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Upali Wijewardene: He reached for the stars



On a day like this 39 years ago on February 13, 1983, Sri Lanka’s much loved business leader, Upali Wijewardene, who captured the imagination of an entire nation vanished without trace in his Lear jet with five others on board. They were returning to Colombo from Malaysia where his Kandos chocolates had hit dizzy heights.

His disappearance engulfed the the region with shock and disbelief. US Orion surveillance aircraft, Soviet and Australian warships, Indonesian minesweepers, Indian airplanes, Malaysian patrol boats and Sri Lankan fishermen were all mobilized in search operations to no avail. ‘What if Upali lived? What really happened to Upali?’ continue to be yet unanswered questions.

If Upali Wijewardene was a sensation in life, he was elevated to a legend after he went missing just four days short of his 45th birthday.

Wild theories about his disappearance were floated around and Colombo’s children of the 80s were said to have devised a game called ‘Finding Upali’s Plane.’ A larger than life figure and a maverick who embraced life with such gusto had disappeared; but he continues to live in the heart of a nation.

The Sunday Island recaps the saga of its founder who was once dubbed ‘the ‘Quintessential Entrepreneur of Asia’ and ‘the man who would be President’

By Randima Attygalle

“My philosophy is to do what you know how to do well and from this I mean you must have the knowledge right all the way through…” reflected Philip Upali Wijewardene, or ‘PUW” as he was fondly called, in an interview with the Malaysian Business in December, 1981. In a technologically austere time, long before the digital revolution when a direct international call had to be ‘booked.’ Wijewardene plunged into chocolate-making, assembly of cars, newspaper publishing, aviation, plantations and much more. As was once documented, ‘the success story of Upali, is the story of how small Asian companies can grow into multinational corporations. It was a precursor of the coming of age of the ‘entrepreneurial Asian.’

Philip Upali Wijewardene was born on February 17, 1938 to Don Walter Wijewardene (from Sedawatta walauwa ) and Anula Kalyanawathi Wijesinghe (from Miriswatta Walauwa) at his famous paternal grandmother Helena Wijewardene’s mansion, Sri Ramya, in Colombo (where the present American Centre stands). Upali grew up amidst the affection of his two older sisters, Anoja and Kalyani and a bevy of cousins. He received his kindergarten education at Ladies’ College and later at Royal College, Colombo. When he turned 15, Upali was sent off to St. John’s School Leatherhead in England. Having read Economics at the University of Cambridge, the 21-year-old debonair Wijewardene returned home in 1959 and was recruited by Lever Brothers as a Management Trainee. The corporate rigours and an eternally irate boss left the young recruit drained in two years.

Having quit Levers in 1961, the blue-blooded Wijewardene did not fall back on his family wealth but sought his own fortune first with a friend’s ailing confectionery plant which he re-baptized as Delta and a few years later with Kandos – the brand promoted by Ceylon Chocolates Ltd. In 1970, with the demise of its founder Chairman, Senator Sarath Wijesinghe, his nephew Upali Wijewardene who was expanding his business empire took over the reins of that company.

True to Wijewardene’s philosophy: ‘plunge in and get on with it’, the expanding fully-fledged cocoa processing plants and factories in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand enabled Kandos to be internationally present and rub shoulders with Nabisco, Mars, Cadbury and Hershey’s. At the time of his disappearance, Wijewardene claimed to be the only fully-integrated cocoa processor in Asia, with businesses ranging from growing cocoa to manufacturing cocoa-based consumer products. The cocoa tree which still adorns the Upali Group’s head office in Colombo and the taller tree which once stood at the door to his luxurious home in Pantai Hills in Kuala Lumpur, which he aptly named ‘Cocoa Hill’, says it all.

Following his uncle D.R. Wijewardene, the press baron, he went on to launch The Island and Divaina snubbing feasibility studies of foreign experts who warned him that the national newspaper market was already saturated. The exercise, as he alluded to the Insight magazine in May, 1981 five months ahead of its launch, was one of his ‘fun-projects’ but analysts say that political ambitions down the road were part of the story.

Just two months following the success of the newspaper, in an interview with a Malaysian business journal, Wijewardene gleefully remarked: “it must be a world record of some sort.” He went onto note that the newspaper’s popularity probably has more to do with editorial policy and style, adding tongue-in-cheek: “they said there was no market, but people must have got tired of reading gazettes!” As the founder editor of the Island, Vijitha Yapa once recalled, Wijewardene was “an editor’s ideal publisher who never interfered with the independence of the newspaper.”

The present Managing Director and CEO of the Upali Group of Companies, Nimal Welgama recollects: “Upali was a man with tremendous energy which he employed in everything he did. He was mischievous, had a sense of fun and in the last lap of his life, not only gave of himself to his many private enterprises but also contributed his time and skill for public purposes; hence his period as Chairman and Director General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC), the predecessor of the Board of Investment (BOI).”

Having worked for the Upali Group as a young man, Welgama recounts his one-time boss ‘making waves in his own inimitable style.’ “He was ever conscious that his father died young and he did not expect to attain a venerable old age. At the time his life was so tragically snuffed out, he used to say that the accent is on enjoying”.

The emblem of the business group he set up – the blazing copper sun with a ‘U’ in the middle was a motif of Wijewardene’s own personality says the Upali Group’s CEO. “The warmth of his personality, like that of the sun, was felt by the many people he befriended. He was good to his employees, people who served him at various levels, and in return had not only their loyalty but their affection.”

From steering a multinational to being the Chief Basnayake Nilame of the Kelani Raja Maha Vihara, Wijewardene donned many hats. His string of thoroughbreds and Labradors stole a large part of his heart. His beloved ‘Charlie’ is said to have kept a long vigil for months after he disappeared, waiting for his master who never returned.

“My late uncle Upali’s signature facet was his love for speed. This he applied in expanding his business empire. He bought a Lear jet and obtained a Red Passport as the Chairman of GCEC because he was a man for speed and a fast decision-maker. Even his other indulgences including his love for horse and car racing reflected this,” recollects nephew, Dhammika Attygalle who was 18 at the time of his uncle’s disappearance and is now a Director of the Upali Group of Companies.

Sporting his ‘Red and Gold Cross Slash’, Wijewardene’s Rasa Penang, Varron, Kandos-Man, General Atty, King of Zulu and Cornwall Garden shone at Royal Ascot, Singapore Derby and Perak Derby, ridden by none other than Lester Piggot. “One time Chairman of the Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club, he would even do a tarmac transfer to his helicopter and would make it to Nuwara Eliya, sometimes just minutes before races were to start.

The luxury S-Class Mercedes Benz 116 which he imported from Malaysia was the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. Upali mama used to travel to Nuwara Eliya or Kamburupitiya (his maternal home town) after dinner to save time and to reach the destination fast,” recollects Attygalle who goes on to note that his late uncle initiated Ruhunu Udanaya Movement to develop his maternal home town Kamburupitiya from where he had ambitions of being elected to Parliament..

A fan of Victor Ratnayake, C.T.Fernando and Milton Perera, Wijewardene would also enjoy the country-western timbre of Jim Reeves, who as he had once conceded, ‘puts him in a pensive mood for thinking up new business schemes.’

Having built a global corporation which spanned several countries including Malaysia, Singapore and the USA in the 1970s and the early 80s in an era of snail mail, telegrams and pre-booked international calls when communicating with people abroad took weeks and travel overseas was expensive and a luxury, her late uncle’s confidence and ‘can do’ attitude inspired her, says niece Lakmini Wijesundera, Co-founder and CEO of IronOne Technologies and BoardPAC. “Today, we have instant communication access and the speed of business is fast-tracked. Asia and the South East Asian regions have comparably good infrastructure to perform. Therefore, the great strides and speed at which he operated despite the obstacles in a technologically-Spartan era is outstanding and stands out among the rest even by today’s standards,” says Wijesundera, a successful entrepreneur herself.

She further remarks that her uncle had his sights up high and was not discouraged by past benchmarks. Therefore, he was able to carve new paths and futures and created an impact in the minds and hearts of Lankans whom he inspired to ‘dream big.’ He hammered home the message that we didn’t necessarily have to be conservative in what we wished to attain.

“His focus on branding was unmatched,” reflects Wijesundera who points out that the Free Trade Zones and concepts of similar nature were supported and led by him to create a fresh economic future for Sri Lanka – models which were innovative then and sucessfully adopted by several other countries in the region.

Watching her Upali mama’s helicopter landing on the flat roof of his Thurstan Road residence was an unforgettable memory for young Lakmini and her siblings. “We were so excited to be part of this rare experience at that time,” she smiles adding that she recalls him to be full of life with a great sense of humour and always with a smile. Thirteen years old at the time her uncle vanished, Wijesundera who relished her mother’s stories about her brother ‘starting from scratch with great determination at a young age.’ She believes that her Upali mama personified the belief that anything is possible with the correct mindset- a mantra that she believes in today.

A man who would think big, Wijewardene would advance from Upali Fiat and UMC Mazda to ‘Upali Aviation’. – the only domestic flight which would bridge the North and the South. The halting of the operations of the Upali Airline was a double whammy to fellow Jaffna countrymen who not only saw the flight as a vehicle of better communication between Jaffna and Colombo but also its founder as a harbinger of hope who would have possibly bridged the economic disparity between North and South.

Describing Wijewardene as ‘Sri Lanka’s most colourful businessman who has made a fortune both at home and abroad’, Matt Miller in his article under the banner ‘The man who would be President’ documents in May, 1981, ‘now he is turning his abundant energies and resources to a new arena; politics.’ Noting that ‘Upali’s current passion for politics is matched only by his passion for racehorses,’ Miller goes onto write: “And now the 43-year-old commodities wizard has started what could be called Upali’s Third 20-Year-Plan: ‘The first 20 years were education,” he says, “the second business and the third politics.” He would “be willing”, he says with uncharacteristic restraint to become president of Sri Lanka someday.”

With his suave personality and witty repartee, Wijewardene was a darling of the press. Adorning cover pages of coveted international business journals, he still remains the only home-grown Sri Lankan entrepreneur owning a multi-national to have been featured in the prestigious Fortune magazine.

The present Editor of the Sunday Times, Sinha Ratnatunga, then a young journalist who was one of the close acquaintances of Wijewardene privy to the last moments of the tycoon recollects: “When Upali left for the airport around 6.30 p.m. that day, I left at the same time for Ana Seneviratne’s residence. He was then the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Kuala Lumpur. I was to stay there until I flew to join my father who was in Jakarta.

The High Commissioner was getting calls well past midnight and it was only in the morning I heard that Upali’s plane hadn’t arrived in Colombo. I was not particularly taken aback or overly concerned straightaway thinking it was typical of him to go off the beaten track as Upali could be so unconventional even in his planes. It was only by midday while at Genting Highlands watching the cable cars going about that I got that eerie feeling that the plane must be missing.”

As veteran journalist Ajith Samaranayake once commented, “politicians Sri Lanka had known before (included) poets, pundits, scholars, sportsmen, film stars and singers alike. Philip Upali Wijewardene, however, did not belong to any of these moulds. He was not moulded out of the common clay. He broke the mould and reshaped it closer to his heart’s desire.” In Wijewardene’s own words his image in the villages is of “an international businessman of whom they are proud… The villager identifies only with success and for the youth I am probably the culmination of their aspirations.”

On a personal note, although I was merely a child at the time of Mr. Wijewardene’s untimely demise, I was fortunate to have become a part of the legacy he left behind for Sri Lankan journalism. While Kandos chocolates, Delta toffees, his landmark home in Colombo and the resplendent Nuwara Eliya bungalow and its garden- (which often clinched the ‘Best Garden’ award during the April season) and his Lear jet were motifs I often associated with him as a young child, becoming part of his newspaper allowed me a vantage point to this towering personality.

One of my favourite research subjects, I often hear anecdotes about this trendsetter by my senior colleagues. My editor Manik de Silva who was Mr. Wijewardene’s first choice to edit The Island (which he has recounted under the title The job I didn’t take) has many stories I have savoured – particularly the one about the young Upali knowing he had got the Lever Brothers management trainee job when the sudda boss took him and his rival to the Galle Face Hotel to lunch to check out their table manners. “When my rival titled his soup bowl towards himself and not the other way, I knew I had the job,” Upali had said,

My other colleagues Zanita Careem and Anneston Weerasinghe who were recruited by Mr. Wijewardene more than 40 years ago remember him as a man of infectious charisma who would turn heads not just once but twice.

I’m only humbled to have clinched the award given in his name (Upali Wijewardene Feature Writer of the Year) multiple times – twice from a newspaper he founded. I’m indeed fortunate to have become part of the publication he founded 40 years ago as a platform for liberal expression without fear or favour.

Each time I hear the rustle of the wind blowing through the cocoa tree he planted in the Upali compound, and look at the splendid dome of St. Lucia’s Cathedral nearby towering overhead, I remember Elton John’s Candle in the wind he sang for Marylin Monroe.:

‘And I would have liked to have known you

But I was just a kid

Your candle burned out long before

Your legend ever did….’

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Santhosh Narayanan is coming to Jaffna!



“Sounds of the South – Yaazh Gaanam – A Santosh Narayanan Concert”

The biggest musical show in Jaffna will take place on September 30 2023 Tamil music fans from all over Sri Lanka will converge in Jaffna on September 30, 2023, for the biggest musical show in the peninsula. South Indian star Santhosh Narayanan who brought a different sound to Indian cinema will lead a galaxy of Indian and Sri Lankan performers harmoniously blending their talents on stage for a landmark concert from 6 pm at the Muttraveli Grounds adjoining the Jaffna Fort. The concert will be free of charge to anyone who wishes to attend and witness the grand event.

“The concert aims to celebrate the cultural ties between India and Sri Lanka through the universal language of music,” said Santhosh Narayanan. “It is our intention to bring together artistes from both Sri Lanka and India, including local talent from Sri Lanka, to create an unforgettable evening of harmony and unity.”

Santhosh Narayanan has had an array of performances that have earned him a multitude of awards since he made his debut as an independent music director in 2012. Music has no boundaries and the award-winning music director will be reaching out to music enthusiasts not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world. The concert will also feature independent artists from across the world.

At the launch event held in Colombo recently, Santhosh Narayanan said, “Jaffna is a city with a unique cultural heritage and a rich history of music and art. I’m extremely grateful to the organizers of this event for giving an opportunity to all music lovers to enjoy a blissful evening.”

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Taste of Turkiye in Sri Lanka



The Ambassador of Turkiye, Demet Sekercioglu, and Atif Sekercioglu,with two chefs from Turkiye,Volkan Gur and Banshan Eren, Turkish Airlines General Manager,Fatih Bozkurt at the launch

Turkiye food festival was unveiled at Courtyard by Mariott Hotel Colombo, recently in collaboration with the Embassy of Turkiye in Colombo and Turkish Airlines.This event was aimed to showcase the Turkiye ‘s rich and diverse cuisine to Sri Lanka.

This festival transported the diners to the land of Turkiye in all its magnificance.The event saw a ecclectic crowd of many dignitaries, ambassadors from Malaysia, Pakistan,members of parliament and other distinguished invitees who were present to experience this culinary journey ,

The two guest chefs Volkan Gur and Eren Barishan who were specially flown down used premium quality ingredients and delicacies, giving the diners an extraordinary experience of Turkish food,to compliment the moulhwatering dishes, a variety of Turkish desserts such as Backlova, walnut pudding and more were delightfully presented.

The General Manager of the Colombo Mariott Elton Hurtis said “We are thrilled to be able to bring international flavours from Turkiye and partner with the Embassy of Turkiye . Turkish Airlines and Mariott Bonvoy hotel in Turkiye.

Message of love and peace by Dervishes from Turkiye

The highlight of the evening was the speech made by the Ambassador of Turkiye Demet Sekercioglu. Excerpt

“At the opening speech she said. Tonight we celebrate one of the most vibrant elements of our cultural heritage: the Turkish cuisine.As a cuisine that has engaged with numerous civilizations throughout its centuries-old aculinary journey, the doors of Turkish cuisine open to the experiences of different religions, cultures and ethnicities living together.

I believe this unique feature of diversity makes Turkish Cuisine loved by food connoisseurs not only in Turkiye but also around the world.Turkiye boasts a rich gastronomic culture, with her culinary practices seamlessly reflecting her humanity, tolerance and aspiration for peace.

In today’s world where technology and urbanization foster disconnection and isolation, you can be sure that you will find a unique warmth and welcome at every door you knock on, in Anatolia.Our unmatched hospitality is demonstrated by the place we reserve to our guests on our table. We consider them as the Guest of God and cherish them as such.

Turkish culinary culture has also wonderful traditions in further fostering family and friendship bonds. We expect our family elders and guests to take the first bite. We even make sure they sit, right in the centre where they can be the heart of our gathering.In short, our meal times are a beautiful display of our love, generosity, solidarity and the joy of sharing life’s best moments.

Another remarkable aspect of our culinary tradition are the centuries-old recipes that heal both body and soul. The nutriments, herbs and spices grown in the rich Anatolian lands have been used not only for the treatment of diseases but also for their prevention, recipes have been formulated together with physicians.

But the magic of our cuisine doesn’t stop there. In a world grappling with the pressing issue of food insecurity, Turkish culinary tradition stands also as a solution to this global challenge. In fact, in Turkish cuisine almost every part of a product is used in the preparation of various dishes.In this respect, the principles of Turkish cuisine are in line with the basic philosophy of zero waste and are also valuable in terms of protecting the resources of our planet and healing the soul

Before concluding my remarks, she said .The event is so special because we are celebrating the five milestones this year the 75th anniversary of the independence of Sri Lanka,

the Centenary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkiye,the 75th anniversary of the recognition of the independence of Sri Lanka by Turkiye.

– the 10th anniversary of the establishment of our Embassy in Colombo,

-and finally the 10th anniversary of the launch of T urkish Air- lines flights between Istanbul and Colombo.

The magnificient evenings culminated with a ‘Sufi dance with two whirling devishes who ttravelled from Turkiye for this special occasion to convey through their performances,the message of peace and love.  Pix by Thushara Attapatu

Managing Director of Abans, Aban Prestonje

General Manager of Mariott Hotel, Elton Hurtis


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Major leap in men’s apparance



By Zanita Careem

Male grooming is becoming one the most notable trends in contemopory times said Ramani Fernando,popular hairdresser and beautician of Ramani Fernando salons She says “men consider grooming, now as part of their daily lifestyle regime. The grooming industry has made it evident that grooming practices among men start with them taking care of thier skin hair and body. Increasingly men nowadays are seeking solutions to specific skin body and hair care problems”

The new generation of consumers, primarily Gen Z and millennials are willing to invest to keep themselves groomed

There is a crazy demand for cosmetic products with quick action. For this generation of men it is becoming important to get results quickly and with minimal effort, subsequently, quick action skin care and hairstyle products will continue to be in demand.

Men’s grooming is booming,, they are realizing the importance of proper skin and hair care and as a result there is a major demand for cleansers, moisturizers and anti aging products.

According to a study made by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons it was reported that during the last few years,there has been a major leap in men receiving injections, non -surgical minimally invasive treatments that can enhance thier look. Cosmetic for men,like creams, deodorants and fragrances are continuing to increase in popularity David Beckham, the English footballer who has set the standard for handsome and clean shaven look feels men’s grooming is important to keep up a good appearance.

Ramani Fernando talks on male grooming

Q Do you see a new trend in male grooming?

A Yes, there have been several trends in male grooming over the years, and these trends continue to evolve. Male grooming has become more mainstream and accepted in recent years as men are paying more attention to their personal grooming routines and appearance

Q Why have men become more aware of the importance of looking good?

A There are several factors contributing to the increased awareness of grooming among men:

Changing Social Norms

Traditional gender roles and norms have evolved, allowing men to express themselves more freely in terms of grooming and personal care. This has reduced the stigma around male grooming.

Media and Pop Culture

The media, including advertisements, movies, and television shows, often portray well-groomed and fashionable male role models. These representations influence societal perceptions of grooming.

Celebrities and Influencers

High-profile male celebrities and social media influencers openly discuss and showcase their grooming routines. This visibility encourages regular men to follow suit.

Increased Product Availability

The grooming industry has responded to the growing demand from men by developing a wide range of products tailored to their specific needs, from skincare to hair care to grooming tools.

Q Men are spending more on grooming products like oils balms an conditioners to keep their facial hair healthy? Your comments?

A I think its great that the male grooming industry has become more inclusive, recognizing that grooming is not limited to any specific gender. Many products are designed to be gender-neutral, and marketing is becoming more inclusive of diverse identities. Overall, male grooming products have evolved to meet the changing needs and preferences of men in today’s society.

Q Skin care has become the main focus among men – Do you agree?

A Men’s skincare has gained significant attention and importance in recent years, and for good reason I believe. Skincare is not just about appearance, it’s also about health and hygiene. Proper skincare routines can help men maintain healthy skin, prevent issues like acne and skin dryness, and protect against environmental damage

Q Do men come for facials, manicure and pedicure?

A Yes they do! Men getting facials, manicures, and pedicures is a positive and increasingly common practice that aligns with the principles of self-care, hygiene, and personal grooming.

Q Do you recommend facial for men?

A Facial hair for men is a versatile and expressive aspect of personal grooming and style. Facial hair is a dynamic aspect of personal grooming, and its significance and style can vary greatly from person to person and culture to culture. Ultimately, the choice of facial hair style should align with an individual’s personal preferences, lifestyle, and comfort level, allowing them to feel confident and express themselves in a way that suits their personality and image.

Q Social media influence has significantly increased men’s approach to cosmetic treatments. Your opinion?

A The influence of social media on men’s approach to cosmetic treatments is undeniable. Social media platforms have played a significant role in shaping societal beauty standards, normalizing cosmetic procedures.

While I feel it has played a significant role in raising awareness, normalizing treatments, and increasing acceptance, it also comes with potential downsides, such as unrealistic beauty standards and misinformation. It’s crucial for individuals, regardless of gender, to approach cosmetic treatments with caution, conduct thorough research, and consult with qualified professionals.

Q Botox and fillers, non-surgical minimally invasive treatments. Are they common among men in Sri Lanka?

A The use of Botox and dermal fillers as non-surgical minimally invasive treatments has become increasingly common among both men and women worldwide, including in Sri Lanka. While the prevalence of these treatments can vary depending on cultural norms and individual preferences, there is a growing interest in such procedures in Sri Lanka, particularly among those who prioritize grooming and appearance for special occasions like weddings.

Q Good grooming is important on your wedding day? Why?

A Good grooming is indeed important on your wedding day for several reasons, and it extends beyond mere vanity. When you look your best, you tend to feel more confident. A wedding is a momentous occasion where you’ll be in the spotlight, and feeling confident can make a significant difference in how you carry yourself and enjoy the day

Q Ornate costumes and sparkling accessories clout achieve that wedding look? What do you think the groom should follow?

A Ultimately, the groom’s attire should make him feel confident and proud on his wedding day. It’s a significant moment, and the groom should choose an outfit that allows him to fully enjoy and participate in the celebration. Whether it’s a classic tuxedo, a traditional cultural outfit, or a more contemporary ensemble, the key is to ensure that the attire aligns with the groom’s preferences and the overall vision for the wedding.

Q Man of the moment on that great day? How to achieve this look?

A To achieve the “Man of the Moment” look on your wedding day, it’s essential to focus on various aspects of your appearance and demeanor.

Plan ahead, start early in your wedding preparation and give yourself ample time to choose your attire, accessories, and grooming routines. Avoid last-minute rush decisions.Choose the right attire select an outfit that complements the overall theme and formality of the wedding.

Ensure your attire fits perfectly. Consider getting a custom-made suit or tuxedo for a perfect fit.Coordinate with your bride to ensure your outfit matches or complements hers in terms of style and color.

Q What do you suggest as grooming tips for the groom?

A Grooming is an essential aspect of a groom’s preparation for his wedding day. The following tips will ensure a well-groomed and confident appearance on your wedding day.

Start a skincare routine.
Maintain facial hair style.
Maintain good oral hygiene.
Keep nails clean and trimmed.
Use suitable hair care products and style your hair
Groom eyebrows.
Maintain facial hair or clean shave.
Choose a subtle fragrance.

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