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.

 

When your neighbourhood collapses

 

Late on the morning of May 18th I was at my Colombo workplace when I was telephoned by my partner, who was back in our apartment.  She said that in the mid-morning she’d heard a cacophony of sirens – police cars, ambulances and / or fire engines – on the street outside.  Then, soon after that, she’d received a call from our local electrician, who’d been in the apartment the day before to check an electrical fault in a couple of our wall-sockets.

 

The electrician’s reason for ringing today was nothing to do with the condition of those sockets.  He’d just heard a news-flash saying that a building in our neighbourhood had collapsed and he wanted to make sure we were okay.

 

Reports about what’d happened were already appearing on the Internet.  It turned out that part of a big banquet / party / wedding reception complex called the Excellency, which stands behind the Savoy Cinema on Galle Road, had caved in.  The building’s façade remained intact but its back half, where some new floors were being constructed on top of an existing section, had suddenly fallen like the proverbial house of cards.  Trapped in the rubble were both members of the Excellency’s staff who’d been in the completed bit at the bottom and builders who’d been working in the under-construction bit at the top.

 

Not only were the emergency services soon on the scene to begin rescue efforts, but members of the Sri Lankan army were drafted in too.  By bad luck, shortly after the disaster happened, it started raining heavily and Colombo endured what was probably its wettest day so far of 2017, which meant that the rubble and dust that the rescuers were working in must have turned into a quagmire.

 

By the day’s end we’d heard reports that 23 people had been pulled out of the debris and taken to hospital and one person had later died of their injuries.  The bodies of two more victims were to be recovered from the flattened building over the next few days.

 

 

I walked past the place the following evening.  The soldiers were still present – indeed, one off-duty group of them sat and gazed out forlornly at the rain from the back of a truck parked next to our apartment building.  The stretch of street at the front of the Excellency had been sealed off with big white-and-red traffic cones, though the police guards posted there were tolerant of pedestrians walking through the closed-off area so long as they kept walking and didn’t make nuisances of themselves.

 

Considering what’d happened, the Excellency’s façade showed surprisingly little sign of damage.  If you peered down the alleyway at its side, you could make out a piece of still-standing wall with a pile of rubble at its bottom and, hanging above it, a broken, twisted mess of roofing.  Meanwhile, the floor of the Excellency’s front lobby was slathered with dried muddy footprints left by rescue-workers going to and coming from the devastation at the rear.  And one of its front windows had disintegrated and covered the street below in pieces of blue-tinted glass – it looked like there’d been a snowfall and then a thaw and now there was a thick slush full of lumps of melting ice.  At first, I thought that window might have been smashed by the rescuers, wanting to get some bulky rescue equipment into and through the building; but then, seeing how all the broken glass was lying outside rather than inside, it occurred to me that the window had probably been knocked out by the shock-waves from the collapse.

 

 

The pavement in front of the entrance to the Savoy Cinema was cordoned off with ropes and the building was atypically dark and silent.  A sign in the door said simply: “We are closed today.”

 

To see the collapsed building itself, you had to go onto the bridge where Galle Road crosses the Kirillapone Canal.  From there, you could view a giant, crumpled hole among the row of buildings backing onto the canal.  Debris and rubble oozed like a semi-solid effluent down into the canal-water below.  The whole, sad sight was framed between the big green fronds of the trees that grow near the bridge.

 

 

Barely had the disaster occurred than journalists got wind of the fact that the building had received inadequate planning permission.  The owner had been authorised to build three storeys by the canal – but at the time of the collapse the structure was five storeys high and the intention was to finally raise it to seven.

 

Initially, we’d heard rumours that the Excellency’s owner – whom, understandably, the police were keen to speak to – was ‘out of the country’.  However, on May 21st, news came through that he’d been arrested.

 

And without wishing to prejudice any upcoming trial, I can only say to that: “Good.”

 

 

High on Kandy

 

 

Rising above the historical city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka is a hill that’s home to the Udawattakele Sanctuary.  This was once a reserve established by Sri Lanka’s old colonial rulers, the British.  Nowadays, it’s a couple of square kilometres of forested parkland that allow walkers and nature-lovers to escape the noise and bustle of the city below.  The sanctuary’s two main pathways still hark back to the days of British rule, one being called Lady Horton’s Drive and the other called Lady Gordon’s Road – both ladies were wives of long-ago British governors.

 

To get access to the sanctuary, you need to head up the Kandy-Jaffna Highway on the north side of Kandy Lake and to the west of the Temple of the Tooth complex.  After passing the post office there, you turn left onto Sri Dalada Thapowana Vihara Road and climb that as far as Thapowanaya Temple, where there’s an entrance and a track leading to a murky-looking pond.  By the pond’s edge, the lower of the main pathways, Lady Horton’s Drive, sprouts off to the left.

 

 

On foot, making your way up to the entrance is something of a hike.  But the sense of seclusion, of being removed from the city, which comes when you pass through into the forest makes the effort feel worthwhile.  Mind you, for me, that feeling was short-lived.  As soon as I started up the steep and remote-seeming Lady Horton’s Drive, I was startled to hear the buzz of an engine ahead of me.  Then a Sri Lankan three-wheeler appeared above and came rattling down towards me, swaying precariously from side to side as it navigated the path’s many bumps.  I knew those little vehicles were ubiquitous in Sri Lanka, but I hadn’t expected to see one up here.

 

 

However, after that, I saw no more vehicles and very few other human beings and I spent my time tramping along the sanctuary’s sandy, leaf-strewn pathways in solitude.  Though not in silence.  Occasionally, from the forest around me, I heard crackling and rustling noises that suggested old rotten twigs, pieces of branch and clumps of leaves breaking off and falling slowly and softly through the canopy to the ground.  A less spooky sound – and a reminder that I still wasn’t far from civilisation – was the sporadic crack of a firework from the city below, where people were celebrating the advent of the Buddhist New Year.

 

Also, at times, the cicadas were noisy.  There was one spot, the junction of Lady Horton’s Drive and Lady Gordon’s Road, where their sound was piercingly shrill.  It suggested the screech of an old bus applying its worn-out brakes, but amplified a hundred times.

 

 

Green, dense and still damp from the previous day’s rain, the forest looked gorgeous.  Though it looked slightly sinister too, thanks to a profusion of weird, corkscrewing woody vines.  Frequently, these stretched between the trees on either side of the path and enclosed them in a giant, gnarly truss.

 

There was a brief downpour near the end of my walk.  This didn’t bother me, but I was apprehensive because I’d read in a guidebook that following rain in the sanctuary leeches would emerge in Biblical-plague numbers.  Thus, while I made my way back down to the pond, I stopped to inspect myself every other minute in case leeches had suddenly attached themselves to me.  I didn’t find anything, though, and I began to suspect the guidebook writer had been exaggerating.

 

As soon as I returned to the pond, I experienced a phenomenon that I’ve come to think of as a ‘monkey army’.  First, a couple of adult monkeys skulked along silently but purposely, like advance scouts.  Then a whole clan appeared – more adults, some mothers with monkey-babies, kids, monkey-toddlers.  They seemed to emerge out of nowhere, surreptitiously lowering themselves from branches and easing themselves out of the foliage, and suddenly a whole nomadic, simian tribe was on the move around me.  A minute later, however, they’d all melted back into the landscape and were out of sight again.  I have to say that seeing a monkey army in motion in a Sri Lankan forest is less freaky than having one pass you by on a street in a busy Indian city, which had happened to me in Delhi the previous year.

 

 

Once the monkeys were gone, still near the pond, I bumped into a group of people whom I knew from Colombo and who were having a few days’ break in Kandy too.  While I was talking to one of them, she stopped in mid-sentence, pointed down and said, “I think there’s a big black beetle sitting on your ankle.”  I bent down and discovered that it was actually a leech – a plump one that’d attached itself to the front of my sock, just above the tongue of my shoe.  Worse, a second, equally-big leech was fastened in a similar position to the other sock on my other foot.  Presumably, the vampiric beasties had got onto me while I was distracted by the spectacle of the monkey army.

 

Not heeding the old warning that if you pull off a leech you risk breaking it and leaving its head and feeding apparatus embedded in your flesh, I prised away the pair of them.  And immediately I saw two red patches spread through the fabric of the socks where those leeches had been clinging.  They’d already made contact with my skin and started drinking, and now those drinking-spots were bleeding.

 

The punctures left by the leeches bled for hours afterwards and I ended up taping swabs of cotton wool over them to try to staunch them.  And even two weeks later, I could still see the small, scabbed points where the things had had their hooks in me.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 9: Bambalapitiya Station

 

 

Colombo is being redeveloped at a frenzied rate these days.  Multi-storey hotels and apartment blocks seem to shoot up out of the ground with the suddenness and speed of mushrooms.  So many cranes loom over the downtown area that the horizon there resembles a pincushion.  And a grand, if not grandiose, reclamation project is forcing the sea back from the Fort district, banishing it behind giant dunes of sand and boulders.

 

With all this happening, it’s a surprise when you see the under-developed state of the city’s railway system, the antiquated and fusty railway stations in particular.

 

A typical example is Bambalapitiya Station, not far from where I live.  It’s one of three stations standing on Marine Drive, the city’s main coastal road.  A pair of railway lines run along a strip between the road and the sea’s edge, one carrying southbound trains heading in the direction of Galle, a few hours away down the coast, and the other carrying northbound trains for central Colombo.  Bambalapitya Station is roughly at the midpoint of Marine Drive.  There, the railway lines bulge apart and create between them a narrow, faintly elliptical space which the station building and platforms straggle along.  Past where the platforms stop, the two tapering ends of the space are covered in sand, rocks, rubble, litter, grass and weeds.

 

 

At peak travelling hours, Marine Drive is teeming with vehicles and to get people safely across the road to the station there’s a pedestrian bridge covered with corrugated-iron roofing of various unappealing shades of grey and brown.  The stairs at the end of the bridge descend into the station building itself, long and low and with walls that are a faded amber colour.  Corrugated-iron ‘awnings’ stick out on either side, over the middle parts of the platforms.  Their ends, though, are exposed to all weathers.

 

Plenty of people enter the station without using the bridge.  Its main part is separated from Marine Drive by a low wall and fence, but many folk stream off the road, around the wall and fence and onto the ends of the waste ground.  From there they clamber up onto the platforms; or more hazardously, they clamber up into the end-carriages of the trains, which when they’ve stopped usually protrude past the platforms.  The latter course-of-action can be even more of a struggle at peak hours when the carriage doors are already garlanded with the bodies of clinging, hanging-out passengers.

 

 

There’s a second, bigger wall standing behind the outer railway track, presumably to shield the tracks, trains, platforms, buildings and travellers from the spray and occasionally the waves of the sea just a few yards further away.   The wall is a mishmash of sections, rising to different heights and featuring different textures of brickwork and plasterwork.  It’s also become a canvas for Colombo graffiti-artists who’ve daubed it with hip-hoppy scrawls.

 

 

The most striking, and saddest, feature of Bambalapitiya Station is found behind that sea-wall.  Against its rear side, along the narrow rocky strip between it and where the ground drops to the sea, some poor Sri Lankan people have erected a line of huts and shacks.  Their walls have been patched together with wooden panels and planks and their roofs consist of tarpaulin and corrugated iron weighted down with rocks and discarded railway sleepers.  The boulders outside their doors are strewn with things that’ve no doubt been salvaged and scavenged: plastic chairs, plastic water containers, a bathtub, lengths of piping, shapeless chunks of scrap metal.  The hut at the northern end appears to function as a rudimentary shop / tearoom for there’s a hatchway in its sidewall with a makeshift table and stools arranged in front of it.

 

 

In 2011, the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper published a feature about this ramshackle settlement.  It makes depressing and upsetting reading.  Its description of how the huts regularly get flooded with seawater correspond to what I’ve seen, from a distance, on stormy days when the waves climb the rocks and strike the huts with a violence that makes you fear they’ll be swept away.  At the time, local politicians stood accused of ignoring the plight of Bambalapitya Station’s backdoor residents; and from the look of things, they’ve done little or nothing to help them since then.

 

www.sundaytimes.lk/111023/Plus/plus_01.html

 

Well, there’s one thing that’s apparently changed since that newspaper feature six years ago.  At least some of the huts seem to have power now.  The evidence for this is the couple of poles sticking up above the sea-wall with TV aerials fastened to their tops.

 

 

Just after the final hut at the wall’s southern end, a blue-painted Christian shrine has been set up.  A glass-fronted box on its summit contains figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  It makes an atmospheric sight after six o’clock in the evening, while the silvery-gold sun dips towards the sea and a few long skinny clouds along the sky glow so redly that they look like bloody scratch-marks.

 

 

I should say that I’ve never ventured behind the railway’s station’s back wall and stuck my camera in anyone’s face.  I only wish other visitors to Colombo would be respectful too of the privacy of the people there.  On one occasion, I saw a big tour bus parked on Marine Drive beside the station and, on the far side of the railway tracks, some Chinese tourists crowded at the end of the shanty town and snapping pictures of it – treating it as a ‘poverty porn’ stop on their travel itinerary.

 

As for the roadside wall at the front of Bambilapitiya Station – or half-a-wall because part of it has disappeared and, as I’ve said, been replaced by a fence – somebody tried at some time to brighten it by painting a series of murals along it.  However, these last for only a few yards.  Their images – Buddha, stupas, rivers, forests, lotus flowers, demons, deer, elephants, fish, turtles, elephants, birds and butterflies – are pleasingly colourful, simple and child-like.

 

 

A mixture of rickety charm and some truly grim poverty, Bambalapitiya Station feels increasingly out of place in its neighbourhood.  It stands opposite the junction of Marine Drive and Station Road – a minute’s walk up the latter street is the trendy and popular Majestic City shopping centre.  And the opposite side of Marine Drive itself is currently in the throes of redevelopment.  One building, for instance, has been gutted and is being transformed into a new, high-falutin’ Indian restaurant with the amusing name of Planet Bollywood.

 

 

I suspect that before much longer some big, possibly Chinese-led consortium will flatten the old station and others like it and then raise new versions of them, fashioned in concrete, glass and steel.  Perhaps someone is on the case already.

 

Since writing this post I’ve noticed that the station’s front wall and the bottom half of its back wall have recently been given a lick of dark-red paint – the murals at the front have been spared, thankfully.  So clearly somebody in the Sri Lankan railway authorities is of the opinion that the place needs ‘doing up’.

 

Kandy’s Royal Botanical Gardens

 

 

I recently spent New Year with my family in Scotland, the memory of which makes me shudder.  I’m not shuddering about being with my family, of course, but shuddering at the physical discomfort that New Year in Scotland inevitably entails – pummelling wind, unrelenting rain, numbing cold and generally all the greyness, dreichness and shiteness that the Scottish mid-winter can muster.

 

How different it seems from another sort of New Year I’ve experienced lately – Buddhist New Year in Sri Lanka, where I’ve been living since 2014.  This takes place over three days starting with the first full-moon-day in April.  And in Sri Lanka, April is a month when the daytime temperature is in the thirties and the air feels so toastingly hot that you want to shower after spending two minutes out on your balcony.

 

One Buddhist New Year, my partner and I found ourselves in the Sri Lankan city of Kandy.  On the first day of the holiday we wondered what we could do with ourselves because we assumed everything would be shut.  Then, after making enquiries, we learned that Kandy’s famous Royal Botanical Gardens, just beyond the edge of town, were open that day.

 

 

Stupidly, I assumed that these ‘botanical gardens’ would be like the ones you find in the United Kingdom, i.e. with their tropical plants sealed off from the brutal British elements behind thick glass walls and beneath thick glass roofs; growing safely in an artificially-created tropical climate.  But when we arrived at the gates of Kandy’s botanical gardens, the truth dawned on me.  The gardens here don’t need to be kept indoors in an artificial tropical climate.  This is Sri Lanka.  It has a tropical climate.  D’uh!

 

Thus, these botanical gardens are proper gardens, outdoors.

 

As we wandered about the gardens, certain features caught our attention.  Passing through the bamboo thickets was a surprisingly aesthetic experience – as it penetrated between the bars of their walls, the sun made hypnotic patterns of long straight shadows.  Unfortunately, though, the effect was vitiated somewhat by the amount of graffiti that’d been carved onto the bamboo shafts.

 

 

Other highlights included a tree called mora excelsa, a hulking brute of a thing with amazing roots.  Tall and narrow as they spread out below the trunk, the roots didn’t just divide the surrounding ground into segments but formed high walls between them.  Syrgus romanzoffiana, which originated in South America, was a tall, super-straight tree with a trunk like a pole.  And coryphe umbraculifera, found in Sri Lanka and India, stood at heights of up to 80 feet and was supposedly the biggest of the world’s palm trees.  My notebook entries that day also mention ‘spiky, pineapple-y and vaguely triffid-esque things’ and ‘weird sinister growths with yellow-white buds, light-brown flowers and round coconut-like fruit, whose tangled tendrils enclose the trunks of trees.’

 

 

Somewhere during our circuit of the grounds, we saw tall, slim and weirdly-curved coniferous trees, forming wavy patterns in the distance.  One had a curious, cloven comb at its top.

 

 

At one point too, we encountered a broad meadow, a couple of feet above which battalions of butterflies were fluttering madly.  I tried to photograph the scene but, alas, these butterflies proved as ephemeral and elusive as vampires or J.D. Salinger – their images just refused to be captured on film.

 

 

It was a delightful place to explore.  However, after tramping around the gardens for a few hours in the gruelling heat, we both got mightily thirsty and hungry – and we were less than pleased to discover that the one part of the place that was closed because of the holiday was its shop, café and restaurant facilities.  Thank God we thought to bring umbrellas with us as protection against the sun.  But at least a New Year associated with extreme heat, dehydration and sunstroke made a change from one associated with hypothermia.

 

 

Meanwhile, I hope you all had a Happy New Year, no matter what climate it was spent in.

 

Christmas in Colombo

 

 

For a country where just seven percent of the population professes to be Christian, Sri Lanka sure seems to love Christmas.  That’s the conclusion I draw after tramping about Colombo for the past couple of weeks and snapping pictures of the many festive-themed adornments to the city-streets.

 

For example, here’s a Nativity scene that’s been created on a little platform just inside the front wall of St Peter’s College on Galle Road.  Brightly-coloured figures kneel, bow and pay homage amid the straw: red-robed Magi, blue-and-red-winged angels, the usual little sheep that look like they’ve strayed from a toy farm set.  A narrow strip of wood runs from the wall to the platform, looking a bit like a drawbridge that Mary and Joseph can pull up when they get tired of the visitors.

 

 

Further down Galle Road, silhouettes of Father Christmas and his reindeer decorate an arch in front of the entrance to the Majestic City shopping complex.  I have to say that Santa here looks particularly horrible.  He’s a brown, shapeless and worryingly faecal-looking blob with a red Santa-hat on top.  They say that you can’t polish a turd, but evidently you can stick a red hat on one and call it ‘Santa’.

 

 

Meanwhile, there’s more Santa-related shenanigans down on Marine Drive, where I spotted this life-sized image of him hanging outside a balcony several floors up an apartment building.  The building itself looks pretty grotty with rusty-brown stains creeping down the masonry below the satellite TV dishes and air-conditioning extractor fans, and I can’t help wondering if Santa is desperate to climb into the place or climb out of it.

 

 

Further down Galle Road at the entrance of another shopping centre, Crescot City, these Christmas ice-palace fortifications have been erected.  They’ve become selfie-central for Colombo’s well-heeled young shoppers.  When I was there the outside temperature was about 30 degrees Celsius, so it was no surprise that the clumps of snow on the palace’s stonework seemed to be melting.  Or that the heavily-clad elf at the top seemed to be flailing with heat exhaustion.

 

 

Next door to Crescot City is the Cinnamon Grand Hotel.  Entering its lobby, the song Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs immediately started playing in my head because pink is the colour scheme the hotel management have adopted for their Christmas-tree and holly-wreath decorations this year.  Downstairs, a floor has been given over to a Christmas Market.  During my visit the market’s fish-stall seemed to be selling only long, thick, roasted, smoked and silent-screaming eels.  Out of festive delicacy, I will avoid traumatising you by showing pictures of their dead, gaping faces.

 

 

Finally, I have to say my favourite Christmas sight in Colombo is this cheap, humble but charming Christmas tree standing outside the Vespa Sports Club, one of the ‘man-pubs’ in the city that I frequent.  Sitting drinking beer next to a tatty Christmas tree on a ramshackle veranda in the tropics – for me, that’s what the Spirit of Christmas is all about.

 

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 8

 

 

For the two-and-a-half years that I’ve been in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, an invasion has been taking place.  I think of it as the Invasion of the Pink Pavements.

 

This has not been a quiet, surreptitious, barely noticeable invasion as in Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, which was filmed four times beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956.  No, it’s been a full-on, noisy, destructive invasion, like the one conducted by the Martians in H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, filmed most recently by Steven Spielberg in 2005.  For a long time I watched it rage in the busy coastal neighbourhoods south of central Colombo, in Kollupitya, Bambalapitiya and Wellawatta, along two of the main traffic arteries there, Galle Road and Duplication Road.  New pavements were being installed at the sides of those roads, but what’d been there before seemed to put up a hell of a fight against them.  As I wrote in my notebook in the autumn of 2014:

 

“The objective seems to be, eventually, to replace all the old pavements with new, smart, corporate ones consisting of neat, level surfaces with small, pink bricks organised in geometrical patterns.  And in places, segments of new pavement have appeared; but they’re like small islands of sanity amid the chaos and carnage of yawning holes and trenches, former holes and trenches that’ve been unevenly filled in, hillocks of excavated earth, trucks, JCBs, noise, dust, guys working with shovels, guys idling and leaning on shovels, warning signs, barriers, barricades, milling pedestrians, awkwardly-manoeuvring three-wheelers and confused street-dogs.”

 

And yet, somehow, suddenly, the work ended and the new pavements were complete.  As I said, they’re composed of small pink bricks, though with occasional zigzags of grey brick woven into them.  They also have yellow seams of grooved or studded tactile paving running through them, to help the visually impaired.

 

I wonder if the unexpectedly quick and efficient manner with which the job was finished had something to do with the presidential election held in Sri Lanka in January 2015.  I’ve been in enough places to know that, with an election pending, public construction projects that’ve messily meandered on for years suddenly buck up and get completed in a rush.

 

However, the third main artery in this area of Colombo had been largely untouched by the pink pavements.  Marine Drive runs parallel with Galle Road and Duplication Road and, as its name suggests, follows the coast of the Laccadive Sea.  It’s not quite on the shoreline, as there’s a coastal railway track between them.  Until recently, a pavement existed on the northern stretch of Marine Drive between Kollupitiya and Bambalapitiya Stations; but for the whole way down from Bambalapitya Station to the drive’s end at the southern edge of Wellawatta, pedestrians had to trudge along a dusty, earthen roadside.

 

 

However, Marine Drive, which goes past the bottom of my street, experienced a transformation this summer.  I returned from a holiday and hey presto!  I discovered that a new pink pavement had planted itself on the drive’s hitherto-bare seaward side.

 

I suppose this was unsurprising.  The past few years have seen the once-shabby drive get a dose of gentrification and it’s had fancy new arrivals like the OZO Hotel and the neighbouring NDB Bank building.  No doubt some better-heeled Colombo-ites are walking on it these days and they don’t appreciate getting dirt on their shoes, having their elbows brushed by too-close-to-the-side traffic and having to avoid smelly, open roadside drains.

 

 

The new pavement also allows you to properly pause, look out from the shore and admire the sea.  Previously, if you didn’t want vehicles honking at your back, you had to clamber into the middle of the railway tracks to do this.

 

 

You can also stop and study the interesting new safety signs that the Sri Lankan railway authorities have erected alongside the train-tracks.  Check out the poor guy in the picture in this sign’s top right-hand corner – actually, it looks like it was designed by the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, the subject of this blog two entries ago.

 

 

But this doesn’t mean that pedestrians can navigate all of Marine Drive by pavement now.  A kilometre’s gap still exists immediately south of Bambalapitya Station.  Though the new length of pavement runs up through Wellawatta and part of Bambalapitya, it suddenly stops dead in front of the Westeern Hotel.  There it gives way to a muddle of excavation work.

 

 

Coincidentally, the pavement’s current end-point, the Westeern Hotel, is home to Harry’s Bar, which is one of my favourite spit-and-sawdust pubs in Colombo.  So for now it feels like the city authorities have installed a pathway for me personally, so that I can walk with ease to the door of a treasured drinking hole and back.