A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 7



Among the few towns of which Ceylon can boast, Kandy, though so small as scarcely to deserve the name of a town, is the most famous, partly as being the present chief town of the mountainous central district, partly as having formerly been the capital of the native kings, and, chiefly, because a certain temple in Kandy contains the "sacred tooth" of Buddha, one of the relics held most precious by his worshippers. Besides all this, I had read in Sir Emerson Tennent's delightful book on Ceylon a rapturous description of the incomparable beauty of the situation and environs of Kandy, and later travellers, copying Tennent for the most part, had echoed this enthusiastic praise. I was therefore not a little excited at the idea of seeing Kandy when I visited it from Peradenia - only three miles away - on the brilliant morning of the 6th December.

I have often found by experience that very famous spots which have for some time been the fashion and whose praises have been sung by one traveller after another are in reality hardly worth a visit, while not infrequently some delightful but unknown place lies close at hand, which everyone passes by unheeded, simply because it is not mentioned in the guide-books. This was precisely what happened to me with regard to Kandy, and I will confess at once that my visit to that far-famed town was from first to last a complete disappointment.

Kandy the "proud capital" might be more fitly designated as a "humble village," where the narrow streets are composed of many more Cinghalese huts than European bungalows. They are not even separated into a "fort" and "native town" like Colombo, Galle, Matura, and the other towns in the island. The two long parallel main streets run in a perfectly straight line from end to end, and so do the few side streets, which cross them at right angles; the "beautiful lake," which lies outside the town and is spoken of as its peculiar ornament, is a small rectangular artificial tank, and its straight margins are planted with stiff avenues of trees, likewise straight. Hence, when the visitor looks across the little basin, in which the town and tank lie, having climbed one of the low hills that surround it by one of the numerous formal promenades, the view is pleasing and regular, but anything rather than picturesque. The scene is farther disfigured by a huge prison, newly erected, with high, bare outside walls, much too large and ponderous for the relatively small scale of the immediate surroundings. Even the green hills, partly cultivated and partly wooded, which shut in the valley, with a background of higher elevation on one side, have no special beauty, either of form or of picturesque grouping. Thus it turned out, that the sketch-book, which I had carried with hopeful intent to Kandy, came back empty, and that, with the best intentions in the world, I could not hit upon a single spot worthy to be recorded by the brush.

The prettiest thing in Kandy, to my taste, is the lovely garden in which the English governor's modern residence stands. It is charmingly laid out on the slope of a hill,and contains some noble trees, and a number of fine ornamental plants; still, of course, it is not to be compared with Peradenia. The governor's house, in which, by his polite invitation, I spent a most agreeable evening, contains but few reception-rooms; but they are large, airy, and elegantly furnished, and surrounded by pretty arcades and verandahs. However, the presence of scorpions, snakes, and such tropical "small deer," not to mention numbers of leeches, must detract from the pleasures of a residence there.

The palace of the native kings, which stands near the artificial lake. at a short distance outside the town, is a gloomy building, all on the ground floor, and its dark and mouldy chambers offer nothing worthy of remark, excepting the huge masses of fungi and other cryptogamic growths, which clothe the thick damp stone walls, both without and within. A Royal Audience Hall, an open structure supported on pillars, near to the palace, is now used for the public business of the district police.

The famous Buddha temple of Kandy again, which stands within the same enclosing wall and surrounding moat as the palace, did not fulfil the expectations raised by its widely spread reputation. It is of small extent, badly preserved, and devoid of any particular artistic merit. The primitive wall paintings, and the carved ornaments in wood and ivory, are the same as are to be seen in all other Buddhist temples. As Kandy did not become the capital of the native kings till the sixteenth century, and the palace and the temple alike were built no longer ago than 1600, they have not even the charm of a high antiquity. Nor does the Buddha-tooth possess any special interest; it is kept concealed in the temple under a silver bell, in an octagonal tower with a pointed roof. Although this tooth has been an object of devout veneration and worship to many millions of superstitious souls for more than two thousand years and down to the present day, and although it has - as Emerson Tennent expressly tells us - played an important part in the history of Ceylon, it is in fact nothing else than a simple rough-hewn finger-shaped bit of ivory, about two inches long and one inch thick. There are, however, many duplicates of the true tooth of Buddha; but this, of course, in no way detracts from the sacredness of this relic.

From Kandy I made an excursion with my two botanical friends, Dr. Trimen and Dr. Ward, to Fairyland, a few miles farther, to visit Dr. Trimen's predecessor, Dr. Thwaites. He was director of the Botanic Garden of Peradenia for thirty years, and retired a few years before his death to enjoy his well-earned leisure in the peaceful solitude of the hill country. His little bungalow lies quite hidden in an elevated ravine about eight miles south of Kandy, in the midst of coffee plantations. This was the first coffee country I had seen, but as I subsequently travelled for days through coffee plantations in the hills I will not now pause to describe one.

Dr. Thwaites was the meritorious author of the first Flora of Ceylon which was published under the title of "Enumeratio Plantarum Zeylaniae" (London: 1864). In it he described about three thousand vascular plants - about the thirtieth part of all the species of plants which at that time were known on the face of the globe. Since then, however, many new species have been discovered on the island itself, which, according to Dr. Gardner's estimate, possesses about five thousand species; at any rate, considerably more than all Germany can boast.

My copy of this Flora Zeylanica, which I had taken with me, had formerly belonged to a German botanist of Potsdam - Nietner. He had been in the island when young, as a gardener, and by his industry and thrifty diligence he acquired a considerable coffee-plantation. For a quarter of a century he was an indefatigable student of the natural history of Ceylon, and particularly distinguished as a discoverer of new insects. He unfortunately died shortly before his intended return to Germany. His widow, who is still living at Potsdam, and from whom I obtained much useful information before starting, presented me in the kindest way with several books that had belonged to her husband, among others with this Flora of Thwaites' which the author had given him. It was no small pleasure to the worthy old man when I showed him this copy with the inscription in his own handwriting. It was no doubt the first copy that had ever travelled from Ceylon to Germany, and back again to the island in a naturalist's possession.

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