Hello once more and a welcome as always to another post in this series about my three month trip to the fantastic country of Sri Lanka between January and April 2014. Obviously in that period of time I got to see and do quite a lot and if you want to read about the whole trip from the beginning you can do so here.
Regular readers will know that I left you in Kandy last time after a fairly extensive day’s sightseeing so I spent the 25th March just hanging about my hotel, drinking beer, chatting to the owner and the cook who were quickly becoming good friends and generally relaxing.
The one productive thing I did was to arrange a day out with my friend Jo for the next day where we planned a special excursion and if you want to know what it was then please read on.
26th March, 2014.
So where had we decided on for a day out in historic Kandy, a city absolutely crammed with wonderful historic buildings and so much more? For those of you that have ever played Monopoly we were going to jail, going directly to jail, not passing go and not collecting £200!
This certainly seems like an odd thing to do so please allow me to explain. You will remember that in a previous post I had mentioned looking at the prison in the centre of Kandy from Wace Park (other names are available) and then walking past it when it looked to me like a functioning penal facility. The reason for this was that until less than three months previously it had been.
Bogambara Prison had been closed on 1st January, 2014 and the inmates moved to a newly built gaol in nearby Pallekelle and the then President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa, of whom I have written many times, decided to open the prison to the public for two weeks between the 15th and 29th of March. I just happened to be there then which was serendipitous, highly appropriate in a country whose ancient name was Serendip! Just think, if I had not got marooned in Ella I would have arrived in Kandy too early and not had this opportunity.
The banner outside tells you all about this and naturally has an image of P.M. Rajapaksa on it, complete with his trademark red scarf. In this case P.M. could either stand for his initials or Prime Minister which he has been four times, as well as being President once. Perhaps his parents gave him these initials in hopes of greatness although he had a head start as his father had been an M.P. and member of Cabinet.
The Rajapaksas are effectively the Government of Sri Lanka. At time of writing (February 2021) Mahinda is Prime Minister, having been appionted by his brother Gotabaya, the President and himself a former Prime Minister. Mahinda is also Minister for finance, urban development and Buddhist affairs whilst Gotabaya, in addition to being P.M., is Defence Minister. Mahinda’s elder son Namal is Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports.
The eldest brother of Mahinda and Gotabaya, Chamal, is Minister of Irrigation and his son Shasheendra is Minister for Paddy and Cereals, Organic Food, Vegetables, Fruits, Chilies, Onions and Potatoes, Seed Production and High Tech Agriculture. What about that for a portfolio, imagine what his headed notepaper looks like!
I must be fair and point out that your name does not have to be Rajapaksa to be in Government. The Justice Minister is called Ali Sabry although I should perhaps mention that he is Gotabaya’s lawyer who got him off corruption charges earlier in his career. Now, did you get all that? Good.
We had decided to leave it until the afternoon to visit to avoid the punishing heat of the middle of the day and Jo turned up in a tuk-tuk to pick me up a little after 1500. I contented myself on the way trying to be artistic and taking “selfies” in the driver’s rear view mirror and Jo thought I was mad, she may have a point. Sorry, I just cannot help myself sometimes.
We got down to the prison and I could not believe the crowds, they were queued for a long way down the side of the building but that was no problem for us. I mentioned before that Jo seems to know half of the population of Sri Lanka and one of her friends, who runs a very good fancy goods store in Kandy had obtained the franchise to operate a souvenir stall in the prison. Believe me, if there is a commercial opportunity in Sri Lanka someone will grab it.
We were quickly admitted and I did feel a little bad about queue jumping as the practice of queuing is so ingrained in us British but I would not have fancied standing for maybe an hour or more in that heat with no shade.
I mentioned commercial opportunities and some other entrepreneur had opened up a café in what looked like it had been a dining hall, although whether for inmates or warders I could not say. I suspect it was the latter due to the lack of proper bars.
Let me tell you a little about the prison. When the British effectively took over complete control of the island following the last Kandyan War and subsequent Kandyan Convention of March 1815 they obviously assumed control of the prison system. It was not until 1841 that they did very much about it by building a large facility at Welikada in Colombo which remains the principal penal centre in the country to this day.
In 1870 the prison authorities decided to build a second major prison in Kandy which they sited on the infilled artificial lake which had been on the site here. It is said that the main entrance is modelled on the Bastille in Paris although we had entered by a rather shabbier portal as you have seen.
Digression time here, prompted by one of the huge number of historical documentaries I have been watching whilst under house arrest. If you studied the French Revolution at school as I did you will probably have learnt of the gallant French peasantry storming the Bastille and releasing hordes of their poor compatriots from unjust confinement. It is total nonsense as is so much of the history that was taught up until the 1970’s when I was at school and may still be for all I know.
Firstly, the French Revolution was initiated by the bourgeoisie and the “storming”, whilst it took place and did empty the prison of all it’s inmates, is not as impressive as the myth suggests. At that point there was a grand total of seven inmates – four forgers, a would be assassin from 35 years before, one “lunatic” imprisoned by his own family and the “deviant” Comte de Solages, also imprisoned by his family due to his thankfully unrecorded sexual excesses.
It is hardly the stuff of legend but it has given rise to the “national day” in France which is called Bastille Day even now. You may have read in a previous post here that I had attended Sri Lanka’s National Day the month before which commemorates the end of colonial rule in the country and I think that is a much better reason for a knees-up.
Digression over and back to Bogambara which took six years to construct and looking at the solidity of the walls and buildings I can well imagine why. The whole site covers 13 acres and there were 382 cells designed to house 408 prisoners although if the British prison system, upon which it is based, is anything to go by there was undoubtedly over-crowding, there always is.
We went into the main cell block which was as crowded as the queues outside would suggest. Whilst the initial plan had been to open from 0900 – 1600 this had had to be extended to 1800 due to the sheer numbers of visitors and we did not leave until about 1730, there was a lot to see.
As you can imagine this is a fairly grim place which was not designed as a holiday camp as some Western prisons seem to be and there isn’t much to smile about but I did manage a slight grin at this sign. I only wish I had taken a wider shot of it to put it in context. As you can see, there is a 45° shadow which was the “banister” of a staircase and, whilst I am not the brightest man in the world, I reckoned I could have worked that one out for myself.
I want you to look closely at the images above which contain something strange and, no, it is not a selfie which is of it’s very nature an odd thing.
I took a total of 69 images that day, indoors and out, with and without flash and in various light conditions and yet only two of them feature the “blemish” you can see here, all the little white dots. These images were taken with others in between which do not have this and I certainly noticed nothing untoward at the time, it was only later when I uploaded them to my computer that I noticed it.
This is not the first time this has happened to me and a very dear friend who is into matters of a spiritual or cosmic nature, call it what you will, once told me that these were spirits / life forces / souls or whatever manifesting themselves. I shall make no judgement on this other than to say that this friend has astounded me on other occasions with things said and done and I have no ratoonal, physical explanation for this.
They may just have been dust motes, invisible to the naked eye but why then wer eother images, taken under exactly the same conditions, not similarly affected. Certainly there was a bit of an atmosphere in there as you would expect but I had no experience of “presences”, I just cannot explain this and as always I shall leave the reader to make up their own mind.
In several of the cells there was evidence of artistic endeavour and I rather liked this very well-rendered depiction of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (did you know he was partly Irish and one of his two birth names was Ernesto Guevara Lynch?) in his trademark beret.
Whilst Che is regarded as a semi-deity to many, especially young revolutionary types, religion of a more conventional nature was much in evidence in the prison. I suppose you would need something to sustain you in a place like this. Images above show the remnants of some makeshift shrines in cells and also a more formal shrine outside.
You might have needed some form of divine assistance if you were going to the small building you see above as 524 people walked in here and never walked out again for this is the gallows which was moved here from it’s original public position on Hangman’s Hill (obviously) when the prison opened.
It served this purpose until 22nd November 1975 when the murderer T. M. Jayawardena faced the long drop. There were only two places in Sri Lanka where judicial executions were carried out, here and Colombo. There was a moratorium on the death penalty for many years but in 2019 two new hangmen were recruited. The death penalty still exists for various offences, including killing an elephant.
I say that 524 people walked in here but that is not strictly true and I wish to tell you the story of D. J. Siripala (aka Maru Sira) who was executed here only a few months before Jayawardene on 7th August 1975 and it makes uncomfortable reading.
Maru was no saint, he was a career criminal who had an excellent line in escaping from custody which he did several times. He claimed that his sole reason for escaping was to see his infant daughter and during one of his unauthorised excursions he was sentenced in absentia to death for murder. He was eventually re-captured and sent here to await his fate.
The night before his execution the prison authorities were so afraid of a last-minute escape that they dosed him with Largactil, a powerful sedative. They administered such a large dose that he fell unconscious and never re-awakened. On the day of his execution he was carried to the building you see above on a stretcher, laid on the trapdoor the officer is half standing on, the noose placed around his neck and the lever pulled.
I you have ever read the memoirs of Albert Pierrepoint, The UK’s most active ever executioner, or indeed any other relevant piece, you will know that in a modern judicial hanging death is caused by a cervical fracture, usually at vetebrae C2 / C3 which causes instantaneous death.
In earlier times prisoners were literally strung up and left to die an agonising death due to slow strangulation. During strangulation the body convulses violently which gives rise to the old expression “dancing the Tyburn jig” for being hanged. Tyburn, modern day Marble Arch in London, was the site of public hangings for many years.
Execution by hanging is a precise science. Too long a drop and the head gets ripped off, too short and it is strangulation and what happened to Sira was exactly this. The executioner’s calculations were obviously completely wrong as he was prone rather than standing and he slowly choked. One can only hope he was still unconscious. The event naturally caused a huge outcry in Sri Lanka and beyond with two films being made about it and even the writing of a popular song in another echo of old executions when ballads were often written about the exploits of the hanged criminal.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of prisoners were not executed but served terms of imprisonment instead and they had to be found something to do which gave rise to the workshops you can see above. Although most of the serviceable equipment had obviously been removed, there were still enough bits and pieces lying about to suggest that most of this activity revolved around woodworking.
As well as the workshops there was a separate hospital wing which strangely brings this post, written in 2021 about a 2014 trip right up to date. The wing is 9,000 sq. ft. which equates to about 10 of the total floor space of the prison and indicates the levels of sickness which must have either been anticipated and / or evident.
I was interested to see the board detailing the exact dimensions of the wing although I am sure the warders didn’t really care and the inmates would have had little say so who this information was intended for I really don’t know. Visiting Red Cross inspectors perhaps? As you can see there was a TB isolation ward complete with it’s own lab but it is not that disease which is causing current controversy in Sri Lankan prisons but rather the pandemic which originated in China in late 2019 and has changed the world irrevocably.
When I was in Sri Lanka I heard all sorts of rumours about them tidying the prison up and making it a proper full-time museum. Subsequently there were all sorts of plans including making it a Cultural Centre, complete with shopping facilities and I even heard talk of converting it into a themed hotel.
I had heard similar talk about Armagh Women’s Prison in Northern Ireland which I wrote about here (near the bottom of a long post) although nothing seems to have happened in either place by 2020.
The recent events I mentioned above are a series of prison riots all over the country with prisoners protesting at lack of effective prevention and treatment of the epidemic sweeping the facilities.
The latest Government figure available show that there were 30,000 inmates in the prison system which was designed to house 12,000. I am not an epidemiologist but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a nightmare for the control of so aggressive a virus.
Despite a few close run things I have only ever spent one night in a military glasshouse for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I have often thought that one of the worst things about being incarcerated is being able to see outside. It must be depressing to be able to see people going about their normal business whilst you are cooped up.
As such I have included a few such images throughout this post and I like this one of a very modern and presumably Muslim building if the Arabic style architecture is anything to go by. At the time I thought it might be a masjid or some other religious structure but it appears to be merely a few small shops on the ground floor and offices above.
I honestly believe that if Sri Lanka ever recovers it’s tourist industry (doubtful for years in my opinion) then converting Bogambara, or part of it at least, into a museum would be another worthwhile attraction in a city not lacking in them already. The outdoor areas could be nicely landscaped and ancillary areas turned into shopping / food units.
I am glad I saw it in it’ “warts and all” period as it really was an eye-opener, if somewhat sobering and I use the word sobering for reason. After the grimness of the gaol it was definitely time for a sundowner and a spot of tiffin for which read a drink and a bite to eat. We swapped one colonial building for another much more pleasant version, the Royal Hotel which had become our default meeting place and evening haunt.
I do not know how she did it as I very rarely drink cocktails but Jo somehow managed to talk me into this rather garish creation which obviously featured pineapple juice and was beautifully presented. It washed down the delicious pizza nicely and what was I thinking? Pizza and cocktails in a posh bar in Sri Lanka? I was in danger of becoming a proper tourist! After a pleasant evening in the Royal it was off for yet another fairly early night.
In the next post I have yet another one of my “best days” in Sri Lanka. I know the word best is a superlative but I seemed to be amassing them at about the same rate as Sangakkara or Jayawardena amassed runs on a flat wicket. If you want to find out about the latest one then stay tuned and spread the word.