Doings and happenings in rest houses

Kirthie Abeyesekera
Among the many relics of colonialism in ‘Ceylon’, are the Rest Houses scattered throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Initially, they were resting places for weary British Civil Servants on ‘circuit’. Away from the kachcheris and separated from their wives and families left behind in England, they found relaxation in the Rest House where they enjoyed service with servility. Ever-eager-to-please local chieftains ensured that their white masters’ every need was met, including what was known as ‘Kandyan hospitality’. That however, is another story of the Rest Houses that have many a tale to tell.

Part of the administrative machine, the Rest Houses catered mainly to ‘public servants’. Most Rest Houses were run by the government agents of the provinces. The ‘occupation fee’ was a nominal ten cents an hour. For an overnight stay, the rate was doubled to twenty cents which got you a cosy room with an iron-railed double-bed with clean linen and a warm blanket, plus a mosquito net in the days when malaria was endemic. The bedroom had a porcelain wash basin with a jug of cold water. The adjoining bucket latrine, called a water closet, WC, was sanitized with Jeyes fluid, a strong-smelling antiseptic. Those were the pre-drainage days.

A Rest House sleepover, complete with dinner and a breakfast of bacon and eggs cost about Rs. 7 including the tip. For an extra rupee or two, you could have a shot or two of arrack too.

The Rest House Keeper, RHK, had flexible menus, depending on the customer’s choice. Usually, it was ‘buth-curry’ for lunch and ‘Issaraha Kema’ for dinner. Most Rest Houses were reputed for the traditional staple meal made to order. The occupation fee, plus ten percent of the catering charges went to the government coffers of the Treasury. Rest Houses within Municipal and Urban areas were administered by the respective councils. Those in the rural areas within the jurisdictions of the Town Councils and Village Committees were operated by the kachcheris. The latter were the more attractive.

In my home province of Uva, the Badulla Rest House near the clock tower has been home to many political leaders. When S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike crossed the floor of the House and fielded his Sri Lanka Freedom Party candidate (who lost his deposit) in the 1955 by-election for the Aluthnuwara (later, Mahiyangana) seat, the future prime minister led the election campaign from the Badulla RH. W. Dahanayake also set up his election office at the Badulla RH when he won the Bibile seat for the State Council in 1944, and earned the title ‘The Bibile Brook - for, he never ran dry.

The Welimada RH was popular for RHK Richard’s ‘buth-curry’ which I once had the honour of sharing with SWRD on his way back to Colombo after the Aluthnuwara debacle. Six months later, he would sweep into power. Welimada was also known for the ‘extras’ available to lonely male travellers, in the form of blue-eyed damsels from ‘Little England’ - so called for the wild oats sown by British soldiers stationed in the Diyatalawa Army Camp.

Within ‘hoo-kiyana dura’ of the Mahiyangana Chaitya hallowed by the Buddha’s visit, is the RH where the best bar-patron was Thomson, the RHK himself, never in a state of sobriety and ever ready with his spicy anecdotes. At the outlandish Koslanda RH, on a reporting assignment, I ran into a young, runaway couple who asked that their romantic escapade be not reported. Now, they are happily domiciled, community-activists in Canada.

Uva’s pride is the Ella RH. Nestling among the misty hills, it unfolds a spectacle of breath-taking splendour. In one of the world’s most magnificent scenic settings, the RH opens out an incredible view of the Hambantota skyline in the distance.

On the Uva-Sabaragamuwa boundary is Belihuloya where honeymooners frolic behind the rocks that stud the river. You had to watch your string hoppers as you breakfast on the picturesque RH verandah, lest the monkeys grabbed them.

The Kesbewa RH in the electorate of Somaweera Chandrasiri, the popular parliamentarian not averse to philandering himself, was a well- known hideout for mercantile executives who tagged their secretaries along for an afternoon siesta. Lunawa and Weke were also known for such extra-curricular activities.

Kitulgala, in romantic settings by the river in the once-upon-a-time electoral of N. M. Perera, was a movie-director’s dream. Ambepussa, a landmark breakfast stop for travellers to Kandy, is a stone’s throw from the equally enticing ‘Jinadasage thalaguli’ stop. In April 1971, JVP insurgents swooped down on the RH from their hillside hideouts and, at revolver-point, raided the pantry.

Kurunegala was home to Sir John Kotelawela touring his Dodangaslanda electorate, often, with some stunning blonde on his arm, along with his trusted disciple, the equally ebullient D. B. Welagedera.

Squeezed in a Bug Fiat, four of us once drove from Welimada to the Sigiriya RH for the autograph of Gregory Peck on film location. Further, at the centre of the cultural triangle of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, is the Habarana RH where, in my reporting days, I encountered Beatrice Road, an English missionary, after her miraculous escape from an insurgency attack on her tourist coach.

In the South, Tangalle by the sea, was once a popular stopover enroute to Kataragama. Tissa RH, despite the invading monkeys, is perhaps, the most frequented for its proximity to Kataragama and the Yala Game Sanctuary.

The old and new Rest Houses in Negombo and the one in Chilaw served succulent crabs, while the Elephant Pass RH is where I’ve tasted the most fleshy and largest prawns, now called shrimps. After the Maviddipuram battle where C. Suntharalingam and the Harijans hurled sticks and stones, I found refuge in the peace of the Kankesanturai RH, not far from the silence and solitude of the still waters of the Keeramalai tank.

Mihintale where Mahinda brought Buddhism to Ceylon, provided news reporters after a hard day’s work, a place to stretch their weary limbs while sipping a drink and munching on crunchy ‘halmesso-beduma,’ deep-fried by the RHK himself - a ‘special’ for the ‘Lake House mahatturu.’

By far the most fascinating, but alas, no more, was the Eastern province with a proliferation of Rest Houses. You could listen to the singing fish from the bridge above and retire for a meal at the Batticaloa RH. Kalmunai, Kalkudah and Passikudah had a charm of their own.

The Polonnaruwa RH beside the Parakrama Samudra, built a special bathroom for the Queen. This eastern resort, a tourist’s paradise in the vicinity of the ruins of a lost kingdom, is out of this world.

Many moons ago, when I was only 16, I accompanied my uncle Andrew and his family in their two-door Morris Minor, Z 37, to Vakarai, a veritable oasis in the middle of nowhere. Off the beaten track on the esteem shores, between Batticaloa and Trincomalee, we had to cross several ferries to get there. The RH is built in the sea. As a child and an adult, and in later years in my working life as a journalist, I have been at almost all of the country’s Rest Houses. But Vakarai remains in my memory for its seductive charm, the stillness in the air and that indefinable smell of the sea.

In later years, the Ceylon Tourist Board and the Ceylon Hotels Corporation would swallow up some of the Rest Houses and convert them into monstrous showpieces of modern sophistry.

Yet, it is those quaint old buildings by the sea, in the sea and in the outlandish jungles of an era gone by, that evoke haunting memories of the Enchanted Isle that it used to be.