1. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
2. The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
3. An instance of making such a discovery.
The Three Princes of Serendip is an old Persian fairy tale dating back over a thousand years. Consisting of historical facts embellished by folklore and based upon the life of the Persian King Bahram V, who ruled the Sassanid Empire located predominantly in modern day Iran and its surrounding neighbours from 420-440AD. One key story within the story, centres on three sons of a King sent away from their Kingdom, Serendippo in the Far East, and into a new and unsheltered education away from privilege. Their collective wisdom soon finds them determining the precise meaning and causes of disruptions on the track they are wandering on the edge of a desert. They believed that a one eyed camel holding containers of butter on one side and honey on its other, is carrying a pregnant women across the dessert. When they happen across an individual and regale their observations, the man reacts in outrage and accuses them of stealing his camel. Taking them to a local Emperor to be punished, they go on to describe how they deciphered innocuous clues to discern such possible reasoning, and shortly after a traveller enters the scene informing the court he has just found such a camel wondering the desert. Rather than being punished, the Princes are handsomely rewarded and appointed advisors to the Emperor. And everyone lives happily ever after…
The story would wind its way to Italy around the 1500’s before being translated into French and finally reaching an English speaking audience, all the time influencing writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Voltaire, whose novel Zadig – almost a direct translation bar a change of animal – would in turn inspire the developing area of detective fiction (think of Sherlock revealing his reasoning to Watson) and help detail the empirical scientific method. That in my eyes is quite impressive for a simple fairy tale, but this was not its only lasting impact.
Horace Walpole the Earl of Orford, son of the first British Prime minister and cousin of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, was a very well educated chap know for being an art historian, antiquarian, politician, revivalist of the Gothic style in architecture and man of letters. These letters –over 3000 in total– on which his literary reputation primarily rests, would be the source where the word ‘serendipity’ would be coined and first appeared in a letter dated the 28th of January, 1754;
“this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” And was formed from “a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of….” (1)
And that is the etymology of the word Serendipity bar one very important fact, the location of this mythical land of Serendip/Serendippo. As I mentioned earlier, the tale of three Princes while highly embellished, stemmed from historical facts such as the name of an island. The Sanskrit word Suvarnadweepa translated into English means Golden Island. Far back in time it was absorbed into the Tamil language, changed to Seren Deevu and adopted by Persians and Urdu and defined as Serendip. This Golden Island still exists today and is now known as Sri Lanka and from my experience Serendipity still resonates in this land.
So now you find me in Kitulgala the location of a Hollywood behemoth that won 7 Oscars, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, which for a brief point in the 50’s took over the Rest Houses, mansions, countryside and river of this small, central-highlands Sri Lankan town. I had arranged and stayed in the Kithulgala Rest House which held claim to being the place where most of the crew stayed and had raucous parties long into the night during the production. It’s an old colonial building originally built for travelling administrators of the British Empire and housed the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh during a trip in 1954. There are many references here such as the ‘Bridge Restaurant’ and posters adorning the walls but it’s once I started venturing outside of this setting, that unexpected moments began to descend on me in surprising ways.
On the first day I arrived I decided to have a wonder around the town and get a feel for the place I would be spending my time in. Having reached the other side of the town, and after refusing numerous offers for Tuk Tuk lifts, from the last politely declined offer, a conversation ensued. From this I learnt the Kelani River is now famed as a fantastic white water rafting location in Sri Lanka with many native and foreign tourists descending upon it for such adventurous fun. This Tuk Tuk driver also runs an adventure sports company and asked if I would like to do some rafting. Again I politely declined his offer and in a sudden on the cuff decision making moment, asked instead if he could take me to the location of the Bridge from the film. I just couldn’t wait to see it for real any longer. It was late in the afternoon and time was creeping into early evening at this point and the Tuk Tuk driver pointed out that he in fact lives just a short walk from that very place and was happy to take me there for free as he had finished his days work and was at this point heading home. I jumped in, the 2 km drive commenced, and the conversation continued.
I asked if he knew the film and he responded in glowing terms and knowledge and informed me that his father was actually an extra in the film! The off chance of deciding to accept his ride, and the fact he only revealed this information after he was driving me to the location was, for me, rather surprising, a little skeptical but very exciting. I asked if it would be possible to meet his father and if it would be possible to film him. His father a Mr. Samuel Perera, he notified me, had recently had a stroke and a major operation so couldn’t speak as clearly as he used to but he said he was happy to introduce him. After winding our way around hills populated by jungle and tea plantations we pulled up and wandered down to his family’s home. I was introduced and Mr. Perera was more than happy for me to interview him the next day. And so for the next few days I spent a fascinating period of time interviewing and wandering the set location with a man who claimed to be a ‘9 year old Jungle Boy’ in the film, re-enacting –on his own accord– crucial moments from the film on and around the Bridge on the River Kwai location.
Mr. Perera and his wife Mrs. Perera have archived copious amounts of magazines that reveal stories and histories of David Lean’s film, including one article which talks of a Samuel Perera who was a young extra in the film and how that moment in his life “a far cry from his real life” was now just a “fading dream” (2) for Mr. Perera. But having watched him and the enthusiasm that revitalizes and spurs him on, this is no fading dream but a performative moment that has very much seeped into his life and become an active element of who he is.
“All the other actors from this film have died except me… This is my job, I am Jungle Boy”. (3)
I was aware of locals having been used in the film but with no clear contact or possible way of communicating with any of them I thought it would take a serendipitous moment for such an opportunity to be presented to me and fortuitously it did. This wonderful character appeared and existed wanting to tell his story, keeping his performance alive and the existence of the fictitious action firmly in reality as the jungle slowly consumed any visible evidence of a bridge save a few concrete foundations on rocks beside the Kelani River. This was just one such aspect of the film still echoing in the Sri Lankan rainforest.
To cross the Kelani River you have to catch a local boat and these boats also feature in the “The Bridge on the River Kwai” as a Burmese boat used by William Holden’s character to escape the jungle prison, out to the sea and left to drift the ocean until he is picked up by the British Navy and taken to a command post in Sri Lanka. To see these boats in such a place makes sense with the ease and close proximity of the filming and could act very easily as a form of South East Asian transportation but when I went to film the river crossings of these vessels something very unpredicted caught my attention. Down on the river bank a short walk from the Rest House, where the locals bathe and you catch your crossing, a pile of back stage lighting equipment sat including the lights and reflector boards. An hour earlier or an hour later this pile of production equipment would have gone to their port of call and I would never had witnessed it but for this moment the memory of cinematic craft surfaced, presented itself and echoed like the thunder that reverberated the hills as if the explosion when the bridge was blown up, still rumbles on.
Sri Lanka is the birthplace of serendipity and while a key ingredient of serendipity is the need to be in the right place with the right frame of mind, with the viewer needing to be ‘sagacious’ enough to link two apparent things together to come to a valuable conclusion, and similarly as an artist you apply a particular perspective and knowledge stream to connect materials, concepts, histories, moments and information together in unexpected but fascinating ways, putting yourself into situations where coincidences can happen. Sometimes the uncanny can rear its head and give you some truly astonishing interrelated repetitions of actions and events unforeseen, and truly serendipitous.
(1) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009
(2) Anton jayasuriya, Hotel by the Bridge on the River Kwai, Plantation Bungalow – Kitulagla and River Resort Eduraella, 1997
(3) Mr. Samuel Perera, Kitulgala, Sri Lanka, 2013