Come. I want to take you somewhere special: a village hidden deep in the forests of the Knuckles Range, right in the centre of my paradise island, Sri Lanka. (You remember – we watched the sunrise there just the other day.)
We could walk, it’s only fifteen kilometres from the lodge, up through the bald black pillars of Corbet’s Gap, and down into the forest, following the river past the waterfalls, but the road is often washed out and treacherous, and the trek back up is too steep for me these days. I’ve asked for a three-wheeler – I had to abandon the car, last time, when Mo and I went. Bring water bottles, and don’t forget your swimming gear – and a towel. We can cool off at one of the waterfalls on the way back.
There’s a new cement road down the last few, steep, kilometres. All around is the sound of water rushing over rocks, and wind in the trees. The pillars of the Gap reappear momentarily above the canopy, or through the sudden gash of a valley; the great massif of Lakagala draws close, on our right.
I remember – just around this bend, we heard the sound of disembodied laughter. Turning off the road a little, we crested a hill to see a village work party about to break for lunch. The buffalos had been set free of the ploughs and had found wallowing holes, like personal spas, in the boggy ground close to the stream. Across the stream – a succession of rocky cascades – terraces painted that exquisite, limey green of new paddy marched away into the jungle. Great grey rocks rose up behind us. Presently we arrived at a flat expanse of freshly swept sand, and a shady tree – the terminus, for the road ends here at Meemure.
“Meemure is a very ancient village and there is a legend that the last king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Raja Sinha, and his family took refuge there at one time when he was being pursued by the British … [It] is also said to have been a place of exile to where, because of its remoteness and isolation, persons who had offended against the king were banished.” (1)
On that rise, to the right, the steps lead up to the school. The monk teaches everything from letters to fifth form math and science. Beyond that, the children will have to go down to the towns of the Mahawelli to board with relatives, if they are to get ahead – get a high school education. Classes were just finishing when Mo and I arrived, the little ones as timid as forest animals – curious but ready for flight, the smallest staying close to the monk in his scarlet robe.
Just as we couldn’t see the village until we had arrived, it is also a little difficult to find where it begins. The entrance is over here. There’s really only this one street – contained within dry-stone walls, or neatly lashed Griselinia palisades – it’s barely wide enough for a handcart. It’s marvellous how it looks just as Robert Knox described villages he knew, when he was a prisoner of the King of Kandy (from 1659 till his escape on the 22nd September, 1680). Further up, around the 300 year old house, there’s a knot of narrow little pathways connecting some of the farmsteads that basically lead off from either side as the street meanders along the edge of the ridge, until it emerges at a wide valley planted to paddy.
It was here, in the shade of the old storm-struck Bodhi, where the ‘street’ peters out into a network of grassy footpaths – across the paddy to the little temple, to outlying farmsteads, or further afield to even more isolated hamlets – that we met Punchi Bandara. He’s happy to yarn about the old days, but is more concerned about the future of his village, and his family. There we sat, on a pile of rocks at the edge of the paddy, looking over at the little temple on its rocky outcrop. Beyond, across the expanse of forest, is the cone of Lakagala – always present in our sight, and our imagination, for this is where, it is said, the demon Ravana launched his Dandu Monara, (his flying machine) to kidnap Sita.
Punchi Bandara told us only 400 people live in Meemure now. Sadly, he acknowledged there’s no future for the youngsters in a village with no postal service, piped water, or electricity, no telephone or television reception. The gift of a satellite phone to the monk had been a boon, he said.
We’d noticed that even old women had been working the paddy when we arrived, and Punchi Bandara told us how the youngsters, after spending three or four years down in the towns, or in Nuwara itself (the great city, Kandy, seat of the last Lankan kingdom) found it impossible to return to a subsistence life in the village. It’s hard work, and there’s none of the excitements they’ve become accustomed to. With no trappings of modernity, there are no job opportunities for plumbers and electricians, mechanics, or designers – so they leave, to get jobs in the towns. Once the girls marry lowlanders, their lives move away from the village, forever severing grandchildren from an understanding of the lives of their grandparents.
The conundrum lies with the twin curses of the loss of its young adult population, and the lack of more arable land. This was brought home to them just a few years ago when the government, keen to electrify even the remotest villages, installed a wood-burning generator, and a power line. The villagers went about planting the hardy and extremely fast growing Griselinia wherever they could – in rocky clearings in the forest, along the roads and pathways. But there was a problem. To feed the generator so that they could have a light and a little entertainment at night, they found they now had insufficient time – and land – to cultivate or gather sufficient food for survival, let alone to barter at the shop for things they’d become accustomed to from outside. The generator is now gathering rust, abandoned and maligned for promising so much, but bringing only heartache.
Some people, like Punchi Bandara himself, have been given a solar panel. These have been far more successful – though there’s often a tussle between Aamma claiming its’ power to run a light bulb for the night, and the children clamoring to watch a video (that’s right, one video, no more than two hours). We found it sad that even sisters and brothers, in giving such wondrous modern gifts to their families back in the village, have failed to recognize the need for such choices.
But come. Come and look around. What you’ll see is beautiful – serene and timeless, and achingly, romantically redolent of an unspoiled past, the people hospitable and gracious. But remember, this village isn’t a museum, it’s living history, and it’s vital, and fascinating, and filled with great characters. I hope you’ll enjoy my slideshow of Meemure, a village in the forest.
Click on any picture to enlarge and enter a gallery view.