The village in the jungle

August 30 2007

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The jungle on the dry side of Ceylon is like the jungle in Yucatan. Its greenery is so fresh that one can hardly believe in the drought […].

The dry side is east and north of the mountains.

With […] dumb eloquence, the creeper-covered ruins of Angkor Wat testify to the prowess of the men who once propagated the Hindu Civilization on soil conquered from the tropical forest of Cambodia; and the equally arduous feat of conquering the parched plains of Ceylon for agriculture is commemorated in the breached bunds and overgrown floors of the tanks which were once constructed on the wet side of the hill-country, on a colossal scale, by the Sinhalese converts to the Indic religion of the Hinayana.

Buddhism arrived from India in the third century BC, brought by Bhikkhu Mahinda, who is believed to have been the son of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. The story of the previous Hindu conquest is told in the Ramayana. He quotes a recent book.

“To realise how such tanks came into being one must know something of the history of Lanka. The idea underlying the system was simple but very great. It was intended by the tank-building kings that none of the rain which fell in such abundance in the mountains should reach the sea without paying tribute to Man on the way.

“In the middle of the southern half of Ceylon is a wide mountain zone, but to the east and north dry [but forested] plains cover thousands of square miles, and at present are very sparsely populated. In the height of the monsoon, when armies of storm-swept clouds rush on day after day to match their strength against the hills, there is a line drawn by Nature that the rains are unable to pass. … There are points where the line of demarcation of the two zones, the wet and the dry, is so narrow that within a mile one seems to pass into a new country; for the whole character of the forest alters, and in size and kind and distribution the trees differ completely from those one can still see behind one. The wild flowers take new forms and colours; different birds sing in the bushes; cultivation changes abruptly; and wealth ends. The line curves from sea to sea and appears to be stable and unaffected by the operations of Man, such as felling forests.” [Footnote: Still, John: The Jungle Tide (Edinburgh 1930, Blackwood), pp. 74-5.]

Yet the [Buddhist] missionaries of the Indic Civilization in Ceylon once achieved the tour de force of compelling the monsoon-smitten highlands where “rain pours down at a higher rate for the month than the rainfall of London for the whole of a very wet year” [footnote: Still, op. cit., p. 74.] to give water and life and wealth to the plains which Nature had condemned to lie parched and desolate.

… A missionary religion bringing civilisation.

“Hill streams were tapped and their water guided into the giant storage-tanks below, some of them four thousand acres in extent; and, from those, channels ran on to other large tanks farther from the hills, and from them to others still more remote. And below each great tank and each great channel were hundreds of little tanks, each the nucleus of a village; all, in the long-run, fed from the wet mountain-zone. So gradually the ancient Sinhalese conquered all, or nearly all, of the plains that are now so empty of men.” [Footnote: Still, op. cit., pp. 76-7.]

The arduousness of the labour of first conquering and then holding for a man-made civilization these naturally barren and desolate plains [surely not barren if forested] is demonstrated by the two outstanding features in the landscape of Ceylon at the present day. The first feature is the relapse of that once irrigated and cultivated and populated countryside into its primeval barrenness and desolation upon the stoppage of the continuous human exertions which had been required in order to produce and maintain this miraculous transformation of the face of Nature. [Footnote: The cause of the breakdown of the ancient Sinhalese irrigation system was an incessant civil war which was waged with [the help of] mercenaries from Southern India. These mercenaries deliberately cut the canals and breached the bunds as a short cut to military decisions; and eventually this will to destroy overcame the will to repair. Therewith the plains not only went out of cultivation through the stoppage of the water-supply, but they also became hot-beds of malaria when the running waters dwindled into stagnant pools which were too shallow to harbour the fish that live by eating up the anopheles mosquito’s larvae. (Still, op. cit., pp. 88-92.) […]] The second feature is the avoidance of these derelict plains, which were once the seat of a civilization, by our modern Western coffee and tea and rubber planters who have come to Ceylon to make their fortunes there in these latter days.

On the first of these two points, the following testimony is borne by the modern Western eyewitness whom we have quoted already:

“The tank age endured for more than fifteen centuries, and then the jungle tide rose over it and all signs or memory of it became lost. … In the forest which covers the ancient kingdom, far from the sounds of men, one comes upon the bunds of tanks, now utterly forgotten, where the banks have given way and the beds become like natural glades for deer to graze in. …

“I know [a] city … [which] lies below the bund of an enormous tank whose area may well have been thousands of acres, for the bund is miles long. But now the very name of the tank is lost, for the bund burst hundreds of years ago and its bed is but a low-lying region in the unbroken forest, a deeper area amid the sea of trees. [This is not quite consistent with the image of barren and desolate plains.] The only name it now bears is a Tamil one meaning Tank of the Great Breach. At a waterhole in a rock in the bed of that tank I saw a bear stoop and drink, and it was curious to think how he sought for that small hole of stagnant water, as for a rare treasure, in a place that for many centuries was at the bottom of an inland sea where waves broke and pelicans sailed in fleets. More than anything else, it brought home to me most vividly how brief had been the age of tanks in the long history of the jungle. For a million years animals drank from that narrow hole; then, for a thousand years, the rock, hole and all, was underneath the waves; and now the jungle drinks again where animals drank when Man used stone arrowheads, and before he invented them, and before Nature invented him.”

The second feature in the present landscape of Ceylon which demonstrates the arduousness of the feat which the ancient Sinhalese bund-builders temporarily accomplished is the avoidance of the derelict plains by our modern Western planters who have interested themselves in Ceylon not in order to propagate a civilization there but in order to get rich quick.

“It is a curious fact that … the bulk of the population and most of the wealth have been found on the wet side of the line during the four centuries of European rule. … To make money, one stays as a rule on the wet side, but to see the ruins of temples or monasteries, of palaces or engineering works, one must go to the dry side of the line. … For the hills where we grow tea and rubber [the ancient Sinhalese] did not care. Few ancient remains are to be found among them, and the forests we found there, and destroyed, were of immense age and probably of true virgin growth. … Must one be ranked as opposed to civilization if one prefers the dry and thinly populated side of the monsoon’s frontier to the prosperous and wet one? That is a question I find it impossible to answer without first settling what the word ‘civilization’ means.” [Footnote: Still, op. cit., pp. 75-6 and 77 and 92.]

He turns to a novel. The idea of a “jungle” which lacks rain may be strange, but the setting is a forest in which there is insufficient rain to support a village. As the village dies, nature encroaches.

The irrefutable testimony of the return of Nature is repeated even where there are no stupendous ruins to work upon our imagination. We may perceive it in the last agonies of the poor village in the jungle – as witness the following passage from a modern Western work of fiction in which the scene of action is likewise Ceylon:

“The years had brought more evil, death and decay upon the village. … Disease and hunger visited it year after year. It seemed, as the headman said, to have been forgotten by gods and men. Year after year, the rains from the north-east passed it by; only the sun beat down more pitilessly, and the wind roared over it across the jungle; the little patches of chena crop which the villagers tried to cultivate withered as soon as the young shoots showed above the ground. No man, traveller or headman or trader, ever came to the village now. No one troubled any longer to clear the track which led to it; the jungle covered it and cut the village off. …

“They struggled hard against the fate that hung over them, clinging to the place where they had been born and lived, the compound they knew, and the sterile chenas which they had sown. No children were born to them now in their hut, their women were as sterile as the earth; the children that had been born to them died of want and fever. At last they yielded to the jungle. They packed up their few possessions and left the village for ever. …

“They tried to induce Punchi Menika to go with them, but she refused. … The only thing left to her was the compound and the jungle which she knew. She clung to it passionately, blindly. …

“The jungle surged forward over and blotted out the village up to the very walls of her hut. She no longer cleared the compound or mended the fence, the jungle closed over them as it had closed over the other huts and compounds, over the paths and tracks. Its breath was hot and heavy in the hut itself, which it imprisoned in its wall, stretching away unbroken for miles. Everything except the little hut with rotting walls and broken tattered roof had gone down before it. It closed with its shrubs and bushes and trees, with the impenetrable disorder of its thorns and creepers, over the rice-fields and the tanks. Only a little hollowing of the ground where the trees stood in water when rain fell, and a long little mound which the rains washed out and the elephants trampled down, marked the place where before had lain the tank and its land. The village was forgotten, it disappeared into the jungle from which it had sprung, and with it she was cut off, forgotten. It was as if she was the last person left in the World, a world of unending trees above which the wind roared always and the Sun blazed. …

“But life is very short in the jungle. Punchi Menika was a very old woman before she was forty. She no longer sowed grain, she lived only on the roots and leaves that she gathered. The perpetual hunger wasted her slowly, and when the rains came she lay shivering with fever in the hut. At last the time came when her strength failed her; she lay in the hut unable to drag herself out to search for food. The fire in the corner that had smouldered so long between the three great stones was out. In the day the hot air eddied through the hut, hot with the breath of the wind blowing over the vast parched jungle; at night she shivered in the chill dew. She was dying, and the jungle knew it; it is always waiting; can scarcely wait for death. When the end was close upon her a great black shadow glided into the doorway. Two little eyes twinkled at her steadily, two immense white tusks curled up gleaming against the darkness. She sat up, fear came upon her, the fear of the jungle, blind agonising fear.

“‘Appochchi, Appochchi!’ she screamed. ‘He has come, the devil from the bush. He has come for me as you said. Aiyo! save me, save me! Appochchi!’”

“As she fell back, the great boar grunted softly, and glided like a shadow towards her into the hut.” [Footnote: Woolf, L. S.: The Village in the Jungle (London 1913, Edward Arnold), ch. ix, pp. 301-7.]

As the reader closes the book, he speculates on the meaning of the tale which has this ending. Throughout the story, the writer has drawn in for us, stroke by stroke, his picture of the jungle as a sinister beast of prey which only lives its own life in order to bring human life to destruction – a sylvan counterpart to the animated skeleton which is our image of Death.

Haud igitur leti praeclusa est ianua caelo
nec soli terraeque neque altis aequoris undis,
sed patet immane et vasto respectat hiatu. [Footnote: Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book V, ll. 373-5.]

William Ellery Leonard’s translation:

“Thus is the door of doom, O nowise barred
Against the sky, against the sun and earth
And deep-sea waters, but wide open stands
And gloats upon them, monstrous and agape.”

Under the shadow of this inhuman monster, ever watching and waiting with a leer on its obscene countenance till it finds its opportunity to close in upon its victim, the human life of the poor villagers seems unbearably wretched. The odds against them are so heavy; the pressure upon them is so grinding; would it not have been better for them never to have been born? And yet the story of their lives, as it is told by the author in this painful setting, is undoubtedly worth the telling. We read the tale to the end and feel that these lives have not been lived for nothing, even though at last the jungle overwhelms them. What is the significance and the interest of them? Perhaps it is that the cruel and unceasing struggle with the jungle, which at first sight seems almost to divest them of their humanity to degrade them to the level of the beasts that perish [footnote: Psalm xlix, vv. 12 and 20.] or of the creeping things that creep upon the earth [footnote: Leviticus xi. 29.] – subtly reveals them in another light to the inward eye. If the jungle is a malevolent beast of prey, then the villagers who have fought it with their bare hands are heroes whose story is an epic. Without the jungle the village could hardly have risen to be a theme for literature. And when the jungle swallows the village up, we realize in retrospect that we have been reading a tale of human prowess which surpasses the tale told by the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Leonard Woolf was employed in the Ceylon Civil Service from 1904 until 1912, the year in which he married Virginia Stephen. His novel made a deep impression on Toynbee: he refers to it again eight volumes later.

Water is still scarce in parts of Sri Lanka. “The facility for collection of rain water in all buildings will be mandatory in the future. All buildings’ plans will have to include a tank for collection of rain water which is to be used for purposes other than drinking, Urban Development and Water Supply Minister Dinesh Gunawardane told a media briefing held to announce the progress of the Kalu Ganga Water Supply Project and the improvement of the water supply system in the Matara District.” Associated Press, July 21 2006.

Colombo is on the south west coast, the Tamil centre Jaffna in the extreme north opposite India, Kandy in the mountainous centre, Trincomalee on the east coast. The capital, Kotte, is near Colombo.

The World without Us

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958 (first quotation)

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934

One Response to “The village in the jungle”


  1. […] collected Javanese antiques. On a tour of inspection in 1814, he was informed about a monument deep in the jungle near the village of Bumisegoro. He sent HC Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, to […]


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