Krishani Peiris, with photo-work by Menaka Aravinda, …. a repeat from a presentation in 2013 with a different title
Located approximately 1,331 metres above sea level, Diyatalawa in the Haputale District is well known as a Garrison Town. Though it is not clear as to when the place became a prominent threshold for armed forces, historical records show that in 1885, the British had stationed a garrison in the area. And from that point onwards, Diyatalawa has being able to carve its own niche in the history of Sri Lanka.
Then Diyatalawa, meaning The Watered Plain, was at one point a bare plain where shrubs and elephants roamed freely. It is believed that British planters and hunters had come to the area in search of game, resulting in the extinction of elephants in the region. Moreover, towards the latter part of the 18th century the Wesleyan missionaries, Reverend Samuel Langdon and his wife, leased the land and set up an orphanage and a school naming the area ‘Happy Valley’. This orphanage was later removed to make room for the Boer war prisoners.
Annals of history surrounding the area revolve around the prisoners of the Boer war, in Africa, who were imprisoned in the locality. Boers, in Dutch for farmers, mainly consisted of Dutch descendants that had come to Cape Town, Africa in the 1600s when the Dutch East India Company operated in the region. They made a home for themselves in Cape Town – as the rich and powerful – driving away or enslaving the natives to gain full advantage of the city which was located in the naval navigation route from Amsterdam to South Asia. As the voyage between the countries took almost three months, breaking the journey half way to get provisions was customary and Cape Town proved to be a pivotal city where they were able to gain many riches.
When the British arrived in Africa they sought to take this wealth and to take control of the trade route centering Cape Town, leading to bitter struggles against the British hierarchy. After two successive wars, in 1877 and 1899, many of the Boers were shipped as prisoners to other colonies of the British Empire. As such Diyatalawa was chosen as a place to hold the prisoners and a camp was built in 1900, to house 2,500 prisoners and 1,000 guards. However, more additions were made as the number of prisoners increased to more than 5,000. For the next few years, until 1902 when most of the prisoners were released, the camp was their home where they toiled in building roads among many other tasks.
Boer POWs assembled for cricket … and enmasse (pix courtesy of Rohan de Soysa
With Independence and the formation of the Ceylon Army in October 10, 1949 the area was established as a training centre for the Sri Lanka Army. Back Now, Today Diyatalawa is home to the Sri Lanka Military Academy, Sri Lanka Air Force, Institute of Surveying and Mapping and a small thriving town. As we passed the town teeming with many shops, vehicles and people, it depicted a vibrant setting.
At the Institute of Surveying and Mapping we took time to observe the structures made out of tin sheets. Hued in green and numbered, these were the abodes of the prisoners and offered a glimpse of the way of life some 100 years back.
The Sri Lanka Military Academy (SLMA), the training centre for officers as well as other personnel, covered a magnificent expanse that sprawled along acres of beautiful land. In order to admire this beauty better, we stopped by the Halangode Lake, which was rumoured to have been a treasure trove for precious gems some years back. The green waters that reflected the overhead skies as well as the lush greenery that lined the sides enhanced the charm surrounding the area.
Fox Hill where an image of a fox with HMS Fox and the year 1913 etched in white granite on a green backdrop, stands as a landmark that could be seen from various points in Diyatalawa. It is said that HMS Fox (His Majesty’s Ship), an old vessel – utilized to convey the Boer war prisoners to Sri Lanka – that was anchored in the Trincomalee Port due to repairs, was the inspiration behind this insignia. Situated nearby to this hill is the Fox Hill racing track, an idea by Hans Ralf – a German national – and made a reality by the Army in 1993. Fox Hill super-cross usually held in April, is one of the most prominent car and bike races in Sri Lanka and attracts nearly 75,000 visitors or more. The most unique feature of the track is that spectators can witness the races up close as the elevated grand stand provides a view of the whole track.
Enjoying the gentle breeze, which imparted a breath of fresh air along with the picturesque landscape dotted with varying shades of foliage, we paused at a monument built in 1913 to commemorate the Boer War Prisoners. The monument decorated with a cross atop and faded with age had names inscribed along three sides. Soon our gaze was drawn to another monument nearby paying homage to the soldiers who have contributed during World War I and II. Subsequently at the Polo Grounds, we reveled in the sheer breadth of a natural field that stretched as far as the eye could see. Maintained by the SLMA it is utilized for golf, rugby, football and more.
As we explored Diyatalawa we did not forget to visit the railway station, which is believed to have been built somewhere between 1892 and 1893. Though the building and the tracks were renovated through the years, two iron bars used for a cable car, used in the early 1900s, still stood there. In addition, stories about a little pub being located in the vicinity and of how one of the tunnels nearby was built, provide exciting anecdotes. As we stood there scrutinizing the neatly manicured lawns fringing the tracks and the scenic panorama beyond, a train from Kandy to Badulla approached the station, stopping for a while, as some people stepped out.
Bidding adieu to this serene land we wound our way out of the town as the skies started to darken and released drops of rain. A merging of the old and the new, Diyatalawa carried a wealth of history and scenery to sate the eye and the mind of the curious traveller.
NOTE: The photograph of the Boer POWs is a companion piece of the one taken by Rohan de Soysa, and numbered 55, in Roberts, Potency, Power & People in Groups (Colombo, Marga Institute, 2011).