Cambridge by the Mahaweli
"But who can deny that Peradeniya of the fifties, in the first decade of our existence as a modern independent nation, with its galaxy of world class intellectuals on the teaching staff and the opportunity of sampling t he crumbs of a rich intellectual feast, was not a heady attraction for so many young men and women shedding their starched white school uniforms if only for the freedom to grow a beard, smoke a cigarette, wear the open sandals patented by the revered Sarachchandra and spout a confused mixture of existentialism, nationalism, and Marxism?" - Jayantha Dhanapala in his review of Peradeniya: Memories of a University (1997), edited by KM de Silva and Tissa Jayatillaka
For a small, developing country in South Asia, Sri Lanka has produced a disproportionately high number of academics, scholars and professionals that have gone on to prominence on the world stage. There is hardly a major research institution, think-tank or university anywhere in the West that does not have at least one Sri Lankan on its senior staff. Proficient in English, familiar with Western culture (though often its harshest critics) and capable of mimicking the decorum that is supposed to epitomise a true ‘gentleman’ (or ‘lady’), these Sri Lankans are frequently assumed to be products of Oxford or Cambridge. In fact, many are graduates of Sri Lanka’s own elite educational facility, the University of Peradeniya, especially during its golden era in the 1950s and 60s. Originally known as the University of Ceylon, the history of this illustrious university is intertwined with that of Sri Lanka, and its fortunes have mirrored the island’s political, economic and social trajectories.
While major centres of learning have existed in Sri Lanka for over two millennia, these were closely linked to the Sangha (the monastic community of Buddhist monks and nuns) and restricted to matters pertaining to the dharma (teachings of the Buddha). The advent of a modern secular university tradition is a relatively recent phenomenon, introduced towards the end of British colonial rule, although the Ceylon Medical College was inaugurated in 1870. Following prolonged lobbying by a group of public-spirited citizens under the leadership of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the Ceylon University College was established in Colombo in 1921. Affiliated with the University of London, this landmark act was envisaged to be a preliminary step in the ultimate creation of a fully-fledged university.
In what became known as the ‘battle of the sites,’ competing proposals were put forward for the location of the university. While Colombo was initially favoured, a decision was eventually taken to settle for Peradeniya, a tea plantation 8km from Kandy and a site of great scenic beauty. Until the new campus was built, however, the new university functioned in Colombo. Taking its first students in 1942, it was a further decade before the transition to Peradeniya. An acute shortage of building materials following the spread to the East of the Second World War was a major factor in this delay.
The unwavering effort of one man, Sir William Ivor Jennings, was instrumental in ensuring the eventual successful transition to the new site in Peradeniya. Appointed as first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, Jennings was formerly a lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia. His vision was to recreate a Cambridge in the East – a single residential university on British lines educating a highly select group of young men and women in the English tongue who would take their place as legislators, administrators and professionals in the service of a little bit of England in Asia.
Under his tenure, the new campus at Peradeniya enrolled its first students in 1952 and was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in the presence of Queen Elizabeth in 1954. Jennings’s contributions extended well beyond the sphere of education. While in Ceylon, he also had appointments as Deputy Civil Defence Commissioner, Chairman of the Ceylon Social Services Commission and was an advisor to the constitutional arrangements prior to independence.
His primary task accomplished, Jennings left Peradeniya in 1955 and returned to England as Master of Trinity Hall at Cambridge, later becoming Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. For a brief few years after he left the island, Jennings’s vision seemed to have become a reality. A rich intellectual tradition flourished and the university soon acquired a reputation as one of the most promising in the Commonwealth. However, Jennings’s tenure had coincided with a period of momentous social and political change in the island. After nearly 500 years of colonial rule, independence from Britain came in 1948. The decade that followed saw a continued rise in the forces of nationalism that, together with a linguistic and cultural resurgence, posed a direct challenge to the elitist institution operating on the banks of the Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka’s largest river.
Just a few years after Jennings left, sweeping changes were made to the island’s educational system. Following popular demand, the government imposed changes in the university admissions policies resulting in enrolments that soon exceeded the levels envisaged. Economic difficulties precluded a commensurate increase in funding. In the 1960s, the University took the momentous decision to offer classes in the vernaculars (Sinhala and Tamil) in addition to English. For the first time, non-English speaking rural youth could pursue higher studies alongside children from the middle classes and elite.
However, many rural youth still felt disadvantaged, particularly with the realisation that a university degree without a command of English was no guarantee of employment. It was just a matter of time before tensions simmering in wider society manifested in the university. Radical undergraduates from Peradeniya were among the leading insurgents in two failed insurrections, firstly in 1971 and again in the late 1980s. Many of the intervening years have been characterised by instability, unrest and frequent disruptions in the academic programme, while political interference frequently encroached on the running of university affairs.
Despite the upheavals, the university has shown a remarkable degree of resilience. Peradeniya continues to produce graduates that have gone on to become prominent figures in politics, business, the arts and academia, and many have excelled on the international stage. Today, the university has seven faculties (arts, science, veterinary medicine, agriculture, dental sciences, medicine and engineering), two postgraduate institutes and over 11,000 students, making it the second largest of Sri Lanka’s 13 universities. University education in Sri Lanka is still free, although this means that competition for places is fierce. Among aspirants of higher education across Sri Lanka’s schools, Peradeniya continues to be the most sought after of all the country’s universities.
As an infant, I frequently accompanied my parents to Peradeniya when they visited the late HAI Goonetileke - then librarian and distinguished bibliographer – and also my mother’s cousin. Returning to the campus earlier this year, I visited the six-storey main library complex where his portrait gazes down from the wall of one of the reading rooms, and to peruse the impressive collection in the Ceylon Room – a concept he is credited with establishing in all Sri Lanka’s universities. In another reading room, a young Buddhist monk in saffron robes, a Muslim girl in hijab and a group of female Tamil students adorned in brightly coloured salwar kameez were all engrossed in their books, testament to the diversity of the student body.
Peradeniya has people going lyrical about it and it’s easy to understand why. The grounds themselves cover some 700 hectares, of which just 150 are developed. To the west are the pine-covered hills of the Hantana range while flowing right through campus is the Mahaweli Ganga. Well-manicured lawns are complemented by tropical foliage. No doubt many young students fell in love for the first time while strolling along the pathways that meander through the grounds, perhaps pausing to steal a moment of intimacy under the shade of an arboreal canopy. The sprawling nature of the campus is reminiscent of the traditional openness found at Anuradhapura, and the architecture is distinctly oriental, with double-pitched tile roofs and a wealth of ornamentation, including moulded stone basses, carved stone columns and moonstones. Looking down at the campus from the Hantana hills are the staff quarters and university-sponsored places of worship - a Buddhist vihara, Christian ecumenical church, Muslim mosque and Hindu kovil.
The mere mention of Peradeniya is certain to evoke nostalgia among its alumni. The late Lakshman Kadirgamar, former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister and one-time President of the Oxford Union, spent his undergraduate years at Peradeniya. During the unveiling of his portrait at Oxford in 2005, he remarked that while "Oxford was the icing on the cake, the cake itself was baked at home". For many Sri Lankans, now ensconced in far less salubrious climes in all corners of the globe, Peradeniya is a reminder of the heady days of youth – a time of new freedoms, a shared sense of optimism and the allure of a rich intellectual grounding. Though many of the buildings are now somewhat faded, a drive through the campus, perhaps after a visit to the nearby Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, is definitely recommended, and provides a glimpse of what must be one of the most picturesque settings for a university campus in the world. *
For more information about the university visit www.pdn.ac.lk
For the full review of Peradeniya: Memories of a University (1997) by Jayantha Dhanapala, former UN Undersecretary General, visit www.ices.lk/publications/esr/articles_jul98/PeraMem.PDF
For a commentary on Jennings’s contribution to Peradeniya University read HAI Goonetileke’s Introduction to Jennings’s The Kandy Road (1993).
For an insight into undergraduate life at Peradeniya during the 1950s and 60’s, read The Sweet and Simple Kind (2006) by Yasmine Gooneratne.