SOAS University of London

Tribute to Christopher H. B. Reynolds

5 May 2015

The School regrets to announce that Dr Christopher Reynolds, a decorated scholar who pioneered the study of the culture and languages of Sri Lanka and established unprecedented cultural and knowledge exchange between the School and the country, died on 3 April 2015 at the age of 92.

Dr Reynolds was a Lecturer in Sinhalese in the Department of India, Pakistan and Ceylon from 1953 until 1987. Educated at Copthorne in Sussex and Winchester, his studies at New College, Oxford (BA Literae Humaniores, 1948; MA 1951), were interrupted in 1942 by war service. This took him eventually to Sri Lanka, where he became fascinated by Sinhalese language, script, and culture. Supported by the Forlong and SOAS Governing Body scholarships that were made available post-war for the maintenance and expansion of the School’s expertise in Asian languages and cultures, he achieved a BA degree in Sinhalese at SOAS in 1953, under the tutelage of Dr Ariyapala and P. E. E. Fernando.

Christopher was at once appointed to a lectureship in Sinhalese at SOAS, alongside Dr C. E. Godakumbura. Overseas Research Leave took him to Sri Lanka for study largely with Buddhist monks; and to the Maldives, not yet generally accessible to foreigners, for study of the language, related to Sinhalese, but of which little was then known. After further research visits, he presented in Maldives, in 1993, an invaluable, comprehensive, annotated contribution to the World Bibliographical Series; and in A Maldivian dictionary, in 2003, a unique English-Maldivian glossary.

Besides providing facilities, unique outside Sri Lanka, for undergraduate and postgraduate study of the country, and catering for the basic needs of VSO personnel, he attracted a large number of higher-degree students from Sri Lanka itself to the School. The Government of Sri Lanka reciprocated by seconding senior academics in the fields of Sanskrit, Pali, and Sinhalese annually to SOAS to work with staff and students in the department.

In BSOAS, he published linguistic studies of early Sinhalese; and to the Bulletin of the British Association of Orientalists he contributed a survey of British writers on Ceylon. Over a long period he reviewed for BSOAS and JRAS the major publications in English, French, and German in the fields of Sri Lankan language, religion, sociology, the arts, history, and politics. For more than ten years he was employed on monitoring work for the Sinhalese programme of the BBC. In 1981 he edited D. J. Wijayaratne and A. S. Kulasuriya’s Catalogue of Sinhalese manuscripts in the India Office Library, expanding it with RAS and SOAS material. His Sinhalese: An introductory course, SOAS, 1980, written in collaboration with Dr Tissa Rajapatirana, is a masterly analysis of spoken Sinhalese which includes a handwriting tutorial and five cassette tapes read by S. B. Bandara. These and his many other works were acknowledged by the award of the Sri Lankan government’s prestigious Sri Lanka Ranjana medal.

He lived with his late wife Jane and their children Tristram, David, Lucy, and Ben, in Westerham, Kent.

Following is a testimonial from Dr Amal Gunasena, Teaching Fellow in Sinhala, Department of the Languages and Cultures of South Asia, SOAS.


My first encounter with the late Dr Reynolds was in 1972 when I was reading for a postgraduate degree of  B. Phil. in Linguistics at the University of York. In order to prepare for my research paper on the Origin of Sinhalese, I visited London to use some of the rare material which was available only at SOAS and the British Library. I had the good fortune of meeting Dr Reynolds at SOAS Library on this occasion. He very kindly got the library pass for me and took me to the relevant sections of the South Asia room and the reading room to guide me how to access the books and the journals on my list.

We communicated again in January 1973 when I decided to apply to do my PhD at SOAS. All the five places then available for PhD study in the Department of India, Pakistan and Ceylon had already been filled, and I was asked to re-apply in the following year. I was not discouraged, however, as Dr Reynolds assured me that he would fight for my case and was also prepared to act as my supervisor despite his already having five PhD students under his care. It did not take long for me to understand his ever-ready willingness and genuine kindness to help students from Ceylon and to offer every assistance to proceed with their research studies at SOAS. I must reiterate the fact that I owed to Dr Reynolds’ generous exertions on my behalf that I was able to obtain a place at SOAS to begin my PhD research and to continue it through many pleasant and memorable challenges and experiences.

Dr Reynolds was one of the few academics I have met in the UK who was genuinely interested in my home country Sri Lanka.  When I met him, I always felt that I was with a professor from my own country. Our many meetings, whether they were on account of research or on general matters relating to Ceylon, were full of pleasantness, mutual appreciation, recognition and above all, unprecedented kindness. I gratefully remember his smile and his kind look whenever I entered his office room to discuss my research topics for my thesis or any other matter. He went beyond his duties to introduce me to the then giants of the academic fields of South Asian History, Anthropology and Linguistics at SOAS. This was how I had the good fortune of my acquaintance with distinguished scholars such as Professor J. G. de Casparis, Professor Balhatchet, Dr Buse, Dr Marr, and Professor Philips.

Dr Reynolds was always unsparing of his time and ever-ready with helpful advice. I remember that on more than one occasion we all (his six PhD students, including their spouses and children) were invited to his beautiful home at Westerham and treated with excellent English food. He made us feel at home and we were welcomed warmly and dearly by both him and his dear wife.

His contribution to the advancement of Sinhala language, literature and culture is praiseworthy and significant. I particularly wish to mention the excellent contribution he made in producing the highly acclaimed Anthology of Sinhalese Literature up to 1815 in 1970. This was not an easy task.  This work is the first ever attempt to introduce the Sinhala literature to the reader in the West.

The late Dr Reynolds’ contributions to Sinhala language and literature are many and his affection for the country of Sri Lanka and its people was boundless. Those who knew him will never forget him. My deep gratitude and indebtedness will always be immeasurable.