Every Day Life on a Ceylon Cocoa Estate

by Mary E. Steuart
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JANUARY 28th. - For weeks past the principal topic of conversation has been the expected arrival of a magnificent casket presented by the Buddhists of Burmah to the great temple in Kandy, for the purpose of enshrining Buddha's tooth. The money for this valuable shrine has been many years collecting, and the costly undertaking which appealed to the religious enthusiasm of the Burmese was only lately accomplished. Two thousand Burmese pilgrims came over to take part in the presentation, and to visit the various spots held sacred by their co-religionists in Ceylon, including Adams Peak, and Anaradhapura. These pilgrims had amongst them the High Priest of Burmah, a very rich old lady said to be possessed of L250,000, five princesses, and many noblemen, and other ladies and gentlemen, with their retinue. While on pilgrimage they demanded no special privileges, excepting that when in Ceylon the most distinguished travelled first class. Otherwise, from religious motives, they discarded for the time being all social distinctions, mixing freely with the other pilgrims, regardless of rank and willingly undergoing the unavoidable amount of discomfort of a crowded ship, and other drawbacks incidental to the movement of masses of people.

A Ceylonese Reception Committee was formed, who arranged that the visitors should all be hospitably entertained both at Colombo and Kandy. The casket was brought over in several pieces and put together in Ceylon, the Customs Duty alone amounted to Rs5500, which was paid by a devout Ceylon gentleman. A number of extra jewels, rubies, brilliants, sapphires, catseyes, &c. were also given by Sinhalese, these were incorporated in the shrine when it was finally put together in Colombo. The value of the casket is now said to amount to sixty thousand pounds; a sum which speaks volumes for the religious enthusiasm of the donors - the Burmese people.

The distance from the station to the Temple is not more than half a mile, part of the road lying along the shore of Kandy lake. The casket was carried in a glass case on poles, preceded by three fine elephants dressed in Perahera fashion, and immediately followed by the Burmese High Priests who had it in charge. The crowd was enormous and one fatal accident occurred, which was much to be regretted. For some days past this magnificent shrine has been exhibited for a few hours daily in the Band Stand on the Public Green. Hearing that yesterday Buddha's tooth was also to be on view at the Temple, a concession which is usually only accorded when Royalty pays a visit to the Island, I hastened into Kandy to gratify my curiosity, and to see all that was going on.

As soon as we reached the public road, we came upon groups of villagers dressed in their best clothes, wending their way to Kandy. The ferry was crowded with them, and the first glimpse of the town itself reminded me of the great August Perahera excepting that happily the merry-go-round, phonograph, cinematograph, etc., etc., were conspicuous by their absence, but the same booths with native refreshments and the same maimed beggars lined the way. The temple walls had once more their frieze of yellow draped priests, and brightly clad secular spectators, and a grand Pandal stood before the principal entrance of the Dalada Maligawa.

The band-stand was extended by broad overhanging eaves of talipot palm, and on each side of it temporary open structures were raised, and elegantly decorated. In these, during the early part of the day, I saw a number of priests being hospitably fed, with large plates of what appeared to me to be a mixture of native cakes, rice and plantains; later on, the precious casket took their place.

It is in the shape of a Burmese Pagoda, and at the top is a ruby worth Rs2000 (L140). The body of the casket is of gold, in which some very precious gems, and numbers of lesser value are encrusted.

This costly object is surmounted by a canopy of silver also inlaid with precious stones which many people think more beautiful than the casket itself.

Two smaller gold shrines, already in the possession of the Temple were also exhibited, but I was disappointed in these, for although they were about two and a half and three feet in height with six rows of gems encircling each, they were so dirty and the gold so tarnished, that the whole thing looked tawdry, and it was very difficult to realise that the large square cut jewels were not shams.

After visiting the band-stand I proceeded with a friend to the Temple itself, to view the Tooth. The crowd outside was immense, but when once the portals were passed, and the moat crossed, good order, and a clear pathway, were kept by a detachment of Ceylon Police, who were on duty in charge of an Inspector. Being the only Europeans present, the police kindly allowed my friend and me to leave the throngs and go up the stair of egress instead of ingress, which was densely packed, and so after passing through an ancient archway and up a flight of stone steps worn away by the feet of many generations of pilgrims, we quickly found ourselves in a kind of central hall, in which a number of Burmese were lying prostrate on their faces worshipping before the tooth.

The interior of the hall had been profusely decorated for the occasion, the design which struck me most was an arch in white and red cloth folded into shapes intended to resemble stucco mouldings, very effective and quaint, seen in the artificial light which alone penetrates this sanctum, and a typical Kandyan form of decoration. At one end of the hall, on a raised platform, which was protected by a strong wooden barrier, on a gold stand covered with a glass shade we beheld the sacred tooth. A long black tusk supported in a light framework of precious metal. Anything more ugly it would be difficult to imagine, and it passes comprehension how such a thing can be the object of adoration of millions of our fellow subjects.

We quickly saw enough, the Temple interior being familiar both to myself and my friend, we therefore descended into the open air, by the way we had come, very thankful to escape from the overpowering scent of cocoanut oil, masses of sickly sweet floral offerings, spices, and above all, dense throngs of over-heated humanity.

I fell deeply in love with the Burmese ladies, whom I met in the streets of Kandy. They had such gentle, intellectual faces, with a great air of refinement, and good breeding. Their pretty dresses - silk skirts with full, short jackets - and well dressed glossy hair, added much to their attractiveness; but I am sorry to say some of them were smoking long cheroots. The lower classes of the Burmese pilgrims were certainly not beautiful: broad flat faces, and square unwieldy figures appeared to be their distinguishing traits; though I must confess they nearly all looked intelligent and good-tempered. The ladies trotted in and out of the jewellers and curiosity shops evidently making purchases to take home as mementos of their pilgrimage.

I, too, went in search of curiosities, to carry away with me, notably a kind of coarse pottery, which is to be obtained in the open shops in the native portion of the town and reminds me somewhat of Breton pottery. The shopkeepers, much to my amusement, always recommended their European wares. "This, very good lady, best London make." I secured several cups and saucers of grey ware, Japanese or Chinese (I don't know which) for the equivalent of 2d a cup, and saucers and basins of the same for 3d each. Another day I got a small basin from a native caddy in Dumbera for sixpence. It had a border of a particularly good blue, and was enriched by sprigs of roses, in delicate tints of pink and yellow. I could fill a crate with this uncommon and decorative pottery, were it not for the expense of freight and the risk of breakage.

JANUARY 30th. - We are having an uncomfortable experience common to England as well as Ceylon. We are at this moment minus a cook! The faithful servant who has been so many years with my son left us two days ago to be married. We all thought a satisfactory substitute had been provided, but he did not appear as he promised, so we are at the mercy of the kitchen coolie, and a young horsekeeper (groom) who has some taste for cooking, and has often watched the boy at work. I ransacked Kandy for a cook, but without avail, not a single servant was disengaged owing to the influx of Burmese visitors. Even the servants' registry, which by the way is a government institution, and abides under the roof of the police barracks, had not a single name on its books, so there is nothing for it but to put up with very plain living until our servant returns from his honeymoon, in ten days' time.

The wedding feast is to extend over three days and it is to cost him 100 rupees (L7), part of which has to be borrowed at high interest, but it is thought de rigeur, and he prefers to start in life crippled by debt rather than to do without the customary great Tamasha. The present to his bride is to be an English sovereign (15 rupees in value) with which to make some small article of jewellery. The servants when married have a room or rooms allotted to them in the nearest Lines to the Bungalow, where the wife lives, and the husband retires to when the day's work is over.

An amusing incident has just occurred. Tamil men rejoice in very long hair, which often reaches to their waist: this they let down after bathing and often when travelling, but Bungalow servants and horsekeepers are supposed to have short hair, as looking smarter, and being more cleanly. Rob has long been trying to persuade his young horsekeeper to be cropped, but hitherto without avail. He is a sensitive kind of boy, and fears being a laughing stock. However, to-day the barber appeared on one of his periodical visits. Rob happened to be at home, and insisted upon the deed being done. Poor Marimutu has lost all his beautiful hair, but looks all the smarter in consequence.

Sometimes coolies have their long hair cut in order that they may present it as a religious offering at the Saami-house. Also it is etiquette to have their heads shaved in token of mourning for the loss of either father or mother. My little garden coolie at Raneetotem kept his head closely shaved for six months after his mother's death; but as a rule they are very proud of their long tresses.

FEBRUARY 2nd. - An unusual amount of rain has fallen lately. The rainfall for January reached the total of eleven inches, more than a third of the whole rainfall (on this Estate) for last year, which was thirty inches. Dumbera is a dry district, therefore we welcome rain with great joy more especially in January, for it starts us on the hot months of February, March and April, with water in the wells, and moist cool ground. Our amount of rain, although a good deal for Dumbera, is not to be compared to what they have had in some districts. My friends in East Matale had forty inches last month.

You in England, where the average annual rainfall is only thirty and thirty-five inches can hardly realise what this means to us. No less than rusty keys, musty flour, matches that won't light, dripping ceilings, mildewed shoes and boots, every article of clothing (even those in the almirahs) damp, and even wet, the woodwork breaking out into heads of dew, flabby notepaper, and the stamps all sticking together; an odour of mildew and must pervading everything. Added to this, in the low country we have no fireplaces, so we have patiently and cheerfully to bide our time, until on the first sunny day, we can turn all our goods and chattels into the garden, where a few hours in the dry air and sunshine makes everything once more sweet and wholesome.

The flying foxes, of which we had lately such myriads, have now quite disappeared. I suppose they have retired to their island home in the river.

FEBRUARY 3rd. - A flutter and a shudder have passed through our little household. I had just finished my afternoon tea in the verandah, and was sitting watching the garden coolie water the pot plants, when suddenly he came to a dead stop in front of a stand of ferns, about three yards from my chair, and took to his heels without saying a word. I thought be had become suddenly demented, but when he returned a moment afterwards accompanied by the other servants armed with sticks I quickly took in the situation - a cobra no less! It lay between the pots of fern, darting up its head, and shooting out its tongue at the approach of its enemy. A gun was quickly brought and the creature shot in the neck. It was not killed, but wriggled on to the ground where it was finally despatched by blows from the sticks, but it appeared to be extraordinarily tenacious of life.

This cobra had been seen several times in the neighbourhood of the Bungalow, but had always managed to get away, so there was great rejoicing over its destruction. It made me shudder to think how easily one of us might have been bitten, whilst unsuspiciously tending the ferns, and very thankful that we had all escaped so well. Cobras are supposed to go about in pairs, when you kill one, another soon appears in the same place, so it behoves us for a time to be extra watchful. Whilst on the subject of cobras - I must insert a very amusing letter copied from the "Ceylon Observer." It was written by a Babu to the Editor of the "Upper Burma Gazette," as follows:-

(To the Editor "Upper Burma Gazette.")

"Sir, - I should like to bring to notice of public through widely scattered columns of your valuable journal a peradventure that overtook my personality whilst taking nocturnal perambulations on the West Moat Road in order to caution fellow citizens against simultaneous danger. Whilst wending my way along abovesaid thoroughfare in the evening of the 22nd ultimo, and pursuing a course as crow flies towards my humble domicile, I was suddenly and instantaneously confronted with monstrous hissing and much confounded in immediate vicinity. I first remained sotto voce, and then applying close scrutiny of my double optics to the spot whence proceeded abovesaid disturbance I was much horrified and temporaneously paralysed to lo! and behold a mighty enormous reptile of Cobra-de-Capello making frontal attack. My pedal appendages being only clothed in wooden sandals; I thereupon immediately took to nether limbs and beat hasty retreat (as stated in war telegrams) or in other words made rapid retrograde movement by locomotion of lower shanks, though personally much courageous. I should like to indignantly question - what are newly selected City Fathers cogitating that they should not take commensurate steps to relegate such carnivorous animals to limbo oblivion and insure safety of pedestrians and footpads? Please answer me this inscrutable question, famous Sir? Praying for welfare and increase of filial bond. I am, most obedient Sir, your ever obedient servant, BABU CHOWDRY BOSE.

"N.B. - If this epistle is consigned to wastepaper basket and no notice taken of my humble complaint, I shall memoriate in other papers." - M. Mail, Jan 27.

A few days later we had a most interesting visit from two snake- charmers - who undertook to catch any snakes that might lurk round the bungalow. Another cobra had been seen in some grass, but below the flower garden, so we were glad to let them try, first stipulating that unless snakes were found and caught, they would receive no payment. Every precaution was taken to ensure that they did not themselves place the snakes where they were afterwards found, and they were watched from the time they came within a mile of the Bungalow, and were never lost sight of for a moment, until they had finished their work. They brought with them a bag containing two cobras caught elsewhere; this bag was tightly fastened and watched by some of our own servants. The charmers' dress was so scanty that it would have been impossible for them to conceal about their persons the large snakes they afterwards caught. The men were very unkempt looking Tamils - said to belong, as do the other snake-charmers, to a tribe of Indian gipsies, who inherit this extraordinary power.

The business arrangement being completed, the elder man stepped forward, accompanied by his assistant, and followed by Rob and myself and four Bungalow servants to the piece of waste land covered with grass and cheddy, where the cobra had been seen. Arrived at the spot, the leader danced forward with a light springy step - best described by the old-fashioned phrase "on the light fantastic toe" - a step one might imagine elves and fairies tripping - so light were his movements that scarce a blade of grass bent beneath his airy tread; meanwhile, he played little trilling tunes on a peculiarly sweet reed pipe - the music being supposed to attract the snake. We were all perfectly silent, and Rob and I were just beginning to vote the whole thing humbug when behold a movement and a rustle in the long grass - with a sharp exclamation the snake-charmer made a dart forward, and drew forth a large cobra, holding it by the neck. I am quite certain it was all bona-fide, for our men never took their eyes off the man and his assistant, and even accompanied the latter when he took the cobra to place it in the bag with the others.

The same performance was repeated three times more, in different places round the bungalow - with the result that another cobra and two tic polongas (also a dangerous snake) were caught. During the capture of the last a most exciting incident happened. The assistant, who we were afterwards told was rather new to the work, in catching the snake took hold of it in the wrong place, and it bit him on the finger. His terror and pain were great, and I was much frightened myself, for I knew the bite of a tic polonga was supposed to mean death in half an hour. The older man at once made the wound bleed freely, and then applied two snake-stones over the bite, twisting a piece of string tightly round the finger below the place bitten. A snake-stone is a small piece of animal charcoal, polished until it looks like a dark green pebble; whether it is rubbed with an antidote or otherwise treated, I cannot say - but twice I have seen its efficacy proved. I only wish that doctors would not be too proud to study the subject.

The man was evidently in great agony, and at this stage, I must confess I took myself off, as there were plenty of people to attend to him, and I thought every moment he would die. Rob gave him some whiskey, and awaited events.

In about twenty minutes, I heard the sweet little trills of the pipe once more, and on going out, found the invalid quite recovered, though looking rather shaky, and the two men hunting for more snakes; no more, however, were found. Before going away they said they wished to give us a little performance, which meant letting the four cobras and two tic polongas creep and crawl about the yard almost up to our feet, then catching and throwing them from one hand to the other and letting them crawl up to us again, and so da capo. As the bite of either would be deadly, it was a gruesome entertainment, even with snake-stones at hand, so we soon said we had had enough. Rob gave them Rs10; they presented him with a snakestone, and departed carrying the snakes with them.

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