The story of one of the most renowned 4 star hotels in Colombo starts in the year 1805, with Sir Thomas Maitland, a gallant military General, who sailed to the island of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known at that time) to assume duties as the second British Governor. He was better known by the sobriquet ”King Tom”.
King Tom had the desire to build a grand country mansion for himself, as he was very dissatisfied with the accommodation provided to him on arrival, which he regarded as hardly fitting for a man of his rank and stature. On his travels around the island he discovered the perfect location for a stately house, on a promontory overlooking the sea in the village of Galkissa, not too far from the capital, Colombo.
It was in the year 1806 that King Tom built his new residence, a symbol of the power and authority vested in him, as His Majesty’s Governor of the island of Ceylon. Indeed King Tom built a house fit for a king, wherein he fulfilled his greatest desire of creating a pleasure-dome filled with excitement and entertainment to escape the inevitable pressures upon his freedom as Governor, within a rigidly circumscribed colonial English society.
Here within the portals of this house, King Tom first set eyes on a beautiful mestizo dancer, Lovina Aponsuwa, the half Portuguese and half Sinhalese lead dancer of her father’s dancing troupe. As she danced before him, enticing him with her long flowing jet black tresses and fixing his attention with her large, expressive, hazel brown eyes, King Tom was mesmerised. He fell instantly in love with Lovina, for nowhere had he seen such perfection, such beauty, and such grace. Lovina and her dance troupe became regular performers at the Governor’s house. Flattered by the attentions of this high-ranking official, Lovina, the lowly dancer was further elated when, as a token of his growing affection, she learned that he was to name his grand country mansion Mount Lavinia, after her.
Before long, King Tom and Lovina were engaged in a clandestine romance, their deep passion for one another flourishing in secret, away from the disapproving eyes of the English society in Colombo, and the moral imperatives of such a closed community.
Lovina’s life could not have been more different from that of her exalted paramour. She was from the lowest caste among the Sinhalese, the Rodiya community, looked down upon by the higher castes. She lived in humble dwellings a short distance from the Governor’s grand mansion. An underground tunnel allowed the Governor and his beloved to keep their trysts secret. The mouth of this tunnel was a disused well near Lovina’s dwelling place, and the underground passage led to the cellars of the Governor’s House. Their romance continued for six years with Lovina a regular visitor at King Tom’s private residence.
The duties of conscientious Governorship soon took their toll on King Tom, however, and poor health forced him to leave the island of Ceylon and his adored Lovina. The Governor, an honourable man, who wanted to do the very best for Lovina within the social mores of the time, presented her with a parting gift: a large piece of land in Attidiya, a village some distance away from Galkissa.
Although the departure of King Tom was to naturally seal the end of their love affair, Lovina’s name is remembered as providing the inspiration in naming the Governor’s house. Indeed, it is believed that her descendants still live in the vicinity of Mount Lavinia. The legend is the story of Lovina, how she fervently held the attention, and captured the heart of a distinguished British Governor of Ceylon.
By about 1920, the secret tunnel from Governor Maitland’s palace to Lavinia’s residence was sealed and the village surrounding the mansion became a well developed modern city. The city was named ‘Galkissa’, after the Sinhalese word “GalVissa” – meaning twenty boulders. Galkissa was then renamed to “Mount Lavinia” as a mark upon the beautiful dancing girl named Lavinia.
The massive country residence of the British Governor was then transformed into a hotel and named “Mount Lavinia Hotel”.
To this day, the secret tunnel remains, keeping alive the memory and spirit of the beautiful mestizo dancer, elevated in the popular imagination to ”Lady Lavinia”.