Monday, 11 April 2016 12:09

Oh! to be in Nuwara Eliya Now That April Is Here

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The hills are alive with the sound of the season, and with April here, all holiday roads take the winding climb to the cool uplands of merriment - Nuwara Eliya, where the flower-strewn carpet of welcome is rolled out to every fun lover seeking refuge from the heat and bustle of the lowlands.

In this ‘Little England', a five-hour drive away and just over a hundred miles from Colombo, a semblance of the life the British lived, loved and left, is still to be found. If India has her Shimla at an elevation of 7,234 feet as her summer resort, then Lanka has her Nuwara Eliya at a height of 6,129 feet, fashioned and designed by the British to be their home from home. Even after 68 years of independence, Nuwara Eliya has tried her best to stay that way.

If every sacred religious site has a special significance attached to a certain month of the year for devotees to visit, then the annual pilgrimage to Nuwara Eliya in April is mainly due to the faithful fleeing of the Sun God's wrath during that month, to embrace the benediction of a colder but kinder deity. The British began the practice and now the local converts follow the trail to repeat the same rites, perform the same rituals, and imbibe, at Bacchus' door, the  nectar of Nuwara Eliya's honey-dewed blossoms.

It all began thirteen years after the fall of the last capital of Lanka, Kandy, in 1815 when the British finally succeeded in establishing dominion over the entire island mass. Forty miles away from Kandy at the foot of Lanka's highest mountain, Piduruthalaga, lay the 17-square-kilometre area known as Nuwara Eliya. This was to be the chosen spot to create the Queen of the Hills, as the British had done with Shimla after 1817 when it came under their control. And on 11 August, 1828, Governor Barnes named Nuwara Eliya as Little England and declared it a holiday retreat for serving British soldiers. Overnight, Nuwara Eliya was on the colonial map.

As the town took shape, no effort was spared to make it seem more and more like a pastoral village in England. Buildings were designed in Tudor architecture with gardens terraced in English gardening style, adorned with Nuwara Eliya's colourful flowers, and with faith following the flag, the ground was broken in 1845 to build Holy Trinity Church which was consecrated in 1852. Now 164 years old, Holy Trinity is visited by many to view the gravestone marking the burial site of the empire builders.

If some corner of a foreign field was not enough to make it forever England, as wished for by poet Rupert Brooke, then it was decided in 1898 to create an entire park of England in honour of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897, which also doubled, at the Queen's wishes, as a ‘Festival of the British Empire' to celebrate Britain's colonies, the priceless jewels on Victoria's crown.

Situated on 27 acres of prime land in the heart of town, it was named Victoria Park. Unlike the park in Colombo which was also named Victoria Park but which was changed to Vihara Maha Devi Park in honour of the popular mother of Lanka's King Dutugamunu, Nuwara Eliya's Pukka sahibs showed some bulldog spirit and stubbornly resisted nationalist calls for change; thus, Victoria Park it remains, surviving even the nation's transition from independent dominion status to an independent sovereign republic.

The park attracts an entrance fee, and is open to the public daily from 7am until 6.30 in the evening. Its gardens are attractively arranged with many colourful flowerbeds, while the presence of migratory birds circling the imposing trees that seem to soar sky-high - some of them planted by notable personalities - make it a huge draw for visitors. Amidst great fanfare and with Kandyan chieftains in attendance, the young Princess Elizabeth visited the park in April 1954 with her royal consort Prince Phillip and planted a tree. Sadly, it is no longer in existence and no park official seems to know the circumstances surrounding its disappearance from the park which was, of course, named after her great-great-grandmother. Happily, the tree planted by Prince Phillip still exists. Another tree of note is the Peace Tree, planted in 1919 to commemorate the end of World War One.

Today the park is a little more modest in size at 24 acres, having given away three acres to the adjacent bus terminal.

Nearby also stands the centre of gripping action where the sport of kings holds sway as it has done for over 140 years. This year the horse racing events will be conducted by the new management Royal Turf Club whose treasurer says that nearly Rs 100 million has been invested in upgrading the entire venue. "This is the first time we will be holding the races. We have developed the whole race course, including the track, railings, roads, jockeys rooms, stables. Everything has been newly done," he says. Thus the new outfit promises an exciting race card for punters trying a flutter on the horses.

The important race dates for April are 4, 10, 16, and 30. The 16th is the main racing day, the equivalent of Ladies Day at Royal Ascot and, as befitting such an occasion, the racing elite turn up in their fashionable best, with women sporting fancy headgear and stylish dresses whilst the men come in formal full suit. There are contests too in the fashion stakes - one for best hat, one for best dress and also a fashion show. In times past the coveted prize was the Governor's Cup but this year the new management is still to decide whether to go for a name change. Perhaps in the manner of Royal Ascot, it will be renamed the Gold Cup.

After racing has run its course, a lovely spot to spend the rest of the afternoon is at Gregory Lake. It is a manmade lake commissioned by Governor Gregory in 1873. Trout was introduced to the lake in the 1880s but now only common carp remain to be fished. The entire area has been developed and an entrance fee is charged to enter the area which provides a variety of activities for the whole family to enjoy - and the children will love it.

Ride the ponies or the ‘hybrid' horses, go on a boat ride round the lake or ski on the lake waters on your own jet ski, available for hire. Paddle your swan boat and laze over the water while your legs do the propelling, or simply take a stroll down the paths or sit down on the many wooden benches munching a snack or tucking into an ice cream available at the snack bars on site and ‘people watch' as the world goes by.

If you prefer some putting on the green, visit the Royal Nuwara Eliya Golf Club opposite the Victoria Park. Not long ago, it was the exclusive preserve of its members but no longer. These days it welcomes paying guests who are allowed to make use of the fairways to play an 18-hole game of golf. Set in 100 acres of beautifully-tended green fairways with bunkers and with streams coming into play on six holes, the 1881-established club is affiliated to the famous Royal Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland and also to the Royal Colombo Golf Club.

Behind the golf club lie the remains of Captain William Rogers of the Ceylon Rifles Regiment who is said to have shot over a thousand elephants. In 1845 at the age of 41, he was struck down by lighting. Death does not appear to have absolved him from his wrongs. His grave, it is said, is still struck by lightning every year.

Almost a hop step and jump away, passing plots of cabbages, beans, herbs, lettuce and cauliflower, lies the stately manor house known down the ages as the Hill Club. It was founded by a group of coffee planters in 1876 as a ‘private members club for gentlemen of like-minded disposition'. It remains a private club open only to members but visitors ‘holding foreign passports' are allowed in as paying residents. If you are a Sri Lankan, a visit is recommended if only to catch a quick glimpse of the Tudor-styled club building with its well-tended lawn adorned with a multitude of colourful blooms adding to its picturesque beauty.

The matriarch of the hotels is the Grand Nuwara Eliya Hotel. This Elizabethan-styled manor house was originally a bungalow built as the holiday residence of Governor Barnes in 1828. It began its life as a hotel in 1891 when it was sold to a company specializing in the hospitality trade. Extension followed extension and today it is one of the landmark buildings in Nuwara Eliya wherein one breathes the colonial air and finds the old world charm still pouring out from every piece of oak panelling. In 2012 National Geographic Magazine Traveler listed it as one of the six best places to visit, in the same league as the Sri Dalada Maligawa, Dambulla Rock Caves, Yala, Siri Pada and Sigiriya.

Just opposite the Victoria Park is the fruit market. Here you can select the vast array of the choicest fruits nature produces in Nuwara Eliya. As you motor the roads you will also find makeshift shops, selling nature's pride: greens and vegetables.

Apart from the attractions that Nuwara Eliya has to offer, there are many more to be found in the surrounding areas. The nearest waterfall is two kilometres away. Called Lovers Leap, the water descends 30 metres and flows down a rock face. It does not fall into a pool but carries on nonchalantly where it is used as drinking water by the villagers. The prevailing drought has reduced the water flow to a trickle. Its name is derived from a tragic tale of love. Legend has it that a prince out hunting injured himself and was tended by a village girl. Love blossomed but the king was opposed to the affair and as a result the two lovers leapt from the rock to their deaths. Other places of interest around Nuwara Eliya are the Hakgala Botanical Gardens 10km away, Horton Plains National Park - 32 km, and the Moon Plains which is a protected wildlife sanctuary.

Nuwara Eliya is a creation of the British, but independent Lanka has been wise enough not to demolish the façade brick by brick but to keep it that way, even giving it the occasional facelift and whitewash to enhance its appearance and attract Lankan and foreigners who would otherwise yearn to be in England - now that April's here!

Words and Photography Manu Gunasena

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