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Government Gazette

Prof Leslie Gunawardana:

A true scholar

[Greatest historian]

* Known as a researcher and intellectual

* Born in 1938

* Won University entrance arts scholarship in 1956

* Degree in history with first class honours in 1960

* Mabel Jayasuriya Prize for History

* Corbett Prize for Ceylon History


Prof Leslie Gunawardana, who died on November 16 after a prolonged illness, will rank among Sri Lanka’s greatest historians. His achievement-rich life will no doubt be an inspiration to any young child in a country plagued with inequalities. What he achieved as a researcher and intellectual, rising above all kinds of parochialisms, will be a good example for those who aspire after true scholarship. He will be sadly missed by his numerous friends, students and admirers and the larger world of scholarship.


Prof Leslie Gunawardana

Born in 1938, Leslie lost his parents at a tender age and grew up under the loving care of his uncle (who remained a bachelor all his life devoting his full attention to his nephew).

Free education system

He began to exhibit his extraordinary skills and brilliance very early at his village school, Tholangamuva Central College. Acclaimed as the first to enter the University of Ceylon (the only university in Sri Lanka at that time) from this rural school, Leslie won in 1956 the University Entrance Arts Scholarship (awarded for the most outstanding performance at the University Entrance Examination) as well as the Government University Scholarship for undergraduate studies, becoming a shining example for the commendable success of the central school free education system introduced by the State Council and the potential it had to bring to the fore brilliant children from remote areas.

Getting such a valuable opening in life, Leslie competed with the best students in the land, many of whom came from leading public and private schools and earned a degree in ancient history with first class honours (University of Ceylon) in 1960. Again his brilliant performance was accompanied by several awards - the Mabel Jayasuriya Prize for History, the Corbett Prize for Ceylon History, the University Arts Research Scholarship for the most outstanding performance at the Final Degree Examination in Arts and the Government University Scholarship for Post-graduate Studies awarded for the most outstanding performance at the Final Degree Examination.

International universities

Appointed to the staff of the University of Ceylon in 1960, Leslie began an exemplary career as a historian who inaugurated a new period in the study of Sri Lanka’s ancient past, a career that spanned a full half-century. In this period, he rose from the ranks of an assistant lecturer to the exalted position of vice chancellor in the same university and Chairman of the Commonwealth Universities Association - an inspiration to any young person from any part of Sri Lanka. During this period Leslie also held visiting positions in many prestigious international universities, including the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago and Kyoto, besides holding other high positions such as Member of the Editorial Board of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (South Asia edition).

With the demise of Leslie Gunawardana Sri Lanka has lost a great scholar of humanities and an outstanding historian. He was the central figure and the leading light of the new school of ancient historians that emerged in the University of Ceylon (now Peradeniya University) in the 1960s. He helped to break away from the dynasty-bound, chronicle-based study of Sri Lankan history with its archaic periodization into Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva periods and inspired a new generation of Sri Lankan historians to adopt new perspectives using interdisciplinary approaches and to view the socio-economic developments through a meticulous and painstaking examination of the epigraphic and literary sources.

Buddhist monasteries

Choosing to make an in-depth study of the Buddhist monastic institutions of Sri Lanka of the early medieval period for his Ph D research at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) under the guidance of the eminent historians Prof A L Basham and Dr J G de Casparis, Leslie wrote a path-breaking study of the Buddhist monasteries with a special focus on their economic functions. It was later published under the title Robe and Plough (University of Arizona Press 1979). As a reviewer in the Journal of Asian Studies summed it, ‘no serious reader can fail to be impressed by the monumental effort, scholarly skill and deep intellectual commitment that the book exhibits’.

Of the many areas of ancient history that Leslie delved into, the hydraulic engineering of the ancient Sri Lankans was of special interest to him. He passionately conducted fieldwork in the ancient reservoir sites of Sri Lanka and South India and wrote many valuable articles on this subject beginning with his contribution to the journal Past and Present in 1971 to the essay in Tonan Ajia Kenkyu (Southeast Asian Studies, Tokyo) in 1984.

Ethnic conflict

While most of Leslie’s contributions appeared in international publications, a number of his valuable essays were published in Sinhala. He was one of those who worked with dedication to raise the standard of historical writing in Sinhala. The book Itihasaye Atitaya (2005) which he edited, is an example of what he did towards achieving this goal.

He was deeply concerned with the ethnic conflict in the country and the detrimental impact it had on historical writings.

He wrote profusely to explode some of the major myths that fuelled ethnic tensions. As a historian of great integrity, his objective views were unacceptable to some but he bravely confronted his critics. In the world of scholarship he was held in high esteem. A true scholar and a sincere humanist, Leslie will be sadly missed.

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