Since arriving in Sri Lanka in May last year, I have tried to avoid posting blog-entries that depict the place as a sun-drenched island paradise: entries that peddle the image of it that the country’s tourist authorities peddle. Yes, parts of Sri Lanka are gorgeous. But I’ve felt a little too aware of the country’s recent turbulent history – it was wracked by a civil war that lasted for a quarter-century and left between 60,000 and 100,000 people dead, including one Sri Lankan president (Ranasinghe Premadasa) and one Indian prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi) – to want to promote it as some blandly-dreamy tourist magnet.
However, just over a week ago, a general election took place and it went off without trouble. Power was transferred with surprising peacefulness from Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s strongman leader of the past decade, to new leader Maithripala Sirisena (who’d served as Rajapaksa’s Minister of Agriculture and then Health). On top of this unexpected show of political stability and maturity, Pope Francis then arrived in Sri Lanka and told everyone how wonderful they were. So with the country’s credit deservedly high at the moment, I’ve decided to post an entry that does portray the place as a sun-drenched island paradise.
Besides, at the moment, I’m back in Scotland and, looking out of my window, all I can see is a white, wintry, slushy, sleety hellhole. And the BBC weather forecast assures me that temperatures in my locality tonight will be around the minus 13 mark. So I’m more than ready to indulge in some sun-drenched-island-paradise rhetoric.
Mount Lavinia is a district of Colombo that’s on my doorstep. It’s just a few minutes’ ride away by trishaw, south along Galle Road. It has a reputation for being among the city’s more well-to-do areas and, indeed, is home to St Thomas’ College, one of Colombo’s most prestigious schools. And once you get away from the smoky, noisy and congested artery that is Galle Road, the area becomes surprisingly tranquil – its ambience feels more like that of the sleepy countryside than a city suburb. In particular, the temples in this district are oases of calm, quiet and charm.
Also, Mount Lavinia comes with a precious commodity in Colombo – it has a ‘Golden Mile’ of beaches and is regarded as the city’s very own seaside resort. Though oddly, the area’s Sinhalese name, Galkissa, is derived from an old word ‘kissa’ that means ‘rock’ rather than ‘sand’.
The place’s showcase building is the Mount Lavinia Hotel at Number 100, Hotel Road, which has 275 rooms and a history that stretches back more than 200 years. It was originally constructed as a home for Sir Thomas Maitland, who served as British Governor of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, from 1805 to 1811. Nicknamed ‘King Tom’, Maitland was obviously also something of a tomcat; for after his arrival on the island he wasted no time in falling in love with a half-Portuguese, half-Sinhalese woman called Lovina Aponsuwa, who was the lead performer in her father’s dance-troupe. According to the blurb on the Mount Lavinia Hotel website, she possessed ‘long flowing jet black tresses’ and ‘large, expressive, hazel brown eyes.’
To avoid scandalising his fellow Britons on the island – and indeed to avoid scandalising the Sinhalese locals, because Lovina belonged to the Rodiya community, the Sinhalese’s lowest caste – Maitland sneakily had his new residence built with a secret tunnel that ran from its wine cellar to a disused well near Lovina’s father’s house. During the next six years, they used this tunnel as a way to carry out their lovers’ trysts, away from the disapproving eyes of their British and Ceylonese contemporaries.
Ill-health eventually forced Maitland to leave Sri Lanka, but he seems to have held Lovina in genuine affection – their relationship wasn’t just based on expediency and lust. As well as naming his mansion and its surroundings Mount Lavinia, which was supposedly a veiled sign of his love for her, he also gifted her with a large area of land in the village of Attidiya, a little way further east. And until the end of his days – he died in Malta in 1824 – Maitland remained a bachelor. The legendary tunnel, meanwhile, is supposed to have been sealed in 1920.
Maitland’s mansion didn’t become a hotel until 1947. Before then, as well as serving as a governor’s residence, it saw duty during World War II as a military hospital. It has also served as a film set – some scenes for The Bridge on the River Kwai were filmed there in the mid-1950s.
With a lobby area that’s embroidered with strips of foliage and artificial waterfalls, the Mount Lavinia Hotel is a grand and impressive place to explore. However, I suspect that for many residents its main attraction is the glorious stretch of beach that it overlooks – and I use the adjective ‘glorious’ to describe it even though I’m not by any means a ‘beach person’. A panorama of wonderfully clean sand, glassy-blue waves, palm trees and boats, it’s easy to sit there and forget that central Colombo is just a couple of miles up the coast.
And in the grass-roofed hut that houses the hotel’s beach-side bar and restaurant, you’ll be entertained by some predictably tame, predictably cute and predictably well-fed Sri Lankan squirrels.
Incidentally, on the day that I visited it, posters had been put up to advertise a forthcoming attraction in the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Being held there soon was an immersive and improvised comedy show that’s based on the famous 1970s British TV sitcom, Fawlty Towers. This show was called The Fawlty Towers Dining Experience. I find it ironic that a building that once symbolised the British Empire at its most powerful is now hosting displays of classic, self-mocking British comic stupidity. Then again, I’m more comfortable with the world knowing us for our self-deprecating ridiculousness than for our imperialist might and ruthlessness.