Life at “Jeewaka”

My Life at Jeewaka


                                                        By Dr. N.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. I was, thus, 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 other medics 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 that house I felt at home instantly. The hostellers were a friendly bunch. To my good fortune several of my batchmates – LPJM Wickramasinghe, Sanath de Tissera and Upali Wijeratne (alias Cunningham) 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. So alcohol in the stomach acquired outside the hostel was okay. 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.

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“Sing Song”

(Photo credit to Jeewaka archives)

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. The belted out the song that was a hit amongst us “Magey Pale Andura Nasanna”. When my mood takes I still listen to that song to remind me of a very happy time in my life. These ‘sing-song’ sessions were most enjoyable and we often looked forward to Saturday nights to exercise our vocal cords.

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Blackie  in 1965

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.

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 mesmerized 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 with the wind 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 years. 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.

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Editorial Note: When I received this post from ND, I spent some time scouring the internet and social media to locate some images relative to Jeewaka. I found 3 shown above. Images were in bad shape. I purchased a software program (Gigapixel AI) which I used to rejuvenate old photographs using artificial intelligence. I am very pleased with the results.

Quiz: Can you identify the 6 Batch’64 comrades in this last photo? State the names and locations in your comments.

Our special thanks to ND for joining Batch’64 blog as a contributing follower. I loved your self portraiture art work as well!


12 thoughts on “Life at “Jeewaka””

  1. Hi Sam
    It was very interesting to read the history of Jeewaka hostel. All if you seem to have had a very enjoyable time.
    I think I identified Nisantha and Banduka in the front row seated on the Leo last seats to the left .


  2. Thanks Sam and Nihal
    Agree with Praxy (Nisantha and Bandula). I am going to guess that Esiri and Kottahachchi are next to DrRPJ in the front row. 2nd from Right, seated could be Bhathiya.
    When our clinical group (D to F) finished the medicine appointment with DrRPJ, after the usual dinner, he took us to a few places, to have a sing-along. We went to Jeewaka, the hostellers were woken up (or disturbed from their studies) and we all sang songs together. We ended up on Galle Face Green. I wonder whether my group mates (Eddie and the Fernandos) remember this.


  3. Thanks Sam and ND (did ND practise as a GP in Weligama?)
    It was lovely to hear someone reminisce about life at Jeewaka. I am a Bloemite and have never been to Jeewaka. I think we once played them at cricket and won handsomely.
    It took me back to my Bloem days which were as happy as the life in Jeewaka was for the Jeewakites.
    Of course we had a larger number of students (I think 80+- Seelan and Ariya will know for definite). The other difference that stood out was that we were ‘allowed’ to have alcohol. Any excuse for a party, and there were many, were fuelled by booze – pol, followed by gal once the money ran out.
    The rag was also something that would have remained in peoples’ minds for many years.
    There were the Bloem Nites, Bloem trips and the traditional April Fool’s ‘rocket fight’ with the doctors at 327.
    There are many stories that each Bloemite will have in his ‘personal memoirs’ and some that would be immediately censored by Sam as it would make even some Medicos blush.
    ND had mentioned the many distinguished people who were at Jeewaka.
    There were many Bloemites also who distinguished themselves in the various medical fields. The one name all Bloemites of our generation will remember with immense love and respect is Prof. Ranasinghe (Ranaya) who was our Warden but more a father and a friend (and an easygoing examiner for Bloemites at Gyn and Obs finals).
    Of course, just as it was at Jeewaka, the highlight of Bloem life was the friendships we made where everybody was everybody else’s Machang.
    Thanks again ND for your posting and thanks again Sam.
    The people I recognise in the photo are Bandula Jayaratne, Banda and Esiri and of course RP.
    With best love and wishes to everybody in these hard times,


    1. Hi Dr Amarasuriya. Thank you for your comment. I lived in Weligama with my parents but never worked there. The Jeewakite who was a GP there was R.N de S Amarasekera who was my senior. I went to see to see him on my trips down south. He closed shop there and became a GP in south London where he now lives in retirement.


    1. Sam, I identified the six, including Bandula!!. His name I wrote, right after yours!!!. You missed it. I dont know where Siri Kannangara was, on that photograph day. May be went to see Kanthie!!.



  4. Enjoyed reading about Jeevaka .
    If I remember correctly, Bloem had 36 rooms facing Norris canal road & another 36 facing the dining area ( old Bloem). Each room accommodated 2 students . Those who lived in the front rooms had the opportunity to “ greet “ girls walking along Norris canal road- Bloem style 🚺 🕺🏼😂❤️❤️ 🥁🎷🎼🎼
    I lived there from the time we entered the faculty. Best part of my life.
    The beauty of Bloem is that it allowed students from all religions and race & no one stopped us from the occasional consumption of alcohol . We even had a mini shop using an old wardrobe for cigarettes, soap, toothpaste, blades etc !!!!
    I don’t want to boast anymore.


  5. Thank you ND for your response to my query. Weligama is my home town (mother from Weligama and father from Matara). Dr.Amarasekara (RNdeS) rented a house belonging to my Loku mama for his practice.

    As for Anoja (mis)identifying Bathiya – I know he lived on top of the timber shop on Maradana road belonging to his uncle. He had his meals from a small restaurant opposite the railway station. One day he had not taken his wallet and had no money to pay the bill. He told the Mudalali who was also the cashier ‘mama poddak duwala gihin purse eka arang ennang’. The mudalali agreed and Bathiya returned panting with the purse. Walked up to the cashier ‘kooduwa’ and opened the purse to discover that there was no money inside. He told the mudalali ‘aney mudalali mama aayeth duwala gihing salli arang ennang.’ The Mudalali responded ‘ekata kamak ne mahaththaya, ae salli thiyagena eken beheth tikak ganna’. This is a true story as I heard it from the man himself. I wonder if he remembers the incident at all or remembers it differently.
    I thought it was funny enough to share -apologies to Bathiya for making it public without his permission.


    1. CJ
      Good to hear that you are from Weligama. It is a place very close to my heart. I qualified in 1967. There were 2 other medical students from Weligama at the time, A chap called Walgama and Ranjit Hettiaratchie. They were a year senior to me.


  6. Sam,
    Seated Left corner, Bandula Jayaratne, & Nisantha Banda. One side of R.P. (L) is Sam, Right side of R.P is Esiri & Kotta. First Row standing ,Between R.P. & Sam is Wimal Fernando.
    That is ALL.


  7. Sorry for the late response. Thanks ND for this wonderful account about Jeewaka. Yes indeed we had a great time at Jeewaka, a home away from home. The camaraderie among us , junior and senior members was unsurpassed.

    This article brought back very pleasant memories.

    The six people in our batch have been identified. I was wondering where Siri kanna is in the picture. I have to find the original copy of the picture.



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