Carried on the wings of love

The Nugawela Walauwa, abandoned to the ravages of time and neglect, is restored to its former splendour by a family on a ‘pilgrimage of love’

By Carl Muller

A new road is now in its birth-pangs, and the village of Nugawela is a bees-hive of small manufacture, just three kilometres from Katugastota… but it is here that a saga of love unfolded, keeps unfolding with unbelievable buoyancy and an abiding faith in this island’s rich heritage.

Let me take you back: In 1884 there stood in its pristine pride, the Nugawela Walauwa – the ancestral home of no less a man than the Kandyan chieftain, Nugawela – a dissave, an aristocrat and a Wasala Mudiyanse of the Kandyan court. To the villagers of old, Nugewela Dissave was the very substance of their lives, and his striking walauwa was a beacon as they tended his acres of rice.

The Nugawela walauwa as it is today - from crumbling ruin to a new glory

This had always been the pattern of life right up to British times, and many were the aristocratic mansions that stood, upholding and fostering the true Sinhala-ness of our traditional ways, our religio-socio-cultural heritage and our way of life. Long ago, the late D. T. Devendra reminded us of the unique combination of the temple, tank and rice. To this, I would add ‘the walauwa’, for no one could gainsay the social and historic importance of such stately manor homes. Yet, as we now realise with a sense of loss, many of these old homes have fallen into neglect and disuse.

Let us now make a quantum leap from those old heady days of the 1850s to 2004. It was in May of that year that Sarath Kumara de Silva and his wife visited the Nugawela walauwa. They are on a ‘pilgrimage of love’, for they wished that their son and daughter, who are in the USA and the UK respectively, had a place they would delight in. They saw how this would weave strong and lasting ties. They had inspected many properties, but it was as though the grandeur and old historicity of Nugawela captured their imagination. They tried to envisage what had surely been so proud – a bulwark… and those who had walked its old silk-carpeted floors, personages of power and eminence. It was told to them that even Mahatma Gandhi had graced this home in the 1930s.

The great hall with its recreated antique furniture and burnished copper ceiling

What presented itself to them? A condition of enormous disrepair! Once bright walls were plastered with fungus and moss; the roof leaked alarmingly, so much so that entire interiors were rendered inaccessible; the floorboards so diseased that none dared to tread on them. Yet, as a structure, it was so unique: two towers rising on either side of the main building; a first-floor spread between the tower-rises that were once the magisterial area where the chieftain of old held his inquiries, listened to those who came with their complaints, pleas and depositions. So like the durbars of the Indian Maharajas.

Dereliction had settled over it all like a vast grey cloud. The towers held stairways that were at a point of collapse. Bat droppings coated the floors, telling of years of neglect and disuse. The original roof tiling had come from India, but over the years other owners had made replacements of local tiles, smaller and less compatible. They could not keep out the rain. Roof beams and trusses had perished.

One ground-floor room had served as a granary; there was no kitchen to speak of, and of course, outside toilets, that being characteristic of the old days. Yet, there was a solidness that could not be denied.

To look on the 15,000-sq. ft. walauwa today is to know that it has not been merely restored, but ardently re-created. It took up to one-and-a-half years – like a slow resurrection from the tomb. It would no longer command its vast acres of family land, for all that had been sold. It would not boast of its ornate and antique furniture, for this too had gone under the auctioneer’s hammer, but the De Silvas saw something more precious: its historical import, its grandeur and its dogged determination to remain the cynosure of Nugawela and a decided part of the heritage city of Kandy.

What has been achieved is certainly more than a miracle – and this was not entrusted to architects or engineers, but spearheaded by the family. That was both wise and fortuitous, for the family, too, had tremendous insight and experience in managing its own interior design and engineering firm. Yes, the challenge had to be a family challenge. The vision would make the dream come true; the goal would be to make this walauwa something truly resplendent. Traditionally, astrologers were also consulted to tell of what was auspicious and what sections of the structure needed correction.

Yes, to the family, tradition is all. Now the towers hold bedroom suites; the old granary is a pool room; all ten rooms are tastefully fitted, each with attached toilets. There are two second-floor attics, one to serve as a business centre, the other holding an impressive array of handicrafts. Teams of craftsmen were pressed into turning out replicas of the original furniture and fittings. Tiling was done to complement the overall ambience, even the copper ceilings ground to remove old paint, making of them a burnished glory. Old carvings were restored or chiselled anew. Copper umbrellas of the muthukuda style line the porch and all around, the extensive garden is being landscaped, lorry-loads of turf brought in from Colombo. There will be emphasis on the beautiful wild flowers of the country that bloom perennially, and the limpid blue waters of a pool also await the visitor.

The craftsmen created new doors and windows, mouldings, flooring, furnishing, lighting and fittings – tables, chairs, even beds, to tell of Kandyan elegance and old-world comfort. Today, the sixteen-seat main dining table could proudly style itself the ‘chieftain’s table’.

There’s a new pride in Nugawela today. One sees it on the faces of the old and young. And the Manor House – the walauwa of old is possessed of a brand new shining soul. Mr. and Mrs. De Silva are wonderful people to know – unassuming, relaxed and large-hearted. They have created a work of heart-stopping magnitude, and underlying it all is that one compelling word: Love – love for their children, who will now hear and always respond to ‘the call of Lanka’.

One family, one dream, one abiding love for all that this land stands for. This is the stuff that made our country resound in the writings of thousands of visitors that made of Kandy and its environs the last kingdom of Sinhale. Now the phoenix has risen and the dust of more than a century settled. There are new strains of the old waltz and you can stand before the Manor House and listen to the rising splendour of the music!


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