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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2731

Under The Sadow of Lakegala : Meemure

By Sudath Gunasekara.

The Geographical Setting

The entirety of the Maha Oya- Heenganga basin lying at the Under The Sadow of Lakegala Under The Sadow of Lakegala northeastern extremity of Koratu Kandu (part of Dumbara hills, popularly known as the Knuckles) encircled by the Knuckles-Dumbanagala-Kehelpathdoruwegala-Telambugala in the south and the east and the Knuckles-Kalupana- Katakitule kanda-Lakegala-Demalagala ranges on the west and the north, is commonly known as Meemure. In terms of longitude and latitude it is roughly located between 80.48-80.53 E and 7.22-7.28 N and covers an area of approximately about thirty-five square miles.

The landscape descends from 6112 feet (Knuckles/Paskulupav) at the western end to almost 500 feet above mean sea level at Kahatagahawela in the northeast. It measures approximately seven miles from south to north and six miles from west to east. The Maha Oya Heenganga valley at the centre and the encircling mountain ring on the east, south, west and the north, dominates the entire landscape of the area. It is drained by Karambaketiya Oya, Maha Oya, Heenganga, Meemure Oya and Ravana Ela on the left bank and Na Ela and Kekelewatta Oya on the right bank. Of these only the three left bank tributaries of Karambaketiya, Maha Oya and Heenganga are perennial. The landscape exhibits a steep drop from west to east and displays a colossal amphitheatre with three incised mini amphitheatres representing the Karambaketiya, Heenganga and Meemure Oya valleys.

The elevated St Martin-Na Ela saddle on the right bank is also noteworthy in this regard. Starting from the south the Knuckles-Suduwalalle Kanda, Kalupana- Endirigala ridge and finally the Kalupana-Lakegala- extension and Telambugala are the most conspicuous erosional remnants that stand above the valley below. f the peaks that merit special reference are Knuckles (6112), Kalupana (5341), Katakitulegala (5110), Lakegala (4329) Telambugala (4388) Kehelpathdoruwegala (5016) and Dumbanagala (5389) are the most important. However, Lakegala among them is by far the most conspicuous and also the best known for its elegance and legendry bacground. These peaks stand round this basin like giant sentinels keeping watch over what is going on in the valley below. A northward view from Koratuwe muduna on a clear day affords a unique scenic splendour one may not see any where in the world. Lazarus calls these mountain ranges "Ceylon’s Elegant Mountains"

Geographers have named this region as the Nitre Cave District after the famous Nitre Cave found on the western slopes of the eastern ranges. John Davy7a who visited this cave in 1821 has given a fascinating account of this cave. According to him it is the biggest Nitre cave in Sri Lanka.

On the morrow (14 Septembeer 1819) we set out for the cave. A continued ascent througha stunted jungle brought us to a little plain, coverd with fine grass and beautifully spotted with clumps of trees, from which we had an extensive and inresting prospect. Behind, towards Kandy, and on each side, were lofty mountains, and in front the low country of Mahawedda ratte, presenting as far as the eye could reach an uninterrupted surface of wood, with the e xception of one spot of ater about ten miles off, which I was toldis the lake or rather tank of Bintenne, said to be six or eight miles in circumfrence….

When we had scended about half a mile, the patrh divided; we quitted that most trodden, which led to the secluded village of Mmemoora, and entered another, just perceptible,, leading off to the right, before which a few witherd boughs were strewed to show that the way was prohibited.After an hours hard walking over most difficult ground, we arrived at the object of our search. The first view of the object was exceedingly striking, A large cave appeared in a perpendicular face of rock about three hundred feet high crowned with forest, at the base of which was a stage or platform of rubbish, that seemed in danger of sliding in to a deep wooded valley, closed in by mountains of considerable elevation and remarkable boldness. The cave was two hundred feet deep, and at its mouth, which was nearly semicircular, about eighty feet high and one hundred feet wide. Its floor was rocky and steep, rapidly ascending inwards, and its extremity was narrow and dark. To facilitate the ascent, ladders were planted in the most difficult places.

I have already described the nature of the rock of which the walls of the cave are formed, and the process followed by the natives to extract saltpeter from its surface. The workmen, whom I found at their labours, sixteen in number, were the rudest set of artificers I ever witnessed; their bodies, almost naked, were solid with dirt, and their bushy beards and hair were matted and powdered with brown dust. When I arrived, they were occupied, not in the cave, but on the platform before it, attending to the operations that were then going on in the open air, of filtration, evaporation, and crystallization. The apparatus employed was curious for its simplicity and rudeness. A small stream of water was led from a distance to the place by a pipe of bamboos; the filters were of matting, in the shape of square boxes supported by sticks; and the evaporating vessels, and, indeed all the vessels used were the common chatties of the country, of which a great many were assembled of various sizes. The cave may be considered partly natural and partly artificial. I was informed, that during the last fifty years, for six months in the dry season, it has been annually worked, and that each man employed was required to furnish a load of nitre, which is about sixty pounds, to the royal stores.” (Pp 282-83)

Professor N. Leiter has described this region in 1949 as ‘A region of unique charms and beautiful sceneries in Ceylon’ The chain of enchanting hills that are displayed from the Corbett’s Gap, each peak trying to jump over the other, reminds me of a great procession of elephants heading towards the east. With the majestic Suduwalalle kanda with its abrupt and precipitous drop at the near end and Lakegala the elegant rock at the furthest end, it presents one of the rarest and captivating panorama any where in the world. Within this amphitheatre, there are number of small settlements. Starting from the south they could be listed as follows. Dambada, Udawatta, Martinwatta (all abandoned tea estates), Na Ela, Kosgolla, Ilukhena and Kekalewatta (on the right bank), and Karambaketiya, Pusse Ela, Kaikawala, Meemure, Dandenikumbura and Kahatagahakumbura (on the left bank). Of these isolated settlements, Meemure village from where I come is the topic, which is dealt with in this book.

Meemure village lies in the furthest northern end of this great valley. It is also the last village of the Kandy district. On the west, the Kalupana-Tunisgala- Andirigala ridge bounded the village. To the north is the Katakitulegala-Lakegala complex and on the east by the Udapatana-Pallepatana extension. The drop from the peaks in the west and the north is very conspicuous and abrupt and it is almost vertical. For example Kalupana is 5341 while the elevation at the village, almost at the foot of Kalupana peak, is below 1100 feet. The Meemure Oya drains the village. It has two main tributaries, the one to the right is called Dimbigolle Oya (the main stream) and the one on the left is Lake Ela. Dimbigolle Oya, the most important tributary, starts at Kalupana and Katakiyulekanda and Lake Ela as its name implies starts from Lakegala. Meemure Oya divides the valley in to two halves and it is the main life-giving agent of this village.

The area gets its rain from the northeast monsoon from October to March. The rest of the year is dry. A special feature of the dry period is the dry wind (mudusulang) that devastates this area from April to August. These wuthering winds sweep through the valley drying up everything that comes within its grip. The rainfall increases as we come to the south. Thus the annual rainfall at St Martin estate is as 170” where as at Meemure it is even less than 100”. Temperature ranges are equally impressive. When mean temperature at Meemure village is around 90-95 F, readings at Kalupana or the Corbett’s Gap are often around 60-65 F. When it rains, it really rains cats and dogs here. People call it nakapana wehi, which means the torrents are even capable of cutting Na (iron wood). The month of Ill (Nov.15 to Dec 15) is the rainiest month in this region. Adjusting to its rainfall pattern the village displays contrasting landscapes during different parts of the year. With the onset of the northeast monsoon in late-October, the grayish and parched surroundings transform in to luxurious greenery in no time.

During the rainy months of November, December and January one can see the seasonal waterfalls cascading down the hill slopes and village stream often in full spate. Hemmed in by high mountains covered with luxuriant forests, the village with its vibrant greenish paddy fields, flourishing hen and home gardens etc during the December-April period displays the most prosperous environment. With the burst of the heavy blowing in late April all this lush greenery and prosperity are gone. The parched up surroundings with topless trees, leafless bushes all around, half blown off straw thatched roofs with their woven bamboo skeletons on top anchored to the ground with rattans, disturbed by occasional heavy blowing, whirling and sweeping the slightest greenery left with the scorching sun hanging over the head display a desert like outlook in the whole environment.

Now let us have a look at the land use pattern of this village. Right at the center is the village stream. On either side of the stream is the Oya welena (the narrow stretch of land on either side of the stream) overgrown with all kinds of trees with a thick under growth of plants like ketala, wetake and rattan.

One could also see lot of arecanut and Kitul trees growing on these strips. Next to this strip on either side of the stream you find the village paddy fields. Above the paddy fields is the Gangoda and the homesteads-the village cluster. Next to gangoda are the hen and above them the village forests. Above the hen you find the Mukalana (thick jungle). However, it should be noted that this sequence is not found in the same pattern on the right bank of the stream. Here between the homestead and the Mukalna there is no hen land unlike on the leftt bank. The main reason for this anomaly I think is the steepness of the mountain behind. Either within the thick jungle or in areas above them, patina are located, where the soil layer is not thick enough for deep-rooted trees to grow. The villagers graze their buffaloes on these grasslands.

Except a very few, all the houses in the village are found in one cluster on the right bank of the Oya. The village temple and the school are located on the southern end. Only five houses are found on the left bank. They are Gal’ene gedara, Kahata gedara, Liyambinne gedara, Kahakosgahaheene gedara and Egoda Udawalawwa.

The total number of houses in the village is sixty-five and the population is about five hundred. Except for four families all others are related to each other. They are of the highest caste of Goigama and all are Buddhist by religion. There was one Pannadura family and three Dhauby families. Of the three Dhauby families only one that is the family of Puncha Henaya does washing and that also they do only for the New Year and on special occasions like a girl’s coming of age ceremony. The other two are engaged in activities like exorcism and native treatments. Of them there was one prominent man, who was considered a versatile man in the village. He was also the oldest man here and his name was Warusa Henaya.8 The Pannadura family is no more there now. They had two children, one boy (Bodiya) and one girl (Sobani). Bodiya had died and Sobani has migrated to Makuldeniya in Udasiyapattuwa. The pannadura people usually are engaged to carry the sweet meet baskets and pingoes etc when the nobility visit their relations in the adjoining villages like Poddalgoda and Laggala.

The settled area is so compact and so close to each other that a single hoo can bring the whole village together in few minutes. This is an important characteristic of communal living in purana villages. The houses are built on elevated flat forms to avoid dampness and also seek protection from snakes etc. The long pila (plinth) outside the wall serves as a place to sit. The walls are often wattle and daub and the roofs are thatched with straw. Except the Temple and the School the whole village had only three houses built in rubble masonry and partly thatched with galvanized sheets. Every year they thatch their houses with straw before the October rains come. Thatching is communally done. All the roofs thatched with straw have to be protected with a nicely woven wild bamboo net from April to September against the dry wind that devastates the village. They use the compound outside to dry their grains. Children also use them as play grounds. In a corner of these compounds one can often see their haystacks called pidurupantale like a pagoda stacked on a platform supported by four pillars of about eight feet in height. This straw is used both as a roofing material and as a cattle feed.

Archibald Campbell Lawrie, in his Gazetteer of the Central Province gave the following account on Meemure in 1898.

"Meemure—A village in Gandeka Korale, Upper Dumbara, Sixteen miles from Kiripattiya. Kahatagahawela—A hamlet Meemure, Dandenikumbura, Kaikawala and Galamuduna form an arachchi vasama. Streams—Dimbigolle-oya, Udawannimane–ela. Hills—Endirigalekanda, Suduwalallekanda, Population in 1881, 158 (80males and 88 females); in1891, 157 (83 males, 74 females)

In 1878, 70 ½ acre paddy land were registered, of which 60 paid Rs 128.55; 6 acre sold by the crown (this was for non-payment of grain taxes). There were coffee plantations here, which are abandoned. Migastenne Adigar in 1798 AD styled himself as Ratemahatmaya of Meemure (Vol. 1 pp 142-304). (Vol. 11.P 594)"

Today after 106 years it still has only 472 (1998/99) 243 M & 229 F). The low population figure is explained partly by the poor health facilities and partly by lack of economic opportunities for population expansion. Malaria that was rampant in the pre-1940 period also has been mainly responsible for this situation.

Their main and only source of livelihood is subsistence agriculture. The paddy field and the Hena provide their basic sustenance. There is no occupational diversity here at all. Land is inherited from parents and land is the foundation of their social system. Land is privately owned but communally managed. Communal management is particularly evidenced in irrigational and water management. The total paddy acreage in the village is about 155 acres. Few families in the village hold the majority of land. Most villagers have no paddy fields and they work others fields on ande basis. Most of the paddy fields are cultivated only during the Maha season. The acreage cultivated during Yala is very small. (Maha 154.9; Yala 34.1 acres).

The hena plays an important role in the village economy. The main crop grawn in the hena is Kurakkan (Finger Millet). Other cereals like Indian corn (Badairingu), Green gram, Black grams and a variety of vegetable like Cowpea, Chilies, Pumpkins, Cucumber, Bitter gourds, Bottle Gaurds, Kekliri, Onions and pulses such as Mustards are grown on these lands. Slashing and burning of these highlands are done in late August and early September. Planting done with the first rain in mid October and sawing of Kurakkan in November. In February and March they collect the harvest. Beside the Paddy field and the hena they also have what is called a kotuwa, and extension of the gewatta (Home garden) Tree crops such as jak, coconut, Murunga, mango, banana, Breadfruit, papaw and yams like manioc. Diascorea, Kiriala and sweet potato etc are often grown here. Usually these home gardens are protected from wild animals with stonewalls. There is another type of kotu cultivated during the Yala season in the paddy field where water is not enough for rice to grow. The main crop in these kotu is red onion. The deniya, oya kandura and oyawelena bordering the paddy fields often have their aricanut and kitul trees. Apart from the cultivated crops they also collect a wide variety of non-grown food items from the forest.

Among such items Bee honey, Mee oil, Meeriya oil, Various kinds of yams like Katuala, Hiritala and Kidaram ala and vegetables like wild plantains, Jak, Kahata, Idalpala, Kekatiya and a variety of green leaves and fruits are important. The most dominant feature about their economy is that it is hundred percent agricultural. I can think of only three activities outside this that could be named as non-agricultural, that is seasonal collecting of Bee honey, Binkohomba (a wild medicinal plant sold to vendors) and jungle bamboo for making winnowing fans for domestic use. These activities are usually done by two or three persons that have very little or nor significance in the total village economy.

Within this economic system these villagers are self-sufficient. They only have to buy their salt, clothes, soap, dry fish, boxes of matches and kerosene oil from the shop. Itinerant traders who often trade in barter frequently visit this village with such sundries. They all carry their goods on head. It is interesting to note a recently opened up small grocery catering to the basic requirements of these villagers. A man called Aberatna from the same village who is also employed as the runner in the village post office owns this shop.

Some innovative men have recently started few small-scale cardamom plantations on the Kalupana slopes above the village. One can foresee a prospective future for these rustics in this departure from the purely traditional subsistent approach. But the same prosperity also could bring in adversity if they fail to protect the high watersheds that sustained them from the dawn of civilization in this valley. As to their food habits, they don’t eat beef. Their game is procured from the forest. The Sambur, Wild Boar, Porcupine, Barking Deer, Mouse Deer, Rabbit and Iguana form the main wild dishes while the chicken forms the only domesticated dish. As evidenced from this account the village economy is still backward and subsistent. As to when the impact of the 20th century socio-economic thrust will be felt here, it is difficult to say.

The village school was started in 1904. But even today it has only 30 students and one teacher. In fact in 1949 when I left, the village there were two teachers and about 50 students. Classes are held only up to the 5th std. Children leave school early to join their parents in their cultivation. Teachers always have to come from outside as there are no qualified men here. Very often they come from distant places like Piliyandala, Kalutara, Colombo and Gampaha. They often come on punishment and as a result from the day they come they spend most of their time at the education office to work out a transfer. So rubies and sapphires of Meemure ever remain unmined, uncut and unpolished.

The village temple is as old as the village itself. It is located at the southern entrance to the village. Most of the time of the year there are no monks resident in this temple. So often people are buried even without the pansakula ritual when they are dead. Villagers say that there was another temple some time back at the centre of the village where the present Bo maluwa is located. I remember the village temple flourishing when I was a small boy. I used to go to the temple with my father and mother on every poya day. The temple was busy with religious ceremonies like pinkam, banna and suvisi. I remember once they had what is called a Asanadeke bana where two monks ascended on to two pedestals called asana were alternatively reciting the scriptures for the serene joy of the devotees. I also remember that there was a separate Banamaduwa then. The monk at that time was from the same village. He was well versed in scriptures and he was also a clever native physician and astrologer. His age, wisdom, the knowledge in Dhamma and the versatility made him the ideal village Monk for an isolated village like Meemure.

Besides the main religion they also indulge in superstitious beliefs. They believe in a whole pantheon of gods. Kande deviyo, Aluth Deviyo, Kahatagahakumbure Aluth Deviyo and Wanniya Bandara are the main gods among them. Once a year they propitiate these gods with Yakun netiima and Adukku pidiima (see below). These rituals are expected to provide protection for their crops, animals, men, women and children from pest and disease and other natural and supernatural calamities.

Their social life is very interesting. Oneness displayed by them in all activities both in prosperity and adversity is remarkable. The compactness of the village, interfamily bondages, problems and the limitations imposed by the environment and the isolation from the outside world may have largely contributed towards this situation.

With its subsistent but self sufficient, self reliant and backward economy, Meemure represents a typical ancient Sinhala Village. nother unique feature of this village is that it has been subjected to very little colonial influence. The fact that it is completely cut off from the rest of the world and there are no major plantations in the vicinity could be the main reasons for this situation. The village monk, Schoolmaster, the native physician and the land owning few form the village elite. In recent years awareness about the outside world and social mobility have fastly increased here. By end of 1962, the school in its entire history of 56 years has produced one graduate 9 and two GCE Ordinary level boys. These new trends of social mobility, increasing literacy rates and growing awareness about the new world coupled with the bountiful resources of the area are positive factors in re-shaping and changing the future of village leadership as well as the entire socio-economic outlook of this village. The changes that might come within the next few decades might some times transform the whole outlook it had zealously preserved during the entire past.

In sum, in this village, cut off from the outside world, adorned by Lakegala and hemmed in by steep and hanging mountains, clad in tropical verdre, endowed with unlimited scenic beauty and natural splendour and rich and rare socio-cultural traditions, one sees some thing unique, that is not found any where else in this Island.

7a John Davy (1821) An Account of the Interior of Ceylon P 282.

8 Henaya is the term used to address a man and Ridi to address a woman of the dabhy caste. A man of the Pannadura caste is called Naida and a woman Ukku. All these people address grown up men and women of the Goigama caste as Nilame and Menike and the boys and girls as Badaramahattaya and Bandaramenike.

9 Incidentally the writer is the graduate referred to here and of the other two one is his brother

- Asian Tribune -

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