Story posted January 05, 2007
The Inter-Collegiate Sri Lanka Educational (ISLE) Program celebrated its Silver Jubilee in January, 2007. President Barry and Karen Mills from Bowdoin College, joined by Bates Assistant Dean of Faculty Judy Head, Carleton Associate Dean of the College Beverly Nagel, Swarthmore Provost Connie Hungerford, Whitman Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn and Professor Hans Oberdieck (ISLE faculty director in 1987) attended the celebration. Grinnell College Professor Edmund Gilday (Chair, ISLE Faculty Board of Directors), Bowdoin Professor John Holt (Consultant, Executive Committee the ISLE Faculty Board) joined Sree Padma Holt (Administrative Director of ISLE) in hosting the guests.
Sree Padma, with the help of ISLE Program’s staff in Sri Lanka and the administration at the University of Peradeniya, the affiliated institution for the ISLE Program, made prior arrangements for the celebration. The venue was the Vice Chancellor's lodge at the University of Peradeniya. Arrangements were also made to give the administrators from the ISLE colleges in the U.S. first-hand experiences of some of the program's components.
John and Sree Padma Holt, who had arrived earlier to oversee the arrangements, received the rest of the US group at the Colombo airport on January 5 and together they drove to Kandy. On the way to Kandy, the group stopped on the roadside for a few minutes to get introduced to the island's popular tambili trees and to taste its minerally enriched water. A second stop was made at Ambepussa Rest House where the guests stretched themselves under the shade of huge jackfruit trees. Here they sipped ginger beer, a non-alcoholic drink brewed by Sri Lankans.
Just like many ISLE students in the past, our guests quickly added tambili and ginger beer to their list of favorite drinks.
A winding ride from Ambepussa into the Kandyan hills took the group to a hotel in Kandy overlooking the Hantana tea gardens and the neighborhood of Dangolla, near the ISLE Center. After a sumptuous lunch, while some guests enjoyed the breathtaking views from the hotel lobby or from their rooms, a few others braved the chilly water of the spacious swimming pool of the hotel to work through their varying degrees of jetlag. A long walk into the teagardens in the evening allowed them not only to see "Kandy town" from many angles and enjoy the setting sun over the hills, but also gave them some much needed exercise and fresh mountain air after the long journey.
The next morning on January 6th, the group was greeted by two ISLE faculty professors, Punchi Meegaskumbura and Udaya Meddegama, who have been teaching at the ISLE Program for the past twenty years and who are professors in the Sinhala department at the University of Peradeniya. In addition to Sinhala language and literature, both Meegaskumbura and Meddegama are also well versed in Pali, Sanskrit and English. Accompanied by them, the group went to Kandy town, its market, downtown businesses, the Dalada Maligawa (the temple of the tooth relic of the Buddha), and the "temple square" complex. Prof. Meddegama made prior arrangements with his ex-student monks who presently work in the Maligawa to receive the group and take them directly to the inner sanctum for a semi-private viewing.
While the group waited in one of the various chambers of the temple for the special darshan (the sight of the sacred relics), Professor Meddegama regaled the guests with his natural gift of story-telling about the various powers attributed to the relic. Later in the temple complex, Professor Meddegama, joined by Meegaskumbura, recounted some of the mythology surrounding the bodhi tree, Vishnu, and the various other gods and goddesses such as Pattini. Both Meddegama and Meegaskumbura have translated three of John Holt's books on Sri Lanka's Buddhist religious culture and so called on him to chime in from time to time.
After lunch the guests strolled in the extensive and famous Peradeniya gardens, which is a fifteen minute walk from the ISLE Center. Two hours was not long enough to see the gardens, considering its size and the wide variety of vegetation, but the guests appreciated the amazing variety of flowers, shrubs, trees, and the innumerable number of fruit bats that they were able to see.
The group then arrived at the ISLE Center. Sree Padma introduced them to the Center's staff, and its space: two outside classrooms (without walls) in the garden, library, study room, office space, kitchen, dining, manager's quarters, and program assistant and the resident director's living and working spaces. Over tea and snacks, Sree Padma explained to the guests various aspects of the program. Phil Friedrich, a program assistant along with Flynn Jebb in Fall 2006, spoke about his experiences as an ISLE student and later as a program assistant. Phil, who graduated from Bowdoin in 2006, is presently one of four former ISLE students in Sri Lanka on Fulbright fellowships.
On the morning of January 7th, the guests came back to the ISLE Center to meet the ISLE faculty and to listen to their presentations about their various course offerings. Sree Padma introduced the faculty and the diverse strengths they bring to the Program. Many of the faculty who have been with the ISLE Program since its inception have been evaluated by ISLE students over the years as very fine teachers in the classroom, who are approachable and helpful beyond the classroom context. For example, when students in the Fall 2006 group heard the rumor that one of our senior professors who just retired from the University also wanted to retire from ISLE teaching, they urged the program very strongly to keep the professor in the ISLE Program "at any cost."
The faculty presentations describing their course offerings -- which vary from mythology and folklore to archaeology and environmental studies -- helped the guests not only to understand the diverse aspects of Sri Lankan society that our students are introduced to through the curriculum, but also to see how the students could tap the friendly and helpful faculty as resourceful mines of knowledge for their independent studies.
In fact, our ISLE instructors' generosity extends beyond academics. Each year, ISLE students dine as a whole group in more than one professor's house. This time, it was the turn of our guests to dine at Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne's house. Mrs. Seneviratne is popular for her food catering and ISLE students compete to get into her cooking classes. As such, it was really a treat for the group to taste Sinhala food at its finest!
When the guests returned to the ISLE Center in the evening, it had been transformed. The Center was filled with color and friendly faces, as program host families greeted guests and host mothers walked about in their colorful sarees. The guests were forewarned that each of them (we made a special allowance for couples to go together!) would move with one of the host families who in the past had hosted our students. According to ISLE students, the host-family experience is the most cherished part of the program; we wanted our guests to experience it first-hand.
Over tea and snacks, Sree Padma made the introductions, after which the guests and families exchanged several questions and answers as a group. Later, the hosts and the assigned guests got together and fell into family conversation.
At this point, Mr. Peter Surasena, the famous Kandyan dancer and Mr. Sirisoma, the Kandyan drummer who accompanies Surasena, together with a co-drummer and two of female student dancers, put on a very lively show for the guests and host families. Surasena and Sirisoma have been teaching ISLE students for the past fifteen years. Each year Surasena stages a performance with ISLE student dancers and drummers. Surasena is also a well-known international performer who gives frequent performances in Asia, Europe, and America.
After the entertainment, the guests retired with their host families for an overnight stay.
On the morning of January 8th, the guests were brought to the University of Peradeniya campus where John Holt gave them a brief tour of the campus in general and the places that ISLE students frequent in particular. After the tour they came to the Vice Chancellor’s lodge to attend the Silver Jubilee celebration where they were greeted by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Harischandra Abeygunawardena. In addition to the guests from the US, the ISLE Program invited about one hundred guests for the Silver Jubilee celebration including past and present faculty, staff, administrators from the University, from ICES (International Center for Ethnic Studies) in Kandy, from the U.S./Sri Lanka Bi-national Fulbright Commission in Colombo, Robert Wilhelm Fellows (the ISLE Program created graduate fellowships in the name of Robert Wilhelm, a former Bowdoin dean, to financially support Peradeniya junior faculty in pursuit of advanced degrees), exchange students, ISLE alumni who were in Sri Lanka, and the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Sree Padma welcomed the guests. The celebration kicked off with Professor Gilday lighting the oil lamp, a Sri Lankan tradition, followed by Vice Chancellor Abeygunawardena, President Mills, Professor Meegaskumbura, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Professor Tudor Silva. Sree Padma introduced the guests. Prominent among these invited guests were: former vice chancellors J.M. Gunadasa, Leslie Gunawardena, and Madduma Bandara; former deans Ashley Halpe, W.M. Sirisena, and Ranjith Amarasinghe; Wilhelm fellows H.M.V. Ariyaratne and S.K.M.D.D. Gunatillake.
Guests also included two former Peradeniya students who were given ISLE Program undergraduate scholarships in the late 1980s and who are now on the Peradeniya University faculty, Dr. Milton Rajaratne and Mr. Abeyratne Ratnayake; Profs. Lily deSilva, PVJ Jayasekera and Sirima Kiribamune, retired Peradeniya faculty who taught extensively for the ISLE Program; Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, executive director of the US-Sri Lanka Bi-national Fulbright Commission; Fulbrighters who are ISLE alumni--Toby David, Delia Kulukundis, Sara Wright, Jill Shirey, Phil Friedrich and Daniel Kent; staff from the International Centre for Ethnic Studies including Ms. Kanthi Gamage, Dr. Sam Samarasinghe and Prof. Kingsley de Silva, who has also taught colonial history superbly for our Program since 1983.
Professor Holt introduced the Silver Jubilee commemorative volume of essays that he edited along with Punchi Meegaskumbura for this occasion. Holt, in addition to talking about the diversity of the collection of essays that the volume contains, also paid homage individually to many of those who have helped the Program since its beginning. Copies of the volume were given to all attendees.
Professor Tudor Silva, now Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Peradeniya and who has been teaching ISLE students for the past fifteen years, spoke about ISLE faculty experiences. President Mills expressed his appreciation for the efforts of all those behind the success of the ISLE Program. President Mills thanked the University of Peradeniya for its cooperation throughout and gave a gift to the Vice Chancellor on behalf of the Program. The Vice Chancellor, in response, thanked President Mills and hoped for more close cooperation in the future. Professor R. O. Thattil, Director of Research and International Affairs of the University of Peradeniya, brought and distributed copies of Sir Ivor Jennings' autobiography, "The Road to Peradeniya," to the US guests and spoke about its significance.
The US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Mr. Robert Blake, Jr., made a few remarks about the embassy’s relationship with the ISLE Program, wished ISLE a long life and encouraged the ISLE administration to ask for any help in the future. Sree Padma thanked the guests, the Vice Chancellor, the Dean and the ISLE staff for their help in putting together the program and asked the guests to proceed to the celebration lunch.
It was a very happy reunion of the ISLE extended family. This occasion gave a chance for those who had retired several years ago to meet up with old friends as well as the new faculty and administration and to learn about the new twists and turns that ISLE has made over the years. It was, indeed, a grand occasion.
After lunch, farewells were exchanged, and the US guests were taken to visit the ICES (International Center for Ethnic Studies) in Kandy, where ISLE students spend a significant amount of time using its resourceful library. Professors deSilva and Sam Samarasinghe spoke to them about the political and security situation in the country. Professor de Silva has been teaching the ISLE students about colonial history in Sri Lanka since the beginning of the Program. He is an internationally acclaimed scholar whose seemingly spontaneous but flawless lectures continue to be very much enjoyed and appreciated now as much as by the many batches of ISLE students in the past.
The group then headed on a two-day tour to archeological sites in the north with Professor Seneviratne as their guide. On the first day, they climbed the 5th c. Sigiriya rock to observe its frescoes and fortress ruins, visited the 8th c. Avukana Buddha beneath the Kala Wewa reservoir, and paid homage to Sri Mahabodhi and the Ruvanvelisaya stupa. On the following day, they toured the extensive grounds of the Abhyagiri monastery and museum, as well as Prof. Seneviratne’s ongoing excavations at the Citadel complex and Vessagiri, where the group was treated to ginger tea and typical Sri Lankan snacks by Prof. Seneviratne’s enthusiastic team of young men and women.
The tour was completed by a four-hour drive to Negombo for a farewell dinner.
The guests departed the following day. The hosts of the celebration will warmly remember the participation of everyone on this auspicious occasion, and hope that they will carry vivid memories of their visit to Sri Lanka for many years. The ISLE Program thanks everyone for making such a celebration possible.
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