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Memorable incidents of Col. Olcott's Diary

First visit to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon)

A visit of Col. Henry Steele Olcott's party to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), requested by the leading bhikkhus and the Buddhist laity, had been determined upon, and the preparations occupied them throughout the month.

Col. Henry Steele Olcott

They had to get ready in advance for two or three Theosophists, as his Diary records. Everything being ready, they embarked on May 7, 1880 in a British India coasting steamer for Sri Lanka. The party consisted of the two founders, Wimbridge, Damodar K. Mavalankar, Purshotam and Panachand Anandji (Hindus), Sorabj, J. Padshah and Ferozshah D. Shroft (Parsis) - all but the first three being delegates from the Branch to the Sinhalese Buddhists and bearers of brotherly salutations expressive of the broad tolerance of their Society in religious matters. Purshotam's wife, a delicate, fragile little lady, accompanied her husband.

He thought she was a bit of a seer in writing in his Diary on the day before reaching Colombo. "New and great responsibilities had to be faced, momentous issues depended on the result of this visit." Nothing could have been truer than that.

They dropped anchor in Colombo harbour on the morning of May 16, and after a while a large boat came alongside bringing Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera, the Buddhist orator, and some junior bhikkhus of his temple. John Robert de Silva was one of the best, most efficient, intelligent and sincere Buddhists he had ever met.

The fact that the Sinhalese took on Portuguese and Dutch Christian names during the Portuguese and Dutch supremacy - when their own Sanskrit names were more appropriate - is surprising.

They saw Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera the famed 'Megettuwatte', a middle-aged bhikkhu of medium stature, intelligent with bright eyes, large mouth, and an air of perfect self-confidence and alertness. Some of the more meditative bhikkhus habitually drop their eyes when conversing with others, but he looked square in the face, as beffitted the most brilliant polemic orator of the island - the terror of the missionaries.

One could see at a glance that he was more ascetic. For many years he was the boldest, most brilliant, and powerful champion of Sinhalese Buddhism and a great leader.

Arrival at Galle

Before dawn on May 17, 1880 they were off Galle lighthouse and getting their pilot, anchored about 500 yards from the shore.

The monsoon burst, and there were strong winds and rain, but the view was so lovely that they stopped on deck to enjoy it.

A beautiful bay, a verdant promontory to the north, against which the surf dashed and in foamy jets ran high up against the rocky shore, a long curved sandy beach bordered with file - roofed bungalows almost hidden in an ocean of green palms, the Old Fort, custom house, light house, jetty and coaling sheds to the South, and to the East the tossing sea with a line of rocks and reefs walling it out from the harbour.

Far away inland, rose Adam's Peak and her sister mountains.

After breakfast, in a full storm, they embarked on a large boat decorated with plantain trees and lines of bright-coloured flowers, on which were the leading Buddhists.

They passed through a land of fishing boats with gandy. clothes and streamers, their prows pointing inward. On the jetty and along the beach, a huge crowd awaited them and "Sadhoo! Sadhoo!" rent the air. A white cloth was laid for them from the jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a thousand flags were waved frantically in welcome.

They in their carriages, and procession set out for their appointed residence, the house of Mrs.Wijeratne, the wealthy widow of P&O contractor.

The roads were crowded with people the whole distance, and their progress was very slow. Three Chief Bhikkhus received and blessed them at the threshold reciting Pali stanzas. Then they left. People thronged every approach road.

Their hostess and her son, the Deputy Coroner of Galle, lavished every hospitality upon them, spreading the table with delicacies and delicious fruits, which they had never seen, and dressing it in the charming Sinhalese manner, with flowers and pretty leaves, and the walls were decorated with them in an artistic manner.

Every now and then a new procession of yellow-robed Bhikkhus arranged in order of seniority of ordination and each carrying their palm - leaf, fan, came to bless them. It was an exhilarating experience altogether, which augured well for their future.

Wimbridge and he went for a dip in the harbour early the next morning, but they were followed and watched by crowds, so that it became very uncomfortable for them to get about. Their rooms were packed with visitors all day.

There was no end to metaphysical discussions with the aged Chief incumbent, Ven. Bulathgama Sumanatissa Thera and other erudite people.

He begged him to call on some Europeans and write to twenty Burghers inviting them to join the Buddhists to form a Branch of the Theosophical Society. They sent him insulting replies, saying that they were Christians and had nothing to do with Theosophy or Buddhism.

The next evening they were treated to a devil-dancing by a professional sorceress, who took part in religious processions, and was called in cases of desperate illness, to exorcise the evil spirits which were supposed to possess the patient. It was a real witch - dance.

First public lecture

An educated gentleman told us that this dance is considered an efficacious cure for several diseases, especially those pregnant women haunted by the "Black Prince."

As it had been arranged that he should give a public lecture on Theosophy on May 22, 1880, he made desperate efforts to think over his subject and prepare some notes.

He thought his first lecture in Sri Lanka was worth a paragraph. It was delivered in a large room in the Military Barracks, imperfectly lighted, and packed to suffocation.

A temporary platform had been erected at one end and a canopy suspended over it. Besides their delegation there were upon it Ven. Sumangala Maha Thera, the Chief Incumbent Ven. Bulathgama Thera, and Chief Incumbent Ven. Dhammalankara Thera of the Amarapura Nikaya, who had travelled twenty-eight miles to meet them. Forty-five Europeans were present, and a 'mob' of some 2,000 Sinhalese.

At that time the light was so bad that he could not read them. However, he managed to get through somehow.

Pansil administered

On May 25, 1880, Ven. Bulatgama Thera administered Pansil on him at a temple of the Ramanya Nikaya. A great arch of greenery, bearing the words, "Welcome to the members of the Theosophical Society had been erected within the compound of the vihara. He had trouble in reading the Pali words he was to repeat after the old bhikkhu. A big crowd was present. Dead silence reigned.

From Galle to Kalutara

From Galle to Kalutara at different places, crowds had gathered to see them. They were invited to refresh themselves with king coconuts, milk, tea and cakes and at several places, so large was the concourse, that he had to alight from the carriage and address them.

At Dodanduwa they were greeted by a downpour of monsoon rain not experienced in years.

The next morning, in the two stage-coaches supplied by their friends, he had to deliver four speeches.

The first speech was delivered from the steps of the coach, the second from the steps of the bungalow at Ambalangoda, the third, at Piyagala, where they breakfasted and the fourth at the Piyagala temple where 3,000 to 4,000 people had awaited them.

They were taken in heavy rain in a procession, with banners and tom-toms and in a frenzy of jubilation.

From Kalutara to Colombo

At that time, the rail track ended at Kalutara, and they entrained for their next station, Panadura, the locality where Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera debated with the Christian missionaries on Buddhism and Christianity.

They were lodged in a new temple adjoining a vihara, which had been erected by a picture-square looking old man, named Andris Perera, with his own wealth.

He was tall, thin, and dark with a spacious forehead and wore his hair brushed back and twisted into a long switch, which was put up like a woman's hair, with an immense and costly tortoise - shell comb, a Sinhalese fashion, arched over his head.

Andris wore the country-dhoti and a single breasted, last century blue coat with long skirts, turnover cuffs, twenty large gold buttons down one side of the front and as many loops and lacings of gold lace.

His feet was bare and he wore leather sandals. His figure was so striking - unlike any other person they saw - that Col. Olcott wrote the details in his Diary.

At 2 p.m. he addressed another huge audience at the very spot where the famous "Panadura debate" took place. Ferozshah (Parsi) and Pranchand (Hindu) made some remarks as representatives of their races. Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera made an eloquent speech.

On June 5, he lectured at Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda Thera's temple at Kotahena, visited by most of the steamer passengers touching at the port.

The Ven. Thera and he spoke standing on a large table placed in the middle of the preaching hall. The hall and the compound were packed with people like herrings in a barrel, and the heat was most oppressive.

The place was gaily decorated with flags and coloured clothes. Then a visit to Kelaniya temple, one of the most revered shrines in the island, where the great stupa rests over the sacred relics of the Buddha Himself.

On the following day, June 8, they established the Colombo Theosophical Society initially with twenty-seven members.

From Colombo to Kandy

They left for Kandy by train on June 9, and after a run of four and a half hours through one of the most picturesque tracks of the country arrived at the City around 7 p.m.

The next morning they received ceremonial visits from the Chief Prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Temples, high ranking bhikkhus of the Island and the Archbishop of Canterbury. They went to the temple at 2 p.m. for Col. Olcott's lecture, but there was such a huge crowd inside that they entered with the greatest difficulty.

A lecture at the Town hall on "The Life of Buddha and its Lessons" had been organised for the next evening. He worked desperately to get it written under the most trying conditions.

However, he delivered the lecture to a packed hall. Influential Government officials were present, and the applause was deafening.

At 9 a.m. the next day the unusual honour was conferred upon them in admitting them to a special exposition of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

The Sacred Relic was supported by a gold wire stem rising from a lotus flower made of the same metal, and was much discoloured with time.

It would possibly be twenty-five centuries old. He believed that the exposition of the sacred relic had not been previously made since the visit of the Prince of Wales and hence this was regarded as the highest honour that could have been bestowed on them.

Colonel Olcott, describes his travels and work in Sri Lanka, as follows:-

"Ah, lovely Lanka, gem of the Southern seas, how doth thy sweet image rise before me as I write the story of my experiences among thy dusky children, of my success in warming their hearts to reverse their incomparable religion and its holy Founder." Ananda College has taken the initiative to organise a ceremony to mark Col. Henry Steele Olcott' Day, February 16, 2015, instead of February 17 at the Kularatne Hall from 9 a.m.

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