A religious experience

Sally’s grandfather and great grandfather are buried in different parts of the Hill Country. Every so often we do a trip to check they’re still in place and have not been resurrected by the yakkas (see the ‘Superstition’ post for more on these). We’ve just done such a trip. Both are lodged in C of E churchyards. Both died young. Grandfather was heading to Colombo when he became ill. His driver urged him to seek attention at Kandy hospital but he stubbornly insisted on continuing to Colombo where the medical facilities were better. He died en route of a burst appendix. He was in his early fifties and had survived two world wars. Great grandfather died even younger, at thirty seven, being thrown from his horse and trap. There are two rival accounts. The one Sally prefers says that he was engaged on charitable visits to the local poor. The one I prefer says he was drunk.

Sally at grandfather’s grave

Grandfather lies in the neat churchyard of St Mark’s in the large town of Badulla. His grave, like all the others, is well maintained and even had flowers growing on it, though ’twas not ever thus. When we first discovered it in 1998 we and various blokes associated with the church had to hack our way through vegetation and collapsed headstones to find it.

Respects paid, we headed after an overnight stop to Maskeliya, one of our favourite places on the island and scarcely touched by tourism. Delayed by a puncture we arrived too late to visit the grave that day, and sadly too late to see and photograph a spectacular sunset over Maskeliya lake with Sri Pada mountain in the background (we could see it from the car but it was pitch dark when we arrived via slow mountain roads). The little place we’d booked into (Butterfly Mountain Lake Side – highly recommended) was converted from the original colonial era post office. Odd to think we were sleeping in the building where great grandfather posted his letters.

The next day dawned rainy. We also realised it was Sunday, perhaps not the best day to go and impose ourselves unexpectedly at a church. All Saints, on the Queensland Estate near Maskeliya, looks from a distance as if it could be in a Devon coombe. Here’s how it looked when it was first built:

All Saints Church, circa 1876

People were milling around outside and inside the church but as we neared the building the strains of ‘Happy birthday to you’ could be heard. Quickly checking that it was not yet Christmas we concluded that we weren’t interrupting a service. Invited in by the pastor we found ourselves amid a collection of party balloons festooning the altar, font, pulpit and all the walls. Even worse, we’d stumbled into some child’s birthday party. Consumed with guilt, we started making our excuses but the pastor explained that the party had ended and that it was not a birthday but a girl’s coming of age party. Oddly enough the Sri Lankans, a people who are deeply modest about sex, clothing and suchlike, make a big public deal of it when a girl has her first period. I suppose it’s a bit like the tradition of churching women after giving birth. We attended a similar, Buddhist, ceremony a few years back for Noni’s daughter. Funny time to have a party, early on a Sunday morning, but there you go.

Pulpit and balloons

Off outside to brave the rain and leeches and find great grandfather’s grave. Unlike St Mark’s, the churchyard at All Saints is overrun with vegetation and the grave took a bit of finding even though we knew roughly where to look from previous visits. But the vegetation was not all weeds. Many of the graves were sprouting crops of beans, cabbages and other vegetables. Being used, in short, as raised beds. Sacrilegious? Enterprising? Take your pick but I prefer the latter. Kenny, our driver, commented that he was glad his wife hadn’t come; if she’d seen this, he told me, she would never eat vegetables again.

Grave goods

We went back inside to sign the visitors’ book and to make a donation to church funds, which we were assured would be used for weeding. The woman who’d been playing ‘Happy Birthday’ on the keyboard asked Sally if we played. Sally foolishly admitted that I did, so I was dragged to the altar, as it were, and sat on a footstool in front of the keyboard and told to ‘play something, Sir’. I bashed out ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at breakneck speed with many bum notes, desperate to get it over with. They all applauded and, as we left the church the organist launched into a rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’.

I wish I were.