The last erudite who departs | Sunday Observer
Wimal G. Balagalle:

The last erudite who departs

1 August, 2021

Professor Emeritus Wimal G. Balagalle, the last of the early generation of erudite scholars, passed away two weeks ago, on July 16 at the age of 97. He was versatile in more than six languages including Sinhala, Pali, Prakit, Sanskrit, Bengali languages, English, and wrote multiple scholarly books and articles. He joined the University of Vidyodaya or Sri Jayewardenepura on February 19, 1959 as an Assistant Registrar when it was bestowed university status. Then he became an assistant lecturer, a Professor and the head of the Sinhala department in the university. The extraordinary thing about this is that all these events happened the same year he joined the university which is a record in the university history.

He worked there until the year 1990 for 31 years, and during that time he acted as the Dean of the Language department, Dean of the Faculty and also an acting Vice Chancellor from time to time while working as a Professor. In this article, we try to elaborate his great scholarly life which built up the glory of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

Early life of a brilliant student

Wimal G. Balagalle or Wimal Gunasekara Balagalle was born on November 24, 1924 in Balagalle, Hapitigama Korale in Gampaha district. His father was Kannangara Pathirannahelage Pieris Appuhami and mother was Enso Nona Ranasinghe. After giving the basic knowledge about the spellings by his father, he was admitted to Vidyatilake Buddhist Boy’s School in Ullalapola close to Balagalla at the age of five. Every year he became the first in the class and when he sat for the Junior School Certificate examination in 1938, he got a first class honours. The same year he won the first place for his short story titled ‘Weradee giya Upakramaya’ (The missed trick) in an inter-school writing competition in the Gampaha District.

In 1938 he entered the Wickramsheela Pirivena in Pallewela for the secondary education. While studying there he used to go to Saraswati Pirivena in Balagalle on poya days. There he met Ven. Hissalle Gnanodaya Thera who ignited the enthusiasm for oriental languages and Piriven education in him. Thinking of a full time scholarly life, Balagalle became very much interested in the priestly life. Not long before, he turned a bikkhu. Yet he continued his studies at the Wickramasheela Pirivena as a residential student.

At the Pirivena he was able to closely associate with Ven. Kukulnape Dewarakkhita Thera, the director of the Pirivena. He was the one who taught him Vanga language. Apart from reading traditional Buddhist books and sacred texts, he also prepared to face the Senior School Certificate examination. At the same time he studied Oriental languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, Prakrit and also Vanga language. And he could also learn the astrology by S.W. Kasturiratne, a prominent astrologer.

In 1945, he entered the Vidyodaya Pirivena’s higher education section in Maligakanda, Colombo. There he was lucky enough to having studies under the erudite thera such as Ven. Baddegama Piyaratana, the Principal of the Pirivena at the time, Ven. Welivitiye Sorata, the Principla of the Pirivena after the Ven. Piyaratana Thera, Ven. Palannoruwe Wimalabuddhi, Ven. Dr. Dehigaspe Pagnasara and Ven. Kalukondayawe Pragnasekara. He completed his studies in the Piriwena with a ‘Shyamaraja’ award in 1949.

Then in 1950, he passed the final examination of the oriental studies or the Panditha Upadhi with an honorary class becoming the first from the island. He also won the ‘Prāchīna Swarna Mudrikawa’ award or the Prāchīna Pandit Gold Medal in this examination which was a national record. A news item was also published regarding this matter along with a photograph of him on the first page in Dinamina newspaper, the sister paper of Sunday Observer in 1950.

Though he completed all the qualifications in oriental education, he took the Senior School Certificate examination in English medium in 1951. But before reaching the final results of it he sat for the University Entrance, and he passed it too. Then he entered the University of Peradeniya in 1952. He didn’t want to collect the qualifications for jobs by this education. He just wanted to gather knowledge to reach the heights of erudite people. As a result he passed out from the university with a B.A. (Hons.) degree in 1956. By this time he had left the priesthood.

Emerging erudite

It was during this time that the movement for taking the university status for Vidyodaya Pirivena started. Ven. Welivitiye Sorata was at the forefront of it. When that status was realised, the Ven. Thera became the Vice Chancellor of the University. He naturally selected Balagalle for the staff. But he was recruited as the Assistant Registrar with the responsibilities over University examinations. However, he was soon appointed an assistant lecturer, then a Professor and then the head of the Sinhala department in the university. As stated at the beginning, all these appointments happened within a year. Yet the person behind these changes was Ven. Welivitiye Sorata Thera who knew the abilities of Balagalle more than anyone else as he was his teacher.

In October, 1961 Balagalle left the country to pursue his post graduate studies in the University of London, England. There he further studied the linguistics, and while he was learning he also got a chance to engage in linguistic researches at the University of Washignton in the United States. And it was during this time that he was appointed the editor and the consultant for Critical Pali Dictionary by Royal Danish Academy in Corpanhegan, Denmark too.

He came back to Sri Lanka was in December, 1963, and afterwards, he once again involved in the teaching and researching at the university. It is also noteworthy to mention that though he received the sabbatical leave for a few times after this tour, he never took them to leave the country except for a three-month research work at the University of London in 1988. He took that short leave to research in the Sinhala phonetics by means of language laboratory in the University while referring books at the British Museum.

Records set by the Professor

Professor Balagalle set a few records in the University too. One is that he was the youngest Professor at the university field in Sri Lanka who came to that position at the age of 35. In 1984 he was conferred the D.Lit honorary degree by the University of Sri Jayewardene when it celebrated its silver jubilee. The record is he took that award while he was still a lecturer at the University. When an honorary degree was conferred on a guest by the University, Prof. Balagalle naturally came forward to introduce them with a scholarly lecture about them. So he was the speaker who took that chance for most number of times in the University which was a record too. The late Prof. A.V. Suraweera once said if one could compile those D.Lit introductory lectures, it might have been a very serious book.

In recognition of his academic contribution to the academic field, a second honorary Doctorate was also conferred upon him by the Buddhist and Pali University in 2008 while in 2018 Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka awarded him the Gold medal for his unparalleled contribution to the oriental languages and linguistics. Sometimes this may also be a record as there wasn’t anyone who received such multiple awards.

His publications

The first book by Prof. Wimal G. Balagalle was Panchatantra Anuwadaya (Adaptation of Panchatantra) published in 1950. The second book of him was Welivita Asarana Sarana Saranankara Mahanahimi Charitaya (Most Venerable Welivita Asarana Sarana Saranankara Thera). The third book was Sunetra Maha Devi Piriven Ithihasaya (History of the Sunetra Maha Devi Pirivena) also published in 1956. The next came out the Pahiyange Deshatana Vartava (Record of the Buddhist Kingdom by Fa Xian) in 1958, which won the UNESCO literary award. The fifth book by him was Sinhala Stupawansa Sanskaranaya (Edition of Sinhala Stupas) which was co-edited with Prof. Wimala Wijayasuriya and published in1964.

After retiring from university teaching in 1990, he started to publish his most important scholarly books which include Sinhala Bashawe Sambawaya Ha Parinamaya (Origin and Evolution of Sinhala Language - 1992), Basha Adyayanaya Ha Sinhala Wyawaharaya (Language Studies and Sinhala Usage - 1995) which won the state literary prize for the best scholarly book in 1996, Sinhala Bashawe Prabawaya Ha Prawardanaya (Origin of Sinhala Language and Its Development - 1996) which explores the genetic relatedness of Sinhala from a comparative historical linguistic perspective and attempts to locate Sinhala in the typology of Indo-European languages, and Sinhala Basha Adyayana Itihasaya (The History of the Studies on Sinhala Language - 1998) which won the state literary award in 1999.

In 2001, was his next important book, Wilhelm Geiger - Sinhalaye Vaag Vidyatmaka Swarupaya. It is a translation of Wilhelm Geiger’s ‘The Linguistic Character of Sinhalese’. He critically examines Geiger’s work in it with outstanding analytical depth and new insights. Another important classical book of him, Sinhala Bhashadyayana Lipi (Articles on Studies of Sinhala Language) was published in 2004.

Apart from these books he also wrote more than 50 scholarly articles for various magazines, felicitation volumes and university editions. Some of them were Sinhala Bashawe Ithihasaya Awisseema (Vidudaya, 1960), Sinhalayehi Sagnaka Akuru (Sanskruthi, 1983), Perani Indiyawe Sahitya Vicharaya (Sahityaya, 1958) and Cumaratunga Munidasa Shabdikayaku Lesa (Nuwana, 1990). This is in addition to his scholarly contributions to the Ministry of Education Pirivena Section, Educational Publications Department, Board of Consultants to Educational Publications, Glossaries, as Editor in Chief of Sinhala Dictionary Office during 1994-2001, and to the many other similar institutes and projects of national significance.

His great service to the nation

The unique service that he rendered to the linguistic field is that he could reconcile the Sinhala linguistic tradition with modern linguistic thought that gained much prominence in the 20th century. His linguistic studies that came as books and articles amply demonstrate this fact. Because of them he could widen the perimeters of the linguistic field. What made this mammoth task possible was his scholarship in oriental languages, excellent command of English, training in Linguistics with some of the outstanding linguists of Europe, and beneath all that, a sincere commitment to the discipline, to the university, and to the nation at large.

Definitely, the knowledge he imbibed from our traditional Pirivenas and Western universities is incomparable. When he was a Buddhist monk he could closely associate with erudite bikkhus such as Ven. Boruggamuwe Revatha, Ven. Baddegama Piyarathana, Ven. Weliwitiye Soratha, Ven. Palannaruwe Wimaladhamma, Ven. Dehigaspe Pagnaasara and Ven. Kalukondayaye Pragnasekara. These encounters along with his overseas research experiences in highest universities in Europe and America enriched him immensely for his eruditeness. Therefore, we can assess him as a unique blend of wisdom and education, tradition and modernity and academic brilliance and prudent application.

And one cannot forget his immense contribution to the Sinhala Dictionary and the continuation of Sinhala Mahavansa too, because he was the Chief Editor of the Sinhala Dictionary from 1994 to 2002 and the Chairman of the Sinhala Mahavansa Compilation Committee for years.

And he acted as an excellent resource person for university academics, its administrators and journalists as well. Until his death people consulted him on language issues and matters related to the history of the university pertaining to administration, rules and regulations and university traditions.

Scholars’ views

In the book, Professor Wimal G. Balagalle Prasada Pranama, a felicitation volume, the late Professor A.V. Suraweera said about Balagalle as follows:

“The erudite person that he is, can be compared to a pond brimming with clear water. It is imperative that any scholar or a layman, who came up to this pond, is satisfied by filling knowledge. He is literally an excellent teacher and a Professor.”

Professor J.B. Dissanayake said about him to the Sunday Observer as below:

“I consider the late Prof. Wimal G. Balagalle as my father after my father’s demise. He was so close to me. I never had any disagreement with him except for one occasion. It was about the spelling issue for one letter - (Gna). He never agreed to use that letter whatsoever for the particular words. However, he was the last of learned persons from our earlier multilingual erudite generation.”

The former Vice Chancellor of the University of the Sri Jayewardenepura Prof. Sampath Amaratunge wrote about Prof. Balagalle to the official website of the University as follows:

“The debt that the University of Sri Jayewardenepura owes to this great scholar is not a small one. Being one of the students of Vidyodaya Pirivena and later to render his service to the same institution when it gained university status in 1959, to play such a pioneering role in the early stages of its education and to continue that commitment till today even after his retirement is indeed a rare blessing that our university has received. In particular, the Sinhala Department of the university was the most benefited as Prof. Balagalle involved in curriculum design, recruitment of suitable staff, and above all with respect to dissemination of knowledge.”

He completed his article on him like this: “Let me conclude this small note by referring to this famous quote by Warren Buffett, an American business magnate which fittingly reflects the University’s debt to this great person - “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago”.

So, the late Prof. Wimal G. Balagalle was an asset to our entire country. The void left by his death will never be filled, and we will suffer more intensely by that void not today, but tomorrow.