My non-fiction writing centers on my many trips to Sri Lanka. I have a creative non-fiction piece titled Like an Elephant in production now with Austin Macauley Publishers and a self-published ebook called Three Buddhist Treasures in Kandy. Today I will explore two awesome but overlooked places near Bentota, a popular beach resort just south of Colombo: Brief Garden and Lunagana.
Geoffrey (1919 – 2003) and Bevis (1909 – 1992) Bawa are two of Sri Lanka’s famous sons. Geoffrey was a talented architect renowned for tropical modernist design. His work is spread throughout Asia including India, Singapore, Pakistan, Japan and Fiji. Geoffrey’s older brother Bevis was a soldier, a lawyer and then a landscape architect.
I imagined that their combined talents made for some beautiful spaces and was eager to see these two estates.
Lunuganga, the home of Geoffrey Bawa. The house was begun in 1947 while Bawa was a lawyer. Working on this project inspired him to become an architect. Bawa’s designs were an important departure from the British colonial style as he sought to merge hardscape with landscape to create buildings that worked with both the climate and natural elements specific to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.
The road from Bentota to Lunaganga follows a road that winds its way through coconut plantations and brilliant green rice paddies before crossing an inlet. Eventually the road ends with a fence. When I visited, there was no sign, but my phone map said we were at Lunuganga, Lucky, my Sri Lankan friend, found a buzzer and spoke to someone on an intercom. We were asked to wait.
A few minutes later the gate opened and a man dressed in a white shirt and white sarong greeted us. He introduced himself as Nadu and announced he was to be our guide on a garden tour. “We have guests from Japan at the hotel, so we will not go inside that building,” Nadu explained as he led us on a leisurely walk through some 15 acres of lovely gardens incorporating water and local as well as exotic plants. The property was once part of a rubber estate. The verdant landscape was lush with plants, terraces and pavilions. Birds flitted from tree to tree and filled the misty humid air with song. Huge silver-trunked frangipani trees spread their limbs contrasting starkly with the dark greens of the foliage surrounding them. Our mouths hung open when we walked onto a terrace that would have been at home on the Amalfi Coast. Romanesque statues lined the edge of a terrace overlooking Dedduwa Lake. Through breaks in the greenery we glimpsed several buildings for guests. We were also able to go into some rooms designed for parties and relaxing scattered about the property. The high ceiling rooms were very cool and airy – perfect for Sri Lanka’s humid high temperatures. The light filtered through the adjacent foliage dappling the walls and casting the cream colored walls with stipples of soft greens and light. Stunning.
After a quick lunch of rice an curry, I went to Brief Garden, the home of Bevis Bawa, located about 10 kilometers from Bentota. Bevis Bawa was quite the character. He was a heavy smoker and drinker and openly homosexual in a culture where being gay is often hidden. He entertained movie stars and artists. His sense of humor is clearly manifest in some of his statues that have strategically placed carrots. How funny.
Faces, phalluses and female genitalia are recurring motifs in the garden as are flowing lines and lush planting. Several ornate reflecting pools adorn the gardens along with grand stairways and meandering paths. Lucky and I helped each other spot hidden treasures one of which was a large but harmless snake lounging in the sun.
Once finished outside, the caretaker took us through the house decorated in an eclectic style with Sri Lanka antiques and contemporary pieces. We saw Bawa’s study, and enjoyed looking at the period photos and the artwork.