I am on a road trip again, this time on the A1 from Colombo to Riverston near Matale in central Sri Lanka, to hike in the Knuckles range of mountains
I take a taxi to Borella and board the Flamingo Tours coach at six in the morning. “I will reserve the front double seat for you so that you can take your lovely photographs!” Padmini – the tour leader wrote to me a week earlier. Soon we cross the Kelani River, the fourth-longest river in the country at 145 kilometres, and are speeding towards central Sri Lanka on the A1.
It is only 11 km to the historic Kelaniya. It is believed that Buddha visited Kelaniya in the 5th century BC. It was the capital of a provincial king in 1st century BC, whose daughter was the mother of king Dutugemunu, regarded as one of the most illustrious of the 186 or so kings of Sri Lanka between 5th century BC and 1815. The Kelaniya Temple, a worthwhile stop, is famous for its paintings and sculpture by a local artist called Solias Mendis (1897 – 1975) and the colourful Buddhist pageant held in the month of January every year. Mendis mingled techniques of Indian Buddhist art with the traditions of Sinhalese classical art to create a unique style – from graceful brush strokes to perspective.
We stop at Ambepussa, as many do, for breakfast. We ate at the Avanhala but Ambepussa Resthouse, the oldest purpose-built hostelry in Sri Lanka sits across the road and is the place to be. It was constructed in 1828 when the road and railway line to Kandy from Colombo was being built by the British Governor of then Ceylon – Sir Edward Barnes. Today both establishments are owned and managed by Ceylon Hotels Co-oporation. The buffet breakfast (hoppers, roti, string-hoppers, kiribath and awful tea & coffee) at Avanhala costs Rs. 590 and the same with a few additions, better ambience (no loud piped music) and cleaner toilets costs Rs. 890 at the Rest House. The railway reached Ambepussa in 1865. There is not much else to see or do in Ambepussa but at Dedigama, 6 km away, the stupa called Kota Vehera erected by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186) – another illustrious son of Sri Lanka, is well worth a visit.
Gampaha is a further 18 km from Kelaniya. It is famous for pineapples but many have forgotten that the first rubber trees in Sri Lanka were planted here. 1919 Rubber seedlings, collected from the Amazon, were brought to the Island by the British via Kew Gardens and were planted in the 36-acre Henarathgoda Botanical Gardens in Gampaha in 1876. It was the begining of a flourishing rubber industry in the country.
The road reaches Kadugannawa Pass and climbs towards Kandy. It used to burrow through a rock but now there is a new road that skirts around it. A few metres before the pass, the 18th century rest room, built as a stopover for horsemen, merchants etc. traveling from the lowlands to the ancient hill capital of Kandy, sits on the left of the road.
You glimpse the blue shadow of Bible Rock in the distance, the flat-topped hill the British likened to an open bible. A slender, 38 metre white tower – a memorial to Captain W. F. Dawson of the Royal Engineers who struggled for 11 years from 1820 to build the Kandy Road, stands at the entrance to Kadugannawa town.
Mawanella town sits in the shadow of Utuwankanda hill. The town is historically famous for Saradiel – sort of a Sri Lankan Robin Hood (1832 -1864) and leader of a group of bandits who waylaid British conveys on the road to Kandy and distributed the loot among the poor and persecuted local villagers who considered him a real hero. Utuwankanda was one of Saradiel’s hiding places. He was finally caught, imprisoned and later executed by the British. Books have been written about him and films made.
It is well worth venturing off the main road at Pilimathalawa (few metres down the road to the right leading to Hendeniya) to see the original Kandy Road – now closed to traffic, with the brick bridge constructed in 1826 by British Engineer Captain Brown. There is a rather sad looking Transport Museum with a few old steam rollers by the main road at Pilimathalawa.
The university town of Peradeniya is famous for the 147 acre Royal Botanical Gardens, home to more than 4000 species of plants. The origins of the Gardens go back to 1371 in the time of Kandyan Kings but groundwork for a formal botanical garden was made by Alexandar Moon, an Englishman, who planted coffee and cinnamon at the site in 1821.
Kandy – the last capital of Sri Lanka, is only a short drive from Peradeniya. It fell to the British in 1815 and the last king was captured and exiled to southern India along with all claimants to the throne. Kandy is the home of The Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world and the Kandy Perahera, a colourful annual pageant held for ten days every August. Kandy was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988.
The road to Matale runs through Katugasthota along the Mahawlei River – the longest river in Sri Lanka. It starts in the Nuwara Eliya hills and after 335 kilometres, empties in to the Bay of Bengal at Trincomalee in the east of the country. The river and its tributaries are dammed at several locations to provide irrigation of almost 1,000 km2 of land in the dry zone and to generate more than 40% of Sri Lanka’s electricity needs.
There is no reason to linger in Matale except to visit spice gardens that surround the city. However, 3 kilometres from Matale is the third century BC Aluvihare Rock Temple where the Tripitaka – the philosophical doctrines of Buddhism, was transcribed on Ola leaves by 500 learned monks in the 1st century BC. The old library which had housed the volumes of these transcribed manuscripts for many centuries, was destroyed during the Matale Rebellion against the British in 1848. It took several generations of monks to re-transcribe the Tripitaka and the task as finally completed in 1982.
The twisting road climbs up into the Knuckles mountains through lush, green tea plantations. Rain begins to fall and I can see through patches of tall Gum trees the distant hills shrouded in mist. There are numerous rain enriched roadside waterfalls. We pass a group of army commandos on motorbikes out on a training exercise. A sign says it is 10 kilometres to Riverston. Then the mist clears and down in the valley I see green painted and cosy, Sir John’s Bungalow among the trees. it is going to be home for the next few days.
(The trip to Riverston was arranged and led by Padmini Hussein of Flamingo Tours)