Up above the world so high | Sunday Observer

Up above the world so high

6 January, 2019

It was almost December when, on an impulse, we decided to make a trip to Maskeliya, a hillside town in the Central Province. Donned in sweaters, we were ready for the three hour drive to Maskeliya through the untouched beauty of the mountain ranges and the hauntingly beautiful Moussekelle Reservoir in the valley.

To reach Maskeliya, there are two routes; a drive on the Avissawella/Hatton (A7) highway, passing Ginigathhena. The road branches off in two directions – one directly proceeds to Hatton and the other via Norton Bridge. We used the Norton Bridge route to reach the Maskeliya town. The road was dotted with errant rocks – the result of landslides, and on a few stretches, they have been eaten away by falling boulders, so badly that there was barely enough space for vehicles. But my son drove on without batting an eyelid. Passing through Norton Bridge, you can catch a glimpse of the Seven Virgin Hills. These magnificent seven cliff peak range is famous for its mysterious tale which dates back to 1974 when a Martinair Flight from Indonesia crashed into these mountains shortly before landing.

Maskeliya is indeed exotic. For one, it has breathtakingly beautiful scenery and a sacred mountain of Sri Pada could be seen in the backdrop of the mighty Moussekelle Reservoir. The quiet and peace was momentarily disturbed only by an occasional bus or a bicycle. As we proceed further, isolated hill towns could be seen in the distance and soon the landscape changed to beautifully pruned tea estates rolling out like a green carpet. Tea pluckers in brightly coloured plastic capes crept across the hillsides gathering the leaves to be sent to one of the nearby tea factories.

We had reached Maskeliya, which has thousands of acres of tea grown area in the Central Highlands. The billowing clouds and mist-curtains magically moved away at the right moment to show us this section of peak wilderness in all its glory – every contour and ridge clearly outlined in the brilliance of the early morning sun.

Sri Pada, the country’s second highest peak is the sacred mountain at 2,223m above sea level venerated by all. The climbing season, when visibility is good for viewing a spectacular dawn from its summit, is from December’s Unduwap Poya (Full Moon Day) to Vesak Poya in May, of the next year. At other times of the year, Maskeliya is forgotten by pilgrims although the town is an intriguing combination of ancient and modern tea country lifestyle.

Maskeliya town straddles three converging tea plantations on the B149 road that runs from Hatton via Dickoya to the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. The other road leads from Norton Bridge and both roads lead to Nallathanni through the Maskeliya town flanked by the Moussekelle Reservoir. You will see many pilgrims pass by or even base themselves in Maskeliya and Nallathanni during the Sri Pada season.

Most pilgrims who prefer the Hatton/Nallathanni-Dalhousie route come to Hatton, from where it is only 32 kilometres to Sri Pada, and the only access is by road. Pilgrims pass through in buses from Hatton to Nallathanni via Maskeliya.

The old Maskeliya town was initially located in the place where the mighty Moussekelle Reservoir is located today. The reservoir was built damming the Maskeliya Oya in the 1960s to generate mainly, hydro-electricity after inundating the old town of Maskeliya. The new town was relocated uphill just above the reservoir and all the traders given land to build their business premises. During severe drought, the Moussekelle Reservoir dries up and a glimpse of the old Maskeliya town is visible where you can see many ruins, such as, Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, mosques and old stone bridges built by the colonial tea planters.

During one of my visits to the reservoir bed in the drought season, I stumbled upon a ruined structure of the magnificent Kadireshan Hindu kovil of the old Maskeliya town and found fascinating ruins of stone carvings not found in any other kovil in the area. The saddest fact is, all these priceless treasures were submerged under water.

You can also view the old Sri Pada road which had meandered across the old Maskeliya town to Nallathanniya, which is today confined to nostalgic memories of the bygone era. When the water level of the reservoir recedes, the old granite arched bridge surfaces and can still be seen intact in the old town. The box shaped tall houses and business premises that form Maskeliya’s new town and its Main Street could be part of a cubist painting, with splashes of vibrant green of the surrounding hilly landscape.

Maskeliya is one of the coldest spots in Sri Lanka during midday, comfortably cool and breezy. Again, the town area sharply slaps you out of the daze of beauty, brimming with a myriad of Hindu dominated shops blaring Indian music at passersby. Maskeliya’s close link with the tea industry is apparent in the neighbouring small, round hillocks and a noticeable feature in the region is the scattering of colonial period British planters’ bungalows, most of which date over a century. Well-maintained, these bungalows are still used as the residences of Estate Superintendents as well as converted holiday bungalows.

To visit Maskeliya is to sense both the past and the present in a happy combination. Visitors and pilgrims are rare during the off season; they are greeted warmly by shopkeepers keen to chat.

Yet any time of the year seems good for pausing in Maskeliya to enjoy the company of the townsfolk, the fresh hillside air, and the inspiring views of peak wilderness and tea-clad dales with the shimmering Moussekelle Reservoir below and the Sri Pada mountain looming in the distance. You have to be there when the sacred peak once again blesses a new day across the land.