The 110km journey from Colombo to Kandy provides a neat snapshot of Sri Lanka’s dramatic scenic contrasts, taking you within just three hours from sweltering coastal lowlands to cool inland hills. Many visitors make the journey by train, a classic rail journey (sit on the right-hand side en route to Kandy for the best views) along one of south Asia’s most spectacularly engineered tracks, first opened in 1867, which weaves slowly upwards through long tunnels and along narrow ledges blasted by Victorian engineers out of solid rock, with vertiginous drops below. Despite the pleasures of the train trip, however, the journey by road (another legacy of British engineering skills, completed in 1825) is in many respects more spectacular, as the main highway rolls uphill and down, before making the final, engine-busting climb up into Kandy, giving a much more immediate sense of the hills’ scale and altitude than the rail line’s carefully graded ascent – although the long slog through the interminable suburbs of Colombo and Kandy is a drag.
The spectacular rock-topped peak of Utuwankanda is famous in local legend as the hideout of the Sri Lankan folk hero, Deekirikevage Saradiel (or Sardiel), who terrorized traffic on the main Kandy to Colombo highway throughout the 1850s and early 1860s, and whose exploits in fleecing the rich while succouring the poor have provoked inevitable comparisons with Robin Hood, whose flowing locks and predilection for remote forest hideouts Saradiel shared.
Based in the impenetrable jungle around Utuwankanda, Saradiel’s gang waylaid carriages, regularly disrupting traffic on the Kandy road and forcing the British authorities into a massive manhunt to track down the elusive bandit. Saradiel was eventually lured to Mawanella and captured by a detachment of the Ceylon Rifles following a shoot-out, during which his companion, Mammalay Marikkar, had shot dead a certain Constable Shaban, the first Sri Lankan police officer to die in action – an event still commemorated annually by the island’s police. Saradiel and Marikkar were taken to Kandy, sentenced to death, and hanged on May 7, 1864. Thousands thronged the streets of the city to catch a glimpse of the notorious criminal, but were surprised to see a slim and pleasant-looking figure rather than the ferocious-looking highwayman they had expected – a police statement described him as just 5ft 3in tall, with long hair and hazel eyes.
Sadly, despite its original, and very laudable, aims, increasing concerns have been raised over the past few years about the treatment of Pinnewala’s resident elephants, including repeated allegations of systematic animal cruelty – many visitors feel that Pinnewala is now not so much an orphanage as a zoo (or circus) in which the money-grubbing antics of the resident mahouts completely overshadow the welfare of the increasingly malnourished and mistreated elephants they are supposed to be caring for. Various malpractices have been described, including the inappropriate chaining of elephants and excessive use of the elephant goad (ankus), the hooked metal tool used to train and control elephants – in 2011 one of the orphanage’s largest male elephants died after apparently being repeatedly stabbed with an ankus. Serious concerns have also been raised about the practice of donating elephants from the orphanage to various temples and other organizations or individuals, with a large proportion of donated elephants, it is alleged, being abused, and sometimes dying, after their transfer into private ownership.
One of the most novel wildlife initiatives in Sri Lanka in recent years has been the invention of pachyderm paper: paper made from elephant dung. As well as their many remarkable abilities, elephants are also a kind of paper factory on legs. During feeding, they ingest a huge amount of fibre which is then pulped in the stomach and delivered in fresh dollops of dung, ready prepared for the manufacture of paper. The dung is dried in the sun and boiled, and the resultant pulp used to make high-quality stationery. The texture and colour vary according to the elephants’ diet, while other ingredients including tea, flowers, paddy husks and onion peel are also added according to the required finish. More than just a novelty stationery item, pachyderm paper could prove an important source of income to locals – and thus a significant help in conservation measures.
You can see the paper being made and buy a range of pachyderm paper products at the Pinnewala Elephant Dung Paper Products factory, on the side road to the elephant bathing spot near Greenland Guesthouse. Elephant paper is also available at the small shop by the elephant bathing spot, at the Millennium Elephant Foundation.