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Sunday, 16 August 2009

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Enchanting Hakgala Gardens

From experimental station to botanic gardens in 148 years:



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 Gardens.'

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 1903-1909.

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 it.

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 transport!

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 delightful respite.

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 Gardens.

 

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