A Little bit of England

Nuwara Eliya: A Little bit of England by Sandeep Silas


Where the mist kisses the undulating green hills; where a lake whispers sweet words to the wind; where the fiery red Poinciana regia flowers ignite the valleys; where fairies fly down to stir your cup of tea, there on the highlands of Sri Lanka, lives a bit of England, in Nuwara Eliya.

I was travelling from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, a distance of 79 kilometres. I must record for fellow travellers that in Sri Lanka this is one of the most beautiful drives through pleasant verdant valleys. Tea gardens, those sometimes rise up a mountain or are seen running down the slopes to the far depths, characterize the place. One moment you see the mist leaving the foliage to the care of the valley. The other moment you see the clouds refusing to leave the mountain peaks and engage as if in a last parting kiss.

Sandeep Silas photograhs: Devon Falls

Picturesque waterfalls, in as many as three cascades, glorify a scene; they have no spectators. Their location is not a stop over. Their appearance is abrupt and in a fleeting moment they are gone as you rush ahead. Small as they may be, they keep ringing like a happy note deep in your psyche. Sometimes, those that have not been eulogised can make all the difference.

A fair sprinkling of red Poinciana regia and bright yellow Tecoma trees in the valley arrest my advance. One lights a flame in the valley, the other brings about a gold rush. Sri Lanka is famous for its gems. There are star sapphires and star rubies - those that have a star forming within, as you throw a light beam on the sparkling stones. But, isn't this gem of a sight as well, with the power to have a star well up in your eyes.

A Red Poinciana Regia by Sandeep Silas

I stop for tea at Glenloch Tea Estate. I sip green tea, which is fast catching fancy. It is credited with lowering cholesterol levels, has the power to rejuvenate the skin, kills deadly bacterium acne, destroys intestinal bacteria, controls enzymes producing glucose, suppresses cancer, prevents diabetes and tooth decay, maintains body fluid balance and blood pressure. 'Wonder' tea!

James Taylor, was responsible for making the Sri Lankan tea such a wonder. He introduced tea in 1867 AD when its cultivation began. Now there are six tea-growing areas on the island. Each brings a different taste to the lips

  • Kandy, supplies mid-country teas, full-bodied and of strong flavour-grown at 2000-4,000 feet.

  • Dimbula, produces a typical high grown tea, of the finest character and rich in colour - grown at 5,000-6000 feet.

  • Ruhuna, is famous for thick strong teas, more popular in the middle-east. These are plantations in tropical rain forests - south western coast.

  • Nuwara Eliya, at 6,187 feet produces tea with an exquisite flavour and aroma - a light brew. They say "Nuwara Eliya is to Ceylon tea, what Champagne is to French wine."

  • Uda Pussellawa, produces tea with medium body and a rosy taste.

  • Uva, the eastern slopes of Sri Lanka's central mountains produce tea with a remarkable flavour, widely used in many blends.

On the way, I found a Hindu goddess being carted on a tuk-tuk. Her face was to the rear, as the three-wheeler nosily sped ahead. The priest, a picture of determination, sat beside her - taking her to the hamlet of plantation labour living in far-flung areas. Even gods have to be mobile, these days!

The picture had not yet faded from memory when a full procession of Hindu gods and goddesses occupied the road, and perhaps the mind space of its devotees. The colourful procession, with people hoisting flags high up in the air, was a picture of religious zeal. It moved in the opposite direction. The crowd was an assemblage of families, women with heavy bunch of flowers in their hairdo, men in bright shirts, children in a festive mood and the youth a picture of zealots, with slogans on their lips and hands on the drum skin. Loud and sure! The British brought the Tamil Hindu plantation labour to work in tea gardens. With the labour came their gods!

A word on the Sri Lankan drums - They are of four types; Xgeta bera, daula, tammettama and udekki. In religious, ceremonial or wedding processions, wooden flutes, tambourines and brass trumpets are also put to the lips.

The British, it seem had a penchant for discovering sites suitable for building hill stations in this part of the world. Credit goes to Dr. John Davy, brother of the famous scientist Sir Humphrey Davy, for finding Nuwara Eliya. What started in 1812 AD as a hunting party from Colombo, ended up as city planners.

Nuwara Eliya by Sandeep Silas

All symbols of luxurious living, that should occupy the landscape in such blessed environment, came up in Nuwara Eliya Golf Course, Race Course, Planters Club, Georgian buildings, Anglican Churches, Hill Club, Post Office with the clock-spire, wicket gates to Scottish homes, Highland Hotels, creeper laden gates and also the English ferns. Nuwara means 'city' and Eliya is 'torch'. The highland town is just like that - a beam of light flaming from a medieval torch in an expanse of green.

The market place of Nuwara Eliya suddenly excites you an arrival. Perhaps, having seen mist-laden mountains for almost four and half hours makes you look for a shopping mall, a bank, and a telephone booth. Settled with the business of living and connectivity, I head straight for the Galway Forest Lodge, for that is where I get a night's comfort and rest. The Lodge is encircled by tea gardens on the fringe of which is a forest of the deep, dark woods variety and can be an overwhelmingly silencing experience to the noises brimming up in your mind. The Galway Forest reminded me of the jungles spoken about in children's comics. Thick, virginal, and clothed in a cloak with a haunting look, they appeared most frequented by ghosts of slain demons!

What would you do, if it is your birthday and no one knows about it in Nuwara Eliya forest? I faced that predicament on the 19th of September. And for the first time in my life, lit a candle before some orchids and evergreen fern and sang 'Happy Birthday to me'. I coaxed and cajoled them to join as chorus - perhaps they did, for it made me feel good. Instead of the cake, I cut the stillness of the air, and the usual crowd about me, invariably present, at all such previous occasions, and felt like a king. Once this evening, I had not aged but matured.

Dinner was in the shadow of two huge butter Dolphins, which were motionless above the salad bar. Later, the sleepy body was entrusted to the care of aroma rising from fresh tea garden leaves.

The morning brought the legend of Sita-Rama alive. As slowly as the rain drizzle bathed the bushes, came out the story of a Sita Temple existing in the vicinity, from my tour guide. Starting originally with the Sita-Rama-Ravana association in mind from India, I had almost lost my thought to the Buddha's overpowering presence in Sri Lanka. With the startling discovery of a Sita site in Nuwara Eliya, I was back to Ravana's Lanka. No wonder I had met Hanuman in his idol form on the road to Nuwara Eliya. If Lord Hanuman was around, can lady Sita be far away! It was revealed that the cave where Sita was hidden during captivity was located in a neighbouring hill, about 8 kilometres away. A shrine commemorates the spot beside a stream where once she took bath - Kodai Sita Amman Kovil. The small temple is located beside the hill road. The stream is not very significant and the valley is narrow. The association however makes it bigger than life. The temple top is profusely decorated with bright colourful statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, and of course Lord Hanuman. On the contrast the idols of Rama and Sita are black and simple.

Lake Grehory by Sandeep Silas

I come back to admire Lake Gregory. The rolling mist is not inclined to leave the water surface. The contours keep disappearing and re-appearing as the mist plays around. I stand on a bridge and watch the lotus bloom in the lake.

There are pink, purple and red lotus blooms. They are prefect in their making, dreamy to the look - an unseen of blend of the spiritual and the temporal. They are earthly and yet divine! Perhaps, that is why everyone carries a lotus to the Buddha as offering. Even the Sigiriya maidens had a lotus in their palms! There are trout too in the lake. The most beautiful aspect of the lake is that, its contours are not bounded by bricks or masonry. They just merge with the grass.

The sun shines on the Sun Hill. The cascades of Lover’s Leap Falls continue to sing their song to the wind. The Golf Links, so English in style, wait for a golfer to play his ball. You drive through Lady McCallum's Drive or walk the Lady Horton's Walk, and Nuwara Eliya does not stop surprising you.

Nuwara Eliya by Sandeep Silas

Most of the Victorian mansions are now converted to hotels or clubs, but the Red & White brick Post Office still celebrates connectivity of the 'long hand' variety. Mount Pedro, or, Pidrutalagala, Sri Lanka's highest peak, 8,282 feet or 2524 meter is in the vicinity. Should you care for a Sinhala view, climb up the mountain.

It must be said to be credit of the English, that wherever they went during their Empire building zeal, they searched for and found places like England. Almost all hill towns have their stamp of indulgence. It is a little bit of England in Nuwara Eliya, complete with an English climate.

Sandeep Silas photograhs: English Environs

Nature lovers must not lose an opportunity to visit Horton Plains National Park, 27 kilometres from Nuwara Eliya. The Reserve is a treasure house with rare blue Exacum, giant scarlet Rhododendron, Spaghnum moss, tree-fern Strobilanthes [flowers once in 12 years] flourishing in the cloud-forest. Below on the earth's surface flower the rosy-mauve Dendrobium macarthiaie, bright golden Daffodils and Primrose and the exquisite Vand tesselata. These are orchids protected by law. The English, introduced the rainbow trout in the clear streams of the Horton Plains, but the Nannophyrs [3 species], the tree frog in radiant colours is native to the island. Birdwatcher's can hone their sights on the Blue Mormon, Rare Ace, Tamil Lacewing, Dusky blue Flycatcher, Yellow eared Bulbul, Whistling Thrush and the Blue Admiral in this Park.

Whatever I say appears small before the sight of the huge Cyprus trees of Nuwara Eliya. They are grand denizens that have witnessed an age pass by. Many loved and lived before them and perished by the road. Shall I play an English tune?