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Golden Jubilee of 1960 batch:

Peradeniya University: Winds of Change

By the early 1940s the Government and the Ceylon University planners had acquired the site of the New Peradeniya Estate, an unprofitable tea and rubber plantation owned by a British company, for the construction of the university infrastructure. But soon, the site had been requisitioned for a cantonment of the British, American and Australian troops fighting the fascists in the Second World War.

Once the war was over in 1945, the university construction work went ahead but the devastating floods of 1947, which even floated an elephant brought to the site for transporting timber, hampered the construction temporarily. Later, work recommenced, and most of the buildings of the university were completed by 1952.

Thus Peradeniya had witnessed tranquillity as well as sporadic upheavals even before the proper commencement of university academic activities in 1952, with the arrival of 820 students of the Arts and Oriental faculties from Colombo who succeeded a few Agriculture and Law students stationed there earlier.

The 1950s and the early 1960s are generally considered the best years in the university in many respects, and the batch of 1960, to which we belonged, was lucky enough to be undergraduates of an orderly campus. What is proposed in this essay is to reminisce our undergraduate days and look into the changes that have taken place at Peradeniya over the past five decades.

Understandably, faculties have proliferated to make the institution a full-fledged university. One year after our entry, i.e. in 1961, sub-departments of sciences of the parent departments in Colombo were established at Peradeniya.

In 1966, with the creation of a separate university in Colombo by the Higher Education Act No.20 of the same year, an independent Faculty of Science came into being at Peradeniya.

Similarly, courses in medicine were taught at Peradeniya from 1961 in sub-departments attached to the Colombo Medical Faculty. It was only in 1966 that Peradeniya witnessed the birth of an independent Medical Faculty. Dentistry, which was confined initially to one department in the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo, was moved to Peradeniya in 1954, and the department was renamed the Dental School, with one unitary department of Dental Surgery. This unitary department was replaced by five departments in 1981, and consequently there emerged a Faculty of Dental Sciences in 1986.

Veterinary and animal sciences which were taught in the Faculty of Agriculture from the inception were brought under a separate faculty in 1972. The Faculty of Engineering which was initially established in Colombo in 1956 was transferred to Peradeniya in 1965. The proliferation of faculties still continues, and in 2005/2006 a Faculty of Allied Health Sciences was established.

The University of Ceylon, Peradeniya became just another unit among many others under the University of Ceylon Act. No. 1 of 1972 which relegated all universities to campuses of a single monolithic university with its administrative headquarters in Colombo. There was one single Vice-Chancellor for all the campuses, and each campus executive head was called "President". So "University of Ceylon, Peradeniya became Peradeniya Campus.

Separate universities

This situation continued until 1978 when the Universities Act No.16 of 1978 reintroduced the system of separate universities functioning under the direction of the University Grants Commission. Thus the Peradeniya Campus became the University of Peradeniya in 1978. The other campuses of the monolithic university, namely, Colombo, Jaffna, Kelaniya, Moratuwa and Jayawardenapura also became separate universities.

The construction of aesthetically appealing majestic buildings such as the Arts Theatre, the Senate House, the "Lodge", and even undergraduate residences such as Marrs, Jayatilake, Arunachalam, Sanghamitta and Hilda Obeysekara Halls, imitating some of the architectural features of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa eras, is testimony to the limitless resources the pioneer planners and engineers of the university seem to have had at their disposal.

However, limitation of resources has influenced subsequent constructions.

The Wijewardena and Akbar Halls and the Medical Faculty buildings which were completed during our stay, the cluster hostels, the second Arts building, the second wing of the Senate Building, the Ivor Jennings Hall etc. constructed thereafter, do not aesthetically match the earlier constructions at all.

Changing times

With our Arts batch of 1960, Swabasha streams were also introduced. Trilingual education resulted in the initiation of an intensive course in English in the same year and it still continues. Trilingualism also resulted in an upsurge of student admissions. Therefore, in 1961 a "non-residential concept" emerged compelling students to find lodgings outside halls of residence.

The campus became overcrowded and gradually facilities given to undergraduates dwindled. By the mid-1960s all second year students lodged in private residences. The total number of registered undergraduates at Peradeniya in 1960 was 1756 and by the academic year 2008/2009 it had increased to 8819. At present only about two third of undergraduates are provided lodging in the campus.

Changes related to the student population from the time we entered are also many. The average age at the time of our entry was around 19 years and it had gone up to about 21 years by 2009. Unlike in the 1950s and the early 1960s, up to about 20 percent students in all faculties now (majority of course from Arts) undergo dire financial hardships. This is due to changes in the student profile from an urban-based middle class majority to a rural-based poor majority.

The gender ratio of the Arts student population of our batch of 1960 was 56.5 percent males and 43.5 females. This has changed over the years in favour of females and in the 2008/2009 academic year the ratio of females increased to 79 percent.

The ratio of girls in Agriculture, Dental Sciences, Veterinary Science and Allied Health Sciences is also relatively high, but in science and medicine the number of males is slightly higher. In Engineering the male ratio is 86 percent as opposed to 14 percent females.

The so called 'rag', or the intimidation of freshers or imposing the superior status of seniors, lasted only one week during our undergraduate days and two weeks thereafter. 'Ragging' was mild, there was a distinct element of fun and no physical harm was inflicted except on rare occasions. But over the past three decades, the 'ragging' phenomenon had deteriorated to a prolonged humilation of freshers for about four weeks, the main features of which are verbal as well as physical harassment and abuse.

The meals we were served during lunch and dinner by "waiters" included rice, three vegetables and meat, fish or egg. For a change 'courses' were introduced for dinner. Dessert followed both lunch and dinner. Breakfast consisted of bread with accompanying requisites or some grain such as chickpea, with tea. In addition there was afternoon tea served with snacks.

By the early 1970s serving meals at the dining tables was discontinued and students had to queue with their meal tickets to be served at the counters. Even this practice was stopped in the early 1980s and since then undergraduates, academic staff living in halls and sub-wardens purchase meals from canteens or prepare their meals in their rooms.

Initially a room was shared by two, and special degree final year students were provided with single rooms. Now each room is shared by at least three and in cluster hostels by five for study, leisure, cooking, eating and sleeping.

Although these changes portray a darker and sullen picture of the university, successive batches of undergraduates consider that they had the best of times at Peradeniya. This may be due to the fact that in each succeeding year conditions outside the university were also going from bad to worse.

The early undergraduates at Peradeniya were provided with laundry facilities so that a laundryman came to residential halls, removed soiled clothes, washed and ironed them from, and returned from at least twice a month. This practice was discontinued from the mid-1960s.

Then, when we entered as freshers, all of us had to face a medical test at the Health Centre.

We were expected to undress for the occasion in the doctor's examination room. For some of us undressing was easier and more entertaining than getting back into clothes after every nook and corner of the body had been examined by the physician. However, from the mid-1990s undergraduates have been deprived of that entertainment, privilege and service due to their increasing numbers and a dearth of doctors at the Health Centre.

The residential life in our times was generally full of activity distinctly different from what is taking place now. There were 'Socials', 'Going-Down Dinners', 'High Table Dinner', Inter-hall debates in which I had the privilege of being a team member at both Ramanathan and James Pieris Halls, intellectual discourses on subjects like rebirth, speeches by well-known political personalities, and even kavi maduvas.

Towards the middle of 1961 one such kavi maduwa was held at the Ramanathan Hall. P.B. Alwis Perera who was scorned as a Colombo poet by the 'Peradeniya elite' was a key participant at the occasion.

While the sessions were in progress one of our colleagues (fortunately not anyone from the proud 1960 batch) uttered a rude poem which had unpleasant overtones regarding a probable infidelity at Alwis Perera's household while he was away. Unruffled, Alwis Perera stood up to the occasion magnanimously and recited the following verse which penetrated my mind and heart since that evening.

Emba daruwa sip sayurehi soyana muthu

Deval tibe kiva yuthu ha nokiva yuthu

Eya min pasuva oba sihiye tibiya yuthu

Varsity bime matu nambuwa rakiya yuthu

Oh child! You are searching for pearls in the ocean of knowledge

There are things that should be uttered and not uttered

You should keep that well in mind in time to come

So that future honour of the university could be safeguarded

Alwis Perera was given a thundering applause by the audience. The residents of the Hall had a sense of ethics and the colleague who harassed Alwis Perera was given a considerable amount of "water-treatment" or "bucketing" in the night and was also awarded the derogatory title "Joker" for the rest of his university career.

Undergraduates with poetic skills throughout history have scribbled down verses on tables, desks, handles of chairs and walls. I do not know whether our batch mate Ariyawansa Ranaweera, who won the annual State Literary Award 13 times in later years, exercised his poetic skills in the same manner initially. But verses scribbled by relatively recent undergraduates point to the fact that the university is always pregnant with creative talents. One of them lamented the absence of a proper academic environment in the following manner:

By jumping over the Lover's Lane

And crossing the Mahaveli river

The god of wisdom has run away

With the goddess of knowledge and creativity.

Peradeniya was a hive of sports activities during our undergraduate days. There were outstanding performers in athletics, body building, table tennis, cricket, soccer, hockey, rugger and netball some of whom were contenders for national honours. For example, my third year roommate, D.T.M. Senarath who ended up as a DIG later, was contending for national honours in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.

Our batch was also outstanding in the field of sports in another sense. It was one of our colleagues who initiated a ban on boxing in the campus by succumbing to an upper cut by the opponent-Nalim and collapsing unconscious in the ring. Nevertheless, he excelled in athletics and later in life became an important official in the National Olympic Committee.

The tennis courts which were in use at the Hilda Obeysekera and James Peiris Halls have been converted to volleyball courts since the mid-1960s, indicating that social changes taking place in the campus concomitant to changes elsewhere. The tennis courts in the main playground opposite the Arunachalam Hall are being used still but only rarely. At present, schoolchildren in and around Kandy and Peradeniya use the athletic tracks for their sports-meets and rehearsals more often than undergraduates.

Staff-student relations

It is unfair by the present generation of teachers as well as students to state that "those were the days of best staff-student relations". Throughout, there had been teachers who were closer and sympathetic to students but there were others who were aloof to students outside the lecture rooms. The majority of students venerate their teachers even now.

However, in the early days most special degree final year students were entertained their dinner on the eve of examinations by the staff at their private residences. Occasionally, both male and female undergraduates were invited to Faculty Club gatherings.

These events started to disappear from 1970 and subsequently dinners or tea parties jointly sponsored by all faculty members of a department at a convenient university venue have become the norm. On the other hand, over the last few decades there have been rare instances of teachers supporting students even financially without advertising the fact that they were doing so.

Campus jargon

In the sub-culture of undergraduates there had always been a specific jargon which could be understood only by themselves. One could observe continuity and change in this jargon over the past 50 years. Terms such as gaje (scrounger); cram (hasty study or memorising before exam), Frusa (a frustrated person); vala (open air theatre) and karattaya (a couple walking together) continue in usage while a number of new terms have come into vogue which were alien to our generation.

The fresh batch is now known as the ship (Nava) and those who obtain transfers from other universities and come later are known as the ones who came by boat (Bottuwa). A well delivered lecture is athal and a lecture that cannot be understood is anjabajal. The kuppi is clever students conducting revision classes for others on the eve of examinations.

The faculties are also identified by specific terms such as pattara kade (Arts Faculty); mada kade (Agriculture Faculty); mas kade (Medical Faculty); balu mas kade (Veterinary Faculty); bicycle kade (Science Faculty) and kammal kade (Engineering Faculty).

Of the many other usages of present day undergraduates, a few that need special attention are sodanava or tel bedanava (going after a girl to befriend her); bath love (befriending a girl with the dubious intention of sharing her meal packet); toyya (a beautiful girl); kiri toyya (a more beautiful girl) and kiri kiri toyya (an extremely beautiful girl).

In student politics the traditional Left was powerfully represented in the campus until the late 1960s. The Fourth International Trotskyites dominated the scene while there were quite a few Moscow Wing or Peking Wing Communists. The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna was also a substantial force.

The 'Demsoc' representing the rightist UNP had a small following. Campus politics then of course were more recreational than ideological. By 1968/69 all other groups were overtaken by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. Some politicians of the two main ruling parties, the SLFP and the UNP, too have made attempts to increase their influence on the student population.

On and off, they have shown some success, particularly at times when each party was in power in the country. The majority of academics did not dabble in politics openly until 1970, but since then both academic and non-academic staff have been increasingly politicised in line with general over-politicisation trends in the country.

Continuity

Thus Peradeniya University is a reflection of continuity and change observed in Sri Lankan society, economy and polity. Amidst changes, the university has survived with some of its spirit intact. It has also been resilient in trying circumstances and has faced up to challenges and the realities of the times. Its exhilarating scenic beauty still remains.

Flowers bloom in April and May in vivid colours on creepers, plants, the mara and rain trees. Up above, the Hantana range overlooks the campus with equanimity.

Down below, the meandering Mahaveli flows calmly most of the time, but unleashing violent floods sporadically, indicating the vicissitudes of the campus environment and campus life.

 

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