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KANDY
Inland from Colombo it is pure enchantment to travel among the rich and tangled vegetation of every shade of green that grows by the margins of the pools, the rivers, and the rice-fields. At first, skirting the shallows, where men, standing to their waists in water, were fishing with large nets which[Pg 126] they managed but clumsily, the flat banks are overgrown with anthuriums, their broad leaves of dark velvet or of light gauze splashed with rose and white, mirrored in the channels that form a network to irrigate the rice-swamps. Then ferns, bamboos, and feathery reeds in every varying shade of gold; creepers clinging to the trunks of coco trees or ph?nix-palms bear bunches of pink or yellow blossoms between the palm-leaves, invading everything with their luxuriance, and forming a gaudy undergrowth below the tall trees—a light but impenetrable thicket where the sun casts warm purple shadows.

Higher on the hills, amid the rich bright verdure of the tea-plantations, we find magnolias, pines, and the Campeachy medlar, all wreathed with climbing plants and invaded by the young growth of palms, by rattans which have succeeded in piercing the awning of parasites that hangs, starred with flowers, from tree to tree—flowers like lamps shining among the ripe coco-nuts, mango fruit, and papaws.

Beyond a wide valley that lay far beneath us a mountain-range gleamed softly in the blue distance, starry and sapphire-hued above rising levels of delicate green. Here, in the fresher air, floated the fragrance of mosses and alpine flowers, and above the[Pg 127] cascades falling in showers we could see the tangle of climbing plants, ferns, orchids, and hibiscus, a swaying curtain all woven of leaves and blossoms.

A plantation of theobromas (cacao), carefully enclosed and tended, with their puckered leaves, and fruit-pods as large as an ostrich egg hanging from the trunk and the larger branches, seemed quite melancholy, like wild things tethered.

Then some gardens looking like hothouses, concealing bungalows, and a gleaming lake among the greenery—and this was Kandy.

In front of a Buddhist temple were some tanks in which enormous tortoises were swimming. On the building, above carvings of elephants in relief on the stone, were a number of mural paintings, artless and terrible scenes set forth with the utmost scorn of perspective and chiaroscuro: a place of torment where green monsters thrust the damned against trees of which the trunks are saws, and enormous red and yellow birds devour living victims.

Inside the temple was the fragrance of fresh flowers, brought as offerings, with grains of rice threaded like semi-transparent beads on the flexible pale green stem. A huge Buddha here, of many-coloured stones bedizened with gold, gleams in the[Pg 128] shade of the altar, and two bonzes in front of the idol were quarrelling at great length, with screams like angry cats and vehement gesticulations, for the possession of some small object which constantly passed from one to the other.

Adjacent to this temple was the court-house, a hall of ancient splendour in the time of the kings of Kandy. It stood wide open, the walls lined with carved wood panels. The court was sitting under the punkhas that swung with regular monotony, the judges robed in red. One of the accused, standing in a sort of pen, listened unmoved to the pleading. A large label bearing the number 5 hung over his breast. Behind a barrier stood other natives, each decorated with a number, under the charge of sepoys. One of them, having been wounded in the murderous fray for which they were being tried, lay at full length on a litter covered with pretty matting, red and white and green, stretched on bamboo legs. A long robe of light silk enveloped his legs, and he alone of them all had charming features, long black eyes with dark blue depths, his face framed in a sort of halo of silky, tangled hair. He, like the man now being sentenced and those who had gone through their examination,[Pg 129] seemed quite indifferent to the judges and the lawyers. He mildly waved a palm leaf which served him as a fan, and looked as if he were listening to voices in a dream, very far away.

An interpreter translated to the accused the questions put by the judge, who understood the replies, though he was not allowed to speak excepting in English.

Then a fat native lawyer began to speak, and silence fell on the crowd of three or four hundred listeners sitting behind the accused, as if they were in church. The monotonous voice went on and on, urging every plea.

Even more than the assembly of their relatives and friends, the prisoners at the bar maintained the impassive mien of men who attach no disgrace to a sentence pronounced by a conquering race; they would take the penalty without a murmur, as one of the inevitable incidents of this life, which to them is but a stage, a passage to a higher existence.

The song of birds in the mitigated atmosphere of the dying day came in from outside, for a moment almost drowning the pleader's weariful tones as he poured forth his statement, emphasized by sweeping gestures.

[Pg 130]

In the mystery of a polychrome temple, whose walls are closely covered with sculptured bas-reliefs of gods in the shape of men or animals, is a relic, the sacred tooth of Buddha; and all about the precious object, which is enclosed in a series of shrines within impenetrable walls, there is no sign of respect, but all the noise and bustle of a fair, a perfect turmoil of hurrying, chattering folk, whose only anxiety is to keep unbelievers away from the sacred spot.

The forest round Kandy is glorious, an exuberance, a crush of trees growing as thick as they can stand, the dense tangle of boughs and leaves outgrown by some enormous ficus, or tall terminalia, whose sharp, angular roots have pushed through the soil while its trunk, twisting in a spiral, has made its way to a prodigious height, ending a thick dome of foliage. This, again, is overgrown by delicate creepers decking the green mass with their flowers. Spreading banyans, with a hundred stems thrown out like branches and ending in roots, form colonnades of a rosy grey hue like granite, and might seem to be the vestiges of some colossal church with a dark vault above, scarcely pierced here and there by a gleam of blue light from the sky beyond. Among these giants of the forest dwells a[Pg 131] whole nation of bending ferns as pliant as feathers, of clinging plants hanging in dainty curtains of flowers from tree to tree. Sometimes between the screen of flowers a bit of road comes into view, deep in impalpable brick-red dust, of the same tint as the fruits that hang in branches from the trees.

A kind of lemon plant, with picotee-like flowers of a texture like crystalline pearl, its petals delicately fringed, exhales a fresh scent like verbena. Then, on an ebony-tree, overgrown with succulent leaves forming an edging to every bough, is a bird—as it would seem—a lilac bird, with open wings, which, as we approach, turns into an orchid.

Above a large fan-palm the pale fronds of a talipot soar towards the sky, gracefully recurved like enormous ostrich plumes. A fluff, a down, of flowers clings to the stems of the magnificent crest, a delicate pale cloud; and the broad leaves of the tree, which will die when it has blossomed, are already withering and drooping on the crown. Then, in the clearings made by the recent decay of such a giant, falling where it had stood, and crushing the bamboos and ph?nix that grew round its foot, the flowers sprang in myriads—great sunflowers, shrubs of poinsettia, with its tufts of red or white bracts at the end of a branch of green[Pg 132] leaves, surrounding a small inconspicuous blossom, and tall, lavender-blue lilies.

There was not a sound, not a bird, excepting on the fringe of the forest. As we penetrated further there soon was no undergrowth even on the dry soil, between the ever closer array of trees; the creepers hung very low, tangled with clinging parasites; and between the stilt-like and twining roots and the drooping boughs, the path, now impracticable, suddenly ended in face of the total silence and black shade that exhaled a strong smell of pepper, while not a leaf stirred.

Colombo again; and again the jewellers and their blue stones—an intoxicating, living blue.

In the harbour, where there was a light breeze blowing, the little outrigged canoes had hoisted large sails, white edged with black, and vanished into the distance, skimming like winged things over the intensely blue water.

Men were carrying mud in enormous turtle-shells that they used for baskets.

Little beggar-girls with a depraved look, artful little hussies, pursued us coaxingly: "Give something, sahib, to pretty Cingalee girl, who wants to go over sea to where the gentlemens live."


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