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Bandit on the Rock

Serendib Magazine (c) 2008.

Legend of Utuwankande’s most famous outlaw.

If you could visit just one rock summit in Sri Lanka, this would not be it. Utuwankande has neither Sigiriya's mystery, Sri Pada's majesty, nor Haputale's magic. It has no plush hotels surrounding it and the climb to the top is a rarely trodden path.

Its name comes from the arc-like rock splinter at its peak, shaped like the hump of an otuwa or camel. Its legend comes from the bandit that stood there, holding his rifle to the sky, locks blowing with the breeze, scanning the horizon for a bullock cart to rob.

The story of Saradiel of Uthuwankande is a tale of an outlaw, hero to some, gun-crazed daredevil to others. The climb to its apex is less exciting, but no less intriguing

It begins with a forking road. One path leading to a chocolate factory, the other up a hill past paddy fields. The trail takes a strange turn and you are confronted with a mass of enormous boulders, hidden amidst coconut, rubber and banana trees. And struck by the thought, was this Saradiel's cave?

The legend of Saradiel poses the same question that most outlaw legends present. Was the man who, in the 1860s, made these rocks his hideout, a goodie or a baddie?

Saradiel's story has found its way into films and teledramas. It is part Dick Turpin, part Ali Baba's cave. Some see him as a Robin Hood-flavoured class warrior, humiliating corrupt businessmen and sharing the spoils with the poor. Others see him as a fierce nationalist, reclaiming plantation money from foreign colonials to distribute among the people of the land.

While the righteous outlaw archetype is favoured by most storytellers, it would be foolish to deny the truth. Saradiel was a dangerous robber and a brutal killer. Very much gun-crazed, very much the daredevil.

Contrary to legend, he was a short, baby-faced, skinny man, who grew up in a temple. Most stories depict him as a hedonist; a toddy-swilling, hard-gambling, womanizing, swashbuckler, who rose from petty thief to armed robber to ruthless murderer. From which stems the popular image of the rock star in the sarong with the rifle.

That is the image we visualize as we approach the cave formations, now sealed off through earth slips and vegetation. 150 years ago, before the plantations, the schools and the factories, I can imagine this as a nifty hideout. Especially, if you'd just robbed the army barracks of gunpowder and pistols, had gathered a gang of like-minded thieves and were looking to diversify into the highway robbery business.

While this is no Sherwood forest, it does offer many vantage points of the surrounding roads. Legend has it that when Saradiel stood at the peak, he could spot any coach or cart a good hour before it reached Mawanella.

As you reach the summit you realize that Utuwankande's low profile amongst tourists has helped recreate its atmosphere. The trees have been allowed to flourish, the vegetation has blossomed. Making it easier to imagine what it must been like a century ago. A closely guarded cave fortress, filled with nooks and hidden on a hill. Away from civilization and above the law.

As the gang's looting and murdering spree grew to a frenzy, the reward on Saradiel's head grew as steeply as the path we are on. From five pounds to two hundred in less than 2 years,

Folklore is coloured with delightful tales. How he possessed the Heenaraja thalaya, a mystical blade or amulet that deflected bullets. How the enchanted oil that he stole from a Badulla temple made him invisible to trackers.

He was known to turn up at town functions, clad as a buxom female, flirting with policemen and picking their pockets. He once escaped a raid by straddling a herd of running buffalo and broke out of prison by getting his jailers drunk. And had concubines all over the hills, including a village headman's wife.

In the end, a trail of bodies which included a police informer, an arab trader, a local businessman and three policemen caught up with him. Chiefs from all four korales banded with village headmen to rustle up a cavalry of over a thousand men. Betrayed by one of his own, Sardiel and his men went down in a shootout and were taken to Kandy where they were hung in 1864.

The final climb is difficult. Perhaps not advisable unless you are an experienced climber or a 5'3' colonial bandit fleeing justice. We are neither, but we manage. The view at the summit is worth the unforgiving trek and the fanciful tales.

I wonder if Saradiel was in fact a national hero or just a hoodlum who picked fights and stole. And I ponder why history chooses to glorify its outlaws and bandits. No one sees the need to write ballads about insider traders or online fraudsters.

But with Bible Rock and the hilltops of Kandy in the distance, and snaking roads bringing riches from Colombo stretched before you, the romance of Utuwankande is inescapable. And you cannot help but be moved by a man, who in an age of servility and obedience, decided to take a stand on a gigantic rock and take from the world whatever he pleased.

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