When the forest and jungle of north-central or north-western Ceylon is viewed from the upper part of a hill of considerable height, it has the appearance of a dark green sea, across which, if there be any wind, waves closely resembling those of the ocean roll along in parallel lines as the swaying tree tops bend under the gusts of the breeze. As clouds pass between it and the sun their shadows of darker green follow each other over this seemingly illimitable ocean. The undulations of the ground are lost; all appears to be at one general level, except that here and there a little island is visible where a low rocky mound succeeds in raising its head above the verdant waves.
Any hills of lower elevation than our post of observation look strangely dwarfed, while higher ones behind us stand out more prominently than ever. In the immediate neighbourhood, perhaps glimpses may be obtained of one or two pale green rice fields, contrasting with the darker foliage around them, and of the light blue reflection of the sky in the water of a village tank; but further away there is no break in the uniformity of the forest sea. No houses are to be seen nor sounds heard, and the visible country appears to be an uninhabited silent wilderness of vegetation.
Let us descend from such an elevated post, and proceed to examine the depths of the green ocean at closer quarters. I shall assume that the reader is accompanying me on a visit to a Kandian village, where we can learn something of the mode of life and the ideas of the dwellers in this jungle, and become acquainted with some of the animals who are introduced into the stories which they relate.
We leave the dusty main roads, and follow a winding village path, never straight for a hundred yards except by accident—not such a path as was constantly encountered thirty or more years ago, on which the overhanging thorny bushes often made it necessary to bend low or run the risk of having one’s clothes torn, but a track flanked with grass, having the bushes completely cleared away for a width of twelve feet.
For a long distance we journey under an exhausting, pitiless, brazen sun, which during all the middle part of the day the traveller feels but never sees—never directing his gaze towards its blinding glare. The heat is reflected from the unsheltered path. Shut out from the cooling breath of the wind, we have on each side only closely interlaced jungle, a tangled growth, consisting chiefly of leafy thorns and creepers from ten to fifteen feet high, interspersed at varying intervals with a few large trees. This is the wild growth that has sprung up on the sites of abandoned chēnas or jungle clearings, and will be cut down again for them from five to seven years afterwards.
An occasional recent example of such a clearing may be passed, having a few large surviving scorched trees, and several smaller ones, interspersed among the growing crop of green millet. Round this a rough fence made by laying sticks and blackened sapling trunks horizontally between pairs of crooked posts—part of the unconsumed remains after the cut and dried up bushes had been burnt—protects the crop from the intrusion of deer and pigs and buffaloes.
Near the middle of the clearing, where two young trees grow in proximity, two thin posts have been fixed in the ground, and between these four supports a floor of sticks has been constructed at a height of ten or twelve feet above the ground, reached by a rough stick ladder with rungs two feet apart, and having a thatched roof overhead, and a flimsy wall of sticks, interwoven with leafy twigs or grass on the windward side. A thin floor of earth, watered and beaten until it became hard, permits a small fire of sticks to be made in the shelter if the nocturnal air be chilly. In this solitary watch-hut a man, or sometimes two, sit or lie nightly, in order to drive away intruding animals that may successfully evade or break through the protecting fence, and feed on the crop.
In such clearings are cultivated chiefly millet of different sorts, or edible grasses, sesame, and a small pulse called mun; while in the richer soil around some scattered conical brown anthills are planted maize, pumpkins, or red chillies, and a few small cucumbers called kaekiri, bearing yellow or reddish fruit some six inches long. Climbing up two or three of the smaller trees are to be seen gourds, with their curious, hanging, pale, bottle-shaped fruit.
Along the path through the chēna jungle there are not many signs of life. A Monitor Lizard or “Iguana,” about four feet long, which we frighten as it was licking up ants and other insects on the roadside with its extensile thin tongue, scurries off quickly, and disappears down a hole in the side of an anthill. Over the jungle come the slow monotonous calls, “Tok, tok, tok, tok,” of a small Barbet, perched on the topmost twig of one of the higher trees, jerking its body to the right and left as it repeats its single note. A Woodpecker crosses the path with a screaming cry, three times repeated, and a few other birds may appear at intervals, but otherwise there is not much to break the sameness.