Wine, ghosts and Whist
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Renuka Sadanandan
Down by the sea, hemmed in by the crowded streets of Mutwal is Pradeepa

Hall. Strangely 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.

"The special 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.

Arnold Wright's 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 named Morgan.

"Whist 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."

"At the 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."

Morgan, Haeckel 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.

"An exquisite 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.

"The place 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."

From Stock 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.

The family 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.

"My mother-in-law 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.

"The ceiling 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."

The family 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 and SPC.

Taken over by the UDA subsequently, Whist Bungalow was ceremonially opened as Pradeepa Hall by Prime Minister R. Premadasa on February 10, 1987.

Few traces 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."

Haeckel continues 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.'

The present 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.

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