Kandy – Nandasenda accepts the challenge

Go to the first post for Kandy

Feeling utterly relaxed, Weernsinghe drove me up the road for the final hour or two to Kandy.  Kandy felt so familiar to me but instead of going directly to the hotel, we skirted the river to the Polgolla Dam to drop in on Roger.  That last night I was invited round to Roger’s house once more.  They had been so hospitable to me, I had been with them at least two or three evenings a week – sometimes for grand meals – curries, sometimes for the kind of cravings for British cooking such as a roast dinner or sausage and mash, sometimes just a “Whatever is in the cupboard” kind of meal.  We chatted a little about what kind of report he wanted out of me and how much extra action might be necessary.  We chatted about the future – I was due to go to Eritrea about a month after I got home, and wanted a holiday in between as I had taken none in this mammoth year of trips.

Sitting there on the coffee house terrace that night I reflected that Sri Lanka was probably the best all round trip I had ever been on.  I had enjoyed working with Roger’s team and despite it being all computer work in a windowless air-conditioned office, it had been quite rewarding.  I only hoped the staff had got something out of it.  I knew a few of them did, but the effect was not what the Mahaweli Authority wanted – the talented staff left because they could now get better paid jobs in the private sector.  But the friendship extended by Roger and Flo and the little community at the Queens Bar, the magnificent scenery and pageantry I had experienced, the charm of Kandy and the Chalet Hotel and the amazing hospitality of all Sri Lankans I met, particularly Premadasa, made it the perfect assemblage.

I was due to fly back on the Air Lanka flight from Colombo which left very early in the morning, arriving at Heathrow late morning, but still 10 hours later.  It was a fantastic flight over the southern tip of India, the Persian Gulf and Arabia, Syria and Turkey and then the long slog against the jetstream over Eastern Europe, where the airspeed could be cut to as little as 350 miles an hour.  To arrive in time for check in meant a three a.m. start from Kandy.  I was to have Roger’s third and personal driver, Nandasenda.  I paid my hotel bill before retiring early to get at least some kip.  I awoke half an hour before I was due to leave and waited for the white Land Rover to roar up the drive.

Nandasenda had a game to play, he was ferrying people back and forth from Colombo Airport all the time, often in the middle of the night.  During the day the amount of traffic meant the best time was about four hours, but at night, with few obstructions, it was usually just over two hours.  Nandasenda wanted to beat the two hour barrier.  He decided he would try on my trip.  He did not start the clock until we were at the exit to the city.  He stopped here and grabbed a few coins from the glove compartment.  A small white shrine is set into the wall next to the roadside and it is for all travellers to wish them a good journey.  Knowing how Nandasenda drove I knew we needed that blessing.  While Saman was slow and friendly, Weernsinghe careful but average, Nandasenda was manic and ambitious.  Once back in the vehicle, he put his foot to the floor and only a few times did it raise more than an inch.

Sri Lanka at night was an incredible place.  The only time when you did not see hoards of people or animals along every road.  The only time there were no belching vehicles holding up your progress.   The long line of shop fronts strewn along the way were all shut up, coloured wooden doors and window shutters sealing the occupants or chattels completely.

And yet, there was not a complete close down.  Even at this time of day, there were a few people walking along the roads, shift workers, or those with an impossible commute perhaps.  A few vagrants who couldn’t sleep.  There were animals around; donkeys, dogs and goats sleeping in shelters along the road, even the occasional elephant could be seen chained up along the road side.  And some of these creatures took to keeping their bellies warm while they slept by lying in the middle of the road.  Several times we only just managed to avoid a dog, at one time a couple of cows had plonked themselves in the middle of the road.

We crossed the Mahaweli Ganga at the massive bridge in Peradiniya and turned right down the main road to Colombo.  I kept awake for the whole journey as we reversed the progress of three weeks before with Saman, only in double quick time.  First the railway station at the pass, then the springs in the rocks, still bubbling away in the middle of the night.  Then past the signpost to the Pinnawella Elephant Orphanage, through the craft villages and the deserted centre of Kegalla.  Then back along the dichotomous scenery of coconut groves and rice fields of the plain.

We reached the town of Gampaha, some twenty miles from the centre of Colombo and Nandasenda turned off.  At first I was wondering what he was up to, but the reason was clear.  The airport was about 15 miles north of the city, and we need not travel all the way down to Colombo to catch the main coast road.  We could cut across.  The scenery was very different on this side road.  More than anything else, I was aware of the prosperity of this region.  Once we crossed the main railway at the level crossing in Gampaha and headed out into the country, there were few shacks or slums, the houses were neatly made, finished and painted, and surrounded by tidy walls and elaborate gardens.  New cars sat in driveways everywhere.  And in between, although there were still farms, the countryside was more reminiscent of the green belt around London – more trees interspersed with gardens.  We passed a few factories, now we had re-entered the free trade zone.  Although only a side road, it was well made and Nandasenda put his foot down even more – he was aware that the two-hour barrier was fast approaching.  Because the land was near flat, there was little to measure our progress, but then suddenly, bright floodlights appeared to our right, and a massive wire fence loomed.  Watch towers marked every quarter mile and a ditch separated us from the fence.  More than anywhere else in the country, I was aware of the threat of terrorism.  The airport was a big target and the Sinhalese government did everything to keep this vital business and tourist facility open.  We burst out onto the main road and Nandasenda put his foot down even harder, he swung around into the airport entrance and screeched to a halt at the Departure gates.  I looked at my watch – 1 hour 58 and 39 seconds.  Nandasenda beamed at me.


Kandy – Meal, Massage and Hell

I had time for a quick dip in the pool and then I waited for Premadasa to arrive in the hotel lobby.  He came in beaming and I got back on pillion style to ride with him to his house.  We bought some drinks at the local store and then veered off the main road onto a dusty track.  After about half a mile of bouncing through the scrub, we came to a clearing.  As I dismounted a group of young men approached and I was introduced to Premadasa’s two brothers.  His wife came out and said hello, but she was busy preparing the food.  I gave them a small gift which was accepted without fuss and taken away, and I was invited to sit out on a bench with the men.  We drank and chatted.  I found the conversation difficult as apart from Premadasa, the others’ English was rather halting and I found it hard to follow their trains of thought.  One of the brothers was rather effeminate and giggled at anything.  The other was more sober but fairly taciturn.

Not knowing the protocol and not getting any lead from the family, I found it difficult to know what to do.  I was starving, but up to nine o clock, I saw no food.  I had to relieve myself and was led to the small outhouse in the back.  I came back, the move had not given any thought to food.  The others watched me more and more intently.  Eventually I suggested we ate.  They moved so fast and I realised I had missed the procedure completely.  Whereas in Britain it was up to the host to start the meal, here, apparently, the guest could decide when to eat.  If I had known that I would have got up an hour and half before.

On the way into the house, Premadasa proudly showed me his six-month old boy, fast asleep in a small cot.  His house was simply but nicely furnished.  In the small kitchen there was a table laid with a cloth and burdened with all sorts of dishes, rice, curries, meat and vegetables.  Far less processed than the meals in restaurants I had experienced up to now, it nonetheless looked like a magnificent spread.  Now came the oddest part of the whole evening.  I was invited to sit at the table, which faced a wall, and stuff myself while the rest of the family sat or stood across the room staring at me.  I was acutely embarrassed but had to do my best not to show it.  The conversation almost completely stopped while I tried to eat as gracefully as I could muster.  Unfortunately, due to my incomprehension of Sri Lankan etiquette, much of the food had congealed; it must have sat there for an hour before I went inside.  I tried to resuscitate the chat, and in amongst the “Umms” and “Delicious” noises I felt obliged to make, I asked about how they cooked.  I was being honoured tonight as they had turned on the Calor gas stove, normally they just burnt wood.  This made me even more embarrassed.  I also asked why they did not eat with me, another no-no.  Premadasa just smiled at me and said they would eat when I was gone.  Now I know why they were begging me to get started.

In the end I made a complete mess of the whole evening, but it was still a very humbling and enjoyable experience.  Premadasa and I parted on good terms and we corresponded for a short while after.  He left me at the hotel, his bike could be heard for a couple of minutes as it headed back into the village.

Next morning I had to turn for home, or Kandy at least.  We did not have to rush so we stopped off at a few places on the way – the Kandalama Wewa, a beautifully shallow tank with several tree stumps poking above the surface.  We passed back through Dambulla and headed up the main road towards Matale.  We stopped off three times on the way.

The first stop was the weirdest thing I saw in Sri Lanka.  My learning of Buddhas teachings had shown me that he was a peace loving, meditating and preferred to take the middle path towards righteousness.  Until I got to the cave temples at Aluvihara, where I found that there was a sort of AntiBuddha as scary as any Christian devil.



Aluvihare itself is a small village along the main road into Matale, just where the hill country begins to close in on the valley.  To the west of the village a line of steps lead up into a remarkable assemblage of boulders to a series of caves deep in the crevices.  Weernsinghe and I walked up into this arena, and glanced around the temple.  The same Buddhas in various positions were here, but additionally, there were murals and statues around which warned people of the consequences of not taking the middle path.  The murals depicted massive potbellied trolls, with tusk-like teeth protruding out of their grotesque mouths, spiky black hair.  They were grabbing the unworthy in all sorts of ways, dangling them from one hand while they used their free hand to cut them down the middle – crotch to brain.  Another poor sinner was having his genitals cut off by one troll while another was gouging out his eye.

Aluvihara - graphic scenes of the other side of Buddihsm

Aluvihara – graphic scenes of the other side of Buddihsm

In a series of caves which went deep into the hillside, a series of statues depicting similar scenes could be found.  In one, a woman was having her brains eaten with a spoon, limbs were being cut off all over the place and there was a healthy smattering of red paint all over the models.  No details were spared to frighten the average Buddhist away from any evil act.  I came out feeling that there was none of the pussy footing symbology that you get with Christianity – Buddhists could be as brutally honest about their dark side as they could about enlightenment.

The next stop was at a batik factory. Batik is a fairly modern industry in Sri Lanka, but I had never seen the manufacturing process.  I was intrigued to see how the effect was made.  I was shown the basic cloth which was dipped in wax.  Then a pattern would be etched into the wax to reveal the cloth underneath.  Then it would be dipped in dye and only the revealed segments would be stained.  After the dye has dried, the cloth is washed in a hot solution to remove the wax and the final pattern emerges.  If the cloth is to be multicoloured, the process is repeated with a new pattern and the new segments will be coloured.  Accidentally, the wax cracks as it hardens and the dyes can seep into the cloth through those cracks.  It is what gives the batik those curious lined flaws that make it so appealing.  With much of the cloth, the makers purposefully bend the cloth to crack the wax which accentuates this effect.  I bought one of those colourful shirts that are really only wearable at barbecues and we travelled on.

Batik makers

Batik makers

Our final stop was at a spice garden.  Several of these line the main road into Matale, and Weernsinghe picked out his favourite with me.  It was a quiet moment here, no other tourists were around, so the owner personally showed me around.  He was interested in me being a scientist, and so he gave me all the inside information he kept away from the general touroid.  I’m not sure why people tend to think that once you are a scientist, you are wanting every scientific fact about whatever you are looking at.  I’m quite happy when I am on holiday to keep it at a general level.  But it was interesting.   It was the first time I saw a vanilla plant up close, and lemon grass, and everything you would see in a British kitchen’s spice rack.  I was told what cures what, what is a relaxant, a stimulant, an aphrodisiac.  In the centre of this beautiful shady garden ,with its scents and sights, was a low wooden building, roofed but open to all sides.  A table sat there with an array of small bottles.  The owner offered me a body massage or head massage.  I decided to go the whole hog, and I was handed over to his assistant who asked me to take my shirt off.  I knew I looked rather portly (no exercise in the heat and plenty of ruby murray’s), but I obliged him.  I was then treated to the most magnificent massage ever.  Every portion of my upper body was treated from the tips of my fingers to the temples, ears, neck, shoulders, chest, belly and all the way down the back, a couple of times further down than I would have liked, but oh, the feeling.  The masseur poured all sorts of potions over me, and the owner, standing by grinning the whole way through would explain what it was that was being put on and what it would do to me.  The aromas were wonderful and the feeling of deep heat on various aching muscles was incredible – if only he could have done my feet.

What spoilt it all was a bunch of German tourists (why are they always German), came in and were being shown around by one of the guides.  Just in the midst of this incredible experience, they trouped by the parlour, and although not ashamed of my manly torso, it was still like some intimacy had been broken.  Perhaps the owner knew this and was just using me as an advert.  I saw that there were a whole bunch of chairs in this room, so they must give demonstrations to coach parties, so perhaps I had got off easy.

Kandy – Premadasa and Polonnaruwa

Premadasa took me on his little motorbike.  Up to that stage I think I had ridden pillion on a bike twice in my life with two people I trusted enormously, on the relatively smooth streets of Medway, but this old machine was bouncing along the bumpy dust tracks in the village surrounding the rock.  I clung on to Premadasa for dear life, so tight at one stage that he turned his head and asked me whether he could start to breath again.  We were not wearing any helmets, and if one of the cows which crossed our path had decided to stop in front of us, I could not have vouched for either of our lives.

We stopped at the foot of the hill and Premadasa led me up a path which wound gently clockwise around the north side of the hill.  At a couple of places as we rose, the rock jutted out in a similar way to Sigiriya and underneath was a sleeping Buddha.  Unpainted, the silvery shine on his clothes was quite mystical.  Unfortunately , several parts of these Buddhas were weathered away, but one enclosed cave had brightly painted statues with all the adornments one would expect.  This was the first Buddhist temple I had been to that did not have tourists swarming around, but it was still kept to the same standards.  We continued to wrap around the hillside till we came to the hill top, another rocky platform.  The view was as good as from Sigiriya itself, with one notable exception – you could look back at Sigiriya from here.  The full magnificence of this rock could be seen, the sloping sides of the hill reaching up to the Lions Paws and then the sheer block of rock on which sits the palace.  Now I could get some sense of the scale of the original lion which would have looked straight over at us.  It would have covered a good proportion of the north face of the rock.

Premadasa and I dropped down a little and he showed me a shady corner of this hillside, the rocks overhanging slightly and surrounded with trees.  But, like the perfect look out, the view to the Sigiriya Rock was still unblocked.  We sat for a while to catch our breath and Premadasa and I talked about our different backgrounds.  Of a very similar age to me, he was a proud young man, full of learning and understanding about his life, and appreciative of the lives of others; I suppose he has seen so many tourists from all over the world pass through that it gave a more open perspective than one would normally achieve living in a small village.  A bond began to grow between us that, by the time we had descended the hill, each giving a helping hand to get across some of the larger gaps between rocks, Premadasa made his mind up to invite me to his house for dinner.  Slightly uncertain of the protocol, but delighted to be asked, I accepted.  I told him I would be back from Polonnaruwa by sundown and he would come and pick me up – on the motorbike again.

I told Weernsinghe about my appointment when we returned.  He just shrugged his shoulders as if to suggest it was all he would have expected in Sri Lanka.  It was now late morning and we headed for Polonnaruwa, but rather than use the main road we went through the jungle track to the east of the village.  Weernsinghe was hoping we might see a wild elephant.  We kept our eyes peeled but apart from a few birds there was very little life at that time of day in the thorny scrub.  We rejoined the main road a few miles out of town.  I was getting hungry by now as we had had a very early start.  As we approached the town, we ran round the north side of the Parakrama Samudra tank, and drove past the ancient city  – I got glimpses of it through the trees, before approaching the small centre of the modern town.  The road bends sharply to the left just before reaching Main Street, but Main Street was little more than a few shop fronts in a very dusty street.  We managed to get some short eats at a little café and drove back towards the ancient city to eat them.

The contrast between the modern and ancient times was stark.  Noisy and tranquil, chaotic and ordered, slummy and grandiose.  The first area we looked at was the Royal Palace compound, a maze of low stone walls in amongst finely cut grass and scrub.  In the centre of this complex, high walls still exist of the ancient palace itself, and the open space in the centre must have been spectacular.  To one side of the palace was the ancient Audience Hall, where visitors were received.  It looks like a wide stone wedding cake, with three layers, intricately carved elephants in friezes around the side.  The remains of pillars line the edge of the top layer and it would be imagined there would be a wooden roof like the one I had seen in Kandy.  Up close the level of decoration could be appreciated, almost every inch of flat stone had been carved out with figures, animals, spirits and plants.  Beyond the Audience Hall the well preserved remains of the Bathing Pool lies in a small depression.  Although there was no water in it, again the imagination could take you back a thousand years to see various princes sitting in the water on stone benches, attended by whoever, water continuously spurting from a series of spouts around the pool and drained from the base.

The ruins of Polonnaruwa are so large that in the scolding heat in the middle of the day, it would be suicide to attempt to walk around. So Weernsinghe drove me around. From the Royal Palace it was only a short distance to the Quadrangle, an area of incongruous ancient buildings, mostly intact despite 1000 years of weathering.   The first of these we saw was the Thuparama, a long almost rectangular building with a low tower, it might pass for a village church in Britain if it were not for the multitude of sculptures on the walls.  Inside it is a temple with the usual array of Buddhas.  Nearby stands a large round structure – the Vatadage.  Its entrance was guarded by two statues set in stone archways, actually called Guardstones, depicting two cobra kings, and your feet pass over the most intact moonstone I found in Polonnaruwa.  This is not the semi precious stones I had seen in Galle Road in Colombo, but a semi-circular flat stone with rings of designs depicting the many facets of Buddha’s teachings.  In the steps, tiny dwarves were sculpted in various poses, some of them rather cheeky, and at the top of the stairs a Buddha in lotus position looked down with more sombre air.  Inside this huge circular vatadage was a small dagoba.  I had seen these in other places, but never placed them as an important component of a Buddhist temple.  Generally I had seen the buildings with their statues of Buddha in various poses as the focus of prayer, but dagobas are just as important.  Generally round (although I have seen some rectangular bases), the rise to a point topped with a spike.  Although there is often a chamber deep inside which may have some important relic of Buddha, the prayer occurs around the outside of this structure, and people pass clockwise around them as they pray.  While most dagobas are modest affairs, perhaps reaching twenty feet in the air, the Royal cities built bigger and bigger dagobas.  I saw a couple in Polonnaruwa that were at least fifty feet high.  In Anuradhapura the following year I saw even larger ones, a few of which had been repainted in the traditional white style.  When I looked back at Anuradhapura from the nearby temple high on a hill above Mihintale, the city of Anuradhapura looked like the front cover of a 50p sci-fi book; in amidst the green jungle and occasional lakes grew these weird white domes.  One in Anuradhapura was rather decrepid and was being restored, but when complete it is estimated it would be 300 feet high.  The number of bricks it must have taken makes it similar in stature as the Pyramids of Giza.

Several other buildings litter the quadrangle, a few with an array of pillars, others just the merest trace of a floorplan.  Several of the buildings are reminiscent of Hindu architecture, generally more elaborate than the Sinhalese, a sort of Victorian style as opposed to Georgian.  It is hardly surprising, the original Polonnaruwa was established by the Chola dynasty from southern India, and it was only taken over by the Sinhalese a hundred years later, and there were other times when Hindi culture influenced the north of Sri Lanka.  So there is a Hindu temple in amongst these buildings.

Weernsinghe and I walked around these areas for an hour or more, often I was happy to move away from the more noted structures and explore the parkland around, still littered with relics of the Royal era.  In amongst the grass as Weernsinghe and I walked abreast, I noted a small blade of very green grass a couple of feet away from me.  On slightly closer inspection it was a wire-thin snake, its tiny red tongue flickering in the air as the stem it was wrapped around waved in the slight breeze.  I turned round to ask Weernsinghe what it was and by some miracle, he had moved twenty feet away in that split second.  He did not know what species it was but he took no chances.

Several dagobas later we had reached the northern extreme of the old parkland.  As tourists do, I was tiring at the repetitiveness of the scenery, but still in awe of the sheer quantity of relics.  But Weernsinghe had several more new sights up his sleeve to show me.  We first visited the Lankatillaka, a massive gedige that reminded me of a larger version of the Yorkshire abbeys at Fountain, Jervaux and Rievaulx.  At one end the legs and torso of a stone Buddha predominated, but almost camouflaged in the mixture of stone, brick and plaster of the walls of the gedige.  Beyond here a small trail left a car park and wound through a series of rocky outcrops.  Carved into each one of these was a stone Buddha, a couple lying, some standing and one in Lotus position.  It is hard to comprehend how these statues were hewn from the solid rock and not pieced together in some workshop.  Only when you trace the lines of the bedrock from the body of Buddha to the wall of rock at the back do you see they are perfectly connected.  A series of modern walls have been put up in the front of these statues and little plinths are available where offerings of lotus flowers and flags have been made.

In amongst this wonderful park, a troop of monkeys played out their lives.  Knowing a good trick when they see one, they have set up their stall near the major tourist trail and try to cadge food wherever they can.  They steal some of the offerings from the tables in front of the statues.  They mate, play, eat, defecate and die in amongst these reverent structures.  I watched a family chatter away under a tree for a while before they became self conscious and moved on.  When I returned to the car park I passed through the stalls set up there and found the perfect present to take home, a coconut monkey.  Simply but beautifully carved, it sits in a squatting position.  I named him Roger and I still keep him.  He has squatted near every toilet I have ever owned, as if instructing the user in case they have forgotten.

As we got back in the pickup and headed west again, I realised that Polonnaruwa was the furthest east I had ever been in my life.  It remains so to this day.  It was a rather sobering thought, Polonnaruwa lies only 81 degrees east of the Greenwich Meridian.   There were still 99 degrees to go before I met the west.  Despite all the travels I had had, I really had only scratched at a very small proportion of the earth’s surface.

There was still some time left to the afternoon so Weernsinghe drove me to Ritigala, the most northerly hill in Sri Lanka.  That is not quite true, there are places such as Mihintale where rocky outcrops and hills rise above the plain, but Ritigala is the last serious mountain in Sri Lanka.  We drove along the main road, through the small resort of Giritale and past the Minnehaya-Giritale reserve, an area of wild woodland.  On a stretch of open road, Weernsinghe suddenly slammed on the breaks, grinned at me and reversed hard.  In a little opening in the scrub to the left, a small elephant cowered at us, flapping its ears nervously.  It did not move away but stared sideways at us.  Weernsinghe took the decision to drive on.  He said he only glanced to the left just as we sped past that point.  The old serendipity at work.  It was the only wild elephant I saw in Sri Lanka.  It was late when we reached Ritigala so we did not trek up the hill – I was feeling tired after a saturation of monuments.  Instead, Weernsinghe meandered around the back lanes to Sigiriya.  It was fascinating to see the lives led out here.  I have already mentioned how the poverty curve moves from general wealth on the Colombo side (although there must be some serious pockets of urban deprivation there too) to the rural north east.  Indeed, the dusty tracks, piecemeal smallholdings and villages out here reminded me much more of Africa.  The main difference was that in between the roads, the great Irrigation Systems existed, and there was a level of organisation that was rare in most African countries.

Kandy – Into the Lion’s Mouth

I spent an eventless evening in the hotel eating the international style buffet and listening to the sanitised entertainment.  I woke early next morning to get a head start on most of the tourists and walked down the entrance to Sigiriya.  I got my ticket that covered all the World Heritage Triangle and walked across a small moat and through a wall to the lower gardens.  A man in a yellow T-shirt started to approach me.  I had a guide book, I had all morning and I was quite looking forward to my own company.  I tried to shun the guide and keep away from him, but he knew his craft well and caught up with me deftly.  He explained that only official guides were allowed in the fortress and that the yellow t-shirt defined his status.  I agreed that he could take me around and it was the best thing I could have done.  His name was Premadasa and he started to explain about the history of this incredible palace.

For all its grandeur it occupied only a very small period in Sri Lanka’s history.  The rulers of Sri Lanka first established their base in Anuradhapura in around the fourth century before Christ.  They built massive temples, palaces, monasteries and like.  Indeed I was fortunate enough to travel with Flo and Roger to Anuradhapura the following February on my second visit.  What amazed me more than the huge temple ruins was that within the World Heritage site area, there were people living in the usual huts with their little backyards.  But one wall of their huts would have been made up of some pilfered ornate stone from a temple of some sort, or part of the original walls of a compound or monastery.  And at every turn we would see “Stuff” of this sort.  Under all sorts of trees, roads, in cow fields, near the dams, there was stuff everywhere.  We met some archaeologists who had spent three years digging a single pit, and had had to sift so carefully through the layers because there was 1400 years of history in this centre.  Documenting the pit had been a mammoth task, documenting the evidence of the known sites of historical interest was hardly underway and one of the archaeologist put the percentage of known artefacts in the city at no more than 30%.  Hidden under the jungle were still untold treasures.

The rulers of Sri Lanka moved on to Polonnaruwa to the south east, which I was planning to visit in the afternoon.  Its rule over the whole island lasted nearly three hundred years, but, with the threat of invasions from the Portuguese, Polonnaruwa was abandoned, and the history of Sri Lanka became more fragmented.  Many Sinhalese moved their kingdom to the hill country, to Kandy, while Tamils dominated the north and the KotteKingdom, also Sinhalese, took their kingdom to the south west coast.

Sigiriya dates from the period of the last years of the Anuradhapura regime, when Dhatusena was overthrown by one of his consort’s sons, Kasyapa.  His true son, Moggallana, fleeing to India, threatened to rise against Kasyapa.  Kasyapa built this huge castle atop the rock at Sigiriya, as much as a palacial statement as a fortress.  The rock itself forms only the central part of the compound – there was not enough water on top of the rock to sustain a palace all year round, so during the dry season, the courtiers would come down to another palace at the foot of the rock.  Sigiriya only had a brief history, as Kaspaya went to battle against Moggallana, missed a turning and his troops deserted him in a swamp.  He killed himself.  Either Sigiriya was too impractical a place to live or history was already moving on to Polonnaruwa, but it was swept aside in less than forty years.  Apparently some monks took it on as a going concern for a few years, but then the jungle reclaimed it and it was only during British Colonial years that the ruins resurfaced.  The archaeological finds and remaining structure of the complex are awesome, what it looked like at the height of its power one can hardly envisage.

Premadasa led me through the site in sequence.  Although I could have strayed in the lower gardens, once through the boulders at the foot of the rock, the only way was up, passed the mirrored wall to the lions paws, up a precipitous path to the summer fortress at the top.

To understand how Sigiriya managed to survive at all on such a grand scale in the middle of the scrub, one has to understand the hydraulics of the palace.  As in any major culture, the control of water was crucial in its expansion.  In Sigiriya, the water was generally collected from the rock itself.  Rain falling was kept in large tanks gouged out of the solid rock.  Some water was allowed down a single culvert etched into the side of the vertical face, and it poured down to the boulder garden below.  It then fed into a series of tunnels and aqueducts through the dry season palace, through some water gardens seemingly put there for sheer pleasure, to the Royal Bathing Pools and then on to the moat outside.  Every drop of water was conserved and passed through the entire gardens where possible.

I walked with Premadasa against the flow of the water.  First we walked through brick lined empty tanks which were once the Royal Bathing Pools.  At certain places, stone lined channels fed the water under or along the pathways we walked, and you could see the holes where fountains must have spurted, powered by the head of water created from further up the garden.  The sun, rising sharply from the east gave some well defined shadows against the trees.  All the time, while walking up the centre of the water gardens, the looming bulk of the rock stared down.  Not exactly cuboid, it slopes a little from north to south, but from many angles the wall looked sheer.  It was hard to believe that anyone could get to the top.  At the end of the flat water garden, the trees covered our path and as we walked into them, I realised we were in a series of boulders, some of which were probably hunks of stone that had fallen off Sigiriya Rock itself.  Right and left there were terraces and gardens, but our way led ahead up flight after flight of steps, the boulders crowding in closer and closer as we rose.  At one point the stairs led through a narrow crevice formed by two enormous boulders leaning against each other.

We came to the final ledge at the foot of the rock proper, and I took time to glance back at the dry season palace.  The regular layout of the gardens was much more apparent from here, but despite a lot of clearing, the margins of the grounds were merging into the scrublands beyond, and they seemed to disappear to the horizon.

The next stage was to climb to the Lion Platform, the ancient entrance to the WetSeasonPalace.  To do so, we walked along a narrow path cut into the rock edge.  The path becomes protected by a high wall. From a distance it looks like a band of coloured stone in the rock, but as one gets closer, the wall appears to be a concrete addition purely for the safety of the tourists.  Only when you get inside the wall do you see its true nature.  Here and there are tell tale signs of a glaze that was layered on the smooth surface to act as a mirror.  Reflected in the mirror were hundreds of portraits, mainly of semi naked women.  A curious sort of prudery or religious aforethought was at work here – the visitors to the palace should not look at these scantily clad ladies directly, but it seemed perfectly OK to look at their reflections.  Many wags wrote graffiti in the glaze reflecting (sic) their opinions of the frescoes above them.  Many pieces of the graffiti have been translated and reveal some moody, some jealous (from the women visitors) and some saucy impressions.

Only a couple of dozen of these frescoes still exist in reasonable form, but even this is remarkable considering the 1500 years of wear and tear.  The wall protects them from the worst of the elements, and similarly to the cave temples in Dambulla, lines were cut in the rock to drip the rainfall off the frescoes.  Although some were touched up more recently, the character of the frescoes remains.  Circling up a metal staircase I went to view a few of these ladies for myself…. For research purposes of course.  Although stylised images of servants and ladies, the curves of the figures, the slightly seductive poses show a slightly risqué side to these decorations.  The area curtained off is very small so I did not stay long, and indeed had a hard time getting down as a fool of a guide was trying to force twenty fat Germans up to the crowded platform without giving way to those trying to descend.  Premadasa waited patiently at the foot of the stairs for me, taking time out with a cigarette.  As we went around, he had a tendency to pose in Men’s clothing catalogue stances as if to prove that he actually owned the place.

The narrow ledge climbs steeply at the end of the mirror wall and opened up to the Lion Platform, a medium sized area about a third of the way up the rock.  I was so bowled over by what I had seen so far that I didn’t think anything else would surprise me, but the platform was incredible.  Astride a modern staircase shored up by bricks were two enormous stone paws.  The height of the claws was over three feet, to the top of the paw was about ten feet.  It is thought that when the palace was complete, the whole front of a lion was built of bricks and stuck on the north side of the rock.  How enormous this must have been is impossible to comprehend, but the effect was to belittle all guests to the palace – they had to walk up the stairs and into the lion’s mouth to get to the quarters.  The lion gave its name to the rock – Sigiriya.

I took time out at this stage to try to take it all in, as I suppose many visitors to the palace must have done so.  They had been taken through the lower gardens, walked past these fancy murals and then reached this tremendous structure.  They probably needed a swift drink and a trip to the khazi before going up to see the king himself.  There were a bunch of floor plans here marking what must have been sizeable anterooms.  I went off to one side where a small lily pond sat in a cliff edge garden and looked at the paws from another angle.  I still could hardly believe what was there.  Lara Croft would have been struck dumb.

Then I looked up and saw the way I had to go.  If I was awestruck before I now became frightened.  A simple metal staircase zigzagged up the sheer face from the lions paws.  We took it steady, I kept looking across at the ever expanding views as we climbed but I tried to avoid looking down.  Still, all sorts of people, young and old were climbing behind me (we were still one of the first of the day to reach this point).  As we carefully stepped up, I noticed in the rock face were small indentations at regular intervals.  This was the original way up, an exposed set of steps which every visitor had to walk up.  There seems to be no evidence of any rails or guides, just these simple scratches in the rock.  The story goes that the king himself was carried up in a chair – how they kept it steady in the winds Buddha only knows.

With some relief I reached the top (but it was still nagging me that I had to descend the same way).  We were now amongst the old wet season palace.  It was large – the rock was deceptive in revealing its secrets from below, but it was a wide platform as well as long.  Almost every corner seemed to be covered in some foundation, series of rooms, corridors, tanks and gardens stuck on the solid rock base.  Again, the imagination had to work overtime to try to understand what it must have looked like when complete – it may have stood a good thirty or forty feet above today’s height – with all the superstructure of grand halls and towers.  A kind of Sri Lankan Gormenghast perched high above the jungle.  Premadasa and I wandered for a while over the remaining rubble.  A few things stood out, first of all, the good geographer in me called me to each corner to see the panorama – and I wasn’t disappointed.  Reaching west I could see the summer palace, the formal plan more vivid from above, reaching into the scrub that disappeared miles to the hills on the horizon.  To the south jungle gave way to a few tanks and then the hill country beyond, the round rock of Dambulla looking tiny from here.  To the north a similar scene, slightly blocked by a lower rounder hill, but a huge scar opened up the jungle not too far away – a neatly tarmacced runway with a bunch of fighter planes grouped at one end.  This was the air force base of Sigiriya, right at the front line in the war with the Tamils.

When I looked in on the palace, the large tank at one corner intrigued me.  It was so deep and wide, it was fairly obvious that it was for water storage rather than swimming, and I wondered if the roofs of the palace collected the rainwater and it was channelled into this pool.  The surplus then went down the culvert to reach the dry season pools.  The system seemed so perfect.  I sat for a while on the King’s seat, carved out of the solid rock, it was as smooth as the proverbial baby’s.  The sun was now high in the sky and I was keen to start the descent before I started to suffer.

Premadasa kept close to me all the time I was up there and he guided me carefully down the stairs, past the paws and the mirror wall.  It was getting increasingly difficult to move along this ledge as hundreds of tourist, local and foreign, were trying to get up the other way.  I was very glad I had started early.

In the boulder garden we veered away from our original path and into another portion.  The rocks had been naturally carved into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes; one was a tall long rock that appeared from one angle like the rising torso of a cobra, the hood fully extended.  When we reached the bottom, I was escorted out of the exit gate.  Weernsinghe was waiting for me next to all the stalls of hawkers (the WHS had organised the place so well that there were no blemishes like this on the inside of the palace).  I paid my dues to Premadasa and was about to head on to Polonnaruwa, but Premadasa asked me if I wanted to see another temple on the small round hill partnering Sigiriya.  I looked at Weernsinghe who always put that certain look on his face at these times that said “it’s your life” and I decided I could spare another hour in Sigiriya.

Kandy – Climbing up to Dambulla

At the main entrance to Dambulla, I had to pay my tourist fee; Weerisinghe, as a Sinhalese was free to enter.  Of course we had to leave our shoes at the entrance.  Once inside, we ambled around the forecourt.  Little brown monkeys squawked everywhere, chattered in trees, played on the hot rocks, took water from the rainfed ponds.  You had to have your wits about you not to lose a camera or wallet.  Several were bold enough to come up to people and look expectantly for food, and , if you were not looking, put a paw in your pocket.  The rock itself had been cut away, and the forecourt was lined with sets.  A bo tree grew in one part of the courtyard, and there was a small wall to lean out to view the expansive panorama to the south.  On the rock side, a colonnade guarded the entrance to the five caves.  It was not original, at one time the caves were exposed to the elements, but they were deep enough not to be affected by the rain, and the clever Sinhalese had cut a groove in the rock above the entrance to all the caves which allowed water from the rock to form drips, like the metal ends of an umbrella’s spokes, to make sure the water did not run back into the painted walls of the caves.  The colonnades were recent Victorian additions.

The reason such protection was necessary was because in this one temple, there were 150 images of Buddha, some enormous, some tiny, and all in one of the three positions of Buddha; Sitting (cross legged in lotus position), Standing or lying, and depending on the hands, feet or eyes, he could Sleeping, Teaching, Praying, Meditating or Dead.  When I had seen the temples in Kandy and on the road from Colombo, no-one had really explained to me what it all meant, but now one of the monks guided me around the temple and he made sure that he repeated the teaching as often as possible so it would go home.  After seeing a couple of hundred other Buddhas in the next few days, it did stick, although I must say much of it has disappeared from the grey matter again now.

Apart from the huge number of Buddhas, what caught my eye was the full colour of these.  Most of the statues I had seen had peeling paint work or none at all.  All of the Dambulla Buddhas were vivid, and the simplistic painting of his face and clothes were made stark by these bright colours.  As I was led from Cave 1 to Cave 2 to Cave 3 the number of Buddhas multiplied before my eyes.  Cave 3 was the largest, with nearly half of all the Buddhas lining the sides.  Some rainwater had affected a few of these, but they were still in pretty good condition.  I have a lot of respect for other religious wishes and understood that I should not take photographs inside the temple, but apparently the easy going Buddhists had allowed it up until a few years before.  Then a German woman visited the temple, and decided that to get to the right place, the right angle, to take a shot of the cave, she would have to stand on one of the statues and look down, and as she did so a large lump of plaster came off.  The irresponsibility of one woman meant no-one was now allowed to photograph inside the caves.  Perhaps it is a good thing, the thought of thirty flashes a minute would have spoilt the calm atmosphere in the temple.

The monk, kitted out in his orange swathes and bald head, talked long about the teachings of Buddha, but he also asked much about my family and my purpose for visiting Dambulla.  The fourth and fifth caves, like with the Perahera, were more of the same.  I rejoined Weerisinghe, who had been sitting on the wall having one of his customary smokes, and we headed back to the car, a small donation to the monk having been duly passed.  When we reached the bottom, our thirst took us over, but rather than reach for my usual lime soda, Weerisinghe organised a man to give us coconut juice.  Taking a massive orange coconut, the man sliced the top off with a machete and shaped it nicely.  I’ve heard some people say how difficult it is to drink from a coconut until practiced.  This is baloney, the man simply put a plastic straw in the top and I drank.  I love coconut juice and it was very refreshing in the mid afternoon heat.  I am less taken with coconut meat, but duly allowed the man to slice open the coconut, form a spoon with some of the hard outer casing and scoop out this stuff with the consistency of white egg custard.  I’ve never been a big fan of egg custard either.

 Once full, we paid our rupees and got back on the road.  It was still too early to go to the hotel , so I asked Weerisinghe to take me to Avukane.  We headed north through the true village of Dambulla, what we had passed through was only the outer limits next to the cave.  Dambulla itself sits at the major crossroads in the north of the country.  The A9 from Kandy meets the A6 from Colombo.  The A6 splits off a mile further on and heads northeast to Trincomalee.  The A9 goes north towards Anuradhapura and finally to Jaffna – the road signs give the distance to Jaffna even though it was impossible to drive there.  The centre of the town seems to be one large taxi rank and bus station, with a few stores around.  It was still not as substantial as I had expected.  No-one stays in Dambulla, merely passes through.

It was near Dambulla that I saw the army passing through.  Twenty personnel carriers full of young soldiers heading towards the front.  How many would head back was anyone’s guess.  The official government figures were not to be trusted; the Tamils overstated their successes.  But many families in Sri Lanka had been losing their late teenage sons for many years now.  They roared along the road in front of us and headed north up the A6 towards Trincomalee while we went north up the A9.  Only a few miles further on, at Kekirawa, we turned off and travelled down a more minor but still straight road.

It ended at the small village of Avukana.  Cut into a rock face on a small hill at the rear of the village is a 36 foot standing Buddha.  Every inch of him, from the flame above his head to his bare feet, and all the folds in his attire are carved from the same piece of rock, reputedly the largest ancient one piece Buddha in Sri Lanka.  He had been shrouded in an enormous brick arch, which keeps the worst of the weather off, but even so he is magnificent.  However, like a tourist of Europe tired of too many churches, I was beginning to have my fill of Buddhas, and instead rested a while near the Bo tree in the temple grounds.  A family came bustling up the path from the village and while the adults took some time for prayers, the children noisily ran amongst the rocky outcrops.

Avukana Buddha

Avukana Buddha

The shadows were lengthening as I reached Weersinghe and we agreed to make our way to Sigirya.  We drove along a bund, on a well made causeway above some irrigated fields.  This was one of the many causeways that sped between the irrigated systems fed by the Mahaweli Authority.  But interspersed between these modern features was a historical irrigation system, built by the ancient Sinhalese kings more than 2000 years before us.  They had built long, low dams across the flat land, capturing the minimal water flows of the northern plain, which formed large shallow lakes they now call tanks.  The control of water has always been seen as the sign of a great civilisation and the creation of tanks by the Anuradhapuran kings was a superlative example.  They diverted the rivers into new valleys, and the tanks worked in unison to feed a series of agricultural centres throughout the kingdom.  When one area was short, sluices would be open and the water from a tank near the hill country would fill up a tank further north.  Although many fell into disrepair in the intervening years, there are still hundreds of these large and small scattered across the countryside.  Many are still used by the Mahaweli Authority to water the irrigation systems.  Others which had become havens for bird life are preserved as sanctuaries.  Still more are available for recreational purposes.  Perhaps the most curious feature of the ancient irrigation system was found when the Mahaweli Authority was building some canals of their own.  They had surveyors, used aerial photographs and satellite imagery, and had all the experience of hydrological and engineering science behind them to place these canals in the landscape.  When they started digging, they came across the stone edges of an ancient canal, perfectly aligned with the projected course of the new.  Dug 2000 years beforehand without all the technical tools available, the ancient engineers had chosen the very same route.

We passed round the foot of two of these tanks, the Balalu Wewa and Kala Wewa.  We took some back roads to reach Sigiriya, and on one road I was amazed to see a bunch of scarecrows on some loose wooden scaffolding.  Weerisinghe explained it was like a scarecrow but aimed at wild elephants.  It was very rare to see a wild elephant, they were normally very shy, but they were attracted to the farmers’ crops both at night and day.  The loss of crops, as I had seen in Africa, was devastating for these poor people, and they took as many precautions as they could afford to stop the elephants wiping out their livelihoods.  These scare-elephants, as I suppose they could be called, were all over the countryside here, seven of eight wooden people dressed in fine coloured clothes and with garish faces.  The principle of warding off elephants by giving the impression there was someone around all the time seemed sound, but I couldn’t help thinking the elephants had more intelligence.

Scare Elephant

Scare Elephant

We arrived at Sigiriya in the setting sun, and once I had settled into my hotel and had a quick dip in the pool, I walked along the road back to the entrance to the ancient palace.  In the middle of the bush, a huge cuboid stone rose above the trees, and on its summit, the great winter palace of the kings of Anuradhapura.  In the setting sun, the sandstone flanks glowed brightly, first orange, and then a glorious red.  The shadows lengthened and merged, the surrounding land became one and eventually, only a faint glimmer of sunlight reflected off the peak of the stone.  I watched this natural performance avidly and then started for home and some dinner (I was to eat rather “Internationally” at the hotel that night).  I stopped outside a little roadside bar across from the rock, no-one took any notice of me.  They were all watching the TV with as much concentration as I had paid to the rock.  The funeral cortege was just beginning the long slow drive up the M1 to Althorp.

Sunset at Sigiriya

Sunset at Sigiriya

Kandy – The Golden Triangle – Road to Dambulla

For the trip, Roger kindly offered his own vehicle and one of his drivers, Weernsinghe, to take me around.  Kandy was the best place in Sri Lanka to start journeys from.  It didn’t matter which direction you headed, within a few miles the scenery would change.  Going east you dropped past the reservoirs into the semi-desert.  Go south and you climbed through the high tea plantations to the welsh mountains, west to the palm groves and paddy fields of the coastal plain and north, well north was the way I was going.  Out of town down the Matale Road we dropped through the suburbs and crossed the Mahaweli River.  The drive to Matale, an important market town in the hill country, is only twenty miles but it took more than an hour, with all the twists and turns, the obstructions in the road, the state of the road itself, and numerous hazards in the many villages along the way.  Once through a small mountain pass, with the old coffee and tea estates now predominated by clove and pepper farming, we dropped step by step to the town.  Beyond the town centre, the scenery changed and so did the road.  For the first time since entering Sri Lanka I drove on the carpet.  This was not an Axminster but pure tarmac, no potholes, very straight and relatively empty.  Much of the north central part of Sri Lanka is networked by the carpets, not because of some altruistic whim of Colombo government developing the country’s poorer areas, or to allow the tourists to get to their honeypots in comfort.  The reason for these smooth roads is purely military, as good roads have been everywhere –  like the old military roads of Scotland, the highly developed routes in South Africa and the Roman Road, the carpets of Sri Lanka are to allow troops to manoeuvre effectively around the front, and from the capital to the front.

Remarkably, the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils that was the centre of every world news story on Sri Lanka, was hardly evident in daily life in Kandy and the Hill Country.  Kandy had its fair share of Tamils, many worked on the tea estates, and I had seen several Hindu temples on my trek to Nuwara Eliya the week before.  Kandy was also a centre of the minority Muslim community, many of the small shops along the roadsides were owned by this community, the small lacelike caps of the shopowners giving away their religion.  The area north of Kandy, in particular, had several mosques.  But the communities, although there was still antipathy, managed to rub shoulders without too many problems.  But the Tamils of the north, who dreamed strongly for their own homeland of Eelam, fought for large areas of territory in the north and east.  The government troops generally held the northern town of Jaffna, but this enclave was often cut off from the rest of the country as the main A9 was held by the Tamil Tigers, either at the town of Kilinochi or at the isthmus to the Jaffna Peninsula, the so called Elephant Pass.  Most of the time people and goods had to fly in and out of Jaffna, even shipping into the port was too dangerous.  Several towns down the north east coast were de jure government but de facto Tiger held, only Trincomalee could be said to be relatively safe.  I knew people who travelled to Batticaloa, and found the people fabulous, the scenery wonderful and the beaches and coral reefs more rich than anywhere else in the world, but who always felt slightly threatened.

Over the course of the next few days I saw the evidence of the war more heavily than in Kandy, and got closer to the front.  The carpet roads, one facet of that war, sped us towards that front far faster than I had been before.

Weerisinghe was the best of the drivers I had.  He was not slow like Saman. And not mad like Nandasenda.  He drove well, fast when he had to but generally at a good pace, and he was incredibly talkative.  His son had come along to help out in Roger’s Office.  Although called Pradeep, they already had a Pradeep in the office, so he was christened Pradeep 2, and was proving to be picking up computing skills very quickly.  Weerisinghe, who had spent much of his early working years in the army, was very proud of his son, and we chatted at great length about his family and all aspects of Sri Lankan life.  He was well travelled around his own country and knew all the nooks and crannies.  I carried a road map I had bought in Peradeniya Gardens, and liked to follow our route, and he was full of suggestion as to where we might go.

For the time being, he wanted me to see Dambulla and to get me to the hotel in Sigiriya for the night.  Leaving Matale behind, we passed through a well kept avenue with spaced houses on either sides set in spice gardens.  In the midst of here we stopped and took some lunch in a small artists gallery.  A few miles beyond and the scenery opened up and we reached the low country of the north.  A series of irrigated rice plots to the right of the road were the foreground to the steep sided mountains of the hill country.  Scattered amongst these were twenty or thirty farm workers, reaping the harvest in the yellow fields.  The river valley we were now in carried the diverted waters of the Mahaweli River that had travelled below us in a tunnel from the Polgolla Dam.

We arrived in Dambulla.  I was expecting a town, but really it was just a single street of occasional houses.  On the left, the entrance to the temple.  A few hawkers were around, a man with a cobra in a basket, another selling coconut juice.  Weerisinghe and I started our ascent to the cave temple, a steep climb up a sloping exfoliated rock face, little steps cut into the rock at the worst points.  This massive rock dominated the area and the plain opened out to us as we rose.  To the south west I could see a tapestry of tree plantations, some coconut, other trees I didn’t recognise.  Then a sole conical hill rose above the plain, and beyond a longer line of hills, and finally, in the distance, the hill country again, still only thirty miles back, but a million miles away in terms of climate, features and culture.  If I looked in the other direction the scenery was more scrubby, but drawing my attention were two lumps of rock in the middle distance, probably fifteen miles away.  The large square one was the ancient palace of Sigiriya, near my resting place for the night and my aim for tomorrow.

Sigiriya from Dambulla - the two rocks in the far distance.

Sigiriya from Dambulla – the two rocks in the far distance.

Kandy – the view from a distance.

 I spent the next week working with my colleagues, spending evenings at Roger’s, the hotel or the Queen’s Bar.  The Chalet hotel grew on me, they served strange meals in the evening, but I knew a few dishes I quite liked, and enjoyed my poached eggs and silver pot of tea in the morning.  One thing I had to be careful of there were the monkeys.  A troop of them played around in the trees behind the hotel and frequently came into the grounds to scavenge.  Unless I was on the small terrace outside my room, I had to keep the window closed, or else they would have leapt in and stolen something from me.  They pattered across the rooftops, sometimes so preoccupied with their own squabbles that they didn’t notice the hotel staff trying to shoo them away.

One of the Chalet's permanent residents

One of the Chalet’s permanent residents

 The other intrusion in the hotel was the mosquitoes.  Although there was no danger of getting malaria in the hill country, there were plenty of big black mosquitoes ready to suck your blood out.  Although the room was well sealed at night, too, these suckers managed to squeeze their way through some gaps and get in.  I slept well in Sri Lanka and sometimes did not notice their intrusions.  But one day, when I woke up I found the perfect way of getting rid of them.  You let them spend the whole night feeding on you, and they are so bloated in the morning that they cannot lift themselves from the sheets when you pull the bedcovers back.  One morning, I found four of these round flies sitting on the sheets, not able to lift a proboscis to help themselves. So I went splat with the flat of my hand and a massive amount of my blood went spurting across the bed.

 My next weekend in Kandy was fairly quiet; I took time to walk around the whole lake in Kandy and walk around the back streets; which were perfectly safe.  But an event happened on the Sunday morning that made me glad I was not in England.  I had brought a short wave radio with me, and with no television in the room, I had spent many hours listening to the BBC, the World Today, Lily Bolero, all the nice gently patronising programmes they broadcast, and became a World Service Junkie.  First thing in the morning, the radio would go on, when I got back from breakfast I would spend my spare moments picking up the latest news.

 This Sunday morning, I woke early, the sun had already started to gleam through my windows.  I turned on the radio and waited for the seven o’clock news.  The report headed with breaking news that Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, had been involved in a car crash in Paris and had been taken to a hospital.  She apparently has some broken bones but was thought to be OK apart from that.  No news had been given on her condition for an hour and the journalist, in his considered opinion, thought this meant that she would pull through.  My immediate thought was that her photographed face would probably bear some scars and be not so blemishless again, and I went off for breakfast.  I was eager to get an update when I got back, an hour later, and I turned on the radio.  With a knack that World Service always has anywhere on the globe, they switch frequencies every few hours and I could not pick up the station, it had either moved or the ionospheric conditions had changed in that hour, so I fiddled around with the dial.  I got several local stations giving out Sinhalese, Tamil or the like, but then I found an English speaking FM station in Colombo, more attuned to music than news.  Its news bulletin was in three parts, local news, international news and sports.  Each five second news story was punctuated by a electronic drum beat – ba-bum, and each segment had two or three news stories giving the briefest of detail.  So the news went, Local News , More Tamils were killed in a raid on Kilinochi, ba-bum, a man has been accused of beating his wife in Galle.  Advert.  Ba-bum International News,  Princess Diana is dead… ba bum..  An earthquake has devastated part of Pakistan.  Ba bum.

 Er, er what?  According to the last report I heard she had some minor injuries from a car crash.  I searched the short wave bands again for the World Service and where it should have been, solemn music was playing.  More out of fascination of how a news story was reported than any feeling for the subject, I listened in and out of the World Service coverage for the next four hours, while trying to read on the terrace.  For most of that time, the news was scrambling around for details, a hastily assembled obituary was put together, some news on the reports coming from the hospital and some commentary from whoever they could find.  Of course, Sri Lanka was six hours ahead of UK, so as the morning progressed there, it was still the middle of the night in Europe and no-one that may have given sensible comment was awake.  They found Alexander Walker in the Mediterranean and replayed his interview of sketchy meetings with the Princess over and over again.  By the time I had had some lunch, the UK were waking up to the news and some more coherent reaction, but by three in the afternoon, the saturation of goo about the woman overcame me and I had to go for a walk.

 For the next three days, anyone who thought I might be English came up to me and said “ I am so sorry about what has happened in England”, and I said “So am I”, but I don’t think we were speaking of the same thing.  Before I left for Sri Lanka, I had lost a very good friend to cancer, and rather than the false emotions that were coming out in London following Diana’s death, which I was supposed to be obliged to feel for, I still felt the great loss of someone who I really knew.  The outpouring of so called grief in Britain over that next week revolted me and I was so glad that I was not around in the thick of it, but it washed over Sri Lanka to a certain extent.

 I only had a couple of days left at work before taking a three-day break. I was spoilt for choice with what to do, but Roger and Flo had leant me a wonderful coffee table book on the ancient cities of the Sinhalese; all World Heritage Sites.  Kandy was one, and I had seen several of the sights there, the Bathhouse, the Temple of the Tooth, the lake, the audience hall.  The book mentioned the two other ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, that with Kandy form the “Cultural triangle” and within this are some fantastic places, the ancient Buddhist cave temple at Dambulla and the extravagant palace at Sigiriya and the largest ancient Buddha in the world, the statue at Avukana and the temples of Mihintale.  Names and pictures at the moment, I really felt the urge to head this way instead of the other alternative, the coast.

Kandy – Up in to the hills

On the Sunday, Roger had arranged that Saman show me around the hill country to get an idea of the terrain I was working on in my windowless office.  This gentle man picked me up from the hotel.  I had very little, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I had a camera and hat and that was it.  We drove off out of Kandy to the south east to the top of the Victoria Dam, the largest of the reservoirs managed by the Mahaweli Authority.  Together the four major dams supply more than half the electricity needs of the country.  Their strategic importance is such that during the 1990s they had to be heavily guarded by security forces, trigger happy in case the Tamils try an act of terrorism.

 Beyond Victoria, the country became more arid and the crops had to be irrigated.  Little green patches in amongst the dry shaly ground marked where habitation was.  The population was more sparsely distributed, but the terrain was still as rugged as Kandy itself.  When I looked back west up the pass we had just come, I saw the reason why.  At the head of the pass, clouds were bubbling up over the edge, but none of them made it to this side of the hill country.  The down slope was in the rain shadow, so despite similar topography, the land was much more arid.  Only the Mahaweli Ganga zig zagging through all the faults, and its tributaries, gave life blood to the farms and livelihoods of people here.

 The road wound around precipitous corners, we realised to what extent when I saw the skid marks where a yellow brick bus had gone over the edge, killing twenty people, the week before.  We dropped past another dam, the Randenigala, and got close to seeing the level of security as we were checked through.  Eventually we stopped overlooking the final dam on this section, the Rantembe ; a small reservoir that picks up much of the water  from the eastern fringes of the hill country.  Beyond I saw a wide plain, the truly arid area, heading towards the disputed territory around Batticaloa, about 100 miles east.  Even though it was still early, the dusty haze had already risen.

 We turned our backs on the drylands and set our sights for the top of the island.  After retracing our steps for ten miles, we turned south and upwards, first through more irrigated farmlands, but then, as the twists and turns became even more acute, the plantations of eucalyptus trees and pines started, more watered farms.  We passed through Maturata, a large village perched on the hillside, and I began to notice something new; little green bushes far off in amongst the eucalyptus groves.  Further up, the bushes were close up, neatly clipped, small round shaped leaves with little tips.  It was tea, the biggest export crop from Sri Lanka and mainstay of the Hill Country.  While it can be grown much lower down, there is a band above 4000 ft where the best stuff grows, the pukka, the VIP, the Orange Broken Peco leaf.  The first estates were deserted, the fields above were being picked, tens of workers, all women, were carefully plucking the young tips of the bushes and throwing the produce over their backs into large white canvas bags.  They worked methodically, mechanically and rather melancholically.  Most of the men in the tea estates appeared to be doing the maintenance, repairing the walls, repaving roads, fixing rooves.  We passed by the little estate villages, neat and tidy, but run down and battered by the usual tropical problems; wetness, termites and dirt.  High on the hillsides, the great white tea factories sat, incongruous in this green landscape, but again looking very run down.  Occasionally, the landscape of eucalyptus and tea was broken by more luxurious trees and shrubs, and a glance or two at the plantation house might be seen, full with terrace, white paintwork and tidy gardens.

Tea picking Near Brookside

Tea picking Near Brookside

Typical Tea Estate landscape in Hill Country

Typical Tea Estate landscape in Hill Country

Through Brookside, not the Liverpool one but the tea estate, and still we climbed.  It was hard to comprehend how high we now were, but the clouds looked a lot closer, and still we climbed.  The air outside was definitely more like an early spring in North Wales, and as if to confirm it, we went through a village where carts were trucking off leeks.  In fact, they were shipping all sorts of fresh vegetables; onions, cabbages, carrots.  Far off I saw field after field of these crops, that would frazzle before they reached the surface if they were grown at sea level.  We were now just below Pidurutalagala, the highest point in Sri Lanka, some 2500 m or 7500 ft in the air.  Saman took a circuitous route into Nurwara Eliya (pronounced Nurellia), past the race course and the little lake then up one of the main roads from the south past a bunch of old colonial style villas.  This town was an important “Hill Station” where the Brits in Sri Lanka would escape the heat of the plains and coast and come to experience their homeland climate, and do things that they would want to do there, watch the races, go huntin’ n’ fishin’, play golf, or drink too much in one of the country clubs.  And get wet, which was what was happening to us.  After all the dry weather in the rain shadow, we were now experiencing the misty cloud swirling round the heights.  It was lunchtime, I really didn’t want one of the large Sunday dinners served up at the half-timbered Grand Hotel, so we stopped at the little café next door for some short eats.

Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

 Nuwara Eliya is a rather surreal town, the centre very Sri Lankan, crowded, tiny houses and businesses all crammed together with the chickens and dogs and children, the outskirts like the best Scottish resorts, a Crieff or Dunblane, with the pine forests as the perfect backdrop to it all.  And now most of the old colonials had moved on, the new bourgeoisie, the rich of Colombo, would head for them there hills at the weekend still, and mix in the same way as the English once did.

Country Club, Nuwara Eliya  - like a Scottish Hydro

Country Club, Nuwara Eliya – like a Scottish Hydro

 As you have to do with most journeys, we had to head for home, but the route north out of Nuwara Eliya still held a whole new set of delights.  Through a gap in the hills, the road started to drop out of the clouds and the pine plantations.  We emerged into the greenest country so far, dripping with water.  Almost immediately the tea plantations were all around us, carpeting and softening the landscape.  And the view was expansive, the road had to drop a couple of thousand feet to reach the Mahaweli valley, and before we dropped off, the view of waterfalls crashing over the precipices, the soft tea dappled in the mixture of sun and shower clouds.

Waterfall near Ramboda

Waterfall near Ramboda

High Hill Country - dropping back to the Mahweli River

High Hill Country – dropping back to the Mahweli River

 At the top of one set of hairpins, stood a little boy holding a bunch of flowers.  He took great pleasure in waving enthusiastically at us and shouting in his clearest English “Hallooooooooooo”.  We zigzagged once, careful not to slip on the corner on the wet road, and at the next corner, there he was again, still with the flowers and shouting “Halloooooooooo”.  We zigzagged again, and he was standing there waving vigorously and at the top of his voice, there was the “Halllooooooooooo” again.  We went down another couple of bends, a little shorter than the last, and at last I saw how he was doing it, he was still pelting down the little footpath that dropped vertically from each corner.  He got there just as we got there “Halloooooo” but this time , instead of holding his flowers up, he held his cupped hand out towards me.  I gave him a few rupees for his trouble.  It was a good act.  As we accelerated away I saw him scamper back up the track, with a couple of other boys, to get his next punter.

 The day had one more twist to it.  Although I had now seen about a dozen tea estates, I hadn’t been inside.  Fortunately, Labookellie, the most visited tea factory, was just below us.  Saman took one of his driver’s breaks, which usually entailed finding someone he knew under a tree and sit chatting to him for an hour.  In this shabby white factory, I learnt the care with which the raw materials for one of the best drinks in the world was made.  I was shown the bags of raw tea leaves as they come in from the field, and how they are laid out on metal trellises to dry out or “wither”.  Then they are sent through the crusher to start releasing the tannins and begin a fermentation process.  This process is stopped before all the best flavours are lost and the leaves are roasted in ovens to produce the blackened leaves that we see in tea.

 The tea is then graded.  The best part of it all, is that the tea that goes into the wooden chests are not flavoured with all the smelly fragrances that became popular in the UK in the 1990’s, to the exclusion of normal tea.  No, here the tea was pure leaf, and the best Orange Broken Pekoe cannot be beaten for flavour.  We were shown the different grades of tea, from the best Pekoe down to the dust.

I bought my obligatory packs of tea, high quality stuff, and I collected Saman up, or vice versa, and we continued our journey.  We now dropped back down in to the Mahaweli River valley and the ground became more familiar again.  We drove towards Peradeniya and back to the Chalet Hotel in Kandy.  I thanked Saman for all he had done for me the whole day through.  It dawned on me that Saman had taken me through three completely different climates in one day, the middle Hill country with its damp humid climate, the semi-arid rain shadow and mountain top cool air.  All in the space of ten hours.  All in the space of 150 miles.

Kandy – Peredeniya Botanical Gardens

The Queen’s Bar to the side of the Queen’s Hotel in Kandy was one of the most bizarre places I came across in Sri Lanka, although the Irish Bar in Accra and a pub in Borrowdale, Harare did almost the same thing – walk inside and you are transported back to Britain – most of the faces are white, the décor is like a British pub and they serve drinks which at least half remind you of a terrible trendy bar in London if not a true English pub.  I would head down there with Choi of a night and get chatting to the various expats that would wander in and out.  Choi was a SouthBankUniversity student from London whose family had Hong Kong origins.  She was very friendly and we got on well, and she was key in introducing me to Kandy expat society.  I felt I belonged when I could get involved with this group but they really were the oddest mix of people you would ever expect to meet in one place.  Generally very pleasant and ordinary on their own, it was the fact that British people seemed to crave British company in Sri Lanka that they all congregated for parties, drinks, events at the same place.  I suppose in many foreign countries it is the same.  But that gave rise to amazing combinations, you had the throw back to the tea plantation days talking with the down to earth, foul mouthed engineer, the scientist talking to the labourer, the student mixing with the lady of the manor.  The other European countries represented in Kandy had even smaller groups to work with and often came in to this ensemble, as did a couple of Australians.  Some were transient, only there a few months and not sure why they were there at all. Others were long termers who knew nothing else.  Roger was approaching the time where he was regarded as the father of the whole community, and indeed was the High Commission’s Warden, whose major responsibility seemed to be to be able to scramble the whole community down to Colombo if civil war broke out.  He rarely made an appearance at Queens in those days and it was almost always with Choi and her Sri Lankan Muslim boyfriend, Amal, that I went down there.

One night in the Queen’s, I saw the best pub game I have ever seen, one which was scarcely believable until you had seen it played out.  How these things ever get started I do not know, but the scene was centred on a very pleasant young Scotsman who was an engineer working on one of the many projects his large firm had in the country.  A woman colluded with another man; I think it was one of the Germans, to do the scam when she played this game with the Scotsman.  She challenged this guy to a duel using spoons.  The rules were that you put a tablespoon in your mouth and then you had to hit the opponent’s forehead, which must be offered up fairly, i.e. you had to drop you head down.  The first shot was by the Scotsman.  Of course, having a spoon in your mouth with only your lip muscles to control it meant that he could not hit her forehead with more force than a small wet fish.  So he then obediently dropped his head and got a sharp “Thwack” across the forehead.  It stung hard and amazed him.  “How did she do it”, he asked.  She just shrugged her shoulders and said “Practice”.  He tried again on her forehead.  A limp splat was all he got.  She tried again on his – “Wallop”.  He was astounded.  What did she do to make it hit with so much force – “Do you hold the spoon in a special way?”  “Hmm yes, that was it”.  He limply slid the spoon across her forehead with all her might and he got a response which brought stars to his eyes.

He still could not work it out but the rest of us, creasing up with laughter, had seen the ruse; when he bowed his head, what he could not see was the German, who had a third spoon, thwack him hard with it using his hand.  When he looked up, of course, all he saw was this woman with a spoon hanging limply out of her mouth.

I was very settled into my hotel by the next weekend and decided to go down to the Botanical Gardens at Peradiniya for the second Saturday.  To get there was too far for me to walk, so I decided to take my own tuk-tuk.  These three wheeler motorcycles cover most of Sri Lanka.  The drivers split in two, the ones who are just using this as a staging post to their intended career as owner of a bus company or multimillionaire business man, and those who have gone in for the duration.  Sitting in the back of this thing on a pile of carpets and shawls, pictures of Buddha adorning every corner, I started praying as soon as we lurched onto the highway.  He dropped down to the lake and then we took the new bypass behind the railway station and down to the garden entrance.  I haggled enough to be decent but did not begrudge him his rupees.  I went to the nearby office to get a ticket and guide book and then entered.

Peradiniya is the largest botanical gardens I have been to in the tropics, it sits in a wide meander of the MahaweliRiver, a bit like Kew on the Thames.  It is not cramped, rather the specialist gardens are spaciously laid out amongst wide grassy areas or woodlands.  I ambled around quite happily for most of the day, past the giant bamboo clumps, the lake shaped into Sri Lanka, its water lilies seeming to mark the larger cities.  Here and there huge buttressed trees demarcated new areas.  I saw the avenue of Drunken pines, their trunks grown in such a swaying manner that it made you nauseous just to look at them.  I would stretch out to the edge of the garden to get a glimpse of the MahaweliRiver.  I went down the far end where in the woods I saw the seven or eight trees that were the roosts for the great fruit bats I saw blanket the sky every night.  I was amazed that so many animals could be together in such a small area.  I saw massive palm trees, including the double coconut trees, the fantastic orchids, the unbelievable cannonball trees.  It truly was an extravaganza of botanical life, neatly trimmed in amongst planned avenues and set piece gardens.  And for the most part it was a hassle free visit, but I came across one person who really annoyed me, and he happened to be a Buddhist monk.  Dressed in the usual orange robes, with his shaved head and almost obligatory black umbrella, he carried his books under one arm.  He was also one of the most malodorous men I had ever stood less than six feet from.  I was looking at an herbaceous border when he approached.  To start with we talked generally about how good the flowers looked then he inquired as to my origins.  Then, as I inevitably thought it would, he started to talk about his monastery and how it needed money.  Perhaps if it had been a one off payment I would have obliged him, but when he started talking about taking my name and address down and talked of bonds, I got offended and started to repeat the word “no” at frequent intervals.  Still with his sickly smile, he eventually decided I was a lost cause and moved on.  Of all the people I had expected to beg for money, and of all the places for it to happen, a priest in the botanical gardens had never crossed my mind.

Apart from a couple of rain showers, nothing else dampened my day and I managed to catch a tuk tuk back to town.  This guy haggled about the price again, saying that going up the hill cost him a lot of fuel, and the way he got out and pushed the little vehicle to get up, I could well believe it, but I managed to save a couple of rupees that day.

Kandy – After the Perahera

 That day, a holiday in Sri Lanka for full moon, or poya, I decided to get a closer look at the temple of the tooth.  There were still a whole load of tourists around, both national and international, so there was a bit of a queue as I approached, and security you might expect in an airport with x-ray machines and bag searches.  The threat of a Tamil attack on the heart of Buddhism was taken very readily.  For a small fee, I had to leave my shoes on a massive rack outside the temple, and I headed into the ornate building.  A labyrinth of dimly lit rooms, the Temple is a relatively modern feature, by Sri Lankan standards.  Kandy only became the capital of the Sinhalese late on in the dynasty of great kings, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were much more ancient.  It lasted much longer as well, the British only overtaking them in the early 19th Century.  The temple itself was built over a period of a hundred years from the mid 1600’s.  The tooth was reputed to have been stolen from the funeral pyre of Buddha and smuggled over to Sri Lanka in the 4th Century AD.

 I remember little of the temple, unfortunately, apart from the huge numbers of people and several dark and gloomy rooms.  Because of the previous day’s extravaganzas, the actual room where the casket resides was shut to visitors, but I suppose the sight of the Devala Peraheras more than made up for seeing it in a stuffy confinement.  I came out and walked around the assembly house, an open sided house supported by wooden pillars, and some other features.  On leaving the complex, I came across an elephant carrying its supper home, its trunk curled up round a stock of greenery; his mahout sitting astride him.  Some policemen were removing the barricades from the previous night.  The whole scene looked like the morning after a heavy party, which in a way …it was.  I walked up the hill to the west to look at the huge Buddha but there was so much praying going on around it that I could not get near.

 And so four wonderful days in Sri Lanka came to an end.  I had to start work the next day.  Roger picked me up from the hotel and we dropped down the hill and went round the eastern end of the lake, past a small park for children on the corner.  We drove back towards town but before we reached there we headed out of town up a steep road over the lip of a hill and descended the other side.  A little way down this hill we turned sharply and followed a winding road which gradually dropped us towards the MahaweliRiver.  Before reaching the bridge crossing we turned left and went along a rough track parallel to the great Mahaweli Ganga.  The river was quite low and made up of a series of rivulets divided by sandy islands and huge rocky outcrops.  Many people were bathing or washing clothes in the river, or just watering their cattle.  At the far end of this track we came across the Polgolla dam.  This was used to generate a little electricity, but mainly it was to feed a huge river diversion, a tunnel some forty miles long through the hills to the dry country in the north, where it went to irrigate several systems.  We drove across the dam, privileged because like all strategic targets in the country, the terrorist threat meant it had high security.  Roger’s Office and the headquarters of the Mahaweli Authority were at the far end.   I spent the week in a windowless room teaching the staff how to use the Geographical Information System (GIS) equipment they had.  What surprised me is that the systems manager there, Thilak, knew all this stuff and was as experienced as I was, if not more in some fields, but there was something about having a big consultant coming in from outside to try to stimulate the mind.  I was happy to oblige for all the experience I was getting outside.

 I couldn’t help but be impressed by the ENDEV project, as it was called.  It did not really stand for anything, but its legacy was to study the siltation problems in the hydroelectric dams around the hill country.  There are four dams and it was realised that after their construction that they were silting up rather heavily.  It was also rather obvious that practices in the hill country were causing this siltation but it was not known how fast it would go or how they might stop it.  The original project Roger was involved in was to map the upper catchment above all the reservoirs.  This he did with first his British team and then more local help. With the mapping it was obvious they needed a Geographical Information System to store and analyse the data, and he expanded and expanded to a state where they had some superb kit supervised by Thilak, a Sinhalese computer wizard.  They also had maps at 1:10 000 scale of the incised hill country, in terms of land use, slope, rainfall and drainage.  An area covering a third of Sri Lanka was mapped as the project was expanded to look into the irrigation systems to the north east.

 Their problem, as Roger and his local boss, Herath (a lovely man who had the appearance of a well groomed sage) put it, was that all this data had been gathered but nobody knew how to manipulate it .  I could do little in the two visits I had but I showed them how to use the software to answer some questions, and tried to set in place some ideas of how to better manage their data.  But it needed more.  On my second visit, I developed a database to monitor tea estates.  I had a database that could record all the inputs into the system, the labour, the fertiliser, and record the price on the other side, and you could then find out what the profit and loss could be on a field by field basis.  I demonstrated this in Colombo to one of the big tea plantations.  They were mildly interested, but it never got followed through.  The problem was not Roger’s, the tea estates or the Mahaweli Authority, more it was the nature of Aid work, which precluded short term consultants for more than touching at the surface of the problem than to have the time and exposure to really get to the root of problems and provide some long term solutions.  My biggest bugbear was that I had applied to the Overseas Development Administration for their Associate Professional Officer (APO) training scheme several years beforehand, and failed because I didn’t have any overseas experience (Duh – I thought that was what this was supposed to give me).  Roger had an APO who failed him miserably and gave him a lot of grief, and I always thought, if I had been that officer, I would have had the chance to do the kind of stuff they were now charging top dollar for while learning an incredible amount from Roger in the process.  There were few times when I regretted the course my career had taken, but when I saw Sri Lanka and what I might have done there, I was disappointed.  I still got an immense amount out of the experience from Roger and from learning about the country, and I hoped that I gave them something in return, but I fear it was not really what they needed.