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Britain Honours the Great Anagarika Dharmapala

Photographs by Peaneeth Hettiarachchi Article by Pandula Ranatunga [ View Full Gallery Below ]

Celebration of 150th Birth Anniversary of Anagarika Dharmapala in London pays a fitting tribute to the Great Buddhist Revivalist

The London Buddhist Vihara, the oldest Buddhist temple outside Asia, successfully completed a week-long series of special tributes to honour its inspirational founder, Anagarika Dharmapala, on the occasion of his 150th Birth Anniversary. A stunning finale took place at the Hammersmith Town Hall on Sunday September 21st, which was the culmination of various commemorative initiatives, organised by several Buddhists in UK, which was graced by many dignitaries from a broad spectrum of people in the religious, political and cultural fields. This landmark gathering, which brought together people from all walks of life and different faith communities, was a fittingly memorable and cherished experience for all those who attended participated in the celebration, to pay homage to a single unique individual. Even the normally mundane Hammersmith Town Hall was filled to the rafters and transformed into a venue that captured a scene from Sri Lanka, with a resplendent back-drop, culturally reverential décor and delightfully arranged floral decorations which created a serene aura of dignity, that befitted the respectful felicitation of the life and work of this great Sri Lankan Buddhist visionary, who almost single-handedly led the Maha Bodhi movement and who many regard, as Buddhism’s greatest missionary, since the great Emperor

Anagarika Dharmapala 150th Birthday Commemoration – London – Highlights

Erudite Speakers

The celebrations in UK were an integral part of a global series of functions and activities, planned to happen around his actual birthdate of September 17, 1864, including many in Sri Lanka, which were specifically commissioned for this dedicated servant of the Buddha. Among the many rousing speakers at the Hammersmith Town Hall, was a welcome address by Ven Bogoda Seelawimala Thero, Chief Sangha Nayake of Great Britain; Ajahn Amaro, Abbot of the Amaravati Monastery in Great Gaddesden; Professor Bellanvila Wimalaratne, Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayawardhanapura in Sri Lanka; Dr Desmond Biddulph, President of The Buddhist Society; The Rev Duncan Green, Archdeacon of Northolt, who read a message from the Archbishop of Canterbury; and the Sri Lanka High Commissioner to UK, His Excellency, Dr.Chris Nonis. The keynote speech was given by Professor Asanga Tilakaratne who flew in from Sri Lanka especially for this event and is presently the Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies, at the University of Colombo, and was formerly Head of the Department of Buddhist Philosophy in the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies at the University of Kelaniya. They all spoke of Anagarika’s monumental contribution to the awakening of the consciousness of his countrymen during the period of colonial domination, propagation and upkeep of the Buddha’s Birth place and his great life’s legacy which still resonates with many to this day to carry and transmit the Buddha’s supreme teachings.


Cultural Glory

In addition to the formalities of speakers, the audience was treated to vibrant performances of many children and adults alike. Anagarika who was a social reformer and a fervent supporter and admirer of Sri Lankan values and culture, would have been proud of the uniquely preserved heritage that was displayed and brought together by the organisers of this unique event. It is poignant to remember, that in contrast to UK’s current rich multicultural society, when the Anagarika first set foot in England, more than a century ago, there was no one from his own country with whom he could befriend, yet despite this, he had the determination and foresight to somehow establish Buddhism in the very heart of the then most powerful nation in the world. These attributes were dutifully reflected in a beautiful rendition of a Sinhala tribute song to the great Anagarika, especially composed for the occasion by resident monk Konwewe Ariyarathana, which was sung by the LBV Sunday Dhamma School Teachers & Parents. In addition, the spectators were treated to a series of dance performances choreographed by respected dance trainers, Kamalangani Kalayathanaya and Attanayaka Rangayathanaya. There was also the Award of Prizes for the Winners of the Anagarika Dharmapala Essay, Presentation and Speech Contests which was held amongst the students of the LBV Sunday Dhamma School. Devin Hewage, the winner of the Speech Contest gave an inspirational recitation of his discourse, which delightfully captivated the packed Hall. Dr Nyanis Subesinghe was the dutiful Master of Ceremonies, who seamlessly introduced each item and ensured that then whole event flowed gracefully along. Ven Tawalama Bandula, gave the Vote of Thanks. Sunday’s celebration was concluded by the reverberating percussive beats a panoply Sri Lankan female drummers, which certainly added to the euphoria of this touching cultural and religious celebration.


The Flowering of Buddhism

Prior to the Hammersmith Town Hall event, there were a succession of events that started from Sunday, 13th September at the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick. Throngs of devotees and admirers had flocked to its premises, during this week long tribute of functions to pay respects to its founder. The events commenced with all-night chanting on 13th September by the Sri Lankan Maha Sangha, representing all UK temples, followed by an offering of Dana to the Maha Sangha on 14th September and on the same evening, the start of a unique 7-day Exhibition, to honour and share awareness with the general public, of Anagarika Dharmapala’s life and work. Each event proved to be an immense success, with large crowds gathering each day at the Vihara.

The exhibition, The Flowering of Buddhism told the story of one of the great sons of Sri Lanka, who was born in the 19th Century in British Ceylon as David Hewavitarne, at a time when colonial values were profoundly altering the island’s people. Steeped in Buddhist values, he takes up the name of Anagarika Dharmapala and helps to galvanise his native countrymen into believing they should reclaim their cultural and religious heritage. His endeavours as a social reformer are also remembered for planting the seeds of the Ceylonese people’s struggle for independence. However, he will be most remembered for his work in reviving Buddhism. Dharmapala was able to restore the rights of Buddhists to manage and worship at all the most significant holiest shrines of their own faith. Since his work, the sites such as where the Buddha most gained Enlightenment, at Buddha Gaya, where he preached his first sermon (dhammacakka sutta) at Sarnath, are now visited each year by millions of pilgrims from all over the world. The Anagarika was a tireless traveller, at a time when it was extremely difficult to do so, yet who relentlessly spoke passionately to audiences globally about Buddhism being a world religion, and this eventually led to the establishment of London Buddhist Vihara, the first Buddhist Temple outside Asia, being founded in UK in 1926. The exhibition also gave attendees opportunity of understanding a unique individual, his dedicated contribution to Buddhism and the other renowned figures in the Buddhist Revivalist movement in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, ie Migettuwatte Sri Gunananda Thero, Sir Edwin Arnold, Col Henry Steel Olcott, Helena Blavatsky, Mary Foster, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero and Christmas Humphreys.

The Most Venerable Bogoda Seelawimala Nayake Thero, Head of the Vihara, who had been the driving force behind a series of special tributes extended his thanks to all those who were tirelessly involved in these colossal efforts to honour this Buddhist icon. Anagarika Dharmapala will be remembered in history as the greatest Buddhist revivalist since Emperor Ashoka and the first person to teach the Buddha Dhamma in three continents: Asia, North America, and Europe.

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Praneeth Hettiarachchi

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