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Arthur Dias - A man for all seasons

Nalin FERNANDO and Firoze SAMEER - DN Fri July 31 2009 -

Death anniversaries of two nationally recognized personalities fall on July 31: They are the mighty Maha Mudaliyar Sir Don Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, KCMG, of Attanagalla; and the benevolent but bold Arthur Vincent Dias of Panadura.

The Don produced three national leaders - SWRDB, Sirimavo and Chandrika - and tends to be forgotten since his demise in 1946. Arthur Dias is oft-remembered since his passing away in 1960 for his pioneering campaign of giving the nation food to ingest as well as food for thought and initiating another pioneering campaign to plant a million jak trees. He earned the endearing sobriquet of Kos Mama or Kos Ata Mama.

Arthur Dias

Arthur Dias pioneered his tree-planting campaign for jak fruit (artocarpus heterophyllus) in 1918. He imported a special strain of jak seedlings from Johore in Malaya. He established a small office in his home to organise and distribute jak and papaw seedlings and plants free of charge to the public. The catch phrase in this campaign was that "jak was good for food and wood."

Apart from promoting the planting of jak, which he called the Buth Gaha (rice-tree), he encouraged the propagation of fruit trees which included papaw (carica papaya), mango (mangifera), sapota or sapodilla (manilkara zapota), durian (durio), golden apple or ambarella (spondias dulcis) and lovi (flacourtia-inermis). Sachets comprising seeds of these fruit trees were distributed free of charge to the public.

Arthur Dias was born on 10 February, 1886, to wealthy parents: P. Jeremias Dias and Selestina Rodrigo; a prominent family in Panadura who earned their fortune from the popular and lucrative arrack-renting trade augmented by the income from a large acreage of rubber.

Arthur Dias received his nursery education at St John's College, Panadura, now Cyril Jansz Vidyalaya, and completed his secondary education at St Thomas' College, Mt Lavinia.

He conducted himself different from his rich and rambunctious father. (Jeremias Dias was an ardent Buddhist and gave freely of his money earned as an arrack renter towards his religious cause.

It is said that Arthur Dias being no hypocrite preferred to remain silent with folded palms while others repeated the fifth precept while observing pansil.)

The thoughtful and quiet young man curtailed his studies soon after leaving St Thomas' and took over managing the family business and trade since the death of his father in 1902. He became an accomplished rubber planter and businessman but was never enamoured by the riches that were accumulating from the arrack trade.

Family involvement

It is said that it was the family involvement in the arrack trade which made him turn to temperance early in life after witnessing the horrors of what drink did to man especially during the celebrations after a successful bid by the family for a profitable tavern.

The sprawling family home in Panadura became "open house" for all and sundry and the celebrations went on until the supply of free booze ran out which saw many of the visitors lying around in a stupor or behaving in an unruly manner to be bodily thrown out by their indulgent host. All this was too much for the sensitive young man who was already involved in national interests and intent on following in the footsteps of persons like Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harischandra, C.A. Hewavitharana, F.R. and D.S. Senanayake while receiving from them the inspiration to serve the country and nation.

Simple life

Similar to his mentors, Arthur Dias opted for a simple life notwithstanding his enormous riches, which he doled out generously for philanthropy. He donned the white banian and cloth in preference to fashionable western attire.

He was instrumental in the regeneration of the model village of Heenatiyana, where simple living and self-help were the driving force. He pioneered writing and signing cheques in Sinhala, and was the first planter to correspond exclusively in Sinhala. In 1912, Arthur Dias was one of the pioneers to join Don Spater Senanayake in the Hapitigama Korale in Negombo to launch the Temperance Movement which encouraged the closure of taverns in townships and villages with the intention of breeding a just society, to foster peace and harmony amongst all communities.

Richard Salgado and Dr. Marcus Fernando amongst others were also temperance workers.

The core principle of the movement discouraged the consumption of liquor, smoking and cattle-slaughter. Soon after February 4, 1948, he wrote the following curt note to his close friend, the D.S. Senanayake, PC, after his suggestion that no liquor be served at the official Independence day celebrations was rejected by the Prime Minister: "I am not satisfied with the way things are going on after Independence. Our culture has found no place in the administration. I am a sad man.

Let this be the parting of the ways. You go your way and I go mine," This note was reportedly written in blood, unwillingly lanced from his finger, by his family physician, Dr C. Wilmot Dias. The spat between two close friends was short-lived. In 1915, the infamous Sinhala-Muslim riots rocked the country and Arthur Dias was imprisoned by the British government.

The others jailed were his elder brother Harry, brothers-in-law Richard and Walter Salgado, Dr WA de Silva, brothers DC, FR and DS Senanayake, C. Batuwantudawe, George E. de Silva, AE Goonesinghe, DB (later Sir Baron) Jayatileka, Dr CA Hewavitarne, John Silva, Piyadasa Sirisena, Edwin Wijeyeratne (later Sir Edwin), and several other Buddhist leaders whom the British mistakenly thought supported the 1915 riots. Arthur Dias and others were sentenced to death after a court martial hearing.

The family retained Advocate Eardley Norton, renowned as the Lion of the Madras Bar, from India, who got him off the hook.

The death sentence was eventually commuted to one of life imprisonment. Later, the new Governor Sir John Anderson, GCMG, KCB, who replaced Sir Robert Chalmers, GCB (later Lord Chalmers) released him after his mother paid a fine of Rs. 100,000.

After his release, Arthur Dias made a beeline to the village of Medamaha-Nuwara where Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was arrested by the British. He built a commemorative pillar on the spot and pledged that he would thenceforth dedicate himself to the emancipation of Ceylon from the British yoke.

Arthur Dias was by this time the epitome of the patriot, planter, pioneer temperance worker, national hero, philanthropist, and ardent supporter of the government's Grow More Food Campaign.


*Arthur Dias reportedly declined a knighthood from Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott, GCMG, CBE, during his tenure from 1937-1944.

*In Oct-1957, at age-71, we read his type-written letter to Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, politely declining a seat in the Senate, offered over the telephone, owing to "feeble old age."

*Author of Three Prime Ministers of Ceylon, J.L. Fernando, in an article in the Ceylon Daily News of August 01, 1960 recalls a conversation with the Minister of Home Affairs Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, who stated "with pride that at least a million jak trees in our country owed their existence then to Arthur Dias."

*Arthur Dias was the first and sole private citizen to receive a special concession from the Minister of Communications, Sir John Kotelawala to use the OHMS frank for his Grow More Jak Campaign by which he had reportedly posted some sixteen million jak seeds and plants, with leaflets containing instructions and letters of encouragement, to town and village folk.

*Arthur's indefatigable mother, Selestina Dias, a widow since 1902, founded Visakha Vidyalaya, then called Buddhist Girls' College on January 16, 1917 in a house called Firs at Turret Road in Colpetty.

* The first Board of Governors of the school, comprised DB (later Sir Baron) Jayatileka, DS Senanayake, Arthur V. Dias, Sir Susantha de Fonseka, CM Dias and Lady Evadne de Silva, wife to Sir Ernest. The school shifted to Vajira Road in Bambalapitiya on November 21, 1927 with the governor's wife lady Herbert Stanley giving it a new name, Visakha College.

* Selestina Dias also established the Sirikandula Buddhist Educational Trust, and the Jeremias Dias Educational and Charitable Fund.

She was later conferred an MBE in the King's honours list.

* When Ananda College was in dire need of funds, Arthur Dias extended his support by writing a cheque for Rs. 20,000, and thereafter raised Rs 10,000 each from FR Senanayake, Dr WA De Silva, Domingo Dias. He was also instrumental in building the Edmund Wilson Science Library to enable Ananda College to gain Grade-1 status.

* In July, 1971, in order to assist the Help Ananda Fund, Arthur Dias urged rubber growers in the Kalutara district to donate a day's collection.

* In 1926 under the aegis of the founder of Nalanda College, P. D. S. Kularatne, its first principal Dr G.P. Malalasekera organized the famous Nalanda Flower Day campaign to boost the Building Extension Fund.

It was ably supported by Arthur Dias resulting in the construction of a new storied building. Arthur also assisted Dharmaraja and Dharmasoka colleges.


Arthur Dias married Grace Salgado, and they had nine children: His five daughters were Mallika, wife to Prof. Gerald Cooray, Lalani wife to V.C. Jayasuriya, Srimathi, wife to B.R. de Silva, Nerupamal, wife to N. de Fonseka and Anoma, wife to Rukman Amarasuriya. His four sons; were Upali, Nanda, Chandra and Dr. Padma.

Except for Nerupa and Nanda and Dr Padma's wife, Kusum all others have passed away.


Arthur Dias died at his home, Edmund Niwasa in Panadura on July 31, 1960 at the age 74. He was a man who upheld national freedom, national dignity, national dress and national food. He was a man who lived a simple and austere life inspired by the tenets of Buddhism. A man who believed and lived the Sinhala adage, "example is better than precept."

A one-rupee postage stamp was released by the government postal department in his honour on his 26th death anniversary in 1986.