The Jaffna Tamil Christian Heritage of Sri Lanka’s Former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

By

D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Lakshman Kadirgamar’s 18th death anniversary was observed last Saturday. The former foreign minister fell victim to a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) sniper in Colombo on 12 August 2005. Kadirgamar was one who defined himself first and foremost as a Sri Lankan. This endeared Kadirgamar to a very large number of Sri Lankans. However the fact remains that he was by ethnicity a Tamil and a Christian by religion. His parents hailed from Jaffna.

I have written extensively about Lakshman Kadirgamar over the years, so much so that his only daughter Ajita has stated in her book about her father that D.B.S. Jeyaraj has written about LK possibly more than any other journalist. Ajita Kadirgamar’s eminently readable book about Lakshman Kadirgamar is titled “The Cake That Was Baked At Home.”

According to Ajita, the book has 78 references to lines and passages from my articles. She even says on one page that she ‘would almost term me as ‘LK’s unofficial biographer’. It is against this backdrop therefore that I write on Lakshman Kadirgamar drawing on some of my earlier writings also. This article focuses on Lakshman Kadirgamar’s Jaffna Tamil Christian heritage.

Lakshman Kadirgamar was born on 12 April 1932 to Tamil Protestant Christian parents of Jaffna origin. But in later life he refused to conform according to those labels. He never denied that he was a Tamil, but claimed to have transcended such labels. At a time when the Tigers (LTTE) and their acolytes were trying to equate being Tamil with being a pro-Tiger, Kadirgamar stood out ‘far from the madding crowd’. For that he was ridiculed as a ‘token’ Tamil , dubbed a traitor and ultimately assassinated.

When the BBC Hard Talk interviewed Kadirgamar some weeks before his death, he was asked about being called ‘traitor’ Kadirgamar responded to it magnificently. He said that all of us are given labels at the time of birth and that he too was given one. If being”Tamil meant supporting the LTTE in acts like child conscription, killing opponents, denying democracy and pluralism etc., he was not prepared to do so. If that resulted in him being called traitor then he ‘would be absolutely delighted in being called one,’ Kadirgamar said.

The name Kadirgamar is unique to Sri Lankan Tamils. Lord Muruga or Skanda in Kathirgamam or Kataragama is the most sacred place of Hindu worship in Sri Lanka. Names such as Kadirgamar, Kathirgamanathan, Kathirgamathamby, Kathirgamasegaram etc., are derived from the deity of Kathirgamam. Names like these are rarely found in Tamil Nadu.

It is indeed interesting that a name like Kadirgamar should be borne by some members of the Christian faith in Sri Lanka. This is because some Tamils continued to retain their Tamil ‘Hinduistic’ names even after conversion. Others took on English and American names as surnames.

Kadirgamar Family

Lakshman Kadirgamar belonged to a Protestant Christian family of Jaffna Tamil Vellala origin. The founder of this Christianised Kadirgamar family was a native of Puloly West called Karthigeyan Kadirgamar. His staunch Hindu family renovated and was involved in managing the Point Pedro Sivan temple at one time. Karthigeyan’s first cousin Eliyathamby during colonial times was an Adhigar in Batticaloa. It is said that Adhigar Road in Batticaloa was named after him.

Karthigeyan took on the name Christian after baptism but retained the Kadirgamar name. He served as the first Ceylonese Registrar – General of the Supreme Court. His wife was the daughter of Rev. Francis Ashbury of Vaddukkoddai. The Ashbury family was one of the earliest converts to Protestant Christianity in Jaffna. The Kadirgamar family through the Ashbury connection, as once asserted by Bishop Kulendran of the CSI Church can claim unbroken continuity from the first Protestant converts with the founding of the American Mission in the early decades of the 19th century.

Karthigeyan’s eldest son Samuel Jebaratnam Christian (SJC) Kadirgamar was the man who established the Kadirgamar family in Colombo. He studied at S. Thomas’ College travelling to Mutwal from Jaffna by boat. One of his dormitory mates was a lad called Wilson. Both found themselves quarrelling eternally. The STC warden at the time resolved it in typical English public school fashion. Both were asked to don boxing gloves and slog it out in the ring with the warden as referee. At the end of it both became firm friends for life. Both became proctors and set up the law firm Kadirgamar and Wilson in Colombo.

S. J. C. Kadirgamar married Edith Rosemand Parimalam Mather, the daughter of Edward Mather of Manipay. The Mathers of yore were engaged in commerce and traded in imported products. Two of Lakshman’s uncles were Christian ministers. The Rev. J. W. A. Kadirgamar on his paternal side and Rev. B. C. D. Mather on his maternal side were pastors. This Christian heritage is something which cannot be obliterated despite Lakshman’s latter day adherence to Theosophy of the Olcott variety.

Lakshman’s father was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi . He was chairman of a reception committee and presided over a meeting attended by the Mahatma in 1927 when Lakshman was yet unborn. Lakshman’s mother Parimalam requested Gandhi for his autograph. The Mahatma looking mischievously at the bright silk saree worn by her refused and told her that he would do so only if she wore “Ghaddar” (homespun cloth). She did not get her autograph then.

Incidently Lakshman’s mother died early when he was only eight. It was his elder sister Easwary who looked after him in the early years in maternal fashion. Years after her death Parimalams expensive Koorai or bridal saree underwent an exalted transformation. When the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India was formed in 1947 and Rev. Sabapathy Kulendiran was consecrated as its first bishop, S. J. C. Kadirgamar donated it to the Bishops throne now at the Vaddukkoddai Cathedral. This throne which this columnist has seen personally was made out of good old Jaffna palmyrah though it looks like polished ebony. The Koorai saree was used to cover the seating and the footstool. Years later Lakshman’s elder brother Sam Kadirgamar got a velvet cover made for it.

Youngest of Six

Lakshman was the youngest of six children. The eldest S. J. C. (Jnr.) or Sam Kadirgamar was the well known Queen’s Counsel. Selvanathan or Bhai Kadirgamar, a major in the army later emigrated to the USA.Rajan ( Rajanathan) was the former Sri Lanka Navy commander. Thirumalan or Mana Kadirgamar was a planter who died early meeting with a motor accident in Dickoya. The only girl was Lakshman’s elder sister Eeswari who married Dr. A. M. D. Richards.

While all his brothers were educated at Royal only Lakshman went to Trinity presumably due to the war where he studied from 1942 to 1950. He won many awards while at Trinity including the Dr. Andreas Nell Memorial Prize for Ceylon History, Napier Clavering Prize for English and the Ryde Gold Medal for the best all round student in 1950.

In sports he got cricket colours, was cricket captain – 1950. Rugby colours – 1949. Athletics colours -1949 and Trinity Lion 1950. He came first at Public Schools, and broke the record in the 110 m hurdles (15.7 seconds) in 1949. He won the Duncan White Challenge Cup – 1949, De Soysa Challenge Cup -1949, and was senior prefect in 1949.

He entered the Peradeniya University and read for an LLB degree. While an undergrad he won the All Ceylon 110 m hurdles title in 1951 and 1952. All India Inter University 110 m hurdles title and set records at Ahamedabad in 1951 and Allahabad in 1952. He was also member of the cricket teams of the University of Ceylon and later Balliol College, University of Oxford becoming an Oxford Blue in cricket.

Oxford Union

After getting his Bachelors Degree in law Kadirgamar passed the Advocates’ final, first in order of merit. He then served as secretary to Justice E. N. A. Gratiaen. Thereafter he went to England, entering Balliol College -Oxford and becoming a Barrister of the Inner Temple. During his years at Oxford, Kadirgamar was elected President of the Oxford Union Society known as the Oxford Union.

In 1958 during the communal violence in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, Lakshman Kadirgamar when interviewed by the media said that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was only a ‘politician’ and not a ‘statesman’ because of the violence. The next year Lakshman was instrumental in getting a portrait of S. W. R. D. hung up. The tradition is that any Union president who becomes head of state gets a bust. Since S. W. R. D. was only treasurer of the union he got a portrait. SWRD however was assassinated a few weeks before he was to visit Oxford for the ceremony. In his absence it was left to Lakshman to do the honours.

Many years later Lakshman Kadirgamar’s portrait was unveiled at the Oxford Union on March 18, 2005 by Rt. Hon. Lord Chris Patten of Barnes CH, Chancellor of the University of Oxford. In the 183-year history of the Oxford Union he is the 15th office-bearer whose bust or portrait is displayed in the Union building. Kadirgamar was also made Hon. Master of the Inner Temple-1995 – the second Asian to be made so after former Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

While at Balliol Kadirgamar married an artist, Angela Malik, of French-Pakistani descent. He had two children. Daughter Ajita a well – known media personality son Ragee (Sriraghavan) an architect. Kadirgamar later divorced his first wife and married again in 1996. He married Suganthi Wijeysuriya, a lawyer and senior partner at the law firm FJ and G de Saram. . Their wedding was a private one with Chandrika Kumaratunga and Gamani Corea being the attesting witnesses.

MP From the North

After returning to Sri Lanka in the ’60s from Oxford, Lakshman Kadirgamar began exploring prospects of a political career too. It is interesting to note that Kadirgamar at that time was contemplating a political future as an elected MP from the north. He was ardently wooed by both the Federal Party and Tamil Congress. Though he never joined those parties or participated actively in politics ,Kadirgamar interacted closely with Tamil politicians like S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, G. G. Ponnambalam, M. Tiruchelvam, E. M. V. Naganathan and M. Balasundaram.

Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva son of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam once lamented that when universal franchise was introduced he had to go “far” to Jaffna in search of a constituency though he had lived for the greater part of his life in Colombo.

This was Lakshman Kadirgamar’s dilemma too when he began toying with the idea of entering parliament. With G. G. Ponnambalam and S. J. V. Chelvanayagam evincing an interest in enticing the oxonian prodigy to their ranks, young Lakshman like A. Mahadeva had to look northwards.

Kadirgamar had accompanied Justice E. F. N. Gratiaen as secretary on several trips to Jaffna in the ’50s. Being secretary to the judge was a reward for his academic brilliance in law. Apparently an arrangement had been worked out by Prof. Nadarajah in this respect with Gratiaen.

Visits to Jaffna

Years after his trips to Jaffna with Gratiaen, ,Kadirgamar undertook several visits to Jaffna during the early sixties. One objective was to rediscover his roots. Another was to scout around for a prospective electorate. Though his own family was now Colombo based there were several others of the extended Kadirgamar family in Jaffna.

The trips to Jaffna kindled his enthusiasm for re- discovering his roots. He also read up vividly on Jaffna history and familiarised himself of the evolution and growth of Jaffna. He was a keen student of history and very much interested in the Jaffna kingdom. Though his pro-Tiger critics chided him as an ignoramus in the history and traditions of Jaffna, people who have heard him speak on the subject have been amazed at his knowledge and insight. There are few with Kadirgamar’s knowledge of Jaffna history in the camp of his detractors.

Lakshman’s trips to Jaffna prospecting for a constituency did not bear fruit. The prospective candidate’s enthusiasm was shortlived for two reasons. One was his discovery of the state of politics in the north. Tamil nationalism had risen to the fore and demanded pandering to that concept by prospective candidates.This narrow nationalism was not to Lakshman’s liking. Besides he was unable to speak Tamil to the extent of making political speeches. It was doubtful that Lakshman could face the hustle and bustle of Jaffna politics let alone win .

His Jaffna based cousins gave him their candid views on his political prospects in Jaffna. Lakshman realised that his political chances in the peninsula were very slim. He was further discouraged in his political ambition by his elder brothers in Colombo, Sam J. C. Kadirgamar the lawyer and Rajanathan (Rajan) Kadirgamar the Naval Commander. Both advised him to drop his political ambition and concentrate on his law.Lakshman heeded the advice of his brothers and cousins and began focusing on law.

Kadirgamar then settled down firmly in Colombo and began building up a solid practice. Then came the JVP insurgency of 1971. This had a profound impact on Lakshman. Though not affected directly, the JVP revolt made Lakshman feel that he should go abroad. He relocated to Britain in 1971

Returned Home in 1988.

After spending 17 years away from Sri Lanka ,Lakshman returned home in 1988. He re- established his legal practice in Colombo. Kadirgamar concentrated on industrial, labour and commercial law and intellectual property law.

A fact less known was that of Kadirgamar being discreetly consulted in a number of cases affecting Tamil detainees. He also proffered legal advice to some Tamils affected in the violence in procuring compensation. This was in association with a human rights organization.

The politics of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the early 1990s heralded a bright, new dawn for the country. There were high hopes that a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict was in sight.
It was in such a climate that Kadirgamar decided to enter politics in support of Kumaratunga.

Enter Politics

Initially the person who persuaded Kadirgamar to enter politics was the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam of the TULF. He was ably supported by lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama- wife of Sarath (CP) and daughter of Colvin (LSSP) – in this mission. One of Lakshman’s relatives, former Bank of Ceylon Chairman, Rajan Asirwatham also influenced him in this regard.

Lakshman was appointed MP from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led People’s Alliance (PA) National List in 1994. Thus one from the Kadirgamar family became a Member of Parliament. The dominant professional strands in the family were law, Christian clergyhood, teaching and service in the armed forces. Now for the first time an active full–time politician emerged.

During one of his Jaffna trips in the ’60s Kadirgamar addressed the Jaffna YMCA on an interesting theme. His lecture was titled ‘From Plato to Sirimavo’. When excerpts of that lecture were carried in newspapers Mrs. Bandaranaike was reportedly annoyed. Years later she herself telephoned Lakshman inviting him to join her daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s cabinet of which the grand old lady was Prime Minister.

Lakshman deciding to join the SLFP /PA in 1994 was a significant development as his family on account of its class character had been staunch UNP loyalists. Elder brother Sam Kadirgamar was the chief counting agent for Dudley Senanayake in 1965. Sam was offered an ambassadorship to Moscow which he declined. It is said that had Dudley returned to power in 1970 Sam may have been justice minister. Retired Naval Chief Rajan Kadirgamar too was a corporation chairman in the J. R. regime.

Foreign Minister

The new government had a majority of one through Up Country Peoples Front (UCPF) MP Periyasamy Chandrasekharan. He and Kadirgamar were the two Tamil representatives in the Govt. Initially. Kumaratunga offered them both deputy– minister posts as she wanted to restrict her cabinet to twenty. Chandrasekharan accepted but not Kadir.

Lakshman who rarely projected himself as a Tamil did so then. He pointed out that his community would consider it an insult if he was to be given only a deputy – ministership. Chandrika agreed. It was a choice of Justice or Foreign Affairs. Lakshman wanted the latter. He was immensely equipped for it. Subsequently
Kadirgamar demonstrated that he was the best man for the job.

When Kadirgamar became a cabinet minister he had visions of a just peace with honour for the Tamils. Like many of us he too shared the hope that the war was reaching an end and a negotiated settlement with the LTTE was in sight. One of his early speeches where he praised Prabhakaran for having “fought a good fight” was a classic and an index of his prevailing frame of mind at that time.

But when the LTTE broke faith and war resumed in 1995, Kadirgamar was greatly disappointed. Once it became clear that the war had to be prosecuted to its fullest, he acted in typical ‘team member’ style and lawyer-like fashion. He felt he was part of the government team and played according to rules. He was also like a Barrister arguing his brief. He made a case out for the government in international fora and decimated the case for the other side.

In Lakshman’s intellectual and spiritual journey Indian philosophical thought became heavily influential. Lakshman had evolved into an inter faith person. He was greatly enamoured of India’s greatest son Gauthama Buddha and this was no pretension caused by contemporary political compulsions.

Celestine Fernando lecture

Many years ago on October 9, 1992 , Lakshman Kadirgamar delivered the Rev. Celestine Fernando Memorial Address. The theme of that address was “ The Social Relevance of the Bible for, our times in a non-Christian society.” He observed then “Different creeds are the historical formulations of the formless truth. While the treasure is one and inviolable, the earthen vessel that contains it takes the shape and colour of its time and environment.”

The Celestine Fernando lecture caused some controversy in Christian circles because of the glowing references to Lord Buddha. He observed then: “Among the inspiring treasures of the human spirit is the memory of Gautama, the Buddha. His hold over the imagination of millions of our fellow beings is immense; his inspiration to braver and nobler living for centuries is incalculable; his contribution to the refining of the spirit of man and the humanising of human relations is immeasurable. And yet, attempts were made by men fighting under other flags, earnest lovers of their kind no doubt, to destroy the memory of that great soul, to terminate his influence. We can only attribute those efforts to prejudice, to ignorance.”

According to someone present at that lecture Kadirgamar’s main thesis was that Christianity shared many common values and teachings with Buddhism and that Jesus had been influenced by the teachings of the Buddha. These views correspond to the thesis in the famous book by the German theologian, Holger Kersten titled Jesus lived In India – His Unknown Life Before And After The Crucifixion.

So it is possible that Kadirgamar was increasingly attracted to the teachings of Buddha. But this seems more a milepost on an intellectual journey. He was very much a private person in his religious faith.

Praying Alone

On the day that Lakshman was sworn in as minister in 1994 in the early hours of the morning, a man was seen praying alone in the Buller’s Road, Anglican Cathedral. The then Bishop, Kenneth Fernando was walking in when he noticed this. That man was Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Universality of Religion

While his fundamental Christian faith remained he had evolved into one accepting the universality of religion though Christian dogmatists would dispute this. Kadirgamar was a theosophist – less of the Annie Besant and more of the Henry Steele Olcott variety.

This point was touched on by the historian and Lakshman’s first cousin Seelan Kadirgamar at his memorial service.This is what he reportedly observed: “His (Lakshman’s) religious convictions perceiving common values in the four great religions, has struck a responsive chord in me as among others, and I wish to affirm in the strongest terms have nothing to do with his assumption of office. As a student of Indian history I place him in the great tradition in Indian history from Asoka to Akbar, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Tagore, and Gandhi – inclusive and not exclusive.”

Clergy from the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islamic faiths were represented at his funeral.This was very much in keeping with his worldview. The state funeral also had a Buddhist Pansakula ceremony.

Lakshman’s Ashes

A Christian memorial service was also held by family members for Lakshman Kadirgamar.The memorial service a saw an intercession by Lakshman’s daughter Ajita. She stated that her step mother Suganthi had refused to give them at least a part of Lakshman’s ashes to be used for Christian rites and then buried at the family plot in Kanatte. All of Lakshman’s brothers and father’s remains are buried here.

Furthermore the ashes in their entirety had been scattered in the waters of Kalutara in the early hours of the morning without the Kadirgamar family members’ knowledge Though Christians usually bury their dead, in Sri Lanka cremation is not taboo either. In fact Christian burial services refer to “dust to dust and ashes to ashes”.

Apart from this the Colombo grapevine humed with stories of how the Kadirgamar family was sidelined in the funeral programme by Lakshman’s widow and how even accommodation in the family enclosure at the state funeral was made possible only due to President Kumaratunga’s intervention. The family was excluded among the pall-bearers too and it was Suganthi’s relatives who participated as Lakshman’s relatives.

Kadirgamar’s divorced wife and the mother of his only two children too was treated shabbily at the funeral. This was in stark contrast to how Srimani Athulathmudali conducted herself Vis-a-vis Lalith’s first wife at his funeral. Though the funeral was conducted according to Buddhist rites Lakshman’s son Ragee and grandson Keira lit the pyre on one side with one of Suganthi’s nephews doing so on the other.

Let me conclude this article with a few excerpts from an interview given by Lakshman Kadirgamar many years ago. The “Lanka Academic” website had a question and answer session with Kadirgamar .Some of his observations then reveal his thinking on some crucial issues.-


On Federalism –

“The PA is for a federal-type structure which could give minorities, and particularly the Tamils, ample autonomy in their regional affairs without allowing the disintegration or break up of the Sri Lankan State. Therefore, two principles are important – (1) to allow autonomy as much as it is necessary; (2) to ensure safeguards against any type of disintegration, break away or secession. We also believe that given current international developments and the challenges that our country is facing we need to have a rather strong system at the centre as well.”

“ Therefore, we propose considerable power sharing at the centre in addition to devolution of power to the regions or the periphery. There are several minorities in the country and their geographical spread is such that we need to ensure a full measure of human rights and safeguards and their participation at all levels of government from periphery to the centre. “

“There is another factor that we have to take into account. There is a system of federalism in India which is not as broad as in many Western countries. What was primarily in the minds of the Indian Constitution makers when they devised a federal form of government for India was to preserve the unity and integrity of that country without allowing for its disintegration.”

“This principle applies to South Asia in general considering the existence of several secessionist movements in our midst. We also have to take into account our own evolution towards a federal type of system since the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987. We already have in place some extensive measures of devolution of power, of course, with major structural impediments. …………. But the whole matter needs further and fuller discussion on a national scale in the light of evolving events on the ground in the North and East which throw doubt on whether the LTTE truly wishes to have a federal form of government, notwithstanding public statements to that effect”

On discrimination against Tamils –

” There was a time when, for instance, the use of Tamil for official purposes was not recognised and there was discrimination against the Tamil-speaking community in respect of education and employment. The Tamils had grievances. That cannot be denied. The situation is much better now. But since independence the ethnic policy of successive governments has been characterised by a lack of foresight, mismanagement and broken promises – the Bandaranike/Chelvanayakam pact and the Dudley Senanayake/Chelvanayakan pact are examples”.

On LTTE and armed struggle

” As for your question whether the Sri Lankan Tamils would have been better off if the LTTE did not drag the country into a bloody civil war, my personal view is that socio-economic and political questions can never be resolved by war. But one must try to understand why a generation of young Tamils who had witnessed unsuccessful satyagraha campaigns and other peaceful attempts to secure redress for their grievances came to the conclusion that there was no alternative but to resort to arms. “

“However, as the armed conflict has progressed it has become increasingly clear that war cannot resolve the problems that led to war in the first place. Many Tamils, even those of a moderate persuasion, hold the view that if the LTTE had not taken up arms the question of a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem would never have been considered by any government in the South. The same group of moderate Tamils would, I am sure, now say “enough of war”; the armed conflict must end; a solution must be found through negotiations.”

“ As for the homeland question I do not think the vast majority of Tamils, whether they presently live in Sri Lanka or abroad, would prefer to live under Mr. Prabhakarn’s rule, rather than in a free, democratic, united Sri Lanka where the rights of minorities are adequately safeguarded”.

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This article is an enhanced version of the “Political Pulse” Column appearing in the “Daily FT” of 16th August 2023. It can be accessed here –

https://www.ft.lk/columns/Lakshman-Kadirgamar-s-Jaffna-Tamil-Christian-heritage/4-751853