National Geographic : 1948 Jul
Ceylon, Island of the "Lion People" BY HELEN TRYBULOWSKI GILLES INSTEAD of merely stretching their lacy crowns heavenward, coconut palms rising from Ceylon's emerald shore often bend at fantastic angles over dwellings and toward the sea. According to Sinhalese legend, they yearn for human voices and the rumbling waves. As we neared the breakwater of Colombo, the capital, we saw not only these "listening" palms but spires and domes mingling with imposing buildings in the skyline (page 126). In the harbor, among vessels flying flags of many nations, a fleet of colorful baggalas from the Maldive Islands rode at anchor. A few moments later we were standing on the Customs Plaza, looking down a long mod ern avenue of what was the Dutch stronghold and is still known as the Fort. For nearly four and a half centuries this pear-shaped island off the tip of India has been under European influence and rule first by the Portuguese and then successively by the Dutch and the British. But early in 1948-since the time of my sojourn there Ceylon celebrated its independence, becoming the first British Crown Colony to attain Do minion status (map, page 123). Fondly the inhabitants call their island Lanka, a name often translated "resplend ent." * Both Sexes Wear Sarongs Under the Grand Oriental Hotel arcade, the first person to greet us was an elderly Sinhalese woman in her traditional low-necked, tight fitting white bodice and sarong. The latter is also worn by Sinhalese men. She stood offering to newcomers from her little basket the lovely crochet and pillow laces which Cevlon women make. Ricksha men immediately clamored for our fare, but not so persistently as one a few nights later who followed us while we took a long stroll, murmuring, "Funny lady and gen tleman-walking one hour-no call ricksha." At many of the fine buildings, defaced by lime smears of the betel-chewing populace, smiling shopkeepers greeted us. My old Sin halese jeweler insisted that we enter his shop for a few minutes. He knew my weakness for Ceylon's rainbow-hued gems-rubies, sap phires, topazes, and amethysts. Even the poorer island women often boast earrings set * Ceylon was known to the ancients as Serendib and Taprobane. Sinhalese is also spelled Singhalese and Cingalese. See "Adam's Second Eden," by Eliza R. Scidmore, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, February, 1912. with so-called Matara diamonds, which are pale zircons made colorless by burning. My jeweler still wore a semicircular tor toise-shell comb at the back of his head, above a tiny knot of long, thinning hair. The custom of never cutting the hair prevails among the older generation; in the more remote vil lages cut hair brands one as having served a prison sentence. Rare Jewels in Profusion Hovering over his treasures, the jeweler brought out a huge antique ring. It was studded with more than a dozen different gems, chosen to bring their wearer good for tune. Few places in the world have assembled so many treasures in such little space as this Fort shopping area. Among my prized possessions, from a Cey lon family's treasured heirlooms, are a delicate coconut shell, carved in a bygone age by a Galle master, and a gold filigree creation by a Jaffna craftsman of old. This last is exqui sitely set with pearls and rubies and mounted on polished yellow tortoise shell resembling amber. Jaffna's jewelers today limit them selves to simpler filigree. Island repousse always wins admiration. Craftsmen serve apprenticeship as youths at the Kandy Art Museum. There we saw them learning cutwork and repousse on small brass articles. Later they work with silver and cop per overlay, finally graduating to silver. Many of their designs are copied from stone carv ings unearthed at ancient temples. A wonderful repository of Lanka's ancient lore is Colombo Museum in Cinnamon Gar dens, a cinnamon reserve in Dutch times. Now it is a residential quarter with spacious man sions set in lawns carpeted seasonally with the soft blue petals of the jacaranda. Many of its avenues become a riot of bloom as the flamboyants blaze forth in orange and flame. Like a tonic was an early-morning canter through Victoria Park, where from several points the dome of the Town Hall looms through the trees. In the vicinity are modern hospitals. My foreign visitors were always delighted with the splendid exhibits at the Museum, where there are excellent copies in oil of the famous frescoes at Sigiriya (page 135). Dutch furniture sent me on a hunt for one of those rare Dutch chests ornamented in brass and silver and studded with copper V. O. C. (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) coins of the United East India Company.