Ponnambalam Arunachalam


Ponnambalam Arunachalam was a civil servant of Ceylon Tamil and a member of the Executive Council of Ceylon and Legislative Council of Ceylon. Born in Colombo, Ceylon in 1853, Arunachalam matriculated at Christ’s in 1871 on a scholarship, and read law and history.

He sat the Civil Service Examinations in 1875 and was the first Ceylonese to gain entry to the Ceylon Civil Service through open competition. He held numerous senior official and judicial posts, and later served in the Legislative Council. He grew frustrated by the imperial and colonial world that confined the liberalism he believed was Ceylon’s due with its ancient cultures and history.

Early on his career, Arunachalam's quality of work was noticed by Chief Justice John Budd Phear who recommended him to the Governor and Secretary of State. In 1887, Governor Arthur Hamilton-Gordon appointed Arunachalam acting Registrar-General and Fiscal of the Western Province, by passing 30 officers senior to Arunachalam. Fraud, corruption and inefficiency was endemic in the department and so Arunachalam successfully re-organised the department. He was appointed acting Commissioner of Requests in 1891 and Registrar-General in 1898.

Arunachalam was entrusted with managing the 1901 census by being appointed Superintendent of Census in 1900. He began codifying Ceylon's law but only produced the first volume of A Digest of the Civil Law of Ceylon. Arunachalam was an official member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon and a member of the Executive Council of Ceylon between 1912 and 1913. He retired from the civil service in 1913. In 1914, Arunachalam was knighted.

Arunachalam advocated for political reform whilst working in the civil service. After he retired, Arunachalam became involved in politics, founding and chairing the Ceylon National Association and the Ceylon Reform League, in 1917. He was a founder of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) in 1919 and was its first president. Arunachalam left the CNC in 1921 after disputes about communal representation in the Legislative Council. He founded the Ceylon Tamil League in 1923.

In 1917, he became the first Ceylonese to be elected president of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. He founded the Senthamil Paripalana Sabai and was president of the Ceylon Saiva Paripalana Sabai. Arunachalam was also involved in the new trade union movement in Ceylon and founded Ceylon's first trade union, the Ceylon Workers' Welfare League, in 1919. He was president of the Ceylon Workers' Federation 1920-21. Arunachalam led the campaign for a university in Ceylon and was known as the "father of the Ceylon University", having founded the Ceylon University Association in 1906. 

In November 2018, Dr Harshan Kumarasingham (University of Edinburgh) gave a talk entitled "A Christ's-educated liberal in Colonial Ceylon - sketches of the life of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam". More information about the talk, and a recording of it, is available at https://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/event/christs-educated-liberal-colonial-ceylon-sketches-life-sir-ponnambalam-arunachalam