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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Kumana and it's People

2.    Kumana - A Paradise

Although the famous wildlife reserve ‘Yala’ is commonly referred to as ‘Yala Sanctuary’, it is really a large complex of wildlife reserves comprising of several sections or blocks of varying degrees of protection. The western and the larger part of this complex is called Ruhuna National Park or commonly called Yala National Park. Within Ruhuna National Park, Block I has been well known to visitors for years and with the pilgrims who come to the famous holy city, Kataragama. Main access to this part of Yala is through Tissamaharama and Kirinda. The northern boundary of Block I is ‘Menik Ganga’, the river that flows through the city of Kataragama. The landmass extending northwards from Menik Ganga up to the river Kumbukkan Oya comprises Block II to V of Yala and the Yala Strict Nature Reserve. These parts of Yala are not normally open for the general public. North of Kumbukkan Oya lies the Yala East National Park and Kudumbigala Sanctuary, to which the main access is through Pottuvil and Panama as described in the previous chapter.
Okanda Park Warden's Office in 1950s
Park Warden’s office of Yala East National Park is located at Okanda, within the Kudumbigala Sanctuary. Kumana and Kebilitta Wildlife Beat Offices and Panama and Pottuvil Range Offices are supervised by the Park Warden of Yala East. Lahugala National Park is a small wildlife reserve located about 15 kilometres westward from Pottuvil on the Monaragala road and was then under the control of the Park Warden – Yala East. Being the location of the head quarters of Yala East alone does not account for the fame of Okanda. It is more known for the Hindu temple dedicated to god Kataragama  which is regarded as one of the most sacred shrines by the Hindus in the entire North and East. The annual feast of the temple in July is attended by thousands of Hindu devotees converging from all parts of the North and East. It is an ancient tradition for them to come to the temple on foot from areas far off, to attend this event. Some of them continue this tedious walk called ‘Pada Yathra’ up to Kataragama through Yala East and then Block II of Yala, a distance of about 70 kilometres through the dense jungle roaming with all types of wild animals. This single file march of devotees in plain robes carrying only a bundle of bare essentials needed for survival perfectly balanced on the head, takes several days to reach Kataragama. The number of devotees passing through Okanda each year within a brief span of two weeks is several thousand.

Some of the staff members in mid 1970s. Third from the left is Hudanchi
Yala East which is 180 square kilometres in extent undoubtedly falls within the most beautiful wildlife reserves of Sri Lanka. The period of nearly five years from January 1981 spent there I still regard as the most privileged period of my career as a wildlife officer.

As one reaches Okanda along the cart track from Panama, one can firstly see the Okanda wildlife circuit bungalow hidden in a cluster of tall trees close to the beach. It was a charming two storied building quite popular among the visitors as a holiday resort. The upstairs wooden floor laid on clamps held on timber pillars overlooks the blue ocean on the left, the green grassland frequented by herds of deer and wild buffalo on the right and the narrowly stretched out Okanda lagoon with a mangrove stand in front. Between Okanda lagoon and the beach the famous Hindu temple stands at the foot of a towering rock. The mighty banyan tree leaning over the temple casts a mysterious darkness on the surroundings, adding a timid feeling to one’s mind. The temple remained calm and quiet except on Fridays when the weekly rituals take place. Almost no pilgrims visit it on other days of the week. Only the two caretakers of the temple, Swamy Selvarajah and Swamy Velupullai can be heard invoking prayers two or three times a day, with ringing bells.

Once a   year in July, the annual feast of the temple brings the hustle and bustle of a big city to its doorstep. Thousands of pilgrims with families converge to the temple and settle down under the trees around the compound. As they come, rows of temporary boutiques and shops will mushroom in the vicinity of the temple. Tamil devotee songs pour out continuously from the loud speakers fixed to the trees around the temple. As the feast ends after a couples of weeks all this bee hive of activity disappears and the temple falls asleep again.

Okanda Office and some of the staff members in 1982
Cluster of old buildings beyond a few meters from the turnoff to the temple from the main road is the Okanda Wildlife office complex. The first building, a zinc roofed old building under the shade of a huge Palu tree was my shelter during the longer part of the time I spent at Okanda. Arul, one of the old hands in the staff, every time he visited me used to say - ‘this is a lucky place Mahattaya, all lived here did well’. On the left, the fascinating Okanda tank extends from the edge of the road in front of the staff quarters. During the monsoon the sheet of water stretching as far as one can see is a feast to the eye. As the warm winds sweep across during the dry season, the water level in the tank drops and it becomes a muddy pond. By then, the crocodiles in the tank bed spending the hot day basking in the sun numbers not less than twenty. Someone at Okanda will ceaselessly hear roar of the ocean which is only a couple of hundred meters away. The beach at Okanda is a beauty taking different shapes with its interesting features such as rocks, estuaries and sand dunes. Ran-oru-gala, the huge rock on the beach is one of the favourite places of the staff for line fishing. From top of the rock the two Malay brothers-in-law in the staff, Thalif and Raufdeen did not take a long to pull out a ‘Kotadoruwa’, a mullet fish, with a fishing line. A thin long line, fixed with a fishing hook and a lead weight to one of the ends makes the fishing line. Throwing the end of the line with the hook fixed with bait far into the sea after rotating it a couple of times around the head is an art one should learn with long practice. Then the line is drawn back slowly until a fish is caught on the hook. Landing a fish vigorously struggling to escape is not that easy. Holder of the line should feel the strength and the weight of the fish and mark time allowing it to drag the line. The fish can be landed only when it becomes completely exhausted. The two Malays and the Kumana villagers are the experts in this craft. Sometimes, a fish landed by them will weigh not less than fifteen kilograms.

After office hours we spent most of our leisure time at Okanda beach. A walk along the beach sniffing the salty breeze was a pleasing exercise. Since line fishing was more successful in the night we stayed on the beach until late night. While those who were experts in fishing tried their luck I preferred to stretch on the smooth sand and gaze into the dark sky strewn with glittering stars. I try to locate ‘Orion’ or some other constellation I could identify from the tracts of blinking stars. A fish caught on a line thrown into the sea causes restlessness among the fishing gang. If the pull on the line is heavy, it is a large fish. Anxiety would grow. An experienced fisher would be assigned to land such a big fish. Sometimes the fish landed after great toil turns out to be a piece of driftwood. While being teased by others, the unlucky member of the group throws the line back into the sea cursing the rotten wood. At times a fish slightly entangled on the hook manages to escape from the line. Fish that escape are always huge ones according to the fishermen. At other times no fish is caught even after hours of throwing the line into the sea. On such a day those who take their turn to be caught are oysters and crabs. Although the oysters stuck on the rocks are easily removed with the point of a knife, catching the crabs running on the sand is not that easy. To catch them, the beam of a bright torch should be aimed at their staring eyes to startle them and then they have to be struck with a branch of a tree. Some of them manage to escape into their burrows which are deep cavities in the sand.

The jungle surrounding the Okanda office stretches a long way out. This scrub jungle of which the top canopy is dominated by trees such as Palu, Weera, Madang and Burutha, harbours all species of wild animals from mouse deer to wild elephant. Interspersing grassy patches, water holes, rock pools, rocky hillocks with caves and boulders meet the basic needs of the wild animals such as food, water and shelter. The string of big and small lagoons along the coastal belt is the specific ecosystem unique to the park. Some of the small lagoons were studded with mangrove strands, abounded with aquatic species. Bagura, Andarakala, Itikala and Yakala are the lagoons which could hold a wide expanse of water. These lagoons receded during the dry season producing a layer of salt on top, and then expanded inundating the fringing grasslands during the monsoon. If excess rains were received the sand spit or bar across the estuary which holds the water in the lagoon at bay would breech and release the water into the sea. The small fish released into the sea across the open estuary from the lagoon would be an easy catch for the large fish in the sea. The best opportunity to hook a large sea fish like a ‘Goliparawa’ is this, while they haunt around in the sea near the open estuary hunting small fish.

When the sand spit breaks open, the whole day of the fishermen of Kumana village is spent on the beach. Fish of various sizes are hooked no sooner the lines are thrown into the sea. Once a young guy of Kumana landed several ‘Goliparaw’ at a stretch and finally he was not left with any bait for the hook. He cut a piece of red cloth from the shirt he was wearing and hooked a huge ‘Parawa’ using it as bait. The fish weighed not less than twenty kilograms.

‘Yala East’ existed as an Intermediate Zone since 1938 where sportsmen were permitted to hunt wild animals under a license issued by the Wildlife Department. In 1969 it was upgraded to the status of a National Park wherein visitors were permitted only to observe wildlife. But the number of visitors to the park remained low as the visitor facilities were not developed until a decade passed. Couple of years before we came to Okanda, the infrastructure of the park together with the network of roads were developed and gradually the number of visitors was increasing. The main road was further extended southward from Okanda parallel to the coast, up to ‘Kumbukkan Oya’ river, the southern boundary of the park. This road ran across the earlier described lagoons and the scrub jungle. Number of small water holes with fresh water developed for the animals also dotted the coastal belt of the park. A network of cross roads connected these water holes with each other.

A traveller who takes the main road from Okanda park entrance would be amazed by the various creations of the nature right along. Scrub jungle intermingled with tall trees is the optimum habitat for the elephant.  Rocky hillocks strewn with outcrops and boulders of various sizes harbours leopards, sambar, bear and other small cave dwellers like porcupines. Narrow grass belts interspersed with pockets of scrub jungle and the vast grasslands skirting lagoons are abundant with herds of spotted deer and wild buffaloes. The fringing shallow water and mud flats around the lagoons, mangroves such as ‘Kumana Villu’ described later on, are a paradise for local and migratory aquatic species of birds. Streams which bring crystal clear water from the jungle adorn the roadsides in the rainy season. This pleasing environment gleams with greenery only from November to January North-East monsoon season. Availability of food and water in abundance makes the wild animals healthy and hefty. Agility of the deer running about on the bluish carpet of grass, the rhythm of a leisurely walking wild elephant all reflect the relaxed existence of the wild animals during the rainy season.

As the wet season wanes the glitter of the green vegetation starts to fade away. Bluish grasslands dry up gradually and turn to dusty brown. Tender leaves and twigs mature and become yellowish before drying up. Whole jungle will be clothed in dust raised by the warm and hasty wind. During the peak of the dry season in August most of the trees bear only the dry twigs and branches. Almost all the tanks and the water holes are completely dried up by then. Only a few puddles in the dry bottom of large tanks and Kumbukkan Oya river are left for the wild animals to quench their thirst. Kumbukkan oya itself reduces to a small trickling stream flowing along one bank with its vast and wide golden sand bed exposed with Kumbuk tress lining to infinity. Only the large animals such as wild elephants can reach the remaining small amounts of water in rock pools. Scarcity of food and water in the dry season diminishes the playful liveliness of the wild animals. Herbivores which now depend on the less nutritious dry leaves and bark become emaciated. Oppressed by the burning sun, herds of deer lay as if lifeless under the shade of the trees. Weaker ones which could not hold against the acute thirst fall to die here and there or become victim of a leopard. Sometimes, they get wiped out by an epidemic spreading across the jungle. 

Yodha Lipa in 1970s
As one passes ‘Girikula’ grassland and ‘Paliha demu wala’ water hole, one would reach ‘Yodha lipa’ (Giant Hearth) an unforgettable landmark. The road runs twisting through three identical boulders about three meters in height each and placed in the shape of a giant hearth. Little beyond is ‘ Kuluwana’ where the southern boundary of Kudumbigala Sanctuary and Northern boundary of Yala East intersect with the main road. Passing ‘Aliya wala’ and ‘Palugaswala’ ponds, the main road enters ‘Bagura’ plains which is dotted with trees such as ‘Divul’ (Wood Apple), ‘ Malittan’, and ‘Mila’. It is a good feeding ground loved by the large herbivores such as elephants, wild buffaloes and deer. After the rains, number of deer in a herd wandering in Bagura plains carpeted with tender grass blades can exceed a couple of hundreds. In the dry season, Bagura is not free of elephants for they come to browse on low Divul branches and to scalp the dry grass off the ground and eat.

Thummulla Circuit Bungalow
‘ Bagura ara’, the wide stream which feeds the Bagura lagoon, can be crossed over the wooden bridge lying over it. Within a kilometre of the lagoon, the tanks ‘Kudawila’, ‘Tun-mulla wewa’ and ‘Kota Linda Wala’ lie in a row. These tanks are fused together when the level of the water rises and spread over the fringing grassland during the rainy season. As the water recedes in the dry season, they separate into isolated small tanks and become favourite hunting grounds for the crocodiles and aquatic birds. Here the Tummulla circuit bungalow is nestled in a grove of ‘Madang’ trees, on the edge of the tank. Overnight stay in the small bungalow with two rooms and a broad veranda lined with a wooden railing round it is a pleasant experience. Even on a hot sunny day the soothing breeze sweeping the tank and the Madang shade helps to cool off.

Passing Tummulla the main road runs ahead through Andarakala, Itikala and Yakala lagoons, scrub jungle and rocky hillocks in between. Though these lagoons are not as big as Bagura, the large grasslands that skirt those attracted hundreds of wild animals.

Finally, one can reach the famous ‘Kumana Villu’ and the village a little further on. ‘Kumbukkan Oya’ river which originates in the central hills and runs across Monaragala and Okkampitiya meets the Indian Ocean near Kumana village. Kumana Villu is a low lying swampy basin near the estuary of Kumbukkan Oya and is connected to the river by a narrow channel. When the sand spit across the estuary is formed and the water backs up raising the level of the water upstream, water flows through the channel and feeds the villu. Unique features of the villu are the ring of thick mangrove stands with water in the middle and the swamp round it. The villu filled with water becomes a safe refuge for thousands of aquatic birds nesting in the mangrove trees in June and July. During the breeding season, their quarrelling hatchlings create the impression of the workings of a factory hidden in the villu.

As you pass the villu, a well grown coconut grove can be seen at a distance. The only human habitation within the park nestles here in this palm grove. About twenty five poor families sunk in to a life of arduous hardship lived in this small hamlet, the Kumana Village.

The main road ends at ‘Madame – tota’ camp site on the left bank of the river, little beyond the village. Huge ‘Kumbuk’ trees on the banks of the river with their far reaching branches lean over the slow flowing water. The wide strip of thickly grown riverine forest on either sides of the river is perpetually full of the high pitched noise of crickets. Top canopy of this forest is dominated by massive trees such as Kosgonna, Kumbuk, Halmilla and Murutha which penetrates the thick under growth.  In contrast to the harsh looking dry forest in other parts of the park, the riverine forest has a greener appearance right through the year due to the moisture in the soil. Though the main road ends up near the river, two continuous jungle tracks starts from Madametota. One on the left bank of the river goes up to Kebilitta situated about thirty five kilometres upstream from Kumana. The other extends further south up to Menik Ganga river through the Block II of Yala (Ruhunu) National Park parallel to the coast. These roads are quite difficult and cross several streams which can be negotiated only by a four wheel drive vehicle.

Several sites of great archaeological value are within Yala East. These belong to the period from third century BC to tenth century AD. ‘Bambara-gas-thalawa’, which is a rocky hillock deep in the jungle, is the most spectacular archaeological site within the park. A road deviating from the main road at Kuluwana boundary leads to this unique historical site via ‘Kiripokuna’. It is a strange world carved out of rock and boulders forming caves, rock pools and a vast flat rock which is about two or three hectares in extent. Drip ledges which prevent rain water dripping in and brahmi inscriptions can be seen on the roofs of the caves. A long recumbent statue of Lord Buddha inside a large cave, a kirigarunda (marble) statue in pieces lying among rock pillars and a row of steps carved out on the rock to reach a ruined stupa are some remaining signs of this ancient shrine that existed centuries ago. Bowattagala cave near Kumana tank also has such inscriptions and drip ledges. One inscription on a massive slab of rock says how these caves were dedicated and gifted to the monks by a devotee of nobility. Carvings of anchors and fish are found along with the inscriptions. Elders of Kumana talk about a sacred place called ‘Dharmala Pokuna’ with a marble statue of Buddha surrounded by a pond, to which I have never been. According to them, this place cannot be reached intentionally and can only be stumbled upon. The path to it apparently can never be retraced.

Lenama close to Bambaragastalawa is said to be the last strong hold of ‘Nittawo’, a dwarfed, long hairy race of humans who inhabited these jungles thousands of years ago. It is said that they waged a war with ‘Veddah’ or aboriginal tribes where the last of them were finally cornered in a cave in Lenama and annihilated.

‘Siyambalawa Devalaya’ at Kebilitta is revered with esteem as a shrine with divine powers by the peasants of the region. Here, an age old tamarind tree close to the Kumbukkan Oya is venerated by the villagers. When someone is subject to an injustice he would travel to Kebilitta and pray to the god, offering a pot of milk-rice prepared after a dip in the river and observing various rituals. They believe that the god will punish the perpetrator if a coin is cut into two pieces after the praying. Once, a driver in my presence prayed so against the Secretary to the Ministry he belonged to who was harassing him unjustly and cut a coin in two with a pair of pliers. One of the pieces tossed and landed on the altar. Even before a month could elapse there was a news item stating that the Secretary had died of a sudden illness. ‘It would not be in vein - if you pray to the god of Kebilitta’ was what this driver told me in a pensive mood much later. Once, all the wildlife staff at Okanda prayed before god Kebilitta seeking redress against the high handed actions of a superior officer. Within a few weeks many an ill luck began to fall upon this officer. Only god Kebilitta will be able to answer whether this was just circumstances or justice meted out.

“The birds, the glades, the streams – they call,
And the kachan winds that toss the tree,
Take me where I long to be
I’ve always been in need of Thee!”

- Lala Adithiya

3. People of Kumana

So far, I have never seen another place like Kumana where one can peep into the life of a people having minimum contact with the outside world and living far away from the city where in contrast there are hundreds of ways to make life comfortable.

Distance from Kumana to Okanda, the next nearest human habitation is sixteen kilometres. That too is not a village but a place where a few wildlife officers are stationed and where a small Hindu temple or kovil exists. It is rarely that a Kumana villager gets any help from the departmental staff at Okanda, other than pulling apart and checking their goods in search of any contraband, as they pass the gate. A dispensary where they can get medical treatment is at Panama, some 35 kilometres away. The distance they should travel to reach the nearest town Pottuvil is 50 kilometres.

The only thing at Kumana that can be called a conveyance was an ox-cart. There were seven or eight bicycles too belonging to the villagers. If they were not allowed in a departmental vehicle coming to Kumana once in a way or in a vehicle belonging to a group of park visitors, the only option they had was to walk through the jungle roaming with wild animals. It usually takes the villagers at least a couple of days to reach Pottuvil, carrying their kids and all necessities for the long trip. However, during the rainy season there are no means of reaching Panama when all forms of transportation gets held up.

Considering their hard life without what one might call the basic necessities in life and their perceived impact to the park, the government tried its best to shift the Kumana village and resettle the inhabitants outside the park. Though they were provided with adequate alternative lands with better built houses they refused to vacate Kumana, citing various shortcomings in those. They struggled to stay at Kumana till the very end, long after terrorism stormed the east. Finally, it was a combination of extreme fear and coercion that made them scatter and relocate. No one will fully understand the reason for their devotional affiliation to the native place in spite of what appears to an outsider to be a struggle to live there. On evacuation, most of the Kumana families were resettled at a place close to Maduru Oya in Polonnaruwa District, under the Mahaweli Development Project. Still, a few diehard families stayed behind at Panama in the hope that they will one day be able to go back to Kumana once normalcy returned.

Sinhalese families that escaped the brutal suppression by the British of the Uva-Wellassa rebellion of 1818 pioneered the rejuvenation of the ancient Sinhalese villages in the East. They descended along rivers that flow from the central hills and settled downstream, where appropriate. According to the adults in the village, Kumana too was reborn thus.

Then, Kumana was a small hamlet consisting only of a few mud and thatched houses which looked like dark caves. The couple of tile-roofed brick built houses belonged to the members of Piyadasa Mudalali’s family, the leading clan in the village. Piyadasa was a longhaired, old type and pleasant looking person who owned the only boutique in the village. His children were sent out for education and subsequently became government servants. His eldest daughter was the only teacher of the school at Kumana and one of his sons was the Grama Niladhari. Piyadasa also owned the ox-cart - one by which the commodities for the boutique were transported from Pottuvil.

Men from virtually half the families in the village were employed in the Wildlife Department. Though there was nothing overt to indicate what the livelihoods of the others were, it was evident that they had various means to eke out their existence.

The paddy fields were unusually distant from the village being a few kilometres away. The vast but shallow Kumana tank supplied water to them. But it was only once in every few years when adequate rains fell that the villagers could cultivate both seasons. Only after such a rich harvest would they have excess paddy to sell. Apart from small cultivations in their homesteads, the villagers did not practice chena cultivation perhaps due to the risk of relentless raiding by wild animals.

They got their supply of fish from Kumbukkan-Oya river, Yakala Lagoon and the nearby sea. They all were good at fishing with the line and the throw net. A funnel shaped net with a line attached to the top makes the throw net. The bottom end fold of the net is fixed with lead weights. Only an experienced hand can throw the net properly.  Having the net free of wrinkles, he will hold the net from one end and take the other end over the elbow. Then the net will be swung backward and thrown over the water. The fisherman should have the skill to locate the fish by the ripples on the surface of the water and reach them without disturbing. The net spreads over the water and falls encircling the school of fish. The lead weights on the edges of the net sink pulling the net to the bottom. If it is ‘Thilapia’ fish, pulling the net by the line on the top of the net is not that difficult. If the fish is a big type like ‘Wekkaya’ or ‘Godaya’, the fisherman will come to know this by the tension in the line.   Then the helpers should be prepared to jump into water and catch the fish. If the fish escapes tearing the net, then they should be ready to listen to the harsh words of the other fishermen.

During the rainy season the rising level of water will wash off the sand spit formed across the estuary of the Kumbukkan Oya, thereby releasing the water trapped by it. If the sand spit is too wide to break due to the pressure of water, the villagers will get together and break it open at the middle to accelerate the process. The smaller fish from the river and the Kumana villu get released to the sea and the larger fish come after them into the estuary. This is the time when “lines” are thrown into the sea and fish in plenty are caught. The excess fish will be dried but only seasoned Heensingho manages to catch enough regularly to be able to dry and sell. While others wait to hook a fish, he would have caught several.

Despite there being wildlife beat office in Kumana manned by several officers, the villagers would under their noses manage to go poaching to fulfil their desire for game meat. Though officially Piyadasa Mudalali had the only gun which was a shot gun, others in the village must have used methods such as setting snares. However, they managed to conceal these activities cleverly. It was almost unheard of for a villager to be caught by a wildlife officer.

Most of the Kumana families had a few cattle and buffalo which gave them milk. Once in a way, they sold one and earned some money. Forest products such as wood apple, kirala and bees honey helped them to enrich their diet as well as earn some money by selling them to park visitors. Apart from these, the only other resource they could avail themselves of was the largely crisp and clear water of the Kumbukkan Oya river which flowed most of the year round.

Not only did the villagers of Kumana live skirting the poverty line, untimely death too stalked them in various forms to take its toll. They were attacked by wild animals often while collecting forest produce like wild fruits and bees honey.  Sadly, I too experienced a number of such incidents during the time I spent there.

Once, a girl who went out to the woods for some requirements was stung by a swarm of hornets. Without access to any emergency medical care she succumbed to the affects of venom.

One morning, Sumathipala, a wildlife guard from Kumana came out of his house and was mauled by a wild buffalo in his home garden itself. With cuts across his stomach received from the buffalo horn, he was taken in an open tractor-trailer to Pottuvil Hospital. Subsequently, he was transferred to Batticaloa General Hospital but the surgeons could not save his life. Sumathipala’s grave marked by a rough slate of rock stands facing the Kumana villu and cannot be missed by any visitor. It is as if this tombstone epitomizes the varied and challenging life story of a typical Kumana villager.

The Kumbukkan Oya while being a pivotal resource for the villagers is not necessarily kind to them always. Two young daughters drowned there together with their mother who tried to save them.

The most startling incident that I experienced was in July 1982. That hot afternoon while I was attending to some paper work at the Kumana beat office, I was informed that a woman had just been killed by a wild elephant in the jungle near the tank. The villagers were seeking our assistance to remove the corpse from the place where the accident took place since the killer elephant was still in the vicinity.

Immediately, we rushed to the village and met a girl of around ten who was the daughter of the deceased woman. The fair, innocent looking girl was dumb founded out of shock of having witnessed her mother being trampled to death by a towering, charging elephant. I have never seen such a helpless look in one’s face so far. The untidy hair and the marks of the dried up tears on the layer of dust on her cheeks came across vividly. Her short, faded frock conveyed their paltry existence. It transpired that the mother and daughter had gone to the forest to collect wood apple. The unfortunate woman had died on the spot and the daughter managed to escape and reach the village howling.

We set out to reach the place where the corpse was lying and turned to the cart track heading to the tank from near the villu. As we proceeded about one kilometre towards the tank, the elephant trail in which the woman presumably lay could be seen crossing the track. Such elephant trails pointing towards sources of water can be clearly seen in the jungle during the dry season.  This trail was pointing towards Kumbukkan Oya. We turned to the trail from the cart track and moved forward with eyes and ears wide open. It was the peak of the dry spell and to our relief there was right round good visibility with the undergrowth having shed its cover. We could see the footprints of the woman and the child and also of the elephant, imprinted on the dusty trail. We took every step with utmost vigilance as the killer elephant was likely still around. We walked single file always keeping at arms length from each other. On a narrow trail one cannot risk tripping one on top another if an elephant were to surprise you. This would be suicidal.  As we walked a short distance there stood a large wood apple tree to the left of the trail. One in the front signalled us to stop and pointed towards a heap of clothes and a gunny bag under the tree. A couple of us reached the foot of the tree and there I witnessed one of the most miserable scenes I have ever seen. With broken limbs the dead woman lay wrapped in a cloth covered with dust. Her demeanour was such that the mere trumpeting of an elephant could have startled her to death. Notwithstanding the danger existing in every corner of the jungle haunted by various wild animals, the starvation she experienced right from birth must have compelled the weak sighted woman to roam around with her child to collect wood apple. The dirty gunny bag contained the few wood apples she had collected before her death. Her now stilled desire must have been to sell the wood apple to a park visitor and in return buy a little rice for the family. Alas, her destiny was for the elephant to relieve her of her meagre existence.  

While we were temporarily stilled by the scene in front of us, we were suddenly brought back to our senses alerted by the crackling noise of dry twigs a few meters away. As we bent down and peered through the bush, we could see the four huge legs of an elephant striding towards us.

I cannot recall what happened next except to say that instinct took charge of me as it had on many other occasions when faced with acute and unanticipated danger. When I got my senses back, I quickly noticed that we had all somehow got transplanted to the cart track. It took some courage and a while before we could regroup and cautiously return to the scene of the accident. Further trauma unfolded in seeing the dead woman’s body again kicked and thrown by the elephant to make up for the fact that it could not harm us.  Since any further delay would undoubtedly be fatal, we carried the body and quickly retreated.

Family of Menika with a group of visitorss
“Menika” was a father of fourteen children who stood for the rights of the people of his village, speaking on their behalf in or out of court when faced with litigation by the Wildlife Department. An eminent lawyer from Colombo befriended him and appeared on many an occasion to represent the villagers of Kumana. Menika’s children mentioned how he did this out of sheer conscience and love, not expecting any remuneration for his effort.  He succumbed to a cobra bite while travelling across Block II.

At the time when shooting and hunting was allowed under licence, many aristocratic families from Colombo and the cities would regularly visit Kumana. The villagers could see the stark contrast between their lives and those of the visitors but they took their lot in life with a stride. One affluent young man fell in love with a lass from Kumana and married her. She happened to be the woman who later got trampled by the elephant. He was educated at a renowned Christian college in Colombo south and decided to spend the rest of his life in Kumana and accept what comes with it. Like “Menika”, he too argued vehemently for the rights of the villagers and was sometimes heard raising his voice in English when confronting an official, irrespective of whether or not the party spoke the language. The villagers through their association with these privileged visitors sometimes had access to the highest in the land including Prime Ministers.

Sometimes, bear would confront those who wondered in search of bees’ honey. Once I received an SOS about a boy in Kumana who had been severely wounded by a bear. The department jeep was dispatched to fetch him. On peering inside once the jeep reached Okanda, I could see him bathed in blood with his face bandaged in a blood drenched piece of cloth. I saw his real state only when he returned after surgery and treatment – His face was disfigured with muscles torn apart, one eye was dislocated. He reminded me of ‘Moragaha Pallame Liyana Mahathmaya’, a character in the book, ‘Digamadulle Ashcharyaya’ that I read when I was a schoolboy.

There were the rare few who stumbled upon treasure including gold, only to be quickly disappointed and bringing them largely pain – almost as if the villagers were all destined to a life of frugality. Once a youth found some gold artefacts buried in the beach. His attempt to sell them ended up being arrested and charged. His misfortune continued with him being wounded later by a bear. The villagers attributed his fate to the fact that one of the artefacts he found and melted for gold happened to be a statue of Buddha.

Another boy who worked in the department found some gold ornaments while cutting a drain along the road close to Thummulla. Police officers from Pottuvil acted promptly on information received from another villager and took him into custody. On the heels of the previous incident, police discharged their duty with an uncanny interest.

Simon with his wife and a grand child
Observed at close quarters as I did, the inborn stamina, resilience and endurance of the Kumana villager were unmatched. They could weather any challenge thrown at them with ease and with indifference. The account of the life of Kumana villagers would be incomplete if the story of that courageous and indomitable man Simon of Kumana was not mentioned.

Simon would laugh whatever his circumstance would be. When I first met one eyed leanly built Simon who was suffering from severe asthma, he was around seventy years old. If he lived a normal life, by then he would have been a retiree enjoying that phase of life similar to others.  There was no barrier to prevent him having an easy life because his son was working in the department as a Wildlife Guard and could have easily taken care of him. But Simon courageously preferred to continue to earn his own living.  He did so by running the most novel goods transport service. His carriage was a bicycle that he plied between Kumana and Pottuvil, a distance of fifty kilometres. It was always loaded to the brim with contracted goods while it was made devoid of all but the critically essential parts. The stand was a fork shaped wooden stick hanging on the side. But he was careful to carry an inflator and other tools needed for emergency repairs.

He takes two days to peddle up to Pottuvil via Panama and return to Kumana with the goods for the villagers. Orders for the goods should be placed before he leaves. He rendered a reliable and yeoman service to all at Kumana. We used to wait on the wooden bench under the cashew tree in front of our quarters at Kumana for Simon to faithfully appear a couple of times a week on his journeys back and forth. His arrival was a great joy for us because he would bring our regular supply of cigarettes. Simon, who always wore khaki shorts, was a popular character amongst us.  He made only a marginal profit from the stuff he supplied us and the villagers. He used to say that the income helped him to buy the medicine for his sickness. His urge to make a living until the very end and his ability to endure the ailment he was suffering from was an example beyond imagination to us.

Once, one of my superior officers who had a habit of kissing the people around him when drunk kissed Simon too. Though it was not certain whether he did so out of his habit or for the affection he felt for Simon, Simon undoubtedly was a man who deserved everyone’s love. In fact, Kumana was inhabited by many such lovable characters.  If not for those people, contemporary Kumana being so cut-off from the rest of the land would never have survived the nearly two centuries it did.

Contemporary Kumana originated a century before the necessity of protecting the wildlife resources by legislation arose in Sri Lanka. The inhabitants depended overwhelmingly on the resources provided by the jungle around them. But, their impact on the jungle in turn was minimal because they believed above else in the value of frugality and practiced it, long before modern day concepts of sustainability and the like arose. The early conflict between the living requirements of villagers of Kumana and conservation objectives started with the declaration of Yala East as a wildlife reserve. By the time I moved to Kumana, there were the first signs of increasing population and the resultant rise in the use of resources and, changes in lifestyle. Subsequently, this conflict risked growing into a tussle between the villagers and the department. However, the policy of encouraging the villagers to join the department helped to mitigate this situation to some extent.

Villagers of Kumana until the very end took both victory and defeat with the same indomitable spirit that normally distinguish pioneers from the rest.

“To me Ceylon is any flower growing in its soil; any jungle pool of water rippling in the wind; any magpie singing in the morning near my window; any ear of paddy growing in the fields of Polonnaruwa.

To me, it means familiar sounds.

It means the evening lullaby coming from the thatched cottage. It means the throb of drums in the Vesak night. It means the temple bells near midday.

It means the harvest songs; reaping songs at harvest time.

Having seen Ceylon at dawn and at dusk in December and in April, in rain and in sunshine, having lingered beside its rivers, brooded over its lakes; having watched its birds; having eaten its treacle and curd; having dreamt and dwelt there, I have become a part of its flowers and trees and rivers and mountains.

I am in the perfume of the lotus, in the lisping lap of the lake, in the sunset colour of the evening.

I am in the song of the birds.

And, if you wish to meet me some day, come across the yellow harvest or wade through the pool of water red and white with flowers.

Or meet me in the throb of drums when the full moon is up and the night is a study in black and white.”
  - Father Marcelline Jayekody



  1. excellant stuff. i went through it in one breath not even got up to emty my over-filled bladder. i think my love for wilds of sri lanka began from a visit to the kumana national park as a six year old boy way back in 1976. we stayed at now ruined thummulla circuit bungalow. thanks lot for sharing this awesomr account

    samath balachandra, colombo

  2. Thanks for the comment Samath. Anyone who feels the breeze come from Kumana go mad for wildife. Tummulla Bungalow will be open for the public very soon.

  3. For a moment I was in Baddegama.. I really enjoyed reading and trying to imagine scenes described in here.. Beautiful language !!

  4. I ll be there soon..I have read the Ven Ellawala Medanandha thero's book East and West SL Buddhist heritage,archeologically Eastern province never second to any places in SL,,Colombo and western province absolutely nothing..But the I never knew EP has such rich culture,,Thanks Venrable and you to give us good explanation of EP..

    1. Thanks for the comment Nalaka. EP has had a rich culture since King Dutugemunu's era. You would find evidence all over as described in Ven. Ellaawala thero's books.

      Kumana National Park is now being developed and is open for the visitors. You would go mad if you visit the place once.

  5. Lovely article Gaminie,

    Sadly i was not born during the golden era of Kumana,

    I visited the place only last year.

    Hoping to have more visits to this magical place.

    Check out my adventures on my blog


    Enjoy !

  6. Gamini aiya, can I have your contact number please

  7. Gamini aiya, can I have your contact number please