Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama – living simply atop an academic
Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama
A few days ago I walked into a splendid old mansion to interview the
Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University, Professor Kshanika
Hirimburegama. At present, this magnificient building is called the
'College House,' but originally it was known as 'Regina Walauwa,' a
family house that belonged to Arthur de Soysa, the grandson of the
philanthropist Sir Charles Henry de Soysa.
Now it is considered a national heritage site. As I ascended the
stairway, I observed the ornate wood carvings. As I walked through the
foyer into her office, I could not help but notice the airiness and the
openness of her office. There was an air conditioner, and I casually
asked her whether she uses it. She said that she never used it since she
became the Vice Chancellor. "No need of an air conditioner. There is a
cool breeze coming through the windows. I like to see outside and get
fresh air." I immediately realized that I was going to interview a
unique person who enjoyed simple things in life and who wants to be in
harmony with nature.
Her father, Professor Punchi Bandara Sannasgala, was a renowned
scholar in Oriental studies and a trained lexicographer who served as
the Chief Editor of the Sinhala Dictionary. Professor Kshanika chose her
vocation in the field of Science. She recalled that her father never
tried to influence her in the selection of her academic discipline.
“Those days they wanted us to do well in our studies; other than
that, they were not worried about the subjects we were studying. We had
complete freedom in selecting our academic orientation. Rather than
dissecting animals, I preferred plants and physics and entered the
Science Faculty. My sister entered the Medical Faculty. My father never
tried to force me into medicine.”
Prof. Hirimburegama recalled her childhood as enjoyable. Her father
practically lived with his books; therefore, in her day-to-day
activities, she and her sisters were very close to her mother whom she
admired as a very rare type of housewife. He instilled many values in
her such as simplicity, and saw that she and her sisters were well
educated. She recalled her time at Visakha Vidyalaya, her alma mater, as
a lovely time.
To go to Visaka Vidyalaya, we always had to pass through Royal
College in our Moris Minor car. The three of us (sisters) were in
spectacles, so the Royalists used to say: ‘Three Blind Mice’ and my
father was very worried that we knew them. Of course we didn’t know them
but they were making comments.
Kshanika mentioned her encounters with other scholars in the Arts
Faculty of the Peradeniya university. “I remember Professor D.E. Prof.
Hettiarachchi very well. I remember his house in Kandy very well. I also
remember Professor W. S. Karunaratne.
I remember something unique about their conversations. They spoke of
the subject; I didn’t hear them gossiping. I did not understand most of
what they discussed but I was impressed how they were engrossed in
discussing philosophical type of subject matter. I thought they were
Her maternal grandfather was Senator A. Ratnayake who was a Cabinet
Minister in D. S. Senanayake’s first Cabinet and the last President of
the Senate, when it was abolished in October 1971. Simplicity and
kindness were the qualities she learnt from him. Kshanika remembered him
as a very honest politician who did not earn wealth through politics.
“My grandfather was a lovely person. He was very kind. My father had
only his salary, so my father, being the father of five daughters had to
save money. It was my grandfather who gave us a lot of extra comforts.
He passed away when I was in the first year at the university. Even
though we were small we knew him as a great personality,” stated
“After I did my first degree, my father was the one who asked me to
do a post graduate degree. I joined the Post Graduate Institute of
Agriculture. For the interview he took me by bus from Colombo to
Peradeniya. That was on animal nutrition, and I casually asked him;
“What do cattle like to eat?” and he said if you put some salt to the
straw they like to eat. At the interview they asked me the same question
and I gave the same answer. My project was on a similar aspect and I got
the scholarship. For my Ph.D, I got a scholarship to Belgium and he said
go. But because I was single he was very worried. And the day I left, he
nearly cried. And every week he used to send me all the information.
During her stay in Belgium she worked with Banana cultivation.
Hirimburegama who knew how important the crop is in Sri Lanka started
She remembered some deficiencies of the Department of Botany of the
Colombo University during her young days. “It was a great department but
there was no tissue culture course or tissue culture research in the
department and no facilities were available to develop that branch of
studies. So I started developing. We constructed a tissue culture
laboratory and started a tissue culture
She also fondly remembered her work at the Weligatta-Hambantota
Agrotechnology Project and community service centre. She was the
Founder-Director of this project. It was started when Prof. W.D.
Lakshman was the Vice-Chancellor at the Colombo University.
“Hon, Chamal Rajapaksa (at present the Speaker of Parliament) and the
late General Anuruddha Ratwatte helped us a lot in acquiring land and
other facilities but they never interfered in carrying out the project.
This is a project which is instrumental in transferring technology to
the rural sector in Sri Lanka. For tissue cultivation, what we use is a
very simple conventional technology which can give a lot of money to our
farmers. The plus point in this country is that people like to get
educated and like to get knowledge and apply knowledge. Right now we are
giving an online diploma program to farmers. They have their own dongle
and computer. The first two months they are taught IT and English. The
age difference in the first batch was 22- 60 years. They are doing
wonderfully well. Our famers are good. If knowledge is given they can do
wonders,” explained Professor Hirimburegama.
In recognition of her contribution to the national development in the
country, she was awarded the “Zonta Woman of Achievement in 2006.”
When asked about her feelings on this occasion, she said: “I was both
sad and happy about the event. I was sad because my father was not there
in the audience. But my mother and aunties were there. I was happy
because it was in recognition of the people who are products of the free
education system in Sri Lanka.”
Later she was a recipient of several other international awards such
as the Ariyabhata International Award from India.