Bintenna

The desire to see the unique, a human ambition that irresistibly stirs many people to activity has so far inspired very few investigators to visit the only Madara tree in . On account of its rarity this tree has commanded interest and admiration since the earliest times, when the flowers were so uncommon that they were regarded as supernatural products of heaven, worn only by angels and goddesses. Sri Rahula, in his poem Guttila, refers to them as follows: “He who has seen the goddesses dance to the enchanting music of violins and bells, with Madara wreaths in the soft, long tresses of their dark braided hair, adorned with strings of shining pearls like creepers to entwine the heart of the God of Love, will be content and not aspire even to be King of the Gods.'

In addition to the heavenly splendour of its flowers the wood of the tree is a sure charm against the attack of elephants and a cure for the bite of snakes, while many regard it as a remedy for almost any evil or sickness. From Balangoda the journey to this marvel of the forest can be accomplished with the least discomfort, but it cannot be denied that in the dry weather the trip is excessively hot and in the wet weather objectionably wet, while, in addition to the fact that the tree grows in an exceptionally malarial district, a very long walk is necessary to reach it.

Apart from the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, the number of those who have seen this botanical rarity must be infinitesimal; certainly it does not include more than four or five Europeans now living in Ceylon. Pleasant anticipations of easy going are raised by travelling the first eight miles of the way in a car, but beyond Rajawaka the country gradually becomes wilder, until at Molamure the last houses of the edge of the Tanjantenna plateau form a convenient halting place.

From here the path runs through the scrub and managrass of Tanjantennaa plain lying between the first foothills of the and the top of the cliff that falls sheer to the Bintenna jungle. In the wet weather numerous elephants climb up from the dense forests around the Walawe river, in order to escape from the elephant flies which bother them on the lower level; while leopards are common enough to be seen beside the path at midday. The slight eminences that stud the plateau enclose glades of scattered trees, growing amid the tall grass, bleached white by the August sun, a type of landscape which in India would be an ideal haunt for a tiger. Looking down from the edge of the precipice on the incalculable myriads of trees, the task of finding a particular specimen seems almost impossible, but the few who know the exact position of the Madara find no difficulty in its location. As the descent from the plateau is negotiated the atmosphere becomes noticeably warmer, until at the bottom, in the thick scrub, the air is uncomfortably still and hot.

It is hard to realize that at one time this extensive wilderness was covered with prosperous towns and villages, but the innumerable ancient bricks that carpet the jungle, and the frequent mounds that indicate the sites of ruined buildings, bear irrefutable testimony to the forgotten golden age of Kongala Bintenna, when powerful chiefs held sway over the thronging cities which are now shown on the map as “ruins,” amid a featureless area of “forest.” The population of this district must have been immense, comparable at the present day to parts of the Western Province, where as, along the Mount Lavinia road, house jostles house in endless continuity.

At evening in the jungle it is possible to repeople this vanished kingdom with the heroes of Ruhuna who fill the pages of the Mahavansa with their miraculous activities. Along the street of low red brick houses strides one of Duttha 's giants, bound upon an errand of his Royal master, contemptuous of the civilians who barter and chaffer in their shops and offices. Soldiers of the Frontier Guard lounge at the street corners, eyeing the slave girls who pass to draw water at the municipal , while a palanquin passes, bearing on a visit to a friend a wealthly lady, guarded by her retinue of family retainers. Children play at the doors of their houses, and down a broad road in the dusk comes a huge elephant carrying the local chieftain to an official function. But the dark outlines of roofs and walls fade gradually into the shadowy tracery of trees and scrub, while the elephant carries no rider, but is coming down the same path to the Walawe river that has been used for centuries by his kind, since his forbears first took possession of the deserted city, when the jungle closed upon its decaying environs.

Various causes have been suggested for the eclipse of this early civilization, but it seems most probable that a combination of circumstances contributed to its downfall. The invaders from Bengal, Wijaya and his followers, who founded the Sinhalese race used the aboriginal inhabitants as a labour force in building these cities and digging the innumerable tanks which stored water for the citizens, acting themselves as construction engineers, foremen and skilled labourers. The aborigines, however, after a time, dwindled in numbers so alarmingly, owing to absorption and extermination, that compulsory labour had to be introduced among the Sinhalese themselves. This was a less satisfactory system, in that invasion or internal strife resulted in cessation of work, since all the labourers were also fighters. Now, in the Bintenna, if irrigation ceases life stops with it; cultivation there is carried on in spite of the climate, not assisted by local conditions, so that failure to maintain the tanks, owing to the disorganization of war, resulted in disaster. Starvation followed, and malaria, which appears wherever there are neglected irrigation “works, finished the havoc.

While traversing the Bintenna any sudden noise that breaks the silence of the dense scrub brings the villagers to a halt, until it has been ascertained that a herd of elephants is not concealed round the next bend of the path. In the dry weather the absence of water is very marked: stream after stream is passed without a trickle among the huge footprints in the baked mud, where elephants crossed or disported themselves before the drought began.

The geographical position of the Madara tree is no secret; on the mile to the inch map of Ceylon “Two Historical Madara Trees” are shown, but without the assistance of someone who knows the location it would be next to impossible to find the exact place. The information which is usually vouchsafed to the inquirer, that a path has been worn to the tree by the feet of pilgrims, who have removed all except the topmost branches, is incorrect; there is no approach track of any kind to indicate where to leave the Gansabhawa road and strike off into the thicket. The natural question arises as to how numerous people come to possess small pieces of the wood without leaving any trace of their passage to the tree. The answer is supplied by the villagers, who say that the hermit who lives at Kurugala, on the plateau, comes down now and then to cut a branch, which he divides into little pieces for sale to pilgrims at his shrine. Otherwise no one goes near the place, except on rare occasions.

When the leader of the party recognizes a certain spot on the path he goes into the jungle to find the tree. After a minute or two a “hoo cry” announces his success, and the rest of the party push their way after him, guided by the sound of his voice. Naturally a certain lurking suspicion as to the genuineness of the identification remains, until the sight of the Madara itself dispels all possible doubt. Even without the aid of an accurate botanical description its unique appearance among the rest of the jungle trees marks it as a rarity. The first characteristic that strikes the eye is the amazingly fresh green of its leaves compared with the drab whitish grey of the surrounding dry season foliage.

Considering its magic properties, the tree is not so mutilated as might be expected, although bearing numerous scars from the depredations of charm-hunters. Its alleged efficacy as a deterrent of elephants is probably attributable to the extremely poisonous character of the bark and fruit, but its protective influence is not very far reaching, since the neighbouring trees are scarred by the marks of an elephant's tusks, thus belying the story that for many yards round the magic bole the jungle is untrodden by the feet of animals.

The following detailed description of the Madara is taken, without technicalities, from a book on Indian forestry, supplemented by notes made at the tree itself.

Its Latin name is Cleistanthus collinus, and it belongs to the order Euphorbiaci. It is a small tree, about the size of an average apple tree, with stout, crooked, spreading branches that tend to grow downwards at the ends. The bark of the trunk and old branches is dark grey and black; it is exceedingly rough and scaly, being split up all over its surface into small concave pieces, irregular as to size and outline. The young branches are so completely different as to make them look as if they belonged to another tree. Their bark is soft and corky, with a surface intensely roughened by innumerable longitudinal crevices; the colour is greyish yellow with a tinge of red, overlaid by a whitish bloom, which disappears when the stick is held long in the hand. The mature timber is dark reddish brown, very hard indeed, and gives off a pungent aroma when cut; but the young wood is yellowish white, without smell. The twigs are hairy and very sticky to touch, a feature that indicates the poisonous character of the bark and fruit.

The leaves are few, and of a bright, light green colour on the upper surface, with paler green under sides; they hang vertically, point downwards, upon very short stalks, on alternate sides of the twig, at one and a half inch intervals, lessening to one inch near the extremity of the spray. The larger leaves near the base of the twig are about four inches long, decreasing in size to some two inches at the farther end. They hang back to back, each just overlapping its neighbour on either side, looking, with their oval shape and blunt points, like a row of little flat, fish hanging on a stick or string. The veining of the leaves is net like or reticulate. Clusters of yellow, small petalled flowers appear in May, each blossom springing from a hairy cup or calyx, which is composed of minute portions, shaped like lance heads, and called sepals. A smooth, woody, brown fruit follows the flower; it is indistinctly three lobed, and roughly three quarters of an inch in diameter, containing almost spherical seeds with six plainly marked divisions. It is a singular fact that, although several people have possessed seeds of the Ceylon tree, no one has succeeded in making one grow, while a seed picked up below the tree, where it had lain for three months, showed no sign of any effort to sprout. As is indicated by the map, the present tree had at one time a companion, which died of old age and was removed, while a third specimen in another district, called Kolonna, if local information is to be believed, suffered the same fate. In India the Madara occurs in the Satpura range, and is very common in Oudh, whence seeds have lately been obtained for experimental growth in Ceylon, without success.

The walk along the bank of the Walawe to Uggal Kaltota Irrigation Bungalow is brimming with jungle interest, especially in the evening, when the words of a famous song, “Down in the Forest something stirred,” assume their fullest import, as an ominous crashing of bushes near the path announces the stirring of something undesirably large. Armed with a piece of Madara there is, of course, nothing to fear, but it is advisable for the traveller to be near a climbable tree when a wild buffalo crosses the path, leaving the Walawe after his bathe.

There is an appropriate “kemmа” (charm) against every evil; but the verse that helps to keep away elephants is too complicated to remember, and apparently has no meaning; in fact the theory is advanced, by one who has studied the problem very exhaustively, that the purpose of the sounds is rather like wireless telegraphy, to create a series of atmospheric vibrations which, in this case being distasteful to the elephant, irritate his eardrums and so instigate him to go away from their unpleasant influence as soon as he can.

The preventive action against jungle ticks is, however, rather practical than verbal, besides being both effective and simple. If possible, without being observed, pluck a, spray of leaves off any bush, with the right hand, from behind you as you pass; then, without mentioning the action, or displaying the least consciousness of doing anything unusual, stick the twigs in the top of the shorts or cloth at the back. After this precaution has been taken ticks can be treated with contempt, they will not trouble the wearer of the kemma. It is better, although not essential, to be unobserved when affixing the leaves, but a remark about the action, or the betrayal of the least self consciousness in its execution, is fatal to the efficacy of the charm. As an example of the necessity for observing these rules an authentic instance can be quoted, when sixteen ticks were removed from the person of a policeman who had made a frivolous joke about his kemma. This circumstance, as well as emphasizing the importance of correct procedure in the conduct of magic exercises, also shows the fearlessness of the tick. When the kemma is removed it should be held in the right hand and passed with a stroking motion, first down the right side of the body, from head to foot, then down the left, after which it must be crumpled up and thrown away. These last motions remove any ticks that may have penetrated its protective influence.

It is inauspicious to speak of a dangerous animal by its usual name when in the jungle, lest the mere mention of the creature should precipitate the coincidence of an immediate encounter with it. Hence the elephant is spoken of as “maha bola” (“the big ball”); the leopard as “ mutta” (“great grand father”); while in Sabaragamuwa the bear is known as “Soma,” a girl's name, and in Uva as “as vedda” (“the eye doctor”), because of his habit of attacking his victim's eyes or face.

At Budugala, where the path joins the irrigation channel serving Uggal Kaltota paddy fields, are some very ancient ruins, said to be those of a “dewale” (temple), connected with Uggal Alutnuwara Dewale, near Balangoda, which owns a field in the Kaltota “yaya” (stretch of cultivation). From here there is a splendid view of the massive Kurugala rock, towering in bleak magnificence above the low country. This aspect of the cliff has an added interest, in that a dark patch of vegetation growing about half way up the face of the precipice is said to be a bush of the famous Kalu Nika, whose twig brings good health and good fortune. It is quite inaccessible, a characteristic of the tree that renders it a great rarity, not to be compared with the Madara in that respect, but sufficiently uncommon to attract numerous legends about its magic properties. Whenever the “atikukula” (skinny-chicken), or jungle “crow,” is able to find a stick of this tree, it builds it into its nest, knowing full well its value as a charm against evil influences. Anyone who discovers a jungle “crow's” nest is thus afforded an opportunity to acquire a piece of Kalu Nika, but it is a laborious business to find it amongst the mass of sticks of which the big dome-shaped structure is composed. Twig by twig the nest should be thrown into a running stream, or into a fire, until a piece is observed to float upstream, or to resist the disintegrating effect of the flames. That will be the Kalu Nika. Such is its power that, if a young jungle “crow” is put in a cage, the parent bird will search the forest until it finds a piece to place on the youngster's prison. Immediately the Kalu Nika touches the cage the latter collapses and the little one escapes. The veracity of this phenomenon might be tested by experiment before it is accepted as a natural historical fact.

Along the whole length of the five mile channel that feeds eight hundred acres of paddy fields the path forms a delightfully pretty and shady walk at any time of day. In the thick jungle which grows down to the water's edge deer can frequently be seen drinking, and the call of the jungle fowl is constantly heard, while monkeys play in the fern covered trees, whose branches they share with the big rock squirrel.

The “ehela” (laburnum), with its delicate clusters of yellow flowers, displays splashes of bright colour among the dark greens and browns of the forest, which on the channel banks is unscorched by drought, shading flowers that a few yards away would shrivel in the baked earth. Among the plants which flourish along the margin of this stream is the Gurullu rajah; it grows to a height of two feet, bearing a pink flower, succeeded by an oval seed with two horns at its tip that are said to resemble the proboscis of a kind of bluish wasp, called the gurullaya. The seed is also known as the “naga darana” (curled ), because it is not unlike the raised head of that snake. Herein lies perhaps the root of its magic properties, which make it much sought after by the chetty community as a charm against evil. The seed presents a double illusion: it looks like a cobra's head, but the little projections also make it resemble the snake's mortal enemy, the gurullaya, who, whenever opportunity offers, kills the cobra by settling upon its head and stinging it through to the brain.

The modern irrigation channel was reconstructed by Mr. Wace and Mr. Fred Lewis, along the trace of a very ancient watercourse that is said to have extended at one time as far as Diyainnaa distance of sixteen miles. Mr. Wace, who was Government Agent in this district for eleven years, is still remembered with unabated affection as the “Kotiya Eganta” (“the Tiger Agent”), a nickname he acquired from his habit of shouting when annoyed. Not only is his memory green in the recollection of those who knew him, but he has become a tradition which is handed on to generations that knew him not, such was the respect and liking that his character inspired among the villagers.

The original channel was made by a giant named Nila Maha Yodaya, who, in the dawn of , selected the barren district of Kaltota for the purpose of a vast irrigation scheme. Choosing two rocks near the present anicut, he cut sockets in them, which can still be seen, and affixed therein huge beams to form a dam across the Walawe, known as the Yodaya bemma. His principal difficulty was, however, to decide in what direction to dig the channel that would carry the water to his proposed fields. He solved this problem with immense acumen. Noticing an “uk” (sugar cane leaf), of which one end was caught in some rocks, streaming out in the water like a pennon, and correctly deducing from this observation the set of the current, he dug his channel in the direction indicated by the leaf, with such success that the trace is still in use. It was a complicated circumstantial chain which led to the arrival at this position of the leaf, whose portentous influence conferred upon Kaltota the prefix Uggal. The uk became detached from its parent sugar-cane in the Uggal Dova, a valley above Belihul Oya, just below the , where a tea estate has succeeded an old coffee venture. The original Kovila, or Temple of the God Kataragama Kandasamy, where his “hellaya” (lance) was kept, stood here, on the site, so it is said, of the modern estate bungalow; but it was moved in the course of years to Alutnuwara Dewale, near Balangoda, which subsequently, for that reason, was called Uggal Alutnuwara. Falling into the Hiri Katti Oya, the leaf floated down that stream into the Belihul Oya, and thence to the Walawe, where it drifted until, becoming entangled in the rocks at Kaltota, it delivered its silent message of enlightenment to the Nila Maha Yodaya.

As soon as the channel was cut, the giant set to work with immense energy and cultivated thirty five yalas of paddy land on each side of the Walawe, boasting that at the end of the harvest he would make a pile of paddy so high that the sea would be visible from its summit. After his first reaping he threshed the rice and piled it all in one huge heap, telling his son to climb to the top and say if he could see the sea. Now the giant's wife was a greedy and avaricious woman. As her son started the ascent, she whispered to him to say that he could not see the sea, whether he saw it or not, so that her husband would cultivate even more land next year, in order to fulfil his boast, and so they would become very rich. Listening to his mother's bad advice, although he clearly saw the sun shining on the sea, he said that he could not see it; but his lie had an effect opposite to that which the giant's wife had desired. Disgruntled, because he thought his harvest was not so great as he had predicted, the Nila Maha Yodaya scattered the paddy to the winds, kicked down the dam across the Walawe, and went away, never to return. For centuries the Kaltota fields lay waste, but at length, on the Sabaragamuwa side of the river, the land was again brought under cultivation, until now a harvest is reaped from eight hundred acres, but on the Uva bank of the Walawe the fields are abandoned to the jungle for lack of water a situation which will continue until another irrigation giant rebuilds the dam. Among places in Ceylon with a bad reputation for fever Uggal Kaltota can claim to be in the first rank. The inhabitants are fully aware that it is the mosquito which spreads the disease, but these insects swarm in such myriads that the people are powerless to avoid them, with the result that very few, if any, of them go through the year without at least one bad attack of malaria. “Katol” sticks are effective at night, in the closely sealed atmosphere of the village houses, where the mosquito killing smoke cannot escape. This fact is realized by the villagers, who welcome a fairly divided and liberal supply of this commodity more than any other gift. The hospital is a very popular institution, supplying a real need of the locality, where, as is so often the case, the complement of picturesque scenery is an extremely unhealthy climate.

Looking up the steep forest covered cliff above Kaltota, where rock caves and thicket provide lairs for bears and leopards, some of the thrills can be imagined which the explorers experienced in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's book, The Lost World. Each turn of the ascending path holds exciting possibilities, while on peeping into a park like glade of yellow mana grass, from the shelter of the thick jungle belt that fringes the cliff top, the vision of a dinosaurus drinking at a water hole might cause alarm but, in a setting so exactly materializing the modern conception of its habitat, would occasion little surprise. After climbing the cliff to Tanjantenna's farthest limit, the traveller can look back over the country he has lately traversed, spread out below him in a mighty panorama of unbroken jungle through which a winding line of darker green indicates the course of the Walawe.

The path along the Tanjantenna plateau, especially in the dry season, is uncomfortably warm, and blessed with very little shade, but the scrub teems with animal life. Even at midday leopards play beside the track, so intent upon their game as to be oblivious for a few moments of the presence of a human being. It is said by the Sinhalese that the horn bill (“kandatta”), an exceedingly common bird in this district, is unable to drink owing to some physical defect, so that the poor creature is constantly thirsty, and can be seen, when it rains, sitting on a branch with its head thrown right back and its capacious beak wide open, catching the drops. It suffers from this disability as an example to all other creatures, since in former lives all horn bills have been people who refused water to the thirsty.

Four miles from Molamure there is a turn off in the midst of “the altogether uninhabited interior,” leading to Kurugala, the great cliff at the edge of the Tanjantenna plateau. Here lives a Mohammedan hermit named Mastan, whose shrine is visited annually by numbers of pilgrims. In the face of the cliff is a large cave which constitutes the scene of his devotions, although no sign of any religious significance adorns the cavern. Originally, it is said, a Mohammedan prince from India, who had committed a serious sin, decided to walk until he found a suitable place to sit and meditate upon his evil life, with the object of expiating his crime by force of concentrated contemplation. When, in the course of his wanderings, he arrived at Kurugala it struck him as the ideal for which he was looking; so he lived there for a number of years until, feeling himself redeemed, he returned to his Indian kingdom. The cave then became a Buddhist sanctuary, passing later again to the Mohammedan faith after a considerable period when no hermit lived there at all. Pilgrim bands, conducted by priests from the mosque at Balangoda, used to go to Kurugala, even when an Egyptian ex soldier tenanted the shrine, but the present occupant, after consider able litigation, allows no other institution to interfere with his monopoly of those devout ones whose faith sustains them over the arduous journey to his cave. Before Mastan's tenancy, during the first year of the war, strange lights were reported to emanate from this retreat, supposed to have been signals transmitting to the coast messages sent from the Haputale district. When a man of unusual appearance was heard to have taken up his residence at Kurugala, investigations were made, resulting in the discovery of a very fair person, presumed to be another Egyptian by those who saw him. This individual, whose only explanation of his presence was that he liked living there, was firmly requested to leave the locality, which he did, and was not seen again.

Mastan, a hermit to whom the resources of civilization are not unknown, keeps a small path open through the jungle for the convenience of himself and his pilgrims. He does not live in the cave shrine itself, but has constructed an excellent little house in an old rock dwelling, under the eaves of an overhanging cliff adjoining Kurugala, where, with his wife and family, he lives in comfort, among poultry and pigeons, unbothered by rates and taxes. This hermit de luxe is a picturesque figure, with long hair, a split lip, and large, very luminous eyes; he wears a long cloak and always carries a gun in self defence against the event of meeting a bear or wild buffalo. He has evidently not yet acquired the knack, that some saints have had, of being on familiar terms with all kinds of animals.

The cave itself is a most interesting place; it is entirely natural, bearing no signs of artificial excavation, or even of ritual adornment. The entrance is situated in the face of the cliff, a short climb down from the summit, where, on entering, there is a large “hall,” from which two passages lead off on either hand. When the eyes grow used to the darkness the right hand passage is seen to extend for at least fifty yards into the depths of the earth, before merging into the general blackness of the shadows. After following this side gallery for about thirty yards the floor is found to descend abruptly to the brink of a pit, which is said to be the mouth of an underground passage to Mecca. A virtuous soul once tested the accuracy of this legend; as he never returned from his investigations it can be assumed that he found the story to be true. Mastan crosses the abyss on a thin tree trunk, by the light of a match, but the average visitor will be content to let his explorations stop on the near edge of the hole. On the opposite side of the entrance hall a narrow descending passage leads out on to the “tapas pila” (“meditation ledge”), a niche in the sheer side of the cliff, some six feet wide and four feet broad, with an overhanging roof of rock.

Here, seated beneath the huge mass that towers fifty feet above, on the edge of a six hundred foot precipice, a hermit can find solitude indeed, and food for contemplation in the unbroken ocean of trees spread out below him. Entering from a small hole in the rock at the back, an atmosphere of complete detachment pervades the occupant of the tiny ledge; earthly considerations lose their importance before the uncomplicated immensity of the colossal landscape and the fatality of the sheer abyss. The inmate of a prison is far less solitary. Judging from the polish which the floor has taken, the ledge has been used for many years; certainly the Mohammedan prince was right in his choice of a suitable place wherein to expiate a crime if he lived here alone. A peculiar mark, caused by water trickling over the slightly honey combed surface of the rock, stretches from the ceiling down the side wall of the niche, looking exactly like the cast skin of a huge snake. The presence of this damp stain is ascribed to supernatural powers in the same way as a small roughly cut imitation of the Adam's Peak Footprint, which has been carved in a natural indentation in another smaller cave. By lying with the head over the edge of the precipice, the so called Kalu Nika can be seen some hundred feet below. From this position the local “arachchi” (headman), who is rather a sceptic, says it is an “atamuru” (wild fig) tree, but the true identification awaits the opinion of an expert.

Back from Kurugala to Molamure the path must have been a weary walk when it was only a track marked by little heaps of stones; but now, although blazing hot, it is easy to follow through the scrub, which here, as down below, is filled with ruins of past greatness. Near the track there stand, in the jungle, a few pillars and remnants of an ancient vihare. It was a building of size and importance, to which great sanctity still attaches; so much so that it is said that when a forest fire burns the mana grass and scrub it stops at the temple limits, burning round the outside, and joining up again behind, to leave the venerable site an oasis of green amid the blackened landscape.

 

-R. H. BASSETT