In Search of the Past, Part 2: Kandy and the Mystery of History

I’m here to research my latest novel, which takes place partly in Kandy, Sri Lanka, a remote kingdom until the British blasted a railway up the mountain in the mid-19C. A hundred years later, my characters arrived by train, and so do we–ready to walk their paths. 

But history clings to its mystery, and a key location will prove elusive. I will learn that books and, of course, the internet can lead us astray, proving the value of one-the-ground research.  

By the time of my novel, the British Empire was in retreat. Japan’s push through Asia seemed unstoppable; every colony had fallen and now India itself was under threat. The Southeast Asia Command, headed by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, moved from Delhi to Kandy, along with many Americans–among them, my cast of characters, who were attached to SEAC on an ad hoc basic.

SEAC was based in the former Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya, a little outside Kandy.

I especially want to find Mountbatten’s headquarters here–identified in my research as the King’s Pavilion.

I am to be aided by a Twitter friend, international botanist Dushyantha Large. (Kudos to Twitter for connecting people, for building bridges not walls.) “Call me Dushy,” are her first words as we meet IRT. A brilliant scholar who views each tree, plant, and flower as well-loved individuals, Dushy now lends her considerable knowledge to the Peradeniya (formerly Royal) Botanic Gardens. And has offered to share it with us!

We begin our tour near the graceful and elegant Amherstia nobilis, Pride of Burma, shown above in bloom.

His personal favorite, Mountbatten planted this specimen near the entrance right after the war. Meet Dushy! 

With humor and patience, she shows us around the calm, spreading gardens. I try to imagine the place bustling with British and American SEAC staff, their offices in temporary basha huts. While the officers and civilians slept in Kandy hotels, the troops stationed here slung hammocks between trees. 

As we show my King’s Pavilion photo around, the few who recognize it insist this estate is not here but in Kandy, near the Temple of the Tooth. The picture painted in my mind’s eye by my research is not accurate. I must dig deeper. In the meantime, we can enjoy monkeys and “flying foxes,” the local bats.

The orchids.

And a lovely lunch.

We continue our explorations in a 3-wheeled tuk-tuk. 

Our driver takes us up a rugged track to Mountbatten’s weekend bungalow (now a high-end hotel). 

The American base was in a former tea estate near the Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya, but seeing such development in the area, I realize it is long-gone. At least the geography lives in my mind, though. Along with an image of the Gardens bustling with SEAC personnel. I’m still left with the mystery of King’s Pavilion, though. Where was Mountbatten’s Headquarters? 

To regroup, we return to Queen’s Hotel…

Queen’s Hotel, photo by Dushyantha Large

And its venerable Lord Mountbatten Lounge Bar.

Queen’s Hotel Bar, photo by Dushyantha Large

Next: The search continues in Kandy

Kandy Town and Lake

11 thoughts on “In Search of the Past, Part 2: Kandy and the Mystery of History”

  1. Mountbatten stayed at what is now the Presidents house, it is near to he temple of the tooth, it is marked on google maps

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Mike! Queen’s Hotel where my characters stayed is across from the Temple of the Tooth. So their residences were very close. South East Asia Command Headquarters were beyond the lake at the Royal Botanic Garden.

  2. Hello Diana

    Very interested to read your blog about your visit to Kandy. We are also here in search of Mountbatten & SEAC – we stayed in Queens Hotel & visited the CWGC cemetery outside the city centre – Kings Pavilion is a high end hotel & not far from the cemetery.

    With kind regards

    • Glad you enjoyed! What is your interest in Mountbatten and SEAC? We also stayed at Queen’s–it’s a pity I did not visit King’s Pavilion and the cemetery. Such a fascinating period, not as well known as it deserves!

  3. My father (deceased 2003) served under Lord Mountbatten in Kandy as his personal crytographer with top secret clearance. I have photos of the camp where my father lived for several years near Mountbatten’s quarters. I also have the departing “yearbook” of the military organization depicting the “troops” standing in front of the compound they called home. Mountbatten slept near where my father was based because often messages would arrive “eyes alone” for Mountbatten which required my father to take the coded message to Mountbatten in his sleeping quarters with the decoder’s pouch for Mountbatten to decode himself while my father assisted with the decoding. Would be happy to share the info and materials I have if you contact me.

  4. BTW, Julia Child served with my dad at the time under a different name. She was to become a well known chef. My dad played organ and piano concerts for the local royalty at the palace. As the custom of organists (which my father was), he saved the program which spells out each piece he played and the composer’s name and related information. This, of course, was during WWII when my father was a U.S. Tech Sargeant attached to the British Army. My dad told me stories of when Bill Donovan (Wild Bill) and some of his flying comrades would visit the headquarters with stories of their “over the hump” exploits – I guess to see or check in with Mountbatten and his officers regarding their flying activities. Interesting times, eh?

    • VERY interesting times! Wild Bill is one of my most favorite characters and plays a big part in my Julia Child novel. I’m fascinated by your stories, memories and memorabilia. Hope to hear more when you have time. Thanks so much for reaching out.

    • Dear David,
      My novel, The Secret War of Julia Child, will be published by Sourcebooks Landmark October 2024. As part of my research I visited Kandy where the former Julia McWilliams served with the OSS in WWII. She was attached to Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, originally based in Delhi, where I’ve traveled many times over the years. I also revisited Kunming, China, the other major setting. My characters are there in August 1945 when the bomb drops. Bill Donovan is a wonderful character in my novel! Like Rehan, I’d love to see your photos. Thank you for writing! Diana Chambers


Leave a Comment