Gardens: botanic, palace, temple, tea

After a week of golden sand it was time to explore inland. It has long been an ambition of mine to take the trip from Colombo to Kandy, the capital of the central province of Sri Lanka, and to continue further to Nuwara Eliya, often described as the ‘Champagne of tea’. The train journey, reputed as one of the most beautiful in the world, did not disappoint: pale coloured houses give way to dense jungle, which opens up to epic mountain vistas.

This was something of a school trip as all the artists based at Sura Medura were keen to eye Kandy.

Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya
We spent the first morning in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. The history of the gardens dates as far back as 1371 when King Wickramabahu III ascended to the throne and kept court at Peradeniya. Palm lined avenues, bamboo forests, flower gardens, and an area hosting memorial trees planted by such diverse guests as The Prince of Wales (not Charles but Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria, later to become Edward VII) and Yuri Gagarin, (the first human to journey into outer space). In the orchid house, specimens abound.

The yellow bamboo (Bambusa vulgaris) which is native to Sri Lanka, is covered in carved graffiti.

It was the trees that captured my attention most forcefully. The jack fruit hanging off this one were not only beautiful, but also made sense of a batik design I had seen earlier in the morning. The large fruit nestled and hugged by their mother trunk.

I don’t know what these trees are but they look almost like they are formed of plasticine.

This is a famous tree: a Giant Java Fig whose broad canopy needs to be supported by metal struts.

If you stand underneath some of these trees, you see a fluttering of black shapes.

They wobble and broaden and then take off. They are flying foxes (Pteropus giganteus) otherwise known as the fruit bat. This colony in Peradeniya numbers around 24,000. They feed on fruit and nectar and contribute to pollination, seed dispersal, crop protection, and elimination of various pests.

A day trip out of Kandy is Sigiriya. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, Sigiriya is a unique and extraordinary landscape city, created in the 5th Century AD by order of King Kashyapa, embracing a 200 meter rock and its surroundings. It is a kind of nature driven architecture, comprising buildings, pathways, terraces, ponds, paintings and sculpture. Yes, Kashyappa built his kingdom on top of this rock. It has to be one of the most impressive palaces in the world.

A seemingly endless series of steps take you from the pleasure gardens at ground level up to his private chambers at the top.

The architecture works in harmony with nature. This giant boulder arched gateway is an example.

The royal city is often carved into the pre-existing stone. An audience hall (top right) is created on a flattened summit of a boulder. The main seat at the southern end is carved out of the living rock.

These cheeky chaps have made the trees of Sigiriya their home.

About halfway into the climb, a sign sensibly advises that only the sober should continue. It is an extremely vertiginous route at times, and it’s not hard to imagine that there must have been many fatalities in the creation of this rock kingdom.

Before the way opens to the summit, a giant pair of lion’s paws signal the grandeur and foreboding of the inner sanctum. Archaeologists conclude that once the head of the lion would have sat above these sharpened claws and that you would have literally been walking into the mouth of the lion were you to attempt a visit to King Kashyappa at home.

At the top, the views are monumental. After the climb, even more thrilling than they might otherwise have been. I found myself in wonder and awe, and also somewhat jealous, of a long dead king.

Cave Temple Dambulla
The Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, another World Heritage Site, is the largest and best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. There are a total of 153 Buddha statues and over 2,100 square metres of murals. Prehistoric peoples would have lived in these cave complexes before the arrival of Buddhism.

Relatively recent (early 20th Century) colonnaded porches give way to the ancient caves.

Behind a narrow entranceway, you glimpse something…

…which turns out to be Buddha’s reclining thighs. I wouldn’t describe myself as a spiritual person but I found this first, more modest cave, extremely moving. The space is very confined, dimly lit, and almost entirely taken up by the reclining figure. You are clearly in the presence of a giant – both literally and metaphorically. It is impossible to have the entire view. You must navigate him as if he were a landscape.

The gold and ochre painted feet glimmer in the half-light.

The other caves might be more impressive in terms of grandeur but it was in this first one that I felt a bodily reverence. Nevertheless the other caves are each as spectacular in their own way. The image of the Buddha repeated again and again.

The walls and ceilings are painted in extremely beautiful patterns: geometric, floral, human. The design follows the natural curve of the cave and it is almost as if a gust of air has been caught under a billowing cloth.

Sigiriya and the Cave Temples were my highlights but they were by no means the only things we saw. Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was also an exceptional experience. One of the holiest places in Sri Lanka the temple complex is built around a tooth of Buddha, which was saved from his cremation pyre and carried secretly in the hair of Princess Hemamali across the Gulf of Mannar to Sri Lanka for safe keeping. Beautiful as it was, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic could not quite live up to the story of its inception, which for me, is where the magic lies.

Feeling somewhat over-stimulated it was time to remember my reason for being here, and so I focussed on trying to find the perfect cup of tea. Now it was time to say goodbye to Kandy and to my fellow artists-in-residence and to head off on my own into the heart of tea country.

Ceylon Tea Museum
Located in a former tea factory in Hantane, just outside of Kandy, is the Ceylon Tea Museum. I had read mixed reviews but was determined to judge for myself.

The building itself was worth it. Most of the original factory structure has been maintained. Walking through the wooden shuttered walls, vented floors, across internal balconies and bridged partitions, is already enough.

The main ground-floor exhibit is of historic machinery. Each piece afforded its own space, like the sculpture hall of a European museum.

I wasn’t really prepared to be interested in the cogs, wheels, pistons, and levers, but (not least due to the repeated colour palette of red and green) I found myself intrigued.

To get a sense of how all this machinery functioned in a working factory, I turned to a miniature. This model tea factory was built by the apprentices of Colombo Commercial Company (Engineers) Ltd, for the Centenary Commemoration Exhibition in 1967 (1867 was the year of the first commercial tea planting in Sri Lanka) and is a replica of Imboolpitiya Tea Factory.

I loved staring into the tiny rooms and imagining tiny people operating the tiny machines. It also gave me a practical insight into the processes of withering, rolling, breaking, oxidisation, drying, and grading that I have read about and heard about so many times. And of course I had a giants-eye-overview of a tea factory layout.

There are another 4 floors in the Ceylon Tea Museum, a whole floor of tea sales, a whole floor of tea rooms, and 2 other floors of oddities. Here is a picture of ‘The Oldest Tea Packet in Sri Lanka’ from 1944. I know it doesn’t seem that old. That’s part of my interest. This massive industry which is so vital to the Sri Lankan economy and that has also spawned much of the tourism, which is also an integral part of its economic plan, is relatively recent.

The Oldest Tea Packet sits in its very own bespoke vitrine on a wooden column.

James Taylor, the Scot widely revered as the ‘father of Ceylon tea’ has his own special room.

He has his own relics that are afforded internment. The bulb of his pipe:

And then, very oddly, this broken baby plate, with tea themed nursery rhyme, labelled, ‘A plate used by James Taylor’.

If the fairies came to tea,
How very jolly that would be,
They’d say ‘Hullo’, I’d say ‘Come in’,
And then the fun would all begin.

Taylor died in 1892 at the age of 57. The plate was illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964). Attwell produced a series of designs for children’s chinaware for Shelly Potteries, who first commissioned her in 1926. Oh. Should I mention this to someone?

Nuwara Eliya
Another spectacular train journey (although admittedly I was standing in an unbearably crowded carriage for the first 2 hours) weaves its way slowly up hill, south, passing in front of Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in Sri Lanka at 2524 meters. Everywhere you look the stepped terraces of tea plantations fan out over the contours of the landscape.

Nuwara Eliya, sometimes known as Little England, and Sri Lanka’s highest town, was almost entirely created by the British. Before tea, there was little there. It has a municipal green area (Victoria Park), a golf course, boating lake, racecourse, and a collection of colonial houses and hotels.

It was in one of these old colonial buildings, whose foundations were laid in 1892, that I was to board. I lucked out on Air B&B with possibly the nicest man in Sri Lanka: Asela Shirin, who was born into this house, lives with his wife and children, works for a pharmaceutical company, and rents out rooms as much for the interest of international connections as for the possibility to supplement his income.

We laughed together as I pointed out the circularity: the British come to Nuwara Eliya, they exploit the land, they create a town, Sri Lanka becomes independent, Asela’s grandfather buys the house which was handed over by the British government to the Sri Lankan government, and Asela rents out rooms to the British, who come to look at the tea plantations. Asela described his house and the town itself as a “gift” from the British. I thought this approach to colonial rule generous. But then my own grandfather, born in Burma, the son of an Iraqi immigrant, would often refer to Pax Britannica, despite the fact that the British were sneering at his father’s thawb (the commonly worn ankle length Arabic tunic) and their desire to be naturalised as British citizens.

A woman who kept a stable that supplied the racecourse modelled the bungalow in the English style. Asela represented his role as owner as “maintenance”. Indeed many of the original features where left intact. I guess not quite original but I did particularly like these resin light switches.

Immediately on leaving the house you are in the tea plantations. They are everywhere. Portions of land belonging to different estates are marked onto cut out signs on living trees.

You can pluck tea – 2 leaves and a bud – with a rest period of a week. Evidence is everywhere, both of a bud ready to pluck…

…and one that just has been.

There is a looming crisis in the Sri Lankan tea industry. In the 19th Century the British exploited the land and imported cheap labour from India to pluck the tea. This brought economic success, first to those British Colonialists, and then, on independence, to Sri Lanka. Ceylon tea is so good because it is plucked by hand. It is by limiting the harvest to 2 leaves and a bud that quality is maintained. No machine can do this.

‘People were brought in from South India to work on the plantations and were confined within the structure, creating a pool of ‘residential labour’ which was totally dependent on the management for all aspects of their lives. […] Considerable changes have taken place in the estate sector since independence as a result of direct, targeted policies and as a response to national changes.’
The Estate Workers’ Dilemma: Tensions and Changes in the Tea and Rubber Plantations in Sri Lanka, 2008 p.xi

One major change is that all Sri Lankans’ are entitled to free education. As the sons and daughters of tea pluckers become educated, they may or may not want to continue the work of their parents. The pool of inexpensive labour for the tea plantations is diminishing. The consequence: machine plucking will need to be considered. If machines are used, the quality of the tea will be in jeopardy. This could potentially decimate the tea industry. One solution: pay more for tea. Make plucking more attractive.

Early in the morning of my second day in Nuwara Eilya, I took a bus through dizzying hairpin bends, the 20 km to Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre. Although everyone still refers to it as ‘Mackwoods’, the lease was recently bought by another big tea manufacturer: Browns.

The factory lies in the most idyllic of settings. A waterfall flows into a stream that passes through a valley of tea plants, each bush at its regulation height, ready to be plucked.

Inside I was offered my very own tour and could see in practice all the processes I had memorised from the machines and models at the Ceylon Tea Museum in Kandy.

All tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. It is the treatment of the leaves that creates the type of tea. At ‘Mackwoods’ they make orthodox Ceylon black tea. The tea is plucked as early in the day as possible. It is brought into the factory and laid out in large troughs. There it is left to wither for 14 hours reducing the water content and starting the process of oxidisation.

The withered leaves are then funnelled down a chute to a machine roller where they gently pass over a series of rotating soft wooden spines that twist the leaves without breaking them.

Leaves are then rolled again, this time breaking them into smaller pieces, releasing tasty chemicals. They are then spread out on trays at controlled temperatures to oxidise. The amount of time leaves are left to ‘ferment’ affects the taste and strength of the brew.

Tea is then dried to stop the fermentation, and graded. Leaves pass along a jiggling conveyor belt and various sized bits fall through different holes.

Tea is then packaged and sent off to auction in Colombo.

Leaving the factory, I head for the tearoom. Surrounded by the gardens from which the tea was planted, nurtured, plucked and prepared, I had the perfect cup of tea.