February 2017


Lasting Monuments of Sri Lanka's Independence
February 2017




An illustration of the Duke of Gloucester presiding over the first self-rule sitting of Sri Lanka in 1948
Resource: National Archives

As the Union Jack was lowered and the Ceylon Lion Flag was hoisted on February 4, 1948 Sri Lankans rejoiced in unison. 69 years ago a nation was reborn; one that would be named "Sri Lanka" in 1972. Each year, Sri Lankans gather together to commemorate the independence gained from the British Empire and the right to self-rule. The heroic tales of independence activists are retold with pride. Yet, at the sites more closely linked with the momentous occasion, the emotions and patriotism will overflow.


Words: Keshini de Silva
Photography: Menaka Aravinda and Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham


The Independence Memorial Hall was built at the venue of the formal ceremony marking independence in Sri Lanka, which was held under the patronage of His Royal Highness Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (the uncle of Queen Elizabeth II).


A symbol of indigenous Sri Lankan architecture, the audience hall is an awe-inspiring sight against a backdrop of colonial edifices and serene greenery. Towering cement pillars embellished with Buddhist motifs bear the iconic Kandyan roof. Proud lions guard the memento, a symbolic gesture of how Sri Lankans must safeguard their cultural heritage.


At one end of the hall, the dark silhouette of the Father of the Nation, D S Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka rises into view. The Independence Avenue flanked by Na (Ceylon Ironwood, Sri Lanka's national tree) and False Ashoka trees (Polyalthia longifolia), is almost an isle that leads to the hall.


Under the advice of then Premier D S Senanayake and Minister Sir John Kotalawala a formidable team searched for a design that was a fitting reminder that both appreciated the sacrifices of Sri Lanka's heroes and motivated future patriotism. The inspiration for the hall stemmed from the audience hall at the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic), where in 1815 the Kandyan Convention was signed relinquishing Sri Lanka to the British Empire. Ironically it must have seemed fitting to the architectural team that the venue where the Kandyan Flag was lowered be recreated in Colombo centuries later to celebrate the milestone of the hoisting of the Sri Lankan flag.


Nearly a decade after regaining self-rule, the Independence Day celebrations took place at the Independence Memorial Hall for the first time on February 4, 1957. It was the historic opening of the symbol of Sri Lanka's freedom from colonial rule.

Travelling through Independence Avenue, motorists take a bend that results in a momentary pause of respect before the statue of the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, D S Senanayake and the monument built to commemorate the Island’s hard earned independence.


Independence Memorial Museum


At the basement of the hall is the Independence Memorial Museum. Wooden doors carved in Kandyan style open into a mystical chamber of history. The heroes and freedom activists of our motherland and their contribution have been immortalised in mortar, to ensure the future will never forget the pride of a nation. The memoirs such as the diary of social reformer Brahmachari Walisinghe Harischandra, a leader of the Buddhist revivalist movement are displayed. The renaissance of the Island's art and literature and its contribution to the independence movement are not forgotten. Sri Lanka's literary greats including Martin Wickremesinghe, Kumaratunga Munidasa and George Keyt the famed painter too share in the limelight. Events from the Uva Rebellion to the signing of the Kandyan Convention and the first Cabinet of Ministers of 1931 are illustrated in a display of the unyielding Sri Lankan spirit.

The latest addition to the museum is the War Heroes Commemoration Gallery, a display that pays tribute to members of the Armed Forces who laid their lives in sacrifice for peace in their motherland during the three-decade conflict.


The latest addition to the museum is the War Heroes Commemoration Gallery, a display that pays tribute to members of the Armed Forces who laid their lives in sacrifice for peace in their motherland during the three-decade conflict.


Old Parliament


Facing the blue ocean and the resplendent Galle Face Green, the serene brown granite Anglo-Palladian style façade of Sri Lanka's Old Parliament is difficult to miss. Amidst towering modern skyscrapers and pale colonial structures, it continues to draw the attentions of passers by.


The neoclassical structure with its "iconic order" was designed by Austin Woodeson, Chief Architect of the Public Works Department at the time. It was declared open as the Legislative Council on January 29, 1930. At the outskirts of the Colombo Fort and just at the edge of the Beira Lake, the building was strategically located proximate to the residence of the Governor of Ceylon. Although a lasting reflection of Britain's long-lost imperial glory, to Sri Lankans it marks the beginning of a Sri Lankan governance. After the ceremony marking the Island's independence, the Duke of Gloucester arrived here to open the first self-rule sitting of the legislature, then called the House of Representatives. His niece Queen Elizabeth II opened the first session of the second legislature of Sri Lanka during her Commonwealth visit in 1954. The signage within the chamber, would change from the British Court of Arms, to the Court of Arms of the Dominion of Ceylon and finally the 1972 Emblem of Sri Lanka.


When the 225-member Parliament was elected in 1978, the premises was considered too small and the relocation was discussed. It later moved to Sri Jayewardenepura in 1982. However, the glowing classical edifice that looks on deep into the Indian Ocean continues to play an important role. It is now the Presidential Secretariat and Office of the Executive President.


Galle Face Green


A flat green turf that stretches on in harmony with the deep blue of the Indian Ocean. For decades, the Galle Face Green and its seaside promenade have been a mainstay of leisure and entertainment in the city. During the times of the Portuguese and Dutch however, it was of military significance, a pad from which the colonisers would launch their canons against attacks from the seas. These sleeping machines continue to linger on the shoreline of the Colombo Fort bastions, as a showpiece. They are set alight with a bang of celebration during the Independence Day parade.

Although a lasting reflection of Britain’s long-lost imperial glory, to Sri Lankans it marks the beginning of a Sri Lankan governance. The signage within the chamber, would change from the British Court of Arms, to the Court of Arms of the Dominion of Ceylon and finally the 1972 Emblem of Sri Lanka.


Although the day's festivities continue to commence at the Independence Memorial Hall, the parade has alternated between venues. The breezy and more spacious Galle Face Green seems to be a favourite in more recent times. With the refreshing sea spray in the air, the national flag is hoisted near the pier by the Head of State after a gallant display of military might and cultural resplendence. It is followed by the powerful Presidential address to the nation, that is televised live across the nation.


Here the National Flag flieshigh everyday, igniting passionate patriotism in the hearts of Sri Lankans.

 

The 69th Independence Day celebrations will commence with a pirith ceremony at the Independence Square on February 2, 2017. A floral tribute will be made to the D S Senanayake statue in the morning on February 4. At 8.30am the customary Independence Day Parade will take place at the Galle Face Green, under the patronage of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

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    The hoisting of the Lion Flag
    Resource: National Archives

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    The Independence Memorial Hall and monument for the Father of Sri Lanka

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    A sculpture of Premier D S Senanayake

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    Sculptures of the Independence Activists at the museum

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    The classical façade of the Old Parliament building

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    The National Flag flies high at Galle Face Green

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