F.L. Woodward arrived in Sri Lanka exactly 100 years to date
Revival of Buddhist education: A new boost given
By Kasturiarachchi Warnakulasuriya, B.A. (Cey) M.A.(S.L)
Buddhist activist Col. H.S, Olcott having being inspired by the Panadura Vada Buddhist recital, set foot on Lanka on May 17,1880. On September 15, 1880 he, with the help of leading Buddhist monks and laymen at that time, opened up a Galle B.T.S. school in Galle Fort, which was to become Mahinda College, later. Subsequently on March 1st 1892, originally established said B. T .S. school was named Mahinda College.

Numerous efforts to elevate Buddhist education at that time had been foiled by the then high-flying elite society, where Baptism was the order of the day. Mahinda College could not survive, as a positive response from the Buddhist public could not be anticipated. Several Principalships had been tried during these unfortunate days from 1892 -1902. This was the time when Muhandiram Thomas Amarasuriya became President of the Olcott -oriented B.T.S. and the Manager of the school.

Having visioned the pathetic situation the school is undergoing, he addressed the pioneer of the school Col. Olcott to send immediately a permanent suitable Principal to clear this unstable situation. Luckily at that time, an English scholar named Frank Lee Woodward, born in Saham, Norfolk, in England had befriended Colonel at the Theosophical society in London. Col. Olcott having heard the pathetic situation of his pioneering efforts, thought of sending a "man for the job". F.L. Woodward, M.A. in Classics (Cantab.) was his obvious choice, to re-light the lamp of Mahinda.

Frank Lee Woodward, thus set foot on Lanka exactly on 1st August 1903, to take up the mantle of Mahinda, which was floating on water like a canoe without an oar. On the day of his arrival in Galle, a cricket match was being played between Mahinda and Dharmaraja at the Galle esplanade. His first job, had been to rise to the occasion and go to the centre of the playing field, to umpire this match.

On assuming duties at his destiny in Galle Fort, what he immediately realized had been, that Galle Fort was not at all conducive for an educational institute to be set up in a Buddhist environment, as the place had been infested by drunkards and prostitutes. But his plans had been upset with the demise of his pioneer Olcott and the Manager of the school in the same year. He was however determined to fulfil his mission for which he came all the way from England.

A determined Woodward at this sorrowful hour of Mahinda, stood as a rock and settled down to perform the great responsibility he was entrusted with. With the help of a Buddhist philanthropist of the time, Mrs D.F. De Silva of Minuwangoda, Galle, he decided to shift the premises to a more suitable area on Elliot road.

The 'Mahinda Hill', the site he selected, enhanced by the panoramic view of Morawak Korale hill and Sri Pada visible on clear mornings, was the ideal place for a Seat of Learning to be survived for generations to come. In selecting such a venue for a Buddhist Institution visualized in his mindset, he must have taken a leaf from the Indian experience of the famous Buddhist Universities Takshila, Nalanda, Wickramashila and the Lankan Buddhist monasteries like Mahavihara and Abhayagiri.

In the name of his Guru, he started the work of Olcott Hall on Jan. 5, 1908 and completed it in 1910. The sense of devotion and dedication was such, he himself designed and architeched and personally supervised the construction work along with the masons and carpenters, Personally getting onto the ladders and scaffoldings. Such was the hallmark of Woodward for dignity of labour, which we, Sri Lankans lack today.

Woodward inspired by the wisdom and teachings of the Buddha, successfully combined the best of the British educational set up with the traditional Southern way of life, to bring fruition the Woodwardian Tradition which paved the way to herald a new era in the South. Equipped with a M.A. in Classics of Cantab. fame, he himself had organized the Matriculation Cambridge Senior and Junior classes on par with the island's other leading Colleges at the time Royal, St. Thomas, Musaeus and other Missionary Schools led by his contemporaries in the calibre of Frazer of Trinity, Hartley of Royal, Highfield of Wesley, Stone of St. Thomas and Higgings of Musaeus.

At the start of his tenure of office, the attendance in the school had been 89. But at the end of that year the number on roll had risen by leaps and bounds. He had introduced a mastery of subjects both Western and Oriental.

A Christian by birth, greatly influenced by the Buddhist activist Olcott and teachings of the Buddha, he turned himself into a Buddhist activist and Pali Scholar, in no mean time.

This had been the turning point for Mahinda College, to have become the Oriental Seat of Learning in the South to cater the bulk of the professors, dons of oriental languages and Buddhist studies, to our universities, in the calibre of N .A Jayawickrama, M.B. Ariyapala, Jayadeva Thilakasiri, Siri Gunasinha, Vinnie Vitharana, W. Ariyadasa De Silva, David Jinadasa Kalupahana, W.G. Weeraratna; Chetiyapala Withanachchi and Nandasiri Abeywardhana presently a Buddhist monk.

At a time when people of Lanka looked down upon their own cherished language and religion due to Colonial baptism, which was the order of the day, F.L. Woodward the architect of Buddhist and Pali scholarly education of Mahinda, followed the foot steps of inspiring leaders like Edwin Arnold, Joseph Needham, H.S. Olcott to cultivate a culture quite foreign to them, but indigenous to the hills and valleys of Asia to serve in the noblest possible way.

Through Buddhist and Pali education, he was not only instrumental building up Mahinda from its scratch to a vigorous youth, but to develop a Woodwardian tradition to make his pupils, wholesome, dynamic personalities in their chosen disciplines with a fine blend of moral, cultural and spiritual life. It was this 'Woodwardian tradition', that his successive pillars of strength in the calibre of Ms. F.G. Pearce, W.A. Troupe , P.R. Gunasekara, E.A. Wijesooriya, U.G. Handy, Peter Dantanarayana, Jayasena Gunasekara, W.A.D.S. Gunatilaka and B.K. Silva used to maintain to build up a greater Mahinda.

As a result of his pioneering efforts to foster Buddhist education, operating from Mahinda College, Galle, he was called upon by the then National Education Commission to be a member of this higher education council, to draft the foundation to establish a University for Lanka. The then Government must have taken a leaf from the Oriental University he had already nursed in the South, to re-light Buddhist and Pali education.

This is how he became a stalwart to give his mite in the activities of Sri Lankan higher education.

In 1919, after a mission duly completed, he sailed for Tasmania, his future abode to settle down as an ascetic in a Buddhist monastery and dedicated 33 years of his life, to the task of translating Buddhist texts to be published by the Pali Text Society, London. At the age of 81, he passed away on May 27, 1952.

[The writer is a beloved old boy- an English and Oriental Studies teacher- turned Journalist, produced by Mahinda ]

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