A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 13



The immediate neighbourhood of Belligam, as well as the more distant hill-country which surrounds it, affords a quantity of lovely pictures, and displays the idyllic, and at the same time magnificently tropical character of the south-west of Ceylon, in the greatest perfection. The various excursions I made from hence in different directions, generally escorted by William and Ganymede, remain among my pleasantest recollections of travel.

The beautiful bay of Belligam almost exactly resembles that of Galle in situation and shape, but that of Galle is about a third smaller. Each is nearly semi-circular in shape and opening to the south, being protected to the east and west by a sheltering promontory. The radius of the semi-circle is rather more than a nautical mile in the bay of Belligam, and less in the harbour of Galle; the entrance to Belligam is a mile and a half across, to Galle not more than a mile. On the western promontory of the harbour of Galle stands the Fort; the western side of Belligam bay is formed by Basamuna point, a most picturesque hilly ridge, of which the dark stone is varied by curious clumps of screw pine. The eastern promontory is loftier in both places, and by Galle is the site of the watering place, while at Belligam it is covered with the beautiful woods of Mirissa.

The remarkable resemblance of these two fine bays is enhanced by the character of the strand, which is white sand overshadowed for the most part by splendid cocoa-groves; while the red and brown rocks are diversified by most grotesque bushes of Pandanus. Here and there we have peeps of the mountains of the centre, remotely blue; among these Adam's Peak and the Hay-cock stand up as conspicuous land-marks. The similarity extends even to the wonderful coral reefs of the two basins. The largest and finest in Galle harbour grow round the foot of the fort, and at Belligam round the base of the cliff and of Basamuna. These latter reefs, however, are less extensive than the former, and the harbour is deeper and less rocky than that of Galle. It is, indeed, difficult to make out why the splendid harbour of Belligam has not long since risen to greater importance as a seaport for shipping, and grown from a miserable fishing village to a flourishing commercial town. If I had to found a colony in India it should, undoubtedly, be at Belligam.

Basamuna, the western cape of the bay, was my favourite walk during my residence there. When I had finished my serious work, at about four or five in the afternoon, and safely accommodated the trophies of the morning's exploits in phials of spirit, I would pack up my microscope and some instruments, and give Ganymede my cartridge case and tin for plants. William carried the gun and butterfly-net, and I myself took a paint-box and sketch book. The cliffs of Basamuna are not more than half an hour distant from the rest-house, which is on the southern side of the village, half way along the western shore of the bay. The shortest road was along the strand, past a few isolated fishing-huts, and then by the edge of the cocoa-nut grove. The ever-lapping sea has here deeply undermined the loamy banks, and every year a number of fine palms are overthrown; their bleached remains stand up here and there out of the water, with the clusters of brown roots in the air washed clean by the waves, like heads of dark hair. Swarms of smart little crabs bustle about on the shore - sand crabs (Ocypoda) and hermit crabs (Pagurus); these last have a soft body, which they usually shield in the shell of some univalve mollusc, but they seem to prefer the large and handsome redtipped shell of a land-snail, living on the palm-trees (Helix haemastoma). At very low tides it is possible to get round the foot of the steep cliff at the end of the promontory, over the bare coral rock, on which very interesting marine creatures are left high and dry - brightly-coloured ahells, thorny sea-urchins, and starfish. At high tide the path lies behind the headland, through a palm wood, where huts are scattered on all sides, each with its plot of bread-fruit trees and bananas.

The view which then breaks suddenly on the traveller as he comes out of the cocoa-nut grove, the solitary spectator of the scene, is a delightful surprise - a wild, deeply fissured coast, dark-red cliffs of porphyry, and the ocean surf foaming and splashing below. The ridge is almost entirely clothed with screw pines of such fantastic forms and grotesque growth as to be like nothing but the wildest dreams of Gustave Dore. Their twining stems are tangled like gigantic snakes, and supported on long, thin, stilt-like roots; above, they branch like candelabra, lifting their boughs to heaven like threatening arms, while at the end of each grows a spiral sheaf of leaves. At the full moon this ghost-like company, with their black and mazy shadows, are in fact a weird sight, and it is not surprising that nothing will induce the superstitious Cinghalese ever to venture among them at night. Indeed, I must confess that I myself, in spite of a double-barrelled gun and revolver, had an uncanny shudder when I climbed up to this witches' grove of screw pines one night between ten and eleven, quite alone; particularly as Ganymede had implored me with pathetic urgency not to venture there. A keen west wind dashed the silvered foam of the thundering waves high up the dark cliffs, and overhead a legion of closely packed clouds rode swiftly acrols the deep sky. The rapid changes from black shadow to the magical gleam of moonlight produced the most boguey effects on the shivering leaves and writhing roots that the fancy can conceive of.

When the excursionist has made his way through this thicket, and emerges on to the bare headland, he sees to his left the entrance to the bay of Belligam, and to the south the cocoa-nut groves of Mirissa. On the right. the strand rounds away with a bold sweep, densely clothed with Cocos-palms; and beyond the most northerly point lies a lovely island, overgrown with greenery. Nothing is to be seen of the village, which is hidden behind a wooded rise. and no sign of human life disturbs the feeling of absolute solitude which hangs over this beacon-cliff. The eye ranges free and unhindered over the immense blue waste of the Indian ocean, for thirty degrees of latitude lie between this spot and the nearest land to the westward - a land which is the very contrast to this luxuriant isle: the parched and barren sands of the Somali coast of Abyssinia.

But our thoughts fly to the north-west, and farther still away. The fiery sun is fast sinking towards the violet waves, and the magical hour is approaching -

The sacred hour when, on some distant shore,

The sailor longs to see his home once more."

Our thoughts, too, fly homeward, to the fond hearts sitting in the wellknown room, round the lamp or the fire, talking perhaps of the distant traveller, while, outside, hill and valley are shrouded in deep snow. What a contrast to the scene around us! The crimson ball has touched the ocean's rim, and the rock on which we are sitting rises from a sea of flame. How tender and dream-like are the rosy clouds that hover over it; how gorgeous is the golden sand with its fringe of palms! But there is scarcely time to watch the swift play and change of colour; it is over already, and the brief twilight is so soon past, that it is quite dark before we can set out, cautiously feeling our way, back again through the palm groves to the rest-house.

The opposite headland, the eastern cape of the bay, Mirissa, has equal and yet different charms. With a favourable wind, the point can be reached from the rest-house, in a sailing-boat, in less than a quarter of an hour; but it is some hours' walk thither round the bay by the shore, as the little estuary of the Polwatta river must be crossed, which flows into the bay at the north-east. It was a wonderfully cool morning - January 6th - when I crossed the bay to Mirissa for the first time, provided with food for the day, as I intended to make several little excursions from the point. The little fishing village of Mirissa - shell-village - lies just at the foot of a hill of the same name, and derives it from the quantity of shells, both mussels and oysters, which cover the rocky shore. As we reached the strand, the inhabitants were much interested in a great haul of fish resembling sardines; every available canoe had put out to surround the shoal, and young and old were busy catching as many as possible with hand-nets. We sailed round the picturesque cape, where a heavy surf breaks on the brown rocks, and proceeding about a mile further, landed on the eastern side in a small sheltered cove. I climbed, with Ganymede, up the face of the headland (Mirissa Point), and made my way through the beautiful wood, of which the outskirts are of screw pine, and whose stately trees - for the most part Terminalia and Cedrela - are wreathed with festoons of creepers. Numbers of monkeys and parrots lent life to the scene, but they were very wild, and never came within shot. When we returned to the shore at about noon, I saw a group of natives standing round the boat. The headman, a fine handsome man of about forty, with a particularly gentle and pleasing manner, came up to me with every mark of respect, and offered me a pretty basket, full of mangoes, pine-apples, oranges, and other fruits from his garden, garlanded with fragrant jasmine, and the blossoms of the Plumiera and oleander. He begged me, with modest friendliness, to eat my midday meal - which I was about to begin under the shade of some palm trees - in his house; when I gratefully accepteds he sent some of his people to make some preparation, while I desired William and two of my boatmen to follow him with the basket which contained our cold provisions. I meanwhile refreshed myself by taking a plunge in the sea.

In about an hour my friend the headman returned, and with him a troop of delightful children, all crowned with flowers. He led me by a winding path through the cocoa-nut grove to a part of the village which was divided off, and which I had not till then observed. Then, passing through a pretty garden, where the path had been strewn with flowers, we reached the headman's hut, a superior residence, built entirely of bamboo, and thatched with palm leaves. The entrance was prettily decorated, in a mode in which the Cinghalese excel, with ornaments made of split and plaited palm leaves. Under the projecting thatch, which formed a verandah in front of the house, a large table had been improvised of boards resting on palm stumps, and covered with large pale-green banana eaves. The food I had brought with me was served on this, and with it a large bowl of rice and curry, fresh oysters, bananas and cocoa-nuts, the kind contribution added by our host. The hearty appetite with which I enjoyed them, sharpened by my hot walk and sea-bath, was in no respect interfered with by the fact that the whole of the headman's numerous family stood round me and watched my proceedings; while outside the garden, the brown village community stood assembled, and gazed from afar.

When I had finished this quaintly arranged meal. which I was in the mood to relish as ambrosia and nectar, my kind host begged me to write my name, and that of my native land. on a palm leaf which he fastened up over his door. He then presented all his family to me, no less than sixteen children - nine boys and seven girls - each prettier than the last. Only the elder ones, from twelve years old and upwards, were more or less clothed, while the younger children wore a string tied round their hips, with a small silver coin attached, as a symbolic expression of clothing. On their arms and legs they wore silver bangles. I had under my eyes a complete history of the development of the Cinghalese type of humanity in a perfect series; and it was all the more interesting, because this part of the coast is famous for the purity of its truly Cinghalese race, which, in fact, has suffered but little admixture. The graceful figures, and, in the elder girls, the well-developed form of their bodies and limbs, and remarkably small hands and feet, no doubt constitute several of the two and thirty "points" which, according to the Cinghalese poets, are indispensable to beauty. Above all, they insist on long black-hair, almond-shaped eyes, swelling hips, a bosom like the young cocoa-nut, etc., etc. The colour of their skin was cinnamon brown, in various shades; in the little children, much lighter. The happy mother of these sixteen children, a stout and kindly matron of about forty, was evidently not a little delighted when I made William interpret to her my great admiration of her family.

In the afternoon, I made the headman and his eldest sons guide me to a small Buddhist shrine, at about a mile away, which was said to be close to a particularly ancient and sacred bo-tree (Ficus religiosa). I found it to be, in fact, a wonderful specimen, by the side of which the other old trees of the forest were but striplings. Its enormous trunk divided at the top into two giant arms, while from its shoulders a perfect thicket of long creepers hung down like a broad green cloak. Other twining plants crept over the dense tangle of roots at the foot, and the white cupola of the dagoba, with the little Buddhist shrine, looked quite tiny, like dwarf's huts, by the side of it. The ground all round was overgrown with elegant Pothos or pitcher plants, and among them a weird Amorphophallus was conspicuous by its long spadix of scarlet fruit and large pinnate leaves.

It was late in the afternoon before I returned to the village. Here we found bananas and cocoa-nut milk ready prepared for our refreshment, outside the headman's house; and the whole population escorted us as we went down to the shore to get into the boat again. I was really sorry to say farewell to my kind hosts, who had shown the best side of the Cinghalese character in so amiable a light, and I greatly regretted not having brought with me any gaudy prints by which to give adequate expression to my gratitude. For lack of these, I gave my kind entertainer a pocket-knife, and one of the large glass vessels I had brought to keep any marine booty in.

Shortly before sunset we again rounded Mirissa Point, and, as we turned into the Bay of Belligam, a scene met my eyes that I can never forget. On the eastern shore of the gulf, just above Mirissa, rises a natural bastion of fine perpendicular red rocks of giant height, which, even by daylight, are as brilliant in hue as newly burnt bricks. Indeed, they have given a name to the bay, which is marked "Red-bay" in some maps. Now, in the rays of the setting sun, they seemed to burn like live coal, and the shadows they cast looked a pure cobalt. I understood now why the natives of Mirissa called these cliffs "Rasu-pana." or the red lamps. The eastern sky above these stones of fire was pale-green, and a mass of fleecy cumulus floated in tender rose and orange hues. Below were the warm olive tones of the palm and pandanus groves, and the deep blue green and violet of the glassy sea - a tropical glow of gorgeous and harmonious colouring, such as I never had seen before, and shall never see again.

A water-colour sketch which I made there and then, sitting in the boat, only serves as a suggestion to memory. And yet what would the critics of a Berlin picture exhibition say even to that? Those wise-heads who condemn every effective landscape as soon as its scale of proportions and colouring cease to fall within our miserable North German standard! Did they not, with one voice, reprobate a splendid work by Ernst Korner, in which that too daring painter had represented a sunset at Alexandria with equal brilliancy and truth? And this bore the same relation to the glories of that sunset at Mirissa as the thrifty vegetation of Egypt bears to the lavish abundance of Ceylon.

But the magic splendours of Nature must be seen to be believed in.

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