A short glance - History of Nuwara Eliya


Situated at around 2000m above sea level and surrounded by lush tea plantations. Nuwara Eliya is the main hill resort of Sri Lanka and the heart of the tea industry. This city with an elevation of 6200 meters is the highest in Sri Lanka. Once a pleasure retreats of the European planters the town is still very much an English town with many English style bungalows and buildings.

History says Nuwara Eliya is discovered by a hunting party led by Dr. John Davy in 1818. The British governor at the time, Sir Edward Barnes, was told about this and subsequently decided to take residence there, soon creating a health resort, which soon became internationally renown.

Nuwara Eliya is decidedly English in someway (houses, gardens and places names) and was actually planned to be an English village by a pioneering Englishman, Sir Samuel Baker in the mid 19th Century.

Travellers from the UK will be particularly attracted by the architechture which is decidedly Victorian. Even modern buildings are build in the same fashion to preserve Nuwara Eliya's unique atmosphere.

Nuwara Eliya was home away from home for the British colonialist in the 19th century.

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  History of Nuwara Eliya in Detail  
Ramayana, the Indian epic tells us how Rawana, King of Lanka, robbed Rama of his wife Sita and brought her to Sri Lanka. The people of Sri Lanka believe that Rawana had his capital in Nuwara-Eliya (“The glade with the city”). He is believed to have kept Sita captive in Sita Eliya. (“The glade of Sita”). Today there is a Hindu temple on the spot (The famous Haggala Botanical Garden is situated closer by this temple). The story tells that the monkey army of Rama has come to save Sita. Ravana has punished Hanuman - the leader of the monkey force, by placing fire on his tail. It is said Hanuman have burnt the entire Nuwara-Eliya with his tail. Legend has it that the black soil, which forms a top layer here, consists of the ashes of the city of Rawana, burnt down by Hanuman.

Kotmale Valley not far from Nuwara-Eliya city had been inhabited during the Anuradhapura Period and Gamunu, the son of King Kavantissa who ruled Ruhuna, when King Elara ruled from Anuradhapura, had taken refuge in Kotmale to escape the wrath of his father. However, little is heard of this area till the Kandyan period.

The ancient Emperors of the Sri Lanka have not known the economical value of Nuwara-Eliya. But they were aware that this is the place that water is produced. So they have kept and protected Nuwara-Eliya as a treasure. They did not even built Palaces in Nuwara-Eliya to not to harm the natural beauty of this area. They believed that;

'If the Nature treasure is protected the Water treasure will be protected. And if the Water treasure is protected the Paddy fields will be protected.'

In 1815's - the time of Kings and Emperors in Sri Lanka no one have used Nuwara-Eliya to living purposes. But people have visited Nuwara-Eliya through the footpath from Ruhuna to collect materials to produce arms and to search for Gem stones.

It is believed that history of Nuwara-Eliya has begun before 10th century. An old ‘Stone letters’ which belong to the 10th century have been found at Thalaga oya, and it is now placed and treasured at the District Secretariat Office of Nuwara-Eliya.

The modern history of Nuwara-Eliya begins in 1818 when a British Surgeon Dr.John Davy (Brother of Humphery Davy, the inventor of the Miners’ Safety Lamp) rediscovered this area. It is said that Dr Davy expressed;

“I was walking in the middle of a forest. I saw beautiful white shining diamond watered waterfalls falling. I came to the top of a mountain. The people who came with me said that it is the highest land of this country"

Dr.John Davy mentioned that this place - Nuwara-Eliya has so many 'Ashoka' trees, Elephants, wild Animals and Gem stones.

Today known as 'Oliphant Estate' is the old 'Elephant Plane', the place which so many Elephants lived. Even today there are graves of 02 Elephant killers in those periods at the Gold Ground of Nuwara-Eliya. One is written as 'Ibenishan Gordon Mendrow, Birth-1814.11.10 and Death-1841.01.24 - deal in Elephant Plane'. The other one is written as ' Major William Thomas Rojerson, Dead-1814.06.07'. It is said that Major William Thomas Rojerson has killed more than 400 Elephants. The most unbelievable, but very much believed truth is; once in 07 years this grave is attacked by thunder shocks. Even today you can see the cracked grave closer by the Golf Ground of Nuwara-Eliya. People believe that it is the curse of God to the Elephant killer!

The story goes like this..., few British men of the troop have chased an Elephant and they have got lost in the forest. Without food and other basic needs they thought it will be much harder to spend the day and night in that forest. But the cool climate and fresh air of that place kept them very fresh without any pain. They thought that this is good place to rest after fighting in war and once they have returned to their place they have informed the Governor Sir Edward Barned immediately about this place.

Sir Edward Barnes have been the Governor from 1824-1831. He had constructed roads and shelters in Nuwara-Eliya. He has built his holiday home at Nuwara-Eliya spending 8000 Pounds. He has named it as "Barnes Hall". Today this place is known as the famous Grand Hotel of Nuwara-Eliya with more than 150 rooms. St.Andrews Hotel, Keena Hotel and Carlton Hotel are some of the other constructions. The District Secretary Mr. Loku Banda has helped Sir Barnes to build this holiday homes.

It is Sir Edward Barnes who has made Nuwara-Eliya a place to live to the people and he is known as "Father of the Pioneer Nuwara-Eliya".

After Barnes, Sir William Hortain has become the Governor from 1831-1837. He was the editor of 'Colombo Journal' newspaper. He has written so many articles about Nuwara-Eliya in his newspaper.

On this period Mr.Samuel from England has arrived to Nuwara-Eliya. He has planned to build a house at Magasthota and to have huge vegetable and animal farm. He went to England and came back in 1848 on 'Pearl of Hard Week' ship through the sea path. He has bought plants, animals, other equipment and goods with him. His brothers John and Valantine have also come with him. He also brought with him some expertise people in the farming field.

Mr.Samual and others have faced a great difficulty in transporting the goods and animals to Nuwara-Eliya. They have brought the goods in cow cart from Colombo. From Ramboda they have labored some people and bought the goods. At a difficult point of Ramboda the cart and all the people including the brothers of Mr.Samual fell down from the hill. Everyone has died on the spot. Only Mr.Samual has left. He has buried the bodies at that place and came to Nuwara-Eliya.

Anyhow, Mr.Samuel has accomplished his task in Nuwara-Eliya. He has made an Agricultural village and named it as 'Baker's Farm". The land cost him only 25 Shillings per acre. Even today there is a 'stone letter' left in the Bakers farm of Nuwara-Eliya.

 

Mr. Samual Baker also has made a hospital ward at the Base Hospital of Nuwara-Eliya in memory of his died brothers. Even today the 'Baker's Ward' is there in the Base Hospital of Nuwara-Eliya at Hawa-Eliya.

Mr.Baker brewed his own beer and tried to grow grapes, oats barley and wheat, which normally grows in temperature lands and his experiment, was a failure. He closed down his farm in 1866 and went back to England. Sri Lanka’s broadest waterfall, Bakers Falls in the Horton Plains National Park is named after him.

As a result of Governor William Gregory's announcement, a large number of foreign merchants have begun to visit Nuwara-Eliya. From there onwards the population of the city has grown up.

Sir Robert London have become the Governor from 1877-1884. According to the Sir William Gregory's advice, he has constructed railway track path from Peradeniya - Nawalapitya and Hatton - Nanu oya.

By 1910 only 2 Sri Lankans owned houses in Nuwara-Eliya, Maha Mudali Sir Soloman Dias Bandaranaike (Father of S.W.R.D.Bandaranayake - later Prime Minister of Sri Lanka) and F.C.Loos.

After the end of World War I in 1918 more Sri Lankans bought land and built houses here. Some of them were Sir Ponnambalam Arunachala and E.L.F.De Soyza. While Samuel Baker paid about Rs.25/- per acre Sir Ponnambalam paid Rs.10,000/- for ½ acre !

Some other footprints:

  • The British civil servants, high government officials and businessman who came here during April when it was hot and balmy in the plains introduced Trout finger lings were introduced to the streams in Horton Plains and Nuwara-Eliya.
  • Governor West Ridgeway suggested that all roofs be painted red and till recently many followed this practice.
  • Many houses were built in the architectural style of the Tudor houses in England. The Nuwara-Eliya Post Office in one of the oldest such houses. Some houses had fireplaces.
  • 'Thawalanthenna' (Small city at the Nuwara-Eliya - Colombo main road) is the place that have used by the travelers to rest with their cow carts in historical days.
  • 'Kelegalle' and 'Kalukelle' (villages 1.5 Km away from the Nuwara-Eliya town) are used as cow sheds to place the cows which were used for transporting goods from Nuwara-Eliya to other parts of the country.
 

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