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Nuwara Eliya or 'City Light'?

by Sumana Saparamadu

I was amused to read in one of the many articles on Nurwara Eliya appearing in the daily and Sunday newspapers during the April Season, the place name translated as 'City Light'. This isn't the first time I saw this howler in print.

The perpetrator of this blunder is Sir James Emmerson Tennent who in his two volume "Ceylon An Account of the Island" wrote of the "royal city of light," and it has been repeated parrot-wise ad nauseam.

Tennent, an Englishman with only a smattering of Sinhala, can be excused for the blunder, but today's journalists who have had their education in Sinhala not to realize that "City Light" is meaningless as a place name is unbelievable and inexcusable.

Eliya has meanings other than Light. Eliya is an open stretch of land. Before Horton Plains was named after Sir Robert Wilmot Horton, Governor of Ceylon 1829-1834 this table-land was known as Maha Eliya the great open plain. Maha Eliya is no longer in use.

Even school text-books and the atlas use the name Horton Tenna, (Tenna is flat land). Horton Tenna has come to stay pushing into oblivion the old Sinhala name Maha Eliya.

Besides Maha Eliya there are other Eliyas or open table lands or plains in the Nuwara Eliya district. There is Hawa Eliya - the rabbit plain, and there is Sita Eliya where Princess Sita abducted by Ravana is said to have been kept a prisoner. Eliya as a place name is not confined to the table lands at this high altitude.

There is a Kala Eliya close to Ja-Ela, and Kal Eliya is a village through which the Nittambuwa - Mirigama road runs, both in the Gampaha district.

"Kala eli Karana" in Sinhala is to open up, clear of jungle, this village near Ja-Ela, Kala Eliya may have been a stretch of jungle land that was cleared and where people settled down. Could the other village Kal Eliya have been so named because it was a beautiful open space? Kal is beautiful.

If we go by the most popular meaning of a word, what kind of sword is Hikkaduwa? And what of the other Kaduwas - Waskaduwa, Yakkaduwa, Parakaduwa, Tamankaduwa Elkaduwa? Kaduwa as the second part of a place means something quite different. It means jungle, and Hikkaduwa, earlier Sipkaduwa is "coral jungle".

The winged couriers carrying messages - sandesa - to and from Devinuwara or to Totagamuwa invariably flew over Sipkaduwa. In the 15th century when Totagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera and others wrote their Sandesa poems the sea off Hikkaduwa, between the coast and the reef and even beyond must have been a veritable jungle of corals.

Today, though depleted, it is still an attraction and hotels have cashed in on the attraction with evocative names like Coral Garden, Coral Reef, Blue Coral. I have still to find out what the first part of the other Kaduwas, Yakkaduwa etc mean.

To get back to Nuwara Eliya, our starting point on this excursion, why was this open plain which Samuel Baker tried to turn into an English village called by that name whereas others had more common place names like Hawa Eliya and Maha Eliya? Nuwara is a place where royalty resided.

Old Sinhala texts speak of kings and princes who set up a Nuwara - Nuwarak Karawa - and settled down there. A "nuwara" must have had more facilities and been larger than a "gama", hamlet.

Nuwara Eliya had been the retreat of a king who fled thither from the Portuguese about the year 1610, and oral tradition says that Dona Catherina, consort of King Senarath was also a fugitive here. So this Eliya whatever its former name, or it may have had no name, became Nuawara Eliya.

Tennent when he wrote his "Account of the Island Ceylon", in the 1850's knew this folk tradition, for he noted - "from the circumstances of its having become an imperial residence "nuwara", it obtained its present appellation Nuwara - ellie, the 'royal city of light'.

The British claim that they discovered Nuwara Eliya in 1819, but the oral tradition that it was hiding place of royalty is an indication that the place was known to the people of the Kanda Uda Rata long before the British came. When they came the name was already in use.

Dr. John Davy, army surgeon and physician in attendance on Governor Brownrigg (1817-1819), records that his guides called the place "Neuraelliya-pattan". An open grass-land with a few trees at this elevation, was called "patana".

Dr. Davy found "a great extent of open country, the trees sealtered about in insulated clumps with large solitary rhododendrons here and there".

What Davy gathered from his guides was that the "pattan" was never inhabited and that except for the passing traveller it was visited by the blacksmiths of Kotmale who came in the dry season to make iron and by the gem renter and his men from Uva in quest of precious stones.

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