A Visit to Ceylon

by Ernst Haeckel, 1883

[Previous chapter] [Index] [Next Chapter]

Chapter 10



Bella gemma, "lovely gem!" How often do I dream of you! Some months are already past since I had to quit you, and still, how often does the never-to-be-forgotten picture rise before me, bringing a host of delightful memories! And how still more fondly will it smile on me in the future, when the tender and mysterious haze of distance shall lend enchantment to the view of your loveliness! Verily if Ceylon is to be extolled as the "diadem of India," you deserve to be called the brightest jewel in that crown - the pearl of Taprobane!

The kindly reader will, I trust, forgive me when I here confess that the name of this spot is, in fact, differently spelt, and has a quite different meaning from Bella Gemma. It is commonly called Belligam; and the Cinghalese name was originally Veligama, meaning the sand-village (Veli=sand, gama=village). But the name, as the English pronounce it, sounds like Belligamm, so the addition, and the subititution of an a give us the Italian words, which are so fitly applied to the beauty of the spot. In my recollections, at any rate, the picture of "Bella-Gemma" is inseparable from the idea of a choice jewel in Nature's casket, while the sandy shore which gave Veligama its name fades out of sight.

Of course I had acquired the best information procurable in Ga1Ie and Colombo as to the resources of Belligam, when once I had decided on fixing my zoological quarters there for a few months. But in spite of all my inquiries, I could learn very little beyond the facts that the village was very beautiful, situated in the midst of Cocos woods, that the sheltered bay was rich in corals, and that the government rest-house was tolerably good; on the negative side I was told that neither a single European nor any trace of European comfort or civilization was to be found there. All this, as I soon found, was fully justified. Thus a mystical veil of romance and adventure hung over my immediate future, and I confess that it was not without a faint, uncanny feeling of insecurity and utter isolation that, on December the 12th, I turned my back on the European culture of Galle. I had already seen in Colombo, and yet more in Kandy, how closely, cheek by jowl as it were, primitive nature and the varnish of civilization lie in Ceylon, and how a very few miles set a gulf between the dense primaeval forest and the crowded town. Here, in the southern corner of the island, I might expect to find this even more strongly marked. Thus all my hopes were founded, on one hand, on the efficacy of my government letters, and on the other, on my often tested good fortune as a traveller, which had never left me in the lurch in any of my adventurous experiments.

So it was with excited anticipations that, on the morning of Deccmber 12th, I mounted the light carriage which was to carry me along the south coast as far as Belligam. It was five in the morning, and, of course, still quite dark when I left the Fort, and drove along the harbour through the native town to the southwards. The Cinghalese, wrapped in white cotton sheets, lay peacefully sleeping on palm-mats in front of the dingy huts; there was not a sound to be heard, the deepest silence and solitude reigned over the lovely landscape, which was transformed at a touch as the magic wand of the rising sun suddenly fell on the scene. The first quivering rays woke the sleeping palm-grove to life and stir; here and there a bird piped its call from the top of a tree; the pretty little palmsquirrel darted from its nest and began its morning gambols up and down the cocoa-nut trunks, while the slothful Kabragoya, the huge green lizard (Hydrosaurus), stretched its lazy length on the banks of the ditches. In the gardens more remote from the town, the noisy monkeys sprang about among the fruit-trees from which they were stealing their breakfast; and soon the natives, too, began to rouse themselves, whole families taking their morning bath, sans gene, by the road-side.

One of the strange experiences which take the European by surprise as he gets near the equator is the absence of twilight, that soft hour of transition between day and night which plays so important a part in our poetry and our views of nature. Hardly has the sun, which gilds the whole landscape with its splendour, vanished in the purple ocean than black night spreads its brooding wing over land and sea; and it shrinks back no less suddenly in the morning, at the advent of day. Aurora, the rosy fingered dawn, has no empire here. However, the radiant young day comes forth all the more glorious, and the bright morning light looks all the fresher as it glides in a myriad of broken flecks between the finely cut palm leaves. The dew-drops hang like pearls at the tips of the plumy fronds, and the sheeny surface of the broad pale-green banana and pothos leaves reflect the rays like mirrors. Then the light morning breeze sets all these graceful creatures in waving motion and brings us a refreshing air. Everything is full of renewed life and vigour, colour and splendour.

The fifteen miles of good road between Galle and Belligam display exactly the same characteristics as were formerly described in speaking of the road from Colombo to Galle, being, in fact. the southern continuation of that splendid coast-road. Only here, farther south, the noble cocoa-nut groves are, if possible, finer and more gorgeous than ever. Quantities of creepers hang in lovely garlands from palm to palm, while, the clumps of bananas, papaya, and bread-fruit trees near the huts, the graceful manihot and yam shrubs in the hedges, and the gigantic caladiums and colocasia by the road-side, seemed to me even more huge and magnificent than before. The wood, too, is frequently diversified by small tanks, covered with lotos and other water plants, or intersected by running streams, their banks crowded with elegant ferns. Here and there is a rocky rise, covered with the screw-pine or fragrant pandanus, and alternately with these a smiling strand overgrown with beautiful red bind-weeds, white lilies, and other lovely flowers. At the mouth of each little rivulet which crosses the road the waving bamboos and the darkgreen mangrove thicket reappear, and the curious Nipa-palm, with no stem, raising its elegant crown of plumes just above the water.

The eye is never weary of feasting on the beautiful forms of tropical vegetation, and I was almost sorry when, after a few hours of good driving, my Tamil coachman pointed to a promontory some distance off, a rocky spit forming a bay, with the words "Behind there Vellgama." Before long the scattered huts became more numerous, and arranged themselves into a village street, with bright green rice fields spreading away on each side, broken by beautiful groves. The stone of which the walls were built consisted, in great part, of fine blocks of coral. At a turn in the road, on a height to the left, stood a handsome Buddhist temple, called Agrabuddhi Gani, a famous place of pilgrimage from time immemorial; and to the right, just beyond, stands a colossal figure, carved out of the black rock, of a king of ancient fame, Cutti Raja.*15 The niche is shaded by kittool palms, and the prince is represented with scale armour on his gigantic person and a mitre on his head. He is celebrated in history, not as a conqueror but as a benefactor to the island, for he is said to have first introduced the culture and use of the Cocos palm. Soon after this we drove through a little bazaar, and a few paces farther on my chaise drew up before the anxiously expected rest-house of Belligam.

A dense and dusky crowd of natives were standing, full of curiosity, round the gate of the fence which enclosed the garden of the rest-house, and among them I observed a group of high-class natives in full state. The Governor of the southern district-or government agent, as his modest title expresses it - had, in obedience to the Governor's instructions, given notice of my arrival to the village authorities and desired them to make me welcome, and be of assistance to me in every possible way. The headman of the place, or moodliar, a fine man of about sixty years, with a kind good-natured face and thick beard and whiskers, came up to me and greeted me with a solemn address in broken English, assured me in the politest and most dignified manner that his whole Korle, or village-district, felt itself honoured by my presence, and that its 4000 brown inhabitants would make every effort to render my stay agreeable; he himself was at all times at my service. A grand rattle of drums, performed by a row of tom-tom-beaters squatting in the background, gave emphasis to the close of the solemn and official address.

After I had responded and returned thanks, the high functionaries who composed the official suite of the moodliar took their turn - the second headman, or Aretshi, the tax-gatherer or collector, and the doctor - and after these important government officials came several of the chief inhabitants of the village, all striving in the most amiable way to manifest their good-will and their anxiety to be of use. A rattle on the tom-toms at the end of each speech served to ratify their promises. The doctor and collector, who both spoke English fluently, served as interpreters, and enabled me to understand the Cinghalese addresses. The assembled multitude listened in attentive silence, studying my person and property with the deepest interest.

The whole ceremony was all the more amusing because the costume of most of the personages of any position in Belligam was a comical mixture of the European and the Cinghalese - the former for the upper and the latter for the lower part of the person. Beginning at the top, a tall English chimney-pot charmed the eye - of all head coverings beyond a doubt the most hideous and inefficient. However, as the Cinghalese see Europeans wear this cylindrical head-piece on all solemn occasions as the indispensable symbol of birth and culture, never abandoning it even in the greatest heat, they would regard it a serious breach of etiquette to appear without the singular decoration. The goodhumoured brown face, which is but little shaded by this narrow-brimmed chimney-pot, is fringed by a fine black beard, which is trimmed in the middle of the chin and supported on each side by an enormously high and pointed white shirt-collar; below comes a coloured silk scarf tied in a bewitching bow. Nor is the black frock-coat of ceremony absent, with narrow tails, and underneath this the white waistcoat with jewelled buttons and gold chains. And as a tail-piece instead of trousers, we have the primitive national covering of the nether man of a Cinghalese, the red or parti-coloured comboy, a sort of wide loin-cloth, a good deal resembling a peasant girl's red stuff petticoat. The delicate small feet which are visible below are either bare or protected merely by sandals.

After this friendly reception, which promised for the best, my new protectors led me in solemn procession through the gate and into the lovely garden of the rest-house, which was enclosed by a low white wall. The first appearance of this residence exceeded my expectations; it was a handsome stone building, one story high, and surrounded by a red-tiled verandah supported on white pillars. The wide lawn in front of it to the east is graced by a noble teak-tree, which stands in the middle, and of which the columnar trunk must be at least eighty or ninety feet high. The leguminous creepers which climb up it hang in elegant festoons from the spreading boughs. On the south side of the rest-house a few cows were pasturing contentedly on the green grass, which is here shaded by half a dozen splendid old bread-fruit trees. The massive gnarled trunks of these trees and their umbrageous crown of far-reaching branches remind us of some very huge specimen of the European oak, while their colossal and deeply cut leaves of a dark shining green, and large, light green fruit give them a much grander and more imposing aspect.

Between the dark tops of these fine specimens of the Artocarpus opens a pleasing vista over the sunlit and almost circular bay of Belligam, across which numbers of fishing-barks are just now returning homewards in full sail; the long low rocky promontory opposite, to the south, is clothed partly with jungle and partly with cocoa-nut woods; the huts of the fishing village of Mirissa stand out against its white strand. lmmediately in front of the rest-house, not two minutes from the shore, lies a pretty rocky islet, Ganduva, entirely covered with the most beautiful cocoa-nut palms.

Going farther round the house we come upon a fruit garden full of bananas and manihot shrubs, lying to the west, on the slope of a densely wooded hill behind the bungalow. An outbuilding at the bottom contains the kitchen and some store-rooms, which I found very convenient for my collections. The hill rises on the north side of the garden to a steep acclivity, covered by the thickest wood swarming with monkeys and parrots, and its lower slopes are overgrown with luxuriant shrubs and a perfect carpet of tangled creepers.

Charmed at first sight with the situation and idyllic surroundings of the rest-house, I eagerly proceeded up the side steps on the east-front to go inside. Here, at the bottom of the steps, I was met with another address, half in English and half in Pali, from the steward of my new quarters, the old rest-house keeper. With his arms crossed on his breast and bending low, almost kneeling, the worthy old man approached me with abject humility and implored me to look favourably on his modest roof; all that the village could yield in rice and curry, in fruit and fish, he would offer me in abundance, and there was no lack of cocoa-nuts and bananas. With regard to other things, he would provide everything that was to be had, and the most ready and willing service. These and many other good things did the old man promise me in a well-set speech spiced with a few philosophical aphorisms. As I looked at his kindly old face, with a short, wide turned-up nose below a pair of keen little eyes. and a long fuzzy silver beard under his thick lips, I was suddenly reminded of the well-known bust of Socrates, which in so many details resembles the head of a satyr; and as I could never remember my philosophical host's long Cinghalese name, I named him Socrates out of hand. This appellation was subsequently justified by the shrewd old man proving himself a true philosophcr in many ways; and I may add, too, that he was decidedly shaky on the question of cleanliness, as, if I mistake not, his Greek prototype was before him.

It really seemed as though I should be pursued by the familiar aspects of classical antiquity from the first moment of my arrival at my idyllic home. For, as Socrates led me up the steps into the open central hall of the rest-house, I saw before me, with uplifted arms in an attitude of prayer, a beautiful naked, brown figure, which could be nothing else than the famous statue of the "Youth adoring." How surprised I Was when the graceful bronze statue suddenly came to life, and dropping his arms fell on his knees, and after raising his black eyes imploringly to my face bowed his handsome face so low at my feet that his long black hair fell on the floor! Socrates informed me that this boy was a Pariah, a member of the lowest caste, the Rodiyas, who had lost his parents at an early age, so he had taken pity on him. He was told off to my exclusive service, had nothing to do the live-long day but to obey my wishes, and was a good boy, sure to do his duty punctually. In answer to the question what I was to call my new body-servant, the old man informed me that his name was Gamameda (from Gama, a village, and Meda=the middle). Of course, I immediately thought of Ganymede, for the favourite of love himself could not have been more finely made, or have had limbs more beautifully proportioned and moulded. As Gamameda also displayed a peculiar talent as butler, and never allowed anyone else to open me a cocoa-nut or offer me a glass of palm-wine, it was no more than right that I should dub him Ganymede.

Among the many beautiful figures which move in the foreground of my memories of the paradise of Ceylon, Ganymede remains one of my dearest favourites. Not only did he fulfil his duties with the greatest attention and conscientiousness, but he developed a personal attachment and devotion to me which touched me deeply. The poor boy, as a miserable outcast of the Rodiya caste, had been from his birth the object of the deepest contempt of his fellowmen, and subjected to every sort of brutality and ill-treatment. With the single exception of old Socrates, who was not too gentle with him either, no one perhaps had ever cared for him in any way. He was evidently as much surprised as delighted to find me willing to be kind to him from the first.

He was especially grateful for a small service I was able to render him in the following way. A few days before my arrival he had run a thorn deep into his foot; as he came home it had broken off, and the point was left sticking in the wound. I removed it by a rather delicate operation, and treated it with carbolic acid with so much success that in a short time it healed perfectly. After this the grateful Ganymede followed me like a shadow, and tried to read my wishes in my eyes. Hardly was I out of bed in the morning when he was standing before me with a freshly opened cocoa-nut, out of which he poured and offered me a cool morning draught of the milk. At dinner he never took his eyes off me, and always knew beforehand what I should want. When I was at work he cleaned my dissecting instruments and the lenses of the microscope. But Ganymede was never so happy as when I took him out in the cocoa-nut grove, or on the sea-shore, to paint and collect, shoot and fish. When I allowed him to carry my paint-box or photographic camera, my gun or a tin for botanical specimens, he would walk behind me radiant with satisfaction, and glancing proudly round him at the astonished Cinghalese, who looked upon him as an outcast Rodiya, and could not understand his having attained to such honour. My interpreter William was especially jealous and indignant; he took every opportunity of blackening Ganymede's character, but soon arrived at the conclusion that I would allow my favourite to come to no harm. I owe many beautiful and valuable contributions to my museum to Ganymede's unfailing zeal and dexterity. With the keen eye, the neat hand, and the supple agility of the Cinghalese youth, he could catch a fluttering moth or a gliding fish with equal promptitude; and his nimbleness was really amazing when, out hunting, he climbed the tall trees like a cat, or scrambled through the densest jungle to recover the prize I had killed.

The Rodiya caste, to which Gamameda belonged, is actually of purely Cinghalese origin, but it is despised as the lowest of all, like the Pariahs by the other natives; though the distinctions of caste have long ceased to be so strictly observed in the Island as they are on the mainland of India. The members of this class for the most part perform such labour as is accounted degrading; among these, curiously enough, is washing. No high-caste Indian will hold familiar intercourse with a Rodiya. As though kind mother Nature wished to compensate for the injustice thus done to some of her children, she has not only endowed the poor rejected Rodiya with the precious gifts of contentment and frugality, but bestowed on him the attractive grace of beauty of form and limb, and as he wears the smallest possible amount of raiment there is ample opportunity for seeing and admiring it. Both the young men and maidens of this race are generally tall and well grown. and have handsomer faces than the rest of the Cinghalese. Maybe it is this very fact, which is the occasion of their being envied and hated.

Throughout Ceylon as a rule it is the stronger sex that is the better favoured, and the boys particularly are remarkable for a poetical beauty of expression in their fine Aryan features. This is conspicuous in a finely cut mouth and very dark, inspired-looking eyes, promising much more than the brain within fulfils; their fine oval faces are framed by thick long jet-black hair. As the children of both sexes always go naked till they are eight or nine years old - at least in the villages - or wear the scantiest loin-cloth, they are perfect as accessory figures in the Edenlike scenery, and often it would be easy to fancy that a Greek statue had come to life. Plate IV. of Ransonnet's book, the portrait of Siniapu, a lad of fourteen, gives a good idea of the characteristic type. Gamameda exactly resembled this head, but that his features were even softer and more girlish, reminding me of Mignon.

In advanced life this mild and pathetic charm is entirely lost, particularly in the women, and a certain hard or stolid absence of expression takes its place; the cheek-bones often become disagreeably prominent. A strikingly hideous specimen was constantly before me in the person of old Babua, the third individual who made his bow to me in the resthouse at Belligam, being, in fact, the cook. This lean old man, with his withered limbs, by no means answered to the picture we usually fancy of a comfortable-looking cook; much more did he remind me of the quadrumanous progenitors of the human race, and when his huge mouth widened across his parched bronze face to a grotesque smile, his resemblance to an old baboon was complete. It was a whimsical accident that his name should also identify him with his prototype, since even the scientific name of one of the species is Cynocephalus babuin. However, this venerable ape, with his projecting muzzle and low forchead  derived probably from some infusion of negro blood - was a most harmless and good-natured soul. His whole ambition was fulfilled when he succeeded in devising some new variety of the curry which was set before me twice every day with my rice, and when I pronounced it good. A little more cleanliness in his primitive kitchen might have been desired, as well as in Socrates himself.

Besides these three, the permanent staff of the resthouse, I had a fourth useful retainer in my interpreter William. I had engaged him, for a month at any rate, in Galle. My English friends had advised me to hire my servants there for my stay at Belligam, according to the custom of the country - one as interpreter, one to hunt for me, one to wait upon me, etc. But I had already seen too much of the trouble and annoyance of the numerous servants kept in India to discover any merit in this excessive division of labour, and I was glad to find in William a servant who expressed himself willing to fulfil the combined functions of interpreter, valet, and assistant. He had for several years served as a soldier, and officer's servant, had very good certificates of character, and was on the whole a fairly handy and willing assistant. Being a trueborn Cinghalese, he had, of course, a pronounced aversion to work in general, and to hard work in particular, and he regarded it as only becoming to expend as much time and as little labour as possible on everything he did. The most important task of the day to him, as to every Cinghalese youth, was the artistic treatment of his head. To wash and comb his long black hair, to dry it carefully and anoint it with cocoanut oil, to twist it into a smooth even knot and fasten it up with a large tortoise-shell comb - this was to William a serious performance, a drama in six acts, to which he devoted some hours every morning. Then, to refresh himself after such an effort, some hours of rest were indispensable. He fulfilled his duties as interpreter and as keeper of my clothes and linen with conscientious exactitude, but indignantly scouted every suggestion that he should do any harder mechanical labour, saying, with much dignity, that he was not a coolie. However, he did his light housework with a fair degree of dexterity, and was always ready to help when I worked with the microscope.

My readers of the gentler sex will, no doubt, be curious to know something of the female inhabitants of the rest-house at Belligam. I can only regret that I have nothing to tell, for the simple reason that there were none. Not only were Babua, the cook, and William, the housemaid, of the masculine gender, but even the laundress who carried away my linen once a week and pounded it clean with stones in the river; and so, in fact, are almost all the domestics throughout India. Indeed, in all Belligam there were hardly any of the softer sex to be seen; but of this I shall speak later.

[Previous chapter] [Index] [Next Chapter]

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