Colombo, January 12: The Independence Square in Colombo is one of the most attractive recreational centers in Sri Lanka’s capital. Early morning and evening, the young and the elderly jog or walk on tree-lined tracks overlooking manicured lawns. While health freaks are busy making good use of the exercise equipment provided free by the government, trained instructors teach kids the martial arts.
During much of the day, however, the scene is very different. It becomes a quiet retreat for couples. And as the day progresses, bus-loads of foreign tourists pour into the square to look at the ornate Sinhalese-style pavilion built to mark the place where Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then called) was formally declared independent from Britain on February 4, 1948. A majestic statue of Don Stephen Senanayake, the “Father of the Nation” who led the peaceful and constitutional independence movement, fittingly dominates the landscape.
Formerly known as Torrington Square, Independence Square, has more to it than being a monument to the nation’s independence. The square is historical place, having witnessed glorious as well as somber and dark events.
The most outstanding event was of course, the declaration of independence and the inauguration of the first session of the Ceylonese parliament by Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, on February 4, 1948. The next year, the government decided to build a fitting monument to independence and its “father” in the form of a pavilion reflecting the history and culture of Sri Lanka. The pavilion in stone was designed by a group of eight notable architects led by the British architect Tom Neville Wynne-Jones CBE. The team included Sri Lankans F.H. Billimoria, Shirley de Alwis, Oliver Weerasinghe, Homi Billimoria, Justin Samarasekera and M. B. Morina. The design was based on the Magul Maduwa (Celebration Hall), the Royal audience hall of the Kingdom of Kandy.But there is a somber side to this. It was at the Magul Maduwa in Kandy that the Kandyan Convention was signed on March 2, 1815. By that convention, the Kandyan Chiefs, who had rebelled against the then King Sri Wickremarajasinghe, handed over the island to the British on a platter as it were.
Construction of the modern Magul Maduwa started on February 4, 1949 the country’ second independence day, and was completed in 1953. The pavilion was built to seat 224 persons. 25,000 persons could sit in in the open area outside the hall. And the grounds further apart could accommodate 100,000.
Currently, the pavilion and the surrounding space are used for national and religious events. It is also the preferred place to cremate national leaders and iconic Sri Lankan figures. Maithripala Sirisena took his oaths as President of Sri Lanka in the pavilion in 2015 to usher in a “Yahapalanaya” or Good Governance regime. The funerals of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, political leader Gamini Dissanayake, former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar; Indian Origin Tamil leader S.Thondaman, composer and singer W. D. Amaradeva; political leader and singing star Vijaya Kumaratunga; film maker Lester James Peries; and Buddhist leader Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero were held in the grounds of the Independence Square.
The area around the square is also steeped history. The present Independence Square Arcade, a swank commercial and entertainment hub since 2014, was a mental asylum. In 1875, Governor Sir William Gregory decided to build the asylum on the advice of the then Principal Civil Medical Officer, Dr. W R Kynsey. Dr.Kynsey was concerned about the high incidence of mental illness among the people of Ceylon which he attributed to the stresses brought about by the repeated invasions and colonization Ceylon had to face.
Construction started in 1879 when Sir James Longdon was Governor. The building was completed in 1889 at a cost of Rs. 450,000 which was a very large sum those days. The Colonial Office in London saw the enterprise as extravagant and wasteful. But Longdon defended the construction saying: “The asylum is a series of one-story buildings of the plainest type. The walls are brick plastered. Because of the climate plastering is found requisite for the preservation of buildings. There is no expensive ornamentation, or indeed any ornament at all, unless a short ungraceful and inexpensive tower over the entrance designed for the clock can be called an ornament. The enclosing walls are of ordinary kabook, such as is universally used for garden walls in Colombo.”
And the asylum was undoubtedly serving a purpose. It had more than 500 inmates at any given point of time. The present Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) was part of it as the layout of the SLBC’s corridors suggests. The hospital’s mortuary was located where the SLBC studios. The mortuary is now locked, but even so those in the late evening or night shift swear they hear strange noises from the room.
The mortality rate at the asylum was high, above 50 each year. Almost all deaths were due to TB and some were due to malaria. The bush land around the asylum, known as Kumbi Kele or ant forest, was used as cemetery to bury unclaimed bodies.
In 1917 a new larger asylum was constructed at Angoda, and all patients were transferred to it by 1926. After a period of non-use, Radio Ceylon moved into a part of the former asylum. During World War II, the Radio Ceylon building was taken over by the Royal Air Force forcing the broadcaster to move to a bungalow in Borella. In subsequent years, the Independence Arcade was used by various departments. Among them were the Public Administration Department, the Auditor General’s Department and the Government Analyst’s Department. But only a part of the original structure was used, the rest was allowed to decay.
But In 2012, the Urban Development Authority under Defense and Urban Development Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, decided to renovate and put the buildings to commercial use. The idea was to create “one space” where entertainment, shopping, leisure and dining are offered to please the entire family.
The portfolio of brands that are present at the Arcade has become a crowd puller. The combo of restaurants, theatres and the entertainment opportunities laid out have created a wonderful hang-out for the people. The entire project cost Rs. 550 million. Arcade Independence Square was opened to the public on July 13, 2014 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Photos by Tang Lu/Xinhua/Text by newsin.asia