Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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AUGUST 1st. - Last night we had another tremendous gale, the wind rustled through the cocoanut palms, and whistled through the Casuarinas just as it does through the rigging of a ship, and once or twice I was quite alarmed; the wind and noise of cracking branches even quieted the rats behind the ceiling cloth. Alas! it did not bring the much hoped for rain. All the reputed signs of coming rain have been with us for some days - the cocoa has flushed - the rain-bird has given forth its curious cry - the frogs have croaked - and the sky has been black and threatening. We have seen rain showers travelling to right and left of us, but excepting for a few tantalising drops, we have been left dry and parched and are beginning to fear that, for us, this monsoon will be a failure and most of the young plants will die, and must be replaced when the N.E. monsoon visits us in December. This would mean a good deal of extra expense, which in these days of keen competition is a thing upon which the Visiting Agent would not smile.

No one who has not lived on an Estate out here, could imagine what a Potentate the V.A. is. On him, and on his approval hangs your fate; from his veto there is no appeal! and on his favour depends much of the comfort of your life. He is to the estates under his charge, what the general is to his army, what the headmaster is in a public school, or what a certain European sovereign is, or wishes to be to the nation over which he rules. This awestruck attitude of mind, at first amused me much; and I am afraid were I a superintendent, I should never attain to the necessary amount of submission.

I can imagine life on your own Estate where you are accountable to no one, being perfectly ideal, supposing always, it were in a good climate, and happened to pay, but for a man of middle age and upwards to have to submit his mature judgment to another man of his own age, requires an amount of patience and good temper not possessed by every one, and detracts much from the pleasure of a planter's life. Still all this is, I suppose, unavoidable, for the V.A. is a most necessary check on extravagant expenditure, and a great safeguard to the interests of the shareholders, and absent owners. A tactful man, with a knowledge of the world, as well as a knowledge of business, can make his visits a valuable help as well as a pleasant social event. Happily, our V.A. is very popular amongst the company's employees, whose work he inspects, and they look forward with pleasure to his coming, and try their best to carry out his suggestions. V.A.'s themselves must sometimes have a disagreeable time of it, for, their mission cannot be always one of praise and approval, and they are sometimes forced to dismiss a faulty superintendent at a moment's notice.

Two incidents very typical of native character happened this week. We were spending Sunday with some friends ten miles away, when suddenly a Raneetotem kangany, attended by one of his coolies, appeared. He came to lay a complaint against our appu, who he said had gone down to the Lines the previous night, had got drunk, thrashed a coolie so badly that he must go to the hospital, and had stabbed him (the kangany) with a knife. Rob asked to see the stab, but none could be found, and the coat which was supposed to be cut was simply a little frayed, so he suspected it was all an invention, and sent the man home, promising to enquire into the whole matter when he returned there next morning. He did so, took the evidence of the head kangany - the appu - and some others separately, and they all agreed that no coolie had been beaten - no knife had been seen or used, and that our appu had only come down from the bungalow to help some of the kanganies to restore order in a great row which was taking place between the informer and another man. He was taxed with his untruthfulness and malice, severely reprimanded, and fined twenty rupees, which to a man of his position is a large sum.

When I returned in the evening all was quiet again, and I must confess though we had not believed in the accusation it was a great relief to Rob and myself to find our servant was not to blame, for he is a most excellent "boy," and has been many years with his master, having nursed him faithfully through several severe illnesses. This little incident shows how extremely difficult it is to sift evidence, to decide on the credibility of witnesses, and to mete out blame and punishment in the right quarter, owing to the total disregard of truth, and the deceitfulness and duplicity of the native character; joined to these traits there is a curious strain of simplicity, for happily they do not take the trouble, or have not the ability to make their falsehoods hang well together, nor have they the forethought to see that if you enquire further into the matter they will be found out.

Superstition is another national characteristic. I have previously mentioned the deserted coolie lines at Raneetotem - deserted, because they are supposed to be infested by "presassies" or devils. A short time ago, a gang of new coolies arrived on the estate; before being taken on, it was explained to their kangany that if they came here, they wouid have to occupy these lines which would he done up and made comfortable for their reception, the new coolies meanwhile sharing the already much over-crowded quarters of our people. To all this the kangany agreed. He said, "he wasn't afraid of any devils nor were his coolies, and directly the place was ready they would occupy it." Accordingly the necessary repairs were carried out, the surrounding ground on which were lots of fruit trees, was cleared and made to look neat, and soon all was ready, including an excellent well of water. For several weeks the kangany made excuses for not moving in, and at last he and his coolies flatly refused to go there, and face the devils, making the excuse that the women of the party were timid, and would not bear of staying there alone whilst the men were at work. It would be unwise to compel them to go, for they would either run away in a body (which would be inconvenient) or else some of the more nervous might die of fright.

A friend tells me he has known two perfectly healthy young girls die in a couple of days after, as they said, the devil had come to them; and Rob knew a man who said he saw the devil in the jungle, and in a few hours was dead. It is supposed to be a curious form of hysteria which attacks the victims; these visitations usually take place about sunset.

So our deserted Lines still remain deserted; but it is settled that the kangany is himself to pay the expense of their having been made habitable.

I am told that this is not at all an uncommon incident and that in most districts there are these deserted houses. Our friend told me that the way he succeeded in getting his set reoccupied was by giving his kangany twenty rupees in order to have a great feast on the spot, a reputed exorcist in the shape of an old man, first turning out the devils by the aid of incantations, sacrifices, and much beating of tom-toms. When a whole night had been made hideous in this manner the devils were said to have departed, and the coolies took up their abode there, and the lines have remained occupied ever since. Probably in most cases the original prejudice arose from an unhealthy feverish season causing an unusual number of deaths amongst the inhabitants.

AUGUST 8th. - l have just returned from a visit to Kandy where I went in order to witness the Perahera, the great Sinhalese Buddhist Festival which takes place annually at the time of the full moon which falls nearest to the end of July. This year it was rather unusually late, the last day of the festival being on the 7th August. It lasts ten days, and during that time the procession nightly parades the streets: but the last night of all is the grandest. Sinhalese from all the neighbouring countryside flock into Kandy, and when I drove in one Friday afternoon the usually empty streets looked like some brilliant flower bed, from the masses of red, orange, violet, and white, composing the native dresses. Everyone tried to have a new cloth for the occasion, and the Sinhalese ladies drove about the town, loaded with handsome jewellery, dressed in delicate silks, with their little low-necked, short, white jackets a mass of lace and embroidery.

The grass square bordering on Kandy lake was fringed with booths. These were the very strangest mixture of East and West - stalls crowded with native cakes, sweetmeats and fruits, next perhaps to a phonograph. Again, a stall with bottles of sherbet coloured by the flowers of the hibiscus, and other Ceylon vegetable dyes, side by side with a cinematograph. Besides these there were numerous lotteries, and most popular of all - a merry-go-round. It looked wonderfully queer to see the wooden steeds ridden by natives in their very unEnglish dress. A man clothed in a garment like a long narrow petticoat does not look elegant astride of a horse.

Of course the great event of the day, or rather night, is the procession. About 6 p.m, which means dusk in this latitude, we went to the Temple compound to see the preliminary ceremony - the dressing of the elephants in all their finery. No sooner had I entered the enclosure than, much to my embarrassment, an elephant was brought up to make a "salaam" to the "Nona" (Sinhalese for lady.) This it did by going down on its fore knees. This was of course the signal for me to give a small donation, and I have no doubt a good deal of money is collected in this way. Having walked round and inspected the other elephants, the various shrines, and the sacred Bo tree, we went home to have an early dinner before the great event of the evening.

About eight o'clock a gun was fired from the temple as a signal for the procession to start. First came men bearing flags, then the great temple elephant carrying a silver gilt shrine supposed to contain Buddha's tooth (but it doesn't,) the tooth is kept safely under lock and key inside the temple. This huge beast has a gorgeous face-cloth embroidered with gold and silver thread, and encrusted with jewels; his tusks are first twisted round with white muslin, and are then placed in gold sheaths, each sheath having a magnificent ruby, set at its base. At each side of this elephant walks another of nearly, but not quite equal size, these have scarlet face-cloths, having a gold image of Buddha, and other gold devices fastened to the cloth: they are each bestridden by a Kandyan chief in white, with his lap full of flowers, which quite scent the air, and by three or four other men bearing silver gilt umbrellas, and stiff banners, something like an old-fashioned banner screen. After these comes a native band, tom-toms, conch shells, and pipes (not unlike bag-pipes in sound); then a group of dancers, who dance before each of the Kandyan chiefs, reminding one of the men who danced before David. These chiefs wear most extraordinary costumes, first a pair of white full calico or muslin trousers coming down tight to the ankles, and finished off with a little frill. Over this a kind of white shirt, and above all, yards and yards of white muslin twisted round and round that part of the body which Englishmen try to reduce to slim proportions; fashions vary, and here evidently a vast girth is admired. Over the white full shirt a bolero jacket of silk or satin, embroidered in gold or silver, is worn. The magnificent jewelled belts which these chiefs inherit from their ancestors are of such a huge size, that really this great quantity of muslin, sometimes 60 yards, is required to keep them on. These peg top figures are surmounted by a curiously shaped, aimost flat white hat, impossible to describe.

The Chiefs are preceded by their distinctive banners, and followed by their retainers to the number of some hundreds, a motley crew, but nevertheless picturesque, seen by the light of torches and braziers held high aloft - indeed the whole procession, which extends for about half a mile, is well lighted, and the gold and silver and jewels flash in the weird flaring glow.

Elephants, bands, dancers or jugglers, chiefs, retainers follow each other over and over again in the same order as I have described. There are four subsidiary temples, and they each send their contingent. The whole thing winds up with four richly curtained Palanquin in which are borne vessds of gold and silver gilt, containing holy water extracted the preceding year, for temple use, from the sacred river the Mahavillagange (the Ganges of Ptolemy).

The procession was not without its comic elements. One was the police marshal, a ruddy portly Englishman, who looked red, supremely uncomfortable, and out of place, amidst his eastern surroundings, but whose business it is to keep order, and to accompany the procession in its tortuous course through the streets. The other comic incident was two natives dressed up in European costume, solar topee, false whiskers, and beard, they were mounted on very high stilts, and occasionally took off their hats with exaggerated politeness, evidently intended as a skit on our manners and customs.

Some of the dancers were extremely graceful, each group being differently dressed: one set had on a curious kind of armour of many coloured beads; another set were dressed as women, and threw their bright brass chatties into the air as they went through the different evolutions, never failing to catch them again. Thousands of people thronged the streets, the scene was one of barbaric splendour that I can never forget. I was fortunate enough to see it three times from a different coign of vantage, so it is indelibly impressed on my mind. Later in the night, a friend took me round the green, where behind the fringe of booths I saw a most extraordinary sight, whole families of tired villagers had laid themselves down to sleep in family groups, even including the inevitable baby, with large umbrellas fixed over their heads to keep off the dew.

Next morning the festival culminated in the expedition to the Mahavillagange, near Peradeniya, about three miles from Kandy, in order to cut the waters of the river with swords. The residue of last years holy water is poured back into the bosom of the river, and a fresh supply taken in from the portion of water disturbed by the sword; then the multitude return to Kandy. Once more the procession wends its way through the streets, a gun is fired from the temple as a signal that all is over, and in less than an hour the crowd has melted away, the booths are being taken down and the town is in the hands of a perfect army of scavengers. Before evening, all was as quiet as if the ten days festival had never taken place.

I was astonished at the orderliness of the crowd, during the two days that I was present. I only saw one drunken man and he was being taken away out of sight by some of his companions. Though I went freely about the streets, I never met with the slightest incivility or the least rudeness or pushing. I am afraid I should not be able to say the same for an English crowd of like proportions.

During the year many other pereheras are held in Kandy, and the other different towns, but on a much smaller scale than this.

It must be remembered that Ceylon is the head-quarters of Buddhism. A late census gives 760,000 as the number of members of this religion residing on the island. From the same source I quote an interesting classification of those attached to the various Buddhist temples; 6300 priests; 300 temple servants; 140 tom-tom beaters; 1532 devil- dancers; 200 astrologers; 200 actors, and nautch dancers; 120 snake charmers; 168 musicians. The very enumeration thereof gives me a whirling sense of noise and motion very foreign to our western ideas of religion.

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