Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Renuka Sadanandan
Down by the sea, hemmed in by the crowded streets of Mutwal is Pradeepa
out of place in this neighbourhood seems this colonial building
with its commanding view of the sea, where bridal parties now congregate
for their nuptials. Perhaps many choose to stand under its lofty
colonnades against that tranquil ocean backdrop for that all-important
wedding photograph. Yet, how many know of the legends and chequered
history of this once grand old building?
The walls are
whitewashed, the façade more or less intact, but cross the
threshold and there is emptiness within. No trace of the roistering
parties in the card-rooms, the elegant drawing halls and the luxuriant
gardens that Whist Bungalow was famous for in centuries past.
charm of 'Whist Bungalow' above others near Colombo, consists partly
in its delightful situation, and partly in its really magnificent
garden," wrote German scientist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel
in his book 'A Visit to Ceylon' published in 1883. Haeckel was so
enamoured of the house that he in fact, devoted a whole chapter
to describing its appeal.
voluminous tome 'Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon' published
in 1907 also devotes considerable space to Whist Bungalow, leaving
no doubt as to its importance. "No description of Colombo would
be complete without reference to Whist Bungalow, Mutwal, the Colombo
residence of its proprietor, Mr. Louis H. S. Pieris. Away from the
stir and bustle of the business quarters of the city, and occupying
an ideal site in the northernmost suburb, this delightful residence
also has local historical associations. Its praises have been repeatedly
sung. Tennent, Digby, and Cordiner among others, have written of
the beauty of the situation, and of the times when this historic
dwelling was in the heyday of its glory. As it stands today, in
surroundings of true tropical charm, the house combines historic
tradition with modern taste, comfort and convenience in a manner
enchanting to the visitor to this beautiful spot."
At the time
of Haeckel's visit to Ceylon in 1882, Whist Bungalow was the residence
of the Austrian Lloyd's Company agent in Colombo Herr Stipperger.
But the house as Haeckel writes, had earlier been owned by a lawyer
Bungalow owes its extraordinary name to the circumstance that its
first owner, an old English officer, at the beginning of the century,
used to invite his friends out to this remote villa to play whist
on Sunday evenings. As the strict observance of the English Church
is, of course, strongly averse to such an employment on Sunday,
these jovial meetings were kept a profound secret."
time, however, 'Whist Bungalow' was a small plain house, buried
in its shrubbery; it was enlarged to its present handsome dimensions
by its next owner, a certain lawyer named Morgan."
goes on to say, spent a large part of his fortune building and decorating
this villa in a manner worthy of its beautiful situation.
At the time
of the Peiris' residence, Whist Bungalow was indeed one of the stately
homes of Colombo, according to Twentieth Century Impressions. "It
was designed on a large scale, and the spacious reception-rooms
speak of the days when our ancestors knew how to entertain generously
and the motto with regard to guests was the more the merrier. Merry
indeed were the doings in that roomy residence in the days of yore
- the early times of the British occupation of Ceylon - and the
need there was then not only for the majestic banqueting-halls and
card-rooms, but also for the old fashioned wine and provision cellars
of solid construction, which are still in a state of perfect preservation.
Capacious, too, are the sleeping apartments, to which the fine old
roisterers of that long bygone time retired, when at last their
prolonged merry-makings were brought temporarily to a close. The
stables and coach-houses - the latter now filled with the most modern
type of carriages, while in the former are to be seen the best breeds
of horses - are all on the same scale of magnificence. Then glance
over the ten acres of ground attached to, and surrounding, the bungalow,
and the ravished eye lights upon handsome trees and ornamental shrubs
and masses of many-hued flowers spread out in gorgeous and dazzling
profusion, yet in orderly design, among which the regal rose is
especially conspicuous; while equally pleasing to the sight is the
fruit garden with its wealth of tropical trees and shrubs, each
bearing its own luscious and richly coloured burden.
lawn hems the majestic Kelani river, with all its seductive suggestions
of pleasant boating parties. What could be more delightful than
this outlook over the expanse of water, shimmering under the almost
too brilliant sunshine, which stretches away westward and on the
shore of which the house stands! On this side you see the broad
delta of the Kelani river, while yonder is the shining sea..."
In more recent
times, Whist Bungalow was owned by the Antony family. "My wife's
grandfather Chevalier C.S. Antony, a wealthy landed proprietor,
prominent Sinhala businessman and tea exporter, bought the bungalow
at a government auction. He was the first Ceylonese member of the
Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. The family lived there for several years
even after Chevalier Antony's death when the house passed to his
son Stock Antony," says Ronald Perera, who is married to the
Chevalier's grand-daughter Rose.
was very well-maintained, with a beautiful garden. The property
was four acres, three roods and 29 perches in extent. The house
was 14,000 sq.feet. There were outhouses, stables and servants quarters.
I remember so vividly the beautiful view from the portico, and the
French windows, an ever-changing seascape of ships passing by and
fishermen going out to sea."
Antony the property passed onto C.L. Antony, Rose's brother and
then suffered a decline as his fortunes waned. Then came the first
of several moves by the government to acquire the property, stoutly
resisted by the family. However "it was bought for a song"
by then Minister V.A Sugathadasa.
still nurtured hopes of regaining Whist bungalow and did in fact
request Mr. Sugathadasa to sell them back a portion of the property.
"There was always some superstition surrounding the bungalow
and I believe Mr. Sugathadasa's soothsayers may have advised him
that the bungalow would bring him ill-luck so he agreed to sell
back one acre with the bungalow at the original price in 1968,"
says Mr. Perera.
But it took
some years for them to muster up the necessary funds and it was
only in July 1973 that they moved back to Whist Bungalow. But tragedy
soon followed when Minister Sugathadasa and C.L Antony, aged just
40, both died soon after.
refused to live there after the tragedy. She had lost her eldest
son also, when he was 13 at Whist Bungalow. He had died of typhoid,"
Mr. Perera said.
on property and housing which came into effect in the 1970s saw
the many household workers who had been occupying the outhouses
and stables getting ownership of these properties. The Whist Bungalow
thus became smaller and the place became obliterated."
left in 1976. And then came another chapter in its long history
when Whist Bungalow was converted into a warehouse by Mr. Perera
for the storage of tea by big companies such as Bartleets, JEDB
by the UDA subsequently, Whist Bungalow was ceremonially opened
as Pradeepa Hall by Prime Minister R. Premadasa on February 10,
now remain of its former grandeur. No longer does the Kelani flow
into the sea there and only a broken balustrade with a wide flight
of steps from the bungalow's vantage point indicates that once there
were lovely vistas of the sea and river and visitors could walk
down to the water's edge from the bungalow.
What still lingers
though are the ghostly visitations that have always been associated
with Whist Bungalow which Haeckel referred to in his book. "Rumour,
which had attached many legends to this romantic spot, now declared
with confident asseveration that there was something uncanny about
'Whist Bungalow,'and that the ghost of the suddenly deceased Mr.
Morgan 'walked' there every night; that at about midnight - moon
or no moon - a hideous uproar and thumping were to be heard; that
forms in white glided through the rooms, winged demons flew along
the colonnade, and fiends with fiery eyes held Sabbath on the roof.
.....And so many Cinghalese in the immediate neighbourhood of Mutwal
had themselves heard these bogey noises, and seen apparitions, that
the purchasers of 'Whist Bungalow' would not live in it themselves,
and could not find a tenant."
to give a prosaic explanation for the ghosts. "The pretty villa
therefore stood empty, when our friend Stipperger heard of it, and
on seeing it, determined at once to take it. But then he met with
the greatest difficulties, for he could nowhere find a servant who
would go with him to the banned and haunted house. Nor did he succeed
till he had proved on scientific grounds that the ghosts had a simple
zoological origin. He waited for the fiends the first night, well
armed with weapons and revolvers, and he found, as he expected,
that they were true quadrupeds of flesh and blood, to which the
late Mr. Morgan had certainly stood in no close relationship. The
mysterious climbing ghosts, when shot, were wild cats; the gliding
forms were huge bandicoots, and the flying fiends were flying foxes.
Henceforth, and face to face with these convincing trophies of the
night's sport, the doubts of the most timorous servants were dispelled,
and my friend moved in all confidence into 'Whist Bungalow.'
occupants are less convinced. "We hear loud thuds and the sound
of doors slamming and windows shutting at night. Footsteps through
the hall. But when we go to check, everything is securely fastened
and there's no-one there," say the watchers and caretakers
of Pradeepa Hall.