My travel to Ceylon with Witkacy and Malinowski

At the beginning of 2020, the book “My journey with Witkacy and Malinowski to Ceylon” was published in Poland. Why did I write this book and what about the story exactly is ?

Sri Lanka is my favourite place – it’s full of colours, smells, tastes and sounds. I have visited the island several times and got to know its centuries-old culture and admired the unusual exotic nature. Gifted with exceptional qualities, the “paradise island” has always attracted travellers, merchants and pilgrims.

Such is the secret power of these countries – whoever sees them once – can even hate them but – is a slave to this vision for the rest of their lives.” – Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Pożegnanie jesieni

On Sunday, June 28, 1914, newspaper The Times of Ceylon reported the arrival of the Orsova steamer to Colombo. Among the passengers who intended to stay on the island for some time, it mentions Witkiewicz [Witkacy] and Dr. Malinowski. It was this journey that became the subject of the project, which resulted in my book.

My last three-month stay in Sri Lanka was to look for traces of Witkacy and Malinowski and to recreate their trip; places they visited and the images they saw. I helped myself with old English guides showing Ceylon of a hundred years ago and memories of other Polish travelers from that time.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) is one of the most famous Polish artists; writer, painter, philosopher, playwright and photographer.

 Bronisław Malinowski is a world-famous Polish anthropologist, ethnologist, religious expert and sociologist.

When they visited Ceylon, they were thirty years old and were on the threshold of great fame. They had been friends since childhood, had similar interests and were outstanding individuals. They belonged to the generation in which the artist was often also a scholar. Each of them had a creative and open approach towards the world, new ideas, their roles in life, and themselves. Both were looking for their professional path: one artistic and the second scientific. Their stay in Ceylon lasted from June 28 to July 11, 1914 and it was their first meeting with the tropics.

Today, the distance between Europe and Sri Lanka can be covered by plane in less than nine hours. Hundred years ago, the trip by steamer took several days. Colombo already had a great port. As Dr. Jan Hupka, the Pole who traveled to Ceylon in 1913, wrote:

“Every ship must stop here; Colombo’s central location, 2,000 nautical miles from Aden, 900 miles from Mumbai, 1,400 from Kalkatta and 1,300 miles from Singapore, makes commercial routes and passenger traffic in the Far East intersect here and nowhere else.”

Travelers heading towards Australia, India, China, … and those who traveled around the world stopped for a short visit in Colombo. They spent their one day stop exploring the capital of Ceylon, where they visited the Victoria Park, Cinnamon Gardens, Petah, Buddhist temples, Hindu Kovils or the Catholic cathedral. They had dinner at the Grand Oriental Hotel or the Galle Face Hotel. They moved around the city by a rickshaw, bullock cart, carriage, motor car or tramway.

Those who could enjoy a longer stay in Ceylon could take advantage of the railway to visit Kandy or to explore the interior of the island.

As Henry W. Cave, one of the largest authors and publishers residing on the island, wrote:

“THERE is no consideration more important to the traveler who intends visiting a far-off country than the facilities afforded by its railways and roads. Fortunately Ceylon is well equipped in both respects. (…) No other country in the world can take you in spacious and comfortable railway carriages on a track of five feet six inches gauge, over mountains at an altitude of more than six thousand feet. Yet such facilities are provided in Ceylon.” – Ceylon along the Rail Track

In 1914, four million inhabitants lived in Ceylon, including 8555 Europeans. The total length of the railway line was 670 miles, and the total length of (paved) roads was 4,000 miles.

Kandy, picturesquely situated among the hills, by the lake, was close to the hearts of Polish travelers, because it reminded them of their native landscapes. They described the city as a wonderful promise of happiness; an enchanted place intended for “rest, forgetfulness, living for the moment, what is and what will pass …”.

Witkacy and Malinowski stayed at the Suisse Hotel in Kandy. They visited, among others, the  Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) and the Preadeniya Botanical Garden. On the advice of H.C.P. Bell, the first Commissioner of Archeology in Ceylon, they went by bullock cart to the Aluvihara Temple in Matale, where the Tipitaka was written on palms leaves. Next day they reached Anuradaphura by train.

They stayed in the only hotel in the city and visited the ancient ruins during the Poson Festival, which in 1914 attracted about sixty thousand pilgrims. They saw the colossal dagobas built by the great rulers of Ceylon and ruins, reminding viewers of the former splendour of the holy city. Many buildings were still covered with grass and the ubiquitous jungle. After two days, they set off on a bullock cart towards Dambulla, stopping for the night in resthouses in Kekirawa and Maradankadawala. Resthouses were a cheap way of accommodation for the ordinary traveller and were located every 14 miles on the main roads on the island. In 1914, there were about two hundred resthouses in Ceylon.

Witkacy and Malinowski reached Dambulla in the evening. They watched a moving religious ceremony among the pilgrims gathered around the temple. In the moonlight, they climbed the temple hill, where they discussed Buddhism and Christianity. The next morning, they visited the cave temples in Dambulla. They were charmed by the temples and the view from the temples rock. A resthouse in Nalanda surrounded by a beautiful garden was their next stop, and perhaps they also visited the Gedige Temple, which was just a short walk away. On July 9, Witkacy and Malinowski took the road through Matale to Kandy, from where they set off by train to Colombo on July 10th.

The magnificent Ceylonian landscapes said them goodbye. Behind them were days full of sunny heat and dark nights. Behind them were nights suddenly falling and not bringing relief. Behind them were stunning sunrises and sunsets. For Malinowski, Ceylon was a antechamber for great anthropological researches. Witkacy became “a slave to this vision for the rest of his life”. He used those tropical visions in many of his paintings and described them in his dramas and novels.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) and Bronisław Malinowski finished their very intensive journey around Ceylon on July 11, 1914. Exactly twenty minutes before ten o’clock, they boarded a ship to Australia.

The book – “My travel to Ceylon with Witkacy and Malinowski” is not only recreating the journey from a hundred years ago, it is also my impression of the present Sri Lanka. In it, I describe not only the contemporary appearance of the places visited by characters of the book, but I also try to reflect their atmosphere. I create the image of the country and its today’s inhabitants. Many of them are already my friends. I hope that my book is not only a journey in time, but also to delve into the unusual colouring of my favourite island.

“My travel to Ceylon with Witkacy and Malinowski” was printed in Poland thanks to the support of Your Excellency The Ambassador of Sri lanka in Poland, Mr. C.A.H.M. Wijeratne, and the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau.

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