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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

1. Towards a unknown land

From Gaminie Vijith Samrakoon's 'Lost Trails in Yala East'
                                                            Edited by Lalith Seneviratna 

It would be almost dawn, when the Batticaloa night mail train that leaves Colombo Fort railway station after eight in the evening reaches Valachchena, the first East Coast town in its journey. With the rising sun as the backdrop, the unfolding panorama is fascinating to say the least and is not to be witnessed anywhere except in that part of the country. The sandy flat land on either side of the railway track is dotted with scrub bushes that have been stunted by seasonal heavy blowing. Far reaching branches of sparsely distributed, well grown cashew trees are stretched-out close to the ground. Bluish sea appears through the sand dunes on the coast as the tired train lumbers on. It is an unforgettable experience for a stranger like me visiting the East Coast for the first time

As the train reaches Batticaloa, the passengers collect their heavy bags and baggage and say good bye to the friends they made along the long journey. It is rare for any Sinhalese to be left among them because Tamils and Muslims dominate the eastern part of the country. Most of the Sinhalese would have alighted by the time the train is past Polonnaruwa the last township where they form the majority. Notwithstanding the different races they belong to, the long train journey makes the passengers be quite friendly to each other. They do not hesitate to share a sweet they brought along or to talk over something casual. The train which runs throughout the night tunnelling its way through many a jungle stretch has the pleasant affect of bonding people of varying backgrounds.

The journey from Colombo to Batticaloa is a long run, right across the country, from the West Coast to East Coast. If there is no delay along the way, the night mail finishes its journey of well over three hundred kilometres, reaching its destination around six thirty in the morning, and settles down to rest. Carrying their belongings the passengers descend to the platform and gather shoulder to shoulder to exit at the wicket type gates of the railway station. Their voices are drowned by the squeaking of the luggage carts drawn by the porters. The bustling railway station looks like a roused ants’ nest. Despite their fatigue those who have to travel further south up to Ampara or Pottuvil should hurry to board the mail bus which awaits outside the railway station. This journey takes another half a day compounding the strenuousness of the travel. Along with Shantha, I was to take up duty as a Trainee Range Assistant from the 1st of January 1981 at Yala East National Park. We were posted to the headquarters of Yala East located at Okanda, close to the southernmost corner of Ampara district.

Old Dutch Fort at Batticaloa
The Batticaloa – Pottuvil highway which stretches southwards along the eastern coastal belt cuts through a cross-section of Tamil and Muslim cultures showing all their facets. The tiredness of the long journey of a stranger like me to the East will be overpowered by the curiosity this panorama arouses. At the same time, even for someone who is familiar to the scene, resting in the bus is out of the question because of the rather bumpy ride. The bus stops at every post office to unload the mail bags. It diverts from the main road and moves along the narrow lanes to reach some sub post offices in suburban areas. The delivery of mail bags significantly adds to the time it takes to travel the distance of a hundred and ten kilometres between Batticaloa and Pottuvil. The loud chatter of the passengers in the bus is itself strange to a person who does not speak Tamil. Almost no one in the bus speaks in Sinhalese. Hindu temples and the shops in the town show the vibrancy of Tamil culture in the region. Tamils hurry towards the town with ‘Tirunur’, the holy ash, on the forehead. The bus runs across the awaking Batticaloa town and reaches its southern limit Kallady. This is where a huge iron bridge lies across the mouth of Batticaloa lagoon famous for singing fish. The bridge resembling a huge black monster lying across the lagoon leaves a lasting memory in one’s mind.

An Old Cannon
The road runs through number of coastal townships such as Kattankudi, Karativu, Kalmunai, Nindavur, Akkaraipattu and Tirukkovil. Out of these, the towns of Kattankudi, Akkaraipattu and Tirukkovil are Tamil while the rest are Muslim. Before these areas became infested with the extremists in early nineteen eighties, some Sinhalese families were also living in harmony with them. Most of the Sinhalese were businessmen who had migrated from the South. People from the fishing community in Negombo also migrated seasonally for fishing and spent a few months of the year in the East Coast. In the subsequent years almost all of the Sinhalese left the East due to the unfavourable security situation that prevailed. People who had lived for generations in the East were compelled to evacuate leaving all their property.

While travelling along this road the appealing scenery one can see on the right is the endless fertile paddy fields which stretch beyond the horizon. It is really a pleasure to see the paddy fields with well grown, leaning pods. It is not an exaggeration to say that the farmers in the East have the toughest time in cultivation. They have to wage a great struggle to protect the crop till the harvest, after harrowing and sowing. If the forest is in the vicinity they should look after the crop every night, to protect from wild animals such as elephants, deer and wild boar. The crop protected for months will be destroyed within a moment, if the eyes were not kept open. An elephant or a herd of wild boar would not take long to destroy a patch of cultivated land. Damage done by the birds to the fruiting crop is also not ignorable. Hence, the crop has to be protected during the day time too. Then on top of this, it is not rare for the crop to be destroyed completely by natural disasters such as untimely rains, floods or drought. At certain places, the road up to Pottuvil stretches across lagoons. As the bus runs over a causeway raised above the sheet of water in a lagoon one can see the blue ocean on one side and the wavy lagoon on the other. It is really a feast to the eyes of someone new to the East. After a long and exhausting run the bus stops near the small temple at ‘Sangamankanda’. People who pass the small ‘Devalaya’ built under a huge Banyan tree here do not forget to stay for a while, drop a coin, and prey for god’s protection. Passengers are allowed to sip a cup of tea from the small boutique standing on the other side of the road.

The bus reaches its destination Pottuvil in the afternoon. Being a Muslim town most of the shops and houses there belong to Muslims. A few Sinhalese business families who had migrated from down south were also living there. They were running a motor garage, a filling station, a carpentry shop and a few other businesses.

We knew that the most difficult part of the journey up to Okanda would start from Pottuvil. Though instructions were given in the appointment letter to report to Okanda Park Warden’s office, it was not at all easy to find someone in other parts of the country who knew about Okanda.  Scrutinising a map of Sri Lanka, one takes a while to locate Okanda sitting in the southernmost part of Ampara District. The best I could do was to call over at the head office of the Department of Wildlife in Colombo and seek further details. I was happy to meet my two colleagues to be Shantha and Jayantha there, who were also excited about their new careers to be commenced shortly. I had met Shantha at the interview too and made friends with him quickly. Jayantha seemed to have previous knowledge about wildlife and was so interested in his chosen career. While looking for someone who was familiar with Okanda we were introduced to Mr. Shirley Perera, the then Assistant Director of the Eastern Region who had come to the head office on an official matter.  He was a pleasant middle aged person whose friendly manner was so encouraging. His answer to us when we asked about reaching Okanda was - ‘the first test you go through would be to see whether you can reach Okanda’. It was a sign of the tough life we were heading for as wildlife officers. He continued to answer our queries about Okanda and finally agreed to send his vehicle to meet us in Panama, the last village we would find and get to, on our own.

It was while waiting for the bus to Panama at Pottuvil that we felt something had gone wrong. Although we were to meet the vehicle at Panama, we saw it at Pottuvil, going towards Ampara in the opposite direction. Mr. Shirley Perera was on his way on urgent duty and regretted not being able to provide transport to us. We were instructed to go to the Wildlife Office at Panama, where the Senior Wildlife Guard had been instructed to help us to reach Okanda. After a brief stay in the town we got into the bus bound for Panama. Men in the bus were talking endlessly in a high pitched voice while the women were trying to lull their children who were crying aloud suffering in the awful mid day heat. Finally, the bus started to move on.

The distance we had to travel by bus from Pottuvil to Panama was sixteen kilometres. The town ends at the popular tourist resort of Arugambay where the lagoon has to be crossed over a long iron bridge with tall railings. From top of the bridge the curving golden beach and the deep blue ocean can be seen on one side and the lagoon stretching out on the other. Beyond the populated town limit there were several scenic places on the road running across lagoons, rivers, paddy fields and patches of scrub jungle. Ulla, the fishing village next to Arugambay is occupied by fishermen who seasonally migrate from the south, during the fishing season. Being a tourist resort too, the roadside is littered with small restaurants that cater to the foreign tourists. There are no significant human settlements beyond Ulla until Panama. The bus now runs across vast paddy fields and two rivers, Heda Oya and Wila Oya. These two waterways that shrink to form isolated puddles during the dry season, swell into roaring rivers during the pouring monsoon. Heavy rains in December will inundate the road from Ulla up to Panama in several places and it can then only be negotiated on foot. The bumpy road finally ends in Panama.

Panama is a large coastal village with unique features where Sinhalese and Tamil cultures mix together freely. It also is the last village with basic facilities that one would come across when travelling southward from Pottuvil. Panama, inhabited by several hundred families had a government school, a dispensary, a sub-post office and a small bazaar. The villagers of Panama whether be they Sinhalese or Tamil never thought back about their ethnicity and had lived together for generations. They were fluent in both languages with their spoken Sinhalese having a slight Tamil accent or flavour. As I noticed later, certain words and tones used by the old villagers in their unique style of speech might be quite embarrassing to someone who is not familiar to the east. Sometimes even their names would not betray their ethnic background. The two retail shops in the village that belonged to the Nilame and Somasundaram brothers and the sub post office headed by a kind hearted Tamil gentleman married to a Sinhalese lady were the places we were used to visit frequently in the subsequent years.

The paved road terminated at the end of the bazaar while the cart road starts near the Panama Buddhist temple running further south towards Okanda. We got off the bus and walked along the sandy road stretched across the paddy field carrying our heavy bags and baggage. As we came to know from a villager we met on the way, the Panama wildlife office was about one and half kilometres distant. Walking in the hot mid day sun and carrying our belongings was not fun. It was made worse with the exhaustion after the long journey and the sleepless night. We had to stop and rest several times relieving our load, before reaching the office. We found that Jayantha had arrived before us although he was to join us at Panama, travelling on his own through Monaragala, starting from his home town Eheliyagoda.

There is no regular public transport facility beyond Panama. Occasionally, a vehicle bound to the Kudumbigala Hermitage or the Yala East National Park takes this road. It is very rarely that one finds room in such a vehicle to hitch a ride. Kingsley, the Senior Guard at the Panama office advised us to hire a bullock cart to carry ourselves as well as our provisions and the heavy bags. We agreed with him as we did not see any other way of travelling the distance of fifteen kilometres to Okanda. We returned to the bazaar with Kingsley and bought the dry rations we needed from Nilame’s shop at the end of the road. Although it was a small retail shop it could meet almost all the essential needs of the villagers. Nilame, the pleasant and friendly shop keeper attended to our requirements quickly and packed the provisions as well as other essential and trivial items we bought. A bullock cart driven by a young boy named Bandara was hired for our journey. We returned to the office and started off for Okanda in the afternoon after loading the cart.

I still can recall the journey from Panama to Okanda made in a bullock cart on the eve of the last day of the year Nineteen Eighty. It was the first time I experienced the thrilling pleasure of being exposed to a true jungle where all kinds of wild animals live.  If we had travelled in a jeep as was planned earlier, it could have been just another journey to be forgotten in a couple of days. The narrow sandy road from Panama to Okanda extends southwards parallel to the coast. One will have to pass through several large and small salt water lagoons and dense forest patches in between. With the enthusiasm provoked by the jungle, we kept on asking questions from Bandara as he drove the cart dragged by the two bulls along the forest path. The strong bulls with long horns and humps grown high dragged the cart without any difficulty. The cart was of the open or roofless, raised floor type that is unique to the East.  Every time the bulls raised their tails Bandara halted the cart and allowed them to drop the dung. Then he wiped the back of the bull with the whip stick holding the tail up. He stuck the stick on the ‘bone leeya’ to clean it before starting again. As Bandara explained, the dung comes out mellow when the grass is tender.

The only human habitations found on the way to Okanda are the Kudumbigala Hermitage and the temporary fishing camp at the mouth of Helawa lagoon. It is rarely that one would see a villager taking this road stretching through the dense jungle. Signs of wild animals including elephant dung pats and foot prints of all sizes were strewn all around and right along the road. Every time we reached a bend, I imagined an elephant lurking beyond, all out to attack us. As we were arriving at Veherakema passing Panakala and Kunukala lagoons and the jungle patches in between, we met a villager who was returning from his chena. I felt as if my dream was coming true when he warned us of a wild elephant feeding in an abandoned chena by the road, a little ahead. Though none of us wanted to show any sign of panic, the excitement of our minds were written on our faces. Bandara saw the end of our questioning and drove the cart forward keeping a sharp eye on both sides of the road. Apart from listening to the lumbering noise of the cart wheels cutting through the layer of sand, no one had the courage to express the thoughts brewing intensely in our minds. The cart reached Veherakema uneventfully and halted in front of a huge rock.

Villagers passing by used to worship at the small temple at the foot of the rock at Veherakema. The temple was nothing more than a small heap of rough pieces of slate. Villagers did not forget to pick a fresh branch of a bush and hang it on a tree nearby after praying for protection. Some of them lit a slice of camphor and kept it on heap of slate. Bandara walked up to the temple and whispered something with closed eyes and with hands on the chest. Then he returned to the cart after hanging a branch of a bush and started again silently.

Suddenly, the lesson ‘Nelli kele’ which I read long time ago when I was in grade six at school appeared in my mind. It was an abstract from the book titled ‘Digamadulle Ashcharya’ by Maya Ranjan (Mahanama Rajapakse). This book which is based on the writer’s first hand experience in late 1940’s as a teacher in Ampara District awakened our enthusiasm to jungle life. In the chapter on Nelli kele he explains how he escaped from two wild elephants he met while travelling in a cart along a jungle track. The thought of having such an exciting experience overwhelmed me. Bandara drove the cart a little distance and halted slowly pulling the reigns gently. Then he pointed the stick to an abandoned chena on the left where a huge wild elephant was looking at us poised in the middle of the chena, about thirty meters from the road. Cocked ear flaps, patches of pigmentation on the face and the wet soil strewn on the head and back gave him the looks of a typical rogue elephant. Though we had drawn the attention of the elephant, to our great relief it did not show any sign of attempting the sprint to charge at us. Bandara allowed us to see the elephant and in turn for the elephant to see us for a while and started slowly again placing his arm on the back of the bulls.

A few kilometres from Veherakema lies Helawa lagoon the largest of its kind on this track. Helawa Ara, the seasonal stream which feeds the lagoon marks the    beginning of the Kudumbigala Wildlife Sanctuary. The Tamil term ‘Aru’ which denotes a stream or a small river is translated to Sinhalese as ‘Ara’, a term reserved for use in the northern and eastern parts of the country. It is interesting to examine the adaptation of terms from Sinhalese to Tamil and vice versa in the East where the two communities are mixed and live in harmony. The road which runs round the lagoon has a large paddy field on the right which extends up to the edge of the forest. These paddy fields belong to the villagers of Panama and are cultivated only in the Maha or North East monsoon season with rain water. Protection of the ripening paddy fields from wild animals emerging from the surrounding jungle is a constant struggle as we learnt later on. The byroad deviating to the right from the main track at Helawa and crossing the paddy fields goes up to Kudumbigala rocks. Kudumbigala Hermitage sits like a cradle here, nestled between the rocks and high forest with enormous trees. Ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery, rock caves with drip ledges and Brahmi inscriptions and the ruins of an ancient ‘dagaba’ are scattered around here.

We continued on and asked Bandara to let us off before we reached Okanda office as we novices were rather shy of someone making fun of us, watching us loaded in a cart with all the stuff. We got down at Ikiriyawatawana, a small lagoon close to Okanda and walked the remaining distance. We walked while jealously listening to Jayantha now proudly showing his knowledge of wildlife. Finally, we arrived at Okanda office, a well kept small building by the road where we were received by Senior Wildlife Ranger Mr. Wijesekara. As Mr. Shirley Perera had arranged he showed us a quarters near the office building for our stay and served us a cup of refreshing hot tea.

The living quarters we lodged in was an old building with zinc sheet roofing. We learnt later that in the past it had been a circuit bungalow available for licensed sportsmen or hunters during the hunting season. It had a narrow veranda, a large living room and a small store room. A temporary hut behind the building was used for cooking. The office complex comprised of a similar building close by and three other buildings clustered together. Friendliness in the faces of the officers stationed in the adjoining quarters eased off our apprehension and nervousness as new comers. We had to prepare something for our dinner as it was now dusk. Though we had brought almost all provisions we needed none of us had much experience in cooking. However the simple meal of rice and dhal we prepared tasted fine and there was no question of going hungry till next morning. The only furniture we had was a long foldable table. We were also provided with a large tarpaulin sheet as a mat to sleep on. After dinner we lay down on the tarpaulin and kept our heads on its folded end which formed an improvised pillow. Despite the weariness after the long day I was not feeling sleepy. Call of a lapwing rises above the wailing sound of the ocean. Gasping of Shantha who was talking about his fiancée right along the journey can be heard in the dark. The still night persuades me to ponder and feel about the unknown future. The notice in the letter of appointment flashes across my mind – “You will have to live in the jungle and undergo a tough life”. I was nearing twenty three years of age then and did not feel any hesitation in undergoing difficulties. I was full yearning to have new and exciting experiences.

I had heard very little about the Wildlife Department previously and never had any undue desire to join the Department. I applied for the post of Wildlife Range Assistant out of the habit of applying for vacancies that appear in the government gazette, as it was common among the youth of that era. But, the love I developed towards outdoor life that I experienced and enjoyed as a wildlife officer only grew stronger and stronger and never faded away from my mind. In the later years, I had a great deal of delight recalling and reliving the difficulties and challenges I underwent during my career in the remote jungles.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden back.
Oh, I kept the first for another day !
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverted in wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

                                            - Robert Frost


  1. Immensely enjoyed reading your first here.The language is so live I almost felt I was there with you... I must find time to go on reading all..

    1. Lanka, My good friend Mr. Lalith Seneviratne did the editing, it is superb and professional.

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