Binjai Park is a verdant enclave tucked just far enough away from the clamour of Singapore’s city centre to be considered, well, quiet. Of course, apart from rolling tree-lined avenues, it’s a place that’s defined by its exclusivity because of the number of good class bungalows in the area.
Naturally, a notable enclave needs equally noted residents to fill its storied residences, many of which are steeped in history having first been gazetted and constructed back in the early days of Singapore’s history.
35 Binjai Park is no exception – it was the first house to be built in Binjai Park back in the 1950s and occupies an expansive 20,977 sq ft plot. The built-up area of the good class bungalow measures in at around 15,000 sq ft, which includes a main two-storey bungalow, an annexe and maids’ quarters, all surrounding a massive courtyard, complete with koi pond and garden.
It’s a property that wears its Ceylonese influences on its sleeves – Ceylonese influences that its long-time owners, Dr S Lavan Iswaran, 86, and Mrs Indra R Lavan Iswaran, 71, very much want to cherish. While Mrs Iswaran’s maternal grandmother lived in a home with three closed-off courtyards designed for security back in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, she wanted a single, open courtyard that married the best of familial living and ventilation (after all, Binjai Park is still in Singapore).
“We really wanted that homely feeling – with an entire family living together, including extended members,” she says. “We designed a house for that kind of living, with no one getting in each other’s space.” They added an annexe in the late 90s with four separate suites across from the main bungalow. These suites were essentially self-sufficient apartments, each with their own kitchenettes and living spaces for entertainment. Four, of course, for each of the couple’s children, all of whom currently live overseas.
The courtyard, flanked on three sides by the said annexe, main house and entertainment area, remains the centrepiece of the estate. More than just a design choice that honours the family’s Sri Lankan roots, it also hearkens back to the early days of the Binjai Park enclave. Back then, it was a “silent enclave, flanked by rubber plantations and farms, on the edge of the forest.” The open concept simply made the best use of what bucolic pleasures were available during that time.
Now, it remains Mrs Iswaran’s favourite part of the house. “There’s always the sound of birds chirping, water flowing, and so on. It sends good vibrations throughout the house.”
A heritage house, naturally, comes with heritage artefacts, either collected, inherited or gifted. These include wooden mortars and pestles from Mrs Iswaran’s grandmother, Meenachi Eliyathamby, as well as grinding stones (used in the production of traditional medicine) and brass serving vessels. Though now prized family heirlooms, Mrs Iswaran recalls a time two decades ago when they were last used to prepare food during her eldest daughter’s wedding, held within the grounds of 35 Binjai Park.
Others, like the temple space toward the open end of the property’s courtyard, have a more curious history. Mrs Iswaran came across the structure on the outskirts of a remote village in India. She recognised its worth – for example, its columns were solid, brass-accented teak – and brought it back to Singapore. The massive, 5-tonne statue of Ganesha, one of the best known and loved deities in the Hindu pantheon, was a gift from one of Dr Iswaran’s patients in his years as a gynaecologist and obstetrician.
A dozen panels depicting the Ramayana, one of India’s great epic poems, adorn the walls facing the 50-metre-long driveway. Mrs Iswaran bought the stone carvings from a famed sculptor – then in his nineties – in Bali, itself a region feted for its sculptures and carvings. “It took a lot of persuasion to get him to help us with it,” she says. They’ve also got a couple of antique Chinese dowry cupboards, Balinese-carved teak adornments on the walkways next to the courtyard, and carved pilasters in the master bedroom.
Other paintings on the walls include a depiction of the third last Qin dynasty emperor and his two dowagers; another Balinese artist’s impression of Prince Rama’s exile into the forest for the next fourteen years, with wife Sita and brother Lakshmana in tow; and other art from Chennai, India, all painted by masters in their own craft, says Mrs Iswaran.
Hosting a la Lavindra Retreat
With a plethora of artefacts and design influences from across the region, not to mention a wealth of knowledge about said region, 35 Binjai Park naturally drew the attention of media and organisations looking to capture that history. These include the National Heritage Board, Singapore Tourism Board, and the Indian Heritage Centre.
A part of this attention, however, stemmed from Mrs Iswaran’s cooking: traditional Sri Lankan cuisine straight from Jaffna, morphed into bespoke menus that are part gastronomic experience, part historical journey. She hosts these plantation table experiences at her residence, which she dubs Lavindra Retreat, giving her plenty of opportunity to leverage on the rich history of the surroundings to paint a picture of the region.
The journey was hard. “When I first got married, I didn’t have a lick of cooking in me,” she says with a laugh. But that was in the 60s. Now, she’s an acclaimed chef-author. Just last year, she won the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2020 representing Singapore in India and Sri Lanka cuisine. The cookbook in question being They Came From Jaffna: A Historical Culinary Journey And Enchanting Tales Of Roots, Routes And Vivid Memories As Told By A Pioneer’s Granddaughter, which was published in 2019 and contains over 300 recipes encompassing her diverse culinary influences.
Her favourite guest set of guests since she started hosting in 2019? “We treat every guest like they’re our favourite,” she says. “It’s something that my grandmother, and my mother, has always taught us to do.”
Mrs Iswaran and her husband have put up their beloved residence for sale. It’s significant, considering the heritage of the place. The heirlooms and her cooking, however, are not part of the package, sadly. Their friend and real estate agent Eugene Yeo can show you around the place though and might just be able to convince Mrs Iswaran to whip up a feast.