Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka celebrates its 178th Anniversary

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During the President's recent visit to the Society

This year marks the 178th anniversary of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka the oldest learned society in the country, but arguably the 178th year stands as a critical juncture for the society due to various reasons. Mainly the unlawful occupation of society’s premises by the Mahavali Authority is a serious concern as it creates a vulnerability for the library of the Royal Asiatic Society which consists of an invaluable collection of books dating back to the 16th century. The deplorable financial status is another major problem for the continuity of the scholarly work of the Royal Asiatic Society. When its fellow Asiatic society in Calcutta receives 44 Million from the central government of India monthly, the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka only receives one million annual grants from the Government of Sri Lanka, which is by all means not adequate for the main research activities of the society. Also, the lack of public awareness of the existence of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka hinders its intellectual engagement with the public. In particular, the gap existing between the Society and the University academia in Sri Lanka reflects the scholarly erosion of the country compared to the university scholars such as Prof. T. Nadaraja, and Prof. Ariyapala from yesteryears.

Against the backdrop of such crucial conditions that the Royal Asiatic Society has been facing, the official visit of President Ranil Wickremasinghe fell on the 27th of April. It was a response to an official letter written by the current President of the Royal Asiatic Society Dr Malini Dias to President Ranil Wickremasinghe regarding the troubled status of the Society and the visit of the President signifies as it was the first visit made by the Head of the State of Sri Lanka since late President J.R Jayewardene, who visited the Royal Asiatic of Sri Lanka along with the British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher in 1985. By the Constitution of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, the Head of the State is the chief patron of the Society, which had been a practice upheld by the Colonial Governors. The visit of President Ranil Wickremasinghe is a gesture that stands along with that distinguished tradition.

On a personal level, President Wickremashinge has a link with the Royal Asiatic Society rooted in his family history as President’s Grand Father C.L Wickremasinghe’s collection on the Sinhalese folklore remains in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. In his remarks at the discussion held at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka President mentioned the yeoman service rendered by the distinguished scholars at the Society to preserve the historical studies of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, he highlighted how studying the history of Sri Lanka through “Mahawansa” enabled colonial archaeologists to trace the history of India as well.

President was much concerned about the severe issues faced by the Royal Asiatic Society and pledged the support of the government to carry out future activities, in his speech, he indicated that the Royal Asiatic Society would play a pivotal role in initiating a new Institute of History.

Punsara Amarasinghe

Dr. Punsara Amarasinghe is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. His co-edited book “Thirty Years Looking Back: The Rule of Law, Human Rights and State Building in the Post-Soviet Space was published in 2022 .

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