Centennial retrospection | Daily News

Centennial retrospection

World’s first Woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike with first Ceylonese Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke


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'.

Barnes Ratwatte 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 descendent of Kandyan aristocracy who held high office in the courts of ancient Sinhalese monarchs. The Adikarams 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 emphasized that the lady should deliver the baby, the third, away from the ancestral home.

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 Ratwatte and both the mother and baby had to spend their first few months at the same place for fulfilling the vow before moving back to Balangoda. 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 Ellawalas 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.

Little Sirimavo was adamant that a particular bull, named 'Raththa' 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 caretaker; she confounded the man whenever he attempted to use a stronger new bull.

This 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 airlifted 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

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.

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 schoolgirl 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 'Lamasery', 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.

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 Mudlier of the Governor's Gate Sir Soloman Dais 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 'SuduNelum' for racial harmony?] The marriage of SWRD, 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. 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 Samithia 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's19- year association with SWRD as Minster, 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 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, SWRD'S cousin and his best-man, commenting on her entry said, "What does she know of politics? ... She'll end 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 disremembered 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 materialized in Ceylon; a record that will remain eternal in mankind's history.

Reporting the matter in front page, in bold letters, "London's Evening News", on July 21, 1960 wrote, "There will be a need for a new term, shall we call her Stateswoman?" It was after six years since this exclusive happening for another nation to elect a woman as Prime Minister; the second, Indira Gandhi followed by Israel's Golda Mere, Briton's Margret Thatcher and so on. At a time there was a cold war between two super powers who were engaged in a contest for winning the third world nations, Sri Lanka under Sirimavo hosted the Non-aligned Movement's summit in 1976 attended by 86 Heads of State.

When she was deprived of her civic rights and thrown out of Parliament, she made a masterpiece of a speech wishing good-bye to her parliamentary colleagues, she said, "Remember the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head, will soon be yours. The people will see to it".

The name 'Sirimavo' will remain a deep-seated everlasting mark in the history of world's women in politics. 

Add new comment