Fragrance in Literature-In Old Ceylon by Reginald Farrer



In old Ceylon (1908)
Farrer, Reginald John, 1880-1920


Dusky along the dusky blue
of the sky lie all the enclosing hills, and in the heavy
plumage of the trees overhead faint fireflies flicker and
fade. The air is quiet with a rich, deep sweetness, thrill-
ing lazily with wafts of fragrance from unguessed flowers
far away ; always velvety, profound and tranquil. Across
the stillness to our left lies the extended front of the hotel
over the quivering gleam of the water, and the barbaric
effect of its arcade, illuminated through panes of topaz,
amethyst, ruby, emerald, and thrown up again from the
lake in smooth answering jewel-flashes of emerald, ruby,
amethyst, topaz, becomes a glamour, rich and fairy-like,
under the transfiguring magic of mother night. And
through the healing gulf of silence in which we are
plunged pierces only the dim susurrence of cicalas in the
trees that stand, immovable black bronzes, along the shore
of the water, or up the crowded slopes that now are
nothing but enormous crested waves of darkness, foaming
up and up to the dense sapphire of the sky,

The doors,
though, of the chapel are thrown wide, and a glow of
light radiates forth from the illuminated sanctuary. One
by one yellow-robed monks and abbot go trooping in to
the service. About the eaves of the shrine the zeal of
Burmese brethren has introduced electric light, and this
now depends, in rubied globes and shades of the most
European ugliness, from long cords all round the line of
the eaves, at a given signal lacerating the silken twilight
with its ghastly aniline glare, A hard and needless task
it is to explain to one of the humble ones that his offering,
full of merit for its perfervid excellence, might yet have
taken a form more honourable and congruous to the holy
place. And still the conches continue their swirling bray,
and still the crowd gathers closer to the celebration. In
and out amid the multitudes go the sellers of flowers,
and the air is heavy with the cool, sharp fragrance of the
temple-flower. Five-cleft is the corolla of the temple-
flower, of creamy texture, and of a creamy colour that
deepens insensibly to rich yellow at the centre ; and its
scent is of the same texture, of the same colour as the
flower — a thick, waxy-sweet scent, creamy, dense, and
primrose. It haunts all the shrines of Lanka with its
pungent, uplifting ecstasy, and never any little vihara or
dagaba shall you find that has not its gnarled and ancient tree
of plumiera, bossy and twisted and contorted in growth,
with corrugated bark of pure silver and leafless twigs,
thick and stumpy as a sausage, crowned by clusters of
those divine flowers, ready always for offering at the shrine.

Now it is a bosky tangle of Lantana that one
skirts — repetition of many a briar-scrub by an English
highway-side, except that here the scarlet stars of Ixora,
gem of our stoves, riotously takes the place amid the
brushwood of Rosa canina or Rosa arvensis. Thence we
pass into a deep dell of shade, up over a stony way,
flanked by enormous boulders draped in fern and creeper,
overarched by the impenetrable gloom of many palms and
great dense evergreens. Here in the shade the air hangs
heavy and warm as still warm water, thrilled from time to
time by the tense fragrance of some invisible flower. At
one moment comes a long breath of Narcissus, that carries
one straight on wings to the flat, broad marsh-lands round
Pegomas ; then the sweet lances of Gardenia pierce the
senses until they swoon in delight ; and then in a flood a
hot, hard wave of primrose, soft and overpowering — and
in a moment I am facing the long thousand-foot slope
across from Stainforth, all sulphury from crest to base
with a uniform cloud of that palest green that any flower
wears. Whatever they may be, wherever they may be,
these censers of the jungle, tiniest bunches of microscopic
blossom, pale inconspicuousnesses along the ground, they
carry in their hearts all the scents of the flowers one knows
of old, from the Rose Marechal Niel to the pure pun-
gence of Lily of the valley. Even so do the sweet orchids
all mimic some well-known scent, Oncidium tigrinum is
very essence of roses, and Miltonia phalanopsis^ from one
bloom, will fill a whole house with lilies of the valley.
Nature, like an economical writer of books, repeats her
best effects in volumes which she is sure will only be read
by different sets of readers. Unfortunately, we upset her
plans by our habit of travelling from country to country,
and thus detecting all her prudent artifices.

Vast is the acreage of Peradeniya Garden, and gorgeous
is its vegetation. One may walk or drive for hours along
its avenues and circuits, seeing fresh marvels everywhere.
First object of the visitor's curiosity is the spice alley,
where you tread a path between trees of all the world's
famous spices. Here is clove, and here is cinnamon, to
be seen and handled in leaf and bark ; here, amid their
dark foliage, lurk the juicy walnuts that we only know in
a very different state. For, husk these fruits of their lush
green envelope, and you find a ramification of red filaments
and threads, reticulating round an inner kernel of white
flesh. This envelope is mace ; the kernel beneath is
nutmeg ; and the sudden pungency of their fragrance
carries one far away to the kitchens of one's childhood,
and all the joys associated with nutmeg, when one used
through exquisite hours to grind chocolate upon its grater.
Rough, too, as a nutmeg-grater, says the simile, and
there is something august about being brought face to
face with the actual visible fact which has given birth to
a simile that passes current among all the Anglo- Saxon
races. And what the benighted Slavs and Latins have in
its place I do not know, though assuredly even they must
rejoice in the nutmeg, whatever parabolic uses they may
or may not make of the implement that serves them as
its grater.

Matale itself is a quiet, lovely place in the twilight.
One long village street it has, lined with shops that
almost all offer mummified fishes in various forms and
stages. But above the noisy activities of this lies a
broad open space of smooth green — a playground, with a
club-house. Feathery trees, like some dream-blend of
larch and tamarisk, encircle this, and far above, in the
still air of evening, stand up the smooth, beautiful slopes
of the high peaks that rise to the back of Matale. On
their summits appear perched here and there the bungalows
of planters, for all this country of the hills is the paradise
of tea and rubber and their cultivators. Beyond the
mountains, throughout the enormous level tract of plain
that fills all Northern Ceylon, the tea grows savourless and
without value ; only here in the mountain air does it
thrive and repay the grower. Matale itself has its long
scattered bungalows, each embedded in the greenery of
its garden ; and the whole town, with its houses sprinkled
sporadically, lies embowered in delicate, beautiful growth of
palm and bread-fruit and bamboo, with many another tree.
So green, so placid is Matale, so English is the broad leisure-
liness of its playground, that one might here fancy oneself
back on one of our own village greens, but that the air is
still and warm and fragrant, with a warmth and a fragrance
that are never carried on England's nipping breezes.

The air here, in the depth of the mountain, is cold and
heavy ; laden, like that of all Cinhalese shrines, with the
fragrance of temple-flowers, incense, and spilt tallow.
For candles are the offering here — candles from the girth
of a cannon to mere tapers — and their droppings are
everywhere. In one place there is a rift up into the
darkness of the black roof, through which falls incessantly
a single drop of ice-cold, ice-pure water that never fails.
Of this the attendant monks, of course, have made a
miracle ; a vase is set beneath it, brimming with its
unflagging flow ; and the vase stands in a little well to
itself, railed off from the floor of the shrine. And there,
in the immortal scented gloom, that ice-cold drop has
never ceased to flow since first King Vatta Gamini took
his refuge here in the hills.


So winds our way, interminable, same, through the
unbroken lane of green on either hand. There is nothing
to see, nothing to marvel at ; only the blank wall of dense,
dark green to right and left. In the tvvilit perspective
spindly black trunks, serried and sickly, fade into the
green gloom beneath the boughs, and, though the air is
hot and brilliant with waft on waft of fragrance, no flower
or brightness is to be seen, except occasionally the scarlet
galaxies of Ixora in the blackest darknesses.


Dark and
dense is the green wall of the jungle to either side, and
the sunlit road appears a channel, a deep gully, filled with
liquid heat. The air vibrates with the hot light, and hot
sweet fragrance comes rippling in our faces as we go.
Great butterflies, living sapphires, hover and dart ; birds
of almost mythical splendour flash across the clearing and
are lost in the jungle again. We are now on the lawful
territory of the wild things : elephant roams this vast
forest ; bear and leopard may lurk in any thicket. Little
jackals trot lazily up the road ahead of us, and at last,
more bored than frightened, lope off to right or left into
the jungle, whence their keen eyes watch us, and their
sharp nose scents us as we pass.

To get a good view — for the figures are so enormous —
it is necessary to climb the rocky acclivity of smooth ridges
that faces the carved cliff; and thus you get the full
majesty of the composition. For there, lying extended
in the final trance, lies the Lord Gautama, a tremendous
figure five-and-forty feet from end to end. In the moment
of the Mahaparinibban all the tired muscles are relaxed,
and the left arm lies wearily along the body, following its
curve. The head lies pillowed on the right hand, the
quiet face looks unseeing out across the rocks; filled with
the tranquillity of the Great Release is the atmosphere ;
grand and simple is this wrought holiness in stone — more
grand because more simple than many another colossal
Buddha, cased in colour and plaster and gilding, enshrined
in the fragrant darkness of a church.

The sweltering silence
of the jungle, broken only by a rare bird-call, seems
attentive on the majesty of this vast abandoned dome ;
and the spire hangs poised above the world in the still-
ness, pointing a way upwards through peace to the perfect
peace eternal. Thick growth of thorn and weed and
coppice encumbers all the platform ; thorns fill the moat
and hide the fragments fallen from the dagaba. Here,
perhaps, lost in the fragrant tangle, lies tilted a huge
altar-stone or round table of offering : perhaps it is a
pillar tumbled amid the green : at one point, cracked in
several places, tragic and splendid, lies on the pavement
by the northern altar the octagonal monolith that once
made the finial of the spire.