By Shabna Cader
Pix by Tharaka Basnayake
The imposing structure that stands at No. 65, Rosmead Place is identified today as a boutique hotel, yet behind its impressive facade hides memories of an influential political ancestry; a family that governed the Island for over two decades and generations lived within the halls of ‘Tintagel’. The edifice was once home to the Bandaranaikes. Gifted to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike by his father, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the house served as the playground for Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura. It was amidst the Doric and Ionic colonnades of Tintagel, they first made their memories of childhood. However, many islanders recognize the palatial house as the site of the assassination of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike on 26 September 1959 by Buddhist monk Talduwe Somarama, brining his term as the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon to an end.
Home of the elite
The iconic abode once belonged to an elite gynaecologist, physician and writer, Dr. Lucien de Zilwa. It is said that he commissioned Billimoria, a Parsi architect to build him a residence suitable for a grand family home in the year 1929. The house was completed the following year.
It was inclusive of a central corridor running from north to south; decorated with a marble fountain and colourful electric bulbs. The roof above was covered with hundreds of glass tiles. The rest of the floor boards on the ground floor were of one inch thick teak, whereas the upper level ground was completed in concrete. One room was dedicated to over 6,000 books and his daughter was said to have provided piano lessons to the elite. A tennis court, stables and ample space for soirees completed the backyard. According to the doctor’s autobiography titled ‘Scenes of a Lifetime’ the house was always flooded with light, the steps from the porch onto the veranda were completed with large solid blocks of white marble, said to have been imported from North India. Maintenance would have been expensive even during that period of time.
When naming his palatial home, he followed a trend that became popular at the time in Sri Lanka. This was to name mansion homes after British castles. And so, Dr. de Zilwa’s abode was named ‘Tintagel’ after a castle located in North Cornwall, said to have been the birthplace and home of King Arthur.
By the year 1942, the owner was given just a week’s notice to vacate his home. It was an order by the British Military whose intention was to house 100 soldiers at Tintagel. On the final day of notice, three incidents took place at the de Zilwa’s; the doctor’s oldest daughter’s birthday, his champion horse Reaction’s death by means of food poisoning and the his pet peacock being killed and partially eaten by a stray dog.
The regal family
After four years of being used as a military abode, Tintagel was finally given back to the de Zilwa family in the year 1946. Unfortunately the house was in terrible state. The entire backyard that included the tennis court, the lawn and flower garden were ploughed by lorries. The wooden teak blocks had been displaced and many of the intricately detailed lamp shades had been broken. This disheartened the gynaecologist who sold the house for less than half of what it cost him to build. Tintagel was then bought by the late Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. He bought the house in the year 1947 for his son, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike who was at the time living in a rented house by the Lionel Wendt in Guildford Crescent.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s son Anura Priyadarshi Solomon Dias Bandaranaike was the only offspring who was born within the confines of Tintagel; his daughters Sunethra Dias Bandaranaike and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga grew up in this house.
A dreary turn of events
In 1959 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, was shot in the veranda of his home by a hired gunman. He was the only three and a half years into his five year term as the Prime Minister of the country. His was the first political assassination in Sri Lanka. In the month of July 1960 his widowed wife Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman Prime Minister. In the years that followed, Anura became a Member of Parliament and his daughter Chandrika, went on to become the first female President in Sri Lanka.
The family moved out of the house sometime after the year 1960 and Tintagel was rented out to first the Burmese and then the Egyptian Ambassadors during the years 1962 and 1967 respectively. Sirimavo Bandaranaike moved back to the house during her last stint as Prime Minister in the year 2000.
Change of hands
After her mother’s death, Sunethra inherited life interest in the house and lived by herself for a period of three years after which she realized it was too big for her to live in alone. As the home of a family of politicians and a mansion in its own right, it needed to be maintained well at all times. As a close friend of Shanth Fernando’s, she called him for advice on what she should do. She also disposed of many of the furniture in the house and auctioned a few other pieces away. When it came to discussing renting the 12,000 x 14,000 square feet abode, Fernando offered to take it over.
Two years eight months later, with consent from the rest of the Bandaranaike family, Tintagel was transformed into the chic, boutique hotel it is today.
When one takes a look at Tintagel, there is more to it than the sleek white washed walls, the green shrubbery that surrounds it and the objects that fill the empty space within. The facade of the original construction still remains the same and represents the heritage, history and architectural traditions of old Ceylon. The design of the house has been transformed and does not embody its heyday design anymore. Its colonial style has been retained, with a fine combination of antiques, modern furniture and art within the interior of the house.
Stepping within the surrounding walls and shrubbery, one would notice that every addition is in perfect alignment with its architecture. There is a place for everything; both the old and the new. Almost nothing feels like it is out of place, but more like it fits and belongs. The front courtyard is complemented by a water fountain and two large louvered urns topped with topiary bushes that flank the entrance doorway on either side. The rear walls were raised and more vines were added to camouflage the surrounding so that seclusion is granted. Every detail of the house and all items of decoration have been carefully selected and designed to suit the preference of its current proprietor and designer, Shanth Fernando. “It will be years in the month of November, since Tintagel opened doors as a boutique hotel. What must be noted is that this is an extension of who I am; an extension and reflection of my personal taste. All the changes were accomplished without affecting the original architecture of the house. When everything was complete, we were able to still retain a distinct colonial style” he said.
Today, there are ten suites with two-toned combinations of colour. A keen eye on detail and exterior designing was brought in by architect Philip Weeraratne. Sofas were brought in from Spain, carpets woven in Kathmandu, an antique mirror from Paris, moss balls from Germany, ceramic vases from The Netherlands and framed original lithographs of the Court of Arms of major cities from 1872, written in Dutch. The upper level concrete floor was replaced with wooden boarding. And an impressive grand piano stands in the lobby.
The character, aura and history of the structure are unmistakable. The distinction between all three makes Tintagel what it is today; an abode steeped with heritage, walls that whisper the tales of yesteryear and reminiscences of memories from long ago.