Sir Don Baron Jayatillaka
Sir Don Baron Jayatillaka

Men of great distinction and high calibre such as Sir D.B. Jayatillaka are rarely born. Sir D.B. Jayatillaka is no ordinary leader. He was a self made, self educated, self disciplined and self motivated man. He was a thinker, a patriot, a philosopher a statesman and above all an extraordinary man. Emulating the adage that “the bounden duty of man is to serve man”, he devoted his full time, wealth and energy in the pursuit of an exemplary educational, social, cultural, literary and political career. He was an eminent lawyer, a gentleman politician and above all a lover of humanity.

Sir D.B. Jayatillaka was indeed an epoch maker. Such epoch makers reach certain critical milestones in a short period of thirty to forty years but their impact would last a couple of hundred years. The fruits of labour of such great men are often seen and felt long after their demise. Invariably, such men live in the hearts of people for many generations after their demise. The story that unfolds henceforth is that of Sir D.B. Jayatillaka the epoch maker, a pioneer in many fields including the national and religious revival, resuscitation of Buddhist education, the social reawakening, political reforms, revival of the Sinhala literary tradition and the struggle for self rule in the first half of the 20th century. Coincidentally, he was a great teacher, a forceful writer, an erudite speaker, an eminent scholar, an honest politician, a forthright leader and above all a statesman in the true sense of the word; all in one.

Birth and blossoming of a real star

D.B. Jayatillaka was born on February 13, 1868 in the village of Waragoda in Kelaniya. His father Don Daniel Jayatillaka came from Pattalagedara in Veyangoda while his mother Dona Elisa Perera Weerasinghe was a resident of Waragoda. After marriage the couple settled down at Waragoda; a beautiful hamlet in close proximity to the historic Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya hallowed by the visit of the Buddha.

D.B. Jayatillaka‘s father and mother were deeply religious, well educated and extremely generous. Don Daniel Jayatillaka was a man of substantial means being a P.W.D. Road Works Contractor. He had been entrusted with road construction and maintenance of a long stretch of the main road from Peliyagoda to Ratnapura. For this purpose he maintained a regular labour force of 50-75 labourers.

From childhood D.B. Jayatillaka displayed a flair for linguistic studies. May be as decreed by fate he mastered both oriental and occidental languages namely; Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, Latin and English early in his life which paved the way for his great scholastic achievements later in life. As was customary at the time, in 1874 at the age of six years he read his first letters at the feet of Venerable Ratmalane Sri Dhammaloka Nayake Thera; founder and first Principal of Vidyalankara Pirivena at Peliyagoda. Thereafter, he was admitted to the Waragoda Baptist School for his primary education in the English medium. However, in his quest for knowledge he continued to learn Buddhism, Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit at Vidyalankara Pirivena in the afternoon.

In 1881, at the age of 13 years he gained admission to Wesley College, Colombo, which was one of the premier educational institutions of that era. He was a brilliant student at Wesley. It is on record that he carried away all the prizes. He was a young man of natural ability and amazing retentive memory, Above all he possessed a charming disposition, a most pleasing manner of address and an all conquering smile. It was a combination of looks and brains.

He passed the Cambridge Junior and Senior examinations with ease and was on the lookout for a government job. He applied for a clerical vacancy in the Land Settlement Department. At the interview, after examining the brilliant record of D.B. Jayatillaka the Head of the Department told him as follows. “Young man, you are too good for this job. You have a great future. Strive with endeavour.” This was the turning point in young D.B. Jayatillaka‘s life. He put an end to the job hunt and embraced the more challenging higher educational path. Luckily for him he found that his old school Wesley College had commenced preparing students for the Degree Examinations conducted by the Culcutta University. In 1890 at the age of 22 years he was enrolled as a student for the Bachelor of Arts degree course in English and Latin. He passed all examinations leading to the degree in double quick time. In fact his name still adorns the Roll of Excellence at Wesley College.

A Power House in the Religious, Cultural and Educational Resurgence

The last two decades of the 19th century was a period of religious controversy. Heated arguments and endless discussions were the order of the day. Buddhism which had been battered and neglected as the religion of the heathen was struggling for revival while battling for survival. Likewise, the Sinhalese who had been victimized for very nearly 400 years were endeavouring to gain a place and position in their own motherland, in their own society as well as in the alien administration. Education was the sole preserve of the Christian Missionaries. The main purpose of their mission was proselytization and education was a means to that end.

The arrival of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott in the island in 1880 accompanied by Madame Blavatsky to study Buddhism and undertake theosophical work added vigour and vitality to the nascent religious and educational resurgence. From about the same time young D.B. Jayatillaka came to be associated with the new revivalist movement. By this time he had decided to devote his whole life to teaching and the propagation of Buddhism. In the furtherance of this objective the first job that D.B. Jayatillaka undertook was that of the first Principal of the Buddhist High School in Kandy later named Dharmaraja College managed by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. He had to build a school from scratch. As Principal he went from house to house and village to village collecting money for the Dharmaraja College building fund. He worked hard for seven years and established a high class Buddhist School in Kandy replete with all essential amenities and facilities.

The Buddhist Theosophical Society was so impressed with his success at Dharmaraja College that the management wanted D.B. Jayatillaka to perform the same miracle at Ananda College, Colombo. Thus, in 1898 he was appointed as Vice Principal of Ananda. In 1900 when A.E. Buulltjens who was the Principal of Ananda retired, D.B. Jayatillaka was appointed to that covetous position. By then, the whole country knew about the academic achievements, literary acumen, social work and Buddhist activities of D.B. Jayatillaka.

As was customary at the time parents of D.B. Jayatillaka sent a proposal to Pandit Batuwantudawe the well known scholar and philanthropist of Bentota upon learning that his daughter would be an ideal match for their son. The Batuwantudawe’s after consulting their astrologers agreed to the proposal and in August 1898 D.B. Jayatillaka married Mallika Batuwantudawe in what was called the wedding of the year. She was learned in Sinhala, Pali and English and brought up in the traditional Sinhala-Buddhist atmosphere. Throughout her life she remained a tower of strength and a lovable companion to D.B. Jayatillaka.

The 1890’s was a decade of great religious fervour. Debates and discussions with Christian clergymen and missionaries were the order of the day. The Sinhala Buddhists had no proper organisation to meet these challenges. In 1898 D.B. Jyatillaka rented a small house in Maradana and founded the Young Men‘s Buddhist Association which in course of time spread its tentacles to all parts of the country and embraced diverse Buddhist activities. D.B. Jayatillaka was elected the first President of the YMBA. He continued to be its President for 46 years; being elected continuously every year up to his demise in 1944. Under the auspices of the Colombo YMBA Buddhist activities such as Dhamma sermons and discussions, Dhamma examinations, publications such as The Buddhist and the founding of Dhamma Schools and outstation branches were expanded and continued. He organised the purchase of “Mahanil” a large mansion in Borella for use as YMBA headquarters. The YMBA movement has flourished and gathered momentum over the last 120 years making it one of the premier Buddhist institutions in Sri Lanka with over 200 affiliated YMBAS spread throughout the country.

In 1902, the Buddhist Theosophical Society appointed D.B. Jayatillaka as the General Manager of Buddhist schools in addition to being the Principal Ananda College. In 1905 he was appointed General Manager of BTS, which by then had emerged as a mass movement for the establishment of Buddhist schools in the country. He also headed the movement for the establishment of an autonomous fully residential university.

He had an innate desire from childhood to engage in historical and literary pursuits. In furtherance of this objective he joined the Sri Lanka branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and the Pracheena Bhashopakara Samitiya or The Oriental Studies Society. He undertook the task of reviving and improving the Sarasavi Sandaresa newspaper. He was a pioneer in the revival of the Sinhala literary tradition. In 1927 on his initiative the government gave a grant to compile the Sinhala Etymological Dictionary. He had a rare collection of Ola manuscripts. In 1929 he began the monumental task of revising and editing centuries old Classical Sinhala texts such as Budugunalankaraya, Saddharma Ratnavaliya, Dampiya Atuwa Getapadaya, Jataka Pota, Sikha Valandsa Vinisa, Compendium of all Kathikavath (disciplinary codes of the Sangha) down the ages from the Polonnaruwa period and many more rare Sinhala literary works. He rendered yeoman service as Editor of the Sinhala Dictionary.

A pioneer in the Social and Political Reform Movement

In 1910, at the age of 42 years DB Jayatillaka left for England for further education at his own expense. Grateful people, Buddhist organisations and the Maha Sangha offered their blessings and accorded numerous farewells to him. Newspapers, Journals and Magazines carried feature articles in praise of his selfless services to his country, race religion and language. He joined Jesus College, Oxford and pursued a degree course in law leading to the Bachelors Degree in Law. Thereafter, he joined Lincolns Inn London and passed out as a Barrister in 1913. In England he got fully involved in the Temperance Movement as well as in the propagation of Buddhism. D.B. Jayatillaka addressed meetings of the Temperance Movement of England and cleverly arranged with the Temperance Movements of England and Sri Lanka to make joint representations to the Secretary of State for Colonies against the Toddy Ordinance in Sri Lanka.

To be continued 


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