Matara: Digging Legends


Saman the crab catcher, rows across the Nilwala River. Matara. 31 May 2014 Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Saman the crab catcher, rows across the Nilwala River. Matara. 31 May 2014
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

After a days romp through the staid Dutch built Church, Fort and other monuments, I started digging around for the history of Matara and its legends.

One of the legends that emerged is of the scholar poet King Kumaradasa or Kumaradhatusena son of King Kasyapa of Sigiriya fame and the poet and dramatist, Kalidasa who is supposed to have lived sometime between, 170BCE and 634CE.  Matara likes to claim Kalidasa as a son of theirs but our big neighbhour India thinks otherwise. The salacious bit of the legend is that the handsome King in flagrante delicto with a courtesan, spied a bee entangled in the petals of a lotus flower, and was inspired to write two lines of poetry.

Read more about how the lives of the King and the Poet Kalidasa changed with this poem on my new website

Link directly to the story:

Ceylon Cinnamon Vs. Cassia (i.e. Saigon Cinnamon)

See also my post: Quills, passion and the romance of cinnamon

Was cinnamon single handedly instrumental in changing the history of Sri Lanka? The Portuguese established a hold over the king of Kotte through a trade agreement in the 16th century when the King of Kotte agreed to supply 2,50,000 lbs of cinnamon to the Portuguese who in return promised to safeguard the Kingdom of Kotte from invaders. …

Rice & Curry


I don’t usually reprint articles from other blogs in full, but I thought the information in this particular piece was important enough to share. It comes from the blog of one Joel Fuhrman Ph.D., a New York Times Best-selling author and nutritionist.

Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon 

The two major types of cinnamon used in food preparation are Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or Cinnamomum zeylanicum), native to Sri Lanka, is also known as “true cinnamon.” This is NOT the predominant spice typically sold as cinnamon in the United States. What is commonly found at your grocer is a closely related and less expensive variety called Cassia cinnamon. Cassia is native to Burma and also grown in China and Vietnam. Cassia is slightly darker in color compared to Ceylon, and has a stronger, more pungent flavor. While both Cassia and Ceylon are derived from…

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Up close with Moodilla Flowers and Emerson Tennent

A fallen Moodilla flower at Akurela. Sri Lanka. 13 January 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I had hardly given moodilla flowers a second glance before, but the way they lay delicately poised on the lush green grass at Akurela was quite something.  The white stamens with rosy red tips glistened in the morning light while the breeze over the mangroves gently brushed over them.  A rare moment of beauty no doubt, before nature heralds their decay.

Akurela just off the main Galle road with the new railroad.  Akurela, Sri Lanka. 13 January 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The flowers, the lush foliage for me was also nature showing us that regeneration from devastation is possible.

The garden of a holiday hideout. Akurela, Sri Lanka. 13 January 2012. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Akurela was an area that was dotted with coral kilns and where the reef was mined extensively for coral.  The land and the people paid a high price of it in the tsunami of 2004.  Seven years after, nature has rebooted itself – lush, green and sparkling, a sight for sore eyes.

A search for more information on moodilla trees, landed me into the writings Sir James Emerson Tennent, a British Colonial Secretary to the Government of Ceylon, (1845-9) and his classic record of Ceylon: An Account of the Island: Physical, Historical and topographical.”

Sir James Emerson Tennent — a sketch by Ulsterman Andrew Nicholl.

Tennent’s description still has lasting value. He describes with certain warmth the tree (Barringtonia Speciosa) as “noble specimens,” “remarkably shaped fruit” and flowers that “are white, tipped with crimson. … and the stamens of which there are hundred to each flower. …

Tennent also states that its “native” name implies it “loves the shore of the sea”  and describes how the tree propagates through the fruits that are carried out to sea by the waves and then tossed back on a shore to root themselves on a different area of the  beach.  Not unlike coconut trees that grow along the seashore.

Ruchira Gunathilaka and friend showing the “moodilla,” saplings planted by the youth. Ipomea creeper with the purple flowers on the ground provide cover against soil erosion. Photograph©Chulie de Silva.

Interestingly my search also takes me to an article I wrote in 2006, where a youth group led by  Ruchira Gunathilaka was replanting a section of the Kalutara coast after tsunami to create a buffer zone with moodilla plants.  According to Ruchira Sri Lankan villagers use the fruit as a fuel.

My curiosity raised by reading Tennet, I was chiding myself  for knowing so little about this man.  Obviously not only a politician, but a scholar par excellence with a meticulous mind for details and love of nature, that centuries later could still engage a reader with lasting descriptions.

Foraging on the Net, I find the ubiquitous article on Wikipaedia, and a page for Tennet on FB! Yes he might never have imagined in a hundred years the social media revolutuion or that he would have his own space in Mark Zuckerberg’s Face Book — albeit an inactive one!

More interestingly for me was to discover a wealth of information online on the Emerson Tennent Papers maintained by the Public Records office of Northern Ireland, Nov.2007. 

Obviously a much loved Irish son, the Public Records Office holds an extensive collection of Emerson Tennent Papers — “c.5500 documents and c.75 volumes, 1773-1916, that mainly comprise the personal, political, estate and business papers of Sir James Emerson Tennent, 1st Bt (1804-69), of Belfast and of Tempo Manor, Co. Fermanagh, politician, civil servant and man of letters.”

While his writing on Ceylon was well known, it was a discovery for me to learn that he was the originator of a milestone Copyright of Designs Act (1842).

“Born James Emerson, he double-barrelled his name to Emerson Tennent in 1832 under the will of William Tennent of Belfast and Tempo, a wealthy banker whose daughter and heiress, Letitia, he had married in the previous year.”

The papers highlight his political career as a Whig, and of his controversial period of office in Ceylon.  “He was MP for Belfast, 1832-1845, Joint Secretary to the India Board, 1841-1845, Colonial Secretary in Ceylon, 1845-1849, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Trade, 1852-1867 (and usually regarded as the inventor of competitive examination for the Civil Service), author of major books on Greece, Ceylon, natural history, antiquities, etc, friend of Dickens and other literary and artistic people, and builder of Tempo Manor, Co. Fermanagh (to the designs of Sir Charles Lanyon), 1861-1869. He was knighted in 1845, and created a baronet on his retirement from the Board of Trade in 1867.

He produced a whole library of valuable books, amongst which are “Belgium, A Treatise on the Copyright of Designs for Printed Fabrics, Christianity in Ceylon, An Account of Ceylon, Physical, Historical and Topographical, Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon, Wine: its Uses and Abuses, and a large number of other works.”

His book on Ceylon, published in 1859 [sic – 1858], was one of the most popular works which had appeared for a number of years, either at home or abroad. It was translated into several foreign languages, and at home ran through several editions. Upon natural history, Sir James Emerson Tennent was a high authority.” Apparently. until he wrote about the habits of the elephant, practically nothing was known in the west about the magnificent elephants.

According to Wikipedia The Oxford English Dictionary attributes to his book  “The Wild Elephant and the Method of Capturing and Taming it in Ceylon (1867) the first use in English of ‘Rogue Elephant‘, a translation of the Sinhala term hora aliya.

Wikipedia also states that during his tenure in Ceylon, “an economic depression in the United Kingdom severely affected the local coffee and cinnamon industry. Planters and merchants clamoured for a reduction of export duties. Tennent therefore recommended to Earl Grey, Secretary of State for Colonies in London that taxation should be radically shifted from indirect taxation to direct taxation, which proposal was accepted. It was decided to abolish the export duties on coffee and reduce the export duty on cinnamon leaving a deficit of £40,000 Sterling which was to be met by direct taxes on the people. This was one of the causes of the Matale Rebellion of 1848.”

For more info see:

Emerson Tennent Papers /Public Records office of Northern Ireland, Nov.2007:

Youth Helps Protect Tsunami Damaged Coast in Sri Lanka, Dec 22, 2006: Permanent URL for this page:

Wilipedia Article on Tennent

Quills, Passion and the Romance of Cinnamon

Cinnamon Peelers Archchikanda, Hikkaduwa.  Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Cinnamon Peelers Archchikanda, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

If I were a cinnamon peeler

I would ride your bed

and leave the yellow bark dust

on your pillow. … said Michael Ondaatje creating possibly the most erotic verse ever written on cinnamon, the spice native to Sri Lanka.

Ciinnamon bushes. Arachchikande, Sri Lanka. 4 Feb. 2010. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Ciinnamon bushes. Arachchikande, Sri Lanka. 4 Feb. 2010. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

The poem romanticized the profession of cinnamon peeling taking the reader on a very sensuous lover’s romp.  … a man marking his territory and branding his lover with the dust and smell of cinnamon.

We grew up  quite unaware that Cinnamon and its aromatic smell aroused that much passion. The Roman Emperor Nero as a sign of remorse ordered a year’s supply of cinnamon be burnt after he murdered his wife!

There are some claims made that it was the search for cinnamon that motivated adventurers Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama to put their ships to sea. Come to think of it,  was cinnamon single handedly instrumental in changing the history of Sri Lanka? The Portuguese established a hold over the king  of Kotte through a trade agreement  in the 16th century when the King of Kotte agreed to supply 2,50,000 lbs of cinnamon to the Portuguese who in return promised to safeguard the Kingdom of Kotte from invaders .

The outer bark is stripped. Cinnamon Peelers Archchikanda, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de

The outer bark is stripped. Cinnamon Peelers Archchikanda, Hikkaduwa. Photograph©Chulie de

The wood left after the peeling was used for cooking in our house at Hikkaduwa on a special stove that my father had built.  It was a brick fireplace with an opening on the left to push the wood in. The top of the cooker had round metal rings embedded in clay bricks to hold the pots. The hottest plate was one on the side where the wood went in and burned at its peak.  The rings further away were used for pots that would be simmering.  The aroma of cinnamon would waft mixed with the rich smells of tumeric, chillie, coriander, fresh pepper, lemon grass and the other spices as curries were cooked on clay chatties. We would get the cook lady to pour cold water on  a hot burning piece of cinnamon coal on the hearth, hear the fizz as the flame went out and use it to brush our teeth squeaky clean.  A very organic no cost tothpaste. Our house had a couple of rooms that stored these huge bundles of cinnamon, till the price was right for sale.

Compare that mundane use to the passion it aroused in Ondaatje’s cinnamon lover

Your breasts and shoulders would reek
you could never walk through markets
without the profession of my fingers
floating over you. The blind would
stumble certain of whom they approached
though you might bathe
under rain gutters, monsoon.
Here on the upper thigh
at this smooth pasture
neighbor to your hair
or the crease
that cuts your back. This ankle.
You will be known among strangers
as the cinnamon peeler’s wife. 
Ah!  the passion but what’s  the reality?
 Jayasiri, has been a cinnamon peeler all his life. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Jayasiri, has been a cinnamon peeler all his life. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

The three men I saw working hard at creating the famous cinnamon quills only gave a curt nod and barely lifted their eyes off the work they were doing when I turned up at the vadiya.” They had no idea who Ondaatje was. Above their heads were a canopy of drying quills. A small TV squeaked with blurry images on a corner table.  If they had lovers that bathed with them in the river, they stayed mum. They  were not bathed in cinnamon dust but the walls were stained.

The first man scraped the outer bark.  The other two loosened the bark and peeled. The peels are dried and telescoped one into another to form quills. The quills are filled with trimming of the bark, which is dried and rolled again tighter and left to dry for a few more  days in the shade.

Peeled Cinnamon left to dry just under the roof. Arachchikande, 4 Feb 2010. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Peeled Cinnamon left to dry just under the roof. Arachchikande, 4 Feb 2010. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Lately Cinnamon and the need to brand it has been much in the news. The Government has moved to streamline production and the establishment of more modern factories, and to provide support to the smallholders.

But the reality for many  is that cinnamon peeling is hard work . Most work from morning till dusk to earn at the higher end about LKR 15,000 (approx. US$ 150) a month.  An article in the World Socialist website highlights the plight of the 350,000 Sri Lankan families dependent on cinnamon for their living.

Mulling over the plethora of information on cinnamon on the Internet, yet not being able to find the current price cinnamon in International trade, I rang up the Export Development Board.  I was shunted through various people and finally to the librarian. She unfortunately couldn’t give me the figure over the phone but promised to send me the data.  Looks like it’s a a long time coming—and while I wait I’ve added a drop of Cinnamon oil into  the lamp I light in the evening, sit back and let the fragrance waft over as I listen to Ondaatje himself reciting his poem .  … The reality is a far cry from the passion, but then this is poetic voyeurism  at its best. Listen to Michael Ondaatje reading The Cinnamon Peeler   Hamilton Tolles Lecture, April 2009.


In the Budget Speech of 2005, the then Minister of Finance & Planning, Dr. Sarath Amunugama, M.P, said  “Sri Lanka produces more than 90 percent genuine cinnamon (Cinnamomum Zeylanicum Blume) in the world. Our exports account for 63 percent of all spice exports in the world. There is an urgent need for increased investment in research and product development for value addition in cinnamon. Efforts to give eylon Cinnamon maximum protection under WTO agreement are being intensified. Investments in marketing Ceylon Cinnamon is essential to combat this competition. I propose to impose a cess of Rs.2.50/kg. or 0.5% of the value which ever is higher for the development of this industry. The Government will contribute Rs.10 million to set up a Cinnamon Development Fund. ”

Cheap low quality alternatives — Cassia comes mainly from Indonesia (Cinnamomum Brumanni Nees) Chinese Cassia ( Cinnamomum Aromaticum Nees) and the Vietnam Cassia (Cinnamomum Ioureirii Nees). These now compete with our Cinnamon in the global market leading to increased competition.

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 Other interesting Links:

1. A video on:

Certified Ceylon Cinnamon Sri Lanka – u10ccc

2. Cinnamon and Sri Lanka