University of Peradeniya: A treasure of beauty and wisdom
Thursday, 8 May 2014 00:00
Exactly 40 years ago on a day like today (8 May), I was over the moon enjoying the very first day of my entrance to the University of Ceylon Peradeniya. I still remember the day of my arrival with my parents at Peradeniya Sarasavi Uyana Railway Station, a reminiscent construction by colonial rule in Sri Lanka.
No words can express the radiance of the blooming May flowers and beauty of birdsong that portrayed a symbol of warm welcome to the new entrants. All the beginners who arrived in numbers were received by the seniors with warm cordiality. It was obligatory for freshmen to be clad in white during the first two or three weeks and opted to use our own choice of dress later.
The academic course of study for a Bachelor’s degree was successfully completed in a period of three years or four years at the University. I am proud to accentuate that all my batch mates have reached the zenith of their glory in professional career. They shine at the apex of their career as justices, lawyers, senior government officials, diplomats, executives in finance and administration and reputed politicians in the local and international arena. This is the gift of erudite talents presented by the world-recognised University of Peradeniya.
It is significant that this year becomes highly remarkable due to the 60th anniversary of the University of Peradeniya, which was ceremonially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 of April 1954 on her visit to Sri Lanka.
Under the Ceylon University Ordinance No. 20 of 1942, the University of Ceylon was established on 1 July 1942, by amalgamating University College and Ceylon Medical College. The motto of this University of Ceylon was ‘Knowledge is the Eye Unto All’ (Sarvasva Locanam Sasthram in Sanskrit). However, there is nice story behind the establishment of University of Ceylon.
In the early 1900s proposals were forwarded on the location of the proposed University of Ceylon. In response to these proposed projects, Governor Hugh Clifford, who realised the essential need of a University, appointed a Committee chaired by Justice M.T. Akbar in 1926 to submit its recommendations to the Government in an attempt to meet the necessity of a college for higher studies. It was proposed to build a university with residential facilities located outside Colombo city.
Subsequently another Committee was appointed under the Chairmanship of Sir Walter Buchanan to consider the most favourable location with a salubrious atmosphere. The recommendation of this Committee was to establish the University in Aruppola, Dumbara in Mahanuwara District. As a result of lengthy discussions over the issue, the Government finally acquired about 700 hectares of land for construction of the proposed first university and its park.
The land acquired for the university was a huge tea estate later utilised as a cantonment for troops of the World War II. The writer recollects the military office coloured in green situated opposite the Art Gallery being used by the Department of Political Science and Economics and Department of Philosophy of the Art faculty.
The location of the university is extremely charming. It is surrounded by the lovely Hanthane Mountain, Mahaveli River and Kandy-Colombo Road. The world famous Botanical Gardens, another fascinating attraction among tourists and locals alike, is also situated opposite the University site.
The Engineering Faculty and Akbar Hall built closer to Peradeniya Railway Station could be reached across the Akbar Bridge, a portrayal of expertise demonstrated by the engineers led by Prof. A. Thurariraja with advanced technique of construction. The famous Yaka Palama and Sarasaviya Railway Station on Kandy-Galaha Road running through the university strengthen this site with inexpressible beauty to the university. The university premises are unequivocally of natural beauty, with a variety of trees, blooming flowers and radiant breeze.
P.M. Senaratna in his book ‘Sir John Kothalawala & The Premier Stakes’ in 1952 emphasises the significance of the huge role played by Sir John Kothalawala to establish the University of Peradeniya in getting necessary funds passed by the Government. According to Senaviratne, while Wijewardana use his persuasive influence and effort to obtain the services of the world-renowned town-planner Sir Patric Abercrombie, Sir John Kothalawala insisted that Peradeniya was the best suitable location for the projected university.
Credit should be given to the designers and architects who contributed an excellent masterpiece of work in creating a colossal building with a landscape of natural beauty and incredibly a highly-attractive environment tantamount to the paradise of Sri Lanka. The buildings have been constructed on the basis of historical value of architecture.
The entire building with granite slabs and huge images of lions, etc., Gaja Singha Bridge, resembles a constructional structure of the historical Polonnaruwa era. The doors of the art gallery are covered with the historical Ambakke Devala carvings and colonial lampposts show the significance of durable value. It was this historical type of buildings that compelled filmmakers to utilise Peradeniya University as their location site for filming sceneries admired by the audience. The famous ‘Vesathuru Siritha’ was filmed at the University Grounds using Hilda Obeysekara Hall as the Palace of King Vessanthara.
Significance of University of Peradeniya
The significance of University of Peradeniya is that there is no fence or wall to make a boundary of the university. It is a well-planned engineering of a city for a university. The highly-appreciative move adopted by the founders to create the environment equivalent to that of the Cambridge and Oxford Universities under the British prestige has been magnificently completed with no fence or wall demarcated to divide the neighbourhood. It is a showcase of a brilliantly thought our and farsighted project by the founding designers.
All Sri Lankans should honour Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice Chancellor, architects Sir Patric Abercrombie, Clifford Holiday and Sherly de Alwis who took great effort to make this dream come true with Peradeniya University. Today, anyone can see the attractive memorial known as the Alwis Pond, which was built in memory of Sherly De Alwis.
Since University of Ceylon was established in 1942, the academic and other activities had been carried out in the University College Building until construction of the permanent building was completed in Peradeniya. Completion of the university building was delayed due to World War II but steps were taken to move to the new building gradually.
Administration of the university was moved to Peradeniya in 1952 as the construction of the building was completed by then. But the university was ceremonially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 20 April 1954. The plaque displayed in remembrance of the proud visit of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in the Senate building built on 130 granite columns is a resemblance of a historical palace from the Polonnaruwa era.
Change of name
While University of Ceylon was functioning its academic schedule smoothly, Colombo University was established in 1967 as a separate university which was operated as a campus of University of Ceylon. Major departments including the Legal Department were moved to Colombo University with all the facilities enjoyed by the University of Ceylon Peradeniya.
In 1972 all the universities were brought under one umbrella as University of Sri Lanka and all universities became campuses under the new University of Sri Lanka. All these universities were introduced as Peradeniya Campus, Colombo Campus, etc. Then in 1978 with the implementation of new amendments, all campuses became separate universities. Peradeniya Campus was made a separate independent university with a change of name as University of Peradeniya.
Significantly, chancellorship secured the proud image of the University of Peradeniya. The Head of the Government in power became Chancellor by ex-officio, a portrayal of the prestige of the university. It was followed in accordance with British University system. In 1979, President J.R. Jayawardena introduced the appointment of reputed personalities as Chancellors of Universities, ending the prestige enjoyed by University of Ceylon Peradeniya.
Facilities at the university
University of Peradeniya is the largest and the only residential university in Sri Lanka provided with all requisite facilities as student halls, housing quarters, etc. are made available for the academic and non academic staff and students. There are 10 student halls including the newly-opened hall in the University built in the ancient architectural design in comparison with the Polonnaruwa era. All these halls have been named after families that spent their money on building the university. Hilda Obeysekara, James Peiris and Marcus Fernando Halls are a few examples.
Places of worship of all religions have been made available in the university premises for all to practice their faith. Sarasavi Seya or stupa constructed on top of the mountain hill portrays that of the Thuparamaya in Anuradhapura and gives an additional attraction to the beauty of university. The playgrounds, swimming pools and health centre are a few of the other available facilities.
The Library located in the high-rise building of seven floors is one of the largest in South Asia, replete with a colossal number of inestimable books. Names of professionals like H.A.I Goonetilleke, Walter Marasinghe and others who made an invaluable contribution to bring to its high recognition should glow writ in gold in the history of University of Peradeniya.
The Art Theatre with parapet made out of granite located at the centre of the university is a praiseworthy place to the university. It is the place where world famous films were screened. It is worthy to note the contribution by technician Mendis (Mendis Aiya) to the university to fulfil his duty with minimum technical facilities. The original songs and entire drams of Maname and Sinhabahu have been securely stored at the university and gifted to nation by this little man Mendis Aiya.
The popular Open Air Theatre Wala built to match the Greek architectural design in the early 1950s is a spectacle that invaded the university. Beyond exaggeration, even nature virtually illuminates the environment with sparkling light and radiance of blooming flowers during the May and June season. This Open Air Theatre, popularly known as Wala, has now been named the Sarachchandra Open Air Theatre and is used for performance of drama. The debut of the famous drama Sinhabahu was performed at Wala.
Plethora of lovely places
There is a plethora of lovely places of past memories around the university. Kissing Bend, Lovers’ Street and Hilda Nuga Tree (Banyan tree) enlivens the romantic background at the university. Sadsiri Hotel situated outside the university has become a frequently accustomed eatery for the university students.
The lovely environment portrayed with landscape of unimaginable attraction of finest locations flexible to the romantic background brought popularity to the image of the university as the greatest. It was this fascinating atmosphere that influenced producers to utilise the culture and sceneries at the university locations in their cinematic creations like Hantane Kathawa.
A countless number of songs have been composed with the university background that have become lasting memories of the past. ‘Me Nagaraya’ by Mervin Perera, ‘Hanthaneta Payan Sadha’ by Amarasiri Peiris and ‘Hantane Kandu Muduna’ by Amaradeva are a few examples.
Today there are more than 12 universities in Sri Lanka. It is observed that only the Southern University has been built up under a planned structure whereas others are just conversions of buildings utilised for various other purposes. This has closed the conducive environment needed for a university with a healthy background for students to pursue their studies and other activities at the apex of their talented skills. It is needed in future to build up universities with proper environment.
The writer and his batch mates proudly recollect the 40-year experience of the past on the dedication and contribution made by them to national development as grateful products of Peradeniya University, reciprocating duty-bound responsibility of the highest tribute to the university flag flying high in esteem.
It is doubtful if Sri Lanka could gift a similar university to the country in near future. No effort appears to have been taken during the last 70 years to build a university equivalent to the high standard of Peradeniya. During our period, we never even touched a branch of a tree with the fear of destroying its beauty.
Responsibility lies in each and every person affiliated to the university to honour beauty and its culture and maintain its high profile reputation shining at the apex of its glory for benefit of the future generation.
It would be more appropriate to quote the first Vice Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings’ words on his first visit to the university site with architect Sir Partric Abercrombie to conclude the article: “No university in the world would have such a setting.”
(The writer is the retired former Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications – Sri Lanka Export Development Board and ex-Director of the Sri Lanka Trade Centre in Maldives. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)