A larger than life tree for larger than life man

Dingiri Mahattaya, the caretaker of Yahala Kele estate recalls one of his greatest moments - when Che Guevara came visiting. Pix by M.A.Pushpakumara

Fifty years after Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara visited Sri Lanka, the Mahogany tree that he planted still stands tall.

Che visited the Yahala Kele rubber estate in Horana to study rubber planting methods during his brief stay in the country and planted the Mahogany tree on August 7, 1959.

Che’s visit to the estate is still clear in the mind of one man who had the good fortune to meet the great revolutionary leader. For Dingiri Mahattaya, the caretaker of the estate and bungalow at Yahala Kele, the memories of the day are well etched in his mind.

Dingiri Mahattaya who is nearing 80 came to work at the bungalow in 1944 when he was just 15 years of age. More than 60 years later he is still there and though the glory of his early years at the estate have faded away, he takes great pride in recollecting the good, old days on the estate.

The estate belonging to J.C.D. Peries was more than 1500 acres in extent, and in its sprawling expanse were summer huts, a swimming pool, ponds and fountains making it an idyllic setting to entertain important visitors.

Che (left) at Yahala Kela and (top) Dingiri Mahattaya with the Mahogany tree
Yahala Kele walauwa

A host of Sri Lankan leaders including Prime Ministers Dudley Senanayake, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and President J.R.Jayawardene were among those who visited the estate.

But despite the visits by presidents, prime ministers and other dignitaries it is Che’s visit that has become symbolic of this estate.

Today what bears testimony to the historic visit are the framed photographs hanging inside the bungalow, the majestic Mahogany tree planted by Che and the fast fading stone slab recording the name and date of the person who planted the tiny sapling that day in August fifty years ago.

Dingiri Mahattya had no idea about the identity of the visitors who were to arrive at the estate that morning even though he had been informed the previous evening that an important person would be among the group visiting the estate and asked to prepare breakfast for them.

When the visitors arrived, Dingiri Mahattaya did not know that among them was Ernesto “Che’ Guevara, till after they had left. But he recalls that the tall bearded man, clad in military fatigues with cigar in hand stood out in the group which also included three other foreigners.

Che had spent several hours walking round the estate and had breakfast before leaving. Dingiriya Mahattaya was presented a box of cigars before he left.

Che was visiting to study rubber planting techniques in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as part of an Asian tour which also took him to India and several other countries in the region. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries he visited in his lifetime.

Standing under the mahogany tree, Dingiri Mahattaya says, “I was told that this is the only surviving tree in the world that has been planted by Che Guevara.”

That is something hard to verify but the majestic appearance of the tree indeed makes it a fitting symbol for a man who continues to hold the imagination of millions of people across the world nearly four decades after his demise.

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