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Monday, March 28, 2016

My Life at Jeewaka

 By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

Jeevaka was the most celebrated doctor in India during Buddha's time. He was Buddha’s physician. Hence Jeewaka is a great name for a Buddhist Medical Hostel.

Spiritually, all through my adult life I have been a drifter and a nomad, born under a wandering star. I first saw life as a Christian in a family not too enamoured with the rights and rituals of religion. Thus I was allowed to roam free to choose my own path and philosophy. I began to question the presence of a supreme creator reading the origin of the species by Charles Darwin as a teenager. As a young medical student when I saw the suffering of the masses in the General Hospital Colombo, that was the  final straw. This nomadic drift should not be confused with a lack of respect for values and beliefs. Despite all this I have the greatest respect for Christianity for teaching me how to lead a good and righteous life as a kid growing up in a rapidly changing world. Even now when I sit in a Church it gives me a warm feeling of love for humanity as we all walk this long and tortuous journey we call life.

Living at Wattala I travelled daily from Hunupitiya to Maradana by train with a happy band of medical students. The journey during the height of the rush hour had standing room only. It was both tiring and time consuming. Chatting with Razaque Ahmat, Bernard Randeniya, Ananda Cooray and Ananda Perera made the journey bearable. In my wisdom I convinced my parents I should move to the Jeewaka Buddhist Hostel in Turrett Road to allow more time for study. They agreed too easily. There was then no formal application process for Jeewaka. I made my intentions clear to my friend RN de S Amarasekera, then an honourable senior. I think at the time there were 20 students at Jeewaka.  My informal application was rejected out of hand as they didn’t want Christians. Although dejected and disappointed  I never gave up hope. I explained to RN de S my complex spiritual existence and my philosophy being closer to Buddhism than any other. I am grateful he had the belief and the courage to accept my word. He fought hard with the Jeewaka hierarchy to allow my entry into the brotherhood.

There was a resurgence of our heritage and values after independence from British Rule. A small band of Buddhist Medical Students, circa 1962, approached Prof RP Jayawardene to provide  a safe haven for Buddhist students. Unlike at Peradeniya students from far away who joined the faculty had no hostel accommodation. With determination, tenacity and perseverance their dream was realised and the Jeewaka Buddhist hostel was born. The good Prof became its first Warden. The pioneers who founded Jeewaka were:

Dr L U Abeyasiri, Plastic Surgeon, UK
Dr R N D S Amarasekera, GP, UK
Dr D P Athukorale, Consultant Cardiologist, Sri Lanka
Dr Hema De Silva, USA
Dr L C De Silva
Dr Ubhaya Dias,, New Zealand (Passed away 2002)
Dr Titus Dissanayake, Consultant Geriatrician, UK
Mr Sumith Fonseka, Thorasic Surgeon, UK
Dr G R W Godakumbura, Consultant Surgeon, Sri Lanka
Dr H P Gunawardena, Psychiatrist, USA
Dr D V J Harischandra, Consultant Psychiatrist, Sri Lanka
Dr Herath, USA
Dr A K C A Jayasena, UK
Dr Karunapala, Consultant Psychiatrist, UK
Dr Bernie Peris, Former GP, UK (Passed away 1999)
Dr Rajapakse, Sri Lanka (Died ....)
Dr Ajith Silva, Radiologist, Australia

We salute them. The hostel was housed in a large two storey building opposite the Liberty Cinema. A short distance away was the busy Galle Road and the deep blue waters of the Indian ocean.

When I stepped into the house I felt at home instantly. The hostellers were a friendly bunch. To my good fortune LPJM Wickramasinghe, Sanath de Tissera and Upali Wijeratne
joined the hostel about the same time. Now our batch showed a strong presence and we became a force to reckon with. The hostel was managed by the students and for the students. There was a President , Secretary, Treasurer and a Committee. We took turns to  place food on the table. This was an onerous task given over to the “buthmaster”. We took on the burden for a week at a time.  Here we learnt to provide a good balanced diet within the confines of the budget. Mealtimes were a minor ordeal for the hapless “buthmaster”.   Criticisms, comments and acerbic remarks flowed freely. At times this required a thick skin and broad shoulders. Much of it was done in jest with occasional hurtful comments  done in the hope that high standards will be maintained. Despite our youthful exuberance, civility and good manners prevailed. We employed a young male cook who gave us excellent food.

Dinner time was a welcome break from the books. There was an unwritten rule that dinner was served at eight and all were expected to take part. This was a time for some light banter and a time to bond. Many had stories to tell and anecdotes to relate. Medical College was a hotbed of gossip and there was never a dull moment. We had our own court jester to lighten the proceedings. He said:  a pharmacist mistakenly put some GUANETHIDINE tablets into a bottle of BENDROFLUMETHIAZIDE. The THIAZIDE was greatly offended and said to GUANETHIDINE “I say you are very ISMELIN”.  After dinner an eerie silence descended on Jeewaka which extended far beyond midnight. This was prime study time. The silence was only broken by an occasional whisper, a silly giggle or a noisy snore of a lad overcome by tiredness.

The Buddhist hostel was no mini ashram or a monastery. Non of us were vegetarians. It was a lively house of boisterous medical students with the same desires and passions as anywhere else in the world. No alcohol was allowed within the premises. Jeewaka wasn’t a bohemian playground. Life was serene but never boring.  Those of us who cared for a drink visited the bars and taverns at weekends, but discreetly, and learnt to behave ourselves when we got back. There was a strict hierarchy based on seniority and a strong sense of mutual respect. We all cared for each other and shared our books and knowledge. The camaraderie and companionship brought us together. There was a certain enduring calmness that existed at Jeewaka very different from the other medical and university boarding houses we all know.

Whenever we returned from our trips home it was a tradition to bring some sweets biscuits or cakes to share with our friends. There was a guy from Galle called “K” who didn’t like the idea of sharing. He brought eats which he hid in his suitcase and brought king coconuts which he kept under his bed. Once a guy brought a long LP needle and 50 ml syringe and pierced the eye of the king coconuts and syringed out the fluid until all of them were bled dry. Later we heard ‘K’  cursing the vendor who sold him the dud coconuts.

Saturday night was music night. Mohanlal Fernando is a fine musician and played his piano accordion with Esiri Karunaratne on the drums and we all joined in singing the favourite songs of CTF, Chitra and Somapala and Sunil Santha etc. This was most enjoyable and we often looked forward to Saturday nights to exercise our vocal cords.

Blackie the black mongrel was our mascot. He was calm as the morning sunrise and never barked but had some disgusting habits  lacking the finesse and the polish of some of the dogs I know. Despite this Blackie was treated like royalty being a pioneer member of the institution and a close associate of its founder members. I think he knew it and took advantage of his prestigious position showing off his filthy habits, much to my utter chagrin.

I must re-tell a story I have published on this blog before. We had great fun at Jeewaka which was a happy place. We examined patients late into the evening and were returning back to the hostel, cycling along Turret Road. My  borrowed bike had a lamp but Cunningham’s  cycle didn’t, but he carried a torch (used to test the pupils). A policeman stopped us and asked Cunningham about his cycle lamp.  He then showed him his torch. The Policeman said” The lamp must be attached to the cycle”. Cunningham in his cheek said “ The torch is attached to me and I am attached to the cycle. So the torch is attached to the cycle.” Those were the days when a doctor could do no wrong. Cunningham displayed his stethoscope relating his exploits in the emergency room. The Cop listened with bated breath. Cunningham was let off with a gentle caution.

There was an annual hostel trip when we travelled the country in a coach visiting old Jeewakites who treated us most lavishly. Music and fun went with us wherever we went. Jeewaka organised an annual marathon. We all took part pounding the roads of colpetty. After much practice and panting, on the day Upali Wijeratne won the marathon. There was the Jeewaka dinner and dance when the present hostellers invite the past Jeewakites and their partners. It is a magical evening when we all dress up for the occasion and dance to the music meeting old friends at dinner.

With all the fun and the frolic which was endemic at Jeewaka, poring over books remained our main pastime. The intensity of the friendships and the genuine goodwill between us helped enormously to tide over the stress and strain of constant study. During those months Sanath de Tissera was my constant companion. His calm demeanour and Buddhist philosophy radiated wisdom essential for a peaceful and fulfilling existence. After a full days study we often walked to the sea to watch the waves roll in while the sun went down. He talked about Abhidhamma and the teachings of the Buddha and I was mesmerised by its relevance to real life. Once after a thoughtful discussion we turned back to return home. I was still deep in thought. The noise of the wind and the crashing waves drowned the roar of the oncoming train. As I was about to step on the rail track Sanath pulled me back with an almighty heave saving me from certain death. This event changed my life forever. Since then I have always considered life as unpredictable and uncertain at any age. Life is as fickle as a dew drop at the tip of a blade of grass swaying in the crisp morning sun.

Exams came and went and soon it was time to say goodbye to a life I knew and loved. As I reflect on my life now, those 18 months I spent at Jeewaka were some of the best. Having lived together I became incredibly close to the students. I still remember them, as I saw them last, with their young impish faces and mischievous smiles. It is sad when I think that many of them I never saw again.

I dedicate these memoirs to my parents, who provided the encouragement and paid the bills and to fellow Jeewakites who by their friendship enriched my life. I am alive today but for the mindfulness of Sanath de Tissera. Sitting on the rocks at the Colpetty beach seeing the sun go down is an image I will never forget.

Jeewaka Buddhist Hostel has survived the turbulence of a multitude of political upheavals, the turmoil of an economic downturn and the anguish of an uncertain future. They had great difficulty finding a permanent home. After Turrett Road they made several moves before finding a home at 124, EW Perera Mawatha Colombo 10. The present Warden Prof Harsha Seneviratne has helped Jeewaka remain afloat despite all its perils. To me personally Jeewaka has lived up to its principles.   Long may its ideals and values survive.


  1. In your special inimitable style and excellent language you have taken us on a journey covering youth, hostel life, and how fickle Luck can be and how unpredictable life is at times. Life and Death can be so close. But through it all serenity remains. Thanks ,Nihal! It is wonderful and soothing to read your account.

  2. Zita
    Thank you for your most generous comment. You have always encouraged those who contribute to this blog. It is those comments that have kept the blog alive.

  3. ND, this was fascinating and interesting. I knew Jeewaka existed but that was about it. In a way it is strange that they had a general policy of restricting it to Buddhists and I wondered whether this was a reaction against schools that were for Christians.

    The Buthmaster role brought back my own memories of carrying out this role at various medical residencies in Colombo , Matale and Welisera. It definitely worked and because everybody had to do it, it was fair and criticisms were bearable as all were involved.

    As you tend to do, you wove in some deep thinking stuff into your narrative. The point you made about being able to respect and value other beliefs although you may not agree with them is so important. Sadly, two unwholesome thoughts come to some when dealing with it - one is arrogance and the other is intolerance.
    Keep contributing. Your style is so relaxed and the language, impeccable!

    1. Mahen
      I accept your point on tolerance. I grew up in a Christian school that had more Buddhists than Christians. There were Tamils and Sinhalese, Moors and Malays. We all learnt to accept our differences and live together in harmony. Exclusive groups tend to be divisive. I don’t wish to make this more of an issue than it really is. As for Jeewaka, it was a place of learning. Such differences of race and religion were discussed with great sensitivity and respect. At no time did I feel uncomfortable or hurt by derogatory comments.
      As for the race we inherit this from our parents and have no choice. As for the religion that too seems to be passed down from our parents but there we have a choice to take it or leave it. We have all been given the gift of tolerance let us use it wisely to live in peace.

  4. Mahendra
    Thanks pal for the encouragement. You are an inspiration to us all.

  5. Another 'great' by ND who has the talent to write extraordinarily about ordinary things.
    Thankyou ND for the entertaining, way you've made me aware of the existence of Jeewaka.I lived in Colpetty all the time I was in med school, never having known of its existence round the corner! What a pity I might have dared to visit you there if I knew!!!! Lovely to see you back-

  6. Rohini, I may have been just round the corner from you as you say and could have thumbed a lift to the Faculty on those busy mornings when the busses were sardine packed. Another example of the awesome force of destiny!! Thank you again for your generous comments. It is lovely to be back on the blog with the like minded community of fellow bloggers.

  7. ND. Thank you for another great article.You write so lucidly and simply; it reflects the syle of one of my favourite authors Somerset Maugham.
    You made me nostalgic about my own time in Bloemfontein. It was much fun but probably not the best place for academically inclined.It was much bigger than Jeevaka and hence not as intimate as Jeevaka.We were mostly confined to groups which could cut across batches.From our year there was Bora,'Con' Bala,Cyril Ernest,Chitta and SriKantha. Bala and then Cyril were my roommates.Chandrasiri was a frequent visitor for joint studies.
    The girl's hostel was nearby but strangely or not so strangely I have never stepped inside there.
    In our days it was comfortable,though not luxurious.The meals were reasonable and on the whole 'Buthmasters' did a good job.I hope one of our colleagues will write an account of the life and times of the Bloem one day.

    1. ND. The above was by me .Kumar

    2. Kumar
      Thank you for that lavish compliment which of course I don't deserve. I remember well those from the Bloem lazily ambling across to the faculty perhaps after a hard days night. To digress
      I was in touch with Desmond Gunatilleke who suddenly disappeared from my radar. Any news of him? Do write your memories before they fade away. Glad you now comment and keep in touch.

  8. Hi ND.
    It was great paddling back to a point in time to reminisce on a window of our very exciting life. It was a great period for all of us -- ups and downs, twists & turns that we all had to endure & negotiate to the state we are now. We all look back with a lot of emotion and happiness and of course with some degree sadness that this period will never come back --- only look back and savour. Enjoy life while it lasts and we are in reasonable health.
    Very best to you and your dear family.
    Your only remaining train travelling pal at that period,


    1. Thank you Razaque. My only travel companion from those halcyon days. Although people say VITA BREVIS. Life is short. It seems like we have been around a long time. Enjoy the time and your life with your family. The summer is just around the corner.