Dwyer, Dyer and Nair

And the aftermath of the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre

If one person had to be picked as a main cause for the British Empire’s collapse in India, that would be none other than the irascible Col Dyer. Strange is fact that he is popularly known as General Dyer, when he was nothing more than a Colonel (he held a temporary Brigadier Gen rank though) and was a person born and bred in India (spending only 12 years of his early life abroad), not England. Reginald Edward Harry Dyer will always be listed in the history of the peoples of the world as the butcher of Amritsar, never as the savior of Punjab as the so called enlightened lot in the blighty felt in those days. But then again in the large scheme of things, one will also recall that he reported to Michael O'Dwyer, the governor general of Punjab. And after the story unfolded, one person took up the cudgels to wage a legal battle against O'Dwyer, fighting it in the lion’s den, i.e. the hallowed British courts. He was doomed to fail and that person was none other than our esteemed Chettur Sankaran Nair. Let us try and figure out the curious entanglement that these three characters from India’s history, got into and in the course of retelling that story, get a little deeper into their lives.

Most Malayalees visit the Gururvayoor temple every year, and as usual, I could not miss noticing the 30’ tall Deepasthambham (tower lamp) at its entrance, donated by Sankaran Nair. To condense his life into a few paras is tough, to say the least, but I will make an attempt to be concise, for after all, we have to know a man to understand his actions. We shall continue on to do the same with the other two villains before they all converge to a fateful day and later flare out in separation, to a conclusion.

How Dyer found his way into the British Indian army is itself a curiosity, for he had originally joined up to study and become a surgeon. Perhaps that would have been better in posterity, but then again, he must have decided to go with his mother’s wishes, since his father would have wanted him to become a brewer and look after their many breweries in the hills. The Dyer family had started with the EIC as early as the 1820’s and spent most of their lives in India. They had certainly done well in business and Reginald or Rex as he was called at home was the 6th and youngest of Edward’s and Mary Passmore’s (Mini) sons. Their lives traversed Simla, Solan in the hills and locales such as Muree in the Punjab. The large family was brought up under Mini’s iron rule and Rex was born in 1864, a few years after the mutiny of 1857 which had drawn taut lines between the natives and the ruling British moving the administrative powers from the EIC to the British crown.

Col Reginald Dyer
Dyer was fluent in Hindustani and was brought up like a pukka sahib of India, learning hunting, riding and all those things the upper crest British had time to partake in. It is said that he hated hunting after seeing a monkey he had shot suffer. He studied at the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, and was motoring on, quite happy in India when his father for some inexplicable reason decided to send him and his brother Walter, not to England, but to Ireland in 1875 for continuing studies at the Middleton College. Life proved tough and the two brothers who landed up like bumpkins wearing sola topis and kukris, were bullied by the local boys. Reggi or Rags as he was then known, settled down quickly with his brother, though in the midst of a virtual civil war in Ireland. Both brothers later joined the medical college and Rex took up boxing to excel at it, though hating dissection. Eventually he appeared for the army entrance examination, passing it with high marks on the second attempt (falling ill the day before the initial attempt). All records show that Rex had a tough time in England, never fitting into the formalities required for the life there and missing India. 

He was continuously faulted for his inability to pronounce words with the right accent and being unfocussed. After graduating from the RMC Sandhurst in 1885, he joined the Queen’s corps and was deputed to Burma to fight in the 3rd Burma war, after a stint in Belfast. Perhaps he picked up the methods of employing extra force from his C in C Gen Roberts who commanded the forces. His return from Rangoon to India on a steamer, resulted in his involvement in a mysterious fist fight which left a number of Burmese battered by this powerful boxer. Dyer stated that it was in support of one of the Burmese who was being picked on by the others, and indicated a good amount of pent up anger and frustration in the man. The case which followed, was referred to military headquarters. Dyer went back home at long last and his father helped him write a proper report about the event after which the whole file got quashed. But it was a pointer to things to come. Dyer’s rise continued but he ended up getting estranged from his family, especially his mother who was a somewhat haughty upper class type of person, when he chose to get married to his commanding officer’s daughter Annie Ommaney in 1889. Annie and Dyer were to remain steadfast partners till the very end of his life. He was in that way quite different, quite complex perhaps, sticking out like a sore thumb in British parties, but a great supporter of equality, once even resigning from a club which refused entry to a native officer. By 1915, he had become a colonel and the next year an acting Brigadier general.

Events and days were moving rapidly against the British, the native population was becoming restive, so were the small numbers of British ruling the masses. It was clear that a large scale uprising would happen sometime, and the officers could only imagine what could happen to them when the natives in massive numbers rebelled. A whole lot of them noted in their memoirs of this gnawing fear coursing through their veins, making them irritable, restless and at times, terrified. All they needed to look at were the days in Kanpur and the Sepoy mutiny when their lot were strung up or crucified, and women violated. For them it was difficult to accept that their superior race would have to face such an eventuality. And they spent years after year living through that nerve jangling period, thinking about it, Rex Dyer included.

Chettur Sankaran Nair on the other hand, was born in 1857, the year of the mutiny or one of the first wars of Independence. He belonged to Mankara in Palghat and his ancestors had been through difficult times, having to flee the marauding Mysore armies of Tipu Sultan. The event always crossed the minds of succeeding generations, and colored his feelings against the methods used on the sometimes rebellious Moplahs of Malabar. Much later he was to confirm it by professing tough action against them in 1921 and totally disagreeing with the INC support for Khilafat. His father was a Tehsildar and his uncles also worked in administrative positions of British local governance. In fact his father Ramunny Panikkar was initially a clerk working for H V Conolly at Calicut, before becoming a Tehsildar. Nair lived a structured and charmed life, rising rapidly through the system to positions never held by another Indian. 

When he was appointed as advocate general, the British made it clear that he was the ablest man the British can ever find in all of India. After a brilliant career in law, he rose to the advocate general position, he became the INC president, later authoring the Malabar marriage act thereby bringing an end to Marumakkathayam or the matrilineal society of Malabar, even though he himself was the karanavar or titular head of his Chettur thrawad. He presided as one of the Judges on the much talked about Ashe murder case, became a member of the Viceroys council and had no qualms writing occasional notes of dissent against British policy, which you may be surprised to note, the British had to accept due to the soundness of his legal and practical arguments. On a lighter note, he was one of those rare persons the caustic tonged VK Krishna Menon admired and respected. As a statesman, he found fault with what was wrong, and did not differentiate with either the British or Gandhi, and his book Gandhi and Anarchy, detailing his qualms against Gandhian methods of non-cooperation and support for Khilafat was to prove an end to his relationship with the Congress and scuttle further presence in the upper echelons of a soon to-be independent India. But he was a patriot to boot and a brilliant lawyer, a person on whom a few books have been written, which I perused but cannot be reproduced in brief here.

Sankaran Nair studied initially at Angadipuram and Cannanore, before graduating from the
Provincial school in Calicut. In 1876, he moved to Presidency College Madras, to start his higher educations, just as Dyer was starting his studies in Ireland. The next step was the law college and by 1879 he was a full-fledged lawyer traversing the court halls of British Madras. Under Justice Holloway’s mentorship and patronage, he became a high court Vakil, contemporary to the great Subramania Iyer and Bashyam Iynegar, the lone Nair amongst lawyers comprised entirely of Brahmins. It was in 1884 that Nair concluded the Malabar marriage act, a very complex undertaking with huge repercussions, and something I will write about another day. Incidentally he was also together with Logan as a member of the Malabar Land tenure committee. The Madras law journal was started by him together with Ramaswamy mudaliar.

He presided over the INC meeting in Madras in 1887 and was an active congressman becoming its president soon after. Between 1900 and 1921, he was mainly a political worker, sporadically working in the courts. But by then, he had moved to his well-known Palms Bungalow on Poonamalee road, and his group of lawyers were known as the Egmore clique. Bashyam and Mani Iyer headed the Mylapore clique whereas Ramarao and Parthasarathy formed the Triplicane clique. These three constituted what was informally known as the three inns of the Madras court! He also found time to join the Madras artillery corps. Sankaran Nair was to make a name finding fault with the commonly accepted practice of ICS governance and the preference for upper castes, particularly Brahmins in administration. He writes quite a bit about this in his autobiography, as to how the early North Indian congress councils were full of chaste Brahmins who would always drift off to eat sitting apart from people of lower castes, during meetings.

There is so much more in the story of Sanakaran Nair, but I guess now Is not the time for such matters, for it is time to go to the Punjab, a province which was annexed by the EIC only in April 1849 after the second Anglo Sikh war. Incidentally did you know that until the third decade of the 20th century, if one had to go from Madras to Delhi by train, they had to transit Calcutta? This GT express originally started running in 1929 between Peshawar and Mangalore and took about 104 hours, one of the longest train routes. The route was later altered to connect Lahore to Mettupalayam, which was the alighting point to reach Ooty. Anyway, we were talking about Punjab, where by 1907 one could witness a lot of unrest. Large numbers of people were unhappy with the colonization bill and Land alienation act since land could be appropriated by the British if a person had no heirs after death and later the British could sell it to anybody else. Lala Lajpat Rai led the revolts against these moves, and was successful in getting the colonization bill repealed. The world war followed with a number of Punjabis fighting for the British, but gaining nothing. A large number died in an influenza pandemic which followed.

In March 1919, the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act or the Rowlatt Act of 1919 was passed which extended emergency measures of indefinite detention and incarceration without trial in response to the perceived threats of terrorism from revolutionary nationalist organizations. Incidentally this had been in force (Defense of India act) since the world war, and was just being extended. This unpopular legislation provided for stricter control of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless ‘in camera’ trials for proscribed political acts. The accused were denied the right to know the accusers and the evidence used in the trial. In effect it was a situation with 'No Dalil, No Vakil, No Appeal’ i.e., no pleas, no lawyer, no Appeal. People rose in protest, Gandhi leading it with Satyagraha movements. Hartals followed, proving to be successful. In Punjab it was a critical issue for there were many protest movements brewing up. As a preventive measure arrests of two popular leaders Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew were ordered in April 1919 by O’Dwyer the governor general of Punjab. This was to start a series of actions resulting in the involvement of Dyer and a terrible massacre of many innocent people. But before we get there, who is this O’Dwyer? Many people in India are still confused between O’Dwyer and Dyer. They are different people, with the latter - a military man reporting to the former an administrator. Let’s take a look at that man and his life in India.

Michael Francis O'Dwyer was the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab from 1912 until 1919. An Irishman, one of 14 children from a rural family, was born around the same time as Dyer, in 1864. By 1882 he had passed the ICS entrance exams and in 1884 was posted as AC of Shahpur in Punjab. Following a relatively quiet period where he mastered some languages, he went on get appointed to the Punjab–North West Frontier boundary commission. During this posting he had additional responsibility as political resident of the notoriously violent NWFP.  By 1908 he had moved to Hyderabad as acting resident and it was in 1913 that he succeeded Sir Louis Dane as lieutenant-governor of the Punjab. It was to become his last posting in India, during a period when he proved to be totally against organizations such as the INC. 

As you would see, his period of governance also overlapped the world war, an event which was detrimental to many of his actions. As a zealous recruiter, he organized for many a Punjabi to join the war effort. But some of the early returnees were to spell doom for him, such as those who were behind the Ghadar movement which professed an end to British rule in Punjab. The defense act allowed him to stifle the early Ghadaris and he went on to recruit even more Punjabi soldiers, over half a million of them for the rest of the war. But it appears that Punjab was like a boiling caldron politically, and having its lid closed. An explosion was imminent. O'Dwyer was determined that he was not going to lose control in a repeat of the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. He had concerns about German and Bolshevik agents inciting a rebellion in the province, but he was convinced that the real danger came from Indian nationalists, whose protests were becoming more vocal and violent. Dwyer announced to the Lahore council that ‘a day of reckoning is in store for them’. He was also concerned that the revolt was imminent, especially as this was a time when British troops typically withdrew to the hills for the summer.

Hearing about a protest Satyagraha in the offing, Dwyer had decided to act. Gandhi had been detained and prevented from entering Punjab and Satyapal and Kitchlew had been arrested and moved to Dharmasala. On 10th April 1919, crowds gathered at a bridge leading into the Civil Lines where the British commissioner was quartered, demanding a release of the two leaders. Unable to hold the crowd back, the military picket panicked and began firing, killing several protesters. The shooting of protesters resulted in a mob acting in revenge. As it transpired, a British electrician, two railway workers and three British bank employees were beaten to death. 

Later, one Miss Marcella Sherwood, who supervised the Mission Day School for Girls was assaulted by the mob in a narrow street called the Kucha Kurrichhan on the 11th. Sherwood was rescued by locals and moved to the Gobindgarh fort. Railway lines were destroyed, telegraphic posts and lines cut, and government buildings burnt as the mayhem continued. Retaliatory shooting at crowds from the military several times during the days resulted in some eight to twenty deaths. As Amritsar burned, a train bound for Peshawar containing Gurkhas armed only with Kukris unexpectedly rolled in. 50 of them were quickly issued .303 rifles from the fort. Later another train with and Baluchi and English reinforcements came in. Tragically these Baluchis and Gurkhas were to serve a big part in what transpire next. It was into this messy situation that Col Dyer was moved to from Jalandhar, in order to decisively take over control of the situation.

Although he arrived in Jalandhar as a temporary Brigade General of the 45th Infantry Brigade, he was not to know what monstrosity in store for him a later. He was leading a peaceful life, wife in tow, and in fact he proved to be adept at fancy dress fooling some officers into first thinking he was a German officer and later as a Baluch officer. It was during this period that he resigned from the Jalandhar club as it would not grant admittance to a native officer, in protest. Back in Jalandhar, Dyer and Annie were quietly dining but some hours earlier they had received a message of the events and commotion in Amritsar, from Lahore. He had sent all available troops already to Amritsar. It was a very hot summer in Punjab and it was only the next afternoon that Dyer decided to motor down to Amritsar and take personal charge of the situation there, accompanied by Briggs and Southey.  Dyer had another reason to delay actions, he was actually suffering from arteriosclerosis (thus being more deliberate before moving quickly) and this added to his already short temper, when in pain. Reaching at night, he was briefed on the attack and about Miss Sherwood’s distress.

Dyer toured the city, empowered the police superintendent and moved to the railway station to ponder over the next steps. He then issued a proclamation ordering a total curfew and a threat of firing on any kind of crowd which assembled. By dawn he had moved to Rambagh, and had at his disposal, 475 British and 710 native soldiers as well as two armored cars and several machine guns. 

Meanwhile Dyer got word from Shimla as Lt Gen Dwyer had reported to them and the word was ‘if troops were to be used and they were forced to open fire, they should make an example’. As all this was going on, Hans Raj, an aide to Dr. Kitchlew and an unsavory character was busy arranging a public protest meeting at 430PM the following day in the Jallianwala Bagh, now a plot of empty ground with just a well, a pepul tree and the relics of a shrine.

Sunday morning dawned and Dyer warned his soldiers not to take it out personal against any natives. They then took out a march and read the proclamation of curfew at 19 different points in the City. Curiously it was not read at the Jalianwalah Bagh or the Golden temple where the crowds were expected to be the biggest. By afternoon the Bagh started to fill up, what with many people in the city for the Biasaki celebrations. A plane flew overhead and some people scattered in panic fearing bombing, as Dwyer had ordered, in another incident. At about 4PM, Dyer heard about the meeting, and proceeded to the location with his troops. Interestingly Dwyer had earlier that afternoon preemptively proclaimed martial law in Lahore and Amritsar. Did he actually also order Dyer to do what he was going to do? We will get to that later as we sift through the ashes.

Dyer, Briggs and Anderson drove to the Bagh accompanied by 25 Baluchi’s armed with rifles, 25 Gurkhas also similarly armed and 40 Gurkhas with Kukris (carefully selected so they would not hesitate to fire on the Punjabis). The armored cars followed. Dyer, Briggs and Anderson stationed themselves at the very back. The formation now moved into the bagh, leaving the armored cars on the street as there was not enough space for them to drive through.

Without any warning, the troops took firing positions and Dyer gave the order to fire. Hans Raj first told the crowd that the Sarkar would not fire, then he entreated them not to flee stating that the shots were blanks, before bolting. It was utter chaos. The troops fired volley after volley, in total 1650 shots into the 5,000 odd crowd. As records indicate, some 379 died, including women and children. Over a thousand were injured. Dyer emotionless, directed the troops to direct fire where the crowd was the thickest, for some 10 or so minutes. The resulting massacre was according to the callous Dyer, ‘a lesson which would be felt throughout India’. He did nothing to help anybody, even the injured and dying, after the shooting.

Dyer filed an arrogant and remorseless report after the event, never once thinking he would be questioned and Dwyer immediately replied – ‘your action correct and the Lt General approves’.

Shops remained closed the following days, and Dyer threatened the owners with force and guns upon which they reopened. Something had flipped Dyers mind completely for his next steps were baffling, he issued a series of humiliating orders, forcing anybody who met an European to salaam him in respect, forcing people to crawl through the Kucha Kurrichhan alley, all bicycles were confiscated, and 93 native lawyers were forced to work as coolies and watch floggings. Many young men were flogged for assaulting Miss Sherwood. Colonel Dyer later explained the crawling order to a British inspector: "Some Indians crawl face downwards in front of their gods. I wanted them to know that a British woman is as sacred as a Hindu god and therefore they have to crawl in front of her, too."

The event involving Sherwood, was in hindsight, what brought Dyer to the breaking point. In fact she had ventured out alone in the middle of a riot, got hit a few times and was brought to the ground in the melee, not sexually assaulted, stripped or raped as was widely rumored. But then Col Dyer probably recalled the mutiny where ‘delicately nurtured white women’ had once been assaulted. His Annie was in the vicinity and this could happen to her too. A terrible fear gnawed his heart of this very possibility and he had to act before it was too late, he had to nip any possibility of a mass riot in the bud. It had nothing to do with any kind of insurrection against the crown.

O’Dwyer stated ‘the Amritsar business cleared the air, and if there was to be a holocaust anywhere, and one regrets there should be it was best at Amritsar. Speaking with perhaps a more intimate knowledge of the then situation than anyone else, I have no hesitation in saying that General Dyer's action that day was the decisive factor in crushing the rebellion, the seriousness of which is only now being realized’.

I will not dwell too much on the event and its aftermath any further, for there is so much of detail available in the public domain. While most of the British in India including people like Kipling were supportive of Dyer’s actions, Indian politicians and statesmen were in uproar. Even Churchill mentioned it to be a sinister & monstrous event as Americans condemned it. The Hunter Commission was appointed and Dyer still refused to accept the weight of his actions saying ‘I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself’. As this continued, Dyer, seriously ill with jaundice and arteriosclerosis, was hospitalized.

Legal and Home Members on the Viceroy's Council ultimately decided that, though Dyer had acted in a callous and brutal way, military or legal prosecution would not be possible due to political reasons. However, he was finally found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and relieved of his command on 23rd March. The British meanwhile collected a large purse of close to 28,000 pounds to allow Dyer a happy retirement.  It is said that Dyer did not sleep a single night after that event and died a broken man in July 1927. Miss Marcella Sherwood for one, later defended Colonel Dyer, describing him "as the 'saviour' of the Punjab and returned to continue her missionary work.

O’Dwyer cooperated with the subsequent inquiry established under Lord Hunter and, in a series of forthright statements, supported Dyer's actions. Dyer was censured and ordered to resign; and although O'Dwyer remained in India, his career was effectively over.

And now for the final part. Sankaran Nair resigned from the Viceroy’s Executive Council in protest against the conduct of the Government even after Annie Besant and CF Andrews begged him to stay as the Indian representative within the council. He continued in the Secretary of State’s Council and moved to England.  It was largely due to his insistence that a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the events of 1919 and the guilty officials, civilian and military, were punished. ‘As far as it lay in my power’, said Sankaran Nair, ‘I was determined to prevent another Jalianwala Bagh in India ’. Sankaran Nair however could not see eye to eye with Mahatma Gandhi and wrote a book called Gandhi and Anarchy, where he detailed his hesitation in supporting Gandhian methods. In it he also wrote the so called libelous statement: "Before the Reforms it was in the power of the Lieutenant-Governor (i.e. Dwyer), a single individual, to commit the atrocities in the Punjab we know only too well”.

O’Dwyer who felt that he and Dyer had been thrown under the bus, was incensed by Nair’s words- But when they were made by a man who was a member of the Government of India - the authority to which I was directly subordinate at the time of the events in question and who had, as he claims special inner knowledge not available to the general public, I could not pass them by.

The British and Indian government tried hard to get the two dueling parties to compromise, in fact they even provided confidential information to Nair to fight his case. After all they did not want all kinds of information hitting the press wires and incensing the public even further.

The case is an interesting study by itself and I will therefore not talk too much about it, but just that it was stilted against Nair all the way. As Collett explains ‘In court, Nair found himself at a very great disadvantage. In the England of 1924 there were few who were prepared to support his view that Sir Michael O'Dwyer had been repressive tyrant, and those who were had little public standing. Only one Englishman was on Nair’s side as a witness and his evidence did not amount to much. Nair’s legal team was forced to fall back on depositions legally sworn by over 120 witnesses. Only one juror supported Nair, the Hon Harold Laski. Sir Michael O'Dwyer won his case, and was able ever thereafter to maintain that he and Dyer had been vindicated in a British court. Nair had to not only pay a fine of 500 pounds but also bear the court costs of around 7,000 Pounds. But the Nair case inflicted great damages on the British establishment, public outcry became even more strident and Justice McCardie had to bear the brunt of it, and as days went by took to occult and gambling, finally committing suicide.

Michael O’Dwyer, as you will recall was assassinated by Udham Singh (Alias Mohammed Singh Azad) in 1940 in retaliation for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. Singh said, ‘I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him’.

Nair returned to Madras in 1924, deciding to take a back seat from then on seeing Gandhiji in the ascendance.  He did put in a final word though ‘Thanks to Gandhi, India has become a world's problem, that is his greatest contribution’. He spent many of his last years with KPS Menon, his son-in-law, in Ceylon continuing his yoga practices and immersed in religion. In 1934, hearing of his son-in-law Kandeth’s demise, he rushed from Madras to Madanpalle and on the way met with an accident fetching him a serious head injury. He passed away a month later, in May 1934.

He was loud, he was brusque and he was rough. That perhaps made his life amidst an overbearing British bureaucracy, bearable. But he had a sense of humor, look at the following incident which transpired after he had resigned from the viceroy’s council and you will understand the man.

Sankaran Nair had resigned in disgust from the viceroy's executive council and during the final interview, Lord Chelmsford asked if he could suggest somebody as his successor. Pointing to his peon, Ramprasad, Nair said, “He is tall, he is handsome, he wears his livery well and he will say yes to whatever you say. Altogether he will make an ideal member of the council”.

The Muree brewery which Dyer’s father started still brews beer in Pakistan. In 2013, Murree Brewery opened a franchise in India to a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, allowing the brewing, bottling and marketing of the beer in India.
Armies of the Raj: From the Mutiny to Independence, 1858-1947 - Byron Farwell
The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer - Nigel Collett
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre - Savita Narain
The Amritsar Massacre, 1919 Tim Coates
Autobiography of Sir C. Sankaran Nair
Gandhi and Anarchy - C. Sankaran Nair
A short life of Sir C. Sankaran Nair, C Madhava Nair
Sir C. Sankaran Nair – KPS Menon
India as I know it - Michael O'Dwyer
The O'Dwyer v. Nair Libel Case of 1924: NIGEL A. COLLETT
India's Prisoner: A Biography of Edward John Thompson, 1886-1946 - Mary Lago

A Lankan Sojourn

Like I discovered, you will notice no great divide as you leave the southerly shores of Kerala and head out to Sri Lanka, or erstwhile Ceylon. The view from the air remains the same, with coconut tress blanketing out the ground, save for an occasional large and tall tree which had bravely stepped out from their midst. The food habits and choices in Lanka are quite similar and suiting the Malayali palate.  After all, till the island separated itself and floated off, it was part of the mainland, so the flora and fauna are largely similar, and the people look pretty much like those from Travancore. Anyway, that was where we were headed, a few weeks ago, and the week we spent there was eminently satisfying, to say the least.

Like Kerala, Lanka too is a land of fables and grandmother’s tales, and home to a good number of soft-spoken people. There are cities and there are towns, there are villages and hamlets, and of course there are tea estates and bungalows. Home to a large number of seemingly contented elephants, Lanka also boasts of large tracts of fertile land which were toiled upon ages ago, by thousands of Indian Tamils to establish the country’s famed tea gardens. Colonized first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the English, you can easily detect traces of mixed lineages from the names of the Sinhalese. Mostly Buddhist, and with sizable Christian, Hindu and Muslim minorities, the population relies mainly on tourism, tea and agriculture, not to forget the islands burgeoning gem and pearl industry.

The flight from Cochin landed in Colombo in under an hour, we hardly had time for a shuteye on the plane. What jerked me awake every now and then was a stewardess passing by and her hips swaying past the periphery of my bleary vision. Those seductive hips were pleasantly distracting (I was reminded of Kamalhasan’s hilarious exploits in the Tamil film Meendum Kokila) and exacerbated by the way the Sri Lankan saree is worn! We were whisked off the Bandaranayke (named after the family of eminent politicians, and Lankan prime ministers) airport by our chauffer after some Sri Lankan rupees were procured from the exchange counter. The first taste of Lankan food was satisfying, and the abundance of scraped coconut, coconut oil and coconut milk and could be tasted in most dishes, much to my delight. Omnipresent was the ‘pol sambal’ or coconut chutney and the onion chutney laced with fish ‘sini sambal’. We loved the taste of most of dishes, and finally topping it off with the local dessert ‘watalappam’ made it a full meal.

Off we went next to the elephant orphanage at Pinniwala, some 90km NE from Colombo, where one could watch a number of elephants frolicking in the river and wandering about, but then again, that visit for the Malayali is just a pleasant diversion for I was coming after attending a temple festival at Palghat where we had five adult elephants in parade for the Navaratri festival. Most Malayalee’s love elephants and a fair number of them can be observed ambling around in Palakkad & Trichur roads, walking from one temple festival to the next (or glumly chewing a palm leaf and looking lazily around with forlorn eyes, as the truck carrying them lurched around potholes). One thing disturbed us though and it would trouble us the entire tour, for our chauffer who was supposed to double as a guide as well, simply was not a guide and one who was at best reticent, morose and one who presumably hated or feared his own voice. Nevertheless, we were not put off, for there was much to observe and take in.

Dambulla Rock Caves
Like we saw that people felled coconuts using a long pole, rather than climbing the tree like in Kerala, but then again as I mentioned previously the tress were much shorter and they had both the red and green varieties, with the red used only for tender coconut water, which we consumed regularly stopping the car now and then as the weather heated up. The driver informed us that they did have people climbing up or going from one tree to another, but they were in larger plantations. And we drove on, as paddy fields and small homes whizzed past the window.

Dambulla, an ancient town, situated about 50 km further NE, at the center of Lanka was our next destination.  Interestingly, Dambulla’s cricket ground, built in 167 days is where Virat Kohli, present Indian captain made his debut, in 2008. Showcasing the heydays of Buddhism, the five cave temples of Dambulla depict many statues, especially large reclining Buddha statues and lovely cave paintings. King Valgambahu who had been was driven out of his throne by Dravidian invaders  had found sanctuary in these regions and after finally defeating the invaders, had the famous rock temples built in gratitude. The so called Golden Dambulla Rock Temple is one of most revered Buddhist sanctuaries of Sri Lanka.

A warning for future travelers, visiting these rock temples and many other high places require you to be in reasonable physical shape. As you climb up to the caves, monkeys survey you lazily, checking if they can lope of with food you might have in your hands. This UNESCO world heritage rock temple for example requires you to climb steps totaling to some 160mts. The Dambulla cave complex include some 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of Hindu gods and goddesses. Lovely murals depicting the Buddha story decorate many of the cave walls. As you get back, you come across the new temple and the massive golden statue of Buddha and a horde of devotees, young and old, thronging the courtyards dressed in whites. Every full moon day is a national holiday in Sri Lanka with the temples, stupas and vihara’s would exhibit throngs of white clad devotees and red clad monks, with much chanting.

Kandy Buddha Tooth temple
That made me recall an interesting trivia - The Sri Lankan flag recognizes most of the major religious groups there, the yellow border and pepul leaves symbolize Buddhism - the main religion in the country, while the green and saffron bands represent the country’s Muslim and Hindu Tamil communities. Maroon of course representing the Singhalese. Lanka as you may know is the fourth largest exporter of tea in the world, and in February 2017, marked its 150th anniversary of tea exportation. Ceylon Tea, being that Sri Lanka is most known for, is considered by the cleanest tea in the world, with negligible pesticide content. Lanka is also known as Serendib (Arabic corruption of Sanskrit Sinhaladweep) and usually termed the Paradise Island. If you did not know, Serendib (through the lovely Persian fairy tale of the three princes) is the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole recollecting a part of the "silly fairy tale" in which the three princes by "accidents and sagacity" discern the nature of a lost camel. Most of the world’s cinnamon also comes from Sri Lanka (80-90 %!), so you can thank them for sharing this with the world!

You will quickly notice the abundance of auto rickshaws or the three wheeler ‘tuk tuk’, which our driver was very upset with. He claimed that the decadence of the island can be fully attributed to the arrival of the cheap and accessible Bajaj three wheeler which quickly disturbed the entire balance of the island. Anybody could buy them and drive them around on cheap hires to make a quick buck, they disregarded many a traffic rule. I had to agree with him, for the normal Lankan driver is quite careful and law abiding compared to his counterparts in South India and the single lane roads in Lanka required discipline to prevent choking up of the traffic. But another aspect disappointed me, the architecture of roadside houses was bereft of any originality or uniqueness, unlike those at Bali. Roadside shops were replete with fruits and with the mango season over in Kerala, the piles in Dambulla made us stop and but a couple of alphonso’s which the shop keeper slices for us. She would not peel off the skin saying that it was not right for her (not really dirty) hands to make contact with something we had to eat.

Our place of stay was quite a splendid affair, the Harbana village resort with lovely cottages in a large lakeside resort, lots of walking trails and a huge buffet room for dining and entertainment, not to leave out live music. Hammocks, rattan chairs, pools, a cricket pitch where the many workers of the resort spent their spare time, all placed in the middle of a natural resort with huge trees and creepers made it quite a unique colonial experience. The pains of the cave temple climb were quickly drowned in copious swigs of Lanka’s Singa beer.
Can you imagine starting a day with a crispy egg appam with coconut milk for breakfast? Well, that was just part of it, for the choices were aplenty. Thus fortified, we set off for the first major hike of the day, climbing the Sigiriya (Lion rock) hill fortress of king Kashyapa. The fortress was built by him atop a 200 meter tall hill after he had wrested power away from his half-brother Moggallana, who fled to India. Expecting the inevitable return of Moggallana, Kashyapa is said to have built his palace on the summit of Sigiriya as a fortress as well as a pleasure palace. Moggallana finally arrived, declared war, and defeated Kashyapa in 495 CE. During the battle Kashyapa's armies abandoned him and he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Well, the palace is all gone and only ruins remain showing the foundations of the palace, the palace tank atop the mountain and the famous polished mirror wall and the murals of many a lovely lass remain for one to see, but well worth the arduous climb. The climb is slow, single file, on narrow steps and as I said before, quite tough for those who only warm their backsides in office chairs, most of the year! From a medical assistance point of view, not much is available, save a small first aid station at the summit.

Weary, but contended, we proceed on to a lakeside village. Phew! It was a back breaking ride in an ancient bullock cart with an intent to visit a villager’s thatched island house. The second half of the trip was in a boat. By the time we reached there, we were simply famished. The lady dressed in a simple lungi and blouse proceeded to show us old village life, mark you, nothing different from that in a Palghat village, where she de-husked a coconut using the vertical blade, scraped it using a scraper (I could not resist doing it myself – had assisted my mom many a time in my younger days) and ground a mean pol sambhal on a stone ammikkallu. Her sister was in the meantime making some fish mango curry, and through the demonstration, I must admit, our mouths watered and we were getting impatient for the lunch as the village mongrel lazily dozed off at the home entrance, not bothered by the arrival of some funny foreigners. The meal which followed on a lotus leaf was simple but complete, baby plantains for desert, and we went back to the car in an auto rickshaw, eyes heavy with sleep. As my wife dozed off in the hammock, I watched a cricket game between the waiters and the houseboys of the resort, not surprised at the quality of the batting and bowling of these youngsters.

Early next morning, we started a long drive to Kandy, the second major city in Lanka after Colombo, which all in all, proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. It had been the last capital of the ancient Nayak’s of Madurai and home to the famous Buddha tooth relic. The temple was fascinating, nonetheless, and the hotel we stayed in, just so-so, like any other clean modern hotel, devoid of any character. Tired, we skipped the trip to the famed botanical gardens of Paradeniya, which people tell us was a miss and quite glorious. The tooth temple held particular interest for me, and I will retell that story another day, together with its connections to Zheng he or Cheng Ho. As is said, since old times long gone, safeguarding of the relic which had been brought in from India’s Kalinga kingdom hidden in the Princess Hemalli’s hair, was the responsibility of the Lankan monarch, and so the custodianship of relic symbolized the right to rule. After the temple visit, we wandered around the town of Kandy, but sad to say it was not very satisfying.

It had been our desire to take the much recommended train ride to the highlands of Lanka, but the upper class tickets had all been sold out and the travel agency were not willing to allow us to travel third class. Our driver Basil, made a valiant attempt the next day to get us to the train as he had found out that morning that two tickets were available, but we could not reach the station in time and it proved to be a touch and go affair (something that would be repeated again as you will read). It was a rainy cold day and the drive to the hill station town of Nuwara Eliya, insipid. The first of the visits was to a tea factory at Glenlock where the lady guide took us through the plucking, sorting, drying and curing process of tea. A few cups of tea were gulped, nice on a cold rainy day, and we were soon off with a few packets of tea as souvenirs.

The drive up the mountains took most of the day and on the way we stopped at Ramboda, where they had built a temple in honor of the great monkey god and friend of Rama, Hanuman. According to the ancient stories, Ramboda is the area where the forces of Rama had gathered to fight Ravana. The nearby Ramboda waterfalls were spectacular, though the lunch was mediocre.

At long last we reached Nuwara Eliya and quickly proceeded to the quaint Hill club where one had to take temporary membership to stay. It was colonial to the core, with suited and booted staff, old fashioned furniture, well-manicured lawns, a tennis court, regularly tended gardens as well as rooms and a general atmosphere which took you back a century, at least.  After settling down we meandered through the small town, nothing different from any Indian hill stations, for example Ootacamund, and saw its race course and botanical gardens. Not to be missed is the Sita or Ashoka Vatika and the Sita temple where the lovely Sita ruminated on her future, as a prisoner of Ravana, while she waited for Ravana to come in rescue. Needless to mention, Lanka is home to a lot of Ashoka trees many of which were apparently set afire by Hanuman with his tail as he came in search of Sita. It was here that they say Mandodari came to meet her and where Hanuman alighted, and identified himself with Rama’s finger ring.

Hill Club
The evening proved to be a formal affair as we were to dress formally to eat in the dining room. When I mentioned that I would prefer the second and less formal dining room the steward insisted that we visit the cloak room and pick a suit and tie from the hotel stock. So attired, we sipped a few drinks by the wood fireplace, and supped a nice dinner a little later. As we spent our evening so, the steward regaled us of tales of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the very room for supper, showing us the cutlery offered for her dining pleasure. The reading room had plenty of old and new magazines and the ‘mixed bar’ at the end of the corridor allowed lesser mortals to sip a beer. Many a stuffed deer head gazed down forlornly at us, having been targets of hunters long dead and the board on the wall stated that there were no floods expected and that the roads were clear. It also mentioned that the train to Colombo would leave at 530AM. As I took in all this, the cashier behind the polished brass grill window could be seen clacking away, not at the typewriter positioned nearby, but at his modern keyboard, to tally various guest accounts. The lady at the entrance had in similar fashion given up using the old rotary phone and the plug in telephone switch, just as the helper boy no longer used bellows to keep the fire blazing. Those days were forgotten, but the implements left behind reminded you of the time when the Englishman made merry. As we got back to the room, to retire for the evening, there were orchids on the bed and believe it or not, a hot water bottle on each bedside, to warm our nether ends! So warmed up, we drifted off to an early night and a deep slumber, since we had to leave the next day at 5AM.

Sita temple
We will remember the day that followed for a long time, since it was a reasonably tough trail, walking through the fog till it cleared, all of 12 km through the Hortons plains at some 7,000 feet elevation that left you tired and winded after 5-6 hours of walking with little rest, climbing up, slithering down and exercising wheezy lungs, to see the Bakers falls, the world’s end precipice and so on in a plain reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. World's End is a sheer precipice with an 870 mts drop and you can see tiny villages and tea plantations in the valley below.  Another cliff known as the Lesser World's End of 270 mts is located not far from World's End. The grasslands here was apparently created when Hanuman set the trees alight but now it is home to other animals, and we found on our path a freshly mauled deer, by a leopard in the forest, the fact that it was nearby chilled our already cold blood. Tired and hungry, we got back to Nuwara and after a quick bite, settled to watch a day-nighter cricket match between India and Australia, which India lost.

A visit to the Adams peak was something we missed, deliberately, for we were not sure our physical conditioning was sufficient to make that climb and down. Also the climb would have necessitated a three day rest later, which we did not have for we had to get back to India and US soon after the Lanka trip. Adam’s Peak incidentally is the most sacred mountain in Lanka. Sri Pada as it is otherwise called, has tourist and pilgrims from all over the world climb to its peak by candlelight to stand in the famous footprint left there. Buddhist’s believe that it is the footprint of Buddha, Hindus believe it’s the footprint of Lord Shiva, Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka believe that this was the footprint of Adam.

The next and penultimate day of our tour was a drive to take us back to Colombo and our desire to enjoy a train ride was still not satiated. So, Basil took us early in the morning to the highest rail station (6200 ft) of Lanka at Pattipola to give it a try, but the train was already leaving the station as we made a wild dash to the platform. Not to be deterred, Basil sped to the next station at Ambewela from where we boarded a second class compartment of the blue hill train for an eventful but short ride to Nanu-oya. Scenic is just one word to describe the rolling plains, the hill side tea plantations, and the glorious pine, teak, coconut, arecanut and eucalyptus trees that sped past the windows of the train. At each curve, we could see the rest of the train ahead of us and the tourists craning their heads out to catch a sight of the many waterfalls we passed, enroute. One thing is clear, they take care of tourists having a separate foreigner’s rest room in each rail station!

World's End
Tea estates with English names like Shannon, Leigh, St Clare, Strathdon, Devon, Edinburg and Somerset dotted with Tamil plantation laborers whizzed past our windows as we drove down the hills, destined for Colombo. The radio played lovely 70-80’s songs on Ceylon’s 93 or 93.2 FM, with the DJ rattling off on various matters now and then. A surprise was the lady police’s uniform which was skirts! Drivers hardly used their horns, roadsides exhibited very little litter and mango trees still sported tender mangoes. One thing mystified us though, LG TV’s advertised there could drive away mosquitoes, can you believe that? The TV's "Mosquito Away Technology" uses ultrasonic waves that are inaudible to humans but cause mosquitoes to fly away, according to LG, and works even when switched off (I checked it out and found that it had originally been designed for the Indian market!).

Finally at long last we were in Colombo and a hasty city tour before sundown took us through the Galle sea face, museum, St Lucia cathedral, Independence square, the twin towers, Gangaramaya Buddha temple, Beira lake, Pettah, Town hall etc though the dense traffic was a deterrent in enjoying it. The last night’s stay was at the oceanfront Lavaniya hotel, an ageing but well placed property with a nice balcony dining set up, replete with live music. Though we tried, we could not eat the famed Ceylon Porotta, the driver stating that he would not be party to our buying unhygienic street food. We dropped off to a weary sleep with the ocean lapping the hotel walls. The next morning we boarded the flight back to Kerala…
A nice sojourn, leaving behind many a memory of days well spent, new people, new sights and sounds, new flavors and a taste of Lanka’s history. We did not see a lot of the Paradise Island, and I would only guess that we are destined to visit again, for we still have to see the Adams peak, Galle, Trincomalle and Jaffna!