Victorian travellers from the 1840s on described the Kandyan Highlands of Ceylon as one of the most beautiful places in the world. Having lived there for a year and finding it very beautiful myself, I nevertheless wondered why the Victorians found it quite so lovely. The answer, I believe, lies in the region’s hybridity, for these travellers’ accounts operated through a set of exoticizing and familiarizing gestures. Victorian writers, men and women alike, were shocked simultaneously by the uncanny familiarity of the place, and by its alterity. And yet this shock was domesticated, which is to say turned into delight, by a textualized way of seeing based upon a form of hybridity which did not evolve on this spot, but rather was invented half a century before, and 7,000 miles away in Britain.
This study then explores the coming together of a particular imaginative geography, in this case a romantic one, with a particular place, the Kandyan Highlands. Until 1815 when the Kandyan Kingdom was conquered by the British, it was the site of another imaginative geography, that of the heaven on earth of the Buddhist god-king. 1 This Kandyan imaginary was impressed on the landscape—on sacred mountains, rivers, town layouts, palaces and temples. It was encoded in the ritual and secular practices of the Kandyans, whose politics were no less real for being imagined. This imaginary geography, in other words, was inseparable from the concreteness of this place. In fact the very specificity of this place was in large part produced by the impress of this imaginary. After 1815, this particular imaginative geography became increasingly difficult for the Kandyan people to sustain as it became manifestly clear that the new British rulers intended to remain; for new political imaginations produce new imaginary geographies. At times running beside this Kandyan imaginative geography, at times running roughshod over it, was a British imaginary which reworked the former as the picturesque. This new imaginary was a form of translation which recuperated the Highlands for a British audience. In doing so it not only re-imaged the Kandyan imaginary, forcing the politics of the Buddhist god-king through the taxonomic grid of romanticism and utilitarianism, but re-imagined the physical place itself, the mountains and the lakes and forests. What this complex, unstable translation of the culture and nature produced was a hybrid creation, which began as a discourse, a way of seeing and talking about a place, and ended as a reconstruction of that place, as a concretization of that new imagined geography.