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DateLine Sunday, 04 November 2007

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Magnificent citadel of wisdom

A tribute to Sir Ivor Jennings:



Nothing has changed

Buildings well-known for their architectural beauty



Sir Ivor Jennings

I love to rewind the days spent in the university of Peradeniya in my mind, playing it back slowly, pausing over unforgettable events and replaying them... again and again. No wonder almost all her alumni look back nostalgically to their university days.

In fact how can they ever forget the best period of their lives spent in Sri Lanka's most beautiful university which nestles among a site of great natural beauty on the lower slopes of the Hanthana Range and the banks of the River Mahaweli?

So will her grateful 'children' ever overlook the name synonymous with the University- her founder Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings? Apart from being an educationist, the role he played as a constitutional lawyer and a political scientist during the crucial years of Sri Lanka's Colonial history and the early post-colonial era is significant.

When a handful of ungrateful students protested against naming the newly built hostel after Sir. Ivor Jennings, voices for this great man gained volume, making the former shudder with guilt and shame.

Sir Ivor Jennings, a Professor of Law at the London School of Economics arrived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1941 with the intention of establishing the first residential University in the country which was a dire need at that time. He was appointed as the second principal of the Ceylon University College.

Though the site to establish a university had been acquired by the time of his arrival, it was Sir. Ivor Jennings who made all the necessary arrangements to make it a reality.

His plan was to create the university in Colombo first and later move it to Peradeniya and he submitted a memorandum to the Minister of Education C. W. W. Kannangara stressing that urgent need.

By combining the Ceylon University College and the medical college into a single unit, University of Ceylon in Colombo was established on July 1st, 1942.

What if Sir. Ivor Jennings thought of never moving it to Peradeniya as this was a time of great calamity? The Second World War had started affecting the East at that time and there had been a shortage of building materials.

Also the site had been taken over by the armed services for setting up the headquarters of the allied South East Asia Command (SEAC) during the period of war . Determined to construct the University in Peradeniya, Sir Ivor waited patiently till 1946 and the construction of Sri Lanka's 'most beautiful university' thus commenced finally.

Sir. Ivor knew that his intention was great and that is probably why he wrote the following lines in his autobiography "The Road to Peradeniya" (edited and introduced by H. A. I. Goonetileke): "The building of a university is the most valuable job that any body could be asked to do".

The exemplary planning and lay out of the university complex were done by the consultants Sir. Patrick Abercrombie and Clifford Holliday. And who wouldn't want to know her designer? It was Shirley de Alwis attached to the Public Works Department.

Anyway as floods hit the area unexpectedly the major scheme which was to be put into operation in two phases had to be changed. Yet, amidst all the difficulties, Sir Ivor Jennings and his team worked tirelessly and he saw his dream becoming a reality gradually as the first batch of students from Colombo was transferred to the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1949. October 6, 1952 marks the formal establishment of the University.

Today what we see there is a magnificent university. The University buildings well known for their architectural beauty, hostels, staff bungalows blend well with the greenery.

The style of architecture is based on the Kandyan style. Sir Ivor had firmly believed in the importance of environmental factors in emotional and intellectual development and do we need any testimony to prove it other than the Symbol of wisdom in Peradeniya?

In a society where most of the people tend to 'forget' their past as they go up the social ladder, Sir Ivor Jennings' character is exemplarary. He frankly admits that his early days were spent in relative poverty, that his father was a carpenter who was unemployed often and his mother was a daughter of a night watch man.

The way he climbed the social scale is a fine example to many of the University students in the country who undergo such economic hardships often. The solution lies in courage and determination, not in hatred or envy. If they follow Sir. Ivor Jennings, without bearing malice against their well-off batch mates or the staff many of the problems can be overcome without much effort.

The River Mahaweli still flows across the University enhancing the natural beauty. The Hanthana range stands as her guardian. Saffron coloured beautiful flowers cascade down from the trees. Nothing has changed.

A few years ago we were her under graduates, now we are her alumni who nostalgically yet with pride recollect our days spent there. Some of her future students are still schooling waiting longingly to study there in the future, just as I aspired to enter this great university one day as a child. So Dear, Sir, can a person ever think of greater 'honour' than this?

samangie@sundayobserver.lk
 

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