In this article written to the souvenir which marks the Golden Jubilee celebration of the 1963 Entrants to the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya to be held on July 14, Professor Ashley Halpe, Emeritus Professor of English, goes back to the very beginnings of this unique place of higher learning. Prof. Halpe was in the first [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Peradeniya…That ‘Dear Perpetual Place’


In this article written to the souvenir which marks the Golden Jubilee celebration of the 1963 Entrants to the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya to be held on July 14, Professor Ashley Halpe, Emeritus Professor of English, goes back to the very beginnings of this unique place of higher learning. Prof. Halpe was in the first batch which entered the University in 1952, was the youngest in Sri Lanka to become a Professor at the age of 31 years and continued as Professor of English for 33 years at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya

On our first day in Peradeniya, Sir Ivor (Jennings), Arty Samarawickreme, the Clerk of the Works, and their merry men did all they could to make us comfortable – including waiting for us with a line-up of lorries at Sarasavi Uyana Station (then just called Peradeniya, as distinct from Peradeniya Junction). But they couldn’t keep off the rain! Sir Ivor had warned us in his pre-shift-to-Peradeniya circular that “less rain fell more often than in Colombo,” so we were armed with all kinds of hats, rain- capes and umbrellas. But no raingear could protect us from being soaked pretty well from the waist down by the rain driven aslant by the wind sweeping across the valley. But that first day it seemed to rain all day.

The chief impression after that was of rain sluicing down, inexorably, dampening even the unmistakable tang in the air that swirls into the carriages as the train pauses at Balana before undertaking the final climb to Kadugannawa. Most people went up by train in those days, the buses being scruffy, rattly and their timing unpredictable. I for one was totally disoriented and with no sun in the sky couldn’t tell North from South or East from West. We were all pioneers, the first batch of Arts students, all fresh to Peradeniya. No one, senior or junior had any idea where to go. It did not matter – Sir Ivor and Artie Samarawickreme, the indefatigable Clerk of the Works, had sent five lorries to Peradeniya station as it was known then. There they were, labelled Marrs, Arunachalam, Jayatilaka, Pieris, Hilda Obeyesekere (these were the only halls of residence that had been completed by then). We piled in and were trundled away through the downpour to be delivered to … it was Pieris for me, some place on some hill and little else yet. I was so disoriented in the endless downpour for pretty nearly a week.

That evening some of us, inspired by Aloy Ratnayake, went in search of Fr. Pinto to start the new era with confession. A hundred yards from the chaplaincy we were wading into mud, and when it came above ankle level most of us gave up (not Aloy, though!) In the end it was Fr. Pinto who found his way to us in the Halls. Even his old Ford had been stuck in the mud that first day.

Though we had got to Peradeniya before noon, the kitchens weren’t operational by lunch-time – nor by nightfall. Dinner was pretty late, but no-one wanted to go looking for food elsewhere in the rain and dark. Around eight o’clock Sir Ivor and Lady Jennings came around to apologise to ‘all the hungry lions’ as Lady Jennings called us.

Settling in

Nothing was quite ready – I slept on a mattress on the floor for a couple of weeks – but we managed, rather enjoying the picnicking and the novelty. I, for one, felt like a king when I got to my room, even though freshers like me had to share, since the original plan of a room for every undergraduate (complete with an alcove of a bed-cum- dressing-room and a balcony with a view) had already been changed under the pressure of numbers.

I had grown up in the steadily-increasing family of a poor teacher and was inured to living in a crowded house where money was chronically in short supply. In Peradeniya I had the room almost to myself most of the time for my room-mate Christie Candappa had a heavy programme in the notoriously hard-working History Department besides being addicted to library attendance and such-like with religious zeal. There was a special delight for me in sitting down to write the weekly English tutorial essay on Saturday mornings when everyone else was out on the playing-fields or off in town, or in holing up with a book in the alcove that Christie had allocated to me, less in generosity than in hope of keeping me and my disorderly belongings out of sight! By now food was plentiful – afternoon tea was practically a fourth meal, every dinner was accompanied by a dessert and Sunday lunch was always special.

The whole concept was tremendous. This was no Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard growing at its own sweet pace over the centuries and evolving a visual splendour of dreaming spires or colleges by the Cam by imperceptible increments. Peradeniya was all planned, its variations of Kandyan architecture daringly blended with elements from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa as well as infusions of inspirations and models from the modern world.

Peradeniya has been for me very much a bowl of plenty and the perfection of a dream; the embodiment of that way of life and concrete realisation of what I had dimly envisioned as “the university”. I never thought of it as a mere source of qualifications, a degree-factory, or a training-ground for gainful employment. I had a heady sense of walking daily in a Lankan Forum where opinions, predilections and prejudices were as likely to clash over tea and cigarettes in the Central Canteen or at a Union Meeting or on the way to football or tennis, in those open-at-the-top cubicles in the toilets or in unlit rooms alive with fervent voices into the early hours of morning.
When the spirit moved us our group at Pieris descended to the road below where there was a little tea-shack for construction workers which we christened the Bistro. This was months before Wilbert Mudalali set up at Hindagala with his hoppers and ‘dynamite’ for mornings and the wonderful fresh bread and corned beef or tinned mackerel at night.

Campus discipline

The ‘in’ bell for girls (‘out’ for their male visitors) clanged into the balmy evenings from Hilda Obeyesekere, then a Hall for women – for several months the only one – at seven! This so infuriated Audrey Roberts that one evening she and a friend charged out of the hall and halfway up Pieris hill screaming war-whoops. They were ‘gated’ for a month. Though we lived and thought in a freedom unknown in our middle-class homes, campus discipline was clear and firm. Lambert de Silva was sent down for a month for riding a noisy motor-bike; I was sent before the Chief Marshal for inviting Dennis Aloysius to stay over in my room unauthorised. ‘Proper’ clothing was expected, saronged loungers in the common-rooms would leap out through windows when the warden was glimpsed coming up the drive.
In the circumstances the thrice-weekly free films at the Arts Theatre, the after-dinner debates, the Philosophical Society meetings, the Hall Socials, Colours Night, the church services on Sundays and what-have you had the added charm of permitted feminine participation after seven, even if Marshals were on hand to shepherd the women back to hall the moment an event ended. Eagle-eyed Mr. Boulton, stocky Derek Raymond and the avuncular Messrs. De Alwis and Jayaweera permitted no lagging, though walking with the women the half mile up the road was the usual coda to our socialisation.

Mornings came crisp with wisps of mist especially on days we opted to walk across campus to Mass or service at the ‘Galpalliya’. I don’t seem to remember many wet mornings, though evening showers were almost expected. A short scramble down the Pieris hillside facing the Lodge for us who were resident at Pieris, pioneering as usual – when we came back after Long Vacation the landscape curator had wisely put in stone steps where we had scarred the slope – and we had hardly a hundred yards to go to the Arts Block.
When we went into those staid and cheerless rooms we sat at the feet of giants: Ludowyk, Doric de Souza and Hector Passé of English, G.C. Mendis and Fr. Ignatius Pinto of History, Cuthbert Amerasinghe of Classics and G.P. Malalasekera of Oriental Studies, H.C.Ray of History would saunter elegantly clad down the corridor, George Wickramanayake of Classics or D.E. Hettiarachchi of Sinhala pounded past, Sarachchandra seemed to float ethereally. J.L.C (‘Adonis’) Rodrigo found a small tutorial room quite adequate for the office of the Dean of Arts. Younger men contributed their flamboyance or eccentricity: the ornate eloquence of Arasaratnam, the jerky mannerisms of ‘Tawney’ Rajaratnam, the famous accent of Roland Sri Pathmanathan, the ready smile of F.R. Jayasuriya, the awe-inspiring scholarship of S. Gunasekera, Karl Gunawardena and Ian ‘Vandy’ van den Driesen, Basil Mendis invited us to his home for extra sessions of Philosophy and held Art appreciation classes with the discussion of real examples in the Block, K.N. Jayatilleke proved a prickly Positivist and W.S. Karunaratne wove impish arabesques of thought at evening sessions.

Picnics, hikes and strikes

The physical environment was a challenge to exploration. Many Sundays saw a group of us begging a picnic lunch of bread and tinned mackerel from the kitchen to take on hikes – up Hantana or across the Peradeniya Gardens (no charge for entrance in the fifties) to the far side of the Mahaweli where sandy swathes lay beside the expanse of rocks and rapids above Halloluwa, or up the road and across the fields a couple of miles beyond Hindagala. During exam revision times the summerhouses and knolls in the Gardens were favourite resorts, as were the park between Hilda and the Senate, part of which later became the Sarachchandra Open-air Theatre, and the grassy bank between the Senate and the river.

Union election times revealed deep rifts between the urban-Colombo based right-oriented ‘junta’ and the ‘Trots’ and Commies. Passions ran high, deals were struck, traps sprung; barrels of throaty eloquence poured out from the High Table platform at hall meetings. No one dreamed of not voting; the cynical repudiation of the ballot at the end of eighties was in effect a vote against the chaos of those terrible months.

There was the day a strike was thought to be necessary. I cannot now remember why. A sit-down was organised on the grounds of the Lodge, lunch was carried to the satyagrahis (the word was not current then) by staff sympathisers. Sir Ivor was away. He drove back, unfolded his gaunt frame from his ancient Standard and said “Gentlemen, do you know your proceedings are illegal? Come in and have some tea.”

He walked the campus roads in the evenings, a benign and energetic headmaster. Cuthbert Amerasinghe, the warden of Pieris, invited students to tea at his house on Sanghamitta Hill, Doric D’Souza mesmerised his opponents at table-tennis at the gym. Dr. Passé and his wife, D.E. Hettiarachchi and M.H.F. Jayasuriya were fanatic in their attendance of the tennis courts. Fr..Pinto ate hoppers and sambol with us in the little tea-shops of Peradeniya. Men who had the temerity to visit the girls at Hilda were swept by the suspicious eyes of Miss Mathiaparanam, the logician-Warden whose dragonish exterior and exacting disciplne overlay a deep motherliness.

Enchanted valley

As that enchanted year drew to its close in the early rains of April 1953 I found myself far from eager to face the crowds and mugginess of Colombo where my family then lived. I had found what I was looking for, and with three years ahead in Peradeniya it really seemed that that world couldn’t ever end.

Those years fulfilled the promise of the first, not infrequently surprising me with unexpected enrichments, chief among them the arrival of Bridget and the growth of our relationship.

Those years brought surprisingly little tension and pain. If Prof. Sarachchandra’s Heta Eccere Kaluvara Nae had appeared then, instead of in the late seventies, I would have responded to his description of Peradeniya with enthralled, assenting recognition from the core of my being:

If ever a community of young and old sought the tranquillity and inspiration of a natural environment in which to engage themselves in the pursuit of knowledge, they could not have found a place where Nature was more kindly or more anxious to please than the valley of Peradeniya. You pass ugly little towns all the way,Yakkala, Warakapola,Kegalla, Mawanella, till you come to the bridge that goes over the Mahaweli. Then, through the arches formed by the bamboo branches that droop over the river from both its banks, you catch a first glimpse of the archaic-looking buildings of the university built there only a little over a quarter of a century ago. You turn right after crossing the bridge, and into a world that you would never have believed to have been there. A world apart, indeed, which has often been condemned for being so, for being an ivory tower in which the youth of the country grew up without a care for the masses who were not so fortunate as they. But as you go through the campus and see more of it you wish, however just the condemnation may be, that there were a few more spots on earth left like it,

The Peradeniya campus is beautiful at all times of the year, but particularly in the months of Duruthu and Bak, which correspond to Spring in colder climates. Then, it is like a vast pavilion decked gaily as if for a festival, with festoons of flowers hanging over- head, and yellow petals falling lightly from them to rest on the cool green grass and make a carpet for the feet, while bougainvilleas twine themselves into multi-coloured trellises all around. The shimmering vault of the noonday sky resounds to the cry of the kovula, rising higher and higher up the scale, and ending in a crescendo of longing.

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