Quaint By-Ways and Nature’s Ways in Colombo in the 1940s-by Michael Roberts
Hugh Karunanayake, courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN, vol XXI/1, January 2018 where the title is “A Naturalist’s Paradise–Colombo in the 1940s”
Padda boats along the Negombo Canal
Growing up in mid twentieth century Colombo was a fascinating experience to any young person. That was the era when urban growth was taking place at a pace that afforded local fauna to thrive at will without any restrictions. Colombo South with its tree lined avenues and homes with spacious gardens provided sanctuary to a wide range of fauna ranging from avi fauna to reptiles. As a five year old just admitted to Royal Preparatory School I was mesmerised by the “golden beetles” that lived in the Andara trees that stood on the perimeter of the school grounds on Racecourse Avenue. Many of us five year olds fascinated by the shiny green gold sheen of the beetles, with great delight collected the beetles some of them dead and others still alive and took them home. The live ones did not live long, they were away from their natural surroundings, and we innocents knew nothing about their sustenance requirements. Also, keeping beetles was done in secrecy as our parents would not have countenanced it. Looking back on those childhood days I believe that my interest in natural history may have had its beginnings in the school yard. Not long after my interest turned into rearing and breeding tropical fish. That interest was abiding and lasted through my adulthood even into retirement in Australia where I kept koi carp and other tropical fish for many years.
A view of the canal from the Pamankade Bridge taken in 1890,before the concrete slabs were introduced to line the sides. On the left is a footpath which has widened to become Saranankara Road, on the right Dehiwela Canal Bank. Note the vegetation on either side, and hardly a house to be seen!
Our home was at the Pamankade end of Havelock Road. One side of our garden faced the Dehiwela canal. Between the canal and our garden fence was a footpath with bushes of lantana on either side. The footpath commenced on Havelock Road near the Pamankade Bridge and went along the side of the canal where it ended at Hampden Lane Wellawatte. It was no road, just a footpath, only a bicycle could traverse along it, but it had an official name “Dehiwela Canal Bank” on a street sign board at the Havelock Road end. The area was teeming with talagoyas, kabaragoyas, and other reptiles. Very few families lived in the properties in the area, mostly owned by absentee landlords who invariably had a cadjan shack where a “caretaker” lived. Occasionally we would see a “mahattaya”( ie a person who wore shirt and trousers as against the local folk who were in sarong, or reddha invariably barebodied from the waist upwards) arriving with a gun and shooting down a “talaya”..There were no shanties then, and the right to pluck coconuts from the trees that grew on the bank had to be obtained with a permit from the government. The canal was clean and unpolluted and “padda boats” traversed along its waterway bringing firewood.
Those were the days when most homes used firewood for cooking. Although town gas was available to homes within the Municipality most homes did not avail of the service. Kerosene stoves became common about a decade later and with that the growth of the firewood industry slowed down. Next door to our home was one of the many firewood depots or “daramaduwas” that existed in Colombo at the time, serving homes with firewood. The firewood came in padda boats and were unloaded on to the daramaduwa where several people were employed to cut them down to smaller stakes for ready use in the kitchen. The wood was mainly old rubber trees being cut down in the Kalutara district to be replanted with the higher latex yielding bud rubber. The old rubber wood logs were called “bola dara” . The canal originally built by the Dutch and later expanded during British times, connected the Kalu ganga at Kalutara with the Bolgoda Lake, and thence veered along through Nedimale, Dehiwela, Pamankade on to Narahenpita.
The canal was lined on both banks with concrete slabs of about 4 ft long each, invariably about 3 of those slabs placed one over the other horizontally and held together with thick concrete posts hammered into the ground, which prevented the slabs from falling into the water. Every couple of yards there would be a concrete post just above water level and served as a useful perch for line fishermen. The water was clear and one could easily see the bottom of the canal on most days.
As a ten year old schoolboy, I would often return home around 4 pm have a hurried tiffin and then run to the canal and have a ringside view of happenings in the water. It had a very pleasing and near tranquilising effect on me, and I was drawn to it like a man possessed. For many weeks I watched a big koraliya (etropus suratensis) with her large brood of newly spawned young leading them along the sides of the bank.There were plenty of koraliyas, loolas, titteyas, and udahandeyas in the water. During the monsoon the water levels of the canal would rise and bring in brackish water exotics normally seen in the canal where it pours out into the sea near the railway bridge at Wellawatte.The section of the canal near the Wellawatte Bridge was called Moda Ela or Layard’s Folly. There would be scats(scatophagidie) and monos (monodactylidae) in abundance during the monsoon, all in better shapes and colours than native fish but not difficult to rear in a fish tank. Another attraction was a kingfisher who used to hover around the bank frequently but I could not find its nest though I saw the bird later with two new born chicks.
The canal was quite deep as it was dredged regularly to enable boats to ply. One day my younger brother’s classmate Gamini Wijepura visited to spend the day with us, and we went to the canal to catch some Scats. I lost my footing, fell in, but could not swim and bobbed up and down like a cork, my feet not touching the bottom. I was able to grab Gamini’s outstretched hand however to save me from an early watery grave. Four decades later on a visit to Australia, Gamini decided to give me a surprise visit. He called me and I was struggling to recognise his voice when he blurted “What man, cant you even recognise the voice of someone who saved your life forty years ago?!” That brought me to my senses!
Those were the days! With the unlimited growth of shanties in later years, that tropical paradise which I enjoyed as a young person was lost forever. Paradise Lost indeed!
Every time I passed a local waterway, I would take a close look. One day on my way to the Public Library which was then in Edinburgh Crescent near the Museum I looked into a large drain flowing with water and to my amazement saw a large number of multi coloured guppies. All this led to my interest in tropical fish and when I was a teenager became well and truly hooked on rearing and breeding tropical fish.
In later years I used to travel down to Matugama, Agalawatte, Moragolla and other villages where there were many fresh water tributaries of the Kalu Ganga and where several varieties of the Genus Puntius commonly known as Barbs abounded. There was the attractive bulath hapaya endemic to Sri Lanka which became much sought after by overseas collectors and collected by exporters to near extinction.
The best aquarist in Colombo then was Vicki Atukorale who lived down Peterson Lane (within walking distance from our home) with his partner Eric Conway. Both were avid aquarists, and the garden of their home looked like a tropical paradise with fish ponds, orchids, and cacti all arranged very artistically. Atu was also adept with reptiles and he always had a pet estuarine crocodile, very snappy and difficult to tame. He also had a pair of tame otters kept well away from the fish, but one day the otters somehow managed to get into one of the gold fish ponds and feasted to their hearts content until they were discovered and led to their enclosure looking rather guilty! Among the reptiles kept by Atu were many of the viper family including the tic polonga, pala polonga and the kunakatuwa, all poisonous but not always fatally poisonous, if you were unlucky enough to be bitten especially by a tic polonga. An acquaintance of the time by the name Steinwall who was rearing a tic polonga tragically lost his life when his pet snake bit him fatally. At home I shared a room with my elder brother and I had a glass fronted reptile box on a small table by my bed with a lovely pol mal karawalaya or gold and black ornate tree snake(chrysopelea ornata). It was a beautiful creature, mildly poisonous but very docile, and easy to handle but my brother used to be very uneasy, each night making sure that the door to the box was firmly closed before he went to sleep. He obviously was worried but never did he tell me about his concerns .I also had a very tame eight foot python which I used to force feed with strips of beef every 3 weeks or so as I did not fancy getting live prey for it. .
My close friend Chelliah Canagaraj now resident in Middlesex in the UK for the past four decades or more, then resident in his parental home close to ours was also interested in reptiles and the two of us used to travel to the Attidiya marshes in search of arakukkas (natrix stolata)an extremely docile non poisonous snake which grows into about 15 inches length and curls into a small box easily. Canaks’ elder brother Chellaraj was one of the first to own a Vespa Scooter in Colombo which Canaks used to borrow for our forays into Attidiya. We saw beautiful flamingos from the Dehiwela Zoo who used to fly out daily to the Attidiya marshes and feed during the day, and by dusk they would fly back to the zoo! I wonder whether this still happens or whether the Attidiya marshes are still there? I had a few of the arakukkas, and when in a mischievous mood, which were not infrequent, take one of them with me to the movies carefully hidden in an empty cigarette tin. My close friends were aware of this, but I used to scare the living daylights out of acquaintances who did not expect the surprise that was to spring at them when I offered a fag from my tin.!
Also in my menagerie were two star tortoises who lived in our garden for many years. One of them I found as a little baby about 2 inches in size scrambling slowly across the Puttalam Road when I halted the car and picked it up. It was a great favourite with my kids when they were growing up. They would, now and then, stray into neighbouring gardens, but we were always alerted by our neighbours or the wandering tortoise brought by a domestic aide with the words “menna mahaththayage ibba”!!
We had to leave the ibbas behind when we migrated to Australia 33 years ago. In recent years I have tried to purchase a star tortoise for my grandkids, but they are a protected species now and international transport is prohibited.
In those days there were many horticultural nurseries in Colombo supplying the needs of homes which generally had reasonably sized gardens. The larger gardens of homes in Havelock Town and Cinnamon Gardens invariably had a thota karaya or gardener for garden maintenance, but the supplies such as seeds, plants, manures etc came from the nurseries. Popular plants of yesteryear such as balsams, dahlias, chrysanthemums,and cannas are no longer seen, due most likely to the lack of pro active horticulturists,and of course the lack of space !.Then, there was the large Oasis Nursery in Felsinger Town opposite the Spinning and Weaving Mills, run by a Greek named Cosmas. There was also Trevine Gardens at Layards Road run very efficiently by Ian Oorloff on a smaller block of about half an acre. After Cosmas went back during WW2, one of his staff took over the business under the same name and later moved to Reid Avenue. Most of the orchids which at the time were non-hybrid species type such as Cattleya Skinneri, Bowringiana, Gigas etc all of which grew wild in South America,were plants grown by me. Although originally imported by Oasis Nurseries, importation of plants from South America were later banned due to potential risk to the rubber plantation industry. The great orchid favourites in that era however were Vanda Teres, and Vanda Joachim. The latter is now the national flower of Singapore. They were semi terete orchids which almost every decent garden in Colombo featured at the time. To generate interest in orchids was the Orchid Society of Ceylon which published a quarterly illustrated bulletin called Orchidologia Zeylanica. The prime mover in the Society for many years was Dr Ernest Soysa then living down Barnes Place. As for cannas, they were imported from a well known Indian Nursery, Pestonjee P Pocha and Sons, Poona. The President Canna was the best among the cannas then, very popular, but like the Vanda orchids hardly ever seen now.
On my recent visits to Colombo the change in landscape became very evident, with hardly any greenery to be seen. The words of the Tom Jones song “Its good to touch the green, green grass of home” alas, no longer applicable as there is no grass to touch.! The younger generation growing up in Colombo would not have the pleasure of living in a naturally tropical environment as it used to be many decades ago. It is my belief that it is important for both young people and old to be able to commune with nature to enjoy a more wholesome and relaxed life style, and to draw inspiration from natural surroundings. This void which is quite stark to the observer, needs to be addressed by our town planners. Singapore has done admirably in this regard. Although it has urbanised very rapidly within the small land area that is available to that city state, it has given primacy to urban landscaping and the results are very pleasing indeed. In contrast urban sprawl radiating out of Colombo seems to have devoured the landscape around Colombo haphazardly, and the city and its environs need some intervention with well planned landscaping and the retention of the area’s tropical character given adequate recognition and importance.