Where fancy comes alive

“Hello?” said the dignified voice of a lady, and immediately I had a strong hunch that Helga De Silva Blow Perera herself was on the other end of the phone.

“Hi! I was just wondering if you could tell me how to get to Helga’s Folly. I’m driving by the Kandy Lake right now,” I said.

“Oh, keep driving until you pass by the Maha Maya School and then take a right turn down Maha Maya road. You’ll soon come to a sign that will point you in the right direction.” I couldn’t help noting the exalted tone of voice, the perfectly articulated syllables and the slightly lopsided pronunciation of ‘Maha Maya’.

“Thanks very much. We’re just on our way to visit the hotel,” I said.

“And will you be staying with us?” That immaculately vocalized Queen’s English again, which I was really beginning to admire.

“No, we hoped we could have an early dinner and then look around the hotel. May I know who I’m speaking with?” I asked, so that I could finally put my suspicions to rest.

“This is Helga,” she said, “I think your call may have been transferred to me by accident.” She was right. I had asked the man who answered the phone for directions to the hotel and he promptly put me through to Helga, possibly because he misunderstood me. I was surprised to be put through to her with such alacrity, but this is the sort of place that Helga’s Folly is. The ‘anti-hotel’, as Helga likes to call it, is unlike any traditional stopover for holiday-makers. From the outrageous character of the building and the delectable food, right down to the warmth and graciousness of its proprietor, I think it’s safe to say there is no other place on earth like Helga’s Folly. The lady could have easily asked someone else to give me the information I wanted, which is why I was touched that she chose to talk to me herself.

Before ringing off she said, “I do hope you enjoy the house,” and I thanked her for sharing her home with us because essentially, this is what Helga does. And it seems she’s not only offered her home to visitors, but also her empathy. Several heartfelt notes and drawings left in the hotel’s hefty guestbooks bear evidence of this.

The reception – the walls here are covered with news clippings about Helga, her extraordinary family and her home

Simply to enter Helga’s Folly is an experience on its own. It’s the kind of place that you either love or hate. There isn’t a possibility here for a lukewarm response. The bold colours and psychedelic murals on the walls can seem either creative or kitschy. The jagged strands of paralyzed wax dripping from the candelabra and the shadowy corners caused by muted lighting can be either intriguing or alarming. Various styles of antique furniture, low hanging chandeliers, porcelain urns, wooden busts, ornately framed mirrors and countless other objects can make you feel either hemmed in by paraphernalia or embraced by entities with stories to tell. We thought it was creative, we were intrigued and we were certainly enchanted by the stories. We loved it.

A mirror magnifies the spirit of the hotel

One of the sitting rooms

I think my favourite quality about Helga’s Folly is that it is highly conducive to escapist fancies and ridiculous imaginings. If you’ve got the tiniest smattering of whimsy about you, you’ll catch yourself indulging in wild fantasies and daydreams, if not out loud then at least in the secrecy of your mind. We found we couldn’t help picturing ourselves in the most eccentric circumstances – eccentric, but still with a sense of childlike fun. Sipping deliciously aromatic cardamom tea, poured out of an antique teapot, I felt like a Mughal princess being waited on hand and foot.

Fragrant cardamom tea served out of an antique teapot. Guestbooks spilling over with notes and drawings sit in the background.

We dined on the balcony on spaghetti drenched with masses of soft, chewy cheese and zesty garlic, ginger and chilli. With my golden (okay, it was brass) cutlery and silver (come on, let me have just this one) goblet, I was a queen surveying my vast and prosperous domain. Mind you, that included the Kandy Lake and the Temple of the Tooth. Dining beside me, my friend was indulging in his own, more sinister fabrications. Silver goblet in hand, he had morphed into the Sheriff of Nottingham and was plotting his most devious scheme yet to ensnare the ever-elusive Robin Hood. Ardent fan of Robin Hood, his band of outlaws and their daring escapades as I am, I just wasn’t feeling any Maid Marion vibes.

Our thoughts did converge on one far-fetched delusion, though. As darkness fell and ancient chandeliers threw crooked shadows across walls brought to life by colonies of bats, we couldn’t help thinking what a fitting abode this would be for elements of the undead. It would have made perfect sense to run into a vampire or two, complete with Dracula-esque opera capes and high collars. By this time our enjoyment of the hotel had hit delirious levels and I was giggling unabashedly when I said, “Good thing there was a bit of garlic in our dinner!”


From the top of the staircase

The muted lighting creates fanciful shadows after dusk

As fun and playful as our experience at Helga’s Folly was, many other guests have been moved by the hotel in a far more profound manner. Several of the murals adorning the walls and ceilings are the work of guests themselves. Undergoing various hardships in their lives, the artistic expression had a healing effect on them. Helga herself began decorating the house to recover from a painful divorce. It is this therapeutic effect of painting that she extends to guests when she suggests they put brush to the walls of her home.

An emerald green room fit for an enchantress

Light and colour distort in a mirror

Until I had spoken to Helga and experienced her graciousness, I must say I was somewhat daunted by the photographs I’d seen of her. Her rather exceptional sense of style – a quixotic headpiece featuring a large black feather, a batwing shaped high collar on a jacket coupled with a saree, heavily framed spectacles and statement jewellery – made me feel it would be difficult to relate to her. But her courteousness immediately put me at ease and our brief conversation was effortless. I suppose in a sense she’s a lot like the house she designed – once you get over the initial shock, you start feeling right at home.

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.

Batik chic

Bold prints, elegant colours and trendy designs worthy of appearing on high fashion runways were hardly what we expected when we first heard of Chinthaka Rathnayake and his little batik workshop and store. That’s exactly what we found though at Kandurata Batiks, tucked away in a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Kandy. While it was a relief to get away from the tightly packed flurry that is the Kandy city, Chinthaka’s friendly welcome that included milk toffee and tea was cheering. Laid-back and relaxed, we found he was easy to talk to, as he good-naturedly poked fun at us for going round in circles before finally arriving at his store (Kandy has a knack for doing this to us!).

The display area of Kandurata Batiks is a riot of colours and designs and I found the urge to launch myself into the tangle of colours irresistible. As I browsed through the shelves and clothes-hangers neatly arranged with an array of garments including shawls, dresses, tops, t-shirts, bandanas, beach wraps and sarongs, I had to keep reigning in my shopaholic tendencies by reminding myself that I am currently trying to travel the whole country on a shoe-string budget. So attractive was the batik on each of the pieces.

Tangles of colours and designs at Kandurata Batiks

What I found most captivating is that Chinthaka and his team had managed to infuse a modern, youthful energy into the age-old art of batik. While some of the designs on bed spreads, bed runners, pillow cases and cushion covers were certainly traditional, new designs had been created to adorn garments like beach wraps and bandanas. A group of turtles stared out of a beach wrap and a fiery sun shone forth from a yellow bandana. In other instances, designs with a traditional feel had been applied to contemporary outfits like dresses and t-shirts. One of the dresses that caught my eye was a pale pink with a little batik motif by the hem; it struck me as almost Boho-chic.

Beach wraps adorned with contemporary, sometimes whimsical, designs

A collection of bandanas create a riot of colour

A bedspread with more traditional designs

In addition to the casual outfits, there were also several formal pieces. The satin and silk fabrics used for a collection of blouses and kurthas gave the batik designs a grand lustre. Even chiffon shawls and pashminas had been brightened up with batik. In fact, there seemed to be no fabric that Chinthaka had not adorned with batik; a couple of earth-toned shawls were – I was surprised to find – woven out of pineapple fibre.

Cheery chiffon shawls

Even Pashmina shawls sport batik

A shawl spun out of pineapple fibre. Beneath it is a roll of the same type of fabric before being embellished with batik.

Having begun his career as a model working in Qatar and Malaysia, Chinthaka has always had a passion for art and design. This is what led him to study Designing with Natural Dyes in Hyderabad and soon after, he came back home to set up Kandurata Batiks. It has only been six years since its inception, but the store houses a wide range of painstakingly made batik products, for which Chinthaka has already won acclaim. In 2011 he secured first place at the Kuala Lumpur International Batik Convention and was awarded as the Best Entrepreneur of the Central Province of Sri Lanka the same year. More recently, Chinthaka won Gold and Silver for two of his creations at Shilpa 2012.

Each design at the store is one-of-a-kind and hand made with only natural dyes – as we found in Chinthika’s workshop. Always open for curious customers to take a peek, the workshop had a distinctly waxy smell about it. When we entered, two ladies were using melted wax to paint floral designs on cotton fabric. Their dextrous strokes conveyed the meticulous nature of the work they were doing. They never used blocks, meaning every design is hand-painted and unique. Draped on chairs, tables, racks and basically every available surface were garments and fabrics, stiff with wax and ready to be immersed in dye.

Intricate work

Each of the pieces is entirely hand-made

After the wax is painstakingly applied, the garments are ready to be dipped in natural dye

The brownish areas of the fabric have been coated with wax

Wax is one of the fundamental elements that go into the creation of beautiful batik designs. Melted wax – Chinthaka uses a mixture of mostly paraffin wax with a small quantity of bee’s wax – is applied to the area of the design that must be left colourless. Once it has dried, it is immersed in a natural dye bath, which stains the exposed area of the fabric. It is the cracks in the wax that allow bits of dye to seep in and create the intricate lines that I love about batik. Thereafter, more colours can be added to create more complex designs by waxing and dying as many times as required. After the fabric has absorbed the dye, the wax is removed by heating the wax and scraping or sponging it off. Finally, the fabric with the completed design is treated with a mordant, which intensifies the stains caused by the natural dyes.

A mixture of white paraffin wax and golden bee’s wax is used to seal off the area of the design that must be left colourless. The wax is often reused, which is why the chunk of wax on the left has taken on a brownish colour.

The dyes used to create the batik designs

Creating the designs is a collaborative effort between Chinthaka and an artist, employed especially for this task. Chinthaka finds inspiration for his creations in objects as diverse as Palampore – an ancient variety of Indian bedspread created for royalty during the 18th century – and the diamond shaped mould used to make aluwa, a traditional Sri Lankan sweet. Chinthaka had created his own batik version of the Palampore for the World Batik Council show in Kuala Lumpur in December 2011. Flipping through photographs of models wearing his designs at the Kuala Lumpur International Batik Convention, I was surprised by the contemporary vibe radiating from the dress sporting the designs sparked by a humble aluwa mould.

A painting of the Kandy Perahera by Chinthaka’s talented artist

One of the designs inspired by an aluwa mould

Chinthaka’s travels through South Asia, the cradle of the art of batik, also bring him into contact with many a muse. In Laos he found an elaborately designed antique piece of cloth, which he was able to acquire. Much of the fabric and other raw materials are sourced during his travels to this part of the world, especially Malaysia, Thailand, India, Singapore and Laos. The material woven out of pineapple fibre is from the Philippines.

The elaborately designed antique

Just as we were leaving, Uncle Tony, who manages the store for Chinthaka, pulled out an inconspicuous wrap, hidden away in a corner among several flamboyantly patterned pieces. “I have to especially show you this one,” he said. “It was entirely designed and created by Chinthaka.”

Designed and created entirely by Chinthaka

A closer look of the beach wrap designed and created entirely by Chinthaka

Taking a closer look at the pretty wrap, I found the colours chosen were simple and unassuming; the wrap was an understated beige with slightly darker brown patterns adorning it. At the same time the turtle designs lent it a trendy and artistic tone, the sort of work executed by someone with impeccable taste. The wrap reminded me of the dynamic, young proprietor of Kandurata Batiks; it seemed a reflection of the personality of its maker.

You can visit Chinthaka’s store and workshop at 17/30, New Housing Scheme, Thiwanka Bodhi Mawatha, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Or call him on + 94 812 234 140 or +94 773 286 402

© The Magic-Bean Trippers
Prior written consent of the authors must be obtained to reproduce, copy, modify or adapt any part of this blog or any of its contents.