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The saga of the Kotelawala family

by Padma Edirisinghe

Wickremesinghe Mudali is a recurring character in both the Rajavaliya and Alagakkonnara Yuddaya that chronicle the Sinhala-Portuguese wars fought in the eve of the 16th century. Tikiri Kumaru Rajasinghe, known also as Degambada Sinhaya (the lion who fought on the two banks) due to his fierce struggle waged on the Kelani banks against the foe was ably supported by this Mudali.

Some traditions ascribe to him the paternity of Raigama Bandara, brother of King Mayadunne and father of the Lion king.

Anyway the fact remains that the Mudali hailed from Raigam Korale and after the laurels of war were won went back to live in Kotelawala, a village off Bandaragama in close proximity to the ruins of the ancient palace of Raigama on which an ancient temple, a Raja Maha Vihara, sprawls today. The area is now known at Pathahawatte and valuable treasures that only a palace can own are unearthed now and then from the vicinity. A golden giraya retrieved from a deep well in the premises was one such finding.

Coming back to Wickremesinghe Mudali it is natural that after such a brilliant military career that he become the foremost citizen of the village of Kotelawala. As in many a country it was customary in ancient and medieval Lanka for the foremost family to take on the name of the village or particular terrain they live in. This accounts for the genesis of names as Bulankulama, Ellepola, Ratwatte, Amunugama, Mahawelatenna. So the Wickremesinghe family eventually began to be known as the Kotelawala family, according to tradition.

The family earns no historical mention in the next two or three centuries when Dutch rule replaced the Ferenghi rule and the British rule followed. Inevitably during this period, as all other prominent low country families did there was no escape from alien influences leading the Kotelawalas to taking on names of Johannes. However the Christianisation of the Kotelawala family seems to have been very short-lived. Perhaps they became nominal Christians during Dutch rule and reverted to Buddhism very early.

The 20th Impressions of Ceylon (edited by A. Wright) mentions a Kotelawala who acted as an Atapattu Mudaliyar of Colombo around 1780, and it can be inferred that at this time the family had gone over to the Dutch Reformed Church for titular gains.

The more modern period of the Kotelawala saga begins with Don Manuel Kotelawala who lived in Undugoda, Bandaragama. One of his sons, D. A. Kotelawala had a number of children, one of whom fathered the John Kotelawala line. Another was Don Abraham Kotelawala who had 3 sons, one of whom, Johannes Kotelawala married into the Kannangara family of Bandaragama.

D. C. Kotelawala, the outcome of this alliance born in mid 1880s in Bandaragama was an adventurous youth who decided to migrate to a strange unopened area in the island to carve out a novel career for himself. The area was Uva and the career was transport.

Uva had been a hotbed of rebellion and was still suffering from the ravages of British military action. They had taken revenge from the area by completely neglecting it economic-wise, transport-wise and education-wise. Even the much flaunted train service stopped at Bandarawela. There was only one English medium school, i.e. the Uva Collegiate School put up by missionaries that was established to cater to children of British planters and officers. Education of the socially lesser kids was completely neglected.

It is a moot point whether D. C. Kotelawala decided to act as the saviour of Uva but he ended up so, a fact much unpublicised. He began his mission via the transport career, a very risky venture as the forest shrouded Uva was stalked not only by bandits and gang robbers but by wild beasts.

Motor transport was unheard of. Meanwhile goods were pouring into Colombo harbour from all parts of the world and the rail traffic distributed them to many parts of the Island. Only the route to Batticaloa via Ratnapura, Badulla and Bibile ran along footpaths of the forest.

It was into such a set-up that DC entered with youthful bravado leaving the comforts of the ancestral house at Kotelawala, foolhardy bravado, his adults would have commented. He first introduced a fleet of double bullock carts to carry goods through the jungle maze. Stopovers or bivouvacs gradually emerged to tend to the carters and beasts from which the modern towns in the area emerged. A fearless, strong and well-built man, DC himself had personally supervised the transport network often sleeping at wayside lodgings.

The success led him to introduce the horse drawn carriage to cater to well-to-do passengers. The area slowly opened up leading to the eclipse of the bandits and robbers. The title of Muhandiram was conferred on him and an ancient family of the area, the Wijekoons conquered him as a son-in-law. A stately house put up at Hindagoda off Badulla became the family residence. DC Now launched into the social and educational arena. He became the first President of the Badulla Dharmadutha Society, so necessary for the moral uplifting of the area. Not only the British but Colonel Olcott's BTS movement too had neglected Uva English education, a gap soon filled by DC who put up the Dharmadutha College for boys and Sujatha Vidyalaya for girls. He also patronised and resuscitated Pirivena education.

One of his sons, Henry went on to end up as Sir Henry Kotelawala and represented Uva in the Legislature and State Council for a record number of years. One of his sons, Jack Kotelawala too to politics and it was he who introduced the Leftist Movement to Uva. His cousin, Sir John Kotelawala, son of the famous John Kotelawala, Senior, moved on to Kandawala off Ratmalana generating Kotelawalapura, the industrial town of Ratmalana and the Kotelawala Defence Academy. Needless to say he joined the galaxy of Lanka's premiers too. His premiership role however never flagged his strong individuality, a die-hard characteristic of the Kotelawala cum Wickremesinghe line.

Among the more prominent Kotelawalas living today are Lalith Kotelawala, head of the Ceylinco Group of Companies responsible for a vast gamut of social service activity. He is the son of Mr. Justin Kotelawala and nephew of Sir John Kotelawala.

(The genealogical facts of this article have been supplied to the writer by Mrs. Christobel Weerasinghe, only daughter of Sir Henry Kotelawala and wife of late Oliver Weerasinghe, who ended his career as SL ambassador to USA

Oliver Weerasinghe's 23rd death anniversary tomorrow : 

The father of Sri Lanka's town planning

by Jayanthi Liyanage  - Daily News Sat April 12 2003

Oliver Weerasinghe - designed the present Lake House building at the time of D.R. Wijewardene, the then Managing Director of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

Much has been written about him before. Much remains still to write about him, to let the present and future generations know of this pioneering man.

Tomorrow marks the 3rd death anniversary of Oliver Weerasinghe, Sri Lanka's first city planner and architect who once was the country's Ambassador to the U.S.A. An international civil servant who was also an exemplary gentleman. A reminder of the service he has rendered to the country jolts the minds of those who catch sight of the garden seat erected in his name at the Vihara Maha Devi Park where he died of a heart attack on January 20, 1980, as dawn was breaking, while taking his customary morning stroll.

Perhaps, it can be said that in Oliver's long, multi-faceted and illustrious career, there are three memorable architectural moments for which he is reverently lauded and remembered. The premier of which is the planning and development of the new city of Anuradhapura in 1940's, as a step to preserving the ancient city.

"It is amazing how much of history, sheer architectural dignity and beauty lie literally undeground or scattered in tumbled heaps of stone masonry in jungle glades and village gardens and city lots up and down Ceylon," Oliver had noted in one of his articles, revealing his great love for Anuradhapura. "A single pillar may mark a colonnade, a single state a hidden shrine..."

The second instance is the construction of the new wing of the Lake House building when Oliver's kinsman late D.R. Wijewardene was the Managing Director of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL). The edifice has over the years continued to house the country's largest newspaper group which is ANCL.

At the opening of new city of Anuradhapura with former Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake. Third from left, Oliver Weerasinghe.

The third was the planning and landscape design of the Peradeniya campus regarded as one of the most beautiful seats of learning. Oliver's expertise in urban planning and economic development was much harnessed by President J.R. Jayewardene and Prime Minister R. Premadasa.

His wife, Christobel Weerasinghe, the only daughter of Sir Henry Kotalawala, who represented Uva and Badulla in the State Council of Ceylon for 28 years, preserves the memory of her husband as "A most wonderful husband!"

"I always wanted to do things my own way," she says, referring to her past as the Alternative Representative of the World Federation of United Nations during 1956-1965 and later, doing children's programmes at SLBC Radio. "But he knew how to quietly guide me. If he said 'don't do it', I certainly would have done it!"

Christobel pays a tribute to D.R. Wijewardene, saying, "Bless him, he created the first post of Architect and City Planner for the country (my husband) with the help of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Minister of Local Government, to head Ceylon's first Department of Town and Country Planning."

The "local press baron" as she calls him, also brought the husband and wife together by arranging Oliver to come and see the Visakhian Christobel's performance as heroine Arlene in the operetta La-Boheme in which she sang "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls."

Oliver was educated at Royal College and then at Liverpool University, UK, under teacher Sir Patrick Abercrombie who later acted as the Consultant when Oliver designed Anuradhapura New Town. He qualified as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and a Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, gathering expertise in both fields.

His articles on international forums and the press and journals here and abroad are proof of his proficiency in widely different fields. He also contributed greatly towards housing development. The Oliver Weerasinghe committee's recommendations paved the way for a separate Ministry for Housing in 1954. He was also the Founder President of the Ceylon Institute of Architects.

In 1956, Oliver joined the UNO and was subsequently appointed as Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the USA. At the demise of this Father of Sri Lanka's Town Planning, a dual fund was established by his wife, son and daughter to widen the study literature available to the students of Architecture and Town Planning. J.M.L. Jayasekara, Director-General, National Physical Planning Department and current President, Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA), started the OW Library Trust Fund for Town Planners while V.N.C. Gunasekera, President, Organization of Professional Associations and Past President of SLIA, started the OW Library Trust Fund for Architects.

Oliver was also a member of the UDA and a Consultant to the GCEC on the regional development of the "Area of Authority." This erudite personality of whom it is said "The higher he rose, the humbler he became," has left to follow in his traditions his son, Rohan, a Senior Managing Partner of a major global law firm, and daughter, Menakka, formerly a lecturer at the University of Michigan, both now domiciled abroad