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Eight Years' Wanderings in Ceylon.

by Samuel White Baker


Task Completed - The Mountain-top - Change in the Face of Nature - Original Importance of Newera Ellia - "The Path of a Thousand Princes" - Vestiges of Former Population - Mountains - The Highlands of Ouva - Ancient Methods of Irrigation - Remains of Aqueducts - The Vale of Rubies - Ancient Ophir - Discovery of Gold-Mineral Resources - Native Blacksmiths.

In a climate like that of Newera Ellia, even twelve months make a great change in the appearance of a new settlement; plants and shrubs spring up with wonderful rapidity, and a garden of one year's growth, without attendance, would be a wilderness.

A few years necessarily made a vast change in everything. All kinds of experiments had been made, and those which succeeded were persevered in. I discovered that excellent beer might be made at this elevation (six thousand two hundred feet), and I accordingly established a small brewery.

The solitary Leicester ram had propagated a numerous family, and a flock of fat ewes, with their lambs, throve to perfection. Many handsome young heifers looked very like the emigrant bull in the face, and claimed their parentage. The fields were green; the axe no longer sounded in the forests: a good house stood in the centre of cultivation; a road of two miles in length cut through the estate, and the whole place looked like an adopted "home." All the trials and disappointments of the beginning were passed away, and the real was a picture which I had ideally contemplated years before. The task was finished.

In the interim, public improvements had not been neglected; an extremely pretty church had been erected and a public reading-room established; but, with the exception of one good house which had been built, private enterprise had lain dormant. As usual, from January to May, Newera Ellia was overcrowded with months of visitors, and nearly empty during the other months of the year.

All Ceylon people dread the wet season at Newera Ellia, which continues from June to December.

I myself prefer it to what is termed the dry season, at which time the country is burnt up by drought. There is never more rain at Newera Ellia than vegetation requires, and not one-fourth the quantity fills at this elevation, compared to that of the low country. It may be more continuous, but it is of a lighter character, and more akin to "Scotch mist." The clear days during the wet season are far more lovely than the constant glare of the summer months, and the rays of the sun are not so powerful.

There cannot be a more beautiful sight than the view of sunrise from the summit of Pedrotallagalla, the highest mountain in Ceylon, which, rising to the height of 8300 feet, looks down upon Newera Ellia, some two thousand feet below upon one side, and upon the interminable depths of countless ravines and valleys at its base.

There is a feeling approaching the sublime when a solitary man thus stands upon the highest point of earth, before the dawn of day, and waits the first rising of the sun. Nothing above him but the dusky arch of heaven. Nothing on his level but empty space, - all beneath, deep beneath his feet. From childhood he has looked to heaven as the dwelling of the Almighty, and he now stands upon that lofty summit in the silence of utter solitude; his hand, as he raises it above his head, the highest mark upon the sea-girt land; his form above all mortals upon this land, the nearest to his God. Words, till now unthought of, tingle in his ears: "He went up into a mountain apart to pray." He feels the spirit which prompted the choice of such a lonely spot, and he stands instinctively uncovered, as the first ray of light spreads like a thread of fire across the sky.

And now the distant hill-tops, far below, struggle through the snowy sheet of mist, like islands in a fairy sea; and far, how far his eye can scan, where the faint line upon the horizon marks the ocean! Mountain and valley, hill and plain, with boundless forest, stretch beneath his feet, far as his sight can gaze, and the scene, so solemnly beautiful, gradually wakens to his senses; the birds begin to chirp; the dew-drops fall heavily from the trees, as the light breeze stirs from an apparent sleep; a golden tint spreads over the sea of mist below; the rays dart lightning-like upon the eastern sky; the mighty orb rises in all the fullness of his majesty, recalling the words of Omnipotence: "Let there be light!"

The sun is risen! the misty sea below mounts like a snowy wreath around the hill-tops, and then, like a passing thought, it vanishes. A glassy clearness of the atmosphere reveals the magnificent view of Nature, fresh from her sleep; every dewy leaf gilded by the morning sun, every rock glistening with moisture in his bright rays, mountain and valley, wood and plain, alike rejoicing in his beams.

And now, the sun being risen, we gaze from our lofty post upon Newera Ellia, lying at our feet. We trace the river winding its silvery course through the plain, and for many miles the alternate plains and forests joining in succession.

How changed are some features of the landscape within the few past years, and how wonderful the alteration made by man on the face of Nature! Comparatively but a few years ago, Newera Ellia was undiscovered - a secluded plain among the mountaintops, tenanted by the elk and boar. The wind swept over it, and the mists hung around the mountains, and the bright summer with its spotless sky succeeded, but still it was unknown and unseen except by the native bee-hunter in his rambles for wild honey. How changed! The road encircles the plain, and carts are busy in removing the produce of the land. Here, where wild forests stood, are gardens teeming with English flowers; rosy-faced children and ruddy countrymen are about the cottage doors; equestrians of both sexes are galloping round the plain, and the cry of the hounds is ringing on the mountain-side.

How changed! There is an old tree standing upon a hill, whose gnarled trunk has been twisted by the winter's wind for many an age, and so screwed is its old stem that the axe has spared it, out of pity, when its companions were all swept away and the forest felled. And many a tale that old tree could tell of winter's blasts and broken boughs, and storms which howled above its head, when all was wilderness around. The eagle has roosted in its top, the monkeys have gamboled in its branches, and the elephants have rubbed their tough flanks against its stem in times gone by; but it now throws a shadow upon a Christian's grave, and the churchyard lies beneath its shade. The church-bell sounds where the elephant trumpeted of yore. The sunbeam has penetrated where the forest threw its dreary shade, and a ray of light has shone through the moral darkness of the spot.

The completion of the church is the grand improvement in Newera Ellia.

Although Newera Ellia was in the wild state described when first discovered by Europeans, it is not to be supposed that its existence was unknown to the Cingalese. The name itself proves its former importance to the kings of Kandy, as Newera Ellia signifies "Royal Plains." Kandy is termed by the Cingalese "Newera," as it was the capital of Ceylon and the residence of the king.

However wild the country may be, and in many portions unvisited by Europeans, still every high mountain and every little plain in this wilderness of forest is not only known to the natives of the adjacent low country, but has its separate designation. There is no feature of the country without its name, although the immense tracts of mountain are totally uninhabited, and the nearest villages are some ten or twelve miles distant, between two and three thousand feet below.

There are native paths from village to village across the mountains, which, although in appearance no more than deer-runs, have existed for many centuries, and are used by the natives even to this day. The great range of forest-covered Newera Ellia mountains divides the two districts of Ouva and Kotmalie, and these native paths have been formed to connect the two by an arduous accent upon either side, and a comparatively level cut across the shoulders of the mountains, through alternate plain and forest, for some twenty-five miles. These paths would never be known to Europeans were it not for the distant runs of the hounds, in following which, after some hours of fatiguing jungle-work, I have come upon a path. The notches on the treestems have proved its artificial character, and by following its course I have learnt the country.

There is not a path, stream, hill, or plain, within many miles of Newera Ellia, that I do not know intimately, although, when the character of the country is scanned by a stranger from some mountain-top, the very act of traversing it appears impossible. This knowledge has been gained by years of unceasing hunting, and by perseveringly following up the hounds wherever they have gone. From sunrise till nightfall I have often ploughed along through alternate jungles and plains, listening eagerly for the cry of the hounds, and at length discovering portions of the country which I had never known to exist.

There is a great pleasure in thus working out the features of a wild country, especially in an island like Ceylon, which, in every portion, exhibits traces of former prosperity and immense population. Even these uninhabited and chilly regions, up to an elevation of seven thousand feet, are not blank pages in the book of Nature, but the hand of man is so distinctly traced that the keen observer can read with tolerable certainty the existence of a nation long since passed away.

As I before mentioned, I pitched my settlement on the verge of the highland, at the eastern extremity of the Newera Ellia plain, where the high road commences a sudden descent toward Badulla, thirty-three miles distant. This spot, forming, a shallow gap, was the ancient native entrance to Newera Ellia from that side, and the Cingalese designation for the locality is interpreted "the Path of a Thousand Princes." This name assists in the proof that Newera Ellia was formerly of some great importance. A far more enticing name gives an interest to the first swampy portion of the plain, some three hundred paces beyond, viz., "the Valley of Rubies."

Now, having plainly discovered that Newera Ellia was of some great importance to the natives, let us consider in what that value consisted. There are no buildings remaining, no ruins, as in other parts of Ceylon, but a liquid mine of wealth poured from these lofty regions. The importance of Newera Ellia lay first in its supply of water, and, secondly, in its gems.

In all tropical countries the first principle of cultivation is the supply of water, without which the land would remain barren. In a rice-growing country like Ceylon, the periodical rains are insufficient, and the whole system of native agriculture depends upon irrigation. Accordingly, the mountains being the reservoirs from which the rivers spring, become of vital importance to the country.

The principal mountains in Ceylon are Pedrotallagalla, eight thousand two hundred and eighty feet; Kirigallapotta, seven thousand nine hundred; Totapella, eight thousand feet; and Adam's Peak, seven thousand seven hundred; but although their altitude is so considerable, they do not give the idea of grandeur which such an altitude would convey. They do not rise abruptly from a level base, but they are merely the loftiest of a thousand peaks towering from the highlands of Ceylon.

The greater portion of the highland district may therefore be compared to one vast mountain; hill piled upon hill, and peak rising over peak; ravines of immense depth, forming innumerable conduits for the mountain torrents. Then, at the elevation of Newera Ellia the heavings of the land appear to have rested, and gentle undulations, diversified by plains and forests, extend for some thirty miles. From these comparatively level tracts and swampy plains the rivers of Ceylon derive their source and the three loftiest peaks take their base; Pedrotallagalla rising from the Newera Ellia Plain, "Totapella" and Kirigallapotta from the Horton Plains.

The whole of the highland district is thus composed of a succession of ledges of great extent at various elevations, commencing with the highest, the Horton Plains, seven thousand feet above the sea.

Seven hundred feet below the Horton Plain, the Totapella Plains and undulating forests continue at this elevation as far as Newera Ellia for about twenty miles, thus forming the second ledge.

Six miles to the west of Newera Ellia, at a lower elevation of about nine hundred feet, the district of Dimboola commences, and extends at this elevation over a vast tract of forest-covered country, stretching still farther to the west, and containing a small proportion of plain.

At about the same elevation, nine miles on the north of Newera Ellia, we descend to the Elephant Plains; a beautiful tract of fine grass country, but of small extent. This tract and that of Dimboola form the third ledge.

Nine miles to the east of Newera Ellia, at a lower elevation of one thousand five hundred feet, stretches the Ouva country, forming the fourth ledge.

The features of this country are totally distinct from any other portion of Ceylon. A magnificent view extends as far as the horizon, of undulating open grassland, diversified by the rich crops of paddy which are grown in each of the innumerable small valleys formed by the undulations of the ground. Not a tree is to be seen except the low brushwood which is scantily distributed upon its surface. We emerge suddenly from the forest-covered mountains of Newera Ellia, and, from a lofty point on the high road to Badulla, we look down upon the splendid panorama stretched like a waving sea beneath our feet. The road upon which we stand is scarped out of the mountain's side. The forest has ceased, dying off gradually into isolated patches and long ribbon-like strips on the sides of the mountain, upon which rich grass is growing, in vivid contrast to the rank and coarse herbage of Newera Ellia, distant only five miles from the point upon which we stand.

Descending until we reach Wilson's Plain, nine miles from Newera Ellia, we arrive in the district of Ouva, much like the Sussex Downs as any place to which it can be compared.

This district comprises about six hundred square miles, and forms the fourth and last ledge of the high lands of Ceylon. Passes from the mountains which form the wall-like boundaries of this table-land descend to the low country in various directions.

The whole of the Ouva district upon the one side, and of the Kotmalee district on the other side, of tilt Newera Ellia range of mountains, are, with the exception of the immediate neighborhood of Kandy and Colombo, the most populous districts of Ceylon.

This is entirely owing, to the never-failing supply of water obtained from the mountains; and upon this supply the wealth and prosperity of the country depend.

The ancient history of Ceylon is involved in much obscurity, but nevertheless we have sufficient data in the existing traces of its former population to form our opinions of the position and power which Ceylon occupied in the Eastern Hemisphere when England was in a state of barbarism. The wonderful remains of ancient cities, tanks and water-courses throughout the island all prove that the now desolate regions were tenanted by a multitude - not of savages, but of a race long since passed away, full of industry and intelligence.

Among the existing traces of former population few are more interesting than those in the vicinity of Newera Ellia.

Judging from the present supply of water required for the cultivation of a district containing a certain population, we can arrive at a tolerably correct idea of the former population by comparing the present supply of water with that formerly required.

Although the district of Ouva is at present well populated, and every hollow is taken advantage of for the cultivation of paddy, still the demand for water in proportion to the supply is comparatively small.

The system of irrigation has necessarily involved immense labor. For many miles the water is conducted from the mountains through dense forests, across ravines, round the steep sides of opposing hills, now leaping into a lower valley into a reservoir, from which it is again led through this arduous country until it at length reaches the land which it is destined to render fertile.

There has been a degree of engineering skill displayed in forming aqueducts through such formidable obstacles; the hills are lined out in every direction with these proofs of industry, and their winding course can be traced round the grassy sides of the steep mountains, while the paddy-fields are seen miles away in the valleys of Ouva stretched far beneath.

At least eight out of ten of these watercourses are dry, and the masonry required in the sudden angles of ravines, has, in most cases, fallen to decay. Even those water-courses still in existence are of the second class; small streams have been conducted from their original course, and these serve for the supply of the present population.

From the remains of deserted water-courses of the first class, it is evident that more than fifty times the volume of water was then required that is in use at present, and in the same ratio must have been the amount of population. In those days rivers were diverted from their natural channels; opposing hills were cut through, and the waters thus were led into another valley to join a stream flowing in, its natural bed, whose course, eventually obstructed by a dam, poured its accumulated waters into canals which branched to various localities. Not a river in those times flowed in vain. The hill-sides were terraced out in beautiful cultivation, which are now waving with wild vegetation and rank lemon grass. The remaining traces of stone walls point out the ancient boundaries far above the secluded valley now in cultivation.

The nation has vanished, and with it the industry and perseverance of the era.

We now arrive at the cause of the former importance of Newera Ellia, or the "Royal Plains."

It has been shown that the very existence of the population depended upon the supply of water, and that supply was obtained from the neighborhood of Newera Ellia. Therefore, a king in possession of Newera Ellia had the most complete command over his subjects; he could either give or withhold the supply of water at his pleasure, by allowing its free exit or by altering its course.

Thus, during rebellion, he could starve his people into submission, or lay waste the land in time of foreign invasion. I have seen in an impregnable position the traces of an ancient fort, evidently erected to defend the pass to the main water-course from the low country.

This gives us a faint clue to the probable cause of the disappearance of the nation.

In time of war or intestine commotion, the water may have been cut off from the low country, and the exterminating effects of famine may have laid the whole land desolate. It is, therefore, no longer a matter of astonishment that the present plain of Newera Ellia should have received its appellation of the "Royal Plain." In those days there was no very secure tenure to the throne, and by force alone could a king retain it. The more bloodthirsty and barbarous the tyrant, the more was he dreaded by the awe-stricken and trembling population. The power of such a weapon of annihilation as the command of the waters may be easily conceived as it invested a king with almost divine authority in the eyes of his subjects.

Now there is little doubt that the existence of precious gems at Newera Ellia may have been accidentally discovered in digging the numerous water-courses in the vicinity; there is, however, no doubt that at some former period the east end of the plain, called the "Vale of Rubies," constituted the royal "diggings." That the king of Kandy did not reside at Newera Ellia there is little wonder, as a monarch delighting in a temperature of 85 Fahrenheit would have regarded the climate of a mean temperature of 60 Fahrenheit as we should that of Nova Zembla.

We may take it for granted, therefore, that when the king came to Newera Ellia his visit had some object, and we presume that he came to look at the condition of his water-courses and to superintend the digging for precious stones; in the same manner that Ceylon governors of past years visited Arippo during the pearlfishing.

The "diggings" of the kings of Kandy must have been conducted on a most extensive scale. Not only has the Vale of Rubies been regularly turned up for many acres, but all the numerous plains in the vicinity are full of pits, some of very large size and of a depth varying from three to seventeen feet. The Newera Ellia Plain, the Moonstone Plain, the Kondapallé Plain, the Elk Plains, the Totapella Plains, the Horton Plains, the Bopatalava Plains, the Augara Plains (translated "the Diggings"), and many others extending over a surface of thirty miles, are all more or less studded by deep pits formed by the ancient searchers for gems, which in those days were a royal monopoly.

It is not to be supposed that the search for gems would have been thus persevered in unless it was found to be remunerative; but it is a curious fact that no Englishmen are ever to be seen at work at this employment. The natives would still continue the search, were they permitted, upon the "Vale of Rubies;" but I warned them off on purchasing the land; and I have several good specimens of gems which I have discovered by digging two feet beneath the surface.

The surface soil being of a light, peaty quality, the stones, from their greater gravity, lie beneath, mixed with a rounded quartz gravel, which in ages past must have been subjected to the action of running water. This quartz gravel, with its mixture of gems, rests upon a stiff white pipe-clay.

In this stratum of gravel an infinite number of small, and for the most part worthless, specimens of gems are found, consisting of sapphire, ruby, emerald, jacinth, tourmaline, chrysoberyl, zircon, cat's-eye, "moonstone," and "star-stone." Occasionally a stone of value rewards the patient digger; but, unless he thoroughly understands it, he is apt to pass over the gems of most value as pieces of ironstone.

The mineralogy of Ceylon has hitherto been little understood. It has often been suggested as the "Ophir" of the time of Solomon, and doubtless, from its production of gems, it might deserve the name.

It has hitherto been the opinion of most writers on Ceylon that the precious metals do not exist in the island; and Dr. Davy in his work makes an unqualified assertion to that effect. But from the discoveries recently made, I am of opinion that it exists in very large quantities in the mountainous districts of the island.

It is amusing to see the positive assertions of a clever man upset by a few uneducated sailors.

A few men of the latter class, who had been at the gold diggings both in California and Australia, happened to engage in a ship bound for Colombo. Upon arrival they obtained leave from the captain for a stroll on shore, and they took the road toward Kandy, and when about half-way it struck them, from the appearance of the rocks in the uneven bed of a river, called the Maha Oya, "that gold must exist in its sands." They had no geological reason for this opinion; but the river happened to be very like those in California in which they had been accustomed to find gold. They accordingly set to work with a tin pan to wash the sand, and to the astonishment of every one in Ceylon, and to the utter confusion of Dr. Davy's opinions, they actually discovered gold!

The quantity was small, but the men were very sanguine of success, and were making their preparations for working on a more extensive scale, when they were all prostrated by jungle fever - a guardian-spirit of the gold at Amberpussé, which will ever effectually protect it from Europeans.

They all returned to Colombo, and, when convalescent, they proceeded to Newera Ellia, naturally concluding that the gold which existed in dust in the rivers below must be washed down from the richer stores of the mountains.

Their first discovery of gold at Newera Ellia was on the 14th June, 1854, on the second day of their search in that locality. The first gold was found in the "Vale of Rubies."

I had advised them to make their first search in that spot for this reason: that, as the precious stones had there settled in the largest numbers, from their superior gravity, it was natural to conclude that, if gold should exist, it would, from its gravity, be somewhere below the precious stones or in their vicinity.

From the facility with which it has been discovered, it is impossible to form an opinion as to the quantity or the extent to which it will eventually be developed. It is equally impossible to predict the future discoveries which may be made of other minerals. It is well known that quicksilver was found at Cotta, six miles from Colombo, in the year 1797. It was in small quantities, and was neglected by the government, and no extended search was prosecuted. The present search for gold may bring to light mineral resources of Ceylon which have hitherto lain hidden.

The minerals proved to exist up to the present time are gold, quicksilver, plumbago and iron. The two latter are of the finest quality and in immense abundance. The rocks of Ceylon are primitive, consisting of granite, gneiss and quartz. Of these the two latter predominate. Dolomite also exists in large quantities up to an elevation of five thousand feet, but not beyond this height.

Plumbago is disseminated throughout the whole of both soil and rocks in Ceylon, and may be seen covering the surface in the drains by the road side, after a recent shower.

It is principally found at Ratnapoora and at Belligam, in large, detached kidney-shaped masses, from four to twenty feet below the surface. The cost of digging and the transport are the only expenses attending it, as the supply is inexhaustible. Its component parts are nineteen of carbon and one of iron.

It exists in such quantities, in the gneiss rocks that upon their decomposition it is seen in bright specks like silver throughout.

This gneiss rock, when in a peculiar stage of decomposition, has the appearance and consistency of yellow brick, speckled with plumbago. It exists in this state in immense masses, and forms a valuable buildingstone, as it can be cut with ease to any shape required, and, though soft when dug, it hardens by exposure to the air. It has also the valuable property of withstanding the greatest heat; and for furnace building it is superior to the best Stourbridge fire-bricks.

The finest quality of iron is found upon the mountains in various forms, from the small iron-stone gravel to large masses of many tons in weight protruding from the earth's surface.

So fine is that considered at Newera Ellia and the vicinity that the native blacksmiths have been accustomed from time immemorial to make periodical visits for the purpose of smelting the ore. The average specimens of this produce about eighty per cent. of pure metal, even by the coarse native process of smelting. The operations are as follows:

Having procured the desired amount of ore, it is rendered as small as possible by pounding with a hammer.

A platform is then built of clay, about six feet in length by three feet in height and width.

A small well is formed in the centre of the platform, about eighteen inches in depth and diameter, egg-shaped.

A few inches from the bottom of this well is an air-passage, connected with a pipe and bellows.

The well is then filled with alternate layers of charcoal and pulverized iron ore; the fire is lighted, and the process of smelting commences.

The bellows are formed of two inflated skins, like a double "bagpipe." Each foot of the "bellows-blower" is strapped to one skin, the pipes of the bellows being fixed in the air-hole of the blast. He then works the skins alternately by moving his feet up and down, being assisted in this treadmill kind of labor by the elasticity of two bamboos, of eight or ten feet in length, the butts of which, being firmly fixed in the ground, enable him to retain his balance by grasping one with either hand. From the yielding top of each bamboo, a string descends attached to either big toe; thus the downward pressure of each foot upon the bellows strains upon the bamboo top as a fish bears upon a fishing-rod, and the spring of the bamboo assists him in lifting up his leg. Without this assistance, it would be impossible to continue the exertion for the time required.

While the "bellows-blower" is thus getting up a blaze, another man attends upon the well, which he continues to feed alternately with fresh ore and a corresponding amount of charcoal, every now and then throwing in a handful of fine sand as a flux.

The return for a whole day's puffing and blowing will be about twenty pounds weight of badly-smelted iron. This is subsequently remelted, and is eventually worked up into hatchets, hoes, betel-crackers, etc., etc. being of a superior quality to the best Swedish iron.

If the native blacksmith were to value his time at only sixpence per diem from the day on which he first started for the mountains till the day that he returned from his iron-smelting expedition, he would find that his iron would have cost him rather a high price per hundredweight; and if he were to make the same calculation of the value of time, he would discover that by the time he had completed one axe he could have purchased ready made, for one-third the money, an English tool of superior manufacture. This, however, is not their style of calculation. Time has no value, according to their crude ideas; therefore, if they want an article, and can produce it without the actual outlay of cash, no matter how much time is expended, they will prefer that method of obtaining it.

Unfortunately, the expense of transit is so heavy from Newera Ellia to Colombo, that this valuable metal, like the fine timber of the forests, must remain useless.

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The Project Gutenberg Etext prepared by Garry Gill (garrygill@hotmail.com)