A century ago, my father is born and I still miss him…

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe was born on a day like today 13 May, a century ago, in 1918. He was the second son to be born in the house “Siriniwasa” in Hikkaduwa. My grandfather K.H. Bastian De Silva built the house by the sea, and later my father inherited it. Hikkaduwa, then would have been a sleepy little town, with a few brick houses, a few thatched houses but the sea within the fringing coral reef would have been clear with beautiful corals and swarming with exotic fish.

Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002 the year my father died. Photo© Chulie de Silva

My father is not with us anymore. Even as I write, I think where are you now? Can you see us from a lofty perch or have you been born again somewhere? My father and I had a long correspondence from the time I first left his house to go to school in Panadura and then after I married and left his house when I was 19 . My mother once scribbled on the margin of an aerogramme “The second daughter is father’s best friend.” He was a father who mothered me, who named me, the second name being Lakshmi as the horoscope readers told him that I would bring him luck. A fact he believed in all his life and it was not unusual to get a call or a note to visit him, hoping his luck will change or I could magically sort out some family quarrel.


Dawn breaks over Siriniwasa.Photo Copyright Chulie De Silva

Replying to a birthday card I had sent in 1981 he wrote on the 29 May 1981: “Thank you for the birthday card and the letter. These things mean a lot for the ego. Every year you ask me when I was born; I was born in 1918. The year the First World War ended. My uncles had told my parents that I was from the Western front (the belief in rebirth among Buddhists). That’s why I marched to the front in the Second World War.” The Birthday card was a real eye opener. Yes, I can do what I did 50 years ago.”

Manel & Bennie

My parents -Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Amusing, provocative, his letters weaved a rich tapestry of family life – foibles and all.  In one letter he said,  “I have got my photo in the driving license enlarged – just a reminder of my days when I first met my Waterloo” – a reference to when he met my mother. “I was 23 then,” my father writes. “Sweet empty face.”  This was a photo he had given my mother when he was courting her and Amma apparently had said many years later during a squabble that she was “cheated” by the sweet face.

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My father Bennie Kirtisinghe as a young man. The photo he gave my Amma when he was courting her. Photo©Chulie de Silva

My mother said my father had cribbed this poem to me, but I didn’t care.  The scrawled handwritten letter is much treasured.  Written in 1981, after a visit home to see an ailing aunt it was addressed to a Dear daughter

“What am I thinking of 
this golden evening (of my life).
It is the daughter of my heart 
who flits across my mind.
Her innocence 
so like a lotus bloom. 
She came to visit me just yesterday. 
She left her darlings for awhile and came to savour
yet again (and again)
the love that spreads and smiles.
within her childhood home.
She writes to say 
she loves both Ma and Pa.
I’m glad to see she had her priorities intact.
She had to go back to her kids and home (abroad)
She left with me her youthful happiness.  
She took with her
the love that Ma and Pa 
will always give her.
Now I wait, 
until she is home again
like the bursting glory
of the coming 
of a flower in spring.”

An inveterate storyteller he would keep us engaged and many were family stories we were not supposed to hear. He and I would argue and often his comments would have us laughing and many were the ones that shocked my relatives. “ I’ll cut off your ponytail”, was a constant reminder during my teenage years to behave or else … Then, there was the one comment he kept mumbling through out my engagement “Marry in haste and regret at leisure,” (dead right on that one!), and later “Why do you need a divorce, can’t you get a knife and do a Bobbit….” I am sure you are laughing from some vantage point of how my life has turned out!

Bennie K with Multipla

My father with his Fiat Multipla. Photo Copyright Chulie de Silva

Interestingly some comments are still relevant, specially, comments about politicians. Amidst the turbulence of the JVP years and political upheavals of the 80’s, he wrote “The world and its people are changing so much that I wish I don’t have to see all this.” You might not have been happy to witness what is happening now but you sure would have revelled in my brood of vivacious, grand children. I hope you can see all the fun we have and I would have loved to have shared stories about them.

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My father with my sons in the sea at Hikkaduwa. He taught us and his grandchildren to play “Ring-a-ring-roses” in the water. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

I miss you so much, the letters, the laughter and how your eyes used to light up on seeing me. During your last days at Hikkaduwa, you waited for me to visit and said you would hear my footsteps outside the bedroom in the kotu midula. I hope we will meet again as we travel through samsara. I will not fail to recognise you, as your eyes will light up. I wait for that day when I will be your lucky Lakshmi again.

Bennie, the Gentleman in Disguise!

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My father Bennie Kirtisinghe at the wedding of his good friend Wimalatissa Indrasoma on the 28 Aug 1952. On the extreme right his good friend Godwin Witane and next to him, Dr. MWV Lakshman de Silva. Girl Guide HQ, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka. Copyright Asoka Indrasoma

Almost a birthday gift, the photo above came quite unexpectedly from a cousin Asoka Indrasoma. My father, with a cigar in hand, in national dress was at the wedding of his good buddy Wimalaya, Wimalatissa Indrasoma, (Asoka’s father) in 1952. A photo like this, unravels a lot of memories. He would have been 34 years old at this time and looks very happy and in good spirits.  The fact that he is the only one in national dress does not seem to bother him. However, his lifelong friend Godwin Witane, on the extreme right has a certain smile on his face and I wonder who the photographer was. My father, Uncle Wimalatissa and Uncle Godwin remained good friends through out their lives. Today, 13 May would have been my father’s 99th birthday.

Wimalatissa Mala

Wimalatissa Mama/Uncle with his sister late Dr. Mala de Sylva at Arachchikanda house of Mr. MW Surasena de Silva. Photo probably by Bennie Kirtisinghe

Life is a retrospective, a continuous flow of images and thoughts. Usually, my mind has constant flashbacks of what life was like with my father. I’d often get woken up on holidays at Hikkaduwa, with a banging on the window “rise and shine, get up, get up!” Giving a boost to these episodic memory wanderings, I had the unexpected bonus last month, of hearing his voice and see him come alive in Rupavahini’s teledrama Palingu Menike, as the “Iskoley mahattaya” — school master.

However, it is his words, often humorous, mixture of Sinhala and English for punning and tongue-in-cheek comments in his letters to me, that I see him in my mind’s eye.

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My father with my sons in the sea at Hikkaduwa. He taught us and his grandchildren to play “Ring-a-ring-roses” in the water. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

His letters were gold then and now. Where ever I was —  Liverpool, Penang, KL or Brunei –  life in the Hikkaduwa house would come alive to me. Often his letters would make comments of the tourists staying with them, painting a lively picture of his life, that never failed to bring a smile to my face. In this letter written in January 1993, he would have been 75. “An old friend, a guest from Holland brought me a Gin- Bols, which satisfies me after a bath with tonic and crushed ice.

In the same letter he talks of two Dutch men. 34 and 44 years old, who are tobacco smokers and roll their own cigarettes.  “I have taken to my old pipe and smoke often after meals,” and says “one of the Dutch men an engineer “marvels” at his building construction and water and sewage systems which are contrary to all norms and accepted laws!” Many a times have we moaned about his disastrous skills in construction – very far removed from his father, my grandfather. “The two [Dutch] men and I argue about philosophy and religion.” The parting comment of one of the Dutch was, “Bennie is a gentleman in disguise,” while the other had concluded that “Bennie is like the old fox who has not lost his tricks, though he has lost his hair.

Probably perked up by the Dutch comments he says, “I am enjoying good health in fine weather and of course the old man sea is ever so timid.” I have “Kola Kanda” herbal porridge with green vegetables like Gotukola for breakfast.” His special recipe includes Quaker oats and he complains that my Mum doesn’t give him access to the electric blender, but she or my sister-in-law Padmini will grind the veg in the old fashioned way in a pounding stone to make his breakfast. “If I had taken Kola Kanda much earlier, I would have taken another wife. But for the present this one is enough…”

My father with Malika at 39 Chapel Road, Nugegoda.

My father Bennie with Malika, his grand niece on one of his visits to our house then 39, Chapel Road, Nugegoda.

Prophetically, he ends the letter I have in my hand saying, “even if I don’t write, you can read my old letters, which you will do even if I am no more. Bye Bye, don’t cry for me.”

 See Also:

Godwin Mama called Bennie, my father “The most popular citizen of Hikkaduwa” in an appreciation written after his death in 2002.

Appreciation Benny Kirtisinghe by Godwin Witane

My blog post on “On Chasing Jade Dragons with Mao Tsetung “ was based on a book that was a gift to my parents from Wimalatissa Mama.

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Wimalatissa Indrasoma on the right with an unknown friend. From our family albums.

Calverley House in Old Colombo

The photos are from the now out of print “Images of British Ceylon” by Ismeth Raheem and Percy Colin-Thome published in 2000. Gives us a peep into the gracious living of the past.

Thuppahi's Blog

Rohan de Soysa

Calverley House, built in 1868, was the residence of a famous barrister, Frederick Dornhorst KC (1849 to 1926), in whose memory there is a much coveted prize given each year at Royal College to the most popular student. It was situated in what was then Turner Road, later re-named Turret Road, and now called Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha. It was a substantial colonial style mansion typical of such late 19th century/early 20th century houses, well-suited  for such an eminent person.

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Marriage Fatigue and the Taboo Divorce

Hikkaduwa Chronicles

  Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet and so are you….

“Please can you have a boring life this year,” said Mohini my friend, after she heard about the private bus that slammed into my car two days before Christmas. 

The question I often ask myself is: Where would I be if every action of mine was impeccable, that I had been right about absolutely everything and had never made a dubious choice in my life and lived a life as “Visakha” practising norms learned from childhood, religion etc…   Would I be happy now?  I doubt it. I would be bored and, worse, I would be boring!

Well, it has been dodgy living the past few years. If I took stock from 2004, there was the tsunami, followed by the  flash floods with my little suburban hut going under 2 feet of water in 2006.  Then there was the time…

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Buduruvagala Stone Sculptures

Seven statues sculptured on relief on one gigantic rock in the 9th -10th c A.D. The 51 foot high Buddha is in the centre and is flanked by three smaller statues on either side. Photo ©Chulie de Silva circa 2000.

Seven relief sculptures on one gigantic rock in the 9th -10th c A.D. The 13 m. high Buddha is in the centre and is flanked by three smaller statues on either side. Photo ©Chulie de Silva circa 2000.

The photos of Buduruvāgala (also spelt Buduruwagala) taken nearly two decades ago tumbled out of a shoe box of old letters and cards I was rummaging in.  With it came the memories of that journey to see Buddha’s rock with the remarkable Mahayana sculptures in Sri Lanka. We were holidaying in Ella. A last ditch effort on my part to rekindle the old romance. That was a lost cause but we did drive from Ella, turning South at Wellawaya to see this colossus of Buduruwagala.

The land was parched dry, spent and desolate, like an aged wrinkled parched man waiting for a drink. We walked on foot, the last stretch, in blistering heat with little respite. No throngs of tourists. This was late 1990s, and with us were just a couple of local visitors. We didn’t talk much, but that was par for the course where the marriage was.

Buduruvāgala  means the rock with the Buddha images and is a composite of the words Buddha=Budu; Ruva=images and Gala=rock. The gigantic rock when it came into view was at first glimpse so surreal in the barren landscape. I remembered the descriptions of the rock comparing it to a huge elephant reposing, bowing and paying homage to the seven statues sculptured in to it.

My search for more information, unearthed some interesting facts. This is Sri Lanka’s finest example of Mahayana sculpture and is dated around 9th -10th c A.D., and it was possibly a site for a monastery. The statues and the writings on it indicated that the worship and practice of Mahayana Buddhism was more widespread in Lanka than I first thought. Mahayana influence began  to take hold in Sri Lanka around the 7 Century, and reached its zenith during the rule of King Mahasen (A.D. 276-303) says Janaka Perera in an article The Impact of Mahayana Buddhism on Sri Lanka “By the 7th and 8th Centuries the centres of Mahayana practices were the Abhayagiri and Jethawana monasteries (which also includes the country’s largest stupa) complexes in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital.”

The imposing central Buddha image is the tallest in Sri Lanka and is 13 m. in height and is said to be of Dipankara Buddha and not Gautama Buddha as I assumed earlier. The Buddha is said to be in the Samabhanga posture and the right hand is held in the Abhaya Mudra position.  This could very well be the tallest stone sculpture of a Buddha, now that the Bamiyan statues are no more.

The six carved statues on either side are all of bodhisattvas. In very simple terms bodhisattvas are ones who aspires to be a Buddha. Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows.

On the right of the main Buddha statue are statues of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva in the centre, a bare breasted Goddess Tara to his left and Prince Sudhanakumara to his right.

On the right of the Standing Buddha image are the sculptures attributed to be of 3 Bodhisatvas Left: Sudhanakumara (height 6.530m) Center: Avalokitesvara (height 7.160m) and Tara (height 5.980m) .Buduruwagala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

On the right of the Standing Buddha image are the statues of 3 bodhisatvas Left: Sudhanakumara (height 6.530m) Center: Avalokitesvara (height 7.160m) and Tara (height 5.980m) .Buduruvāgala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Avalokiteshvara (height 7.160m) is the bodhisattva of compassion. He has eyes that are half closed, long ear lobes, wears a cloth round his waist (dhoti), and his matted hair crown holds an effigy of Amitabha. His hands are in the ahvana mudra  (gesture of calling) position. The male figure on the right of Avalokiteshvara, is supposed to be of Prince Sudhanakumara. He too has a matted hair crown and holds a book in his right hand and his left hand is in the ahvana mudra position too. On the left of  Avalokiteshvara, is the only female bodhisattva of the group and is identified as Tara. This statue standing at 5.980m., is probably the largest statue of Tara found in Sri Lanka. She is portrayed here in the Tribhaṅga or Tribunga posture –  a tri-bent body position in the traditional Indian sculpture.  She also has a matted hair crown and holds a water pot in her lowered left hand and her right hand is in the ahvana mudra position.

There are three more male bodhisattva sculptures to the left of the central Dipankara Buddha statue. The central bodhisattva is attributed to be Maitreya ( the next Buddha according to Theravadha Buddhism) and is 7.3 m in height. His eyes are half closed, he wears a necklace and his hands too are in the ahvana mudra position. The 6.17 m. statue on the right hand side of Maitreya with both hands in the ahvana mudra position is supposed to be an unidentified variation of Avalokiteshvara.  The figure on the left of Maitreya holding a vertical vajra in the right hand uplifted in kartari mudra position with the left hand in the ahvana mudra  position and is identified as Vajrapani (Vajra-bearer height 6.4m).

The statues to the right of the main Buddha statue and on the left are the sculptures of Maitree Bodhisatva, in the centre, Vajrapani Bodhisatva and an unidentifiable deity. Buduruwagala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The statues to the left of the main Buddha statue are the sculptures of Maitree Bodhisatva, in the centre, Vajrapani Bodhisatva and an unidentifiable deity. Buduruwaāagala stone sculptures, Wellawaya, Sri Lanka. circa 2000. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The descriptions and identification of the statues are from a paper by Mahinda Degalle titled Buddha’s Rock – Mahayana Legacy at Buduruvagala.

Deegalle states that identification problems have risen in two statues — Sudhankumara on the right hand group and Maitreya on the left hand group.Both are also identified, variously, as Manjusri.

Janaka Perera’s article The Impact of Mahayana Buddhism on Sri Lanka  states that “By the 10th Century, pillars of a temple within the precincts of the Thuparama were identified as tridents (vajra), similar to the dorja or thunderbolt of Tibet which is usually held by Mahayana Bodhisattvas (A.M. Hocart, ‘Archaeological Summary).” He also states that many practices such as the 7th day almsgiving for a dead relative to transfer to him/her merit gained by giving alms to the Sangha stems from the belief in gandhabba – a state of mind that exists between the death and rebirth of a being.  It is widely accepted that the idea of gandhabba spread in Sri Lanka via Mahayana sects that emerged during the Anuradhapura period of Sri Lanka’s history.

Further, he quotes Sri Lanka’s former Archaeology Commissioner Dr. Raja De Silva in his scholarly assessment of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage site Sigiriya. De Silva states that King Kassapa I (478-496) who figures prominently in the history of the famous rock was a follower of Abhayagiri monks and that available evidence reveals a strong possibility that the site was a Mahayana monastery. He also identifies the famous Sigiriya frescoes  of Tara – the consort of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Sigiriya and its Significance /Digging into the Past).

See also my post of the Sri Lankan Gilded Tara statue at the British Museum

With Love Father

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe as a young man. The photo from his driving license and the one he gave my Amma when he was courting her. Photo©Chulie de Silva

My father Bennie Kirtisinghe as a young man. The photo he gave my Amma when he was courting her. Photo©Chulie de Silva














Every 13 May I wake up often far away from my town of birth Hikkaduwa, my mind clouded by memories, fragments of conversations drift past, and my brain’s neural networks are on an overdrive. This was the day my father was born in 1918 – second son to be born in the Siri Niwasa house at Hikkaduwa, but the 6th to KH Bastian de Silva and SK Pinto Hamy.

He and I enjoyed a long correspondence, sometimes as much as two or three letters a week, the first time I was away in England. In all his letters to me he used to sign off as Father, Father B, BK and some times in Sinhala “Thatha.”

Some of the letters have survived. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Some of the letters have survived. Photo©Chulie de Silva

As a father, Thatha embodied the Sinhala term “pithru snehaya” — a love of a father to a child – he was an incurable romantic, sensitive, and what mattered most were social interactions — family, friends, our friends, villagers, tourists he met  — well in short everyone he came across mattered to him.

The Siri Niwasa house was an open house 24/7.  No one who came to the house, left without some refreshments.   Mostly it was an invitation to stay for lunch or dinner and Amma learned to stretch meals and cook in anticipation of visitors.  Many were the ones who trooped in for sea baths, and stayed to have a fresh young coconut, “thambili” water — plucked straight from the trees he had planted.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970's. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. This view is sadly no more. Photographer unknown.

The Back verandah of Siriniwasa, circa 1970’s. Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. This view is sadly no more. Photographer unknown.

There were stories to be told, laughter to be shared, and plenty of sharp, caustic, witty comments.  He was in today’s terms a “wyswyg” – what you see is what you get character.  Sometimes the comments were far too sharp and his foot in the mouth comments hit sensitive spots and made some relatives angry. His life was probably too laid back for this day and age where success is measured by the wealth you accumulate. A sea bath in the waters just beyond the back garden of Siri Niwasa, a good book, a home-cooked meal preferably prepared by his Manel, and family and friends to chat with were his needs. He was not without his faults specially when it came to managing finances and never had enough in his bank but his life was rich with love — the love he gave generously, was repaid by many with dividends.

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My father with his funny Fiat Multipla — he was very proud of it. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

I remember the dreaded call I received from my brother Prasanna as I was leaving work one day. His voice was somber -“Please come immediately, Thatha has not opened his eyes the whole afternoon, he won’t speak and is not eating.” With shaking hands I quickly packed, picked up my Poddi – my Aunt Irangani in Panadura and it was by then nearly 7 pm. The drive along on the mostly ill lit coast road seemed an eternity. The sea roared but I could barely see the waves. I drove mostly through memory and remember the jolt of the railway tracks as I drove over the Payagala Railway crossing that was barely visible. I counted towns as we used to do as kids coming home for the school holidays just as anxious now to reach Hikkaduwa as I was then.

It was just past 9 pm when we got there and Amma as usual was waiting for us on the front verandah. “Bennie, Bennie, see who is here, Chulie is here,” she called out as we entered his room. Then he opened his eyes and started crying – large rasping, heart-rending sobs. I had never seen him cry all my life. He was scared – scared of dying and probably knew his life was sapping away. I sat on his bedside held his hands talked and talked till he calmed down. The sobs eased, Amma bought soup. “I’ve been listening to your footsteps on the “kotu midula,” he said and wanted me to travel to work in Colombo daily from Hikkaduwa. I wanted to recite some pirith for him but he shooed me away. “You might have grown up at the Walauwa, but you haven’t learned the correct intonation. Send Amma.” So it was his Manel’s lilting voice that lulled him to sleep that night.

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970's. Photographer unknown from the family albums.

My parents Bennie & Manel Kirtisinghe on the back garden of Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa circa late 1970’s. Photographer unknown from the family albums.

Next day he was better and Prasanna, Pradeep and I sat in the back garden talked about longtime nursing care for him. All this time it was Prasanna who had cared for him bathing, shaving and attending to his every need with a liberal sprinkling of jokes as well as anecdotes about everyone in Hikkaduwa. Most were concocted by Prasanna but it seemed to be the best medicine for him. Thatha had no diagnosed illnesses and was not on any medication and we thought we would have him with us for a couple of years more.

However, on 30 Aug. when I came down again he had his eyes closed. This time my arrival didn’t change anything. His breathing was heavier, face more gaunt and much as I talked he wouldn’t open his eyes. His skin was like thin parchment and I could see he was getting dehydrated. There was no GP in Hikkaduwa and so we with great care we took him to Arachchikanda Hospital to get a saline drip inserted. As he was carried out, he opened his eyes and looked around and up the front verandah almost as if he was saying goodbye to the house he had been born in. He had never wanted to die in a hospital and so the drip inserted we brought him back to Siri Niwasa.

The ceiling on the front verandah Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa, Photo©Chulie de Silva

The ceiling on the front verandah Siriniwasa Hikkaduwa, probably what he saw last of the house. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Back in his room, his breathing eased and we hoped he would pull through this. Next morning Amma called me and said in a shaking voice tears brimming in her eyes, that a little bit of blood has trickled from his mouth. As we all rushed to the room, Pradeep whispered “Is he going to die?” I could only nod. He and Prasanna went to fetch our family priest.

Amma and Padmini recited pirith ( Buddhist stanzas) at the foot of the bed. I sat near him stroking his head and talking to him that we were all there with him, and also Lassie, our pet doggie. Amma had chased her away a couple of times but she refused to be removed from the room. Finally, we let her be. Lassie lay curled under the bedhead, her head buried in her paws. Thatha must have heard us as tears were building up under the eyelids – tiny, tiny, glistening tears like dewdrops on a parched leaf.

I held his hands and watched every breath as he took it in the life giving oxygen and the slow letting out of it. He looked so frail. I tried to etch into my mind this poignant moment. Breathing became slower, more laboured. Then there was this one deep breath and I watched and waited but no breath came out. That was the last breath.

The slender fragile thread we had clung to, unable to let go, was gone. I turned to Amma and Padmini who were still reciting pirith and shook my head and they understood. Padmini came with her stethoscope checked for a heartbeat and a pulse that was not there. The thin hands, the forehead I kissed was still warm. He didn’t like anyone kissing him or even worshipping him at his feet. The thought that he would have laughed at me crossed my mind but this was now the shell that once held my Thatha. The priest Rev. Tilaka, the scholar priest, my father had respected arrived. He and I sat silently by the bedside till the hands I held went cold.

Instructions for the funeral by father. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Instructions for the funeral by father. Photo©Chulie de Silva

After the tsunami, in Amma’s birawa almirah, we found this note with instructions for his funeral. Thatha had repeatedly mentioned all this to me but I didn’t know such a note existed.

If I get bumped off (no regrets) don’t take the ‘body’ home.  Keep it at CBO Florists (Kalubowila) and ‘fire off’ at Galkissa as early as possible. 

Inform the eye donation society and give the cornea (the consent papers are at Hkd iron safe left drawer). Get the cheapest paraphernalia and only Bougainvillea Flowers. No music & no carpets. No “sokaspraksha” (speeches at funerals). Only family members to handle

BK (signed) 19.12.77

Did we follow his instructions? Some we did – like donating the eyes, and there were no “sokasprakasha” but there were no Bougainvillea Flowers. The Bougainvillea Tree was no more at Siri Niwasa but Hikkaduwa had a crematorium. I wanted to cremate him the same day or at least within 24 hours – but the family, true to village traditions, howled with protests. “If we cremate him like that the villagers will think we were too stingy to feed them,” said Amma.

So we had the biggest funeral I’ve ever seen in my life.  For 3 days we hired a cook and with thanks to the owners turned the Poseidon Diving Station next door to a large dining room.   And we catered on average for 350 people who were around for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  For 3 days and nights people came and went and we scrambled to buy food, work out menus, make tea and coffee.

They came from near and far the long lost relatives, friends’ friends who had all enjoyed the hospitality of Uncle Bennie. There was his Best man and best friend Ariyapala and wife Neela, his last surviving brother Ritchie, his bridesmaids Enid and Irangani, and the flower girl Nimal. There were the old and feeble ones, escorted and propped up like Aslin Akka, the front house neighbhour, who had insisted on coming to pay her respects. She had to be carried in on a chair. Among the mourners were the ones he had given money regularly from his pension.  Amma only then realised why he never had much money left in his pension.

Once Thatha had shared his bottle of cognac with the man who came to pluck coconuts from our trees. A village “hard nut,” who was used to the sharp illicit brew “Kassippu” for his daily tot. He possibly found the cognac very mild to taste and had polished off most of the bottle.  The coconut plucker never made it home that evening. He was found by his family curled up and sleeping at the railway station. The burning question of the day then in Hikkaduwa was, “What exactly did Bennie Mahattaya give him to drink?” for this seasoned imbiber to collapse!

Then there was Liyanage, the son of a schoolteacher parents who had not done much with his life.  But he was at our house to take Thatha to the Arachchikanda hospital and as soon as he heard of Thatha’s death. He was there when we handed his body to the undertakers and he stayed at the funeral parlour keeping an eye on the body for good measure.

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002 the year my father died. Photo© Chulie de Silva

Sunset through the cinnamon stick fence at Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. Circa 2002 the year my father died. Photo© Chulie de Silva

It had been three harrowing funeral days where I had kept vigil by his coffin. Emotionally, I was spent. After the cremation Liyanage sat with me on the back verandah steps on the floor at Siri Niwasa. I sat staring out at the inky night, and the tears were not far behind.  The roar of the waves was gentle but didn’t soothe me as it normally did.  Liyanage broke the silence and said he wished he had a gun to give him a gun salute at the crematorium. Memories of the number of times Father had advised him to tread the straight and narrow path was still fresh in his mind.  He told me how this advice had helped him to pull his life together. Liyanage pointed to the top of the coconut trees my father had nurtured lovingly in the back garden. “He told me that when the crests of the trees are as high as the roof of the house, I’ll be gone.”  Sure enough the top leaves were as high as the roof on that day.

The coconut trees at Hikkaduwa, 11 October, 2012. Photo©Chulie de Silva

The coconut trees at Hikkaduwa, 11 October, 2012. Photo©Chulie de Silva

Analytics of a Wedding Photo


Bennie Kirtisinghe married Manel Chitra Fernando on 8 June 1944 at the Dissanayake Waluwwa, Panadura. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

It was on a day like yesterday, 8 June 1944 Manel and Bennie, my parents got married in Panadura, at the Dissanayke Waluwa, home of Manel’s illustrious Great grandfather. Yesterday, was spent looking at this photo, thinking of my parents, reading old letters and trying to deconstruct this photo to savour a day long past. A day and events that are now mostly forgotten.

She was 22 and he was 26. He the lover of poetry quoted Shakespeare:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Today, only the two flower girls – my aunt Nimal on the left and my cousin Punya are alive from this wedding retinue.  Bennie’s Best man, his lifelong friend Ariyapala — Prof. M.B. Ariyapala, the bridesmaid on the left Manel’s only sister Irangani,  the other bridesmaid Enid, Bennie’s cousin and the cute page boy Senaka are all gone. Faintly visible to the left is the Waluwa buggy cart and on the right Bennie’s car, a Renault.

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani at her wedding to Tudor Soysa. May1957. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Irangani, who was a very clever seamstress would have sewn the bridesmaids and flower girl dresses. She would have poured over English mail order catalogues and magazines to get ideas for designing the saree blouses. If I look closely, I can see her famous embroidered roses on the frills of the blouses which look more like a top portion of western bridesmaid dress.

Nimal, the flower girl says she can remember a long luncheon table with a white linen cloth where the plates were set surrounded by red and green croton leaves and being told sternly by an aunt not to touch the decorations. She also remembers a large marquee – “Magul Maduwa” set up in the garden. It had Areca nut – Puwak trees decorated with green vines,  red and green dyed reeds ( used in traditional weaving mats we call peduru) adorned with arum lilies and barberton daisies.

Cooks and caterers would have been cooking and making preparations at least two days before the event. The wedding eve is also a huge party for all bride’s relatives, and is celebrated with much gusto in Panadura. I remember well Irangani’s wedding eve in 1957 and as my thoughts turn a cavalcade of laughing relatives faces drift past in my mind.

Bennie wearing the national dress was strange to Manel’s family in Panadura and the even more westernised Anglican cousins in Moratuwa. Cousin Ranjani in a letter written in 1994, at their 50th wedding anniversary recalled how the bride looked radiant, young and sweet and the groom was smart in his national dress  — something that was “new” to them. Manel didn’t wear a veil as a bride as most brides did, and still do, irrespective of religion. Contrary to this, the bride and bridesmaids succumbed to the western tradition and carried bouquets of flowers. The flower girls wore half sarees or lama sarees — a long skirt and a blouse and wore garlands. So a mixture of imbibed Western bridal customs and some influence from neighbhouring India. Manel’s hair ornament on her centre parting was also not very common and her brothers and younger male cousins used to make fun of it saying it looked like “a crow crapped on her head!”

Ranjani Mendi's letter

In 1940 Bennie had asked for a favour from God Kataragama, at a shrine in the Southern jungles of then Ceylon. His wish was for a lovely woman for a wife. Bennie was in Kankesanturai (KKS), the northernmost part of Jaffna, nursing his brother Lionel recuperating from TB for almost two years.  In 1941, he was back at Siriniwasa, taking a break from his lonely existence in Kankesanturai. Two of his mild flirtations one with a young girl who used to ride on the bar of his bicycle and another with a Ms. Udagama had come to naught.  His friends like Tarzie Vittachi had been writing about how they chased girls in Colombo and he too very much longed for a girlfriend. So in 1941, Bennie was ripe for love.

Bennie emerged from the back garden at Siriniwasa to greet his sister-in-law Meta’s relatives from Panadura, who were on a pilgrimage to Kataragama. And there at the doorway to the sitting room he saw Manel. Stung by the cupid’s arrow, hin his mind this was the woman sent by God Kataragama. The door became his doorway of love.

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1940s. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Manel Kirtisinghe with cousin Seetha at Kataragama, Sri Lanka. Circa 1941. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The road to Kataragama from Tissamaharama was a dirt track that meandered through thick jungles in the 1940s and travel was on bullock carts. Manel, many years later, recalled how the elders travelled in bullock carts and the young followed on foot. On the return journey from Tissamaharam Bennie and Ariyapala travelled on the same bus to Hikkaduwa. “Bennie sat with Sepal ( Manel’s brother) on his lap, and we had a huge comb of bananas hanging in the bus that we helped ourselves to when we were hungry.” 

There was some concern that Bennie’s Mum, Pinto Hamy would veto a proposal. She scorned love and had arranged marriages for 4 of her sons. The fifth Vinnie stood up to her and married his lady love, but earned her wrath. Bennie, however,  had collected valuable Brownie points looking after the TB ridden Lionel. In Manel’s favour was her lineage from the Great grandfather Mudaliyar Wijesuriya Gunawardene Mahawaduge Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake

Ariyapala in a study for his PhD points out that the Pancha Tatntra advice which says “the wise give their daughters to those endowed with seven qualities: viz.caste or family character, protection, learning, wealth or power, beauty and health or youth.” Bennie fittingly qualified and Manel’s rather quiet and docile parents had no objections to the union. In fact they might have been overjoyed that their pretty daughter had attracted such a handsome man. However, life was to show that Bennie’s most enduring quality was his love for his relations and friends.

On his 50th wedding anniversary another lifelong friend of his, Godwin Witana, had sent the wedding invitation to Bennie and Manel’s wedding, back to them. A precious souvenir! For Bennie, this invitation and the letter from Cousin Ranjanii were the best golden wedding anniversary presents.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday in Nuwara Eliya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel & Bennie Kirtisinghe on holiday at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy.  Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Manel did turn out to be the winner, that Bennie predicted and among many other accomplishments she did get him to wear western clothes too. While memories are fragile and sometimes unreliable, the written word lives on. “I got my wife to sing the song she sang on our honeymoon,” wrote Bennie. after one anniversary. He was ever the romantic.

“The day hath passed into the land of dreams
O summer day beside the joyous sea!
O summerday so wonderful and white,
So full of gladness.”

– H.W. Longfellow/A summer day by the sea

Kularatne of Ananda: biography to be launched soon.

The first comprehensive English biography of P. de. S. Kularatne will be launched shortly. Here is the official announcement.

Kularatne of Ananda coverb2 

Kularatne of Ananda 
The Life and Work of P. de S. Kularatne
by Kamalika Pieris
Sarasavi Publishers

400 pages
Rs. 750
Please direct all correspondence on this matter to:

P de S. Kularatne was 3 months shy of 25 years when he took over as Principal of Ananda College on 1st January 1918. Ananda, the most prominent Buddhist school in colonial Ceylon, still had less than 500 students after over 30 years of existence. Kularatne arrived straight out of the University of London, having obtained three degrees in the space of four years, and had no experience in administration. But in a few years he, together with a band of inspired teachers, supporters and benefactors, transformed Ananda into a pre-eminent national institution with influence far beyond traditional education. All this was achieved with meagre financial resources, a generally unsupportive (and sometimes obstructive) government and during a period of intense political ferment. When he retired 25 years later, Ananda College was synonymous with excellence. How did he do it ?

Kularatne is best known as an outstanding educationist and is mainly remembered as the person responsible for developing Ananda College into a leading school. He was a prominent figure in ‘Buddhist education’ and many Buddhist schools owe their existence to him. He pioneered secondary education in swabhasha, encouraged the teaching of indigenous dances and folk poetry in school and devised a comfortable alternative to western dress. He was at the forefront of the political movement to expand educational opportunities to the disadvantaged and was instrumental in creating a Chair for Sinhala in the university. Kularatne initiated the Commission that led to the formation of the Employees’ Provident Fund and was responsible for much of the urban infrastructure of modern Ambalangoda. His contributions to these other sectors have received little publicity and, in some instances, the credit due to him has gone to others.

There is at present no definitive account of the part played by Kularatne and Ananda College in the nationalist movement of the 20th century. The large amount of primary material unearthed while researching into the life of Kularatne is very illuminating. Such information often gets lost in the writing of a biography. Therefore, in this work, every iota of valuable information was retained and specifically woven into the narrative. This book can be read as a biography and also as a study on selected aspects of British rule in Sri Lanka.

Author Kamalika Pieris studied Sociology at University of Ceylon and obtained the Postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship from University of London. She has held positions as librarian in the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Indian Ocean Regional Office, Colombo, Sri Lanka National Library Services Board, National Institute of Business Management, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine and Sri Lanka Institute of Architects. Her publications include Medical profession in Sri Lanka 1843-1980; Bibliography of medical publications relating to Sri Lanka 1811-1976; Bibliography on urban Sinhala theatre 1867-1986; and Sinhala cinema 1948-1986. 

My Mother’s Ambul Thiyal 101


When we first took a young friend of ours for a sea bath and lunch to Hikkaduwa in the early 1970s, my father was surprised that the visitor was already a Professor at the University of Colombo. My father being from the earlier generation where they wanted to know the roots of the people, then put his foot-in-the mouth and asked where he came from.  Our friend nonchalantly replied Panangala. To which my father said “you must indeed be a clever man then!” referring to some obscure held view that Panangala is the abode of fools.

While I cringed, the visitor did not take offence.  He indeed was clever man and did go on to become a highly respected academic.  He was none other than Vidya Jyothi Prof. V.K. Samaranayake. Good naturedly he laughed the episode off, had his sea bath, king coconut water from my father’s…

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Peaches & Port for Desert!


This recipe goes back to our days in Brunei, when my two sons – the heir & the spare — were in boarding school in a town called Kooralbyn off Brisbane. I used to get them to buy me magazines, when they came for holidays. The cookery ones were purchased with much enthusiasm as they got to taste the stuff but the Cosmo’s were  bought with much grumbling and moaning, as they got teased by their mates. Still I did get both!

I’ve searched high and low for one of my photos of this desert. I did find a whole lot of pics I’d forgotten but not the one where the desert becomes the pièce de résistance at the end of a party. I used to switch off the lights, pour the warmed brandy over and light it before bringing it to the table. The little blue flames dancing on top…

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