Deema de Silva finds research interests in her roots

10:04:37 AM CDT - Thursday, January 30, 2003

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

As Deema de Silva grew up in her native Sri Lanka, she was involved in and witnessed rituals that recognized certain events in one's lifetime. When she came to the United States to study for her master's degree at Stanford in the mid-1960s, she discovered "the nuances" of what her culture had to offer.

"When there's a distance, there's more of an interest and clarity," says de Silva, who turned that interest and firsthand perspective into decades-long research and now a book, "Life Cycle Rituals Among the Sinhalese."

For de Silva, who has directed WSU's successful Student Support Services since 1985, the 173-page book is a culmination of nearly 30 years of research and review. During that time, she also finished a doctorate in education and raised four children along with her husband Dharma, an international business professor at WSU. Because of her successful leadership with Student Support Services and its TRIO programs, she travels frequently as a trainer and is a consultant for other universities implementing similar programs.

While she certainly could draw upon some of her own firsthand experiences for the book, de Silva spent a considerable amount of time from 1966 until 1987 studying the rituals and traditions practiced in Kapuhempola, a tiny village in southern Sri Lanka, amidst green paddy fields, swaying coconut palms and rubber plantations. The village was about 25 miles from the urban city Galle, where de Silva, the daughter of a college president, grew up.

"The life transition rituals provide the Sinhalese with an established order of passing through each stage of life. The major crises of life birth, puberty, marriage and death all have rituals with unique structures of experience," de Silva writes in her book. The ceremonies marking the different passages or transitions help inform, educate and psychologically prepare an individual, she says. "It is the rituals that keeps us pegged down, helping us in our life cycle transitions and role shifts brought about by the human condition."

Repeating old traditions that include a child, parents and grandparents brings "comfort," she says. The Sinhalese culture stretches back 2,500 years, and many of the same rituals practiced hundreds of years ago still exist.

Some of the traditions have changed slightly as Sri Lanka has modernized. For example, in the ritual marking a girl's coming-of-age her first menstrual period young girls weren't allowed to leave their home for two weeks, as they were pampered and prepared for their role as a young woman. Now young girls spend only two to three days undergoing the ritual so they don't miss too many schooldays.

In her book de Silva does more than just explain rituals ranging from a baby's first feeding to death. She also writes about everyday Sinhalese village life, such as the rice paddy harvest, and how the Sinhalese view family, sexuality, and domestic life.

De Silva says she was encouraged by Dorothy Billings, a cultural anthropologist at WSU, to continue with her study of the Sinhalese culture. The two started a team-taught class, "People's Cultures of the World," a dozen years ago and de Silva incorporated her research into the class. She says feedback from students helped "enrich" and "clarify" her research.

Although she no longer teaches that WSU class, de Silva continues to present papers annually about her research at anthropology conferences. In July, Billings and de Silva will present papers at the annual meeting of the International Association of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Florence, Italy.

De Silva's book, published by a company in Sri Lanka, will be available at Watermark Books.

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