Sri Lanka: in the kingdom of Kandy
Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last and most exotic monarchy, may have vanished 200 years ago, but its spirit endures. John Gimlette reports.
By John Gimlette
8:00AM BST 25 Aug 2013
Weird, isn’t it, when people you’d assumed long dead suddenly step out of the forest? It happened to me the other day, in Sri Lanka. I’d read a bit about the Veddas, the island’s original inhabitants. They were first described in English by a merchant of Wimbledon, Robert Knox, in 1681 (“wild men”, ferocious archers). I’d imagined they’d vanished years ago. But now here they were, just as he’d described them: half-naked, beards down to their chests, and armed with axes and bows.
I haven’t quite recovered from that first encounter. Although we spent several days together (firing arrows, collecting honeycombs), we felt several centuries apart. After 16,000 years on the island, there are now only about 500 true Veddas, all fiercely independent. They have their own language, their own “king”, their own jewellery (made with elephants’ teeth) and their own music (with monkey-skin drums).
Only my camping team kept me anchored in reality (or at least the 21st century). My tent had a flushing loo, and, at night, I sat in a jungle clearing, at a table laid with linen. Once, the Veddas appeared dressed in leaves, and – on my last morning – I found one out in the long grass. He had made me a bow. “We welcome visitors,” he said, “as long as they don’t try to change us.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the Veddas, on my quest for the Kandyan kingdom. It was always going to be a strange fortnight. The old kingdom still has a mystique about it: Sri Lanka’s Shangri-La. For years it held out against the Portuguese (1505-1658) and the Dutch (1638-1803), only to fall at last to the British, in 1815. It wasn’t even hard to find. The size of Cornwall, it sits at the heart of the island. No, the secret of its independence was simpler: gradient. The old kingdom is a magnificent natural fortress, rising to 7,000 feet, spouting the wildest of rivers, some as broad as the Thames.
Like the intruders before me, I began this foray in Colombo. It’s a mad, bustling city. I did, however, find the old Dutch hospital (now an alluring arcade of cafés) and the Wolvendaal Church (1749), with its little pews for slaves. Best of all was the lovely, rambling Galle Face Hotel, where – beyond the lobby – the ambient sound changes from congestion to surf. It’s the only hotel I’ve ever stayed in with a professional scarecrow, who prowls around armed with a catapult.
From here, I set off for Kandy. My driver, Prabath, was a Kandyan himself and, being stocky, affable and occasionally ferocious, might easily have tumbled from the pages of Knox. It also meant he knew all the back-roads, and our journey soon became pleasingly medieval. We came across tinkers, a bullock cart race, an ambalam (or dosshouse, circa 1300) and a man washing his elephant in the Kelani Ganga.
After a few hours, we were among the forts on the escarpment. For centuries, this was the front line between Kandy and everyone else. I loved these forts, each slightly different. Sitawaka (1524) is the biggest and wildest, its huge ramparts enclosing a tuft of jungle; Ruwanwella now has a police station perched up in the walls; meanwhile, Hanwella, dangling over the river, has become a guesthouse. It was strange sitting up there, eating chopsey (noodles flavoured with ketchup ) and thinking of all the Europeans curled up in the soil below. Not that the birds cared. By dawn, the gardens were a tootling carnival of babblers and bulbuls.
Soon, we were in the mountains. It was like driving up a wall. Traditionally, there were only five passes into the kingdom. From Balana, we had an unforgettable view: the coast 40 miles to the west; the mountains all around shaped like lion’s heads, books (“Bible Rock”) and ogres. For one Portuguese army, in 1597, it was the last they would ever see. Only 50 soldiers survived, and were sent back to Colombo, castrated, ears clipped and with only one eye for every five men. The Kandyans were serious about their independence.
And when you get to their capital, Kandy, you understand why. It must be my favourite Sri Lankan city. It’s not just that it’s cooler or hillier, or that the jungle’s so close that – at night – leopards step into town (drinking at hotel pools and eating the dogs). Nor is it just the gorgeous ornamental lake, which wildfowl and Kandyans still contest (with a daily exchange of droppings and rockets).
No, the real joy of Kandy is the illusion that – at least in spirit – a great kingdom survives. Kandyans are always dressing up in their 30ft cummerbunds, and every night there’s a display of drummers in silver armour. Even Prabath could be slyly aristocratic, and was passionately loyal to Kandy’s last king, who died in exile in 1832.
Then there’s the architecture: palaces, royal parks, a handsome bathing house (for all the king’s queens), and a vast complex of temples, built five centuries ago to house a single tooth (albeit an important tooth, belonging to the Buddha). Even in the detail, Kandyans could be outlandishly grand. At the “National Museum” I came across some exquisite executioners’ swords, and a powder flask made from a stag’s testicles.
Initially, I couldn’t see much sign of Britain. In the city, her most conspicuous contribution has been Bogambara Prison, based on the Bastille. Beyond Kandy, however, the colonial legacy is more uplifting: huge tracts of the old kingdom were cleared, terraced, replanted and clipped, and are now maintained by a beautiful workforce of women in saris. It is, of course, Tea Country, and it even has its own Victorian railway. Whenever I rode it, I felt I’d been miniaturised, and was touring some vast extraterrestrial rockery in a Hornby train.
It was even better when I stopped. Somehow, a fantasy, Enid Blyton age lingered on. Although the British had long ago departed, their mansions survived, along with huge herbaceous borders, and the weapons up the stairs. I often had these places all to myself – Taylor’s Hill, for instance, with its cascade of lawns; or huge, stately Adisham, loyally preserved for Sir Thomas Villiers (who left in 1949). Only one of them, Ashburnham, still had an English owner. David Swannell loved his home, with its five waterfalls and a valley of tea. Everything’s perfect, he said “except for the wild boar, which eat all my bananas”.
At the heart of this empire-within-a-kingdom is Nuwara Eliya. At 6,200ft, it’s as cool as Kent, and has all the mock-Tudor to prove it. Even the tuk-tuk drivers call it “Little England”, and the big business here is still carrots (introduced by the explorer Samuel Baker in 1847). By day, I’d go to the temple, and watch the farmers walking on hot coals. Then, by night, I’d return to the Hill Club, with its snooker and stuffed leopards. In my bed, I’d find a hot-water bottle, and I’d fall asleep, wondering which parts of my day were real.
During my last week, I climbed Adam’s Peak (7,359ft). It may not be the tallest mountain in the old kingdom, but it’s certainly the most Kandyan. The majority of my fellow mountaineers were old women, bearing gifts for the Buddha. It was an unforgettable night of trumpets and lanterns, 8,000 steps, and the occasional sermon. By dawn, several hundred of us were perched on the summit, with most of Sri Lanka spread out below. Marco Polo described this view in about 1299, and I like to think that it prompted his bold (if slightly premature) assessment that here was the “prettiest island in the world”.
DID YOU KNOW?
Sri Lanka is the size of Ireland and has around 5,500 wild elephants.