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.