North of Tangala is a populous country full of villages, coconut and other estates, and paddy-fields. It is a good deal cut up by rivers and streams, over the smaller of which numerous ctandas, or narrow foot-bridges, made of palm-stems and bamboos, have been constructed by the villagers. Many of them are very picturesque, but are difficult for Europeans to cross. At one time the forests contained numbers of calamander-trees, yielding an exceedingly beautiful and valuable wood for cabinet-work, but so great was the demand that there are now scarcely any left.
The talipot, the giant of the palm tribe, may often be seen on the outskirts of the villages. It flowers only once, when it reaches maturity, and then dies. The flower is a mighty plume of cream-coloured, wheat-like blossom, twenty feet high, and visible from a great distance.
Areca-palms grow in perfection in this part of the island. Their long, straight, slender stems and feathery crowns have caused them to be described by native poets as "Rama's arrows," with which the god-hero assailed Ravana, the demon-king of the island, in his mountain fastness. The nuts of this tree, together with lime and pepper leaves, are used in " betel-chewing," a habit almost universal amongst natives, but which Europeans regard as disgusting. It stains the saliva a deep red, and persons indulging in the habit frequently expectorate what looks like blood. The kittul is another palm found here in abundance. Quantities of arrack are distilled from its sap, and it yields a very useful kind of fibre.
The damp forests here are also the home of numerous orchids, one beautiful variety of which— the Dendrobium McCarthyii—is now protected by law, as it was in danger of being exterminated by collectors.
This part of the country is inhabited mainly by Singhalese, almost all of whom are Buddhists. Every village has its little wihdra, or temple, with miniature whitewashed dagoba, and its pansala, or priest's house, where boy-novices learn to write the characters of the sacred language, Pali, on sand-boards. In the larger villages sheds built of poles and palm-leaves, and gaily decorated with coloured cloths, are to be found, in which the priests at certain seasons read bana, " the Word," to the assembled people. On such occasions a consecrated cord is held by assistant-priests round the reader and the sacred books, with its ends in water, in order to keep off devils—it is, in fact, a sort of spiritual lightning conductor!
Devil-dancing is much practised in this part of the country, the object generally being to free some village or house of sickness or supposed witchcraft. The masks and dresses worn by the dancers are truly satanic in their ugliness, and their performances weird and nerve-shaking.
A curious kind of competition called "horn-pulling " is often got up between neighbouring villages in this district. Ropes are fastened to the tines of a strong deer's antler, and a tug-of-war takes place between teams chosen by each village. When the antler snaps, the team to whose rope the larger piece is attached has the right to roundly abuse their rivals, who must bear it in silence.
Land-leeches, repulsive creatures, an inch or two long and of the thickness of a knitting-needle, swarm on all the paths and fasten on wayfarers. They are a perfect curse, and natives when afoot carry little bags of salt moistened with tobacco or lime juice, with which they touch the noxious creatures when they feel them attach themselves to their feet, whereupon they wriggle and drop off at once.
Ratnapura, the " City of Gems," a small town at the foot of Adam's Peak, is the centre of the gemming industry. A jewel-fair is held there annually at the Buddhist festival of the Perahera. There are numerous gem-pits in the neighbourhood, from which are obtained many rubies, sapphires, emeralds, moonstones, cinnamon-stones, cat's-eyes, and other precious stones. The smaller ones are roughly cut by native lapidaries, who may often be seen at work turning an emery-wheel with one hand and pressing the gem against it with the other. There is an active trade in spurious gems, many of which are sold to passengers from Australia and the Far East passing through Colombo.
Ceylon produces the finest quality of plumbago, and some thousands of tons are exported every year.
Few of the mines are of any depth, and the methods and appliances employed are not up to date. The plumbago mining district is generally looked upon as a sort of Alsatia, where native rascaldom congregates. The crude mineral is transported to Colombo, where it is cleaned, sorted, and packed for export.
One curious fact in connection with the plumbago trade is that no tiles can be placed on the sheds in which it is prepared for export. The plumbago-dust settles between the tiles and lubricates them, so that they all slide off" at the slightest jar or vibration. The sheds are consequently always thatched with cadjans, or plaited palm-leaves.