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.

 

The British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy

 

 

The British Garrison Cemetery in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, provided accommodation for deceased members of the local colonial community for half-a-century.  Occupying a strip near the bottom of a wooded slope a few hundred metres east of Kandy’s famous Temple of the Tooth, it functioned as a burial ground from 1822 to the mid-1870s, after which the only interments allowed were for relatives of people already buried there.

 

Leaflets about the cemetery are available at the entrance.  It’s a good idea to take one as it’ll often give more information about the place’s residents than what’s inscribed on their headstones – if those inscriptions are readable at all.

 

 

The best-known person buried there is probably Sir John D’Oyly, whose remains lie beneath a grooved, cacti-like stone column.  As the leaflet explains, he “represented the British Government at the 1815 Convention whereat the Kingdom of Kandy was annexed to the British Crown.”  The British got their way after D’Oyly acted as an intermediary between them and various Kandyan chiefs who were disillusioned with and plotting against the then king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha – his downfall in 1815 marked the end of 2300 years of Sinhalese monarchy in Sri Lanka.  Officially, he was replaced as monarch by King George III.

 

Sri Vikrama Rajasinha is remembered as a tyrant, though it’s debatable if the Sri Lankans got much improvement with George III, who’d helped lose Britain’s American colonies and who by then was barking mad (possibly because of the blood disease porphyria).

 

 

D’Oyly became fluent in Sinhala and, following the British takeover, remained in Kandy until his death in 1824.  He evidently ‘went native’, with one British acquaintance observing that he lived there in the manner of ‘a Sinhalese hermit’.

 

Some years earlier, while he had governmental responsibilities in the southern district of Matara, D’Oyly had also befriended the Sri Lankan poetess Gajaman Nona.  After the death of Nona’s husband had left her and her family destitute, he granted them a piece of land to live on.  The leaflet notes that the grateful poetess wrote a ‘set of verses’ in his honour.  D’Oyly’s Wikipedia entry is more gossipy: “His earlier association with a woman poet, Gajaman Nona, in Matara led to some speculation.”

 

Elsewhere, it’s morbidly interesting to find out how some of the cemetery’s residents met their ends.  Many succumbed to things that were commonplace during the imperial project, when British people were shipped overseas to climes where they were unprepared for the temperature, weather, flora and fauna.  Thus, we get A. McGill who “died of sunstroke”: James Urquhart who, aged 32, “died of cholera”; and poor Lewis Herbert Kilby, “late of 132 Fenchurch Street, London”, whose headstone baldly states that he “died in Kandy on 8 October 1859 of acute diarrhoea.”   Meanwhile, there’s a certain nobility about the demise of Captain James McGlashan: “Without taking a precaution he walked from Trincomalee, drenched with rain, wading, sitting and even sleeping in saturated clothing: not surprisingly he was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with manly fortitude.”

 

 

Some of the manners of departure are rather bizarre.  David Findlay died when a Kandy building called Mullegodde House “collapsed on him.”  Then there’s John Spottiswood Robertson, whose death was apparently “the seventh and last recorded death of a European in Ceylon killed by wild elephants.”  Meanwhile, William Watson Mackwood’s expiry is, on his tombstone, attributed merely to an ‘accident’.  The cemetery leaflet, however, gives stranger and more gruesome details: “Alighting from his horse, he was transfixed by a stake placed to mark out the ground.”

 

The cemetery’s inhabitants originated in all parts of the British Isles.  It has a tiny Irish quarter, containing the remains of Henry Williams Desterre of Limerick and Joseph O’Brien of King’s Court, County Cavan.  And the Scots are well represented.  George Baxter Wilson of Aberdeenshire died from ‘intermittent fever’, while there’s a moving tribute to James McPherson of Kingussie: “This stone is erected by Highlanders who desire thus to record the piety, integrity and sterling worth of a countryman whose loss they deeply deplore.”

 

 

The British Garrison Cemetery is well maintained.  Indeed, it’s a model of neatness and order compared to the dilapidated and overgrown South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata, about which I blogged some time ago.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?tag=south-park-street-cemetery

 

While my partner and I were visiting the place, two workmen – an old bloke and a young lad – were toiling there.  The lad demonstrated phenomenal powers of memory by reciting to us the information (barely legible or not-at-all legible on the headstones) about various people in various graves.  No doubt he’d developed this talent as a way of earning tips from visiting tourists and supplementing his meagre salary, which was 400 Sri Lankan rupees (two pounds) a day.  So after he’d escorted us around several graves, we tipped him.  Incidentally, one person who came to the British Garrison Cemetery a while back was Prince Charles, who saw fit to donate 5000 pounds to its upkeep.  I thought that tip was a rather shite one coming from a man who’s reputedly worth 158 million pounds.

 

http://www.therichest.com/celebnetworth/politician/royal/prince-charles-net-worth/

 

The cemetery has a scenic location.  One side, lined by a wire-mesh fence, looks across to the hills on the far shore of Bogambara Lake.  The other side is bounded by a stone wall, built against a cutting in the hillside, with small square holes in it at regular heights and intervals to let rainwater drain from above.  Above the wall is the green of the woods.  While we were there, an occasional white scrap would bob along in the breeze and turn out to be a butterfly; and there were occasional, magical moments when the breeze would shake the surrounding treetops and leaves would fall across the headstones and sarcophagi like green confetti.

 

 

Meanwhile a Buddhist stupa is visible on the slope above the eastern end of the cemetery.  It seems to act as a reminder to the cemetery’s inhabitants about whose country they’re lying in.  (The British were hardly mindful of local religious sensibilities, building Kandy’s St Paul’s Anglican Church right next to the sacred precincts of the Temple of the Tooth.)  They should be grateful that the descendants of their imperial subjects are willing to keep their final resting place in such good condition.