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Sunday, August 12, 2007

‘Brief’ Garden of Eden - The Sunday Times

‘Brief’ Garden of Eden

By Rathindra Kuruwita

I have heard stories about Bevis Bawa and his haven ‘Brief.’ It has been called “a playground of the senses,” a place full of inviting nooks, alcoves, leafy recess and cloisters. A little corner in the country that is so tranquil, it encourages one to just lay back and take it slow.

The long winding road
Finding the place that the villagers call ‘Bawa Mahathayage waththa’ proves to be no easy task. After the turn off from the Galle Road, the Kaluwamodara road seems to get narrower with each curve. Although we have a map of sorts hastily drawn by a friend we find it difficult to keep track of our path. We have to pull into an ally to let a bus pass and have a difficult time getting the vehicle back on to the road, without falling into the ditch lining the path.

Finally realising that the map will not do us any good, we venture to do one of the most difficult tasks for a man, to ask directions. The way they give directions, enthusiastically and with smiles and the way they pronounce the name ‘Bawa Mahathaya’ tell us that he is very fondly remembered. And why shouldn’t they, when he has distributed most of his land among the villagers, a fact that I am to learn later.

We reach a slab of wood, which has faded ornate Gothic lettering carved deeply and precisely into it saying ‘Brief.’ We are unaware that ahead of us is a long winding road. We travel down yet another narrow road raised across a marsh. Half way through we confront a motorcycle coming straight at us in full throttle, both parties break violently and the motorcyclist nearly becomes one with the soil. Despite his near death experience, he’s kind enough to give us directions.

The road ends with a hairpin bend that leads to a red clay road, which ends at a circular driveway with iconic gate posts. We wander up the red clay road through a tunnel of green. There is a large, bamboo-hedged circle, which serves as a car park. The front door is set in this hedge, making the house behind it quite invisible to the first glance. A magnificent white bougainvillea conceals the roof.
It’s hot and humid and we ring the bell over the garden door and the caretaker appears. “Only 45 minutes,” he says. “Are you sure you want to spend 400 rupees?” “Right on,” I say digging into my pocket.


The garden area is so vast that it is difficult not to get lost and all the paths seem to lead to the front door. However, some of the most beautiful spots such as the “hilltop lookout” with a single Araliya tree that I have seen in so many photos are extremely difficult to find.

I ask politely for directions from the caretaker and add that we are from paththaren (newspaper), to drive the point home. He guides us along the perimeter path and leads us to a patch of greensward with a round pond set in the middle. There is an enormous flight of stone steps to climb on to a hill next to the pond. It is perhaps the most grandiose looking spectacle in the garden.

The house

The house is minimalist. The floors are of bare cement, the walls and ceilings are Spartan and without ornament. No signs of etherealness and lavishness. Yet, this is a place of comfort and beauty. The house is full of art, including Bawa’s own work and gifts from his friends, especially Australian painter/sculptor Donald Friend. The sculptures of proportioned male nudes that dot the house and garden stand out among many others.

Donald Friend stayed for more than five years in Brief during 1960s. Therefore his art is strewen across Brief. Among which are a superb mural, which represents Sri Lanka as the favoured isle of Hindu God Skanda, an aluminum sculpture of Aphrodite rising, hides in a nook in the corridor. Terra-cotta tabletops that bear Friend’s designs can be found everywhere.

No more a Garden of Eden

Nearly 80 years ago one man set out to create his own miniature Garden of Eden and succeeded. However, as the caretaker of Brief Nihal says things are gradually falling apart. “Before Mr. Bawa died, he distributed his land among the villagers who served him. We did our best to look after the garden. Yet, this is nothing compared to what it was.” From the dilapidated outhouse to the statues that are being rapidly covered by rust, and the pathways that are under attack by weeds show that Mother Nature is out to reclaim what was once hers.

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