16 October, 2021


University Of Peradeniya: Utopia Never Lost – A Reply

By P. Soma Palan – 

P. Soma Palan

I refer to the Article titled “University Of Peradeniya: Utopia Never Lost” by R.P. Gunawardena (RPG) in Colombo Telegraph on 25th January. I unreservedly agree with him that the “1950s era is the best period” of this University. Yes, the 1950s is undoubtedly the halcyon era of the University. But this University in its original name, the University of Ceylon, which was the only one University in existence, was undoubtedly, an”Utopia” in its composite sense, then. But RPG’s view, that “the University of Peradeniya- Utopia Never Lost” cannot be accepted without qualifications. I agree by definition the word “Utopia” means an ideal, a perfect state. That is, where nature, academia and cultural and other associated element blend to form an Utopia. When you describe the University as an Utopia, it means it is an ideal, perfect state in all its composite elements. One cannot isolate one element only. That is, its salubrious clime, verdant landscape, its picturesque natural setting. The reference is to the University and not to its natural physical landscape. But then, a University is a composite whole, which gives it life and grandeur. Any transformation, primarily, in the student population, the quality of its Faculty members, recreational activities, and its traditions can either enhance or diminish the ideal/perfect state of the University. Therefore, it is questionable whether in its integrated whole, the University of Peradeniya, is a Utopia Never Lost. Barring its natural setting and beauty, the University, in my opinion, had undergone changes and it is a lost Utopia, not” Utopia never lost. R.P.G by the phrase “Utopia never lost” means, it still continues to exist. But the reality bellies this conclusion. The Utopian ideal has ‘lost’ itself, in all fronts, other than its physical landscape. The human factor and its activities have robbed its serenity, solemnity and aura.

I am fortunate to belong to the golden era of 1950s. I entered the University in 1959. All what is ‘lost’ can be known only by knowing what we had. The quality and high standard in every sector of its activities we had, during said period, have been lost, unless a conscious resurrection and redemption of its original ideal takes place. This gradual loss commenced from the year 1962, when the first batch of Swabasha educated students entered the University, in my final year. Progressively, the standards and quality deteriorated in all sectors of the University life. It is the harmonious blend of all other elements, reinforcing each other and with the beauty of its landscape, which gave the University its throbbing life and the Utopian atmosphere. Sans these associated elements, the University would be a mere lifeless geographical landscape and nothing more. The University of Peradeniya had lost its Utopian ideal in the following segments:

a) Utopia Lost- in Quality and standard of students

With the increase in the number of students entering the University, consequent to the Swabhasha medium , standards and quality of the students declined. In the 1950s English was the medium of instruction. Whatever said, an education in a foreign language as English, gave the students a sense of discipline and decorum, social refinements, unlike the native language. The students who entered the University in the 1950s, though through the English medium, were, however, drawn from all parts of the country and not confined to elite Colombo city Colleges only, but other outstation Colleges and the Maha Vidhalayas  in the rural areas as well. They were all well mannered, disciplined and with social values. This proves that, what gave them the cultured behavior and character was the English language. Being a foreign language, students strived to live up to the standards of that language, whereas, the native language gave laxity in the use of the language. Secondly, the undergraduates of that era, did not have any discriminatory notions of race and religion. It was never in their minds. All considered themselves as one brotherhood of the nation. Thirdly, they were not politically motivated. Their interest in political ideology was primarily of an academic nature, either Trotskyism or Marxism or capitalism. The students were not actively and vociferously in Political Party politics. Each Hall of Residence had its Student Committees on matters of student welfare. The University as a whole had the Students Council to represent students’ interests with University Administration. In stark contrast to these, the post 1950 era saw the emergence of active Political Party politics and Students Unions, with the patronage of the Political Parties of the country, becoming aggressively engaging in agitations, being part of the Inter University Students Federation. Undergraduates’ Protests, Strikes and demonstrations to further political Party ends, became the norm. During the ‘50s, there were hardly any strikes, protests within and without the University Campus. Student Leaders were of a superior caliber. The Student Council President during my time was none other than the present Government Minister, Sarath Amunugama, who typified the then, gentlemanly class. The University lost that class of undergraduates.  The University Campus is now painted with Red banners, posters, placards in every nook and corner and every majestic, flowering giant trees. These ugly and chaotic sights besmirched the Utopia, that was then, the Utopia was lost, and not the” Utopia, never lost”. That is how the serene and solemn atmosphere of the beautiful landscape lost its charm, by the human factor.

b) Utopia Lost – in quality of Administration of the University

The University Administration was handled by its first Vice Chancellor, Sir Ivor Jennings. He was a scholar and academic of international repute. He certainly added lustre to the Utopian stature of the University, from the time of its formation. He was succeeded, during my time, by the equally reputed medical luminary, Sir Nicholas Attygalle, a stern disciplinarian. But there was no cause to enforce discipline, then, as discipline amongst the undergraduates was self-evident and taken for granted. The breakdown of discipline from the mid ‘60s,is Utopia Lost.

c) Utopia Lost- High academic quality of the Faculty Members

In the 1950 decade, the quality and standing of the Professors and Lecturers was of a class – par excellence. This core ingredient of the then University that was Utopia, cannot be treated as “never lost”. It was irreplaceably lost. The Professors and Lecturers were outstanding and had an aura of the academia. The Professors and Lecturers of the later era are more commonplace than exceptional. It would take inordinate space to mention them all by name. But as a tribute to them, I shall mention a few, Faculty-wise.

Economics: Prof. Das Gupta from India. Profs, H.A. De S Gunasekera (Principles )and A.D.V.D.S Indraratne (Applied) Tawny Rajaratnam, Dr. Vanden Driesen (E-History) and Dr. I.D.S. Weerawardena (Political Theory)

History:  Rev. Fr. Pinto (Medieval European History), Dr. Arasaratman (Modern E-History) Dr. Labrooy (English History) Dr.K.M.G. de Silva and Dr. Tikiri Abeysinghe (Medieval History of Ceylon)

Geography: Prof. Kularatnam (Geology & Geomorphology)  Dr.George Thambyapillay (Climatology)

English: Prof.Lyn Ludowyke, Dr. Passe, Doric de Souza

Tamil: Dr. Kailasapillay, Fr. Thanninayagam

Sinhalese: Prof. Hettiaratchi, Dr. Ediriweera Sarathchanra, Sugathapala de Silva

Archeology: Dr. Senarath Paranavitarane

Buddhist Civiisation: Dr. W.S. Karunaratne

Philosophy: Dr. K.N Jayatilleke, Dr. Basil Mendis

Law: Prof. Nadarajah, R.K. Gunasekera

d) Utopia Lost-Cultural activity-Drama and Plays

The above list is not exhaustive. I could have missed some notable names as I am recollecting by memory. Combined with the pursuit of Academic studies, there was a throbbing cultural activity. Production and performance of Plays and Dramas, both English and Sinhala, particularly that of Dr. Sarathchandra’s  Sinhabahu and Maname. The leading characters of these were my Seniors, Charmon Jayasinghe, Namel Weeramuni and others..

e) Utopia Lost-Recreational- sports

The University had a large Gymnasium with equipment and appliances, and facilities for variety of recreational activity for undergraduates with a spectator capacity. It also had a ground for  Cricket, Soccer, Rugby ,and also a ground with a cinder track for Athletics, in picturesque surroundings. There were Inter- Hall sports competitions in all sports. There were outstanding under-graduates with a combination of sports and intellect. There was a Students Sports Council to deal with sports and the President was none other than Jayantha Dhanapala, the later distinguished Diplomat, who represented Ceylon at the UNO. He himself was accomplished in sports, both Rugby and Soccer, who hailed from Trinity College, Kandy. Then there was my Senior Hall mate, Micheal Roberts, who not only got a First Class in History, but awarded University Colours for several sports like Cricket, Rugby, Soccer, Basketball. There were outstanding Cricketers, who not only played for the University in the Premier Sara Trophy Tournament but also for Ceylon in Test Cricket, like D.H.De Silva later Charity Commissioner, who captained the team. University team was a force to be reckoned with. The team included such renown criketers like Malsiri Kurukulasuiya, Anton Rambukpotha, Micheal Roberts, Merril Gunaratne and Seneca Chickera. There was Chris Guneratne, notable Table Tennis player at National level. D.T.M Senarath, ( later DIG} my batch mate, was an outstanding Athlete at University and National Level ( 5000meters/Track) and M.G. Kularatne, 400 meters runner who is the now the Chairman of Marga Group and also the notable female Atlhlete, University/National level, Nilmini De Alwis ( Shot putt & Discus). There were good scientific Boxers, Anton Tissera and Dingo Dharmapala and not least, the endurance Swimmer, A. V. S. Anandan, who swam the Paulks Straits and English Channel, only one to do so after the legendary Navarathnasamy. Sacrificing modesty for fact, I must mention writer’s ( Soma Palan) megre contribution to athletics & Body Building. I entered the University, having won my College and Public Schools Colours for athletics and also the “Junior Mr. Ceylon” National title. I broke the University Shot Putt record and represented it at the Central Province A.A A Meet in all three years and won this event. I was awarded Peradeniya University Colours for Athletics. While at the University, I represented Ceylon at the 2nd Mr. Asia” Physique Contest at Lahore, Pakistan and won the Tall Man Class title in 1961. In 1962, I won the” Mr. Ceylon” National title.

Above is only a concise record of sports, as space forbids more detailed account. A University is place for ideal blend of the intellectual, physical and cultural and full development of human personality. It is a Utopian classical ideal. In that sense the University of the ‘50s produced such persons. Thereafter, has the University produced a single sportsman at National level or even at University level ? Then, how can one call the” University of Peradeniya- Utopia Never Lost”.

University of Peradeniya was a hive of sports activities, then. On a personal note, I must add that when I entered it, the Weight-training section was almost deserted. The equipments were just idling. When I started my weight-training sessions, some of my Hall mates/friends also took a keen interest in Body-building. Those from other Halls also followed.  Thus, this sport was resurrected. In this, I was encouragingly supported by the Director of Physical Education, Mr. Lesley Handunge, who was an accomplished Boxer, and represented Ceylon at Olympics. Soon, there were over ten doing weight-training exercises and achieved reasonable standard. This prodded me to organize the First ever “Mr.Campus” physique Contest in 1961 and the Gymnasium was packed with  Campus spectators. It included a variety entertainment with Singers C.T. Fernando and C.D. Fonseka and other related events. The winner was a final year student, Hilmy Manzil and a runner-up was Thalif Deen (now a Notable IPS Journalist/ Correspondent at UN). This continued next year after my graduation. But it died a natural death, thereafter.

The tradition of sport is another “Utopia Lost”. I have not seen in the years following, and I dare say event at date, the University’s imprint in any sport at National level. It has not produced one cricketer to our National Team, nor in other sports. It is a story of a “culture lost”. The pre-eminent Culture of the 1950s era has been supplanted by a culture of dirty politics, student unrest and agitations, and student ‘Strikes’ .

(f) The tradition of Ragging of ’Freshers’

The ‘Ragging” of new students entering the University was an integral part of University tradition and culture. It was done in good humour and in good spirit .It was an exercise to break the ice and become friends with the new entrants. It was done in a decent and civilized manner during the’50s. This is part of the Utopia Lost. Though continued in terminology only, it was subverted and debased, and became an instrument of sadism, torture and cruelty to the person ragged. This reflected the social and native ethos of the new breed of students entering the University.


Taken as an indivisible whole, its salubrious clime and natural environment and all aspects of its cultural activities, one cannot conclude that the University of Peradeniya  is“Utopia Never Lost”.

Everything has changed, not to enhance but to diminish, and what remains is only the geographical environment. How could that University be called an“Utopia”? If we are referring   merely to the land area only, we can call it an Utopia. That is, it is an ideal and perfect place. But we a referring to a University and calling it an Utopia, which is not, now. Therefore, it is not “Utopia Never Lost” but more correctly Utopia Lost. Can one conceive of Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, without its annual Rowing Boat Races and/or their Debating Societies? It is these, inter-alia, gives Oxford and Cambridge the character of an Utopia.

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  • 5

    By and large, this is a correct assessment. I entered Peradeniya a few years later. The Sinhala and Tamil students began arriving. The new medical faculty was begun. An engineering faculty was about to begin. There was a divide opening up within the student body with the swabasha guys, feeling left out, expressing their dismay through violence. I remember the attempt to burn Dr Kalpage’s car because he was a UNP guy. The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, an avowedly communal party, was rabid in its hostility to all those who studied in English and to the Tamils. The slide had begun. Utopia was vanishing. Anyone who tries to say that it still exists lives in a fool’s paradise of unrealised dreams. That age has gone. We cannot recover it. A new age of rogue politicians and corrupt public servants with academics horrendously communal and self-serving has come into existence. Humpty Dumpty is all broken.

    • 0

      William Samuel Waithman Ruschenberger

      A Voyage Round the World: Including an Embassy to Muscat and Siam in 1835 ..

      When the Portuguese first visited Ceylon, they found it inhabited by two tribes or nations differing widely from each other. Those living on the north part of the island were called Veddas, and, like the Scotch Highlanders, were associated in warlike tribes under a patriarchal government. The Singhalese who resided on the southern extremity of the island, were civilized, wearing clothes and being divided into castes as in India. They were Boudhists. They were also warlike, and often prevailed over Europeans in consequence of their superior knowledge of the mountainous country.

  • 2

    it s certainly utopia lost and lost many years ago
    dr k.m.de silvas latest book ‘making of a historian’ clearly proves it
    no tutorials, no use of the library, only repeating of lecture notes at examinations
    halls with 3 sudents to a room meant for 2 no food provided how can they study properly?
    it was all very different in the 50,s and 60,s
    increasing the numbers without increasing the facilities is largely to blame
    no wonder so many are unemployed
    and to top it all we have minister of higher education who has not been to a university

  • 0

    I agree with the author of this reply. And, I am not sure about the names of Prof/Lecturers mentioned here, but I am 100% sure about the names coming under archeology, philosophy, Buddhist civilisation. Even today, their books are considered masterpieces. And, until now, nobody was able to surpassed Prof. KN Jayatilleke’s book ‘The Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge’.

  • 1

    To many, their respective places and periods anywhere represent the best.
    Peradeniya was designed as utopia to produce an academic elite to serve a Western-oriented establishment. It did the job well for a long while.
    There were sound academic standards and values that deserved to be upheld but, given the rising demand for higher education triggered by free education and education in the mother tongue, it was unsustainable without restructuring the system.
    Successive governments acted to expand higher education, but without much vision (of any kind).
    The kind of graduates that Peradeniya produced in its golden days, if produced three decades later in the much larger numbers that were socially needed, would have been as unemployable as many of today’s graduates.
    Education itself suffered serious setbacks that reflect in the kind of school leavers we have and therefore undergraduates. They are not daft by any means, but attitude to learning is unhealthy in many ways.
    I have seen academic standards rise very much between early 1960s and mid-1970s in several disciplines. Then there was the phenomenon of students entering with 4-A grades in GCE-AL failing in several subjects in the university. (In my time one or two A grades in HSC seemed a commendable achievement.)
    We know why. But nothing could be done to reverse the trend.
    One can blame swabasha and too many villages in university among other things. But what matters is that the mismatch between the university system and the needs of the country was not addressed correctly. Each of us (teachers and students) has a share in the blame, as much as the politicians that we blame..
    It will make more sense to be constructively critical to see what can be done to produce graduates who will serve society well.

  • 0


  • 3

    In my over forty years of travelling all over the world, been to several universities, in many countries, and never seen like what’s happening in SL universities. Every where students are into the sole purpose of learning and building their golden future, and it’s not the case in SL. All our universities lost their true purposes and characters owning to dirty politics like in all other human activities in the country. Especially for JVP and other radical leftists parties, universities are the fertile recruiting ground for their future, and misguided ideology. The radical Inter Universities Students Federations is under their boots, and with them, they destroy the country’s future and the future of thousands of young lives. The Government and the universities administrators are too timid to deal with them, and let things to go on as it is. Those who want to ensure good future for their kids – rich as well as poor – look for other means of providing them required higher education, like either, sending them abroad or make use locally available private higher opportunities. IUSF make use the ragging of the freshers for their best advantage. By using extremely cruel torture, like in the recent Galaha house incident, they break down the freshers resistance towards them, and make them slaves for their dirty cruel activities so they obey and carry out their orders like human robots. All the leaders of IUSF look like street under world thugs, and not universities students. These leaders wilfully fail their examinations to prolong their stay in the universities for their evil purposes and to terrorise the other students and the administration to achieve their dirty aims. It’s high time for the authorities and the public to draw a line and put full a stop for this rot, and redeem the country for good.

  • 1

    I think you can replicate the utopia lost to the Country as whole.

  • 0

    I agree with SJ that “my place and my times” were the best — to me, for example, my 1970/80 Peradeniya was way better than my parents’ Peradeniya of pre-1958 (the utopia period of this piece), as I have teased them at times. But, as SJ says, where we failed is in matching university output to the needs of the country — but then we were clueless as to what those needs actually were.

    May be that could be a starting point for engagement now — can we sit down and write out what exactly the needs are, and give thought to who should be defining those needs — particularly in parts of the country that took the brunt of the long war!

  • 1

    Dear SOMA . You are rightly mentioned that university has degraded in its many area. I could write volumes on this.. More importantly politicians have damaged it a lot.. Why on earth president should have a final say on VC appointment. many times wrong person has been appointed with political influence for the post of CV….. Jaffna, Eastern uni, Peradenia, South East and all universities have been appointed VC with political influence.. This is not a small issue. this has damaged peaceful teaching and administrative environment of university: Some politicians are chased out from universities due to extreme political influence . Neither students nor staff like this..
    Moreover utter failure of Arts and Humanity faculty teachers in some subjects.. not all subjects..#
    UGC is sleeping with big salaries for its staff.
    and so many issues are related to this problem.

  • 0

    One can see a lowering of university standards in the Post 56 years. Prior to the1950s those who entered the University were from fairly well to do families,educated in English and in elite schools like Royal College. The vast majority of the population be they the urban/rural Sinhalese or Tamil did not have the opportunity for university education (a) because uni entrance exams were conducted in English a language to which their education did not provide access(b) education was costly.The introduction of free education in 1944 and the adoption of Sinhala/Tamil as media of teaching changed all that. Those changes did bring about a lowering of standards, but at the same time provided opportunities for a massive section of the country’s population. The issue is should the country devote its resources to educating a privileged minority or open the gates to all and in the process lower standards. The challenge to our universities was to manage the transaction effectively. That is where the failure stood. Our university mandarins either left in search of more lucrative appointments or simply were not up to the task. It is our universities that failed us, not the policy.

  • 0

    Prof: R.P.Gunawardena has used the wrong term UTOPIA to his essay elsewhere in CT.

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