Monday, February 20, 2012


Service of Praise and Thanksgiving for the Life and Ministry of

Grace Nesamma Kadirgamar

Wife of the late Rev.J.W.A.Kadirgamar
24 August 1905 - 20 October 2002

Wednesday 27 November 2002 at 6 p.m.  
Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, Colombo Church,
17 Frances Road, Wellawatte

Silan Kadirgamar

Reflections on a Long Journey

The Tamil lyric that was sung just now Eesan Patham Tholuwom (Let us worship at the feet of the Lord) has been sung at all our family occasions, times of joy and and occasions such the one we observe today. This lyric was composed by Kanagamalar Ratnarajah, wife of the late Red.J.J.Ratnarajah, my mother’s cousin.

My faith it is an oaken staff the travelers well loved aid

Guide me O Thou great Jehovah pilgrim through this barren land

These are the opening words of two well known hymns that come to one’s mind as I reflect on and eventful life of Amma (mother) which I have titled “Reflections on a Long Journey – I use these words both literally and figuratively – it is a journey that has spanned practically a century, a turbulent and tumultuous century – a much troubled period of war and violence both in this country and in the Asian region. It is the story of one mother who had the gift of long life. I am sure that there are many similar stories of mothers that deserve to be and must be acknowledged. The Rev. Samitha Baddegama speaking at my mother-in-laws funeral a few years ago quoted the Buddha who said “if you wish to know me know your mother.” I must admit that it was in the last six years that I re-discovered my mother in a very special way – it is an experience that will linger until the end of my life. We owe it to our mothers to honour and perpetuate their memories. I do it today in the nature of a testimony to a person to whom we owe so much. I do it partly in the context of the joint ministry of both my parents.

It was exactly 30 days prior to the date of her passing away that I stood opposite our ancestral home – a humble but spacious house that stood as a symbol of happier and memorable times now in ruins – in Chavakachcheri. I was visiting Chavakachcheri after nineteen years and I stood there gazing at the ruins as memories passed my mind. It was the place of birth and home to many of us in the extended family a homeliest of homely places where many a memorable event took place - weddings, funerals and family get-togethers. Naturally ones thoughts go back to Chavakachcheri as one looks back on my mother’s life. It was in this house – later named ‘Ashram” by my father in later years that Amma was born and began her long and blessed journey, which took her to Uduvil Girls School, to Udupiddy and Navaly where the ministry of her parents was recalled with affection for decades to come and finally marriage in Chavakachcheri to a man who was an idealist cut in the Gandhian mould. He had insisted that she get married in Khaddar without jewellery and all the paraphernalia that go with weddings in our culture. She is known to have given away her gold chain to Gandhi’s fund for the toiling masses in India when he visited Jaffna in 1927.

But 1928 to 1938 were to prove hard and difficult times. My father had resigned from his position as a worker in the church in 1928. As Bishop Kulandran remarked in his tribute at his funeral in 1961 “Kadirgamar was ahead of his times. All that he stood for are now commonplace in our church life”. He was making reference to the lighting of oil lamps, the singing of thevarams, carpet seating as later adopted in the Christa Seva Ashram and the Uduvil Chapel and all that constitutes indigenization of worship.

Therefore the arrival in Seremban, Malaysia via Singapore 1938 was to mark a major turning point in my mother’s life as my father returned to his calling as a pastor. We have vivid memories of some of the experiences of those times. One of these was the miraculous manner in which she  travelled by train and ferry via Talaimannar and Rameshvaram to reach Nagapatnam in S.India to catch the last boat to Singapore just before war broke out with two of the youngest children in the family and my eldest sister.

And one of the lasting memories is of that day in December 1941 when we heard the sound of bombs falling on the town of Seremban.  All women and children had been evacuated to the rubber estates on the orders of the British government whose forces were on the retreat. The men were required to report for work. As the bombs fell and rumours spread the women wept and wailed fearing that the worst had happened to the men. Amma did not. She remained calm and collected – a quality she was to retain throughout the equally brutal war in Jaffna four decades later. I have seen her weep on many an occasion – that is when someone dear and near to her died. In fact the Hitchcock sisters did that part of the mourning in the traditional Jaffna way and did it in style as we say. But when faced with danger she never showed signs of weakness.

The high point in their ministry was in the war years in Malaysia. Those were years when American funding for the churches had ceased. The institutional and administrative structure of the church had collapsed. The missionaries were all under detention. There was no fixed or steady income for the pastor and the family. The members of the parish took care of the pastor’s family to the best of their ability. And the pastor served the parish with devotion and duty. One task he was called to perform was to comfort and address needs of the families of detainees under the ruthless and merciless regime of the Japanese.

On one occasion he was exposed to an unusual and dangerous test when he went to plead on behalf of our neighbor, the Chinese pastor’s son-in-law. The officer put the following questions to him:

Question: Were you a loyal subject of the British when they were here?
Answer:   Yes
Q:          Are you a loyal subject of His Imperial Majesty’s
              Government now?
A:           Yes.
Q:           If this country is taken over by the American’s will you be
               a loyal subject of their government
A:           Opening the New Testament that he always carried in his pocket
                 he read the following verse:

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Roman’s. 13:1, King James Version) and told the officer this is what my religion teaches me.
That was one of his most frightening experiences during the war. The officer let him go but not the young Chinese on whose behalf he had gone to plead.

That was part of the journey of trials and tribulations that my mother went through. She coped with it all and most difficult of all feeding, clothing and educating a large family, when there were times when a handful of rice was a luxury and a spoon of sugar or a dash of milk in ones tea an absolute luxury.

The firm and irrevocable decision to return to Jaffna was made even as the war came to a close. And here began the second stage of my parent’s ministry – initially a return to Chavakachcheri for a while and then the parishes of Tellippalai and Vaddukoddai. Let me here quote a tribute received from one of my cousins Balan Thurairatnam from Zambia.

My childhood memories of Nesaunty are many indeed and the joyous occasions we would have at Chavakachcheri with the sisters chatting and laughing still rings in my ears. But the one thing which I have always remembered with much admiration from when I was a little older was Appah and Nesaunty ministering at Tellippalai when we would see them often walking the roads of the village visiting some family - and not only from the church. They seemed so full of cheer and joy as they walked in the line of their duty for the Lord.

We thank God for Nesaunty’s life and the gentle death she was blessed with. It could not have been any other way because she was always so calm and at peace whatever the circumstances. Nesaunty’s face always radiated her inner peace and her smile a sign of affection and love even without a word being spoken.

Known as all pastor’s wives are as “Pothagar Amma” her contribution was in not only visiting every family in the parish – but knowing each and every person by name – establishing relationships that lasted a lifetime. This was as true in Jaffna as it was in Malaysia. The rewards of this ministry came later in life. The city of Singapore in her last four and a half years became a miniature parish as one time church members and children of church members returned the visits.

The manner in which she survived the war in Jaffna is a long story. She had her share of intense sorrow not the least of which was the shocking and devastating assassination of her son-in-law Anandarajan, Principal of St.John’s College – an act of injustice and violations of all norms of human rights by the sons of our own soil the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

She lived through the several stages of the war.  I once asked her to compare life under the Japanese with life in war torn Jaffna. “The Japanese were gentlemen she said compared to the state’s security forces – she paused and said the IPKF included.”

Finally in the last decade trapped in a never ending war – in her ninetieth year carried by two grandsons Katpagan and Dev she was part of the great Exodus of 1995 – as she moved even as the shells fell – from Maruthanamadam to Chundikuli and from there to Chavakachcheri for a final meeting in the ancestral home with one of her sisters who herself was bedridden and then with the further assistance of cousin Rajendra’s son Ronny carried again across the shallow waters of the Kilali crossing in primitive boats to the mainland and in dilapidated vehicles to Navajeevanam in Paranthan to live with the youngest of the Hitchcock sisters Arul Thambyrajah. It was a matter of weeks when the shells began to fall on Paranthan and the total destruction of that beautiful children’s home built painfully and with total dedication by The Rev.and Mrs. Thambyrajah and Sister Elizabeth Baker.  My mother moved with what was left of the Navajeevanam community further inland to Dharmapuram. Finally transported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), she resumed her long journey to Colombo arriving in Dehiwala in November 1996.

Some others of her age succumbed to the strain and psychological trauma of flight. She survived it all without bitterness or rancour. Those were months of deep anxiety to all of us. We, especially those of us abroad, at that time spent anxious days that dragged on for months.

I recall some words of the lyric mentioned above.

Athisayamai  nammai anpal aravanaiththu
Aandukalthorum inpaay
Thunpangal thollaikal yaavum anuhamal
Paththiramahave kaththanare enrum

Through the years thou has lavished us with thy wonderful love and care, saving and protecting us from troubles and sorrow.

Not that she did not have her share of thunpangal and thollaikal – of sorrow and troubles – she had a full measure of it – but she overcame them with a Gracefulness true to her name – bestowed on her by her mother Alice Muthupillai and father the Rev. Shanmugam Ramalingam Hitchcock.

We have much to be thankful for – especially the last six precious years when contact was established for her with all the members of the family.

There is something beautiful and lovely about the way she returned to Singapore and spent her last days there in the comfort, peace and security of my sister Sita’s home, the city in which my father was ordained a minister of the Methodist Church.

If I am to write an epitaph for my mother , “It would read in the words Peter Acts 3: 6 “Silver and gold have I none but such as I have give I Thee.” She never owned wealth, and for the greater part of her life she ran a home on the pittance that constituted a pastor’s salary, in fact in material terms I am not ashamed to say there were times when we were poor very poor indeed, but she gave us something that silver and gold cannot buy – the inner peace and calmness that her own life reflected. She has sustained us even in our adult lives in our ups and downs; she was firm as a rock, the center and foundation of our lives and above all together with my father gave us something worthwhile to live for – to find meaning in life and to live it in all its fullness and abundant love.  

We have much to be thankful for and it is in that spirit of Thanksgiving that we children and spouses, and a host of grandchildren 23 in all and great grand children at the moment 31 scattered as we are around the globe thank you for joining us in on this very special occasion as we gather together in praise and thanksgiving for a long and blessed life.

It is with hearts full of thankfulness that return our mother to the Fount and Source of all Creation, Being and Life, Almighty, Wonderful, Lord of the Universe.

And we are able to say in truth and sincerity “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever”

In his first meeting with a Japanese officer (As the frontline troops of the Japanese army entered Seremban in Malaysia) something prompted my father to make a bold request which was granted. He always carried a New Testament in his pocket. On a blank page of this N.T. he succeeded in getting the officer to write in Japanese the following words. “This man is the pastor of the Methodist Church. He and this church are entitled to our protection.” This was to prove extremely valuable in the coming years.

 There were several occasions when leading Ceylon Tamil citizens in the town were arrested without charges being framed, very often on suspicions that they were pro-British. My father was sometimes able to appeal on their behalf. On some occasions he is known to have given some of them refreshments and food when he found them doing forced manual labor on the streets.

The greatest difficulty was to approach the Japanese authorities when a Chinese was imprisoned. On one occasion the son-in-law of the Chinese pastor, our neighbor, was taken into custody. The Chinese who were most brutally treated did not dare to approach the Japanese. My father went on their behalf.

The above text is one of the very few verses in the New Testament that can be called a political text. Though it helped my father to get out of a dangerous and tricky situation one must add a word of caution. Many years later I had the privilege of studying the history of western political thought in the University of Ceylon (late 1950s), under the distinguished scholar and teacher the Rev.Fr. Pinto.  I realized then how this text has been and could be used by authoritarian and fascist regimes to legitimize their hold on state power, including the so-called ‘Christian’ states. As Fr. Pinto indicated Peter’s words in Acts. 5: 29 “We must obey God rather than men”, supersedes Romans 13:1.

Here again we have the problem of how one interprets these words. We are increasingly seeing in contemporary times how the powers that be distort the message of the Bible. The totality of the Biblical message both in the Old and New Testaments, makes it clear that when faced with a challenge to ultimate values, human and democratic rights we should obey a higher law than that of men the state included. This is the position of human rights and justice movements in contemporary times. Beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, we today have a corpus of covenants and declarations enacted by the United Nations that provide guidelines for action.  


Lila Solomon 
nee Kadirgamar

A tribute
Silan Kadirgamar

at the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Witness of
Lila Solomon
(Acca - my eldest sister)
 [16 August 1922 – 14 July 2010],
Church of St. Paul, Milagiriya, Colombo, 14 August 2010.

Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise

This last one month we in the family in the words my brother Rajan have been profoundly reminded of “an era that has gone” – as we celebrate the life of Lila Solomon. Scattered as we are in different parts of the world, I bring greetings to all of you present here from Rajan and Padma in Toronto, Sita in Singapore and Kumaran in Jaffna and their respective families and a host of nephews and nieces and grand-nephews and nieces. She occupied a special place in the family as the eldest – among nine siblings - the one person all of us called with deep affection Acca.  She fulfilled that role from the time we were children in her own quiet and affectionate way, never domineering, never demanding, always giving of her love and affection and without doubt upholding each and everyone one of us in her prayers.

Acca was the eldest daughter of the later Rev. J.W.A.Kadirgamar and Katherine Kingsbury who passed away when she was two years old. One of the valued pictures in the family album is that of the five year old Lila standing with her father and new found mother soon after their unconventional wedding in Gandhian khaddar, without any jewellery and attire usually associated with weddings. The very close bonds between her and her step-mother lasted decades and ended when she arrived providentially on a visit from Sydney to Singapore in October 2002. Mother passed away peacefully with her head resting on Acca’s arms – a fittingly beautiful end to a relationship that lasted 75 years.

She was also very closely attached to her two maternal uncles Willie and Bobby Kingsbury

Acca had her early education in the Holy family Convent in Bambalapitiya. Rajan and Alagan have memories of that period in Colombo. She then went to Chundikuli Girls’ College, Jaffna, where she adored her principal the legendary educationist of India & Ceylon, Dr.Miss.E.M.Thilliampallam.

When the family moved to Malaysia she passed her Senior Cambridge exam at the Anglo-Chinese School in Seremban, having participated fully in the life of that multi-racial Methodist school and church. She returned to Colombo in 1940 to live with her grand-father and was supposed to enter Women’s Christian College in Madras.

Destiny decided otherwise. Her affectionate grandfather the Rev. Francis Kingsbury suddenly passed away and she returned to Malaysia with mother and two youngest in the family in the last ship to reach the shores of Malaysia from Nagapatnam in India before the outbreak of the Asia –Pacific war in December 1941.          .

She was both mentor and friend to me. She always had words of encouragement for me relating to my involvement in politics and the human rights movement in particular. Though twelve years older than me she treated me as an equal, which is a bit unusual in our often oppressive hierarchical family structures.

I have gratefully affirmed on several occasions on how she was my teacher at home. When schooling was interrupted during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia I did not have a conventional primary school education. The foundations for my knowledge and command of the English language were laid at home by her, inculcating skills that stood me well when we returned for our secondary education at Jaffna College after the war.   

Naturally memories of years gone by come back at this time. Ones heart and mind are flooded with memories of that early period in Malaysia, then of the return to that homely village Chavakachcheri, and her wedding in 1946 unique and memorable in the family. Her husband Arasakone Solomon, gentleman to the core of the old school culture in this country was a deeply affectionate brother-in-law to all of us. This wedding was also the last occasion when the senior members of the large extended family came together.

I remember the days I spent my school vacations in their Uduvil home while my parents continued their ministry in Malaysia. We walked often more than a mile to the Ashram to be there for the evening quiet time and prayers. Acca and Athan were Ashram oriented persons deeply influenced by the Revd Sevak Selvaretnam of the Ashram who was a very close friend of my father and eventually of the rest of the family.

Acca’s was a chequered life deriving her heritage from what may be regarded as a formidable non-conformist tradition. She was the grand-daughter of the Rev. Francis Kingsbury the first lecturer in the newly formed Dept. of Tamil literature in the University College of the 1920s and 30s. He was admired and venerated by his students who in later years felicitated him with a volume of essays titled Alagasundara Thesihar. He was the author of several books in Tamil including the Story of Rama and The Pandavas widely read and used as textbooks in the 1940s and 50s. He also wrote in English the Life of Jesus and was the co-author of the Hymns of the Saivite Saints.

He in turn was the son of the eminent Tamil scholar C.W.Thamotherampillai, one of the first graduates of the University of Madras in the 1850s (his portrait has an honoured place in the library of the University of Madras.) He had his early education at the Batticotta Seminary, the precursor of Jaffna College. Having settled down in Madras he went back to Hinduism.

Irony of ironies his one and only son at the age of 18 left his father’s home embracing Christianity, but remained steeped in Tamil Literature. Francis Alagasunderam Kingsbury himself in later years deeply influenced by his readings in Tamil and Saivite Literature became a Unitarian, evoking the opposition of the established church of those colonial days.

My father had become a Gandhian, discarded western clothes and made a bold attempt to introduce indigenous forms of worship, including carpet seating and the celebration of Tamil cultural festivals such as New Year, in the church in Jaffna. This met with staunch opposition in the then Jaffna church. He was forced to quit the Christian ministry only to come back to it in Malaysia in 1938, where his church members acknowledged his ministry during the years of Japanese occupation as that of a “prayer warrior” sustaining his congregation through those dangerous and unstable times.

Acca was fully aware of these different strands in her heritage, and survived these ups and downs with her faith intact. But she did take pride in her heritage and was a source of information to us the younger ones as she recalled in her conversations what she had witnessed and heard. In her eighties she participated in a television programme here in Colombo on the life of her great-grand father C.W.Thamotherampillai. We shall miss her for these memories of an era that has gone.

I will dwell briefly on two facets of her life. I recall a retreat in the early 1960s at the Devasaranaramaya in Kurunegala led by the Rev. (later Bishop) Lakshman Wickremasinghe and Yohan Devananada, for recent University graduates. Responding to a question on how one knows that ones relationship with God is right Fr. Lakshman posed a question to the group. “Do you have the urge to be friendly with people in whatever circumstances and places you meet them in?

This was very true of Acca, a quality I have noted that her children have acquired. She knew and related to everyone who crossed her path, and as my wife Sagu says she would have made an excellent public relations aid in any organization. She knew every Tamil Christian family in Uduvil and adjacent parishes, and many in the larger Jaffna peninsula. Her friends included Hindus in the neighbourhood as well. In later years her contacts reached far and wide in the Tamil diaspora in Singapore, Malaysia, UK, Canada and of course in Sydney as testified by the large gathering that attended her funeral

The second quality I wish to comment on was where she stood as a member of the highly controversial Tami diaspora.

Romila Thapar in her lecture titled “Of Histories and Identities” at the 11th Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture recently (August 01, 2010) spoke of “a claim to connectedness” in disapora communities, and how such identities may well be historically untenable. Incidentally it may be mentioned that Neelan’s mother the late Mrs. Tiruchelvam was related to the Kingsburys belonging to the Hindu branch of the family from Chavakachcheri

(“Analyses of identities are pertinent to the extensive and vocal South Asian diaspora. Nationals settled in distant lands often nurture identities that may well be historically untenable and outdated in the culture of the home country. But they are a source of solace to the migrant in an alien culture and underline a claim to connectedness. Such identities frequently deny the plurality of South Asian civilization and the intersections within it.”)
 My sister did give importance to her connectedness and her identity but this did not undermine her humanity marked by love and concern for all the people in this country. She retained an identity that was tenable and retained strong bonds with the country, without bitterness and never fuelling the forces of violence. This wanting to be always in touch with the country and her deep aspirations for peace were evident as she waited for the postman with news from Lanka and in later years through the internet (interestingly she was internet and skype literate at her age). This passion to be in touch was evident in her telephone calls which we shall miss.

Acca kept visiting the country every year until some three years ago it was no longer physically possible for her to do so. As illustrated in the contents of a letter she wrote and read at her funeral she affirmed the plurality of her identity and how her heart went out to the victims of war

(In this letter she had referred to her Sinhalese and Muslim relatives and how though not a Catholic her heart went out to devotees of the Madhu Church at the height of the war.)
We affirm these values as we in a spirit of thanksgiving say goodbye to a deeply affectionate and beautiful life.

I conclude with words of one of my father’s favorite hymns which is associated with a true life story he wrote soon after the end of the war in Malaysia – it is a sad story about the atrocities of war, killings and penitence. This hymn figures prominently in what he wrote. While writing this tribute I was not aware that the family had selected this hymn to be sung at this service!

 (A Japanese officer Joseph Tsutada had walked into his church during Japanese occupation to make a confession in an act of supreme repentance haunted by his carrying out orders by his superiors to behead a New Zealand pilot. That Sunday’s service became a memorial service for the pilot and one of healing for the person who killed him. This hymn sung at this service had been a favourite of the pilot as he faced death.)

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy, never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise,
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount – I’m fixed upon it-
Mount of Thy redeeming love

(Note: The portions within brackets I did not deliver at the service, due to time constraints.)


                                                                               Rajan Kadirgamar


A Tribute to my deeply loved and respected brother Rajan Kadirgamar

Funeral Service - St.Margaret’s in the Pines Anglican Church
Scarborouh, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, September 14, 2011

Silan Kadirgamar
Colombo. Lanka

Read by Ahilan Kadirgamar at the above service

When my  father passed away 50 years ago one of our family friends from Malaysia, Stanley Padman, wrote a tribute in which he reminded us about a sermon he had preached titled “Make Jesus a Reality in your Life.” I am inclined to think of Rajan as one who attempted to make Jesus a reality in his life. I open this tribute recalling the opening words of a favourite hymn in the family.

O Jesus, I have promised
to serve thee to the end;
be thou for ever near me,
my Master and my Friend
I shall not fear the battle
if thou art by my side,
nor wander from the pathway
if you will be my guide.

We celebrate today a life lived in all its fullness, serving and following his master, friend, and guide. He reached out in full measure to students, teachers, Alumni, the community and not the least to the family where having exceeded the ripe old age of 80 he assumed a father figure in the very large extended family that constitutes the Kadirgamar – Hitchcock and related families with four living generations. We will miss the e-mails, the long chats on skype, and the irreplaceable anchor that he was in linking and holding us together.  Now is a time of sadness as we part but also a time to savour the heart-warming beautiful memories of eight decades. At the same time we should not forget, especially the younger ones, the privations, challenges and the hard times that he had been through on which I will dwell later. As I read through the spontaneous tributes that have been coming from Alumni, friends and family one’s heart is overwhelmed with mixed feelings of intense grief often moved to tears but also joy tinged with profound memories.

In conversations with Sorna and other nephews and nieces we often referred to Rajan as the Patriarch – partly in good humour but more so in recognizing in him a patriarchal figure in the biblical tradition – to a very large extended family – a person fully involved in the life of the family but also with a striking public profile in church, society and education, recalling the heritage that is ours. His patriarchal bearings were humane, humble and tolerant. In this age of strident dogmatism and intolerance leading to religious, racist and fascistic bigotry in society he did not impose himself on others. He was a true liberal in the Jaffna College tradition of his times. Therein lies the reason why he was adored, loved and respected.

I was the most dissenting and non-conformist member in an otherwise traditional and often establishment oriented family, be it college, church and theology, society and politics. But I knew that somewhere deep down in his heart he responded positively to my unconventional ways. So much so that a few days before he entered hospital he widely publicized my candidature – which I had not done - at the forth coming local government election, through his e-mail loop reaching a few hundred. It is said that to understand is to love. Understanding is not necessarily to agree. It is however a vital trait of the truly educated and should be that of the educator who deals with the raw emotions of young impressionable minds. This quality of his I perceive as the dominant theme in the numerous tributes that have been pouring in.

One  writes in the Alumni loop: “He was not just a teacher or principal, but he was a Guru in a real sense … he guided people who took the wrong path, showed kindness to all, helped every one and remained a friend to all. I always admired his memory; in fact he was a walking encyclopedia.”

In a personal note to me the son of a teacher of less privileged circumstances who had his own share of privations and hardships, writes: “It gives me a terrible shock, sorrow and pain to learn of the demise of uncle Rajan, He was a great source of strength to my father when my father was at Jaffna College during the period of his principalship.  He helped me in many ways, which I cannot forget in my life time, praising my father's talents and service to Jaffna College when he died.’

One of the outstanding college cricketers and one time president of the school council of the 1960s wrote in a deeply moving personal letter:  “He had left a lasting legacy which is etched in Gold not only in the annals of Jaffna College but in the hearts, life and memory of all who walked through the portals of this great institution which will be archived for generations … he epitomised the spirit and  ethos of our college founded by the  American missionaries whose core values revolved around concern, care and compassion for the fellow human being. I can go on and on reflecting on the life of your brother and our master.”

This reference to core values and spirit and ethos of the College touched on the essence of my brother’s life placing him in the long line of those educators who gave leadership to Jaffna College in the twentieth century such as Brown, Bicknell, Bunker, Selliah, Kulathungam and Jeyasingam among numerous others too long to list here. The college, fellow teachers, students and its Alumni were Rajan’s life from 1946.
While drafting this I have received a remarkable tribute from Grace Bunker placing on record the sentiments of the missionary families in which she refers to him as the great communicator. Much has been said in the last few days on Rajan as teacher and principal - exceptionally well stated by principal Noel Vimalendran and colleague and co-administrator Mr.Rajasingham.

I will therefore dwell on two other less publicly known facets of his life as I speak on behalf of the family.

He was born in the Mission House within the then Drieberg School at Chavakachcheri, where our grand-father Sanmugam Ramalingam Hitchcock was pastor in 1927. His early schooling was at Drieberg (1933-38) with a spell in between at St.Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia. The family moved to Seremban in Malaysia in 1938. Schooling at the Anglo-Chinese School (Methodist) 1938-41 was abruptly ended by the outbreak of war and for a while a school of sorts was run by French and Italian Catholic priests and brothers at the St.Paul’s Institution in co-operation with the Japanese regime - the American missionaries having been placed in detention camps.

Rajan began working at fifteen as an apprentice clerk in the Japanese administrative services where he honed his skills in letter writing and typing which laid the foundations for a prolific writer of letters, speeches etc. right to the end of his life. His last letter was written on the 9th September just before he left home for the hospital. He practically functioned as my father’s secretary typing all his letters at war’s end resuming contact with notable personalities like principal Selliah and Handy Perinbanayagam and numerous one time close friends and contemporaries. This experience also gave him an insight into my father’s thinking, his theology and world view which influenced his life deeply. Writing on father’s 100th birth anniversary in the year 2000 he reminded us “ Appa was an energetic and forceful writer, editor, orator, preacher, a Christian patriot and an ardent Ashramite.”

As we returned to Jaffna and Jaffna College in 1946 he was entrusted with the responsibility of managing the finances and decision making for the younger siblings left behind as our parents returned to Malaysia. These early responsibilities he took in the family lasted for years when he and my sister-in-law strong and with sacrificial and caring love provided a home for Amma and the younger members of the family in Vaddukoddai, hosting several weddings in the family. This was a heavy responsibility. He stood by the family playing a prominent role on happy occasions and at times of mourning as when the assassination of Anandarajan took place. Mr.Rajasingam in his tribute this week recalls how “Exactly 22 years ago Rajan stood by me and my family at the darkest moment of our personal lives, the killing of my daughter Rajani Thiranagama. He made the most eloquent tribute to my daughter at her funeral.”

With his naturally endowed gift for public speaking he was on call at numerous occasions to deliver eulogies and at other times to felicitate. He had no inhibitions in striking an emotional or sentimental chord which won him friends though at times detractors a well. In a family of some twenty immediate nephews and nieces and nearly forty grand ones on the Kadirgamar side alone he kept in touch trying to remember each and every one by name. He looked forward to interacting with young and old which made a visit to Rajan mama/uncles house a must. In one of his very recent letters to me he was overjoyed relating how my grand-daughter just 18 months old warmed up to him and landed on his lap on their last visit to him. His will be a void difficult to fill. To Baba Machal, Katpagan, Mallika, Premala, Naveena, their spouses and children I will repeat a powerful message given by D.T.Niles which Rajan and I have recalled many times: “We have to learn to live in fellowship with those who have gone beyond.” 

The second noteworthy facet of his life is the manner in which while living in that remote village of Vaddukoddai he reached out to the world of ecumenism long before the information and communication revolution took place. Initially his life revolved around the College and Sevak Selvaretnam’s Ashram. My father had appointed Selvarertnam as one of our guardians. In the Ashram where we spent part of our vacations with its ethos of simple living, quiet time and personal piety, Rajan’s spirituality took shape. This was supplemented by the challenges that the reaching out and being engaged in society values that the YMCA and the SCM and the Christian Teachers Guild brought to his life, in all of which he assumed a leadership role. This further widened as he went to Madras Christian College where Dr.Chandran Devanesan influenced a whole generation of Jaffna students. He responded to the challenges that the ecumenism of the World Student Christian Federation, the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia posed.

His period at Columbia University and then at the Union Theological Seminary gave him the intellectual bearings and the contacts he made in the USA in the early 1960s stood him well. The 1960s and 70s were also the years when “Dialogue and Partnership with Peoples of all Faiths and Ideologies” were dominant themes in ecumenical circles. In 1977 he was a participant in an Educational Consultation with Paulo Freire the Brazilian author of the path breaking “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” at the Ecumenical Institute, Bossey, Switzerland. This I know had an impact on his life as an educator. He was President of the Northern Province Science Teachers’ Association, and member of the Ex-Co of the Headmasters’ Conference of Ceylon. His involvement with the NPTA had an interesting sequel. On one occasion the American Embassy delayed his visa to the USA until his name was cleared from being a suspected communist. That was because the NPTA had some high profile members of the left movement who had submitted a memorandum signed by the NPTA members calling for the legitimate seat in the UN to be given to the Peoples’ Republic of China. 

Rajan never failed to recall the lives of men who influenced his life foremost among them were D.T.Niles. Others were Prof. Chandran Devanesan, the Rev. Celestine Fernando, and Bishop Lakshman Wicremasinghe. In Vaddukoddai he was very close to the Bunkers, the Lockwoods, the Holmes and other missionaries with whose families he maintained contact to the end. He worked very closely with Bishops Kulandran and Ambalavanar. His principalship coincided with that of brother-in-law Anandarajan at St.Johns strengthening the bonds without diminishing the healthy rivalry that prevailed especially in cricket and football. The long held ties with St.Patrick’s College were enhanced resulting in the Rajan Kadirgamar Trophy for the annual battle of the golds.

His life had its hard, threatening and dangerous times. These included the war years in both Malaysia and Jaffna and the several crises that Rajan had been through in his long and eventful life. One of these was the devastating and traumatic days in 1975 when the State took over the college to found the Jaffna University. He and his family were given 48 hours to vacate the spacious principal’s bungalow and the college community had to quit the better part of the college campus including the Administration Block and Ottley Hall. I will not go into the pros and cons of this whole issue where we have a rather uncommon case of the end justifying the means – leading to the founding of the premier institution for higher education for the Tamils in which I myself spent some of my most meaningful years.  But it was done with the full operation of the darker side of State power with its repressive apparatus. It could have been done in a more humane manner in a spirit of partnership and cooperation. This event left a permanent scar on Rajan’s life – unhappy memories of which surfaced in conversations with him all along until even a few weeks ago.

The other was in 1987. He with others had to lead the College and Vaddukoddai community in marching towards Kottaikadu with a white flag in act of surrender to the IPKF to save the College and the community trapped as they were between the LTTE and the advancing Indian forces. But through the passage of years he overcame these tribulations to get on with his life as an educator.  He did not allow the atrocities and deprivations of war to break his spirit.

This is what he wrote from Jaffna in March 1994 to me in Tokyo as I approached sixty. Quoting an often repeated verse that Lyman Kulathungam was fond of, “Grow old along with me the best is yet to be,” Rajan wrote: “I have realised it in my own life, that the best years have been these years. It may sound ridiculous to many outside Jaffna to hear such a statement. Life has been more rewarding, more purposeful, and more spiritual and we could all spend time really on the very essentials even if it meant reading with a kerosene lamp with an additional candle late into the night.”
There were other facets to his life. He enjoyed playing tennis, acting in dramatic performances and good singing, having been an active member of the Jaffna Christian Dramatic Society and president of the Jaffna Western Music Society. When he was appointed principal my long time contemporary Devu Kulathungam remarked humorously that for the first time we have a principal who can sing and sing he did leading the College assembly with the College song.

And hence my dear friends and comrades of a life time in the alumni with whom I have shared so many get-togethers with Rajan, always with him, I invite you today to once again to sing with gusto as you carry his mortal remains “Wherever we gather, while we live our filial love renew.” He would love it that way.


Reverend Nesakumar Kadirgamar
Born December 5, 1948
Departed this life – 28 November 1992

A message of thanksgiving and love
remembering the life of
my beloved youngest brother Nesan
 read at the Service of Thanksgiving in Toronto, Canada
December 4, 1992


Lead, kindly light amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me

These well known words from a hymn that was also one of Mahatma Gandhi’ favourite hymns, is relevant to all of us in these times. Especially to those of us who have loved ones in our troubled land where life is, “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short,” and merciless death haunts old and young alike anytime, anyday. On an occasion like this I would like all of you to remember in your prayers the people of Lanka – Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians – trapped in a never ending war. I have no doubt that Nesan would have wanted it this way.

Under normal circumstances Nesan would have passed away surrounded, comforted and sustained by a large gathering of the members of his family; brothers, sisters, in-laws, nephews and nieces, and a whole new generation of grand-nephews and grand-nieces with songs of praise, love and adoration in the same way in which we stood around our beloved father exactly thirty-one years ago singing his favourite hymn, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine” in Tamil.

It will be to my eternal regret that I was not present there by the side of my affectionate youngest brother in the last moments of his life. As soon as I heard on Friday evening Japan time that he did not have many more days to live, I had made the decision to make every effort to leave for Vellore on Monday. That was not to be. I have had the privilege of visiting him more than any other member of the family in the last nine years. We met in Madurai, Madras, once in Trivandrum where we went together to visit Abraham Moses (we called him Moses mama – my father’s faithful manager of the Lankabhimani (Ceylon Patriot) Press  in Chavakachcheri, for three decades 1930s to 1960s now in retirement in his homeland Trivandrum), and finally in Vellore last year. I was able to see his physical condition gradually deteriorate. This did not prevent us from sitting up late into the early hours of the morning looking back deep into the past recalling memories both happy and sad, joking and laughing, at times arguing and fighting, as we agreed and disagreed on many issues pertaining to church and state, family and society, but always enjoying the beautiful and loving fellowship of brother with brother. We had serious theological differences. We did not agree on the task and mission of the church or on the role of the clergy. But this was always a dialogue in love.

Nesan had remarkable intellectual gifts, earning the B.A. degree in the United States and later the M.A. in Sociology (at Bryn Mawr) and finally a B.D. earning a First Class at Bangalore, becoming only the second Lankan to have achieved this distinction after D.T.Niles.  And all this in spite of a severe physical disability that troubled him through life. I always felt he would have done admirably well as a university teacher. I would often taunt him recalling the advice I gave him not to enter the service of the church. When I called the church a reactionary and corrupt institution he would never fail to defend his decision to enter the Christian ministry. One day he retorted, “you would not last one day in these clerical robes.” Perhaps he was right. He was convinced that he was called to the ministry to comfort and sustain others. He had great pastoral qualities which he amply demonstrated when he worked as Chaplain at the Grace Kennet Hospital in Madurai. He treated others with a great deal of love and affection. This was evident in his relationship with the poor such as the tricycle rickshaw man who faithfully took him to work and back. With his deep and resonant voice he would sing and lead us in prayer never failing to remember those in need, in pain and suffering.

His full potential to preach, teach and interpret the Biblical message were not fully tapped and utilised. He had profound insights. I recall one occasion at a conference at Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, he responded to a question by saying that we should avoid the idolatry of the Bible and rather focus on the core and essence of f the Christian message. This discussion was in the context of the rise (early stages) of fundamentalist and evangelical trends marked by religious bigotry and crude and intolerant extremism in our otherwise normally sane and staid Church circles in Lanka proclaiming the message of faith, hope and love.
Family friends here are no doubt aware of his physical disability that finally took him away from us. He knew all along that he was likely to die young in age. Quite often I have seen him lost n his own deep thoughts. But as soon as I entered his room his face would light up and his eyes sparkle with joy. He would greet me with that little mischievous smile that was so characteristic of him since his childhood days. After every visit to India and the time came for us to finally say goodbye he never failed to send us away with a beautiful prayer and blessings in his own inimitable style and cheerful tone that inspired hope without a tear in his eyes, always strong in spirit. That was how we departed on that day in August 1991.

It is difficult in a family of three sisters and six brothers to see the youngest go. His prolonged illness, as he lay bed-ridden in later years, made his condition sad for all of us to face. I have wept as I have never done in my life, this last one week not because he has gone. We have to condition ourselves to face death when it comes with the prayer “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done.” The tears I have shed have been tears of bitterness resulting from a deep agony of the spirit that a physically disabled person, whoever he may have been, had to face slow death for nearly two years, without receiving the love, compassion and understanding he should have received from his superiors and the church he chose to serve. He was ignored and treated unjustly by men who did not care. Not one letter, not one card, not one word of assurance that his wife and daughter will receive some support, not one word of prayer.

From what we have heard from his wife Ranee and others who were with him, Nesan’s last moments were peaceful. But I have no peace of mind with the passion I have had for justice and fairness. I deeply wanted justice and recognition for my ailing brother on his death bed. It was a question of material support. It was simply a question of caring love for a person who deserved it abundantly.
As we remember Nesan’s life and observe with thanksgiving his 44th birthday tomorrow Deember 5th our thoughts are will all the members of the family around the world. We remember in particular. His caring and loving wife Ranee, his sweet little daughter Romila, brother Kumaran who for many years was his constant companion and physical support, and finally Amma who has witnessed so many occasions of joy and sorrow in her long, blessed and prayerful life.
A conclude by recalling sermon preached by Rev.D.T.Niles in the 1960s. That was the golden age of Niles, Kulandran and Selvaretnam in Jaffna. I have repeated this message to Nesan several times. It is also worth mentioning that Nesan departed this life in the same hospital in which Niles passed away and his remains were buried in the same churchyard. At a watch-night service at St.Peter’s Church, Jaffna, D.T.Niles preached a memorable sermon on the theme “He fills the vacant places.” And he added, we must learn to enjoy the fellowship of those who have gone before us with joy and thanksgiving. It is in that spirit that I wish to conclude this message, that we as a family will continue to enjoy the wonderful love and fellowship we have had with you dear brother Nesan until we meet again.

This is my Father’s world, O let me never forget
                               That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
                               God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done;
                               Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
                               And earth and heaven one.

With affectionate greetings to all of you present at this service.

4 December 1992

Monday, January 2, 2012

Canon S.S.Somasundaram - Commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary

Commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary of 
Canon S.S.Somasundaram

Vol.101  No.3 May/June 2003 (p.87)

Commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary of Canon S.S.Somasundaram
The Cathedral, Colombo
23 December 2002

Santasilan Kadirgamar

I cannot claim to have known Canon Somasundaram intimately. Much of what I have to say here I have taken from Bishop Kulandran’s biography of the Canon. He was intimately connected with my family through the Kingsbury connection and the shared values that my father had with him. Canon Somasundaram preached the homily at the first wedding in my family, that of my eldest sister in December 1946 in the Chavakachcheri Church. An indelible impression was that he had come all the way – about ten miles - from Nallur on his bicycle and that too for a wedding. The bicycle was his mode of transport for decades and became the insignia of the simplicity of his life and physical fitness. Nineteen years later in 1965 my wife and I were deeply honoured to have him preach the homily at our wedding in the St. James’ Church, Nallur. Sagu has vivid memories of him as a pastor in the Nallur Church to which her family belonged.

His presence with his flowing beard and exceptional attire evoked attention on any and every occasion. Hence I never forgot his presence at my father’s funeral in 1961. I was present with several other members of my family at his funeral in 1967. We were also present at that historic memorial meeting in the Ashram the like of which one rarely witnessed in the Christian community. Three outstanding and respected Christian leaders of that time, Bishop Kulandran, D.T.Niles and Sevak Selvaretnam organized this service and paid glowing tributes to his life and work. D.T.Niles in his characteristically eloquent best referred to Canon Somasundram as the greatest Christian of the century in Jaffna and perhaps the country. 

It will not be possible to cover such a varied and long life in the time I have today. I will therefore deal with some of the high points of his career and the significance of his life for our times.

I requested my sister Lila and brother Rajan to reflect on his life and what they had to say has much in common with the numerous anecdotes that Bishop Kulandran relates in his biography. In fact there are several versions of the “summa vanthen” anecdote. Canon Somasundaram was a man who believed in being direct and brief. One of these anecdotes, as recalled, is that of a visitor traveling several miles to see him on some matter. He was welcomed the usual way. When the visitor was asked the purpose of his visit he said “summa vanthen” (a common expression in Tamil that defies translation roughly meaning “I just came” or rather “simply to see you”). The Canon went back to reading and other matters that engaged his attention. At the end of an hour the visitor got up and said he would like to take his leave. The Canon wished him well and said you may go. It was only then the visitor expressed the purpose of his visit. It is said that after this episode gained publicity other visitors never used that expression “summa vanthen” when they went to meet the Canon.

The stories are abundant and copious about how duty conscious he was. He never failed to visit the members of his parish for birthdays, not even the day after his daughter died. Another one is about how he was cast away from his family and in fact beaten-up by his own elder brother when he became a convert to Christianity.

Landmarks in a Long Life

Sangarapillai Somasundaram was born 2 October 1877. He was born into an orthodox Hindu family that had for generations had a special connection with the well-known temple at Maviddapuram situated between Kankesanturai and Tellipallai.

He had his early education at a Saiva Vidyalayam and entered Jaffna College in 1894. Jaffna College at that time was an institution of Collegiate standing that provided courses leading to the B.A. The Jaffna College YMCA hosted the visit of John R.Mott the following year. 400 delegates attended the conference. Somasundaram was deeply influenced by the event. The major turning point in his life came a few years later in 1900

He decided to enroll as a student at Scottish Churches’ College, Calcutta in 1900, where he opted for the honours course in Mathematics.He is known to have reached Calcutta via Chennai (Madras) after visiting C.W.Thamotherampillai brother of E.A.Kingsbury who was a teacher at Jaffna College.

Life in India could not but have a profound impact on him. Setting foot on Indian soil for the first time is an enchanting experience. There are people who love India and those who don’t. The young men of Jaffna who went to India in the early decades of the twentieth century were lovers of India.

He finally made the decision to be baptised which he received by immersion in May 1901 in the Anglican Church. Returning to Jaffna he began his teaching career at St.John’s College. In 1901 he married Ponnammah the daughter of Mr.Hemphil Thampoe and grand-daughter of E.A.Kingsbury his one time teacher at Jaffna College,

 As Kulandran relates:

In 1906 Sherwood Eddy, remembered as the most tempestuous evangelist who ever came to Jaffna, and Francis Kingsbury, the son of C.W.Thamotherampillai and a most persuasive speaker, were in Jaffna, conducting a campaign of evangelistic and revival meetings. The meetings created a great spiritual upsurge. Whether it was the effect of these meetings that led Somasundaram to take the final plunge is not known; but it could not be a mere coincidence that their visit as well as his decision took place about the same time. Anyway, during the latter months of 1906 at a meeting at Nallur he decided to enter the Ministry.

And hence in 1907 he obtained admission to the Cambridge Nicholson Institute (C.N.I) at Kottayam  - the successor of the earlier Church Missionary Society (C.M.S) Seminary in Tirivella in Kerala. Having successfully completed his theological studies he came back to St. John’s  College in 1909 to resume his teaching of Mathematics.
29 June 1909 he was ordained Deacon at the Nallur Church and was placed in charge of a small Church at Kokuvil and received his second ordination in Colombo on 12 March 1911.

His life and mission can broadly be divided into three periods: firstly as teacher at St.John’s College, secondly the Vanni Mission and finally as pastor of the Nallur St.James’ Church.

In a long and active period as teacher he held several positions at St.John’s College. In 1918 he was appointed Dean. In the larger community he held noteworthy positions and most significant was his work with the Jaffna Christian Union. There were four organizations in Jaffna that laid the foundations for greater unity among the denominations and the subsequent ecumenical movement. Jaffna stood in the forefront with strong support for Church Union in the decades the subsequently failed scheme was discussed. They were the Jaffna College YMCA (1884) and Jaffna YMCA (1890), the Jaffna Christian Union (1907), The Jaffna Inter-Collegiate Christian Fellowship (1930s) and the Christa Seva Ashram (1938). These were all inter-denominational. Canon Somasundaram was associated with all four.

His election to the Board of Directors of the Jaffna YMCA in 1910, possibly its youngest member then, indicated that he had become a notable figure in Christian circles, taking into account that the 83-year-old Sir William Twynam,  Government Agent (G.A.) Jaffna, was president. 

In 1913 the Rev. Somasundaram was elected Secretary of the JCU. The five years that he was Secretary marked a period of growth and activity by the Union. Distinguished speakers addressed the annual conventions. The first being held in 1915, went on for four days and was marked by the participation of hitherto unprecedented crowds.

An event of exceptional importance was the visit of the Indian Christian mystic Sadhu Sundar Singh under the auspices of the JCU in 1918. In Kulandran’s words, “the Sadhu hardly seemed a man at all … a visitor from another region, a region where angels and archangels continually do cry “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts.”...

He is believed to have seen strange visions and various miracles connected with him and of experiences with holy men and Rishis in the Himalayas were related and talked about. I recall hearing many such stories from my own father and other members of his generation, later confirmed in a biography of Sadhu Sundar Singh by Bishop Appasamy. Kulandran adds, “the stories seemed fantastic; but as the tall, spare form clad in saffron stood before them and spoke, people felt that this was a person about whom such stories could well be true; for he seemed as though he was one who saw sights that our eyes did not see and heard voices that our ears did not hear.”

The Rev.Somasundaram was not only in charge of all the arrangements but commanded such respect as to be able to take care of troublemakers who surfaced on such occasions.

Writing in 1925 in the Morning Star on “Evangelisation or Christianisation” the Rev. Somasundaram referred to the experiences of the Sadhu who had met many people in India who were followers of Jesus but not members of any Church and who lived and worked as Sanniyasis. Sadhu Sundar Singh had claimed that they were Christians in the true sense of the word. Emphasising the need for the indigenous expression of Christianity the Rev. Somasundaram wrote,

give India the cotton she needs and let her spin with it the sarees to suit her fancies and not force on her your narrow skirts and tight corsets of the western world. Give India pure gold and let her with it make a crown to fit her head.”

A message as relevant for our times as then.

From 1918 he moved to the Vanni a totally undeveloped region and initiated pioneering work in building up the mission there until 1930. Totally committed to the dignity of labour, simplicity of life and accustomed to a mode of transport that constituted his bicycle the Vanni posed no hazards – it was as though he was destined for the Vanni. 

He is known to have taken an active part in the co-operative movement and established a C.M.S. United Finance Society making loans available at low interest rates to farmers. This Society was able to help the Muslims in Puliyankulam set up a similar society sometime later.

After a short stint as Principal, Kotte Christian College during which period he was conferred the title Canon of the Cathedral he returned to Jaffna for his single longest spell as pastor of St.James’ Church 1932-54.

I do not think he really retired. He was very much in demand for all kinds of occasions. In 1959 he lived briefly in the Ashram having been an ardent supporter of Sevak Selvaretnam’s pioneering efforts.

Preparations had been made to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination in 1961 in Jaffna on an elaborate scale but out of respect for the Satyagraha in the Northeast that brought the governmental machinery to a halt the celebrations were observed on a low key.

Theological Attitude

Kulandran devotes a substantial amount of space in his biography to what he titles as his Theological Attitude and discusses his position in the context of schools of thought prevalent in the Anglican tradition. Not being a theologian myself I quote at length from Kulandran. I hope I am not on controversial ground.

In the Anglican Church there is more than one school of thought, it is necessary for us to understand where he stood theologically, if we are to understand his life and career” and adds “Somasundaram’s basic Christian beliefs and attitudes had taken shape under the American Congregational Missionaries at Jaffna College …they, in fact, remained basic to his life and outlook always.

It may be surprising to know that his long standing connexion with the Anglican Church came about entirely by accident.”

Somasundaram did not quite know at the time the distinction between various Christian denominations, nor did he care for them later when he knew.

At the outset there was nothing special about Somasundaram’s theology. The C.M.S. at that time was quite strong in Ceylon; … all the Anglican Churches in Jaffna (except Christ Church) had been founded by the C.M.S.” In fact, in Jaffna all Anglican Christians were called “C.M.S.Christians”… Just as the congregational South India United Church (SIUC)  – the predecessor of the present JDCSI was often referred to as the American Mission.

In the Anglican Church there is liberty both for the laity and the clergy to hold differing views within certain limits. 

During the two successive episcopates after 1924, the views of practically the whole Anglican Church in Ceylon were those of a very different colour from those of Somasundaram; if he was not interfered with, he came to be looked upon as a curiosity.

Evangelicalism had no philosophy of religion but Christ crucified … they looked to the Bible as their chief source of inspiration and authority, believed in prayer and personal holiness and their whole religious life was characterized by great zeal … always overflowing into good deeds. They were responsible for founding the Missionary Society, called the C.M.S., the Bible Society which was non-denominational and played a large part in the abolition of Slave Trade, in bringing about prison reform and an improvement in the condition of workers (in nineteenth century England) … and though they belonged to the Church of England they did not feel that there was any real difference between them and their fellow Protestants outside the Church of England.

Among the gamut of the Anglican Church, four distinct groups can be discerned: the Low Churchmen and the Evangelicals on the one hand, having much in common with each other but not quite identical; that is, while all Evangelicals are Low Churchmen, all Low Churchmen need not be Evangelicals; on the other side, the High Churchmen and the Anglo-Catholics, all Anglo-Catholics being High Churchmen but not all High Churchmen being Anglo-Catholics. All groups, however, are Anglicans.

Somasundaram was an Evangelical to start with and through life was an Evangelical without reservation.”

But Somasundaram never wavered. “You are a very Low”, a bishop said to him once; it was as much to say, “You are incorrigible.”  But never once did Somasundaram waver in his conviction that the type of theology he had adopted at the outset was right in its stresses, as against those, which had become prominent, later. He, comments Kulandran, had deliberately renounced a religious heritage of 3000 years, not to belong to a denomination but to be a Christian.

Here was the core and essence of his theology – and more than that the man himself. There is something remarkable about the convert to Christianity from Hinduism, especially those who had been devout and pious Hindus, learned and steeped in the Hindu scriptures and familiar with its devotional songs and thevarams. I can recall the names of several others including two in my own family the Rev.S.Ramalingam Hitchcock and Francis Kingsbury. I also recall the powerful impact that Paul Kadambavanam from Tamil Nadu had on congregations in Jaffna in our student days. Another was K.E.Mathiaparanam of Jaffna College, lecturer in Tamil and a devout Christian who always carried a copy of the “Thirukkural in his pocket. They belonged to what in Indian history is known as the Bhakthi tradition.  Theirs was an indigenous expression of Christianity” that reflected the genius and soul of Jaffna of their times, so very different from the Colombo variety, and none of the aping of the west that has once again become so commonplace today.

It should be noted as S.S.Ponnambalam indicates that the Canon was a Tamil scholar in his own right and had extensive knowledge of the Thirukkural, The Ramayana, The Mahabharatha, Pattinaththu Adigal Padal, Thayumanavar Padal, and the Bhagavad Gita and is known to have sung stanzas from some of these texts in his sermons. His favourite songs were the thevarams of H.A.Krishnapillai known for their high literary standard and finish of his poems and an intensity of feeling and devotion that is comparable to that of the Hindu saints and poets.


Ground of Greatness

On the 7th of May 1967 in Kulandran’s words “the tenacious hold on life, which had survived many grueling demands, had snapped at last.”

D.T.Niles in his tribute spoke of the Canon as a witness to both God’s immanence and His transcendence. Miss.M.V.Hutchins referred to him as a person of uncompromising integrity, to whom his duty to God came first and as one who cared nothing for convention. Kulandran echoing what Niles had first said wrote, “He has a right to be considered not merely the greatest figure in our history during this century, but perhaps the greatest during the last 150 years. The response he evoked was “Awe”. Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe once said, “He was the nearest approach to a saint.” Kulandran prefers the description “holy man” denoting strength and firmness of character and utter dedication to God. H.E.R.Goonawardene reflecting on his period as Principal of Christian College, Kotte, calls him “God’s Good Man.”

The story of Harichandra is a fascinating one. I remember learning it in the text titled “Mayanakaandam” under that legendary teacher of Tamil Literature, Viswalingam of Jaffna College when I was in form one. It is the story of a king reduced to a keeper of the crematorium assuming the status of the lowliest of castes having lost all his power, worldly possessions and most of all his family, and paying the price for his unwavering commitment to truthfulness and principles.

Canon Somasundaram has been placed in that great tradition which in the New Testament is summed-up in Peter’s words (in Acts 5:29) “we must obey God rather than men.” It is a principle valid for all times. The Canon came to it through his devotion and total obedience to God. In secular terms in contemporary situations it amounts to a position that should be taken  when faced with laws made by men that deny and violate ultimate values be it autocrats, legislatures, employers or even church and religious authorities. From the perspective of those involved in human rights and justice movements it is asserted that we should obey this higher law rather than that of men.

I did not interact with the second-generation members of the Somasundaram family except Mr. Nesiah (senior)  son-in-law of Canon Somasundaram. But I have known and interacted with and am aware of the work based on total commitment to ultimate values by some members in the third generation of the family and now into its fourth. (As an aside may I say that I have also noted that some of them have inherited some of his mannerisms in being cut and dry and of few words, not to mention a mathematical and analytical mind leading to heights of achievements in several professions.)

I dare say that some notable members of the Somasundaram family have established a reputation and have carved out a permanent place in history in their unwavering commitment to ultimate values, taking an extra-ordinarily courageous stand on justice and human rights issues in the contemporary situation in this country. I believe the foundations for that were laid by the venerated Canon Sangarapillai Somasundaram whose 125th birth anniversary we commemorate today. It is a legacy and heritage that needs to be acknowledged, take legitimate pride in and needs to be passed on to generations to come. It is a legacy and heritage we commemorate and reaffirm today.


As mentioned above I have been associated with several of Canon Somasundaram’s grand-children. This was one reason I accepted this invitation to speak.  In addition my father was close to both Rev.Somasundaram and his family.

Notable in the third generation are Rajan Hoole, founding member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). The UTHR did extraordinary work in publishing several reports from 1988 and two major publications, The Broken Palmyra and the Arrogance of Power. He was forced to leave Jaffna and lived in cognito in the country and then went into self imposed exile returning at war’s end in 2009. Associated with him was Daya Somasundaram who continued to live in Jaffna for many years through the war. He is the author of Crippled Minds among other publications. Devanesan and Lankla Nesiah are well known names in civil society, Devanesan having retired from the civil service has been member of several commissions on human rights and justice issues.