Monday, February 20, 2017

In Search of the Past, Part 3: Kandy and the Mystery of History

Kandy Lake and the Buddha on the Hill
As a lifelong traveler (originally through books!), I find that place is a key element in my writing. I've got to feel it.  

Queen's Hotel, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Photo by Dushyantha Large
Photo by Dushyantha Large
To research my latest novel, we have come to Kandy, Sri Lanka and are staying at Queen's, the same hotel in which my characters were billeted during WWII. 

It's a "heritage hotel," which here means period charm, but mind the electrical. The open-air Mountbatten Bar is inside the pillars, a cozy spot to ride out the occasional monsoon. 

Here is the lobby, all decked out for the holidays

Behind it is the lift. But if you're in a hurry, take the stairs.

I'm excited to be here, to eat in the same dining room my characters did, to drink in their bar. To sleep in perhaps the same room one of them did and, looking out the window, see what they saw.

I love to explore on foot, so the morning after our Botanic Gardens visit, I take a walk around the lake, the heart of Kandy...still reflecting on the mystery of the King's Pavilion, the scene of some important action in my book. Or is it?

A block from the lake, St. Paul's Church is on the corner of Temple Square.

Across the way, Maha Vishnu Devalaya is a shrine to Vishnu, sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. 

Photo by Dushyantha Large
Photo by Dushyantha Large

At the rear of the square is the Royal Palace of the Kandyan Kings, which connects with the Temple of the Tooth.

Photo by Dushyantha Large
Walking past St. Paul's, I come upon a great white wall. Yesterday we were told the King's Pavilion was not in the Botanic Gardens (as I'd read) but near the Temple in town. I suddenly know: this is it! And how logical, here in the center of Kandy's complex of power, the British built their own official residence--now the Sri Lanka President's House, our tuk-tuk driver later confirms. (The Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha sits atop the hill.)

Photo by Dushyantha Large
Here is a peek inside the former royal estate.

Photo by Dushyantha Large
I know I've become rather obsessed by my investigation (which I will continue with the help of botanist Dushy Large after I return home). What fascinates me is it's a story of how history evolves. What was important then is not important now. Now, a former royal residence sits empty except for ceremonial visits by Sri Lanka’s president. It hides behind a great wall and falls away from history--to the point that many locals know little about it. I think of the forts we've seen, the changing regimes--Portuguese to Dutch to British to Sri Lankan.
Galle Fort, Sri Lanka
This story teaches me to approach my research with caution. However well-intentioned the writers of history are, they make errors. Who can possibly know every building, every character of the past. Names change, priorities change--and governments change. My research has led me on a merry chase, and I've learned just how elusive "truth" is.

Queen's Hotel (left), Kandy Temple Complex (right) and King's aka President's Pavilion (middle)
PS Back home, reviewing my photos, I discover the perfect shot for my mental map: Queen's Hotel (far lakeshore to left); Kandy Temple Complex (across lake on right); St. Paul's ochre tower (middle). And uphill to its left, a bit of white amid the green: King's aka President's Pavilion. Mystery Solved. Now what's next?

Next: In Search of the Past, Part 4: Kandy Wanderings

Thursday, February 9, 2017

In Search of the Past, Part 2: Kandy and the Mystery of History

I'm here to research my latest novel, which takes place partly in Kandy, Sri Lanka, a remote kingdom until the British blasted a railway up the mountain in the mid-19C. A hundred years later, my characters arrived by train, and so do we--ready to walk their paths. 

But history clings to its mystery, and a key location will prove elusive. I will learn that books and, of course, the internet can lead us astray, proving the value of one-the-ground research.  

By the time of my novel, the British Empire was in retreat. Japan's push through Asia seemed unstoppable; every colony had fallen and now India itself was under threat. The Southeast Asia Command, headed by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, moved from Delhi to Kandy, along with many Americans--among them, my cast of characters, who were attached to SEAC on an ad hoc basic.

SEAC was based in the former Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya, a little outside Kandy.

I especially want to find Mountbatten's headquarters here--identified in my research as the King's Pavilion.

I am to be aided by a Twitter friend, international botanist Dushyantha Large. (Kudos to Twitter for connecting people, for building bridges not walls.) "Call me Dushy," are her first words as we meet IRT. A brilliant scholar who views each tree, plant, and flower as well-loved individuals, Dushy now lends her considerable knowledge to the Peradeniya (formerly Royal) Botanic Gardens. And has offered to share it with us!

We begin our tour near the graceful and elegant Amherstia nobilis, Pride of Burma, shown above in bloom.

His personal favorite, Mountbatten planted this specimen near the entrance right after the war. Meet Dushy! 

With humor and patience, she shows us around the calm, spreading gardens. I try to imagine the place bustling with British and American SEAC staff, their offices in temporary basha huts. While the officers and civilians slept in Kandy hotels, the troops stationed here slung hammocks between trees. 

As we show my King's Pavilion photo around, the few who recognize it insist this estate is not here but in Kandy, near the Temple of the Tooth. The picture painted in my mind's eye by my research is not accurate. I must dig deeper. In the meantime, we can enjoy monkeys and "flying foxes," the local bats.

The orchids.

And a lovely lunch.

We continue our explorations in a 3-wheeled tuk-tuk. 

Our driver takes us up a rugged track to Mountbatten's weekend bungalow (now a high-end hotel). 

The American base was in a former tea estate near the Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya, but seeing such development in the area, I realize it is long-gone. At least the geography lives in my mind, though. Along with an image of the Gardens bustling with SEAC personnel. I'm still left with the mystery of King's Pavilion, though. Where was Mountbatten's Headquarters? 

To regroup, we return to Queen's Hotel...

Queen's Hotel, photo by Dushyantha Large
And its venerable Lord Mountbatten Lounge Bar.

Queen's Hotel Bar, photo by Dushyantha Large
Next: The search continues in Kandy

Kandy Town and Lake