As Prince Charles stood on the podium in Colombo airport this afternoon, cannon shots rang out in salute, and a stray dog, clearly convinced that it was about to die, sprinted flat out across the runway. Then the long grass in front of the guns burst into flames and a fire engine raced up to put them out. Finally, the band marched off playing the theme tune from Monty Python's Flying Circus.
It was a promising start to a royal visit which terror and scandal have reduced to a ceremonial skeleton. At a temple east of Colombo which the Prince visited later in the afternoon, one of the treasures he inspected is a statue of the Fasting Buddha, eyes sunk into their sockets, stomach no more than a hole, limbs reduced to fleshless tendons.
The Prince's four-day Sri Lanka tour is a bit like that. Gone is the excursion to the old royal capital of Kandy, the prettiest town in the country and its religious heart. Gone, for reasons of royal face, is the investiture of Arthur C Clarke, the science fiction author about whom claims have been made that he paid for sex with young boys. Various meetings with exponents of intermediate technology and the like were mooted, but security concerns ruled them out.
The Prince's first stop-off was at a new factory making men's underwear for Marks & Spencer, a joint venture between Courtaulds and local firms. He unveiled a plaque. Then at the 17th-century Raja Maha Vijaraya temple he was swept up in a traditional temple procession with bare-chested drummers, women in shocking pink dresses waving fly whisks, and infant dancers in pointed hats. Escorted under a mammoth saffron parasol next to the abbot, he presented a plate of rose petals at the foot of a golden image of the Buddha of the Future inside the temple, and admired the wall paintings.
His arrival in the capital was a muted affair. The schoolchildren who were supposed to cheer and wave had been sent back to their studies lest one of them were to choose glorious martyrdom as a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber. So instead the streets were lined only with soldiers: some 10,000 have been deployed in Colombo over the anniversary period. This is a country which, thanks to the civil war, is celebrating 50 years of freedom through gritted teeth.
There is, however, far less touchiness about the colonial legacy of Sri Lanka than is found in, for example, India. Today, while the might of the country's armed forces rolls past Prince Charles in the official anniversary celebration, an alternative event in the hills east of Kandy will see the enthronement, at a place called Welassa, of an anti-British monk as the Prince of Welassa. Welassa - Wales, get it? The National Joint Committee of Buddhist Organisations thinks the Prince should not have been invited and is staging the tongue-in-cheek event as a mild protest. But feelings amongst the population at large are not running high. Unlike in India, there was no freedom struggle in Sri Lanka: independence was handed them on a plate. Lord Salisbury is honoured as the father of the constitution. Prince Charles's arrival has caused little stir, but that is blamed on his lack of charisma. Were he to have brought his sons, William and Harry, it might have been different. When Diana, Princess of Wales died the grief here rivalled that in Britain.
It is rumoured that Prince Charles may steal time from his thin schedule to make a secret visit to Kandy, to inspect the damage that the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. If he were able to prowl about on his own he would find in Sri Lanka's streets numerous reminders of Britain of the Fifties: Morris Minor and Morris Oxford cars, advertisements for Lifebuoy and Sunlight soaps, Players Gold Leaf and Horlicks. Such a walkabout is very unlikely to happen, however, because as long as the Prince is in the country his safety will be a gigantic headache for the government. The temptation for the Tamil Tigers to punctuate his visit with a "spectacular" must be almost irresistible.Reuse content