Welcome back or welcome for the first time to my series about my 2014 trip to Sri Lanka and I do hope you are enjoying it or will do so. If you are a new reader, and I do seem to be getting readers from new countries on a regular basis for which many thanks, then I shall give you my usual little tip which is that if you want to start the story at the beginning you can do so here.
It seems I am passing a few milestones recently. The previous post was the 20th in the series and this one marks a rather more obscure, self-defined goal.
A few posts ago I remarked that I was writing these posts in January 2021 and they referred to January 2014 although I was lamenting the fact that I was always a bit behind e.g. writing about the 15th of the month on the 20th. I wondered if I would ever “catch myself up” and it appears that I have albeit somewhat by default.
I am composing this entry about the 8th February on the 7th of the equivalent month seven years on. I also noticed that I had somehow managed to publish three posts in one day which is a first for me as I am not normally that productive. I probably won’t do that again as I literally had to go and have a lie down after. Well, I had been up for well over 24 hours. Marilyn Monroe informed us that diamonds are a girl’s best friend and I can assure you that insomnia is a blogger’s!
As you will know if you have read through the default I mentioned, and which has led to this situation, is that I did absolutely nothing for 6th and 7th of the month, at least nothing I can remember. I promised that I would actually get out and do a bit of exploring in this episode and that is exactly what I intend to do.
If you want to see what happens then please read on.
8th February, 2014.
I had my usual lie-in on the 8th and didn’t really get going until after lunch but as always I had no set agenda. It occurred to me that I had not really explored the Fort area where I was staying and which was, by it’s very nature, the oldest part of the city.
I had looked at the ramparts and the clock tower but, as I mentioned before, the Fort area sits on a narrow spit of land with the sea on one side and the Nilwala Ganga on the other. Ganga just means river in various Indian group languages, hence the name of the religiously significant River Ganges in India which literally just means River River if you use the English term.
I should say at the outset that the Fort area is not big as it did not originally need to be, it was merely a defensive structure. Also, it suffers a little by comparison to the comparable part of Galle which is a bustling, generally well preserved World Heritage site. Matara Fort is a little run down, untouristed and quiet, almost somnolent.
I have included a few images above to show some of the dilapidation, not in any way to denigrate Matara or it’s citizens but as a matter of record. Perhaps some money has been pumped into the area since I visited, I do hope so as some of these old buildings have the potential to be stunning once again.
I did not have far to go for my first “sight” of the day, the Siri Rathanapala Maha viharaya, a small Buddhist temple as you can see. It is much smaller and less grand than the nearby Parevi Duwa on the island which I have already described to you. It must be quite insignificant, except of course in religious terms to the local people, as the immense knowledge resources of the internet have failed to throw up any sort of history for it, despite my best efforts.
What I can tell you from personal experience is that it was completely deserted on the Saturday afternoon I visited. I removed my footwear and had a look round although it did not take long but the main Buddha image was impressive as were the series of wall paintings depicting the life of the Buddha as far as I could make out.
From the viharaya it was a short step to another place of worship, this one Christian, specifically non-conformist Protestant and this prompts me to a small reflection that Sri Lanka really is a melting pot, over-worked as that term is but I cannot think of a better one.
With a few smaller additions there are two main ethnic groups here, Sinhalese and Tamil who, very broadly speaking are Buddhist and Moslem respectively and have languages from completely different linguistic groups but there is a caveat. There usually is when you try to pigeonhole people it is not easy and often ill-advised.
Onto this Asian background you have to paint a picture of European influence from not one but three European powers bringing with them one general religion but divided into two often violently opposed groups (Protestant and Roman Catholic). Even the Protestant faith is broadly divided into Anglican and various non-conformist groups and you have many of them in Sri Lanka.
To conclude the painting analogy, which is a total non-sequitur as I started with a cooking metaphor, we then have to add the small detail of the various sailors and merchants from elsewhere who stopped here on the lucrative trade routes between Europe and Asia. In world terms Sri Lanka is not a large country but you have all this packed into it’s 25,000 square miles which makes it a most intriguing country to visit but back to the Church.
The fairly plain structure you can see here gives away immediately what denomination the church is. The gable wall is of an architectural style known as a Dutch gable and which will be so familiar to anyone who has visited the Low Countries in Europe so it will come as no surprise that this is the Dutch Reformed Church.
I say it is the Dutch Reformed Church but I cannot be sure. That is what it is known as locally and what it certainly once was but due to a number of mergers and the schisms which Christianity seems to revel in and the last one of which had happened only ten years prior to me taking this image, it may or may not now technically be United Reformed Church.
The Church was built in 1706, which makes it the oldest building in the city, although it was substantially renovated after the “Matara Rebelion” of 1761 so the date above the door is now 1767, marking the completion of the rebuilding works. This is a good time to mention briefly the rebellion as I have not mentioned it before.
In 1761 the Fort was besieged by an army from the inland city of Kandy (a most important place I will take you to much later on) which was led by Kirti Sri Rajasinha who was waging an unlikely but reasonably successful war against the Dutch, ultimately capturing five Dutch forts.
The walls of the Fort ramparts are an impressive 43 feet thick and would have withstood a heavy bombardment so the Kandyans elevated their guns, effectively converting them to howitzers and lobbed shot over the defences. Realising their position was untenable the Dutch spiked their guns and evacuated by sea although many were killed and two officers taken prisoner.
It is interesting to note that once again the European powers were playing out their imperial games far from their own shores. Kirti Sri Rajasinha had met with a British official called Sir George Pigot, Governor of Madras (India) and he sent a fleet of five ships with munitions and 200 men to assist the King. The British were intent on securing the lucrative spice trade with the Kandyans and preventing Dutch consolidation in the region.
Interestingly, the commander of the small force was led by Sir Samuel Cornish who sailed on to capture Manila in the Philippines in 1762 before retiring a very rich man. I did not know any of this at the time but it has now set me thinking that I had been in Manila almost exactly two years before this trip and it seems that everywhere I go, my intrepid forebears have been centuries before. Is there nowhere left for me to discover?
Naturally, the Dutch were none too pleased about being ousted from their little empire and sent a force which re-captured Matara Fort in 1762 and held it until 1796 when they handed it over to the British. The Kandyan King went on to rule for another two decades and oversaw a huge Buddhist revival including the building of the famous Temple of the Tooth in Kandy which is one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism.
Let’s look inside the church now. As you can see, it is very simply decorated which is very much in the Calvinist style. One of their many differences with the established Church from which they sprang was a dislike of the ostentation of Church buildings which they saw as idolatory and so their churches are almost bare of ornamentation.
Whilst the church is old, most of the furniture is relatively new as it was destroyed during the tsunami. There was little structural damage to the building and it was possible to utilise it as a food distribution centre in the awful days after the disaster. It was eventually made good by the Church, specifically it’s Wolvendaal Foundation whose aim is to “further cordial relations between the various races and religions on the island”. Nice idea.
Whilst I love looking around churches, a lot of my interest comes from the artefacts and the memorials so often found there. They are a great source of social history and interest but not available in a Calvinist church so I didn’t stay long and stepped back out into a nice sunny day to find…………a post box! I am not going to bore you all again about my interest in post boxes but I did rather wonder why the top was painted black, I had never seen that before. On we go.
I took a quick walk along the ganga just for a look and the quick image you can see here which I thought looked very tranquil. The Potuguese initially chose Matara as a base because of the deep and sheltered harbour here. I could only imagine what it looked like when a 15 foot wall of water came tearing up it on Boxing Day 2014, it must have been utterly horrifying.
From one tranquil scene to another and the gentle sound of willow on leather, a game of cricket or rather not a game but what appeared to be a Saturday afternoon practice session. The pavilion is named for Mahinda Wijesekar, a politician who like most of his ilk obviously has his eye out for the main chance as he has served in Government in not one but three different political parties.
Had it been a game I might have stopped to watch a few overs. I do like cricket although nowhere like with the passion the Sri Lankans reserve for the game. I am thinking that perhaps I should have added it to my list of religions above! I am sure even a local game in Matara would have been of a decent standard but I wasn’t too interested in a knockabout so I moved on.
I left the Fort and headed across the bridge I had crossed in the bus on my way to Matara as it carries the A2 over the Nilwala Ganga. Apparently it is called Mahamana Bridge and don’t ask me what that means as there are about half a dozen different translations given online, it matters not.
What did interest me was that the restoration of much of the infrastructure between Colombo as far South as Hambantota was being assisted by the Korean government. Apart from a shared Buddhist heritage I did not know of any strong links between the two nations but it was to be a feature I noticed time and time again on my journey. I have read that the tsunami attracted $14 billion US in humanitarian aid which reaffirms your faith in human nature somewhat.
I did see a Sampath Bank and popped in to change some money which was quick, simple and friendly as always. As the image shows this is one of the “Super Branches” I mentioned in an earlier post and it never closes. Can you imagine, that, a bank whose doors never shut? What a brilliant concept.
After a quick pit-stop in the Samanmal restaurant where I managed to obtain a tasty omelette and, at last, a picture of the dining room in daylight, it was back for another wander and what I found next saddened me greatly.
You will know by now that I love wandering around graveyards as I find them fascinating but when I found quite a large one up a little back road it did not take me long to work out that there were a lot of interments there all with the one date of death. Many of the tsunami victims are buried here and it really is tragic.
Perhaps worst of all was the one you can see in one of the images which has a family photo of five people, including an infant child. The date, in Roman script, marks it as a tsunami grave and I could not help but wonder if that was there as a fond family reminder of one member of the group who had perished or, awful as the thought is, that the entire group had lost their lives.
I didn’t really want to think of it then and even now, I am not ashamed to say that re-visiting these images after some years, I am tearing up slightly. You would need to have a heart of stone as hard as that of the grave markers not to be affected by this place. Another one I saw, and could read as it was in English, was of a German couple who had also died that awful day.
I also noticed that the small “chapel” in the graveyard which looked quite “knocked about” with at least one of the stained glass windows almost completely removed. Was this more unrepaired tsunami damage? A piece of glass would have been no match for that surge.
Feeling very reflective I carried on and probably wasn’t paying much attention to where I was going as I was just in full-on Fergy wandering mode by then. I ambled along unpaved tracks just looking round me and relishing the peace and quiet. I saw many derelict buildings and the thought was always there, tsunami or natural dereliction? It was hard to tell.
My natural radar had somehow or another navigated me back to the sea which I naturally seem to drift towards and a bar which seems to hold a similar gravitational pull for me. In this case it was the Reef Edge Resort which was completely empty, even on a Saturday evening in tourist season but it was fine for a few “sundowner” beers which is exactly what I did. I sat on the pleasant verandah supping Lion and watch the sun set yet again over the Laccadive Sea.
It was clear the Reef Edge was never going to liven up so I moved on in search of a place where at least I was not the sole patron. I did find the Royal Sea Wind Hotel but it too was deserted so only merited the one beer. I honestly do not know where people go to socialise in Sri Lanka, or indeed if they go out to do so, it is a mystery to me.
I thought I might have better luck on the main seafront (this was the Polhena Beach suburb) and headed back there but it was pretty dead as well. As it had been a while since my omelette I thought a bite to eat might be in order and here is what happened next.
Slightly odd but great food.
“One evening in Matara I was wandering about looking for a bit of a snack fairly late in the evening. when I say fairly late in Sri Lanka I mean before ten in the evening. It is really hard to get anything to eat after about nine in the evening anywhere there including Colombo, the capital.
Anyway, I happened upon the Indian Spice as I was having a fairly gentle stroll along the seafront in the dark, listening to the surf breaking on the beach and generally feeling fairly good about myself.
I had had a brilliant day out wandering about the Fort in Matara and it’s environs and when I happened upon the Indian Spice restaurant, that looked like just the place for me.
I walked in and quickly established that you ordered at the counter and then the waiter brought your food to the table. No problem, I can do that, I don’t need to be waited on hand and foot.
As I said, I only required a snack and so I opted for the Indian bread which came served with a small dish of what was effectively curry sauce and another of the ubiquitous sambol (spicy chutney). Exactly what I wanted.
I went to seat myself and became aware that the dining area is quite unusual. If you think about perhaps a lecture hall in a University or medical college, that is what it was like. There were row upon row of seats, all facing the television which happened to be showing some British police show and to which the other very few diners seemed transfixed, albeit that the sound was down.
It was a strange dining experience to say the least but the food was excellent, albeit I only had a small amount. I even had a dessert (unusual for me) of a simple ice-cream which was delightful.
I have to say the menu here looked extensive and, even by local standards, the prices were very reasonable.
Just to confuse the issue, the restaurant is also known as the Ambasewana Indian Spice and if you want to see it in more detail than my awful non-flash images show then have a look here.
After that it was a pleasant amble home including a couple of images of Christian symbols, a nightcap beer and so to bed.
In the next post we shall visit a big, big Buddha and, depending on how much writing that takes we might also visit a big, big lighthouse so stay tuned and spread the word.