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22nd August 1999

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Crumbling history

The once magnificent structure of the Maduwanwala Walauwa which belonged to a colourful Disawa known as the Black Prince of Sabaragamuwa is now breaking down. Should it be preserved as a historical monument or be opened to tourists is the question that is being asked in the face of its destruction

By Tharuka Dissanaike

On the narrow, undulating road from Embilipitiya to Suriyawewa, a grand, stone archway beckons visitors to the Maduwanwala Walauwa. Once the home of the celebrated Maduwanwala Disawe of Sabaragamuwa, the house today is a historical monument under the Department of Archaeology.

Sadly, the last few decades have only seen the once magnificent structure crumbling through lack of protection and care. Its ancient clay-plastered walls are riddled with graffiti and gaping cracks, its roof beams are rotting and the extensive, delicate woodwork all over the house is prey to humidity and insects.

The original house was built in the 1700s with extensions added in the next couple of centuries. In its prime the walauwa had 121 rooms and 21 meda midulas or courtyards. Today only a fraction of the original house remains. In the garden, long overgrown with grass and weeds, sections of the ancient stone foundation peep out now and then, giving visitors an inkling of the extent of the main house, servants quarters, stables and out houses.

Elaborate mosaic - a feature of the walauwaOne of the most striking features of the walauwa, sheer size apart, is its delicate wood trellis and lattice work and the imaginative floor designs using old china plates for tiles. Decorated floors are seen at the entrance verandah- a huge mosaic in pieces of Dutch, Chinese and British porcelain- and a smaller version in the main sleeping chamber (the master bedroom possibly). The designs sport a horseshoe shape , maybe for good luck, and birds, animals and even a bottle of whisky and a glass. Gold coins, ivory and precious gems had once been embedded into the floor and woodwork but today only empty sockets remain.

The walauwa had its own courthouse. The large British Empire insignia painted on its walls is fading but grand. But the Maduwanwala Disawe, called the Black Prince of Sabaragamuwa, was known for his own brand of justice, often challenging the imperial rulers and their laws. In fact legend has it that he defied the British, so much so that an arrest warrant was issued for him. But when the soldiers came for the Disawe, they were lost in the maze of his house. His servants managed to trap them and the Disawe, had demanded that the British give him a beautiful timber doorway from the old Dutch Fort at Katuwana in exchange for the soldiers' lives. The doorway can still be seen in the crumbling mansion.

Although Maduwanwela Walauwa has been under the Department of Archaeology for the last two decades, its present state is far from ideal. But Dr. Gemunu Wijesuriya of the Department said they have managed to restore large parts of the walls and roof during the last few years. At one time the walauwa was given over to a prominent monk in Colombo to conduct vocational training classes and that led to further ruin of the beautiful house.

As much as the general condition of the walauwa is bad, the uncontrolled influx of visitors seems to be causing the most damage.

An employee of the Department of Archaeology at the site told us that large groups of school children of year 9, 10 and 11 visit the walauwa. "They come in large groups and it's difficult to control them. "I will be explaining to one group and 20 others will run riot inside. They scrape walls, write love notes, vandalise the floor tiles or wood work."

"I think we will have to look at controlling visitors in some way," Dr. Wijesuriya said. But it's difficult because this is public property and the Department is preserving it for the future.

But between true preservation of a grand historical home like Maduwanwala Walauwe and opening the place up for unsustainable tourism, surely the choice is obvious. Not only should the Walauwa be preserved but it can serve the country and the Department if it is properly managed as an income generating venture by opening it up for limited numbers of visitors.

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