Ghosts of Ceylon

For centuries, the Mount Lavinia Hotel has held a perch atop a bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean in the island nation of Sri Lanka.

By / December 2011

Wooden fans spin lazily on the sprawling veranda, cutting a breeze through the tropical air. Beneath them, contented travelers in white linen and straw hats sip high tea and watch the breakers rolling in off the Indian Ocean. Waiters in immaculate coats and bow ties bustle among tables as the Sri Lankan sun moves toward the horizon.

This scene from the Mount Lavinia Hotel, a 226-room palatial throwback to Victorian times in Colombo, has changed very little in the 130 years since the first guests boarded. Even as the island around it has changed governments and names (from Ceylon to Sri Lanka) the iconic hotel has stayed put, a witness — and sometimes an agent — of Sri Lanka’s transformations, a reminder of the island’s wild history, and a stalwart protector of bygone traditions.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the sea, the hotel has its roots, as things often do, in a love story. Sir Thomas Maitland, the first English governor of Ceylon, built the structure in 1806 to serve as his official residence.

“He had fallen in love with a village girl, a Mestizo dancer,” says Sadun Perera, a longtime employee of the Mount Lavinia and the hotel’s unofficial historian. The village girl’s name was Lovina, Sadun tells me. She had danced for the governor during a ceremony upon his arrival. When it came time to build a residence, Maitland situated the house a stone’s throw from Galkissa, the tiny village where Lovina lived.

Maitland’s zeal for governance was matched only by his eagerness to see Lovina as often as possible. The budding relationship became a shared obsession. Maitland’s actions, taken at a time when it was strickly off-limits for British officials to carry on romances with locals, were risky. If the affair had come to light, it would have meant the end of his career and, perhaps, the death of Lovina.

“That is the reason he had to build the secret entrance,” says Sadun. He is leading me through a swinging glass window off of the hotel’s main lobby. I struggle to keep up as Sadun clambers across an atrium filled with palms and ferns to a small wooden door, concealed in an ancient stonewall. “This is the wine cellar of the original house, and there,” he continues, pointing at a small opening at one end of the dark room, “is the entrance to the hidden passage.”

The tunnel is cramped and dank. It smells of mold and seawater. Although it is mostly impassable now, the tunnel once ran for 300 meters, from the cellar to a well behind Lovina’s hut. Nearly every night, she would take the tunnel to the mansion then sneak away before the sun rose over the hills the following morning.

Though there were whispers among the locals about what was going on inside the mansion, the affair remained a secret for six years, until the fall of 1811, when King George III sent a letter to Maitland recalling him to Europe. The king had appointed Maitland to be governor of Malta, the tiny island nation in the Mediterranean, which, at the time, was also ruled by England.

It was a promotion Maitland did not want but was helpless to turn down. Shortly thereafter, Maitland departed Ceylon by ship from Colombo. One version of the story says that, after her lover’s egress, Lovina disappeared forever. Some say she flung herself into the ocean.

Sadun Perera disagrees. “She didn’t kill herself, oh no,” he says. “Many years later, records were discovered. She emerged in Galle, in the south of the island, with a great deal of money. She bought a house there, where she lived for the rest of her life.” By Sadun’s telling, the governor, in true colonial style, continued to look after his true love for the rest of her life, providing money for her from the royal treasury, a constant gift to communicate his undying love.

With Maitland’s departure, Mount Lavinia passed into the hands of a new governor. The colony of Ceylon grew more volatile. It was in a back room of the mansion, in 1815, that Sir Robert Brownrigg plotted the overthrow of the Kingdom of Kandy, which controlled the mountainous center of Ceylon, and the lucrative spice plantations.

“One night, the house was awoken by screams at the gate,” Sadun says. He strolls towards the iron bars at the hotel’s entrance, shaking his fists in the air to add emphasis to the story. “It was Ehelepola, the high minister of Kandy. His king had heard rumor that the minister was meeting secretly with the British, which naturally made the king furious. So, that very day, the king had warriors ambush the minister’s family, his wife and children.”

Sadun explains that in his grief, the minister rushed to the gates of the governor’s house with an offer to help the British overthrow the Kandyan king, which would give the empire control of the entire island of Ceylon.

Governor Brownrigg, Ehelepola, and several high-ranking officers cloistered in a back parlor. Two days later, on January 10th, 1815, orders and battle plans, including secret routes into the mountain capital, were issued from Mount Lavinia. The kingdom was in British hands in less than four weeks.

Valuable spices began to flow from Ceylon to the rest of the empire. The house on the bluff was now the beating heart of one of the fairest jewels in England’s colonial crown. But as it turned out, the opulence and excess that came with the growth of Ceylon would eventually lead to the demise of the governor’s mansion. Burdened under the sagging weight of an increasingly expansive and expensive global empire, London was none too pleased to receive the unending stream of bills for the upkeep and renovations at Mount Lavinia.

After an official enquiry into colonial expenditures, the office of Queen Victoria demanded that the house be sold at auction in 1842. The mansion, once a compendium of colonial excess, was converted into an asylum for the insane. The irony of that conversion is not lost on Sadun, who grins as he gazes into the private quarters of the governor, splashed in the cool colors of the afternoon sun. “They removed the governor’s bed from this room and brought in ten others,” he says. “They used his private bathroom, behind that door, to wash the filth off of madmen.”

Mount Lavinia languished for 35 years in a state of decay. The ravages of time took their toll on the mansion. Then in 1877, Ceylon got its first railway line. The train passed in front of Mount Lavinia, connecting the house directly to the harbor at Colombo. Seeing the potential for profit, developers bought the dilapidated mansion and turned it into an opulent hotel.

With its stunning views, cool breezes, and grand architecture, Mount Lavinia quickly became a de rigueur stop for English aristocracy touring the Orient and British India. There was croquet on the lawns, high tea on the terrace, dances in the ballrooms. Two additional wings were added. Virtually every important ceremony and grand occasion in the colony of Ceylon was held at the hotel. “This was the greatest building on the island,” says Sadun. “Everyone was here, and whoever wasn’t, wanted to be.”

In 1939, World War II began. The center of the British Empire’s rubber supply, Ceylon quickly became a priority for the Allies and a target for the Axis, which coveted the colony’s resources. Soldiers flooded onto the island and battles raged in the sea.

The Mount Lavinia Hotel was soon commandeered as a supply base and military hospital for the Allies. For the first time in nearly a century, the mansion was back in the hands of the British government. Once again, hospital beds filled its hallways, as wounded soldiers were transported there from across the region.

For five grueling years, the music in the grand ballroom was replaced by the sounds of suffering and death. Guestrooms were piled with munitions and supplies. Allied generals met in the parlors plotting offensives and attacks. The war ended in 1945, leaving behind bloodstains on the hotel’s teak floors.

Intent on recapturing some of the splendor and innocence they had experienced before the war, guests returned to the hotel. But things had changed. Ripples of discord were now spreading throughout the empire. Cries for freedom and independence filled the streets of Colombo. The will of the people eventually triumphed. In 1947, British guests were left to watch from the hotel’s veranda, tea in hand, as imperial British officials sailed from Ceylon for the last time and left an independent nation with an untested government in the wake.

The staff of the Hotel Lavinia refused to abandon their English ways. They had spent many long years cultivating a particular method of doing things, and they certainly were not going to forsake those now, not over a simple change of regime and a new constitution.

The staff continued to wear regimental uniforms, crumpets were still served promptly at 4:30, and the British king’s birthday was still cause for celebration. Even as Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka, forever cutting ties with the colonial era, the Mount Lavinia remained, a link to a glamorous past, classy and regal, occupying a vaunted position in the admiring eyes of Sri Lankans everywhere.

Having weathered these storms and trials, it seemed that hardship was a thing of the past for the Mount Lavinia until December 26th, 2004. On that sunny morning, a massive earthquake off the coast of Indonesia sent the most devastating tidal wave the world has ever seen barreling through the Indian Ocean toward the island of Sri Lanka.

Lifeguard Prem Corea was working on the pool terrace of the Mount Lavinia that day. “It was a beautiful afternoon, and I could see that the beach down below was packed with people,” he says, pointing towards the sandy crescent that curves north from the hotel.

“Then it was the strangest thing,” he continues, “the water just disappeared. It was sucked out maybe three or four hundred meters from the beach.” His words become slow and deliberate as the painful memories resurface. His eyes seem distant with recollection, oblivious to the guests splashing in the pool behind him.

“No one knew what was going on. Everyone just stood up and looked out to see where the water had gone, and then we all saw it, a huge wall of water coming fast. By then it was too late. We were lucky to be up high, but all we could do was watch. There were so many people on the beach, but when the wave passed, they were all gone. It was empty, just empty. The people were all gone.”

Prem says that he will never forget that terrible day, and that a part of him will always fear the sea and its deadly power. More than 36,000 Sri Lankans died in the tsunami, and nearly a million were left homeless. A third of the country’s population was affected by the disaster, a number that does not include the scores of foreign tourists washed away from the island’s beaches.

Both Prem and Sadun acknowledge that a dark cloud hung over the hotel, and indeed the entire island, for a long time after that. Due to it’s location high up on a bluff, the Mount Lavinia sustained only minor damage. When the hotel reopened its doors, it served as an inspiration to the people of Colombo. In a city devastated by the tsunami, the hotel had weathered the storm. Everything was not lost. There was hope after all.

In the years since the storm, things have mostly returned to normal. The Mount Lavinia remains a popular destination for wealthy Sri Lankans and foreigners alike. There are still plenty of demanding guests for Sadun to look after, plenty of white sand on the beach for Prem to patrol, but this place has become more than just a resort, more than a beautiful facade. The hotel, like the island it calls home, bears the marks and scars of 130-plus years of trial and turmoil. There are stains that cannot be washed, scratches that cannot be mended, memories that cannot be erased. Rows of sepia-toned photographs on the wall bear witness to the turbulent passage of time.

As Sadun leads me back toward the veranda, and we seat ourselves in overstuffed rattan chairs, I become keenly aware of other guests moving at their leisure over the cool marble tile. Most are, no doubt, completely unaware of the role this hotel has played in the fall of empires and the rise of a nation, in the heartbreak of an Englishman, in the healing of a country wounded by the sea.

That doesn’t seem to bother Sadun Perera. He knows the truth and that is enough. He sits and sips Ceylon tea, thinkingly. Then, without announcement, he rushes away. Somewhere a guest is in need of something. Sadun has a job to do.


Chris Watts is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.