A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 14



Of the longer expeditions I made in the less immediate neighbourhood of Belligam, those to Kogalla and Boralu dwell in my memory as among the pleasantest, and are well worthy to be recorded here. Kogalla Veva, the Rocky Lake, is remarkable, for its size and beauty, among the numerous lagoons which lie along the south-west coast of Ceylon, between Colombo and Matura, and which frequently open a communication between the small rivers which here flow into the sea. This lake lies half-way between Galle. and Belligam, and is of considerable extent, sending out arms in many directions. The shores are densely wooded hills, where the crowns of numberless Cocos-palms sway in the breeze. Many small islands, some of them bare rocks and some overgrown with palms or bushes, give a peculiar charm to the scenery, and so do the idyllic homes of the Cinghalese, which peep out among the trees in great numbers, each standing by itself. The vegetation is inconceivably fresh and luxuriant on every side.

It was on a glorious Sunday morning, December 18th, that I started from Belligam before sunrise in order to reach Kogalla early in the day. My kind host at Galle, Mr. Scott, whom I was to meet there, had some days previously sent over his light carriage with a brisk pony and a servant to fetch me. We drove along the Galle road at a round pace, through the pretty hamlets, where the natives were just out of bed and taking their morning bath as usual by the road side. As soon as the sunbeams pierced the palm wood, with its diamond drops of dew, all was astir, and I enjoyed once more the delicious, newly awakened life of a tropical dawn which had already enchanted me so often. As I reached our trysting place an hour sooner than had been agreed on, I had ample time to wander through the beautiful wilderness.

Presently, with Mr. Scott, there came a fellow-countryman of my own, Herr Reimers, of Hamburg - a merchant now settled at Singapore. He was returning from a holiday tour to Bombay and Ceylon, and it was by a happy accident that he was able to give us the pleasure of his society, as he was to sail the next day. We three took a short walk through the palm groves, and then stayed our steps in front of a hut on the shore of the lake. Here a double-canoe was waiting for us, which the Cinghalese crew had decorated in our honour with garlands of flowers and arches of plaited cocoa-nut leaves. These double-canoes, which are very common both on the land-locked waters and the larger rivers, are formed of two parallel tree-trunks hollowed out, each about sixteen to twenty feet long, and braced together about four to six feet apart by transverse beams, over which planks are laid. Slender trunks of areca palm stand up on each side - half a dozen or so - and these support an awning of pandang matting. Between the palm-trunks, an elegant screen is made of the spreading fan-leaves of the Borassus. The benches which are placed on each side of this floating bower thus afford a shady seat, from whence a view is obtainable on every side. Six or eight strong rowers find a place either fore or aft in the hollow of the trunks, which are there left uncovered.

The narrow inlet, out of which we made our way into the lake itself, looks as though the mouth of it were completely blocked by three huge bare rocks. These masses of granite - known as the three brothers (Tunamalaja) - are the favourite resort of numbers of huge crocodiles, that lie sunning themselves with wide-open jaws. No swimmer could pass these hideous gate-keepers with impunity. The lake is surrounded on every side by thick groves and enclosed by pretty hills covered with palms. The little islands. each itself a huge bouquet of palms, are wonderfully pretty, the feathery leaves spreading to catch the utmost possible amount of sunshine. The slender white stems bend in every direction, so that the outer ones lie almost horizontally over the water, while those in the middle stand straight up towards the blue sky. A perfect specimen of these cocoa-plumed islets is the spot of land known as Gan Duwa, which lies directly in front of Belligam, and forms the ireatest ornament of the landscape.

We landed on one of these little islands to pay a visit to the fortunate natives who had pitched their solitary hut in the midst of the clump of palms. Three small bare children, who were playing contentedly with shells among the rocks on the strand, fled to their mother with loud outcries of alarm at our approach. She - a pretty young woman, with a fourth child in her arms - seemed equally terrified at such an unexpected visit, and hurried off with her little ones to the protection of her bamboo hut. Her husband came out from behind it - he was digging sweet potatoes in the garden - a fine young Cinghalese, naked all but a narrow loin-cloth. He greeted us with natural politeness, and asked whether he might not offer us a few curumbas (young cocoa-nuts) by way of refreshment. When we thanked him and gladly accepted his offer, he at once climbed one of the tallest trunks and flung us down half a dozen of the golden-brown fruits of the fine variety known as the King cocoa-nut. The cool lemonade-like liquid was wonderfully refreshing in the scorching heat. He then presented us with a bunch of five sweet bananas on a large Caladium leaf, and led us into his little garden, in which a choice variety of tropical produce was growing. In answer to our inquiry as to whether he found this sufficient to maintain his family year in year out, the said that he also caught fish and crabs in the lake, and that by selling these and his superfluous produce he earned a very sufficient sum, with which he bought rice and household chattels for his family - more than this he needed not! Enviable man. Life on that cocoa-nut isle is verily living in paradise, and there is no malicious foe to disturb you in your tranquil ease.

We then rowed out on the lake to a rocky promontory, where the white cupola of a dagoba and temple stood up among the thick verdure. A flight of stone steps led us up through the wood to the temple, where pious hands had decked the altar with jasmine and other fragrant blossoms. The coarse paintings on the walls and the statue of Buddha in his yellow robes were the same as in every Buddhist sanctuary. The priests' houses behind the temple were romantically situated under a huge bo-tree, with a lovely view over the lake, and the cliff, which had an abrupt perpendicular fall, made a natural terrace. A few large kittool-palms (Caryota) and a fine group of areca and talipot-palms beautified the picture, and a dense drapery of creepers of every description hanging from the crown of a fine cashew tree (Anacardium) made it perfect.

It was by this time intensely hot, as we rowed back at midday to the hut of the headman of Kogalla, and the motionless water reflected the meridian sun like a polished sheet of metal. We were all the more agreeably surprised by the coolness that prevailed in the twilight gloom of the hut in its shady retreat, and a really splendid dinner, which had meanwhile been made ready by Mr. Scott's kind orders, was enjoyed to the utmost. After dinner, while my friends took a siesta, I made an excursion alone to the other side of the lake. I there visited another and a larger temple, and gathered a few of the magnificent terrestrial orchids and Maranta flowers which grew on the shore. On this side of the lake, too, I found some charming subjects for my sketch book; but, alas! I paid for them with my blood, for the dreadful land leeches swarmed in the grass on the banks.

Not less beautiful, though on a smaller scale than this Rocky Lake, was another, which I visited several times from Belligam - the Pebble-Lake, Boralu Veva. I owe the delightful days I spent there to the second headman of Belligam, my good friend the Aretshi, who owned a considerable tract of arable land not far from the lake, which he planted partly with fruits of various kinds and partly with lemon grass (Andropogon), employing thirty or forty labourers. The road led eastwards from Belligam, and some way into the hill-country, which stretches for many miles to the foot of the mountains.

The first natural wonder met on the way is an enormous cocoa-nut palm, at about a mile from Belligam, with its trunk divided into three branches, each with its crown - a very unusual freak of nature; the second marvel is about a mile further on, by the Polwatta river. On the hither side of a bridge across this stream, and close to a Buddhist temple, stands a magnificent old banyan tree (Ficus indica), fantastically wreathed with festoons of creepers, while on the further side, near to the little village of Dena Pjtya - the Cattle-field - is another and even larger individual of the same species, the largest in the world perhaps of these extraordinary trees. Its enormous bowery roof, under which a whole village of more than a hundred huts might find room and shelter, is supported on numbers of stout props, each of which might by itself excite astonishment as a huge tree. All these gigantic and pillar-like trunks are nothing but aerial roots thrown out from the horizontal branches of the true central parent trunk. Among these, numbers of smaller aerial roots hang midway, not having yet reached the soil, and clearly accounting for the process by which this many-stemmed giant was produced. Deep twilight always prevails under the shade of the spreading foliage, through which not a ray of light can pierce, and the awe and dread with which the Buddhist villagers regard this sacred tree is very intelligible.

A natural marvel of a different kind is to be seen at Dena Pitya, in the person of a woman of about fifty, who has no upper leg bone (femur) whatever. The body about the hip joints is well proportioned and well developed, but supported entirely on the lower half of the legs, which are joined on at the thigh joint. The peculiarity is all the more singular because the woman is the mother of three well-formed children, excepting, that, like their mother, they have but four toes on each foot. Unfortunately any close investigation of the structure was not allowed.

By following the road eastwards from Dena Pitya for a few miles, we reach the famous gem mines, which are said to have been very profitable no longer ago than in the last century; they now seem to be exhausted. However, during my stay a diamond had been found, which the lucky finder afterwards sold for 400 pounds. In consequence a number of fresh searchers arrived at the gem-pits, and when I visited them 160 to 180 seekers were engaged with sluices and sieves in thirty or forty deep pits.

The road to Boralu turns off before reaching Dena Pitya in a northwesterly direction, sometimes passing through the loveliest palm forest, sometimes through a dense jungle, and then again between bright green paddy-fields or marshy meadows, where black buffaloes roll in the mud covered with graceful white herons. After a few miles' drive we reach the pretty lake of Boralu, round which the road runs, sometimes following the line of the shores, sometimes making wide detours. The shores are covered with a rank vegetation, and wooded hills form the background on every side. One small island, covered with wood, lies alone in the midst of the lake. The numerous tongues of land which run out from the shore, break the line in a very pleasing manner; but its chief charm lies in the utter solitude, the total absence of all civilized life. Even a drive round the lake betrays no human presence; nothing is to be seen from the road but the tall jungle.

The lake itself, however, and the surrounding country are rich in animal life. Whenever I went I unfailingly found great green iguanas, from six to seven feet long, basking on the shore (Hydrosaurus salvator) Once I was startled by a huge snake, about twenty feet in length (Python molurus); but the monster unfortunatdy glided off at once from the rock into the water, before I could get my gun ready to fire. Hunting monkeys was more interesting; their scolding was to be heard on all sides; and I here shot several fine specimens of the tawny Rilawa (Matacus sinensis), and of the large black Wanderoo (Presbytis cephalopterus). But the most successful sport was shooting water-birds and waders, particularly several species of water-hens, herons, Ibis, flamingoes, pelicans and others. These come down in vast flocks at sunset, and fly across the lake to seek their homes for the night. I have shot half a dozen in the course of a quarter of an hour. The thicket, too, on the banks of the lake, gay with the lovely golden umbels of the Cassia, and the purple rose-like flowers of the Melastoma, is alive with small birds.

At a short distance beyond the northern end of the lake, and divided from it by a few wooded hills, lies the Aretshi's garden grove, a perfectly delightful spot, where I spent four days. The simple bamboo hut at which I alighted is completely hidden among bananas, and stands on the rise of a steep hill, whence the views are lovely over the green meadows, the dark masses of forest, and the floating blue of the nearer hills; the purple range of central mountains fills up the background. Nothing whatever is to be seen of the scattered huts of the natives, which lie among the surrounding woods; and the exquisite pleasure of total solitude is enhanced by the variety and abundance of animal life in this particular neighbourhood. I shot here numbers of fine birds, monkeys, flying foxes, iguanas, etc., and once a porcupine more than three feet long (Hystrix leucura). Nor was there any lack of handsome butterflies and beetles. The boggy meadow-land close to the lake is in many places covered with large plants of the curious insectivorous pitcher-plant (Nepenthes distillatorium). The elegant pitchers, sometimes six inches long, hang at the end of the leaves, and are commonly closed by a pretty little lid; I often found them to contain a number of captured insects. Lovely birds (Ampelidae and Nectariniae - the brilliant honey-birds) fluttered like humming-birds close over the blossoms of the flowering shrubs.

Nowhere in the lowlands of Ceylon - so far as I visited them - did I find the forest so beautiful, or the trees so well grown and so various in species, as in the neighbourhood of Boralu. A walk round the lake leads the wanderer through the loveliest part of it. In some places the primaeval forest is such an impenetrable tangle of creepers woven and knotted round the piles of decaying giants, that even with an axe it is impossible to advance a step into this chaos of plant-life. Aristolochiae, Piperaceae, wild vines and pepper vines, Bauhinia and Bignonia, festoon the branches of the trees together in such dense confusion that it is only here and there that a ray of light penetrates between them. The trunks even are overgrown with parasitic ferns and orchids. I sat for hours in happy contemplation, sketch-book in hand, intending to secure some reminiscence of this forest scene; but I rarely came to any result, for I could never tell where to begin, or, if I made a beginning, how to give any approximate idea of all this fairy-like beauty. Nor did the photographic camera help me, for the green masses of woven and tangled stems and leaves are so impervious that a photograph shows nothing but an inextricable medley of branches, aerial roots, and foliage, while in living actuality they are a delight to the eye.

The undulating ground which surrounds his garden plot had been devoted by the Aretshi to the culture of lemon-grass - a very dry kind of grass, from which, by a simple process of distillation, oil of lemon, a highly prized perfume, is obtained. The lemon-like fragrance fills the air of the whole neighbourhood. The workmen who were employed in distilling it, and in the care of the banana plantation, lived in a dozen or so of scattered huts, delightfully situated in the deep shade of the forest, under the protecting branches of huge bread-fruit and jack trees; clumps of slender Areca and Cocos-palms, with here and there a kittool or a talipot, lifting their plumy heads high above the common growth of the forest, betray the lurking place of the invisible bamboo huts. My visits to these homes and my acquaintance with their simple and child-like inhabitants almost made me envious of these kindly and contented children of nature. They were all pure Cinghalese, their colour a fine cinnamon brown, and their forms slender and delicate; they wore no clothes but a narrow white loin-cloth. The merry, pretty boys were my eager help-mates in collecting plants and insects, while the graceful black-eyed girls twined wreaths of flowers and decorated my little bullock cart with the loveliest garlands. Then, late in the evening, when the brisk little oxen were harnessed to the narrow two-wheeled vehicle, in which there was barely room for the Aretshi and myself, and we set out at a round pace, the children all thought it delightful to run by the side of it for some distance. As we drove along the shores of the lake, a crowd of twenty or thirty of these graceful little creatures would keep up with us, quite indefatigable, and shouting and waving palm leaves. I could never cease wondering at their swift pace and powers of endurance. If we turned into the dark forest, the boys would light palm-torches and run on in front to light up the way; or at a sudden curve in the road a shower of scented blossoms and a merry giggle would betray the presence of some small Dryad hidden in the shrubbery. Among the girls there was one, the Aretshi's niece, a girl of about sixteen, whose perfect figure and form might have served as a model for a sculptor; and several of the boys might have vied with Ganymede in beauty. One of them could swing himself up on to the shaft of the cart when we were going at full trot and leap over the bullock's back. With such sports as these the village youth would accompany us for a long distance, till one by one they had vanished in the darkness. Then numbers of splendid glow-worms and fireflies took the place of the torches; the palm forest looked as if it had been illuminated while I travelled on, full of delightful recollections, back to the quiet rest-house at Belligam.


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