A closer look at the life and work of Soma
Goonawardene, outstanding educationist and Principal of Mahamaya
Soma Cumaranatunga was born on June 16, 1915, in the village of
Katukurunda eight miles from the city of Galle. She was the Principal of
Mahamaya Girls College, Kandy, from 1951 to 1972.
Mahamaya Girls' College was founded in 1932 as a private fee levying
school by the Sadachara Bauddha Kulagana Samithiya -a society of women
activists led by two women Sarah Soysa from the Southern Province and
Chitravo Ratwatte from the Kandyan aristocracy. Their purpose was to
provide an English education, along with some social accomplishments,
for Buddhist girls in Kandy and the outlying provinces, while at the
same time imparting a education in Buddhism and the Buddhist way of
life- an education that was different from that provided by the
available Christian missionary girls 'schools of the period.
However, Soma went beyond the aims of the original founders. She
reoriented the school, to produce students to compete academically, as
well as in sports and aesthetics, with students of the best educational
institutions in the country. Preparing students to enter university or
to qualify in other professions became the primary goal, which Soma
achieved with single minded commitment and hard work.
Soma came from a family of educationists and scholars and Buddhist
activists. Soma's uncle was Munidasa Cumaranatunga, the famous Sinhalese
scholar, grammararian, linguist, writer and poet.
Soma studied up to the fifth standard at Koggala Katukurunda Dharmika
Vidyalaya, a vernacular Buddhist school. In the late 1920s she joined
The Sacred Heart Convent in Galle.
First Class honours
In the late 1930s Soma entered a collegiate school in Galle to
prepare for her London Degree Examination. She specialized in Sinhala,
with Pali as her subsidiary subject and was awarded First Class honours
for her degree from the University of London.
The nuns of Sacred Heart Convent were happy to welcome Soma as a
teacher. It is likely that she learned the discipline and
professionalism that she later displayed at Mahamaya from these nuns who
had a tradition of teaching and administrative experience.
Soma joined Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo in the mid 1940s . On 6th
May 1948 Soma moved to Kandy when she married her kinsmen Lionel Pujitha
Goonawardene, who was an inspector of the Sri Lanka Police. The
Department of Education appointed her to the school inspectorate of
Kandy and Soma came in contact with Mahamaya College. N.E. Weerasooriya,
an eminent lawyer and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mahamaya
College persuaded Soma Goonawardene to accept the post of Principal of
the school on 1st May 1951.
At the time of her appointment as Principal, Mahamaya was classified
as a Grade 3 school. Soma immediately set in motion remedial measures.
Many of her pupils will remember Soma Goonawardene as a strong
disciplinarian. In fact, Soma Goonawardene looked at the school and its
pupils very much as a General surveys a battlefield to assess the
chances of success.
Not only by precept, but by example she enforced discipline among
students and staff. She was the first to step into school early morning
and the last to leave it in the evening.
Soma Pujitha Goonawardene was an imposing woman, tall, handsome,
neatly and smartly dressed in a sari. Often a fleeting appearance by the
Principal was sufficient to enforce discipline.
English for all
In the 1950s, C.W.W. Kannangara's far reaching educational reforms
brought within the reach of the even less privileged students , through
the Central Schools that were opened in the provinces, an English medium
education styled on the public school curriculum of England offering an
academic education oriented for university entry with support for sport
activities, and aesthetics. Therefore, Mahamaya needed to offer science
education, and to enhance English language abilities of the students,
and also to upgrade sports and extra -curricular activities in the
Many measures were taken to improve the standard of English in the
school. The English Literary Association was revived. Prepared speeches,
impromptu speeches and debates with other schools, recitation of poetry
and reading of prose passages were all activities promoted. Soma
Goonawardene considered the appreciation of English and Western culture
an important adjunct to learning English.
In 1951 when Soma Goonawardene took over as Principal of the school
Mahamaya College did not teach chemistry, physics or zoology although
botany was in the school curriculum. Therefore, Soma made provisional
arrangements in July 1952 to teach science and constructed and equipped
a science laboratory. She recruited Puwaneswarie Ranganathan, an Indian
university graduate to teach four subjects - Physics, Chemistry, Botany
and Zoology. The one laboratory had very limited facilities not
sufficient to teach science effectively. Money was necessary for the
building of laboratories, purchasing of equipment and recruiting of
qualified teachers. Soma Goonawardene took upon herself the task of
raising the much-needed funds for this venture. With the cooperation of
teachers and well- wishers, she organized a carnival in 1952 in
partnership with Dharmaraja College, and in the following year with both
Dharmaraja College and Vidyartha College, and they proved financial
Excelling in Science
With the money collected, with guidance and help from P. de S.
Kularatne, the great educationist, three large and modern laboratories
housed in a solid two-storeyed building with six additional classrooms
were built. Emulating the Principal's efforts, the teachers worked very
hard. The first batch of science students who sat for the Senior School
Certificate Examination in 1955 produced good results. By 1956 the
school was able to establish a University Entrance Class in the science
Mahamaya College, was a fee levying assisted school receiving a
government grant like the missionary schools. The school therefore did
not receive government financial assistance to launch into science
education like state schools of today. From about the end of 1960s the
school performed consistently well in science at the GCE O Level and A
Level Examinations and in some years achieved the best results among
schools in the Central Province.
In 1957 Soma appointed Manel de Silva, an Indian trained teacher as
the Sports Advisor. While improving netball and athletics Manel
introduced basketball, badminton, tennis and table tennis. The girls
went on to win All Island Championships in Athletics, Basket Ball,
Badminton, Tennis, and Table Tennis. Mahamaya Girls were also able to
represent Sri Lanka in International Meets.
With Soma at the helm, Mahamaya became a highly rated academic
institution by the 1960s. She was often asked how it was possible for
the school to achieve such unprecedented success in a very short period
of time, and with characteristic generosity she always attributed it to
the hard work and commitment of her teachers.
In 1952, within one year of her assuming the post of principal,
Mahamaya College was promoted to a Grade 2 school and in 1955 less than
4 years after her arrival, the school reached Grade 1 status. On the
first of December 1960 Mahamaya Girls' College, a school established by
Buddhist women under difficult circumstances was taken over by the
government as a state school. By 1962 Mahamaya was an All Island School
taking in successful candidates in the Grade 5 scholarship Examination
from different areas of the country'
In 1972 at 57 years of age when she retired as Principal, Soma was
able to look back with pride and satisfaction at the realization of her
dream. Mahamaya College had become one of the most sought after schools
in the country Soma's work became the standard against which the work
and achievement of all succeeding Principals was measured.
(This article is based on the book on the founding of
Mahamaya College -With a Fistful of Rice by Indrani Meegama)