Welliweediya Cemetery in Negombo

 

 

Wellaweediya Cemetery on Sea Road in the coastal town of Negombo is the most atmospheric graveyard I’ve come across so far in Sri Lanka.  Its aura of spooky otherworldliness is despite it being only walking distance from one of the biggest tourist drags on Sri Lanka’s western shore.

 

Mind you, the weather conditions on the afternoon I visited the cemetery probably helped the mood.  The sky was melancholically dark.  Nervy gusts of wind kept whipping up and dying again, each one punting leaves, litter and wisps of sand and dust a few yards further along the ground.  It seemed just a matter of time before the clouds were rent asunder and thunder and lightning started raging over the seafront.  This gave the place a sense of tropical desolation – like it wasn’t located in a Sri Lankan beach resort at all, but on a Caribbean island in some voodoo or zombie horror story.

 

You couldn’t have asked for a more Gothic way of entering the cemetery – through corroded gates that were topped with evil-looking barbs and flanked by a pair of forlorn stone angels whose wings had been largely broken off.

 

 

Inside, one thing that unsettled me was how the ground was mostly composed of sand.  I usually associate cemeteries with soil – firm soil, solid enough to hold things in the ground.  This sand looked anything but solid.  It was heaped into long V-shaped mounds before each cross or headstone, which rather morbidly mapped out the dimensions of the coffins and bodies a little way underneath.

 

 

Across the sand was strewn a lot of debris – scraps of paper, pieces of string, lengths of ribbon and shreds of greenery, which presumably were remnants of disintegrated wreaths and other grave-decorations.  But more recent tributes to the deceased remained intact.  There were arrangements of ferns and fronds, often wilting and resembling sprawling green crowns, and orchid-like flowers, whose colours the elements had bleached to a faded pink.

 

 

The graves were marked mostly by crosses.  Some were made of wood but coated in a thick, treacly black paint.  A few were covered in small, pale-coloured tiles.  Standing at the end of an occasional grave-mound was a miniature shrine, a glass-fronted case containing a religious figure – the glass commonly misted and sickly-looking with condensation.

 

 

One disturbing sight was a grave where the mound of sand had been dug into.  A large hole in the mound’s side showed that something had been burrowing into it.  Unless, that is, the hole had been made by the grave’s occupant burrowing out.

 

 

Finally, while I was there, Wellaweediya Cemetery was infested with crows.  They were happily using the crosses and gravestones as perches, climbing frames and stepping stones.  And needless to say, their loud non-stop cawing cranked the graveyard’s atmosphere several notches higher on the ‘creepy’ scale.

 

 

The shrines of Negombo

 

 

Located on Sri Lanka’s western coast about 35 kilometres above Colombo, the town of Negombo is one of my favourite places on the island.

 

That’s not so much because of Negombo’s beach and the major tourist drag it has north of its town centre.  Actually, I get the impression Negombo rates only as a second-division Sri Lankan holiday spot, and it mainly attracts holidaymakers and visitors because: (1) it’s closer to Sri Lanka’s international Bandaranayake Airport than Colombo and makes a convenient place for tourists just arrived in the country to hang out and recover from their jetlag before they head for the more lauded likes of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Arugam Bay; and (2) it’s only a short drive away for Colombo-ites wanting to chill out in an environment less built-up and noisy than their home city.  That said, along the seafront, I like a section of Lewis Place where the restaurants and hotels look unflashy and homespun and seem to have grown organically out of the town, before the hulking corporate hotels and raucous music-blasting bars take over further north.

 

What I really like about Negombo is mostly found in the streets away from the tourist area.  I’m talking about the many symbols, signs and relics of Negombo’s Christian heritage and the serene, at-times-slightly-incongruous (given the tropical surroundings) atmosphere that these generate.

 

For much of the past thousand years the place was occupied by various outsiders, firstly the Moors, then the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British, but it’s the Portuguese who’ve left the biggest cultural legacy.  During their watch in the 16th and 17th centuries, Negombo’s indigenous inhabitants embraced Catholicism en masse and the town became studded with Roman Catholic churches.  Today, close on two-thirds of the population are said to be Catholic and Negombo is sometimes known by the nickname of ‘Little Rome’.

 

 

And the most widespread reminder of this heritage is the presence of Christian shrines outside houses and at the entrances of streets.  These range in size from ones that look scarcely bigger than birdhouses to lavish ones contained within their own small pavilions.

 

Standing inside the glass cases that invariably feature in these shrines, you often get Holy Virgins and lady saints – hands clasped in prayer, bodies swathed in flowing robes, heads serenely tilted to one side.  One such shrine I noticed contained a Holy Virgin and Child, both of whom were wrapped in a single, huge orange cloak so that, sweetly, their heads peeped out together from the top of it.

 

 

Then there was a shrine at someone’s front gate where a lady in a pink robe, with pink roses on either side, stood within an octagonal glass case on top of a cylindrical pedestal covered in pink and white tiles.  No doubt it had religious significance but I have to say that, to me, it looked a bit like a wedding cake.

 

 

Christ himself appears in many forms – dressed in red, in blue, in white, depicted alone or surrounded by disciples, saints and wise men.  One shrine I saw him in was festooned with thick silvery bands of tinsel, so that his surroundings had a Christmasy feel.  In another, he stood in front of a glittery red curtain, as if he was addressing his flock from a theatre stage.

 

 

One other character found in the shrines of Negombo is the town’s patron saint, St Sebastian.  He isn’t depicted like he is in many pieces of Western artwork, as a tragic martyr who’s just been pin-cushioned with arrows.  The Negombo St Sebastian tends to be the macho character who served as a captain in the Praetorian Guards under the Roman co-emperors Maximian and Diocletian.  Indeed, the glass cases that enclose him make him resemble a Roman Army action figure, still in its packaging.  He stands guard in armour where St Sebastian Road (appropriately) branches off from Chilaw Road.  Meanwhile, he’s clad in similar military attire and sits on horseback at the junction of Keerthisinghe Place and Lewis Place.

 

 

There’s often a fair amount of chintz – plastic flowers, fairy lights, ribbons, tinsel, glitter – adorning these shrines, but I don’t find that a problem.  In fact, they give Negombo’s streets an undeniable colour, sparkle and charm.

 

Pigeon Island

 

 

Pigeon Island might be more appropriately named ‘Smidgeon Island’ since it’s a tiny smidgeon of land about a kilometer into the Indian Ocean from the Nilaveli part of Sri Lanka’s east coast.

 

It’s famed for the coral reefs in the waters around it, although according my dog-eared copy of The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka, the coral on its western side (i.e. facing the mainland) is dead now.  To see a living reef, you need to swim on the island’s far side.

 

Unrestricted fishing and tourism in the area did much damage to the coral in the past, but happily Pigeon Island is now a National Park and the authorities have tried to regulate the flow of human traffic to it, mainly by charging a sizeable admission price that has to be paid in addition to the hire-fee for a boat.

 

 

One morning my partner and I travelled out to Pigeon Island in a narrow, pointed fishing-boat powered by an antiquated-looking Suzuki outboard motor.  We were dropped at the island’s midpoint, which was so slight it resembled a wasp’s waist.  There, just a few yards of ground separated the western shore from the eastern one.

 

Nearly all the day’s visitors were congregated there, either in the adjacent water snorkeling and viewing the coral and fish – apparently the fish are abundant among the dead coral to the east as well as among the living stuff to the west – or on dry land preparing to go snorkeling.

 

I made a point of not snorkeling, however.  This was due to a traumatic snorkeling experience I had off the Malaysian coast in the early 1990s when I failed to apply enough sunscreen to my back, had huge stripes of skin burnt off it as a result, and ended up looking like a human raspberry ripple.  (On the same day, I also suffered excruciating food poisoning and I managed to lose all my travelers’ cheques.  Indeed, that day proved to be a configuration of separate but simultaneous disasters on par with Theresa May’s speech at this month’s Conservative Party Conference.)

 

So instead I tried exploring the island.  I didn’t get far towards its southern end.  After clambering over some rocks and past some low-hanging branches, I gave up when the terrain and undergrowth became impassible.  Besides, a flustered and very territorial crow kept pace with me, hopping from branch to branch just overhead, sending the unmistakable message that I should bugger off.

 

In contrast, it was easy enough to walk up to the island’s northern tip.  Despite the island’s tiny size and despite the considerable number of visitors on it, I got an unexpected feeling of solitude as soon as I’d left the snorkeling area behind me.

 

 

The ground was carpeted with small white pieces of dead coral.  This had penetrated right to the island’s centre and even in its most wooded parts, the stuff was clogged around the tree roots.  Most of the coral was tubular in shape but as I gazed down at it, I noticed increasingly strange forms – coral in the shape of fingers, bones, stirrups, hammers, chess-pieces, seahorses, stars and flowers.  One surreal fragment looked like the title character’s mask in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of The Phantom of the Opera.

 

Immediately off the northern tip of Pidgeon Island were a few yards of seawater and then a clutter of big vertical rocks – sandy-brown, grey and amber in their colours, with their edges and corners smoothed away so that they resembled giant stuffed sacks.  Bird-guano splattered their tops and a few crabs went scuttling about their sides.  I waded out to them, traversing water that was pristinely clear but, although just a foot or two deep, had a current whose strength was subtly menacing.  Then I sat on a lower rock and meditated for a while, watching tiny tadpole-like fish darting about the surrounding channels and listening both to the gentle lapping and rippling of the shallow water close by and to the crash and clatter of the waves further out.

 

 

On my way back, I noticed a vague path on the island’s eastern side that wound upwards.  This took me past a banyan tree that was so heavily tendrilled it resembled the face of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu; and then it emerged onto a high platform of broken stone and concrete overlooking the island’s northeastern corner that, according to a sign, was called PIGEON’S EYE OUTLOOK.  Some concrete pillars stood along its landward and seaward edges, topped with old, broken, metal screws, which suggested the platform had once sported a roof.  Now it looked almost like a brutalist, modernist re-imagining of an ancient Greek ruin.

 

 

From the north of the platform, I could look out over the clutter of rocks where I’d been sitting a few minutes earlier.  From its south side, I could see a cliff-face and a steep inlet that was choked up with boulders.  A couple of pigeons were flapping about the scene.  And I realized that unlike the other visitors present today, busy viewing the coral, I’d actually seen some pigeons on Pigeon Island.

 

 

Nilaveli Beach

 

 

Nothing very blog-worthy has happened to me recently so here are a few photographs taken when my partner and I holidayed in Nilaveli a little while ago.  Nilaveli is about 15 kilometres north of the town of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast and our hotel – a collection of semi-detached wooden cabins acting as hotel rooms, plus a reception building, restaurant building and lounge building – stood on the edge of the beach there.

 

 

The hotel encroached on the beach with rows of sun-recliners and sunshades – the surfaces of the sun-recliners sometimes streaked with white shit thanks to the local, naughty population of crows.  And at night, the beach seemed ablaze when coils of fluorescent tubing wrapped around the trunks of the hotel’s palm trees lit up and made them look like giant sticks of stripy confectionary.  However, the beach was simultaneously a working one.  Every day, just beyond the last of the sun-recliners, gangs of fishermen ranging in age from wrinkly fellows in straw hats to lanky youths in Rastafarian bonnets would assemble and pull nets out of the sea.  Each team was about seven strong.  They’d form a line, grip a rope and slowly retreat up the beach with it, taking short, synchronised steps.  The person at the back would reach a certain point and relinquish the rope, move down to the surf at the front of the line and take up the rope again.  And so it continued while more of the rope came in.

 

 

Then a string of white floats – round white chunks of Styrofoam – approached on the silvery blue surface of the sea, signalling that the nets were getting near.  How surreal it would be, I thought, if eventually they towed the far end of the rope out of the water and there emerged another team of seven guys clinging onto it, trying to pull it in the opposite direction.

 

Later, the nets would be strewn across the sand while the fishermen hunkered down and transferred the landed fish into hemispherical baskets.  Flocks of crows would alight and watch the baskets hopefully.

 

 

On the beach north of our hotel were two groups of fishermen’s huts, about a hundred metres of sand between them.  When I walked past them one evening, most of those huts were in darkness, with only a couple of larger ones lit by electrical lights.  One of the unlit huts had a fire burning on the floor just inside its entrance, glowing in the dark like a permanent orange flare.  Some guys were in the process of setting out to sea, heading for their nocturnal fishing grounds.  Later, their boat-lamps would form a necklace of white specks across the distant, black water.

 

There are a few hotels at Nilaveli, but ours seemed to be the most northerly one and it was separated from its nearest neighbour by a twenty-minute walk along the beach.  When I explored the intervening section of beach, I discovered that not everything there was picture-perfect.  Parts of it – away from the hotels and the fishing huts – were depressingly dirty, littered with washed-up plastic water bottles, glass arrack bottles, tin cans, flip-flops, rubber shoe-soles (the leather bits having presumably rotted away) and dried-up and fly-ridden husks of fish that’d been gutted and thrown back in the sea.

 

 

Also, a sizable area of beach was polka-dotted with shrivelled, sandy cowpats.  Eventually, the culprits came into view – a herd of cattle that were mooching about on or lying on the sand, almost within reach of the breakers.  They seemed totally nonchalant about their surroundings, unfazed by the rumbling and frothing seawater, the occasional wandering beach-dogs, the crows that hopped around them and even perched on top of them, and the tourists from the nearby hotel who were snapping photos of them.

 

 

One other thing I noticed as I ventured south from our hotel was a huddle of gutted concrete ruins standing in the scrub and woodland just off the back of the beach.  Weirdly, their outer walls were decorated with psychedelic murals of, for example, a red Cyclopean octopus-thing and a yellow-skinned, blue-eyed face.  I suspect that back in the 1970s or 1980s some aspiring local entrepreneur built this place, believing he or she could fashion a seaside retreat for the sort of Western hippies who used to flock to Goa in India.  But fate intervened in some form or other – the Sri Lankan Civil War, perhaps? – and those buildings were abandoned to disuse and decay.

 

 

Lanka Comic-Con 2017

 

 

The annual Lanka Comic-Con convention was held on the weekend of August 26th and 27th at the Exhibition and Conference Centre by Lake Beira in downtown Colombo.  I slouched in late in the afternoon of the 26th, mainly because a live-music session had been organised from five to seven o’clock to round off the convention’s first day.  One of the three bands lined up to perform was the Sri Lankan heavy metal outfit Stigmata, whom I’d heard a lot about and was keen to hear.

 

I felt less interested in Comic-Con’s main focus, i.e. comic-books and other popular media of the science-fiction and fantasy variety.  I like comics, but I’ve become jaded at how so many of them have metamorphised lately – like Bruce Banner swelling up into the Incredible Hulk – into lumbering multi-media franchises whose main strands are blockbuster movies: movies that I find simplistic and unsatisfying compared to the comic-book originals.  And neither am I a massive fan of most of the non-comics sci-fi / fantasy franchises that feature heavily at such conventions the world over, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, etc.

 

 

That said, I was glad I arrived a while before the music kicked off because it was worth taking in the event’s atmosphere.  The Conference and Exhibition Centre isn’t the most prepossessing of venues, consisting of a long room with a low ceiling, bunker-like slits of windows at the tops of its walls and worn blue matting on the floor, but the organisers did their best with it.  One thoroughfare of stalls was called ‘Artists’ Alley’ and featured a number of local artists selling samples of their work.  Most of them, it must be said, were depictions of Western popular-culture icons like Darth Vader, the Joker and Jon Snow from Game of Thrones.   I hope those artists draw the Western stuff to pay their rents whilst getting a chance in their free time to work on their own, possibly more Sri Lanka-centric material.

 

And I had to applaud the many Sri Lankan attendees who arrived in intricately, and ingeniously, devised costumes to cosplay their favourite comic-book, TV and movie characters.  In fact, at about half-past-four, a stage at the end of the hall hosted a weird and wonderful cosplayer fashion show.  We got a guy dressed as Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th movies who turned up with a skateboard and insisted on skateboarding across the stage; a hulking and credible-looking portrayal of the red-skinned Ron Perlman character from the Hellboy movies; a World of Warcraft character so heavily armoured and spiked he resembled a humanoid horned-lizard-cum-armadillo; a young lady dressed (or bandaged) as the French-Algerian actress Sofia Boutella in this year’s Tom Cruise film remake of The Mummy – from all accounts a terrible movie, but this cosplay mummy looked really good; and a familiar-looking piratical character whom the cosplay-show compere welcomed onstage with the declaration, “And now the hero of every tuk-tuk driver in Sri Lanka…  Captain Jack Sparrow!”  Actually, Captain Jack got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.   Maybe there were a lot of off-duty tuk-tuk drivers among the audience.

 

The oddest moment came when no fewer than seven cosplayers beetled onstage dressed as the title-character of the comic-book and 2016 movie Deadpool.  The bemused compere suggested that the seven of them perform a dance, which they did.  Disconcertingly, the one at the end wore a black-and-red-striped sweater and a fedora and was apparently a Deadpool-Freddy Krueger hybrid.   Meanwhile, the moment I found most depressing was when a Sri Lankan guy marched onstage dressed as ‘Old Logan’ from this year’s final instalment in the X-Men movies and I realised that Old Logan looked young enough for me to qualify as Old Logan’s dad.  (If I ever had to cosplay myself, I guess the only options open to me would either be Saruman from the Lord of the Rings movies or Stan Lee as he is now, all 94 years of him.)

 

 

A lovely moment occurred when a Sri Lankan lady came on as Wonder Woman – one of two Wonder Women present at the convention – and someone informed the crowd that it was her birthday.  Immediately, everybody started singing, “Happy birthday to you…  Happy birthday to you…  Happy birthday, dear Wonder Woman…”  There was a major sequel to this, which I’ll talk about in a moment.

 

 

And finally, on to the live music, which took place on a different stage along one of the room’s sidewalls.  A sudden rash of Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Scorpions and AC/DC T-shirts had appeared among the crowd there, suggesting I wasn’t the only person turning up for the music rather than the standard Comic-Con stuff.  However, before Stigmata, two other bands performed.  Number one was an outfit called Ursula and the Odyssey, blessed with two excellent singers – a lady (Ursula, presumably) and a bloke.  They did a splendid version of Where did you Sleep Last Night, the old Leadbelly song that Nirvana covered memorably on their 1994 Unplugged album.  The second band was a young, brisk, poppy-punk one called the Fallen boys who sounded fine but suffered a painful indignity.  Just as they came onstage, someone announced over the PA system that prizes were being given out to the best cosplayers at the other stage, at the top end of the hall.  And suddenly, about two-thirds of the Fallen Boys’ audience evaporated.

 

 

I had no complaints about the music of Stigmata, when they did their set.  They generated a pleasing noise that combined the best of Iron Maiden and Sepultura.  However, between songs, their vocalist Suresh De Silva did tend to talk… and talk… and talk.  Now I realise Sri Lankans enjoy a good natter (totally unlike the Irish), but seeing as there wasn’t a lot of time allotted to their slot I would have liked fewer anecdotes and jokes and less mucking around; and more in the way of actual songs.   Then again, admission to Comic-Con that day was only a hundred rupees and that included the live-music session.  Which meant I was seeing one of the country’s top metal bands for the equivalent of about 50 pence…  So I can’t really complain.

 

I said there was a sequel to Wonder Woman’s appearance at the convention.  A week later, international news and cultural outlets like the BBC and the New Musical Express were reporting how the birthday girl who attended the convention cosplaying Wonder Woman, Amaya Suriyapperuma, and her friend Seshani Cooray, who’d also turned up dressed as Wonder Woman, had been subjected to masses of abuse, insults and trolling from online scumbags after they’d posted photos of themselves in costume on Facebook.

 

From Mathisha‏ @Pasan_Mathisha

 

Happily though, Amaya and Seshani subsequently received backing from some unexpected and powerful quarters.  Word of the abuse they’d received reached Hollywood; and both the star and director of this year’s Wonder Woman movie, actress Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins, were moved to tweet their support to the Sri Lankan duo.

 

I shall briefly add Blood and Porridge’s tuppence-worth to the incident.  Amaya and Sesahani, pay no attention to those online dickheads.  The pair of you looked great.   And any Internet wanker who claims otherwise isn’t fit to kiss your stripy Wonder Woman boots.

 

Rockin’ in the Sri world

 

 

After three years of moaning about how rubbish the live-music scene in Colombo seemed to be, about how in the evenings I’d go along to a fancy hotel bar-lounge that was advertising a live ‘rock’ band and find myself sitting amid a gaggle of immaculately-dressed wealthy Sri Lankans and various sweaty, overweight foreign tourists listening to some blokes in their late-middle-age wibbling their way through a jazz-funk rendition of Lionel Richie’s Hello, I finally resolved the other weekend to get off my lazy, wrinkly arse and head out into the city’s meaner streets and track down some proper live music.

 

I found some too in a venue called the Keg Pub.  (The street it was on, T.B. Jaya Mawatha near Lake Beira, wasn’t even that mean, although the joint across the road where I stopped off for some rice and curry looked a bit rough).  The Keg was hosting something called Rock n’ Roll 2017 (ii), an evening of Sri Lankan acoustic performers and rock bands, the latter sporting such names as Island Mafia, The Soul and Paranoid Earthling.  Its Facebook page exhorted me to bring my ‘best buds’, ‘drinking buds’ and ‘chickas’, which when I consulted the online Urban Dictionary I discovered meant a ‘sexy Latin lady friend’.  Unfortunately, the person who trebles as my best buddy, drinking buddy and sexy chicka, i.e. Mrs Blood and Porridge, was unable to come along and I attended alone.

 

The event certainly felt like the real deal when I arrived and paid my money at the door and received a stamp on my arm and a paper bracelet to wear around my wrist – possibly the last time I was stamped and braceleted like that was when I saw Megadeth and Korn in Chicago back in 1995.  Also promising were the sights that assailed me when I walked through the door: semi-darkness, lots of people dressed in black and a sizeable island-bar at which I could slump whilst viewing the stage.   Oh, and the oldest person already there looked about 20 years younger than me, which also boded well for me not having to endure an arthritic jazz-funk workout of Hello.

 

That said, no matter how rock-and-roll the atmosphere, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was still in a Sri Lankan pub.  Because there was a TV screen, on the wall, showing bloody cricket for the entire evening.

 

 

Much of the night’s music consisted of cover versions rather than original material, which I suppose had its upside and its downside.  The upside was that because the performers were playing world-famous songs by world-famous bands, I was at least getting some quality stuff.  The downside was that I’d heard some of those songs a million times already and become sick of them.  Plus, it didn’t grant me much insight into what’s really happening in the rock-music scene in this country at the moment.

 

Still, there might be conclusions to be drawn about the Sri Lankan musical temperament from the fact that nobody blinked when one band went straight from a Nirvana song to Survivor’s Sylvester Stallone-empowering Eye of the Tiger – not something you could do among die-hard Nirvana fans in many Western countries and expect to live.  Or that a duo who’d been treating us to blues versions of AC/DC numbers then treated us to a Bon Jovi one without ruffling any feathers, even though in my book that’s the equivalent of a Robert De Niro retrospective that partners Raging Bull (1980) with Dirty Grandpa (2016).

 

 

Significantly, later bands introduced some reggae music into the evening’s mix.  Even a rendition of the Dylan / Hendrix favourite All Along the Watchtower had a reggae-ish interlude added to it.  Maybe that’s a consequence of living on such a hot, sultry island.  A rock-and-roll gathering can’t be loud and fast and bolshy for too long.  No, the heat soon encourages everyone to chill and go a bit Bob Marley.

 

One thing I have to say.  Paranoid Earthling, whose Wikipedia entry tells me are a ‘grunge, experimental, psychedelic, stoner rock, heavy metal’ band from Kandy, came onstage late in the evening with a welcoming cry of “How ya motherfuckas doin’ tonight?” and proved to be epic.  They played their own stuff and played it with blistering aplomb.  Showing particular panache was their spandex-wrapped vocalist Mirshad Buckman, who has the enviable double-advantage of looking a bit like the late, great Ronnie James Dio and sounding a bit like the equally late, great Bon Scott.  They performed a big beast of a song called Open up the Gates whose guitar sound managed to be both twiddly and thumping.  They gave their closing number Rock n’ Roll is my Anarchy a splendid, punky, foot-tapping tunefulness.   And during a song called Feel My Ritual they admirably kept focused even as a front-of-stage lighting rig toppled over into the audience – mind you, said rig was really only two light-bulbs at the end of a pole.  Best of all, though, was their song Deaf Blind Dumb, which borrowed its stompy bits from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People but which was still a blast played live.

 

 

Koneswaram Temple at Trincomalee

 

 

Dedicated to the great Hindu deity Shiva, Koneswaram Temple is perched above cliffs at the end of a peninsula at Trincomalee, a popular tourist town on Sri Lanka’s north-eastern coast.  The modern-day temple also marks the site of a notorious incident of plunder, vandalism and murder by 17th-century European imperialists.

 

In 1622, on April 14th – Tamil New Year’s Day – Portuguese soldiers sneaked into the temple grounds while most of its priests were busy with a religious procession outside.  They looted it, slaughtered any priests and temple staff they could find and finally, somehow, managed to topple most of the temple over the cliff-edge and into the sea.  What survived of the original complex was destroyed two years later, with the Portuguese using its stones for the construction of Fort Frederick, a military fort further along the peninsula that now serves as a garrison for a regiment of the Sri Lankan Army.  According to Koneswaram Temple’s Wikipedia entry, its treatment at the hands of the Portuguese is regarded as ‘the biggest loot’ of a temple in Asia.

 

Later, under British rule, Hindu pilgrims were allowed to visit and worship at the place of the old temple, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, after the British had departed and Sri Lanka become independent, that moves were made to restore it.  In fact, not all the old temple’s artefacts had been stolen by the Portuguese.  Some had been spirited away by priests, buried to ensure their safety and forgotten about – and in 1950 the local council accidently dug up statues of Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh whilst excavating a well a half-kilometre away.  Also, in 1956, a trove of items from the fallen temple, including columns with flower carvings and stone elephant-heads, was discovered by scuba divers exploring the seabed off the peninsula.   One of these divers was the filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilson.  Another was the celebrated science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, no less, who would eventually become a long-term resident of Sri Lanka.

 

In the same waters, in 1962, Wilson located and recovered a yet-more important relic from the temple – a Swayambhu Lingam, a round stone obelisk that according to legend hadn’t been fashioned by human hands but had formed naturally on the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet and later had been transported to Sri Lanka by the fabled demon / god Emperor Ravana.  Wilson claimed that the Lingam provided inspiration for the obelisks in Clarke’s most famous work, the screenplay and tie-in novel he wrote in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  However, Clarke – who’d penned an account of their 1956 discoveries in a non-fiction book called The Reefs of Taprobane (1957) – denied this.

 

In 1963, nearly three-and-a-half centuries after the destruction of the original, a restored Koneswaram Temple was unveiled – not on the same physical scale as its medieval predecessor, but hopefully, thanks to its commanding view of the Indian Ocean and to it having some of the same artefacts on display inside, imbued with a similar spiritual atmosphere.

 

 

As you walk up the incline towards the temple, you’re greeted by a huge blue statue of Shiva hunkered comfortably by the entrance, gesturing with four arms and four door-sized hands.  In the temple-building beyond that, you aren’t allowed to take photographs – a shame since much of its décor is very photographable.  I particularly liked a statue of the afore-mentioned Emperor Kavana, depicting him as a nine-headed deity with multiple arms fanning out behind him – so many arms that he resembles a mutant octopus.  Two of those arms play a sitar-like stringed instrument with a tenth head planted at one end and an additional hand planted at the other.  I did find a picture of the statue on the temple’s Wikipedia entry, so I will sneakily borrow and reproduce that.

 

© Gane Kumaraswamy / From Wikipedia.org

 

The temple is also worth visiting for its geographical position.  Especially picturesque is a nearby knob of grey-brown rock jutting over the ocean waves, a path and flights of steps looped around it.  The path’s seaward edge is lined with blue railings and gold-patterned pillars with dainty lanterns on top.  Along its inner edge, the rock-face contains cavities with more, gaudily-coloured Hindu deities.  Trees grow on the rock above and below the path and steps, their branches reaching down and reaching up, dappling the walkway with sunlight and shade.

 

 

A word of warning, though.  You have to remove your shoes before entering the temple area and bringing a pair of socks to pad around in is essential.  That’s because after the sun rises, the temple’s paving stones warm up and are soon too hot for bare feet to tread on.  The morning that my partner and I visited there, my partner forgot to bring socks with her.  So, as a solution, I went in alone for about 20 minutes and left her standing outside in the shade of a tree.  Then I came out, lent her my socks and took her place under the tree while she went in and explored.

 

My vigil under that tree wasn’t boring.  Other visitors would arrive, sans socks, and I amused myself watching them hop barefoot from baking paving stone to baking paving stone like manic versions of Michael Jackson at the end of the Billie Jean video.

 

 

Tri-tiquette

 

 

I’d better begin by defining my terms.  Every foreigner I know in Sri Lanka calls these little beetling vehicles ‘tuk-tuks’ after the similar vehicles that are found in Thailand.  But Sri Lankans themselves get a bit sniffy at the term.  Nor do they take kindly to the vehicles being called ‘auto-rickshaws’, as they are in India.  No, the preferred local terms seem to be ‘trishaws’ or plain old ‘three-wheelers’.

 

I’ve read a report that there are nearly a million tuk-tuks plying their trade – which is shuttling passengers and sometimes cargo across short distances – on the roads and streets of Sri Lanka.  This means that in a country with a population of 21 million there’s one tuk-tuk in existence for roughly every score of its citizens.  Mind you, you can believe those statistics when you see swarms of the things on the move at rush hour in downtown Colombo, passing you in weaving, buzzing streaks of red, blue and green.  (Occasionally, you see an ultra-cool black tuk-tuk.  The black one in my immediate neighbourhood is driven by a guy who also sports an awesome mullet.  He’s such a dude.)

 

 

The décor inside Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks often reminds you of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.  Mounted on the dashboard might be a figurine of Buddha, indicating that the driver is of the Buddhist persuasion; or a little statue of the cheery elephant-headed god Ganesha, indicating that he’s likely to be a Hindu; or a cross, indicating a Christian; or there might be a verse from the Koran adorning the windscreen, indicating a Muslim.  However, interior tuk-tuk design frequently incorporates non-religious themes too.  For some reason, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are a common motif, with Captain Jack Sparrow’s jolly face emblazoned across many a tuk-tuk’s upholstery.  You get dungeons-and-dragons imagery too, and Bollywood-type stuff, and pictures of Native Americans and Harley Davidsons; and occasionally a weird hallucinogenic mixture of the lot.

 

 

I’ve been on board tuk-tuks that have looked as bare and functional as the inside of a cardboard box.  On the other hand, I’ve been in ones whose interiors, bedecked with frills, tinsel and strings of coloured paper flowers, have resembled that of a 19th century Parisian bordello.  Once, I climbed into one that happened to be decorated with emblems of Newcastle United Football Club.  When I climbed out again at my destination, I mentioned to the driver that I’d lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years and I quite liked Newcastle United.  The guy looked stunned.  I suppose that of all the passengers he’d ever ferried around Colombo, I must have been the closest one to an actual, living, breathing Geordie.

 

Here are a few pieces of advice to foreign visitors to Colombo who decide to utilize the city’s immense army of tuk-tuks.

 

One.  Avoid taking tuk-tuks that have been parked opportunistically outside a shop or restaurant or hotel that might qualify as being (even slightly) ‘touristy’.  These are often guys who’ll try to pre-arrange a fare with you, and it’ll be considerably more than what it would be on a meter.  And if they do use a meter, don’t be surprised if the meter suffers from numerical diarrhea, skittering out higher and higher prices.  Instead, flog down a tuk-tuk that’s passing on the street – the driver’s less likely to be a vulture.

 

Two.  Make sure the tuk-tuk has a meter and the driver uses it.  And make sure that the starting price – and the blanket fare for the first 900 metres – on it is 50 rupees.  Yes, I have Sri Lankan friends and colleagues who tell me they can travel around on tuk-tuks for less, but as a relatively well-heeled Westerner I think 50 rupees is fine and fair.  Then, keep your eyes on the meter at the 0.9-of-a-kilometer stage.  For once that distance is reached, the price goes up and keeps going up every subsequent 100 metres.  Each time, the increase should be by four rupees: 54 rupees, then 58, then 62, and so on.  If the meter starts climbing in bigger chunks, you’re being fleeced.  Tell the driver to change the incremental charge to four – a surprising number of them will when they’re challenged about it.  If the driver refuses, just tell him to stop and then get out.  Don’t worry.  This is Colombo.  There’ll be another, hopefully-cheaper tuk-tuk along after a moment.

 

At nighttime, though, the charges are higher: 57.50 rupees as the customary starting charge and correspondingly more-expensive additional charges.  Also, if your tuk-tuk is stationary for a period – as it often is in Colombo’s traffic jams – you’ll notice the meter logging on an extra two-rupee-a-minute ‘waiting fee’.

 

Three.  If you’re taking a tuk-tuk into an area of the city that you don’t know very well, bring along a copy of the Colombo A-Z so that you can monitor where you’re going.  This will alert you to the driver trying to treat you to ‘the scenic route’.  (Or alternatively, they simply may not know where they’re going themselves.  Tuk-tuk drivers get lost with surprising frequency – they’re not like those London black-taxicab drivers who’ve spent years memorizing every nook and cranny of the city as ‘the Knowledge’.)  At the same time, bear in mind that Colombo’s one-way systems can be both torturous and illogical, and if the driver isn’t taking you the shortest, most direct way it may be because of these.

 

Four.  Keep your pockets stocked with plenty of change because many tuk-tuk drivers never seem to have any.

 

The sharks tend to operate in the centre of Colombo, where there are more tourists to rip off.  I usually don’t have issues with tuk-tuks in my neighbourhood, Wellawatta, which is a few kilometres away from the city-centre action.  And when you find yourself in other Sri Lankan cities and towns where meters are much less common – I was in Kandy last week and ended up paying 250 rupees for a journey that would have cost me about 100 in Colombo – you soon start to view the tuk-tuk-driving fraternity in the country’s capital as a fine, upstanding bunch of blokes.

 

 

Finally, I should say that one night I was travelling through Wellawatta in a tuk-tuk when we stopped at a red light and another tuk-tuk drew up beside us in the adjacent lane.  This one was covered in a camouflage pattern and had the words TUK-TUK SAFARI stenciled on its side.  Its driver was dressed like a great white hunter, complete with a pith helmet.  Also, the vehicle was open-roofed and in the back rode two foreign tourist ladies.  They weren’t sitting, but standing, so that their upper halves jutted through the gap in the roof.  They seemed to be surveying the street-life of nocturnal Colombo in the way that participants in a real safari would survey the animal-life of the African savannah.

 

My reaction to this?  I believe that if you pay money to go on a tuk-tuk safari around Colombo, you don’t deserve to live.

 

Kandy’s World Buddhist Museum

 

 

Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-biggest city, is home to the revered and much-visited Temple of the Tooth – a part of the city’s historic palace complex housing the holy relic of Buddha’s left canine, found among the ashes of his funeral pyre in 543 BC.  No doubt because of the religious significance of the temple, Kandy’s World Buddhist Museum is located just behind it.  You aren’t allowed to use a camera inside the museum, which is why the only photo for this post is a representative but predictable one of a statue of Buddha outside its entrance, shown above.

 

I like how the museum does what it says on the tin.  It really explores the world of Buddhism and its exhibits, pictures, models and information-panels are organised geographically, that is, according to the fifteen or so countries that the museum regards as the core Buddhist ones.  This helps show the difference between the two main strands of the religion: the Theravada Buddhism mostly practised in southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) and the bottommost tip of south Asia (Sri Lanka); and the Mahayana Buddhism practised mostly in central and east Asia (Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea and Nepal) and a sliver of southeast Asia (Vietnam).  Each country’s government donated items to the museum and had a say in how its Buddhist culture is represented there.  This might explain why I didn’t see as much as I expected about Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet being classified as part of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese government probably not wanting to promote the region’s uniqueness.

 

Some of the other countries featured aren’t ones you’d immediately associate with Buddhism.  These include India – although to be fair, that paltry-sounding 0.8 % of the Indian population who are Buddhists amounts to 7.95 million people.  And of course, Buddhism did originate there, inspiring the museum to make the claim that “Buddhism is the greatest gift of India to the outside world.”  One striking exhibit in the Indian section is an effigy of Buddha in ‘the hard penance’, fasting to the point where he’s practically skeletal.  His face is wizened, his rib-cage is shockingly prominent and his midriff seems to disappear up inside his ribs.  Additional fasting Buddhas are displayed in a section about another country not normally linked with Buddhism, Pakistan.

 

There’s also a small part of the museum devoted to Afghanistan.  It mentions the ill-fated Buddhas of Bamiyan in the country’s north-central area: “giant Buddha figures carved at either end of the mile-long sandstone cliff” that “stood at the heights of 120 feet and 175 feet.”  The giant statues were notoriously blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban, who were still Afghanistan’s official government at the time.  The museum makes no bones about how it regards the Taliban and their treatment of the statues: “these were destroyed fairly recently due to terrorist activities.”

 

There’s obviously much to see regarding the countries that are known as Buddhist ones.  The Vietnamese section, for instance, contains a startling image of an Avalokiteshvara Buddha bearing a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.  The artefacts from Bhutan include a huge, wonderfully ornate and coloured cabinet with five doors and many internal compartments stocked with Buddhist paraphernalia.  Myanmar has provided some big temple gongs and bells hanging within frames that are decorated, down the sides, with impressively-scaly dragons.

 

One country not represented there is Russia, which is a pity.  I’d have liked some information about the Russian republic of Kalmykia, by the Caspian Sea, which has the distinction of being the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the most practised religion.

 

Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty in the museum about Sri Lanka.  Its section includes an interesting display about the creation of the International Buddhist Flag, which you see flying and emblazoned all over the island.  The flag’s vertical stripes of blue, yellow, red, white and orange symbolise world peace, while its horizontal stripes of similar colours symbolise ethnic harmony.  In 1889 the newly-devised flag was unveiled to the Japanese Emperor, although it wasn’t until 1952 that it was approved by the World Buddhist Congress.  It’d been designed in 1883 by “a committee of erudite Buddhists,” including “Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of American descent and a rank officer of the American Army and a founder of the famous Theosophical Society”.  Dubbed ‘the White Buddhist of Ceylon’, Olcott played an important role in reviving Buddhism in Sri Lanka and he’s still remembered and admired there today – indeed, the road that goes past the Fort Railway Station in Colombo is called Olcott Mawatha and there’s a commanding statue of the bushy-bearded American colonel standing outside the station building.

 

From fotolia.com

 

Something fishy

 

© Heinemann

 

The other week my better half (Mrs Blood and Porridge) and I were travelling in a three-wheeler along Colombo’s Marine Drive when we found unexpectedly found ourselves at the back of a traffic jam.  This was unexpected because we were on a wide part of the drive that isn’t normally prone to bottlenecks; and it was the middle of a Sunday, when Colombo’s frequently severe traffic isn’t that severe.

 

Then we realised that the congestion was caused by a large number of vehicles left parked at the seaward side of Marine Drive.  Crowds of people had climbed out of those vehicles and crossed the railway tracks, which run alongside the drive, to get to the rocky shoreline overlooking the Indian Ocean.  We asked our driver what was happening.  He didn’t know, but thought that someone might have drowned – and the onlookers were there out of ghoulish curiosity to see the police retrieve and remove the body.

 

By chance, the place we were travelling to on Marine Drive, the 14-storey Ozo Hotel, stood opposite the spot that seemed to be the focus of the crowds.  We planned to have some lunch at the hotel’s rooftop bar.  After we’d finally arrived there and taken the lift to the top of the building, the first thing I did was go to the railing and look down over Marine Drive and the railway, shoreline and sea and find out what had been drawing all those spectators.

 

Far below, lying across some sand whilst being gently pummelled by endless silvery breakers, was a big pale carcass maybe twenty feet long.   A carcass of what, I couldn’t tell.  It was so decayed and shapeless and bloated that it was unrecognisable.  I was relieved to be 14 storeys above the scene, well out of the way of what must have been a vile reek of putrefaction.

 

 

At first I thought it might be the remains of a whale-shark – the world’s biggest fish species – because two months earlier someone had told me she’d been scuba-diving at a shipwreck a short distance out into the ocean from Colombo when one of those giant (but non-carnivorous) sharks had swum at her out of the murk and spent a minute moseying around her.  However, according to a news report that appeared subsequently, the badly-decomposed carcass was identified not as a shark but as a whale.

 

This occurred just a fortnight after a well-publicised incident where a 50-foot-long corpse was washed up at Seram Island in Indonesia.  Rotting, but still bleeding enough to turn the surrounding waters red, the thing initially caused speculation that it might be the remains of some gargantuan and hitherto-unknown sea-creature.  Later, though, marine experts were able to identify it, from the presence of baleen plates, grooves along its body and certain skeletal features, as a whale too.

 

Being into literature, the carcass on Marine Drive set me wondering about giant washed-up bodies in books and stories I’d read.  I could think of two examples.  One occurred in the whimsical (and occasionally twee) fantasy novel Mr Pye (1953) by Mervyn Peake, which is set on Sark in the Channel Islands and concerns an eccentric evangelist who arrives to preach a message of love and compassion to the islanders.  A first attempt to convert a mass audience ends in disaster, however – he assembles Sark’s inhabitants on a beach one evening with the promise of a giant picnic, but before he can start proselytising, the waves inconveniently dump a dead whale on the sand nearby and the stench of it drives everyone away.

 

The other example I thought of was the short story The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard, which appeared in his 1964 collection The Terminal Beach and, as its name suggests, isn’t about a whale carcass but about a gigantic human one that’s inexplicably deposited on a beach following a violent storm.  In his typically perverse fashion, Ballard has no interest in who the giant was or how he came into existence or how he ended up on the beach.  Rather, he focuses on the reaction to him by the ordinary, normal-sized humans living along the coast.

 

This begins with intense and rather disrespectful curiosity – soon they’re clambering over his huge, dead bulk like the Lilliputians swarming over Gulliver.  Then it turns into even less respectful greed, with the body gradually being dismantled and processed by “a fertiliser company and a cattle-food manufacturer”.  And finally the poor giant fades out of both the landscape and human consciousness.  The stretch of beach that was his final resting place is left empty save for a “clutter of bleached ribs like the timbers of a derelict ship” that “make an excellent perch for the sea-wearying gulls.”  Meanwhile, the anonymous narrator observes that “most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.”

 

One of Ballard’s most haunting and melancholic stories, The Drowned Giant can be read here.