We wandered, aimlessly at first, around the hill town of Kandy. It was the old capital of the county and is now a World Heritage City. A complete circuit of the central lake (Muhada Wewa) brought us to the arcaded Queens Hotel gleaming white in the sunshine in the centre of town. Opposite, a white milepost says 72 miles to Colombo.
The hotel is dated; the once grand lady is now merely old. The fabric of the armchairs in the airy reception is rubbed smooth. The carpets are threadbare and there’s no afternoon tea. It is disappointing.
Yet, it was somewhat satisfying to discover the Sri Lankans still harboured some nuggets of their uncomfortable past with the British. In 1903, it was promoted as: ‘A hotel of the highest class…best situation in the town… two large drawing rooms, a billiard room with three tables… with electric light… accommodation for 150 visitors. Tours to the intending visitors to Dambulla, the buried cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa…Single room 3Rs, Double Room 5Rs.’
In dusty display cabinets, at the back of one bar, we found old newspapers relating the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1876. The newspaper noted that ‘From there the Serapis sailed to Ceylon, where the Duke of Sutherland surprised their hosts with his engineering skills, driving the royal train round that dizzy promontory the ‘Sensation Rock.‘ A photo showed the Duke tightening up a coupling with skill and the proper application of strength.
Not to be outdone, the Prince proved himself in a more predictable way, by performing well in a bloody and triumphalist elephant shoot. This provoked controversy in the British press because elephant-hunting had only recently been banned by the colonial government. But it served to confirm his princely status: Shooting an elephant was a public act, a performance where ‘the prince was a principal actor: he must be seen to kill the great beast,’ wrote a local reporter.
I gazed at a cabinet and it’s random selection of contents (old china with the hotel’s logo, tarnished silver cutlery, and an a contraption half way between a stirrup pump and a toaster) for a few moments as the sense of history washed over me cleaning away the egalitarian present and like a tide on the ebb leaving a mark of imperial greatness.
The waiter with the bill brought me back into the present. I paid and we emerged into dazzling busyness of tuk-tuks, cars, mopeds and noisy diesel buses on D.S Senanayake Veediya. We wandered around noticing the streets had two names. On Yatinuvara Veediya, I saw half-hidden beneath posters and blue paint an old sign for Brownrigg Street.
General Sir Robert Brownrigg brought the last part of Sri Lanka under British rule in March, 1815. He acquired the Kingdom of Kandy through an agreement with the help of defecting ministers of the Kandyan King, and annexed it to the British crown. The treaty was known as “Kandyan Convention”. I thought in 1815 we were busy with Napoleon, but then anything was possible within the imperial British sphere.
We visited old churches with round plaques indicating their status as a ‘Conserved Building’. Scots Kirk had a calm and shady garden behind the church in the middle of the bustling city, while at St Paul’s Church a helpful man welcomed us but persisted in talking despite the “Silence Please” notice in the central isle. We walked away but donated Rs100 as I felt guilty of rudeness.
On Raja Veediya, formerly King Street, we discovered the attractively renovated Royal Bar and Hotel. Three gentle curved arches shaded the entrance. Inside, lay a view of Britain’s colonial past – an open courtyard surrounded by a first floor verandah and a dining room with a central grand piano! In keeping with the sense of history, the ‘boardroom’ had a series of maps, posters and photos of old Ceylon. Khaki and white sola topis hang on the wall as reminders of the British fear of the sun. We will return later for dinner.
But Kandy is not all British history. It is full of Sri Lankans getting on with daily life, shopping and trading. There are little shops for everything, proclaiming their offerings in squiggly Sinhalese, curvy Tamil and plain English alongside one or two bigger stores like Cargills Food City. I marvelled at the colourful names: R+D Stores, New Trading Company, Bimputh Finance, Samgagi Furniture, New Fancy Mahal, and couldn’t miss the ubiquitous advertisements for Airtel in white letters on a red background and Amritha incense sticks in greens and blues.
In front of the Amal Gram Store, black amplifiers block the entrance, by Milgro – Earthbound Creations – ladies’ dresses and saris hang in colourful profusion. Kandy has everything and it feels right, like the old Tooting market of my youth. It encourages you to shop. We buy a pair of elephant pattern trousers for two-year old Ivy, after haggling the vendor down from 350 to 200 rupees.
We lunched in the Delight Bakers & Sweet Bar. A young Sri Lankan waiter led us to the only empty table at the back of the cafe/bakery. We were the only white faces. We tried unsuccessfully to define our order and resorted to going to the front display and pointing. From the glass case, we chose a pea and a vegetable samosa and trimmings along with two cakes, plus two cups of Ceylon tea. All for a meagre total of Rs420. I gave the waiter Rs500 and said, ‘Keep the change,’ reflecting that I had passed beggars in the street with deformed legs and denied them a single rupee, yet to a young, fit, salaried waiter, I give eighty rupees.
Earlier, we had had two cups of coffee in the tourist Old Empire Hotel (nice building) for Rs875!
In the evening, we dined in the simple charm of the Royal Bar and Hotel. In classic Lloyd Loom armchairs, we sat across from a table of twelve Germans enjoying beers and conversation at the right level of amplitude. Our simple meal of well prepared saffron rice and chicken was excellent and a relief from the intensity of the group buffet.
The tuk-tuk home to the Thilanka Hotel cost Rs300. Even there the suspicions of the Edwardian era lingered. The entry hall’s original yellow glazed tiles portraying Nymphs with tambourines still clung to the walls. Another showed a gloved fist with a hatchet above the motto Esse Quamvideri.
Perhaps it summed up the once British town and keeper of the Buddha’s tooth: To be or rather to seem (to be) is the question for Kandy.
RS 180 =£1.00.