77th Death Anniversary on Nov 10 HELENA WIJEWARDENE OF SEDAWATTE WALAWWA | Sunday Observer


Wewage Don Helena Dep Weerasinghe was born in 1864 at Waragoda Kelaniya, and married Muhandiram Don Philip Tudugala Wijewardene of Tudugala Kalutara on September 1,1880, at the Christ Church Cathedral, Mutwal. Don Philip was a well known Timber Merchant, and the marriage saw the dawn of a new era for the Wijewardene family which began in Sedawatte.

Don Philip and Helena had nine children - seven boys and two girls. They are Don Philip Alexander, Agnes Helen, Don Louis, Don Richard, Don Edmund, Lizzie Harriet, Don Charles, Don Walter and Don Albert.

Helena’s son DON RICHARD popularly known as DR was the founder of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (ANCL). He named his newspaper office in Fort after his mother’s name ‘Wewage’, presently known as ‘Lake House’. After the Government took over the Newspapers, DR’s son Ranjith Wijewardene founded Wijeya Newspapers which now publishes the ‘Sunday Times’, ‘Lankadeepa’ and ‘Daily Mirror’. D R Wijewardene’s grandson is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ruwan Wijewardene is the State Minister of Defence. Helena’s eldest daughter, Agne Helen’s son Junius Richard (JR) Jayewardene became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka in 1978.

After her marriage to Don Philip, Helena with the family visited Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya on a full moon day in 1880 for worship. This visit turned a new chapter in the history of the temple. On this day, when she walked into the Vihara to offer flowers at the Buddha statue, her feet sank in the mud on the then unpaved floor. This incident made her sad about the dilapidated state of the temple that existed at that time. Then and there, she made up her mind to restore the temple and make it worthy of a place for worship.

As the first step of the restoration, she got the floor of the Vihara paved in uniform rock slabs. One slab was inscribed with her initials and the year, as H.D.W 1888. This slab was laid near the main entrance to mark this event. Later in 1902, she replaced the wooden flower-altar that was in the Viharaya with a better one made of marble.

The restoration work of the temple thus began and continued over many years. In 1927, she laid the foundation stone for the complete restoration of the old Vihara. For this, she got down artisans and sculptors from India and employed architects and artists from Sri Lanka. Her son Don Walter Wijewardene was a tower of strength to her and supported and encouraged her in all the renovation activities of the temple. A new wing to the old shrine room was added along with a central octagonal roof in Kandyan style. Murals with a new style of delineation and colour were drawn on the walls of the new chambers. The pillars and the ceilings were executed in the traditional style of ancient sculpture. The doors and doorways were engraved in the Kandyan style of ornamental carvings.

Having continued the enormous restoration work of the temple over a lengthy period of time, the far-sighted lady turned her attention to the question of the future maintenance of the temple. A paddy field and a coconut land, 250 acres in extent, were donated and with its annual income a fund named, “The Kelaniya Kalawewa Trust Fund” created. In addition, another land, called Uyanwatte, situated at Kelasmulla on the other side of the river was also gifted, to be maintained as a flower garden to supply the daily requirement of flowers for poojas at the temple.

All lovers of Sinhala art and sculpture, therefore, owe a great debt of honour and gratitude to this gracious lady, Mrs Helena Wijewardene of Sedawatte. Today, on account of her magnanimous work the restored Kelani Vihara, the pride of the nation’s heritage, stands as a living monument to her pious zeal and generous munificence.

After the demise of her husband, Don Philip in 1903, Helena Wijewardene moved out of Sedawatte and purchased ‘Rickmand House’ on Stuart Place, now known as 44 Galle Road, Colombo 3, where they built their private residence, demolishing ‘Rickmand House’. The new building was designed by architect Herbert Henry Reid, who later drew up plans for the restoration of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. The Wijewardene family - who were the patrons of the Vihara – named their new villa ‘Sri Ramya’. Mrs Helena Wijewardene, was the maternal grandmother of former President J R Jayewardene, who often visited this house during his childhood.

‘Sri Ramya’ was perhaps Sri Lanka’s first private residence, embedded to the sea beach. Few are aware that it was at “Sri Ramya” that the first trial performance of the Kelaniya Temple ‘Duruthu Perahera’ commenced. The Wijewardene children recall that this early version of the perahera began with them carrying the sacred relic in a small procession out from one gate and back from the other. Today, Helena’s great grandson Dhammika Attygalle is the Chief Basnayake Nilame and the President of the Dayaka Sabha of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

As the temple’s patrons, the family was entrusted with keeping the holy relic while the Vihara was being restored. A small rear room (above the drive) of ‘Sri Ramya’ was fitted for the purpose with murals, by renowned artist Solis Mendis, who also painted the well-known Kelaniya Temple murals. One mural which he completed in 1930 shows Helena Wijewardene with her sons standing in front of ‘Sri Ramya’.

The first wedding at this villa took place on January 9, 1931, between Helena Wijewardene’s son Don Walter Wijewardene and Anula Kalyani Wijesinghe of Kamburupitiya. They were the parents of business magnate Upali Wijewardene who was born in this same building. At ‘Sri Ramya’ Helena saw the birth of four grandchildren Rukmani Beligammana daughter of Don Charles and three children of Don Walter – Anoja Wijesundera, Kalyani Attygalle and Upali Wijewardene.

Helena’s eldest son Don Alexander was the first Ceylonese to purchase and operate a modern cargo vessel, the SS “Pengely” travelling to Europe, Asia and the USA. Helena’s grandson Philip Upali – PUW was the first Sri Lankan to own a Private Lear Jet Plane and a Bell Ranger Helicopter.

In May 1934, well-known Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore and Painter Nanda Lal Bose spent a fortnight at ‘Sri Ramya’ during a visit to Sri Lanka. In 1940, Sir Ivor Jennings called at the villa to meet noted ophthalmologist Dr A F Seneviratne, son-in-law of the elder Wijewardene. On November 10 of the same year, Helena Wijewardene passed away at ‘Sri Ramya’ at the height of World War II.

Helena’s ashes are kept in the mausoleum at the Madampitiya cemetery.

In 1951, the U S Government purchased ‘Sri Ramya’ for its Embassy and since 1993 it is the American Center Housing the Library.

The ancestral Sedawatte Walawwa, situated at Wellampitiya Road, Kolonnawa now belongs to Helena’s great grandson Shalitha Wijesundera.