Midweek Review

The ‘pioneers’ of a campus in the hills
Recapturing the magic of Peradeniya
Dedicated to the memory of Sir W. Ivor Jennings
By Fred Abeyesekera

Fifty years and more have passed since the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon—Sri Lanka’s one and only world renowned university—was declared "more open than usual" by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

At the same time, the foundation stone for the University Theatre with a revolving stage and all the modern equipment that goes with it was laid, also by the queen. The theatre, however, remains a mere stone—a testimony to those who followed Sir Ivor!

The University of Ceylon was an autonomous legal entity, managed with diligence and foresight by its Senate. The academic stature of the university was of the highest caliber—of world standard—and comparable to Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge in several aspects.

Sir Ivor was the motive force that made things happen. The move from Colombo, where the university had been established in 1942, to Peradeniya—the idyllic campus—had commenced with the Faculties of Law and Agriculture moving into the brand new campus early in 1952. The Faculty of Law at the time comprised three undergraduates—John de Saram, Lakshman Kadirgamar and K. Shinya, as far as I recall.

Other faculties and departments followed quick on the heels of the first "settlers"— arts, oriental studies, dentistry, veterinary science, and engineering,

I was privileged to have been among these "pioneers", having spent a little over one academic year in Colombo. The mass exodus to Peradeniya was in October 1952.

The autobiography of Sir Ivor Jennings is out at last—aptly titled: "The Road to Peradeniya". To us, undergraduates of the fifties, the university was synonymous with Sir Ivor. It was "world class"!

An international authority on Constitutional Law, Sir Ivor did a State yeoman service by drafting independent Ceylon’s first Constitution that served us well as an instrument of government.

As a vice chancellor par excellence, Sir Ivor administered the university with characteristic vision, courage, wisdom, integrity and an intellectual capacity that was astounding. The State may wake up even at this late stage, a half century later, to honour this great man.

Admist majestic surroundings, encompassing the slopes of the mountain range of Hantane, Uda Peradeniya and Mahakande, nestled this most picturesque university site in the world.

The mist laced mountains, the cool, crisp, invigorating breezes: the streams and brooks that abounded; the fish that tippled in the ponds; the beauty of green; lush vegetation: the soothing, melodious notes of a myriad birds; the incessant chirping of insects; and the bark, far away, of deer and the grunt of wild boar, were an integral part of the serenity and grandeur of this wonderful campus—not withstanding the snakes that slithered, in and out, of the newly constructed halls of residence!

The majestic buildings, strongly influenced by a style of architecture peculiar to the ancient Kandyan Kingdom, added to the lure of this magnetic campus.

The halls of residence—similar to Oxford’s "Colleges", were havens of mirth and tranquility. A student could not dream of a better environment in which to read for a degree, Marrs Hall (named after Robert Marrs—Principal, University College, Thurstan Road, Colombo), Jayatilake Hall, in honour of Sir Baron Jayatilake, Arunachalam Hall— after Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Sir James Peiris Hall, Hilda Obeyesekera Hall; and Sangamitha Hall were the focal points of activity. (The other halls of residence were not constructed at the time.) The lecture rooms and auditorium (Room B) were fully operational and tastefully furnished. (The library building had part of a skeletal metal framework only.) Shirley de Alwis, the architect, working in close liaison with Sir Ivor, had ensured that everything was first class.

Sir Ivor personally saw to it that the new campus was transformed into a riot of colour and natural beauty. The landscaping had all been completed, such was his vision and degree of commitment. His sensitivity to nature exuded in everything he attempted—with great success. Flowering trees and shrubs were selected with care—with an emphasis on the blending of colour. There was an abundance of flowers! Rows of phlox, marigold, petunias, geraniums, lady lace, golden rod, salvia, dahlia, chrysanthemums, jasmine, verbena and hollyhock filled the air, with a fragrance we nostalgically identified with the Peradeniya campus. The lawns were perfect geometrical patterns of a variety of lush green grasses. This unparalleled effort was crowned with excellent undergraduate discipline and bonhomie.

Sir Ivor’s occasional "notices" to us undergraduates were a source of delight. They were, always, replete with good humour; and characteristically "friendly". But the point he made was driven in firmly. There was never any confrontation, which now appears to be the sine qua non of university life!

One of our number (totaling perhaps 700) possessed an Indian motorcycle that disturbed the serene environment of the campus. To ensure his presence was "heard", the proud owner of the Indian motorcycle had had his silencers removed!

Though never measured on the Richter scale, the Indian, it is believed, caused jarring tremors up and down the mountain slopes of Hantane! Sir Ivor’s response was prompt, His "notice" to all undergraduates merely read: "This serves to remind you that the university campus is not a testing ground for dilapidated machines."

The silencers were promptly re-fitted.

Sir Ivor’s daughter’s wedding was a much talked about event. The Lodge was clothed in a mantle of festivity. Many lined the Galaha Road which runs through the campus, to wish the newly weds good luck! Contributing in no mean measure to the old buckets and tins that trailed the vice chancellor’s Vauxhall Wyvern on its departure to an undisclosed destination, bride and groom enjoying every moment of the warmth of the unscheduled, yet spontaneous cheers that assailed them.

Life in the Peradeniya Campus was not without incident—however idyllic the place was. About twenty undergraduates of Sir James Peiris Hall (then a men’s Hall of Residence) had congregated on the vice chancellor’s lawn to air a grievance.

Sir Ivor who had just returned from Colombo, appeared on his balcony and was informed that the food at James Peiris Hall was insufficient! The previous night’s dinner had been skimpy, (the menu comprised two liberal slices of grilled seer with mayonnaise sauce, mashed potatoes, a coleslaw salad and plenty of freshly baked bread rolls, with salted butter; and dessert). Sir Ivor disappeared for a while—and dramatically reappeared —to inform the group of "starving" protesters that he had just re-read the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya Campus) Act—which indicated lucidly—that The Lodge was private property; and consequently, the group was trespassing! The "protesters" melted away into the twilight of a beautiful sunset—and dinner!

The halls of residence were run efficiently, with attention paid to detail. The selective purchasing of food items, for which the University Supplies Organisation was responsible, (with Harry Gunatilleke, better known as the organist at St. Paul’s Kandy in charge) ensured good quality. The preparation of food at Marrs Hall was`A0often personally supervised by Dr. H. A. Passe (Warden), supported ably by young Assistant Lecturer A. D. V. de S. Indraratna now emeritus Professor of Economics and Dr. Ananda Salgado Kulasuriya, the sub-wardens.

The food was always delicious and adequate (those with exceptionally voracious appetites cajoling their way to "seconds"!). The hall kitchens were electrically operated, with stainless steel equipment, including dish washers. A bakery ensured that all our bread and baked delicacies were absolutely fresh. The eighty of us initially occupying Marrs Hall enjoyed every moment of our stay. We had high table dinner on Saturdays with a guest speaker (mostly university staff) invariably present, and Sir Ivor, Chancellor Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and the witty A. M. K. Coomaraswamy included. This meant formally dressing up for dinner, wearing neckties. The hall president always wore a full suit in such instances, formally introducing and welcoming the guest of honour. Marrs Hall’s President at the time was Christie Gunawardane from the Faculty of Law. The Committee comprised A. B. Elkaduwe (CCS), Herbert Coorary (currently Chairman, Jetwing Travels & Hotels). J. R. Madanayake (who ended up as bursar, University of Colombo), Anton Dhanayake (Treasury), Rutnam Swami (now in the USA), Peter Gunawardene (Police) and the writer.

The relationship between staff and students was excellent. Dr. Passe (Warden) invited those in Marrs Hall in groups of five to dinner at his home on Sangamitta Hill to get to know us better. We played party games, discussed the lighter topics of current interest— ate moderately, and drank red wine! We had the privilege of being addressed as "Mr. or Miss"... by our academic staff, and Dr. Passe came to know each of us personally—especially those outside the ambit of the Department of English, who did not come into regular contact with him at lectures.

Such rapport (not undue familiarity, which is oft confused with "rapport") led to a wholesome, unwritten code of discipline, which none of us transgressed. Had we done so, we would have been truly ashamed of ourselves. Such were the core values on which the university was sustained.

The University Medical Officer, C. E. S. Weeratunge, was our guide and philosopher. He spoke to us of the pitfalls of celibate student lives, and how to channel our energy in creative pursuits. Climbing Hantane was a very regular exercise prescribed for us! Also ambling along the banks of the Mahaweli, capturing its beauty on film. Hikes were organised in the weekends to Uda Peradeniya, as well as to Galaha and its environs, when we discovered a mulberry farm (a sericulture centre) in Mahahalpe, run by an order of the Roman Catholic Church. The mulberry jam was delightful—with the much publicised imported black currant jam, instantly receding to second place.

Other than sore muscles, and traces of insomnia attributed to "examination nerves"— which Dr. Weeratunge handled admirably—he was deeply concerned about the quality of our drinking water. The old SEAC reservoir, which served Lord Louis Mountbatten and his staff during World War II, was our only source of drinking water—and quite a few of us were tested for amoebisis! This gave an impetus to additional sources of water being utilised (treated and purified).

Despite university marshals patrolling the campus day and night (with the much respected Fred de Saram as chief marshal—assisted by Bobby Jayaweera, Derek Raymond, R. Boulton and R. P. de Alwis) we had our share of excitement, sneaking out of the campus, sans "exeats" to watch the late night shows at the Regal and Laza (now Odeon) cinemas. An "exeat" was always issued on request but it was a challenge to go out "unauthorized"—at times! At Marrs, not only did we get our exeats, but also the sub-warden, Mr. Indraratna’s car, an Austin Coupe, for the outing!

Fun and frolic form an integral part of undergraduate life. Centred more specifically at Marrs Hall was a memorable happening—this time in broad daylight. A very spontaneous effort to perform what was termed a humanitarian act, led to our lightning-like convergence into one of our friend’s rooms. The undisputed belief was that the man never bathed. A cat wash was as far as he would go! The man was snatched from the seat at his desk—where he was poring over a book on "statistics", the bane of his lifecarried in triumphant procession to the bath! One of our number (who had a penchant for seeing the other man’s point of view) carried a golf umbrella—just in case.

The man yelled, coaxed, pleaded; kicked; lashed out; and in final desperation, sprayed us closest to him, with dots of saliva, to leave him alone. He had a blocked nose, suffered from catarrh and his loins ached from cycling to lectures and back, uphill!

The water cascaded down our totally exhausted friend’s head and shoulders and he was literally soaked to the skin! A sea change occurred, instantly! His blocked nostrils, suddenly functioned excellently well; and he glowed with sheer rage—a semblance of the return to radiant good health! Years later, he made his mark as a much feared director secretary of a private sector business conglomerate.

This bath triggered off a free for all. Everybody found some receptacle to carry—and a right royal "bucketing" session ensued.

A hazy outline of a figure was evinced climbing up the stairs—stealthily. Those of us who wore glasses had removed them for safety, so identifying the intruder was difficult. He was challenged—and tons of water flung at him in one collective effort! Up came Dr. Hector Passe (dripping and grinning) suggesting we use a hose pipe the next time!

Evenings at Peradeniya were greatly cherished. They set the seal on a life of peace and tranquility.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, come a few shrill ear piercing notes. It dawns on us slowly that one of our number (who had been threatened with dire consequences for disturbing the peace) had laboriously climbed the highest point on the hill behind Marrs to practice his trumpet lessons. He invariably started with "scales", which created the illusion of a thousand cats in torment.

Then there were the nights, brightly illuminated by the silver shimmer of the moon, when S. S. Suriyagoda thought it a fitting time for volley ball`85. Others with more romantic thoughts settled down to day dreaming over pages of Lipson Volume II strongly associated with JEAN.

Sports flourished under the supervision of G. Brant Little, Director, Physical Education, a Canadian affectionately called Con-O-Little. Games were played strenuously, mainly, hockey, cricket, rugby football, lawn tennis, netball, soccer, athletics, badminton, table tennis and boxing. Archery had been introduced—essentially for the women—and ambling along the slopes of the Arunachalam compound one had ample proof of it when an arrow whizzed past one’s nose! (Either Dorothy de Saram or Gnani Pelpola had let fly an arrow from behind a shrub.). Lawn tennis was extremely popular, as it gave a great opportunity for the greatest number of participants. Mahinda Dunuwila, K. Arichandran and Derrick Mack excelled. The cricketing giants were Maurice Wanigaratne, T. Vairavanathan and Derrick Mack; and in hockey S. A. B. Dias, Derrick Mack, C. T. Jansz, Rutnam Swami, T. Sumanasekera and B. S. de Silva. Tara Amarasingham, S. A. B. Dias and A. T. J. Madugalle were rugby football’s "quick silver" men, mesmerizing all opposition.

In athletics, the two fastest women in the campus were Kshanthi Siriwardene and Joyce Samarasinha. The gruelling cross-country race (for men) run over a distance of seven miles (Peradeniya to Geli Oya and back) was an innovation of Sir Ivor. The race provided for "wide representation", each of the men’s halls naming a minimum ten-member squad; with the hall first clocking in their first ten runners, declared winners. The race was open to staff as well.

Vivid memories of George Wikramanayake (Lecturer) being chased in the opposite direction by irate water buffaloes as we ran across the bunds of paddy fields close to Geli-Oya, added lustre to this race. Marrs Hall had the fittest team but had to be content with the "runners-up" title, as one of our "magnificent ten", quite cussedly, decided to wind up the race at Marrs—and not at the official "Finish"—the Shirley de Alwis roundabout! Arunachalam Hall was consequently declared winners! The man at Marrs—our tenth man—was re-christened, ZATOPEK.

The notorious baton charge on an innocuous group of "Peradeniya" dissenters (one could always produce a grievance!) spearheaded by Sergeant Morley of the Kandy Police, resulted in Peter Gunawardena, in a strangely perverse manner, discovering his vocation. An interested by stander, he had been hit on the head and his mission was to hunt down Morley by joining the Police force!

Incidentally, "Peradeniya" produced some of Sri Lanka’s outstanding Police personalities, men of the highest integrity, most of them from the pioneer batch: R. Sunderalingam, DIG (now with Interpol), S. Vamadevan, DIG (Australia), Peter Gunawardena, Ernest Perera (IGP), T. P. F. de Silva (IGP) and Edward Gunawardena. (DIG) H. G. Dias, excelled as a banker. The first General Manager of the National Savings Bank, he rapidly progressed to the position of South Asia Representative for Girard/Mellon Bank. Christie Gunawardane, Inthiran Chelvathurai and Harry Waidyasekera excelled in the Department of Inland Revenue; K. M. J. Fernando was consecrated Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Colombo.

We experienced moments of sadness, as well One of our vivacious colleagues, Sriyani de Fonseka, died in our first year at Peradeniya. The entire campus mourned her death.

A regular avalanche of merriment was produced by Anton Dahanayake, with the launch, quite unobtrusively, of his campus centred, "in the rush" series, no doubt influenced by Kandy’s legendary George E. de Silva!

The very first Peradeniya campus social was organised by Eardley Edirisinha of Sir James Peiris Hall. It was advertised as a "Fancy Dress" event and eagerly awaited! Only P. M. D. Fernando of Marrs had, however, taken it seriously, and transformed himself into a pirate eye, patch and all (with Prof. Ludowyk’s Dram Soc influence, permeating his thoughts, no doubt).

When it was time to adjudge the winner there was only one contestant. Quite ingeniously Eardley Edirisinha (until recently Principal, Hotel School, Mt. Lavinia Hotel) hastily re-emerged with several playing cards pinned on to his suit. He was, by doing so, supposed to be the joker in the pack! Two would still not suffice—there were three prizes to be won. Wai Tsing Pakstun who was sipping a drink, was hauled out, an antignom creeper wrenched off a fence, wrapped hastily round her head, strangely to be considered as Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

After ten rounds of parading (clockwise and anti-clockwise) to music, the Pirate was adjudged winner! It was clean, wholesome fun. "PMD" later represented Sri Lanka as our High Commissioner in several Asian and West European lands, with great distinction—an unique juxtaposition of piracy and diplomacy (the influence of the metaphysical poets, no doubt!).

Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyk, "Ceylon’s English genius" ensured that the English Department flourished in earnest. Many plays were produced including the ongoing series of Inter-Hall One Act Plays—and Jubal’s famous "Insect Play". The English language was studied critically at "Practical Criticism" classes—and one began to discern "good" writing from "bad", Feeling, intention, tone and sense were minutely "examined"! Poetry was analysed with diligence, with an eye on imagery and clarity.

Prof. E. R. Sarathchandra did likewise in the Department of Sinhala. One of his Peradeniya productions, Maname (in liaison with Prof. Ludowyk), was lapped up by the theatre going public.

Richard Peiris (Jnr), now a Jesuit monk, spearheaded the Music Society; Robin Mayhead conducted the much acclaimed University Singers’ Choir.

The Department of English with Prof. Lyn Ludowyk at the helm had a galaxy of stars—Dr. Hector Passe, Doric de Souza (always brilliant) and Robin Mayhead, fresh from Cambridge. They collectively produced the cream of the department—Gananath Obeyesekere, M. L. J. Wickramaratne, Ranjini Ellepola and P. M. D. Fernando.

Charlie Mahendran—one of us "Peradeniya" pioneers—distinguished himself as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the United Nations Organization. K. M. de Silva continues his academic interest in "Ceylon History", as Professor. Desmond Fernando has excelled in the realm of Law; Evan Melder and K. Arichandran, at the World Bank; Lakdasa Hulugalle at the FAO; Ivan Ondaatje as a management consultant par excellence; Indrani Abeyesekera and Haig Karunaratne as great teachers; Merlin Peris as Professor of Western Classics; Inthiran Chelvathurai at the Commonwealth Secretariat in Britain; and Christie Gunawardane as Tax Consultant to the Government of Kenya in East Africa. Stanley Kirinde has emerged as a great artist.

Our long vacations—from the end of March to end of June, each academic year— were interludes of joy!

Camping by the "red bridge" at Horton Plains; hikes to Belihuloya, Ohiya, Pattipola, Dayagama West, and the West Haputale tea plantations; and living under canvas in Kalkudah, Pasekudah and Arugam Bay; the Kumana Bird Sanctuary; attempts at scaling Bible Rock and Kirigalpotha; Pidurutalagala, our highest mountain (7271 feet above sea level) and rambling across the Uva mountain range from Bandarawela to Bibile, Passara (with shelter for the night plus dinner at Sheila Rao’s delightful home on Ury Estate), Namunukula, Kokagala and Madulsima; exploring sections of the Mahaweli and the Knuckles mountains.

In retrospect, university life comprised days of achievement and delight. We had unobtrusively acquired sound core values which have stood us in good stead in the mundane humdrum world of formal employment to which we are all relegated, in the mould of convention. The annual "Going Down Dinner" initiated by Sir Ivor signified this dramatic change that would occur in our lives!

Some of our number have done exceeding well; others caught up in the maelstrom of the arrogance of power and unwholesome influence have not had the good fortune, nor opportunity, to break through such stifling constraints!

All in all, however, "Peradeniya" has done well and the country has been enriched with the great diversity of the talent of her Fellows.

The writer retired from the position of Manager, Human Resources, at the World Headquarters of the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIM), where he also acted for the Director, Finance & Administration.


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