“I say, why don’t you build something like that audience hall in Kandy?”; These words by John Kotelawala then a minister went on to cement the design for the Independence Memorial Hall.
Randima Attygalle looks back.
“Four smart white clad relay runners from the ends of Lanka bearing scroll messages of hope and goodwill for the future entered the Independence Square sharp at 4.15 p.m. yesterday to complete the last act of Ceylon’s first anniversary celebrations of independence. It was a magnificent effort of co-ordination. The four scrolls were handed over to four girls representing the womanhood of the nation. The girls then turned towards the Premier and read the messages in Sinhalese, Arabic, English and Tamil….. The Prime Minister proceeded to lay the foundation stone of the Independence Column and immediately after a large number of pigeons were released. This was followed by Prime Minister’s address.” Thus records the Ceylon Observer of February 5, 1949.
The report further provides a detailed description of the ‘kap’ planting ceremony at the site chosen for the Independence Monument. “Ancient Sinhalese ceremonial was observed when at 10.35 a.m. yesterday the auspicious time, Sir John Kotelawala, Minister of Transport and Works, deputising for the Prime Minister performed the ‘kap’ planting ceremony. Earlier pooja ceremonies under E.A. Delgoda, the Basnayake Nilame were performed by the kapuralas. Milk was boiled at the Northern end of the octagon and coconuts were broken.”
Independence Memorial Hall, is indeed “one of the most outstanding sights of Colombo and one which, once seen, will not be forgotten,” true to the words of its principal architect T.N. Wynne Jones. More than a monument celebrating the country’s emancipation from colonial rule, this iconic edifice had been privy to occasions of national significance; both ceremonial and sombre, Parliament assemblies and civic receptions since its opening in late 1953. The Hall stands on the site of the temporary assembly hall, where the first Parliament was inaugurated on February 10, 1948 by the Duke of Gloucester.
Signing the decisive Kandyan Convention in the Magul Maduwa or the Audience Hall in Kandy in 1815 was the final blow to our national sovereignty. In a twist of destiny, the Magul Maduwa, replica now stands as a symbol of Independence. Interestingly, the design had however, been ‘unpremeditated’, according to Dr. Justin Samarasekera, a celebrated first generation local architect honed in the best of both the vernacular tradition and that of the West.
Dr. Samarasekera was among the Lankan architects who collaborated with Wynne Jones, on the Independence Memorial Hall. Citing her communication with Dr. Samarasekera in her work, ‘Architecture and Nationalism in Sri Lanka- the trouser under the cloth’, Dr. Anoma Pieris notes: ‘D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister, who had once been a draughtsman at the PWD (Public Works Department), initially volunteered the design services of a friend in the Survey Department. He produced a design for a colonial saluting platform- a form wholly inappropriate for a nascent nation-state. H.J. Billimoria of the PWD, a pragmatic soul, suggested a hospital. Sir John Kotelawala, a minister- later to be Prime Minister called up Wynne-Jones and said, “I say, why don’t you build something like that audience hall in Kandy?” PWD architects were asked to sign a ‘no protest’ form to this recommendation.’