A Mansion called Mumtaz
reported in the Sunday Times of Ceylon Nov 7, 1993
under the section titled "Stately Homes" by Raine Wickramatunga and Renuka Sadananden
Since the dawn of independence in 1948, Mumtaz Mahal has gained eminence as the official residence of the Speakers of Sri Lanka's Parliament. A tradition that began with the colorful figure of Sir Francis Molamure, the first Speaker of Independent Ceylon, is carried on today by present Speaker MH Mohamed, who, interestingly is a kinsman of the man who built this splendid dwelling by the sea.
Having been built in an era when colonial influence was strong economically, culturally, and politically, it comes as no surprise that Mumtaz Mahal, like many other mansions of the day, bore the stamp of British architecture. It was one Mohamed Ali Mohamed Hussain, a wealthy Muslim gentleman, who commissioned a promising young architect, Homi Billimoria, to create the elegant home he envisioned. Blending the luxurious lines of a Mediterranean villa with classic British, Billimoria completed the task and the mansion was later embellished with fine furniture created by French nobleman, Count De Mauny. The Count, who at that time had purchased an island off Weligama Bay, gained a reputation in Ceylon as a fine landscape artist, and Mohamed Hussain, recognizing his skills engaged him to lay out the lawns and sunken gardens of Mumtaz Mahal.
In her book, "Sri Lanka through French Eyes", historian Lorna Devarajah, writes of Count De Mauny, "Count De Mauny gained a reputation in Sri Lanka after the beautiful garden he created in the island. His next love was furniture and he gained inspiration for French models, mainly Nedun inlaid with Ebony, Sandalwood, Satinwood, Tamarind and Calamander. He stamped the furniture he designed with his initial M surrounded by nine little circles."
To embark on the building of Mumtaz Mahal, Mohamed Hussain had to first demolish St. Margaret's French-style villa, bequeathed to him by his father Mohamed Ali. This he did much against the wishes of his wife Ayesha, who, it is said was a mioderating influence on her easy-going husband.
The house was completed in 1929, and the family who had been resident in the neighboring "Icicle Hall" (later demolished to make way for Sri Kotha) moved in.
It was a family friend, lawyer Sri Nissanka who came up with the name that still endures. The friends were once strolling in the terraced gardens of the newly constructed house when Mohamed Hussain, turning to his friend, asked him whether he could suggest a name for the house. "What is the name of your youngest daughter?" Sri Nissanka queried, and on being told that it was Mumtaz, he replied, "Why not call it Mumtaz Mahal? After all Shah Jehan, whose wife was also Mumtaz named his monument Taj Mahal."
For the next few years, the family lived a life of leisure and abundance. The four elder Hussain children, Badr, Mahdi, Alavi & Mumtaz, were drilled in their lessons by an English governess, Violet Bell, who lived with the family for several years. Another son, Ali, was born later. Palmy days they were, recalls Mahdi, elder son of Mohamed Hussain and Ayesha.
"My father was essentially a product of the inter-war generation", he says. A scion of one of the wealthiest Muslim families in Colombo society, Mohamed Hussain had the added advantage of an indulgent father who lavished every luxury upon his son. As a young man, Mohamed Hussain travelled frequently in the continent, and developed a special fondness for Paris and the Riviera. On his travels, however, he was seldom accompanied by his home-loving wife who considered it her duty to be with her children at all times. It is, however, a reflection of her quiet strength of character that she undertook the Haj Pilgrimage, a rough journey in the 1920's, making the trip from Jeddah to Makkah across the desert sands on camel back.
Mohamed Hussain's son remembers his father as a man who had an eye for all things beautiful and a highly developed aesthetic sense. He would return from his travels bearing as hand-picked collection of art pieces, and one in particular was an exquisite statue of Joan of Arc bearing a lamp which was placed on the banister at the foot of the staircase at Mumtaz Mahal.
Mohamed Hussain's collector's passion extended to sleek limousines and the Napiers, Minervas, and Ausburns of the early days gradually gave way to flashier Cadillacs and custom-made Chryslers.
Although not given to literary pursuits himself, Mohamed Hussain, nevertheless set his children on a good academic footing. Once, he even purchased the entire library of French books at Adisham, Haputale from its owner, Sir Thomas Villiers, to encourage his son Mahdi.
Mahdi also recalls childhood memories of his maternal uncles, Faleel and Yusuf Caffoor, cantering up the drive to Mumtaz Mahal on their polo ponies and even attempting to ride them up the steps of the house, much to their sisters disapproval.
"We children were however delighted and would rush to greet them with lumps of sugar and carrots for the ponies", he says.
When the Great Depression of the 1920's ravaged Europe, its effects were even felt in far away Ceylon, and many families - the Hussains among them - saw their fortunes decline. Soon the family moved back to Icicle Hall and Mumtaz Mahal was leased to the French Consul. Successive French Consuls made this their official residence until World War II when the Vichy Government took over power in France in 1941 and recalled its envoys. The last Consul, Morand, is still remembered by family members with wry humor. Morand's dogs, it seems - much to Mohamed Hussains chagrin, mauled his prized Persian carpets.
Thereafter, Mumtaz Mahal was requisitioned by the British Government for Admiral Layton, chief commander of the South East Asian Forces in Colombo, who lived there until the end of the War.
It was then that a new chapter in the history of Mumtaz Mahal began. It happened when Sir Francis Molamure proposed to his friend Mohamed Hussain that he let the Government acquire Mumtaz Mahal together with its furniture - to be used as the Speaker's official residence. And so it was that the first Speaker of Independent Ceylon, Sir Francis Molamure, came to live at Mumtaz Mahal.
Sir Francis too had grandiose plans for Mumtaz Mahal, says present caretaker Sunil Dassanayake, whose father, Podi Appuhamy Dassanayake, served as caretaker from 1948 to 1977. He laid the foundation for a swimming pool on a side lawn but for reasons unknown this was never accomplished.
Sir Francis, however, made full use of the existing billiard room, like Mohamed Hussain before him. Interestingly, the billiard room, came complete with a hatch, used for delivering food from the kitchens. Not wishing to offend Muslim sensibilities, however, Mohamed Hussain had the billiard room built as a separate section adjacent to the main house.
Since then, many eminent Sri lankan Speakers have used this as their official residence. They were Sir Albert Pieris, HS Ismail, TB Subasinghe, RS Pelpola, Hugh Fernando, Shirley Corea, Stanley Tillekaratne, Anandatissa de Alwis, Bakeer Markar, EL Senanayake and MH Mohamed.
For Mr Mohamed, it has been a happy homecoming of sorts. Being a close relative of both the Abdul Caffoor (Ayesha's parents) and the Hussain families, Mr Mohamed, upon assuming office, hosted a reception to his kinsfolk who all had a sentimental link with the house.
Forty five years later, Mumtaz Mahal is still the grand old house of Mohamed Hussain's dreams. Still a landmark in Colombo with its tall wrought iron gates, its white wall facade is visible to the passerby on the busy Galle Road.
For the Hussain family, whose life at Mumtaz Mahal was all too brief, the house, nevertheless, evokes many happy memories. Among the Hussain family members is Mumtaz herself who immortalized a mansion.
The story of a house
A few days ago, I took my father to see his childhood home. Situated on the busy and newly refurbished Galle Road in Kollupitiya, the house sat on a piece of land that stretched from the Galle Road down towards the sea. It is a testament to a long-lost era of spacious compounds with large houses, vast rooms and elaborate gardens.
My father often told me stories of how he would go to sleep lulled by the sound of the waves of the Indian Ocean pounding on the beach outside. Of playing in the gardens and sitting on the verandas with his siblings and parents. He was talking of a period that I was not familiar with, when Sri Lanka was called Ceylon and still a colony under British rule. As we walked down the drive, the house though shabby still looked imposing and the gardens though neglected showed traces of what they would have been like long years back. It would have been a magnificent house.
This is the story of that house. Around 1927, my grandfather, a man prone to insane fits of building extravagant houses, embarked on a project that would ruin him. The youngest and spoilt son of a rich man, he was presented a house called St Margaretís which was a lovely French styled villa, by his father. He tore down the house against his wifeís wishes and in 1928, he commissioned the services of the architect Homi Billimoria (who would go on to build Tintagel in 1929) to build him another house on the same piece of land that echoed his vision and would be the very definition of himself. It was a house that mixed the styles of Italian renaissance and colonial grandeur. Tall columns, sweeping stairways, wide balconies, high ceilings, intricate floors and broad verandas were all part of the house design. Once the house was completed, he hired the Count de Mauny, who romanticised and made the island of Taprobane off Weligama famous, to design the gardens and furniture to fit the house. Sunken gardens, elaborate drive-ways, garden stairs and framed views were his theme; his furniture using exquisite, rare and native woods were art nouveau replete with complicated inlays and detail. The furniture was specifically built for the house and resulted in being extra tall, extra large and extra elaborate. The beds could sleep three or four people easily, the sofas were as wide as beds, the dressing tables had tall mirrors and the cupboards were deep.
My father spent three happy years there, before my grandfather, deep in bankruptcy, was forced to rent the house to the French consul until 1943. He vividly remembers the day he and his siblings left the house, led by the hand by his father and taking one last look at the Joan of Arc statue at the bottom of the stairs hoping that a miracle would happen and that he would never have to leave.
the French consul left Sri Lanka on the fall of the Vichy government, Sir
Geoffrey Layton who was Commander in Chief Ė Ceylon, took over the tenancy. In
1947 when Ceylon achieved Dominion status the government began to look for a
house for the first Speaker. My grandfatherís house was sold together with some
of the Count de Mauny furniture to the government of
Ceylon and Sir Francis Mollamure took residence. For
the next 53 years eminent citizens of the country like Sir Albert Pieris, HS Ismail, TB Subasinghe,
RS Pelpola, Hugh Fernando, Shirley Corea, Stanley Tillekaratne, Anandatissa de Alwis, M H
Mohamed, Bakeer Markar, and
EL Senanayake among others lived in the house that
became the official residence of the Speaker of the Parliament.
Over the years, my family has been invited by various members who held the post of Speaker to have high tea and walk about the house that my ancestors once owned. It was like walking into another era for my sister and I as we roamed through the rooms, laughed at the now strange looking oversized furniture and the vast and over-bearing rooms.
house and gardens always looked well kept and it must have given my father
pleasure to know that his childhood home was well looked after. Then a newer
residence was built in Sri Jayawardenepura, as the
official residence of the Speaker and the house went through a series of
different identities, including the office of the short-lived Constitutional
Council and the Fiscal Ombudsman.
A few days ago, while driving past I was pleasantly surprised to see that the house now housed the Buddhist and Pali University. My father with his love for languages and philosophy was pleased that his childhood home was now a home for academia. We decided to visit.
we climbed up the stairs to the house from a side entrance we began to get a
sense of the neglect that had set in. The walls were damp and green with mould,
the intricate parquet floor was wet, a heavy fetid
smell followed us through the house. The remnants of the Count de Mauny furniture, and there were not many, were pushed to a
side carelessly and were in a state of disrepair. Velvet curtains hung loosely
as if in a mad scene from Great Expectations. The Joan of Arc statue was no
longer there. I looked sideways at my father to see if he was upset. His face
was the picture of calm. He has a Buddhist outlook on life and knows that
nothing is permanent.
When I asked a man loitering outside why it was in such a neglected state, he told me it seemed to be between authorities and no-one wanted to take responsibility for it. When I told him that it was my fatherís childhood home, he asked us if we were Indian. I had to tell him that we were born and bred Sri Lankans for many generations and that we still live in the general area. He seemed mystified and kept on asking if we were returning to India. Perhaps he had been told that the man who built the house was an Indian, or perhaps he thought that Hussein was not really a Sri Lankan name.
A few days ago I had the good fortune of listening to Professor Guhar who spoke about making Asian cities habitable from a perspective of the past, at the 12th Neelan Tiruchelvam Annual Lecture. He touched on the three salient points of ancient cities ĖNature, Democracy and Tradition, and congratulated Colombo on still possessing heritage houses and colonial buildings. Looking at the treatment this particular house is receiving, perhaps it wonít be there for long.
I mourn that a heritage house like this is falling apart under our very own eyes. I bemoan the fact that our government has not set up a heritage trust to protect or maintain historical buildings. Soon, I expect it will be bulldozed to make room for a bright, shining, steel and glass monstrosity. Then the city of Colombo will forget that it once housed a residence called Mumtaz Mahal. Initially a rich manís folly, elevated to the residence of many eminent Sri Lankans including various Speakers of Ceylon, and now a dilapidated classroom that resembles a slum!
(Ameena Hussein is a partner of Perera Hussein Publishing House and a writer)