Culture Vulture or “Daddy wouldn’t buy me a Bawa”

Today – 22nd March, Poya Day – has been one of the most interesting and impressive of the SL trip so far, and I so nearly missed it.

By the time I went to bed last night, I had decided I’d take the bus north to Balapitya – where Joe from the Mirissa bus comes from. He had convinced me it is a beautiful place and that I ought to have a look. Mind you, as a part-time boatman ferrying tourists round the lagoons and through the mangroves, he had a vested interest.

Some time whilst I was asleep, my mind must have changed: whether it was the Rough Guide’s rather lukewarm attitude to the area or whether part of me had decided I’d had enough of that sort of thing, I don’t know. Another consultation with the Guide and I opted instead for Geoffrey Bawa’s House near Bentota, about 80km North of Galle. If you are up on SL 20th Century architecture, you can skip the next paragraph, if not then you can get some vicarious enlightenment from the Guide…

OK, so you were as ignorant as I was. Here’s a potted history of Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003). Bawa, one of two sons to a SL father and mother of Dutch (Burgher) extraction, with added ancestral connections to England, Germany & Scotland, first followed his father and trained in the UK to be a lawyer. He didn’t like it – though enjoyed driving around Colombo in his lawyer’s gear and a Rolls Royce – and soon gave up his job. His interest in architecture was sustained by his older brother Bevis who was landscaping some ground (“Brief Garden”, named after the source of the money with which lawyer Bawa père had bought the land!) not far from Bentota. Geoff retrained – in London – as an architect and returned to SL, where he became famous partly due to a number of hotels (including The Lighthouse I visited with Rick and Kris) he designed. Again inspired by Bevis, he bought 230 acres of rubber and cinnamon plantation and set about – over the next fifty or so years – landscaping, building and adapting the existing buildings. It is a truly stunning place.


Right, back to today. I got the bus to Bentota and decided to walk the 3 or 4 kilometres to Lunuganga (Salt River), which is the estate’s official name. I seemed to be managing fine, with some directions from stallholders etc. on the small country roads, until I discovered I had overshot by about 2 kilometres. It was, by now, pretty hot, I’d run out of water, a small graze on my heel was beginning to chafe and I was getting tired. Probably grumpy too, but I’d no one with me to point it out! I was close to chucking it in, retracing my steps and slobbing on the beach at Bentota, when a tuk-tuk driver stopped and on this occasion, I said “Yes” when the standard “Tuk-tuk, sir?” question was uttered.

I’d never have found the place without him: I’d been told “straight” each time I’d asked and, true enough, it was straight. Until the point where it stopped being straight. We poled up at a small clearing in the jungle with a wall and a locked gate. I paid off the tuk-tuk driver and, reasonably enough, he immediately drove away. There were no signs, no ticket offices, no Opening Hours, nothing and it didn’t look all that promising until a guy in a parked car pointed out that there was a cord attached to a bell and I should give it a good ding. Eventually a chap arrived, checked I was willing to pay 1250 rupees (£6) and let me in. Once I’d paid my entrance fee, I was allocated an excellent guide who knew all about everything in the garden and had first rate English. Not long after I arrived a mini-bus of tourists appeared and I thought we’d be lumped together, but no – I had my own guide and the two of us chatted as we wandered round and he showed me the delights of the 230 acres on the edge of a lovely lake. The grounds are also home to a relatively upmarket hotel ($250 per night) based in Bawa’s own home and surrounding buildings. The whole caboodle is managed a Geoffrey Bawa foundation of some sort: both Geoffrey and Bevis were gay and had no offspring.

It’s difficult to describe the place: the original buildings were modified and designed to merge the indoors with the outdoors. The paintwork is deliberately “distressed” to give a feeling of age and at-one-ness with nature. We couldn’t go into the hotel, but what I saw of it through windows and wall-less “walls” was delightfully quirky and spacious, with some beautifully designed furniture. Bawa liked squares and some of the floors reminded me of Dutch and Flemish paintings, with big black and white tiles. Wherever we walked, new vistas and landscapes appeared. In some indefinable way, and despite all the obvious differences, it reminded me of “Little Sparta”, Ian Hamilton-Smith’s (have I got that right?) garden in the Scottish borders which my sister Jean took Sonia and me to. There were Roman porticos, Greek statues, paddy fields, a statue of a leopard, wells, urns, pots, windmills, water towers that looked like bits of baronial castle, mysterious-looking doorways… If I’ve made it sound like some sort of pastiche or “world architecture in a nutshell”, then I’m doing it a gross disservice. The 90 minutes or so the tour took seemed to pass in a twinkling.

Along the way, my guide pointed out a variety of trees – ebony, mahogany, frangipani, betel palm, copper tree, balsa and many more, as well as shrubs, flowers and so on. I tried to remember names, but failed: I took photographs that can’t possibly hope to do it justice. We saw the stone bench Bawa would sit on to watch the sunset over the lake, later we visited his favourite spot for breakfast, with part of the lake visible over a small hill he had lowered specially for the view. Whilst eating his cornflakes, he could swivel in his chair and look through a tunnel in the house behind him to have another view of the lake. Scattered through the grounds around the house are bells – 14, I think – at strategic points where Bawa would sit. Each bell had a different tone and he would ring to summon a member of staff: one, situated in an arbour over-looking a butterfly-wing-shaped pond and an amazing sundial, was known as the gin and tonic bell, for obvious reasons.

The Australian artist Donald Friend came to visit for a week or two, became much more than a friend, and stayed for over five years. There were works by various other well-known (though not to me, I’m afraid to admit) artists: murals, sculptures, statuary… The guide confirmed he moved in the same circles as Martin Wickramsinghe. You’ll remember him if you’ve been paying attention over the weeks.

It is a truly magical place and if ever Sonia and I come back together to Sri Lanka – and why not? – I’m going to insist on spending a couple of nights in the hotel.

The tour over, I started walking back down a track (hidden from view from Bawa’s house due to a ha-ha) to a minor road to join a slightly less minor one which would lead to a major minor road which itself would lead me to Bentota. I was resigned to a longish hot walk – it was now getting on for three pm and I’d not yet eaten, though I’d topped up with water from a wee roadside stall –  when a tuk-tuk driver stopped and offered me a banana. Naturally I accepted both it and the subsequent offer of a lift, along with a second banana. He was very proud of them as “village bananas, no chemicals”. They were small but packed a good punch of energy and flavour. He dropped me off at the bus stop on the main Colombo-Galle Road and said “May God Bless You”: it would have been more appropriate for me to have said something along those lines to him.

Back in Galle, I felt sufficiently brave (or hungry) to have fish, rice and curry sauce. You should try everything once.

I’ve posted quite a few photos as it’s such a beautiful place.


The start of the tour




The “Hen House”, based on Bawa’s design for SL’s parliament building!


Sort of Tuscan?


Leopard statue by a famous sculptress friend. Can’t remember her name.


Balsa tree fruit: nux vomica (don’t eat)


Path in the ha-ha

IMG_0017 IMG_0018 IMG_0019 IMG_0022 IMG_0023 IMG_0025 IMG_0029 IMG_0027


One response to “Culture Vulture or “Daddy wouldn’t buy me a Bawa”

  1. Perhaps it was Ian Hamilton Finlay?

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