The Golden Era of Dharmaraja College
(This article first appeared in "Digital Pencil", Issue 1).
By Sanjeewa Gamagedara
When I was asked to write an article for DAANA mag-azine many thoughts crossed my mind. The very first were those unforgettable thirteen years that I spent at Dharmaraja from 1987 to 2000. As I look back now those precious years have laid the foundation to all our achievements unto reaching these positions. I can never forget those teachers, principals, fellow students, buildings and the things we did at that time. Whenever I visit Sri Lanka I always visit Dharmaraja primary section which was at the Natha Devala premises. I feel very relaxed, calm and at peace within myself at such times. Now the only building remaining there is the K.F. Billimoria Memorial Hall. Last summer, when I went there I happened to pay more attention to the opening plaque of the Billimoria Memorial Hall. It was as follows.
This Building For The
Stands on the site of the old one which was put up
In 1887 and demolished in April 1914 for want of Ac-commodation.
Erected with the loyal cooperation of the present and past pupils of the College.
In the time of
K.F. BILLIMORIA B.A., PRINCIPAL.
5th December 1914.
This stirred within me the desire to search more about the Golden Era of Dharmaraja which was during the Mr. K.F. Billimoria’s time from 1902 to 1932. Although the information about this period is very limited, I have found some valuable information from the Dharmaraja Golden Jubilee Souvenir, Wikipedia, and articles written by Mr. Palitha Jayasekera and Mr. T.W. de S. Amarasekera.
From the day that Dharmaraja College (then known as Kandy Buddhist High School) was founded by the Ceylon Theosophical society, there have always been headmasters loyal and steadfast to serve her with the utmost commitment and devotion. The honor of being the first among them goes to Mr. Andiris de Silva who began his duties on 30th June 1887. He was able to raise the attendance from 12 to 50 and also get the help of two assistants, Mr. William de Silva and Mr. W.A Gunaratne. Thus with humble steps began the saga of our Alma Mater. The next headmaster was Mr. D.B. Jayatilaka (1890) in whose time the school was regis-tered for grant and the work of the boys at the first annual inspection was very favorably reported upon. Mr. Banbury (1897), a certified teacher from the New York training College was the third in the line. It is in his time that the name was changed from Kandy Buddhist High School into Dharmaraja College. Mr. Wilton Hack (1899), appointed after Mr. Banbury was also a member of the Ceylon Theosophical society who devoted a great deal of his time to raise funds for the school. It was Mr. C.S. Rajaratnam (1899) the following headmaster, a well-known advocate of Kandy who brought back the academic standard of the school to a sound condition. Thus, five head masters preceded the time of service of Mr. K. F. Billimoria.
The golden age at Dharmaraja dawned with the ap-pointment of K.F. Billimoria as principal in 1902. He is a Parsee gentleman from Bombay with roots in Iran. When he once chanced to visit Sri Lanka, he was persuaded by D.B. Jayathilake to fill in the post of principal at our college. His prime motive was to mould Dharmaraja into a powerful institution which could compete unfalteringly side by side with other Missionary schools at that era. He was wise in his recruitment of educators committed as he was in uplifting the standards of Dharmaraja. He also resolved to fulfill the need of improving the physical resources to balance the accomplishments in the academic field. Small collections were made by the boys who got five cents from people by punching a hole in a card. This money was put into good use by constructing a magnificent building with a hall in which many significant events were held after many years. This two storey building was completed in the year 1915 within the Kandy city and was later named after the great man, in his honor, Billimoria. The year 1922 marks a special event as sufficient funds were raised to procure the ‘Lake View Estate’, a 37-acre (150,000 m2) land overlooking the Kandy Lake with a large bungalow built in accor-dance to the Dutch architectural fashion. He planned infrastructure for a new Dharmaraja with many new buildings to accommodate the collegiate section. A swimming pool, electricity to the complex, hostel facili-ties, and a play ground were also planned.
The material structure of the school was improved to a great extent during Billimoria’s time in office. The actual hostel began at the Principal’s quarters in 1921. He built the A and B wings of the College Hostel in 1923. The Swimming Bath (as it was called then) was also constructed under his guidance, as referred to in a "speech day" presentation in 1929. Later, a kids’ pool was built for more convenience. Water from a spring was taken for use in the pool with the help of an au-tomatic pumping device. The construction of the playground was done primarily by the school boys who cut and removed the earth in trolleys on rails provided by the headmaster himself.
He would have started on his plans to build a science laboratory if it had not been for the request put forward for him to retire.
In due course the school had reached a relatively better standard with several students passing the Cambridge Senior (Local) examination. To further heighten the glory of Dharmaraja they were able to join the clerical service through a competitive examination. Due to the broadmindedness and moderate education he provided, three old boys entered the first State Council. Among them were A. Rathnayake who became a Senator and then an illustrious President of the Senate, A.E. Gunasinghe who became the first labour leader of the country and William Gopallawa the first Governor - General.
His immense encouragement for sports demonstrates his perfect awareness of the fact that academic dis-ciplines alone do not create a complete man. The Cricket Big-Match between Dharmaraja and Kingswood Colleges was first started in his time. As for the other extra-curricular activities, the College Scout Group began in 1914, under the patronage of Billimoria. It was not before long that The Scout troop won the much sought after King's Flag thrice in succession, proving all benefits granted worthwhile. On the part of arts, several Sinhalese plays on the style of the plays of John de Silva and Charles Dias were staged in the outstations which served the dual purpose of giving the actors a chance to exhibit their talents and attracting the desired funds for the school. He was also keen on improving the literary standards of the students. A weekly paper called the 'Telescope' was published under his instructions by the senior boys. As a lover of music he got the able teachers on that field of the staff to train the junior students to sing at the piano. Being fond of music he got teachers on the staff who could train the junior school boys to sing at the piano. Above all these blessings, he bestowed upon the school, his focus on teaching of the Dhamma in school ought to be the most valuable of all. In person too he set the finest example to the boys displaying true qualities of a leader. His attire was spotless and flawless, his work methodical and his concern was on honesty and punctuality apart from his strict adherence to discipline. Several world renowned figures visited Dharmaraja during his office, including Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Baden Powell and D. H. Lawrence.
A retired teacher Mr. N. E. Weerasooriya in his memoirs on Dharmaraja recalls that the most distinguishing feature of this school was the perfect harmony that existed between the principal, the staff and the pupils and their united effort to bring the college to the forefront among other educational institutions. To quote some of his words, “And success was in a measure ours. Our scholars made good at the examination; our amateur dramatists toured the island; our scouts won the King’s Flag. Dharmaraja College was getting talked about…”
Mr. Billimoria served for thirty years as principal and he was made to retire in 1932. According to my view, all past, present and future students of Dharmaraja must be thankful to this greatest principal that we have ever had. The Dharmaraja Golden Jubilee Souvenir describes him in the words of the English poet Lionel Johnson,
“All that he came to give
He gave and went again
I have seen one man live
I have seen one man reign
With all the graces in his train.”
Sanjeewa Gamagedara attended Dharmaraja from 1987 to 2000. He received his BSc degree in Chemistry from the University of Peradeniya and is pursuing a PhD at Missouri University of Science & Technology, Missouri, USA.