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The Enchanted Forest

Serendib Magazine (c) 2008.

A walk through Lanka's largest tropical rainforest.

For one of this island's most captivating natural wonders, Sinharaja Rainforest can be somewhat misunderstood. Some visitors moan about the mud, the lack of visible wildlife and whine at length about the leeches. Others fail to see the appeal of a trudge through 11,000 hectares of wet trees and dense bush.

These prejudices should be forgiven. Understandably, casual travellers may find this overwhelming repetition of trees, creepers and ferns, decidedly underwhelming. While most of us are aware of the importance of rainforests to the earth's ecosystem, few of us are able to emotionally engage with the idea of one. For me, it took precisely 17 minutes.

What stopped us in our tracks wasn't the size of the web nor the mastery of its execution. It was the giant, green spider guarding its centre. Draped across three branches from three separate trees, the web was symmetrical and tapestry-like. The green swirls on the spider's back were a florescent shade that none of us had seen before. The sight of it spread on its own trap, awaiting the arrival of low-flying insects, was mesmerizing.

The first 16 minutes of our hike from Kudawa along the winding thicket had been uneventful. The leeches were kept at bay by with waterproof trousers, long socks and a simple ointment concocted by our guide from wild lemon and household antiseptic.

The sight of the giant wood spider did more than brighten our spirits; it served to open our eyes. Suddenly we notice the purple orchids, the blue mormon butterflies fluttering between leaves and a pink dragonfly surveying funnel-shaped ant traps. How the different shades of green overlap and how shards of sunlight cut through the wetness to cast spotlights on concealed worlds.

We began to hear birdcalls above the canopies and insect orchestras harmonizing in the nearby ponds. It dawns on us that the glory of this mysterious biosphere lurks as much in its details as in its grand design. And to those willing to open their senses, the forest will yield its many secrets

World Heritage Site

Lying between the tributaries of the Kalu and Gin rivers, Sinharaja's past predates history by a few millennia. Much of its biodiversity finds its origins in the pre-ice age super-continent of Godwana, a 100 million year old amalgam of Africa, Asia and Oceania.

If you silence your thoughts, you can sense the presence of the millions of organisms that evolved as the continents drifted. You can almost feel the fingers of nature enriching the soil, fanning the air and stroking the tree trunks. This is no dull jungle. This is the place where life lives. Life in all her shapes, sizes, colours and textures.

Over 100 species of butterfly and snail, 200 medicinal plants and 300 species of bird, mammal and fish and 350 species of timber share this primeval jungle with who knows how many undiscovered species of flora and fauna.

Perhaps the uneven terrain that perturbs today's visitors protected Sinharaja from the lumberman's axe during Sri Lanka's medieval and colonial periods. While history notes its existence, aside from a few Victorian botanists and ornithologists, the forest remained safe from human exploitation for most of its existence.

Then the 20th century happened. In 1884 Sri Lanka's forest cover was 84%, a figure which halved in the 1950s and today has dwindled to 22%. The British cleared vast tracts for tea and rubber cultivations, and in the 1970s unregulated loggers fell large chunks of forest. The government intervened in 1976 to declare Sinharaja a protected biosphere reserve. A decade later, UNESCO's identified it as a World Heritage site.

Magical Herbs

Rainforests harbour over half the world's living species and have been described by environmentalists as the "lungs of our planet". A quarter of the world's medicines come from rainforests. If we are to find cures for cancer, places like Sinharaja would be the most likely source.

Sri Lanka's understanding of the rainforest's medicinal value predates science. For thousands of years, herbs like badal kanassa, venivel, kakirirwara and ang kenda many of which can be found in Sinharaja, are used to treat everything from acne, toothaches and vomiting to snake bites, diabetes and heart disease.

Local plant folklore around Sinharaja identifies many endemic miracle plants from muscle relaxants to aphrodisiacs to fertility flowers. The kumbuk leaf, for instance is an effective insecticide and its twigs can be used as herbal toothbrushes. Raskinda provides an ointment for burn victims. However, the line between poison and cure can be a fine one. The red and yellow Gloria Superba flower is effective against stomach ailments, but an overdose of it can be deadly.

The madara herb, said to grow in heaven, is to wild elephants what kryptonite is to Superman. Kalunika is a rare twig brought down from the Himalayas by migratory birds and is used by the Ati kukula or jungle fowl to build its nest. The twigs have amazing powers which include being able to withstand fire and float upstream. Unsurprisingly, both these herbs are notoriously rare.

The mulavel vine, popularized in song, is another mythical plant that adds to Sinharaja's mystique. The incline we are climbing, Moulawella peak is named after it. This hidden creeper is said to disorient and confuse anyone who steps on it.

The guide tells us a very recent story involving the mulavel creeper. It features an old lady, Beraliya Akka, who went missing in the forest for 11 days. When the search parties failed, the soothsayers were brought in. When everyone had given up, a young boy psychic who lived around the temple pinpointed her location. She had been living on hal berries and rainwater. When asked if she felt afraid, she replied that friendly voices kept her company.

Rainforest tales

Martin Wijesinghe, whose Kudawa bungalow provides us with a place to stay, is as much a national treasure as the forest he has dedicated his life to studying and protecting. Martin Aiya or Professor Martin as he is popularly known, has no doubt that the forest has its own spirits.

"The forest is beautiful, kind and generous," he says. "As long as your intentions are honest, the forest will protect you."

There are many bizarre tales of snakes who can walk, jungle birds who can talk and monkeys who fool hunters by playing dead. There have also been legends of black leopards and albino monkeys. Of a Danish Priest who lived in the forest in the 1980s, spoke with the creatures and had telepathic powers. These stories are shared by the people who inhabit the 22 villages surrounding the reserve.

There are treasure tales of King Ehelepola's sword and crown hidden at Valangkanda near two pools, one containing the royal bed, the other, the royal mortar. Villagers claim that on Poya days shooting stars and the sound of drums emanate from these locations. Another treasure lies at the foot of a hill guarded by a giant serpent the size of a coconut tree trunk.

Most villagers break twigs from hanging branches on entering the forest, for fear of forest gods like Kohomba Deyya who can either bless or curse your journey. They also believe that if you die dreaming of riches, you will be reborn as a tree frog.

The most famous legend of Sinharaja involves a lion who ruled the forest and lived on Sinhagala Peak with his kidnapped queen. He was later lured out to Yodagalgoda Rock where he was killed by a giant. Both of these rocks formations owe their names to this legend, as does the forest they inhabit.

The Real Treasure

Martin Aiya scoffs at most of these stories. "Where else on earth do you get lions living in rainforests?" he asks, quite sensibly. He believes that the forest's real treasure lies in its strange creatures and amazing plants.

He describes thembu that cures chicken pox, heen bovitiya that treats hepatitis and kala madiri mushrooms that make you laugh and bring you visions. He tells us of the harmony between creatures in the forests. How ants bring food for the woodpeckers who drill holes in tree trunks for them. Of the cicada. who mates for 3 weeks and then dies, presumably of exhaustion and allegedly with a smile on its face.

It is Martin Aiya's words that provide commentary as we are shown egg-stealing squirrels, bearded monkeys and a rare red-faced Malkoha bird. Gazing at the coloured fungi and glistening moss, one's mind goes to the unseen. The bats, jackals and the fireflies asleep in the trees. The termites, dragonflies and scorpions navigating the ferns. Plants sending airborne signals to each other. Nature's cry of life reaching red parakeets and strange-looking pangolin anteaters.

Looking at a curious collection of land snails on a fallen tree trunk we are told that they provide valuable information about the landscape to investigating botanists. Einstein claimed that "if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left." The sight of 3 honey combs surrounded by buzzing bees on a tall eucalyptus tree is a strangely comforting sight.

Life lives here

And through all these tiny details, the grand design of Sinharaja is revealed. Life and all its mysteries unveiled through the presence of kangaroo lizards hop-scotching amidst millipedes, mantises and clouds of butterflies,

Science believes there to be tens of millions of species on the planet as yet undiscovered. For centuries, cultures haves scoured forests for panaceas to cure all ills, elixirs to grant eternal youth and philosophers stones to unlock the secrets of alchemy.

We may not have found them yet, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. There is enough of what we don't know about our world to fill thousands of acres of evergreen forest. In Sinharaja, new species like the Serendib Scops Owl are unearthed regularly. As long as we don't tamper with the cycle of life, as long as we guard our knowledge of the forest and respect it, nature will appear before us and reveal all she knows.

So what really is the appeal of a trudge through 11 hectares of wet trees and dense mud? Put simply, it is to stand amidst the quiet of life, and to watch, as one of the earth's last surviving lungs, turns its face to the sky, and takes a deep breath.

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