By Emil van der Poorten –
Within a month I had occasion to visit the chapel of my alma mater, Trinity College, Kandy (TCK) on two occasions. The first was to be part of the final rites for a good man and a dear friend. The second was to attend the “Carol Service” held on the first Sunday of December at this most unique of Christian places of worship.
While the event held on the first Sunday of December is truly a visual and aural treat for even a catechumen like me, the history of the Holy Trinity Church, to give it its full name, evoked a variety of thoughts not necessarily associated with the practice of Christianity and its rituals.
It is only recently that one of Sri Lanka’s premier architects drew attention to the fact that the TCK chapel is one of Sri Lanka’s architectural gems, combining traditional forms with more open concepts something that preceded the iconic work of Sri Lanka’s premier architect of all time, Geoffrey Bawa, by almost half a century.
The very history of the building also is of enormous significance (or should be!) to anyone interested in the more worldly history of our country.
Trinity, as most would know, emerged out of the Anglican educational tradition during the time of the British raj. The Rev. A. G. Fraser, a man way ahead of his time in the matter of liberal education in a British colony, enabled those who wished to be instructed in their mother tongues – Sinhala & Tamil – to have that facility afforded them at least in the primary classes. This was without precedent at that point of British colonial history, the first quarter of the 20th Century.
To digress, for a moment, I had occasion to work with a very senior government servant in Alberta, Canada in the late 1980s who was of Ghanaian origin. In the course of a conversation, I mentioned the fact that Fraser had spent time on a sort of sabbatical from his primary job as Principal of Trinity, around 1912, helping establish Achimota College in what was then the Gold Coast. My Ghanaian friend was impressed no end by my very association with an institution that Fraser had ties to and which, to hear him tell it, was far and away Ghana’s finest and most highly regarded educational institution. Talk about elevation by association!
What is also interesting about the TCK Chapel is the fact that it owed its architecture to an English, Anglican priest, the Revd. L. J. Gaster, Fraser’s Vice-Principal. The only other church of which I am aware, in similar style is the Anglican Cathedral in Kurunegala, a significant part of the cost of which was met from the personal resources of the first Bishop of Kurunegala, the Rt. Rev. Lakdasa De Mel of revered memory. While the indigenous architectural influence is also very evident in the Kurunegala place of worship, in the opinion of many, present company included, it does not hold the proverbial candle to Trinity’s Chapel.
Mr. K.L.B. Tennekoon who was the supervisor of the project, happened to still be a much-loved member of the staff of TCK when I was a student there in the ‘fifties’ and seeing his name in print also brought back memories of this much-loved, diminutive man with whom the students enjoyed an unusual camaraderie and who was also often the butt of our mild jokes, practical and otherwise!
No description in a piece of this dimension can convey the absolute grandeur of a building that so effectively combined traditional (Sinhala) carved granite pillars, what has been described as a “Kandyan-roof” style with a building without walls of any description so very effectively. Bawa’s Parliamentary complex appears to be stylistically the closest thing to the Chapel at my old school. I expect that, in this age of Google, access should be available to greater detail of the fine building at the upper level of the hill on which TCK is situated.
Other thoughts surged through my mind while we sat through a surprisingly hot Sunday evening, not least of which was the quality of the TCK choir which had walked into the chapel and up to the choir stall in a singularly lovely candle-lit procession.
Some other thoughts that crossed my mind was the role that Gordon Burrows, a Major and the senior intelligence officer of Lord Louis Mountbatten, commander of South East Asia Command during World War II played in the development of TCKs now-nationally-famous choir. Burrows was a pianist of concert standard and I distinctly remember attending, with my mother, a recital given by him in the Trinity College Assembly Hall, which was NOT a venue one would choose for good acoustics! I was a pre-schooler then and enormously impressed. Anyway, Gordon prior to his taking the TCK choir to its position of eminence was the Choir Master at St. Paul’s College which was then adjacent to the more familiar St. Paul’s church. That school was unique in that it was on land, literally, adjacent to the Dalada Maligawa and remained so until it was moved or closed in the later twentieth century. St. Paul’s was acknowledged at the time to have the best schoolboy choir in the country. I distinctly remember that Roland Leslie Simon was leader of that proud band of schoolboys and though he is no longer among us, one of his sons is very much a part of Colombo’s literary scene. I speak here of Richard Simon probably the best practitioner of the English language in Sri Lanka today.
It is, indeed, sad that my final anecdote should exemplify the Sri Lanka of today rather that the generosity of spirit that some of us were fortunate enough to experience in years past.
Recently, the artist responsible for the four magnificent murals in the TCK chapel (and in the chapel at St. Thomas’ in Mount Lavinia) has been in the headlines. David Paynter had bequeathed several of his canvases to an arts faculty of a Sri Lankan university. The person holding in trust these very valuable pieces of art by one of Sri Lanka’s greatest artists prior to their being hung in their final destination has been charged with stealing and selling them to a third party! David, an alumnus of Trinity and a graduate of the Slade in Britain where he was a pupil of Augustus John, is considered one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced and certainly must be most uncomfortable in his final resting place at this turn of events.
In a time when it is easy enough and very popular, to pillory the Christian churches and particularly the Anglican Church, “the church of empire,” and to harp on the differences among the many faiths that our people practice, one needs to remember that …there was a time when tolerance reigned and people following the various theistic faiths and philosophies were not being set at each others’ throats by politicians without conscience!