A grand old lady of the south

By Lalith Seneviratne and Harin Corea Sunday Times Feb 16 2003


Kumana held pride of place in the hearts of all those who admired and enjoyed the wonders of the wilderness, during the halcyon days before our country began to tear itself apart. It was as close as it could be to a village flowing with milk and honey - self-sufficient, fiercely independent and set amidst unparalleled diversity of nature.

Juli Nona, the beloved wife of Piyadasa, the then Gam Muladani, was the leading lady of Kumana. Piyadasa, with his smiling face and knotted hair was a village headman of the traditional type. Juli Nona was the oldest surviving person from the village, at the time of her passing away recently. To a group of us, Juli Nona was the link to reliving Kumana.

With her passing away, we decided to pay our last respects by making it possible for her ashes to be interred in the village she passionately loved and strove for, thereby giving Juli Nona the opportunity to return and finally rest there, united with her husband and her village.

In September, just before the advent of the north-east monsoon bringing rains to that part of the country, we converged on Panama, the southernmost inhabited place in eastern Sri Lanka. Panama is a strange ethnic melting pot - one that has successfully withstood all tests of the ethnic conflict without ever making it to the headlines. Those gathered included the immediate members of Juli Nona's family, mainly her children, their spouses and grandchildren.

We met at the house of the pleasant and hospitable Nilame mudalali, who had associated closely with Piyadasa and Juli Nona. Nilame mudalali, through his store, oversees most of the trade in Panama, as he has done for decades. He was the supplier to the sole shop in Kumana owned by Piyadasa. He generously offered the services of his tractor for the transport of goods for the construction of the tombstone and his son volunteered to drive it.

We collected the required material from his store, hired a mason and set off to Kumana through Okanda, a distance of nearly 25 miles through the Kudimbigala Sanctuary and the Yala East National Park.

Passing through Kunukala Kalapuwa, we reached Veherakema, a small tree shrine with remnants of an ancient Buddhist temple. From there through the Helawa Kalapuwa to Kudimbigala, one of our oldest cave monasteries, and then to Okanda, the famed entrance to Yala East National Park. Here the remains of once what was a much sought after wildlife bungalow by the beach and the park office complex, are proof of the past glory of this unique National Park. At Okanda, there is an ancient Hindu shrine complex dedicated to God Kataragama, venerated for generations.

From Okanda the track becomes harder while the landscape becomes breathtaking. We pass through an interesting and most fascinating region of scenic beauty, lagoons, many natural and restored water holes, tanks, natural rock pools, rock outcrops, ridges, open parkland, scrub jungle and forests. An area that teemed with deer, buffalo, crocodile, leopard, bear and elephant during the days of glory of the national park. We travel through Tirimawa Plains, Girikula Kalapuwa, Yodalipa (Giant's Hearth), Bagura Plains, Kuda Vila, Tunmulla with another ruined wildlife bungalow, Kotalindawala, Andarakala Kalapuwa, Itikala Kalapuwa, Yakala Kalapuwa and finally the Kumana Villu, to end up in the Kumana village. We are reminded of the court jester Andare's last wish - to be given a meal of fish from Helawa Kalapuwa cooked with salt from Andara Kalapuwa, a testimony to the quality of nature's bounty of the area.

The origins of contemporary Kumana go back to the days of the Uva Rebellion of 1818. The British in their vengeance against the courageous Uva inhabitants, razed Uva to the ground by destroying all life and property they could lay their hands on there.

Of the few who managed to escape the wrath of the British, one aristocratic family with their retinue fled along the Kumbukkan Oya to the furthest point along it and settled down near the villu by the estuary of the river. They repaired and restored the ancient Kumana tank and began to cultivate the paddy fields, after a lapse of well over a thousand years, since the jungle engulfed the civilisation of the Ruhuna Kingdom that held sway over the area.

This pioneering spirit helped the Kumana villagers to maintain a fine tradition of resilience in the face of both success and setbacks. The Ruhuna Kingdom was at its height just over 2000 years ago, and south and south-east Sri Lanka was teeming with activity. Tanks, canals, paddy fields and temples were built by great thinkers and engineers with the help of elephants.

Interestingly today, the wild elephants enjoy the fruits of their labour by finding water in the abandoned tanks and grazing in the changed landscapes. The seasonal sand spit that forms at the mouth of the Kumbukkan Oya, lets the trickling river waters be diverted to the Kumana Villu, creating the mangrove that is a paradise roosting ground for a myriad of water birds including the winter migrants. The annual breaking of the sand spit lets the fish migrate to the estuary and the villu to spawn, giving a bountiful harvest, including the relished indigenous Loola. Similar interaction happens in the many lagoons.

We reached Kumana by dusk and headed straight to the bed of the Kumbukkan Oya. Kumbukkan Oya begins its 116-mile journey on the eastern flank of the Madulsima Range. The oya by this time has been reduced to a meandering narrow stream with water made crystal clear by the continuous filtering effect of the fine sponge-like Kumbuk roots and the pure sand.

With the narrow stream only occupying part of the vast and wide golden sanded riverbed, it was an ideal spot to pitch the tents, with the line of giant Kumbuk trees which give shade, hugging both banks and stretching endlessly on. We spent the evening by the campfire, listening to the tales of Kumana from the children of Juli Nona, now all married and living in Kanichigala, the adopted village for most of the inhabitants of Kumana. For dinner we had plenty of freshly-caught Loola.

Piyadasa and Juli Nona were fortunate in having received basic education from an upasaka-mahattaya in the Kudimbigala Hermitage. They were thus determined to provide proper schooling for their children and others in the village. As the nearest school in Panama was too far away, they successfully lobbied with the then Government Agent in Batticaloa, Mr. Kumaraswamy, and the village school was established in 1947, just as their eldest daughter Podi Nona was nearing schooling age - a testament to their determination.

The land and the wattle-and-daub building for the school were provided by the family. Podi Nona enrolled as the first pupil in the school under its first school master Mr. Jayasekera from Padiyatalawa. Podi Nona continued her education in Kumana until high school, at which point she transferred to a central college in the city. Upon passing out, she became a teacher and returned to Kumana to take up her first appointment. A success story which led to her being addressed as "Teacher", the name she took from there onwards.

At the turn of the last century, Yala became a Game Sanctuary with Kumana perched at the far end of it, within an area known as Yala East that was made an Intermediate Zone, where controlled shooting was allowed. All the great hunters of the day, who happened to be the senior colonial administrators and the aristocratic native gentry, regularly visited Kumana in pursuit of their hobby.

Later on, Yala became a National Park with Kumana continuing to be a sportsman's paradise. Along with Yala, Yala East came under the administration of the Wildlife Department in the middle of the century and wildlife authorities established a range office in Kumana.

In December 1969, Yala East finally got the protection it deserves, with it being declared a National Park under the doyen of wildlife administrators, Lyn de Alwis. All those rangers stationed in Kumana developed a deep bond with the village and many ended up forming lifelong relationships with the villagers (including marriage).

Juli Nona's two daughters "Teacher" and Siriyawathie married wildlife rangers thus, while her first son Ariyasena became a ranger. The second son Dayasena followed his father's footsteps and succeeded him as the Grama Sevaka. A majority of the boys from the village too ended up being rangers and served across the nation, and this became a bonanza for the otherwise isolated village.

By and large, the villagers of Kumana took only what they required from the forest. The villu and the estuary provided them the fish, the tank the water for the paddy, the river a perennial supply of drinking water, the forest honey, timber, fruits and game, the lagoons the salt and so on.

While some of their activities may have been in breach of the terms of the strict Fauna and Flora Ordinance applicable to a National Park, they were careful to avoid the eyes of the rangers stationed there. The rangers on their part carried out their duties without favour and there were some occasions when the villagers were caught and prosecuted.

Piyadasa too, inspite of being an important personality in the village, was once charged with the killing of an elephant that had surprised him in his chena. Such were his relationships with the leading personalities in Colombo, that none other than QCs Sam Kadirgamar and Daya Perera appeared on his behalf in the Kalmunai court. One can imagine the surprise the judge in sleepy Kalmunai would have got to see two of the nation's eminent lawyers appearing at his doorstep. The case was effortlessly quashed by proving that the actual death of the elephant was due to it colliding with a tree in the chena, in the confusion created by the accidental firing of Piyadasa's gun!

In the 1960s and '70s, Kumana and adjacent Walaskema, the rock outcrop across the Kumbukkan Oya, was the destination of many wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, with the sighting of the crossed tusker "Dala Pootuwa" that had the largest tusks of the time. This beloved animal too, like all tuskers finally succumbed to the evil eye of the poacher, but the culprit was never apprehended.

The tales of Kumana made the time fly by on that chilly September night with crisp clear skies. The campfire was replenished with logs and soon it was the wee hours of the morning when we decided to close our eyes. But, just before we could fold the camp chairs, we were afforded the spectacle of a leopard dashing into the riverbed trailing a mouse deer. Next morning came the further thrill of a bear rolling down the slope of the bank for a drink, right next to where we were merrily having the morning dip in the water.

Juli Nona supported Piyadasa in all his endeavours while caring for their four children. The relatively phenomenal success of her children and their families is an avid example of how, no matter where one is, good parenting moulds the offspring.

Juli Nona acted as the midwife of the village by attending to all the needs of expectant mothers, while Piyadasa excelled in native healing traditions for such women.

She faithfully observed sil every poya day and her favourite place was the small shrine she had built on a tree stump, by which she would meditate. The priest from the Kudimbigala Hermitage would visit Kumana on many a full moon day, and it was Juli Nona who provided alms and accommodation to the visiting priest.

Juli Nona had her place of prominence with the aristocracy who visited Kumana by enquiring about their well-being and supplying those families with food they normally would not get while under canvas, like pittu and string hoppers.

These relationships and those formed by Piyadasa, later enabled her and her family to have ready access to the highest in the land, including the then Prime Ministers.

With the National Park being declared, many attempts were made by the authorities to relocate the village, but the villagers including Juli Nona succeeded in defending their homeland against all odds. It was finally the spectre of terrorism that broke their spirit and forced them to move on, over a decade ago, soon after Piyadasa passed away.

Even after leaving Kumana for far away Kanichigala, Juli Nona's heart was in Kumana. The Bo sapling she took from Kumana as a parting memento, today thrives in Kanichigala and is venerated by the people of the area. The delight she got when given some water from the Kumbukkan Oya collected by us, from a previous camping trip a few months before her passing away, bears testimony to the bond she had with Kumana.

After enshrining the ashes of Juli Nona, with the tombstone facing the windswept Kumana Villu, next to that erected for her husband Piyadasa, we were glad and proud of this token gesture of gratitude on behalf of the noble lady from Kumana.

Hopefully, the tombstones of Piyadasa and Juli Nona will remain as a lasting reminder of the magnetic Kumana of yesteryear for the generations who will never have the opportunity of experiencing it for real.

The birds, the glades, the streams - they call,

And kachan winds that toss the tree,

Take me where I long to be

I've always been in need of Thee!

- Lala Adithiya