A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

[Previous chapter] [Index] [Next Chapter]

Chapter 17



The most visited and best known town in the hill country of Ceylon, and the most popular summer resort in the island, is Newera Ellia - the city of light - or, as it is pronounced, Nurellia. This town stands in an elliptical mountain valley, or cirque, between one and two miles across; the mountains that surround it range from 1500 to 2OO0 feet in height. The plateau itself is at about 6000 or 62OO feet above the sea level. The climate and scenery here are strikingly different from those of the coast, and resemble those of the mountain chains of central Europe; for though the tropical sun raises the temperature at noon to twenty-five or thirty degrees, the nights are always cool, and early in the year it is not unusual to find the grass white with hoar frost before sunrise, while the waterjars placed out of doors to cool are covered with a film of ice. Fires are lighted in the living rooms, morning and evening, almost every day, and the low stone houses are all built with chimneys.

When we remember that Newera Ellia is only seventy degrees north of the equator, an average annual temperature of from fifteen to sixteen degrees centigrade (below sixty degrees Fahrenheit) at a height of only six thousand feet above the sea appears extraordinarily low. This, like the comparatively low temperature which prevails throughout the hill country of Ceylon, is, no doubt, due, in the first instance, to the situation of the island, as well as to the excessive evaporation by day and the rapid cooling at night by radiation. The air is always damp. Dense clouds often fill the cirque for the whole day. The rainfall is very great, and numbers of springs and rivulets, which tumble down the cliffs and slopes, maintain a luxuriant vegetation and feed the little lake which occupies the southern half of the plateau.

This superabundance of cool moisture, mist and cloud, rain and torrent, intensifies the solemn and melancholy impression produced by the monotonous aspect of the surrounding hills, the sombre colour of their dark woods, and the olive-brown hue of the peat-like soil and marshy meadows. It is sometimes impossible not to fancy that one has been transported to the Scotch highlands, fifty degrees further north; and here, in Newera Ellia, precisely the same gloomy feeling came over me again and again as had possessed me when I travelled through that country in the autumn of 1879. I believe, indeed, that it is this very similarity in climate and scenery which accounts, in great measure, for the love of the British colonist for Newera Ellia. The fire on the hearth has no less a charm for him as a reminiscence of his distant northern home than the endless procession of grey clouds out of doors, as they come rolling down from the gloomy black forests on the dingy dank moor, and the shuddering surface of the icy lake.

This remote and dismal spot, buried in the highest part of the wooded mountains, had been known to the natives of the hot coast for several centuries, and one of the early kings of Kandy is said to have found it a secure retreat from the Portuguese conquerors so early as in 1610; but it was never visited by any Europeans till 1826. Some English officers, out elephant hunting, came upon it by accident, and they gave such a highly coloured report of the refreshing coolness and beauty of this high valley, that Sir Edward Barnes, the governor at the time, built a bungalow there for himself, and a sanatarium for the British troops, which was opened in 1829.

There is no doubt that the cold, damp air of Newera Ellia has a singularly refreshing effect on the health of Europeans, when they have become debilitated by too long a residence in the hot low-country; and when, in twenty-four hours, by railway and post-chaise, the traveller comes up to Newera Ellia from Colombo, he feels as if some magical change had been wrought. The unwonted pleasure of shivering with cold, and having only one side warm at a time in front of a fire; the exquisite delight of being obliged to encumber yourself with a great coat and shawl when you go out of doors, and of having to pile blankets on your bed before you can go to sleep - the contrast, in short, to the easy going and light clothing of the hot coast, makes the Englishman feel quite at home, and he does nothing but sing the praises of Newera Ellia. If he were transported bodily to our wretched northern climate, perhaps he would not find its charms quite so great.

The merits of Newera Ellia as a sanatarium are, in fact, monstrously overrated. The climate is cold and damp; the temperature rises, on a clear winter morning, from about five degrees centigrade at dawn, to twenty-five or thirty degrees by noon - a difference of about twenty-five degrees in the course of six hours. This, of course, makes the visitor liable to sudden chills, and for rheumatic patients, or those susceptible to catarrh, it is perfectly intolerable. Indeed, I heard of several invalids who had been simply killed by the change of climate between Colombo and Newera Ellia. In spite of all this, partly by indefatigable puffing, and partly from its offering certain secondary and social advantages, it not only keeps up its reputation as a health station, but even continues to increase it. The number of English "cottages," which swarm upon the grass-grown soil of the valley, is added to every year; and if it goes on much longer Newera Ellia will be a large town, inhabited, however, only three or four months of the year - the dry season, from January to April. Later, during the south-west monsoon, the incessant rain renders it uninhabitable.

The severity of the rainy season, indeed, makes it very doubtful whether Newera Ellia can ever be, as many persons hope, a proper situation for the permanent establishment of schools and colleges for the children of Europeans born in Ceylon. Added to this, is the enormous costliness of rent and living. Nowhere in Ceylon was my slender purse so severely bled as in the wretched rest-house at Newera Ellia. For instance, eggs were sixpence each, butter a rupee a pound, and bad beer a rupee a bottle. Though every European in the hot towns, on the coast, is possessed by a secret longing to spend the cool dry season in Newera Ellia, he is obliged to consider twice whether his purse can stand so severe a pull.

It is most amusing to observe how adaptation to the theory of life in a fashionable watering-place has given rise here - at seven degrees from the equator - to precisely the same monstrosities and evils of civilization as in the most frequented bathing-places of Europe, fifty degrees further north. The stronger and the fairer sexes vie with each other in the elegance, costliness, and bad taste of their dress. The children appear in costumes, strangely similar to those in which we are accustomed to see their quadrumanous cousins in a show. The richest among the residents try to out-do each other in the elegance of their carriages out of doors, and in the luxury of their furniture within. Among the Cinghalese stalls for the sale of fruit and rice, stand the booths loaded with luxurious trifles which are characteristic of a watering-place, where polite swindlers inflict a well-merited punishment on the spendthrift loungers by charging them tenfold the value of their wares. These fashionable European airs in the midst of the wild highlands of Ceylon, where elephants, bears, and leopards still people the woods within a few miles, struck me as doubly comical, arriving as I did, full of the impressions of my primitive mode of life among the natives of Belligam.

The illusion that one is actually in a European watering-place is rendered still more complete by the universal attempt to make the dinner resemble, as far as possible, an European meal. I was greatly surprised to see potatoes served in their skins, with fresh butter, fresh green peas, beans, cabbage, etc. All these excellent vegetables thrive in the gardens and fields round Newera Ellia almost as well as with us, and potatoes - the main point to the Germanic race - can be dug four times in a year from the same ground, if judiciously treated with a manure of bonepowder. Unluckily, their cost is proportionately high. But it is most amusing to hear the enthusiasm with which the phlegmatic Briton enIarges on the merits of potatoes and peas, and the comforts of a topcoat and fire. The real charm of life, it is evident, lies in contrast.

But the resemblance of this Promised Land of Newera Ellia to Northern Europe, though it has won for it the suffrages of the European colonists, is, after all, but superficial for the most part, and closer observation reveals many differences. This is equally true of the climate and of the vegetation, the two principal factors in the characteristic aspect of a country. With regard to climate, not Newera Ellia only, but all the hill country of Ceylon has marked peculiarities arising from its insular position in the Indian Ocean as an offshoot from the peninsula of Hindostan. The two trade winds - the dry north-east monsoon of the winter season, and the wet south-west monsoon of the summer months - in consequence of their local conditions, both produce a rain-fall, with this difference, that it is much heavier and more persistent during the southwest than during the north-east winds. The "dry season." as it is called, is here, as it is on the south-west coast, a mere figure of speech, as I know by experience only too well. During my three weeks' wanderings in the hill country, heavy storms of rain were frequent, particularly in the afternoon, and of such tropical violence that, in spite of umbrella and waterproof, I had not a dry thread about me.

The flora of Newera Ellia, too, which at first sight appears surprisingly like our north European vegetation, proves on examination to be in many ways essentially different. The olive-green sub-alpine heathmeadows, which cover the greater part of the valley, are, it is true, mainly composed, as with us, of reeds and rushes (Carices and Juncaceae), and strewn among them we find many old favourites - violets, harebells, crow-foots, lily of the valley, valerian, chick-weed, knot-grass, raspberry, foxglove and otllers. But mixed with these we observe numbers of plants altogether new to us; as, for instance, handsome balsams with very singular flowers, fantastically coloured orchids, Restiaceae that look almost like scabious, large purple gentians, Exacum with yellow stamens, and above all tall Lobelias, with enormously long spikes of red blossom. If we follow the course of a stream up into one of the shady gorges, we at once find ourselves among a characteristically tropical vegetation, which at once dispels our illusions - noble tree-ferns (Alsophila), the huge shield-fern (Angiopteris) Strobilanthus, the handsome Nilloo, and the magnificent aborescent Rhododendron (R. Arboreum), which grows to a height of twenty to thirty feet, with a knotty stem and branches covered with gigantic bouquets of large deep-red flowers.

The difference is even more marked in the forest, which, with its dense and sombre masses, looks at a distance very much like our fir forests. It is composed of a great number of different species belonging, for the most part, to the myrtle and laurel tribes, to the Ericineae, Guttiferae, and Magnoliaceae. Although the very numerous species of these trees belong to such dissimilar families in the character of their flowers and fruit, they are curiously alike in their general appearance and mode of growth. Their leaves are leathery, dark or olive-green, and often woolly beneath; their tall columnar trunks are sometimes exactly like those of the pines of southern Europe, and terminate in a flat roof of forked branches, like a vast leafy umbrella. The lofty Calophyllum especially has a remarkable resemblance to a pine tree; many of the largest specimens have trunks from eighty to ninety feet high and ten or twelve feet thick, and the bark grows with a curious spiral twist. Here, in the cooler hill country, the forests are no less remarkable than in the hot lowlands for the immense variety and abundance of parasitic and climbing plants, though they are of other genera and species. The trunks are also often covered with a close tissue of mosses.

Many of the forests near Newera Ellia are now intersected by wide and well-made roads, or at any rate by bridle paths; and the languid child of civilization, as he lounges through them at noon, may indulge in a shiver at the thought that at night, on the very same spot - not a mile from his residence - wild elephants may cross the path, or a tiger fell and devour a wild pig. The energy of the vegetation in this wilderness is so irrepressible that the forester's axe is incessantly at work to keep these paths open.

I took advantage of my four days' visit to Newera Ellia to make some interesting expeditions in various directions. On the loth of February I ascended the highest peak in the island, Pedro (or Peduru) Talla Galla, to the east of Newera Ellia, and kept my forty-eighth birthday on the top. This highest point of the island is 82OO feet above the level of the sea, and about 2OOO feet higher than the plateau of Newera Ellia. It has its name, the Mat-cloth Mountain, from the quantities of rushes which grow in the marshes at its foot, and which are used for weaving mats.

It was a lovely sunny spring morning when I started from Newera EIlia, accompanied only by a Tamil coolie to carry my sketching apparatus and provisions, and we reached the top in two hours. The narrow path was at first very steep, but sloped more gradually as we got higher, leading through thick forests almost to the summit, across dancing mountain streams and little waterfalls. The most remarkable objects I met with in my walk were the large worms, for which the hill country of Ceylon is famous; they are the giants of their kind, five feet long, an inch thick, and of a fine sky-blue colour. I also here saw for the first time the beautiful mountain jungle fowl (Gallus Lafayetti), which I afterwards found in numbers at The World's End. The large ash-coloured monkey of the hill forests (Presbytes ursinus) was also to be seen, but was too shy for me to get a shot. The slopes of Peduru are wooded almost to the summit, varied by streaks of reddish yellow moss. There is no truly Alpine or even sub-Alpine vegetation in Ceylon. The snow-line, if there were one, could not come lower than fourteen or fifteen thousand feet above the sea.

The view from the treeless peak is really magnificent, embracing tlle chief part of the island as far as the sea, which is visible to the east and west as a narrow silver streak. On the east, the fine peak of Namoona rises above the valleys of Badoola; while on the west. Adam's Peak towers above everything. The grand panorama, as seen from either of these summits, is monotonous in so far as it consists, for the most part, of dark green wooded hills, veined by the silver threads of numerous brooks and streams, and broken here and there by small patches of lighter green plantation. It is the feeling of vastness which chiefly impresses the mind in the midst of this sublime solitude, and the idea of contemplating from a single spot one of the richest and most lovely islands in the world. Early in the morning, the view from Peduru was perfectly clear and cloudless, but mists soon began to rise from the valleys, and packed into masses of fleecy clouds. I watched them gather and roll for some hours with the greatest interest, and have scarcely ever seen in our own Alpine countries any cloud studies to compare with those of the Cinghalese highlands.

On the I7th of February, which was again an exceptionally fine morning, I walked about five miles to the southwards, across the bridge at Ooda Pooselawa to the south-eastern limit of the plateau. Here, I ascended a peak, from which I had a fine view to the south over Hackgalla. This hill was, in its form, quite the most beautiful I saw in Ceylon, and in the grand flow of its outline and composition of its masses reminded me of Monte Pellegrino, near Palermo. The deep wooded ravines, with cataracts in the heart of them, were wonderful for the beauty and variety of their tree-ferns.

On the following day, I turned my steps northwards, and made an excursion in the neighbourhood of Rangbodde, which is on the high road between Newera Ellia and Kandy. The road first ascends for about two miles to the top of the Rangbodde Pass, seven thousand feet above the Sea. The ridge affords a magnificent view On either side; southwards, over the basin of Newera Ellia, with the beautiful peak of Hackgalla, and behind this the shining level of the ocean; northwards, across the wooded valley of the Kotmalle to the hilly district of Pooselawa. Among the numerous elevations, in the middle of the picture stands the tall double cone of Allagalla. The road may be traced downwards, in steep windings like a snake, to Rangbodde; and I walked along it for some miles, enchanted by the numerous pretty little torrents which fall on both sides into the narrow valley, and by the lovely vegetation - more especially the tree-ferns - which fringes their banks. The magnificent forest, which only a few years since covered the highest slopes, has almost everywhere given place to coffee plantations. The road was taken up by numbers of large bullock-carts, each drawn by four strong white zebus, and conveying provisions and luxuries up to Newera Ellia.

On the 19th I took advantage of tlle first glimmer of dawn to ascend the chain of hills which shuts in Newera Ellia on the west. From the top I had a glorious view of Adam's Peak and the intermediate range of Dimboola. At noon I obeyed an invitation from the Governor who had arrived the previous day at Newera Ellia with his wife and was staying in their pretty and comfortable country house Queen's Cottage, surrounded by a charming garden, on the western side of the valley. Here I could admire a lovely collection of roses, pansies, tulips, pinks, and other European flowers blossoming in perfection, with fine cherry trees, and other European fruit trees. These are splendid as to foliage and flowers, but produce no fruit.

Here I met Dr. Trimen, who had by this time made every preparation for our expedition into the wilds, and we set out that same afternoon on our journey to the World's End. We travelled but a few miles that day, to Hackgalla, two hours to the south, where the high road and civilization cease together. Here, at six thousand feet above the level of the sea and close to the southern slope of the fine peak of Hackgalla, is a botanical garden for tropical mountain plants, an offshoot of the great gardens at Peradenia, and like those, under the direction of Dr. Trimen. We spent the evening in walking through them, inspecting the nursery grounds for Cinchona and coffee trees, as well as the splendid tree-ferns and pitcher plants, of which enormous specimens are to be seen here. From the terraces of this garden, the highest in Ceylon, there is a fine view of the grand rock-pyramid, the peak of Namoona, which stands quite solitary on the eastern side of the valley of Badoola. We spent the night in the head gardener's bungalow, the farthest outpost of European civilization in this part of the hill country .

[Previous chapter] [Index] [Next Chapter]

This page is part of Kurt Stübers online library. © of all typographical errors by Kurt Stüber, 2000.