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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.