The Mulacari of Peradeniya University: Shirley De Alwis

KNO Dharmadasa, in Hanthana Night, produced by the Üniversity pf Peradeniya Alumni Associatio Western Australia Chapter, August 2023


Shirley De Alwisphoto kindly provided by Mevan Pieris ….. thereby correcting a prvious error which presented another gent with the same name in same age cohort

The word Mulacari in the Kandyan period of Sri Lankan history meant “the chief architect”. These would have been the great architects of yore like the one who designed the “Brazen Palace” (Lovamahapaya) during the Anuradhapura period. But we have no information about their titles or names. Shirley De Alwis (1898-1952) who was appointed the “University Architect” in 1946, was the man who designed the eight original Halls of Residence -Marrs, Jayatilaka, Arunachalam, Hilda Obeysekara, James Peiris, Marcus Fernando, Sangamitta and RamanathanHe also designed the Senate Building — which was modelled on the Brazen Place, although on a modest scale The Science and Arts Faculty buildings as well as the Geography Building are also creations of Shirley De Alwis.

Today, the Peradeniya University is considered one among the ten most beautiful university campuses in the whole world. That distinction owes largely to the designing of its buildings and the site plan. The buildings, while retaining some vital features of Medieval and ancient Sri Lankan architecture blend neatly with the hilly terrain of the lower Hantane range.

Shirley De Alwis himself has written an informative article about the whole plan. We should note that the decision to site “Ceylon’s first university” as De Alwis called it, at Peradeniya was taken by the State Council in 1938.  The land known as “New Peradeniya Estate”, an abandoned tea and rubber plantation, had been earmarked and bought for the purpose after a long “battle of sites” as to whether to site the university in Colombo or elsewhere. After the property was acquired, the government appointed Sir Patrick Abercrombie, a world-famous town planner, who was then an academic in the University of London, to prepare the site plan. He was originally at the University of Liverpool from where De Alwis too had graduated.  Shirley De Alwis wrote “The dominant note in the layout is the traditional Sinhalese openness and spaciousness as found at Anuradhapura…   Anuradhapura has often been quoted as showing the same grouping and planning as ancient Greece.’’ (“Ceylon’s first University” in S  Shanmuganathan ed. Pageant of Lanka, Colombo, 1948)

It is opportune here to quote from Sir Ivor Jennings how he visualised the university in his mind in 194 — nearly a decade before the buildings had come up: “The first public holiday after my arrival in Ceylon in March 1941 was Good Friday and I seized the opportunity to pay my first visit to Peradeniya.”   He reached the site and wandered through the jungle and reached the place where the Senate Building was to be sited.

Sitting on a tree stump on the bank of the Mahaweli Ganga I spread Sir Abercrombie’s site plan before me.  I began at last to see the magnificence of the scheme. There was no doubt about it, Mr. D.R. Wijewardene was right. This could be a great university.” (The Road to Peradeniya, Colombo 2005, p.178) It needs mention here that Mr. Wijewardene, the owner of the Lake House Group of News Papers, was a strong supporter, if not the sponsor of the Peradeniya site, as against Colombo and other sites.

Sir Ivor next wanted to get a “long distance view” of the campus and drove across the river along the Gampola Road, paused at a site where he could thus view the campus. “In a few years’ time the view from the Nanu Oya bridge would be one of the most famous in the world,” he wrote.

As we learn from another source, the shape and form of the university buildings had already been designed by this time – that they were to follow traditional Sinhalese architecture. It is reported in a short write-up with 8 illustrations of the proposed university buildings – mainly the Arts Faculty buildings, the Administrative Block and the proposed Convocation Hall (which never came up). The report goes on, “the following drawings have been prepared by Professor L.P Abercrombie and Mr. A.C Holliday, joint consulting architects of the University Planning Scheme, with whom was associated Mr. Shirley De Alwis, Assistant Architect of the Public Works Dept. who was specially seconded for the duty.  The drawings were released to the Ceylon Daily News, 17th July 1940 issue by the Minister of Communications and Public works Mr. J.L. Kotalawela. (Peradeniya: The Founding of a University , Vol 1, ed. A.T. Alwis, University of Peradeniya 2013 p. 297)

Undoubtedly, the idea of using traditional Sri Lankan architectural motifs in planning the buildings came from Shirley De Alwis.  I say this because Sir Ivor Jennings writing the Obituary of De Alwis said: “In larger measure, the buildings are his design and certainly all the details his.” (Quoted in A.T. Alwis ed. Op. cit, p.422).

This is how Sir Ivor expressed it more dramatically: “He died knowing that, centuries hence, young men and women of his own people, would ask themselves who built this university and as universities are proud of their history, and do not let it die, somebody would answer, A man named Shirley De Alwis.” (ibid).

The unmistakable Sri Lankan feature of the Kandyan roofs and the details in the grills in the University buildings are all part and parcel of traditional architecture borrowed from a wide range of buildings from Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa to the Kandyan period.

Public buildings in the colony that was Ceylon until this time had been designed by Europeans, using European models as evident in the law courts at Hulftsdorp, the State Council building, which later became the Parliament building and yet later, the Presidential Secretariat.  But this time, in creating “Ceylon’s first National University” (as De Alwis identified it) there was a decisive change – that is to reflect the national cultural heritage, , to quote Sir Ivor again, “a man named Shirley De Alwis was responsible for that step.”

Emeritus Professor K N O Dharmadasa is a product of the University of Ceylon and a well-respected academic living in Sri Lanka.

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh enrote to the opening of the Senate building …. which the Dukein his typical acumen & wit, declared “to be more open than usual”



Filed under architects & architecture, art & allure bewitching, cultural transmission, education, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, modernity & modernization, patriotism, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, teaching profession, unusual people, world events & processes

3 responses to “The Mulacari of Peradeniya University: Shirley De Alwis

  1. Chandra Maliyadde

    Taking back down the memory lane to the world most beautiful place

  2. Mohideen A Marikar

    Growing up in Kandy, I was very proud of the Campus and very upset when I was given the Katubedde, Moratuwa Campus for the Engineering degree.

    I had three older brothers, all of whom graduated from the Peradeniya Campus.

  3. Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva

    When I was selected to do medicine in 1967, I chose Colombo because of its centuries old reputation as tbe best equipped medical school. However, having spent a week in Peradeniya for the AL practical tests a few months earlier, I was sad to miss the ambience and the attraction of Peradeniya.

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