Our journey started from Wellawaya, an important junction on the Ella-Wellawaya road, and ascending the highlands, the mountain breeze fanned our faces beckoning us to our destination- Hakgala, the mountainous patch of the country with its vegetable growing charm, standing 2,173 metres above sea level.
We passed the historic village called Randeniya, around 20 kilometres below Ella, which denotes the battlefield where the Portuguese suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Kandyan army in 1630. Passing the cascading falls of the enchanting Ravana Ella falls and the pristine mountains layered in lush green tea bushes, little by little we progressed to Hakgala via the terraced vegetable plots alongside the road.
We commenced our journey to the Hakgala Gardens after breakfast, which was a short distance from our lodging. At dawn, I came out of the room, shivering in the cold and shot a few photographs of the sunrise over the Hakgala mountain range. The first to welcome us were the genuine smiles of a few vegetable cultivators and an old man with some gunny bags and a garden hoe in his hand.
Bidding adieu to them, we continued our journey uphill. By the time we reached the entrance to the Garden, visitors, both locals and foreigners had already flocked the main entrance and queued up for tickets, thus signalling the start of the April holiday season.
Having entered from the main gate we leisurely walked on the narrow lanes, in the direction of the arrows, a most rewarding experience in the morning. The season for visiting the Garden is said to be between the months of April and August. The curving road that rises from the main gate between well laid banks of colourful flowers is but a glimpse of what is to come.
Situated some 10 kilometres south of Nuwara Eliya, the road to Hakgala along the Badulla highway is a pleasant uphill drive, mostly through vegetable plots. We saw the Hakgala rock peak through the mist, which looms protectively over the garden. At its foot lie the Hakgala Botanical Gardens, and beyond it, the Hakgala Strict Natural Reserve. The gardens are smaller and less exotic than those at Peradeniya, but at 2, 173 metres above sea level, the species of flora are quite different.
The second botanical garden established by the British, the Hakgala Gardens spans over 500 acres, now confined to around 88 acres. Originally begun as an experimental cinchona plantation (for production of the malaria antidote quinine) in 1860, by the eminent British botanist, Dr. G.H.K. Thwaites who was superintendent of the Peradeniya Gardens in Kandy, the pride of the garden is now roses and ferns.
The garden is situated in the midst of wild jungle. The nursery which is over 100 years old has over 1,000 varieties of plants where the lovely low-country lotus and water lily mingle in their serene simplicity with sophisticated English roses, pre-historic looking ferns, and endemic orchids.
The view from the garden is breathtaking and there are monuments in memory of devoted officials and staff, whose tireless efforts and commitment made the garden a place worth visiting.
The character of King Ravana is part of ancient history and the salubrious Nuwara Eliya region is replete with some stories about his escapades. Some identify him as an efficient physician king whose medical garden was close to Hakgala.
The sheer rock of Hakgala (‘Jaw Rock’) which rises 1,500 feet straight up above the gardens, is said to have been carried here from the Himalayas in the jaws of Hanuman, the mythical monkey general who helped Prince Rama rescue Princess Sita from the demon King Rawana in the Ramayana epic. Legend says, the Sita Amman Kovil, less than two kilometres toward Nuwara Eliya on the east side of the highway, is the place where Sita was imprisoned.
The Hakgala Strict Natural Reserve is home to several unique species of animal and bird life. Among them is the bear monkey or ‘Maha Wandura’ which grows to about four feet, standing erect. His deep bellow often echoes through the gardens and is unique to the area. The terrain around Hakgala, dominated by small vegetable farms, cultivated in terraced plots on steep slopes, beckon sightseers; hence, one simply cannot resist the vista this man-made marvel offers the visitors to Hakgala.
On the way to Hakgala, near the 83km post is the colourful Hindu Seetha Amman Temple at Seetha Eliya standing majestically with a multi-coloured dome and statues of Rama, Seetha and Laxman. We saw the villagers of the area, mostly Hindus, as well as Buddhists, throng this sacred place in search of spiritual devotion.
A must visit when you are in Hakgala Gardens, the rose garden comes alive with country blossoms from March to May and August to September. The terraced rose garden full of English flowers seemed to be the favourite of most visitors, as they posed alongside these stylish beauties. It was cameras everywhere, as man made his best efforts to capture the exquisiteness of the rose.
The flowers of Hakgala seem to vie for attention; reds, blues, purples, oranges and yellows, their names too many to remember as they stand to attention in well-formed squads. There is definitely more beauty of multi coloured flowers at Hakgala. As many as 6,000-8,000 enjoy the beauty of the rose garden a day, on a busy weekend during the season.
According to the historical notes at the Garden, the rose garden is what it is, due to the efforts of S.B. Tennakoon, Curator of the Hakgala Botanical Gardens in the 1960s, who imported the mother plants from England through the British High Commission while designing the new rose garden.
At Hakgala, trees also make art forms. Huge trees and treescapes abound the garden with their ancient knotted and twisted trunks encrusted with mottled bark in a variety of browns and blacks, making their own individual artistic forms. An impressive tree which we noticed was named Badulla tree. This tree is said to have valuable medicinal properties.
Winding pathways with chilled climate will take you to the romantic rock garden and the water garden where rock boulders blend with ponds and meandering streams that trickle through mossy banks under the cool gloom of green. Few visitors seemed to visit this area where the beauty and harmony of nature itself was so prominently displayed.
Another interesting section at the Hakgala Garden is the fern garden which gave an inkling of some pre-historic garden with tall tree ferns shading giant ground ferns. The fernery at Hakgala is truly a shady harbor of many quiet walks in the shade of the Hakgala rock.
The seed room and nursery are also an interesting place for aspiring botanists as well as casual visitors. And definitely, there may have been more places we would have missed due to the time factor. Haggala indeed is an enchanting place, both, historically and botanically.
Making Hakgala your holiday destination along with Nuwara Eliya this season will not ruin your vacation plans, as one cannot resist falling in love with the fresh-from-the-garden tea, fruits, and flowers.