Hieroglyphs on Papyrus
History of the Department

How We Were, Are & Will Be

The Department of Classical Languages is an amalgamation of two previously individual Departments, viz. Department of Western Classics and Department of Sanskrit.

The Department of Western Classics which taught the subjects of Greek and Latin was one of the earliest Departments of the Faculty of Arts of the University College when university education began in Sri Lanka. At this time a very large number read Greek and Latin and many of those joined the Civil Administrative Service of the Island and served with exceptional record. With the raising of the status of the University College to that of an independent university in Colombo (1947) the Classics continued to read widely though numbers reduced due to the emergence of new disciplines.

With the shift to Peradeniya in 1952 the department had a staff of 4 members. When it was found that, with the introduction of Swabhaha in schools, numbers taking Classics reduced still further, a new course called Western Classical Culture was introduced (in 1961) alongside Western Classics, Greek and Latin. This course undertook the teaching of the culture and civilization of Greece and Rome through English translations. With this new development the course again began to show a steady increase. However, in 1974, despite strong protest from the department itself and the Faculty of Arts at Peradeniya in general, under Osmund Jayarathna reorganization, the Department of Western Classics was uprooted from its habitat and was transferred to Vidyalankara Campus in Kelaniya.

Due to continued protests members of the department of Western Classics who were transferred against their wishes to University of Kelaniya were returned to the University of Peradeniya. Thus the course in Western Classical Culture started afresh at Peradeniya under the Headship of Dr. Merlin Peris who himself was the Head of the Department during the transfer. After some time for administrative reasons Department of Western Classics amalgamated with the Department of Sanskrit under the title Department of Classical Languages; since both the Departments had become relatively small in number of students and staff.

The staff who served the Department of Western Classics from its outset could be mentioned as follows with great gratitude. Prof. S.  Whiteley, Prof. J. L. C. Rodrigo, Prof. Cuthbert W. Amerasinghe,  Prof. Merlin Peris, Prof. D. P. M. Weerakkody.

Prof. Betty Heimann Prof. O. H. De A. Wijesekara
Prof. Betty Heimann
Professor of Sanskrit
1944 - 1948
Prof. O. H. De A. Wijesekara
Professor of Sanskrit
1948 - 1957
Prof. J. L. C. Rodrigo Prof. Cuthbert Amerasinghe
Prof. J. L. C. Rodrigo
Professor of Western Classics
1942 - 1957
Prof. Cuthbert W. Amerasinghe
Professor of Western Classics
1957 - 1971
Prof. D. P. M. Weerakkody  Prof. Jayadeva Thilakasiri 
Prof. D. P. M. Weerakkody
Professor of Western Classics
2001 - 2010
Prof. Jayadeva Thilakasiri
Professor of Sanskrit
1968 - 1982

During colonial rule in Sri Lanka and afterwards, right up to the Osmund Jayaratne reorganization of the Arts Studies and eviction of Humanities to the Vidyalankara campus along with the Department of Classics as mentioned above, there had existed an independent Faculty of Oriental Studies. It has been pointed out time without number that Sri Lanka's single role of recognition in world history has been the protection of Theravada Buddhism in its purity. This was squarely placed upon the study of Pali. At the same time Sanskrit Studies and Arabic were required to look after the languages which were the basis of other cultural interests of Ceylon.

A Department of Sanskrit was established for the above purpose at the inception of the University of Ceylon. It encountered the identical issues met by the Department of Western Classics stated above. However, irrespective of the administrative influences and difficulties undergone by the Department, Sanskrit studies in Peradeniya continued to contribute to foster Orientalism in Sri Lanka and produced a number of scholars who enjoyed world-recognition for their scholarship and service. The professors who added glory and prestige to the Sanskrit studies in Peradeniya were Betty Heimann, O. H. De A. Wijesekara, Jayadeva Thilakasiri, Ratna Handurukande & Rev. Waragoda Pemaratana.

Currently numerous courses both at Undergraduate and Postgraduate levels have been introduced moving with the demands of students and understanding the avenues along which studies in classical languages may proceed. A number of courses are made available in both Sinhala and English media. The Postgraduate courses run by the Department range from Diploma to PhD while Distant Learning and non-Degree courses are also offered annually. The Department of Classical Languages aims to disseminate not only the knowledge in classical languages, viz. Classical Greek, Vedic & Classical Sanskrit plus Latin, but also all associated streams of knowledge to create a refined scholar.

In the time to come, the Department of Classical Languages aims to expand the scope of its Degree & non-Degree programs and to strengthen its graduates with more specific skills requisite for meeting the current trends within and beyond academia. The niche-market for the graduates in Classical Languages itself has been the drive for the Department to keep preserving and nourishing its faculty and students.

Note: Only the late professors' photoes are shown here.

Department of Classical Languages, Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
0094 81 239 2524-6 | classical.pdn@gmail.com