Tag Archives: Ceylon

Execution of 27-year-old Henry Pedris 100 Years Ago in Colonial Ceylon


By T.V. Antony Raj


Map of Ceylon (1914)
Map of Ceylon (1914)


A hundred years ago, on July 7, 1915, at the height of the anti-Moor riots, the firing squad of the 28th Battalion of the British Punjab Regiment, executed 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at the Welikade Prison. The young man, a Captain of the Colombo Town Guard (CTG) was a prominent socialite and scion of one of the richest families in colonial British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

On May 28, 1915, a petty incident in the town of Gampola in Ceylon, triggered a spate of communal riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims. It is now known as the ‘anti-Moor riots’ or ‘the 1915 riots’. Like wildfire, the riots swept through several districts of the Central, Western and Southern Provinces.

The Muslims in Kandy Town decided not to allow any perahera (procession) of the Buddhists beating the traditional drums, flutes and using any other musical organs to disturb worship at their mosque. But, on the following full Moon Poya Day of Vesak, the Buddhists held their usual perahera, following the usual route. When the perahera was passing the Mosque, a group of irresponsible Muslims  jeered and threw stones at the passing pageant. There was a pandemonium. The Buddhists retaliated resulting in a free-for-all leading to a conflagration.

The riots spread to Matale, Kegalle and even to Colombo. The Sinhala people harassed the Muslims throughout the country, leading to many deaths and loss of property. The Muslims sustained heavy losses.

The Right Honourable GCB PC, 21st Governor of Ceylon.
The Right Honourable Sir Robert Chalmers, the 21st British Governor of Ceylon.


Sir Robert Chalmers, the 21st British Governor of Ceylon, feared he might lose control of the colony. He mistook the riots as a Sinhalese-Buddhist movement to oust the British from Ceylon, through mass violence. So, the British Colonial establishment waged war on the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

The British used untrained volunteers recruited from commercial establishments, shops, factories, and plantations, to suppress the riots.

Punjab Regiments, 1911. Watercolour by Major Alfred Crowdy Lovett (1862-1919). Copyright National Army Museum.
Punjab Regiments, 1911. Watercolour by Major Alfred Crowdy Lovett (1862-1919). Copyright National Army Museum.


The soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India to help quell the riots, along with the volunteers unleashed a reign of terror in villages occupied by Sinhala Buddhists. They shot hundreds of civilians on sight and hauled up hundreds of innocent people before the military courts.

According to the available British records, 86 mosques and 17 Christian churches were burnt or damaged, around five boutiques and shops looted, 35 Muslims killed, 198 injured and four women raped. But unsubstantiated claims say thousands of Sinhalese died of bullet wounds.

Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris

Our protagonist, the young Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at first attended Royal College Colombo. Later, he joined St. Thomas’ College. He excelled in sports and cricket. He was a member of the school’s first eleven cricket team. After some time, he returned to Royal College where he again played cricket and took part in sports activities.

Hendry Pedris riding 'Rally' (Source: en.wikipedia.org)
Hendry Pedris riding ‘Rally’ (Source: en.wikipedia.org)


After he finished school, Henry Pedris was much interested in horse riding. He excelled as a horseman  and had a wide knowledge about horses. A Russian Prince gave the Pedris family a horse named “Rally”. Henry rode the horse with the composure of a prince which made the minions of the British rulers envious of him.

Once, at a cinema hall, a British official walked in and demanded his seat. Henry refused and said that he too had paid the same fare and would enjoy the film from that seat.

Lanka calling

When World War I broke out, the British mobilized the Ceylon Defence Force and raised the Colombo Town Guard (CTG), a regiment of volunteers to defend Colombo if attacked.

His father, Duenuge Disan Pedris, had great hopes for his son’s future. He wanted his only son to take over his business enterprises and become a leader in the business sector. But Henry Pedris opted to join the Colombo Town Guard as a private. He was the first Sinhalese to enlist to the new regiment. His excellence in marksmanship and horsemanship made him a commissioned officer in the administrative (mounted) section. Within a year, he was promoted to the rank of Captain. Though Henry Pedris was by no means anti-British, he was much envied by the British because of this promotion and his immense wealth.

During the ‘anti-Moor riots’, Captain Henry Pedris was responsible for the defense of the city. He was successful in disbanding several rioting groups after peaceful discussions.

The shooting incidence in Pettah

On June 1, 1915, when Henry Pedris was at his shop on Main Street, Pettah,  a  mob of Moors advanced towards his shop. Pedris came out with a gun and fired six shots into the crowd. One of the bullets hit police constable Seneviratne in the head.

Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike KCMG JP.
Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike KCMG JP.


Many British and jealous Sinhalese henchmen led by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar (chief native interpreter and adviser to the Governor), wished Henry Pedris and his rich family ill. They brought charges against him. They accused Henry Pedris of inciting people to march to Colombo from suburban Peliyagoda. He was also charged with shooting at the Moorish mob and attempted murder of constable Seneviratne, even though the constable survived.

The British officers and Punjabi soldiers  raided the Pedris’ residence on Turret Road.  They then broke the doors and almirahs and rifled the whole house, searching for any incriminating documents. They arrested Henry Pedris and incarcerated him in the Welikada Jail.

On June 2, 1915, Martial law came into effect throughout the country. Due to the rigor of the enforced martial law, normalcy returned within ten days. However, the Martial law was in force until August 30, 1915.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Source: archives.dailynews.lk)
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Source: archives.dailynews.lk)

On July 1, 1915, a military court tried Henry Pedris. Sir Hector Van Culenburg, the elected Legislative Council member pleaded for Henry Pedris. Many prominent citizens and educationists, both British and Ceylonese alike, including Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan appealed against the judgment. An appeal was also made to King George V.

Governor Sir Robert Chalmers and the Inspector General of Police, Herbert Layard Dowbiggin, were adamant that Henry Pedris should die.  They wanted to make the swift execution of Captain Henry Pedris a lesson for the  ringleaders of the anti-British movement.

The three presiding military judges declared Henry Pedris guilty and branded him a traitor.

The Ceylon Observer of July 5, 1915, records the death sentence passed on Henry Pedris. He was charged with “treason, shop-breaking, attempted murder and wounding with intent to murder.

The military court sentenced him to death by firing squad and set July 7, 1915, as the date of execution, without any form of appeal.

The British rulers imprisoned more 86 prominent Sinhalese leaders, members of an emerging Ceylonese élite for ‘waging war against the King‘ and abetting the riots against ‘His Majesty’s Moorish subjects.‘ Among the arrested were D. S. Senanayake, D. R. Wijewardena,  F. R. Senanayake, Edwin Wijeyeratne, D. B.Jayatilaka, Dr. Cassius Pereira, Dr. W. A. de Silva, E. T. De Silva, F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Dr. C. A. Hewavitharana, H. Amarasuriya, A. H. Molamure, A. E. Goonesinghe and several others.

Execution of Captain Henry Pedris

At 7.30 a.m., on the day of the execution, Additional District Judge Arthur Charles Allnut, a graduate of the Oxford University and a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, ordered that the 86 Sinhala-Buddhist notables to  line up in the veranda outside L-Hall in Welikade Prison, and watch Henry Pedris walk to his death.

Captain Henry Pedris dressed in his Town Guard uniform, but stripped of his rank, marched with his head held high and chest forward. At the site of the execution, they strapped him to a chair.

Before his execution, Henry Pedris requested that he be shot by a Punjabi firing squad, and not a British squad, as the Punjabi soldiers were Non-Christian and Asians. Allnut acceded to his request. He ordered the soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India, to carry out the sentence. Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris rejected the blindfold offered to him. He faced the Punjabis without any fear.

After the execution, F. R. Senanayake on seeing the limp body of Henry Pedris slumped in the chair to which he was strapped, vowed that he would initiate a concerted struggle to free the country from British colonial rule.

The prison authorities then took the blood-soaked chair on which Captain Hendry Pedris sat when shot to the prison cells to warn the incarcerated Sinhalese leaders, including D. S. Senanayake, the  future first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, that they could be next.

Burial of Captain Henry Pedris

Duenuge Disan Pedris (Father of Henry Pedris)
Duenuge Disan Pedris (Father of Henry Pedris)

Mallino Pedris (Mother of Henry Pedris)
Mallino Pedris (Mother of Henry Pedris)

The British refused to hand over the body of Henry Pedris to his grieving parents who wanted to accord their dead son a Buddhist burial with attendant religious rites.

Before burying the body of Henry Pedris, the British rulers declared Martial law for the first time in the whole island.

They transported the body of Henry Pedris to the Kanatte cemetery in great secrecy at midnight in the midst of martial law. The British had come to know that his father Duenuge Disan Pedris had owned several family burial plots at the General Cemetery at Kanatte in Borella. They chose one of these plots for the burial. It was the only burial not recorded in the General Cemetery registers or any other official register, since 1910. For the first time, the British rulers declared Martial law in the whole island.

Duenuge Disan Pedris had not only lost his only son, but he also lost two of his sons-in-law who were also incarcerated in the Welikada Prison. Though disheartened, he was silent as he did not want any more of his family members imprisoned by the British.

Most Ceylonese viewed the execution of 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris as unjust. The Sri Lankan patriotic leaders took the cue from his death and projected him as a martyr. His death motivated the pioneering patriotic leaders of the liberation movements organize themselves and strive for a concerted campaign to liberate the country from the harsh British rule.

The execution of Henry Pedris and the many unjustifiable and arbitrary  brutal acts committed by the British during the 1915 riots hastened the formation of the Ceylon National Congress on December 11, 1919 by members of the Ceylon National Association (founded in 1888) and the Ceylon Reform League (founded in 1917).





A European in the Orient: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo


By T.V. Antony Raj


A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.

The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.


Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)


Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.

In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by  Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.


Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.


Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them  the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout  his dominion.

Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.

In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.

Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.


Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.
Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.


In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.

The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars:  Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.

At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.

Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.

When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.

The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.

Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.

Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.

Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy.  He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.

The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.

In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.

The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”

The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive.  They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).  The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.


Marco Polo's Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)
Marco Polo’s Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)


Next → Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”







15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He


By T.V. Antony Raj


The eunuch admiral Zheng He


Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.
Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.


Zheng He (1371 – 1433) also romanized as Cheng Ho was born Ma He. He was the second son of a Hui Muslim parents from Kunyang in Yunnan. He had four sisters and one older brother. Though born a Muslim, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He’s devotion to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers, was the dominant faith to which he adhered.

Ma He’s father had the surname Ma and the title hajji that suggests that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ma He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and knew Arabic.

In 1381, Ma Hajji died at age 39 during the hostilities between the Ming armies and Mongol forces in Yunnan. It is not clear whether he died while helping the Mongol army or was just caught in the onslaught of battle. Ming soldiers took his son, the 10-year-old Ma He, as a prisoner. After castration, they forced him to serve in the household of the 21-year-old Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. There, Ma He, was known as Ma Sanbao and received a proper education.

Amid the continuing struggle against the Mongols, to consolidate his own power, Zhu Di eliminated rivals such as the successful general Lan Yu.

Ma Sanbao spent his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier. He often participated in Zhu Di’s military campaigns against the Mongols. On March 2, 1390, Ma Sanbao accompanied Zhu Di and commanded his first expedition. It was a great victory since the Mongol leader Naghachu surrendered. From then on, Zheng He became a trusted adviser to the prince.

Zhu Di promoted Ma Sanbao as the Grand Director (Taijian) of the Directorate of Palace Servants.

On February 11, 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname “Zheng” to Ma Sanbao, for distinguishing himself by defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba against the imperial forces during the Siege of Beiping of 1399, and also for distinguishing himself during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing. Zheng He served in the highest posts, as Grand Director and later as Chief Envoy during his sea voyages..

The Chinese may have been sailing to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) or earlier.

Desiring to expand Chinese influence throughout the known world, the Yongle Emperor sponsored the great and long-term expeditions under the command of his eunuch admiral Zheng He and his associates Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and others.


Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty's fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)
Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty’s fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)


According to medieval Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 that resulted in contact with foreign cultures. He sailed to Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Africa and many other countries.

Under Zheng He’s direction, the Chinese ships loaded with silk and porcelain plied the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean.


A Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).
A Chinese Ming Dynasty ( blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).


Zheng He’s fleet sailed to Japan, Ryukyu, and many locations in South-East Asia, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans. They traded gemstones, coral, pepper, and the cobalt used in the splendid porcelains for which the Ming dynasty would become known.


Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He's fleet
Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet


The Chinese fleet reached major trade centers of Asia: Thevan Thurai (Dondra Head), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Hormuz, Aden and Malindi in north-eastern Africa.

 The seven voyages of Zheng He
1st voyage 1405–1407 ChampaJavaPalembang,Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, KollamCochin,
2nd voyage 1407–1409 Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut.
3rd voyage 1409–1411 Champa, Java, Malacca, Samudera, Ceylon,
Kollam, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Korkai
Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Puttanpur.
4th voyage 1413–1415 Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang,
Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin,
Calicut, Korkai, Hormuz, MaldivesMogadishu,
Barawa, MalindiAdenMuscat, Dhofar.
5th voyage 1417–1419 Ryukyu, Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca,
Samudera, Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn,
Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu,
Barawa, Malindi, Aden.
6th voyage 1421–1422 Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin,
Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu,
7th voyage 1431–1433 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Samudera,
Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Bengal, Ceylon,  Calicut, Hormuz,  Aden,  Ganbali, Bengal,
Laccadive and Maldive Islands,  Djofar,  Lasa,  Aden, Mecca,  Mogadishu, Barawa.

In the early 15th century, China became the world’s premier maritime power.

The increase in Chinese sea trade also made piracy lucrative on these seas. The Japanese pirates harassed the whole of southeastern China.

Zheng He‘s feud with King Vira Alakeshwara of Ceylon.

Zheng He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from many kingdoms. During all his seven voyages, Zheng He landed in Ceylon.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, he visited Tevanthurai or Dondra Head (Tamil: தேவன்துறை), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon. There, Zheng He erected a trilingual stone tablet written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. The tablet recorded the offerings he made to Buddha, Allah and Hindu gods. The Chinese Admiral also prayed to the thousand Hindu deity statues оf stone аnd bronze and to the primary deity, god Tenavarai Nayanar at the Tenavaram temple, іn Tevanthurai (or Dondra Head). He invoked the blessings of the deities for a peaceful world built on trade.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, Vira Alakeshwara’s army confronted and plundered his expedition.

Four years later, in 1409, during his third voyage, Zheng He came to Ceylon with an army. King Vira Alakeshwara (Tamil: வீர அழகேஸ்வரர்) of Kotte confronted the Chinese forces. The Chinese retaliated. They captured King Vira Alakeshwara, his queen, his family and kinsmen.

Zheng He then returned to China he brought along with him the captive King Vira Alakeshwara, his family and kinsmen. He wanted Vira Alakeshwara to apologize to the Yongle Emperor for offenses against the Chinese mission.

In 1411, the Yongle Emperor released King Vira Alakeshwara et al.

On the night after King Vira Alakeshwara returned to his capital Kotte in Ceylon his enemies murdered him.


Next →  Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet 

← Previous: Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor



Prices Now and Then …


Myself By T.V. Antony Raj


Today, while changing stations on my TV, I came across a programme on the Tamil news channel “Puthia Thalaimurai“. A bicycle repairer was reminiscing about the prices of items in the 1980s. He said he bought a bicycle at that time for Indian rupees 300. This made me recall the prices in the late 1950s.

Phillips cycle add - Eureka

My father bought my first bicycle in 1956, a Phillips, for Ceylon rupees 72.

The distributors of Volkswagen Beetle cars in Colombo offered the car for Ceylon rupees 6,000. Though the Beetle was cheap, people did not buy the car the first time it came into the market. Reason?

VW Ovali beetle (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle -front view (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle -front view (Source: pre67vw.com)


VW Ovali beetle - rear engine (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle – rear engine (Source: pre67vw.com)

Many did not like the unconventional shape. And most of all, the engine was in the rear and there was no way to add water to cool the engine as they did with other cars.

The Beetle was soon picked up by firms such as Quickshaws Ltd., for their fleet of taxis.



Dhanushkodi – Fifty Years After the Cyclone of 1964

Myself By T.V. Antony Raj


A cyclonic storm now referred to as the 1964 Rameswaram cyclone or the Dhanushkodi cyclone started with the depression that formed in the South Andaman Sea on December 17, 1964. On December 19, it intensified into a severe cyclonic storm. From December 21, it moved westwards, 400 km to 550 km per day. On December 22, it crossed Vavunia in Sri Lanka with a wind speed of 280 km per hour.

On December 22-23 night, the cyclone moved into Palk Strait and made landfall in Dhanushkodi, at the southern tip of Rameswaram island, on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India. The devastating tidal waves that were 7 metres high submerged all houses and other structures in Dhanushkodi town  with heavy casualties.

On December 22, 1964, the tidal wave smashed into the Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger train and washed it into the sea while it was crossing the viaduct during the cyclonic storm.

 The railway track in Dhanushkodi destroyed by the cyclone of December 22, 1964
The railway track in Dhanushkodi destroyed by the cyclone of December 22 – 25, 1964.

More than 100 passengers drowned in the sea. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 115 and 200. The variation is due to the many ticketless travellers. The railway line running from Pamban Station to Dhanushkodi Pier was washed away.

The 1¼ mile-long Pamban Rail Bridge over the Pamban Channel, that links the Indian mainland with the island of Rameswaram was also badly damaged; 126 of its 145 girders collapsed. However, the lift span was barely damaged.

The Pamban bridge after restoration (Source: the hindu.com)
The Pamban bridge after restoration (Source: the hindu.com)

Most of the girders were salvaged from the sea and the Pamban viaduct was working once again in a span of just three months time.

The metre gauge branch line from Pamban Junction to Dhanushkodi was abandoned after the cyclone destroyed it.

Prior to the cyclone, Dhanushkodi was once a flourishing town. Then, the Railway line to Dhanushkodi, destroyed in the 1964 cyclone, went directly from Mandapam station to Dhanushkodi without touching Rameswaram. In those days Dhanushkodi had a railway station, a small railway hospital, primary schools, a post office, customs and port offices. There were hotels, dharmashalas (religious rest houses), and many textile shops that catered to the Hindu pilgrims and travellers to Sri Lanka.

A map showing the ferry route from Dhanushkod, Indiai to Talaimannar , Sri Lanka (Source:-Wikimedia Commons)
A map showing the ferry route from Dhanushkod, Indiai to Talaimannar , Sri Lanka (Source:-Wikimedia Commons)

Dhanushkodi is about 18 miles (29 km) West of Talaimannar, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). There was a steamer ferry service which operated daily from the pier on the south-east of the Dhanushkodi town to the pier at Talaimannar. The ferry transported travellers and goods, across the Palk Strait.

In the 1950s and 1960s, I used to travel to Ceylon by the Dhanushkodi-Talimannar steamer ferry.

The Indo-Ceylon Express, also known as the Boat Mail train, plied from 1915 to 1964 on a metre gauge track between Egmore Station in Chennai (then known as Madras) and Dhanushkodi. It took almost 19 hours to complete the journey of 420 miles (675 Km).

Ferry service from Dhanushkodi Pier to Talaimannar in the 1950s.
Ferry service from Dhanushkodi Pier to Talaimannar in the 1950s.

After the Boat Mail train reached Dhanushkodi Pier at 15:05 hours in the afternoon, the passengers after alighting from the train had to pass through the customs before boarding the ferry which used to leave the Indian shore soon after 16:00 hours. Depending on the weather, it took between 2 and 3½ hours to cross the very shallow Palk Bay and reach the Talaimannar Pier in Sri Lanka. The voyage used to be bumpy and nauseating when the sea was rough.

The name of the train changed from Indo-Ceylon Express to Rameswaram Express after the 1964 cyclone. Now, it is a 12-hour journey from Chennai to Rameswaram on a broad-gauge track.

On June 12, 2014, my wife and I along with relatives left Chennai on Rameswaram Express to attend a wedding at Pamban town. We reached Rameswaram the following day around 5:30 am and lodged in a hotel. We hired a van and left the hotel around 11:00 am to see Dhanushkodi.

After travelling for 20 minutes, we reached Dhanushkodi. Even 50 years after the cyclone of 1964, Dhanushkodi remains a dilapidated strip of land.

The driver stopped the van at a spot on the Indian Ocean side where many other vans carrying tourists were parked.

The driver said he cannot go farther as local regulations, meaning rules set by the local cartel of van drivers, forbids it. But the members of that association ply a number of their own vans to ferry the travellers to the end of Dhanushkodi and charge ₹100/- per person. At the end of the journey we paid ₹2,200/-.

After 35 minutes of a bumpy ride by van, on shallow waters and muddy tracts, we reached the tip of Dhanushkodi where Adam’s Bridge, a chain of sand shoals between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar begins. The distance from the tip of Dhanushkodi in India and Talimannar in Sri Lanka is about 18 miles (29 km). The Dhanushkodi fishermen say that some sand dunes are just 50 yards in length. Surprisingly, the smallest land border in the world, is a shoal in Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka – just 45 metres in length.

An eerie stillness prevailed around us except for the chatter of the few tourists subdued by the sound of waves. There were a few marine birds pecking on the soggy earth searching for food and many sea eagles circling in the air ready to swoop on any prey they could spot in the shallow waters or on the muddy land.

We saw many Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Palk Bay. The Hindus believe that pilgrimage to the holy city of Kashi (Benares / Varanasi) in North India would not be complete without having the ritual bath at the tip of Dhanushkodi, considered a sacred confluence of the Palk Bay and the Indian Ocean, before completing their pilgrimage to Rameswaram.

St. Antony's Church at Dhanuskodi devastated by the cyclone of 1964 (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
St. Antony’s Church at Dhanushkodi devastated by the cyclone of 1964 (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

It was heartrending to see only thatched huts and no buildings with standing walls. The only walls we saw were the dilapidated walls of St. Anthony’s church and of a school devastated during the cyclone of 1964.

Trinkets and ornaments made from seashells (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
Trinkets and ornaments made from seashells (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

The main trade other than fishing was the sale of conch shells, and trinkets and ornaments made of shells sold at exorbitant prices to tourists and pilgrims.

Eventually, we left Dhanushkodi around 2:30 pm with a heavy heart after having seen the ravages wrought by the 1964 cyclone.





Taprobane Island: Part 6 – Does the Dead Count Haunt Taprobane Island?

Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj


Does the dead Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande haunt Taprobane Island ?

Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje (born February 22, 1933), a Sri Lankan born Canadian-English businessman, philanthropist, adventurer, and writer thinks so.

Sir Christopher Ondaatje
Sir Christopher Ondaatje

Christopher Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to a Burgher family of Dutch and Indian origin. His name comes from an Indian ancestor called Ondaatchi from Thanjavur, South India.

In the early 18th Century, a physician to the King of Tanjore from the clan of Ondaatchi, was summoned to Ceylon by Adrian Van der Meyden, the Governor-General of the Dutch East-India Company, to treat his ailing wife. The physician arrived in Ceylon on June 9, 1659 from Tanjore. He treated the sick woman with a bath of water in which 23 jungle herbs were boiled. She recovered fully. The physician’s success in curing the lady led to the Governor to become his friend. In appreciation, the Governor appointed him as the First Doctor of the Town of Colombo.

In 1660, the physician got converted to Christianity. He adopted the name ‘Michael Jurgen Ondaatch’. He married Magdalene de Cruz (1640-1688), a Portuguese woman. Michael Jurgen Ondaatch died in 1714.

After Christopher Ondaatje’s alcoholic father lost the family fortune, Christopher had to leave school a year from graduation. In 1956, at the age of 33, he emigrated to Canada, arriving in Toronto with almost no money. He quickly became a wealthy stockbroker, and was one of the three founding members of Loewen Ondaatje McCutcheon. He became a multi-millionaire in the publishing industry by founding the Pagurian Press, which he later sold to the Bronfman family.

Christopher Ondaatje represented Canada in the four-man bobsled at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. He is the author of 11 books including The Man-Eater of Punanai and Woolf in Ceylon.

I have reproduced below an article, wherein Sir Christopher Ondaatje gives an account of his tryst with the dead Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande at about three o’clock in the afternoon on November 27 in the 1940s.

The Count haunts Taprobane
By Sir Christopher Ondaatje

I first heard the scream in 1946. Actually it was more like a repeated plaintive gasp than a scream, and this was followed by a long low hissing noise, somewhat like air being released through someone’s teeth. I was only twelve years old and holidaying with my parents, two sisters and my brother Michael on Taprobane Island off the coast of Weligama, a fishing village on the south coast of what was then Ceylon.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and we children had been sent to our rooms for an afternoon nap – quite a normal thing to do in the tropics. It was a very hot November afternoon. We had been playing and swimming most of the morning on the long crescent shaped Weligama beach only a few yards from the tiny Taprobane Island on which Count de Mauny Talvande had built a unique and magnificent house on the red granite rock covered with palms and jungle scrub. He bought the Island in 1925 and it remained in his possession until he died.

I didn’t know it then, but the Count had died in 1941, only five years before we rented the Island from the subsequent owners who had bought the extraordinary island for Rs.12,000 at an auction in 1942. It really is a magical island, only about two acres in area, and the Count christened it Taprobane because its original pear shape looked a little like a miniature Ceylon. He ignored its local name which had always been Galduwa. The first stones were laid out in 1927 and despite the fact that the island had been used by locals as a cobra dump (he eventually got rid of them) he set about building an enormous octagonal central hall which was thirty feet high and twenty feet at its widest point. The so-called Hall of the Lotus was lined with eight panels of inlaid wood which were dyed a dull gold and eau de nil, and bore a design of lotus buds and flowers.

The dome is supported by eight square pillars of Wedgwood blue, 24 feet in height, and on either side of these two light columns, 12 feet in height making sixteen in all – terra-cotta with gilded capitals support a white stone traverse which join the pillars with an arch of 10-feet span. This is hung with curtains of soft eau de nil silk, a deep brocaded border of art nouveau design at the bottom, black and gold on a cream ground. These curtains are kept open during the day, drawn only at night.

All the rooms converge in to the hall through eight arches; nothing interferes with the full view of the interior, nor with that of the terraces and gardens which are seen
through the carved mullions of doors and windows. A frieze inspired by the Sigiriya frescoes runs along the white stone walls. After Count de Mauny had finished
building and decorating his building one could look from the centre of the hall through wrought iron and brass gates northwards to the entrance through towering palms and a vast array of tropical foliage. To the east one could see the Italian gardens the Count had created. The land sloped down to a well fed by a spring below sea level. East, and overlooking this garden, was the Count’s own bedroom.

He loved the sunrise and, looking southwards, there was nothing between the small triangular lawn outside his bedroom window and the South Pole. Every morning the Count would lie in bed and listen to the gardener raking the leaves off the gravel path with an ekel broom. Everything, the house, the garden, and furniture of his
own design and making, was in perfect harmony. There was a marvellous view up the palm-fringed Weligama bay to the north-east, and at low tide one could easily
walk the few yards to and from the shore. However, at high tide the water was chest high and women and children used to be carried by servants to the small pier that
led to the entrance steps. After a restless and turbulent life in France and England the Count spent many happy years in his unique island home – less a fortress than a pavilion.

As I said, I first heard the scream in 1946. It was late in November and I was having a nap in the room next to the Count’s old bedroom. In those days there were no
doors to the bedrooms – only the thin silk curtains which we pushed open and shut along solid brass curtain rings. I knew no one was in the Count’s bedroom because
my mother and father, who had been sleeping there, had driven to Galle with a tea-planter friend of theirs, H.L. ‘Tank’ Roche who was also staying on the island. We
were left in the charge of our ayah or nanny. The others were still asleep, and I heard the gasping cry very clearly so I got up and looked into the Count’s bedroom, only to see his large empty ebony bed. And then I heard it again – a long plaintive repeated gasp. A sudden queer sensation passed over me and I felt a little faint. But this disappeared quickly. Far from being terrified I entered the room and looked on either side of the bed for something or someone who could have made the anguished sound. I saw nothing so returned to my own room next door to wait for the others to wake up.

I told no one anything about the scream until two evenings later when we waded across the water to the Weligama Rest House for an early evening dinner of fried
prawns and fish curry – my father’s favourite. In those days the main road ran behind the Weligama Rest House and not in front of it. At low tide one could run down the front steps of Taprobane and literally run across the shallow surf in bare feet, over the wide sandy beach and across a little bit of scrub grass to the Rest House. The food was marvellous and the Rest House keeper, Jayakody, was very kind to all of us. While we were having dinner – in fact we had almost finished and were having a second helping of buffalo curd and kitul panni or honey, that Jayakody jokingly said to me, “Did you hear it?”

“What?” I said, not even remembering the scream.

“You heard nothing? Nothing at all? What bedroom are you in?”

I told him. And then I remembered my experience and told him that I had indeed heard rather a horrible scream or groan a couple of days earlier. My father was actually quite annoyed that I hadn’t told him anything about it.

“Ah yes,” Jayakody said. “That’s the Count. He died two days ago, you know, on November 27, 1941, of a heart attack. Angina pectoris. He was visiting a friend in
Jaffna on the Chelvarayan Estate in Nawatkuli. And then they buried him up there in St. Mary’s Burial Ground which is a Catholic cemetery. It was a real shame. He
always wanted to be buried on his island. He came here with practically nothing, but he built this fabulous house. It was the only place he was really happy. He was
deeply in debt, which is why his island was sold. But he wrote a remarkable book about it, “The Gardens of Taprobane” which is very difficult to get. None of his family went to the funeral which was organised by an English solicitor whom he didn’t even know. He often comes back but usually at this time of the year. And his awful gasping for breath and his last sounds are usually heard by the gardener outside his open bedroom windows. It is quite a usual occurrence and no one pays any attention anymore. He was seventy five years old and died a little after 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

During the early part of the night we made our way back to Taprobane Island with flares and torches. We children were still in high spirits and enjoyed being carried
over the high tide by the servants who made several trips to and from the Weligama beach to collect us. My father and mother were unusually quiet. Not surprisingly
they didn’t sleep in the Count’s bed and bedroom that night or on any subsequent night. They simply collected their bags and clothes from the Count’s bedroom and
moved to the spare guest room over the servants’ quarters facing the Weligama beach.

Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada.

← Previous: Taprobane Island: Part 5



Add this anywhere

Taprobane Island: Part 5 – Succeeding Owners of The Island Paradise

Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj


Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande died suddenly from a heart attack at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on November 27, 1941, while visiting a friend at the Chelvarayan Estate, Navatkuli, 3.73 miles (6 km) south of Jaffna in Ceylon.

John Lambert, an English solicitor at the Chelvarayan Estate, is registered as the person who buried the body of Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande at St Mary’s Burial Grounds in Jaffna, Ceylon, with none of his family members present.

The Ceylon Daily News, in its edition of Friday November 28 1941, printed the following in its obituary column:

“The death has occurred in Jaffna yesterday of the Count de Mauny, who had resided in Ceylon for over twenty years, making his island home, Taprobane, off Weligama, one of the most attractive show pieces of the kind. A French Catholic, the count became a naturalized Englishman.

He was married to a daughter of the 4th Earl of Strafford and had one son, Mr. V A de Mauny, who served with the British Navy in the last Great War and rejoined when the present hostilities broke out.

The late Count de Mauny’s principal hobbies, in which he was himself an adept, were the laying out of beautiful gardens and furniture craftmanship, which he turned into an art. Besides his own at Taprobane, many of Colombo’s most pleasing gardens owe their inspiration to him. His book The Gardens of Taprobane published in London some years ago, met with a good reception.

Count de Mauny who was nominated to the Weligama Urban Council, took a keen interest in public affairs and there was a time when he was a prolific writer to the newspapers. At one period he was even a member of the Labour Union.

The funeral takes place this morning.”

While the above obituary states that Maurice “… had one son, Mr. V A de Mauny, … “, it does not mention anywhere anything about his daughter Alexandra.

Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande’s son, Victor Alexander, passed away in 1978, and his daughter Alexandra died in 1989. They were both childless. Seweryn Chomet mentions a rumour that Victor Alexander had an illegitimate son in Ceylon who eventually emigrated to New Zealand.

Even after the Count died, Taprobane Island continued to draw new generations of romantics.

Taprobane Island remained in Victor Alexander’s ownership until it was sold by public auction in 1942 for Rupees 12,000.

In 1946, when Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje (born February 22, 1933) was 12 years old his father had rented the island from the owners who had bought it at the auction.

The island changed hands to various people, and none of them lived there long as the Count did.

Paul Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999). An American expatriate composer, author, and translator.
Paul Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999). An American expatriate composer, author, and translator.

Paul Bowles (December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999), an American expatriate composer, author, and translator was a child prodigy. He could read by the time he was three, and within the year he was writing stories. Soon, he started writing surrealistic poetry and music. In 1922, at age seventeen one of his poems, “Spire Song”, was accepted for publication in the twelfth volume of Transition, a literary journal based in Paris that served as a forum for some of the greatest proponents of modernism – Djuna Barnes, James Joyce, Paul Éluard, Gertrude Stein and others.

In 1947, Bowles settled in Tangier, Morocco, and his wife, Jane Bowles followed him in 1948.

Bowles visited Ceylon for the first time in 1949. He wrote:

Like most people, I have always been certain there was a place somewhere on this planet that could provide the necessary respite from all reminders of present-day chaos and noise, a place to which one could escape and, having escaped, shut the figurative door, there to breathe pure air and hear only the sounds provided by natural forces. So it was with tremulous excitement that I first saw the little island of Taprobane, in Weligama Bay off the south coast of Sri Lanka. Here was a site that seemed to have all the requisite qualities: It was scarcely more than a hummock of black basalt rising above the waves of the Indian Ocean, yet was heavily covered with high trees that left visible only a glimpse of the house at its summit. I had never seen a place that looked so obviously like what I was searching for. And I felt that it was aware of me, that it silently beckoned, sending forth a wordless message that meant: Come. You’ll like it here.

Three years later, I signed the necessary documents and became the owner of this tiny parcel of paradise. The erstwhile proprietor, a rubber planter named Mr.
Jinadasa, also bred racehorses and bet on them. When a horse in which he has great confidence failed to justify his hopes, he found himself in immediate need of
cash. My informant in Sri Lanka wired me in Madrid, and as soon as the news arrived I rushed out to cable the money.

I inherited a couple who were resident gardener and maid, and who continued their work as if they were still in the employ of Mr. Jinadasa. In aspects they had worked for several owners, scarcely knowing them apart, and were aware only that their employer must be addressed as Master.The island had belonged to various people in the recent past, and none of them had kept in very long. It was a pleasure dome, a place they used for weekend  parties. The only person who had actually lived there was the Comte de Mauny Talvande, who had built the house and furnished it after reclaiming the island from its former status as the local cobra-dump. (All cobras found in the region were put into sacks, carried across to the island and left there, since in Sri Lanka one doesn’t kill snakes). In order to settle in, I needed to buy only new mattresses for the beds, and lamps and kitchenware. The furniture, made of the heaviest kinds of tropical wood, was well-nigh immovable.

In 1951, Bowles purchased the island from its owner, Mr. Jinadasa, for English Pounds 5,000. He lived there for many years, alternating seasonally with his better known home in Morocco.

In 1952, during a three-year self-internment on the island, Bowles wrote his most successful novel, “The Spider’s House.” He incorporated the villa as one of the principal settings in the book. In his diary, he wrote of early-morning tours of the garden:

“the sun, although scarcely risen above the headlands to the east, is already giving off an intimate, powerful heat, and the distant flotillas of fishing boats later slip past the white line of the reefs into the open sea, their furled sails like the dorsal fins of giant sharks”.

The American art collector, bohemian and socialite, Peggy Guggenheim, the Moroccan artist Ahmed Yakoubi, and British science fiction writer, science writer, and undersea explorer, Arthur C. Clarke were among those who visited Taprobane Island during Paul Bowles’ tenure.

In 1956, at his wife’s insistence Bowles sold the island to the Irish writer Shaun Mandy and moved back to Morocco.

Frederick Lorensz de Silva

Shaun Mandy sold the Island in late 1950s to Sri Lankan lawyer and politician Edmund Frederick Lorensz de Silva, MBE, who was once the Mayor of Kandy, Member
of Parliament and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France and Switzerland, and a former Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya from 1990 to 1993.

Frederick de Silva was known to the residents of Kandy and outside as ‘Fred’, and his colleagues and litigants called him ‘Lion of the Kandy Bar’ as he dominated the Criminal Bar for 58 years with a lucrative practice like his father late Mr. George E. de Silva who dominated the Criminal Bar for well over 30 years.

‘Fred’ was the second son of veteran politician and statesman late Mr. George E. de Silva who fought to achieve Independence and Adult Franchise for his country along with national leaders like late D. S. Senanayake, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Sir Baron Jayatilleke, E. W. Perera, A. E. Goonesinghe and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.

Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, QC, KStJ

Sir Desmond de Silva and Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia.
Sir Desmond de Silva and Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia.

Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, QC, KStJ (born December 31, 1939), a prominent British lawyer, and former United Nations Chief War Crimes Prosecutor in Sierra Leone
inherited Taprobane Island from his father Frederick Lorensz de Silva.

Sir Desmond married Princess Katharina of Yugoslavia, cousin of Queen Elizabeth and one of Queen Victoria’s great granddaughters. They divorced on May 6, 2010.

Thasseus Klossowski de Rola and his wife Loulou de la Falaise at a holiday in 1977. (Copyright: Roger Viollet | Nisberg Jack, Keystone)
Thasseus Klossowski de Rola and his wife Loulou de la Falaise at a holiday in 1977. (Copyright: Roger Viollet | Nisberg Jack, Keystone)

The island became neglected for many years until a brief period in the 1970s when writer Thadée Klossowski de Rola, the younger son of the Polish-French modern artist Balthus, held court there and captivated many a young visitor!

Geoffrey Dobbs

Geoffrey Dobbs
Geoffrey Dobbs

In the 1970s, the Hong Kong based entrepreneur Geoffrey Dobbs, a very successful Anglo-Australian hotelier, first saw the Taprobane Island in an airline magazine. Struck by the beauty of the place he fell in love with it. He patiently negotiated with the de Silva family and obtained it on a long lease. Eventually, he bought the Island from them. In 1995, Geoffrey Dobbs moved in, and restored the island to its heyday.

A resident of Sri Lanka for the last 18 years, Geoffrey Dobbs is one of the key players in the tourist renaissance of Sri Lanka. He opened the first boutique hotels in Sri Lanka’s south-west, restoring two colonial mansions in Galle: the Sun House and the Dutch House. He has another beach retreat at Tangalla, and more recently restored Lunuganga, the jungle retreat near Bentota.

Dobbs was one of the key figures in raising money and awareness for the tsunami relief for Sri Lanka and founded the charity “Adopt Sri Lanka” in 2001 with the objective to assist rebuilding and rehabilitating local communities on the coastline of Sri Lanka and to get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible. Having originally worked with other NGOs, Adopt Sri Lanka is now principally operating in the Weligama and Tangalle areas on long-term projects, rebuilding the fishing industry, restoring small businesses for widows and helping with education and housing.

He runs a “twinning” program which connects Sri Lankan schools with schools around the world.

He is the founder and president of the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association, Hong Kong. Every February he plays host to the world’s only beach elephant polo tournament held in front of his idyllic island of Taprobane on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

In 2007, he set up the Galle Literary Festival, which has now become a well recognised annual event.

Dobbs has a natural love for water and spends as much time as he can in or near the sea. He is a keen enthusiast for traditional boats and said:

I have had a Chinese Junk in Hong Kong for over 25 years and was a member of the 1995 expedition sailing a bamboo raft across the Pacific Ocean to prove the Chinese reached America before Columbus.



← Previous: Taprobane Island: Part 4                         Next → Taprobane Island: Part 6



Add this anywhere

Taprobane Island: Part 4 – Victor Alexander Christian Henry George de Mauny

Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj


Victor Alexander Christian Henry George de Mauny
Victor Alexander Christian Henry George de Mauny (Source: christies.com)

Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande had named his son as Victor Alexander Christian Henry George de Mauny who was born on April 19, 1899.

HMS London
HMS London

In 1912, Victor Alexander joined the British Royal Navy as a cadet. When First World War broke out in August 1914, he was appointed to the battleship HMS London, a Formidable-class battleship in the Royal Navy.

Anzac Beach:  4th Battalion landing at 8 am on April 25, 1915
Anzac Beach: 4th Battalion landing at 8 am on April 25, 1915

He assisted in landing the Australians at Anzac Cove as part of the amphibious invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey by predominantly Australian and New Zealand forces on April 25, 1915, and himself spent several days at Anzac Cove.

In 1919, he resigned his commission. He was placed on the Emergency List on March 8, 1919. He went back to Ceylon to work for the Rosehough Tea Company, first as an Assistant and then as an under-manager.

While his father, Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande, was residing at Weligama in 1931, Victor Alexander resided at “Boxmead”, Turret Road (now Dharmapala Mawatha), Colombo – 7.

On September 8, 1939, mobilised by the Royal Navy, he was appointed to Ramsgate’s naval shore base HMS Fervent as a midshipman.

British troops evacuating Dunkirk's beaches.
British troops evacuating Dunkirk’s beaches.

Victor Alexander was engaged in the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, France, between May 27 and June 4, 1940. He served on this ship up to June 21, 1940.

He was mentioned in dispatches (The London Gazette of Friday, the 16th of August, 1940). The recommendation states:

Between Noon on 30 May and 0815 Hours on 4 June 1940, Lieutenant De Mauny was continuously engaged under way on evacuation duties without any intermission. He commanded in succession Ocean Breeze, Haig and then as Navigator in a group of Skoots, in Pascholl. He brought back more than 300 troops from Dunkirk beach in surf conditions on two separate occasions and was notably more successful than other small craft working in the same areas. On 31 May, when he was eight hours off the coast, his ship was subjected to continuous air attack. He displayed great devotion to duty under fire, and marked initiative, and was favourably reported upon by his Senior Officers on more than one occasion.

Next, he commanded the drifter Ocean Breeze, and the launch Haig.

Pascholl, a Dutch schuyt
Pascholl, a Dutch schuyt

He served as a navigator in Pascholl, for a group of Dutch schuyts (flat-bottomed sailboat, broad in the beam, with a square stern; usually equipped with leeboards to serve for a keel) that were used to ferry combat soldiers from the shore to the ships.

Promoted Lieutenant Commander on October 1, 1940, Victor Alexander served in HMS Brighton from October 1940 to August 1941.

He then commanded HMS Saltburn, a Hunt-class minesweeper built for the Royal Navy during First World War, but deployed as Royal Navy Signal School’s tender, for training.

At the end of March 1943, he commanded the patrol sloop HMS Mallard, deployed in the North Sea. While serving in this vessel, he was mentioned in The London Gazette of Tuesday, the 11th of December, 1945 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, G.VI.R., “For distinguished service during the War in Europe.

HMS Impulsive
HMS Impulsive

Later in the war he served in the battle cruiser HMS Renown, and then the destroyer HMS Midge. He took command of HMS Impulsive in July 1945.


Ship Rank Type From To
HMS Saltburn (J 58) Lt.Cdr. (emergency) Minesweeper 25 Aug 1941 1 Jan 1942
HMS Saltburn (J 58) Lt.Cdr. (emergency) Minesweeper 5 Feb 1942 30 Mar 1943
HMS Mallard (L 42 / K 42) Lt.Cdr. (emergency) Patrol vessel 30 Mar 1943 1 Jul 1945
HMS Impulsive (D 11) A/Cdr. (emergency) Destroyer 1 Jul 1945 24 Oct 1945

After the World War II ended, Victor Alexander Christian Henry George de Mauny, DSC, RN, returned to Ceylon and became Chairman of the Rosehough Tea Company.

← Previous: Taprobane Island: Part 3                         Next → Taprobane Island: Part 5



Add this anywhere

Taprobane Island: Part 3 – Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande’s Island Home in Ceylon

Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj


Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande traveled several times between Hampshire and Colombo during and after the Great War.

When the First World War ended, he came to Ceylon on a mission to find the spot which, by its sublime beauty, would fulfill his dreams and hold him there for life.

His skills as an expert furniture maker and a gardener in Ceylon, and, later on, his writings, may have provided him with the necessary finances to supplement his travel and living. There are accounts from people who knew him in Ceylon that he also used to receive remittances from overseas, probably sent by his wife, Lady Mary, from time to time for his upkeep and living.

Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory for 1920-21 listed him as residing with his 21-year-old son Victor Alexander at ‘Ascot’, Albert Crescent, Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo 7; the very élite and high-society area of Colombo.

Maurice had a furniture factory and workshop in Colombo. The furniture crafted most admirably, had the designs of French styles of that period. A number of de Mauny-Talvande furniture pieces that survived in the hands of private owners are now highly valued and cherished in Sri Lanka.

In 1925, Maurice launched the “Weligama Local Industries” in Weligama. He claimed that he gave employment to over 200 carpenters, carvers and inlayers. By 1930, the enterprise succumbed to depression. However, Maurice restarted it in 1936.

Taprobane Island (Source: taprobaneisland.com)
Taprobane Island (Source: taprobaneisland.com)

Though Maurice had first visited Ceylon in 1912 it was in September 1927 that he saw for the first time and quite by chance, the rocky outcrop covered with lush foliage rising out of the sea, just beyond a broad sandy beach, at the center of the arc of the Weligama Bay. It was the Galduwa islet. Ten years later, he recalled: “a red granite rock, covered with palms and jungle shrub, rising from the Indian Ocean – an emerald in a setting of pink coral.”

Entranced by the site, he waded across the sparkling clear waters to the islet. Ten years later, he recalled: “There was nothing between me and the South Pole … I sat for a long while on a boulder overlooking the sea wishing that this island lost in the Indian Ocean were mine; picturing and planning what I should do with it. … I felt my heart beating with the overwhelming desire to find in it peace, the nearest thing to happiness. Yes, it must be the home which I had dreamt of so many years past.”

Having found his own island paradise, he chose to build his house on the islet and live his dream of peace and tranquility, close to nature.

Local records show that Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande purchased the island in 1925 for a sum of Rupees 250 in the name of his son, Victor Alexander. It remained in Victor’s ownership until it was sold by public auction, in 1942, for Rupees 12,000.

Maurice named his private island “Taprobane” based on the ancient name for Ceylon given by the Greeks and also because of the island’s similarity in shape to Ceylon.

The foundation stone was laid on February 1, 1927, for an octagonal fantasy stone mansion in pseudo-Pompeian style with five en-suite bedrooms, and verandahs in every direction. Small gardens extending through the foliage to the overhanging edges, fully occupied the crest of the island.

Infinity Pool at Tabrobane Island
Infinity Pool at Taprobane Island

The spilling out verandahs that embrace the landscaped garden, stepped terraces hovering over the ocean, and a stunningly clear ‘infinity pool’ create a sensation of living on a landscaped cruise boat.

Maurice encouraged people to visit his islet. He received a constant stream of visitors. He has hosted heads of state, famous authors, and many business elites. His historical visitor’s book was filled with names of Kings, Princes, Dukes, Duchesses, aristocrats, Prime Ministers, and other famous personalities who visited Taprobane Island.

In the 1930s, Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande served as a member of the Weligama Urban Council. Though he possessed a natural skill to cultivate the friendship of the rich and famous, his penchant for grandiose, as well as his conscience-free disposition to marshall the financial resources of other people, whether morally acceptable or otherwise surfaced very often. Writer Joe Duncan wrote about his negative trait:

During a visit to Sri Lanka last year (2002), I came across a reference to ‘Count de Mauny’ in an as-yet-unpublished family memoir. The late writer, a prominent Ceylon civil servant during the 1930s and 1940s, mentions encountering the 73-year-old Maurice in his bathing shorts at Weligama early in 1940, and recalls having ‘fallen out’ with him on an earlier occasion. The memoirist had refused permission to the local Government Headman to decorate the Weligama beach with lighted coconut shells and to hold a procession of dancers and fireworks, all at government expense, to entertain Governor Caldecott on a private visit to ‘Taprobane’. If Count de Mauny had himself offered to pay the villagers to put on such a display, comments the memoirist, there could have been no objection, but instead he had expected the local taxpayers (in effect) to cover the cost of what was strictly a private visit.

The above anecdote certainly ties in with certain less attractive characteristics mentioned in Count de Mauny – Friend of Royalty, by Seweryn Chomet.

In 1931, the Count was residing at Weligama, and his son, Victor Alexander, was residing at “Boxmead”, Turret Road (now Dharmapala Mawatha), Colombo.

The book, “The Gardens of Taprobane” by The Count de Mauny, edited by Bernard Miall, was published in London in 1937 by Williams and Norgate. This book is all about his Taprobane Island home, and includes several black and white photos of the villa and the gardens. He has also the authored two other books titled “The Peace of Suffering 1914-1918” and “Gardening in Ceylon.”

Many renowned writers such as Paul Bowles, Robin Maugham, Shaun Mandy and Norah Burke have also given a graphical accounts of the Taprobane Island.


← Previous: Taprobane Island: Part 2                         Next → Taprobane Island: Part 4



Add this anywhere

Taprobane Island: Part 2 – Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande

Myself . By T.V. Antony Raj


Comte Maurice de Mauny-Talvande
Comte Maurice de Mauny-Talvande

Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande, whose real name was Maurice Maria, was born on March 21, 1866, in Le Mans, France. His father Felix Talvande worked as a banker at Portet-Lavigierie et Talvande which became the Banque Talvande in 1882. The bank, and Talvande himself, went bankrupt in 1889. The following year, his mother Margeruite de Mauny applied for legal separation from her husband, and thereafter she resided with her mother at Domaine du Bourg in Pontvallain, their family home, which had been in the possession and ownership of the de Mauny family since 1859.

On the death of his mother, Maurice inherited the family home. He then sold it and shared the proceeds of 17,000 francs with his brother Roger and sister Suzanne-Marie.

He self-styled himself as a Count and went by the name of “Comte Maurice de Mauny-Talvande”. He adopted the prefix of “de Mauny” from his mother, Mme Marguerite de Mauny, and the suffix from his father, Felix Talvande. Later he anglicized his name to “Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande.”

On June 24, 1898, Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande married Lady Mary Elizabeth Agnes Bynge, daughter of the fourth Earl of Strafford, Henry William John Byng. Seweryn Chomet suggests that Maurice may have met Lady Mary through his friendship with her brother, George Byng, with whom Maurice briefly attended the same fashionable Jesuit-run school in Canterbury in the early 1880s. Lady Mary was 33 years old, and Maurice was 32.

It was a glamorous ‘high society’ wedding in London, attended by the Princess of Wales, Princess Christian and Prince and Princess Saxe-Weimer. It was followed by a dazzling reception at Wrotham Park, in Hertfordshire, the bride’s family’s 18th century mansion.

After their wedding, the new couple lived at the historic Châteaux d’Azay-le-Rideau, let by the Marquis de Biencourt.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideau
Chateau Azay-le-Rideau

After their marriage, the new couple lived at the historic Châteaux d’Azay-le-Rideau, let by the Marquis de Biencourt.

Châteaux d’Azay-le-Rideau is built on an island in the Indre, a part of the current region of Centre (Val de Loire). Built on the foundations of a medieval fortress in the heart of Touraine, the Château d’Azay-le-Rideau is the creation of Gilles de Berthelot, a wealthy financier of François I. Standing in the centre of a romantic park, this masterpiece of 16th-century architecture has preserved, with the passing years, all the refinement, elegance and grace of an exceptional Renaissance châteaux. It is now on the UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

Maurice turned the castle into a kind of academy or “university” for young Englishmen (teenage boys) from “good” English families.

In late 1898, a leading New York newspaper published a vituperative article criticising Châteaux d’Azay-lle-Rideau for being “not a university, but a mere boarding house” where the main subjects taught were “cricket, polo and football”. The locals resented the “English takeover” of the historic castle.

Maurice turned the château into a kind of academy or “university” for young Englishmen (teenage boys) from “good” English families.

In late 1898, a leading New York newspaper published a vituperative article criticising Châteaux d’Azay-le-Rideau for being “not a university, but a mere boarding house” where the main subjects taught were “cricket, polo and football”. The locals resented the “English take-over” of the historic castle.

The book Count de Mauny – Friend of Royalty written by Seweryn Chomet, a Physicist and Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London, reveals that there were rumours of homosexuality and sexual advances made by Maurice to some of the aristocratic adolescents entrusted into his care. Eventually, Maurice had ‘owned up that it is so’.

By late 1898, the owners of the château, alarmed by mounting local dissent and the dark rumours of (then considered) criminal activities, precipitously cancelled the lease.

The de Maunys moved on to Cannes where on April 19, 1899, their first child, Victor Alexander was born. Later they moved to San Remo, and finally landed in England.

Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande possessed charm, intelligence, natural style and an uncanny skill to cultivate the friendship of the rich and famous people. His aspiration to mingle with the élite of the society; his fondness for grandiose, wining and dining; as well as his conscience-free disposition to deploy the financial resources of other people, whether morally acceptable or otherwise, surfaced in the early stages in his marriage and drove him into a financial difficulties. But it seems that he never mended his ways even after his downfall and bankruptcy.

Author William Warren has suggested in his book “Tropical Asian Style,” which showcases contemporary residences throughout Southeast Asia, that Count Maurice de Mauny Talvande’s dwindling financial status, along with the many marital problems he was facing, must have forced him to move to Ceylon.

It was Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea magnate, who first invited the Count to Ceylon in 1912. During that visit Maurice was deeply impressed by his first experience of the tropics and the serenity and beauty of the country. He vowed to return to the Island nation.



← Previous: Taprobane Island: Part 1                         Next → Taprobane Island: Part 3




Add this anywhere