Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Ceylon was a hub for many travellers from around the globe. For many, their visits to Sri Lanka was for political or religious motives but they fell in love with the undeniable serenity of the island that inspired them. Writers indulged in the beauty of our landscape, culture, people and heritage and included the essence of Sri Lanka in their writing.
H.A.I Goonetileke published an anthology named ‘Images of Sri Lanka Through American Eyes’; a compilation of comments and accounts on Sri Lanka by American travellers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Coming across this book gave me an epiphany for how blessed we are to be living in a country so beautiful yet how it is often forgotten at the speed of life. Below are excerpts of a few accounts on Sri Lanka by its travellers and how the island changed their lives, written in tribute to the dusty anthology that still carries life among its pages.
“Kandy, March 4, 1883. My Dear Mary, - Do you know I think this place is good enough and important enough from which to write you a letter. In the first place, it is the farthest point of my travels; from this time my face is turned homeward. In the second place, I think it must be the most beautiful place in the world.”
Phillips Brooks is a noted American minister and the first American to be honoured by an invitation to conduct the service at Windsor before Queen Victoria. He has been in Kandy during the time of a Hindu festival when he wrote the above letter to his family and he includes a poem of seven stanzas in it, describing the scene.
“Colombo is a babel of strange sounds and colours, all new and bewildering to me. Fancy a town of one hundred thousand blacks,-Sinhalese, Tamils, Mahometans and Hindus,-with only fifteen hundred Europeans.”
Mary Thorn Carpenter was on her winter holiday in the sub-continent and two chapters of her book “A Girl’s Winter in India” includes an account of Ceylon through the eyes of a lively American girl.
“January 13. Unspeakable hot. The equator is arriving again. We are with eight degrees of it. Ceylon present. Dear me! It is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical, as to character of foliage and opulence of it...Colombo, the capital. An Oriental town, most manifestly; and fascinating.”
Mark Twain is a renowned author of the world-famous novels, The Adventure of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He travelled around the world for thirteen months including Australia, India, South Africa, Tasmania and New Zealand where he spent the most time.
“The scenery of Ceylon is glorious beyond words; and the women of Ceylon are often as beautiful as their land. It was on the return voyage from Colombo to Southampton that I had the opportunity to study and enjoy one typical Sinhalese beauty.”
Ella Wilcox is a poet, famous for the lines ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you, Weep and you weep alone’. She travelled to Europe and Asia widely and gave birth to the autobiography ‘The World’s and I’. The above excerpt is from the article, Women of Ceylon published in the National Magazine (Boston) in 1913.
“Two types of landscape have always had the power to stimulate me, the desert and the tropical forest. These two extremes of natural terrain-one with the minimum and the other with the greatest possible amount of vegetation-are both capable of sending me to a state bordering on euphoria.”
Paul Bowels is a novelist that focused on the tension between the East and the West. The third extract from his book of travel essays ‘Their Heads are Green’ is a tribute to Pettah and the quaint bustle of the city.