So the Big Plan was organised, we had ‘taken it easy’ now for long enough and were getting used to the heat… So this was going to be the day to venture out into the wilds for the first time…
We had read about an enchanting garden nearby, where a ‘very famous’ local person had lived…Yes, Mr Bewa. The ‘very famous’ Mr Geoffrey Bewa to be precise. Mr Bewa as it turns out was one of the foremost 20th Century, Asian architects, who had led what is known as the ‘Tropical Modernist’ style of design. He is ‘very famous’ in the Bentota area mainly because his first major architectural design, the Bentota Beach Hotel was built here and is still a well respected and popular destination for moneyed travellers. Mr Bewa was born in Colombo, to a wealthy English speaking, Sri Lankan family mixed with varied European descent. He originally trained as a lawyer, but in his late 30’s decided to retrain to be an architect. He studied in London then spent time in Italy and Europe but returned to Sri Lanka to the Bentota area where he bought a piece of land on which to build his home, Lunaganga and it was there that we were to spend our afternoon.
After breakfast, well it was more like brunch by the time we had raised our heads from the comfort of the pillows and had got ourselves going by supping a few strong cups of Ceylon tea, we organised a tuk-tuk to come and pick us up to take us on our little excursion.
Beep-beep! It was our little, shiny, red, three-wheeled limousine and driver come to pick us…this was to be an exciting event – our first tuk-tuk ride! Our driver, Rowen, was another very friendly and smiley young man, who clearly loved his little tuk-tuk and took pride in its appearance. Inside his ‘motor’, there were brightly coloured, day-glo stickers of different Hindu gods’, Shiva, Lakshmi, Ganesha and some photos that looked Chinese. A plastic garland hung from the chrome handle bars, that were polished and shining in the sun.
We got into our little motor. Rowen pulled back a large metal lever, turned the ignition key and it rattled into action. Revving the engine, we turned 180 degrees and then we were off, buzzing down the country lane in the opposite direction to where the troll disguised as a water buffalo lived..Woo..eee! This was fun…”I want one of these!” I exclaimed and Andy agreed saying that this would be fun to drive down the Lee High Road! Some of these little tuk-tuks whizzing around the streets of London would be great!
Once again, everyone we passed had a smile and a nod and every now and then Rowen would beep his horn and wave to someone he knew…this was clearly his ‘manor’ and he was enjoying driving his little limousine! I always feel a little sorry for these little vehicles when us generally heavier Europeans take to the back seat…I feel I should apologise, or suggest getting out and walking when the going gets tough for the little machine to cope with, but I’m sure its owner would take insult at this. All was fine when we were on the main road, but when we hit an uneven and challenging track, with potholes, the poor thing began to slow and splutter, but Rowen seemed determined to keep going, even though at points we almost came to a stand still. My inclination in these situations, when tackling a small incline in a vehicle that seems to be struggling is to sit forward so as to relieve the weight to the rear, I’m not sure that it actually does anything but it makes me feel like I’m doing something to help…
The journey to Lunaganga, was beautiful; jungle forest, a lake with a group of young guys taking a bath, fruit sellers with pineapples and coconuts piled high, school children making their way home after a hard mornings studying, they finish at around 2pm and all wear the same white, government edition uniforms, apparently each child is given two free uniforms per year. We pass more of the colourfully painted bungalows set amongst the tropical landscape and eventually turn down the track that led to Lunaganga.
Mr Bewa certainly chose a Tranquil and out of the way place to build his villa and garden. We arrived at a set of large metal gates, with climbing plants working their way though the bars and foliage from the trees overhanging the track. All seemed quiet, maybe it’s closed we thought, but Rowen jumped out, pulled a cord that rang a bell and waited. A few minutes later a young guy appeared. After a brief discussion with Rowen, he open a side gate, asked us in, told us the price and led us up a drive way surrounded by towering palm trees. We arrived at the entrance to the house and garden, but were told that there were guests staying in the house (since Mr Bewa’s death in 2003, Lunaganga has been let out as a boutique guesthouse) and so could only see the garden, garden room and exterior of the house.
The young man who had let us in, disappeared and came back a few minutes later transformed into our guide, he had actually changed from his shorts and t-shirt into a white shirt and sarong…he obviously takes his guide role seriously we thought. The most wonderful thing about this visit is that we were the only visitors there, we had the place and the guide to ourselves, our own private tour… The house and outbuildings were a stunning mixture of white walls and rich aged wood. Antique object d’art filled the garden room, which had a wooden panelled gallery made from recycled crackled, painted doors that were originally blue. Everything had that air of quality and simplicity, a contemporary look that had coped well with the test of time. We loved it. It was serene and a place for meditation and contemplation.
The garden, which took some 40 years to complete used the existing landscape as its basis. The villa was built on the top of a hill and the garden was designed around the hill, with terraces and steps to take you down to the lower levels. The pathway snaked down the hill to a large pond created in the shape of a butterfly, it sounds a bit naff, but it was really very beautiful, the water filled with the Sri Lankan national flower, the blue waterlilly, which wasn’t really blue but a pinky- purple, but lovely all the same. As we were heading down towards the butterfly pond, we stopped to look at the different trees, one in particularly stood out, the rubber tree, which dropped a spectacular three sided seed pod, there was one on the floor unopened, I was able to take this with me as a souvenir to add to my collection of seed heads at home. From the one of the wings of the butterfly pool a water monitor, which is a lizard-like creature, slowly swam to the edge, clambered out and walked across the lawn. It was about three feet long and walked with its tongue flashing in and out of its mouth and with that gait that is reminiscent of its ancestors, those prehistoric dinosaurs.
Along from the pond and fronting onto Lunaganga lake were two rice paddy fields, full of this precious grain waiting to be harvested. The garden was spread over a couple of acres and had areas where you could see the Italian influence on Bewa’s design. At one point we came across a group of about 10 men and women all in their later years, brushing the leaves from the grass outside of one of the pavilions. This had been their daily job for many, many years, it looked like a repetitive job, but one that would keep you fit and healthy, which they all looked. Our young guide told us that his uncle had been the head gardener at Lunaganga since its beginning and this was how he had been given his particular job.
On our return to the villa, we spotted another creature, which was also about 3 feet long and moving very quickly. This was a mongoose…and it was moving at a speed, either trying to catch something or running away from us. Anyway, our tour had come to an end and It was now time to say our thank-yous and goodbyes and head back to Rowen and our awaiting tuk-tuk.
Whilst we were at Lunaganga we discovered that there were actually two Mr Bewas. Geoffrey had an elder brother Bevis, who also lived in the area, and had built a home and garden that was open for visits. So that would be our next visit, the ‘Brief’ Garden to see the work of the second Mr Bewa…
By the time we got back to the villa, it was late afternoon, early evening and there was nobody to be seen. The heat and humidity had zapped us of energy and the only thing for it was a dip in the pool to cool down and revive. It was getting to that time again when the mozzies apparently come out, but I was determined to stay in the pool and decided the best way to avoid them (if they were around, because although we had been bitten we hadn’t actually seen as many around as we had expected), was to keep my body and shoulders under the water. As it got darker and I was floating around in the warm water looking into the sky, a little flashing light shot by me and wafted round the trees, then another little flashing fairy-light zig-zagged it’s way into the sky, they fire-flies flitting around with their little flashing tails. This was a special moment, a sight to behold…