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Stratton receives Fulbright award for Sri Lanka research

Rory Stratton, a 2005 graduate of Bates College, is researching Islamic art and architectural history in Sri Lanka with the support of a Fulbright grant.

Stratton, of Northeast Harbor, is studying mosques in the island nation, whose Muslim population totals around 8 percent. An art and visual culture major at Bates, Stratton is continuing research that he began at the college during a junior-year program in Sri Lanka. He returned there in November and will stay at least until August 2006.

“Receiving the Fulbright is a great honor,” he says. “I’m excited to be back in Sri Lanka doing work that I think is challenging and valuable.”

“My work relates to architectural history and conservation, but also addresses more complex questions about ethnic and religious identity among Sri Lankan Muslims,” Stratton continues. Buddhists constitute nearly 70 percent of the population, with Hindus and Christians the other substantial religious minorities.

“There’s a tremendous amount of history recorded in the architecture of Sri Lankan Muslims that reinforces important aspects of ethnic identity,” he says. “Sadly, much of this architecture is disintegrating or being replaced by modern buildings without adequate records being made of the original structures.”

Stratton is documenting historically valuable mosques that are in danger of destruction or of renovation that would obliterate their symbolic worth. He also plans to compare historical and contemporary examples of Islamic architecture, with an emphasis on architecture’s role in expressing identify.

Finally, he plans to compile documentary materials that will facilitate others’ research in the field. “I hope to collect a significant amount of information for further study,” he says, “all of which can be given back to local communities.”

“The Fulbright allows me to examine Islamic religious architecture and identity politics outside the traditionally understood boundaries of the Muslim world and in a highly dynamic cultural environment,” Stratton says. Between the December 2004 tsunami that killed about 31,000 Sri Lankans and the simmering conflict between the island’s government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, it’s a tumultuous period in Sri Lankan history.

“The peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers will have an inestimable impact on Muslims,” Stratton says. “In many cases, they have strong ties to both the Sinhala Buddhist majority, with whom they have shared the island since pre-Islamic times, and the Tamils, with whom they have linguistic and cultural ties.”

“They’re an underrepresented group with a great deal to gain or lose in the near future, depending upon how the political situation develops.”

Stratton is also working with design students at the Colombo School of Architecture, in Sri Lanka’s capital, examining the ongoing efforts to rebuild housing in the island’s coastal regions in the wake of the devastating tsunami.

Stratton is one of more than 1,000 U.S. students traveling abroad during the 2005-06 academic year through the Fulbright Program. Established in 1946, the program’s purpose is to build mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the rest of the world.

The Fulbright Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It operates in more than 150 countries worldwide.

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