Close cropped tea bushes growing on the contours circling the hills. The Adam's Peak mountain can be seen in the background across the hauntingly beautiful Castlereagh Reservoir
Maskeliya is one of Sri Lanka's little known towns and yet thousands of tourists, both domestic and foreign, travel through it every year on their way from Hatton to climb Adam's Peak, writes Royston Ellis.
Photography Indika De Silva and Damith Wickramasinghe
Adam's Peak is the venerated mountain at 2,223m above sea level that people of Sri Lanka's four main religions hold sacred. The climbing season, when visibility is good for viewing a peerless dawn from its summit, is from the December Poya Day to April. At other times of the year, Maskeliya is forgotten by visitors although the town is an intriguing combination of ancient and modern tea country lifestyle.
The town straddles three converging tea plantations on the B149 road that runs from Hatton via the small towns of Dikoya and Norwood to the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. It is equidistant, at 19km, from both Hatton and Adam's Peak; the only access is by road. Visitors pass through on buses from Hatton Railway Station (123km from Colombo) or by one of the ubiquitous three-wheeler taxis.
There is a poignant reminder of the days of colonial tea planters who developed the area to be seen beside the road, where the Warleigh Church is perched overlooking the hauntingly beautiful Castlereagh Reservoir. The church, which was built in 1878 of solid granite blocks, has a cemetery with many graves of planters and their families who never made it back home to Britain. Some British planters, like Michael Turnbull (1921-1997) who retired to Britain, loved the area so much, he had his ashes sent to be interred there.
There are still services in English on the first and third Sunday of each month, although the church is usually locked until the caretaker opens it up for visitors. To peep inside is to understand how planters who gave their lives developing the tea industry maintained the traditions of their faith. There is an old pipe organ, precious 19th Century stained glass windows, a Bible inscribed with the date of 1879, and worn timber pews. On a notice board is a list of the names of the remaining 15 regular churchgoers.
Maskeliya’s close link with the tea industry is apparent from the neighbouring small round hillocks...
Maskeliya's close link with the tea industry is apparent from the neighbouring small round hillocks, each one with closely cropped tea bushes growing on the contours circling the hills. Tea pluckers in brightly coloured plastic capes creep across the hillsides gathering the leaves to be sent to one of the nearby Tea Processing Plants, the modern name for the tall tea factories built of corrugated metal sides that dominate the lush green landscape.
The road to Maskeliya winds alongside the Castlereagh Reservoir, yielding tantalising glimpses of a gleaming sheen of water through a fringe of giant bamboos and a phalanx of rigidly upright eucalyptus trees. Occasionally milk churns are to be seen beside the road awaiting collection from family farmsteads. A neat bungalow above the reservoir, now the office of an Executive Engineer, has its foundation date painted on its roof: 1901.
A road sign informs visitors that they are entering the Maskeliya Police Area. The entrance to the town is marked by the Public Library and a branch of the Bank of Ceylon. Both buildings symbolise the spirit of the town where children hurry to school and the town's prosperity is reflected in its eclectic range of shops.
Maskeliya is an attractive town because it has so far retained some of its old shops. Kiosks sell spiced, fried lake fish caught in the reservoir that morning, and warm, crunchy lentil cookies.
To visit Maskeliya is to sense both the past and the present in happy combination. Visitors are so rare out of the climbing season, they are greeted warmly by shopkeepers keen to talk.
The tall houses that form Maskeliya's Main Street are box shaped and brightly coloured so the town could be part of a cubist painting, splashes of higgledy-piggledy daubs vibrant against the dark green of the surrounding countryside and the silvery flashes of misty waterfalls. Among the ancient shops are timber yards, carpentry workshops, greengrocers, haberdasheries and pawn centres. In one, clients' valuables are kept in a safe made in India with the British crest of King George V boldly embossed on its door.
To visit Maskeliya is to sense both the past and the present in happy combination. Visitors are so rare out of the climbing season, they are greeted warmly by shopkeepers keen to talk. Yet any time of the year seems good for pausing in Maskeliya to enjoy the company of the townsfolk, the fresh hillside air, and the inspiring views of forested hills and tea-clad dales with the shimmering Castlereagh Reservoir far below, and Adam's Peak looming in the distance.