30 May, 2024


Reflections On The History Of Jaffna College

By Silan Kadirgamar

Silan Kadirgamar

Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Jaffna Colleg Alumni Association – Colombo Branch, and 190th anniversary of the Batticotta (Vaddukoddai) Seminary (1823) and Jaffna College (1872) 3rd August 2013.

One recalls an event in 1953, the annual dinner of the Academy. Three formal annual dinners took place in the college those days. These were that of the Alumni, the Academy (the literary association of students in the university entrance classes) and that of the Undergraduates’ Union. Distinguished chief guests often from the South graced these occasions. The dinners consisted of four or five courses with six speeches – the toast to the College, toast to the association and the toast to the guests with the respective responses. For students these were hilarious and memorable occasions, several dressed in full suit and tie for the first time. The speeches were humorous and of a high order. Alcohol prohibited in the college the glasses raised was filled with Machado ginger beer. In the dinner term the students in their wisdom and at times by consensus elected the most competent public speakers in English.

In 1953 the chief guest was Senator Sir Chittambalam Gardiner. In proposing the toast to the college the then principal of the Palaly Teachers Training College raised a question in all seriousness as to what right we had to call the college Jaffna College with an exclusive right to the name Jaffna. Mr. Lyman Kulathungam, senior Vice-Principal was to respond but the president of the academy Rajakumaran, took upon himself to reply to this particular comment. He plainly told the gentleman (as tapping of the tables and loud cheers filled the air) that the College was the first institution of a collegiate status in Jaffna when founded in 1872 and that we do take legitimate pride in this. All the other educational institutions were schools and over a period of time achieved collegiate status.

The seal in our publications reads Jaffna College – Ceylon with 1823 on the left and 1872 on the right, clearly proclaiming that the College was not a mere Vaddukoddai or Jaffna school but an all-Island College. Jaffna College was the successor of the Batticotta (Vaddukoddai) Seminary. The seminary had been closed in 1855. In 1872 some of the American Missionaries, former teachers and Alumni took the bold decision to establish Jaffna College, inspired by the illustrious academic achievements of the Batticotta Seminary. In between there existed a Vaddukoddai Mission school run by the American Ceylon Mission as in other parts of Jaffna.

Jaffna College Entrance & Administration Block

Jaffna College (then fully residential) focused on paving the way for higher education leading to Indian University examinations. It was an Independent Christian College free from the shackles of any established church, though it did have a close relationship with the American Ceylon Mission.

These ideals and aims persisted through the subsequent decades, and notably in 1947when a full-fledged Undergraduate Department was established. The tradition in education that led the Board and Faculty was to emulate the high standards achieved by the Batticotta Seminary.

This year 2013 the Colombo Alumni celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of this association in 1913, which significantly is the 190th anniversary of the Batticotta Seminary. While we specifically focus on the anniversary of the Colombo Alumni (the parent association in Jaffna having been founded in 1879) we also observe the 190th anniversary of the Batticotta Seminary and its successor Jaffna College.

Continuity and change are recurrent themes in facets of history pertaining to countries, peoples and institutions. Hence Jaffna College is used here to cover the whole period from 1823 as the Jaffna College Miscellany Jubilee Number did in its landmark issue in celebrating the 125th anniversary in 1947, editors of this issue being L.S.Kulathungam and C.R.Wadsworth and the manager  C.S.Ponnuthurai, distinguished and knowledgeable teachers the likes of whom we are unlikely to see in decades to come

The Batticotta (Vaddukoddai) Seminary

Modern education in Jaffna and for that matter in Ceylon begins with the founding of the Batticotta Seminary in1823 by the American Ceylon Mission. Rev.Dr.Daniel Poor was the first principal. The first girls’ boarding school in Asia was founded in Uduvil in 1824. In imparting higher education the Batticotta Seminary was second only to Carey College in Serampore, Calcutta, in the Indian sub-continent and obviously one of the oldest in Asia. Officials of the British Colonial administration have testified to the quality of education imparted.

The Colebrook Commission Report of 1831 stated: “the students have some creditable proficiency in mathematics and in other branches of useful knowledge affording the most satisfactory proofs of the capacity of the natives and their disposition to avail themselves of the opportunities of improvement afforded to them. The American missionaries were fully impressed with the importance of rendering the English language as the general medium of instruction and of the inestimable value of this acquirement in itself to the people.”

Sir Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary in Ceylon after his visit to the Seminary in 1848:  “The course of education is so comprehensive as to extend over a period of eight years of study … The knowledge exhibited by the pupils was astonishing; … it was no exaggeration to say that in the course of instruction and in the system of communicating the collegiate institution of Batticotta is entitled to rank with many European Universities.”

Equal importance was given to the study of Tamil together with English. Sanskrit was included and for some students Hebrew as well. Sir Emerson Tennent’s  reference to “collegiate institution … entitled to rank with many European Universities” is of particular relevance today when none of Lanka’s fourteen universities rank globally within the top one thousand five hundred. Bishop Kulandran observed that the seminary brought about a tremendous upsurge the like of which has never been seen in the country before or after.

Jaffna College in the late Nineteenth Century

Reminiscences of their student days covering the early period of the college in the 1870s and 80s by Mr. Chelliah H.Cooke and Mr.Tampu Buell who lived to a ripe old age were published in the 1947 issue of the Miscellany, giving valuable insights into the quality of education and life at the college. Mr.Cooke who entered the college in 1875 and graduated in 1879, gives a summary of the daily routine:

Rising, 5: Gymnastics 6-6.30; Prayers 6.45-7; Class 7-8; Breakfast 8-9; Class 9-10; Study 10-11; Class 11-12; Leisure and Dinner 12-1.30; Writing 1.30 – 2; Study 2-2.45; Class 2.45 – 3.30; Study 3.30 – 4.15; Class 4.15 – 5; Prayers 5 – 5.15; Leisure and Supper 5.15 – 7; Study 7-9.

It is worth noting that classes were immediately followed by study hours. Examinations and certificates were issued in three stages called the Preliminary, the Junior and the Senior. There were also periodic examinations when teachers and members of the public examined the students. These, known as public exams had no written papers. It was done orally. Discipline was maintained and punishments included fines, suspension and as a last resort dismissal. From its very inception Jaffna College had no corporal punishment, a proud record in the history of education in the then Ceylon.

Mr. Buell passed the entrance exam to the College in 1881 and was among two dozen students selected from 125 who sat the exams. “Imagine my joy and pride” he wrote, “when I fancied myself then that I had entered an American University and a University indeed Jaffna College proved to be.” Dr.E.P.Hastings, the last principal of the Seminary was the first principal of the college and planned the whole curriculum. It is noteworthy that the American Missionaries on the faculty had high educational qualifications some having been on the faculties of American Universities before or after their period at both the Batticotta Seminary and Jaffna College.

The curriculum included Mathematics, Science, Logic, Rhetoric, Moral and Mental Philosophy and Theological studies for students intending to enter the Christian ministry. Courses included Tamil, Latin, English, Indian History and the History of Rome and Greece. It was not all study.

Mr. Buell writes of the pranks they had at the College; the fights, the ducking in the tanks, and bringing down of young coconuts from the College palms.

Among the notable events in this period was the election of Glover Cleveland brother of Mrs.E.P.Hastings (the wife of the principal) as president of the U.S.A. The event was celebrated in the college and marked by the planting of several mahogany tress some standing to this day.

In 1891 the College was affiliated to the Calcutta University and in 1907 to the Madras University. In 1921 the London University Intermediate classes were started. Day students were admitted from 1909 and co-education was introduced in 1925.

Twentieth Century

The period of the three B’s marked the rapid expansion of the College. The Rev.G.G.Brown succeeded the Rev.Hastings as principal in 1908. The College colours Crimson and Gold were adopted Crimson depicting the colour of blood symbolizing hard work, sacrifice and service and Gold symbolizing the sterling qualities of character.

Brown was succeeded by the Rev.John Bicknell in 1916 to begin the most remarkable and memorable period in the history of the College marked by the quality of education imparted and the character of the men produced who occupied prominent positions in the public life of this country including the professions, politics and teaching and among them were several eminent principals of other Colleges in Jaffna. In 1923 Mr.J.V.Chelliah became the first national to be appointed vice- principal. The Alumni of that period remembered the Bicknell era as the golden era of the College when an all-round education was provided. His pre-mature death in 1936 was widely mourned. Handy Perinbanayagam, without doubt the outstanding product of the Bicknell era both as student and teacher delivered a memorable eulogy at his funeral. He concluded his tribute with these oft quoted words; “Truly may it be said of him, there was a man sent from God and his name was John.”

The liberal tradition at Jaffna College struck root in his period. When I and my contemporaries entered the College in 1947 almost all the teachers were either old students of the College or had been recruited to the staff in the Bicknell era and they carried the stamp of that era in their personalities often talking about that era in and outside our classes. Handy Perinbanayagam, Lyman Kulathungam, J.C.Amerasingam and S.T.Jeevaratnam were the first to wear the national dress as their College attire in an era when the colonial tradition of wearing western attire – coat and tie was common. This was in the 1920s when the Gandhian national movement was ascendant in India and the Jaffna Youth Congress had been founded in Jaffna in which several key members came from Jaffna College.

In the cricket field his famous telegram from Colombo to the team was often quoted “the match is not over until the last ball is bowled.” Jaffna College was losing the match against St.Patricks, but went on to eventually win the game.

The third of the B’s was Rev.Sydney K.Bunker who assumed duties in 1937. He remained principal until he was elevated as President of the College in 1947 when the Undergraduate Department of Jaffna College was founded. Mr.K.A.Selliah became principal. The Alumni of our generation take pride in this era 1937 to1966 as the Bunker-Selliah-Kulathungam era when the College expanded reaching 1200 students plus 300 in the undergraduate department and became one of the centers of excellence in education not only in Jaffna but in the island. Large numbers of students came from Malaysia, Singapore and once we even had two students from Uganda. The College had several Sinhalese students from the South and an occasional Muslim student.

Over twenty percent of the teachers were from South India, mostly from Kerala and many of them taught the sciences. In the 1940s and 50th there were three American couples on campus, a German Jew and later a Dutch family. Both Bunker and Selliah in their wisdom recruited these teachers leading to excellent results in admissions to the faculties of Medicine, Engineering and Science in the then one and only University of Ceylon.  Mr.S.V.Balasingam who became principal in 1965 was an eminent teacher of History, Government and Politics. In the 1950s to the sixties in the History Department of the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya and Colombo) six out of the seven Tamil lecturers had been products of Jaffna College. Thanks to Balasingam, a unique record indeed.

Bunker’s idealism was balanced off by Selliah’s pragmatism and administrative qualities. But both were men of great compassion, especially to the minor staff.  J.H.Ariyaratnam (Registrar of the Undergraduate Department) said at his memorial service in 1968  “(Bunker) was a dreamer of dreams and yet had a way of communicating his dreams to others  and making them want to give his dreams shape and form.”

Mr. Pooranampllai, former principal of Hartley College in his tribute to Selliah titled “On the earth, but not of it”, wrote that four qualities mark a successful school head – he must be a good classroom teacher, a capable organizer, a firm and tactful administrator, and a kind pastor. Selliah had all these qualities.

A memorable incident in the Bunker-Selliah period is worth recording. This was an exciting football match between Jaffna College and St.Patrick’s College on the St.Patrick’s grounds in 1947. JC had not beaten St.Patrick’s for twelve years. This time hopes ran high that the splendid team could break through the drought of winless games. The match was heading for a goalless draw and the pace became faster and faster and the excitement within the crowd ran high. At the last moment the famous centre forward Ramachandran shot the winning goal and what a win it was for JC. Selliah, Fr.Long, Bunker and S.T.Jeevaratnam (football coach) were seated together. Selliah and Jeevaratnam were so carried away that they stood up on their seats and cheered. Bunker threw his hat jubilantly into the air. JC was known for its last minute goals and a similar event repeated itself when JC was almost losing 1 – 2 in 1950 on the Bicknell field. Again it was Ramachandran nicknamed Stud who in the last minute dribbled the ball through the Patrician defense from half line and shot the goal that drew the match in an exciting finish for traditional rivals in the battle of the golds. Fr.Long declared Monday a holiday for JC and Selliah reciprocated by declaring a holiday for St.Patricks. Such events remain imbedded in the memories of the students of that generation.

Lyman Kulathungam was a veteran teacher of English Literature and Latin and at times of Government and Politics. He excelled in acting Shakespeare plays and was a much sought after public speaker. He was one of the accomplished teachers on Shakespeare in the country. Entrance to the University of Ceylon with English was a tough deal. The University admitted only 40 students to the English department and most of them came from the Colombo schools. But Lyman Kulathungam’s great contribution was to be able to send students from JC with English as a subject. He was editor of the Miscellany for 32 years and also of the Morning Star for 42 years.  At the Round Table farewell dinner to him when he retired in 1963 Bunker referred to him as a forgiving man. Rev.D.T.Niles once referred to him as one having one of the fundamental qualities of being a Christian – the capacity to compromise. As warden of the senior hostel the most troublesome hostel in the College he would hold disciplinary inquiries into the early hours of the morning until warring factions among students reconciled.  A favourite poem he often repeated was from Browning’s – Rabbi Ben Ezra – “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.”  

From the 1960s the college had to face many challenges. The nationalization of schools in 1962 forced Jaffna College to go private non-fee levying which placed a great deal of pressure on the then administration. In 1965-68 the holding of University of London examinations, (GCE A/L, B.A, B.SC. and B.Sc Economics) were terminated in a short-sighted and foolish move by the government and was a major blow to the college the community and the country.

It was in this context that the brief tenure of Balasingham took place succeeded by the -Kadirgamar- Rajasingam  period. These years are of recent memory. The forcible take-over in 1975 of the best part of the College campus to establish the science faculty of the University of Jaffna with a mere 48 hours notice was the biggest blow the College faced. The excellent library was moved to the Thirunelvely campus. The Board of Directors panicked and closed the Undergraduate Department. The vision of a Collegiate education from 1823, revived in 1872 and again in 1947 came to an abrupt end. The College never recovered from this blow.

In another move by the Board of Directors in 1980 lacking in wisdom and practicality was their decision not to accept the grant-in-aid paying the salaries of teachers by the Jayawardene government, thereby becoming totally dependent together with the Uduvil Girls’ College on funding from the Trustees in the USA. All the private schools in the Island including Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist accepted the new scheme. Valuable foreign funding was now used to pay salaries of teachers, thereby depriving the College of focusing on facilities, such as hostels, sports, information technology, the teaching of English, and the training of teachers here and abroad in the pursuit of excellence in education both Secondary and Collegiate.

The war from 1983 to 2009 placed a heavy burden on the staff and administrators who had to make great sacrifices to keep the College going.

In the post Rajan Kadirgamar period (1988 to 2002) there were three principals. They were Rev. Jebanesan, later Bishop, Rajanayagam and Rev. Paul. The present principal Noel Vimalendran assumed duties as principal in 2003.

Concluding Remarks

Why go back to a History of the College at this time? The war is over. Now is a time for new opportunities. We now have new generations of students educated in the Tamil medium that deserve a better education leading to meaningful employment. Jaffna College had a unique history and names mentioned in this article and many others had a vision that was sustained for over a century and a half. That vision must be restored. It is a vision that has been repeatedly stressed in successive issues of the Miscellany (initially published in 1880) which is a rare source for our history, especially the notable roles played by hundreds of teachers. Sadly the Miscellany ceased publication.  Hopefully some youth today in the College will recapture this vision and Jaffna College will return to its status as a leading centre of education in the country (all Ceylon or Lankan) and possibly in the Asian region. A heritage once destroyed or lost will take decades to be revived. But a beginning must be made now. The Colombo Alumni even as we celebrate this special anniversary seeks to keep this hope alive.

Mr.N.Sabaratnam was an old boy of the Bicknell era and a distinguished educationist and principal of Jaffna Hindu College. He was also for many years after retirement writer of the editorial in the Jaffna based Eelanadu.  He paid a great tribute to Sellliah and Kulathungam when both died in 1983.

He wrote “It is not given to everyone to serve and be associated with one’s alma mater for such a long period – more than sixty years, as was given to these two veterans. And that brings me to the point that explains what is crucial to this wonderful phenomenon. Education as a preparation for life or social living may sound old fashioned today; but read between the lines there lurks the secret that a school organized as a free and happy community turns out men of character that are in short supply now.

Jaffna College was always well known for its liberal tradition. Character involves disciplined behavior; such discipline is self-imposed. When we consider the crooks of our society we realise that mere intellect does not develop character.” (Selliah-Kulathungam number of the Miscellany 1983)

Mr. Sabaratnam wrote these thirty years ago. Today the crooks, the bribe givers and takers, the charlatans and opportunists have multiplied a thousand fold. And they are in the three branches of the state, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, in our universities and schools, the professions, the medical services, in the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) and most disturbing even in the religious institutions of all faiths including churches. This is a challenge that has to be faced and must begin with education that provides character building and self-imposed discipline.


Chelliah.J.V. 1922 (Reprint 1984). A Century of English Education, the Story of

Batticotta Seminary and Jaffna College, Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai.

Jaffna College Miscellany, Jubilee Number 1947

Jaffna College Miscellany, Bunker – Balasingham Memorial Number 1970

Jaffna College Miscellany, Centenary Publication 1981

Jaffna College Miscellany, Selliah – Kulathungam Memorial Number 1983

Lakshman S Perera (Dr.) The Colebrooke Commission and Educational Reforms, Chapter 33 in Education in Ceylon, A Centenary Volume, Part II, The Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, Ceylon 1969

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Hopefully these good memories of those good days will prompt a few of us to try to recreate them.

  • 0

    Silan must be congratulated for this paper on Jaffna College helping us to reminisce on Jaffna College. His father the Rev. Kadirgamar was chaplain in the late fifties. his brothers Alagan, Rajan the one time principal and the other who became a priest whose name I cannot remember now, made singular contributions to the society in Jaffna. Alagan was secretary to the central YMCA in Colombo. His reference to S V Balasingham the brilliant teacher of history is very refreshing. Silan has perhaps missed out on the fact that the Morning Star that Lyman Kulathungam was editor of for 42 years was the first English weekly in Sri Lanka. jayahanthan

    • 1

      The Morning Star was bilingual and may claim to be the first Tamil newspaper or first bilingual newspaper but not the first English newspaper. The Morning Star started in 1841.

      Technically the first newspaper was the Government Gazette, Ceylon, first out in 1802. On the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission in 1833 other newspapers were started. Then the Colombo Journal was begun by Governor Barnes. The Observer was the first independent newspaper and was begun I believe in 1834.

  • 1

    Thank you for this very informative article ! I learnt a lot from this, my grandfather went here many years ago.
    Hopefully we will rise again to even greater heights.

  • 1

    “School where our fathers learnt the way before us”.

    Its quality of education, academic influence, and beauty made it one of the most prestigious “universities” in South Asia in the 19th Century.

    Should raise it again to the University that it was. Make the Tech School a private Eng. College. It will serve local needs competitively. Jaffna would again become great like in the 19th century.In spite of losing many precious books during the formation of the U. of Jaffna, its Library still has some rare books that are must-read. Best Wishes to JC.

  • 1

    WOW, this article refreshes the current generation with the wonderful scores of history.
    Thanks Mr. Silan Kadirgamer.

  • 2

    I am an old student of Jaffna College and left fairly abruptly in 1961 when I was in the upper HSC class. Mr Chelliah was the principal and Mr Lymen Kulathungam was the vice principal.I would love to get to know some of my old class mates and if possible be a member of an alumni.

    I am Malaysian Citizen and am a practising Obstetrician and Gynaecologist in Kuala Lumpur.

    Thanks Indeed
    Guna Sittampalam

    • 0

      As I have written earlier I was an old student of Jaffna College. Silan Kadirgamar was probably my class mate. I wish to be a member of the Alumni association and contribute in my humble ways.

      My email gunasittampalam@hotmail.com . I was know in the school as Gunasekaran.

      Can someone give me the phone number email address and other pariculars of the alumni please?

      Can you please write to me Silan?

      Guna Sittamapalam

  • 1

    I was an old student of Jaffna College from 1951 to 1961. Currently I am a practicing Obstetrician and gynaecologist in Kuala Lumpur.

    It was with great excitement that I read the news of Jaffna College. If I am not mistaken Silan was my class mate in the upper secondary school????

    How do I get the address of the Alumni and the telephone number in Colombo? Can anyone help me?

    Guna Sittampalam

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