Meemure – A Village in the Forest

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.

There’s really only this one street.

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.

Punchi Bandara

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.

Lakagala, at 4,324 ft., stands sentinel over the village

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 pitiful spectre of this beautiful old woman working in the paddy field broke my heart. As we left, she came over to say goodbye.

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.

… until it emerges at a wide valley planted to paddy.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Click on any picture to enlarge and enter a gallery view.

I was inspired to make this tour of Meemure by Jake’s Sunday Post this week.  To view other “Village” entries, click here.  
1.   “The Knuckles Massif – A Portfolio”, P.G. Cooray, Forestry Information Service, 1998, p. 41
2.   “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon”, Robert Knox, First Facsimile Reprint, New Delhi, 1993, of the original edition published in London in 1681.
Related Articles:
Dawn –
Nature (Inanimate) –
Shelter (the 300 year old house) –


73 thoughts on “Meemure – A Village in the Forest

  1. A wonderful post that transports you to an unspoiled place on this earth, In its beauty there are hardships but the people overcome them and are survivors. Thanks for showing us this village that offers us many lessons in life.


  2. What an amazing post. You write so clearly about the economic reality of the place, not just its physical beauty. It would be so extraordinary (as you do) to live in a place where you can grow your own spices. Great pics, too.

  3. Thank you for taking me with you on this adventure. I enjoyed every minute of it. You made it very real for me.

    • That’s just what a girl needs to hear, Michelle! Thank you. I’m glad you were able to taste a little of their lives – I think it’s important for us to see, remember, that it wasn’t so long ago we were all living like this, and to take something of the simplicity, and ingenuity with us into our lives.

  4. Your wonderful prose takes us on rich journeys and the photos inspire. I really enjoyed the slide show, a perspective of place. The padi field with it’s geometric shape and extraordinary colour… the 300 year old house… so much to grasp and the bitter-sweet tough life of the locals.

  5. What a wonderfully evocative post! Your portraits of the people make the story of Meemure all the more poignant. Sadly this is the fate of all remote villages in the subcontinent. ironically it is their remote locations that keeps the builders away and preserves their authenticity!
    I was delighted to find this in my inbox, was beginning to get worried about you 🙂

    • Oh, Madhu dear – I do appreciate your concern! I’m fine, it’s just that I made a conscious decision not to spend so much time here. Seems I’ve become hooked on spending way too much time here, chatting and reading other people’s stories and posts, trying to find new blogs to recommend for the 10 nominations I received in the last couple of weeks – I don’t know how you do it! Also, last weekend’s challenges didn’t suit me so well … until I saw Jake’s and thought – “now’s the time to do Meemure!”.

      As you say, it’s the story of the remaining isolated population centres around the world, and I wanted to raise the issue of their viability, as well as the beauty and poignancy of this place, hidden deep in the forest.

      In a way, it was a bit of a stretch, there being no village, as such that I could show pictorially, so the idea of taking everyone to see it for themselves, and to meet some of the people seemed a nice way of doing it without too much of a lecture from me! I’m so glad you liked it.

  6. Such a great post, and the photos are wonderful. That dear old lady shouldn’t have to work at her age, but maybe this is how she keeps so healthy. It’s so sad that these little villages are dying out because the children move away, but I guess that’s progress for you.

    • Thank you so much for your support. I’m glad you liked it, and the photos. I know the movement from the traditional to the modern has been going on for millennia, but it seems to be a terribly sad fact of modern life that the last of these communities are now reaching their terminal stages. Are there any places left in South Africa that are clinging to the old ways?

  7. What an amazing place. Sadly, our modern world will be the demise of the few places like this that still exist. Yes, there is much of the past that should be left behind—hatred, prejudice, violence—but so much more should come forward with us.

    • Sadly, these places aren’t immune to human failings, JM. Venality, in particular, springs to mind … On the other hand, many of these people are on the edge, literally, and those without enormous reserves, and skill, are going to be left behind and will climb over the fallen to survive.

      But what lessons they could teach us about survival in the new world we are going to be forced to negotiate.

  8. What a great post! I love the little stone lined street.

    It is so sad that the youth of these tiny places are being slowly enticed into life in the city. I completely understand their desire for an easier and more exciting life, but one day there will be noone left to carry on their traditions. So unfortunate, but a story repeated around the world, isn’t it?

    • These remote communities are, indeed, endangered, which is why it’s so important for us to see, and understand before the lessons from their way of life are no longer available to us.

      I’m glad the narrow little street got to you too – to me it was most marvellous.

  9. How on earth can I ever keep up with you?! This is an amazing, beautifully written post! You are such an amazing writer! I love this post and truly adore the beautiful photos of the people and the village as well as the description of their lives. How often have you been there? Can you communicate with the people? Finally, have to ask, did you take writing coursework? Why haven’t you written a book?! You are really a gifted writer! nicole 🙂

    • It’s the people’s story, isn’t it? I’m so glad you got into their lives a little, and enjoyed seeing their village.

      1. Just the one time. Mo and I keep saying we must get back, and stay overnight, but so far, something always gets in the way.
      2. My Sinhala is rudimentary – sufficient to feed myself, not to have proper conversations about important things like preserving a way of life. Hence my reliance on Mo to come along with me.
      3. No. I just like using words to describe things, and feelings.
      4. Other than this idea I have of the Sri Lanka book (I think I spoke about it in my about page), I’ve never had a coherent sea for a book. I’m not a story teller – just a describer.

      Thank you Nicole, for your enthusiastic support!

      • You’re welcome! You truly have a gift for writing! Who is Mo? Is he/she a native from Sri Lanka and a friend? I hope you get back to the village and tell me more stories! I agree, it is too bad about language barriers as there is probably so many things you would love to know about these peoples lives. I always feel sad about language barriers when I travel as I feel like I’m missing out on so much but what can you do? Bring an interpreter!

        • Yes, Mo is my friend, and favourite travelling companion here in Sri Lanka. Together we’ve nosed our way into hundreds of places neither of us would have gone if we’d been travelling solo – me because of the language barrier, she because it’s not culturally the done thing for lady of her generation to travel alone, let alone to remote places.

  10. How could I resist such an invitation. Of course, I couldn’t and have savoured this post and gazed at the wonderful photos three times now. It indeed looks like a paradise but as you so well describe there are other aspects to consider also. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • I hope one of the times you looked at the pix you hit the photo and went through the series full screen? I uploaded them singly, so I could get as high a resolution as my internet connection could give me because, sometimes it was hard to see the forest for the trees, literally!

      So glad you got into the spirit of it Ella. Thanks for your enthusiasm.

      • I did go through the photos in fiull screen and felt like I was there which was good because I’d like to be. I like Lakagala the sentinel and the buffalo, in particular as well as the others which conveyed the sense of the place 🙂

        • The buffalo was divine, wasn’t he? Buried up to his haunches in muddy ditchwater, in an ecstasy of cud chewing! I’m so glad you saw them full screen – I wanted to display them in gallery format, but there were just too many, it would have looked messy and intimidating!

  11. Wow, Mere. You took me on a fantastical journey that I truly didn’t want to end. Your words, accompanied by great photogenic moments created a very special moment for all of us. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.

    Hoping you are well,
    ~ Cara

    • I’m well Cara (though a little pre-occupied) and so happy you came along to see Meemure. Somehow, like other isolated villages around the world, it seems to be a precious piece of our human history, and we all need to see how beautiful life was, and how difficult, too, and how threatened these communities are.

      Thank you for your support dear.

  12. i have been sick again today but have talked about this post and we wondered about a proper photo voltaic system to help the village survive … i wonder if there are grants, or aid packages? anyway, such timeless place, the beauty of life well-lived with the resources that are to hand, no waste or excess …. if only the rest of the world could learn from Meemure … or help them survive as do the medieval villages of Bhutan, with the aid of simple renewable technologies …. wonderful images thank you!

    • Sick again, Christine? Or a bit of a relapse because you didn’t give yourself time to get over the flu last week? I hope you’re on the mend now?

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses to the dilemma I posed on their behalf. I saw just the other day that Punchi Bandara is trying to bring hikers and climbers into the village, to set up a little eco-, agro-tourisme business. If he can get a bit of aid to help him put in a bit of infrastructure (sanitation, certainly), and can persuade some of the youngsters to come back to live in the village and make lives for themselves and their families using the skills they learned outside, then I think they have a future. Without some of the emigrants returning with their families, I fear they don’t have a viable self-sustaining population, and that the girls will all disappear to find non-related husbands.

  13. A fascinating trip into another world, for me anyway. A glimpse into a life so removed and in such a beautiful setting. I wonder what their futures hold? Thank youfor taking me into village life.

  14. You have captured the romantic redolence and reality of life here so beautifully!

    It seems to me we all have that long and winding road which some of us travel forever but I am always in awe of those who stay and maintain the roots of tradition.

    • I was quite inspired by the ploughman and the few other young adults I saw – they’re the ones who’re making conscious choices to stay true to a way of life in accordance with their values (either that, or they’re the ones with no choices, no education).

      Couldn’t be further from your New York protest movement/street party assignments, but I like that both communities stand for something.

  15. Fabulous photos and story. Lakagala especially, but also your other photos, remind me of the area around Macchu Picchu — a world away yet so similar. The similarity intrigued me so I checked the map. Not surprisingly, both locations are nearly equidistant from the equator.

    • Now, isn’t that interesting! Remoteness obviously plays a part in keeping them unsullied, but I wonder whether it also has to do with fecundity. When you just need to poke a stick into the ground to have it grow and produce food, there’s no necessity for people to change, or leave.

  16. It’s late here right now, and I’ve barely skimmed your story, but I will be back to read it carefully in the morning. The photos have mesmerized me. I keep letting the slide show replay, and I noticed, I think, that the old lady resembles the young woman (the ploughman’s wife?). Beautiful, beautiful photos.

  17. Amazing. What a wonderful mountain standing over the village! Fantastic and very evocative photos. But I also like the fact that you are not too “romantic” about the place – it has many challenges, clearly. Nothing stays the same. I would LOVE to visit there, though!

    • The mountain is incredible, the way it stands over the village, isn’t it? We met a woman who lived up on its flanks – such a long, and arduous walk, from the (bone jarring) road.

  18. Oh yes – yes – I saw this & was going to comment & firefox crashed (which it’s been doing too much of recently). This was wonderful! Heartbreaking, funny, sad – so human and I ache to think of them here & now because there is a tomorrow that pretends there is no room. Yet all our tomorrows are numbered because western civilization takes over and tries to fill in such honest corners of the world, punishing them for remaining themselves and retaining a sense of kinship with the earth, with each other, with the soil they depend on.
    I am glad they survive without the generator, but know that, like parts of Bhutan, the technological now with insinutate its shiny clever fingers, creating disharmony and want.
    Thank you for posting.

  19. What a beautiful post (though the story is definitely heartbreaking). I think that a lot of non-tech populations are facing similar challenges. One thing that I found particularly interesting were the stone walls- they remind me of the stone walls on Jeju Island in Korea and Taketomi in Okinawa, both of which are known to have preserved traditional village structures well.

    • Really? How interesting. i too loved the dry stone walls and was sad to see that they’re crumbling in some places. When I go back I need to find out whether it’s a lack of manpower that precludes their repair, or whether they’ve lost the necessary skills.

      • Oh yeah! and across the landscape in the English countryside as well.

        That’d be a great question to ask! The locations that I tend to see them use those walls to help amplify the traditional look to draw tourism so they’re fairly well kept (though it’s usually pretty obvious which part is new).

        • Yes, I can imagine. I should imagine there’s been an unbroken tradition of work and patronage that will have kept most trades alive in England, most of Europe, really. i think where there has been a breakdown of traditional social structures, with the resultant loss of patronage and the opportunities to practice crafts and other skills, they slowly die out.

          Having said that, their drystone walls in the paddy fields were in perfect condition, so perhaps in the case of Meemure, the skills survive, but there may not be enough people with them, or the time, to keep up non-essential repairs.

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