The Mahapola scheme which provides scholarships to undergraduate students in Sri Lanka was the brainchild of the late Lalith Athulathmudali (26 November 1936 – 23 April 1993), a former Cabinet Minister of Education. The story goes that his own father passed away when he was just about to go abroad for studies, putting him in some financial difficulty. The young Athulathmudali had then made a request to the government and been provided a grant. It is said that the establishment of the Mahapola scholarship scheme was his way of repaying this favour.
Mahapola was not just a name given to a scholarship scheme though. it actually began as a trade fair, exhibition and carnival of sorts to promote an open market economy in Sri Lanka in a way that benefits rural communities. A Mahapola lottery scheme was later introduced where the proceeds would go into the Mahapola Scholarship Fund. It’s interesting to note that these scholarships were granted almost purely on economic need (90 percent) with merit counting for only 10 percent.
Thus, the 1980s in particular saw a flurry of Mahapola themed stamps with an issue coming out every year starting from 1984. This cover celebrating the fourth anniversary of the much lauded scholarship scheme featuring four colourful stamps is my favourite, regardless that is, of the religious undertones.
Looking closely you might notice that each of the four stamps focuses on a particular aspect of the scholarship programme:
- 60 cents – symbolising the aspirations of students, we see a male and female student looking at what is likely a building of higher learning
- 1 rupee – includes the text “Gnana Darsana” which roughly translates as gnana = knowledge/wisdom and darsana = vision. I suppose the monk in the room is meant to indicate that only Buddhist clergy can ensure the absorption of wisdom?
- 5.50 rupees – there’s a boy reading a book and a large stack of money appears to be tucked behind a bookcase. Tad creepy.
- 6 rupees – includes the text “Gnana Pradeepa” which roughly translates to “lamp of learning”. This ties up nicely with the common “lamp” motif running through all the stamps as well as the cover.
Unfortunately, the stamps that followed never quite reached the same heights in terms of attractiveness and design but we will take a quick look at them anyway.
So the next issue appeared in 1985 as a single 60 cent stamp – we see the “lamp of learning” making another prominent appearance in both the stamp and FDC. The stamp also boasts of 3000 scholarships being awarded.
By the time the sixth anniversary of the Mahapola scholarship scheme rolled along in 1986, 10,000 scholarships had been awarded as stated by this stamp.
The 1987 issue certainly got with the times by depicting a computer and what looks like a fax machine or overlarge telephone.
1987 also saw a separate stamp commemorating the “Mahapola Dharmayatra” which was basically a religious propaganda bus. Now this is where the whole Mahapola shizzle gets irritating. It honestly makes me wonder if the scholarships were only awarded to Sinhala/Buddhists and whether the minorities got their fair share.
Nalani Hennayake in her book Culture, Politics, and Development in Postcolonial Sri Lanka says it like it is:
The 1988 issue features two scholarship holders cocooned in ball of enlightenment thanks to their free education.
I suppose one gets tired of trying to come up with different designs to illustrate the same basic concept. Here we see pretty much the same elements: scholarship graduates, lamp, book etc.
Additional stamps were issued through the 90s but none of them are particularly attractive or distinctive so I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say the Mahapola scheme is still in effect today and continues to ensure that underprivileged students get a fair chance at completing their higher education.