One man’s odyssey to nurture Nature | Sunday Observer

One man’s odyssey to nurture Nature

5 August, 2018
 PRIDE OF THE ZOO: Creator Dharmakumara Wettasinghe poses in front of his creation of the lion in the “Sinha waadiya,” model zoo
PRIDE OF THE ZOO: Creator Dharmakumara Wettasinghe poses in front of his creation of the lion in the “Sinha waadiya,” model zoo

Animals have always fascinated me. They are, in the American painter and writer Achsah Barlow Brewster’s words, “hidden in the silence of the forest”. They grace the jungle and have equal opportunity for co-existence with humans and are exquisite symbols of the wild.

Last week, I was in Bandaragama, off Raigama junction on the Anguruwathota road just 200 metres from the Mahawatta village (in front of the electricity transformer), at a place known as ‘Sinha Waadiya’ (Lions’ Hideout), which displayed a variety of model animals. We visited the unique model zoo, exhibiting the miracles of the wild. Named in honour of his beloved motherland ‘Sri Lanka’, the model zoo, looks like a mini forest reserve.

I seldom hear of Police officers who are talented artists - often their hands are trained to hold fire arms than the paint brush and ink. I was surprised to hear that the creator of this magnificent model zoo is a Police Officer by profession.

He is none other than 50-year-old Dharmakumara Wettasinghe, No. 41039, of the Sri Lanka Police who works at the Bandaragama Police Station as an officer attached to the Southern Expressway Police Unit at the Athurugiriya Exit.

Wettasinghe was delighted when we visited his model zoo, which was reflected in the wonder on his face as we moved from exhibit to exhibit. While showing us each exhibit, he began to relate his story. “From my childhood, I have cherished a love for animals and nature,” he smiles. “My father was a retired Grama Niladhari in the village. I studied at the Gungamuwa primary school and the Bandaragama Maha Vidyalaya,” he continued.

The model zoo is small enough not to be intimidating and is very viewer friendly, with beautifully catalogued displays of model animals evocative of their characteristics and various eco-friendly placards made from wooden flanks which give viewers a strong message on how to protect Nature and its inhabitants.

There are about 20 displays of animals such as, lion, tusker, tortoise, sloth bear, leopard, crocodile, owl, hawk eagle and the sambur to name a few. I was fascinated by the life-size figure of a lion. As a nation, the lion plays an important role in our lives. It is also significant in the household, as it is a symbol used in the national flag of the country. Hence, the name ‘Sinha Waadiya.’

Apart from the display of the animals, there is a special classification stall on the upper floor of the zoo which helps one identify pre-historic inhabitant dwellings by climbing up a wooden staircase. It is a magnificent art form dedicated to the ancient inhabitants of the country.

It contains various utensils used by the people of yore and samples of living chambers which also shows how dwellings have influenced shapes and proportions in architectural design. All these were created using raw materials from the environment.

It is also a children’s treasure trove, for, there are messages written on planks about nature, which are easy to understand with hands-on displays where kids have an opportunity to become familiar with nature and creatures they do not normally encounter.

After visiting the zoo, we were escorted to his house where he showed us a special model visual map of Sri Lanka containing all geographical elements and important locations with names of places neatly indicated at real positions. Over the map were various phrases of songs written on Sri Lanka. It is a must see place if you visit the zoo.

Raw materials

Since he had a special interest in Mother Lanka, its environment and animals from his childhood, he started to build this model zoo in 2014, in the backyard of his house, by himself, without anyone’s support. “It takes me at least three weeks to complete the figure of a big animal. I use mainly tree roots as the basic structure of the animal and other raw materials from nature. I go to various places and bring tree roots and study them thoroughly until I get an appropriate shape to transform them into works of art. I just observed the artisans and learned the craft. I have used various kinds of tree roots to create all these animals, here,” he explains. However, his main intention is to attract more foreign visitors to the site and educate them on the wildlife heritage of Sri Lanka.

He has created many figures over the course of the last few years. “I can make one in under three weeks,” he says.

Wettasinghe travels to the sea shore and collects coconuts that float in the sea and other raw materials such as, creepers, leaves, tree barks, coconut shells, yams, clay, bamboo and cashew-glue (kaju meliyam) from distant locations. “I set aside the leaves and nuts to dry on the first day, and then trim and clean them.

After being dried for two more days, they are ready to be shaped into forms, and colouring is next. I use brick powder, clay and used engine oil mixed with kaju-meliyam to decorate the figures,” he adds.

This is a marvelous place not to be missed by any nature buff who loves wildlife. Since it is open to all free of charge, there is an influx of visitors to the zoo on days like Vesak and Poson Poya. “I like this place,” he smiles. “But I like my country and its wild animals better,” he adds. His message is focused through his creations. At the zoo, he has created a figure of the slain tusker ‘Dala Puttuwa,’ killed by poachers for its priceless tusks.

Although he spends his spare time in his model zoo, he never lets it interfere with his Police duty. “The first priority is my job,” he emphasises. Wettasinghe is a father of two, a son and a daughter. His wife also gives him all her support to pursue in his ambitious past time to build up his zoo.

As we leave, he requests us to convey the message of our visit to his model zoo “Sinha Waadiya” to others. “I invite everybody to visit my model zoo and the Sri Lanka map that will help you gain a love for your country and a determination to protect nature and conserve its riches,” he concludes.