NOTE: There are several pages of photos. Please don't forget to go to them.
On Wednesday, February 16, I had an adventure. My friend Tessa had whetted my appetite for making a trip to a town called Baddegama, for, when she learned that I’d be spending some time on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, she mentioned that her grandfather and father had had a tea plantation in that part of the county, in a village near Galle called Baddegama. She told me her grandfather’s name was Edward Deslandes Bowman and that he had married the daughter of another planter family, the Winters. Her father, E.A. Bowman, who was born in Sri Lanka, was the offspring of that union. She suggested I visit the plantation, which had been nationalized years ago, and see where the Bowmans were buried, but other than the name Baddegama, she couldn’t give me much information about how to get there.
A local map showed Baddegama as being inland from a place called Hikkaduwa, which was a stop on the train going south from Bentota, the seaside resort where I was staying. So, not knowing how I’d get from Hikkaduwa to Baddegama but figuring
there’d be some means of transportation once I got off there, I set off on the 10 a.m. “express”. The train was packed with Singalese occupying every available seat and crowding the aisles, both in 2nd and 3rd classes. As chance would have it, though, the uniformed train official on board let me and Dominique and Sophie make the journey in the car where his desk was and where merchandise (in this case, boxes of chirping day-old chicks, earthenware pots of curd and mysterious newspaper-covered bundles) was also being transported. Despite the hardness of the bench we were allowed to use, we certainly were more comfortable sitting there than standing for an hour in the 2nd or 3rd class compartment.
Leaving Dominique and Sophie, who were continuing on to Galle, I got off the train at Hikkaduwa and set out to find a taxi. There wasn’t a car to be found, but, as I discovered, the numerous “tuk tuk” drivers waiting at the station were more than willing to drive the 12 kilometers to Baddegama. I negotiated the journey with one of them: he said he’d take me there for 500 rupies (about 3 euros). I agreed to his
price, reckoning that once I got to Baddegama, I’d figure out how to get to the tea plantation and then to Galle, which I also wanted to visit. Forty-five minutes later, the driver and I arrived at the main square of the town, which was little more than a noisy intersection and outdoor bus depot.
Realizing that I wouldn’t find much help there, I suddenly had an idea: Tessa had mentioned that her ancestors were buried in the graveyard of Christ Church. Why didn’t I go there? If nothing else, I could at least take photos of their gravestones. The driver agreed to take me there, but since he didn’t know the town, he had to ask locals how to get to—as he called it—“chrisechurch.” Winding through luxurious greenery and climbing a hill, we eventually we got to Christ Church Girls’ College. But no church or graveyard was in sight. Joining my hands together to make a praying gesture, I tried to explain to the driver what I was looking for. He finally understood and asked another passerby in Singalese for the way to the church. We continued up the hill and at last I saw a tall stone
bell tower and a stone building.
The driver parked his vehicle, and I got out, noticing as I did a small sign indicating “the vicarage.” Two little girls and a woman greeted me when I knocked. Asking me to sit down, the woman then disappeared into another room. A few minutes later, another woman who was holding a baby in her arms came out and introduced herself as the vicar’s wife. She spoke very good English, so I was able to explain my quest to visit the tea plantation and see the Bowman graves. She said that her husband would be back shortly and would be able to give me information but that, unfortunately, they had house guests so he would not be able to drive me there. She suggested I keep the “tuk tuk” and negotiated with the driver that he accompany me to the tea plantation.
As they were talking, the young-looking vicar returned, carrying what looked like groceries. His name is Niroshan De Mel and he, too spoke very good English. He was very keen to talk about the connection between the Bowmans and the Winters and Christ Church. He informed me that an Australian
lady, a Winter descendent, had come to the church nine months previously seeing information about her ancestors and wishing to see their gravestones and the tea and rubber plantation. The vicar said that since her visit, they have been corresponding by email and that he had begun collecting information, for, as he said, the history of Christ Church is very closely linked to the history of the Winters and the Bowmans.
The vicar showed me the two Winter tombstones in the church cemetery but said that the Bowmans and another Winter (as well as his Singhalese mistress!) were buried on the tea plantation, which is not in Baddegama itself but at the Pilagoda Valley Estate. He suggested I go there but that I first stop off on the way to talk with one of his parishioners, an elderly gentleman who worked for many years for the Bowmans and the Winters. He then opened the door of the church and asked me to step in and have a look around. He said it had been founded by Anglican missionaries in 1818.
Father De Mel then negotiated for me with the tuk tuk driver, who agreed to drive me to Winter’s
Ferry to meet the elderly parishioner, then to the Pilagoda Valley Estate and on to Galle. All tolled, including the Hikkadawa-Baddegama segment, the journey would cover some 50 kilometers, for which he asked 1500 rupies or about 10 euros. (As he was a real trooper and a good driver, I later paid him 500 rupies extra.)
So, off we went, bumping along on the pot-holed country roads to Winter’s Ferry, the spot where George Winter first landed. Opposite the landing place stands a one-storeyed, wooden house amidst a field of tea plants. The driver and I were greeted by Paul Samarasningha, an osteoporosis-stricken 87-year-old man who spoke good English, and two rambunctious (great?) grandchildren. The elderly man invited us inside, sat me down on a worn, velvet-colored yellow sofa, and proceeded to tell me about the Winters and the Bowmans. I must admit that because he barely had any teeth and because I didn’t really know the names he mentioned or the family connections, it wasn’t always easy for me to follow.
I think Paul Samarasningha could have continued speaking about the past for hours, but both the driver and I were anxious to get on our way,
so, bidding farewell to Mr. Samarasningha, we set out to find the tea and rubber plantation on the Pilagoda Valley Estate. We must have driven12-15 kilometers in the midday heat, the driver stopping every 10 minutes or so to ask for directions. Unfortunately, we were sent on several wild goose chases, but, after crossing under the bridge of a highway now under construction, we were finally assured we were on the right road. Then, hallelujah, appeared a sign with an arrow indicating the direction to the B.E.L.T. Plantation. Pilagoda Valley Estate.
About 2 kilometers down the road, the entrance to the estate appeared. To the right, up on a hill, stood an imposing, two-storeyed wooden house which a sign reading “Superintendent’s Residence.” Was this the Bowman bungalow Tessa had told me about? I asked myself. Unfortunately, though, no one was around who could inform me. I learned later that February 16 was a holiday this year in Sri Lanka. The house was shut up and empty, as were the run-down factory and the office. Disappointed, I looked around and spotted a rectangular stone wall on small hill above the factory. Within the weed-overgrown enclosure lay two tombstones. One was
marked XXX Winter, the other a name I could not decipher. Would this be the tomb of the mistress the vicar had told me about? Probably so. But where were the Bowman graves? (Tessa hqs since written me that they really ARE in the Christ Church cemetery.)
By this time, the driver was getting anxious to start the long drive to Galle, so I got back into the tuk tuk, and we drove away from the estate.
On Saturday, February 19, I took the 8:30 a.m. “express” train from Bentota up to Colombo, returning several hours later on the 3:50 p.m. train. Although it was very hot and humid, I had a nice day. I particularly liked visiting two Hindu temples in the Pettah neighborhood. In both, I was able to observe a devotional ritual in which bare-chested men lit candles and opened curtains behind which stood certain Hindu divinities. The scenes I saw were amazing: people raising their arms above their heads in prayer, prostrating themselves, and then drinking what I supposed was holy water. The, unfortunately, I didn’t dare take photos.
Except for the relationship with the Tamil Tigers, it would seem that, on
the whole, Sri Lanka’s religious groups “get along”. The staff at my hotel are Muslim and the cooking “halal.” The Hindu temples I saw are located in a Muslim neighborhood (the Pettah). February 16th was a Muslim holiday, February 17th a Buddhist one (the full-moon); both were celebrated by all nationally.
Before I close this entry, just a remark: I’ll be flying back to Paris next Tuesday, February 22 on Gulf Air, with a 5-hour stopover in Bahrein. If you’ve been watching the news, you know that there have been demonstrations and government crackdowns there. Hopefully, we won’t encounter any trouble!
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