Enchanting Hakgala Gardens
From experimental station to botanic gardens in 148
August will soon be upon us and Nuwara Eliya's little season will
begin. Memories take me back to Nuwara Eliya, the little country town of
my birth and upbringing. The cool, crisp air that I breathed in over the
years keeps tugging these old heartstrings of mine and my footsteps lead
me on to one of Nuwara Eliya's most beautiful Haunts - 'Hakgala
At an elevation of 5,600-6,000 feet above sea level, it is probably
the highest situated botanical garden anywhere in the world!!
In 1861, almost 148 years ago, Hakgala Gardens was established by Dr.
G.H.K Thwaites, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya,
as an Experimental Station and Nursery for Cinchona. Hakgala was
selected because of the similarity of climate and topography of the
Andean Mountains in Peru, home of the wild cinchona.
When coffee, which flourished in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was the money
spinner of the coffee Planters, suddenly collapsed, Thwaites, had
Cinchona ready. He distributed millions of plants to the would-be
planters of Cinchona. However, the short-lived boom was over soon, so
Thwaites had Assam tea to take its place. Those who visit Hakgala and
walk up to the top of the Gardens can still see some of the original
Assam tea hybrids Dr. Thwaites introduced in 1870.
Mr. and Mrs. Thwaites died leaving an only child, a daughter. She
grew up to be a stately English lady, very prim and proper. Her parents
had left her a tea estate .As far as my memory goes, it was 'Rosewood
estate,' bordering the road to Hakgala, at Mahagastota. Being in a
foreign land with no kith and kin, this was relegated to the care of a
proctor, but sad to say, she never acquired it. Miss Thwaites carried on
her life through as a seamstress. Her death was very sad. She was buried
in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Nuwara Eliya. I was a little girl then
and remember Miss Thwaites so very well.
It was not until 1882 that the Ornamental Layout of the Gardens was
begun with the introduction of many Temperate and Tropical plants.
William Nock, the first Curator of Hakgala Gardens created a model
Garden for testing these plants for acclimatization. He was succeeded by
his two sons. J.K. Nock and J.J. Nock. The Nocks cleverly refashioned
the 55 acre experiment into a series of descending terraces and charming
wooded glades. The present Summer House almost at the entrance to the
gardens is a memorial to their outstanding work. It is situated at a
vantage point overlooking the entire Uva Basin, with the nine peaks of
Namunakula, 6,679 feet, in the distant background, Haputale Gap to the
right and the Madulsima Range to the left, all standing majestically!
On either side of the entrance to the gardens are the tall Monterey
Cypress from California. Many of them are over 100 years old! There are
also Cedars from Japan, Pines from the Himalayas, Auracarias from
Australia, Camphor from China and the stately English Oak. On the left
of the Drive, 100 yard further and below will be seen the 'Nock'
Memorial, erected in memory of J.K.Nock, Curator of the Gardens from
From this memorial can be obtained one of the finest views in Sri
Lanka. This building is used by visitors as a rest room as well as to
accommodate picnic parties.
In the herbaceous borders of the flower garden are shrubs and herbs
introduced from temperate countries.
Growing in the gardens are varieties of salvia ranging from white to
deep purple. The gardens also boasts of hot houses, displaying a
magnificent array of exotic orchids. On ground level grow a rare
collection of azalea and several species of magnolia, including magnolia
grandiflora with its large white flowers measuring 8 inches across. Here
also are the Chines tulip trees with their sweet-scented creamy flowers.
There are also varieties of cypress from California, pampas grass,
temple tree and the Japanese cedar.
But undoubtedly the 'Piece de Resistance' of the gardens is the 'Ferner'.
Shaded by tall trees of native origin are the tree ferns, living fronds
that flourished almost 25 millions years ago. When fully grown, these
attain a height of 30-40 feet. Here, in the fernery one can see various
kinds of ferns, both indigenous and exotic, including one of the most
singular ferns in the world and is labelled such! Here also is a woolly
tree fern with a trunk over 30 ft. in height and a graceful head of
fronds 18 ft. in diameter!
Also can be seen the abyssinian banana with its large broad leaves.
The gernery boasts a number of shallow, rippling, brooks spanned by
rustic bridges fashioned out of Rhododendron boughs. Here in the fernery
it is so cool and refreshing that one does not wish to say goodbye to
From the fernery the next attraction is the rock garden, where
camphor, Chinese pine, eucalyptus and accacia can be seen. In between
the crevices of the rocks nestle shy violets, exotic pansies, baby
daisies and other flowering plants.
Mention must also be made of the green houses in which house plants
too tender to thrive in the open are carefully nurtured.
Here at Hakgala one must not miss out on the rare and exotic roses of
majestic, breathtaking colour! Their perfume lingers on and on.
A distinctive feature of Hakgala is the wonderful manner in which the
natural springs have been harnessed to enhance the beauty of the
Landscape Garden adjoining the fernery and the Japanese garden. These
springs have been diverted to form Ponds replete with water lilies and
rippling streams spanned by rustic bridges.
Another interesting feature of the gardens is the pond laid out in
the shape of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Floating gracefully on its waters, are
purple, pink and white waterlillies and in the still waters sport gold
and silver carp.
At Hakgala the main Summer House built in memory of Knox is a very
popular venue for rest and enjoying a meal. As children I remember so
vividly this Summer House which was our favourite haunt. Here we enjoyed
our food. The stretch of lawn by the entrance leading to it was our
cricket pitch. Nostalgia for these old times keeps creeping into these
old bones of mine.
Schooling in Colombo we were home at Nuwara Eliya for the holidays
and picnicking at Hakgala was a must. Our mode of travel in those long
ago days was the humble bullock cart in which the women and children
travelled and which carried the picnic gear. The men walked behind
singing loudly and stopping many times on the way to enjoy a tot. For
the middle class in those far off days, this was about the only means of
Hakgala is rich in legend. Hindu mythology favours it to be a part of
Asoka Vanna, where Sita the beautiful consort of Rama, King of Ayoda in
India, spent her captive life guarded by the Rakshasis of the demon King
Ravana. The Sita Amman Kovil close to Hakgala is a humble tribute to the
memory of the immortal Sita. The picturesque brook running by the shrine
has the local reputation of being Sita's favourite haunt. The stream
disappears underground for about 50 yards before it resurfaces. The
round holes formed by the eddying water are pointed out as the
footprints of the elephant ridden by Ravana when he pursued Sita who
vanished and reappeared where the stream does now.
So much for legend. To return to reality now. For the holiday-makers
fleeing the hustle and bustle of city life, Hakgala Gardens provides a
For the naturalist there is the fauna and flora of the mountain
reserve, which includes the evergreen mountain forest reserve below the
rock. It is a refuge for many rare epiphytes, mosses and lichens and a
Sanctuary for the black monkey, rock squirrel, sambhur, wild boar,
jungle fowl and birds of many species.
Today, from its small beginnings, Hakgala has now risen to be one of
the most picturesque and beautiful gardens in this our lovely island
home!!In conclusion, I must thank my dear friends late Sam Mottau of
Nuwara Eliya and Derrick Shockman; also my late sister Doris, for
feeding me with much information in compiling my story of Hakgala