A Pooja for Kandy

Gerald H. Peiris **

Almost exactly eighty years ago a young woman, then in her first appointment as a teacher serving a village school off the township of Mawanella, and her husband, evangelist of the Methodist Church in the same village, rushed their infant son to the General Hospital in Kandy in the desperate hope that he would somehow survive through the bout of high fever and infection diagnosed as diphtheria – a disease with which an infant mortality rate quite close to 100% was associated at that time in ‘Ceylon’. They both maintained vigil at the hospital cot, day and night, throughout the fortnight or so of treatment and their child’s erratic recovery.

That the infant survived was, in their belief, a miracle of divine intervention.  Such is the saga of my first visit of Kandy, repeated often by my mother, especially when irritated by my recalcitrance. A query intended to confuse her: “What did you do with your other child?” Response: “He never gave us trouble, not like you; there were others to look after him”. Patrick, my elder brother, who fulfilled parental expectations in a way that must have compensated for the innumerable disappointments I caused, was also my friend and mentor. That was only until he left us in excruciating grief barely reaching thirty years of age. My book on Kandy is dedicated to them – the only deities of my life – as a gesture of my love and devotion which I had never conveyed to them when they were with me.

My second coming to Kandy occurred about nine years after the first. It involved a dreary train ride from Bandarawela that ended hours after sunset. We lodged that night in the ‘Wesley Hall’ of the Brownrigg Street church. Early the following morning there was that memorable trek towards the famed Buddhist Temple which my father thought his kids might like to see before being admitted to an ‘English school’ later in the morning. The temple, backed as it was in the gloom of the adjacent forest, did not impress me all that much; but I had never seen anything so mesmerizing as the Lake, partly shrouded in mist, reflecting the rising sun that crisp January dawn – a vision which, with my Christian upbringing, made me think that this must surely be what heaven looks like.

From then on, over the next seventy years, barring  several brief spells of self-imposed exile, Kandy has remained my home – nine years at Kingswood College, followed by half a century of delightful and highly rewarding links with the University of Ceylon, and thereafter, in the house my wife and I built.

The ‘offering’ rendered above explains, at least in part,  the impulse for my undertaking this study. Though adhering to the conventions of research inculcated in the university here and at Cambridge, I have deviated from the prescribed norms only by way of speculating on certain clandestine aspects of the city government – especially its endemic corruption – on the basis of what might appear as only a thin scatter of circumstantial evidence, and by digressing at times with marginally relevant anecdotal recollections, some of which date back to my time in Kandy in childhood and youth.

Yet, it is not just a sentimental attachment to the hometown that has impelled the present attempt [viz, …. https://thuppahis.com/2020/05/05/on-kandy-for-kandy/%5D. Over several decades I have seen and understood the causal connections of the transformations of Kandy – especially, its inner city– degenerating to a state comparable to the most congested and polluted parts of Colombo’s ‘Pettah’ or ‘Grandpass’ or even some of the worst urban environs of the ‘sub-continent’, with the occasional “gift to the people” so generously given by our political leadership relentlessly pushing it along that trend towards crisis and chaos.

Urban planning in Sri Lanka has an abundance of documentation. The bulk of this literature, as one would expect, relates to Metropolitan Colombo. The ancient city of Anurādhapura, the remnants of which were being explored since the closing decades of the 19th century, was also placed in the 1940s within the framework of a long-term plan. Implemented over a period of about fifteen years, it stands apart from other efforts of that genre in its profound and lasting impact.

On Kandy there are at least ten documents prepared over the past fifty years the titles of which indicate that they were intended to serve as ‘development plans’ of the city. I do not find in any of them the essential ingredients of perspective urban planning as sketched in Chapter 5 of the present study. Hopefully, the on-going planning effort sponsored by JICA initiated about two years ago (the final results of which are yet to be disclosed) would be an exception. In any event a long-term plan has never been implemented in Kandy, and is unlikely be implemented in the foreseeable future.

The thematic contention of this study is that Kandy is a unique city – a fact that has not been accorded due priority and prominence in the past planning efforts. Our planners have seldom bothered to learn about the past of this city that has made it the epitome of our island civilisation. This is why I have devoted the first three chapters of the study to trace the history of the city using the treasure-trove of writings in Sinhala and English, in prose and verse, and in the form of travelogues, official reports and, more important than all else, a body of research to which a galaxy of scholars (mostly, stars and comets of the former University of Ceylon) have contributed.

The specific reasons upon which the claim of uniqueness for Kandy is based are elaborated in Chapter 6 which also leans heavily on the same works of research. In that presentation, I have attempted to show that the status of Kandy as the ‘cultural capital’ of the nation, made evident both by the veneration it has received all along from the world of Thēravāda Buddhism as well as by the multiculturalism evident in its demographic, structural and functional characteristics, supports the corollary that the overarching objective of perspective planning for this city should be that of safeguarding and enhancing that exalted status.

What this, in turn, implies is the irrelevance of some of the basic economic paradigms of urban planning for the development of this city. Despite the pretense to the contrary in the form of an almost routine acknowledgement of the need to preserve the sanctity and charm of the Kandyan citadel, there is hardly anything tangible in the specific measures prescribed in the past planning documents placed under scrutiny in the fifth chapter of this study on how that objective is to be achieved. Instead, what is discernible is a conventional planning approach of perceiving Kandy as just another urban centre that shares with several others of similar size, the second tier of the country’s ‘Central Place’ hierarchy, which, like the others, should, with minor changes in its present form, serve as the nucleus of a process of development of a larger region – more often than not, an arbitrarily delimited ‘hinterland’ referred to as ‘Greater Kandy’, ‘Metropolitan Kandy’ or ‘Kandy, a satellite of the Western Province Megapolis’ (!).

Briefly stated, the essence of what these plans visualize is an enhancement of the economic potential of Kandy through measures designed mainly to improve the accessibility of the  inner city so that it will serve as the nucleus of a ‘regional development plan’ while promoting its attraction as a centre of tourism. Protecting the sanctity and charm of the collection of shrines in the ‘inner city’, easing excessive congestion, curtailing environmental pollution, and elevating the quality of life in the city for its residents and commuters are perceived as probable trickle down effects of the economic objectives which the plans pursue.

Here I should hasten to state that there could be nothing against the pursuit of economic objectives for the common  good in so far as there is no subordination of the cultural uniqueness of this city. I have, in fact, shown at considerable length in the final chapter of this monograph that the economic potential of the city could be enhanced with a lower capital outlay – substantially lower in comparison to what the ‘expressways’, ‘beltways’, ‘tunnelled subways’, ‘monorail flyovers’ and ‘multimodal transport hubs’ envisioned by some of the planners, prodded no doubt by their political masters, would cost – while safeguarding the cultural legacy of Kandy through strategies that involve planned transformations of its morphology which, as everyone knows, is a product of wayward evolution that served different needs of a different time in a plantation-led economy.

No attempt is made in this monograph to design a plan for the future of Kandy, a task for which I do not have the competence. Indeed, the formulation of such a plan requires the collaborative efforts of multidisciplinary expertise. Moreover, the necessary information-base, not being readily available, cannot be compiled by one person – an aged researcher at that – without official backing at least of the informal type he was privileged to have thirty or forty years ago when the bureaucratic elite of the country consisted almost entirely of the old ‘University of Ceylon’ alumnae. Thus, what has been attempted is no more than submitting a series   of suggestions towards the formulation of a perspective plan for the future of Kandy if and when the political and economic circumstances facilitate the implementation of such a plan.

The suggestions referred to are presented in the concluding chapter of this volume. It is preceded by several chapters that explore the foremost planning concerns of Kandy, especially its ‘inner city’. Their thematic essence is that the only planning strategy that would have a tangible impact of reversing the exponential trends of aggravating demographic and socioeconomic pressures on the ‘inner city’ would be relocating, fully or partially, as many tertiary functions as possible presently in this part of the city. To summarize the basis of this conclusion – first of all, there is the unique nature and the intensifying pressures referred to on the small extent of space available in the ‘inner city’ and its buildable peripheries, and with no room for lateral expansion, exemplified more vividly than in all else by the problem of traffic congestion and excessive residential density.

Second, with no major change in the present functional arrangement, the impact of advances in transportation infrastructure and facilities in the form of express highways, ring-roads, road-widening, and improvements in transport management etc., will be negated in their wake by enhanced traffic flows as evidenced in many urban settings the world over, regarded as an exemplification of the phenomenon of ‘supply-induced demand’.

Thirdly, there is the environmental degradation that must be halted and reversed; and fourthly, the need to safeguard and enhance the uniquely ethereal charm of the inner city, ‘greening’ it, curtailing its administrative and commercial functions, while prioritizing the needs of pilgrims and other devotees of its shrines, and the users of those functions that must remain in the inner city – especially the services in health and education.

I am privileged to place on record the enormous debt of gratitude to those whose help has been indispensable to my efforts. First and foremost are those of the family – Yasa and the children Indumathie, Manjula, Saman, grandson Rahal, and brother Sarath; and among friends, Kingsley de Silva, Asoka Amaratunga, Manodara Nelson (my selfless collaborator in several research projects), ‘KNO’ Dharmadasa, Michael Roberts, Sudharshan Seneviratne, ‘CB’ Dissanayake, Piyasena Wickramagamage, Sumedha Weerawardena, and the late Shantha Hennayake. Gananath and Ranjini Obeyesekere have been generous with their  encouragement. Following a perusal of the first draft of my manuscript they suggested that I should refer it to a competent proof-reader. I was fortunate to obtain that service from Iranga Silva. The extraordinary competence and meticulous care she has applied to that task, with an input of technical assistance from Vasantha Premaratne, surpassed my expectations. Among the others whose help has been of special value are Ms Doris Yapa who made available to me a large collection of writings on Kandy compiled by her in a diligent bibliographic search, and Mr Bilinda Hevage Nandadeva, for his incisive reflections on preserving the Heritage of Kandy.

hema-2  It was when the late Hemachandra de Silva, a former Commissioner of the KMC, gave me unrestricted access to the municipality ‘Records Room’ that a part of the empirical content of this study assumed the form of collecting documented information. That was in the early 1980s. A study I conducted on ‘Basic Needs and the Provision of Government Services in Kandy District (Peiris, 1982-85) also involved the construction of a data-base both from unpublished documentary sources at state-sector institutions in Kandy as well as through a household sample survey in ten randomly identified localities of the district – in accordance with a ‘methodology’ endorsed by the ILO/ARTEP that had commissioned me for the study. In the more recent past when I began to focus exclusively on the present study, my investigations, apart from library work, took the form of conducting, in haphazard fashion, informal discussions with persons from almost the entire spectrum of the city community. Thus, there is no ‘research methodology’ which I could claim to have followed if that phrase is applied exclusively, as certain social scientists appear to do, to investigations involving systematically designed ‘sample surveys’.  Several sections of this monograph are based on information accumulated in the course of such discussions. Those whom I interviewed, sometimes in small groups (as, for instance, KMC ‘conservancy’ workers and street-side traffic wardens, and sales assistants employed in the ‘Torrington Market’) responded cordially to my questions, placing trust in a self-introduction and an explanation that my purpose is that of “writing a book on Kandy”. Much of what I have said in this monograph are impressions gained through personal experiences and networks of contact – the latter quite widespread dating back as it does to my school days.

Gerald H. Peiris Kandy, Sri Lanka ….. July 2018


** The highlighting work is an imposition from the Editor Thuppahi

GH PEIRIS: Planning for the Future of Kandy, 2020 ……………………………….. GODAGE & BROTHERS (PVT) LTD. No. 661, 665, 675, P. de S. Kularatne Mawatha, Colombo 10, Sri Lanka. Tel. : (011) 2685369, 2686925, Fax: 2674187 http://www.godage.com godageem@slt.lk ISBN 978-955-30-9162-8 Research Designed by S. Godage & Brothers (pvt) Ltd Rs. 2750/=     US$ 50.00.

**** ****

KANDY OLD 1 from Raheem & Colin-Thome 2000, p, 102

Kandy in the mid 19th century



KANDY OLD 22Overview in the 1880s …. Scowen at http://lankapura.com/2009/03/kandy-town-ceylon-late-1800s/

1 Comment

Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, education, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, Kandyan kingdom, landscape wondrous, life stories, meditations, patriotism, politIcal discourse, population, religiosity, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, tourism, transport and communications, travelogue, unusual people, world events & processes

One response to “A Pooja for Kandy

  1. Chandra Wickramasinghe

    Thank you Mike. His book will undoubtedly , be an adulatory dedication to a City he loves so much.Cheers. Chandra.

Leave a Reply