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Independence Square: Colombo’s recreational hub is packed with history

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Independence Square in Colombo is undoubtedly one of the most attractive recreational centers in Sri Lanka’s capital. In the mornings and evenings, the young jog and the elderly walk on tree-lined tracks overlooking manicured lawns. While health freaks are busy making good use of the exercise equipment provided free by the government, trained instructors teach kids yoga and the martial arts. 

As the temperature rises, the arboreal ambience makes the Square a quiet retreat for couples and a place to loiter for people whiling away their time. As the day progresses, bus-loads of foreign tourists pour into the Square to look at the ornate Sinhalese-style pavilion built to mark the place where Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then called) was formally declared independent from Britain on February 4, 1948. A majestic statue of Don Stephen Senanayake, the “Father of the Nation”, who led the peaceful and constitutional independence movement and became its first Prime Minister, fittingly dominates the landscape. 

Formerly known as Torrington Square, it is a historical place, having witnessed glorious as well as somber events from the late 19th.Century onwards. The most outstanding event was, of course, the declaration of independence and the inauguration of the first session of the Ceylonese parliament by Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester, on February 4, 1948. The next year, the government decided to build a fitting monument to independence and its “father” in the form of a pavilion reflecting the history and culture of Sri Lanka. 

The pavilion in stone was designed by a group of eight notable architects led by the British architect Tom Neville Wynne-Jones CBE. The team included Sri Lankans F.H. Billimoria, Shirley de Alwis, Oliver Weerasinghe, Homi Billimoria, Justin Samarasekera and M. B. Morina. The design was based on the Magul Maduwa (Celebration Hall), the Royal Audience Hall of the Kingdom of Kandy. 

But there is a somber side to the Magul Maduwa in Kandy. It was at the Magul Maduwa that the Kandyan Convention was signed on March 2, 1815. By that convention, the Kandyan Chiefs, who had rebelled against the then King, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, handed over the island to the British on a platter, as it were. 

Construction of the modern Magul Maduwa started on February 4, 1949 the country’ second independence day, and was completed in 1953. The pavilion was built to seat 224 persons. 25,000 persons could sit-in in the open area outside the hall. And the grounds further off could accommodate 100,000 it is said. 

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Currently, the pavilion and the surrounding space are used for national and religious events as well as State funerals. The Independence Day military parades are held here. Maithripala Sirisena took his oaths as President of Sri Lanka in the pavilion in 2015 to usher in a “Yahapalanaya” or Good Governance regime in a supposed break from the past. 

The Square has been a site of somber events too. The cremation of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, political leader Gamini Dissanayake, former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, Indian Origin Tamil leader S. Thondaman, composer and singer W. D. Amaradeva; maestro Kemadasa Master, political leader and singing star Vijaya Kumaratunga; film maker Lester James Peries; and Buddhist leader Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero were held here. 

The area around the square is also steeped history. The present Independence Square Arcade, a swank commercial and entertainment hub since 2014, was a mental asylum between the latter part of the 19th.Century and the first quarter of the 20th.In 1875, Governor Sir William Gregory decided to build the asylum on the advice of the then Principal Civil Medical Officer, Dr. W R Kynsey (after whom Kynsey Road in Borella is named). Dr. Kynsey was concerned about the high incidence of mental illness among the people of Ceylon which he attributed to the stresses brought about by the repeated invasions and colonization the people here had to face. 

Construction of the asylum started in 1879 when Sir James Longdon was Governor. The building was completed in 1889 at a cost of Rs. 450,000 which was a very large sum those days. The Colonial Office in London felt that the project was extravagant and wasteful. But Longdon defended the construction saying: "The asylum is a series of one-story buildings of the plainest type. The walls are brick plastered. Because of the climate plastering is found requisite for the preservation of buildings. There is no expensive ornamentation, or indeed any ornament at all, unless a short ungraceful and inexpensive tower over the entrance designed for the clock can be called an ornament. The enclosing walls are of ordinary kabook, such as is universally used for garden walls in Colombo.”

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The asylum undoubtedly served a purpose. It had 500 to 700 inmates at any given point of time. The present Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) was part of it as the layout of the SLBC’s corridors suggests. The hospital’s mortuary was located where the SLBC studios are now. The mortuary is now locked, even so, some in the late evening or night shift, swear they hear strange noises from the room. 

The mortality rate at the asylum was high, above 50 each year. Almost all deaths were due to TB and some were due to malaria. The bush land around the asylum, known as Kumbi Kele or Ant Forest, which is now the walking area, was used as a cemetery to bury unclaimed bodies. 

In 1917 a new larger asylum was constructed at Angoda, and all patients were transferred to it by 1926. After a period of non-use, a broadcasting station moved into a part of the former asylum which is now the SLBC. During World War II, the building was taken over by the Royal Air Force which was using the adjacent Race Course as secret airfield. The broadcasting station was moved to a bungalow in Borella. In subsequent years, the Independence Arcade was used by various government departments such as the Public Administration Department, the Auditor General’s Department and the Government Analyst’s Department. However, only a part of the original structure was used, the rest fell into decay. 

In 2011, after the end of the 30 year war against Tamil separatists, the Urban Development Authority *UDA) under Defense and Urban Development Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, decided to renovate and put the buildings to commercial use. Gotabaya’s idea was to create “one space” where entertainment, shopping, leisure and dining are offered to please the entire family.

In his book entitled: Gotabaya, the present Defense SecretaryGen. Kamal Gunaratne writes that in 2012, Gotabaya decided to demolish the various haphazardly constructed structures in the complex and in their place put up new buildings as per a special plan. The asylum building was renovated and converted into a shopping complex. The entire layout with fountains, walkways and lawns was constructed by the more than 200 army soldiers working under expert masons and architects. Care was taken to ensure that the original architectural features were preserved. Although the project cost Rs.500 million, it would have been more if army soldiers were not used as the workforce, Gen. Gunaratne writes. 

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Arcade Independence Square was ceremonially opened to the public on July 13, 2014 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The portfolio of brands that have outlets at the Independence Square Arcade now has become a crowd puller. The combo of restaurants, theatres and the entertainment opportunities laid out have created a wonderful hang-out for people of all age groups.

 

(Photos by Tang Lu/Xinhua)