Samudra Cottage to Ulpotha:
"Naturally at the Taj"
When the late Thomian raconteur Christopher de Alwis quit his job in 1979 in the pioneering Gemini Tours Limited he holed in alternatively with one of us; schoolmate Ranil Senanayake, drinking partner Anil Dias Bandaranaike, kid-brother Dominic Sansoni, eating partner Lakshman Doolwela, confidante Asoka Ratwatte, ring-master Mahen Vaithianathan, and me, his fellow-traveler. During his sojourn in our various homes he entertained all of us, our families and friends, with his wit, wisdom and matters Ceylonese. Everybody benefited and Uncle Christo as the kids called him, or 'Topi' as we called him, was always a welcome guest in all our homes.
Once upon a time the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH) in the Fort was the lady who provided the spirit for the muse. The early tales of tourism in what was once Ceylon was one great story. Thus have I heard, I may say, of Johnny Walker, Norman Impett, Walkers Sons and Seetha Travels.
My storyteller was Christo. His professional lineage or 'Guru Kula' had Norman Impett at its apex. Norman, a Batticaloa Tamil, was one of Sri Lanka's finest salesman, and also Johnny Walker's blue eyed boy. Johnny Walker was Walker and Sons. They brought the first charter to this country. Christo and collegue Neville Arnolda helped Norman look after this first batch of 70 Scandinavians. The rest is history. The trio trail-blazed across both Ceylon and Europe wooing all the pretty tour guides and making us a destination for European holidaymakers. Gemini Tours was their 'tour de force' and here these dream merchants gathered with Simon Senaratne and a girl friday called Rosie Vanderwall to design what became "The Round Trip". The Sun, Sea, Sand, Hill Country, Wildlife and Culture. Very soon however Christo was a disillusioned man. Travels with Ranil had made him environment-sensitive and the tourist industry that he had helped develop had suddenly become the biggest thorn in his side. Euro-trash was too much for him and mass tourism not what he had envisaged.
Except for the genius of the Bawa brothers. Bevis and Geoffrey, both of whom were influenced by Arthur van Langenberg, who taught the elder garden layout and the younger a 'sense of theatre', Christo hated the contribution of our planners and architects. He felt they had devalued the product, namely Ceylon, with a lack of refinement, style and good taste. The fact that the tourist industry had attracted only those seeking tax shelters and write-offs and not genuine entrepreneurs was his constant complaint. Out of sheer frustration he wrote to Simon stating that he could no longer identify with the industry as it had evolved. Quantity had replaced quality and the charter flight the free independent traveler. Christo quit – a conscientious objector – the first in the tourist industry, and overnight he was without a job living with friends who enjoyed his company.
He became my fellow traveler in 1982. We shared similar interests and also the driving as we criss-crossed the island in much more placid times. Ranil, Asoka and Dominic would sometimes join us and all of us became very familiar with his arguments regarding the tourist industry. These arguments were daily reinforced as we witnessed the industrialization of everything we held sacred. The production of the television documentary Pooja 86 coordinated by Mano Chanmugam on behalf of Lalith Athulathmudali who was at the time in charge of the National Security Ministry; the creation of the Kataragama Devotees Trust; the making of the Kataragama Skanda Trilogy for television produced by Frank Jayasinghe; the revival after five years of the annual Pada Yatra (foot pilgrimage) along the east coast from Jaffna to Kataragama; the re-establishment after 40 years of the 'ritual ambush' of the God King's annual procession by the Wanniyalaeto (Veddas); all of which took place between 1986 and 1989, made us well aware of village people and their aspirations, and the dangers of polluting the countryside.
In 1989 we founded the organization Cultural Survival and we were invited to make the Taj Samudra our operational base. Christo was one of our founder members and contributed in no small way. Cultural Survival, the Festival of Lanka when we brought 300 rural performing artists to the city, and the building of the Samudra Cottage brought into our fold another Thomian -- the architect Ashley de Vos. Others closely associated with us included my childhood friend Ranjan Cooray, former Ceylon Tourist Board Director-General, Nimalasiri Silva, the Anandian chartered accountant Gamini Jayasinghe and the former Muslim Congress appointed member in Parliament, J. Asitha Perera who was also Chairman of Cultural Survival.
'The Village goes to Town' slogan introduced a rural ethic, to urbanites in an atmosphere charged with ethnic and anti-Indian sentiment soon after the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord. I believe it may have been the last time Tiththapaghala Suramba the aging Kandyan yakdessa or dance master performed the ritual Kohomba Kamkariya. We also inaugurated the annual Ananda Coomaraswamy Memorial Oration in order to take his vision to a larger local audience and, the Conservation Awards for outstanding work in the area of natural and cultural heritage preservation.
The Samudra Cottage was situated on just one acre of the twelve acre Taj Samudra garden. Ashley de Vos, who had studied puranagamas in the Wanni, designed and built this model Wanni homestead. Christo and I shared this obsession of building in mud and with Ashley we formed a triad. A paradox in the making was that while villagers were fast losing the art of their ancestors, a few urban idealists were trying to recreate in the heart of the city the 'divine original' as an artifact that would be a model for others to follow. The late Gamini Dissanayake who was one of our most loyal patrons, asked me whether President Premadasa had seen our 'model home'. The answer was in the negative since Premadasa had decided not to enter any five-star hotels.
|Farmer Tennekoon circa 1992 |
Background: Samudra Cottage and the Taj Samudra
The village theorist Mudiyanse Tennekoon, who was first introduced to English speaking audiences through an interview in the Ecologist with Teddy Goldsmith, laid out a traditional home garden for us at the Samudra Cottage. He became Cultural Survival's advisor on Sinhala village culture. Tennekoon is a remarkable man. I was led to him through this interview which I first read while in England in 1982. The late Upali Senanayake introduced Tennekoon to both Goldsmith and to me. Ours was an immediate friendship. I recognized a fellow traveler. He had been on the fringe of many 'fringe' movements and had accumulated a great deal of information. He knew the stories he had been taught as a child growing up in a Puranagama in transition, and was constantly comparing and contrasting it with what he saw and heard in the city. This made Tennekoon the 'village voice' in the city. He moved around between the city and the village and although he had little practical experience in building or agriculture, he knew all the folk tales. He also knew where to get all the artifacts for the Samudra Cottage and with Rajaguru our colleague from Wariyapola they helped us curate this for us. Now however I regret, that by focussing attention on objects of rural living, we have contributed to their transformation into ethnic objects of art, catering to traders, collectors and their greed.
From David Bellamy to Pattie Boyd; from Sir James Goldsmith to Hanif Kureshi; from former President D.B. Wijetunge to Magnum photographer Steve McCurry; from Pamella Bordes to the liberal British High Commissioner David Gladstone, they all visted the Samudra Cottage. A casual glance through the visitor's book is our testament. The Overseas Children's School, The Colombo International School were just two of Colombo's educational establishments that regularly brought their students to the Samudra Cottage to teach them about village culture. Tennekoon who describes himself, as an itinerant beggar was always present to tell the children stories. We charged nothing for our services and for six years the Taj Samudra under the enlightened management of Lionnel Coulter played host to Cultural Survival. From CNN to the BBC the Cottage as it was called became a Colombo landmark and symbol of rural lifestyles in the heart of the city. The impact of the Cottage on all those who visited us made us more and more aware of the potential rural lifestyles had as a niche market in tourism. The Cottage caretaker Appuhamy Dabare and his wife Margaret produced mouth watering local dishes and delicacies. I held court without electricity in a mud dwelling adjoining a five star hotel. It was a classic anachronism.
|Samudra Cottage circa 1993: Organic stone-ground meals served on Taj Samudra china. Left to right: Errol, author Manik Sandrasagra, Farmer Mudiyanse Tennekoon|
|Manik and Christo de Alwis pause to refresh on the way back from an early trip to Udappu ca. 1987.|
The Cottage was also Colombo's well kept secret. When Sir Arthur C. Clarke came to the Taj to meet David Bellamy at the Cottage, hotel security was unable to find it. However Cultural Survival had unfortunately earned for itself an urban identification. The caretaker Appuhamy and his wife Margaret were not real villagers. They were from the suburbs of Colombo. Tennekoon was a regular guest and of course the Wanniyalaeto or Veddas preferred staying at the Cottage to any place else on their occasional visits to the city. But in reality we had actually created another film set, 'more' authentic and longer lasting than what the cinema requires. In my time I had built some of the most lavish sets for the cinema and the stage and box-office records at the B.M.I.C.H have yet to be surpassed after 22 years. Therefore weaving magic was my business from childhood and the combination of Christo, Ashley, Tennekoon and myself made us unbeatable.
When Lionnel Coulter left the Taj, the new management did not know how to utilize the Cottage or the villagers in their midst. In exchange for free office space, we had created the 'Naturally at the Taj' concept with regular public service announcements made about the Cottage and our activities in the 'Island' group of newspapers. Patrick Harrigan's article – 'Ecological Tourism: the way of the future' in the Sunday Times of December 9,1990 first introduced the concept through the media. Bhutan was our model, and we knew that restricting numbers was the answer. The idea however was alien to a mentality based on quantity. Cultural Survival had commenced on a program to educate the public but we were as usual ahead of our time.
In 1990 Christo and I discovered Ulpotha. Tennekoon had taken us to Ehetuwewa where he had once schooled. I had first visited this area in 1974 to meet Lester James Peries who was shooting "Dasa Nisa" there. At that time I was working on "The God King" which I was producing together with the legendary British Producer Dimitri de Grunwald. We had hired Lester as our director in what was to be the biggest film of his career. We were recreating a slice of ancient Anuradhapura on the banks of the Nuwarawewa which the British film critic William Hall described as the "world's biggest set". Lester was staying with Herbert Keuneman who had made Ehetuwewa his home a few years earlier. Herbert had once also lived in Hammenheil the small Dutch fort in the Jaffna lagoon. Sixteen years later as I sat where he once sat and watched life beside a traditional village tank I learned more about him than when I had actually met him. Because of the isolation in which he had chosen to live, when he wrote, it was something very special. The late S.P Amerasinhgam published Herbert's most amusing writings titled 'Building a village house' in the Tribune which he edited. Nihal Fernando and Scott Direckz were some of the others who visited Herbert and the region regularly. Herbert was dead by 1990 but his aide Bandara and his
My second visit was a prelude to many more visits to this region. Bandara's brother D.B, a schoolteacher became my guide. My next visit was with David Bellamy to film sequences for the 6 part television series I was making on village culture called Routes of Wisdom. I was back again in the area within months first with Dominic as we were doing a feature for the Air Lanka magazine Serendib on the puranagamas or traditional villages of Lanka and then again with George Arney to do 'Wandanawa' or pilgrimage for the BBC series The Corespondent. I returned within weeks with the British photographer Steven Champion, and then again with an ITN crew collecting material for their archives. I was fast falling in love with the Wanni countryside and the people and I now inquired from D.B if there were any properties for sale in the area. Dominic and Amrik Jayewardena were also on the lookout for rural properties.
One day I was introduced to T.B. Wanninayake a retired school principal who had once taught Tennekoon. He had an ancestral property called Ulpotha below a tank bund and he promptly offered his property to us. Now began a lengthy correspondence with Christo. In the correspondence Christo outlined our vision, and Wanninayake decided that Cultural Survival should be the new owners. He wanted to see his old home restored to its former glory. With the help of D.B and in answer to my several queries they prepared a paper more like a child's storybook on the history and myths of the region. This booklet written on 22 January 1991reveals that Wanninayake was a villager caught between two worlds. Ulpotha and Kandy? He says in this booklet that he has an 'engineer' son, an 'attorney-at-law' son, a 'doctor' son, and an 'architect' son and could therefore no longer live like villagers did. The Wanninayakes migrated to the city and their ancestral home soon collapsed through to neglect.
The house at Ulpotha had never been a great waluwa or manor house. Tennekoon used to dismiss all such houses as those built by the local who became the "white agent's porter". In other words it belonged to those who brought the strangers home: the first family to be anglicized in the village. The sons had been sent to Trinity College in Kandy. The house was representative of those houses in the Wanni, with an open verandah in front and two small rooms, and a karuwala kamara or dark room where women gave birth. There was a separate kitchen. The World of Interiors March 2000 issue features Ulpotha with some stunning photography, hype and an invented text as if the re-building of Ulpotha was an accident. Cathay Pacific's Discovery Magazine in another feature article links happenings near Ulpotha in the historical period with mythic events in the Indian epic the Ramayana. This misrepresentation is unnecessary today when any subject written about can be searched on the web. The Sunday Times was the first to carry a feature by Hiranthi Fernando on the 24th of August in 1997! Furthermore anyone can visit our web-site www.Kataragama.org or the www.Ulpotha.org website and fill in the blanks. No wonder the villager dismisses the printed tradition as a potha which means both 'a book' and 'a pack of lies'!
The oral tradition claims that Ulpotha is close to where Prince Saliya the son of the great King of Lanka Duttugemunu, traded his palace for a village, to be with the Rodiya girl Asokamala. We found the remnants of the foundation of what had been a house and there was a well. The garden was overgrown and coconut trees cut down and sold. Ulpotha, which means 'spring', had been abandoned for many years. The man-made lake or Wewa, which forms the back boundary, borders the forested hills of the Galgiriyawa range. Above us were a forest wewa and a 'sky' tank. It was our intention to make the waters flow once more by conserving this cascade system. The price Wanninayake asked was just Rupees 250,000 but we could find nobody willing to help buy the property. In the meantime Christo died after a short illness. His send-off was exactly as he wanted it. Jerome Speldewinde sang 'Fool on the hill' while we toasted with good spirits our dear departed friend who lay in a coffin in the Sansoni annexe. Right through Christo's illness all his friends witnessed the munificence of Barbara Sansoni and Dominic who carried the burden of his mortality to the end.
His passing increased our resolve to create our collective vision at Ulpotha. Cultural Survival volunteer the Canadian artist William Brad Simpson moved in with Tennekoon, becoming our representatives in the region. We were keen on reproducing the Samudra Cottage experience in a natural setting. Bandara had some land of his own in Ehetuwewa and he offered it to us. Ashley de Vos drew some sketches for us to consider. Bandara's land was nothing like Ulpotha but was available for free, so we decided to start from this property.
One day I visited Ehetuwewa with a Sri Lankan, Viren Perera who had returned to Lanka from Canada. He had joined Dirk Flamer Caldera at Asia Stockbrokers and become a regular visitor to the Samudra Cottage. Viren was an instinctive speculator. He immediately recognized the opportunity and agreed to become our partner in the venture. After a long hiatus Ulpotha at last was within reach. Feizal Manssor was hired to write the project report and we got down to the business of what was to become the sales pitch that is now delivering tourists paying over $100 per day to sleep on mats, without electricity or other mod cons and eating traditional foods.
Our proposal was to transform Ulpotha into a cultural sanctuary and a detailed plan was drawn up including a budget. In fact the first published document states as follows: "The Ulpotha Sanctuary is a private undertaking of the East Pole Foundation and the Cultural Survival Trust. Providing the opportunity to live the tradition". Now began the task of converting a run down coconut estate into a 'traditional village'and making it the first Eco-tourist project in Sri Lanka. Our research editor Patrick Harrigan's Sunday Times article on Ecological Tourism from 1990 was at last being implemented. Viren who said he shunned publicity did not want his name publicized and was setting up the East Pole Foundation to be our partner.
There were many people who were responsible for the creation of Ulpotha as it is today. In any movie there are many credits. Viren wanted to be the sole financier of the project and wanted the pace of development designed in order that it became affordable to him. Hence the long hiatus. He also wanted to own the property since he had no land of his own in Lanka. As for us we were not interested in ownership – we were mere custodians implementing a vision. Viren's task was to find the money. Ours was the dream. Cultural Survival became his partner in a design, build, operate and share the profit basis. Viren hardly visited Ulpotha in the first few years, as he was too busy trying to keep Asia Capital, the new business Dirk, Rusi Captain, Thilan Wijesighe, Asanga Seneviratne and he had created on track. The financial climate was not conducive to investment and the shareholders discontented. This kept Viren in Colombo, however he gave us carte blanche on implementing our vision – a vision we had carefully crafted over several years of discussion. Christo or Topi was dead but we had a team committed to these ideals.
Tennekoon moved into Ulpotha by July 1994 having been in the region from 1993. He had two Cultural Survival volunteers with him. Niroshamala Samarakoon and the Canadian Brad Simpson. Simpson continued to occupy Bandara's upstairs area and helped us create the Indigenous University concept. Our dream was to make Ulpotha a village university where a visitor learned the culture by living it. Simpson commuted daily on a bicycle to Upotha a distance of three miles. He soon came to be called 'Simpson Bandara' mainly because he wore an ammudey or loincloth to the wewa when he went for his daily bath. Simpson Bandara was the only visitor to Ulpotha who went completely native.
Nirosha was a girl in her late teens. She had visited Ulpotha with her grandmother soon after Cultural Survival had paid the owner T.B.Wanninayake a deposit on the land. When she returned home her grandmother died leaving her without a guardian. Her mother was in the Middle East and Tennekoon became her surrogate father. Nirosha would later claim that Ulpotha was her creation. Both Tennekoon and I would not have found the inspiration or the time to concentrate as much as we did on this one undertaking, other than for the fact that we had both become responsible for Nirosha's welfare and education. She became our star pupil, and is today in effect together with Tennekoon's son -in -law Ratnayake who joined us much later, the two people who make Ulpotha tick. Both Nirosha and Ratnayake are the first proven managers in the fast growing field of Eco-tourism. They are highly employable. Asker Moosajee who visited Ulpotha told me later, "they are your real stars".
Bordering the estate we had acquired lived Lionel Senanayake a classmate of Tennekoon's and a close relation of Wanninayake. The whole place was riddled with incest and all sorts of relationships, which I could never unravel; however everybody was related. Naturally we were strangers from another village although we were all of the 'govi' kula or cultivation caste. This united us in spirit and culture. The Senanayakes were the locals who stayed back in the village when the others abandoned it. Senanayake's home became the first abode for Tennekoon and Nirosha who opted to remain on the site.
Our first undertaking was to restore the shrine to the God of Kataragama at the entrance to the property. I obtained a gift of four stone pillars from Udappu and this transformed the little mud structure into an impressive shrine. Our first hut designed and built at Ulpotha under the supervision of Tennekoon was a disaster. He had no sense of aesthetics and the little wattle and dub hut he built was more like a child's house, however it served the purpose and he and Nirosha moved into Ulpotha within one month. With Tennekoon theorizing on what should be done and laying elaborate plans for the future and Viren attending to the business of Asia Capital with little or no time for Ulpotha I was left to my own devices. I enjoyed this since I could seek the best skills based on experience.
Asoka Ratwatte helped me in sourcing some of our experts. He obtained for us the assistance of one of Geoffrey Bawa's star pupils Channa Daswatte, who agreed to design the Walawuwa not as a professional undertaking, but more as a gesture of goodwill in helping us implement our dream. The layout of the house and the creation of the courtyard with the well in the centre, was entirely the genius of Channa. The original house had nothing of the sort. Channa also designed the pavilion or ambalama near by and the charming outside kitchen. The second Ratwatte contribution was in selecting the builders. They all came from around Lankatilleka in Kandy where Asoka lived. Gamini who became the head contractor came from a family that had for generations built and maintained the various traditional buildings in the region. The other Kandyan import was a stone craftsperson that was responsible for all the stone work.
I too needed a proper hut and a bathroom if I was to be in Ulpotha for any length of time designing and supervising the work. This was built for me by Senanayake's son Saman a smart young man whom I considered our duty to cultivate. He was our immediate neighbor and a resourceful lad. However I was soon to discover that the art of building traditional homes was something of the past. I had to now scout the area with Tennekoon looking for people with skills in building adobe homes. I started missing Ashley de Vos who had built a superlative Samudra Cottage for us in the city. This cottage was ironically superior to any building constructed by us in Ulpotha as at date.
My home was remodeled on what Saman had built. We vastly improved on the original hut and very soon we had our first comfortable home. Tennekoon busied himself with the land-care, converting the area around the walauwa into paddy fields, and the area around the village we were creating, into a forest village garden. Tennekoon was best when pontificating about what he knew after consuming a few ayurvedic portions or 'gulliyas' that he would purchase at the nearby kade. He was never very good at implementing his dreams. This we had to do ourselves. As he called out the trees that made up the bio-diversity of the Wanni we sourced seeds and plants and brought them back from as far as Mahiyangana. Ebony, Calamander, Tamarind, Kon, Kumbuk, Mee, Neem and numerous other dry zone varieties. Tennekoon would rise at 5.00 each morning and water the seedlings using a clay pot with which he collected the water from a nearly stream which bisected the property carrying the excess water from the wewa. Today this forest garden has trees 10 feet in height and experts had commented upon the diversity.
Our first guest was a Canadian girl called Tricia who came to visit Brad. She stayed with us for 3 weeks and became a part of the community. She went back and wrote of her experience, which Brad used as an introduction for his web page. Nirosha's mother returned from the Middle East and took over the kitchen. Punchi a monkey became our mascot and everybody's darling. Everybody loved this creature which we rescued from the dogs when it was just a few days old. Slowly a team was forming and the legend growing. Tennekoon installed many members of his family including his son-in-law who were from a village 30 miles away. Son-in-law Ratnaike was a doer not a talker and he soon became my supervisor and together with Nirosha they were in charge of all the work. Ulpotha was a work site from 1994 to 1997 with Kandyan craftspersons, village cultivators and resident guests adding to the population. Originally Ulpotha had only two families in residence. The Wanninayakes and Senanayakes. When we got there only the Senanayakes were there. Now there were over 30 people from Kandy to Nikaweratiya to Marseilles! Ulpotha was getting crowded. Even crows had found their way there! In fact one day I collected all the plastic garbage that had been brought from Colombo by visitors and made them take it back.
1994 was also election time and I was busy hosting Platform the first English talk show on television. I had to interview aspiring politicians from Chandrika Kumaranatunga to the JVP's Tilvin de Silva. This was a period of superlative entertainment for me, with perceptions constantly changing between Ulpotha and the city -- two very separate worlds. This also led to my embarking on a documentary on Sirimavo Bandaranaike for the family. I enjoyed making this program, especially working with Prime Minister Bandaranaike who was most gracious and cooperative, however after Tisaranee Gunasekera's perceptive review in the Lanka Guardian of January 15, 1997, I was declared persona non grata by some stooges who had no sense of our post-colonial history.
The other addition to the complex was the Weda Gedera or treatment house. I had in 1983 together with the architect the late Upali Karunaratne and his wife Susan embarked on a program to design and create the first Rest Cure Center in Sri Lanka in Koslanda. Professor Tuelly de Silva had introduced me to the Ayurvedic physician Dr.Gamini Wijeysinghe and we had undertaken a study to determine how Ayurvedic treatments could be introduced to tourists. We never implemented our report, but our dear friend Norman Impett who was ailing at the time, used the report to convince his friend, Sunanda Rodrigo at the Barberyn Reef Hotel, to try out this experiment. Norman was given a free room and board and the implementation of our report commenced under Norman's guidance. The project was a great success and Barberyn became the first hotel to introduce this concept to Lanka. Today ayurveda has become one of the major contributors to the tourist dollar. However I did not seek the assistance of Dr. Wijesinghe in creating the Ulpotha Weda Gedera since we ourselves were drifting, with expenses mounting but no sign of income. As it was, our concept was yet to be understood although Viren went along with our dream. In fact he constantly referred to it as "Manik's dream" and claimed that he had never read the project report.
The other influences were Brigitte Singh and the colors of Jaipur in Rajasthan. I had gone to Jaipur and returned with an exhibition, which was mounted at the Barefoot Gallery called "Mats and Moghuls". We had a splendid collection of local reed mats and the exquisite fabrics of Brigitte, which I wanted Colombo to see. Brigitte was re-establishing standards in block printing in India and had created a niche for her work in several western capitals. As for the mats we purchased the very best from one woman in a border village. To this day I have not seen any better. We paid her what she asked for and thereby convinced her to continue practicing her skills and teach it to her children. The ethnic war prevented her from travelling far to collect the reeds and we transported it to her in order that she could continue making us her wonderful mats to dream on. I also decided to incorporate these mats and fabric into Ulpotha. Brigitte had also introduced me to two natural colors used in painting homes in Jaipur. One was geru the color that gives Jaipur its name as the 'pink city' and the other was the flower of the 'flame of the forest'. These colors would dominate the main house. Rajhu our artist friend from Kandy, who was my sounding board when it came to color helped us mix the colors and tried out the various combinations and shades and made his recommendations. We were determined that no chemical additives would be permitted.
It was in September 1997 that Giles Scott entered my life. He was a friend of Viren's. Giles claimed his father had gone ahead of Montgomery in opening up Africa. Sri Lanka was therefore a piece of cake for the resourceful Giles. Giles was another fringe person who enjoyed name-dropping and socializing. He was of South African descent and was a jack of all trades with hype and publicity as a specialization. It was he who first confirmed our vision and convinced Viren that Ulpotha could be sold. Feizal Mansoor had spelt it out in his project report but it took Giles to deliver the traffic. Giles was confidant that he will bring in our first group in December-January 1997-98. Nobody quite believed him since we were quite expensive at $100 per night, as we wanted the Sanctuary closed for 8 months. Only 4 months was on offer. Ulpotha by now had become our home. We needed to cover the recurring overhead but never was it our intention to convert it into another tourist trap.
I took off with Giles to Jaipur on a shopping expedition in October 1997 having talked Ashley into designing the huts for the guests. We had to build six abodes for our guests and I did not trust rural architecture anymore. Ashley gave us a superlative design of open asanas as in Ritigala. We were now dashing to deliver since the first batch of guests was due in late December. This period was a nightmare. Money was short and we had to manage with what we had. It was raining, and building in mud in the rain not practical. Too many opinions were being solicited and urban design entering the complex. Visitors were also causing concern since half of Colombo descended each weekend into what was actually a worksite adding to the stress. What had been a long summer holiday was turning into a nightmare. Everybody now became a designer and every corny idea was being incorporated. Contractors left and new ones were hired. Constant changes made price escalation normal. The atmosphere was rapidly being transformed. To cap it all our mascot the monkey Punchi was found dead strangled by its own lead.
Now began the period of disillusionment. As William Blake once wrote "When nations grow old the arts grow cold, and commerce settles down on every tree". It was time for us to go. The design and purpose was changing. Ulpotha was being marketed as a spiritual retreat yet the foreign Yoga teachers wanted cement floors! We were beginning to get trapped by the market. Dirk took over Asia Capital claiming (Sunday Times Business, August 2,1998) that "in the year ending March 1997, the company reported a loss of 110.9 million rupees". There was a sudden change of management and Viren left his job. He was no longer a stockbroker or investment banker. Ulpotha held out a golden opportunity for a brand new ready-made faultless green identity. Viren had gradually become our first 'green' convert from the business world and he went for it. He always responded to opportunity. Today it is Viren's Ulpotha, an identity that he can be proud of.
Cultural Survival moved away from the giant film set we created, but the actors remain. A belated attempt was made to duplicate the Samudra Cottage from Ashley's original drawings, but without his supervision it was nowhere near the original. Giles and Viren decided that they too were designers and built one hut with a toilet open to the elements. They also busied themselves with finishes that would convert what was a typical Wanni walauwa with rural artifacts into a New Age happening with a different color for every room! We had seen all this before. The God King had the biggest set in the world in 1974! Those whom we recruited and trained on this film subsequently helped Chandran Rutnam make Sri Lanka a hub for Hollywood filmmakers working in the region.
However our original purpose was different. Our crazy idealism at the time was to create an industry that would chose local stories, writers, actors, actresses and technicians and hire from abroad those skills we did not have, and compete as equals in the world market. The local cinema Lester had once described as the "idiot child of South Indian cinema". It was therefore imperative that standards improved. Co-production based on equity was my answer. It was also only possible if we obtained tax relief and incentives. We obtained both. When The God King failed at the box office I refused to accept defeat and went on to make Rampage in 1978 with Richard Boyle, which to date is the only locally made English film that has been awarded four Presidential Awards.
However our ignorance of film financing and marketing sealed our fate. Chandran's approach was different. When we met in Hollywood in 1980 he was planning Tarzan. He wanted Lanka as a backdrop. He knew we had the locations and the skills. Hollywood had the plots and the producers, so he succeeded where we had failed. Similarly today it is those we recruited and trained who run Ulpotha, the first eco-tourist facility in Sri Lanka. Ulpotha is their production. All we did was facilitate the link between the village and the city. Ours was the original idea and the design; Viren found the money and Giles sold it. However the dream changed with the entrance of commerce. "To know the tradition, live the tradition" became just another marketing phrase. Hype had entered the picture.
Cultural Survival was the bridge and Ulpotha an experiment on how to integrate business and culture. I dare say there were several shortcomings but as a pioneering venture we have learned from our mistakes which will not be repeated as we proceed designing and creating other such sanctuaries islandwide. Eco-tourism has come to stay but establishing standards and ideals is still a dream. How do we resist the marketplace? Unless we learn from the past and from other people's experiences in other lands we will be committed to repeat our mistakes. We must learn how to be competitive in a global economy or else we will perish and this is the challenge facing us as we enter a new millenium.
With the global interest in bio-diversity it is essential that we present what is indigenous and unique in our own culture. Presenting ourselves as an odd mixture may succeed for a while but will never have staying power. As I mentioned earlier Bhutan is the best example. It was the late Sir James Goldsmith who pointed this out to me. He said, "They keep people out, and charge you the earth to get in…Once inside it is a time warp, and you did not mind the cost". Today as we attempt to make one million tourists a year our goal, I believe the gods will have to intervene to save our land from the ignorance of our planners. With eco-tourism as the new slogan we envisage the industrialization of every little nook and crag that up to now has been protected through neglect.
Perhaps in this light there is some merit in terrorism. At least the north and east and all border zones will remain free of the vulgarity of urban greed, planning and design. Quality, not quantity, should be our barometer and price the only consideration. One million tourists spending the national average of $56 per day or half the number spending double? It is all a matter of presentation and design. With Ulpotha we have proved it can be done. Now it is up to those who follow. Mediocrity and innovation? Or tradition and quality? Time will tell.
For information about efforts to preserve the traditional culture of Sri Lanka, see this detailed article by the Living Heritage Trust or the home page of the Kataragama Devotees Trust or contact the author: