A Gentle Man and His Habitat

Published on September 16, 2010   ·   No Comments

By Lucy Llewellyn Byard – Sri Lanka/California

Diyabubula – it sounds like a child’s made-up word, but it’s the name of Laki Senanayake’s jungle forest home and means a bubbling ‘water spring’ – an onomatopoeic word that sounds like what it describes.

I had been invited to Diyabubula a dozen or more times by it’s owner, Sri Lanka’s premier artist, Laki Senanayake, and finally made my way there. I had heard many stories about Diyabubula, and had seen photos, but nothing matched the magic of ‘being’ there.

I first learned of Laki Senanayake when I visited the Geoffrey Bawa-designed Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, where I was awed by Laki’s whimsical life-sized sculpture, winding up the hotel’s front entrance stairway that depicts the war between the Sinhalese and the Portuguese. But meeting the man in person awed me even more. At the time, Laki was designing the Barberyn Beach Hotel’s landscape. I was charmed by the flute toting, sarong and T-shirt clad man with the temple flower stuck behind his ear. His pure white beard contrasted with his sparkling black eyes. pan>People followed him around as if he were the Pied Piper, including me. We listened to his stories, absorbed his instructions for the hotel grounds and pondered his philosophy of using plants indigenous to the area. “I basically plant weeds,” I remember him saying. “They bring the birds and the butterflies.” He also planted trees to encourage monkeys. “As long as the guests don’t feed them, they’re great amusement.”

That’s the philosophy surrounding Diyabubula, the home he shares with a pair of wild Ceylon otters, over 50 different species of birds, a multitude of butterflies, and a pair of Fish Owls that walk the roof of his open-air house. The wood roof, by the way, is covered with a patch of ‘weeds’ that has its own sprinkler system. Such are the unique touches at Diyabubula – a place where man and invention blends with nature.

Located near Dambulla, one enters into the magical forest through a tunnel of bamboo. A golden leopard, sculpted by the artist, guards atop the entrance doorway, watching all who come and go. Completely surrounded by ponds and pools, the stilted house sits adjacent a giant rock. Laki explained that when he bought the land from his elder brother in 1971, the house was elsewhere on the property and there was little water except for several natural springs. His brother wanted to grow chilies on the land; but neither sibling knowing how to farm, they used Nihal Fernando’s Handbook for the Young Farmer > to make their way into agriculture. Eventually Laki took over the land, ponds were made and the centerpiece boulder that was buried under tons of dirt was completely exposed by chipping away at the earth and carting it off. “It took 10 years,” Laki said with a smile on his face, “and I consider it my best and biggest sculpture.”

Laki has painted and sculpted grand pieces for private villas and famous hotels and has designed homes. He’s made photographic compositions out of a patch of mould on a dilapidated wall and even designed Rupee notes for Sri Lanka in the late 1970s.

How can one man have so much talent?
His mother, Florence Senanayake, was the first female member of Parliament, in 1947 for Kiriella. His father, originally a planter who then became a ‘visiting agent’ for large plantations, landed in jail because of his political views. Laki was the seventh out of eight children and the talent flows freely in his siblings, who range from faithful follower of a swami deceased some 300 years, to the deputy chairman of a huge conglomerate, to inventive patent-holders. Laki’s eyes shine when he talks of his family and stories abound.

When not storytelling, he often plays his concert flute. Sitting on the rooftop veranda, I half expected fairies to flit out of the forest and dance to his dulcet tunes. The flute and Laki are inseparable. He plays solely by ‘ear.’ First learning to play the harmonica, gradually trying a bamboo flute and then graduating to the concert flute, he is an accomplished musician. “I just fiddled around until I could blow it,” Laki said modestly, with a laugh.

Music surrounds him as much as his art. The Diyabubula’s forest is wired for sound, with speakers hidden among the leafy trees. During a walk around the ponds, with music in the air, I discovered many sculpted pieces. One – a female nude – was carved into a boulder. During the wet season, water falls o ver the nude in the most erotic way. Another sculpture outlines the seated figure of the Buddha into a brick wall. Laki devised the water flow down the wall, such that moss grows only on the Buddha and on the bench arms beneath the outline.

“I hated going to school,” he told me, when I asked about his training. He worked as a freelance draftsman to Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural partner, Valentine Gunasekara at the firm of Edward, Reed and Begg. “Geoffrey saw my drawings at a ‘crit’ (critique) and thought I was good.” Bawa hired Laki immediately and eventually they became lifelong friends. Perhaps it was his friendship with Bawa that influenced Laki’s style; or perhaps it was the two of them staying up to the wee hours talking out their wild ideas.

Discovery and wonder is part of the Diyabubula experience. Nestled in a grove of trees on the property, Laki built a ‘living’ tree house. Made from areca palms – two rows of palms and their root balls make up the base of the A-frame house. Each palm has been bent to shape the ‘A’ shaped roof and at the apex are tied together for sturdiness. “I always wanted a tree house,” beamed Laki.” Gems like the tree house are sprinkled throughout the jungle forest. Peeking though a crevice of two boulders I spied a statue of the Buddha guarded by the serpent at the edge of the main pond, the pathaha pan (small lake). Walking along the path, I dodged branches of dry-zone trees and came upon a brass Guinea Fowl and a dancing Nataraja sculpture swathed in shadows.

As I knelt in the musty leaves taking photos, I heard voices across the pond. Visitors. Laki’s home draws people, not only for the artist’s company, but to bask in the surroundings of Diyabubula. “At times,” Laki told me, “there have been 20 people camped here.” Sleeping quarters are in the common area – mattresses lined up with mosquito nets overhead. I felt like one of the chosen few to have stayed overnight. It wasn’t until 3 a.m. that I knew I was special. I’d taken a trip downstairs to the loo, with torch in hand. On the way back to bed the pool’s waters erupted at my feet. Shining the light into the blackness, I discovered one of the otters that regularly visit. It was swimming, twisting and turning as if showing off, having a late night snack of the pond’s fish.

Besides his flute, Laki is rarely without a pair of binoculars. “I’m basically an armchair bi rdwatcher,” he said from his swivel chair, on the rooftop veranda. “I can easily turn and watch the birds.” He playfully blows his flute in response to the birdcalls and is often bombarded by a jealous feathered fellow trying to guard its territory. While sitting with him, he identified an Indian Pitta – its Sinhala name is Aveechiya, sounding just like its call, a Whistling Thrush and a Ceylon Paradise Flycatcher. “Birds flying overheard are so numerous,” Laki said, his binoculars in hand, “it’s as if Diyabubula is a landmark on their journey.”

I could have stayed at the rustic habitat forever, practicing the philosoph y that Laki touts: “There is nothing so good as doing nothing and then resting afterward.” Like the birds overhead, Diyabubula is now a landmark on my journey and I, too, will migrate there time and time again.
About the Author and the Photographers:

Lucy Llewellyn Byard was planning a visit to her friend Laki when she decided to pitch his story, including photographs, to Serendib, the in-flight magazine for SriLankan Airlines. Although Serendib had published articles featuring Laki Senanayake before, they hadn’t published one in connection with his unique ‘habitat’. Lucy and her photography partner, Lipton Jayawickrama, had a grand time exploring the property, the art, the wonderful light and hearing Laki’s stories as a bonus!

On a subsequent trip, they saw and photographed a band of 20 monkeys swimming in one of Diyabubula’s ponds. The monkeys swung and leapt into the waters below from the tree vines, making a great splashing fest. Lucy even caught a monkey flipping water onto another monkey with its long, tapered tail! It was glorious!

Lucy Llewellyn Byard and Lipton Jayawickrama can be reached at http://www.shadetreeSL.com or info@www.shadetree.com

Previously Published:

This article was first published in the March/April 2009 issue of Serendib, the in-flight magazine of SriLankan Airlines: www.srilankan.aero

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