Faculty + Staff

Home is where his heart is — in a remote Sri Lankan village

UCLA staffer publishes book detailing life in Maradankalla

Lokubanda Tillakaratne
Logan Linnane/UCLA

UCLA staffer Lokubanda Tillakaratne has written a book that brings to light the life and customs of villagers living in the remote Sri Lankan hamlet where he was raised.

UCLA staffer Lokubanda Tillakaratne has spent more than three decades bridging his life in Los Angeles with the world he left behind in his native Sri Lanka, where he grew up in the rural hamlet of Maradankalla. To help improverished villagers there, he and his wife founded a nonprofit in the 1980s to provide a free mobile eye clinic, equip schools with computers and run breast cancer awareness clinics, among many other forms of aid.

Now Tillakaratne, who works in the Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars, hopes to bring the village and its people out of the remote region to light: He has published a book about Maradankalla that melds scholarly facts and figures, personal recollections, and interviews and observations collected from villagers over the past several summers. “Echoes of the Millstone: An Ethnographic Account of Life in a Village in Sri Lanka” was self-published this year.

Tillakaratne was 33 years old when, in 1981, he arrived at UCLA — “I thought it was pronounced ‘oocla,’” he recalled — with his wife, Niranjala, who was starting her graduate studies in biology and physiology. Since that time, he has worked as a visa expert at the Dashew center.

The book begins in 1947 when Sri Lanka was becoming independent after decades of British colonial rule, and his village stood on the edge of a new era. While acknowledging that he’s not an ethnographer by training, Tillakaratne intends for the book to add much-needed nuance to scholarly works produced by western anthropologists and others.

“I met an Oxford University anthropologist working in Sri Lanka who told me that all the marriages and [the resulting] children in my village were illegal under colonial law,” he recalled. While the scholar was technically correct in terms of the British colonial law of that era, “this law had little meaning for the villagers,” Tillakaratne noted. “For them, [their marriage customs] were perfectly normal.”


“Echoes of the Millstone” opens with “Will You Marry Me?,” a villager’s first-person account of marital traditions, from the “handahan” reading of horoscopes to make sure the couple is well-matched, to the groom’s wedding-day attire, consisting of a white T-shirt, sarong, wide red belt and a striped bath towel, neatly folded and hung over his shoulders and chest. Other chapters capture details of a religious ceremony, in which a lay priest falls into a divine, convulsive trance, and skills valued by the villagers, such as noosing wild buffalo and ambushing game. The book is annotated throughout with scholarly references to past practices like the plastering of floors and walls with layers of cow dung, which, in the Hindu tradition, was believed to have purifying properties.

The book concludes with a glossary of words in Singhala, Tillakaratne’s native language. He has plans to translate “Echoes of the Millstone” into Singhala for the benefit of Sri Lankans who can’t read English. “This book is for them,” he said. “These are their stories.”

Tillakaratne has been sharing his writing with Sri Lankan audiences since 2003, when the Daily Ceylon, the website www.go2lanka.com and other publications began running his articles, which often juxtapose his life in L.A. with reveries about his homeland.

That Maradankalla — despite its nearly 10,000-mile distance from L.A. — has remained very close to his heart became abundantly clear to Tillakaratne many years ago when his daughter, Mahiri, peppered him with questions like, “How exciting was village life back home?” Sharing stories with her about the tiny village where he grew up, he felt compelled to start putting his recollections down on paper.

Tillakaratne continues to spend summers conducting fieldwork interviews, with the aim of publishing a second volume of his ethnography. That book will incorporate additional research by his editors — Niranjala, who is now a researcher in UCLA’s Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology and a member of the Brain Research Institute, and Mahiri, who recently earned a B.A. in history with a focus on international relations from Harvard.

The family also continues to grow their nonprofit, Empower a Village, which was founded when they started shipping used textbooks and journals, purchased or scrounged from friends, to rural villages in Sri Lanka.

Tillakaratne, who assists more than 2,000 visiting scholars and 500 undergraduate international students who come to UCLA every year under visas that are difficult to get, also applies his expertise in navigating bureaucracies to get things accomplished in his homeland. He once managed to convince Sri Lankan government officials to allow 22 children from a once-nomadic group of families to attend school despite their lack of required birth certificates. And he has helped enlist the National Water Board of Sri Lanka and obtain funding from the Asian Development Bank to dig wells and build water storage tanks in drought-stricken villages.

Speaking about UCLA and the abundant opportunities for growth he has enjoyed, Tillakaratne’s words could easily apply to what he has achieved in Sri Lanka.

“Regardless of what education you have, regardless of what you can or cannot do, if you put your heart and time into something over a period of time, you can get there,” he said. “As long as you have an understanding of yourself, you can achieve what you want.”

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