Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a retired United States army officer was in search of truth. He studied various philosophies and listened to the sermons of various religious dignitaries. But his inquiring mind did not find an answer. In his search he came across a comprehensive report of the Panadurawadaya. It was a report of a religious debate between Buddhist monks and Christian clergy. Olcott appreciated the contentions of the Buddhist monks and started corresponding with the outstanding Buddhist monks of Ceylon. This correspondence eventually led him to visit Ceylon.
Of the many great men of the world, only a few leave a legacy that is celebrated for years after their passing. Those who do so accomplish that by dedicating their lives for a cause greater than themselves. There is none that exemplifies this better than Col. Henry Steel Olcott.
Born on the 2nd of August 1832, in Orange, New Jersey, Olcott was an alumni of the College of the City of New York and The Columbia University. He went on to become a military officer, a journalist and finally a lawyer.
Olocott found his true calling with his introduction to the Spiritualist Movement in 1874. During the course of that year he made the acquaintance of fellow Spiritualist Helena Blavatsky. Their relationship founded on their shared fascination of the spiritual, led to the founding of the Theosophical Society in the same year. The society set out discover the pure message of texts from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Zoroastrian religions, in order to properly educate Westerners.
Olcott's main religious interest was Buddhism. After a two-year correspondence with Sri Piyaratana Tissa Mahanayake Thero, he and Blavatsky arrived in the then capital Colombo on the 16th of May, 1880. Upon their arrival Blavatsky and Olcott took the Five Precepts at the Wijayananda Viharaya located in Weliwatta, Galle on the 19th of May, 1880 thus becoming the first Westerners to do so.
With the foundation of the Theosophical Society of Ceylon, Olcott laid the groundwork to usher in the golden age of Buddhist revival in the island. Olcott was also a pioneer in the effort to introduce Buddhism into the western consciousness. He accomplished this through the compilation of Buddhist tenets in publications such as “The Buddhist Catechism”. He was also involved in designing the Buddhist Flag which was adopted as the symbol of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
Chief among Olcott's efforts was to construct several Buddhist schools in all regions of the country. The Sri Lankan South received the blessings of this revival as Mahinda College opened its doors to a new generation of Sri Lankan youths on the 1st of March, 1892. Since then Mahinda has stood as a beacon of the newly revitalized values of Buddhist philosophy, and as a Centre for the resurgent national spirit against the yolk of British Colonialism.
Thus, 116 years since his passing we still celebrate and honour the life and legacy of the founder of our alma mater and the great personality behind not only the revival of the Buddhist philosophy in Sri Lanka but its spread throughout the western world, Col. Henry Steel Olcott.
Col. Olcott landed in Galle on May 17, 1880 in the company of Madame H. P. Blavatsky. They became Buddhists at the Wijeyananda temple in Galle. Olcott and Blavatsky were grieved at the treatment the Buddhists, their institutions and the religion received at the hands of the colonial rulers and the Christian hierarchy. They identified that the greatest danger came from the proselytization of the children of Buddhist parents through education. To combat this they founded the Buddhist Theosophical Society and set about opening up Buddhist English schools. He opened up the B.T.S. English school at Pettigalawatta on September 15, 1880. This school had a short existence and later with the arrival of Dr. Bowles Daly (LLD), an Irish clergyman and a theosophist, Mahinda College was opened on March 1, 1892 at Pedlar Street in Galle Fort. The school was named after Arhant Mahinda Thero, the Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
Dr. Daly was a good disciplinarian and a tireless worker. But he left after a very short period of one year.The ensuing period of nearly a decade saw the school simply drifting with a number of principals serving for short periods. However with the arrival of Mr. Frank Lee Woodward as principal on August 1, 1903, things took a turn for the better. From the day Mr. Woodward became the principal, the school had slowly but steadily progressed. By December 1903 within 4 months after Mr. Woodward's assumption of office as principal, the average attendance of the school had risen to 142 from 89. In the same month students had been sent for the Cambridge examination and in July 1904, a student of Mahinda, G. W. Perera had won the university scholarship. By 1905 there had been 246 boys on the roll. It was during that period that Col.Olcott visited the College twice in 1904 and 1906. The year 1907 had been a dark year for Mahinda. Both Col.Olcott and Muhandiram Thomas Amarasuriya had died in that year. On June 25, 1907, Mr. Henry Amarasuriya, the son of the later had been elected as the manager of the school.
In this time Mr. F. L. Woodward had been active with a plan to move the College to a place with surroundings more conductive to its healthy growth. Mrs. D. F. de Silva of Minuwangoda with the assistance of the members of the Weerasiri family, purchased and donated a land called “Devatagawatta” far from the madding crowd, in a salubrious and elevated plot of land. It was a magical charming hillock with enlivening beauty of the central highlands painted on its eastern sky. It had attracted the attention Mr. F. L. Woodward who had a high sense of aesthetic beauty. The panoramic view of the Sripada (Adam’s peak) also said that it is the most suitable place to a Buddhist school. On January 15, 1908 at 2.14 p.m, Mr. Woodward had laid the foundation stone of the Olcott hall. In July and October of the same year, the foundation stones for the Amrasuriya block and Matara blocks had been laid by Mr. H.Amarasuriya, E. S. Balasuriya and D. N. Weeratunga respectively. On August 1, 1912 the new building had been ceremonially opened. With the shifting of the school to its present abode, the number of students had risen to 300. The first price giving commemorating the 21st anniversary of inauguration of the school and the ninth anniversary of Mr.Woodward’s arrival was also celebrated in 1912. Mr. A.D.Jayasinghe joined the staff in 1917. He was later appointed as the headmaster of the school. In 1919, Mr.F.L.Woodward left for Tasmania to devote the subsequent 33 years of his life to the task of editing and translating Buddhist texts to be published by the Pali Text Society, London.
Unlike in the 1890s Mr. Woodward was succeeded by capable men like Dr. Kalidas Nag, Mr. F.G. Pearce, Mr. W. A. Troupe and Mr. P.R. Gunasekara. But they served Mahinda College only for very short periods. They were succeeded by an eminent old boy of the college, Mr. Edgar Albert Wijesooriya in 1932. This can be termed the golden age of Mahinda. He retired in 1962 with the taking over of assisted schools by the government. Thereafter Mahinda College became a government Sinhala medium school.
Mr. Jayasena H. Gunasekara succeeded Mr. Wijesooriya. During his tenure of office many buildings came up and the school population was almost doubled. After the departure of Mr. Gunasekara Mr. C. K. Waidyarathne acted until the arrival of Mr. B. K. Silva. After him Mr.W. A. D. S. Gunathilake served Mahinda College for five years. His elevation to a higher post in the department of education led to the appointment of Mr. C.K. Waidyarathne as a permanent principal. He was succeeded by another old boy of Mahinda College, Mr. D. D. Jayasundara in 1987. With his departure in 1991 another old boy, Mr. M. Wickramasinghe was appointed principal in 1992. The centenary celebrations were held that year on a very grand scale. He went back to the department in 1994 and was succeeded by yet another old boy Mr. D.C.Nissanka de Silva who too joined the department in 1996. Mr. Silva was succeeded by Mr. D. K. Athukorala as the principal. Mr. Athukorala served Mahinda College for eight years. After him Mr. K.A.Susil Premanath and Mr. L.C. Karunasena served as the acting principals. During the period of 3 years from 2008 to 2011, Mr. R. M. Werahara served as the principal and after his retirement in 2011, Mr. M.A. Jinadasa took duty as the acting principal.In 2012 another old Mahindian Mr W.M.Wasantha Siriwardhane of SLEAS II assumed office as the principal but his tenure lasted for only two years. Since August 2014 Mr. Gamini Jayawardhane of SLEAS has been serving as the Principal.