Nine-tenths of the great forest which covers all the northern, central, and eastern parts of Ceylon consist of scrub, bush-country, and grassy plains, the result of the destructive method of cultivation called chena, carried on by the jungle people.
They fell the trees, and, when dry, set fire to them, fence the clearing with their charred remains, and sow the ash-manured soil with millet, manioc, and vegetables of various sorts. Fresh blocks of forest are cleared every year, and thus, in the course of time, all the timber over vast areas has been destroyed. Almost the only high forest remaining is that surrounding ancient ruins, which is left untouched by the natives on account of the devils supposed to haunt such places.
Two of the most valuable cabinet woods known— ebony and satin-wood — are obtained from these forests. The former is merely the heart-wood, or core, of a large soft-wooded tree.
The railway now runs through the northern part of this great forest, and it is intersected by main trunk roads. Many of the paths between the villages are, however, merely old game tracks, made chiefly by the water-loving elephants, which follow one another in Indian file along them night after night, going to and from their bathing and drinking places.
The ancient names of the towns and villages which once filled this now forest-clad country have in most cases been forgotten. The tiny hamlets at present occupied by a few thousand jungle people bear names derived mostly from trees and from hunting incidents, such as "Tamarind-tank," " Where-the-pig-was-burnt," and " The-pool-the-leopard-leaped".
The jungle people consist of Singhalese and Tamils and Veddah half-breeds, with a sprinkling of Moormen. They are a poverty-stricken people, and the more remote their villages are from towns and roads the more miserable is their condition. Much, however, has been done for them in recent years by the opening of roads, the repair of irrigation tanks, the digging of wells, and the clearing away of forest round their villages, letting in air and light. A horrible disease like leprosy, from which formerly the greater part of the jungle people suffered, has been almost stamped out.
Great tracts of forest, scores of square miles in extent, exist, quite uninhabited. The people living on the borders of these tracts are forced to wage unceasing war against wild animals. Elephants enter their fields and devour and trample down their paddy. Sambur deer, wild pigs, and porcupines break into their forest clearings, and lay them waste, in spite of fires, beating of tom-toms, and shouts. The buffaloes and dwarf black cattle of the villagers have to be carefully guarded by day, and driven into stockaded byres at night, for fear of leopards. One of these fierce creatures has been known to kill in a few weeks all the cattle of a village.
The jungle people themselves are always in danger of being attacked by wild beasts. Elephants are, as a rule, harmless creatures, but occasionally a "rogue" appears, to meet which in thick forest is almost certain death. Bears are the most dreaded of all the forest denizens, as they are very fierce, and have a fearful habit of biting and clawing the faces of their victims. Men most dreadfully disfigured by these creatures may often be seen in the forest villages. Leopards, wild buffaloes, and wild boars, though they sometimes attack human beings, are little feared.
There are several kinds of monkeys in the forest. The great grey wanderoos and the little red r Haw as are very numerous, and where they are not hunted for food are very tame. They do a good deal of mischief in newly-opened coconut estates by stripping off and eating the blossom. On one occasion a flock of them, seeing a European baby left unguarded in the verandah of a house near the eil^e of the forest, descended from the trees, and so bit and maltreated it that it died. There is one strange monkey which is only seen at night. It is the loris, or sloth-monkey, and is exceedingly small, with enormous eyes and long, slender limbs. The natives have a superstitious fear of it, and believe that to keep a tame one in the house will brin£ ill-luck.
Other creatures to be found in the forest are the crocodiles, from monsters over twenty feet from snout to tail-tip to babies only a few inches in length, just out of the shell, infesting every lagoon, tank, river, and pool ; great rock-pythons, sometimes reaching seven yards in length, which crush deer and pigs to death and swallow them whole; scaly ant-eaters, with wonderful flexible tongues, which roll themselves into balls when frightened ; great spiders, with yellow glutinous webs, so strong that hats may be hung on them ; also land tortoises and chameleons.
The jungle people have many curious and ridiculous ideas regarding wild animals. They believe that all old elephants, on feeling their end approaching, go off to a valley among the mountains which no human eyes have ever seen, and lie down to die on the shores of a lovely lake, surrounded by the bones and skulls of thousands of their dead kind. The natives also believe that a crocodile has four eyes, and that its bite produces leprosy ; also that each pack of jackals has a king, on whose head is a horn, and that whoever can secure one of these will be fortunate in everything he undertakes !
The north-eastern parts of the great forest are subject to droughts, no rain falling for months together. Many of the drinking-places dry up, and the wild animals surfer severely from thirst. The elephants march off in herds to distant tanks, the bears dig great pits in the sandy beds of dry rivers, the wild pigs haunt the village wells, and are often drowned by jumping into them ; the deer sometimes go to the seashore and drink the salt water in their extremity, to die miserably afterwards ; and crocodiles may be met crawling through the forest on their bandy legs in search of water.
The most northern part of the great forest is called the Vanni, and it is the driest, wildest, and least populated part of the island. In ancient days it was a sort of " no - man's - land," and was the battleground between the Tamils who had settled in the peninsula of Jaffna and the Singhalese.