Colombo Telegraph

Don’s Diary IVb: Peradeniya

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

Continued from Don’s Diary IVa: A Week in Jaffna.

Friday: After checking in at the hotel, I take a walk around Kandy. I have a couple of hours before sunset, enough to buy credit for the phone, take some photographs and act a bit of a tourist. I take a three wheeler drive to Bahirawakanda where there is a massive Buddha statue of which I noticed something different. The Buddha was sporting a pottu (bindi) dot on the forehead. But isn’t the pottu is usually associated with Hinduism? I don’t recall seeing the Buddha statues in Dambulla or Aukana decorated with pottu. Perhaps something modern here, a form of reconciliation between religions, I wondered. 

But I have my own pet theory comparing religions. Take Hinduism as practiced nowadays. Strip off the superstitions and rituals from it. The poojas, the Holy Ash, the offerings of food and fruits, the thought that a cat crossing from left to right is bad omen whereas right to left is OK, etc. Once you are done, what remains, you will be surprised to know, are the philosophical teachings of Gauthama Buddha. Of transcending within. Of a critical examination of the self. Of the sensitivity to and awareness of poverty, old age and death. Of birth, life and death as an eternal cycle. That is Gauthama’s beautiful philosophy. Reflective and inspiring. Now Buddhism as above is inadequate to preform little miracles. It won’t make you pass exams or win elections. You need to bring back rituals and superstitions. Flowers have to be offered. Nool (string) has to be tied on wrists. When you add enough of it, mix some hatred in it and top it all up with the pursuit of political power, what do you get? Is it not Buddhism as practiced by our countrymen (or dare you quote the scholar’s word ‘betrayed’)

At the temple, there were strict instructions. On how young men and women ought to behave. On treating the place with respect which had to be in line with Buddhist and Sinhala values. But the toilets in the place were only for foreign tourists! I got caught out on that one. I could legitimately claim foreigner by virtue of my present passport. But I had not paid an entrance fee, the colour of my skin having come to my aid at the gates.

Back in town, I got trapped by a missing comma. I insisted that what I need is a Mobitel phone card and that the pol rotti phone card he was selling wasn’t going to work on my phone. The shop guy gives me a funny look. “Picking on a missing comma, are you a don setting an exam or what?” written all over his face.

Past the lake, I get a chance to photograph birds in nests. Branches of lakeside trees come slanting down to about two meters form the ground, so a cameraman can be just four or five meters from the birds, feeding the young and practicing to fly.

Saturday and Sunday: 

Two friends drive down from Colombo to spend the weekend with me. “What are nice places to visit?” I ask the receptionist at the hotel. She is not imaginative. “You can visit the Tooth Temple, er, and , er… and you can visit the Tooth Temple.” But my friends had done their homework. We take a walk in a beautiful park just up the hill Udawathe Kele and drive to a few ancient temples ten or so miles away. The Embekke Devala, not really a temple, but a meeting place of Kings of the Gampola period has beautiful carvings on its wooden pillars. Wrestlers, horsemen and pretty young ladies. Well preserved from the 14th century. Such skills of the carpenters. 

Where have I seen such skills before? Yes. My grandmother’s house in Karainagar. The doors and door frames had beautiful carvings. Lady Goddess of wealth seated on lotus, Six headed God, Elephant face God. All of them designed to bless her next harvest. Carpentry cum artistic skills of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, passed down from father to son and kept within a caste that practiced that particular trade. It is all lost now. We began losing those partly due to the evil caste-based societal suppression and partly because easy money was to be made in the Seventies by taking odd jobs in the Middle East. Jobs performed under semi-slavery conditions, but you could bring back home a duty-free two-in-one (an audio device that could tune to radio waves as well as play a magnetic cassette tape of music). Anything that did survive that trend got blown up in the thirty-year dirty war. 

We lost it.

I didn’t quite agree with the Archaeology Department’s characterization of the Kataragama inhabitant as a war-god of the Sinhalese. With six heads and two wives, the good God Murugan was supposed to be a rather peaceful one, I had thought. 

But we have to accept, what was then is what our archaeology department finds now. 

Gadaladeniya and Lankathilake temples. One had beautiful carvings on stones. Drummer, dancer and, once again, pretty young ladies. Good Lords Vishnu and Buddha seem to have shared accommodation in these temples quite comfortably those days. In the South. Around the same time, or even before, the Northerners were quite comfortable contemplating the teachings of Gauthama. Today it is different. There is popular discourse about whose accommodation should be bigger, what should be State supported, what could spring overnight with armed protection etc. “When did it change,” I wondered, “where did it go wrong?”

The stone carvings at Gadaladeniya were impressive. Unassumingly carved out on the steps of the temple structure. But they are getting worn. Protection from the elements is minimal. A saddening sight. 


There is a new viral activity out there. That of painting random walls. I think it started as a beautifying project with a sprinkling of patriotism thrown in. I expected the paintings to consist of elephants on parade, kings on elephants beating up other kings, be it Rajarata 250 BC or Mullivaikkaal in more modern times. There were hints of such triumphalism here and there, but the best of the paintings was to be found on the upper Gampola Road in Peradeniya, which was of my favourite two Gauls, who enjoyed beating up Romans.

I took a bus to the University campus. Peradeniya is a beautiful university. My father was in the first batch of students to go there. They had cleared the jungle and built the buildings, spaced out well, and leaving the huge trees untouched. The hostels were built to high standards, including toilets designed to be of Western style – where you sat rather than squatted. “How did you know how to use one of those?” I remember asking my father, “you wouldn’t have seen them in our village.” He mumbled something about looking it up in google! By the time I went to study there, the toilets were all damaged. You could neither sit nor squat in comfort, making life rather challenging.

The campus has expanded a lot. More and more students are being sent there without proportionate increase in the facilities. Buildings propped up here and there, often missing to maintain the architectural continuity that made the place so great. The tree, my favourite tree, is untouched though. I sat under it for an hour, contemplating, letting nostalgia take over. 

I remembered the surveying class. We go around with an expensive instrument with a powerful telescope in it, measuring angles. A very sensitive instrument. Multiple measurements had to be taken according to a recipe, more precise than making hoppers. The idea is to cancel out systematic errors made by the instrument. But you saved a lot of time if you knew the direction of the errors. You took one measurement and filled the rest of the table. The dreaded instructor suspected I was fudging a bit. But my numbers were in the right direction, so he couldn’t prove anything. Time thus saved could be put to better use. The telescope reached far. Beyond the trees and the hills, into the village and focused on a stream. There, through the telescope’s cross hairs you saw what Wordsworth saw: 

“Yon solitary highland lass, singing by herself.”

“At least they have left my tree alone,” I said to myself of the campus developers. But next to the tree is a footpath. Motorbikes use it as shortcut. The riders save just a few yards by cutting across via the pedestrian path. But they do that, irritatingly revving their engines high in an exhibition of their testosterone levels when getting past the first step.  


I hide in the hotel and prepare my talk for the conference. In the afternoon, I walk to the botanical gardens. It is as lively as ever with a particularly colourful collection of orchids.


Conferences in Sri Lanka are great. There is much colour in the organization. VIPs gather in a corner of the building and are escorted a few yards with dancers, drums and the piercing sound of a conch, beautifully played. At the venue, much time is spent lighting a traditional oil lamp, which each of the VIPs is called upon one by one, with precise title and name announced to the audience. And every speech addresses each of the VIPs one by one, repeating the already known information about who they were. The formality is overwhelming. But I thought it is enjoyed much by the VIP folk, usually dressed up for the occasion. And that is the bee in my bonnet, for I often turn up in socks and sandals, and am made to feel, well, naked? 

The state of research in Sri Lankan universities was well demonstrated by the conference. There certainly is much more research activity now than the days I remember, when one solitary socialist was fighting with his computer code written in punch cards trying to simulate a power system and understand its stability properties. But research activity is to be found in isolated pockets of excellence, fragmented, and with no critical mass. There is output, but no culture of critical inquiry. In most sessions, the number of authors presenting work were the only people in the room. Ready to present their own work, but showing no interest in critically appraising, or even simply listening to what someone else had to say. A culture of research cannot be created overnight, I know, and I am aware of quite a lot of the obstacles to creating such a culture in that environment, too. 


I take a long walk. From Peradeniya, all the way to Kandy. The walk started from the Gemba (frog) canteen. Those days, the canteen was just a small shed. You had to cross a couple of puddles to get there. And you encountered the odd frog in those puddles. Hence the name. The place has all been concreted over now. No puddle. No frog. But the canteen remains. The vadai and tea taste exactly the same. The tables are as untidy as I remember them from 19xx. A beautifully written poster from 2017 features prominently on the wall [I find Sinhala characters beautifully curved, a clear challenge for the guy who designed the French curve]. Of free education. A quote from C.W.W. Kannangara himself. “It is incumbent upon you lot,” he says in it [approximately], “to fight to protect free education.” 

Four young ladies were sitting next to me. “Do you speak English?” I start a conversation. Three of them immediately look at the fourth one. She is their nominated English communicator. I ask her what the poster means. She translates with a slight shrug of her shoulders. The words, she translates well. But the semantics and the passion I expected failed to come across. There was sharp mismatch between my nostalgic expectations and the realism of someone less than half my age.  

That hurt.

Walking all the way to Kandy, I stared at advertisements. There were the odd adverts for shock absorbers, latest film and the like. But the dominant ones were for private tuition classes. The range was impressive: Maths, Tamil, Sinhala, Science, English, Geography, History, Economics and Commerce. Years 1-5, 6-11 and Advanced Levels. The full range, constantly expanding: primary to secondary, birth to death, womb to tomb, erection to resurrection. All subjects, all stages, you could get educated at a price. Yes, private tuition classes had started during my days, too. But the intensity and coverage was overwhelming to see. 

The message was clear. We have lost it. Something we once could legitimately be proud of, a system through which my mother, coming from a farming family who had just about enough to eat, with parents just about literate, could get herself high quality education to degree level. At this very university. And for free. 

That, we have lost. 

Saturday and Sunday:

I am off to Unwatunne for a get together with friends. A get together of the graduating class of 19xx. Spiritual uplifting was to be the theme and I am armed with a Johny Walker bottle, too. 

Feeling a bit adventurous, I opt to try the train. Express train, leaving Fort at 8.00ish. I manage to get into the packed train. There is just enough standing space to squeeze in.  

A group of students were travelling in my carriage. “Do you speak English?” I start a conversation. All of them did. Fluently so. “We are on a day out to mark the end of exams.” They were students from a private university, bright, sharp, communicated well and, as far as I could tell, would make fine graduates when their results are released.

I remember the days of my youth when that very private university was founded. 

I remember being strongly opposed to that plan, writing posters and going on strikes and marches protesting its creation.

“What was all that for?” I wondered.

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