Spirits in a material world | Daily News

Spirits in a material world

Peackocks are the transport of the Tamil Gods.
Peackocks are the transport of the Tamil Gods.

“Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place; and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion of Waterloo.” - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It seems that many fine upstanding and brave folk from Ireland, were either driven out by famine or religious differences back in the 1800s and chose to move to Scotland, where they would still have some cushioning from the seemingly oppressive English of the time. Two such descendants of migrating families took an interest in Ceylon. Sir Thomas Lipton, as previously described was one of them and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the masterful Sherlock Holmes, another, who’s parents were driven out of Ireland for their insistent adherence to the Old Book of Common Prayer. Ceylon has a history of producing very prominent Scottish influence and management of tea plantations and it is perhaps down to the strength of moral character and humility of such as the Conan Doyles and Liptons that made them excellent plantation administrators, who knows?

The author of Sherlock Holmes went to Sri Lanka when medium, a Mrs Brittain, claimed his deceased son, whom reportedly she could not have known about, had said that he should visit Colombo in Ceylon
Doyle went to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, looking for his son’s spirit and found a deeply spiritual world

However, unlike Lipton, Conan Doyle never put his roots down in Ceylon, but it is clear he was enchanted like so many others, and in his words, as no-one else could put it better, he tells us about “a dream journey to Kandy”, which he describes so beautifully, “It was a wonderful experience, a hundred and forty miles of the most lovely coloured cinema reel that God ever released. I carry away the confused but beautiful impression of a good broad red-tinted road, winding amid all shades of green, from the dark foliage of overhanging trees, to the light stretches of half-grown rice fields. Along this great road streamed the people, and their houses lined the way, so that it was seldom that one was out of sight of human life.” He was bewitched by the stunning Sri Lankan. country side and its people that when he returned to England he talked often of this deeply spiritual and colourful island saying “we were delighted by the succession of mauves, purples, crimsons, ambers and greens. Water buffalo, with the resigned and half-comic air of the London landlady who has seen better days, looked up at us from their mud-holes, and jackal-dogs lay thick on the path, hardly moving to let our motor pass. Once, my lord the elephant came round the corner, with his soft, easy-going style, and surveyed us with inscrutable little eyes.

For Doyle in the 1920s It was a place that still believed in the power of the spirit world and for him “the unchanged East, even as it has always been, save for the neat little police stations and their smart occupants, who represented the gentle, but very efficient British Raj. It may be the merit of the Raj, or it may have be the inherent virtue of the people, but in all that journey we were never conscious of an unhappy or wicked face. They were very sensitive, speaking faces, too, and it was not hard to read the thoughts within.” He clearly loved the place so much he decided not write a book about it as he wanted it kept as a secret, so that it would remain the worlds greatest hidden gem. His admiration in his notebooks for the islands beauty were numerous, although he did not care for the city folk in quite the same way. It is a shame that he did not set a Sherlock Holmes here as his book Hounds of the Baskervilles would have resonated with everyone on this land. His imagery of the island inspired me to write this travel piece with such incredible incites into the human condition that sadly continues to be as true today as a hundred years ago when he wrote this comparison between the UK and here “In that glorious sun, under the blue arch of such a sky, and with the tropical trees and flowers around, the poverty of these people is very different from the poverty of a London slum. Surely, it is a palpable truth that no one has a right to luxuries until everyone has been provided with necessities, and among such necessities a decent environment is the first. If we had spent money to fight slum land as we spent it to fight the Germans, what a different England it would be.”

There were other elements to his stay in Sri Lanka, including some time in the “robber castles” as he referred to the Galle Face Hotel and Mount Lavinia Hotel that clearly had reputations, back then, for somewhat fleecing their guests in unscrupulous ways. But, again like most travellers he had much to say about the men of the sea and, of course, the sea itself, with its “Glorious rollers. Never, save on the west coast of Africa, have I seen the ‘league-long roller thundering on the shore’ as here, where the Indian Ocean with its thousand leagues of momentum hits the western coast of Ceylon.” As for these big seas, he was as much impressed by those that negotiated them to make a living and bring in the best and freshest fish to be served in the villages and hotels, “It looks smooth out at sea, and then you observe that a good-size boat had suddenly vanished. Then it scoops upwards once more on the smooth arch of the billow, disappearing off the further slope. The native catamarans are almost invisible, so that you see a row of standing figures from time to time on the crest of the waves. I cannot think that any craft in the world would come through such rough water as these catamarans and their long outriggers do. Man has made few more simple and affective inventions . . . It would teach our fishermen some possibilities of which they are ignorant.”

Carrying the heavy roots of a tea bush demonstrating the strength of the tea pickers, which Doyle made famous in his quote - ‘The tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion of Waterloo’

Despite the emptiness he felt in his wallet after leaving the Galle Face Hotel, Conan Doyle experienced much that pleased him there, including the views of the sea he so wonderfully describes, and the skill of the fishermen he could watch artfully bobbing over the waves, but also a lesser known artist - the magician. It was here that he first saw the mango tree trick, which impressed him so greatly that he lavished more praise upon the “native conjuror” than he could afford for the most influential of English talents in the field, “He did it so admirably that I can well understand those who think that it is an occult process.” It was actually the world of the invisible that had brought Conan Doyle to Sri Lanka, as he was on his mission to spread the word about Spiritualism, something he believed in passionately, about which he had written a book, The New Revelation, and which was actually the main reason for his visiting Sri Lanka. During a séance, the medium, a Mrs Brittain, claimed his deceased son, whom reportedly she could not have known about, had said that he should visit Colombo in Ceylon. For Conan Doyle it was his religion and proof that the spirit lives on after the body dies and if one ever wanted living proof of this Sri Lanka as an island could not be a better example of a deeply complex spirit world.

He was fascinated by the Ceylon fisherman

Sadly, he never wrote a book directly about Sri Lanka but his short horror story, De Profundis, was almost certainly inspired by the tea story of Sri Lanka, which we all know was born out of the failing coffee industry before it. The story is about a Burgher who exported coffee and how ‘a rotten fungus drove a whole community through years of despair to one of the greatest commercial victories, which pluck and ingenuity ever won.’ Sounds familiar to anyone who knows the history of life in the hills.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life was a truly fascinating one with many other clever and magical tales to tell and he was amply eulogised by the London Spiritualist Alliance, in October, 1931, when Sir Oliver Lodge spoke thus, “One cannot but admire the completeness and self-sacrificing character of his life and doctrines. Occasionally, I think, he lacked the wisdom of the serpent, but the goodness of his motives must be manifest to all.”


Doyle started his journey from Colombo
Originally withering only done by hand in the 1920s/30s
A glimpse of a tea plantation
Between the tea plantations are mysterious forests left over from ancient times where mystical things happen - something Doyle was fascinated by