Singing The National Anthem in The Sinhala and Tamil Languages

By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Singing The National Anthem In Tamil Trilogy – 1

The news story appearing in the “Daily Mirror”last week was like a bolt out of the blue. It said that the national anthem would be sung in the Sinhala language only at the forthcoming celebratory event of Sri Lanka or Ceylon gaining full independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. The practice adopted since 2016 of singing the anthem in Tamil also would not be followed. This is what the news story written by Sandun A. Jayasekera in the Daily Mirror said –

pic: UKInSriLanka

“The 72nd Independence Day celebrations will be held on February 4 at Independence Square in Colombo on a grand scale, the Public Administration Ministry said, adding that the national anthem would be sung only in Sinhala. These decisions were taken at a meeting held yesterday at the Disaster Management, Local Government and Provincial Councils Ministry.”

“Minister Janaka Bandara Thennakoon who chaired the meeting said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa intended holding this year’s celebrations under full police and military honours and with the participation of all State Ministries and the Colombo Municipal Council. He had instructed relevant officials to ensure the general public was not inconvenienced when police, armed forces and other participants rehearsed for the celebration parade. President Rajapaksa wishes to launch a tree-planting campaign covering the entire country.”

“Sri Lanka sung the national anthem for the first time in Tamil at the 68th Independence Day celebrations at Galle Face in 2016.”

Janaka Bandara Tennekoon

The news about the exclusion of Tamil, one of the two official languages in Sri Lanka, at the forthcoming national freedom day celebrations began spreading. Several other newspapers and websites also reported it. In spite of the lull brought about by the advent of the festive season, the news about the national anthem going to be sung in Sinhala only became a controversial topic within social media circles.

Janaka Bandara Tennekoon

Subsequently the BBC Tamil service now functioning as a news website contacted Janaka Bandara Tennekoon, the cabinet minister for Public administration, Internal affairs, Provincial and local government. The minister confirmed the decision to BBC. The BBC report in Tamil quoted the minister saying it has been decided to ban the National anthem being sung in Tamil at the next independence day celebrations. Elaborating further the minister said a national anthem was one and should not be split in two. If the national anthem was sung in two languages it would imply there were two races in Sri Lanka said Mr. Janaka Bandara Tennekoon. He further said that he had taken this decision on the basis that the Sinhala,Tamil and Muslim people constituted one single race in Sri Lanka. According to the BBC Tamil service report minister Tennekoon said singing the national anthem twice would affect reconciliation and also pointed out that in India the national anthem was sung in only one language.

As stated above the viewpoint attributed to cabinet minister Janaka Bandara Tennekoon was published in the website in the Tamil language. The Tamil words were translated and presented in the above form by this writer. I do have doubts whether the BBC correspondent has correctly differentiated between the terms race and nation in the report and also whether the Tamil word “Inam” has been used appropriately in the Tamil text. I also do not know whether the minister himself has been correctly quoted or not but so far there has been no disputing of the BBC news story. This gives the impression that the BBC Tamil service news report quoting Minister Tennekoon is indeed correct. Besides the Daily Mirror news story has also not been contradicted .

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Ruwanweliseya, Nov 18,

Against this backdrop it does appear that the Government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resolved to do away with the singing of the national anthem in Tamil at the freedom day event. The reasons given by minister Janaka Bandara Tennekoon for this decision to the Tamil BBC Tamil, if correctly quoted, reveals the flawed logic in governmental thinking. Moreover it goes against the grain of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pledge within “Ruwanweliseya” precincts of creating an inclusive Sri Lanka. Excluding one of the country’s two official languages in the singing of the national anthem at the 72nd Independence day celebration is certainly not inclusion. It amounts to blatant discrimination.

Though seventy-two years have passed since the country gained freedom from the British, the bitter truth is that post-independence Sri Lanka remains a divided society. The recent presidential election voting pattern vividly illustrated the prevailing “ divide” between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Sri Lanka urgently needs national integration but integration is not assimilation. The ill- advised comments by cabinet minister Tennekoon about singing the national anthem in Sinhala only displays woeful ignorance and irrational reasoning. Furthermore Janaka Bandara’s views create suspicion and fear that the National anthem being sung in Tamil may be banned outright in rhe future. Forbidding the national anthem in Tamil would not only be against the constitution but also be perceived as being symbolic of majoritarian hegemonic triumphalism.

Dismal Sense of “Déjà vu”

What is most dismal about this situation is the sad sense of ‘déjà vu’ it evokes. The question of singing the national anthem in Sinhala alone is one which we have experienced before. The issue came to the fore during the first Rajapaksa regime under Mahinda Rajapaksa . It was somewhat satisfactorily resolved by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Now it is surfacing again in the second Rajapaksa regime under Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Karl Marx in his much quoted statement about Napoleon and nephew Louis Napoleon said “History repeats itself, first (time) as tragedy, second(time) as farce.”.Likewise the singing the national anthem is repeating itself under both phases of Rajapaksa rule. Already Colombo district MP and Tamil Peoples Front (TPF)leader Mano Ganesan has written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on this matter.

Notwithstanding the festive season, this writer has been receiving many messages over the past few days about the national anthem issue. Most of them were from Tamil friends and readers but a few were from Muslim and Sinhala friends too. The common thread in these messages was concern over the banning of the national anthem in Tamil at the scheduled 72nd Independence day event. Many were worried about this proposed action being the harbinger of a total ban on the national anthem in Tamil. All Sri Lankans who want ethnic amity and equality are perturbed over this decision.

Interestingly neither the Sinhala nor Tamil hardliners are upset over this decision. In fact they are both delighted. It is indeed tragicomic to see how the hawks on either side of the ethnic divide are of the same mind on certain issues for different reasons. The people who are agitated are those moderate Sri Lankans who want to usher in ethnic amity and harmony on the basis of equality and plurality in the land of their birth. The proposed ban is a huge symbolic blow to those Tamil people who want to live peacefully with their Sinhala brothers and sisters as equals in a united Sri Lanka.

This writer too is saddened and angered by this unnecessary turn of events. The singing of the national anthem in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages is a cause most dear to my heart. I have written several articles in the past on this issue in 2010 when the Mahinda Rajapaksa Govt “unofficially”prevented singing the national anthem in Tamil and in 2015 when the Good Governance restored the Tamil national anthem to its rightful status besides enabling the singing of it in Tamil at the official independence day celebrations. Currently those positive gains are being reversed and the tragic past is being revived. This sad state of affairs brings to mind what Nobel laureate in Literature Eugene O’Neill wrote in his play “A moon for the misbegotten”-“There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.”

National Anthem Issue

Under these circumstances this writer intends to re-visit the entire issue of Sri Lanka’s national anthem being sung in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. Earlier I wanted to write the continuation of last week’s article on the dawn of independence and the birth of the Tamil federal party, but the national anthem issue compels me to write about it. It is something I feel strongly about. Also as an observer of Sri Lankan politics, I recognize in this matter, the seeds of further estrangement and hostility between the new Govt and the Tamil speaking people. As such it is imperative that this issue is addressed as early as possible and remedial action taken.Therefore I shall postpone the article continuation with due apologies to the readers who I am sure will understand why I do so and instead focus on this national anthem issue in great detail with the aid of my earlier writings.

Sri Lanka flag at Rockefeller Center, NYC

In order to fully comprehend the current national anthem crisis with its ramifications , it is very necessary to delve into the past. Only a brief historical outline of the issue would help one to analyze the past, understand the present and anticipate the future. Besides it would be most desirable for Sri Lankan readers to know about the evolution of their national anthem and realise how it was sung in Sinhala and Tamil from the dawn of independence. One also needs to be aware of how this national anthem in Tamil controversy was created under Mahinda Rajapaksa and how it is being resurrected now under Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Knowledge is very necessary to combat the agents of disinformation and purveyors of misinformation on this issue. There is also the case of the shabby treatment meted out to the writer of the national anthem and the tragic end to his life.

A national Anthem is a song of patriotic sentiment affirming loyalty to one’s country or nation adopted officially by that Country or Nation. An anthem becomes a national anthem through Constitutional provision, specific legislation or long – standing tradition.The concept of a national anthem was introduced by the British to Sri Lanka then calle Ceylon. The modern Ceylon nation itself was a colonial construct.It was the British who integrated different territories under their control into a single entity and set up a unifid administration for the Country.

“God save the King/Queen” had become the British national anthem by1745. This was through usage and custom and not by Parliamentary decree. With the British empire expanding gradually “God save the King/Queen” was sung as the national anthem in all countries and territories ruled by the British. Ceylon was no exception and under Queen Victoria’s rule “God save the Queen” became in practice the national anthem for Ceylon too. This continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century also.

The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) set up in 1919 on the lines of the Indian national congress received new impetus in the second quarter of the 20th century when Dudley Shelton Senanayake and Junius Richard Jayewardene became its joint secretaries. The CNC resolved to adopt a national song for Ceylon.Accordingly a lyric was composed by DS Moonesinghe and set to music by the legendary Devar Suryasena, son of Sir James Pieris. This was sung in 1943 at the CNC sessions. But “God save the King” continued to reign supreme under the rule of King George the sixth.

Lanka Gandharva Sabha

Thus when Ceylon gained parliamentary self-rule and later full independence status there was no approved indigenous national anthem .The Lanka Gandharva Sabha was assigned the task of formulating a national anthem. A competition was organized and a panel formed by the Sabha was entrusted the duty of selecting an appropriate anthem.This panel comprised SLB Kapukotuwa, Dr.OHD Wijesekera, Lionel Edirisinghe, Mudliyar EA Abeysekera, LLK Gunatunga and PB Illangasinghe. In a controversial decision, two of the panellists were declared winners. A song written by PB Illangasinghe and set to music by Lionel Edirisinghe was announced to be the new national anthem.It began as – “Sri Lanka Matha/Pala Yasa Mahima/Jaya Jaya” and ended as “Jaya Jaya Dada Nanga/Sri Lanka Matha”.

The fact that a song submitted by two members of the selection panel had “won” the national song competition evoked widespread resentment and protests.It was seen as blatantly unfair. Although the song by the Illengesinghe-Edirisinghe duo was broadcast over “Radio Ceylon” on the morning of Independence day as the national song it was not sung at the official Freedom day ceremony due to protests.While the song itself was flawless and above reproach it was the perception of favouritism in the decision to adopt it that fuelled criticism and protests. Thus the song which won the national song competition was unacceptable as far as the people were concerned and began losing credibility.

Meanwhile another song was slowly beginning to capture the popular imagination of the people as a potential national anthem. This was the famous “Namo Namo Matha” written by Ananda Samarakoon who was a well-known painter as well as poet.Ananda Samarakoon was born on January 13, 1911 in a small village,Liyanwela, near Watareka in the Padukka area. His parents, Samuel Samarakoon and Dominga Pieris were Christians. The son was christened George Wilfred. His full name was Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon. There was no Ananda in his name then and he was known as George Wilfred during childhood and early twenties.

Young George Wilfred studied at Christian College, Kotte (now Sri Jayewardenepura MMV)In 1934, he joined the staff of Christian College,as a teacher of art and music. Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, George Wilfred joined Shantinekathan, Tagore’s School of Fine Arts in Bengal.He joined Shantinekathan in 1936 and studied art under the famous Bengali artist Nanda Lal Bose, and music and singing under Shanti Devi Gosh. He came back in 1937 without completing his course and started teaching again. Upon his return George Wilfred became known as Ananda Samarakoon. In 1940, he joined the staff of Mahinda College,Galle.

“Namo, Namo Matha”

“Namo Namo Matha” was not written originally for the purpose of being a national anthem. Its genesis is interesting. Samarakoon used to pay frequent trips to India even after his academic pursuit at “Shanthiniketan” had ended. On one occasion he returned from India by air on his first ever plane trip. Samarakoon looking down was enthralled and excited at the sight of his native land. He jotted down a few words and lines that came to mind immediately after landing.

On October 20th 1940 he was at his ancestral residence in Padukka .Unable to sleep he tossed and turned in his bed. Suddenly he got up at about 10 pm and began writing a tribute to his motherland relying on the short notes written after his air trip from India.Samarakoon wrote late into the night and the immortal “Namo Namo Matha” was born. He then took it to Mahinda College where he was teaching and taught it to Students after setting it to music.

Some experts have opined that the words and melody of the song were influenced to some extent by Tagore’s poems and Rabindra Sangeeth. The song became popular and was included in a musical record in 1946. Being a fine singer himself Samarakoon recorded the song with his partner Swarna de Silva the sister of famous flautist Dunstan de Silva. The song was also included in a book of poems published by him. It was called “Geetha Kumudini”. Sadly Samarakoon was unable to re- imburse the printing costs incurred to the printer RKW Siriwardena and handed over copyright to him.Samarakoon was to regret this later when his creation was acknowledged as the national anthem.

When the Gandarva Sabha conducted the competition to select a national song Samarakoon was away from the Island in India but his wife and brother had submitted “Namo Namo Matha” for the competition. Though fully deserving it was overlooked and “Sri Lanka Matha ,Yasa Mahima” by the Illengesinghe-Edirisinghe duo was selected.

Despite “winning” the competition “Yasa Mahima” was spurned by most people because of the manner in which it was declared winner. “Namo Namo Matha” without any official status was enjoying wide exposure and popular acclaim. Its popularity among ordinary people was so great that public opinion favoured “Namo Namo Matha” over “Yasa Mahima”.The song became famous after a 50 member choir from Museus College,Colombo sang it on a public occasion. It was also broadcast on Radio frequently. “Namo Namo Matha” though without official recognition was now becoming popular as a “de-facto” national anthem.

Acknowledged as National Anthem

In 1950 the then Finance minister JR Jayewardene presented a cabinet memorandum that the widely popular “Namo Namo Matha” be formally acknowledged as the official anthem. Prime minister DS Senanayake set up a select committee under the Home Affairs and Rural Development minister Sir EAP Wijeratne (Father of Dr.Nissanka Wijeratne) to finalise the issue. The committee headed by Wijeratne considered “Namo Namo Matha” and some other lyrics and decided that Samarakoon’s song should be the national anthem.

There was however a minor hitch. The committee wanted a slight change in the words.Samarakoon was then in India and returned home in mid -1951 after being summoned by Sir Edwin AP Wijeratne.The song had originally been composed when the country was under the British. Now it was independent.It was therefore felt that the 10th line in the song was inappropriate and had to be changed. Samarakoon agreed to change the line. So the line “Nawa jeewana Damine” was altered to “Nawa Jeewana Demine Nithina Apa pupudu Karan Matha” with the wholehearted consent and approval of Ananda Samarakoon. Sir EAP Wijeratne then presented a cabinet paper in August 1951, recommending “Namo Namo Matha” as the national anthem.It was unanimously approved by cabinet and formally adopted on November 22nd 1951.

There were two Tamil ministers in the DS Senanayake cabinet then. They were GG Ponnambalam and C.Sittambalam. It is said that even before they could make a request, Premier DS Senanayake stated that a suitable Tamil translation be formally adopted.The select committee headed by Sir EAP Wijeratne had accepted in principle that there be a Tamil version of the national anthem.The Tamil scholar “Pundit” M.Nallathamby, a teacher at Zahira College, Colombo was entrusted this task and a neat, precise translation was done.The Tamil version came into use and was extensively used in official functions in the pre-dominantly Tamil speaking Northern and Eastern provinces.

The remarkable attribute of Sri Lanka’s national anthem is that it sings paeans of patriotic praise to the country alone and not to any race, religion, caste, creed or community. It is not parochial or partisan and appeals to the patriotic sentiments of all children of the Lankan mother. Hence, the Tamil people found no reason to reject or protest against the national anthem. Once the meaning of the Sinhala words was known no Tamil found it objectionable. With an appropriate translation available the Tamils of Sri Lanka found themselves singing the national anthem with emotion, gusto and fervour in their mother tongue.

“Namo, Namo Thaaye”

Four years after Freedom on February 4th 1952 , “Namo Namo Matha” was sung at Independence day ceremonies as the official national anthem. The Tamil version “Namo Namo Thaaye” was sung in related independence day functions at the Jaffna,Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Kachcheries. When Sir John Kotelawela visited Jaffna in 1954 the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung at functions felicitating the Prime minister.

On March 12th 1952 the Government published huge advertisements in Sinhala, Tamil and English newspapers announcing that “Namo Namo Matha” was the national anthem. While words in Sinhala and Tamil were published in the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers respectively the English newspapers had Sinhala words written in English.

Namo Namo Matha was now being sung as the official anthem but there was no uniformity in the melody or manner of singing. Different choirs and singers were rendering it in different ways.This was causing much confusion. So the Government decided to appoint a committee to ensure that uniformity was ensured in rendering the national anthem. An eleven member committee was appointed in 1953. Among its members were Ananda Samarakoon himself, Devar Suryasena and JDA Perera.

This committee set out guidelines as to how the anthem should be sung and also defined the exact tune for it.The melody was a refined version of the original tune composed by Samarakoon.The reputed firm Cargills then agents for HMV records was given the order to make records of the national anthem. A disc was also cut for the Tamil version of the national anthem. While the melody and music was the same as that of the Sinhala version by Ananda Samarakoon the Tamil words written by Pundit Nallathamby were sung by two women Sangari and Meena. The Tamil version was first broadcast officially on “Radio Ceylon” on February 4th 1955.

Copyright Payment Rs 2500

On June 24th 1954 the cabinet of Sir John Kotelawela formally endorsed the tune and singing of the National Anthem. The copyright ownership of “Namo Namo Matha” was formally acquired by the Government after payment of Rupees 2500 on that day. The money however did not go to Ananda Samarakoon as he had already transferred copyright to Siriwardena the printing press owner who had first published the song in a book of poems.

Having one’s composition officially recognized as the national anthem is indeed a great achievement.Ananda Samarakoon having accomplished this feat was entitled to bask in glory after reaching that milepost. Alas!That was not to be so. Instead of a dream existence there commenced an ordeal that turned out to be a cruel nightmare.

In 1956 SWRD Bandaranaike became Prime minister riding the crest of a Sinhala nationalist wave. The new Government hailed as “Apey Aanduwe” ran into a series of problems and difficulties soon. There were political demonstrations against the government, strikes by workers, communal violence and natural disasters like floods, fires and landslides. In the search for scapegoats certain elements (with vested interests perhaps) pounced upon the national anthem.In a burst of superstitious and/or irrational frenzy “Namo Namo Matha” was singled out as the cause for all the troubles afflicting the country under the Bandaranaike dispensation.

A vicious campaign was launched against “Namo Namo Matha”. The charge was that the notations in “Namo Namo Matha” were unlucky and the cause for the Country’s ills and misfortunes. The letter “Na” at the beginning was described as a malefix.The inauspicious “Ganaka” or “Gana” at the beginning of the national anthem had an ill-effect on the country it was alleged. A ‘gana’ is the placing of the first three syllables – how the long and short syllables occur. The opening words of the anthem ‘na-mo-na’ short-long-short constituted an unlucky gana it was stated.

Ananda Samarakoon (January 13, 1911 – April 5, 1962)

As criticism mounted Ananda Samarakoon was constrained to defend himself against the charges. He engaged in many newspaper debates and also spoke at public meetings in defence of “Namo Namo Matha”.To make matters worse Samarakoon underwent financial difficulties.Although he conducted a regular program on the Educational service run by “Radio Ceylon” his creative compositions did not meet with much commercial success. He produced a song and dance pageant “Amaraneeya Lanka” in 1957 but it was a major flop. The onslaught against “Namo Namo Matha” destroyed Samarakoon’s peace of mind.

In September 1959 ,the Prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated. Elections to Parliament in March 1960 saw a hung Parliament emerge. Dudley Senanayake’s short lived minority government fell. Fresh elections were called. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was swept to power in July 1960. Bandaranaike’s widow Sirima became Prime minister.

Changed to “Sri Lanka Matha”

The new SLFP Government took the campaign against “Namo Namo Matha” seriously. The Home and Cultural Affairs minister Maithripala Senanayake appointed a committe of “experts” to examine the issue and determine whether the national anthem was the cause of the Country’s troubles. The committee recommended that the words “Namo Namo Matha” be changed to “Sri Lanka Matha”. Ananda Samarakoon protested vehemently and opposed the proposed change. The Government however went ahead and unilaterally amended the national anthem from “Namo Namo Matha” to “Sri Lanka Matha” in February 1961.

Ananda Samarakoon’s consent was not obtained.Since copyright was now vested with the Government there was no legal remedy available to the poet to prevent this arbitrary action. The act however had a distressing and debilitating effect on the poet. According to media reports, Ananda Samarakoon was found dead on April 5th 1962.. His door was broken open as he was not answering knocks on his door. The inquest revealed that he had died of an overdose of sleeping tablets.There was a letter on his desk to then opposition leader Dudley Senanayake complaining of how his anthem had been mutilated. There was also a serene painting on his easel of Lord Buddha meditating and a deer looking on.

A few days before his death, Samarakoon wrote a letter to the ‘Timesman’ column on the “Times of Ceylon” newspaper .He wrote, “The anthem has been beheaded. It has not only destroyed the song, but also destroyed the life of the composer. I am frustrated and broken-hearted. It is a misfortune to live in a country where such things happen to a humble composer. Death would be preferable”.

Tragic Tale of Ananda Samarakoon

This then is the tragic tale of Ananda Samarakoon the writer and composer of Sri Lanka’s national anthem. Meanwhile “Namo Nama Matha”in its new avatar of “Sri Lanka Matha” continued to stir the sentiments of patriotic citizens of the Island nation irrespective of race or religion. The national anthem was sung in Tamil as “Sri Lanka Thaayae”. However life in Sri Lanka began transforming as the ethnic crisis began to escalate. This change had its effect on the national anthem too. These and other related matters will be discussed in detail in a forthcoming article.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at

This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of December 28, 2019. It can be accessed here: