Special Six: Colombo Cafes

I am more of a fan of cosy cafes, than fine dining restaurants, especially if they are independent ones and not part of a chain. In Colombo, there is a tendency for cafes and restaurants to mushroom and then close after a couple of years of poor business choices or tough regulations. However, there are some that have established themselves firmly over time. Here are my favourite six in Colombo, some of which I have been a regular customer for over a decade, and others which I like from the newly opened offerings around the city.

  1. Barefoot Garden Cafe

Ever since I first stepped into Barefoot Garden back in 2003, it has been my favourite cafe in Colombo. Aesthetically pleasing, the outdoor cafe adjacent to Barefoot gallery, which hosts art exhibitions and music performances among others, serves great food, has a good tea menu and a better wine selection. The customer service can vary but I usually go to Barefoot when I plan to spend a couple of hours there catching up with friends so I don’t mind the sometimes long waits for food to arrive. It also used to be my preferred place of work, during my consultant years, as the atmosphere on weekdays prior to the lunch hour is conducive for working on a report.

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Broccoli and mushroom quiche with salad

Barefoot cafe is at the back of Barefoot, the shopping outlet of the cotton handloom company started by Barbara Sansoni in 1964. The company engages rural handweavers and has continued to be the best in the Sri Lankan handloom industry over the years, yet to be matched by other handloom companies for its vibrant colours, quality and choice of products.

While I enjoy the ambience of Barefoot, I prefer to go to Barefoot during weekdays than weekends, despite its live jazz on sundays, as it is too crowded then for my liking and you are conscious of people waiting for tables to leisurely enjoy your own meal.

2. Commons Coffee House

Commons, the first of Harpo Gooneratne’s ventures, was opened in 2004. From his DJing career, Harpo shifted to the hospitality industry and worked as an entertainment manager at 5 star hotels. With the start of his own Harpo Productions company, he has launched a series of cafes and restaurants with different concepts. While I like several of his cafe/ restaurant ventures, I like his first the most.

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Stringhoppers with fish curry, kiri hodhi and sambol

Commons at Flower Road, Colombo 3 has continued to be a place I have enjoyed meeting up with friends. It has a relaxed atmosphere, friendly service, good food, particularly their Sri Lankan menu – my particular favourite is the rotti cart, with the selection of rotti with fillings.

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Rotti with tandoori chicken filling

3. Heladiv Tea Club

Heladiv Tea Club is an initiative of one of Sri Lanka’s largest tea exporting companies. They started the Tea Club at the old Dutch hospital precincts at Colombo Fort in 2011, after the site went through a massive renovation and restoration project. While I enjoy their tea offerings and their limited food selection is good, my particular favourite here is the soursop iced tea soda.

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Soursop iced tea and peach iced tea

4. Whight & Co

While Sri Lanka is well-known for its tea, it’s coffee is hardly known. It is surprising therefore that for a few decades in mid 19th century, Sri Lanka was one of the top global producers of coffee. In fact, according to the website of Whight and Co, one of my favourite coffee places in Colombo, the Dutch introduced coffee beans from Mocha in Yemen to Sri Lanka in early 17th century and the British subsequently expanded coffee cultivation. It was the coffee blight of 1869 that resulted in the switch to tea plantations.

James Whight, the owner, had tested coffee plants in regions where they had once grown coffee and found that the sample from Mathurata region in Uva province were from the descendants from an Ethiopian coffee bean mother plant. This coffee is now available as the Ruby Harvest coffee and is served at Whight and Co on Marine Drive, Colombo 3.

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Cold brewing in progress

I have tried a few of their coffees and my favourite is their cold brew, which is only sold in two coffee shops in Colombo that I know of. The upstairs space is lovely, if you need to work on your laptop for a couple of hours, read or simply enjoy the view of the Indian ocean while you appreciate your coffee.

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Cold brew coffee

5. Cafe Kumbuk 

A cafe that opened up a year or so ago, I like the way they have decorated their space at the Prana Lounge premises at 60, Horton Place, Colombo 7. It is an inviting, cosy cafe serving delicious meals. I love their french toast specials, which they seem to change seasonally. The couple, who run the cafe, have lived in London for several years and had been inspired by the food scene in East London and opened up this organic cafe. They have opened up another outlet, called Kumbuk kitchen, next to Good market on Reid avenue.

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Pistachio French toast

6. Kopi Kade

I visited this newly opened coffee shop on Stratford avenue, Colombo 6, last month and I immediately added it to one of my favourite coffee places in Colombo.

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Nimesh Namasivayam, the owner and barista of the coffee shop, has come up with a lovely menu of small plates and bites of Sri Lankan food with a twist.

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Roti crisps with a choice of accompaniments

My favourite part of the coffee place was of course the coffee, which Nimesh sources directly from organic coffee producers around the world. The delicious cup of coffee that I tried out recently was a blend of Ethiopian and Indonesian coffee beans.

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Have you visited any of these six special places during your visit to Colombo? Which ones would you be interested in trying out?

[Linking this post to City Tripping #71 and Faraway Files #28]

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Special Six: National Museum Gallery Highlights

The national museum of Colombo is the largest in the country and its founder, Sir William Henry Gregory, who was the British governor at that time declared it open on January 1st, 1877. When I visited the museum a dozen or so years ago, I was not impressed with the quite dilapidated building and presentation of exhibits, especially the lack of information about exhibits. Having learnt that the national museum had reopened after major renovations, I decided that it was time for me to revisit the museum this week and hoped that this visit would be more interesting. I was not disappointed as the building itself seems to have undergone a face lift and looked beautiful.

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In this post, I would like to share the six galleries that interested me the most of the different galleries at the museum.

  • Prehistoric gallery

The earliest evidence of the pre-historic period in Sri Lanka is 250,000 years ago in Minihagalkanda, Hambantota and the latest around 2,800 BC in Manthai, Mannar.

This gallery’s focus was primarily on burial techniques. I came across two different burial methods. One was an urn burial that was excavated from Pomparippu from around 800 – 700 BC. The pot was used to place human ash and offerings and covered with the circular stone slab, similar to the stone enclosure on display, which had been found near Galewela.

The other form of burial on display was the earthen canoe burial, where a pit built with clay was used for burning the corpse together with offerings and then filled and covered with a layer of burnt clay lumps. The one on display had been found in Kegalle district and was dated to 360 BC.

  • Anuradhapura period gallery

The museum has missed out on the period between prehistoric and Anuradhapura period, where there was an influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, which contributed to the decimation of the indigenous population and establishment of the Sinhalese and Tamil settlements in the country. The information plaque at the entrance of the gallery mentions that Anuradhagama was founded in 5 BC by Anuradha, a minister of the legendary ruler Vijaya. The city of Anuradhapura was then established in 4 BC by King Pandukabhaya, and became the first capital of Sri Lanka.

Two images under this period caught my attention. One was the 8th century image of Buddha found in Toluvila, which actually is displayed at the entrance of the museum and not within the Anuradhapura gallery. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in 3 BC, through the missionary activities of Emperor Asoka of India.

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The other image that fascinated me was that of Goddess Durga from 9 – 10th century, found in Mihintale. The image had no similarity to contemporary images of the Goddess in the country. The information board in the gallery mentions that “the presence of Tamil rulers in Sri Lanka from pre-Christian times indicates the practice of Brahminical or Hindu faith” and it mentions the 7th century poetry of Tirujnanasambandar, praising the Hindu shrine at Tiruketisvaram in Mantai.

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I was also intrigued by the surgical instruments found from this period. On display was a scalpel and a scissor from the 8th century, as well as a grinding stone for herbal medicine.

  • Polonnaruwa period gallery

During the heydays of Anuradhapura, Kandavurunuwara, which was considered to be the legendary ancient city of Pulastipura from Ravana’s time, became a strategic city midway between the Anuradhapura kingdom and the southern kingdom of Mahagama. It was this city that became the capital of the Chola empire of India when they re-conquered Anuradhapura in the 10th century. The city was renamed Janathamangalam and became the second capital of the country. It was when Vijayabahu I defeated the Cholas and took over the city that it was named Polonnaruwa. Irrigation tanks was a major contribution of the Polonnaruwa reign and the major ones are still in use.

In this section of the gallery, what attracted my attention immediately was the images of the Hindu gods, Siva  (12 – 13th century) and Ganesha (12th century). These images looked more like contemporary images, than the ones from the Anuradhapura period.

Of interest again was the medical instruments of the time, which was similar to the ones found in Anuradhapura.

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Another object that fascinated me was the time and day calculator. While the water ladle in the center of this glass display is beautiful, the time calculator was the polished coconut bowl with holes in it through which water seeped into another bowl. When the bowl was filled, it indicated that an hour had passed.

  • Transitional Period Gallery

With the decline of Polonnaruwa in early 13th century, there was a transitional period across the country where there were frequent struggles for power between kingdoms and one kingdom would emerge powerful within a region (s) for a few decades. This transition period was till the end of the 16th century, when Kandy emerged as the capital of the country. It was towards the end of this period that the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka and took over the coastal areas.

I would have liked to see more local artefacts from this period, especially details from the Kingdoms of Dambadeniya, Gampola, Jaffna and Kotte. From the exhibits in this gallery, the one that fascinated me most was the trilingual inscription, carved in Nanjing, and brought to the country by the Chinese navigator Zheng He in 14th century. The stone was installed in Galle. The Chinese writing on the stone invokes Buddha and offers alms to the Buddhist shrine at Samanalakanda, alternatively known as Sivanoli Pada malai and Adam’s peak, the Tamil writing invokes blessings of Hindu gods and particularly of God Vishnu, the Persian writing invokes the ‘light of Islam’. The placement of the inscription in the gallery was poorly done as it has been placed by a glass door, so the strong light at the back of the stone reduces the visibility of the inscription in addition to not allowing a good photograph to be taken.

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  • Kandyan Period Gallery

By the end of the 15th century, the Kandyan kingdom emerged as a powerful force, despite the turbulence experienced in the rest of the country due to the inter-Kingdom wars, the Portuguese colonization of the coastal areas followed by the Dutch colonization efforts. The capital finally fell to the British in 1815, due to internal power struggles between the King and his Prime Minister, which divided the people.

Occupying the pride of place in the Kandyan gallery was the throne, crown and scepter of the King of Kandy.

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The best display in this gallery was the writing instruments though. The stylus pens used to write on palm leaves or gold and brass plates.

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The ground floor of the museum was the most interesting part of the museum for me. I didn’t find the upper floor as fascinating, despite some interesting galleries focusing on art, woodwork and even agriculture.

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I was delighted to know that the cost of the museum ticket for residents and non-residents, while still different, was not too much as in other sights in Sri Lanka. I used to be embarrassed when accompanying visiting friends to places in the Cultural triangle, where they would be forking out a 1000 or 2000 for a entry ticket, while I only had to pay a 100. The national museum ticket on the other hand is LKR 35 for locals and LKR 300 for non-residents, and the photography permit of LKR 250 is the same for both.

The museum has been better organized and presented in the form of different galleries and now conforms to the trilingual policy, that was initiated in 2012. This enhanced the experience of my visit, as each exhibit now had information boards in English, Sinhala and Tamil. I also noticed there were tags on several of the exhibits and asked the museum staff, if there was an audio guide. It seemed most of the current staff in the galleries were newly recruited and were not aware of the guide. It was towards the end of my visit that I met a staff, who was able to explain to me that the audio guide was in the form of a downloadable mobile app and that once downloaded, I could scan the tag of an exhibit and listen to the corresponding audio recording.

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Hope you enjoyed the brief tour of the museum of Colombo! Would you include it in your list of places to visit in Sri Lanka?

[Linking this post to Wanderful WednesdayFaraway Files #25 and Cultured Kids]
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A Tour of No 11 Residence

My former office had been down Bagatalle Road, so I used to come to this road daily for seven years. Yet, I had not visited the No 11 Residence. A home turned into a museum. Ever since I learnt that Seema Malakaya had been designed by Geoffrey Bawa, I started paying attention to other places he had worked on. I finally decided this week it was time to visit his home, which has been turned into a museum managed by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.

Geoffrey Bawa (1919 – 2003), for those who haven’t heard of him, was Sri Lanka’s renowned architect. He had studied to be a lawyer in England, following his father’s footsteps, but realized when he returned to Sri Lanka that it was not what he wanted to do. He eventually discovered his passion and became an architect towards his late 30s.

No 11 was his home in Colombo, a place he re-modelled after purchasing four row houses at the end of the lane. The house museum is available for public viewing by appointment. Since the management has taken a lot of effort to maintain the house exactly as it had been during Bawa’s time, the curator is quite sensitive about viewers not touching any objects, which can be a bit difficult if traveling with kids.

When I arrived for my tour, I was led to a waiting hall next to the former home office of Geoffrey Bawa, where there were around ten others waiting for the tour to start. I was given my invoice for the tour as well as a brochure on the house. The curator then started the tour with a short documentary, which focused on the remodeling of the No 11 residence undertaken by Geoffrey Bawa.

Following the documentary screening, we took the stairs to the terrace. Towards the latter part of his life, when it became too difficult for Bawa to walk up the stairs, a lift had been installed in the house.IMG_2813.JPG

The rooftop terrace had been one of Geoffrey Bawa’s favourite places to sit in the evenings.

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We walked down the stairs, passing the floor with the guest suite. The guest suite is now rented out to anyone wishing to stay at the house. It was not part of the viewing tour though. So, we made our way back down to the ground floor and walked towards Geoffrey Bawa’s living area. While no photography was allowed inside the living area, we were allowed to take photos along the corridor.

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One of his trademark design was the use of corners, allowing for natural light to filter through and green trees and ponds to cool the spaces.

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This corner of the house led to his private apartment and the curator mentioned that the pillars were Chettinad style pillars.

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The corner opposite the Chettinad pillars had a couple of chairs designed by Geoffrey Bawa. The curator said that it was part of the furniture collection he designed for Bentota Beach hotel, his first hotel design in Sri Lanka.

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His private area was the most fascinating part of the house and the best part of it too, as it gave a better glimpse of the person than the rest of the house had done. It had a sitting room, dining room and a bedroom, each of which had lovely ponds and trees in their corners or views of a tree across the room. What was lovely about this space was that it was filled with personal stuff, his books and his collections from his travels.

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Geoffrey Bawa’s reading space (c) Geoffrey Bawa Trust, with permission from the manager of No 11

Before Geoffrey Bawa became an architect, he had spent considerable time traveling around the world in the 1940s/ 50s and was most taken with his time in Italy. Apparently, he had liked the Lake Garda region, particularly the gardens, so much so that he had planned to buy property there. However, due to some legal obstacles, he had not been able to do so and when he returned to Sri Lanka, his brother had encouraged him to buy a country estate in Bentota and create his own tropical version of Lake Garda. Geoffrey Bawa’s first landscape gardening project revealed his passion and he decided to pursue a path in architecture, returning to study in England. His first work, Lunuganga, is considered his masterpiece. I have been long meaning to visit the place and hopefully, will do so this year.

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The tour ended at the entrance, where Geoffrey Bawa’s old Rolls Royce was parked. The batik painting covering the wall was by Bawa’s friend and artist, Ena de Silva.

The tour was a fascinating insight into the home and living space of Geoffrey Bawa.

[I am linking this post to Faraway Files #17 and The Weekly Postcard]

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Travel Notes & Beyond

A photo tour of Sigiriya

The first time I visited Sigiriya is more a memory of my parents than mine, as I was around a year old at that time. They keep recounting the story of how one of my father’s colleagues had offered to carry me up the mountain, during an office trip with family, as my parents had their hands full with my siblings. I think their memory of Sigiriya is associated with the subsequent scare they received when my father’s colleague took off running up the mountain, after I was handed over, and my parents feared that I was going to be dropped.

My own memory of Sigiriya is a more pleasant one as it was a trip I took with my friends during the first year of my undergrad years. It was a fun trip though I remember it being terribly hot and crowded, as we climbed up the rock. I think the climb is best experienced early in the morning.

Sigiriya, the UNESCO heritage site, is a rock fortress built in the 5th century by King Kashyapa whose story is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth complete with greed for power, murder, revenge and battle. However gory Kashyapa’s life might have been, the ruins of the fortress he built are a marvel to see as are the gardens, which are among the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.

Some of the unique features of the rock fortress are the mirror wall and the frescoes. The mirror wall is said to have been highly polished enough to see one’s own reflection during the King’s time but subsequently became a place for visitors to scribble verses. Some of the earliest verses scribbled on by visiting vandals date back to the 8th century. While those ancient verses have become part of the treasured archaeological site, today’s scribbler could find himself or herself in jail. The famed Sigiriya frescoes are the remains of murals that survived time, exposure and vandalism. Only a handful remain in the cave though it is believed that there had once been thousands of them.

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View of Sigiriya from Kandalama Hotel, 2010

This post is a photo tour of Sigiriya, as seen through the lens of my friend, Nishanie Jayamaha, during her more recent visit. Nishanie tells me that she finds the engineering aspect of Sigiriya a marvel, some of which are still in working condition. She especially mentions the hydraulic technology that was used to pump water from ground water sources up to the pools at the top of the rock.

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View of the rock from the fountain gardens, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Sigiriya frescoes, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Surviving Sigiriya frescoes, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Ruins of the palace at the top of the rock, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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Photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

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View of the water gardens from the top, photo credit: Nishanie Jayamaha

Despite the dark and ugly history behind the creation of Sigiriya, the ruins of the ancient city remains an architectural marvel and one of the most visited sites in Sri Lanka.

Have you visited Sigiriya? What feature of the ancient rock fortress fascinates you the most?

[I am linking this post to The Weekly Postcard]

Travel Notes & Beyond

Interview: Helga Perera

I had the pleasure of visiting Helga’s Folly in Kandy twice this year. Each visit made me more fascinated with the house and its amazing murals. I also had some questions about the house. So I wrote to Helga, the owner and creator of Helga’s Folly, and she kindly responded to my email interview for the blog, despite being stricken with a flu.

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Helga at the Jane Lillian Vance grotto, courtesy of Helga Perera

  1. The fact sheet on Helga’s Folly provided on the self-tour mentions that your mother, Esme de Silva, designed the original house in the 1930s. What did your mother envision for the house? 

Just a  family home in the hills. Designed by my mother who was an artist in the 30’s.

  1. What is the story behind Helga’s Folly?

I was almost born here. The house became a hotel in the late 50’s, and has hosted many celebrities, and politicians.

  1. What inspired you to transform Chalet hotel into Helga’s Folly?

I love color, and as I was going to spend much time here, did it my way. Name  was suggested by Richard Mason the South African writer.

  1. There is a mix of whimsy and the spiritual in the artistic theme around the house. Was this intentional from the outset or was the theme an emerging and evolving aspect in the redesigning of the house?

Life should have whimsy and spirituality. The house  still evolves.. No theme! Think of the house as a nursery for all!!

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  1. I understand that different artists have contributed to the Helga’s Folly murals and creative pieces. How did this come about?

Not only artists, guests too.. Many come sad, and in a dark place ..I suggest that they ‘paint out’.. I am a great believer in healing through art’!!

  1. Please tell us about one of your favourite pieces, your own or by other artists, and the story behind it.

I love the Jane Lillian Vance Grotto, where I go for ‘that’ quiet moment, and suggest to guests that they do too. The story behind the grotto : 50 years ago my first husband gave me ‘that’ turn of the century magnificent gilded frame. The frame hung empty for 48 years, for want of an artist. Artists came, BUT went when they were told that I had a penchant for skulls, and would want prominence given in the painting to one! 3 ½ years ago, I was unwell, and I thought before I met my first husband who had gone on to his final adventure, I must give the frame priority. I googled and was ‘taken’ by Professor Jane Lillian Vance’s work. Professor Jane was one of the first Westerners to be allowed to paint the Dalai Lama. ‘Gift To The Village’, on You Tube, is a brilliant documentary of Professor Jane delivering the painting. What hit the ‘Golden Cord’ that I had at LAST found my artist, was the painting also on You Tube by Professor Jane of a field with a fawn,  and bumble bee, although it was the field where they found the skeletonized body of one of her most gifted students,  recognized by her jewellery. Professor Jane had transformed which would have been a gruesome scene into one of peace and beauty.

I knew then that I had found my artist. I wrote to the professor, asking her if she would consider doing a portrait of a woman on a hill in Kandy.

Professor Jane wrote straight back saying that she was brought here 18 years ago, when a Fulbright student, by Waruna Jayasinghe antiques and was inspired.

The magnificient turn of the century gild frame now embraces Professor Jane’s beautiful portrait of me, which she brought over 3 ½ years ago, and then continued to weave, with her brush, her magic in her great 15 ft mural of my family in her grotto!

The Jane Lillian Vance Grotto is ALIVE telling a myriad of stories!

  1. The lighting around the rooms seems to have been arranged masterfully to highlight a specific aspect in the artwork such as the logo of savethenextgirl.com in Jillian Vance’s painting, a cause she passionately believes in. Please tell us about the person who was behind the lighting arrangements.

I like atmospheric rooms. Our electrician  put the spots where I wanted, highlighting certain bits!!

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  1. Which is your special corner or space at the Folly and why?

Depends on one’s mood.. The Jane Lillian Grotto is one, and the other the small green drawing room, with family photographs, and where I used to sit with my parents  and brother as a child. Find this room very comforting.

  1. I noticed that the music played in the lounge area is mostly from the 30s. Was this coincidental on the days I visited or is there some significance of this music playlist to the theme of the house?

This was the music which we grew up with.

  1. To wrap up this intriguing interview, please share a quote or verse that inspires or motivates you especially when you are feeling a little down or stressed out or simply in need of some positivity.

“Tomorrow is another day”!!

Exploring Pettah

I have never been a fan of the crowds and traffic congestion in and around Pettah, Colombo, so have mostly avoided it, until and unless I have to go there for a specific purpose such as catching an inter-city train or bus.

So, if you are like me, someone who avoids congested routes but still interested in seeing some of the historical sites within Pettah and at its outer edges, I would recommend the following walking route on a weekend morning or late afternoon. Weekends are relatively quieter in Pettah than weekdays.

The best place to start a walk through Pettah is at the Khan clock tower, at one end of Colombo 11.

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Khan clock tower

The clock tower was built by the Khan family of Bombay in 1923 for the people of Colombo. Walking around the clock tower, take the Main Street (which was known as the King’s Street during the Dutch colonial period). The Main Street is packed with shops selling clothing and can be a good bargain for those looking to buy sarees and kurta tops.

I suggest a mini detour, via 1st cross street, to visit the Dutch museum on Prince Street.

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Dutch museum

The Dutch museum used to be the Dutch Governor’s residence in the country. It does not have much in the way of artifacts to exhibit or stories about the lives of its former residents, though the building in itself is quite interesting.

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View of building from the inner courtyard

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Inner courtyard at Dutch museum

It is a pity that the Dutch museum does not reach up to its potential and that it is in a dilapidated condition now. I would very much like to see the Dutch Burgher Union, for example, take a hand in making it a more interactive type of museum.

After your visit to the Dutch museum, return to Main Street via 2nd Cross street and continue your walk.

Look to your left for the beautiful red mosque.

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Red mosque

The Jami Ul-Alfar mosque, more commonly known as the red mosque, was built by the Muslim community in Pettah in 1909.

Continuing on the main street, look to your right when you reach the intersection of the 4th Cross street. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, you will see an old bell tower. The bell is supposedly from an old Portuguese church from the 16th century. The Dutch had it installed at the Kayman’s gate bell tower, at the foot of Wolvendaal hill.

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Kayman’s gate

Continue along Main Street and you will find the old town hall and market on your right. The town hall was built in the 19th century during the British colonial period. One can ask to see inside the old town hall.

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Old Town Hall

From the old town hall, continue on Sea Street for a very short distance before turning onto Sir Ratnajothi Saravanamuttu Mawatha. Continue walking until you reach Wolvendaal church or the Dutch Reformed Church, which is actually within the Colombo 13 zone (Kotahena).

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Wolvendaal Church

The church is the 2nd oldest church built by the Dutch in Sri Lanka, the oldest one is at the Galle fort.

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Wolvendaal Church facade

The building of the church was initiated in 1749 by the Dutch United East India Company, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). The doorway to the church still has the same old lock and the church has a lot of interesting tombstones within its premises.

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VoC logo on the church gate

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Tombstone at the church

There is a small inner room with a gallery of old paintings and photos that are open to visitors and church society members are generally happy to answer your questions provided that they are not preparing for services.

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Photo gallery at Wolvendaal church

After exploring the Dutch Reformed church/ Wolvendaal church, walk down Vivekananda hill until you reach K.B.Christie Perera Mawatha. Walk a little to your left and continue along Jampettah Lane.

The front entrance of Ponnambala Vaneswara temple is on Jampettah lane. This Hindu temple for Shiva is an interesting temple with an interior built entirely from black granite, giving it the feel of an ancient South Indian stone temple. Originally built in 1856 by Ponnambalam Mudliyar, it was rebuilt in granite by his son, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. The best times for visiting this temple is before 11 am and after 4 pm.

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Ponnamabala Vaneswaram

Exit the temple, via its back entrance onto Shrimath Ramanathan Mawatha and walk towards the church that you see on your left hand. St. Anthony’s church is considered a powerful church where people of all religious faith visit and make fervent prayers. During the Dutch colonial period when Catholicism was banned from the island and priests carried out sermons from hiding places, Fr. Antonio supposedly masked himself as a merchant. The Dutch subsequently had found out and came in search of him. He found refuge with a fishing community who asked him to do something about the sea erosion. According to the church website, a miracle happened after Fr. Antonio planted a cross and prayed at the beach and the sea receded. The fishing folk were converted and the Dutch authorities gained some respect for the priest and allocated some land for him to carry out his sermons. The current church is in the same premises where Fr. Antonio started openly having his sermons. He brought an image of Anthony of Padua and installed it in the church. When he passed away, Fr. Antonio was buried within the church.

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St. Anthony’s church

I am sure you would want to have some refreshments after all this walking and exploration. I would recommend trying out Sri Suryas, a vegetarian restaurant right next to Kathiresan kovil on Sea Street and within a short walking distance from St Anthony’s. Do try out their delicious Chennai style filter coffee and tasty vadai, which is a lovely way to end your walking tour of Pettah and the edges of Kotahena or a refreshing stop before you explore the streets of Pettah more.

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[I am linking this post to City Tripping#41, hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels]

Wander Mum
Travel Notes & Beyond

Helga’s Folly

Dusk was setting in. The hundreds of candles that had once burned bright had melted upon each other and the candelabra with these candle relics cast a ghostly pall on their surroundings. With only a few lamps illuminating the rooms, it was easy to imagine ghosts lurking in the corner. The effect was enhanced by a face staring at you from the wall, an old writing desk with an old ledger left as if the person working on that decades ago had just stepped out and would return any time.

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When I saw the old vanity table with a framed photograph placed on it, the thought that had crossed my mind earlier and became stronger was that I might very well be in the ruined house of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, had she been inclined towards murals. It seemed like a living memorial to the ghosts of the past by the owner, who lives on the top floor of the (guest) house.

As we moved across the room, we suddenly heard a thud behind the seemingly black walls off one corner that led to the dark stairs. We peeped down the unlit stairway and saw a black door at the end of it. There was another thud. With the haunted atmosphere hanging in the air, my friend and I scrambled back to the lounge area, which was playing music from the 30s and finished our tamarind juice drinks before leaving Helga’s Folly.

I was intrigued however by this first dusk visit to Helga’s Folly, a home turned into an art museum/ guesthouse in Kandy. So, when a couple of friends visiting me in Sri Lanka this month wanted to go to Kandy for the weekend, I decided to explore more of Helga’s Folly with them. Visitors who are not staying overnight at the guesthouse, where the rooms start at USD 100 and go up to USD 500 per night, or dining at their restaurant can walk around the house after paying a tour fee of USD 3 per person. I think it is wonderful that they allow visitors to tour the house and at such a reasonable price because the artwork in the house is truly worth seeing.

This time though I chose to visit during daylight, when I could see the murals better and the house had a slightly less haunted atmosphere. What greeted us first as our vehicle climbed up the steep road leading up from the Kandy Lake was the bright red buildings covered with colourful artwork. The house was originally designed in the 30s by Helga’s mother, Esme de Silva. A house that has welcomed famous dignitaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi during its political heydays, given that Helga’s paternal grandfather was Sri Lanka’s first Minister of Industries and Fisheries and her father was the Mayor of Kandy, a parliamentarian and Ambassador of Sri Lanka to France and Switzerland in the 60s.

Helga’s parents turned their house into Chalet hotel. However, it is after Helga took over the house a few decades ago, renamed it Helga’s folly and covered it with artwork that I feel it has become a legacy for future generations. It has certainly attracted many movie celebrities, such as Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier, and the Folly brochure boasts of its Hollywood heydays as well as the Stereophonics song, Madame Helga, inspired by a stay here.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

The front office manager handed us a sheet of information on Helga’s Folly before suggesting we start our tour of its interior from the Jane Lillian Vance grotto. So we walked into the front room where the artwork of American artist Jane Lillian Vance covers its walls.

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Photo credit: Nancy Yang

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Jane Lillian Vance grotto is an amazing art room combining Vance’s beautiful artwork, Helga’s family history as well as a bit of Jane Vance’s personal traumatic story.

We retraced our steps past the reception where framed news clippings of Helga’s family line the walls and passed the former office of Helga’s father, Frederick Lorenz de Silva. The office is currently used by the front office manager as her office. We were not able to see the room that Mahatma Gandhi stayed at during his visit, but the friendly manager mentioned that she had been lucky to stay in that room when she first arrived at the Folly.

Both times that I visited the lounge area, it had some lovely old French music playing in the background. This time though, I was not able to explore the artwork in this area much as there were other guests seated on all the available couches that I did not feel comfortable walking around them looking at the walls. Anyway, I knew I would need to revisit a few times in order to leisurely appreciate the artwork in each room.

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A little corridor leading away from the lounge towards the gardens had this little nook, which we decided was a great spot for a group photo.

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Taking the stairway up to the restaurant area, we came across several dining areas which were set up as private dining spaces. Each seemed to have a different theme and the dining room with the octagonal Taprobane table seemed extra special and perhaps reserved for special occasions.

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The corridor leading away from the dining rooms and to the guestrooms was covered with black walls. One of the walls had a white tree and red hearts and writing that asked you to add a heart for each beloved soul you have lost. I really don’t think I could comfortably stay overnight in a room in a corridor that was decorated like this. I felt that the house was not haunted, as I initially felt during my first visit but rather had dark vibes of a place that had absorbed the grief, depression and angst of its residents, the owners and its guests.

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There was a colourful, whimsical corner under the staircase, along the sombre corridor, which lightened its dark overtones.

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What’s interesting about the place is that the artwork is diverse and at first seems the result of a psychedelic mind. However, you begin to see individual stories emerging and the hand of different artists at work, whether it is in the whimsical or spiritual overtones of the murals. I was informed that Helga’s Folly welcomes artists, writers and senior citizens for longer stays at special rates and the house is certainly a place that seems to inspire the creative. From artists who have been inspired to contribute to the murals to musicians who have been inspired to write a song about the place, it is certainly a place that invokes your emotional and creative response to the visual extravaganza.

I left Helga’s Folly with a sense that here was a house that needed preserving for future generations and some maintenance in the present, as it seems to be acquiring a certain dilapidated air about it. I hope Helga and her family consider establishing a trust that will manage it well in the future and continue to allow visitors to tour the place. And, for travellers visiting Kandy city and interested in amazing murals, I highly recommend that you visit Helga’s Folly at 70,Rajapihilla Mawatha, Kandy.

Following my visit, I interviewed Helga Perera, the person responsible for creating Helga’s Folly. You can read her interview here.

Have you visited a (guest)house that has amazed you with its beautiful murals? 

[I am linking this post to City Tripping #38Wanderful WednesdayThe Weekly Postcard.

I am also linking the post to #TravelLinkUp, hosted by Adventures of a London Kiwi, Silverspoon and Fresh and Fearless , under the October theme of ‘most interesting item you have discovered or seen in a hotel room/ accommodation‘ as the murals in the Jane Lillian Vance grotto at Helga’s Folly is the most interesting and amazing item that I have seen in a guesthouse room]
Wander MumWanderful Wednesday

Travel Notes & Beyond