On the south side of the Pettah, in front of Fort Railway Station, stands a statue of Henry Steel Olcott (1842–1907), perhaps the most influential foreigner in the modern history of Sri Lanka. Olcott was an American Buddhist and co-founder (with Madame Blavatsky, the celebrated Russian clairvoyant and spiritualist) of the Theosophical Society, a quasi-religious movement which set about promoting Asian philosophy in the West and reviving oriental spiritual traditions in the East, to protect them from the attacks of European missionary Christianity. The society’s utopian (if rather vague) objectives comprised a mixture of the scientific, the social, the spiritual and the downright bizarre: the mystical Madame Blavatsky, fount of the society’s more arcane tenets, believed that she had the ability to levitate, render herself invisible and communicate with the souls of the dead, as well as asserting that the Theosophical Society was run according to orders received from a group of “masters” – disembodied tutelary spirits who were believed to reside in Tibet.

In 1880, Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in Ceylon, formally embracing Buddhism and establishing the Buddhist Theosophical Society, which became one of the principal driving forces behind the remarkable worldwide spread of Buddhism during the twentieth century. Olcott spent many of his later years touring the island, organizing Buddhist schools and petitioning the British colonial authorities to respect Sri Lanka’s religious traditions, though his most visible legacy is the multicoloured Buddhist flag which he helped design, and which now decorates temples across the island.

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