The President’s House in Colombo and the Gordon Park has been opened to the general public by President Maithripala Sirisena. It will remain open until the 14th of June. The Palace, which boasts a rich heritage, is yet again making history, by being open to the public, for the very first time.
The land that holds the palace itself has historical significance. During the Portuguese rule, St Francis Church stood in this area, along with a cemetery. This was considered the geographically highest location in Colombo. The bodies of the high ranking Portuguese officers were buried here. This cemetery is also considered to be the burial site of King Don Juan Dharmapala, who was detained in Colombo. During the Dutch occupation, St Francis Church was transferred into a Dutch church and the original building was destroyed.
The Palace was originally built as the ‘Governor’s Palace’ by Johan Van Angalbeek. Angalbeek was the Dutch governor of the maritime provinces of Celon during 1794-1796 and this was considered his private house. The original palace was a two-storeyed, white coloured, Dutch building, with a balcony that faced the sea. From him, the ownership of the palace passed onto his granddaughter. This lady was married to George Melvin Leslie, the revenue officer of the Governor Frederick North. Leslie had to pay 10,000 pound to the British government as a fine. His wife decided to hand over the palace and save her husband. Although the house was estimated at 8700 pounds at the time, the British government wrote off the debt and took over the palace on 17th of January 1804.
Up to date the palace has been the official residence of 30 British Governors, two Sri Lankan Governors General and seven Presidents. History has been made and remade in this Palace for more than 200 years. Its walls must have heard many secrets spoken by the mighty leaders of the past, faded even from the memory now.
Sir Thomas Maitland was the first Governor to take the Palace as the official residence. New wings, corridors and rooms were added with the coming of most Governors. The name changed to reflect the gender of the monarch of the United Kingdom. It was accordingly called either the Palace of the King or the Queen’s Palace.
The majestic Nuga tree which shades the palace was planted by the wife of Sir Joseph West Ridgeway, to mark the silver jubilee of coronation of Queen Victoria on 25th June 1897. The Ceylon Mail states that the people celebrated the event by singing and dancing around the Nuga tree.
Governor Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon (1883-90), laid out the Gordon Gardens on the four acres surrounding the palace, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. It was believed that he built the gardens out of his private expense. The Gardens displayed a rich variety of trees at the time. The Gardens also house a marble statue of Queen Victoria, brought to Ceylon, to mark her 30th anniversary of coronation. In addition, the 1881 Royal – Thomian cricket match was held at the Gordon Gardens.
William Gopallawa was the last Governor General to reside in the Queen’s Palace. On 22nd May 1972, he took oaths as the first non- executive President of Sri Lanka, and the residence was renamed as President’s House. All the distances from Colombo are formally measured in miles from the President’s House.
Today the Gordons Gardens stands, serenely on one side of the majestic President’s House. With its layers, fountains and colourful borders, the garden’s beauty remains preserved through time. The most notable aspect of the Gordon Gardens on current day is the presense of one of the main saplings of the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi.
The Palace proudly flaunts the splendor of the Dutch architecture throughout its many halls and passages. The entrance hall exhibits a magnificent staircase with many landings and balconies. The ornate chandelier radiates opulance. Throughout the halls, the palace emanates an elegance of a bygone era.
Portraits of many Governors and Presidents could be seen at the Palace, along with portraits of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe and his Queen, Venkata Rangammal. One particular portrait that hangs on the upper corridor gives out the impression of turning the head and following one with its eyes. This is due to the three dimensional technique used in creating the painting.
The walls of the dining hall is adorned with fans installed by a Governor more than a century ago, which remains functional to date.The dining set used by the English governors are on display, along with many antiques of the time.
The palace overflows with historical artifacts of many shapes and sizes, from elaborately curved Dutch furniture to refined English silverware and traditional Sinhalese brass work. ”Nahiverenaverani” justly says the entrance to the Buddha’s shrineroom. The office room of the President is decorated in a style which is relatively simpler than the rest of the palace. Throughout the Palace, there is an atmosphere, one that is of antiquity, heritage and glory.
(Pics by Chamila Karunarathne)