A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

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Chapter 15



The longest expedition that I made from Belligam. towards the end of my stay there, was to the southernmost point of Ceylon, Dondera Head or Thunder Cape. Close below it, and somewhat to the westward, is the town of Matura, on the Nilwella Ganga, the Blue sand river. The road between Belligam and Matura, along which I travelled on the morning of the 18th of January, is the continuation of the lovely palm avenue from Galle, and offers the same variety of luxuriant and beautiful scenery. In a light carriage the drive took about three hours.

The town of Matura, the most southerly of all the towns in Ceylon, was, in the seventeenth century, in the hands of the Dutch, and a thriving and important trading port, the centre of the cinnamon trade of the southern provinces. Most of the important buildings in the town are of Dutch construction, as well as the extensive fort which is near the mouth of the river, on the eastern bank. The river here is as wide as the Elbe at Dresden, and a handsome new iron bridge connects the two banks. At the western end, on the right bank, is the old Dutch redoubt, the Star-fort, and here, in the irregularly built casemates, I took up my abode for a few days, at the invitation of some friendly English officials. These three jolly friends had made themselves most comfortable in the low many-cornered rooms of the old out-work, whose thick stone walls kept them delightfully cool; and their lodgings were picturesquely decorated with wood-cuts out of European illustrated papers, and with Cinghalese weapons, chattels, and skins of beasts. The old Dutch gateway, over which the words "Redout van Eck" are still plainly legible, leads out into a pretty flower garden; and the inside walls of the fort, as well as the well in the middle of the garden, are clothed with every lovely species of creeper. A few tame monkeys and a very comical old pelican, with a variety of small birds, are a constant source of amusement.

A delicious cold bath and a capital English breakfast, which was doubly welcome after my course of vegetarian diet at Belligam, so completely revived me in the course of an hour or two, that I decided on proceeding that same day to Dondera; so I set out at once in a carriage, accompanied by the headman Ilangakoon, the most illustrious native personage now living in the island. He is, in fact, the male representative of the old kings of Kandy, and resides in a pretty, nay, comparatively speaking, a splendid palace in Matura, near the mouth of the river. He had visited me a week previously at Belligam, had given me several rare and handsome birds, and had begged me to visit him at Matura. The reception he gave me was not less kind than magnificent. He would not be excused from conducting me himself to Dondera. His carriage, an elegant London-built phaeton, was drawn by two good Australian horses, and a swift out-runner went in front to clear the way - a fine black Tamil, in a livery embroidered with silver and a red turban.

The road from Matura to Dondera, a distance of five miles, runs eastward, first along the left bank of the Nilwella river, through the picturesque Pettah or native town. The wooded hills between the river and the sea are covered with beautiful gardens and villas, some belonging to the wealthy Cinghalese and some to English officials. Beyond this the way lies along the seashore, through jungle and Cocos-woods alternately. This is the eastern limit of this vast cocoa-nut grove; for a few miles farther on, a hot desert of thirsty shore begins, with long stretches of salt marsh, which extend beyond Hambangtotte as far as to Batticaloa. Dondera Head is visible as a long blue promontory, covered with cocoanut palms, for some time before it is reached. It is the southernmost point of Ceylon, and is in 5o 56' north latitude. The temples built on this headland have for more than two thousand years been the goal of pilgrims innumerable, and are the most famous in the island next to those at Adam's Peak. Crowds of natives come here to worship every year. These sanctuaries have been alternately dedicated to Buddha and to Vishnu, varying with the supremacy of the native Cinghalese, or their Malabar conquerors. Only three centuries ago the principal temple was an Indian structure of great magnificence, and so large that, as seen from the sea, it looked like a town of some extent; it was decorated with thousands of columns and statues, and with gold and precious stones of every description. In 1587, however, all this splendour was destroyed by the Portuguese barbarians, who sent home enormous quantities of the precious spoil. It is possible to judge of the vast extent of this gigantic temple from the quantities of broken pillars which stand up from the soil. In one corner of the precincts a large dagoba is still standing, and close to it several bo-trees or sacred figs.

The remains of a smaller temple are to be seen at the extreme end of the narrow tongue of land, which forms the southerly termination of Dondera Head. These are octagonal porphyry pillars, standing up 1onely and neglected on the bare granite soil, and sprinkled by the spray from the ocean surf which breaks all round them. In the sheltered pools between the rocks I found a variety of beautiful marine creatures, and lovely corals grow at their feet. Looking westward from this advanced post of rock, the eye glances along the palm-grown strand towards Matura; eastward, towards Tangalla; on the north the view is shut in by the dense forest, while to the south it is unlimited over an infinite extent of ocean.

The ship our fancy sends across the waters to the south pole will find no land that the foot of man has ever trodden, and beyond that land again it would have far, very far to sail before it reached another shore. If the ice-bound continents of the south pole did not lie in the way, it would navigate, unhindered, the whole southern hemisphere of the globe, and see no land till it should reach Mexico, near Acapulco, on the northern side of the equator.

I sat a long time, lost in thought, on this extreme point of Ceylon for it was, in fact. the first time I had ever reached the southernmost end of any land. I was roused from my reverie by a party of Buddhist priests, in their yellow robes, who came to invite me and the headman to visit the temple, which was decorated for a festival. We afterwards went to see a curious primaeval ruin at some distance in the forest, built of enormous stones like a Cyclopean wall; and it was late in the evening before we returned to Matura.

The following day was spent in a long excursion by sea. Ilangakoon had placed a fine large sailing boat at my command, with eight rowers, and in this I went out a considerable distance to the southwards, far beyond Dondera Head. The weather was glorious, and a strong northeast monsoon filled the large square sail so effectually, that some of the boatmen were obliged to sit on the outrigger beam to prevent the boat capsizing. The rate at which we were driven southwards was nearly that of a rapid steam-ship; I calculated it at from ten to twelve miles an hour. The lightness with which these tapering Cinghalese canoes cut through the waves, or rather glide over their crests, is very remarkable. The farther we got from the island the more plainly could we see the central highlands, blue in the distance, and towering above the flat coast; above them all Adam's Peak.

Flying over the foaming waves we had gone about forty or fifty miles from the shore, when a broad smooth stretch of water became visible, extending for miles in a direction nearly coinciding with that of the wind, from north-east to south-west. I supposed it to be a pelagic stream or current, one of those smooth narrow streaks which are often to be seen in the Mediterranean as well as in the ocean, lying across the wind-tossed waters, and owing their origin to the association of vast swarms of marine creatures. As we came close to it I found I had conjectured rightly, and was rewarded by a wonderfully rich and interesting haul. A dense crowd of pelagic creatures: Medusae and Siphonophora, Ctenophora and Salpae, Sagittae and Pteropoda, with an infinite variety of larvae of Annelida. Radiata, Crustacea. Mollusca. etc., were swimming and floating in myriads, and I had soon filled all the glass vessels I had taken with me. I only regretted that I had no more, so as to carry away sufficient specimens of these zoological treasures, among which were many new and undescribed forms.

Rich in the possession of this wonderful collection, which promised to supply me with occupation for years to come, I returned to Matura towards evening. It was a delightful recollection to carry away of the fifth degree of latitude. My Cinghalese boatmen took advantage of the north-east breeze with so much skill that we made our way home almost as quickly as we had come out, and we landed at the mouth of the river. The view of the estuary from the sea is very picturesque, being protected by a rocky island, on which two cocoa-nut palms grow, one upright and the other aslant. The two sides of the river are covered with wood. On the following day I again made an expedition in a boat on the river, and admired the wonderful luxuriance of this primaeval forest.

On my return to Belligam I had to face one of the hardest duties I had to fulfil during the whole of my stay in Ceylon: to tear myself away from this lovely spot of earth, where I had spent six of the happiest and most interesting weeks of my life. Even now my thoughts linger there so regretfully that I feel as if that parting had to be gone through again and again. The room which for a time had been my laboratory, museum, and studio, in which I had gathered such a stock of new and wonderful ideas, was empty and bare; and out in the garden, under the huge teak tree, stood the two heavily laden bullock-carts, which were to convey my thirty different packages, with my various collections, to Galle.

In front of the door stood a little crowd of the brown inhabitants of the village, to whom, during these forty days I had been a constant subject of growing curiosity and admiration. I had to take leave separately of each of the more important native officials, particularly of the two headmen. Worthy old Socrates looked quite doleful as he brought me for the last time the best of his bananas, mangoes, pine-apples, and cashew nuts; Babua clambered for the last time to the top of my favourite palm tree, to fetch me down the sweet nuts. But hardest of all was the parting from my faithful Ganymede; the poor lad wept bitterly, and implored me to take him with me to Europe. In vain had I assured him many times before that it was impossible, and told him of our chill climate and dull skies. He clung to my knees and declared that he would follow me unhesitatingly wherever I might take him. I was at last almost obliged to use force to free myself from his embrace. I got into the carriage which was waiting, and as I waved a last farewell to my good brown friends, I almost felt as if I had been expelled from paradise.

Adieu, Bella Gemma.

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