Turtle Bunbury

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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Rohan Jayakody

Lighthouse Street, Galle, Sri Lanka

“I have come to corrupt the foreigners”, says Rohan Jayakody with a mischievous smile, referring to his 2003 acquisition of No. 50 Lighthouse Street in Galle Fort. The enigmatic Sri Lankan florist has been making gentle waves in his homeland ever since his return from London in the early 1980s. Jayakody’s Sri Lankan properties include a Geoffrey Bawa house in Colombo, a Victorian plantation villa in the Hill Country and the Gunasekera House in Bentota. But his villa in Galle ranks as his favourite by a considerable distance. “It’s like a Vermeer painting, only more vulgar”, he suggests. A neighbour feels Caravaggio is more apt. It is certainly decadent and, by Sri Lankan standards, outrageous.

Few who pass by its discreet wooden doors would guess what lies beyond. Perhaps they might take a second glance at the imperial vases standing sentry on the steps. Or maybe catch a fleeting reflection in the curved mirror surmounting the fretwork above the door. And conceivably there are scholars amongst them who could translate the French motto overhead. (“Honi soit qui mal et pense!”).

On entering the property, one is instantly dazzled by a sensual kaleidoscope of animal heads, massive wooden sculptures, leafy foliage, dangling chandeliers and gigantic urns running perhaps two hundred metres towards a stone wall lit by blossoming sunshine. The ground floor is essentially a single flagstone corridor, no more than eight metres wide, rising up an occasional step. Walls on either side of the corridor, retaining the roughness of their 250-year-old past, are painted a faded orange. All doors and columns were salvaged from an early 18th century Portuguese manor house in the fishing village of Mirissa.

The entrance hall is dominated by more than eighty pair of antlers, mounted on handcrafted wooden deer heads, some of extremely unlikely disposition, others convincing. Complemented by three massive tea chests, the hall creates an illusion that one has arrived at a quintessentially colonial home. However, one’s eye is soon drawn to a veritable cabinet of curiosities, fronted by a collection of enormous processional sculptures from Jaffna –flying horses, a demonic tiger, an astonished Mary Magdalene, a pot-bellied magician. As if to magnify the absurdity of this group, a giant copper telescope stands to the left, pointed through leafy bamboo towards the open skies. The effect is something akin to a Moroccan souk. “It is an absolute folly”, admits the owner happily.

Perhaps to temper this sudden onslaught of decadence, the first seating area is more restrained. Two five-seater sofas face each other, separated by a low wooden table, simply decorated with bowls and bells. On the walls, portraits of Jayakody’s forebears stare bemusedly at a pair of oriental scrolls depicting a high ranking Chinese official and his wife. The assemblage of portraits briefly reasserts the colonial theme but the villa swiftly returns to the bazaar style when a guest’s bedroom, concealed by a grill, drops unexpectedly into the room, drawing one still deeper into the building.

The next “carriage”, with its low blue ceiling, contains the kitchen, granted centre stage, the sinks and cooker hidden behind a lattice screen. An ochre archway then merges into a small dining area, furnished with planters’ chairs and an antique wardrobe, before culminating in an elevated open-air space of giant oil vases, cement blocks, a coconut tree and a shower, stunningly enclosed in a wall of coral rock. The outdoor garden area enhances the extravagant flavour of a Roman atrium villa.

The ground floor corridor is essentially Jayakody’s reception room. The real high jinks go on upstairs, either in the lacquered black bar on the first floor, or on a flamboyant rooftop of moulded cement sofas, scattered peacock feathers and bamboo-roofed shelters. From here one has an exceptional view of the surrounding landscape, a sea of terracotta rooftops and frothy green treetops, broken intermittently by the ocean, the white towers of the Dutch Kirk and the Lighthouse itself.

Shortly before our arrival, Jayakody hosted a dinner party where, in traditional Sri Lankan style, the guests drank, danced, ate and departed in that order. One wonders how his neighbours reacted to the sounds of Indian rap music echoing down the street. The important thing is that Jayakody is Sri Lankan and proud of it. His focus is on the future and he is determined life should be lived with as much enjoyment as possible. As the inscription above his door reads: “Shame on him who thinks this evil!”

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.