ISLE Program

2005 Session II

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Session II began with the students taking their first Sinhala exam, and turning in their Material Culture assignment. September is a busy month, with new classes kicking in, several field trips and a Poya holiday (a full moon day, spent by devout Buddhists in meditation and worship in the temple) taking place. Extracurricular classes such a Dance/Drums and Batik offer a chance for students to get creative. (For more information on the course syllabi, see the Curriculum page on the main ISLE web site.)


Eating pizza at the party for August birthdays.
Bristol - not pictured - was the only August celebrant.

Students enrolled in Professor de Silva's Colonial History course ended Session II clearly recognizing the tremendous contributions he has made to the field of Sri Lankan history. The course moved quickly, covering a lot ground, and the students were focused and involved. A majority of students purchased his new book at the end of the session for their own collections.

  • "Professor de Silva’s lectures were like one, long, continuous epic of Sri Lankan history. They were vivid and interesting. I was always excited to go to his class, and I feel so lucky to have had him for a professor. I hope the class goes on as long as possible, so more ISLE students can enjoy it as much as I did."
  • "This is a very good course, as it presents background material that is relevant to many (perhaps even most) other classes and the ISLE experience as a whole."

Theravada Buddhism is always a popular course, offering students the opportunity to learn both theory and practice from a variety of sources. As in the past, Professor Premasiri organized a field trip (see below) to the Nilambe Meditation Center, which everyone found informative and enjoyable.

  • "Professor Premasiri is a valuable resource for the ISLE program and the center should do whatever they can to ensure his wealth of knowledge is a resource for future years to come."
  • "Good class. I wish we had a longer time to get into more detailed studies."
  • "This was one of the best classes I've ever had."

The Modern Sri Lankan Politics class employed newspaper clipping and lively discussions to get students involved, and the final class panel discussion was impressive. Instructor Amarasinghe organized the panel around the topics of the ethnic conflict, the peace process, and PTOMS (Post-Tsunami Operative Management Structures) with Mr. D. Mathi Yugaraja, Vice President of the Ceylon Workers Congress; Mr. A.C. Marikkar of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC); Rev. Kosgoda Gnanasinha from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU); and Mr. G.B. Kotakedeniya, a leading member at the national level of the JHU, from Colombo. The discussion was lively and provocative, and thoroughly engaged students asked exceptional questions. It was an invaluable session! The Politics course also went along on the Ethnicity field trip to Kalmunai, an area ravaged by the tsunami.

  • "What I most benefited from was the political journal, which gave us insight into day-to-day politics and made me feel more involved in Sri Lankan politics. It has helped me to now keep up with news in Sri Lanka."
  • "Lectures were usually interesting because they were related to the issues present in today's politics, especially with the election coming up. I liked spending the first few minutes talking about the previous days/morning’s headlines and having it explained further."
  • "The trip to Kalmunai was very interesting to discuss the tsunami-effected peoples’ views of the elections, government, and other political aspects. The forum on the last day of class was incredible—we were so lucky to be able to have the opportunity to hear so many different political representatives speak and argue. It was one of the coolest things I’ve done since I’ve been here."

Speakers at the Politics seminar. In the center is a Buddhist monk who is a member
of the JHU. To his left is a JHU supporter, and to his right
is a member of the SLMC.

For some, a highlight of Session II activities may well be the Myth and Ritual course events, overseen and organized by professor Udaya Meddagama.

The Bali Tovil ritual (Bali celebrates the presiding deities of the planets, offerings are made to ward off evil influences; tovil is "devil-dancing," another ritualistic healing ceremony with roots in folk religion. More info here.) held at the center on Sept. 13th was the first event. The performers, especially the drummers, were "fantastic," Director Kremer reported. With elaborate offerings and staging, it was easy to forget the ritual was taking place at the ISLE Center!

The second event was a Bodi Puja (veneration of the Bodhi-tree) near Dangolla. Students had an opportunity to speak with the monk conducting the puja and observe devotees.

The third event, an all-night Sokari (a rare form of theater, exclusively Kandyan, performed as an offering to the goddess Pattini; more info here) at the university, ended a bit earlier than usual (2:00 a.m.), although some attendees were prepared to go on through the night! Many people from the performers' village attended, and the ritual components were impressive.

See below for a report on the field trip to Kataragama.

  • "The professor succeeded in giving me an idea about how religion is actually practiced in Sri Lanka. The lectures gave anecdotes and examples that helped me understand religion in a more complete way."
  • "Very engaging lectures, full of examples of everyday folk ritual ...."
  • "I really liked the trip to Kataragama, and the performances such as Thovil and Sokari were wonderful to see. They were extremely relevant and helpful."

Students found Professor Tudor Silva's Ethnicity and Social Identity course engaging and somewhat challenging , exploring Sri Lankan society through three primary bases of social/collective identity: caste, social class and ethnicity. It covers a broad scope of issues critical to understanding the role of ethnicity in Sri Lanka today. The field trip (see below) left indelible impressions.

  • "I really loved this course, overall, and have taken previous ethnicity studies. I also plan to do future work where this class work could be helpful."
  • "The field trip to Kalmunai was highly informative. If personal questions were asked, the trip was valuable. It also proved useful for future tsunami-related studies in terms of comparison (i.e. Kalmunai to Hambantota). It was a good experience."
  • "The trip to Kalmunai was wonderful, and a great opportunity."


This year's Ethnicity course field trip may have been more remarkable than prior trips, due to the post-tsunami environment in which the students worked. On September 9, the group departed on the Ethnicity field trip to Kalmunai, an area on the east coast that was very hard hit.

Kalmunai is 360 km from Kandy on a very curvy, bumpy, dusty, and, as Sumanasena would say, "skinny" road. The field location was Islamabad in the Ampara district, where Sihalese, Tamils and Muslims live side by side.


A view from the hills down to the low-country. One section of the road contains 17 hairpin turns.


Passing another bus on the "skinny" road to Kalmunai.

The journey was long and tiring for some, but extremely successful and valuable. Mr. Rameez, from Southeastern University who assisted Dr. Silva, organized speakers in the camp, arranged meetings with NGOs, translators, hotel and food. The food and lodging choices were limited in this rather impoverished area, but Mr. Rameez ensured the group was comfortable — not an easy task.


Introductory talk in Kalmunai, featuring professors from Southeastern University
and a local leader. Many who live in the refugee camp attended as well.


One of the main streets in a temporary resettlement area called Islamabad.
ISLE students are in the distance.

The students worked together in the field, and everyone gained something from the experience. Many of the tsunami victims shared their experiences with amazing grace, understanding and tolerance. They remain resilient, and even perhaps optimistic, in spite of knowing that their difficult living conditions may not change for a few years, at best. Director Kremer described the experience as "inspirational."

building lot

The ISLE bus parked where a building used to be.


The backside of a temporary camp set up in the Islamabad section of Kalmunai,
along with rubble and debris swept inland by the tsunami.


A woman who lost four family members to the tsunami, including her mother, sister, and son.


Some tsunami devastation, and newly planted palm trees. Nothing has been rebuilt here
because it's within the 200m buffer zone; no new construction within 200m of the water
on the east coast is allowed.


Doing research in a Tamil temporary housing camp.


Lish talking with a senior university student who accompanied the group in Islamabad.

Students from the Politics course also attended this field trip. The benefits of the trip, besides the experience of travel to an underserved and ethnically diverse area, was that students — many of whom have never had field experience — had supervised training in how to ethically conduct field interviews, collect ethnographies, and work with a translator. This experience will be invaluable in completing their independent studies projects.


Sign for one of the NGOs involved in reconstruction.


Man on bullock cart in Kalmunai.

Later in September, a group of 19 accompanied Professor Premasiri (Theravada Buddhism) to Nilambe Meditation Center. Upon arriving, the group was guided through a ten-minute meditation, followed by a brief lecture and then a thirty-minute meditation. A guide from the center opened the floor for questions, and then the group broke for lunch. After lunch, Professor Premasiri lectured for thirty minutes before the group was guided through a longer meditation by Upul Gamage, the head of the center. The group departed after the afternoon tea.

The final Myth and Ritual field trip was to Kataragama in the southern province, described by some as "the holiest place in Sri Lanka." The group spent the first night, after a long drive, at the Tissamahrama Rest House, and on Saturday visited a rock temple in Kirinda. The group saw some tsunami damage in the harbor, and in the surrounding area. After a lunch on the beach, the group was given the option of staying at the beach, or traveling to Hambantota, an area some are considering for Independent Study research.


Students listen to Myth and Ritual professor Udaya Meddegama, as he explains the story
of Kirinda and Vihara Maha Devi.


Christoph and Lish enjoy the beach at Kirinda before going on to Hambantota.

Hambantota, the largest town on the southeastern coast, was a valuable place to visit. Students saw the salt factory where work has resumed, the Peacock Hotel that is under reconstruction, and met a young man from Holland who is single-handedly helping to build shelters for victims. Because he is working as a private citizen, he is under the radar of the government; this approach fascinated the students.

The group then visited a housing project sponsored by the government, which is the subject of much controversy. It is a few kilometers from town, which makes traveling to work and school difficult. There is still no electricity, although sufficient water is available. It is also in an area with a lot of elephant traffic, and studies have not yet been done to determine the ecological and sociological problems that might be associated with the human/elephant conflict. However, when compared to Kalmunai, the rebuilding and the money that had been spent in this region are significantly greater. Since students are unable to return to Kalumani for their research, the contrast was useful as a benchmark.

on the bus

Students on the bus and all in white for the puja at the Kataragama Devaliya.

After visiting Hambantota, the group headed to the puja at Kataragama. Two and a half hours whizzed by in this remarkable complex of shrines and temples.

fruit shrine
Left: Fruit trays at a shop outside the Kataragama shrine complex. The group purchased fruit here
for offering at the shrine. Right: Matt M. looks at a minor god shrine inside the complex.
Below the image of the god are colorful bracelets that priests bless and tie on the wrists
of devotees for protection. The students each received one as part of the visit.

Buddha shrine

Matt C. stands to the right in front of a shrine to Buddha just outside the complex.


Jacob prepares to smash a coconut lit with burning camphor against a rock.
This ritual is one aspect of the Kataragama puja,
with the smashed fruit bringing good luck.

The next morning, students visited Buduruwagala, an ancient site near spectacular waterfalls, and the scenic Ella Gap before stopping for lunch at the Bandarawela Hotel, an old colonial hotel that gave a nice glimpse into the past. The last stop before reaching Kandy was at the Labookellie Tea Factory just outside of Nuwara Eliya. The group arrived home exhausted, but satisfied.


Mahayana Buddhist statue at Buduruwagala, one of the only
bas-relief Buddhist carvings in Sri Lanka.

Ella Gap

A view of Ella Gap, one of the stops in "up-country" the group made on the way back to Kandy.

Ella Gap

Rocio, Randine and Atavia in front of Ella Gap.

tea factory

A view from above of the Labookellie Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya,
where the students visited the factory and enjoyed a cup of tea
and chocolate cake.

tea service

The tea service room at Labookellie, the last stop on the way back to Kandy.

Te, Shalini, Bristol, assistant Sarah G. and Rocio, plus Jacob, Peter, Jamie, and Colin, are all studying Kandyan dance with instructor Peter Surasena. This time in the semester is very busy, and these students find the dance class a great way to get up and move after a day of sitting. Some of the dancers (Te, Bristol, Sarah G., Peter, Jacob, and Colin) are also studying drumming. The group is curently gearing up for a performance on November 5. A number of ISLE students have also enrolled in a yoga course being offered at the university.


Rocio and Atavia practice Kandyan dancing.


Peter, Bristol, and Shalini learn Kandyan drumming from teacher Peter Surasena.

"I really enjoyed the field trip to the Ampara District. It was extremely helpful in understanding the course material and the conflict all together.
I really wanted to do volunteer work in tsunami affected areas, so going there to speak with victims of the tsunami was rewarding for me."
—Ethnicity Student

In the second half of Session II, the students began preparations for their Independent Study projects. Students have been exploring and discussing ideas with each other and with faculty, and most of November will be devoted to this component of the experience.

Rebecca Ennen, a former ISLE student, presented her Fulbright Junior Scholar research titled "Love and Marriage in Sri Lanka" at ICES. Her topic was a result of the work she started during her Independent Study as an ISLE student in 2002. The work presentation was valuable to current students as it showed them where their own ISLE experience might lead them.

• ISLE helped to fund the UDANA project, a request made by Professor Premasiri. This is an endeavor worthy of support!

• A second University Tea was held on September 22nd. All ISLE students and some faculty attended, and Ram Alagan brought students from his department. Everyone engaged in lively conversations; it's a wonderful way to get to know students and faculty from Peradeniya University.

• This year's group was treated to a fabulous concert on campus. The concert was sponsored by an international organization, WOMAD, which is headed by Peter Gabriel. The three groups that performed were Dhol Foundation from the UK, Yelemba D'Abidjan from the Cote d’Ivoire, and Ravibandhu Vidyapathy from Kandy.