Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Sri Lanka 2002 - Anyone for Tennis?

It took my grandfather's ocean liner a month to get to British Ceylon. He was going to see his sister who'd married a tea planter. The year was 1938 and his fellow passengers were prosperous Jewish refugees bound for Sydney and a new, safer life down under. As he disembarked in Colombo, his sister greeted him with solemn news from Kilkenny; mother is unwell. The siblings had just enough time to drink some tea and climb Adam's Peak, Sri Lanka's answer to Croagh Patrick, before the next liner set forth across the Indian Ocean and back down the Suez.

64 years later. British Ceylon is independent Sri Lanka. And you can be there, sipping sundowners outside the Galle Face Hotel, in less than 24 hours. It is socially forbidden to visit Colombo and not stay at the GFH. Everyone stays here and everyone has stayed here since it was established in 1864. Its charm lies in its shambolic elegance; glimmers of the glory days, clipped murmurings of colonial ghosts, dolphins skipping on the Indian Ocean, Sinhalese doormen with elongated moustaches, rubber bathplugs that don't fit. Outside, instead of the eagerly awaited parrots, hundreds of pesky black crows swoop and crrrrrrrk, tropical clones of our very own feathered rats. But new masters are coming soon to the GFH; a local resort chain snapped it by private treaty a few months back. It's a sign of the times that Sri Lanka's most famous colonial relic is about to get a 21st century facelift.

Sri Lanka is the same size as Ireland. Or just about. Ireland without County Wexford, say. It's green. It's got black crows. It used to be British. And there are troubles in the north. But there the similarities stop. 20 million people, more than Australia, rising steadily with more than a third under the age of puberty. 70% are Sinhalese Buddhists, whose serene roots lie amid the dead cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. 15% are Tamil Hindus, imported from southern India in the late 19th century. A century of frenzied Portuguese proselytizing left its mark in the various Catholic churches and grottos scattered around the coast, accounting for some 7% of the population. Another 7% are Muslim, descendents of Arab traders, a minority on the rise, buying up useful blocks in Colombo City and the principal towns. But for now, everyone seems to get on remarkably well, bonded by a mutual passion for public holidays. Sri Lanka has more national holidays than any other nation in the world. Every full moon day is a holiday. And, on account of all the different religions, there are holidays for Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Shiva and pretty much all 330 million deities of the Brahman pantheon.

Everyone insists that the war in the north is not religious. It's about identity. In 1972 the Sinhalese-dominated Parliament passed a law in which Sinhalese was deemed the only state language. Resistance in the Tamil-speaking, Hindu dominated north soon took the shape of the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization financed by Hindus in India. Rajiv Gandhi was one of the more high profile victims in a brutal conflict that has left upwards of 60,000 people dead, most of them civilians. Last February, a Norwegian team brokered a ceasefire between government forces and "freedom fighters". The world moves too swiftly to describe the present state of the peace talks. The common people are cautious but hopeful.

A friend recently returned from Havana assures me the Cuban seas are filled with wealthy investors in pin-striped frog-suits ready to swim ashore the instant Fidel goes to meet his maker. If this ceasefire holds, the same fate will befall Sri Lanka. It's CV is far too enticing. Five hours from Dubai, Hong Kong or Singapore. A tropical island rimmed with 1000 miles of sandy beach, situated at the southern tip of India. A bizarre weather pattern that means its always perfect somewhere on the island. A landscape so fertile that if you spit on the ground, a bush will explode to life. A traditional Asian culture familiar with English language, Western cuisine, Christian thoughts and colonial ways.

Like Ireland, Sri Lanka is an island people like to invade. Whenever anybody made it big in Southern India, they invariably headed south and took a potshot at the island formerly known as "Serendib". Many of the Tamil Hindu population descend from this era. In 1505, a Portuguese ship on its way to India blew off course and fetched up at a small bay, now called Galle, on Sri Lanka's south west coast. The inevitable scuffle between native and invader ensued, leaving Catholic Portugal in the ascendancy. The sombre forces of Dutch Puritanism defeated the Portuguese in the 17th century and nabbed the entire coastline for the VOC, the Dutch East Indies Company. For 140 years, the island served as a strategic base for ships sailing between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). I met an Arab in the Fort at Galle one morning who looked so like a friend of mine that, within seconds, I'd been hypnotized into exchanging several hundred rupees for a coin, apparently issued by the VOC, dated to 1787. He maintained that divers had found it on the coral reef.

In the wake of the French Revolution, the island was seized by the British and formally declared a colony of the British Crown. This claim, conceded by the Dutch, was complicated by the fact that, deep within the inaccessible highlands, there was still a native royal family who, despite 300 years of European intrigue, had never submitted to anyone. In 1815, riding high after Waterloo, the British Redcoats advanced on the King of Kandy with canon balls, musketry and horse-power. Total conquest came fast and furious.

British Ceylon was a colony in which Irishmen were prominent. As engineers and planters, botanists and explorers, military attaches and civil servants. One of the most celebrated Governors was Sir William Gregory, husband to the great Lady Gregory. During his tenure (1872-1877), the Galway landlord initiated the restoration of thousands of defunct water tanks across the island, enabling the population to once again irrigate their parched mouths and rice paddies with monsoonal rainwater during the long dry seasons. When the island's coffee industry was hit by a devastating blight in 1875, Gregory's office encouraged the plantation of tea and rubber instead. Today the tea industry still accounts for about 15% of exports. It was also during Gregory's term that rubber trees were planted on the island, enabling planters to meet an increasing global demand that would mushroom with the evolution of the motorcar. He converted the Royal Pleasure Gardens of Kandy into the world famous Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, a wonderful 60 hectare oasis of trees and shrubs. Lord Mountbatten enjoyed many a pensive stroll here while head-quartered at Kandy during the last world war.

One of the principal architects of Sri Lanka's independence in February 1948 was Frederick de Silva, scion of a prominent Sri Lankan dynasty that today includes fashion divas Selina and Isabella Blow. We stayed a night at the extraordinary home of his daughter, Helga de Silva Blow Perrera. The building is on the side of a hill overlooking Kandy's Temple of the Sacred Tooth. It was designed by Helga's mother, Esme de Silva, a Bauhauser who studied with Le Corbusier, during the 1930s. Mahatma Gandhi was a regular visitor in the 1940s while Peter Finch and Vivien Leigh enjoyed a famous affair while staying here during the 1956 filming of "Elephant Walk". The locality remained fashionable with Hollywood; the following year David Lean, Alec Guinness and friends marched in to make "The Bridge over the River Kwai".

Less than a decade after Sri Lankan independence was secured, a Sinhalese man named SWRD Bandaranaike came to power. Reared in a well-to-do English-speaking household, he later studied in Oxford, where he was so offended by racial slights that he turned rampantly anti-British. His party promise - and considerable achievement - was to dismantle the colonial infrastructure. In 1959 a Buddhist monk shot him dead. In the elections that followed, his widow Sirimavo became the first female Prime Minister in the world. She continued her husband's radical policies, stripping landowners of everything bar 50 acres per head, and implementing the ill-advised "Sinhala Only" language programme that so bitterly divided the population. But such is the power of Sri Lanka's unofficial Royal family that, when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became Sri Lanka's first female President in 1994, she was able to appoint her elderly mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister. Sirimavo died in October 2000; Chandrika is still President.

21st century Sri Lanka is still a poor country, its population principally employed in the manufacture of garments, tea and rubber. Most of the old colonial families - Dutch as well as British - vanished in the wake of the Bandaranaike years. There are still some stalwarts of the old world - such as Chris Worthington, a septuagenarian, whose limited range of soft cheddar cheese is perhaps the most sought after commodity on the island. But a new wave of invaders has already started to fall upon the coastline and particularly down south around Galle. The present assault is headed up by a crack squad of interior designers, publishing tycoons, fashion gurus, European aristocrats, Hong Kong taipans, jewelry maestros, cricket stars and international socialites. All they need is a murder mystery writer. Big names, big bucks. When Hans Hoeffer, publisher of the enormously successful Insight Travel Guides, moved into the neighbourhood, everyone clicked that this was getting serious. The up-market Aman group has just purchased Galle's down-trodden New Oriental Hotel and that should say it all. Rock bottom house prices combined with jungle landscapes, tropical weather, sandy beaches and a multi-dimensional colonial legacy are bringing the island of tennis and tea right back into vogue.

This article was published in The Irish Times Magazine on Saturday 11th May 2002.