The Sinhalese People are an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka (an island off the coast of India formerly known as Ceylon) and they make up some Â¾ of the native population. They are not just limited to the island though ‘ in this era of global mobility they are all over the world and some are in prominent positions in the public eye including media, sport and politics. Their faith is largely Buddhist though some have adopted some elements of Christian practices. Here is a list of ten of the most notable Sinhalese figures.
1. Professor V. K. Samaranayake
One of the most notable Sinhalese academics he is considered ‘the father of IT’ for Sri Lankan culture due to his pioneering work on developing the computing and IT industry of the island. He was a Professor of Computer Science and founded the Department of Statistics and Computer Science at the island’s premiere university, the University of Colombo. He was also largely responsible for the development of the standards for Sinhalese characters in computer. He died in 2007 in Stockholm aged 68. He was given a funeral with full patronage in Sweden.
2. Malani Senehelatha Fonseka
The screen actress is known as ‘The Queen of Sinhalese Cinema’ and was recently named by CNN as one of Asia’s greatest actors of all time. Like most in the profession she began her career on the stage but it wasn’t long before she got her screen debut in Tissa Liyansuriya’s Punchi Baba in 1968. Her worth was recognised immediately and she was offered leading roles almost all of the time. In her career she has starred in 140 films. Recently though she has moved into politics on the island.
3. Richard de Zoysa
Another actor, he became more famous for his political activism than anything despite having won several awards on stage and on screen. He was also a journalist and author writing about human rights issues. He was Sinhalese on his father’s side; on his mother’s side he was Sri Lankan Tamil. He was abducted and killed in 1990 ‘ a case that courted controversy when his family identified the perpetrators as being key government figures, including the then Chief of Police. Rumours of political conspiracy have centred on his death ever since.
4. Ruchira Karunaratne
For those who thought that the western fashion designers of Paris, London and New York are what it is all about should think again. This woman is huge in Asian fashion design. She started early as a fashion designer through her love of art and quickly went on to be recognised as a ‘rebel’ designer, bucking the conventions and appealing to a young middle class generation wishing for a more modern dress style. Her brand is called ‘Rebel’ and it appears in many shops aimed at the young and affluent of Sri Lanka.
5. Vernon Mendis
One of the most famous Sinhalese diplomats, Mendis was for a long time the UN Special Envoy to the Middle East ‘ most notably handling a debate between UNESCO and Egypt regarding cultural treasures. His reputation as an international statesmen and diplomat has earned him the nickname of Sri Lanka’s Father of Diplomacy for his activities around the formation of the island’s diplomatic services. He also served as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK and Canada, as Ambassador to France and Cuba. He also served as the General Secretary to the Non-Aligned Movement. He died in 2010
6. Susanthika Jayasinghe
She is perhaps the most famous Sinhalese athlete of all time. Despite not being able to get enough sponsorship and therefore being unable to afford spiked running shoes of her international competitors, she managed to compete to a very high level at the Olympics and the IAAF Word Championships. She claimed Silver at the 200m event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Silver at the 1997 Athens World Championships (200m) and Bronze at the Osaka games ten years later (also 200m)
7. Gongalegoda Banda
One of history’s most famous natives of Sri Lanka, he was the leader of a rebellion in 1848 that rose up against the British colonial government. It marked the end of the old ‘feudal’ type of rebellion and the beginning of modern popular independence struggles so endemic of the late colonial era. Banda was declared King prior to the uprising and led assaults on several British fortresses. The uprising failed though and Banda was captured, flogged and finally exiled for leading the revolt.
8. Sugathapala de Silva
De Silva was one of the most critically acclaimed dramatists and novelists ever in Sinhalese culture. He produced 14 plays, wrote 26 books and achieved accolade after accolade for his writing. His greatest work is considered to be the play Dunna Dunu Gumawe which he penned in 1971 just after the insurrection. Though it was primarily about a conflict with trade unions, much of it mirrored the political situation in Sri Lanka.
9. Churchill Gunasekara
Like most of the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka loves its cricket and of all the sports stars the country has produced, none are more famous than the cricketers. Gunasekara is the most famous Sinhalese cricketer mostly because he was the first person from the country to play county cricket for an English club. He enjoyed his sport having been an athlete and playing football in his native country. He got involved in cricket when he moved to Cambridge in England to study medicine before being signed up for giants of county cricket, Middlesex.
10. Chandre Dharma-wardana
Another famous academic, this physicist gained his PhD from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and is currently residing in Canada where he is engaged in research into quantum theory, statistical mechanics and solid state physics. He has published over 200 research papers, including research on nanotechnology and also contributed a number of studies on Sinhalese and Sri Lankan studies ‘ particularly in the areas of language and ethnobotany.
The Sinhalese people, despite being the ethnic majority of a small island in the Indian Ocean, have made a great many contributions to the daily lives of people all over the world. The above list of ten is not exhaustive of the best of the Sinhalese culture, but it does represent some of the best known figures from media, sport, science and technology and international politics.