1937, October 24 (pre): The Dancing Woman of Ceylon

Kataragama temple, ca. 1953Kataragama temple in Sri Lanka, ca. 1953 [Picture source here]

On October 24, 1937, the Sunday Times in Singapore reported a very strange story indeed from the island of Ceylon... now known as Sri Lanka. At a gathering that included the then Acting-Governor of Ceylon, M. M. Wedderburn, an English artist named Mr. Brooke-Farrar explained that he and three other men -- a Mr. G. A. Smith, from a Colombo photographic studio, a Mr. De Zilwa, Smith's Sinhalese assistant from the studio, and another un-named man, assumed to have been a Government official -- had penetrated the jungles of the island to visit the ancient temple of Kataragama (mis-spelled Katargama), which at the time had no easy way to be reached. The men were there to take photographs and film of the temple and of the worshipers, possibly for a travelogue.

        On entering the temple itself, Brooke-Farrar's attention was immediately caught by a Tamil woman who was apparently in "a state of complete religious ecstasy." Her actions were intriguing enough that both Brooke-Farrar and Smith setup on some nearby stairs to photograph and film her for a short while. Mr De Zilwa also took pictures, from a different angel that framed the woman between two compact groups of worshipers. Presumably, the men went on to photograph and film other parts of the temple for their project... it wasn't until they developed their results that they discovered something wrong.

        Brooke-Farrar had taken about seven or eight shots of the woman, De Zilwa had taken two or three well-framed shots, and Smith had exposed several feet of film to catch her actions... but the woman was missing from all of these shots. Three separate men, with three separate cameras, had seen and photographed the woman; yet all they got were shots of the temple and other worshipers. The Tamil woman simply was not visible in any of the shots she should have been in. It was broad daylight, and the photographers were utterly unable to explain how it all could have happened.

The Story Grows

        The above is the how the event was first presented, which is a very strange account... but apparently, not strange enough for at least one newspaper. In February 1938, less than a year after the incident was first reported, the details of the event were heavily re-written with the apparent aim of making a relatively simple yet inexplicable incident sound more exciting.

        My copy of this re-write is from The Tennessean for February 6, 1838, and bears the somewhat suggestive title of "Jungle Goddess Invisible to the Camera's Eye." In this version only Brooke-Farrar and Smith are named, and De Zilwa is described as the un-named assistant of the presumed government official... so only the foreigners are named. The essential new details are that the female was an attractive girl dancing on a moonstone, and that when the music she was dancing to stopped, she vanished suddenly... but not suddenly enough to disturb the cameramen. They continued to tour the temple, but found themselves obsessed with the girl they had filmed, so asked the un-named Sinhalese assistant (Mr. De Zilwa) to ask the worshipers who she was; but everyone he asked quietly and quickly avoided him.

        Eventually the four men cornered a native and questioned him about the girl; shaking, he said he knew of no girl... but there was 'death woman' who appeared and danced on the steps each year, and all who saw her were accursed. The men felt that the locals were just being either ignorant or just avoiding telling them who the girl was... but it was also very clear that by now they were being watched very closely by the crowd, so they decided they should depart before anything nasty happened.

        As they returned home, we are told, the four of them were swept into a welcoming party to celebrate their return almost before they had a chance to change clothes. The Acting-Governor, M.M. Wedderburn, was in attendance and, as they told everyone about the fantastic temple -- and the strange dancing girl captured in their cameras -- Wedderburn suggested that they could develop the film right then and there so they could all see. The men accepted; their supplies were sent for, and soon they were set up in the cloak-room of the event developing the pictures and film for all to see. Naturally, as per the original account, the girl was missing from all of the images. This version ends stating that the men were intrigued enough that they planned a return trip in the following year, and that the author hoped they would reconcider before then.

        Unfortunately, this is the version of the story that was referenced in the first accounting of the incident in a study of paranormal events, Gustaf Stromberg's Soul of the Universe, published 1940. Stromberg summed up the details as Brooke-Farrar and Smith visited Kataragama (which he also mis-spelled 'Katargama') where they saw a Tamil girl dancing, and decided to photograph and film her. At the end of filming, the girl disappeared. The natives appeared to know something they weren't telling; and, afterwards, she was not in the developed film. All newer accounts of this event appear to come from Stromberg's book, so in general the wrong details have prevailed, many over-stressing the disappearance of the 'girl' at the end of filming as being supernatural.

Did It Happen?

        Always the hard question. In this case all we have evidence wise is the first report of the matter... for more information to be located, I suspect a lot of queries will have to be sent to Sri Lanka libraries!

        Do note that in the decades since the event was reported it has generally become assumed that the reference to "Mr. Brooke-Farrar, an English artist" is actually a reference to Charles Brooke-Farrar [1899-1979], an English landscape painter who would have been around forty years old at the time. I say 'assumed' because there is no actual evidence he was involved; he just happens to be an English artist with the right last name and alive at the right time. I have been unable to find out anything more about him, sad to say... no biography, no reference to him past the paintings he created, and nothing that could show he ever had an interest in Sri Lanka at all. I will have to contact some non-internet resources to see if I can find out more about his history. Even less is available about a G. A. Smith that would have worked at a photography studio in Colombo, Sri Lanka; but there is no particular reason that this would be easy to find information.

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