Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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I had scarcely settled down to my new life, when an invitation arrived for a dance. Our kind friends the M.'s had seized upon the double excuse of a birthday, and also the two days holiday at the time of the Tamil Thai Pongal Festival to fix January 12th for a sort of house-warming party, on the occasion of Mr. M. taking over the charge of a group of cocoa Estates in Dumbera. Our invitation having duly come, the vital question of transit next presented itself. My son's horse was lame, a great part of the road unfit for my bicycle and ten long miles (and _very_ long the Ceylon miles are) had to be traversed; so we had recourse to the good-nature of a neighbour, who lent us a bullock hackery, a vehicle which demands a few words of description. Imagine an Irish jaunting car, with the seats turned to face fore and aft, at each corner an iron rod which supports a waterproof canopy. The hackery has a pole, to this at the carriage end a little round flat piece of wood is attached, on which the driver sits, at the other end is a yoke which lies between the hump and the head of the bulls, and to which they are fastened by a somewhat complicated arrangement of rope, the reins also being thin rope. The dress of the driver baffles description, a red loin cloth, and red turban are the principal items, but in this case a short white jacket was added, out of respect for me. The white "running bulls" are handsome animals, with large, pathetic dark eyes, enormous dewlaps, and magnificent horns, they only took two hours to go ten miles, part of it over a very bad road.

Our means of conveyance being settled, the next important question was at what time we should start; this, however, did not take long to arrange, for I absolutely declined to go in the heat of the day, for two hours travelling under a Ceylon sun reduces one to a state of limpness, quite incompatible with the enjoyment of society. Wednesday, the 12th, dawned. Heavy rain during the night warned us that the N.E. monsoon was not yet over, but at 7.30 a.m. we made a start in spite of showery weather, but, first a box coolie had to be despatched carrying on his head a light tin box containing all my chiffons. This is the custom of the country, and even young men riding to pay a few hours visit, are preceded by their box coolie carrying the inevitable "steel trunk" on his head.

Our drive was through most enchanting scenery - starting from the wooded mountain gorges of further Dumbera we passed under avenues of red-flowered Dadop (called in Central America "the mother of Cacao" on account of its valuable shade). Banians, jak trees, laden with their colossal fruit, and tall elegant grevilloes; whilst beneath grew Caracas cacao with its red, and Forastero with its crimson and golden pods, and glistening coffee bushes. Now and again we drove over grassy pattenas dotted with clumps of aloes; then a native Estate would bring us to a truly tropical scene, plantains, their long leaves shivering in the breeze, and Areca and Cocoanut Palms reminding one of the Kew hotbouses, only every tree magnified four times in size. The red wayside rocks were clothed everywhere with the most lovely creepers, and luxuriant fern fronds. Sometimes a green paddy (rice) field, and little groups of native huts with their inhabitants in picturesque bright costumes varied the scene. Occasionally we passed a cluster of native shops, with their curious wares, arranged in the verandah for passers-by to see, bunches of bananas depending from the roof, on the counter a few eggs on a plantain leaf, a little dried fish, various curious stuffs, ring shaped cakes, made of honey and flour, bunches of bright beads and other articles dear to the native heart, whilst inside the huts, one might sometimes catch glimpses of shelves laden with gaudy cottons, and the cloths worn by Tamil coolies. I would mention incidentally that a frock of very bright pink cotton seems to be thought the very acme of fashion for little children's wear. Our head Kangany has a bright little boy of two years old, his usual rig is a silver necklace, and another to match which he wears around his waist with a very large silver locket hanging therefrom, presumably to answer the purpose of the primeval fig leaves; but, he also possesses a pink cotton frock in which his mother sometimes proudly clothes him - but no sooner does he get out of her clutches than he takes off his gorgeous garment, and appears again in his necklaces.

At last we reached our destination rather damp in apparel, from the heavy showers, but not so in spirit; for, on me at least, the novelty of my surroundings had a most exhilarating effect. We had a hospitable reception from our host, and his sister, and then I turned to look at the enchanting view. The bungalow stands on a knoll, fronting what is to all appearance a lovely English Park; a herd of cattle grazing under a clump of shady trees adding to the resemblance; beyond this park-like pattena are many broad acres of cocoa and coffee which here stretch across the valley - a magnificent range of mountains rises to the north, the highest peak, called Hunasgeyria, attaining an altitude of four thousand nine hundred feet.

This is a view one could never tire of, whether seen in the rosy dawn, or at golden sunset; or even in the gloom of monsoon time, when fleecy clouds cap the highest peaks, or chase each other along the black sides and into the deep ravines.

Inside the bungalow, in spite of the rain, all was brightness; roses and lilies adorning the principal rooms. By noon most of the guests had arrived, and we sat down to a sumptuous breakfast, after the fashion of continental breakfasts. The intended programme of afternoon amusement, golf, tent-pegging, tennis, and croquet had to be given up owing to bad weather; and indoor games and cards substituted. Everyone, however, seemed as happy as possible, and, as with the exception of our host's mother, and myself, all were young and unmarried, the fun seemed never to flag. At half past seven came dinner, which would have done credit to a London chef. The table decorations were lovely - a tall centrepiece filled with Bermuda lilies stood on a long strip of pink silk, on which were strewed red, yellow and green fruits, whilst a number of slender vases, containing delicate tea roses were placed at intervals down the edge of the silk. We were capitally waited on by six native servants all dressed in spotless white with white turbans. The ladies' pretty ball dresses completed the scene, and I could not help wishing that some of my English friends, who thought I had gone to "the wilds," could have been present.

I will not describe the dance, for it was much as other dances, excepting that there were no "wallflowers," and that the waltzes were (as one might perhaps expect in this hot climate) danced a little more slowly than at home; but I noticed no deficiency of energy in the Washington Post, Pas-de-quatre, or the Lancers. Light refreshments, and unlimited claret cup, as well as other drinkables were served all the evening.

The distances were too great for anyone to go home that night, and by dint of great ingenuity on the part of our hostess, we were all housed. After a late breakfast next morning, most of us went our various homeward ways, having much enjoyed the unaccustomed gaiety; but a flooded rfver prevented the Kandy contingent from leaving. So a large house party remained on, who on the principle of "You can't have too much of a good thing," had a repetition of the dance on the next evening.

Some days previously I had had an experience of a very different kind of dancing. One evening my son and I were sitting quietly in the verandah when we were startled by the beating of tom-toms, and the sound of strange instruments close at hand. On enquiry we found that being close upon Pongal time, the coolies of a neighbouring Estate, but living close to our boundary, wished to dance for us. So we graciously accepted the honour, and the entertainment began.

I shall never forget the weird scene. What a medley of races and civilisations. In the verandah we sat - an English lady, and gentleman in conventional evening dress - behind us stood our Malay servants; whilst outside on the gravelled terrace were grouped figures who, in feature and attire, might have belonged to a period contemporary with Abraham or Moses. The background immediately behind the dancers was a belt of trees, but to the right, tall cocoanut palms shot up against a starlight sky, whilst between their graceful stems, one could see distinctly in the bright moonlight, range after range of mountains fading away in the distance.

There were no women amongst the twenty performers, but one man was dressed to personate a woman; he wore a wig parted in the middle and drawn down over the ears, an imitation of the old-fashioned "cottage bonnet" in brass, turned back at the edge (which must have been frightfully heavy), a quantity of jewellery, a muslin dress and a shawl-like covering over the shoulders. They prefaced the dance by a sort of prelude on the so-called musical instruments, then a man stepped forward singing, in a slow sort of chanting way, then another joined in what appeared a kind of dialogue duet, always getting faster; at length the lady rushed quickly to the front, performing the most extraordinary gyrations, turning first to one and then to the other, she sang at them both in a shrill scolding voice. These three men were evidently the principal performers, the others acted the part of chorus, chiming in occasionally whilst the tom-toms marked time. I have not the least idea what it was all about, but I imagine that the two men were suitors for the lady's hand, and that she wavered between the two, as many other ladies do. The singing was not melodious, but the good time kept, and the graceful rhythmical movement of the feet, was very pleasant to watch. Whilst this grand ballet was being executed, at the side under the palms two men with long lances were having a sham encounter; at last they got so excited, that it became real earnest, and they had to be separated by their friends. Soon after, Rob called the headman of the party, tendered him our thanks, and dismissed them with a present; but first each performer came and prostrated himself at Rob's feet and then at mine, with a curious motion of the hand as if picking something off the ground. I do not know what it meant, but I am sure it was something gracious, for they all looked so pleased and happy; it may have been to denote that they accepted our present.

On my way out in the "Cheshire," I saw a better example of Sinhalese dancing from a troupe who had been performing at Marseilles and were returning to their native country as deck passengers. They gave us an exhibition on the main deck. The devil dancers wore an extraordinary get-up, artificial hips made of red and white cotton fringe which swung about as they danced. They had also curious masks and bead decorations; and in this and the war dance which followed whirled about so wildly, and worked themselves up into such a frenzy that I was quite glad when it ended. Though curious and fantastic, the performance lacked the picturesque mise-en-scene, the palms, the weird moonlight shadows, and the solitude, of our dancers.

On our return home the last evening of Pongal, we passed through some native villages evidently "en fete." Arches decorated the fronts of some of the huts, whilst to the verandah posts of others, banana trees were tied, fringes of the young plantain leaves cut into curious shapes depended between the posts. Firework crackers were being let off, whilst along the roads we passed several men who had kept Pongal "not wisely, but too well."

Directly we reached home Rob was surrounded by men with complaints and quarrels to be settled. He knew they were all incidents of the Festival, so quietly told them to come again on the morrow, and, of course, heard no more about the matter. We also told our servant to let it be known we were too tired that night to receive a deputation of the coolies, which, rumour said was going to wait upon us with presents, but that next day we should be very pleased to see them. Accordingly the next afternoon a little before sunset, we heard approaching tom-toms, and shortly afterwards were called to receive our visitors. They were headed by the principal kangany or overseer, a handsome, long haired Indian sheep with fine curling horns, decorated with flowers, was tied to the verandah post, the colour, red and black, and texture of its coat, resembling a goat much more than a sheep. Then there were two dishes handed to us, one containing a pineapple and plantains, the other, eggs, two pounds of raisins, two pounds of sugar, some cocoanut toffee, and a tin of mixed biscuits, the last, to my amusement, bearing the ubiquitous brand "Made in Germany." Rob made a little speech of thanks. I, not understanding or speaking a word of Tamil, was at a loss what to do to show my gratitude, but I nodded, and smiled, and proceeded then and there to eat one of the plantains.

The Kangany and his wife then knelt on the ground at my feet, and prostrated themselves touching the earth with their forehead. This was somewhat embarrassing, for though this estate is called by the coolies Raneetotem, I am not at all accustomed to playing the part of ranee on this or any other stage. Rob gave them a return present and as soon as they had gone a short distance, sent the sheep back with a great many thanks, and a polite message that he would not deprive them of it. I believe this was expected and great beating of tom-toms notified their approval; and so ended a truly Eastern scene. Only a pencil and brush could do justice to the picturesque group in their many coloured turbans, and the rich brown skins against the sombre green background. Above all the exquisite rosy tints of sunset, whilst in the distance violet mountains reared their heads against a daffodil sky. Truly a tropical sunset is a perfect dream of beauty, and the figures in the foreground gave just the touch of life which completed the picture.

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