Now a showcase of fabulous mansions Now a showcase of fabulous mansions

by PADMA EDIRISINGHE - Sunday Observer Jan 18 2004

Driving along Thurstan Road from Bambalapitiya on to one's left soars a set of fabulous mansions. But as late as the 20th Century bare torsoed men with rippling muscles were seen clambering up tall coconut trees of this area to squeeze the ubiquitous toddy frothing in sheaths of the coconut flower fermented with a queer mixture of ingredients, medicinal and otherwise.

In the Municipal assessors's note (1928) pertaining to the property of Imperial Bank of India described as one of the many blocks of Alfred House is proof of this fact since it states that the fees charged for the land are "with the coconut trees here on". It goes on to state that the fact that the majority of trees are tapped for toddy justifies ... "the fees" (Rs. 6000 a month).

As implied in that Municipal assessor's document, it was Alfred House Gardens that provided the springboard of this group of elegant houses lining Thurstan Road and beyond up to Galle Road. Of earlier origin are Lakshmigiri (lost in a mortgage case by the owner) and Regina Walawwa now known as College House office of the vice-Chancellor of the University of Colombo, then Marvan later the residence of the Manager of Grindlay's Bank and Saltoun, later the office of the British Council in Colombo. "Ceytra House" of Inner Bagatalle Road is another.

In the exotic work "India House, Colombo "published by Sarvodaya Vishvalekha, (from which text some facts of this essay are procured) Lakshmigiri is described as an extravagant mix of Baroque and Italianate architecture reminiscent of a retreat of Queen Victoria with gates inspired by those of Buckingham Palace and Regina Walawwa, built for a daughter of Sir Charles Henry, as a curious mix of French empire style and Kandyan styles.

This famous and vast coconut estate that was later divided up to build many a mansion for Charles Henry De Soysa's fourteen sons and daughters and even faithful workers was a legacy bestowed on him by his childless uncle, Jeronis De Soysa. It had a house too named Bagatalle Walawwa. But actually the English gentleman Mr. Bagatalle who owned this property first had only a thatched cottage for his dwelling. The later magnificent mansion was put up by C. E. Layard (the next owner) but the new edifice retained the name Bagatalle Walawwa after the name of the original owner of this property.

Actually according to the text Madhyama Lanka Puravrththa (anecdotes of medieval Lanka) by Ven. Naulle Dhammananda thera the history of this estate runs back to Dutch times responsible for the genesis of the name Kollupitiya. It had been named Kolla Pitiya, the Robbed Land. The robber was Ambanwela Rala, a chieftain who served in the Kandyan Court of Rajasinghe II but who aided and abetted in the Nillambe rebellion against the king and was banished by him to the lowlands. The crafty man that Ambanwela Rala was he had used his prowess of composing eulogies to flatter a one Muttiah Franciscus Paulis, a high local officer in the Dutch bureaucracy and procured this land for himself where he began a coconut plantation. Thus it came to be called Kollupitiya or Kollapitiya, the Robbed Land.

The coconut grove or "Neralu Ruppawa" that included or maybe even approximated Bagatalle estate extended up to the vicinity of St. Michael's Church (of which site Polwatte is today the only nominal remnant) and even beyond according to facts collected by banker-writer and researcher Gamini Samarasinghe.

According to him a large brewery too had emerged in this Pol Watte in early British times where distilled pol arrack had been exported even to South India. It had been a very popular export item. The brewery owner's bungalow is reckoned to be the origin of a mansion that later had its apex in Temple Trees. It may be of interest to note that to the interior spread a vast cinnamon plantation begun by the Dutch which outskirts ended up on the Maradana border.

Let us come back to the details of the transfer of Bagtalle estate from hand to hand. From an owner who bought it from Ambanwela Rala or an-in-between (the later Dutch period was followed immediately by the British period) to Mr. Bagatalle and then to Layard it changed hands. The land was then bought by a rich entrepreneur of Moratuwa named Jeronis De Soysa, a Lankan with the most colourful sagas of progress.

According to "Soysa Charithapadana" (Life of Soysa) he had once adventurously trailed behind the caravan or "thavalam" of carts that plied wares between the low country and the upcountry and later ended up the foremost capitalist of the lowlands generating a dazzling economic empire built on coffee, transport and arrack rentals.

Even the state land where king Senerat's palace stood at Hanguranketa had been bought by him for planting of coffee.

Hence it was a small transaction for him to buy up the Bagatalle estate along with Layard's mansion or Bagatalle Walawwa. His nephew Charles Henry became its owner after his death and the myriad philanthropic activities he indulged in with his uncle's accumulated wealth zoomed him to such a position of stature that when Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, son of the then reigning queen Victoria visited the island in 1870, it was he who played host to the royal visitor at his residence.

The Duke gave him permission to rename Bagatale Walawwa, Alfred House after this exotic hosting ceremony where meals had been served on gold plates and eaten with gold cutlery and champagne had been drunk off taps! One of CH Soysa's sons E. L. F. Soysa had once quipped that he was born nine months after this glitzy function and hence what flowed in his body was not blood but champagne inserted at his conception! He has explained this as the secret of his never fading ebullience.

To come back to more mundane facts, the growing city of Colombo needed space for many buildings including residences for the elite and the salubrious coconut estate close to the sea with a profusion of rain trees too and now known as Alfred House Gardens soon proved an attraction.

Already it had been partitioned to put up houses for Charles Henry's large brood of children among which Lakshmigiri and Regina Walawwa stand out at Thurstan entrance. Land was allotted too to houses of faithful workers. The city itself needed new planning and new roads especially around the "passage to Galle". In 1921 Patrick Geddes proposed a new road today known as Duplication Road that bisected the Alfred House Gardens. Then came up new roads such as Queen's Road, Alfred House Avenue, Alfred House road. The old historical house itself got decimated to the South wing and disappeared totally in the 1980s.

Now the plots of land by the criss-crossing roads became venues of elite buildings as India House bought or leased at rates considered exorbitant in the context of the times. That the rural vintage had refused to be totally exterminated is testified by the huge black cobra who lurked under the massive banyan tree in the India House premises and even had his daily dose of milk. J. N. Dixit, High Commissioner of India (1985-89) had once seen it hanging like a rope from a large bronze statue adorning the drawing room of His Excellency's abode i.e. India House. When the chandelier lights were put on it had slithered away to its banyan tree den!

Some words need be invested on Ceytra House, one of the most elegant mansions built on Bagatalle Estate on half an acre of beautifully landscaped garden. Earlier the property of a descendent of the Soysa family and named Livadia (according to the land deed of 1907) today it has become the residence of an enigmatic Sri Lankan, who is an almost incredible mixture of physician, author, cricketer, cartographer, environmentalist, historian and collector.

Into his collector's items he has now added the calamander writing table and chair used by the famous Charles Henry De Soysa Gifted by this great philanthropist to his son, E. L. F. de Soysa, the famed racing magnate he in turn had gifted the table and chair to his son Eric. Finally the family had disposed of it and via a dealer it had been acquired by the present owner of Ceytra House now named Samarakand.