Christmas Tales: Carols, surplices, trebles - in a chapel without walls

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The Independent Online
Trinity College chapel in the second city of Sri Lanka may lack the resonance of an English cathedral - but since three of its sides are exposed to the monsoon, maybe that is inevitable. Peter Saunders experienced carols at Kandy.

On the drive up to Kandy from the coast, Yes FM plays "A Wombling Merry Christmas" back-to-back with Bing's "I'm Dreaming of ..." - both equally incongruous in 90 degrees of steamy Sri Lankan heat. And both are in complete contrast to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols which we are about to attend.

Kandy is Sri Lanka's second city, tumbling down steep, tropical hillsides to an artificial lake - in one corner of which lies the Temple of the (Buddha's) Tooth, Sri Lanka's most revered relic. Geographically, culturally and touristically, Kandy is firmly in the centre of the tourist route. And the people here are delightful - even when you have upset your taxi driver. We have resisted his batiks, his gem factory, his spice garden and his favoured guest-house. And now we want to forgo the Cultural Dancing in favour of a carol service? What kind of tourists are these? Our stock is as low as his percentage, and, politely truculent, he resolutely drops us at the back door of one of the city's most famous institutions.

It is a public school (Anglican) run on English public school lines, founded 125 years ago for the sons of the planters, administrators and well-to-do of the times. Our unorthodox arrival is soon noted. Two best- behaved 14-year-olds show us the back way, across a deserted basketball court, up between two houses (did we hear jibes from upstairs windows?) and finally up a flight of steps to the chapel itself. On the way we surprise the choir, who are preening themselves in an outdoor robing-room. With white surplices over scarlet robes, they could easily be King's College Cambridge, except, perhaps, for a shortage of blond trebles.

There is also a distinct shortage of walls. The words of the school song are by Sir Henry Newbolt, and somehow the chapel building should be equally Gothic - but it is not. It is stunning - in the style of a Sri Lankan Buddhist meeting-hall. Only three distinctive murals behind the main altar, pulpit and lectern (depicting biblical stories in a Sri Lankan setting) indicate the building's Christian ethic. The roof of the "nave" is supported by 54 carved granite columns, 18ft tall, 3ft square, hauled by elephants from a nearby quarry.

At the main entrance stand a dozen or more prefects - cool dudes in their Travolta Sunday best: white trousers, white jackets, white shirts, red ties. They act as ushers, and show us to our seats. In a congregation of 400 or so there are no more than half a dozen other European faces. A few men - and definitely the front row - are in suits; the ladies are in muted saris. The dress is sober. It is a service, not a speech day.

At 6pm, "Once in Royal David's City" pipes nervously and breathily from behind us. The service is familiar, except that we are not tempted to sing the "choir only" verses, since they are written in Sinhalese. Also, since this is early evening in an open-sided building at the tail end of the monsoon, we are treated to a rolling tropical thunder with the Magnificat, and indigo lightning effects "While Shepherds Watch". And we leave in warm rain.

The writer returned a week ago from an Inspirations package to Sri Lanka, which cost him pounds 480 for a fortnight.

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