University of Peradeniya : Proud beginnings
(Copied from Sunday Observer – 17-01-2010)
The idea of university education is an outcome of imperialism. Though confined to the development of their own interests the country under British rule was benefited in many ways.
Sir Ivor Jennings
The system of education with prominence given to English was upheld to the highest standard and it is the highest academic discipline. The university became the symbol of education of the elite in the colonial era. It was in Colombo, the capital city. University of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon under the British was set up in Colombo in 1942 until the premises were prepared at Peradeniya. On completion of the first phase, mid 1952 saw the transferring of the University to Peradeniya as the first residential university in the country – the most prestigious with a special place in the university system today.
The person behind this great edifice was none other than Sir Ivor Jennings, the founder Vice-Chancellor of the University, the first and the one and only university at Peradeniya, a shining example of an intellectually gifted genius in the academic world.
He was really the key to the outstanding success in this venture. Lack of a university in then Ceylon deeply imbedded in him was the force that guided him throughout his career. After assuming duties he made a thorough study and worked constantly to realise his dream and finally he made it a magnanimous seat of learning in the island at the time.
Today it remains a precious heritage in the history of Sri Lanka. It was set up on the British university model (Oxford Cambridge) described as the best for which, there is a mad rush by the wealthy clamouring to send their children even today. He toiled hard in his desperate attempt to carry forward the university on the path of perfection working tirelessly and selflessly towards the goal. From there onwards it has been a steady upward journey towards academic excellence. He was an authority on Political Science and Economics too. His service to our constitution during the pre-Independence era is still being admired. The Economy of Ceylon which he authored after much research in the rural sector was an asset to the students of Economics at the time.
The most impressive was his view that “the fundamental task of a university is to produce educated men and women.” Since its inception it was created as an institution for undergraduates bent on learning culminating in the conferment of degrees in their respective fields of study.
He worked enthusiastically towards it. Entering the university was one of the most significant events in one’s life, and if not for him the dreams of the early university students may not have been fulfilled. They consider their exposure to university education has created a major transformation in their lives. Those of us who were fortunate enough to enter the university little after the Jennings era when it was at the height of her glory, it was hard work filled with joy.
We still have pleasant memories, recollections of our stay at Peradeniya with deep gratitude to its founder. As the first person who first introduced this supreme gift to Sri Lanka, as the pioneer in university education then as the most educated in his superior performance to the entire community (student) he will remain an outstanding intellect in the history of the island.
The University of Peradeniya is a nature’s gift. It was founded in a place where nature itself had created an ideal site for the purpose. The wonderful landscape with Hantana hills on one side and river Mahaweli on the other is amazingly serene.
The scenic splendour with enchanting natural beauty drove the founder to make it a splendid masterpiece who with the gifted architect Shirley de Alwis made it a heaven on earth. The choice of the site – (600 acre land originally a tea estate plus the vast forest taken over) was a marvel. Your eyes will capture the vast area with majestic hills and trees with hanging creepers of dazzling flowers with river Mahaweli winding its way through.
The residential halls and other requisite buildings were all built with traditional architectural features of ancient Sri Lanka. The residential halls were well spaced and constructed on mini hill tops. Marrs, Jayatilleka, Pieris, Sanghamitta, Hilda and Ramanathan are a few such halls. “The Lodge” – the residence of the Vice Chancellor is found in the vicinity. Many of the bungalows, the Lecturers’ quarters were along Galaha Road. Some located at Mahakanda with neatly cut lawns and flower beds beautified the surroundings.
The other places of interest and importance – The Arts Theatre, the Senate Building, gymnasium, the library and spacious lecture rooms were designed to provide the ideal setting for academic achievements.
There is what you call the pillared area in between the library and the administrative block where they gather and exchange views.
The open air stadium built later, summer houses, shady curved “Kissing Bend” – still another eye catching place when in full bloom, bear witness to the splendid contribution made by the pioneer and the Architect to this esteemed institution. The University premises on the whole is a true wonder unfolding the majestic performance and the service it rendered.
Fun – ragging
There is truly an intellectual atmosphere in the campus. The first two weeks in the campus was filled with numerous activities. The simple fun then known as “Ragging” had been introduced by the pioneer for the students to enjoy and rejoice their arrival in high spirits. It was meant as a form of familiarisation between the seniors and the new comers termed freshers.
Really and truly, it was true fun-wearing dresses the other way, slippers the wrong foot, doing small jobs for the seniors. The seniors showed their concern, warmth and love when we were freshers and ever since it ragging was part and parcel of university life. It is a pity that ragging today has become a social problem violating human rights.
It totally interferes with education for which the students tread the university soil with the highest dream in their life. Under the present set up in many universities, ragging which we enjoyed in a refined manner has run into real confusion. It is very sad that the most mature students amidst their intellectual surroundings are hardly disciplined to enjoy the sacred tradition.
The scenic splendour of the University of Peradeniya
When stepping into the campus anyone can see the vision of the creator – the intellectual atmosphere combined with the physical beauty. His dedicated service was not single handed. He was ably assisted by a galaxy of Professors and lecturers. They were much admired academics. Their heads were stuffed with so much subject matter. They had strong intellect to plan, guide and lead the students. They were all well-known among the undergraduates for their teaching skills. Their lectures were thought provoking.
Some were gifted with a wonderful sense of humour, which everybody admired, lecturers prim and proper in their formal attire, earned much respect and esteem among the students. It was very impressive to see them on the podium with black cloaks over them.
To name a few – Professors Hettiaratchy Passey, F. R. Jayasuriya, Karl Gunawardena, Indraratna Thambiahpillai, K. N. Jayatilleka and Basil Mendis were heads of Sinhala, English, Economics, History, Geography and Philosophy.
Still others to be added to this list are Doric de Souza, Sarachchandra, Ariyapala, Peter Silva, R. S. Karunaratna, H. A. D. S. and Victor Gunasekera, Father Pinto, Labrooy, Ashley Halpe, Arasaratnam, Tony Rajaratnam, Vanden Driesen, Srima Kiribamuna, Swarna Jayaweera. Space does not permit me to do justice to them.
Then from India, there was Professor Ray, Dr. Das Gupta and Dr. Sarkar performing their duties well in their respective departments. The superior wisdom and wealth of knowledge of the above mentioned was directed towards students well-being. It is fitting that we pay tribute to them.
Going back to life at the university, every undergraduate had a serious look into the future. Enchanted by the scenic beauty and encouraged by the atmosphere they settled down to studies with enthusiasm for the highest achievement.
The first examination to face was GAQ from which you decide whether to do the four year course to specialise in the qualified subject.
After reading and last minute cramming you sit for your finals. Just before the exams the Buddhists would go to Gatambe Temple and the Dalada Maligawa to pray for their success.
The library played a vital role in undergraduate’s academic life. Many spend their free time in the library reading for pleasure as well as reference books recommended for tutorials. It is a true wonder supposed to be the best, east of Suez. It was housed in the ground floor of the administrative block, later in the story building between the Senate and the B Room.
The climax of one’s academic life here is marked by the convocation. This is something that every undergraduate anxiously waits for to see the completion of their studies here and also witness the grandeur of the occasion.
Professors solemnly walk in front of the procession all wearing the caps and gowns of their respective universities, where they had qualified.
Governor General Sir Oliver Gunatilleke was the gorgeous figure officiating the ceremony awarding the certificates in the presence of their parents, at the end of which you feel that you have reaped something.
We hardly missed the socials or get-togethers held annually in residential halls. We had plenty of fun exploring areas at Hantane during week-ends.
We participated in many of the annual trips organised by the University. We never missed the evenings which showed Maname, Sinhabahu of Prof. Sarathchandra in the open air stadium also initiated by him. We still have pleasant recollections of our stay at Peradeniya.
These are reminiscences running over half a century and much more. Many are away from our midst. Some in foreign lands.
Among the living, wherever they are I am sure they cannot fail to reminiscence the university days.
Those were the days…