Under Scrutiny: Edmund Leach’s PUL ELIYA

Michael Roberts

In late 1965 I set out on an oral history exercise interviewing retired British public servants[1] about their experiences in Ceylon. This work has been clarified earlier in two Thuppahi Items.[2] Because of my strong interest in colonial agrarian policies, I was familiar with the books produced by two outstanding Cambridge University scholars: BH Farmer and Edmund Leach. Farmer’s book on Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon (1957) reviewed British efforts to develop the dry zone of Sri Lanka via irrigation projects emulating the captivating efforts in ancient times. As such, it focused on DS Senanayake’s inspirational role in this set of enterprises. Leach’s detailed ethnographic experiences in a village arena in Anuradhapura District provided detailed ground-level data and interpretations in this field.

I had read both these books in the course of my studies in the 1960s and some of the issues arising from their work may well be a dimension in some recorded interviews. However, I went further and selected Five Segments of Pul Eliya which were then submitted to the public servants deemed to have expertise in this field for their written comments.

This process began in Britain itself before Shona and I headed back to Sri Lanka in March 1966. Responses from Frank Leach and Leonard Woolf in January evidence this early move –a subsidiary branch – within the Roberts Oral History Project. The eventual outcome was typed up by Shona under the heading “Comments on Pul Eliya” while I was teaching at Peradeniya University in the late 1960s. However, the pdf version composed by the Barr Smith Library has been corrupted and it has taken the diligent work by Nadeeka Paththuwaarachchi of Battaramulla to restore it to readable form.[3] This item will be presented in Thuppahi as my next step.

Both items together are meant to inspire commentary and criticism from knowledgeable personnel with ethnographic experience in Sri Lanka’s agricultural environment. This memorandum, therefore, is a stage-setting exercise. I already have a brief comment from Mick Moore[4] that will set that process rolling (yet another of my scheduled steps within Thuppahi).

The responses of the public servants listed in Comments on Pul Eliya are listed alphabetically in the original pdf document which will be presented in Thuppahi. To assist scholars and readers, and to whet appetites, here I list the names of these earnest and helpful gentlemen in chronological sequence of penmanship.

Frank Leach = January 1966

X = 14 January 1966

Leonard Woolf 18 January 1966

ET Dyson 10 February 1966

JA Mulhall 15 February 1966

RN Bond 16 February 1966

GLD Davidson 24 February 1966

AN Strong 15 May 1966

Sir Charles Collins 29 June 1966

Shelton Fernando 3 July 1966

GC Miles 13 July 1966

Sir Charles Woolley 5 July 1966

RB Naish 30 July 1966

RD Manders 27 December 1966

X – 14 January 1967

Edmund Rodrigo February 1967



BH Farmer 1957 Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon. A Study in Asian Agrarian Problems, Oxford University Press …. now also at Majestic Books, London

Edmund R. Leach 1961 Pul Eliya. A Village in Ceylon. A Study of Land Tenure and Kinship,  CUP.

Michael Roberts 2020a The Roberts Oral History Project in the 1960s. Origins …. Outcomes,” 4 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/04/the-roberts-oral-history-project-in-the-1960s-origins-outcomes/#more-47446

Michael Roberts 2020b Adelaide University Initiatives-A: Roberts’ Oral History Project 1965-68,” 6 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/06/adelaide-university-initiatives-a-michael-roberts-oral-history-project-1965-68/#more-47494

Michael Roberts 2020cThe ROHP in Ceylon, 1966-70: Interviews and Select Transcriptions,” 11 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/11/the-rohp-in-ceylon-1966-70-interviews-and-select-transcriptions/

Michael Roberts 2020d “Introducing PUL ELIYA by Edmund R. Leach,” 21 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/21/introducing-pul-eliya-by-edmund-r-leach/


[1] There were two categories of public servants: those in the Ceylon Civil Service and those in technical departments such as the PWD, the Irrigation Department, Police, etc etc (inclusive of DLOs aka District Land Officers in the post 1948 period).

[2] Visit Roberts, 2020a and 2020b…..for e.g.  https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/04/the-roberts-oral-history-project-in-the-1960s-origins-outcomes/#more-47446

[3] Paththuwaarachchi lives at Thalawathugoda off Colombo and can be reached AT vnadeeka81@hotmail.com

[4] Mick Moore is attached to the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and has been engaged in Sri Lankan Studies for decades. He participated in the conference on Agriculture in the Economic Development of Sri Lanka organised by the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya in August 1974 (and was guest in our household during that occasion). Though his field experience is mostly in the wet zone, he is as knowledgeable a commentator on the discussions Thuppahi is trying to spike as one could wish for.




Filed under ancient civilisations, British colonialism, centre-periphery relations, colonisation schemes, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, irrigation, island economy, land policies, landscape wondrous, life stories, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, population, sri lankan society, transport and communications, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

3 responses to “Under Scrutiny: Edmund Leach’s PUL ELIYA

  1. Pingback: Under Fire: Sri Lanka’s Colonization Programmes and Economic Policies 1920s-to-2020 | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Pingback: Addressing A Criticism of DS Senanayake’s Dry Zone Colonization Schemes | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Amarasiri de Silva

    Edmond Leach is considered a pioneering anthropologist whose early work concentrated on Sri Lanka dry zone villages, enunciated through his famous book Pul Eliya, which is the publication of his Ph.D. thesis. The book came out in the press in 1958 and questioned some village studies such as Tambiah and Sarkar’s ‘The Disintegrating Village,’ the prominent theme of which is the disintegration of the traditional village system.
    Yet, this classic work is not devoid of errors. Leach’s interpretation of children born in Anuradhapura whose parents are not legally married is cynical. For him, many children born in Anuradhapura are illegitimate children.

    “The third possible marriage procedure is to go to an official
    registrar of marriages and take out a marriage certificate. Ever since 1860, this has been the only strictly ‘legal’ form of marriage.
    Although the administration has at various times put diverse
    forms of pressure on the villagers to persuade them to conform to
    the law, very few actually do so~ In a strict legal sense, most NorthbCentral Province villagers are born illegitimate. The 1946 Census tables show that, in the Anuradhapura District as a ·whole, lessbthan half of all women claiming to be ‘married’ had actually
    registered their marriages” (p91).

    Leach identifies Buddhist monks in Anuradhapura, referring to Fa Hsien’s description of the Anuradhapura of the late fourth century A.D. as “unproductive individuals.” What nonsense.

    Also, he makes a catastrophic statement saying that the tooth relic of Buddha housed in the Dalada Maligawa is the tip of an elephant’s tusk. “The sacred tooth relic ·which has for many centuries served both as the supreme symbol of Buddha’s power and as the crucial essence of Sinhalese nationhood is, in its material form, the tip of an elephant’s tusk” (p34).

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