Written by Buddhika Kurukularatne for Island 2004.10.03
Manawasinghe was born on the 19th of June 1913 in the village of Puwakdandawa in Ruhunu Giruwapattuwa off Tangalle.
In the historic people’s revolution of 1956 whilst Lake House acted in vested self-interests, the ‘Lankadeepa’ spearheaded the Pancha Maha Balavegaya පංච මහා බලවේගය and Manawasinghe was in the forefront of the campaign. He became a close associate of S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake
He grew up in the village, amongst the rural folk and the unpolluted rural environment where the village temple and its tank were the focal points of its culture – nay its very existence!
Manawasinghe took to robes not once but twice. Perhaps his call of duty by society and its people were more demanding than those of the Sasana.
Even as a priest, he was a fiercely independent person who openly clashed with the High Priest of the Sarikkaramulla Temple in Negombo.
However it was Manawasinghe’s literary contributions in verse, prose and his numerous writing which made him a genius and created a niche for himself in the literary world.
The “Waga Thuga” Column, he contributed to the ‘Lankadeepa’ offered a critical analysis of the issues of the day – be it on the economy, politics or the utterances of the leaders both lay and clergy.
“Waga Thuga” made its first appearance in the (then) ‘Lankadeepa’ published by the Times Group and except for the 1st 2 or 3 columns written by his colleague Sagara Palansuriya (‘Kayas’ to the Sinhala Literate), also an ex-Buddhist priest like Manawasinghe, Manawasinghe continued the column, which made the paper soar in its circulation, almost until he died. He died on the 4th of October 1964 and his last ‘Waga Thuga’ appeared on the 28th of September 1964. He died at the relatively young age of 51.
Like the British poet William Wordsworth who wrote “I wandered lonely at the cloud and all at once I saw a thousand daffodils!, ‘The stars are mansions built by nature’s hand, Manawasinghe exhorted the beauty and virtues of Nature.
He worked many poems for children which are, even today more than half a century after they composed appreciated not just by children but adults and literati alike.
Amongst his numerous publications are ‘Komala Rekha’ and ‘Golu Deriya’ or the dumb girl witch were collections of poems. Manawasinghe was the ‘father’ of the Sinhala radio operas (Radio Geetha Nataka) and his radio operas such as ‘Manohari’ ‘Abhinishkramanaya’ (abdication) and ‘Edirille’ earned for him the plaudits of the Sinhala literary buffs and critics.
‘Manawe’ to his friends and associates was a many faceted individual. He was well versed not only in Pali, Sinhala, Sanskrit and Bengali, but also in astrology . It was often that he was called upon to perform a variety of astrological functions such as determining an auspicious time to commence building a house or even naming a newborn child. He also excelled at compiling verses which with its harmonious synchronization with sound waves would invoke blessings. These were called ‘Seth Kavi’ or verses of blessings. He was apt at compiling verses which brought exactly the opposite effects – ‘Vas Kavi’ or verses of evil. But after his marriage to Srimathi Wasantha he almost entirely gave up composing ‘Vas Kavi’ and compiled Vas Kavi thereafter only on one occasion and that was to curse the person who was issuing death threats to his eldest daughter Daya Lakshini by poison pen letters. This was when ‘Manawe’ left the ‘left’ movement and joined the UNP. (Appramana Minisek’ – Ranjith Amarakeerthi Palihapitiya)
Manawasinghe was also an expert at exorcism and would conduct elaborate bali yaga ceremonies to drive away the evil spirits with astounding results that amazed the non-believers. In 1958 he composed an experimental Exorcism Ballet using phonetics and the various concepts of ‘white magic’ (as opposed to ‘Black Magic’) that he was so thoroughly conversant with. This exorcism ballet consisted of some 600 verses and the dance items for this ‘Siddhantha Yaga’ were created by Kalasoori Kalinga Obeywansa.
When Manawasinghe first took to robes, he was known as ‘Puwakdandawe Chandraratna Samanera’. He learnt both ‘Black Magic’, “White Magic” and witch craft at the feet of his guru – the Ven. Puwakdandawe Sarananda Nayaka Thero – the Chief Incumbent of the Varana Raja Maha Viharaya.
He also contributed a column on astrology both to ‘Lankadeepa’ and ‘Rasavahini’ a magazine published by the Times Group under the pseudonyms ‘Hiro’ and ‘Badharayana’ respectively. These too were very popular as were his ‘Waga Thuga’ columns which contributed in no small measure to an increase in their circulation.
During his Lankadeepa days, he would scoot off from his office every now and then for a ‘quick one’ to his favourite ‘watering joints’ down Hospital Street, a mere stones throw away from office. Even when he was in office he was rarely at his seat. All visitors coming to the Lankadeepa office to meet him adopted an unique method of testing whether he was in the building. They would peer under his desk to see whether his sandles were there and if they were, then the visitors could calmly await for the man to perform his ‘Animus Reventendai’.
In the 1950s, Buddhism was threatened due to three calamities. ‘Tapasa Nikaya’ (hermit priests) a separate clan of ‘Pseudo Bhikkus’ which sprung up almost overnight threatened the very existence of the Buddha Sasana and the order of the Maha Sangha. An organisation called the ‘Vinayawardenes’ sprung up and started challenging the traditional forms of Buddhist worship. To cap it all, the Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was shot dead by Talduwe Somarama who according to Bandaranaike was a ‘Man in yellow robes’.
During this period Manawasinghe lashed out mercilessly at those anti-Buddhist elements by his numerous writings. He also travelled extensively addressing meetings to protect the honour respect and the standing of the Maha Sangha representing the Theravada form of Buddhism. When he arrived to speak at meetings against these pseudo Buddhist organisations, he was at times heckled, jeered and booed. He was also threatened with death on yet other occasions. A born fighter against all forms of injustice he stood his ground and soon the ‘Thapasa Nikaya’ (Hermit Tribe) and the Vinayawardenas were history.
Manawasinghe always championed the cause of the underdog. His advent into left politics was also the result of his rebellion against those who wielded power and authority at the expense of the common man.
During the early days of the Bolshevik and Lenninist Party the forerunner to the L. S. S. P., Manawasinghe was travelling by bus to Kandy. At Horagolla, the driver of the bus observing a man on horse-back pulled the bus to a side and stopped the bus. He then got down from the driving seat and approached this brown sahib on horse-back with bent knees and palms of the hands folded in deep veneration. The horseman of course was the Laird of Horagolla – Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. S. W. R. D.’s father.
This incident marked a turning point in his life and ‘Manawe’ thought that it was below the dignity of any man to publicly display such subservience to another fellow layman. He joined the Bolshevik and Leninist Party which professed parity of status to all human beings rich or poor, young or old. After the L.S.S.P. was formed he became a close associate of its leaders Drs. N. M. Perera and Colvin R. de Silva. He spared no pains to champion the Samasamajist cause against the colonial powers and their local stooges of the day.
Though ‘Manawe’ was essentially a man of letters inclined more towards the finer aspects of Sinhala literature and culture rather than a slogan shouting Marxist. Dr. N. M. Perera won soon realized the man’s talents and the vast depth of his knowledge is said to have remarked that, Manawasinghe was one of the best intellectuals, east of Suez. He was soon on the L.S.S. P. bandwagon touring the length and breadth of the country, conducting seminars, classes and delivering lectures to the youth on the virtues of the L.S.S.P. doctrine as well as wielding his mighty pen to champion its cause.
Naturally he was a bitter enemy of the ruling UNP then. A hilarious incident is recorded by his biographer Ranjith Amarakeerthi Palihapitiya in ‘Appramana Minisek’ (‘A Human Colossus’) where on the Negombo beach whilst indulging in one of his pet pastimes – drinking – he perceived the sight of the UNP symbol, an elephant being taken to provide elephant-rides to tourists. Such was his hatred towards the UNP, he rushed towards the pachyderm with clenched fists in a drunken stupor only to be held back by his ‘bottle friends’ who were fortunate to be more sober than ‘Manawe’!
‘Manawe’s political insight was apathy demonstrated by a book he wrote in 1961 ‘Prajathanthra Pragathiya’ (Progress of Democracy) where he predicted the disintegration of the Mighty Soviet Republic which theory of course was pooh-poohed and treated with ridicule and contempt by his Marxist colleagues. Long before the UNP promulgated its theory on the Open Economy. Manawasinghe insisted that ‘controls’ should be done away with as it lead to shortages and negative economic growth.
This columnist remembers the time that Manawasinghe, Capt. C. P. J. Seneviratne (my friend ‘Gam’ Thomian MP ‘Bindu’ Seneviratne’s father – the then MP for Mahiyangana) and he occupied the same bedroom at the Wemulla Estate bungalow of Samaraweera at Welimada. Percy was contesting ‘Basha Boy’ K. M. P. Rajaratne at a by-election in the Welimada Electorate in the early 60s when Konara Mudiyanselage Piyasena Rajaratne was the undisputed ‘King’ of Keppitiwalana – the famous battlefield of the Keppitipola Disawe.
One night I was awakened by Manawasinghe talking in his sleep. What was strange in this incident was that he was speaking in Sanskrit!
In the morning I told him that he spoke in Sanskrit in his sleep. He then said ‘Oh I dreampt of that lady!’ Being a mere podian, although the urge was there, I did not dare be disrespectful towards him by asking him who the woman was.
Years later I learnt from Prabhath, Manawasinghe’s elder son (who unfortunately was lost to us due to a case of medical misadventure in the prime of his manhood!) that when Manawasinghe was in robes he had met a Bengali family at Kataragama where they had come from India to perform a vow. In this family was a comely young lass who was well versed not only in Sanskrit as a language, but also was a great exponent of Sanskrit epics such as the ‘Geetha Govindaya’. This lithe Bengali beauty even demonstrated in dance form, various episodes relating to great Sanskrit epics. No doubt Manawe would have been not only a very willing pupil but also a clever one too for he took to Sanskrit as a duck to water. He even read Das Capital, the Bible of Maxism in Bengali.
Although his lyrics, be they children’s poetry or film songs Pipee Pipee Renu Natana’ – Ran Muthu Duwa) were mostly composed in simple and plain language, his Sanskrit influence was reflected in yet other works of his such as the all-time popular hit – Divakarayano,’ extolling the virtues of the Buddha.
During the time we stayed at the Samaraweera’s Wemulla bungalow, every morning as he awoke, Manawasinghe would hold the folds of his sarong in a can-can dance posture and sing a song which was totally unfamiliar to me. He used to dance round the room singing ‘Pipee pipee renu natana vane malaka happila……..’ ‘Ran Muthu Doowa’ the first ever Sinhala colour film was not yet released then and that was why I had not heard of those words before.
I asked him, ‘Mr. Manawasinghe, what is this ‘Pipee pipee renu natana’ you sing everyday?’
‘You wait and see will you Manawe’s song when ‘Ran muthu doowa’ is released he said without missing a step of the strange form of dance he was performing as a ritual each morning.
Yes! ‘Ran muthu doowa’ came and all I could say is ‘veni! vedi!! vici!!!
Besides ‘Ran muthu doowa’ he also compiled, lyrics to other Sinhala films such as ‘Daiva Yogaya’, ‘Sikuru Tharuwa’, ‘Seethala Watura’, ‘Ladalu’, etc.
He enriched the Sinhala dance culture by adding more descriptive dance forms or ‘wannama’s to the 18 forms of descriptive dance or wannamas that existed upto then. The Maha Bo and the Samanala Wannama.
The famous Maha Bo Wannama, dedicated to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi of the Maha Mevuna Park in Anuradhapura and rendered immortal by the melodious voice of Pandit Amaradeva to which the maestro duo of Niththawela Gunaya and Heen Baba Dharmasiri provided accompanying dance recital. Niththawela Gunaya and Heen Baba Dharmasiri toured many a foreign country with these two new additions to the descriptive dance dynasty and were very well received where-ever they performed.
Even as this column is being penned, the writer could hear the Maha Bo Wannama being telecast in one of the popular TV channels.
I very well remember, somewhere in the early sixties a sweet little girl performed the butterfly or Samanala Wannama on stage at the UNP Youth Camp held at the Boossa Race Course grounds. That sweet little girl was Manjula Basadita, a daughter of Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe and she would have been about 8 or 9 years old by then.
Manawasinghe was once wanted by the police on a charge of murder. This was a time he was in robes and he was accused with another of the murder of a man who was killed in what came to be known as the Kataragama uprising. (This was long before the more famous or notorious uprising at Kataragama in 1971, where a local Beauty Queen, Premawathi Manamperi was brutally murdered). The root cause of this uprising was the claim to ownership of a Devale by 2 rival factions-one representing one up-country and Rev. Puwakdandawe Chandaratana (Manawasinghe) representing the claimants from the low-country.
Rev. Chandaratana, then played a game of hide and seek with the police. He hid himself in the jungles of Debarawewa, Yala, Wellawaya and Kataragama, avoiding arrest. As a fugitive from justice, it was no longer possible for him to be on the run, attired in the garb of a Buddhist priest. So, at Wellawaya, he waylaid a villager on a push bicycle at knife point. In those days even villagers used to wear two sarongs – one the usual way, the other thrown like a shawl across the shoulders. Manawasinghe ordered the hapless man to climb a huge tree whilst he made good his escape with one of the sarongs of the victim!
He travelled upto Dambulla on foot where he secured employment as a ‘kolla’ (helper) in a village ‘kade’ (boutique) close to the famous Dambulla Raja Maha Viharaya. Whenever he found the time he used to visit the Dambulla Temple to admire the charm and the beauty of its famous paintings. Once a tourist was taken around the temple precincts by a guide. The tourist pointing to the halo behind the head of the Buddha statue wanted to know what it was. The guide who did not know the answer nevertheless did not want to display his ignorance and spinned a yarn about the ‘halo’. Manawasinghe stepped forward and much to the consternation of the guide explained the significance of the ‘halo’ in a Buddha statue.
The tourist was as pleased as punch about the knowledge of this young man who he thought was a person holding a responsible position in the government.
He asked the young man as to what his job was and when Manawe pointed out to the village boutique where he worked as a ‘helper’ the tourist was astounded. ‘Young man, you have a bright future ahead of you’, said the tourist to Manawe and went away.
That tourist was none other than the famous philosopher George Bernard Shaw!
It was when he was thus employed in the boutique at Dambulla, that the long arm of the law finally caught up with him. He was arrested and charged with murder along with his best-friend who was a co-accused with him. Manawe was acquitted of all the charges but his friend was found guilty and was sentenced to death by hanging. It had been his death wish, that although by this time Manawe had derobed, that his friend Manawe should bless him by chanting pirith. This wish Manawe fulfilled with deep sorrow and choked with emotion.
Manawasinghe was a friend of the famous criminal Lawyer H. Sri Nissanka, Kings Counsel. Through the good offices of Sri Nissanka Manawasinghe gained the acquaintance of the famous Indian poet and erudite scholar, Rabindranath Tagore whose works greatly influence Manawasinghe.
I was a student at Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda at the time and was at an age where we were prone to imitate our heroes. I came to admire the literary contributions of Manawasinghe to such an extent that I even got a saffron coloured national banian stitched to emulate Manawasinghe who wore his shervani with banions of different colours. I was the only student in school to wear the national dress to school (which earned for me the nickname ‘Reddha’ (S/C) which of course was white in colour. Udaya, Manawe’s younger son who was but a small fellow at the time, still remembers me in the saffron coloured national ‘top’.
My respect and affection for Manawasinghe may also rather unconsciously have been due to yet another personal reason.
Both Manawasinghe and I were born on 19th of June (as was Mr. Dudley Senanayake).
On the 19th of June this year, the Ambalangoda Deshapremi Sanvidhanaya of which I am the President, made an offering of a water Scheme at a cost of over Rs. 85,000 to a remote jungle heritage – Alulen aranya situated in the elephant infested jungles off the famous Maligawila Buddha statue in Buttala, to convey merit to both Mr. Dudley Senanayake and Sri Chandraratana Manawasinghe. The expenses were borne by a number of well-wishers.
I used to attend the Magistrate’s Court of Mahiyangane watching the political interests of my friend ‘Bindu’ (Seneviratne MP) and I was as usual doing my daily 4 mile walk one day past the Mahiyangana Parshadha Maha Vidyalaya when I perceived a school building named after Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe. As I was want to do on occasions, I wanted to test the general knowledge of a student and I asked this boy who was in Grade 12 why a building in his school has been named after ‘one Chandraratne Manawasinghe’. This child insisted that there was no such building and I asked him as to how long he had been a student of the school. He said from ‘Grade One’. I then showed him the building with the name of Manawasinghe painted in big bold letters distincly visible and very well readable from the Badulla-Mahiyangana Road where I was.
I was so distressed at the low standards prevailing in our schools, I proposed to the then Minister of Posts, the amiable Imitiaz Bakeer Markar that a commemorative stamp be issued to honour this great erudite scholar, philosopher, writer and orator, so that his name will be preserved for posterity. Although Imitiaz welcomed the suggestion made by me on behalf of the Ambalangoda Deshapremi Sanvidhanaya, he was made a ‘persona-non-grata’ by the powers that be, before he could implement the proposal.
It is a widely held belief among the intellectuals of the country that Manawasinghe’s advent into the dirty game of politics deprived him of his valuable time, which he could otherwise have devoted to the upliftment of the Sinhala literature.
As Marx said ‘Whatever the means that satisfy the end’. And that end is now being satisfied by yet another friend of mine Mr. D. M. Jayaratne, the Minister of Posts who will issue a stamp in memory of our own William Wordsworth in Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe.
The Ambalangoda Deshapremi Sanvidhanaya joins a grateful nation in applauding this noble gesture of the PA-JVP Sandhanaya Government! Well Done.