Upali Wijewardene

Philip Upali Wijewardene (1938–1983) was a well-known businessman in Sri Lanka who established the Upali Group. At the time of his death, Wijewardene had branched in to newspapers, confectionery and even started a domestic air line named Upali Air. He was killed when his private Learjet exploded in mid air on February 13, 1983.

Life and career

Early life

The young Upali who lost his father at the tender age of l 1/2 years was brought up by his mother Anula Kalyanawathie Wijewardene. Upali was educated at Royal College, Colombo. He later graduated from Queen's College of Cambridge University in England.

On his return to Sri Lanka Upali commenced his business career as a Management Trainee at Lever Brothers. Thereafter, he ventured out on his own and founded the Upali Group of Companies under the sign of the eternal symbol of energy "THE SUN"


Wijewardene entered the medium of comics with Chithra Mithra (Picture Friend) in February 1981 because it offered a large market to begin a publication without advertising and it allowed him to test his printing presses. Within a few months, the magazine reached a circulation of 200,000 eclipsing its competitors Sittara (100,000) and Satuta (75,000). Media initially described the magazine as "romance, booze, money, travel, dreams, adventure, wild women" crammed into 16 pages. It quickly expanded into 32 pages with a different story on every page. Editor Janaka Ratnayake noted that the publication had "many topics–romance, detective, sci-fi, heroes, two pages built around movie stars, and almost a page of pen pal" (1993). All the stories were serialized and in black and white with a spot of one color.

The comic magazine fell apart after Wijewardene's death and ceased publication in 1986 with a circulation of 15,000. Ratnayake cited the failure of the magazine to Wijewardene's early death, sub-standard printing quality of the paper due to unskilled mechanics and competition from other magazines.

Horse Racing

The name Upali Wijewardene was synonymous with "The Sport of Kings", Horse Racing. He was the Chairman Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club and was a keen turfite, who raced in Sri Lanka and England, where he won the "Royal Ascot" with "Rasa Penang" ridden by the world famous jockey Lester Piggott.

He also won the "Singapore Derby" and "Perak Derby" - 1980 with his horse, named "Varron". He raced "General Atty" too and won many races in England. He flew to all these countries, where his horses were racing in his private aircraft. He made it a point to fly from New Market to Nuwara Eliya to watch his horses and ponies racing there too.

He would land in Katunayake Airport and make a quick tarmac change to his private helicopter to fly to Nuwara Eliya. Wijewardene was responsible in reviving pony racing and thereafter, horse racing during the time there was a lull in racing

A British journalist, Matt Miller, described him in Insight Magazine: ‘Largely through bravado and wit, Philip Upali Wijewardene parlayed a bankrupt confectionery plant into Sri Lanka’s only multi national business group and one of Asia’s leading cocoa based products conglomerates. Intriguingly he accomplished his overseas empire - building at a time when his country strictly prohibited the export of currency. And now the 43-year-old commodity wizard (this was 1981) has started what could be Upali’s Third Plan... He would be willing, he says with uncharacteristic restraint, to become Sri Lanka’s president someday’.

Personal life

Upali was married to Lakmani Rathwatte in 1975. The marriage did not produce any children. Later, 12 years after his death, Lakmani married Nimal Welgama

Upali Wijewardena handing over the his first Mazda car to Kelaniya temple.


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