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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

ELEPHANT COMPLEX - Travels in Sri Lanka by John Gimlette – A Review.


By Srianee Fernando Dias

In January 2017, I had the privilege of hearing John Gimlette at the Galle Literary Festival speak about his book, which was published in 2016.  I made a mental note to read it, but it took another year before I got around to reading it.  It is a remarkable book and I recommend it, especially for those of us who are living outside Sri Lanka.  The subtitle is “Travels in Sri Lanka,” but it is not simply a tour guide.

The author practices law in London when he is not traveling and writing travel books, and has won many awards for his writing.  He contributes regularly to several publications, including The Times (London), The Guardian, Condè Nast Traveler, etc.

In his travels and explorations of the Island he interviews people from all walks of life; former presidents, ministers, Colombo socialites, army generals, navy commanders, soldiers, survivors of the war, former LTTE members, tuk-tuk drivers and many others.  His travels do not include stops in resorts or 5 star hotels.  He takes us through less traveled roads into remote villages and unusual places which really whetted my desire to see such places, but I think I will have to be satisfied with just reading about them. 

One such place that he describes, and one I had not heard about, is Ritigala “nestled high in the rocks,” which had been established by a community of ascetics in the seventh century.  They rejected earthly wealth and dressed only in clothes that others had thrown away or clothes salvaged from the dead.  They also rejected housing and lived in caves, connected by staircases.

Another fascinating section of the book is his attempt to find the “Great Road” which once connected Kandy to the lowlands.  It had been abandoned two centuries earlier, but had been documented by several explorers. John Gimlette undertook painstaking research to locate it, and worked backwards from Kandy to the lowlands.  His most helpful lead came from the travelogue of Dr. John Davy, brother of Sir Humphrey Davy, the inventor of the miner’s lamp.

The author writes with humor, warmth and affection about the people he meets, even when he makes certain negative observations about some of them!  He goes into depth describing some of the events of the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.  He does not pass judgment.  There may be some inaccuracies in his narrative, but I think they are forgivable, considering the extensive research that has gone into writing this book.

I found the historical accounts that have been interspersed throughout the book quite fascinating, because the historical events come alive.  I was one of those students who yawned (and probably even dozed off!) during the history class at Ladies’ College.  But, in my defense, one of the teachers simply had the students taking turns at reading the text out loud.  I don’t remember any interesting discussions.  I learned a lot of history simply by reading this book, but I also realized what a complicated and violent history we have lived through, in ancient times as well as in the recent past. 

I hope that some of the readers of this review will pick up the book and read it.  You will not regret it.  It is available in paper back on Amazon and can be ordered through  Vijitha Yapa Bookshop in Colombo.  (Each time they get a few they seem to sell out!)

27 comments:

  1. Well done Srianee,by telling us that something you read during your holiday in Srilanka.
    Name Ritigala rings a bell.There is a folklore about a person called Jayasena,who fought with "Mahasona",who supposed is to dwell in Cemeteries.
    I,will certainly look out for that book you have mentioned.
    Tell us more about your discoveries,before heading for Connecticut.

    Sumathi

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  2. Many thanks for your post Srianee. I like your literary style, very engaging and free flowing. You have certainly succeeded in making me want to read this book! I am not at all sure whether I have been to Ritigala but I will put that right as it seems so full of history. I know exactly what you mean by becoming interested i subjects such as History at a more mature age and I just cannot condone the teaching methods used by my teachers at Royal. I had the same experience as you with each of us standing up in turn to read a page and sit down to make way for the next in the class. When I think of the lost opportunity, I am saddened and angered as History could have been made so interesting. I had a whiff of what it could have been like when our history teacher was ill one day and a substitute took the class. His name was Mr Smaraweera, better known as "Pol tokka" and he had us all spellbound as he waxed eloquently, using the entire black board for a visual display not second to modern day PowerPoint. He was just amazing.

    I do have a few books on Sri Lanka, the most unusual and I think rare one being "The Real Ceylon" by C.Brooke Elliott, published by H W Cave in 1938. I have no idea who he was but he says he had lived in Ceylon for 40 years at the time of writing. It is a Travel book with many lovely stories. I shall just relate one. One morning, a lady confessed to the hired driver that she forgot to administer Sanatogen to her ailing husband who was being taken to his office, and the driver rebuked her saying "Please,why Lady sending Master to Office without sanitation?".

    But I digress.

    Coming back to the book Srianee is reviewing, it appears to be a very "human" story with honest observations. I note that it would cost around £10 from Amazon, the same as the book I referred to, which by the way, originally sold for One Rupee or one and six pence in old money!

    If any reader can enlighten me on who Charles Brooke Elliott, KC was, I will be most grateful. Google did not help.

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  3. Srianee
    What a lovely and comprehensive review. Thank you. Although nothing much stuck in my brain I loved history which was taught well by enthusiastic teachers. Look forward to reading the book. I am an ebook fan and will download from Amazon.

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  4. Sumathi, Mahen and ND, thanks for your encouraging comments. I think it is important to share the good things that we discover. I am awaiting a visit from two American friends in two days, which is one of the reasons I felt I had to read this book which had been on my pile of "books to read." I needed to do some homework and gather some background knowledge before they arrive. These are my first visitors from the US who are braving the long flight to Colombo. It will be interesting to see their reactions to everything they encounter here. As for history teachers, ND, you seem to have lucked out! Mahen, the name "Pol Tokka" is one I have heard before. I wonder whether he ended up in your rival school, STC? I will find out... BTW, Manel W. said that she has visited Ritigala a few times and that it is a beautiful place.

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    1. You are welcome!Srianee.I am sure,you will entertain your American buddies in affluent Colombo7>There is no doubt,they will venture out into Wanni,to see the Weddhas.
      I,wish them a bon voyage(Subh yatra(hindi version).

      Sumathi

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  5. My mistake. He was Lionel Samararatne and not Samaraweera. He died in 2013. He did leave Royal but not to join St Thomas's (he had more sense than that!) to join Gateway College (Mr Ralph Alles's inspiration).

    Srianee, if you could get hold of the book I referred to by Brookes Elliott, you will find it helpful when you meet your US friends.

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  6. I have visited Ritigala with Indra in our early years may be before 2000. What I heard was that it was constructed by a King ??? and presented to the monks.Adjacent to that are plantations of Ayurvedic herbs .

    - Sarath Perera -

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    1. Sarath, Welcome to the Blog. Your views and contributions will be greatly valued.

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  7. This is Zita
    Reading that review and the way you have tackled it gives me the appetite to read it Srianee. It appears from what you say that we could learn a lot about our own country. I am ashamed how little I know about even the geography. Thanks for wetting our appetite or is it whetting? Just now my eyes fell on Mahendra's 'sanatogen' joke. Look how much discussion your review has led to! Zita

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  8. Nice to see you back Zita Not the same without your contributions! I am getting that book too.

    I met a group of Thomians this weekend and we (the Royalists), had some good-natured "digs" at each other. Apart from Medical colleagues, Old Schools also appear to maintain contact as they have a common background. do many schools have their websites, or blogs and of course Annual Dinner Dances.

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    1. The Royal Thomian friendly rivalry is legendary! It's one of those things which is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It's history, it's memories, it's culture, it's part of one's growing up. One's school experience is something that goes with you throughout your life. We who had nothing to do with Royal College or St Thomas's were part of it just like all of you. So I am very happy when our conversations veer that way.

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  9. Hello everyone, I'm writing to you from Haputhale, where I am hanging out with my two friends who are visiting from the US. It is fun seeing the country through their eyes; they are delighted with everything they have seen and experienced so far. The vistas out here here are impressing them quite a bit. We had a brief power outage last night and they took the opportunity to check out the stars in the clear night sky. We walked up to Bambarkanda Falls, the highest in SL and I think it was definitely worth the steep climb to get up close.

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    1. Good to hear that you are having a great time with your friends and that they are enjoying the magnificent scenery. I like your spelling of Haputhale too, with "th" rather than "t"! I have fond memories of Haputhale as we spent many holidays there in my childhood.

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    2. Hi!Speedy,
      A lot of people get the wrong letters instead of appropriate letter,in translating Sinhala names to English.There are thousands of misspelled names in Srilanka.
      Sinha becomes Singhe,Ratna becomes Ratne ,Galla become Galle
      Do n't you think is time to put those names right

      Food for thought!

      Sumathi,

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    3. Hi Sumathi. I suppose it is most often a different way of spelling a sinhala word hrather than a misspelling as there is no official or agreed way of how a Sinhala word should be spelled in English. Most often it is an attempt to reproduce the sound produced using sinhala symbols, using English (and vice versa when going English to Sinhala). So, Kegalle could be Kegalla or Kegalle. Gonsalkorale could be Gonsalkorale or Gonsalkorala. The latter is a good example of an official version as my birth certificate is spelt with an "e" and not "a". Many, incluiding Lucky would argue that GOnsalkorala is more in keeping with my Sinhala speclling but the point is that it is spelt with an "e" ,like it or not

      The interestinhg thing about Place names in Sri Lanka and the use of the English language is how names get corrupted in the process of translation/interpretation. For example, many English people called Kurunegala, "Kernigall" and Nuwara Eliya, New Reliya! Colombo is called "Kolumboh" even by many Sinhalese when speaking in English and not "Ko-la-mba". Galle is interesting as very few calle it "Gall-lah" when referring it to in English conversation; it is usually called "Gall" as in Gall bladder.

      Nationalism also plays a part. Calcutta is now Kolkata and Bombay is Mumbai.

      My own feeling is it doesn't really matter so long as we know what is being referred to. Language is dynamic and the highest form of symbolic expression amongst animals and it purpose is communication.

      It would be interesting to hear other views

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    4. I am sorry to mention about the translation of the word intelligence into Sinhala,got it wrong.It should be worded not as Buddhi Ansaya,but rahas ottu karayo.Do you,reckon,my translation is more appropriate.Another translations that,I have come across is PWD-prasidda Weda departhamenthuwa.It should be worded as Mahajana Weda Departhamenthuwa.The problem with our lexicographers is that they have to depend on either Sanskrit words or some thing silly that comes into their mind.You know very well,Jalaya is an Persian word for the net,so the translation of internet is Anthar Jalaya.Anthar stands for inter.
      You know the old joke about the PWD.Pare wedekarana Demalu.No wonder,British Raj employed Indian Tamils to do the hard work.Sinhalese were not prepared to work in the hot sun,laying asphalat.

      Hope!Lucky may have some comments.

      Sumathi

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    5. I am making this comment specifically to oblige Sumathi. I agree with him almost in toto. But I beg to differ on one aspect.

      As far as I know, Lexicographer is a person who writes or compiles dictionaries. Here we are talking about translations. Hence "Translator" would be a more appropriate word to describe the person responsible for these errors.

      Anyway, I think we are splitting hairs. Let's close by adding one more to Sumathi's list. GPO (General Post Office) - "Gahapan Pollen Oluwata".

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    6. Thank you for your comments with a sense of humour.
      I hope there are some more interesting translations in the air.

      Sumathi

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  10. I have not forgotten that your friends from the US will be with you from the 15th. I see that you are traveling around with them. I remember stopping over in Haputale while returning from a trip to Arugam Bay with JC annd Sura. We stayed one night in a hotel by the name of Olympus which was very good.

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    1. All these are due to the vagaries of 'Transliteration' as opposed to 'Translation' which is expressing the meanings. Where as transliteration phonetic expression.
      Mahen has gone into detail on this score.

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  11. Hi!Sriyanee,
    I,am pleased to hear that your US buddies have arrived safely and enjoying the beauty of evergreen forests&fauna of the island.
    Do not fail to visit Horton Plains and the Belihuloya rest house.
    I heard, some of our colleagues had good time there,in the days bygone.

    Sumathi

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  12. What a coincidence! We stopped there for lunch today while walking back from Adisham, the Benedictine Monastery. A place with a gorgeous view, and an interesting history.

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  13. Srianee, Thank you for the review. You are very lucky to be traveling to all those lovely places in SL .
    Believe it or not It reminds me of times we sat in front of a log fire in the Horton Plains!! Glad you are having a great time with your friends out there.
    If you are interested in reading SL history there is “A Comprehensive History of SL from prehistory to Tsunami” by Nath Yogasunderam,a SriLankan ,STC educated vascular surgeon ,now retired and living in U.K. just 400;pages to read. Have a great time..

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  14. Srianee, Mahendra, Sumathi, Rohini, Lucky, visiting this post again after some days and reading your comments gave me so much knowledge about places I knew mostly as names only. Shame on me, of course, but not all of us had the facilities for travel in those days and articles like Srianee's and even the comments, serve a great purpose. I imagine a log fire in the Horton Plains,Hotel Olympus in Haputale, intricacies of word translation and the definition of lexicographer! What a wealth of information a single article can bring us! Thanks, all! I doubt whether I can ever do this trip now but you provided a virtual trip. I truly appreciate it. This is from Zita

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  15. About Horton plains Srianee, there is in Barefoot, Colpetty, a book by Dominic Sansoni. He is a professional photographer & the book catalogues all the fauna & flora there ,embellished with beautiful photographs. It is the best on Horton plains I have come across. We are able to see why it became a UNESCO world heritage site.
    ia

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  16. Thank you all you guys for interesting journey through 'Ceylon'!! How names have been twisted by our colonizers. Kollupitiya became COLPITY, Kalutara-- KALTURA, Negombo --- from the tale of 'nikkan buranwa', Hambantota---- HAMBANTOT, Jaffna--- YALPANAM, Mannaram---MANNAR, Bengaluru---- BANGALORE. These a few in addition to Mahen's lot.
    How names have been perverted!!!.
    I worked with the BYYAS /Veddahs @ Siyabalanduwa off Monaragala--- a really grateful, faithful and generous group of people being denigrated by the so call 'elie' in rest our our country.
    SHAME ON THEM.

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    1. Thank you patriotic-Razaque.
      Most interesting names have been corrupted by the colonisers,over the years.It is a shame,our own people twisted their tongues to imitate the colonial Master; accent.
      I,was born in a place called,Delgomuwa(Delgamuwa),in Ratnapura district.It has a famous ancient temple,which gave protection to Tooth relic of Lord Buddha,during king Walagambahu's reign.The name of the village remained untarnished over the years.
      what about names like Batticaloa(Madakalapuwa)Trincomalee(thricorner malai)Dewundara is called Dondra.Chilaw(Halawatha)Do not forget the Kingdom of Kanda Udarata-Kandy.I am sure British invader misspelt Kanda as Kandy.
      We are going at a snail pace,with regard to getting our Sinhala and Tamil name, as they were to prior to colonisation.

      Sumathi

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