From “Namo Namo” to “Sri Lanka Matha”: How Lanka’s National Anthem was Amended Due to Superstition.


Sri Lanka is experiencing a tremendous economic crisis. Several knowledgeable persons describe the current period as the worst ever phase in the Island nation’s post-Independence history. Many acts of omission and commission are being faulted for this calamity. Mercifully none have blamed Lanka’s national anthem as the cause so far.

This however was not the situation in the late fifties and early sixties of the 20th century. The national anthem of Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then was made the scapegoat for the country’s ills. Superstition reigned supreme and the first line of the national anthem was amended without the consent of Ananda Samarakoon who wrote the song.This insensitive and superstitious action, drastically affected the poet who lamented that his head has been cut off. Ultimately the sensitive author committed suicide on 5 April 1962.

An extremely troubling aspect in the controversial history of Lanka’s national anthem was the tragic plight of its creator.The poet was star crossed in many ways. It is against this backdrop that I focus – with the aid of my earlier writings – on the tragic tale of Ananda Samarakoon and his composition this week.

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.

“God save the King/Queen” had become the British National Anthem by 1745. 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 as Sri Lanka was known then was no exception. Under Queen Victoria’s rule “God save the Queen” became in practice the National Anthem for Ceylon too. This continued throughout the twentieth century until the end of colonialrule.

Lanka Gandharva Sabha

When Ceylon gained full independence from the British, there was no approved indigenous National Anthem to be sung .The Lanka Gandharva Sabha was assigned the task of sanctioning 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 Illangasinghe-Edirisinghe duo was broadcast over the then “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 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.

George Wilfred

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 his 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 to Lanka 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”

The genesis of “Namo Namo Matha” is interesting. It was not written originally for the purpose of being a National Anthem.Ananda 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 from the skies 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.

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 R.K.W Siriwardena and handed over copyright to him.Samarakoon was to regret this later when his creation came to be 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 Illangasinghe-Edirisinghe duo was selected.

Despite “winning” the competition “Yasa Mahima” was spurned by most people because of the manner in which it was declared the 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 Musaeus 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 the “de-facto” National Anthem.

Parliamentary Select Committee

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 D.S Senanayake set up a Parliamentary Select Committee under Home Affairs and Rural Development Minister Sir E.A.P 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 made the National Anthem.

There was however a minor hitch. The committee wanted a minor change in the words. 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 was then in India and returned home in mid -1951 after being summoned by Sir Edwin AP Wijeratne. Samarakoon agreed to change the line. So the line “Nawa Jeewana Damine” was altered to “Nawa Jeewana Demine Nithina Apa Pubudu Karan Matha” with the wholehearted consent and approval of Ananda Samarakoon. Sir E.A.P 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 22, 1951. Four years after getting freedom, “Namo Namo Matha” was sung at Independence Day ceremonies as the official National Anthem on February 4, 1952.

Uniform Rendering

While Namo Namo Matha was now being sung as the official anthem 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. On June 24, 1954 the Cabinet of Sir John Kotelawela formally endorsed the tune and singing of the National Anthem. The reputed firm Cargills, then agents for HMV Records, was given the order to make records of the National Anthem.

The copyright ownership of “Namo Namo Matha” was formally acquired by the Government after the payment of Rupees 2500 on June 24, 1954.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.

Cruel Nightmare

Having one’s composition officially recognized as the National Anthem was 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 for the poet.

In 1956 S.W.R.D 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.

Search for Scapegoats

In the search for scapegoats certain elements (with vested interests perhaps) pounced upon the National Anthem.In a burst of superstitious 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.

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 had huge financial difficulties. Although he conducted a regular programme 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, Prime Minister S.W.R.D 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.The new Government took the campaign against “Namo Namo Matha” seriously.

Committee of “Experts”

The Home and Cultural Affairs Minister Maithripala Senanayake appointed a committee 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.

Debilitating Effect

The act however had a distressing and debilitating effect on the poet.Senior journalist Kumudini Hettiarachchi wrote a poignant article about Ananda Samarakoon in the “Sunday Times” some years ago.In that article she quoted the poet’s nephew Sunil Samarakoon about how the matter affected his uncle.

One day when Sunil was eleven years old his uncle had parked his baby Austin car near the gates and shouted out to Sunil “Puthe ,Mage oluwa galawala, wena ekak hikarala” (son my head has been removed and another fixed instead)“When Loku Thaththa told me that his head had been removed and another placed there, I was just a child and didn’t catch the significance, until much later. He was, of course, referring to the substitution of Namo, Namo Matha, with Sri Lanka Matha in the National Anthem,” said Sunil Samarakoon, nephew of Ananda Samarakoon, the composer of Sri Lanka’s National Anthem.

“I remember the day he came home to talk to my father, as he usually did when he had a problem. When I went to greet him as soon as he parked his car, he put his hand on my shoulder and said those words about the oluva (head) in despair. He was never the same again. He became morose. They had changed it without even consulting him.” Wrote Kumudini quoting Sunil.

On April 5th 1962 Ananda Samarakoon was found dead.. 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.

“Anthem has been Beheaded”

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”.

This then was the tragic fate of the poet who authored the National Anthem of Sri Lanka.

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at

This is an updated version of the DBS Jeyaraj Column appearing in the “Daily Mirror”dated March 18th 2023.It can be accessed here –