Engeltine Cottage stands on the hill slopes below Dharmaraja College overlooking the eastern part of Bogambara Lake which stands at the heart of Kandy (or Senkadagala or Mahanuvara as it used to be known). It is a spacious home set in substantial grounds. Its tale of emergence, decline and restoration over the last 150 years is a serendipitous one, befitting an island which was sometimes called “Serendib” and is thereby said to have generated the English noun “serendipity” way back in Horace Walpole’s time.
As far as I can ascertain the house was built in 1896[i] by Louis Pieris Snr. of the Hännädigē Pieris lineage on a cocoa plantation property he had acquired, one which extended from the eastern end of Bogambara Lake to near the Ampitiya Seminary and which at one time included a section that served as a cemetery for British personnel who had died of malaria.[ii] But before taking up these details, we must hark back to the island in the eighteenth century – paralleling Walpole’s time – if we are reach this moment by attending to the roots of social mobility that enabled a lineage of Low-country Sinhalese origin to embed itself so firmly in the centre of Kandyan country.
The rise of a Karāva bourgeoisie in the 19th and 20th centuries during British rule was made possible, at least in part, by the accumulation of primary capital in Dutch times by some families residing on the south western seaboard. Trade between India and “Ceilan” was one element in this process. Oral traditions among the Hännädigēs and one fragment of evidence in a letter suggest that this family had some familial or trading links with the Indian subcontinent in the eighteenth century (Roberts 1975: 6-7).
Be that as it may, their location in the Panadura-Moratuwa locality placed them in a strategic position to utilise the opportunities of economic advancement associated with the little roadsteads of Colombo and Panadura as well as the furniture industry in Moratuwa. These avenues of opportunity expanded manifold in the nineteenth century as British colonial power gained control of the whole island, loosened the pre-existing mercantilist restrictions and improved the communication network (Roberts 1982).
As indicated elsewhere in my writings the channels of socio-economic advancement were broadly two-fold: economic entrepreneurship on the on hand and educational attainments on the other. These avenues were seconded at time by strategic marriage alliances, sometime between cross-cousins (Roberts 1973 and 1979).
Individuals and families from the Karāva, Salāgama and Durāva castes were at the forefront of these advancements in British times, assisted in some instances by small steps taken in Dutch times. One reason for the prominence of elite families from these castes probably arose from the fact that they were not tied to agriculture in the manner of the majoritarian Govigama caste or the other Sinhalese castes locked into the subordinations associated with land control exercised (usually) by Govigama elites (Roberts 1982).
Louis Pieris was the third child of the wedlock between Hännädigē Hendrick Pieris Jnr and Sellaperumagē Wilmina Fernando (1803-95). Hendrick appears to have been a transport contractor and trader; and his fortunes seem to have been aided by the entrepreneurial links with Warusahennedigē de Soysa family of Moratuwa (Roberts 1975). Two men from this family, Jeronis de Soysa and Susew de Soysa, rose to be merchant princes of great wealth in a short space of time between the 1830s and 1860s through their investments in arrack rents, transport contracts and plantations (coffee, coconut).
Born on 19th March 1840 Louis Pieris was many years younger than his brother Jeronis Pieris (15 June 1829) and sister Engeltina (15 December 1825). There can be little doubt that he benefited from the paths taken by his siblings. Young Engeltina was wedded to her cross-cousin Susew de Soysa at Wolvendhal Church in Colombo on the 6th December 1839. Her husband Susew fostered the education of both her brothers, thereby providing a springboard for their own socio-economic advancement. On completing his education at the Colombo Academy Jeronis Pieris moved to the hill country area as a manager in the de Soysa enterprises. He also married Warusahännädigē Carolina Francesca Soysa, one of Jeronis de Soysa’s nieces, on 13 December 1856.
In time Hännädigē Jeronis Pieris branched out on his own and became a merchant prince and plantation owner of considerable substance. By 1871 he had at least six plantation properties 2,455 acres in extent with 1,101 under coffee. By 1875 he had his own mercantile firm – one that stood beside that of the de Soysas in being one of the only Ceylonese firms listed in the prestigious Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory. By then, too, he had spread his investments and purchased some coconut plantations as well as urban property in Colombo.
While Colombo was fast developing into a hegemonic centre in the island scheme of things, the economic activities of the de Soysa-Pieris merchant houses were mostly centred in the hill country where Kandy served as its fulcrum and was fast becoming a centre where the local Kandyan-Sinhalese were outnumbered by the Low-Country Sinhalese and other ethnic groups if they were added together in arbitrary fashion as “other than local Kandyan.” Note therefore that some strands of Kandyan opinion regarded the Low-Country Sinhalese in their midst as “interlopers” and “exploiters.”[iii]
Kandy town was where Jeronis Pieris was based in 1853-56 when he penned the letters that have survived the ravages of time and been recovered as a rare historical source. Indeed, one letter is addressed from “Arrack Godowns, Kandy” (Roberts 1975).
The de Soysa-Pieris combination seem to have initiated the Bank of Kandy at some point in the 1870s and deployed the banking training which Louis Pieris Snr. had acquired in England for this purpose. Louis Pieris Snr. settled down in Kandy town and became a local notable. He was elected to the Kandy Municipal Council on two occasions. Though a Christian there is some suggestion that he had the distinction of being made a Trustee of the Daladā Maligāva (a claim that requires verification). On the other side his relationships with the British colonial elite were such that he was elected to one of the white preserves in Free Masonry; and was a member of the Reception Committee established to pay homage to the Prince of Wales when he visited Kandy town.[iv] He was also a stalwart Christian and a respected member of Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Church in Kandy.
Louis Pieris Snr. had been a posthumous child whose career was enabled by his sister Engeltina with elder brother Jeronis as another foster parent. When Susew de Soysa passed away in 1881 and left their residence, Selby House in Grandpass, to his nephew Charles, Louis Pieris Snr. invited and his sister Engeltina to move up to Kandy to live with him and their mother Wilmina (who had moved there earlier). When Engeltina passed away on 11th May 1893 Louis arranged her funeral and laid a tablet in her memory in the Church where she was buried, that is, in the nave of St. John’s Church, Panadura alongside her husband, Gate Mudaliyar Susew de Soysa, who had built the Church.[v]
It was in the last decades of the nineteenth century that Louis designed Engeltine Cottage and honoured his sister by giving it her name — with an anglicised twist which distanced it from names such as Wilmina, Regina, Louis and Engeltina which had associations with Belgium, Holland and/or the Iberian Peninsula. As Anoma Pieris emphasised,[vi] the refusal to entitle the house with the words “Walawwa” or “Bungalow” suggests a desire on the part of Louis Pieris Snr to retain a rustic simplicity matching the hybrid simplicity of its architectural form. She observes that the building adhered to Dutch architecture and indigenous appropriations of house-form in “showing very little hierarchy.” That is, Engeltine Cottage contrasts with the elaborate two-storey built by the Ceylonese elites in Colombo, Moratuwa and Horagolla which were guided by Victorian-Palladian or Gothic aesthetics. Moreover, Engeltine Cottage is not even similar to that British invention, the bungalow, because it lacks thresholds. “British architecture has several thresholds that you had to cross before entering a house — porch, steps, plinth, verandah, hall, maybe office room, then the living room.”[vii]
Louis Pieris Snr. appears to have been a man of considerable wealth. Besides two plantations in the Kandy and Kurunegalle areas, he held several urban properties. Among these were Karlsruhe in Dematagoda and the famous “Whist Bungalow” in Mutwal (which he purchased from the Sir Richard Morgan family at some point in the late 19th century). He is said to have retired to this residence in his ailing years and been looked after by his eldest son Louis H. S. Pieris Jnr. that is, Louis H. S. Pieris, till he passed away in 1913.[viii]
The subsequent history of Engeltine Cottage and its aging is a missing phase in my brief survey. This summary history is therefore incomplete. However, my ability to piece together this tale has been the result of a fortuitous crisscrossing of biographical paths (see below); while the tale itself involves a form of Sri Lankan multi-culturalism that has not only fused Western and indigenous architectural styles, but also involved the cooperation of three lineages — Low Country, Kandyan and Tamil. Such intertwining is not unique in the story of Sri Lanka during the last 200 years. It is often taken for granted. But set within the context of deep divisions in the recent past such linkages, especially an intertwining which has been so productive, is a type of tale that is worth marking.
Serendipitous Paths & Intertwinings Today
My own voyage towards Engeltine Cottage and its story begins through fortuitous encounters which brought me in contact with Kshema Sangakkara on the one hand and, on the other, with Krishnapillai Anandasivam — known as “Sivam” by one and all. These connections interlaced neatly with the foundations of deep friendship already existing between myself and the Pierises — Lankeswera, Sita and Anoma.
One day about 10 years back I was watching an ODI match at the Premadasa Stadium[ix] in an arena that was far from crowded when I heard a gentleman behind me making insightful cricketing comments to his wife. I immediately turned round and remarked on his expertise. I discovered that the couple were Kumar Sangakkara’s parents, Kshema and Kumari. We continued to chat and in the manner that we have come to associate with cricketer Kumar the Sangakkaras generously gave me a lift home to Wellawatte after the match.
My friendship with Sivam developed in rather similar circumstances, a public gathering. This time it was at Bishop’s College Hall where I was attending a jazz concert about ten years back. A friend, Neloufer de Mel, happened to be seated right in front of me with Sivam next to her, so we were introduced to each other by Neloufer. During an interval I overheard this young man make a sarcastic remark to Neloufer about Velupillai Prabhakaran as “sun god.” Since I was writing essays on the Tamil Tiger ventures at this time such a comment from a Tamil intrigued me. So I secured Sivam’s telephone number.
A few days later we met by appointment, exercising due caution and selecting Independence Square as meeting point because no one could overhear us. My purpose here was to pick his brains and get his views on the conflict.[x]
As an architect Sivam also knew Anoma Pieris, an architect herself, but also a member of the Hännädigē Pieris lineage and a daughter of Sita and Lankeswera Pieris. The latter were longstanding friends who had financed my first book on Facets of Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris (Homagama, 1975).
Sometime later, again quite serendipitously, I discovered, perhaps through Anoma,[xi] that Sivam was working in Singapore. We met on at least two occasions during my sojourns and seminar visits at National University Singapore, so that I also got to know his wife Kasthuri. Subsequently, serendipity was heaped upon serendipity when their family secured rights of entry to Adelaide in 2010; and ended up in a suburb next door.
The final coincidence occurred during the cricketing World Cup in Lanka in February-March 2011. Three matches were played at Pallekelle Stadium and I made Kundasale and Kandy my base for these ‘operations’. I also took the opportunity to make an appointment with the Sangakkaras. My interest was in talking cricket and its politics. But, visiting them …… …. ….. THERE before my eyes lay ENGELTINE COTTAGE in its captivating form in lovely surrounds. To my astonishment, moreover, inside the house were portraits of two of the Pierises, Engeltina herself and Louis. Here then was a family nourished in the arts and in heritage. Kshema and Kumari Sangakkara had bought the dilapidated property in the 1977 from the Pieris Investment Company and got it restored to its former glory, with some modifications to suit their tastes. And who had combined with them to design this work of art? None other than a Jaffna man educated in Malaysia and Melbourne, Murugāsu Krishnapillai (1923-2012), father of Sivam.
So, then, the Pieris people, the Sangakkaras and the Krishnapillai people have interlaced with my threads of interest in serendipitous ways — as satisfactory as happily coincidental.
Roberts, Michael 1975 Facets of Ceylon History through the Letters of Jeronis Pieris, Homagama, Colombo Cooperative Printers’ Society Ltd.
Roberts, Michael 1973 “Elites and Elite Formation in Ceylon, c. 1830-1930” in History of Ceylon, Vol. III, pp. 263-84.
Roberts, Michael 1979 “Elite Formations and Elites, 1832-1931,” in Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 153-213.
Roberts, Michael 1982 Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karāva Elite in Sri Lanka, 1500-1931, Cambridge University Press.
Wright, Arnold (comp.) 1907 Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon, London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company
[i] The present house incorporates Louis Pieris’s crest with the date “1896,” which was part of this original house (information from Kshema Sangakkara).
[ii] Information from Anoma Pieris and LSD Pieris.
[iii] My occasional findings during research on agrarian policies in 19th century Ceylon for my D. Phil dissertation.
[iv] Details provided by LSD Pieris with the aid of family notes; and obituary notices in the Ceylon Morning Leader, 19 June 1913 and Ceylon Churchman, July 1913.
[v] Email note from Lankeswera Pieris, 20 March 2012.
[vi] Email note, 18 March 2012.
[vii] Email note from Anoma Pieris, 19 March 2012.
[viii] Wright 1907: 552 and oral traditions conveyed by LSD Pieris.
[ix] If my recollection are correct this match was against the West Indies and may well have been an A team match.
[x] I did. But those details are not pertinent here.
[xi] Anoma herself was conducting her American postgraduate degree in Singapore where her Greek Australian partner also worked as an architect. I stayed with them on one occasion and avidly watched the World Cup in soccer with Aththa whose loyalties were wholly Greek.