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Nuwara-Eliya, a lost horizon


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Nuwara-Eliya is a pretence. Holding out as a ‘little England’ or a miniature Switzerland, the place is a groundless boast, a show a long way from getting on the road.

What immediately hits the visitor to the township in the hills are the dissimilarities with old blighty; the noise, the confusion and the inescapable dereliction of the place contradict the claim emphatically. There is nothing English about Nuwara-Eliya, only irregular remnants of a planting era on which the page has permanently turned; a golf club, a post office, a public library, small rose gardens and a few tastefully designed but now dilapidated bungalows to show for a time gone-by.

These have now been overwhelmed by intrusions of the last three or four decades. Ugly, incongruous structures dominate, giving it a distinct shanty town appearance. These too, have seen better days, now coated with grime from fumes, smoke and incessant human activity.

Interspersed here and there are a few newer buildings with ornate facades, inappropriate and gaudy against the lush majesty of the surrounding terrain. 

There is a sparkling new hotel, Araliya, with large elephant carvings greeting the tourists at the entrance. It is a standard hotel that could have been situated anywhere in the country, with equal relevance or irrelevance. As to the significance to Nuwara-Eliya, of either the name of the hotel or the elephant statues, no explanation is offered. 

For most things in Nuwara-Eliya now, there is no explanation possible; it seems things have just happened. A need is met with an answer; with no feel for the past, present or the future.

In the township there is no escaping the garbage, thrown out to collect at every street corner. The fruit, vegetable and meat markets, usually drawing the mid-day throng, stink and are insanitary. Men seem to gather in Nuwara-Eliya only to attend to various needs in a very basic sense, with no heed to the aesthetics or even the dignity of life. Shabby and heedless-looking crowds, with little affection for, leave alone pride in the place, possessing it. 

This is not a town with an ownership, only a convenient locality to use and abuse. The atmosphere is of a place which has gone down in the world, and nobody seems to care.

Nature has been bounteous, bestowing an impressive setting and a pleasant alpine climate on the hill station. It is man who has degraded and debased a rich gift.

Our tour of Nuwara-Eliya began with a mid-day visit to the Hakgala Botanical Gardens, a popular destination, particularly among the local visitors. We had to leave the car outside the gardens, in the care of a local “tough” .There was little choice in the matter as he curtly reminded us, in that area, he represented the local authority. An entrance fee to the garden for a local visitor is about Rs. 50, but foreigners have to pay about 20 times that!

We learnt from the ticketing counter that the park was about 70 acres in size. This would make it much smaller than the average-sized park in most countries. But by obtaining from different countries and climes a wide range of large trees and flowering plants, the early curators had managed to create quite an enchanting garden, inspiring for seekers of beauty and often a haven for lovers. The Japanese and the rose gardens are not to be missed.

While enjoying the tranquillity of the surroundings, our reverie was rudely disturbed by a shrill whistle. Marching towards us was a gaggle of young school girls led by a uniformed security guard tirelessly blowing a whistle. On inquiring the meaning of his conduct, the security guard enlightened us that it was a warning to the ever-present lovers in various embraces and poses to move away from the oncoming young innocents.

According to this security guard, he was employed by a private company for a monthly salary of less than Rs. 15,000. His main function was to protect the flora from callous human hands during the day, and in the night to keep away the wild animals. The latter duties called for night patrolling, no mean task on the cold wet nights. 

Apparently, the ubiquitous lovers too every so often posed problems for the security guards. Sometimes their embraces lead to other things, and the girls fearing dishonour attempt suicide, requiring the security guards to attend endless investigations thereafter. Often the lovers leave behind more than broken hearts, he said pointing to left over plastic bottles and wrappers under a lush tree, obviously the remnants of a leisurely picnic.

Almost all writings about Nuwara-Eliya will refer to the Hakgala Gardens, Pidurutalagala, the April season and the so-called bracing climate. Few write about the filth, indifference and the corruption in front of their faces. It is only by ignoring the reality, that little England can assert itself.

One afternoon, we decided on a walk around the man-made Lake Gregory. Despite years of misuse and neglect, this famous landmark, dating back to the 1870s, still retains a bleak charm. To its once-pristine water now flows the effluence from the drains and stinking sewers of the surrounding human settlements. On the lake’s muddy banks small herds of cattle and packs of stray dogs wander about, targeting the half-eaten rice packets left behind by local tourists.

Near the town end of the lake there is recent development (I believe Japanese funded), aimed at creating a small park like area with short walks (maybe 2-300 yards) and small flower beds. There seems to be an attempt at introducing water sports on the lake, mainly small jet boats.

Here again, I noticed a number of security guards hovering about, taking away from the idea of the serenity and the freedom of a true park. It appears that the “park” charges “an entrance”. And as it happens, when only an isolated section is improved, the effort of creating a small park here has ended up only emphasising the shabbiness of the surroundings. 

Along the Badulla road side of the lake there is a broken and uneven pavement, perhaps an effort to create a longer walking area. In fact almost all the pavements in Nuwara-Eliya have been laid so poorly that walking on them is dangerous, especially at night. But whatever time you decide to walk, it is not possible to avoid the dung, horse and perhaps cow. Nuwara-Eliya has no answer to the dung problem.

I found the air quality in Nuwara-Eliya, especially on the busy main roads, particularly bad. The heavy vehicles, buses and trucks, struggle along letting off noxious fumes that perhaps due to the otherwise cleanliness of the air, cling to the roads. Again, we see no effort by the authorities to minimise vehicle pollution.

The holiday makers getting away from the noise and the pollution of Colombo envision an escape to a Shangri La named Nuwara-Eliya. In truth, particularly the town centre of their Shangri La is as ugly, congested and perhaps more polluted than Colombo’s Pettah.

After a drive that takes a good five hours on a narrow and congested road, the holidaymakers will not be denied their illusion. So they imagine they are in a little England, over-dress in warm clothes and go about doing things that would, to their minds, be more appropriate for those climes.

According to local lore, many, many moons ago when gods inhabited this earth, Ravana the fearsome King of the Ramayana, having stolen Rama’s wife Sita from their abode in north India, hid her in a cave near Nuwara-Eliya. The unfortunate victim of the amorous Ravana, despite her terrifying situation, would have felt the invigorating nip in the air. Like all epics, Ramayana too is deficient in concrete detail, leaving it to the imagination of the various narrators to fill the deficiencies.

Today’s traveller to Nuwara-Eliya too must be very fanciful to imagine in this lost horizon, a little England.


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