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Mahatma Gandhi and the Corea Family of Chilaw in Sri Lanka

'Gandhi - A guest at Sigiriya' Daily News article

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'Gandhi - A guest at Sigiriya' Daily News article
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Gandhi - A guest at 'Sigiriya'

It is indeed a pleasure to recapture and recount the lives and times of the older generation. Theirs was an era of spacious and gracious living. When one views with dismay the destruction of old houses - the Walauwes and colonial type buildings, one can't help but gape with surprised delight at the few grand old houses still remaining. One such edifice is the stately mansion 'Sigiriya', set like a jewel in the heart of the coastal town of Chilaw.

"Sigiriya', was built by Jimmy and Agnes Corea in the early twentieth century. Jimmy Corea was a Proctor of the Supreme Court and his wife Agnes was the sister of the redoubtable freedom fighters, C.E. Corea and Victor Corea. This was the time the Corea clan reigned supreme in Chilaw - so much so that Chilaw came to be famous for its three Cs - Coreas, Crabs and Coconuts! When my mother Ena related those 'olden days stories', she recalled 'Sigiriya' as a place of much activity.

If I attempt to describe 'Sigiriya', I could not do justice to its impressive architecture. One drives in through an imposing gateway into the portico and steps out to a pillared foyer. The entire ground floor is of marble and the sweeping marble stairway has Sinhala floral motifs engraved in its wooden bannisters. Balconies with balustrades run round the entire upper storey and one section of the roof is topped by a dome. They say that every house has its 'time' and surely 'Sigiriya' had its day when Mahatma Gandhi stepped into its hallowed portals!

In 1927 when Gandhi came to Ceylon, he was invited to Chilaw by C.E. Corea, Chairman of the Chilaw Association. C.E. Corea fought relentlessly for Swaraj and the British bureaucracy wilted under his elegant verbal thrusts and it was remarked that 'what Chilaw said today, Colombo thought on the morrow', chiefly owing to the influence of C.E. Corea.

Gandhi arrived in Chilaw with his entourage and was a revered guest at 'Sigiriya' where he stayed for some days. My mother recalled her visits as a teenager to her Uncle's home to see the distinguished guest. To her, the Mahatma seemed meek and humble in his loin-cloth and bare body, yet full of power and vision. His eyes, she noticed in particular, were calmly compelling. She felt she was standing in the presence of a 'King among men'. to her, those visits were redolent of oranges - her father's car was laden with oranges from the estate for the visitors. Her younger sister Ira, favoured God-daughter of Uncle Jimmy, recalled travelling to a meeting, ensconced in the back seat of her car between Gandhi and her Uncle.

Doreen and Nan are two surviving daughters of C.E. Corea. Doreen was nine years old at the time of Gandhi's visit, and what she remembers vividly is the mammoth reception accorded to Gandhi at the Court House premises. She remembers when her younger sister Nan, attired in a blue half-saree, stepped out to garland the Mahatma, he embraced her and called her "Gandhi's little sweetheart'. Dates and goat's milk were served to the visitors at 'Sigiriya' and she remembers in particular, the Spinning Wheel Gandhi presented to her father, C.E. Corea.

These were memorable events in the lives of the youngsters of yesteryear and fascinating glimpses of history to us for our generation.

- Christabelle Aturupane

Published in the Daily News in Colombo, Sri Lanka