A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 5



The crowd of new, grand, and delightful impressions which rushed upon me during my first week in Ceylon culminated in a beautiful excursion arranged by my friends for November 27th, to Kaduwella. It was my first Sunday in the island, and although all the various pleasures of the foregoing week-days had made of each a day of rejoicing, my holiday mood was still farther raised by the incidents of this first Sunday. This expedition to Kaduwella was my first longer excursion in the neighbourhood of Colombo, and as the scenery which I here saw for the first time agrees in all its essential and permanent characteristics with most of the low country of the south-west coast. I will attempt a brief description of it in this place.

Kaduwella is a Cinghalese village on the left or southern bank of the Kalany river, at about ten miles (English) from "Whist Bungalow." An excellent road, which goes on to Avisavella and Fort Ruanvella, runs sometimes close to the wooded shore and sometimes at a little distance above it, to cut off the numerous windings of the river. Like all the roads in the island which are much used, this is admirably kept up; and this is the more noteworthy because the frequent and violent rains are constantly washing down large quantities of soil, and make it very difficult to keep the roads in good order. But the English Government, here as in all its colonies, considers, very justly, that the maintenance and construction of easy communication is one of its first and most important duties; and it is a proof of the great gift of the English for colonization that they spare neither trouble nor cost in carrying out such undertakings, even under the greatest difficulties in the character of the country, aggravated by the tropical climate.

My hosts of "Whist Bungalow" and some German fellow-countrymen, who were at that time living in the neighbouring bungalow of Elie House - for some time the residence of Sir Emerson Tennent  had made every preparation for our gastronomical enjoyment on this excursion. Everything, solid and fluid, that could be desired for our elegant picnic breakfast, together with our guns and ammunition, and phials and tin boxes for what we might collect, were all packed into the light open one-horse conveyances which every European owns. They are usually drawn by a brisk Burmese pony or a stronger beast of Australian breed; indeed, almost all the riding and carriage horses in the island are imported from the Peninsula or from Australia, for horsebreeding does not succeed in Ceylon, and European horses suffer from the climate and soon become useless. The little Burmese ponies go at a capital pace, though they have not much staying power; about ten miles is commonly as much as they can do. The drivers are generally black Tamils in a white jacket with a red turban; they run behind the vehicle with extraordinary endurance, or stand up from time to time on the step. They are obliged to keep up an incessant shouting, for the Cinghalese themselves - particularly the old folks - as well as their oxen and dogs, manifest a decided predilection for being run over, in preference to moving out of the way.

We left "Whist Bungalow" before sunrise, and drove through the last houses of Mutwal and the Parade beyond, out into the green and smiling country which spreads to the foot of the hills; here jungle, there park-like meadow-land and rice-fields. The outskirts of Colombo, as of all the towns in Ceylon, insensibly dwindle into long scattered hamlets, extending for miles; and as the isolated native huts which compose them are generally at wide intervals, each surrounded by its own plot of garden, field, or grove, the frontier line of each village is often difficult to draw and a purely imaginary boundary. In the more densely populated and highly cultivated districts of the south-west coast, there is in fact no visible division, and it might be said that the whole low country between Colombo and Matura, the south-western point of the island, is covered by one endless village of Indian huts and fruit gardens, jungle and cocoa-nut groves. The same features recur throughout this Edenlike garden land; low brown mud huts, shaded by bread-fruit and mango trees, Cocos and Areca palms, and embowered in pisang groves made beautiful with the spreading leaves of the caladium and Ricinus, the graceful papaw, clumps of manihot and other useful plants. The indolent Cinghalese lie stretched on benches before their open huts, happy in their idleness, contemplating the ever green surroundings, or busy in weeding out the native population of their long black hair. Naked children play in the road, or hunt the butterflies and lizards which make it gay.

At certain hours of the day, on the more frequented roads, numbers of ox-carts are to be met, small ones with one or larger ones with two beasts; these constitute the chief - indeed almost the sole - vehicles for transport and communication used by the natives. The oxen are all of the kind known as the zebu (Bos indicus), and have a hump on their shoulders. The zebu, however, like the European bull, has many varieties; one small breed can run fast and steadily. The natives rarely use horses, and there are no asses in the island. It swarms, however, with dogs, in front of every hut - pariah dogs, as they are called - all of the same breed, and seeming to betray their descent from the wild jackal by their form, colour, and behaviour. Everywhere, too, we see small black pigs (Sus indicus), and not unfrequently lean leggy goats, more rarely sheep. Fowls are plentiful, ducks and geese less common. These are the simple and invariable elements that constitute the domestic scenery of south-west Ceylon. But these elements are mixed with such fascinating irregularity and in such endless variety, they are so gorgeously lighted up and coloured by the tropical sunshine, the neighbouring sea or river gives them such restful freshness, and the forest background with the distant blue mountains beyond lends them so much poetic sentiment, that it is impossible to weary of enjoying them; and the landscape painter may find here as endless a succession of subjects as the genre painter - beautiful subjects, almost unknown in our exhibitions.

One particularly delightful feature of the Ceylon coast is the insensible transition from garden to forest land, from culture to the wilderness. Often I have fancied myself in some beautiful wild spot, with tall trees on all sides, wreathed and overgrown with creepers; but a hut shrouded under the branches of a bread-fruit tree, a dog or a pig trotting out of the brushwood, children at play and hiding under the caladium leaves, have betrayed the fact that I was in a native garden. And, on the other hand, the true forest which lies close at hand, with its mingled species of the most dissimilar tropical trees. with its orchids, cloves, lilies, mallows, and other gorgeous flowering plants, is so full of variety and beauty that it is easy to fancy it a lovely garden. This peculiar harmony between nature and cultivation characterizes even the human accessories of this garden-wilderness, for the simplicity of their garments and dwellings is so complete that they answer perfectly to the description given of true savages, though they are descended from a long civilized race.

All these scenes are doubly attractive and picturesque in the cool light of early day, when the sun strikes level beams through the trees, casting long shadows from the slender trunks of the palms, and breaking into a thousand flecks of light on the huge torn leaves of the banana trees.

At the time of my visit, during the north-east monsoon, the bright morning hours were always deliciously cool and enjoyable, with a cloudless sky and a fresh sea-breeze, though the thermometer rarely fell below 23o or 22o; it was not till between nine and ten that the heat began to be oppressive and clouds gathered, which usually discharged themselves in a violent shower in the afternoon. When this was over, by about four or five, the evening hours again seemed doubly glorious, all the more so because the setting sun fired the western horizon with gold, and flooded the clouds with a glow of hues that defy all description. It happened, however, that the weather was by no means so regular as usual that season, but in various ways somewhat abnormal. On the whole, the weather favoured me throughout my journey, and very few days were spoilt by persistent rain beginning so early in the day as to interfere with the work or the excursion I had planned.

After a most amusing drive of two hours we reached the village of Kaduwella, very picturesquely situated on a sudden bend of the Kalany river. On an elevated point, shaded by noble trees, stands the "resthouse," where we were to stop and take out the horses, looking pretty and inviting. "Rest-houses" is the name given in Ceylon, as in India, to the houses which, in the absence of inns, the Government has provided for the shelter of travellers, and which are under its supervision. There are but three towns in all Ceylon that can boast of hotels - Colombo, Galle, and Kandy. The natives need them not. The European traveller must therefore depend entirely on the hospitality of European residents, where there are any, or on the Government "rest-houses." These, in fact, supply his principal needs. The host, who is a Government servant and known as the "rest-house keeper," is bound to let the traveller have a room with a bed in it for a certain fixed price - generally a rupee, or two shillings - and, if required, he must also provide the barest necessaries by way of food. This varies considerably in price, and so, of course, do the capacities of the host himself. In the south-west corner of the island, where I travelled most, I found them generally willing and efficient; especially in Belligam, where I fixed my laboratory for six weeks at the "rest-house." In the interior, on the contrary, and particularly in the north and east of the island, the "rest-houses" are bad and very dear. At Neuera Ellia, for instance, I had to pay a quarter of a rupee a-piece for eggs, and half a rupee - a shilling - for each cup of coffee. The "rest-house" of Kaduwella, the first I had occasion to enter, was very humble and small, and as we had brought our own provisions, it afforded us only chairs to sit on, fire and water for cooking, and a pleasant shelter in its airy verandah against sun and rain; and for this we paid according to the tariff. Nothing but death is to be had for nothing in India.

As soon as we arrived we set out with our guns to make the most of the lovely morning hours. To the south of the river and just behind the village rises an undulating hill, over which the shooting party dispersed. The lower slopes are covered with meadows and rice-fields carefully irrigated by ditches and canals, and little pools into which the cuttings open. The higher portion, a rolling, hilly country of from one hundred to three hundred feet high, is overgrown with the dense brushwood and undergrowth here universally known as jungle. It was here that I first became more closely acquainted with this characteristic feature of the landscape, which throughout the island takes possession of the soil wherever cultivation ceases. Jungle is not, in fact, the "forest primaeval," the wilderness untrodden of man. This has no existence in

Ceylon, excepting in a very few spots and those of very small extent, but it answers to our conception of it in so far as in its fullest development it is to all intents and purposes a forest, a dense and impenetrable thicket of trees and shrubs. These have grown up without any kind of order, and in such wild confusion - so tangled with creepers and climbers, with parasitic ferns, orchids, and other hangers-on, every gap closed with a compact network of bush and brake - that it is quite impossible to unravel the knot and distinguish the closely matted stems.

The first time I attempted to make my way into such a jungle, I soon convinced myself that when once well grown, it is absolutely inpenetrable without axe and fire. I spent a good hour in working hrough a few yards, and then retreated, completely discouraged from any further efforts; stung by mosquitoes, bitten by ants, my clothes torn, my arms and legs bleeding, wounded by the thousand thorns and pines by which the Calamus, climbing Hibiscus, Euphorbia, Lantana, and a legion of jungle shrubs bar the way into their mysterious labyrinth. However, even this failure was not in vain, for it taught me not only the character of the jungle as a whole, and particularly the beauty of its trees and climbers, but I saw a quantity of individual forms of plants and animals of the highest interest. I saw the magnificent Gloriosa superba, the poisonous climbing lily of Ceylon, with its golden-red crown; the thorny Hibiscus radiatus, with large sulphur-coloured blossoms, purplestained in the cup: around me fluttered huge black butterflies with blood-red spots on their swallow-tailed wings, metallic beetles, etc.

But what delighted me most was that here, in the first jungle I invaded in Ceylon, I met with the two most characteristic natives of these wilds in the higher ranks of animal life: parrots and monkeys. A flock of green parrots rose screaming from a tall tree that towered above the jungle, as soon as they caught sight of my gun, and at the same moment a troop of large black monkeys scampered off into the thicket, snarling and squealing. I did not succeed in shooting a specimen of either; they seemed perfectly aware of the use and effect of firearms. I was consoled, however, by finding that the first shot I fired had killed an enormous lizard above six feet long, the singular Hydrosaurus salvator, a species greatly dreaded by the superstitious natives. The huge crocodilelike reptile was sunning itself on the edge of a ditch, and my first shot hit him so neatly in the head that he was instantly dead; if they are shot in any other part these animals, which are extremely tenacious of life, usually plunge into the water and disappear, and they can defend themselves so vigorously with their powerful tail, which is covered with plate armour and has a sharp ridge, that a blow often inflicts a dangerous wound, or even breaks a man's leg.

After wading through several water-courses, we went through a scattered plantation and up a charming avenue to a wooded hill, on which is a famous Buddhist temple, the goal of many pilgrims. We found here a number of huts in groups under the thick shade between the columnar trunks of gigantic trees (Terminalia and Sapindus), and looking exactly like children's toys. Farther on, we came to a sun-lighted clearing where gaudy butterflies and birds were flying about in numbers, particularly some fine woodpeckers and wood-pigeons. At last a flight of steps between talipot trees led us up to the temple, which is most picturesquely placed in the middle of the wood, under the shelter of a fine mass of granite. A large natural cave, which seems to have been artificially enlarged, extends far into the side of the overhanging cliff. The great pillared hall of the temple, which has six round arches on the front and three on the narrower gable side, is so constructed that the bare rock not only forms the back wall of the temple but has supplied the material for the colossal figure of Buddha reposing, which is supported against it. This image of the god is identically the same in every Buddhist temple which I visited in Ceylon, and so are the uniform painted decorations on the temple walls, which invariably represent scenes from his life on earth. These, with their stiff drawing and simple harsh colouring, yellow, brown, and red for the most part, strongly recall the ancient Egyptian wall-paintings, though in detail they are as different as possible. The reclining figure of Buddha, leaning on his left arm and dressed in a yellow robe, always wears the same inane and indifferent expression, resembling the fixed smile of the old Aeginetan statues. Hard by most of the Buddhist temples stands a dagoba, as it is called, a bell-shaped dome without any opening, which is always supposed to contain some relic of the god. The size of these dagobas varies greatly, from that of a large church-bell to the circumference of the dome of St. Peter's at Rome. Near the dagoba an ancient and spreading bo-gaha commonly grows, a banyan or sacred fig (Ficus religiosa). In many places in Ceylon these Buddha-trees. with their huge trunks, fantastically twisted roots and enormous expanse of leafy top, are the most ornamental feature of the picturesque temple precincts; their pointed heart-shaped leaves, with their long and slender leaf-stalks, are in perpetual whispering motion like those of the aspen.

A flight of steps cut in the rock behind the temple leads to the top of the cliff, whence there is a pretty view over the neighbouring hilly country and across the plain beyond to the river. The immediate neighbourhood is planted with fine groups of bananas and palms. and behind them the impenetrable wood and undergrowth of climbers forms a mysterious background quite in keeping with the sanctity of the spot. In the foreground, on a stone near the steps, squatted a bald old priest in his yellow robe, a most appropriate accessory figure. While I was making a sketch in water-colour a Cinghalese boy clambered to the top of a cocoa-nut tree and fetched me down a few of the golden-brown nuts. I found the cool sub-acid liquid inside - cocoa-nut milk as it is called  extremely refreshing under the mid-day heat; I had never tasted it before.

The path by which we returned from the cave-temple to Kaduwella led us through another part of the wood, which again showed me a number of new insects, birds, and plants; among others some noble teak trees (Tectonia grandis), as well as a few gigantic specimens of the catuslike Euphorbia antiquorum, with its lelfless, angular blue-green stems. The last portion of the way, across boggy meadow-land, was tremendously hot, and on our return the first thing we did was to take a swim in the river - a delightful refreshment, after which we enjoyed our jolly breakfast with increased zest. In the afternoon I, with some others of the party, crossed the river in a boat, and took a short walk in the wood on the right or northern bank of the river. Here again, I saw a quantity of vegetable forms hitherto unknown to me, particularly Aroids and Cannas, and wondered afresh at the extraordinary wealth of the flora, which has here assembled all its most wonderful and beautiful productions. On the very edge of the water great clumps of bamboo, mixed with Terminalia, Cedrela, and mangroves, were the principal growth. I shot a few green pigeons and a fine kingfisher, twice as large and as handsome as our European species.

Late in the evening we retumed home, loaded with zoological, botanical, and artistic treasures. After that I spent many delightful days among the jungle and river scenery of Ceylon; some of it more beautiful, no doubt, than that of Kaduwella. But it often happens in life that the first impression of new and strange objects remains by far the strongest and deepest, never to be dimmed by any later experience of the same kind, and to me the first day I saw the jungle at Kaduwella is one never to be forgotten.

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