka was elected again as the member for Kelaniya. His national leadership was repeatedly endorsed when he was re-elected to the coveted positions of Minister of Home Affairs, Vice Chairman of the State Council and Leader of the State Council. The Second World War officially commenced on September 3, 1939 with the entry of German troops to Poland. On the September 5, 1939 under the able guidance of Jayatilaka the State Council passed an address to the King pledging support to the war.

According to K. H. J. Wijayadasa, former Secretary to President R. Premadasa: “This was not only an act of allegiance to the throne but also an expression of solidarity in defence of democracy and basic human values. This bold move which was spearheaded by D. B. Jayatilaka; even though scoffed at by some extremist elements paid rich dividends, for it helped in no small measure for Sri Lanka gaining Independence shortly after the war.”

Representative to India

However, in 1942, D.B. Jayatilaka was despatched from the State Council. In fact, he was given a new diplomatic post as the first Representative to India. He became the Resident Representative of Sri Lanka in India with residence in New Delhi. But K. H. J. Wijayadasa saw this as a conspiracy to remove him from national leadership:

“Future historians will be debating as to whether the decision to throw him into the political wilderness was taken in good faith or with an ulterior motive. It could be that D. B. Jayatilaka innocently fell prey to a trap laid by his own fellow ministers; as otherwise there was no need to use an axe to kill a mosquito. Moreover, D. B. Jayatilaka who was 74 years at the time was not in the best of health being the victim of malaria.”

K. H. J. Wijayadasa quotes Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekara’s biography of D. B. Jayatilaka as well: “The time was drawing near when the malignant forces were manifesting. Old age seemed to be an obstacle in the path of those who were in too great a hurry”.


In February 1944 D. B. Jayatilaka while serving in New Delhi fell ill with a recurrence of malaria. From the early 1930’s malaria had plagued him and he suffered from several relapses. In April he went to Mussorie as the heat in New Delhi was unbearable. There, he developed a stomach ailment and a minor heart attack too. He wanted to return to Sri Lanka as soon as possible. The Viceroy of India hurriedly arranged a special plane. But he passed away in Bangalore on May, 29, 1944.

K. H. J. Wijayadasa writes about his demise as follows:

“A state funeral was ordered jointly by the civil Government and the military authorities. A sea of humanity assembled in Colombo to pay their last respects. Tributes flowed from all parts of the country and all corners of the globe. The premature passing away of the great national hero and the irreplaceable epoch maker was indeed an irreparable loss to the country and more so to its people.”

After his death, the State Council met and passed a vote of condolence on Sir D. B’s passing away. The then Chief Secretary of the State Council, a Briton, said that Sir Baron “had a calmness of outlook on life and its problems, a serenity which was classic. When he spoke as he did on rare occasions with vehemence he spoke from an altitude on which he stood alone”.

G. G. Ponnambalam, then member for Point Pedro, said, “starting life as schoolmaster, Sir Baron remained to the end of his days a student; and what is more, a scholar - in the remarkable combination of qualities of scholarship, of Statesmanship and erudition I think Baron Jayatilaka will be difficult to be surpassed in the near future”.

Siripala Samarakkody, then President of the Ceylon National Congress, who was a severe critic of Sir Baron, said that the dead leader was “a superb statesman who took criticism in the proper light and never carried a vendetta or animosity against his critics”.

D.S. Senanayake who succeeded Sir Baron to the leadership of the country also expressed his condolences. He mentioned that his erstwhile leader “had the courage of his convictions, that it was not popularity he sought, but that he should act in the way which he thought was in the best interests of the country. Personal considerations never weighed with him. The interests of the country were all that he was concerned with”.

Writers’ views Contemporary writers also expressed their deep sorrow over the demise of Sir D.B. Jayatilaka. Veteran writer Martin Wickramasinghe, then Chief Editor of Dinamina, wrote an editorial on the following day after his death.

Following is a quotation from the editorial: “Sir D.B. Jayatilaka was an immense contributor to the national, religious, political, linguistic and research renaissance we now experience in Ceylon. Late Sir D.B. Jayatilaka was a rarity of among the pioneers of the independent struggle. For instance, the ones who were at forefront in the freedom struggle never became dominant at linguistic renaissance, but he stood alone as a pioneer of language even among them. In fact, many will gratefully remember the service rendered by Sir D.B. Jayatilaka towards religion, nation, education, oriental languages and temperance before remembering his leading role in politics that he later stepped in.

D.B. Jayatilaka was a man of unparalleled knowledge who could talk about subject wise not only on politics, but also linguistics and history of the country, its rural as well as urban people, and the intricacies of Buddhism.

He convinced the people who demanded English only education, negative impacts of that education. Thereby, he sought to reduce the negative impacts of it. It is important for both oriental and Western languages to be taught to Lankans in order to develop as a nation. He was an excellent exemplar for patriots”.

In this way, it is clear that the loss of Sir D.B. Jayatilaka is an irreparable void. But the most unfortunate thing is that we are unaware of that loss because we do not read him. To end this note we quote from Julius De Lanerolle’s preface to the ‘Sinhala Sahitya Lipi’ (Sinhala Literary Notes) by Sir D.B. Jayatilaka:

“We are of the view that this book would be very useful for people who are studying the history of Sinhala literature. Although the articles in it are not connected to each other, one can read them as one historical story since they are presented in a chronological order. And we can become aware of the order in which Sinhala literature and scholarly knowledge flowed, and about how the contemporary conditions affected language and religion.”