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How the Beira got its name

by Sumana Saparamadu - Sunday June 13 2004

How many of us working here in the house by the Beira know its origin? Sometime early last year 'Charnika' writing about 'The Dutch Presence in Colombo' in the Sunday Observer Magazine had this answer to my question. "The lake is so named after the Dutch engineer De Beira, a water engineer who handled the first dredging of the lake."

Another journalist writing about the lake, also in the Sunday Observer, wrote with brash confidence, "There were no two words about it, the lake has been named after the Dutch engineer De Beer". The same derivation of the lake's name was repeated by DCR in the Fun Times.

Going through the clippings in the file on Beira in the Lake House Library, I found another reference to the Dutch engineer De Beer. Saman Indrajith says, (The Island 12. October 99) "According to historians and legends there are three possibilities for the origin of the name Beira. The First, that it was named after engineer Beira, who was assigned by Captain Lopo de Brito, to dam the stream to form a lake for security purposes." The stream referred to is a distributary of the Kelani river, known as the Kolon Ganga. The second that it commemorates the Dutchman De Beer, who 'built moats and the water defences of the Colombo Fort around 1700.' The third, that the name of the place - de Beira - where boats were berthed, was extended to the lake.

I would very much like to know Indrajith's source of information. Charnika has mixed up the two engineers, the Dutchman De Beer who dredged the lake and the Portuguese Beira who built the dam. There is no dam anymore, but its memory lives in a street name in Colombo Central.

H.A.J. Hulugalle, who had done much research to compile 'Colombo - The Centenary Volume' to mark 100 years of the Colombo Municipal Council says, one of the earliest references to the lake is found in 'The Conquest of Ceylon' by Father Fernao de Queyroz published in 1688.

Father Queyroz wrote that when Vijayabahu laid siege to Colombo in 1522, the Portuguese captain Lopo de Britto pursued the attackers killing and wounding them till they reached a brook, which was afterwards dammed into a lake for the better fortification of the city'. Does Queyroz mention that the task was assigned to Beira ? I do not have with me a copy of Queyroz' book, to verify.

I have my own explanation of the origin of Beira. If the lake was named after the Dutchman de Beer, or according to Indrajith's information, the Portuguese engineer's name was given to the lake, how come there is a Berathuduwa - Point de Beira - near Balapitiya in the Galle district ? This village couldn't possibly have had any connection with either engineers whose names are supposed to be the origin of the name of the Colombo lake.

There is Beira, a coastal town, in Mozambique, once a Portuguese Colony. I venture to suggest Beira is a Portuguese word referring to a topographical feature. In Portugal there is a province called Beira divided into Beira Alta, Beira Baixa, and Beira Litoral (The Times World Atlas map 76). As defined in the Portuguese - English Dictionary, which I was able to refer by courtesy of the editor of the Sinhala Dictionary Dr Vinnie Vitharana, BEIRA is bank or brink of any water. It is also the name of the largest province in Portugal.

I have with me a clipping from the Weekly Telegraph (the overseas edition of the London Daily Telegraph) about Beira Litoral which unfortunately cannot be reproduced here.

"This is real Portugal", says the Telegraph," a rural region known as Beiras Litoral. Through the center runs Serra da Estrela, where you can ski in winter. Yet the area is little touched by tourism nor, thankfully, by new development and visiting it is like stepping back in time."

It was interesting to note - again information gleaned from clippings in the Lake House library - that the name Beira first appeared in a map in 1927. What was this map ? Until then it was referred to simply as the lake or Colombo lake.

The Kandy lake has no special name, though some mistakenly call it 'Bogambara Wewa' which was filled up long ago and the prison stands on the reclaimed land.

Where Lake House stands today was, at the turn of the 20th century, part of the lake or its brink, and the building was appropriately named Lake House. Of late, Lake House is referred to as 'Beiray Gedera'. Two Journalists, Anula de Silva who started her career at Lake House, and Sujeeva Dissanayake, Editor Silumina until 2001, have given some status to the name 'Beiray Gedera', by naming their memoirs, 'Beiray Gedera' sita (Starting from Beiray Gedera) and Cotta Paray Sita 'Beiray Gedarata' (From Cotta Road to Beiray Gedera) respectively. 'Beiray Gedera' has now established itself as the Sinhala name for Lake House.

Who christened Lake House 'Beiray Gedera'? I have it on the authority of veteran journalist D.F. Kariyakarawana, a long-time staffer at Lake House, that the name was coined by the writer Hemapala Munidasa sometime in the sixties, to poke fun at or deride our establishment. Its origin forgotten, the name has lot its derogatory flavour.

After 30 and more years, its origin is remembered only by veterans in the profession like D.F. Kari, who recalled the names Hemapala Munidasa coined for the other two newspaper houses of the time. The Times Group he named 'Samayan Gedera', after the popular cartoon, Samaaja Samayan in the 'Lanka Deepa', and the Sun Group was 'Magul Gedera' because that Group's evening daily was teeming with news items about illicit loves, elopements, suicides and murders by jilted lovers.