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The Paravars: Chapter 3 – The Pearl Fishery Coasts in the Gulf of Mannar


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous:  The Paravars: Chapter 2 – The Jewish Lore

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The most ancient sources of pearl, the queen of jewellery, are believed to be the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar that lies between India and Sri Lanka. Pre-historic people of these regions were probably the first to find the first pearls known to mankind, obviously during their quest for food.  However, to pinpoint an exact region where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first began may be difficult.

In 315 BC, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, pupil and successor of Aristotle in the Peripatetic school wrote that pearls came from the waters off the coast of India, and certain islands in the Red Sea and in the Sinus Persicus (Persian Gulf).

Megasthenes, the Greek geographer and writer, who accompanied Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator in his Asiatic conquests,  visited many regions of India, including Madurai, the capital of the Pandya kingdom. While in southern India, he also learnt about the neighbouring island of Sri Lanka which he called “Taprobane,” and its valuable resources, such as pearls and a variety of gemstones. Subsequently, in his famous work “Indica” he wrote that Taprobane was an important source of large pearls.

The Alexandrian-Roman geographer, Claudius Ptolemy ( c. AD 100 – c. 170)   wrote about the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, both on the South Indian side and the Sri Lankan side.

The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythrian Sea), written by an unknown Alexandrian-Greek author, in the second half of the 1st-century A.D (approximately 60 A.D.), mentions the route to the east coast of India, is through the Gulf of Mannar, between India and Sri Lanka. It provides an extensive account of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, particularly on the Indian side of the Gulf, and the pearl fishery of Epidprus (Mannar Island) on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf.

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The Gulf of Mannar

Gulf of Mannar (satellite image)

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The Gulf of Mannar is a large shallow bay, a part of the Lakshadweep Sea. It lies between the southeastern tip of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka. The estuaries of the river Thamirabarani of south India and the Malvathu Oya (Malvathu River) of Sri Lanka drain into the Gulf of Mannar.

Geological evidence suggests that in ancient times India and Sri Lanka were connected by land. An 18-miles (30 km) long isthmus composed of limestone shoals, and coral reefs, popularly known as Adam’s Bridge or Rama’s Bridge or Ramsethu, lies between the Rameswaram Island, off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India, and the Mannar Island, off the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Adam’s Bridge separates the Gulf of Mannar in the southwest from the Palk Strait in the northeast. The sea in the area is very shallow, only three to 30 feet (1 to 10 metres) deep in places, and hinders navigation. Some of the sandbanks are dry. Some claim that up to the 15th century, Adam’s Bridge was completely above sea level and people travelled between India and Sri Lanka on foot. The bridge they say was breached, fissured and the channel deepened by storms when a cyclone devastated the region in 1480.

In ancient times, this coast was known worldwide for its natural pearls. Greeks, Romans and Arabs sought the beautiful pearls harvested in these waters. From the time of the known history of the Tamils, pearl trading became one of the principal sources of revenue of the Tamil kings.

The bed of the Pearl Fishery Coast in the Gulf of Mannar is a fertile breeding ground for pearl oysters. There were two distinct fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar – one on the South Indian coast, the other on the northwestern Sri Lankan coast.

On the Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar, the Pearl Fishery Coast of southern India extended along the Coromandel Coast from Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin). This fishery coast has been known in different periods of time in various languages as the Cholamandalam coast, Colkhic Gulf, Comorin coast, Coromandel coast, Fishery Coast, Kuru-Mandala coast, Ma’bar coast, Paralia, Pescaria, Fishery coast, Tirunelveli coast, Madura coast, etc. The coast took its name from the presence of natural pearls in the bed which is a fertile breeding ground for pearl oysters.

The pearl banks on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar stretch from the island of Mannar, off the northwestern tip of Sri Lanka, south to Chilaw.

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Map of the Pearl Fishery Coast (1889)
Map of the Pearl Fishery Coast (1889)

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The Pearl Fishery Coast in Southern India and in Sri Lanka were predominantly populated by the Paravar caste. The Paravars were fishers, seamen and maritime traders. Majority of the Paravars specialised in the seasonal harvesting of pearl oysters and chank and for thousands of years.

The Pandyan kings allowed the Paravars to manage and operate the pearl fisheries because of their ancient skills in that activity, which required specialist seamanship abilities, knowledge of the location of the oyster beds and the art of tending them. The Pandyan kings exempted the Paravars from taxation and allowed them to govern themselves in return for being paid tribute from the harvested oysters.

In ancient times,  this Pearl Fishery Coast was known worldwide. Greeks, Romans and Arabs sought the beautiful pearls harvested in these waters by the many Parava fisheries that operated to exploit them. From the time of the known history of the Tamils, pearl trading became one of the principal sources of revenue of the Tamil kings. By the first century AD, pearls and shanks were among the important exports from southern India.

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Royal Flag of the Jaffna Kingdom.
Royal Flag of the Jaffna Kingdom.

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In the late 1270s, Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I sent an expedition to Sri Lanka under his minister Kulasekara Cinkaiariyan Aryachakravarti near the end of the Sri Lankan king Bhuvanaikabâhu I’s reign (1272-1285 AD). Aryachakravarti defeated Savakanmaindan of the Jaffna kingdom, a tributary to the Pandyans. He plundered the fortress of Subhagiri (Yapahuwa) and brought with him the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Bhuvanaika Bahu’s successor Parâkkamabâhu III went personally to King Kulasekaran’s court and persuaded him to return the tooth relic.

Most historians agree that on later expeditions it was this Arayachakravarti who stayed behind to create the Arayachakravrati dynasty in the Kingdom of Jaffna,  and raided the western Sri Lankan coast. From then on, the pearl banks came under the sole dominance of the Aryachakravarti line of kings of Jaffna kingdom.

Political and military leaders of the same family name left a number of inscriptions in the modern-day Tamil Nadu state, with dates ranging from 1272 to 1305, during the late Pandyan Empire. According to contemporary native literature, the family also claimed lineage from the Tamil Brahmins of Rameswaram in the modern Ramanathapuram District of India.

In 1450, a Tamil military leader named Chempaha Perumal under the directive of the Sinhalese king Sapumal Kumaraya of the Kotte kingdom  invaded  the region which remained under the control of the Kotte kingdom up to 1467. After that, the region once again came under the Jaffna kingdom.

The Arayachakravrati dynasty ruled the Jaffna kingdom from the 13th until the 17th century,  when the last ruler of the dynasty, Sankili II, also known as Sankili Kumaran confronted the Portuguese. Thereafter, the entire pearl fishery on both the Sri Lankan and the Indian side of the Gulf of Mannar came under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Portuguese.

The pearl fisheries of the Gulf of Mannar were controlled independently of one another, by the Pandya, the Chola or by the regional rulers on the Indian side, and by the Sinhalese or Tamil kings on the Sri Lankan side. Sometimes, the two fisheries came under the jurisdiction of the same authorities, such as the Pandyas, the Cholas, the Portuguese (in 1619), the Dutch (in 1658), and the British (1796), whoever controlled the regions on both sides of the Gulf of Mannar.

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Previous:  The Paravars: Chapter 2 – The Jewish Lore

Next: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

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The Origin of the Name ‘Perera/Pereira’


Myself 

By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Catalan is a Western Romance language derived from Vulgar Latin and named after the medieval Principality of Catatonia, in northeastern modern Spain. Pereira is a topographic name derived from Catalan Perera meaning ‘pear tree’.

There are other variants for Perera in the Iberian Peninsula meaning “pear tree”:

In Catalan: Perer
In Extremadura, Salamanca and Valladolid: Perero, Pereros
In Portugal: Pereira, Pereyra, Pereyras, Das Pereiras, Paraira 
In the Pyrenees: Pereire, Pereyre
In Galicia: Pereiro, Pereiros

The Portuguese colonists introduced the name Pereira to the Goanese in Goa and to the Paravars in Tamil Nadu in India.

Perera and its variants are common surnames in Portugal, Brazil, India, and Sri Lanka, and in most of the Lusosphere (regions where people speak Portuguese, either as native speakers or as learners).

After Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa in February 1510, the Portuguese converted the Hindu Goanese to Catholicism and gave them Portuguese names such as Fernando, da Souza, Pereira and so on.

In 1516, when the Hindu Tamil Paravars of the Pearl Fishery Coast in Southern India sought the help of the Portuguese to circumvent the oppression of the Middle Eastern Arab Merchants and their Muslim Paravar brethren, one of the stipulations laid out by the Portuguese was that the Paravars should convert to Catholicism.

The Middle Eastern Arab Merchants getting wind of these negotiations dispatched two envoys to Cochin to bribe the Portuguese Captain Pero Vaz de Amaral, to not allow conversion of the Paravars to Catholicism, but Pero Vaz refused to do so.

Pero Vaz immediately arranged for the baptism of 85 Paravar leaders in Cochin by the Vicar General, Miguel Vaz, probably in December 1535. The Paravar leaders were given  Portuguese names as surnames. Pereira was one of the names given to the   Paravars as a surname.

In 1505, Lourenço de Almeida, a Portuguese explorer and military commander made his first voyage to Ceylon and established a settlement there. From then on, the Catalan name “Perera” became one of the surnames among both the Catholics and Buddhist Sinhalese.

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Oh, What a Name?


Myself 

By T. V. Antony Raj

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Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike KCMG JP.

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Most Sinhalese names of the Ceylonese colonial-era are mouth-filling. Here is an interesting name:

Sir Solomon Dias Abeywickrema Jayatilleke Senewiratna Rajakumaruna Kadukeralu Bandaranaike

I wonder whether the bearer of this name would have recited his name without forgetting a single one, and in the correct order.

Sir Solomon Dias Abeywickrema Jayatilleke Senewiratna Rajakumaruna Kadukeralu BandaranaikeKCMG, Maha Mudaliyar, JP  (May 22, 1862 – July 31, 1946) was a Ceylonese colonial-era headman. Appointed as Head Mudaliyar and the aide-de-camp to the British Governor of Ceylon, he was one of the most powerful personalities in British colonial Ceylon.

In 1898, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, married Daisy Ezline Obeyesekere, daughter of Solomon Christoffel Obeyesekere, a member of the Legislative Council of Ceylon. His son, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, became the 4th Prime Minister of Ceylon after independence, and his granddaughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, became both Prime Minister and President of Sri Lanka. His grandson, Anura Bandaranaike, became Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

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The Meat of the Land Monitor (thalagoya) Was a Yesteryear Delicacy in Ceylon!


Myself 

By T. V. Antony Raj

Sri Lankan Land Monitor lizard (thalagoya)

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The monitor lizards are large lizards in the genus Varanus. They are native to Africa, Asia and Oceania. Currently, a total of 79 species has been recognized.

The Bengal monitor lizard, also known as the common Indian monitor lizard, is found in Asia and Africa.

The length of this large, mainly terrestrial lizard, can range from about 61 to 175 cm (24 inches to 69 inches) from the tip of the snout to the end of the tail. While the adults mainly hunt on the ground preying on arthropods, small terrestrial vertebrates, ground birds, eggs and fish, the young monitors are more arboreal.

In Sri Lanka, there are two types of monitor lizards: (1) the Water Monitor (Varanus salvator) (Sinhala: kabaragoya-කබරගොයා; Tamil: kalawathan-களவத்தன்) and (2) the Land Monitor (Varanus bengalensis) (Sinhala: thalagoya-තලගොයා; Tamil: Udumbu-உடும்பு). While the former is shunned as poisonous, the latter is considered somewhat harmless.

It is widely said that Tanaji Malusare, a general in the army of the Maratha ruler Shivaji used the land monitors to scale the fort of Kondana in Pune, India because these lizards have a firm grip. In Tamil, ‘a firm grip’ is expressed as udumbu pidi (உடும்புப்பிடி).

In India, the skin of this lizard has traditionally been used in making the Kanjira, a South Indian classical percussion instrument. Now, however, the skin of the lizard is not in vogue owing to the increased awareness to the dwindling population of the lizard.

In Tamil Nadu and all other parts of South India, the monitor lizards are listed under the Protected Species Act.

The lizard evokes mixed responses from the people across the world. It is killed for sport in North Eastern India.

In Sri Lanka, the meat of the thalagoya is considered a delicacy.

Way back in 1947, when I was 6 years old, I was boarded at St. Gabriel’s School in Yatiyantota, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

In the evenings, we, about 40 boarders walked in two-by-two formation to the playground a kilometre or so away from the school.

On our way, when our seniors saw a thalagoya they immediately broke away from the queue and went after the thalagoya with stones and sticks which they picked up on the roadside.

After killing the thalagoya, two seniors would return to the boarding house kitchen carrying the carcass and hand it over to the chief cook. That night we had thalagoya curry.

It was an unwritten rule that the person who threw the fatal stone should be honoured. The cooked tongue of the thalagoya inserted into a hollowed out ripe banana was ceremoniously presented to the ‘killer’. It is believed that the tongue of the thalagoya is a cure for stammering and asthma.

While travelling to Trincomalee by bus, the drivers used to stop the vehicle at a roadside boutique cum eatery for lunch at Dambulla. The waiter after sizing up the people who sat at the tables would ask in hushed voice whether they would like to savour thalagoya curry. On three occasion I ordered the delicacy and it was not costly.

In 1974, my neighbours at Layards Broadway, Colombo -14, spotted a thalagoya in a vacant plot. It might have sneaked in from the Sebastian Canal that connects with the Kelani Ganga. After killing and skinning the reptile, they inquired whether my wife who was born and bred in Badulla and known as an excellent cook would cook it for them. My wife refused, saying she had never cooked thalagoya meat. That night around 11 pm one of the neighbours brought a dish of the thalagoya meat curry prepared by his wife. My wife and children were apprehensive and refused to eat it and with curiosity watched me eating the delicacy.

The following day one of my neighbours told me he had given the skin of the thalagoya to a maker of musical (percussion) drums.

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Execution of 27-year-old Henry Pedris 100 Years Ago in Colonial Ceylon


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Map of Ceylon (1914)
Map of Ceylon (1914)

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A hundred years ago, on July 7, 1915, at the height of the anti-Moor riots, the firing squad of the 28th Battalion of the British Punjab Regiment, executed 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at the Welikade Prison. The young man, a Captain of the Colombo Town Guard (CTG) was a prominent socialite and scion of one of the richest families in colonial British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

On May 28, 1915, a petty incident in the town of Gampola in Ceylon, triggered a spate of communal riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims. It is now known as the ‘anti-Moor riots’ or ‘the 1915 riots’. Like wildfire, the riots swept through several districts of the Central, Western and Southern Provinces.

The Muslims in Kandy Town decided not to allow any perahera (procession) of the Buddhists beating the traditional drums, flutes and using any other musical organs to disturb worship at their mosque. But, on the following full Moon Poya Day of Vesak, the Buddhists held their usual perahera, following the usual route. When the perahera was passing the Mosque, a group of irresponsible Muslims  jeered and threw stones at the passing pageant. There was a pandemonium. The Buddhists retaliated resulting in a free-for-all leading to a conflagration.

The riots spread to Matale, Kegalle and even to Colombo. The Sinhala people harassed the Muslims throughout the country, leading to many deaths and loss of property. The Muslims sustained heavy losses.

The Right Honourable GCB PC, 21st Governor of Ceylon.
The Right Honourable Sir Robert Chalmers, the 21st British Governor of Ceylon.

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Sir Robert Chalmers, the 21st British Governor of Ceylon, feared he might lose control of the colony. He mistook the riots as a Sinhalese-Buddhist movement to oust the British from Ceylon, through mass violence. So, the British Colonial establishment waged war on the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

The British used untrained volunteers recruited from commercial establishments, shops, factories, and plantations, to suppress the riots.

Punjab Regiments, 1911. Watercolour by Major Alfred Crowdy Lovett (1862-1919). Copyright National Army Museum.
Punjab Regiments, 1911. Watercolour by Major Alfred Crowdy Lovett (1862-1919). Copyright National Army Museum.

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The soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India to help quell the riots, along with the volunteers unleashed a reign of terror in villages occupied by Sinhala Buddhists. They shot hundreds of civilians on sight and hauled up hundreds of innocent people before the military courts.

According to the available British records, 86 mosques and 17 Christian churches were burnt or damaged, around five boutiques and shops looted, 35 Muslims killed, 198 injured and four women raped. But unsubstantiated claims say thousands of Sinhalese died of bullet wounds.

Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris

Our protagonist, the young Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris at first attended Royal College Colombo. Later, he joined St. Thomas’ College. He excelled in sports and cricket. He was a member of the school’s first eleven cricket team. After some time, he returned to Royal College where he again played cricket and took part in sports activities.

Hendry Pedris riding 'Rally' (Source: en.wikipedia.org)
Hendry Pedris riding ‘Rally’ (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

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After he finished school, Henry Pedris was much interested in horse riding. He excelled as a horseman  and had a wide knowledge about horses. A Russian Prince gave the Pedris family a horse named “Rally”. Henry rode the horse with the composure of a prince which made the minions of the British rulers envious of him.

Once, at a cinema hall, a British official walked in and demanded his seat. Henry refused and said that he too had paid the same fare and would enjoy the film from that seat.

Lanka calling

When World War I broke out, the British mobilized the Ceylon Defence Force and raised the Colombo Town Guard (CTG), a regiment of volunteers to defend Colombo if attacked.

His father, Duenuge Disan Pedris, had great hopes for his son’s future. He wanted his only son to take over his business enterprises and become a leader in the business sector. But Henry Pedris opted to join the Colombo Town Guard as a private. He was the first Sinhalese to enlist to the new regiment. His excellence in marksmanship and horsemanship made him a commissioned officer in the administrative (mounted) section. Within a year, he was promoted to the rank of Captain. Though Henry Pedris was by no means anti-British, he was much envied by the British because of this promotion and his immense wealth.

During the ‘anti-Moor riots’, Captain Henry Pedris was responsible for the defense of the city. He was successful in disbanding several rioting groups after peaceful discussions.

The shooting incidence in Pettah

On June 1, 1915, when Henry Pedris was at his shop on Main Street, Pettah,  a  mob of Moors advanced towards his shop. Pedris came out with a gun and fired six shots into the crowd. One of the bullets hit police constable Seneviratne in the head.

Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike KCMG JP.
Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike KCMG JP.

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Many British and jealous Sinhalese henchmen led by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar (chief native interpreter and adviser to the Governor), wished Henry Pedris and his rich family ill. They brought charges against him. They accused Henry Pedris of inciting people to march to Colombo from suburban Peliyagoda. He was also charged with shooting at the Moorish mob and attempted murder of constable Seneviratne, even though the constable survived.

The British officers and Punjabi soldiers  raided the Pedris’ residence on Turret Road.  They then broke the doors and almirahs and rifled the whole house, searching for any incriminating documents. They arrested Henry Pedris and incarcerated him in the Welikada Jail.

On June 2, 1915, Martial law came into effect throughout the country. Due to the rigor of the enforced martial law, normalcy returned within ten days. However, the Martial law was in force until August 30, 1915.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Source: archives.dailynews.lk)
Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Source: archives.dailynews.lk)

On July 1, 1915, a military court tried Henry Pedris. Sir Hector Van Culenburg, the elected Legislative Council member pleaded for Henry Pedris. Many prominent citizens and educationists, both British and Ceylonese alike, including Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan appealed against the judgment. An appeal was also made to King George V.

Governor Sir Robert Chalmers and the Inspector General of Police, Herbert Layard Dowbiggin, were adamant that Henry Pedris should die.  They wanted to make the swift execution of Captain Henry Pedris a lesson for the  ringleaders of the anti-British movement.

The three presiding military judges declared Henry Pedris guilty and branded him a traitor.

The Ceylon Observer of July 5, 1915, records the death sentence passed on Henry Pedris. He was charged with “treason, shop-breaking, attempted murder and wounding with intent to murder.

The military court sentenced him to death by firing squad and set July 7, 1915, as the date of execution, without any form of appeal.

The British rulers imprisoned more 86 prominent Sinhalese leaders, members of an emerging Ceylonese élite for ‘waging war against the King‘ and abetting the riots against ‘His Majesty’s Moorish subjects.‘ Among the arrested were D. S. Senanayake, D. R. Wijewardena,  F. R. Senanayake, Edwin Wijeyeratne, D. B.Jayatilaka, Dr. Cassius Pereira, Dr. W. A. de Silva, E. T. De Silva, F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Dr. C. A. Hewavitharana, H. Amarasuriya, A. H. Molamure, A. E. Goonesinghe and several others.

Execution of Captain Henry Pedris

At 7.30 a.m., on the day of the execution, Additional District Judge Arthur Charles Allnut, a graduate of the Oxford University and a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, ordered that the 86 Sinhala-Buddhist notables to  line up in the veranda outside L-Hall in Welikade Prison, and watch Henry Pedris walk to his death.

Captain Henry Pedris dressed in his Town Guard uniform, but stripped of his rank, marched with his head held high and chest forward. At the site of the execution, they strapped him to a chair.

Before his execution, Henry Pedris requested that he be shot by a Punjabi firing squad, and not a British squad, as the Punjabi soldiers were Non-Christian and Asians. Allnut acceded to his request. He ordered the soldiers of the 28th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment brought from India, to carry out the sentence. Captain Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris rejected the blindfold offered to him. He faced the Punjabis without any fear.

After the execution, F. R. Senanayake on seeing the limp body of Henry Pedris slumped in the chair to which he was strapped, vowed that he would initiate a concerted struggle to free the country from British colonial rule.

The prison authorities then took the blood-soaked chair on which Captain Hendry Pedris sat when shot to the prison cells to warn the incarcerated Sinhalese leaders, including D. S. Senanayake, the  future first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, that they could be next.

Burial of Captain Henry Pedris

Duenuge Disan Pedris (Father of Henry Pedris)
Duenuge Disan Pedris (Father of Henry Pedris)

Mallino Pedris (Mother of Henry Pedris)
Mallino Pedris (Mother of Henry Pedris)

The British refused to hand over the body of Henry Pedris to his grieving parents who wanted to accord their dead son a Buddhist burial with attendant religious rites.

Before burying the body of Henry Pedris, the British rulers declared Martial law for the first time in the whole island.

They transported the body of Henry Pedris to the Kanatte cemetery in great secrecy at midnight in the midst of martial law. The British had come to know that his father Duenuge Disan Pedris had owned several family burial plots at the General Cemetery at Kanatte in Borella. They chose one of these plots for the burial. It was the only burial not recorded in the General Cemetery registers or any other official register, since 1910. For the first time, the British rulers declared Martial law in the whole island.

Duenuge Disan Pedris had not only lost his only son, but he also lost two of his sons-in-law who were also incarcerated in the Welikada Prison. Though disheartened, he was silent as he did not want any more of his family members imprisoned by the British.

Most Ceylonese viewed the execution of 27-year-old Duenuge Edward Henry Pedris as unjust. The Sri Lankan patriotic leaders took the cue from his death and projected him as a martyr. His death motivated the pioneering patriotic leaders of the liberation movements organize themselves and strive for a concerted campaign to liberate the country from the harsh British rule.

The execution of Henry Pedris and the many unjustifiable and arbitrary  brutal acts committed by the British during the 1915 riots hastened the formation of the Ceylon National Congress on December 11, 1919 by members of the Ceylon National Association (founded in 1888) and the Ceylon Reform League (founded in 1917).

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A European in the Orient: Part 1 – The Adventures of Marco Polo


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 13th-century travelogue titled Livre des Merveilles du Monde (Book of the Marvels of the World) or Devisement du Monde (Description of the World) introduced Europeans to the geography of the Orient and the ethnic customs of its indigenous peoples.

The book described the travels of the Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo between 1276 and 1291, through Asia: Persia, China, Indonesia, Burma, Tibet, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, and his experiences at the court of Kublai Khan, the fifth Khagan (Great Khan) of the Mongol Empire. The book described Cathay (present-day China) in great detail and its abundance of riches. Though Marco Polo was not the first European to have visited the Far East, he still became famous after the publication of the book.

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Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
Marco Polo (Credit: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

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Marco Polo was born in Venice on September 15, 1254 to a wealthy Venetian merchant named Niccolò Polo. Marco’s father and his uncle Maffeo Polo being merchants had established trading posts in Constantinople, Sudak in Crimea, and in a western part of the Mongol Empire in Asia.

In 1264, the Polo brothers joined up with a diplomatic mission sent by  Hulagu, the ruler of Il-khanate to his brother Kublai Khan, both grandsons of Gengis Khan. They reached the seat of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, in Dadu (present day Beijing, China) in 1266.

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Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China. The 5th Khagan of the Mongol Empire. The First Emperor of the Yuan dynasty.

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Kublai Khan, the Mongol Emperor, received the Polos well and expressed his interest in Christianity. He then sent them back to Italy with a Mongol named Koeketei as an ambassador to Pope Clement IV. They carried a letter from the emperor requesting the Pope to send 100 educated people to teach Christianity and western customs to his people. He also requested oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher. The emperor also gave them  the paiza, a golden tablet a foot long and 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, to signify certain privileges and authority, allowing them to acquire lodging, horses and food throughout  his dominion.

Koeketei left in the middle of the journey, leaving the Polos to travel alone to Ayas in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. From that port city, the Polos sailed to Saint Jean d’Acre, capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Pope Clement IV died on November 29, 1268. The long sede vacante between the death of Pope Clement IV, and the election of a new pope delayed the Polos from fulfilling Kublai Khan’s request.

In 1269 or 1270, Teobaldo Visconti, then papal legate for the realm of Egypt suggested that the brothers return to Venice and wait for the nomination of the new Pope.

Niccolò Polo once again saw his son Marco, now a teenager, who had been living with his aunt and another uncle in Venice since the death of his mother at a young age.

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Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.
Niccolò Polo and Matteo Polo remitting a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X in 1271.

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In 1271, Theobald Visconti was elected as Pope Gregory X. He received the letter from Kublai Khan brought by the Polo brothers.

The Polo brothers left Venice on their second voyage to the Orient along with a 17-year-old Marco. Unable to recruit the 100 people that Kublai Khan had requested to teach his people, the Polos left with only two Dominican friars:  Niccolò de Vicence and Guillaume de Tripoli. They set sail to Acre.

At Acre they joined a caravan of merchants travelling to the Persian port of Hormuz. Soon, bandits attacked their caravan using the cover of a sandstorm to ambush them. The marauding bandits killed many members of the caravan and enslaved the rest, but the Polos managed to escape to a nearby town.

Marco reveled in the adventure, but the two monks after getting a taste of the hard journey ahead of them, soon turned back for home.

When they reached Hormuz they wanted to sail straight to China, but the ships in Hormuz were not seaworthy, so they continued overland through the Silk Road.

The journey was challenging and at times they had to traverse harsh terrain. In what is now Afghanistan, Marco fell ill. He had to retreat to the mountains to recuperate from the illness.

Crossing the Gobi desert, proved long and, at times, arduous. Marco told later: “This desert is reported to be so long that it would take a year to go from end to end. And at the narrowest point it takes a month to cross it. It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.

In 1274, three and a half years after leaving Venice, when Marco was about 21 years old, the Polos reached Kanbaliq or Dadu, the capital of the Yuan dynasty (present day Beijing). Kublai Khan who welcomed them into his summer palace known as Xanadu, a grand marble architectural wonder. The Polos presented the sacred oil from Jerusalem and the papal letters to the Mongol Emperor.

The Polos spent the next 17 years in China under the patronage of Kublai Khan. Niccolo and Maffeo were granted important positions in Kublai Khan’s Court. The Mongol Emperor took a liking to Marco, an engaging storyteller. Marco’s immersed himself into the Chinese culture and mastered four languages. He served as an official in the salt administration and made trips through the provinces of Yunnan and Fukien. At one stage, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.

Marco Polo marveled at the use of paper money in the Mongol empire, an idea that had not reached Europe at that time.

Kublai Khan employed Marco Polo as a special envoy.  He sent Marco to Burma, India, Tibet and other far-flung areas hitherto never explored by Europeans. Marco was promoted again and again for his work. He served as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council.

The Polos asked permission on many occasions to return to Europe, but Kublai Khan liked them so much that he would not agree to their departure.

In 1291, Kublai Khan entrusted the Polos with their last duty. It was to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Il-khan Arghun of the breakaway state of the Mongol Empire in Persia, ruled by the Mongol House of Hulagu.

The Polos departed from the southern port city of Quanzhou with a caravan of several hundred passengers and sailors. They sailed to Sumatra, Ceylon and India. They visited Mylapore, Madurai and Alleppey in India. Marco Polo nicknamed Alleppey as the “Venice of the East.”

The journey was harrowing due to storms and disease. Many perished. By the time they reached Il-khanate in Persia in 1293 or 1294, only 18 people, including the princess and the Polos, were still alive.  They came to know that Il-khan Arghun to whom the princess was betrothed had died. They left the Mongol princess Koekecin with the new Il-khan Gaykhatu. The Polos then moved to Trebizond . From there they sailed to Constantinople and then reached Venice in 1295. They had travelled almost 15,000 miles (24,000 km).  The Polos returned to Venice with thier fortune converted in gemstones. In Venice, the Polos struggled to converse in their native tongue. Above all, they were unfamiliar to their family.

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Marco Polo's Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)
Marco Polo’s Route (Source: httpdepts.washington.edu)

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Next → Part 2 – The Book “The Travels of Marco Polo”

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The eunuch admiral Zheng He

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Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.
Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.

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Zheng He (1371 – 1433) also romanized as Cheng Ho was born Ma He. He was the second son of a Hui Muslim parents from Kunyang in Yunnan. He had four sisters and one older brother. Though born a Muslim, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He’s devotion to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers, was the dominant faith to which he adhered.

Ma He’s father had the surname Ma and the title hajji that suggests that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ma He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and knew Arabic.

In 1381, Ma Hajji died at age 39 during the hostilities between the Ming armies and Mongol forces in Yunnan. It is not clear whether he died while helping the Mongol army or was just caught in the onslaught of battle. Ming soldiers took his son, the 10-year-old Ma He, as a prisoner. After castration, they forced him to serve in the household of the 21-year-old Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. There, Ma He, was known as Ma Sanbao and received a proper education.

Amid the continuing struggle against the Mongols, to consolidate his own power, Zhu Di eliminated rivals such as the successful general Lan Yu.

Ma Sanbao spent his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier. He often participated in Zhu Di’s military campaigns against the Mongols. On March 2, 1390, Ma Sanbao accompanied Zhu Di and commanded his first expedition. It was a great victory since the Mongol leader Naghachu surrendered. From then on, Zheng He became a trusted adviser to the prince.

Zhu Di promoted Ma Sanbao as the Grand Director (Taijian) of the Directorate of Palace Servants.

On February 11, 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname “Zheng” to Ma Sanbao, for distinguishing himself by defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba against the imperial forces during the Siege of Beiping of 1399, and also for distinguishing himself during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing. Zheng He served in the highest posts, as Grand Director and later as Chief Envoy during his sea voyages..

The Chinese may have been sailing to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) or earlier.

Desiring to expand Chinese influence throughout the known world, the Yongle Emperor sponsored the great and long-term expeditions under the command of his eunuch admiral Zheng He and his associates Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and others.

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Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty's fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)
Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty’s fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)

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According to medieval Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 that resulted in contact with foreign cultures. He sailed to Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Africa and many other countries.

Under Zheng He’s direction, the Chinese ships loaded with silk and porcelain plied the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean.

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A Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).
A Chinese Ming Dynasty ( blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).

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Zheng He’s fleet sailed to Japan, Ryukyu, and many locations in South-East Asia, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans. They traded gemstones, coral, pepper, and the cobalt used in the splendid porcelains for which the Ming dynasty would become known.

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Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He's fleet
Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet

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The Chinese fleet reached major trade centers of Asia: Thevan Thurai (Dondra Head), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Hormuz, Aden and Malindi in north-eastern Africa.

 The seven voyages of Zheng He
VOYAGE PERIOD REGIONS ALONG THE WAY
1st voyage 1405–1407 ChampaJavaPalembang,Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, KollamCochin,
Calicut.
2nd voyage 1407–1409 Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut.
3rd voyage 1409–1411 Champa, Java, Malacca, Samudera, Ceylon,
Kollam, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Korkai
Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Puttanpur.
4th voyage 1413–1415 Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang,
Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin,
Calicut, Korkai, Hormuz, MaldivesMogadishu,
Barawa, MalindiAdenMuscat, Dhofar.
5th voyage 1417–1419 Ryukyu, Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca,
Samudera, Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn,
Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu,
Barawa, Malindi, Aden.
6th voyage 1421–1422 Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin,
Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu,
Barawa.
7th voyage 1431–1433 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Samudera,
Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Bengal, Ceylon,  Calicut, Hormuz,  Aden,  Ganbali, Bengal,
Laccadive and Maldive Islands,  Djofar,  Lasa,  Aden, Mecca,  Mogadishu, Barawa.

In the early 15th century, China became the world’s premier maritime power.

The increase in Chinese sea trade also made piracy lucrative on these seas. The Japanese pirates harassed the whole of southeastern China.

Zheng He‘s feud with King Vira Alakeshwara of Ceylon.

Zheng He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from many kingdoms. During all his seven voyages, Zheng He landed in Ceylon.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, he visited Tevanthurai or Dondra Head (Tamil: தேவன்துறை), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon. There, Zheng He erected a trilingual stone tablet written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. The tablet recorded the offerings he made to Buddha, Allah and Hindu gods. The Chinese Admiral also prayed to the thousand Hindu deity statues оf stone аnd bronze and to the primary deity, god Tenavarai Nayanar at the Tenavaram temple, іn Tevanthurai (or Dondra Head). He invoked the blessings of the deities for a peaceful world built on trade.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, Vira Alakeshwara’s army confronted and plundered his expedition.

Four years later, in 1409, during his third voyage, Zheng He came to Ceylon with an army. King Vira Alakeshwara (Tamil: வீர அழகேஸ்வரர்) of Kotte confronted the Chinese forces. The Chinese retaliated. They captured King Vira Alakeshwara, his queen, his family and kinsmen.

Zheng He then returned to China he brought along with him the captive King Vira Alakeshwara, his family and kinsmen. He wanted Vira Alakeshwara to apologize to the Yongle Emperor for offenses against the Chinese mission.

In 1411, the Yongle Emperor released King Vira Alakeshwara et al.

On the night after King Vira Alakeshwara returned to his capital Kotte in Ceylon his enemies murdered him.

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Next →  Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet 

← Previous: Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor

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Prices Now and Then …


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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Today, while changing stations on my TV, I came across a programme on the Tamil news channel “Puthia Thalaimurai“. A bicycle repairer was reminiscing about the prices of items in the 1980s. He said he bought a bicycle at that time for Indian rupees 300. This made me recall the prices in the late 1950s.

Phillips cycle add - Eureka

My father bought my first bicycle in 1956, a Phillips, for Ceylon rupees 72.

The distributors of Volkswagen Beetle cars in Colombo offered the car for Ceylon rupees 6,000. Though the Beetle was cheap, people did not buy the car the first time it came into the market. Reason?

VW Ovali beetle (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle -front view (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle -front view (Source: pre67vw.com)

 

VW Ovali beetle - rear engine (Source: pre67vw.com)
VW Ovali beetle – rear engine (Source: pre67vw.com)

Many did not like the unconventional shape. And most of all, the engine was in the rear and there was no way to add water to cool the engine as they did with other cars.

The Beetle was soon picked up by firms such as Quickshaws Ltd., for their fleet of taxis.

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Dhanushkodi – Fifty Years After the Cyclone of 1964


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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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A cyclonic storm now referred to as the 1964 Rameswaram cyclone or the Dhanushkodi cyclone started with the depression that formed in the South Andaman Sea on December 17, 1964. On December 19, it intensified into a severe cyclonic storm. From December 21, it moved westwards, 400 km to 550 km per day. On December 22, it crossed Vavunia in Sri Lanka with a wind speed of 280 km per hour.

On December 22-23 night, the cyclone moved into Palk Strait and made landfall in Dhanushkodi, at the southern tip of Rameswaram island, on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India. The devastating tidal waves that were 7 metres high submerged all houses and other structures in Dhanushkodi town  with heavy casualties.

On December 22, 1964, the tidal wave smashed into the Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger train and washed it into the sea while it was crossing the viaduct during the cyclonic storm.

 The railway track in Dhanushkodi destroyed by the cyclone of December 22, 1964
The railway track in Dhanushkodi destroyed by the cyclone of December 22 – 25, 1964.

More than 100 passengers drowned in the sea. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 115 and 200. The variation is due to the many ticketless travellers. The railway line running from Pamban Station to Dhanushkodi Pier was washed away.

The 1¼ mile-long Pamban Rail Bridge over the Pamban Channel, that links the Indian mainland with the island of Rameswaram was also badly damaged; 126 of its 145 girders collapsed. However, the lift span was barely damaged.

The Pamban bridge after restoration (Source: the hindu.com)
The Pamban bridge after restoration (Source: the hindu.com)

Most of the girders were salvaged from the sea and the Pamban viaduct was working once again in a span of just three months time.

The metre gauge branch line from Pamban Junction to Dhanushkodi was abandoned after the cyclone destroyed it.

Prior to the cyclone, Dhanushkodi was once a flourishing town. Then, the Railway line to Dhanushkodi, destroyed in the 1964 cyclone, went directly from Mandapam station to Dhanushkodi without touching Rameswaram. In those days Dhanushkodi had a railway station, a small railway hospital, primary schools, a post office, customs and port offices. There were hotels, dharmashalas (religious rest houses), and many textile shops that catered to the Hindu pilgrims and travellers to Sri Lanka.

A map showing the ferry route from Dhanushkod, Indiai to Talaimannar , Sri Lanka (Source:-Wikimedia Commons)
A map showing the ferry route from Dhanushkod, Indiai to Talaimannar , Sri Lanka (Source:-Wikimedia Commons)

Dhanushkodi is about 18 miles (29 km) West of Talaimannar, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). There was a steamer ferry service which operated daily from the pier on the south-east of the Dhanushkodi town to the pier at Talaimannar. The ferry transported travellers and goods, across the Palk Strait.

In the 1950s and 1960s, I used to travel to Ceylon by the Dhanushkodi-Talimannar steamer ferry.

The Indo-Ceylon Express, also known as the Boat Mail train, plied from 1915 to 1964 on a metre gauge track between Egmore Station in Chennai (then known as Madras) and Dhanushkodi. It took almost 19 hours to complete the journey of 420 miles (675 Km).

Ferry service from Dhanushkodi Pier to Talaimannar in the 1950s.
Ferry service from Dhanushkodi Pier to Talaimannar in the 1950s.

After the Boat Mail train reached Dhanushkodi Pier at 15:05 hours in the afternoon, the passengers after alighting from the train had to pass through the customs before boarding the ferry which used to leave the Indian shore soon after 16:00 hours. Depending on the weather, it took between 2 and 3½ hours to cross the very shallow Palk Bay and reach the Talaimannar Pier in Sri Lanka. The voyage used to be bumpy and nauseating when the sea was rough.

The name of the train changed from Indo-Ceylon Express to Rameswaram Express after the 1964 cyclone. Now, it is a 12-hour journey from Chennai to Rameswaram on a broad-gauge track.

On June 12, 2014, my wife and I along with relatives left Chennai on Rameswaram Express to attend a wedding at Pamban town. We reached Rameswaram the following day around 5:30 am and lodged in a hotel. We hired a van and left the hotel around 11:00 am to see Dhanushkodi.

After travelling for 20 minutes, we reached Dhanushkodi. Even 50 years after the cyclone of 1964, Dhanushkodi remains a dilapidated strip of land.

The driver stopped the van at a spot on the Indian Ocean side where many other vans carrying tourists were parked.

The driver said he cannot go farther as local regulations, meaning rules set by the local cartel of van drivers, forbids it. But the members of that association ply a number of their own vans to ferry the travellers to the end of Dhanushkodi and charge ₹100/- per person. At the end of the journey we paid ₹2,200/-.

After 35 minutes of a bumpy ride by van, on shallow waters and muddy tracts, we reached the tip of Dhanushkodi where Adam’s Bridge, a chain of sand shoals between Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar begins. The distance from the tip of Dhanushkodi in India and Talimannar in Sri Lanka is about 18 miles (29 km). The Dhanushkodi fishermen say that some sand dunes are just 50 yards in length. Surprisingly, the smallest land border in the world, is a shoal in Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka – just 45 metres in length.

An eerie stillness prevailed around us except for the chatter of the few tourists subdued by the sound of waves. There were a few marine birds pecking on the soggy earth searching for food and many sea eagles circling in the air ready to swoop on any prey they could spot in the shallow waters or on the muddy land.

We saw many Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Palk Bay. The Hindus believe that pilgrimage to the holy city of Kashi (Benares / Varanasi) in North India would not be complete without having the ritual bath at the tip of Dhanushkodi, considered a sacred confluence of the Palk Bay and the Indian Ocean, before completing their pilgrimage to Rameswaram.

St. Antony's Church at Dhanuskodi devastated by the cyclone of 1964 (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
St. Antony’s Church at Dhanushkodi devastated by the cyclone of 1964 (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

It was heartrending to see only thatched huts and no buildings with standing walls. The only walls we saw were the dilapidated walls of St. Anthony’s church and of a school devastated during the cyclone of 1964.

Trinkets and ornaments made from seashells (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)
Trinkets and ornaments made from seashells (Photo: T.V. Antony Raj)

The main trade other than fishing was the sale of conch shells, and trinkets and ornaments made of shells sold at exorbitant prices to tourists and pilgrims.

Eventually, we left Dhanushkodi around 2:30 pm with a heavy heart after having seen the ravages wrought by the 1964 cyclone.

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Taprobane Island: Part 6 – Does the Dead Count Haunt Taprobane Island?


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Myself

By T. V. Antony Raj

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Does the dead Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande haunt Taprobane Island ?

Sir Philip Christopher Ondaatje (born February 22, 1933), a Sri Lankan born Canadian-English businessman, philanthropist, adventurer, and writer thinks so.

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Sir Christopher Ondaatje
Sir Christopher Ondaatje

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Christopher Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to a Burgher family of Dutch and Indian origin. His name comes from an Indian ancestor called Ondaatchi from Thanjavur, South India.

In the early 18th Century, a physician to the King of Tanjore from the clan of Ondaatchi, was summoned to Ceylon by Adrian Van der Meyden, the Governor-General of the Dutch East-India Company, to treat his ailing wife. The physician arrived in Ceylon on June 9, 1659 from Tanjore. He treated the sick woman with a bath of water in which 23 jungle herbs were boiled. She recovered fully. The physician’s success in curing the lady led to the Governor to become his friend. In appreciation, the Governor appointed him as the First Doctor of the Town of Colombo.

In 1660, the physician got converted to Christianity. He adopted the name ‘Michael Jurgen Ondaatch’. He married Magdalene de Cruz (1640-1688), a Portuguese woman. Michael Jurgen Ondaatch died in 1714.

After Christopher Ondaatje’s alcoholic father lost the family fortune, Christopher had to leave school a year from graduation. In 1956, at the age of 33, he emigrated to Canada, arriving in Toronto with almost no money. He quickly became a wealthy stockbroker, and was one of the three founding members of Loewen Ondaatje McCutcheon. He became a multi-millionaire in the publishing industry by founding the Pagurian Press, which he later sold to the Bronfman family.

Christopher Ondaatje represented Canada in the four-man bobsled at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. He is the author of 11 books including The Man-Eater of Punanai and Woolf in Ceylon.

I have reproduced below an article, wherein Sir Christopher Ondaatje gives an account of his tryst with the dead Count Maurice de Mauny-Talvande at about three o’clock in the afternoon on November 27 in the 1940s.

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The Count haunts Taprobane
By Sir Christopher Ondaatje

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I first heard the scream in 1946. Actually it was more like a repeated plaintive gasp than a scream, and this was followed by a long low hissing noise, somewhat like air being released through someone’s teeth. I was only twelve years old and holidaying with my parents, two sisters and my brother Michael on Taprobane Island off the coast of Weligama, a fishing village on the south coast of what was then Ceylon.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and we children had been sent to our rooms for an afternoon nap – quite a normal thing to do in the tropics. It was a very hot November afternoon. We had been playing and swimming most of the morning on the long crescent shaped Weligama beach only a few yards from the tiny Taprobane Island on which Count de Mauny Talvande had built a unique and magnificent house on the red granite rock covered with palms and jungle scrub. He bought the Island in 1925 and it remained in his possession until he died.

I didn’t know it then, but the Count had died in 1941, only five years before we rented the Island from the subsequent owners who had bought the extraordinary island for Rs.12,000 at an auction in 1942. It really is a magical island, only about two acres in area, and the Count christened it Taprobane because its original pear shape looked a little like a miniature Ceylon. He ignored its local name which had always been Galduwa. The first stones were laid out in 1927 and despite the fact that the island had been used by locals as a cobra dump (he eventually got rid of them) he set about building an enormous octagonal central hall which was thirty feet high and twenty feet at its widest point. The so-called Hall of the Lotus was lined with eight panels of inlaid wood which were dyed a dull gold and eau de nil, and bore a design of lotus buds and flowers.

The dome is supported by eight square pillars of Wedgwood blue, 24 feet in height, and on either side of these two light columns, 12 feet in height making sixteen in all – terra-cotta with gilded capitals support a white stone traverse which join the pillars with an arch of 10-feet span. This is hung with curtains of soft eau de nil silk, a deep brocaded border of art nouveau design at the bottom, black and gold on a cream ground. These curtains are kept open during the day, drawn only at night.

All the rooms converge in to the hall through eight arches; nothing interferes with the full view of the interior, nor with that of the terraces and gardens which are seen through the carved mullions of doors and windows. A frieze inspired by the Sigiriya frescoes runs along the white stone walls. After Count de Mauny had finished building and decorating his building one could look from the centre of the hall through wrought iron and brass gates northwards to the entrance through towering palms and a vast array of tropical foliage. To the east one could see the Italian gardens the Count had created. The land sloped down to a well fed by a spring below sea level. East, and overlooking this garden, was the Count’s own bedroom.

He loved the sunrise and, looking southwards, there was nothing between the small triangular lawn outside his bedroom window and the South Pole. Every morning the Count would lie in bed and listen to the gardener raking the leaves off the gravel path with an ekel broom. Everything, the house, the garden, and furniture of his own design and making, was in perfect harmony. There was a marvellous view up the palm-fringed Weligama bay to the north-east, and at low tide one could easily walk the few yards to and from the shore. However, at high tide the water was chest high and women and children used to be carried by servants to the small pier that led to the entrance steps. After a restless and turbulent life in France and England the Count spent many happy years in his unique island home – less a fortress than a pavilion.

As I said, I first heard the scream in 1946. It was late in November and I was having a nap in the room next to the Count’s old bedroom. In those days there were no doors to the bedrooms – only the thin silk curtains which we pushed open and shut along solid brass curtain rings. I knew no one was in the Count’s bedroom because my mother and father, who had been sleeping there, had driven to Galle with a tea-planter friend of theirs, H.L. ‘Tank’ Roche who was also staying on the island. We
were left in the charge of our ayah or nanny. The others were still asleep, and I heard the gasping cry very clearly so I got up and looked into the Count’s bedroom, only to see his large empty ebony bed. And then I heard it again – a long plaintive repeated gasp. A sudden queer sensation passed over me and I felt a little faint. But this disappeared quickly. Far from being terrified I entered the room and looked on either side of the bed for something or someone who could have made the anguished sound. I saw nothing so returned to my own room next door to wait for the others to wake up.

I told no one anything about the scream until two evenings later when we waded across the water to the Weligama Rest House for an early evening dinner of fried prawns and fish curry – my father’s favourite. In those days the main road ran behind the Weligama Rest House and not in front of it. At low tide, one could run down the front steps of Taprobane and literally run across the shallow surf in bare feet, over the wide sandy beach and across a little bit of scrub grass to the Rest House. The food was marvellous and the Rest House keeper, Jayakody, was very kind to all of us. While we were having dinner – in fact we had almost finished and were having a second helping of buffalo curd and kitul panni or honey, that Jayakody jokingly said to me, “Did you hear it?”

“What?” I said, not even remembering the scream.

“You heard nothing? Nothing at all? What bedroom are you in?”

I told him. And then I remembered my experience and told him that I had indeed heard rather a horrible scream or groan a couple of days earlier. My father was actually quite annoyed that I hadn’t told him anything about it.

“Ah yes,” Jayakody said. “That’s the Count. He died two days ago, you know, on November 27, 1941, of a heart attack. Angina pectoris. He was visiting a friend in Jaffna on the Chelvarayan Estate in Nawatkuli. And then they buried him up there in St. Mary’s Burial Ground which is a Catholic cemetery. It was a real shame. He always wanted to be buried on his island. He came here with practically nothing, but he built this fabulous house. It was the only place he was really happy. He was deeply in debt, which is why his island was sold. But he wrote a remarkable book about it, “The Gardens of Taprobane” which is very difficult to get. None of his family went to the funeral which was organised by an English solicitor whom he didn’t even know. He often comes back but usually at this time of the year. And his awful gasping for breath and his last sounds are usually heard by the gardener outside his open bedroom windows. It is quite a usual occurrence and no one pays any attention anymore. He was seventy-five years old and died a little after 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

During the early part of the night, we made our way back to Taprobane Island with flares and torches. We children were still in high spirits and enjoyed being carried over the high tide by the servants who made several trips to and from the Weligama beach to collect us. My father and mother were unusually quiet. Not surprisingly they didn’t sleep in the Count’s bed and bedroom that night or on any subsequent night. They simply collected their bags and clothes from the Count’s bedroom and
moved to the spare guest room over the servants’ quarters facing the Weligama beach.

Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto, Canada.

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← Previous: Taprobane Island: Part 5

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