We acquired the property in the year 2005, few months after the devastating Boxing Day Tsunamis of 2004. The house was more like an abandoned building in a neglected and depleted state not seen any renovations or refurbishment for at least for 3 to 4 decades. The Real Estate agent was claiming that house was from VOC days (Dutch Ceylon Era) without any documented proof for the claim. But we really liked the wooded garden and its location, we also visualized how house would have looked in its heydays.
After, acquiring the property and enlisting a renowned architect with a reputation of restoring many Dutch period buildings, we believe that we did justice to the building as it stands today. The architect too was convinced that the house had all the hallmarks of Dutch Ceylon buildings, but also stated that, he witnessed about 2 different types of bricks, used during different industrial ages of Dutch Ceylon and early British Ceylon.
The property had a street number, but no house name as it was more common in the past. We thought it would be nice to rename the house with its original Dutch name if it existed at the time. Our quest for the name search and official records proved futile as records before 1948 had been moved out of Galle and nobody could tell us where they are or whether they might still be kept. The land registry record s revealed that the previous owner’s family had purchased the house and land from the state (Ceylon Government) in 1950.
Our new neighbors were referring to the house as “Bilin Gaha Gedera” which means, the house with a Bilin tree or Bilin Tree House when translated word to word. They also claimed that the name had been used even when their grand parents were kids. We were directed to an aged gentleman who was said to have been employed at the house when Sudu Mahattaya (White gentleman) was living before the independence in 1948. We met the elderly gentleman, in his eighties, fluent in spoken English. He had succeeded his father as the “Appu” (Butler) and the job had been passed on to generations since the first Englishman occupied the house even before the British conquered whole of Sri Lanka in 1815.
The Appu’s (Butler’s) Stories
He confirmed that the house was used as living quarters for officials of British Ceylon, and it was used by staff attached to the Government Agent’s Office. According to stories passed on to him by ancestors, the house was confiscated, hundreds of years ago when Dutch were expelled from Galle and Sri Lanka. The house was said to be the home of a former Dutch Ship Captain. The Captain build the home so he could spend more time with his young wife from Batavia. When they came to settle in Galle, they brought a Bilin plant and planted in the garden. We left out the spicy stories about the occupants as it was not in our interest or something to share with readers
He also said that a portion of the house was demolished when he was a kid and was rebuilt, but the annex was much smaller than it was used to be. During the British time the house was called “The Haven”, but villagers always referred to the house as Bilin Tree House.
When we asked him why people referred to the house as “Bilin Gaha Gedera”. He questioned us back in an agitated and resenting tone and asked us “Have you cut the Bilin Tree?”. We told him that we have preserved every single tree that was in the garden when we purchased the property and that there is a Bilin Tree in the garden, which calmed him.
He told us that while there were many other fruit trees in the garden, the Bilin Tree was the center of attraction due to its history even during his time as Appu. British visitors frequented the house and that the lady of the house would boast about the tree and its history to the visitors. Bilin was served raw with salt, milled pepper, chili powder and a bit of palm sugar mixture or condiment to the visitors. It also had been served as a relish to compliment special occasion lunch and dinners to the invitees. The residents made their own cocktail with ripe Bilin juice, scotch and stick of cinnamon and named it Haven’s Sour.
He went to the extent of telling us even if we demolish the old house to put up a more modern house not to fell the Bilin Tree. His change of tone, his almost pleading look in his eyes, touched us deeply. We asked him whether we could take him to see the property and the tree to confirm whether it is the same old tree, he readily agreed. His great grandson joined us as his aid.
The Name – Bilin Tree House
After entering the property, he was very happy, complimented us that the house looked even better than it was when he was working as an Appu. Then he walked up to the tree and said, “only if this tree can talk it could tell you the whole history”. Then he told his great grandson, “it is because of this tree that this house is called Bilin Gaha Gedera, all your forefathers had a close relationship associated with this tree”
For us it was the most valuable piece of information as well. We believe his story except the spicy gossip that we left out.
We decided to officially to call this property, Bilin Tree House.
Some real facts from history which substantiate the claims
Dutch Era in Galle was from 1640 to 1796
Galle was the main city between Batavia & Amsterdam
Most Dutch Returning Ships called the Port of Galle on their inbound and outbound voyages from Batavia
Ships spent longer durations in Port of Galle as they were stopping for 2 to 3 months each way during a round trip, thus a more suitable location compared to Batavia or Amsterdam to call home for a seafarer .
Bilin Tree – Averrhoa bilimbi is a native plant with its origin in Indonesia, not a native plant of Sri Lanka
The house has similarities in architectural design to other Dutch Period Villas
The previous owners of the property had purchased it from the state during British rule.
The learned architect’s observation during renovations that the parts of the house had Dutch period cabook (coral stone) masonry work.
In Indonesia, A. bilimbi, locally known as belimbing wuluh, is often used to give sour or an acidic flavor to food, substituting tamarind or tomato. In the north western province of Aceh, it is preserved by salting and sun-drying to make asam sunti, a kitchen seasoning to make a variety of Achenese dishes.
In the Philippines, where it is commonly found in backyards, the fruits are eaten either raw or dipped in rock salt. It can be either curried or added as a souring agent for common Filipino dishes such as sinigang, pinangat and paksiw. It is being sun-dryed for preservation. It is also used to make salad mixed with tomatoes, chopped onions with soy sauce as dressing.
The uncooked bilimbi is prepared as relish and served with rice and beans in Costa Rica.
In the Far East, where the tree originated, it is sometimes added to curry.
In Malaysia, it also is made into a rather sweet jam.
In Kerala and Bhatkal, India, it is used for making pickles and to make fish curry, especially with Sardines, while around Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa the fruit is commonly eaten raw with salt and spice. In Guyana and Mauritius, it is made into achars/pickles too.
In Seychelles, it is often used as an ingredient to give a tangy flavor to many Seychellois creole dishes, especially fish dishes. It is often used in grilled fish and (almost always) in a shark meat dish, called satini reken. It is also used to make a delicious sauce for grilled, that consists of chopped onion, chopped tomato, chopped chili and cooked on low heat. It is a must in the local white fish broth ” bouyon blan” When in season it is also cured with salt to be used when it is not available.
Bilimbi juice (with a pH of about 4.47) is made into a cooling beverage. It can replace mango in making chutney. Additionally, the fruit can be preserved by pickling, which reduces its acidity.
In the Philippines, the leaves serve as a paste on itches, swelling, rheumatism, mumps or skin eruptions. Elsewhere, they are used for bites of venomous creatures. A leaf infusion is used as an after-birth tonic, while the flower infusion is used for thrush, cold, and cough. Malaysians use fermented or fresh bilimbi leaves to treat venereal diseases. In French Guiana, syrup made from the fruit is used to treat inflammatory conditions. To date there is no scientific evidence to confirm effectiveness for such uses.
In some villages in the Thiruvananthapuram district of India, the fruit of the bilimbi was used in folk medicine to control obesity. This led to further studies on its antihyperlipidemic properties
The fruit contains high levels of oxalate. Acute kidney failure due to tubular necrosis caused by oxalate has been recorded in several people who drank the concentrated juice on continuous days as treatment for high cholesterol.
Taste the Fruit
If you would like to taste the fruit, just ask the Caretaker, he would certainly prepare the spice mixture and serve you fruit just like it was served in good old days.