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University of Peradeniya and his career

Establishment of the Department of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya – the early years

In January 1957, Senarat Paranavitana, having retired from government service as Commissioner of Archaeology, joined the department of History, Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon. In recognition of his services to archaeology, the Vice Chancellor at the time, Dr. N. Attygalle appointed him Research Professor in Archaeology in the Department of History. In June 1957, Prof. Paranavitana was appointed the Chair Professor in Archaeology.

Initially, the Division of Archaeology in the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon was established in 1958 by Prof. Paranavitana. The recommendation of the Joseph Needham Commission for the development of University education during this period resulted in the establishment of a separate Department of Archaeology at Peradeniya. (Report of the Ceylon University Commission – Sessional Paper xxiii / 1959, p.70 )

The Senate approved the creation of a separate Department of Archaeology: “The encouragement of Archaeological studies at the University is one of the principle means by which the state can discharge its responsibility for the preservation of the cultural heritage of the people.”

The Department was established in 1959 as a sub-department under History, with Prof. Senarat Paranavitana as its first Professor and Head. This fledgling department collaborated with the government archaeological department for field work, technical equipment and staff. Steps were taken to expand teaching and research, with the organization of courses in Archaeology of Ceylon, and recruitment of staff.

Undergraduate teaching was at this time confined to teaching of Art & Antiquities to students in History and students in Pali & Buddhist Civilization. Then followed the introduction of a course in Elements of Archaeology as a subsidiary subject.

The department trained two candidates for the MA exam – A. Ariyasinghe and N. Mudiyanse, who successfully completed the degree in 1961.

Pavuludevage Leelananda Prematilleke, the first academic staff recruit for the department

After his return from completing his MA in Archaeology in Calcutta, Prematilleke had been assigned by the Head of the Sinhala department, Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi, in service to ‘Epigraphia Zeylanica’ the compilation of which had been assigned to the Peradeniya Campus. Thus he was able to apply for, and be selected as, the first Assistant Lecturer on the 2nd of April 1960, thus beginning an illustrious career as a university academic which spanned an impressive 3 decades  from 1960 to 1989. He had the unique opportunity of working with Prof. Paranavitana for nearly five of those years.

He took to teaching like the proverbial fish to water, enjoying preparation of a large collection of teaching slides (the black and white slides prepared from real photographs for the projector in those pre-internet days) and architectural plans; he obtained photographs for teaching from the archaeological survey. He is remembered by his students to this day as a beloved and dedicated teacher par excellence.

The young Prematilleke  who entered the University of Peradeniya for employment, associated closely with scholars such as Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra, actively contributing to the artistic activities of the university.

From 1960-62 he assisted Prof. Senarat Paranavitana, in establishing the archaeological museum (which was earlier housed in a temporary space) in the Department of Archaeology. When the University Library together with the office was moved to the new library building, the vacated rooms were given over to house the present museum and the Departments of Archaeology and History. 

Prematilleke contributed to classification of objects, planning of display and preparation of an inventory of objects. The museum was first inaugurated in 1970 by Prof. Paranavitana. Prematilleke also prepared the museum catalogue at that time. 

Prematilleke lost no time as a researcher, and his first publication came out in 1961 (An Ivory Cabinet in the Archaeological Museum, University of Ceylon, University of Ceylon Review, Vol. XIX, No.1, April 1961). In the mid-1970’s, he conducted ‘A Survey of Antiquities in the Kandy District’ – 3 years of research which was unfortunately lost to humanity because his briefcase with all his notes (in the pre-computer era) were stolen! 

He undertook site visits in Sri Lanka in November 1961 with Professor Van Lohuizen de Leeuw from the University of Leiden, Netherlands, establishing international contacts at an early stage. 

Assistant Lecturer Leelananda Prematilleke left in September 1962 to read for his PhD in general and field archaeology, at the Institute of Archaeology, London UK. He completed his PhD in 2 years.

Prematilleke played a pioneering role in the establishment and development of the new Department of Archaeology, which he took over as Acting Head when Prof. Senarat Paranavitana retired, in1965. The department became an Independent, fully fledged department of Archaeology under his Headship in 1976, which he continued to head until 1989. Thus, his leadership for this department, which began in 1956, spanned almost 25 years.

With staff, Department of Archaeology, 1990. Seated L-R P. Senanayake, Rev. W. Mahinda, Dr. S. Seneviratne, Prof. Prematilleke, Dr. M. Tampoe, D. Gunasekera. Standing L-R D.K. Jayarathna, R.M.M. Chandrarathne, C. Rambukwella.

At his desk in the department

Archaeology at the University of Peradeniya, for several decades, was synonymous with the two figures Paranavitana and Prematilleke  in creating, sustaining and developing the discipline and above all, producing a galaxy of future archaeologists, who reached great heights in the field of modern archaeology.

He was a member of the Committee on the Development of Archaeological Education at the Universities of the National Council of Higher Education in 1970. This enabled him to play a significant role in decision making for the development of Archaeology studies in Sri Lanka. In the early 70’s he opposed in writing the attempt to transfer the Department of Archaeology to the Vidyalankara Campus, Kelaniya.

He continued his passion for teaching throughout his career, completing 407 – 563 teaching hours per year from 1965 to 1974. He conducted many field study tours for students. There were tours to Mantai, Pomparippu, Ambalantota, Asgiriya purana vihara, Yatawattta Vihara, ruins at Udugampola, Hindagala temple, Ataragalleva recumbent Buddha statue, Gonawatta and Bambaragala ancient cave inscriptions, Kiralagama rock inscriptions, etc. Photographs taken with his students on such occasions are below.

The sinhala novel titled ‘හෙට එච්චර කළුවර නෑ’ by Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra (Godage publications, translated to English as “Curfew and a Full Moon”) is loosely based on an actual incident where, on a field trip during the insurgency of the 1970s, he safeguarded the lives of his group of students.

He conducted a training course in excavation techniques in association with the government Archaeological Department and Prof. K. de B. Codrington of UK. 

Prematilleke introduced many facets to the teaching of archaeology in Peradeniya, e.g., proto-history, pre-history, environmental archeology. A programme for South Asian and Southeast Asian studies was convened in 1975 and revived in 1990.

Leelananda Prematilleke made a lasting and notable contribution to the university by establishing the teaching of Archaeology as an undergraduate subject (which, until then, had been only a postgraduate subject), He introduced the Bachelor of Arts Special Degree course in Archaeology in 1976 and subsequently the General Degree course as well. This increased the interest of students in taking up archaeology as a career; for example, there were once 85 applicants for the course which could accommodate only 15 at the time!

Whilst fulfilling his teaching duties in Archaeology, in 1965 he lectured on Buddhist Art for the Dept. of Pali and Buddhist Civilization and in 1974. lectured on Ancient Architecture for the Faculty of Engineering

He was a teacher and examiner for the BA (from 1960) and MA (from 1965) in Archaeology, and supervised PhD candidates in Archaeology, until his retirement. He was appointed a Chief Examiner in Archaeology by the Sri Lanka Administration Service in 1983. He was an external lecturer for the Colombo Campus of the University of Ceylon in 1974, and Visiting Professor for the Institute of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya in 1984. He was a Senior Assessor of research for MA, MPhil, PhD degrees of the Universities of Peradeniya, Kelaniya, Sri Jayewardenepura, and Ruhuna, and an Assessor for Promotions to Professor, even after his retirement. 

During his long tenure, while on leave, he also held Visiting Professorships at the University of London in 1984 and Waseda University, Tokyo in 1985 and was a Senior Fellow at the University of Leiden, Netherlands in 1989. 

In the 80’s he undertook to direct several important projects such as the restoration of the Nalanda Gedige, and archaeological excavations and conservation at Polonnaruva and Kandy under the UNESCO-funded Cultural Triangle project. These projects provided invaluable hands-on field experience for his students, exposing them to time-tested as well as new techniques, beyond the confines of books. 

Teaching on site

Working in the pits himself

Unearthing the first find with students at Polonnaruva

With newly restructured courses in 1983, students were exposed to the full spectrum of specialized courses with a multidisciplinary perspective, providing a sound basis for interpretative archaeology supplementing field archaeology.

In the Department of Archaeology at Peradeniya he rose in rank in the posts of Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, and Research Professor in Archaeology (1983). He held many other important posts in the University and organized the Sinhala Drama Festival in 1975 as well.

To the students of the Department he nurtured, he bestowed the award ‘the Prof. Leelananda Prematilleke and Dr. Nanda Prematilleke prize awarded to the student with best performance at the Bachelor of Arts Special degree in Archaeology, the degree he established.

The many posts he held both national and international, brought credit and recognition to the University of Peradeniya not only during his employment there, but even after his retirement.

Upon his retirement on 7th June 1989, he was felicitated by the Department he nurtured throughout his career, on 18th July 1990. To quote the preface of his Felicitation Volume:

“Paranavitana and Prematilleke carved out for themselves a permanent niche  in the annals of Sri Lankan Archaeology – not as individuals but as true universal representatives of the tradition  associated with the science of archaeology and humanity.”