By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, August 14: Sir Robert Chalmers, an Oxonian and an eminent scholar of Buddhism and Pali, was excited when he was appointed Governor of Buddhist-majority Ceylon in 1913. The assignment was right up his street.
While being an official in the British Treasury, Chalmers had pursued his interest in Buddhism and Pali, having been a favourite student of Prof.Thomas William Rhys Davids, the founder of the Pali Text Society in the UK.
Ceylonese Buddhists and political liberals were equally enthusiastic about Chalmers’ coming. They were in the midst of a politico-religious reawakening led by the Temperance Movement and Anagarika Dharmapala. And liberal Ceylonese, cutting across communities, expected Chalmers, the Orientalist, to be more accommodative than his predecessor, Sir Henry McCallum, on the issue of representation in the Legislative Council. MacCullum, a military engineer, was hard as nails in many matters including Ceylonese political aspirations. He had acerbically dismissed the Ceylonese elite’s claim for greater representation in the Legislative Council saying that they were not representative of the masses.
But Chalmers, with his sensitivity to Buddhism, was expected to bridge the political deep gulf naturally and effortlessly.
According to Dr.R.P.Fernando, historian of the British Raj in India and Ceylon, Chalmers published a paper in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (JRAS) in 1894 entitled “The Madhura Sutta – concerning caste”. The sutta, which is contained in the Majjhima Nikaya, gives the Buddhist view on caste.
The Majjhima Nikaya consists of 152 discourses by the Buddha and his chief disciples, which together constitute a comprehensive body of teaching concerning all aspects of the Buddha’s teachings.
In 1895, Chalmers published another paper in the JRAS entitled “Nativity of the Buddha” with the Pali text of an unpublished Sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya dealing with the ‘marvels and mysteries’ of the Buddha’s nativity. He then took over the task of translating the Jataka tales from Prof.Rhys Davids. The first volume of translations came out in 1895. According to Dr. R.P.Fernando, this contained Jataka No.1 (Apannaka Jataka) to Jataka No.150 (Sanjiva Jataka).
Dr. Fernando further says that at the Paris Congress of 1897, Chalmers made a presentation on the Pali term Tathagata and published a paper on it in the JRAS in 1898. In this paper, Chalmers says that the first title assumed by the Buddha was not Samma-sambuddha but Tathagata. He also pointed out that the Buddha used Tathagata in his dying words Tamhehi kiccam atappam akkhataro Tathagata.
One of Chalmers’ first public engagements in Ceylon was to preside over the prize-giving ceremony at the Vidyodaya Pirivena. The monks thought that he would not be able to pronounce Pali properly but he floored them with an extempore speech in chaste Pali!
1915 Buddhist-Muhammadan Riots
However, Chalmers’ three-year tenure in Ceylon as Governor was marked or rather marred by the widespread rioting in the Central and Western Provinces in 1915 involving Buddhists and “Hambayas” who were Muslim traders of South Indian origin living in the Western, Central and Sabargamuwa Provinces. A panicky Chalmers unleashed Martial Law with draconian provisions for three months to crush Buddhists who he thought were trying to overthrow the government. He was replaced in 1916 before his tenure was to end.
The contentious issue was playing music in front of mosques during Buddhist religious processions (Peraheras).
In his book “Riots and Martial Law in Ceylon -1915” the Tamil scholar, lawyer and leader Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan says that the Hambayas of Kandy had objected to Buddhists playing music in front of their mosques during Peraheras. The matter was taken to the District Court.
The Basnayake Nilame of the Gampola temple argued before the District Court of judge Paul E.Pieris, that as per Art 5 of the 1815 Kandyan Convention, the British rulers were bound to respect all Buddhist customs including playing music in religious processions.
In his ruling dated June 4, 1914, District Judge Paul.E.Pieris said that music is an essential part of Perahera rites and that the Kandyan Convention is binding and unalterable.
The Hambayas then took the case to the Supreme Court. On February 2, 1915, the Supreme Court reversed the order of the District Court. It ruled that the application of the Kandyan Convention was subject to the Police Ordinance of 1865 and the Local Bodies Ordinance of 1898, which required licensing of processions. In other words, the right to take processions was not absolute and unfettered.
Though jolted by the ruling, the Kandyan Buddhists applied for a license to hold a procession on the birthday of the Buddha that fell on May 28, 1915. The Hambayas opposed the move. The Kandy District Government Agent told the Buddhists that the procession could pass through the Castle Hill Street mosque (in Kandy) after it was closed at 12 in the night. But when the procession reached the mosque at 1 am on May 29, it was both open and fully lit and stones were hurled on the procession.
What followed was unbridled looting and destruction of Hambaya shops and properties. Villagers around Kandy went about in gangs attacking Hambaya shops and properties all along the railway line up to Colombo, shouting “Kolle Kolle” (Loot Loot). Before long, many parts of Colombo were engulfed in violence in which rowdies played a predominant part.
The police were nonplussed. There was no firm chain of command. Inspector General Herbert Dowbiggin was at sea. Police were issued rifles but without ammunition. However, things changed radically on June 2, when Governor Chalmers imposed Martial Law with draconian provisions. A free hand was given to the cops and the 28 th.Punjabis, a British-officered, Muslim-majority Indian army unit deployed in Ceylon at that time to fight an expected German invasion.
According to Ramanathan, Chalmers was persuaded to take extreme steps by some vested interests and ill-infomed advisors. Besides the tough commander of the army, Brig.Gen. H.H.L Malcolm, the others were a section of the traditional Sinhalese aristocracy who were jealous of the newly emerging Sinhalese bourgeoisie making a name for themselves and aspiring for leadership through the Temperance Movement.
Chalmers and Brig. Gen.Malcolm also mistakenly viewed the spreading violence as a movement by the new bourgeoisie to overthrow the government with the help Germans, who were then fighting the British in World War 1 (1914-18). Chalmers and Gen.Malcolm took no note of the fact that no White person or government property was attacked and that the clashes were only between two native communities. Charmers did not consult any knowledgeable Ceylonese, including his Maha Mudaliar (chief Ceylonese official) Solomon Dias Bandaranaike.
Many leading Ceylonese, including those who were manifestly loyal to the British, were imprisoned. The well- known businessman and philanthropist, Henry Pedris, was executed for firing in the air to scare away a mob trying to attack his shop. Hundreds of ordinary people were flogged or shot dead for the flimsiest of transgressions, on mere suspicion or on the complaint of rivals. Among the elite locked up in stinking cells for weeks was D.S.Senanayake.
Heavy fines (in some cases in pounds sterling) were imposed on the wealthy. Heavy compensation was sought for arbitrarily assessed damages to property. British barrister Eardley Norton remarked that the government was suffering from “treasonitis”.
An estimated 116 people were killed, including 63 in police firing; 4075 houses and boutiques were looted, 250 houses and boutiques were burned down, 17 mosques were burnt and 86 damaged.
Though violence had ceased in four days, by June 6, Chalmers lifted Martial Law only on August 30. To save himself, he simultaneously issued an order indemnifying himself and other officials for actions taken to suppress the rioting.
However, Chalmers was replaced by Sri John Anderson in 1916. Chalmers was not only unrepentant but nonchalantly returned to his first love, Buddhist and Pali studies. As Master of Peterhouse College in Cambridge in 1924, he produced a metrical translation of the Sutta Nipata, the earliest teaching of the Buddha in Pali verse.