Weligama,Taprobane : Island of Detachment and Desire

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Girls play in the bay at Weligama with Taprobane Island in the background. CreditKuni Takahashi for The New York Times

Bare-chested fishermen idled on the rocks one afternoon and argued mellifluously. Bony children bobbed in the water, and tinny music drifted from a stall where glistening mahi-mahi was on offer. Not one head turned when cows stumbled into an empty beach cafe, scattering chairs and then wandering into the surf.

But the slow-motion beach scene isn’t the attraction at Weligama, an escapist paradise open to the Indian Ocean and an infinite distance from angst. It is outshone by a dollop of an island 200 yards offshore. Ringed by gleaming boulders and topped by a cloud-white villa, Taprobane is now a landmark in Sri Lanka. Created in the 1920s by a Frenchman who claimed to be an aristocrat, the property was once owned by the writer Paul Bowles.

These days, Taprobane is a privately owned home marketed as a luxury retreat where, depending on the season, the keys to the five-bedroom villa go for $1,000 to $2,200 per night. A staff of five, including a private cook, keeps the Tanqueray flowing.

At the foot of a neo-Palladian gate, Taprobane’s jetty reaches only a short way into the water. Though elephants have been employed to ferry visitors, upon occasion, guests now their way to the house through the shin-deep surf.

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The writer Paul Bowles, who once owned the island.CreditUlf Andersen/Getty Images

On my own pilgrimage last spring, I slipped off my sandals and waded behind two porters with my bags atop their heads. Before I reached the elaborate gateway, a hand holding a towel appeared: “Madam, hello, madam,” someone said.

I was making the journey alone, but not because I craved solitude, or splendor. Booking Taprobane for one $1,700 night meant that I could explore the estate and parse the sensory landscape that made it so alluring to Mr. Bowles.

The Queens-born expatriate (who died in 1999) was a writer whom I knew, and who is still a touchstone for many travelers. A coolly charismatic figure who lived at a distance from his own culture, he made a lasting mark with dark, often disturbing tales about innocents who seek exotica and stumble into anarchy.

His best-known novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” is a cautionary tale for heedless adventurers: Distracted by their own small dramas, a young couple ventures into the Sahara. Adrift among strangers, they become prey.

Norman Mailer’s take on his vision became a trope: “Paul Bowles,” he wrote, “opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square … the call of the orgy, the end of civilization.”

Elegant and self-contained, Mr. Bowles would have been the last to define himself as hip. Exquisitely detached from his surroundings, as well as from his characters, he spent much of his life on the move; such distinctions hardly mattered in Tangier, the Moroccan port that became his backdrop.

In 1948, when Mr. Bowles brought his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, to Morocco, Tangier was an international zone where villas were cheap, kif was plentiful and sex was a commodity. Decadence wasn’t the draw for the Bowleses, but their relationship was opaque, and each famously took gay lovers.

Though he nominally was in retreat, Mr. Bowles’s door was open; a generation of admirers made its way to Inmueble Itesa, the drab building where he lived for 40 years. I began visiting in 1986, while researching a book about Mr. Bowles and other writers in Tangier. Patient and often amusing, Mr. Bowles seemed a glamorous anachronism.

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The island is now a privately owned home, marketed as a luxury retreat.CreditKuni Takahashi for The New York Times

By then, his time in Sri Lanka (Ceylon until long after he left) seemed impossibly distant; it had been distilled into anecdotes about devil-dancing ceremonies and the quirks of his servants. Once, however, Taprobane had been a place that fulfilled his longing for extremes. Along with the void of the Sahara, he wrote, the fecundity of the tropics could propel him into “a state bordering on euphoria.”

His obsession was sparked by David Herbert, an aristocrat and close friend in Tangier. In 1949 (a year after Sri Lanka won independence from Britain), Mr. Herbert showed him an album with photographs from a family visit to Taprobane. Entranced, Mr. Bowles made an expedition to Sri Lanka in 1950; he found the private island to be “an embodiment of the innumerable fantasies and daydreams that had flitted through my mind since childhood.”

Two years later, Mr. Bowles arranged to buy the island from a local rubber planter. The cost for his “little parcel of paradise,” as he called it, was about $5,000.

Climbing through the island’s luxuriant jungle, I caught a whiff of Mr. Bowles’s bliss. Flame trees and frangipani-lined paths strewn with fallen blossoms. Screaming house crows, hundreds of them, were a counterpoint to the booming waves. The mineral smell of the sea receded, and the perfume of overripe fruit took over.

The showstopper is the villa, where verandas take the place of outer walls. Pure white, the pavilion is a study in light and shadow. In the octagonal center room, the ceiling rises 30 feet; bedrooms and sitting areas extend beyond. Visible in all directions, the seascape seemed infinite.

The major-domo here is Carman Abeyeunga, a compact man who, like his staff, is dignified in shorts and bare feet. Service at Taprobane is swift and unobtrusive; my bags materialized in a small bedroom that, at midday, was shuttered against the heat. With heavy Dutch Colonial furniture and a four-poster draped in mosquito netting, it was appealing in a Tatler-colonial way.

The room was suitably adorned with clubby family photos that belong to the British-born entrepreneur Geoffrey Dobbs, who bought Taprobane from a Sri Lankan mogul. A retired publisher and a high-profile figure in Sri Lanka, Mr. Dobbs has converted two colonial houses in Galle into boutique hotels and helped shore up a tourist industry enfeebled by a civil war and a tsunami.

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Carman Abeyeunga, a member of the staff, serves string hopper, fish curry and yellow dal.CreditKuni Takahashi for The New York Times

By all accounts, Taprobane was less-than-haute in Mr. Bowles’s day. There was no running water or electricity and “the house would have delighted the heart of Charles Addams,” in the words of Arthur C. Clarke. After a 1957 visit, he wrote “windows had been boarded up, plaster was flaking away, and though the place was perfectly livable there was a general air of neglect.”

Any lugubriousness was a plus for Mr. Bowles. In his memoir, “Without Stopping,” he described the scene when his wife first set foot on the estate. Mrs. Bowles, he wrote, instantly understood its appeal: “I can see why you like it,” she shrugged. “It’s a Poe story.”

Jane Bowles felt besieged in her husband’s house. “I had prepared her for the nightly invasion of bats … but she had not expected so many, she said, or that they would have a three-foot wingspread and such big teeth,” he remembered.

Mr. Bowles savored the exoticism. In a 1955 letter to his editor, David McDowell, he wrote: “The house is self-sufficient in eggs, orchids, lobsters, crabs, and that’s all.” He continued, “Think how much we should have to spend for our daily supply of orchids if they didn’t grow here.”

Hungry to explore it all, I grabbed my camera and maneuvered down the island’s south face. I leaned carefully over a 20-foot drop to photograph the surf as it smashed into hulking boulders.

The sun was still fierce, so I headed into the tangle that canopies the walkways. Like the house, the gardens were created by Maurice de Mauny Talvande, a French commoner who declared himself a count. When he managed to acquire Galduwa, as it was then called, around 1925, he rechristened it with the name that the ancient Greeks gave to Sri Lanka.

Now, every step here reveals a curiosity — green pods cradling blood-red seeds or white blossoms erupting from the depths of crimson flowers. Heart-shaped leaves are veined in startling white, and orchids leap across walkways at eye level.

Mr. Bowles, who used cannabis to tweak his consciousness in Morocco, sensed that his garden had a life of its own. In another letter to Mr. McDowell in 1955, he described “the strange psychological effect this powerful world of vegetable life can have on the person who opens himself to consciousness of it … it’s a rather unpleasant sensation on the whole, to feel very strongly that plants are not inert and not insentient.”

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Mr. Bowles intended to separate himself from the world here, but he seldom was alone. Late in 1954, he arrived at Taprobane with Mrs. Bowles, as well as his lover, the Moroccan painter Ahmed Yacoubi, and their friend Mohammed Temsemany. It was not a happy ménage: Struggling with the heat and with writer’s block, Mrs. Bowles drank heavily; she returned to Tangier after two months.

Throughout, his estate was a draw for strangers who seemed to regard it as public property. Tourists from Weligama or Colombo or as far away as Bombay “hallooed and pounded” at the gate, though Mr. Bowles posted a sign warning that drop-ins would be turned away.

Over time, he developed the sense of being an interloper in Sri Lanka. By his account, visitors began advising him that he was lucky to live in a house that was part of their history, and newspapers called for Taprobane to be declared a national monument.

Along with financial worries and his wife’s loathing for the place, that shift spurred Mr. Bowles to sell his one-off paradise. In 1957, it went to the Irish writer Shaun Mandy.

It’s hard to say whether anything of Mr. Bowles remains at Taprobane.

Taprobane did offer reminders of Mr. Bowles and his love for the tropics, however: I thought about him as I walked barefoot on the cool floors and floated in the lukewarm surf.

Sleep came easily at the villa; the banging of the waves obliterated the usual static, and not a single bat disturbed my dreams.

I woke early, opened the shutters and saw that my terrace was deserted. I was free to do yoga, or watch the sea birds or read in perfect peace.

Instead, I walked out to watch the 10-shades-of-turquoise ocean, where barely visible boats disappeared into the horizon.

I remembered what Mr. Bowles had said about what lay beyond: At Taprobane, he wrote, “there’s nothing between you and the South Pole.”

That became my mantra for the day.

සබැඳි පුවත්

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