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, a newspaper in the country of Singapore, reported a very strange story indeed from the island of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). At a gathering that included M. M. Wedderburn, the then Acting-Governor of Ceylon, 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 unnamed 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 its worshipers.

        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 set up on some nearby stairs to photograph and film her for a short while. De Zilwa also took pictures of the woman, from a different angle that framed her between two compact groups of worshipers. Presumably, the men went on to photograph and film other parts of the temple for their project as well, and then headed home.

        It wasn't until they developed their photographs and examined their films that they discovered something was 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 capture her actions... but the woman was not in any of the pictures or footage. 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 (newspaper of Nashville, Texas, USA) 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 unnamed assistant of the presumed government official; so only the white 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 unnamed 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 a '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 either being 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 the four men 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 reconsider before then, implying the author's belief in possible supernatural repercussions.

        Unfortunately, this highly altered version of the story is what was referenced in the first accounting of the incident in a study of paranormal events, Gustaf Stromberg's Soul of the Universe, published in 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?

        Charles Brooke-Farrar [1899-1979] was an English landscape painter, who did indeed travel to the temple of Kataragama in July of the year 1937; and I know this because he wrote an article about the trip for the magazine Loris: the Journal of Ceylon Wild Life that was published in their June 1938 issue. This article does not touch on the matter above, but it explains much about the temple and Brooke-Farrar's reasons for the trip.

         Brooke-Farrar wanted to attend the religious festivals held at Kataragama each July because it was still an isolated temple that followed many of the older forms of religious practices that had been vanishing as roads and civilization were spreading throughout India. He traveled to the temple in July of 1937, and this required literally walking on foot "dozens of miles" through jungle terrain to reach the riverside location... no one made this trip casually, so the temple was busy with only truely devote worshipers of all forms. The temple was (and presumably still is) devoted to Muruka, a son of the Gods Shiva and Pavarti. The festival lasted for the whole month of July; Brooke-Farrar doesn't state when his visit started, but it was a multi-day visit that ended on the last day of the festival.

        The article doesn't mention a lot of things I wish it did -- such as who he was traveling with at the time -- but it does prove he was in the right place at the right time for the events described in the article to occur; and there was a high likelyhood that he would be aware of the story about himself as presented in the newspapers. I know of no later mentions in newspapers, including any statements from Brooke-Farrar that disputed the details of the account.

        My copy of Brooke-Farrar's article about the trip is from a later reprinting of it in a 1979 edition of the magazine. I have sent an inquiry out to see if I can get a copy of the original printing of the 1938 copy of the article, mainly because it might have some of the photos from the trip as well as picture credits to help identify the names of the photographers. Ultimately, I'd love to find a statement regarding the dancing woman story that was written by Brooke-Farrar or the others involved; but just discovering the artist actually exists and did indeed go to the temple is a big step in finding more information!

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