Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Former British Governor's Bungalow Cries For Attention

The ruins of the Doric House at Arippu, built by the British colonial government in the early 1800s, and described by Cordiner in 1807 as the most beautiful building in the island, is facing a serious threat due to the erosion of the coast.

Arippu is a small settlement which lies south of Mannar in the north-western coast line of Sri Lanka. On the plains south of Arippu, rise the ruins of a once majestic British era bungalow. Nearby, there is a cement tower. These are the Doric House and the Doric Tower of Arippu.

The threat posed by erosion was nothing new. This threat was reported for the first time several decades ago. The sea has reached the very walls of the Doric House, causing one side of its walls to collapse. However, nothing was done for years, partly due to the prevailing security situation in the area. Recently, a stone barrier was constructed to protect the building. It covers only a section of the beach and seems to be inadequate.

Protecting the Doric House is important since it was once a landmark in the colonial history of Ceylon. Furthermore, it was a living testament of a bygone era, when pearl fishing was a lucrative business in the area. The Doric House was built as a bungalow for the Governor to reside during his trips to inspect pearl fishing.

It is widely believed that the first Governor of British Ceylon, Frederick North, drew the plan of the building. The foundation was laid on March 18, 1802 and it took two years to complete. It was supposed to be finished by the end of 1802, but several difficulties prolonged the completion of the building. It was reported that transport difficulties and awkwardness of the coolies employed (due to the harsh conditions) slowed down work. Financial difficulties arose in 1803 further delaying the work.

North is thought to have resided in the Doric House during one trip after its completion in 1804. He left the island in 1805. However, the Doric House remained a prominent landmark in the area.

Writing in 1807, Cordiner said that this was ‘the most beautiful building in the island’. He provided a detailed account of this building with a drawing made by him. This drawing shows the Doric columns rising on the front and rear porticos. These cannot be seen today. Cordiner also provided the layout plan of the building. Accordingly, there were four small bed rooms on the ground floor. The building had a terraced roof over the upper floor, which could have been an excellent place to watch the fishery activities on the sea.

“The Doric is distinctly marked on few maps of Ceylon prepared during the 19'h century. It was marked as 'House' on Captain G. Schneider's map in 1813 and as 'Dorick' on the map popularly known as John Davy's map in 1821,” Dhanesh Wisumperuma said in his paper ‘The Doric at Arippu’ published in the Journal of the Royal Association of Sri Lanka, Volume LI, in 2005. The building is marked as ,Doric, on both Major General John Fraser's map of 1962 and Arrowsmith's map of 1957, Wisumperuma also pointed out, concluding that the Doric House was a principle landmark in the 19th century.

The end of pearl fishing and several other changes brought an end to the Doric House’s prominence. The road to Jaffna through Arippu became unimportant following the construction of the road through Kurunegala. The building started the long process of decay.

Despite this, it still evoked a considerable deal of imagination. In 1973, RL Brohier mentions it as a “striking landmark on the plain.” There were other references towards early 1980s as well. The outbreak of the war in 1983 brought the building to oblivion.

However, the relative scarcity of records may have led many into falsely believing that the Doric is actually the Dutch Fort of Arippu. However, this theory is totally unfounded as the fort was located at Arippu further north.

Archeological exploration was restarted in the north following the end of the war in 2009. As an initial step, some archaeological sites were Gazetted by the Archaeological Department, thereby claiming the legal rights over the sites. However, extensive research is yet to be done.

The importance of the Doric House is that it connects to a relatively lesser known industry in ancient Ceylon, that of pearl fishing. At any rate, the Mannar coastline has not been subjected to thorough archaeological research. Therefore, it is important to preserve the known archaeological sites as a first step in exploring the unknown depths of Sri Lanka’s past.

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