The little England – Nuwara Eliya
It’s Friday and the first day of the year. I am in an old English style lawn at an altitude of 1868 meters, sipping Thambili, the juice of king coconut—a yellow native variety of coconut. Arranged around my table is a breakfast consisting of string hoppers, Appa, coconut sambol and potato curry.
The Pidurutalagala Range, the highest in the island I am in, from where the golden sun emerged a few minutes ago, greeted me with a smile. There was a nip in the air, laden with scents of wild mint and eucalyptus; and the sky was clear blue. After a sober little new year party last night, followed by a light dinner of Sri Lankan delicacies such as jackfruit curry, kale mellun, kottu roti and chilli leek fry, I woke up at the hilly retreat of Nuwara Eliya fondly known as “Little England”, an old colonial hill station, in Sri Lanka..
I decided to spend the rest of the day walking around the emerald valley. I reached the Holy Trinity church, at Church Road since I felt that browsing the town on foot will be the best option. The white single-storey church that once catered to the spiritual needs of the British planters and the colonial establishment was opposite to a graveyard lined by tall cypress trees. Each mossed and lichened headstone had a story of their own etched on them. Victor, who had come to pray at the church, entertained me with a ghost story of a duke and how he used to whistle and try to seduce single ladies in the evening. I looked at him, gave a wide grin and rushed out of the cemetery, vowing never to return.
As I entered the oak-roofed Anglican church, a sound took me by surprise. I looked around the colonial church with wooden pews and carved pulpit to find the music coming from an array of steel pipes above a piano played by a clergyman.
“This is a century-old pipe organ. There is only three such in Sri Lanka,” the vicar of the church, who later gave me a tour around, told me. I was amazed to see such an old instrument still in working condition. The other two pipe organs were at St. Paul’s Church, Kandy & the Scots Kirk Church, Colombo.
However, the most precious possessions of the church were two paintings. One was done to commemorate 100th anniversary of the church, and another one was done for a visit of Queen Elizabeth.
My next stop was a building with Tudor architecture that has been revived —the post office of Nuwara Eliya. The red brick building with conical clock tower and central dormer were evident of the era when many Britons had to settle here forever. This place gave them a feeling of home away from home. Developed to be the sanatorium for convalescing British soldiers and civilians, this city whose name translated to “the city of lights”, soon become a premier refuge for the Britons away from the tropical heat of Colombo.
I walked down to the racecourse ground clicking pictures like one crazy. Playing at the 117-year-old, 18-hole golf course was no doubt an experience in itself. While playing at the course that was surrounded by the city from all sides and carpeted with blue and buffalo grass, you sometimes might need to cross the road on more than one occasion to reach the next bunch of holes. “But, it’s worth it,” said Kavindu, a golfer I met there.
Small winding paths led me to the Hakgala Botanical Garden surrounded by hills on almost all sides. Located at more than five thousand feet, the area provides the perfect cold climate required for a variety of flowers, subtropical and tropical plants and centuries-old trees. Crossing mini bridges and minor waterfalls, I explored the Bulb Garden, Orchid garden, Rose Garden, Glass House, Fernery, and the Rock garden. Walking past buggies that were used to carry people who were unable to walk, I spotted near the Japanese Garden a large troop of bear monkeys who had come down to eat the foliage. Some of the trees were huge, with trunks spanning nearly 2 metres. However, the best part was the view across the valley, and up to the Hakgala rocks. Here, in the highest-set botanical garden in the world I saw 100-year-old Monetary Cypress trees from California, Japanese Cedars, Himalayan Pines and English Oak.
Such a vast expanse of garden ought to attract birds, and if you are watchful, you cannot miss Scimitar Babbler, Sri Lanka White-eye, Grey Wagtail, Canary Flycatcher, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Great tit, Purple-rumped Sunbirds, Rock Pigeon, Blue Magpie, etc. To enjoy the fun of spotting them, I had done my homework and had seen them on the internet before..
Formerly a plantation of Cinchona from which the anti-malarial drug quinine was found and later experimentally used to acclimatize temperate-zone plants in the tropics was run by a family for three generations. Also, per the Indian epic Ramayana, it was said to be the pleasure garden of demon king Ravana and one of the places where Sita, wife of Ram, prince of Ayodhya, was kept imprisoned by him.
But, however anglicized feel the place gives you, we can never forget that it’s a part of Sri Lanka, the famed Island of the epic Ramayana. It was here that, as per the epic, Ravana ruled and after kidnapping Sita brought her here. Seetha Amman temple is the only temple dedicated to Sita in the entire world. The red and golden temple with the coniferous forest in the background creates the environment of a bygone era when kings and queens were a reality.
Behind the carved temple ran a clear stream from where I was shown a rock where Sita sat and prayed while she was in captive by Ravana. There were also footprints of Hanuman, who came to rescue her. “This is the spot which she cursed. You cannot drink the water here. Drink it further downstream,” Channa, the temple worker keen to show visitors the spot where Sita bathed, the stone she sat on, and where she prayed, said.
Early next morning amidst mist and morning dew a wild sambar deer welcomed us just before the starting point of the trek to the Horton Plains National Park. The track was mostly gravelly to rocky, and muddy in some part. Halfway through was Baker’s Falls, the widest waterfall in Sri Lanka. Named after an adventurer called Sir Samuel Baker, who found it, the 20-meter wide waterfall plunges over a wide rock into a gorge of wildflowers. I walked the path to the Bakers Falls through the misty, cold, and grassy plains across narrow brooks. Sitting on a rock with my feet in the icy cold water, I enjoyed the sound of the waterfall..
The World’s End was filled with clouds. Nothing was visible below the cliff. But soon the clouds scattered and emerged the valley with tea-plantation villages. After this point comes Little World’s End, which has a view from a different angle. The hike back was through shaded areas filled with bird-songs.