The Sunday TimesPlus

17th March 1996




Seeing the 'exotic other'

By Richard Boyle

Go into any good book-shop in Colombo nowadays and you are assured of finding a handful or more of glossily produced tourist guidebooks to Sri Lanka by publishing houses both local and international. This certainly was not the case 25 or even 15 years ago when there was a paucity of such publications. So it is surprising to discover that the precursor of the modern guidebook to the island was first published over 80 years ago, in 1914.

Titled How to see Ceylon, it was written by Bella Woolf, sister of Leonard Woolf. After a distinguished academic career at Cambridge, Leonard Woolf served as an administrator in the Ceylon Civil Service between 1904 and 1911. On his return to England he wrote one of the best books on rural life in the island, The Village in the Jungle, married the novelist Virginia Stephen, founded the Hogarth Press and became one of the central figures of the Bloomsbury Group.

Bella Woolf came out to Ceylon at the end of 1907 to stay with her brother, who at that time was stationed in Kandy. Although Leonard Woolf refers only briefly to her visit in Growing, the volume of his autobiography which covers his years in the island, he does confess that 'her presence made a great difference to my life.' In fact brother and sister were rather close, as is evident from The Letters of Leonard Woolf, and Bella was a confidante until Leonard married Virginia.

Until August 1908, when Leonard was transferred to Hambantota, Bella stayed at his bungalow behind the Temple of the Tooth. According to Leonard it was a 'curious building.' Perhaps it is the same bungalow 'beside the gate' which Bella writes of in the dedication to her guidebook. It was here, probably, that she courted Robert Lock, the Assistant Director of the nearby Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, whom she married in 1910.

Furthermore, it was here that Bella, under the benign influence of her brother, assimilated her formative impressions of the country, which were essential to her book. As she writes in the Foreword: 'It is a pleasure above all to acknowledge how much I owe to my brother, in whose bungalow it was my privilege to spend many months. From his intimate and introspective knowledge of the people, I have gathered in a small way a fuller understanding of the island.'

Like every good guidebook, How to see Ceylon commences with a comprehensive General Information section on the country. This section contains a wealth of interesting and mostly long-forgotten details from a bygone age of travel when tourists to Ceylon were called "passengers".

For example, there were complicated tariffs governing the hire of carriages and rickshaws in the principal towns of Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. Fares were generally calculated by time rather than by distance. In the Kandy Municipality, a first class carriage drawn by one horse cost 60 cents for half an hour, Rs. 1.20 for one hour, and 30 cents for every subsequent hour. If you wished to hire by the day the cost was Rs. 5.00. Rates for two-horse carriages were, as might be expected, proportionately higher.

Alternatively, a first class rickshaw hired in the Colombo Municipality and drawn by one "coolie" cost 10 cents for 10 minutes, 25 cents for 30 minutes, and 50 cents for one hour. Rickshaws drawn by two coolies were also available at a higher rate, of course. And if you wanted to accomplish the 10 mile journey to the resort of Mount Lavinia and back, there existed a special fare of Rs. 3.00.

The system was confusing because the tariffs for carriages and rickshaws varied between the three towns. In addition, although there was a surcharge on hires between dusk and dawn, which was common to all the towns, the amount differed depending on the location.

Railway Tours

Bella Woolf describes three itineraries (suggested by Thomas Cook and Son) for circular tours by railway. One lasting 7 days, for which the first class fare was Rs. 27.20, started in Colombo and took in Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Bandarawela, Hatton and Maskeliya, before returning to Colombo. This tour allowed time to visit, among other things, the Temple of the Tooth, the Peradeniya and Hakgala Botanical Gardens and even Adam's Peak.

The circumnavigation of the island by steamer, as described in the book, sounds particularly appealing: 'The trip in the Ceylon Steamship Company's fine new steamers, leaving Colombo every Wednesday, calling at Rameswaram (India), Jaffna, Trincomalee (one of the most magnificent harbours in the world), Batticaloa, Hambantota and Galle, occupies about 8 days. Round trip, first class, Rs. 100.'

As the guidebook was written in the early years of the Motor Age, attention is paid to the information required by visiting motorists. Apart from containing a number of suggested motor tours lasting from 5 to 14 days, it provides a list of businesses, rest houses and even private establishments where petrol could be obtained.

Also given is the price per gallon at each outlet, for the cost of petrol varied from Rs. 1.50 at Veyangoda to Rs. 2.90 at Talawakelle. Another bewildering factor was that motorists who signed a contract with Delmege & Forsyth and Co. could obtain petrol at a discounted rate - but which differed at each outlet.

It has to be remembered that during this era, many visitors to the island were so-called "sportsmen" in search of big game. Hunting trips were organised in Colombo, but licences for guns and to kill particular species had to be obtained from the Government Agent. Leonard Woolf in Growing relates several encounters with aristocratic sportsmen who came to him for licences at Hambantota, including Baron Axel Blixen, whose wife Karen was to write Out of Africa. 'For those who are anxious "to go out and kill something" there is ample opportunity in Ceylon', declares Bella Woolf. A standard gun licence cost Rs. 2.00. The licence to shoot or kill an elephant (not a tusker) cost Rs. 300. For buffalo the cost was Rs. 25 and for deer and peafowl, Rs. 45. Surprisingly, bear and leopard could be shot without a licence.

In those days, horse racing was another popular attraction for visitors involving animals. Colombo was the venue for the favourite Monsoon Meet in May or June, together with the August Meet, while the hill station of Nuwara Eliya hosted well-attended Meets in February, April and September. Furthermore, there were races held at Galle, Kandy, Badulla and Radella between January and April.

The hints for travellers given by Bella Woolf embrace both the practical and the curious:

'A topee should always be worn until 4 to 4.30 pm even on dull days'

"Do not sleep under a fan unless a blanket is wrapped round your body'

'Avoid sitting in draughts during the North-East Monsoon, as the land wind is responsible for many chills'

'On motoring tours it is well to be provided with a supply of quinine tabloids, chlorodyne, citronella oil and brandy. Some visitors prefer to engage a travelling servant who can look after the luggage and meet the motor at various points.'

Steam Ships

The descriptive main section of How to see Ceylon consists of a number of chapters devoted to a thorough and rational exploration of the island's tourist attractions by both road and rail, together with concise historical and cultural details. Naturally this begins with Colombo.

During these times, steamships from around the world brought a considerable number of passengers of many nationalities to the port of Colombo. 'In fact', as Bella Woolf observes, 'it is said that if you waited long enough in the Hall of the Grand Oriental Hotel you would meet everyone worth meeting.'

When a ship anchored in the harbour it was invariably boarded by 'a crowd of shrieking natives, all frantically anxious to secure passengers and luggage for transport in their little boats across the water to the jetty'. Once on dry land passengers had 3 first class hotels to choose from - the aforementioned Grand Oriental, the Galle Face, and the Bristol. The charge for a room per day was about Rs. 10, inclusive.

Bella Woolf describes Colombo as 'the meeting place of the world. It palpitates with life and with the romance of those who wander up and down the earth.' She advises visitors to try the electric tram system, not much used by Europeans, as a 'large portion of Colombo can be seen by this means.'


Two itineraries for drives within Colombo are suggested - to the residential area of Cinnamon Gardens, 'a succession of tree-shaded roads running between bungalows set in charming gardens' and the "native quarters" of Pettah, which 'seethe with life, and colour with clamour of tongues, with bewildering fascinating throng.' However, Bella Woolf advises against trying to see Colombo in a morning for 'its ramifications extend everyday.'

Befitting its position of the island's second city, Bella Woolf devotes much space to Kandy 'which lies round a Lake set like a gem in the cup of green hills', and 'is with many visitors first favourite among the beautiful places Ceylon can show.'

Besides providing vivid descriptions of such present day tourist attractions as the Temple of the Tooth and the Perahera, excursions are recommended to Katugastota to watch elephants bathe, and to Hantana Peak 'for those who like a fine view after a severe scramble.'

Since she was married to the Assistant Director of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, and indeed had lived inside them for several years, it is not surprising that Bella Woolf writes so enthusiastically about their natural wonders.

'Probably no spot in Ceylon has more admiration lavished on it than the Peradeniya Gardens', she states. 'Apart from their historical and botanical interest, the Gardens stand unrivalled in the natural style of gardening, which has ousted the formal garden. It is a case of Nature unadorned adorned the most.'

The extensive fauna on display in the Gardens, as well as the exquisite flora, are portrayed in glorious detail. In addition, many intriguing snippets of information are divulged, such as that according to experiments made by her husband, the Giant Bamboo there grow as much as two feet in one night.

Those whose lot it is to dwell in the East, learn in time something of oriental life and nature, but they also realise that much must ever remain a sealed book,' admits Bella Woolf at the beginning of the Afterword to her guidebook. Nevertheless, she goes on to demonstrate a perceptive understanding of the character of the island's inhabitants.

While appreciating the outwardly Arcadian appearance of village life, she was at the same time aware of the disturbing realities and deceptive undercurrents that have a profound influence on it, as is reflected in brother Leonard's The Village in the Jungle. She also displays the Woolf family concern for social reform when she asserts that if women were to receive better educational opportunities, they would do much 'to elevate the tone of village life.'

In an appeal which is rooted in the infancy of motoring, but which has some relevance even today, Bella Woolf exhorts motorists to consider the life and limb of the villager, who in remote areas of the island especially, was still growing accustomed to the amazing apparition of a vehicle: 'Consequently the people on the road are often flustered and rush wildly from side to side, proving a source of danger to themselves and the motorist.'

Sense of Mystery

Bella Woolf ends her beguiling work with a passage that evinces her romantic fascination with the strange and the beautiful - the "exotic other" the island represented to her and other European writers during a period when Europe was undergoing rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

'The sense of mystery' she writes, 'that pervades all Eastern life only enhances its fascination. It intensifies the longing that comes under the grey skies of the West for the sun-dappled roads beneath the palm trees, the shrill chirping of the crickets, the graceful gaily-clad people passing up and down on brown noiseless feet, the tom-toms beating fitfully, the lonely jungle-roads, the scented moonlight turning the palms to silver, the fragrance, the languor - all the glamour of the land of never-ending summer.'

Tragically Bella Woolf's husband died in June 1915, soon after the publication of her guidebook. In 1921 she married Wilfred Southern, the Principal Collector of Customs of Ceylon. Later she became Lady Southern, when her husband was knighted and appointed Governor of Gambia.

During the 1920s Bella Woolf wrote two further books on Ceylon titled Eastern Stardust and From Groves of Palm. But undoubtedly it is How to see Ceylon that was the most popular. Indeed, four editions of the book appeared between 1914 and 1929 - a tribute to its accuracy, conciseness, and enduring nature.

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