By Hemasiri Perera –
Sri Lanka; Dawn Of The Sixteenth Century
All over the globe, on land and in the oceans the bloodletting went on unabated. So it was in the land of the pearl of the Indian Ocean. By the middle of the 16th century two conquerors from Europe had come, met with partial success in their attempt to subjugate the land, done their worst, and gone. But alas! The land and its people were in the thrall of the third invader. In the middle of the second decade of the nineteenth century, for the first time in over two thousand five hundred years the land and its people were enslaved.
With the infamous treaty of 1815 with the British, the irresponsible chieftains bartered the freedom that had endured from the passing away of the Buddha in the fifth century BC and there by ceding the crown of Lanka to George III of England.
The island was passing through the darkest era of its history. A civilization dependent on a vulnerable system of irrigation fell into disarray. Vulnerable, because the man made reservoirs that were easily breached by the enemy and not so easily repaired by virtue of their enormity. The malarial epidemics that came in the wake of these onslaughts decimated the populace forcing the abandonment of the sprawling cities that could not be sustained as the enemy struck again and again.
By the dawn of the 15th century the capital had moved to the fastness of the foothills of the central mountain massif. Even so the ancient cities and villages were not totally abandoned. Small communities survived in these reservoir-based villages under trying conditions as the jungle tide moved in over a period spanning centuries. With the huge dams beyond the means of repair by these depleted communes, they survived by resorting to the forbidden practice of tank bed cultivation.
Almost a third of the island was adorned with virgin forest, and large a portion of the balance was in secondary jungle because the kingdom had been ravaged by foreign invasions for a continuous period of five centuries. The huge man made inland seas breached and laid waste by the invading hordes had turned the once prosperous valleys, into mosquito ridden jungles where the malarial germ reigned supreme.
Arrival Of The Butcher And Massacre Of Elephants
An adequate network of roads was foremost in the mind of the master. In the past, the triple obstacles of a ring of challenging mountains, draped in a cloak of impenetrable tropical jungle and crisscrossed by perennially swollen rivers with predictable monsoonal flooding saved the mountain kingdom, even after the sprawling Indian subcontinent had fallen to the British invader. The remoteness and the security of this mountain fastness were steadfastly ensured by the monarchs of ancient times for the value of its environmental importance and for this reason alone. That the last line of kings were driven to usurp such a sacrosanct: the very soul of Lanka, was due to no other reason than the invasions of barbarians that coveted the possession of the beautiful teardrop of India. Such sporadic invasions began from pre-Christian times.
As the road builders advanced along all major river valleys, the vast herds of elephants that roamed the sprawling forests were pushed into the upper valleys. Major Thomas William Rogers who later became infamous as a butcher of elephants as year after year he decimated these majestic creatures.The serpentine roads had wormed its way into the central hills, as the butcher ordained its path with extraordinary precision and skill. The shroud of jungle gave way to the plantations of coffee, as more and more land was grabbed by the encroachers from across the seas. Hordes of alien workers were lured to follow in the wake of the road, to toil for a mere pittance, to fatten the invader’s coffer.
The elephant was the first to come to grief. They were felled by the score, and their bleached skeletons littered the tank beds, where these mighty beasts had finally fallen. The deer and the leopard were next.
Year after year, regardless of the state of siege that prevailed, the annual festival of the ancient temple was held with the usual pomp and pageantry. The colorfully caparisoned elephant had carried the relic casket in the quiet dignified manner in which, he was known to perform this holy task, for more than three decades. On completion of this principal task, the tusker and his mahout were released from temple duties, the elephant to his riverside haunt and his carer to his nearby village.
The once huge herd, now decimated, was due to pass through the vicinity, while moving south to the lowland plains.
This year as the procession wound its way through the little townthere seemed to be an ominous change in the demeanor of the magnificent tusker. Yet no one was wiser to his particular predicament. Men, women and children from the remotest villages of the province came in their thousands to pay homage to the Enlightened One, and the temple and its environs were a sea of heads, as the full moon peeped over the rim of hills to bathe the scene with golden light. Huge braziers of coconut oil were already ablaze, as the scent from flower decked altars mingled with the aromatic fragrance of burning incense rose into the air. The beat of the ceremonial drums resonated with the chanting of the devotees as the relic casket was placed on the elaborately decorated howdah atop the caparisoned tusker with his equally well-adorned mahout in attendance.
This year the pageant was of a special nature. It was the first occasion when a representative of the British crown was destined to grace the occasion.
The continuous slaughter of the elephants by the road builder, now known as the butcher of Uva, was the subject of conversation amongst this simple hills folk. The decimation of the Baduluoya herd was of particular concern to them. A long line of temple elephants had originated from this extra docile community and their wellbeing was close to the heart of the people. They were helpless to move a finger to alleviate the wasteful carnage. They were a leaderless group of people because after several abortive rebellions to thwart the invader, the more aggressive local chieftains were hiding in the jungles of lower Uva. Just as, the unfortunate elephants were destined to be.
The pavilion giving shelter to the government agent of His Majesty George IV was the distinguished invitee to the hallowed occasion. In this distant outpost of the empire nothing was spared to flaunt the authority of the opulent oppressor, especially as the frontier was being pushed into uncharted territory. The government agent and his retinue included the road engineers of his majesty’s army, the imported Malay lascars and Indian government servants. The local chieftains occupied several rows of the gallery. Quite a few of them had capitulated with the coming of the invader and those of such ilk were seated close to the center of the dais. A large section of the pavilion was taken up by those from across the seas. They had sailed hither for the infamous land grab that was soon to follow.
The native folk had arrived from far and distant hamlets of the province. They were lined twenty deep in the vicinity of the royal pavilion. Most of them had never seen fair skinned people that resembled their village albino. Whilst it occurred to some that they were here to grab their land, most stared out of curiosity. In the remote fastness of their ancient hamlets most of these families had lived, thrived, and bred with never a threat of invasion. Natural calamities were their only enemies; most of them were thus pious and consequently, trusting.
The advanced retinue of the agent had taken their seats. The soldiers of the imperial army strutted, about like peacocks, while the imported lascars stood guard. The Indian government servants paid meek obeisance to the imperial master.
It was close upon midnight, when the chief guest walked up to his seat. He looked around with the rigid authority he was accustomed to. The chieftains greeted him, with clasped hands in the manner of the land. Ere long he did not fail to notice, the throbbing beat of the vanguard of drummers, it lacked the primitive beat of Africa. He had recently relinquished duties in the Dark Continent. He found the rolling boom carried a cultured throb, alien to even one such as him.
The hum of conversation resumed no sooner the agent lowered his portly self on to his comfortable seat. The vicinity of the pavilion was particularly crowded. The natives gathered there in numbers. They were curious to see the fair skinned intruders that reminded them of the village albino. The major who sat to the right of the government agent and they were soon engaged in animated conversation.
The major had left unfinished business this day and he took great pleasure in relating the gory details of his bloodletting pursuit. In his brief sojourn on the island, he had always found time to shoot elephants; so much so, he had very nearly carved the hundredth notch on the butt of his firearm this morning, when he wounded the massive cow that led the Badulu oya herd.
The hunter’s mind kept going back to his less than perfect marksmanship that morning. His work gang was a mile down hill when he reached the saddle on the on the chain of hills. He had in mind a trace his road would follow, but what irked him was the need to call off his day’s shooting to attend a heathen ceremony. The crosswind that blew did not take the accursed scent of their tormentor, to the cow as she topped the ridge from the opposite side. With trunk aloft, and nostrils splayed, she tested the wind. She tested the ether for any telltale sounds, as her ears swept round in an arc. But alas! It was a fraction too late.
She was almost upon him when he discharged the left barrel. The huge ball shattered her jaw as it fled to lodge in the spongy cranial cage. She roared as she turned and the next discharge lodged in her eye. The stampeding herd scattered in utter panic, as the familiar scent of their tormentor reached them. She stumbled downhill protected in a shroud of dust as the avalanche of debris followed the stricken animal. She was not destined to a quick and merciful end, nor was her tormentor inclined to follow her and put her out of her misery, as he was normally wont to do.
Duty beckoned him. Tonight, unknown to him, he would watch her regal son carry the relics of the teacher of Gods and men. When finally, the herd had closed ranks they prodded their leader to her favorite mud pool to cool the fire of her wounds. These were neither bites of insects nor cuts and bruises gathered in the business of a vegetarian lifestyle. She lay mortally wounded, surrounded by her faithful herd. No mud baths could save her from the painful death that awaited her.
In the surrounding villages that nestled below the tank bund, the few old cronies that were too feeble to make the long trek to the ancient temple were gathered round the wood fires that glowed in front of their cottage homes reliving past memories. The woebegone trumpeting of the herd, floated over the chilly night air, as the herd assembled for their last vigil over the dying matriarch. They gazed at the glowing embers saddened by the plight of the elephants for they knew the butcher had struck again.
As the whip crackers reached the foot of the royal pavilion the hundred odd drummers built up a booming crescendo the like of which the white men had never experienced before. Nurtured in the traditions of the cult of the Old Testament and the ethos of a crucified savior they could hardly comprehend the placid sanctity of Buddhist veneration devoid of the degrading surrender of worship.
The first elephants to pass were the much younger, smaller and tusk less juniors. The various temple officials attired in the regalia that bespoke of their ancient status rode these caparisoned pachyderms. Troupes of dancers that followed, wave upon wave in multihued costumes, spoke of ancient history and lore.
The change in the intensity of the drumming and the demeanor of the onlookers heralded the imminent arrival of the relict casket. As the magnificent tusker, towering above the two attendant junior animals on his flanks came in to view; the pilgrims broke in to a chant.
The golden casket encrusted with the best jewels of the land rode aloft, perched securely in the white howdah that gleamed in the moonlight. The tusker was equal to the task. He walked with the dignity of his kind. The rolling, lilting, perambulation of the majestic “elephas maximus.”
Over a period of thirty-five years the animal had performed the annual task of carrying the relic casket of the temple, with utmost decorum. The mahout in attendance was one who had grown up with him. He had the uncanny rapport with his charge.
This evening, his charge was ill at ease. He thought nothing of it. The parent herd was miles away in the lower hills; their sojourn in to the higher hills was as yet not nigh. The mahout was aware that when the parent herd passed through the vicinity during the annual migration, the gentle leviathan was loath to be summoned to duty of any type. So much so that he was virtually given free range to interact with the herd when they were in the vicinity.
Unknown to his closest human friend the tusker was receiving the signals from the distressed herd. The stricken cow was surrounded by the senior members of the now much depleted core of leaders. The high frequency contact calls were piercing the ether at regular intervals. They were frantic calls to muster the now widely scattered herd.
As the fast advancing road gangs encroached into the elephant corridors, the herd had had to move along the migratory route well ahead of the rhythmic seasonal schedule. Consequently, they were much closer to the temple than was usual for the time of the year. The tusker had no difficulty in receiving the pachyderm SOS emanating from a bare ten miles away.
Over the last several seasons, his annual contact with the herd, had bode strange misgivings, for he had met his wounded cousins, nursing near fatal wounds. He had stroked them and fondled them in true elephantine custom. During this process of mutual grooming, he had come across this strange, unfriendly, alien man smell.
The throbbing beat, of row upon row of elaborately clad drummers, going about their task in, religious piety, did not drown out the high frequency message of his kith in dire distress, nor the smell of a thousand incense burners and joss sticks dull the hated man smell of their tormentor, now sitting in the pavilion. During the previous migration to the hills, he had seen the remains of another sibling that had fallen to the rifle of the road builder. He had left his tell tale scent, when he removed the juvenile tusks. Elephants never forget such olfactory experiences.
An experienced mahout though he was, he could not fathom the restless behavior of his otherwise calm and obedient charge. As the focus of the procession drew abreast of the royal enclosure the leviathan flared his ears, curled his massive trunk, as if to present arms and bellowed an ear splitting trumpet call. Even as the echo of the trumpeted protest faded amongst the distant hills, ripples of apprehension passed over the vast crowd present.
In the royal enclosure, the agent of the crown and his coterie of lackeys were impressed, with what they thought was a salute to their imperial presence by the caparisoned mascot. An elephant carrying a relic casket pays not homage to God, man or beast. But such was beyond their ken.
The lapse of the few anxious moments, to the mahout, seemed an age. He relaxed the pressure on his steel tipped goad as the moment of danger passed. As with most other elephants, he had never had the occasion to use extreme pressure with his favorite charge. The focus of the pageant passed the royal pavilion without incident, much to the relief of both the mahout and the local dignitaries, who sensed the emotions of the elephant.
In the recent past, the Uva region had spawned several rebellions, which were ruthlessly suppressed with much loss of life. Many a local chief were hiding in the lower Uva hinterland and the few who were free to conduct the affairs of the beaten natives were keen to avoid any confrontation. The slightest fracas was enough licenses for the imported Javan mercenaries to be let loose on the natives. Such a calamity was the least of their worries.
Dawn was breaking through a pungent haze of spent incense, mixed with the smoke from a thousand coconut oil torches that burnt through the night. The colonial guests had long since retired to the “Residency,” the name of the abode of the governor’s representative. The tusker’s reaction to the major, now known as the” butcher,” was the topic of conversation amongst the sleepy locals trekking uphill to their remote hamlets. The deep misgiving, of tragic events, yet to pass disappeared, like the mist in the morning sun, even as they approached their quiet thatched dwellings to sleep off the fatigue and wear due to the nightlong vigil and the annual trek to the ancient pageant.
In the early afternoon, the barking dogs woke up the residents, as the major’s party marched through the still dormant villages. He was in a hurry to return to his base camp to make preparations for the hunt he had in mind in the days to follow. Most of his road gangs were on leave, attending to their quaint religious practices and he had little hope of mustering them for any serious work in the next few days.
All along the river bed, every available sand bar and pool were taken up by the sixty elephants and their mahouts. The well-scrubbed beasts lay dozing, half submerged in shallow pools, while their keepers were asleep on the warm sand beds. Both man and beast fully satiated after a night’s hard work.
The tusker had the deepest pool allocated to him by virtue of his rank. After his well-earned scrub, his mahout freed him of his hobbles and let him recede to the deeper part of the pool where he turned on his side with the tip of his trunk breaking the water. His human friend finished his own ablutions and retired to his own sand bed to get his well-earned rest. That was the last time his mahout saw him alive.
When the great she elephant breathed her last and sank to her muddy grave in the tank bed, the members of her immediate family fell silent, one by one and the ether was once more devoid of the high frequency wailing. The business of life had to go on. They touched and stroked the fallen matriarch in death, as they had done in life. They paid their last tribute by covering her body, now fast going in to rigor mortis, with branches wrenched off from trees nearby, and left one by one, even as the blue bot flies started to swarm above her huge carcass to lay their eggs in the hot midday sun.
Though the dispersed wails of his clan had ceased, the call of kinship was hard to disown. He heaved his huge bulk out of the water and headed for the call of his destiny. The brass bell that slung across his neck chimed in rhythm to his movements but did not wake his keeper because such percussion had been the order of the day, with so many elephants gathered in one place.
He headed for the distant tank at a brisk pace. Every village he passed was woken by the lilt of his bell but none spared a thought, as the tusker was known to have free range, unlike most domesticated others of his kind.
At his base camp four thousand feet above on the pass at Haputale,” the magnolia ridge,” the menials were astir long before sunrise. The master was to leave early, for this time the hunt was to last a few days. He was one loath to leave a wounded beast to succumb to a slow and painful death. He was not to know that the huge cow had laid her burden down and her agony was no more.
With his next thrust through the pass, he would not only cross the mountain range that secured the province of Uva on the southern flank, but would also, block off the migratory route of the vast herds of elephants, that sought the sanctuary of the remote Uva hills, when the dry winds of the south west monsoon scorched the southern plain.
At the crack of dawn his chief tracker, a coast moor he had picked up early in his sojourn on the island, left to pick up the spoor of the wounded beast. A while later his retinue of gun bearers and camp aids commenced the steep descent, as the rising sun bit into the balmy but frosty air. He scanned the horizon that spread in a wide arc in front of him and saw the distant coastline shimmering in the morning sun, as did the dozen or so man made reservoirs that dotted the plains further inland.
The blanket of mist that hugged the valley floors that lay beneath him had begun to lift, and dissipate in the morning heat, when the party completed the first leg of the descent and broke march at the base of the Diyaluma falls. The tallest and the prettiest he had seen.
He was not inclined to delay too long because he was counting on his quarry being at the favorite haunt of the herd; the reservoir at Handapanagala, thirty miles to the south east of the falls. He spurred his men on. He was keen to camp on the fields of Randeniya, the “golden valley” where, two centuries before he came on the scene, a Portuguese army had been massacred by the local vigilantes armed with nothing more than the tools of their trade: axes, machetes, ploughs and a few stolen guns from the invader.
For centuries they had been tillers of the soil and no more, except, when every now and again an invader threatened their land as happened then. For as long as they could remember their only relentless enemy had been the great shivering fever! The accursed malaria that had laid low civilization, one upon the other, decade after decade, generation over generation.
Even as the butcher mustered his retinue to plan the next day’s hunt, the tusker reached his dead mother. With his extended trunk, he examined every little detail of the scene that stank of death. Every footprint, every massive pat, with meticulous care he sniffed. Ere long, he knew all that had been there before him. He stroked and touched his mother’s body now stiff in the embrace of death. Hours passed but nothing would make him leave the scene of death. Do elephants sit at vigil over death? Indeed they do. Well versed in jungle lore these village folk were not ignorant of the filial affections of elephant families. They kept well away from such sad scenes and left the animals to their grief.
As the dawn broke over the dew strewn frosty plains, the tusker stood a few paces away from the huge corpse, his trunk swaying to and fro in pendulum fashion, with grief, as huge as he was big. He had stood thus for hours, his bell devoid of the opportunity to the slightest chime, in spite of the swarms of insects that tormented his hide. That was how the butcher major found him.
A gentle giant in grief, standing against the setting sun, with his magnificent tusks silhouetted against the red sky. The annual drought that scorched the plains was on the march in the wake of the billowing wind. The breeze that caressed the tortured, brittle leaves was a delight to the hunter. In the whispering rustle, his every footstep was muffled, as he approached the majestic creature that had earned the love and respect of generations of pilgrims, who had witnessed his dignified demeanor at the festival of festivals.
The massive charge of lead tore his brain asunder, before the report of the exploding powder could reach his ears. So close was the hunter to his quarry. The giant collapsed where he stood, even as the brass bell round his neck chimed resonance to the death knell of the noble beast.
Not a twitch, not a whimper, so adroit was the marksmanship of the super sportsmen of the colony.
Even as sphincters of the dying beast relaxed, to release the gasses trapped in his bowels, the fluid from the bladder leaked around him to succor the very earth, that had nourished this giant vegetarian, the hunter realized the enormity of his blunder.
No sooner he saw the bell that adorned the neck of the animal; he realized that he had alienated the goodwill of the native people. The temple tusker is a national treasure. So it had been for ages past and he would be hard put, to redeem this reckless slaughter.
He beat a hasty retreat and continued his ill-fated safari. Though he had none to fear from the subjected natives, his negligent act would not be popular with the government agent or the governor of the colony.
The fragile peace that prevailed in the region had been achieved after much bloodshed. Several rebellions had been suppressed and any action to destabilize the natives would earn the wrath of the colonial office. However, in this instance, the blood thirst of a butcher, seeking respectability in the garb of a sportsman did not irk the powers that ruled the land, as the subject people were in no position to react to even the gravest affront.
The echo of the exploding charge alerted the surrounding villages to the major’s presence. The enormity of his callous act was yet to be realized. But before the day was done, the deed was common knowledge. The news of the fell deed, spread like wildfire, from hamlet to hamlet, and they came in their droves. At first it was a trickle. The village of Handapanagala was remote and its inhabitants few, but as the word spread, the throng surged and swelled as they came in their numbers. The last harvest had been rewarding and the bins were full of bounty. Few were the chores that remained to be done. Thus they came from near and far.
An impressive funeral pyre was hastily built, as the monks from the monasteries and temples began to congregate at the local temple. By the evening of the third day, the tank bed and the adjoining elevated slopes was a sea of heads. The young and the bold were perched atop the huge granite rock formations that now lay exposed, on the tank bed at low water level. Others had taken to the huge trees that lined the high water mark.
The sad event of the cremation was sans the customary ritual. Such occasions in the past were both dignified and solemn. For over a thousand years the elephant privileged to carry the holy relics was a national treasure and the demise of such an animal was an occasion for royal mourning.
In this instance, there was to be no such tribute to this noble beast. Freedom had long been denied and royalty had been nullified with the signing of the infamous treaty of 1815 AD. No temple elephant had passed away in such tragic and ignoble circumstances, during the long history of the nation.
As the last rights to the dead were chanted, by the large number of monks in attendance, the multitude of peasants and the sprinkling of noblemen present, paid silent tribute to the fallen hero, though beast he was. As the eastern sky glowed red, in the wake of a tired sun seeking solace, in the bosom of a distant horizon, the giant funeral pyre was ready to be set alight, when the chief monk officiating at the funeral finished extolling the virtues of the tusker. To these simple rural folk the universe seemed to stand still. The cicadas had fallen silent in one orchestrated movement, as had the rustling leaves that had danced in the breeze all day. The stars seemed to stop dazzling for the moment.
Not so the quaking thoughts of those gathered to lay the beast at rest. The sad thoughts of the less enlightened mingled with those who realized the impermanence of conditioned existence. There were those that raged, at the callousness of the invader and last but not least those that cursed silently the injustice of this unequal struggle for survival.
A multitude of thought processes heaved and surged in universal protest, as the pyre was torched by the mahout who had been the animal’s best friend. The tears cascaded down his cheeks as he stabbed the sky with his clenched fist as if to urge the stars to blink again or was it his challenge to the guardian deities of this land for justice for this crime? Most thought it was the latter, and they had not the slightest doubt that retribution of the most damning kind was menacingly nigh.
The relentless caress of a spent monsoon, cascading over the central hills, left every nonliving obstacle in the path of the resulting sirocco, in a most fire friendly state. The tinder dry wood succumbed to the embrace of the merciless onslaught, as the flames licked and wrapped their tantalizing arms round every twig and log, with a hissing roar. Before long the streams of sparks from the exploding air pockets and the collapsing logs rose into the night sky only to be extinguished, as if consumed, by the eerie black that afforded them their brief, but brilliant glory.
The inferno built up, gushing billows of soot laden clouds of smoke, pursued by glowing embers, coaxed aloft by lilting tongues of flames. This forced the mourners to move back as the heat got unbearable. The first to leave the sad scene were the monks, followed by the elderly folk and those others who had more urgent chores to attend. The young men of the community stayed on to see the cremation to an end. They sat in small groups and chatted as the pyre was consumed and began to collapse on itself in the early hours of the morning.
The myriad of sparks that spewed skywards stream after stream, glowed for an instant, as they challenged the stars but failed to outshine the relatively more permanent denizens of the Milky Way.
By dawn, all that appeared to remain of the elephant was a massive pile of glowing embers, with a halo of ever widening ring of gray, wispy ash, all ready, to begin waltzing, in little whirlwind eddies, as the sirocco began to stir and harass the morning calm. By midmorning the scene was desolate, as any scene touched by the aftermath of death.
The tortured grass trampled underfoot the previous evening began to wither in the merciless heat of the day. A pair of snake eagles circled overhead tested the weak but still spiraling air current induced by the heat of the pyre. They angled away in a steep diving glide when they realized no joy ride was coming their way, and turned to the more rewarding business of finding an early breakfast.
The prime scavengers of the environment; a pack of jackals tested the air, for humans and advanced cautiously, step by step, to investigate the smell of burning flesh that had assailed them all through the night, as they loitered, downwind a safe distance away.
Now they dared to venture, as far as the edge of the shrub line and viewed the remains of what might have been an orgy for gluttonous scavengers, had the humans left the gargantuan carcass to the care of wicked nature.
When the sun reached its zenith, the hissing, spitting mound was being lulled by a benign blanket of ash. Even so, every now and again, the massive gray blanket sprang to life when a stubborn knot of wood finally succumbed to the scorching heat.
In little gusts, the wind kept up the barrage and blew away the ash that lay lightly over the remains of the pachyderm. The gleaming skull and bones began to protrude from the heap of remains. The scavenging jackals beat a hasty retreat. For them, there was not a morsel to be had.
What was left was for the porcupine. He alone had the wherewithal to gnaw away at the giant bones, until naught remained of the beast.
As the sun began to paint the sky red and lulled another day to sleep, the mahout and a few of his cronies had lingered for the last time at the scene to ensure that the fire had done its sepulchral duty.
Soon the tank bed would flood with the monsoon rains and all traces of the callous act would go into limbo. As for the hunter the demise of the beast was just another notch on the butt of his firearm, but it was not to be so in the case of this exceptional animal. His executioner was destined to be remembered for a long time to come.
The seasons marched on, as did the road building major. The natives seemed to know better. Whenever the tusker was remembered the tone was hushed and somber. They had the premonition of uncanny events yet to unfold in the wake of the tragic murder of their favorite temple elephant.
Even as the road to the heart of the province of Uva reached the foothills of the Namunukula range, the hundredth notch on the accursed rifle was in place. The vast summer retreat of the Uva elephants was soon snatched up by the alien planters to be covered later, in a lush carpet of tea that would be known all over the world. At first it was coffee that replaced the vast extents of jungle.
The remaining herds of elephants receded to the less hospitable arid zones, while a few depleted but stubborn herds remained in the isolated pockets of jungle to the annoyance of the invading planters. Many were the big game hunters spawned overnight to unleash the venom of high powered firearms on these helpless animals.
For three months of the year when the north east monsoon held sway, the banks of moisture laden clouds would pile up against the mountain massif and shed their water, to help carpet the southern plains in a blanket of green. In the months of April and May the sweltering weather begins. Vast extents of land lay brown and raped in ghastly contrast with the emerald green of jungle yet to be felled. The fallen giants could no longer give cover to the rich earth below. They bleached in the hot midday sun day after day as the leaves withered away in readiness to be fired in the dry months that were to follow. No more the gin clear brooks and streams that bubbled their mirth in the shade of the giant, old trees but instead, the bleeding muddy gashes, that ran red as the blood of beasts that predeceased them only months before.
The rest house on the gap was the most popular haunt of the pioneer planters. Built on a saddle with a panoramic view of the low country and with a rock massif of Ramayana fame for a backdrop; the little abode, was a home away from home for the men from the British Isles. Even on the driest of days, this Shangri-La was often swathed in mist and the low country plains, normally visible as far as the southern coast, can within minutes, be shrouded in mystery, when the clouds sail in to the gigantic screen of sky between the rock of Ravana; the demon king of yore, and the rolling hills of the Namunukula range that flanks the gap on the left.
At first, they were built to cater to the comfort of the officials of the empire who were on the move. They dotted the country, at convenient intervals, replete with mews and quarters. The stable- boys and coach drivers of the royal mail service were so necessary for the total subjugation of the growing domain of the British crown and the lodging provided for them was special because they were a vital link in the spy network of the crown. After the total subjugation of the island, the rest houses became the focal point of the local communities of planters who felt the need for fellowship with their own ilk. On special days they were wont to meet, congregate and mingle, in order to celebrate, to gossip and above all to make merry, for they were far away from kith and kin and the felt the need for such comity.
To facilitate the land grab that was unprecedented in the island’s long history, the major’s task was to provide the roads, a task he so ably performed. Equally well, in his leisure, he butchered the elephants, as never before. As the road pierced into the heartland of Uva, the sound of the woodsman’s ax rose to a crescendo. A death knell which never let up for a hundred years or more until all that remained of the evergreen canopy were the little strips of jungle that clung to the inaccessible cliff sides of the remotest mountains.
However, eradicating the age-old canopy was no mean task, and it was the custom of the new gentry from far off shores to meet once a month at the rest house on the gap, to relax and to exchange the news.
It was on such a day that justice was meted out. After a grueling stint of over a month at the road front the major and his retinue had arrived only hours before. A crowd of fellow country folk, who had already begun to let their hair down, greeted them.
The simmering air wobbled up into the sky leaving a mirage here and a mirage there. Mini dust devils spun and hurled skywards the dried up leaves that had thwarted the woodman’s pyres. Streamers of ash followed in their wake. In spite of the blazing sun the air was heavy and wore a dull gray hue. There was a buildup of static in the air as the day wore on.
Weather patterns had begun to change a decade before. As the forest canopy was peeled off the face of the land, its ability to retain the water that fell on it fell short and consequently the streams and rivers were often in flood in the wet season and devoid of much of their life giving flow in the dry months. Inter monsoonal rains were erratic and agricultural practices in the dry zone were being affected.
Freak cloudbursts were the order of the day as a result of the unprecedented firing of felled jungle. As the clouds gelled up one by one, seemingly from nowhere, it became obvious that a freak storm was on the cards. They banked up layer upon layer, as yet, unsculptured by the ferocious lightning that was yet to come. The mountainous mass of the blue Grey rock of Ravana that silhouetted the eastern sky was hardly discernible. So thick and black were the clouds that rubbed against this massive edifice of nature’s work of art.
The soaring eagles that rode the air currents an hour before had beaten a hasty retreat. All that remained was a pregnant silence that forebodes disaster. The intensity of the light dimmed as more and more clouds banked up, to challenge the cliff tops and crags that gave solace to the wisps of jungle that clung precariously to these last inaccessible domains that now remained beyond the avaricious planter.
In response to a false dusk that came about due to the impending storm, the geckoes that hid in the crevices and pictures of the rest house walls ventured out to seek an early meal of night flying insects.
They were not clouds that scud, tumble, frolic and caress each other over a land brimming with summer mirth. They were not wont to linger a while, tarry and drift away. These seemed to have an ominous purpose behind their audacious and impatient jostling. Even a task to complete.
This awesome quantity of water, sky borne in a solid mass of cloud, not, gossamer thin, to let the birds fly through. It gave no hint, to the tragedy shortly to be enacted. Not a bird flew in the air. The monkeys had long departed from the cliff top trees to the safety of the scrub in the lower reaches of the mountain chain. These lowly creatures sensed the hum of the mighty generators that were building up in the bowels of the clouds as they rubbed against each other. The clouds were ominously different today. They heaved like heavy ocean waves.
Led by the major, one and all, they filed out to fill the courtyard and gazed skywards. They thought their world was at peace and nature’s display was for them and them alone. The electric ether was fraught with revenge. The menacing black clouds, so still and somber a while before, began to stir, akin to the turmoil of the vapors of a witch’s cauldron. At first they were inclined to watch as if they were the privileged few with nothing to fear from this nature’s display of wrath. As if by command a menacing, unnatural darkness crept over the landscape. All but the major fled indoors.
And then, Mother Nature! She struck! The single bolt of lightning felled the mighty slayer of elephants. The butcher of elephants was no more. Even as the shocked onlookers watched from the safety of the veranda the thunder-clap after thunderclap followed one another and rolled in, to torment the ear and then reverberate between the banks of cloud jostling in from the south- east to bank up like sardines in a trawler’s net, against the granite massif of Ravana’s rock.
The tormentor was vanquished at last and felled never to rise again. With that the skies opened up to wash the top soil away. The vault of the heavens continued to vent its fury with searing, scorching lightning that seemed to tear its very fabric apart and yet the clouds wept for hours afterwards as if in mourning for countless beasts that laid their life for man, the beast supreme.
The major was laid to rest at the churchyard at the Magnolia Gap with every honor and pomp due to a gallant soldier of the empire. Yet only the birds, the bees and the natives know of the bolts from the heavens that sear his very grave, every now and again.
On sunny mornings the magpie robin who lords over the tiny graveyard, sings a sweet melody as does the coucal pheasant hails the impending thunderstorms in the afternoons. When the storms are done, in the misty dusk it is time for the shy pitta to call a farewell to the sinking sun. And then the owls hoot as the frogmouth scolds the sawing crickets for their tiresome tirade even as dew drops begin to chill, the cracked tombstone, with the tell tale scars.
Surely these creatures large and small sing their sad vigil for the fallen pachyderms of Lanka’s beautiful forests, while their tormentor knows no peace in a grave where rifle and hound gives him not the might he once held.