Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
At Peradenia
By Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919)
From ‘A Visit to Ceylon’: Translation of Clara Bell

IN the central province of Ceylon, and at a height of fifteen hundred feet above the sea, stands the capital, formerly the residence of the kings of the island, the famous town of Kandy; and only a few miles away from it is a small town, which was also for a short time a royal residence five centuries ago. At this place the English government made a botanical garden in 1819, and Dr. Gardner was the first director. His successor, the late Dr. Thwaites, the very meritorious compiler of the first ‘Flora Zeylanica,’ for thirty years did all he could to improve and carry out the purpose of this garden in a manner worthy of its advantages of climate and position. When he retired, a year or two before his death, Dr. Henry Trimen was appointed director; and from him, immediately on my arrival, I received a most friendly invitation. I accepted it all the more gladly, because in Europe I had already read and heard much of the marvels of plant life at Peradenia. Nor were my high anticipations disappointed. If Ceylon is a Paradise for every botanist and lover of flowers, then Peradenia deserves to be called the very heart of Paradise.  1
  Peradenia and Kandy are connected with Colombo by a railway, the first made in Ceylon; the journey occupying from first to last between four and five hours. I started from Colombo at seven in the morning of the 4th of December, and reached Peradenia at about eleven. Like all Europeans in Ceylon, I found I must travel in the first-class—not noblesse, but whiteness, oblige. The second-class is used only by the yellow and tawny burghers and half-breeds, the descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch; the third-class of course carries the natives, the dark Cinghalese and the nearly black Tamils. The only wonder to me is that there is not a fourth for these last, and a fifth for the despised low-caste Hindoos. The natives are always great patrons of railway traveling; it is the only pleasure on which they are prepared to spend money, all the more so as it is a cheap one. Directly after the railway was opened, the natives began traveling by the wonderful road every day and all day long, for the mere pleasure of it. The carriages are airy and light; the first-class well provided with protection against the heat, with wide eaves and Venetian blinds. The engine-drivers and the guards, in their white clothes with sola helmets, are Englishmen. The line is worked with order and punctuality, like all the English railways.  2
  The first two-hours’ ride from Colombo to Peradenia lies across a level country, most of it covered with marshy jungle, varied by rice fields and water meadows. In these, herds of black buffaloes lie half in the water, while graceful white herons pick the insects off their backs; farther on, the line gradually approaches the hills, and after Rambukana station begins to work upwards. For an hour, between this and the next station, Kaduganawa, the line is in point of scenery one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The road winds with many zigzags up the steep northern face of a vast basin or cirque. At first the eye is fascinated by the changing aspect of the immediate foreground: immense blocks of gneiss stand up amid the luxuriant masses of dense forest which fill the ravines on each side; creepers of the loveliest species fling themselves from one treetop to the next, as they tower above the undergrowth; enchanting little cascades tumble down the cliffs, and close by the railroad we often come upon the old high-road from Colombo to Kandy, formerly so busy a scene, which was constructed by the English government to enable them to keep possession of the ancient capital.  3
  Further on we command wider views, now of the vast park-like valley which grows below us as we mount higher, and now of the lofty blue mountain range which stands up calm and proud beyond its southern wall. Although the forms of the higher hills are monotonous and not particularly picturesque,—for the most part low, undulating shoulders of granite and gneiss,—still a few more prominent peaks rise conspicuous; as for instance, the curious table rock known as the “Bible Rock.” “Sensation Rock,” as it is called, is one of the most striking and impressive features of the scenery. The railway, after passing through several tunnels, here runs under overhanging rocks along the very edge of a cliff, with a fall of from twelve to fourteen hundred feet, almost perpendicular, into the verdurous abyss below. Dashing waterfalls come foaming down from the mountain wall on the left, rush under the bridges over which the line is carried, and throwing themselves with a mighty leap into mid-air, are lost in mist before they reach the bottom of the gorge, making floating rainbows where the sun falls upon them.  4
  The green depths below and the valley at our feet are covered partly with jungle and partly with cultivation; scattered huts, gardens, and terraced rice fields can be discerned. The lofty head of the talipot palm, the proud queen of the tribe in Ceylon, towers above the scrub on every side. Its trunk is perfectly straight and white, like a slender marble column, and often more than a hundred feet high. Each of the fans that compose its crown of leaves covers a semicircle of from twelve to sixteen feet radius, a surface of one hundred and fifty to two hundred square feet; and they like every part of the plant have their uses, particularly for thatching roofs: but they are more famous because they were formerly used exclusively instead of paper by the Cinghalese, and even now often serve this purpose. The ancient Puskola manuscripts in the Buddhist monasteries are all written with an iron stylus on this ola paper, made of narrow strips of talipot leaves boiled and then dried. The proud talipot palm flowers but once in its life, usually between its fiftieth and eightieth year. The tall pyramidal spike of bloom rises immediately above the sheaf of leaves to a height of thirty or forty feet, and is composed of myriads of small yellowish-white blossoms; as soon as the nuts are ripe the tree dies. By a happy accident, an unusual number of talipot palms were in flower at the time of my visit; I counted sixty between Rambukana and Kaduganawa, and above a hundred in my whole journey. Excursions are frequently made to this point from Colombo, to see the strange and magnificent scene.  5
  The railroad, like the old high-road, is at its highest level above the sea at the Kaduganawa pass, and a lighthouse-shaped column stands here in memory of the engineer of the carriage road, Captain Dawson. We here are on the dividing ridge of two water-sheds. All the hundred little streams which we have hitherto passed, threading their silver way through the velvet verdure of the valley, flow either to the Kelany Ganga or to the Maha-Oya, both reaching the sea on the western coast. The brooks which tumble from the eastern shoulder of Kaduganawa all join the Mahavelli Ganga, which flows southward not far below. This is the largest river in the island, being about one hundred and thirty-four miles long, and it enters the sea on the east coast near Trincomalee. The railway runs along its banks, which are crowded with plantations of sugar-cane, and in a quarter of an hour from the pass we reach Peradenia, the last station before Kandy….  6
  The entrance to the garden is through a fine avenue of old india-rubber trees. This is the same as the Indian species, of which the milky juice when inspissated becomes caoutchouc, and of which young plants are frequently grown in sitting-rooms in our cold Northern climate, for the sake of the bright polished green of its oval leathery leaves. But while with us these india-rubber plants are greatly admired when their inch-thick stems reach the ceiling, and their rare branches bear fifty leaves, more or less, in the hot moisture of their native land they attain the size of a noble forest tree, worthy to compare with our oaks. An enormous crown of thousands of leaves growing on horizontal boughs, spreading forty to fifty feet on every side, covers a surface as wide as a good-sized mansion, and the base of the trunk throws out a circle of roots often from one hundred to two hundred feet in diameter, more than the whole height of the tree. These very remarkable roots generally consist of twenty or thirty main roots, thrown out from strongly marked ribs in the lower part of the trunk, and spreading like huge creeping snakes over the surface of the soil. The india-rubber tree is indeed called the “snake-tree” by the natives, and has been compared by poets to Laocoön entwined by serpents. Very often however the roots grow up from the ground like strong upright poles, and so form stout props, enabling the parent tree to defy all storms unmoved. The spaces between these props form perfect little rooms or sentry boxes, in which a man can stand upright and be hidden. These pillar-roots are developed here in many other gigantic trees of very different families.  7
  I had scarcely exhausted my surprise at this avenue of snake-trees, when exactly in the middle, beyond the entrance of the gate, my eye was caught by another wonderful sight. An immense bouquet there greets the visitor—a clump of all the palms indigenous to the island, together with many foreign members of this noblest growth of the tropics; all wreathed with flowering creepers, and their trunks covered with graceful parasitical ferns. Another but even larger and finer group of palms stood further on at the end of the entrance avenue, and was moreover surrounded by a splendid parterre of flowering plants. The path here divided, that to the left leading to the director’s bungalow, situated on a slight rise. This inviting home is like most of the villa residences in Ceylon, a low one-storied building surrounded by an airy veranda, with a projecting roof supported on light white columns. Both pillars and roof are covered with garlands of the loveliest climbers; large-flowered orchids, fragrant vanilla, splendid fuchsias, and other brilliant blossoms, and a choice collection of flowering plants and ferns, decorate the beds which lie near the house. Above it wave the shadowy boughs of the finest Indian trees, and numbers of butterflies and chafers, lizards and birds, animate the beautiful spot. I was especially delighted with the small barred squirrels, which looked particularly pretty here, though they are common and very tame in all the gardens of Ceylon.  8
  As the bungalow stands on the highest point of the gardens, and a broad velvet lawn slopes down from it, the open hall of the veranda commands a view of a large portion of the garden, with a few of the finest groups, as well as the belt of tall trees which inclose the planted land. Beyond this park-like ground rise the wooded heads of the mountains which guard the basin of Peradenia. The beautiful Mahavelli River flows round the garden in a wide reach, and divides it from the hill country. Thus it lies in a horseshoe-shaped peninsula; on the landward side, where it opens into the valley of Kandy, it is effectually protected by a high and impenetrable thicket of bamboo, mixed with a chevaux-de-frise of thorny rattan palms and other creepers. The climate too is extraordinarily favorable to vegetation; at a height of fifteen hundred feet above the sea, the tropical heat of the mountain basin, combined with the heavy rainfall on the neighboring mountains, make of Peradenia an admirable natural forcing-house, and it can easily be conceived how lavishly the tropical flora here displays its wonderful productive powers.  9
  My first walk through the garden in the company of the accomplished director convinced me that this was in fact the case; and although I had heard and read much of the charms of the prodigal vegetation of the tropics, and longed and dreamed of seeing them, still the actual enjoyment of the fabulous reality far exceeded my highest expectations, even after I had already made acquaintance with the more conspicuous forms of this Southern flora at and near Colombo and Bombay. During the four days I was so happy as to spend at Peradenia, I made greater strides in my purview of life and nature in the vegetable world than I could have made at home by the most diligent study in so many months. Indeed, when two months later I visited Peradenia for the second, and alas! for the last time, and spent three more happy days in that Paradise, it enchanted me to the full as much when I quitted it as it had at the first glance; only I saw it with wider understanding and increased knowledge. I cannot sufficiently thank my excellent friend Dr. Trimen for his kind hospitality and valuable instruction; the seven days I spent in his delightful bungalow were indeed to me seven days of creation.  10

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