Drive along the road that the guide book tells you to and after four kilometres, as instructed by the guidebook, ask a local. Well, the local tells you, you are going in exactly the wrong direction, their advice, drive back to the turn-off and ask someone else.
The locals at the turn-off say: drive past the school, then the garage and turn right.
Lost on country lanes. Ask again. Go back. Turn Left. Ahh, a clearing. Not easy to find, and in hindsight that’s probably what the people who look after Lunugunga, Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa’s country estate want. An exclusive enclave for people in the know, and for people who are really interested, not the hoi polloi that just add it to the current trendy bucket list of things to do in one’s life-time. But perhaps I’m doing them, the Lunugunga Trust, an injustice and at best it’s just a feeling not a fact.
An urn by Donald Friend
Gates hover above you – Narnia, I presume – the quiet forest in another hemisphere where Mr Tumnus met Lucy. This place certainly evokes the line drawings of Pauline Baynes with Mr Tumnus and Lucy disappearing into the distance.
Ring the bell. A young man appears, Rs1,250 (at today’s exchange rate about $A11, but a lot of money for an ordinary Sri Lankan) for foreigners and locals alike – that’s unusual, many of Sri Lanka’s ancient sites have a higher price for tourists and a lower one for locals. An idea that I like because it means that locals have access to areas that are as important to them as to the tourists. And the tourists help pay for the upkeep of the sites many of which are overseen by UNESCO. Yes, there’s a lot of grumbling about the price and what exactly you get as a tourist at these ancient sites, for instance no proper toilet facilities, etc. And certainly if you go as a family of tourists, it becomes incredibly expensive, but the sites are amazing and beautiful and if you have come here – then accept that this is the way it is.
Yes, we understand and yes, we are happy to pay for our driver. This is an important place and somewhere that locals should also be able to access.
Come in through the gatehouse on the side, not through the gate, and walk straight up to a mahogany tree whose buttresses go on forever. Walk up the driveway and through another gate and there’s an unmistakable Geoffrey Bawa sitting and waiting area. A long low bench in a covered area open to the elements.
Wait politely while tickets are sorted out and then the guide walks you past the gallery room, formerly a gallery but now an apartment filled with art work which you can pay to stay in. Past the reading room which was formerly a garage and to the contemplation area that overlooks the paddy fields and the river.
When Geoffrey Bawa bought the land in 1947 it was a former rubber and cinnamon plantation that he started to work on as his country estate, a garden within a garden. However, in the 1970s under the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, if you owned more than 14 acres of land it needed to be farmed, so Bawa did just that planting coconuts and rice. But have a look at the way in which the paddy fields are planted and you will see that what Bawa has done is create a patchwork of different greens, the paddy versus the grass and as you continue looking you see these sorts of details everywhere – a visually tranquil setting that has been set up for contemplation.
The garden as with most gardens was ‘created’ and brings to mind the ‘creations’ of Capability Brown’s, a lot of digging and moving of trees and vegetation in order to create a ‘natural’ vista that looks towards the river.
Originally the land was looked after by 40 gardeners, with mechanisation and modernisation the garden can be managed by 12.
Located around the garden there are 14 bells or gongs that make 14 different sounds so that when rung the servants knew whereabouts in the garden Mr Bawa was when he rang the bell! When I laugh in disbelief at this level of forethought or control, the guide gently explains that nowadays it would be the same as using your mobile phone to call someone.
Our guide told us that Bawa would sit and have breakfast on the southern terrace of his house. You can see the river from the northern terrace, but he also wanted to see the river from southern terrace, but there was a hill in the way, so he proceeded to remove the top of the hill!
I have no idea why my mind boggles at this ability to change a landscape on such a vast scale. All of us live in structures that have wrought change in the landscapes that we inhabit in some way, shape or form. I think, in this instance, it’s because these changes happened in a garden owned by one person in the 20th century. In a country where Kings had the power to change landscapes and build temples, pleasure gardens, palaces and reservoirs of such vast scale it shouldn’t be an issue but I think for me, it’s the notion that someone in the 20th century could continue that tradition, or have that level of wealth or power that astounds me.
Thank you to our guide at Lunugunga who was so welcoming, knowlegeable and friendly.
We travelled through Sri Lanka from February 14, 2016 to March 6, 2016.
© Suganthi Singarayar