the early 1960s, Sinhala cinema legend Gamini Fonseka directed
his first film, Parasathu Mal, inside a magnificent mansion that
has today become the Gampaha district secretariat.
An architectural masterpiece curiously called
‘Agra’, the building in Bandiyamulla is usually crowded with
people from throughout the Gampaha district. Inside the
structure are housed three ministries, departments and divisions
ranging from the provincial health ministry to a unit of the
cultural department. Amid the bustle, it is easy to miss the
glory of Agra and the beauty of its past.
Parasathu Mal offers a view of that past,
portraying the mansion as it used to be - before it started
getting buried under an avalanche of people and bureaucracy.
Agra was constructed by one of Gampaha’s most
distinguished residents, D. D Karunaratne, who was first elected
as Member of Parliament of the district in 1947. He was a social
worker and also erected several of Gampaha`EDs landmark
buildings, including Rathnavalee Balika Maha Vidyalaya and the
older buildings of the Gampaha Base Hospital.
Karunaratne is a legend in Gampaha but not
everyone knows the complete story of his life. Not even Chitra
Balasuriya, who ventured into film-making in the 1960s by
producing Parasathu Mal, can tell us everything about the man -
although he does know more than others.
Balasuriya had been fourteen when he first met
Karunaratne. He had been a close friend of the boy’s principal
and had helped construct a new building in his school, a
‘He was the wealthiest man in Gampaha and he did
a lot for the welfare of the villagers,’ Balasuriya said, in an
interview with the Sunday Island. ‘He lived in a small house
near his coconut mill. His house is now the Bandiyamulla post
‘In the 1920s, he started constructing Agra.
There was a competition between him and Gabban Appuhamy, a
contemporary feudal lord who wanted to build another mansion
better than Agra. He called it Jayakody Walauwwa. Each tried to
outshine the other but Agra finally turned out better.’
Balasuriya said the manor was not named by
Karunaratne, adding that he had not been a very learned man. He
guesses that Karunaratne may have wanted to name it after the
Taj Mahal, in Agra. Since that name was already taken, he
someone may have suggested that he called it Agra.
The veteran film producer remembers Karunaratne
had two daughters between whom he wanted to divide some property
before giving them in marriage.
‘He was determined that one daughter should get
the mill as well as Agra while the other should inherit equally
valuable estates,’ Balasuriya narrated. ‘To decide who will get
the mansion, Karunaratne invited his friends and distinguished
residents of Gampaha to his mansion as witnesses.’
Among them were Balasuriya and his school
principal and Panditha Wickramarachchi. At this event,
Balasuriya was asked to toss a gold coin to decide which of the
daughters would get what. ‘I got to toss the coin because I was
a favourite of my principal,’he reported. ‘It turned out that
the elder daughter won Agra and the younger stormed out of the
When Parasathu Mal was in the pipeline, the
filmmakers had wanted a background setting which highlighted the
privileges of its central character, Bonnie Mahattaya. The film
was based on the true story of a feudal lord. ‘Gamini and I had
no second thoughts about using Agra as Bonnie Mahattaya’s
residence,’ Balasuriya said. He remembered that the filmmakers
had experienced difficulty in obtaining permission to shoot in
Agra as Karunaratne had died many years before and the house
belonged to the elder daughter.
‘The film was done entirely on location,’
Balasuriya said. Agra helped make Parasathu Mal distinctive
among the films at that time because its settings blended well
with the story and its characters.
The crew filmed in Agra for ninety days but some
shots were also done in Jayakody Walauwwa.
In the 1970s, Agra was first rented out as the
Kachcheri building by Karunaratne’s daughter after her son’s
death in an accident. He had been a gambler and into wine, women
and song - much like Bonnie Mahattaya of Parasathu Mal.
Balasuriya said that Agra was later taken over by the government
after her demise because nobody had claimed the property.
Balasuriya remembers an area parliamentarian
surreptitiously shifting most of the house’s furniture into his
own residence when it was taken over by the government in the
Agra underwent many changes after the takeover.
Today, the weather-beaten mansion shows signs of negligence. The
beautiful and quaint designs carved in the magnificent teakwood
staircase, pillars, ceiling and furniture lie hidden under
layers of dust. Agra’s living room and dinning room together
serve as the government agent’s office.
District Secretary V. K. Ruparatne rules over
Agra at present. Dramatic changes have been made. Instead of the
huge courtyard portrayed in Parasathu Mal, there is now a new
conference hall. The open veranda where Bonnie Mahattaya held
parties no longer exists. Instead, the area has been partitioned
to create additional office space.
The senior official in charge of Agra’s
maintenance said that there are currently no special programmes
to preserve its precious woodcarvings. She spoke on condition of
‘The treasury allocates a maximum Rs 50,000 per
year for maintenance. This is barely enough to whitewash the
whole building. We don’t have any funds to launch any
conservation projects,’ she said, emphasising that the district
secretariat does not get any extra funds simply because it is
Agra. She calculates that such a project would cost at least Rs
The last major renovation effort was made in
2001, when roof leakages were fixed. Round 1,800 roofing tiles
were replaced. In the process, it was found that around 15 types
of roofing tiles, dating back to the 1890s, had been imported
‘We don’t have enough office space here,’ the
official pointed out. ‘Partitioning here and there has hindered
proper ventilation and the atmosphere downstairs is rather damp.
The staircase will be attacked by termites soon.’
She thinks it would have been best if Agra was
turned into the district secretary’s official residence and a
several-storied office complex constructed to accommodate the 17
odd offices within Agra premises.
Agra is not an official tourist site although
any interested member of the public can visit and admire its
trademark staircase flanked by crystal mirrors; marbled floor;
teak wood ceilings, engraved with fruit baskets highlighted in
gold colour; and furniture with intricate woodcarvings.
It is true that the rule of decay and change is
common to all, including Agra. But some feel that it is a
miracle for Agra to have remained intact under such harsh
circumstances. Agra is an architectural masterpiece worth saving
for the next generation.