Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Birth Anniversary fell yesterday, April 17.
Born 100 years ago today, at Ellawala Walawwa, Ratnapura
Sirimavo’s wedding day
his remarkable yearning or passion for things close to her sentiments, she abundantly demonstrated later in her political life as well. Bradman Weerakoon, the official Secretary to the Prime Minister, says,
“She insisted fresh Mangoosteens from Horagolla, Rambutan and mangoes from Attanagalle, be air lifted to London to be served for the guests at a dinner, she hosted for several distinguished VVIPs; her hand-written personal note to her secretary, specifying, where to collect the fruits, types and details of varieties”. -‘Rendering unto Caesar’-B Weerakoon-2004: Pp-91/92
Pre-teen, adolescent and young housewife
Much has been spoken; volumes had been published on her Temple Trees days: now for a glimpse of her nursery, pre-teen, adolescent and young housewife days at Ellawala Walawwa, Mahawelatenne, Horagolla, Wentworth’ and Tingatel.
Birth place and Birth name: Factual errors
Quite a few authors of publications and speakers on Sirimavo Bandaranaike, inadvertently or mistakenly refer to her place of birth as Pussaliyadda Walauwwa, Mahawelatanna in Balangoda; also they believe that she was named ‘Sirima’, and on being taken oaths as PM in 1960, they added the respectful suffix ‘–vo’, calling her Sirimavo.
Barnes Rattwatte, a scion of an aristocratic family from Kandy married Mahawalatenne Adikaram’s youngest daughter. Ratwatte, later a member of the Senate of Ceylon, was a descendant of Kandyan aristocracy, who held high office in the courts of ancient Sinhalese monarchs.
The Adikarams, up-country aristocratic from Sabaragamuwa, took every precaution to ensure a non-recurrence of two earlier misadventures, when their daughter lost the baby on both occasions. Accordingly, soothsayers’ services were obtained on this occasion, who emphasised that the lady should deliver the baby, the third, away from the ancestral home in Mahawelatenna.
"Tiny tot Sirimavo insisted that a particular bull be bound to the buggy cart for travelling to school daily from her aunty, Mrs. Dambavinne’s house under the care of an ayah and faithful carter; she confounded the man whenever he attempted to use a stronger new bull."
The Adikaram had a sister married to an Ellawala and living in the Gem City of Ratnapura. On April 17, 1916 the Ellawala Walawwa made preparation for welcoming a new member to the family.
The girl born was lively, healthy and beautiful; she was named Sirimavo Rattwatte and both the mother and the baby had to spend their first few months at the same place for fulfilling the vow before moving back to Balangoda. Her original Birth Certificate issued by state, the Marriage Certificate, Wedding invitation and admission documents of St Bridget’s Convent which are preserved and displayed at Sirimavo Bandaranaike Museum at BMICH, confirms this truth.
Unlike today the little girl had to wait till she was six for her first lessons away from home: she attended kindergarten for one year, staying at her auntie’s. She was back at grand aunt Ellawala’s in Ratnapura where she was born, this time to go to Ferguson’s High School Kindergarten, the Ratwattes deciding that she should stay with them.
The Adikaram, her maternal grandfather, was a learned man of wide reading. He knew German and French in addition to several Eastern languages like, Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi and Bengali.
His enormous collection of books consisted of Astrology, Literature, Medicine, Botany and numerous other topics. Young Sirimavo and her siblings who were a delicately brought up family, they had free access and exposure during their school days to the valuable volumes in grandpa’s library which the grand-daughter Sirimavo, being the eldest in the family read keenly and fascinated considerable knowledge from text and periodicals.
The Sirimavo-Sashtri Pact being signed
Girl Guide at St. Bridget’s Convent
After completing her matriculation at St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo, she studied for Inter-Arts as well. Even as a school girl, she always had attractiveness, composure, grace and charisma and a prodigious smile that broke down all obstacles.
When Baden Powell, the founder of the concept visited Ceylon in 1932, she was a girl guide at school; and at her request she was allowed to wear the traditional girl’s dress of Lamasariya, decorated with guide’s badges, instead of usual school uniform. The modest ingenuous dutiful and shy young Sirimavo after completing her school education was back at her residence in the lush feudal countryside of her native Mahawelatenne, the place where she grew up in spite of her posh Colombo convent education.
Love letter to boy friend West Ridgeway: The wedding of the Century
Proposed in the month of June 1940, the couple was wooing till the wedding scheduled for October. On July 8, the ‘boy’ paid a visit to Balangoda, spent the day and left in the evening for Horagolla; the very next day she wrote a long ‘love letter’ to her fiancé, the Minister of Health—her choice of words, courteous unfaltering and ‘naughty’ to express the depth of emotions and passion—obviously, S.W.R.D. did cherish forever, let me reproduce a short extract from the letter written 76 years ago, which is preserved at the Sirimavo museum
“My own precious darling…, Why did you leave me and go away yesterday? I am feeling wretched after you left me…my sweetheart I never felt so helpless…”
On October 2, 1940, the bridegroom, West Ridgeway, the Oxford-educated Barrister, was escorted to Mahawelatenne Walawwa, in a procession, in the company of his father Maha Mudliyar of the Governor’s Gate Sir Soloman Dias Bandaranaike, from Horagolla in the district of Siyane-korale and the advisor to the British Governor during colonial rule; an elite from low country Sinhalese Anglican/Christian family.
Oriental music was played right throughout the ceremony. The bride carried a spray of white lotuses. [Did this Influence daughter Chandrika in her ‘Sudu Nelum’ for racial harmony ?] The marriage of S.W.R.D, the 41-year-old Minister of Health, a converted Buddhist, to 24-year old Sirimavo was described by Sir D. B. Jayatilleke, the leader of the house in the State Council as a historic occasion, worthy of a niche in the records of country. Shortly after her wedding, in November, the husband and Minister of Health, had to make an official visit to New Delhi with a delegation led by D. S. Senanayake; D.S. invited Sirimavo, the newly married lady to accompany her husband. High level discussion on Citizenship rights for Indian plantation workers was foremost in the agenda.
The mother, Mrs. Rattwatte vehemently opposed the idea, she was adamant that her daughter would not take a flight! Finally, they decided to go by train; D.S. and Claude Corea, both Ministers of State Council joined the new couple in a 6-day journey to New Delhi from Colombo. [However, the talks that failed in 1940 were successfully concluded when Sirimavo as PM entered into a historic pact with Indian PM Shastri 24 years later in October 1964, whereby 525,000 persons of Indian origin would be repatriated to India, while 300,000 would be granted Sri Lankan citizenship.]
The newly married moved into Wentworth, a residence in Guildford Crescent.
While residing there Sirimavo developed a fancy for tennis, the husband’s game, and was seen walking to Women’s International Club in the evenings with cousin Mrs. Danton Obeysekara; two young ladies with dignity, poise and grace.
At Wentworth she gave birth to her three children and then from Guilford Crescent they moved to Rosemead Place.
Sirimavo played an active role in Mahila Samithiya women’s institution linked to the All Ceylon Women’s Association and became its President.
She championed equal rights and education for rural women. In the mid-forties she was seen braving rough flood waters carrying dry-rations and other necessities for flood victims of Dompe area in boat. These social service activities helped her gather a good knowledge of the difficulties of neglected village folk.
Sirimavo’s 19- year association with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as Minister, Opposition Leader and Head of State, gave her sufficient opportunity to understand the intricacies in the political field, which she used generously in later years as head of state.
As world’s first-ever Woman Prime Minister
After the assassination of her husband in 1959, and at party hierarchy’s invitation she reluctantly joined the fray; assumed the high position in July 1960, and addressed the nation;
“By their verdict, the people have clearly affirmed their faith in the democratic socialist policies initiated by my late husband. It was far from my mind to achieve any personal glory for myself, when I assumed the leadership of the party at the request of its leaders. I knew that if I did not take this step the forces of reaction would once again begin to oppress the masses for whose salvation my husband sacrificed his very life.”
P. E. P. Deraniyagala, S.W.R.D’s cousin and his best-man, commenting on her entry said:
“What does she know of politics? … She’ll end up by spoiling her reputation and ruining the family name.”
All her critics were soon to find themselves in grave inaccuracy. Ceylon in pre independence era, was known internationally as the supplier of Lipton’s tea and later as Sri Lanka, with the victory at Cricket World Cup in 1996; and subsequently as conquerors of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisation.
However, all such endeavours, will be dis-remembered as time passes.
But in July 1960, we really stunned the political world, as makers of the first woman Head of State, by voting Madam Sirimavo Dias Bandaranaike to power. The world wondered how it materialised in Ceylon; A record that will remain eternal in mankind’s history.