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Idambowa the santuary of outlaw Tissahamy

(@Gamini G. Punchihewa/The Island)

Continuing the series of extracts taken from the above author's book 'Souvenirs Of A Forgotten Heritage' (1990 -Veddas' Section II).

In search of those 'Vanished Trails', we started from Namal Oya in late 1967. My usual jungle companion Dharmakeerthie, accompanied me. We first scrutinized the Maha Oya 1'' topographical sheet, and noted the various trails depicted in it. We further got these verified from our Surveyor friends, J. R. Gunawardena and Marasinghe, as they were stationed at Mullegama. They had traced these routes once, for some engineering surveys. We then went among the then newly constructed jungle highway from Namal Oya to Galgamuwa.

Having passed Mullegama we came upon a serene forest village by the way-side, called Pailewela, an abandoned vedda village. Dr. Spittle mentions Payile in his 'Wild Ceylon': ''We were resting on the banks of Rambakan Oya (a course parallel to which we had so far followed) somewhere on the confines of Payile and Idambowa''. Actually we too were somewhere there! I knew of an interesting hoary character in Payile by the name of Ranhotti Bandaralage Punchi Banda (also of Vedda stock) who was nearly eighty years old. He was a drummer and in time of Kiri Koraha and other devil dancing ceremonies, his services were always, made use of.

Punchi Banda of Payile was locally known as Payile Siya (grandfather of Payile). Old age was no barrier for him. His aged wife was also a charming old lady. We stopped at Payile Siya's home for a while. We were treated with cordial hospitality. He plucked some young coconuts from the grove of coconut palms that were looming in his garden and gave us to drink the refreshing waters.

When I asked him about Dr. Spittle, he thought for a moment, and asked me: ''Janel Dostara?'' (Is it Janel Dostara - meaning Dr. Spittle as he was fondly called probably because he worked then at the General Hospital, Colombo). He even recalled the visit of Dr. Spittel to Payile, many years ago. Payile Siya even recalled old Tissahamy's exploits after whom he remarked, Dr. Spittel was training. We passed Rambakan Oya which was dry at the time. From there we went along a rugged cart track along which we had to worm our way as on either side of our path stood the stout jungle fences. Before us loomed - Nelliadda (at one time there were, a few groves of Nellie trees, which Dr. Spittel has not mentioned in any of his books) though we were trekking on the same jungle path he had blazed many years ago.

We next came to Idambowa, notorious for murder and banditry and also as the sanctuary of jungle outlaw, Tissahamy. Idambowa was a charming place, during the days of Tissahamy. He had spent his honeymoon with his jungle belle Menike at this romantic village of Idambowa. Idambowa is now no more. It has been now covered by the fast spreading tentacles of the jungle fastness.

Idambowa means, 'productive land'. Dr. Spittel in his 'savage Sanctuary' describes Idambowa: ''They wandered Tissahamy and Menike, eating whatever they came by and resting under the trees. If they happen to pass a chena they entered it with a gift of honey or a monitor lizard and received a meal of kurakkan or maize which was a welcome change from their jungle fare. In this manner they spent the better part of three weeks, and then as rains were due, looked for a village to settle in. Their, or rather his choice, fell on Idambowa, three miles west of Bingoda. Here they settled down, cultivated a plot and lived for about five years, when one day after a short and sudden illness, Menike died, leaving no children.''

The folk-lore about Idambowa is that long ago, it was a very productive land. Most of the veddas and neighbouring Sinhalese families tilled the ground. A severe feud arose among the veddas who lived at Idambowa and most of them were killed, in the ensuing battle. Thereafter the village was abandoned. The old folks at Idambowa still talk of this village as the first home of Tissahamy and his first wife. We crossed the Bandara watta Kandura and Komana Ela and emerged into a talawa known as Galabodapitiya which long ago was used as the village cemetery and crossed the Kadura of Keenawala (known thus as there is a tank where keena trees grow). Having crossed this stream, we came to Keenawala talawa - a fine open stretch and afterwards paused at the next village of Damanegama which consisted of eight families.

At Damanegama, there were interesting tales of Tissahamy. ''Five miles to the vest of Embilenne lies Kurunduwinna, the nearest village and three miles south of Kurunduwinne is Damanegama'' is how Dr. Spittle described these jungle villages in his ''Savage Sanctuary''. It was from Damanegama that Tissahamy's daughter Kapuru was wedded to Rate Kalu Banda (a title bestowed on the family as his father visited Colombo). He suspected the paternity of the child, she was bearing. So rate Kalu Banda kicked her on the stomach and she died. To cover up the murder, he said that Kapuru died of snake-bite. But Tissahamy was too shrewd to swallow that story. His son Sudu Banda who was the duplicate of his father, frothing with vengeance, instead of shooting his brother-in-law, shot Rate Banda's father at Damanegama. These were the chivalrous stories we heard of Tissahamy from the elders of this village.

We struggled through the deep undergrowth of this treacherous cart track and went over Kalupen Ela

and then crossed the Girimane Kandura, when we came upon the next village of Kurunduwinne, again made famous of Tissahamy's outlaw activities. This village of Kurunduwinne consists of flourishing orange orchards and towering coconut palms. There were about fifteen families. Here too we heard from the villagers, about the adventurous tales of Tissahamy's exploits and the frequent police raids that were conducted to apprehend him'.

We passed Kandian Kandura where the legend of Valli Amma, the legendary paramour of God Kataragama originated. The legend has it that the runaway couple had their maiden bath at Kandian Kandura. This stream separated Kurunduwinne and Pollebedde. Damanegama, during the days of Tissahamy, was the scene of many murders and battles.

Thus records Dr. Spittel, in 'Savage Sanctuary': ''Reference Damanegama murder, sent P.S. 175 armed and P.C. 1170 mufti on 5th, arrest accused on request of R. M. Bibile. Yesterday, R. M. Maha Oya wires, P.S. 173 informing Nilgala Korale shot dead and P.C. 1170 shot at, injured and removed to hospital. Police informed at Batticaloa. The inquiries on Tissahamy and his son Sudu Banda were held at Kurunduwinne and most of the older generations in Kurunduwinne had been eye witness to these inquiries and police proceedings. Old Sudu Banda of Kurunduwinne was there to recall to us how he had extorted the Police raiding parties and the magistrate to the scene of the murder...setting out immediately the Superintendent walked the thirteen miles to Kurunduwinne, where the Magistrate, Doctor and police party were already encamped''.

From Damanegama, we came upon an open plain known as Pollebedde Talawa and after going a few yards we came to Watawala Kandiya - a famous engineering feat built in ancient times by our great Sinhalese kings who were reputed tank builders. There were the remains of an ancient aqueduct of stone.

Now we had reached the famous vedda settlement of Pollebedda - The well known vedda village immortalized in Dr. Spittel's books. ''Here was the land of the veddas. Maha Oya itself though on the main road lies in the very heart of the old vedda country and it is safe to assume that the Sinhalese, born and bred here through generations, have vedda blood in their veins. The wattle and daub huts seen here and there by the road side as one approaches Maha Oya are no different from the vedda shacks of the remote interior and the discerning eye may sometimes see the mould of a vedda in Sinhalese face... All the claim Pollebedda had to its name a couple of huts. Entering the fenced compound for upon noon day rest, we were greeted by the raucous protestations of half a dozen mongrel. Here in contrast to the annually shifting chenas was some attempts at permanent agriculture of a few coconut trees, four kitul palms sprouting out of a common conglomeration of roots, a kapuk tree, lime and orange trees, brave effort but not destined to survive long.''

That was how Pollebedde stood in 1939 as described by Dr. Spittel. Today this time honoured ancestral vedda settlement has changed for the better from Dr. Spittel's time and has now about forty vedda families. (That was as I had seen it in 1967) Their homestead allotments are well developed with permanent crops, coconut palms, jak, orange and lime trees in their front compounds. During the chena season, they had their chenas planted with chillies, kurakkan, and bada iringu (Indian Corn).

There is a Junior School. Its headmaster is Mr. Samaranayake who is popular with the gam veddas of Pollebedda. He has taken a lively interest in the upliftment and the betterment of these backward communities. School attendance was very encouraging as 95% of the children of the forest, attended the school. At the Maha Oya pola, every Friday, these veddas could be seen with their hard earned produce from their chenas. During the honey collecting season, (mostly July-August) they set out in the jungles to gather bee's honey which presents a good business venture.

These old familiar faces describe in Dr. Spittel's books are still to be seen in Pollebedda. They recalled with fond gratitude their 'Janel Dostara' or Hudu Hura. They said Dr. Spittel visited them a few months ago. When he rumbled in a jeep. They were given clothes and cash presents too. Among the characters we met were Kaira Wanniya, Bada Pissa, Poromola Sakka and Randunna.

Their ancestral homes were in the now abandoned vedda country of Hennebedda. Their forefathers had lived in the rock caves of Bediyagalge in Hennebedda. Kaira Wanniya was the finest bowman and blacksmith we met at Pollebedda. Though Kaira Wanniya had not wielded the bow and arrow (except the pellet bow-gal dunna-to shoot down green pigeons) he manufactures these weapons of old for commercial purposes and sells them to tourists and travellers. I once bought one for Rs. 5 from Kaira. Kaira was a shrewd vedda and you have to be very careful when you deal with him. He was greedy for money. Once when I spoke to Dr. Spittel about Kaira's shrewd business ways, he too confirmed it. Bada Pissa and Poromola Sakka who hailed from Bingoda were good trackers. The best trackers were Gombira, Poromola Sakka, and Randunna. Randunna was a story-teller and was fond of singing folksongs of their old people. These gam veddas knew the jungle trails like the palms of their hands.

The four ancestral vedda hills of Gorakana, Dalibara, Sitala Wanniya and Raula Hela which are redolent with legend, stand as sentinels embracing this aboriginal settlement. It was in those hills that their progenitors had lived in the cave homes there, hunting the deer and sambhur with their bows and arrows and cutting the Bambara honeycombs abounding there in plenty. As to the origin of Sitala Wanniya, here is a queer story narrated by Randunna of Pollebedda. He had come here from Hennebedda. There lived a vedda called Sitha. His wife went one day with a labugediya (a dried gourd for storing water) to get water from a water hole called Kakuranpola wela. There she espied some bambara bees.

She went in pursuit of them up to this mountain. Then she returned to the water hole and filled the gourd with water. She therefore reached home late in the evening. Her husband took her to task as he suspected that she had been with some man. She pleaded innocence. She requested him to accompany her on the same trail she had followed. They set out together to gather honeycombs. She showed him the hill where the comb was built.

Her husband Wanniya, went in one direction and the wife in another in search of jungle creepers to make the ladders to come down. His wife was successful in procuring the ladders first, thus defeating her husband. Wanniya could not bear up the shame that was brought to him. In utter desperation he leapt from the cliff and committed suicide. After this awful tragedy, the name of he hill came to be known as Sithala Wanniya which means the spirit of Sitha.

Raulahela too acquired that name after a similar tragedy. Raula once set out to cut honeycombs. Its descent was very steep. He climbed the ladder and he missed his foot, and fell to his death in the abyss below. Sunk in the dense jungle of Pollebedda lies an imposing hill called Nuwaragala. On its summit are found some marvellous ruins of a dagaba, a castle and many other artefacts. The ascent is very arduous. There are many jungle pathways to reach this Nuwaragala. These veddas said that their ancestors had lived in the caves found there. Atop these unassailable rocks caves are found the honeycombs of the Bambara bee.

Randunna broke into a folksong which ran something like a love song.

Sithagena inna deyaka sid no vemu,
Balagana inna penenaratak novemi,
Me gindara nivena gindarak novemi,
Sura menika ne thuwama ada pahanaka novemi.

What is being thought never happens.
This is not a place from where you could be seen,
This burning desire, is like a fire that cannot be extinguished,
As there is no light of day without my beloved.

This song is a mere adaptation of a Sinhalese folksong. Randunna was thrilled when he sang this song. He told me jovially, that was the way they sang to beautiful jungle belles in their woodland homes, in their youthful days. Randunna must have been a real 'Romeo' in his young days.

Having bade farewell to Randunna, Poramala sakka and other gam veddas of Pollebedda, we left for Ampara. On our return trip, we struck the Maha Oya route. We passed Nailobe, another village where Tissahamy's activities were well known. ''Near Nailobe, three miles from Maha Oya, within the jungles are two old vedda rock shelters...'' wrote Dr. Spittel in his ''Vanished Trails'' in 1945. Nailobe is now resplendent with heavily laden orange trees. The Nailobe Gamarala (Headman) who is running a boutique by the wayside jungle path, was there to relate to us the life and times of Minimaru Tissahamy. We went along a rugged path broken up by ruts and pot holes. From there we crossed the great Maha Oya which was dry then and came to Padiyatalawa. From there we deviated to the newly constructed road to Ampara which extends a distance of about 35 miles. This fine stretch of metalled road was non-existent during the time Dr. Spittel blazed these 'Vanished Trials''. Thereafter I was a frequent visitor to the Pollebedda vedda settlement to meet characters like Poramola, Randunna, Kaira and Bada Pissa and a host of others.

P.S. Ranhotti Bandaralage Banda Gamarala-another favourite of Dr. Spittel's characters died in July, 1997 at Pollebedda. It is said that Dr. Spittel addressed him as R.B.

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