ISLE Program

Session III: 2004

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- More Photos From Session III


The transition to Session III was enjoyed by everyone, with each student taking a five-day break for customized travel. Some took the opportunity to explore the sites and resources used in their Independent Study projects, and some took a little down-time at the beaches in the South.

Students enjoy a break from the heat
on the Southern coast.

Session III was the busiest session so far! In addition to the normal course schedule, there were many field trips, and an abundance of extra-curricular activities (essential activities, such as a Halloween costume party!) had the roster of events nearly overflowing. Towards the end of the session, things quieted down when students departed for their independent study stints on different parts of the island.


Art, Drama and Poetry in Sri Lanka, taught by Professor Ashley Halpe, was a balancing act, attempting to focus on a number of topics: art, literature, poetry, drama, and even music. In the first class, Professor Halpe asked students to reflect on their own Sri Lanka experience, using their impressions and images to draw out certain themes about life and identity in Sri Lanka as compared to the same in America. Two class meetings were held at Professor Halpe’s home, where students were introduced to the impressive art and music collections of the professor and his wife, Bridget.

A field trip to Colombo was an enormous success. A whirlwind of visitations – to several art galleries and private collections as well as a number of temples and churches – was capped at the theater with a Sinhala-English play at Lionel Wendt. Later that weekend, the class took another trip to see some temple and church art in the Kandy area.

  • "This really helped us see the bigger picture of how art fits in society and what the artist's role is."
  • "Don't ever stop -- wonderful!"

With lectures such as "The Beauty of Evil" and "Everything is Void," one might expect ISLE students to emerge from the course in Buddhist Ethics a bit dazed. This study of fundamental Buddhist theories of action and their impact on contemporary life (taught by Professor G. Dharmasiri) was no doubt a challenge for some and a thrill for others. Students coming into the class with their own simplistic, Westernized ideas of what it means to be a Buddhist undoubtedly found some enlightenment of their own.

  • "Lectures were extremely thought-provoking and entertaining."
  • "Dharmasiri is great, a true guru and life role model."

The Sri Lankan political system is not an easy one to understand. Professor Ranjith Amarasinghe began his course on Modern Sri Lankan Politics with a detailed overview of the complicated facets of a system that seems perpetually in change. Students appreciated the hand-outs distributed at every class ("it made note-taking much easier"), and the use of newspapers and "current events time" at the beginning of each class. The journal on daily news events kept by the students themselves also helped them understand the effect of the political system on everyday life in Sri Lanka.

  • "[The course was] very organized and clear. Lectures covered a good ground and I felt we discussed as many fundamentals as possible."
  • "I liked the journal assignment, it forced me to stay up-to-date with the news."

This year’s Environmental Studies class was small but lively. The instructors (Professors P. Wickramagamage, C.M. Bandara, K.B. Ranawana, and S.N. Wickramaratne) created a course with varied textures, due to their differing lecture styles and content. Each delivered compelling presentations, replete with some fairly fancy multimedia technology, at the seminar on the final day of the course.

  • "This course has been extremely relevant to my area of study ... the professors have been very useful in my Independent Study project."
  • "The professors were fantastic - they made the course!"

The course Myth and Ritual in Sri Lanka had the highest enrollments of any elective courses this year. Professor Udaya Meddegama has an endless supply of riveting stories, and loves to tell them! The course touched upon the many interesting anthropological and sociological issues that embody Sri Lankan folklore and ritual.

  • "Professor Meddegama is an amazing fountain of knowledge ... [lectures were] clear, animated, thorough, passionate, engaging."
  • "I love this class! It's like story time. Yay for stories!"


The first Environmental Studies field trip took students to the Upper Kotmale Dam site on the way to a tea plantation in Nuwara Eliya (Development course students from Session II were also present on this trip). Along the way, the group viewed a home garden and surveyed the local vegetation. Students also enjoyed a hike to nearby Horton Plains, a scenic, windswept plateau that lies atop the mountains.

ES students and professors at a tea plantation in the Knuckles mountain range.

The second ES trip involved investigating forest cover, cardamom plantations and a degraded tea plantation in the Knuckles Range area. Dr. Ram Alagan, as an invitee, did most of the presentation during this trip (this area was the subject of his masters thesis and his seminar presentation was on cardamom plantation in this area), and he also arranged for students to eat lunch at a bungalow in the forest. Students enjoyed this trip immensely, and found it most cohesive and academically productive.

All students in the Myth and Ritual course were required to attend the Bali/Tovil ceremony held at the center (a healing ceremony, performed to drive away an evil spirit or spirits); to attend a Bodhi puja on Poya day (Buddhist worship on a full moon); and to visit the holy site of Kataragama, where the group made offerings to the devio (god). The class also visited a soothsayer at Embekke. Students garnered vastly different personal experiences from each of these trips; it's safe to say there was never a lack of interesting conversation after each excursion!

offering stupa
Left: Chris from Holy Cross waits in line with Sumanasena to give an offering
at the Kataragama puja. Right: Maggie from Bowdoin joins Professor Meegaskumbura
near a Buddhist stupa along the Southern Coast.

A visit to the Yala National Reserve was arranged as part of the field visit to Kataragama. The group saw a great deal of wildlife in the vast park: wild boars, peacocks, crocodiles, lizards, and more.


Students spent a lot of time on their independent study projects this session. Each student met several times with the director and the assistants, to go over preliminary ideas and annotated bibliographies, and, finally, to turn in and discuss their final proposals. By the time of the final meetings, most students had formulated very good projects and devised thorough research plans, but a handful of students changed their projects when they encountered a lack of resources or contacts, or when their own initial interest in the subject they had initially chosen waned.

On November 8th, students gave oral presentations of their research proposals, offering an excellent opportunity for all students to hear about each others’ ideas and preparations for independent study.

The array of research topics include: Press Freedom and the Role of the Media; The Impact of Evangelical Christianity; Causes of Youth Unrest; Art vs. Craft: Studying the Batik Industry; Buddhist Pilgrimages; Effect of WWII; The Impact of Modernization on Traditional Fishing Villages; Magical and Mystical Rites and Rituals; The Southern Mothers’ Movement, and many more.


Kandyan drummers Phil from Bowdoin and Tristan, an assistant, enjoy the spotlight.

This was an activity-packed session. In addition to several scheduled events, several other activities were to the list. Dancing and Drumming was very successful this year. This year’s ISLE students formed a group of eight female dancers, two male dancers and ten drummers, and they gave a performance at the end of the session at the E.O.E. Pereira Hall in the department of engineering at the University of Peradeniya. The performance was spectacular, and many in the audience were stunned to see such a fine performance after only two months of classes! Dance instructor Peter Surasena himself also performed, and one of his students did a cobra dance. Drumming instructor Mr. Sirisoma, along with another professional drummer, also had the crowd moving. The night drew to a close with light refreshments, and was quite a success.

Batik also went quite well through sessions II and III, and several students completed a number of pieces of varying levels of complexity. Students enjoyed having this opportunity to learn Batik at the center and also be able to make some gifts to take back to family and friends at home.

Cooking classes, with instructor Harsha Seneviratne, wife of Professor S. Seneviratne, were also offered this year for the first time. Harsha is a professional caterer and caters food for official dinner parties at the university. She conducted four classes, each organized around a particular menu – a Traditional Breakfast, a Traditional Lunch, a Festive Lunch and a Festive Dinner – and each menu included at least a few items that students would be unlikely to learn at their host families'. She led the students through the making of every dish and ended each session with a big meal that everybody enjoyed immensely!

Students and assistants with Harsha reap the culinary benefits of their hard work in the kitchen!

A night of Indian music at the center was also an enormous success. Professor Gunatilake (who holds open-house, all-night music sessions at his house the first Saturday of every month) invited his usual contacts to this session.

A sitarist performs at an evening music session at the ISLE Center.

The performance included a sitar player, a dilruba player, two flute players and a tabla player (plus the unavoidable harmonium!). Professor Weerakody from the classics department (one of the flute players) gave a wonderful explanation of Hindusthani classical music and the different instruments being played at the session. Students sprawled out on mats in the classroom as the performers played their instruments by the flickering light of the oil lamps in front of a Saraswati (goddess of learning) image – it was a great evening!

On Oct 31st, a Halloween party was held at the ISLE center. Students were amazingly creative in their costumes and pumpkin carving. The Most Outrageous costume prize went to Charlie Carstens and Toby David who came as a lion and tiger respectively, and the Most Creative to Flynn Jebb and Jessica Carlson who came as a Tamil tea plucker and a tea bush respectively. Assistants Tristan and Lisa dressed as Frankenstein and the Kandyan Bride of Frankenstein. The best pumpkin carving went to three students who carved "Dharmasiri on drugs" (you have to know Professor Dharmasiri!). AAnd, of course there were plenty of sweets and ice-cream – pizza for the seriously hungry!

ghouls ghouls
Left: Chris (an alien) from Holy Cross, and Phil (Jesus) from Bowdoin, at the Halloween party.
Right: Toby from Swarthmore, Charlie from Carleton and
Laura from Colby show off their wild side.

On November 2nd, the coursework component of the program culminated with a pre-scheduled seminar on Identity. Participants were Professors Ashley Halpe, Gerry Peiris, Tudor Silva and C. Wickramagamage. Each professor presented a summary of their contribution to the planned ISLE volume to be released in 2007. This was an excellent event! The presentations were great and each presentation triggered an animated and interesting discussion among the seminar participants and students. At the end, focus shifted to the students, and using a series of questions that each presenter had prepared ahead of time, each student was asked to reflect on the theme of “identity,” based on their own experiences in Sri Lanka and the U.S. One of the purposes in holding this event was to present an intellectual conversation that includes respectful but strong disagreement – and it was quite successful in doing just that! Students loved seeing their professors from different disciplines sit together and discuss a common theme.

Also on November 2nd, a television was set up in the classroom to watch the U.S. election results. It’s fair to say the majority of the group watching grew increasingly dejected as the day wore on, but – as so many Americans did – they bounced back within a few days.

Finally, on the afternoon of November 8th, Session III came to a close with a send-off picnic after the marathon morning presentations of independent study proposals. The picnic was held at Peradeniya botanical gardens, catered by Harsha Seneviratne’s absolutely splendid food. It seemed a bit lavish, but everyone agreed that a feast was well-deserved after a very exhausting session! The students used that occasion to decide on a program T-shirt design – deliberations that turned out to be far longer and complicated than anyone had imagined!