From veranda school to Maha Vidyalaya

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The Sri Lankan modern education, the education that was introduced and established during the British colonial rule, happened during the early 19th century. The European-modelled missionary schools were the first schools in Ceylon and later many other schools followed suit. While some of these schools still thrive, some have faded away with time. Among the oldest schools that still exist in Sri Lanka the CMS Sri Jayawardenapura College stands tall with pride as one of the oldest Ceylon schools with a legacy of 200 years.

On 15 July they celebrated the 200th anniversary of the school with much pride. The school situated in the ancient capital city of Kotte carries an interesting legacy of colonial time as well as the history of the Kotte Kingdom and of the Colombo-period social, religious, and political history. This school has produced brilliant and prominent citizens such as Anagarika Dharmapala, Ananda Samarakoon, and John de Silva.

To know more about this school with a legacy, joining us today is, Harsha Shaminda, the secretary of the CMS Sri Jayawardhenepura College Union. Below is the conversation we had with him.

Acquiring land

The Church Missionary Society (CMS) was founded on 12 Friday of April 1799 for Africa and the East. In 1809 CMS started training their missionary teachers to send abroad. In 1817 (two years after Sri Lanka became a British Colony) CMS was able to send four missionary teachers, namely; Revs. Samuel Lambrick, Benjamin Ward, Robert Mayer, and Joseph Knight, who were ordained by Bishop Ryder of Gloucester as missionaries to Ceylon.

“In 1822 Rev. Lamabrick arrived in Sri Lanka at the age of 49. On 13 July 1822, he purchased a piece of high wasteland named Thotupola Kanaththa known to be the abode of devils, and eight other pieces of land adjoining from villagers bordering the Diyawanna Oya.”

Christian College, Kotte presently known as Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya has now completed 200 years of successful service (1822 – 2022) in the field of education. 

The early history of Christian College is closely knit with the work of the Church Missionary Society at Kotte. When the Society turned its attention to Ceylon it felt that it was more desirable to occupy villages near large towns than those towns themselves.

It is the Rev. Lambrick – one of the first pioneer missionaries – to whom we are indebted for the choice of Cotta (Kotte) as a missionary centre. High wasteland on the border of the Cotta Lake appeared singularly acceptable and advantageous to Rev. Lambrick for a mission station. 

Veranda school 

Rev. Lambrick was nearly 50 years of age at the time when he began this pioneering work, but he toiled hard and while operation began for building a house, he himself lived in a hut close by, to enable him to superintend the work. As soon as the house was fit for living in, he moved in and began a school in the veranda for 20 English and Sinhalese students. That little veranda school was the acorn that grew into the giant known as the Cotta Institution, later the Cotta High School, CMS Boys’ School, and Christian College, and in more recent years the Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya.

The Government deed of conveyance dated 13 July 1822 was signed by the Governor of Ceylon Sir Edward Paget. In 1823 Rev. Joseph Bailey was transferred to Kotte from Jaffna. Buildings were erected and a printing press was also set up.

As soon as Rev. Lambrick occupied his house he started class with 20 pupils to teach English in his veranda which later came to be known as Veranda School or Bangala School. This was not to be an ordinary school but a kind of a seminary to train locals for Christian religious work among our natives. Later at the inauguration, 15 pupils were admitted and they were taught English, Science, Mathematics, Philology, Latin, Greek, and Pali. The first pupil admitted was one Abraham Gunasekara. In 1839 he was ordained and started to work at Baddegama Christ Church until his death in 1862.

The first public examination of the Cotta Institution was held on December 17 1831 and the pupils were examined in English reading, Geography, Geometry, Arithmetic, Latin, and Greek.

Rev. Lambrick’s work was continued by Rev. Bailey and Rev. F.W. Taylor with the assistance of Rev. Cornelius Jayasinghe a native priest. In 1851 Rev. C.C. Fenn decided to make the institution more comprehensive by changing it into a grammar school. By 1855 there were 106 pupils.

Then in 1929 with the appointment of Rev. F.R.E. Mendis the first Sri Lankan principal of the boys’ school the status of the school was elevated to the status of senior secondary school and the boys were prepared for the Cambridge local examination.

Including girls

Attention was also paid to the education of girls in the Cotta village.  At the commencement, parents were unwilling and showed reluctance, particularly the mothers who disliked their daughters ‘learning letters’ as they called it.  Fortunately, Rev. Lambrick had married and Mrs. Lambrick who had arrived in Ceylon in 1827 was able in October 1828 to establish a school for girls under her superintendence in the mission premises.  It is reported that Mrs. Lambrick went to nearly all the houses in the village and with persuasion was able to register 33 girls at the end of the year.

In May 1834 the Government instituted a School Commission and the first Government Educational Institution called the Colombo Academy, now known as the Royal College was started on October 26 1836.  The first principal was Joseph Marsh who came to the Cotta Institution in 1831 from Madras.

The first public examination of the Cotta Institution was held in 1831. It was a big occasion for the Governor of the Colony, Sir Wilmot Horton himself to be present for nearly two and a half hours. 

System changes and becoming Christian College

In 1851, the Rev. Fenn took over as Superintendent Missionary, and the management of the school. Just before he took over, there was considerable anxiety as it was felt that the character of the education imparted through excellence in itself was not in commensuration with the labour and expense of conducting the institution. Only 22 students were actually employed under the missionaries out of 129 persons admitted during the past 20 years. Rev. Fenn was therefore, directed by the Parent Committee to visit important educational institutions both in Europe and India with a view to altering the system obtained in the Cotta institution.  Rev. Fenn after his arrival in Cotta, introduced the altered system which was agreed upon.

In 1934 the senior secondary school of CMS Kotte was further elevated to the status of Christian College Kotte and this name was decided by the governing body of CMS Rev. A.C. Houlder and was re-commissioned to take over the school as the first principle of Christian College Kotte in 1935. Rev. Houlder as the first principle of Christian College Kotte with his accustomed kindness, gentle firmness, and innate honesty of purpose steadied the old school whose progress had been slowed down by the many changes of its principals and put it back on its former footing.

So in reality, the original veranda school started by Rev. Lambrick in 1822 has been in the process of a long metamorphosis as follows;

  • – The preliminary stage: Veranda school (1822)
  • – The primary stage: Theological College – Cotta Institution (1827)
  • – Post-primary stage: Grammar school (1851)
  • – Secondary stage: Senior secondary school (1929)

Tertiary stage: Christian College Kotte (1934)

Final stage: The resentful handing over to the Government in 1960 – Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya

A unique history

Shaminda also said that under the age-old Na tree is where Ven. Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera sat and composed the Salalihini Sandeshaya. As he explained, the school premises used to be an old Buddhist pirivena which was demolished and turned into a cemetery by the Portuguese. He also said that after the execution of Kappetipola, one of his sons was sent to this school hostel and he died here. After his death, he was buried somewhere close to the historical Na tree.

Shaminda also said that the school has produced skilled sportsmen that participated in the Olympics and has a century-old history of guiding. The present-day principal is Lieutenant D.A.D. Vanaguru.

At present, the school is declared a national school and it is a mixed school. Today there are about 3,500 students in the school which is spread over 18 acres.

Celebrating the 200th anniversary a pirith chanting ceremony as well as the unveiling of the statue of Sri Anagarika Dharmapala was held. In parallel, renovation of the Badminton court as well as the launch of the school website was also carried out on the day.

We congratulate this wonderful school and may it serve the nation years to come.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy