2nd July 2000

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A view from the hills

Mining, washing and polluting

The river boundary of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens is under threat. Already, officials say a lot of land has been destroyed, virtually disintegrating into the river because the Mahaweli at Getambe Mining, washing and pollutinghas become a crazy sand mining centre, with open trucks and tippers trundling down to the banks each day.

Things have got so out of hand that mechanized grabbers have also got into the act, actually sitting in the water and clawing out huge snatches of sand - and all this at a time when, with little rain, the river has become as scanty as the hair on my head! As the garden's staff, who led me to a spot on the banks to see for myself, say, their seemava is now kapothi!

Vehicles are also being driven in to be washed. Buses come down to the water at the end of each day. The pollution is unbelievable and no one seems to care a spitty hoot!

All this hectics and mining is apparently legal with vehicles armed with the necessary balapathrayas from the Yatinuwara Pradeshiaya Sabha. Talked to some university people. Environmentally they say, this is a disaster. They say it could lead to a lot of ecological nastiness, flash flooding, the erosion of natural boundaries, but who cares? When a maha veli mudalali can get a licence to ruin the river and when no one cares about the washing of buses and vans and the discharge of waste oil and other grime into the water, it really is a fishy business. There are no fish either.

The Gardens are losing land rapidly. When will the powers that be get wise to this degradation? Apparently never. After all, there is the all embracing double-O-balapatraya, the licence to cause environmental havoc!

Kandy's new Kalabooshana

With eight solo exhibitions under his belt as well as 15 group exhibitions, artist, architectural landscape designer, Tilak Palliyaguru of Kundasale is Kandy's new Kalabooshana.

Tilak's paintings hang in many countries - the USA, Canada, India, Pakistan, France, Belgium, Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom to name some, while the US Association for the Cutural Triangle of Sri Lanka selected ten of his paintings for exhibition at the Association's headquarters in Washington.

Since 1955, Tilak has been carrying off the honours at all exhibitions organized by Kala Peramunas and Kala Mangallayas, and this in sculpture too. Last year he received the Asirwada Medal at the Cultural Festival organized by the Kandy Cultural Council.

Tilak has also designed the entire bio-diversity complex on Gampola's Ambuluvava mountain. 

This column congratulates him on his enduring art.

Winnie's first impressions of France

An exhibition of illustrations by cartoonist Winnie Hettigoda will be held at Alliance Francais auditorium from July 11 to 16 from 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. The illustrations depict the artist's first impressions of France, and the exhibitions will be opened by French Ambassador for Sri Lanka Elizabeth Dahan at 6 p.m. July 10.

Winnie, former editorial artist for "Lakbima", is now an assistant lecturer in the Graphics Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Kelaniya. Last year he held a joint exhibition with French political cartoonist Plantu in Colombo and was invited by the French Embassy to visit France. He held an exhibition of computer art, titled "Evolution of Humanity" while in Paris.

Winnie started off as the chief artist for "Divaina", which was then in its early stages, and has worked as cartoonist in various newspapers, including "Lankadeepa", "Hiru" and "Lakdiva". He is also the designer of several web pages, including the website of the Kotmale pilot project, and is currently involved in designing the official site of the Government of Sri Lanka.

He has held many exhibitions here and abroad and has carried out research on several subjects. Winnie has also published collections of his work as a cartoonist over the years, and is also involved in designing book covers and posters. In 1987 he won the State prize for the best book jacket.

Winnie was a member of the international editorial board of the International Journal of Comic Art in 1999.

Samudra Cottage to Ulpotha

Village culture, eco-tourism and hype

By Manik Sandrasagra

When the late Thomian racon-teur Christopher de Alwis quit his job in 1979 in the pioneering Gemini Tours Limited, he 'hung out' alternatively with one of us: schoolmate Ranil Senanayake, drinking partner Anil Dias Bandaranaike, kid-brother Dominic Sansoni, eating partner Lakshman Doolwela, confidante Asoka Ratwatte, ring-master Mahen Vaithianathan, and me, his fellow-traveler. During his sojourn in our various homes he entertained all of us, our families and friends, with his wit, wisdom and matters Ceylonese.

The early tales of tourism in what was once Ceylon made one great story. 

The Round Trip

My storyteller was Christo. His professional lineage or Guru Kula had Norman Impett at its apex. Norman, a Batticaloa Tamil, was one of Sri Lanka's finest salesman., Christo and colleague Neville Arnolda helped Norman look after this first batch of seventy Scandinavians. The rest was history. The trio trail-blazed across both Ceylon and Europe wooing all the pretty tour guides and making us a destination for European holidaymakers. Gemini Tours was their tour de force and here these dream merchants gathered with Simon Senaratne and a Girl Friday called Rosie Vanderwall to design what became 'The Round Trip'. Sun, Sea, Sand, Hill Country, Wildlife and Culture. Very soon however Christo was a disillusioned man. Travels with Ranil had made him environment-sensitive and the tourist industry that he had helped develop had become the biggest thorn in his side. Euro-trash was too much for him and mass tourism not what he had envisaged.

Except for the genius of the Bawa Brothers - Bevis and Geoffrey, both of whom were influenced by Arthur van Langenberg, who taught the elder garden layout and the younger a 'sense of theatre', Christo hated the contribution of our planners and architects.

He felt they had devalued the product, namely Ceylon, with a lack of refinement, style and good taste. The fact that the tourist industry had attracted only those seeking tax shelters and write-offs and not genuine entrepreneurs was his constant complaint. Out of sheer frustration he wrote to Simon stating that he could no longer identify with the industry as it had evolved. Quantity had replaced quality and the charter flight, the free independent traveler. Christo quit - a conscientious objector - the first in the tourist industry, and overnight he was without a job living with friends who enjoyed his company. 

He became my fellow traveler in 1982. We shared similar interests and also the driving as we criss-crossed the island in the much more placid times. Ranil, Asoka and Dominic would sometimes join us and all of us became familiar with his arguments regarding the tourist industry. These arguments were daily reinforced as we witnessed the industrialization of everything we held sacred. The production of the television documentary Pooja 86 coordinated by Mano Chanmugam for Lalith Athulathmudali who was at the time in charge of National Security; the creation of the Kataragama Devotees Trust; the making of the Kataragama Skanda Trilogy for television -produced by Frank Jayasinghe; the revival after 10 years of the annual Pada Yatra (foot pilgrimage) along the east coast from Jaffna to Kataragama; the re-establishment after 40 years of the 'ritual ambush' of the God King's annual procession by the Wanniyalaeto Veddas; all of this which took place between 1986 and 1989, made us well aware of village people and their aspirations, and the dangers of polluting the countryside.

Cultural Survival

In 1989 we founded the organization 'Cultural Survival' and we were invited to make the Taj Samudra our operational base. Christo was one of our founder members and contributed in no small way. The 'Festival of Lanka' where we brought 300 rural performing artists to the city, and the building of the Samudra Cottage brought into our fold another Thomian - the architect Ashley de Vos. Others closely associated with us included my childhood friend Ranjan Cooray, former Ceylon Tourist Board Director-General, Nimalasiri Silva, the Anandian chartered accountant Gamini Jayasinghe and the former Muslim Congress appointed member in parliament, J. Asitha Perera who was Chairman of 'Cultural Survival'.

The 'village comes to town' slogan introduced a rural ethic to urbanites, in an atmosphere charged with ethnic and anti-Indian sentiment, soon after the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. I believe it may have been the last time Tiththapaghala Suramba the aging Kandyan Yakdessa or dance master performed the ritual Khomba Kamkariya.

We inaugurated the annual Ananda Coomaraswamy Memorial Oration in order to take his vision to a larger local audience and the Conservation Awards for outstanding work in the area of natural and cultural heritage preservation. 

The Samudra Cottage was situated on just one acre of the twelve acre Taj Samudra garden. Ashley de Vos, who had studied puranagamas (traditional villages) in the Wanni, designed and built this model homestead. Christo and I shared this obsession for building in mud and with Ashley we formed a triad. A paradox in the making was that while villagers were fast losing the art of their ancestors, a few urban idealists were trying to recreate in the heart of the city. 

The village theorist Mudiyanse Tennekoon, who was first introduced to English speaking audiences through an interview in the Ecologist with Teddy Goldsmith, laid out a traditional home garden for us at the Samudra Cottage. He became Cultural Survival's advisor on Sinhala village culture. Tennekoon is a remarkable man. He had been on the fringe of many 'fringe' movements and had accumulated a great deal of information. He knew the stories he had been taught as a child growing up in a Puranagama in transition, and was constantly comparing and contrasting it with what he saw and heard in the city. This made Tennekoon the 'village voice' in the city. He moved around, between the city and the village and although he had little practical experience in building or agriculture, he knew all the folk tales. 

The Samudra Cottage

From David Bellamy to Pattie Boyd; from Sir James Goldsmith to Hanif Kureshi; from former President D.B. Wijetunge to Magnum Photographer Steve McCurry; from Pamella Bordes to the liberal British High Commissioner David Gladstone: - they all visited the Samudra Cottage. 

A casual glance through the visited book is our testament. The Overseas Children's School and The Colombo International School were just two of Colombo's educational establishments that regularly brought their students to the Samudra Cottage to teach them about village culture. Tennekoon who describes himself, as an itinerant beggar, would tell the children stories. We charged nothing for our services and for six years the Taj Samudra under the enlightened management of Lionnel Coulter played host to 'Cultural Survival'. From CNN to the BBC, the Cottage as it was called became a Colombo landmark and symbol of rural lifestyles in the heart of the city. The impact of the Cottage on all those who visited us made us increasingly aware that rural lifestyles had potential as a niche market in tourism. The Cottage caretaker Appuhamy Dabare and his wife Margaret produced mouth watering local dishes and delicacies. 

The Cottage was also Colombo's well kept secret. When Sir Arthur C. Clarke came to the Taj to meet David Bellamy at the Cottage, hotel security were unable to find it. However 'Cultural Survival' had earned for itself unfortunately an urban identification. The caretaker Appuhamy and his wife Margaret were not real villagers. They were from the suburbs of Colombo. Tennekoon was a regular guest and of course the Wanniyalaeto or Veddas preferred staying at the Cottage to any other place on their occasional visits to the city. 

When Lionnel Coulter left the Taj, the new management did not know how to utilize the Cottage or the villagers in their midst. In exchange for free office space, we had created the 'Naturally at the Taj' concept with regular publicity announcements made about the Cottage and our activities by kind courtesy of the 'Island' group of newspapers. Patrick Harrigan's article - 'Ecological Tourism: the way of the future' in the Sunday Times of December 9, 1990, first introduced the concept to the island. Bhutan was our model, and we knew that restricting numbers was the answer. However the idea was alien to a mentality based on quantity. 'Cultural Survival' was on a program to educate the public but we were, as usual, going against the stream.


In 1990 Christo and I discovered Ulpotha. Tennekoon had taken us to Ehetuwewa where he had once schooled but I had first visited this area in 1974 to meet Lester James Peries who was shooting 'Dase Nisa', there. At that time I was working on 'The God King'which I was producing with the legendary British Producer Dimitri de Grunwald. We had hired Lester as our director in what was to be the biggest film, of his career. We were recreating a slice of ancient Anuradhapura on the banks of the Nuwarawewa which the British film critic William Hall described as the 'world's biggest set'. Lester was staying with Herbert Keuneman who had made Ehetuwewa his home a few years earlier. Herbert had once also lived in Hammenheil the small Dutch fort in the Jaffna lagoon. Because of the isolation in which he had chosen to live, when he wrote, it was something very special. The late S.P Amerasinhgam published Herbert's most amusing writings titled 'Building a village house' in the Tribune which he edited. Nihal Fernando and Scott Direckz were some of the others who visited Herbert and the region regularly. Herbert was dead by 1990 but his aide Bandara and his wife Dingiri Amma had inherited the house that was to be my home on that second visit. Now as I write my own story of 'Building a village house' it is indeed strange that Herbert did just that several years prior to me in a village nearby.

My second visit was a prelude to many more visits to this region. Bandara's brother D.B, a schoolteacher became my guide. My next visit was with David Bellamy to the film sequences for the six part television series I was making on village culture called 'Routes of Wisdom'. I was back again in the area within months first with Dominic as we were doing a feature for the Air Lanka magazine, Serendib, on puranagamas and then again with George Arney to do 'Wandanawa' or pilgrimage, for the BBC, series 'The Corespondent. I returned within weeks with the British photographer Steven Champion, and then again with an ITN crew collecting material for their archives.

I was fast falling in love with the Wanni countryside and the people and so I inquired from D.B if there were any properties for sale in the area. Dominic and Amrik Jayewardena were also on the lookout for rural properties. 

One day I was introduced to T.B.Wanninayake, a retired school principal, who had once taught Tennekoon. He had an ancestral property called Ulpotha below a tank bund and he promptly offered his property to us. Now began a lengthy correspondence with Christo. In the correspondence Christo outlined our vision, and Wanninayake decided that 'Cultural Survival' should be the new owners. He wanted to see his old home restored to its former glory. With the help of D.B, and in answer to my several queries they prepared a paper more like a child's storybook on the history and myths of the region. This booklet written on the twenty -second of January1991 reveals that Wanninayake was a villager caught between two worlds. Ulpotha and Kandy. He says in this booklet that he has an 'engineer' son, an 'attorney-at-law'son, a 'doctor' son, and an 'architect' son and could therefore no longer live in the village. The Wanninayakes migrated to the city and their ancestral home soon collapsed through neglect. 


The house at Ulpotha had never been a great walauwa or manor house. Tennekoon used to dismiss all such houses as those built by the local who became the 'white agent's porter'. In other words it belonged to those who brought the strangers home: the first family to be anglicized in the village. The sons had been sent to Trinity College in Kandy. The house was representative of those houses in the Wanni, with an open verandah in front and two small rooms, and a 'karuwala kambera' or dark room where women gave birth. There was also a separate kitchen.

'The World of Interiors' March 2000 issue features Ulpotha with some stunning photography, hype and an invented text as if the re-building of Ulpotha was an accident. Cathay Pacific's Discovery Magazine in another feature article links happenings near Ulpotha in the historical period with mythic events in the Indian epic the Ramayana. This misrepresentation is unnecessary today when any subject written about can be searched on the web. The Sunday Times which is on the web was the first to carry a feature by Hiranthi Fernando on the twenty-fourth of August in 1997! Furthermore anyone can visit our web-site www or the www and fill in all the blanks. No wonder the villager dismisses the printed tradition as a 'potha' which means both a book and a pack of lies!

The oral tradition claims that Ulpotha is close to where Prince Saliya the son of the great King of Lanka, Duttugemunu, traded his palace for a village, to be with the Rodiya girl Asokamala. We found the remnants of the foundation of what had been a house and there was a well. The garden was overgrown and coconut trees cut down and sold. Ulpotha, which means 'spring', had been abandoned for many years. The man-made lake or Wewa, which forms the back boundary, borders the forested hills of the Galgiriyawa range. Above us were a forest wewa and a 'sky' tank. It was our intention to make the waters flow once more by conserving this cascade system. The price Wanninayake asked was just Rupees 250,000 but we could find nobody willing to help buy the property. 

In the meantime Christo died after a short illness. His send-off was exactly as he wanted it.

His passing increased our resolve to create our collective vision at Ulpotha. 'Cultural Survival' volunteer, the Canadian Artist William Brad Simpson moved in with Tennekoon, becoming our representatives in the region. We were keen on reproducing the Samudra Cottage experience in a natural setting. Bandara had some land of his own in Ehetuwewa and he offered it to us. Ashley de Vos drew some sketches for us to consider. Bandara's land was nothing like Ulpotha but was available free, so we decided to start from this property.

And after a long hiatus, Ulpotha at last was within reach. Feizal Mansoor was hired to write the project report and we got down to the business of what was to become the sales pitch that is now delivering tourists paying over $100 per day to sleep on mats, sans electricity or other mod cons and eating traditional foods. 

(To be continued next week)

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