Stanley Tambiah and my time at Harvard



Professor Tambiah sitting together with Sir Edmund Leach an anthropogist (left), at Harvard University

(Excerpted from volume ii of Sarath Amunugama autobiograph

With the ascent of Premadasa who together with Ranjan Wijeratne made a determined effort to negotiate with the JVP and LTTE, I got back to my work with the Worldview International Foundation (WIF) and academic institutions. WIF work took me to parts of Asia and Europe where we had links with donors as well as social and media institutions like the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), International Program for Development Communication (IPDC), Asian Media Information and Communication Center (AMIC) and the International Broadcasting Union [IBU].

Many of these institutions were feeling the pinch of reduced funding particularly from the US government. This meant that we had to plan joint operations in order to cut costs. I had a head start as the former Director of IPDC who had interacted with them during my UNESCO days. But we could not make much headway with the local Ministry of Media as it was now in the charge of A.J. Ranasinghe who was a Premadasa loyalist.

Ranasinghe had been recruited by me in the early seventies to be the manager of the national exhibition of the Department of Information. Thanks to Premadasa he had entered a select circle of cronies and was placed in charge of the media. By now he was all powerful and had even banned his minister Loku Bandara from entering the TV studios which were in his charge. In this context I thought of moving back to my main sphere of interest academia and sociological research.

I had told my teacher Stanley Tambiah of this wish and he arranged for me to be awarded a visiting fellowship at Harvard University where he was a Professor of Social Anthropology. Another close friend on the faculty of the Anthropology department of Harvard was Nur Yalman who as a young scholar, tutored by Edmund Leach, had done field work in Teripahe in the Kandyan highlands. With such strong support I obtained a good position in the Centre for Comparative Religions in Harvard, with plenty of time for research and writing in return for which I had to deliver a few lectures on modern Buddhism in several departments in the University.


Nothing could be more peaceful than this beautiful university and town for me, coming from a war torn country with my name on the ‘hit list’ of the military wing of the JVP. It was a cold day when I flew into Logan airport in Boston from Paris. Tambi was there to meet me and take me to his home in a salubrious part of Cambridge. I had met his wife and children back in Sri Lanka when Tambi had brought his family to meet his relatives and friends.

I had arranged a visit to Yala where his two young children were fascinated by the elephant which appeared daily close to our circuit bungalow. We also visited George Keyt in Kandy and some local paintings that they bought on that tour adorned his house. He had also arranged for a room in the anthropology department building adjoining his and we would go out for lunch to the department canteen and occasionally to the well-appointed senior common room or Faculty club.

I was free to use the Widener Library facing the Harvard yard. The Widener was a revelation. It was perhaps the best University library in the country and had fabulous collections of books, diaries, papers and photographs on every type of culture and society. Naturally I was interested in the Sri Lankan collections which included photos and papers on the Theosophists and the Buddhist revival. The US had established a consulate in Galle around the 1880s, because trade and travel by schooner and sailing ship had Galle harbour as their port of call. Diaries and other writings of the Americans and their visitors were in the Widener and I spent much time studying those papers and also the photographs which have not been published before. The Peabody Museum in which Nur Yalman’s office was located also had a collection of photographs, some of which were published to illustrate Tambi’s books on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

At that time Galle was famous for its gem trade and there were many photographs of gems and Muslim merchants. Ananda Guruge and I have used some of these photos in our books on Anagarika Dharmapala. Ian Goonetileke has published some of this information in his book ‘Sri Lanka through American eyes’, marking the American bi-centennial.

After I found my bearings in Cambridge I moved to a spacious room in Porter Square which was rented to me by a kind patrician lady on a ‘bed and breakfast’ basis. This room was overlooking Radcliffe, the residences of the young female undergraduates of Harvard. There was a constant flow of their young swains to our square and parties would go on in their dorms late into the night. This was the time of the permissive society and the young students, mostly from the super-rich of the US, worked and played hard with equal enthusiasm.

A useful aspect of Harvard for me was the galaxy of top flight intellectuals who taught there. At any given time there were dozens of Nobel Prize laureates, especially in scientific research. In the social sciences too teachers won many prizes and awards and there were regular announcements on our bulletin boards of their achievements. Tambi was outstanding in that respect. He was the recipient of virtually all the awards made to anthropologists including one with a big cash prize given by a Japanese academic institution.

In addition there were many distinguished scholars who gave invitation lectures which were open to the public. I remember Ernest Gellner, Diana Eck, Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins and many others speaking on their latest research. In addition there were young scholars like John Rogers, Alan Trewithick and Norbert Peabody who gravitated round Tambi who had a fatherly relationship with them.

Tambi had been commissioned by the editorial board of the Journal of Asian Studies (JAS) to look out for suitable articles for publication. Accordingly a special symposium on the 1915 riots was published in the JAS about this time, as were several essays on Theravada Buddhism. Tambi was at the height of his fame as an anthropologist of religion, particularly of Thai Buddhism, and his office in Harvard was a hive of activity.

I observed the diligence with which he worked every day in a consistent manner, which was the secret of his impressive list of publications. He would write in long hand and pass over the draft to his secretary who would type it for correction the following day. He was meticulous in checking out references and would consult other scholars, in writing or over the phone.

Fortunately for him Harvard had such a vast array of experts, that he could always talk to them over a cup of coffee. On occasion we would walk across to the Peabody Museum to meet Nur Yalman. I recall one such day when HL Seneviratne telephoned from Charlottesville to convey the sad news that Ralph Peiris had passed away in Colombo. Both Tambi and Nur who had had misunderstandings with Ralph many years earlier, were genuinely distressed by the news.

The three of us once went out to dinner in an old restaurant in Boston harbour overlooking the ship `Mayflower’ which had figured in the ‘Boston tea party’ an incident which played a significant role in modern American history. The Bostonians – ‘The Boston Brahmins’ – were considered the aristocracy of US society wherein ‘Cabots spoke to the Lodges and the Lodges spoke only to god’. However with the later arrival of the Irish to American shores after the ‘Potato famine,’ the poorer areas of Boston were populated by Irishmen who progressively dominated city politics and eventually took over the Democratic party machine, leaving the old patricians to find refuge in the Republican party.

The apotheosis of this development was the rise of the Kennedys whose ‘godfather’ was Joseph Kennedy, liquor baron and right hand man of President Franklin Roosevelt, who paid off his political debts by appointing Kennedy senior as his Ambassador to the UK. It was Joe Kennedy who plotted the rise of JFK to the US Presidency.

The Kennedy’s reveled in their Boston Irish heritage .Their control of the Democratic Party machine, won in the smoke filled bars and liquor dens in the seedier parts of the Irish catholic dominated Boston was the spring board for their ambitions. JFK’s favourite song, Bee Gee’s ‘Massachusetts’ was the most popular song in Boston at that time, and with its haunting lyrics “I will remember Massachusetts”, still remains as one of my favourite songs.

Tambi and I once drove over to Boston to spend a morning in the museum to see the Ananda Coomaraswamy collection of Indian art. The savant had spent his last years as a Curator of the Boston Museum and established a valuable collection of Asian memorabilia and relevant books and papers. His son Rama Coomaraswamy, by an Argentinian wife, lived in New England and we planned to pay him a visit. But he was ailing and our planned drive to the nearby beautiful State of Connecticut did not take place.

I enjoyed my stay at Harvard where I could resume my academic work in stimulating surroundings, after the hectic and dangerous adventures in Sri Lanka. While the food in Cambridge was excellent, particularly the fish, clam and lobster – with the signature clam chowder being irresistible – I hankered for rice and curry which was not available except at the weekly meal at Tambis. I found a Chinese restaurant which served fried rice, but it was not a substitute for the real thing.

However, I was in luck. One day by accident I met my Kandy and Peradeniya friend Gaya Gunawardene who was on scholarship to the Kennedy Centre for Public Administration. He was living in a flat in Cambridge with his wife Sushila and son Kosiya. Sushila – a girl from Kandy, was a great friend of my sister at Peradeniya University. Later when my brother-in-law Tennekoon was Government Agent of Kandy district, Gaya had been the Deputy Inspector General of Police there and the two Dharmarajans had formed a good team during the height of JVP violence.

So the Gunawardenes invited me often to their flat for lovely rice and curry dinners and I even became a regular invitee to their flat when Sri Lankans visiting Harvard were entertained by them. I particularly remember a visit by Carlo Fonseka who spent a few days with them. By a stroke of luck, the University bus which circulated through the campus at all hours began its journey from near Gaya’s apartment and had Porter Street (where I lodged) as a point of call. So, I could conveniently get back to my room even after a late night when the underground was not available.

We also visited Boston for sightseeing. The Gunawardenes were great travelers who arranged visits to nearby States on holidays. Unfortunately, I could not join them as much as I wished because I had travelled extensively in the US by then and had to save time for my academic work.

My time in Cambridge was very productive. With the facilities of the Widener library and the assistance of many academic colleagues I was able to complete several articles in the field of sociology. One was a study of the changes in the Sri Lankan Sangha, particularly after analyzing the responses of young monks to the siren call of the JVP. Much later in time the leader of the JVP in Parliament told me that one of the great contributions of Wijeweera was that he saw the potential of young Buddhist monks as the soldiers of their revolution.

Indeed several of the JVP front rankers were monks who had disrobed to follow party orders. Correspondingly many of them had been killed by the security forces. The editor of the journal ‘Religion’ published by University of California, whom I had met in Paris with Jean Claude Galay, was happy to immediately publish my article under the title `Buddhaputra and Bhumiputra; dilemmas of modern Sinhala Buddhist monks in relation to ethnic and political conflict’.

This article has drawn much attention in academic circles. I also used the Widener library material to write a long essay on the role of the Theosophists in the Sinhala Buddhist revival of the late 19th and 20th century. This was published in the Journal of Social Sciences of the EHESS of Paris. I also gave lectures on the Buddhist revival at many Harvard academic meetings.

Towards the end of 1990 1 came back to Colombo from Boston, after several days in Paris to arrange for my family to relocate in Sri Lanka. Ramanika had obtained a degree in business administration and was invited by N.U. Jayawardene who was my friend and mentor, to join the staff of his newly formed Sampath Bank. She was a pioneer staffer in Sampath Bank though she later joined the senior staff of other commercial Banks after the departure of NUJ. Varuni entered the law faculty of the University of Colombo. We were all back in familiar surroundings in Siripa Road to pick up the threads of Sri Lankan life, after a long sojourn abroad.


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