14th May, 2006  Volume 12, Issue 44

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


Rewriting history Chinthana style 

A 10-tonne boulder placed along the roadside at Chaithya road, fort and The statue of Queen Victoria dumped at the Viharamaha Devi Park in Colombo

By Sonali Samarasinghe

PRESIDENT MahindaRajapakse intent on reconstructing the President's House at Janadhipathi Mawatha to suit himself, and possibly his curious Mahinda Chinthana policies has approved the tearing down of historical monuments within its gardens.

Last week cranes and heavy machinery belonging to the Ports Authority was to break down the boundary wall of the Foreign Ministry adjacent to the President's House and tear down and dismantle statues and other items of immense historical value.

One hundred and twentyPorts Authority labourers are working round the clock removing old floor tiles and bathroom fittings making extensive structural changes. So much so the joke doing the rounds at the building site is that everything is been uprooted to uncover buried hooniyams.

The Ports Authority has traditionally been involved in all reconstruction or building work undertaken at President's House and orders had allegedly come from above to remove all traces of foreign occupation. Sources indicate these statues and historical monuments will be replaced by newly sculptured religious statues.

Queenis not amused

On the north side of President's House are situated the Gordon Gardens, laid out in 1889 by Governor Sir Arthur Gordon in honour of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Her large and imposing statue made of white quartz was, up until last week a part of the rich history of Fort.

This statue and its pedestal unceremoniously dismantled has now been dumped at Viharamaha Devi Park next to a public stage. The only plus factor for the late British Queen who otherwise would have been far from amused by all this shifting is that not far away stands the alabaster figure of one of Sri Lanka's most beloved and respected queens, Viharamaha Devi herself.

Why Queen Victoria should be lifted from where she belongs and placed here is baffling unless it is part of the Mahinda Chinthana cultural reawakening. The pedestal on which the statue was placed has also been dismantled stone by stone and dumped in front of the public stage with no security for this historical statue. Sources at the President's House however said that they were dismantled under the supervision of Archaeological Department officials who had commented that there could be serious international ramifications if these moves are not conducted correctly.

However it is unlikely the Presidential advisors have acted with diplomatic aplomb in this matter.  Attempts to contact diplomats at the British High Commission for a comment were unsuccessful.

But these were not the first ignominious affronts to be suffered by the diminutive Queen or at least her imposing statue. Sources close to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga confirmed that she too during her tenure as President had contemplated asking the British High Commission if they would be interested in the statue.

 However shetook nofurther steps and there the matter rested until President Rajapakse decided it was time the grand old dame of British Royaltywas kicked out on her ear.

Nonetheless a source at President's House told The Sunday Leader that Kumaratunga had once wanted the statue cleaned before hosting a foreign dignitary during an official visit and was horrified to learn that the person tasked with cleaning the statue had painted it over with rubber paint.

Message in a bottle

Sources also revealed that an empty bottle of champagne was allegedly found with a note sealed inside when the statue was being brought down last week. The bottle was placed in between the pedestal and the statue of Queen Victoria and was recovered when the stones were dismantled.

When an attempt to touch the note was made it crumbled into dust and was immediately handed over to Archaeological Department officials who were present at the time.

Other items such as cutlery, crockery and object de art were alsotaken custody of either by the National Museum or the Archaeological Department. Many attempts to reach officials at the Museum, and the Archaeological Department failed as they were on holiday due to Vesak week. Meanwhile it seems President Rajapakse wants all traces of foreign occupation to be wiped out of the area.

 A 10-tonne boulder

The fate of a historic large boulder was  even worse. Within the presidential grounds is a padrao, a 10-tonne boulder on which the first Portuguese adventurers to arrive in the island carved a cross, their  coat-of-arms and the date 1501. It is of immense historical value.

This too was unceremoniously transported to Chaitya Road and dumped on the sea shore where the legs of the large construction that holds the chaitya straddles the road on all four sides.  Ever since 1977, Ports Authority sources say, this has been a sort of traditional dumping ground for the port workers who would dump any building debris  or  construction debris on the sea shore.

Now this historic boulder too has been dumped here in danger  of being forgotten or covered by more debris as truck drivers and crane drivers dump more bricks and other construction material to this 'traditional dumping site.'  Neither is their  any  security in this area to protect this boulder until the Archaeological Department or the officials  of  the National Museum make any decisions on this matter.

It is now reliably learnt that the statue of Governor Sir Edward Barnes which lies at the front of the house facing the old GPO is also to be soon shifted to another location. Barnes was responsible for the construction of Colombo-Kandy Road in the 1830s. All trunk road mileage in Sri Lanka is said to be measured from this statue. President Rajapakse, if he is aware of the mayhem taking place at the presidential palace must immediately take steps to rectify the situation.

It ill becomes a temporary resident of that historical abode to make any drastic structural changes that would not only alter the official residence of the first citizen but also its historical worth. Politicians and leaders may make history but they cannot rewrite it. Is this tearing down of monuments depicting white colonisation while hurriedly putting up religious statues in every street corner the beginning of the cultural awakening as  envisaged by that fluid document the Mahinda Chinthana?

 These culture vultures  must first realise that the first step to civilisation is to own one's past as  part of the country's  history.  It is only when one recognises and acknowledges the past can one truly move on into the future.

A repressive regime in Afghanistan tore down the historical Bamiyan statues to remove all traces of Buddhism, rewrite its history and its past, and expunge itself of any foreign religious influence as it forged ahead with its fundamentalism and bigotry. The actions of the terrible Taliban regime was roundly condemned by the international community.

While shifting a boulder may not have the same impact as that of the destruction of the Bamiyan statues the principal is the same.

One cannot erase the past by destroying permanent monuments. It is a crime against future generations.

Fort is a treasure trove of colonial history

FORT is steeped in colonial history and its nooks and crannies lay remnants of wonderful historical fact.

The Janadhipathi Mandiraya was built in the late 18th century by the last Dutch governor of Ceylon, J.G. Van Angelbeek. It became the official residence of British governors, known first as King's House and later as Queen's House. It hosted numerous distinguished guests passing through Colombo.

On the north side of the President's House are the Gordon Gardens laid out in 1889 by Governor Sir Arthur Gordon in honour of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Entrance is now restricted because it is enclosed in Republic Square, where the prime minister's and cabinet offices are also situated. Opposite the President's House is the 19th Century 'White Giant' the elegant General Post Office.

The Lighthouse Clock Tower, is probably the best-known landmark of the Fort. For close to a century, it performed the dual function of warning ships and telling time, in spite of its unlikely location in the middle of one of the city's busiest intersections.

The tower was built in 1857, to a design by Lady Ward, wife of Governor Sir Henry Ward, who gave the city the name Galle Face Green.  Ten years later, it was crowned with the lighthouse; this remained a beacon for the city shorelines, several blocks away, until a new seaside lighthouse was constructed in the 1950s. The clock was not installed until 1914.

However most of the colonial remnants found in Colombo today are the legacy of the British. They drove the Dutch out in 1796, and held the upper hand until Ceylon was granted its independence in 1948. During the British era, Colombo reaffirmed its position as the commercial center of the Indian Ocean. The city was spread across south and east, streets were widened, trees were planted and parks were created. Horse racing was a regular activity on the seaside Galle Face Green.

On Second Cross Street, two blocks south of Main Street at the corner of Prince Street, is the colonnaded Old Post Office and it is the last vestige of an 18th Century Dutch residential community.

The front stoop and the tall doors are typical of the architecture of the time. The date over the main door is 1780, but a city map of 1732 shows a building described as a seminary on the same site. Today the building has been converted into a Dutch Period Museum.

East on Main Street is Kayman's Gate, an old stone belfry on the south side of the road near Fifth Cross Street. In ruins today, it may be the oldest Christian structure existent in Sri Lanka. 

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