By D.C. Ranatunga
It was interesting to read that the income from the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens had nearly touched the Rs. 55 million mark last month. The bulk of the income – 49.7 million – had come from foreigners and five million from local visitors. This is a direct result of the increase in the number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka.
Apart from tourists, Peradeniya Gardens has always been a favourite location for school trips and family outings. From our school days we have been visiting the Gardens. My last visit was four years ago. It’s one place where one does not get tired of going. The greenery, the huge trees and flower beds attract you so much. We were always fascinated with the suspension bridge linking the Gardens and Gannoruwa.
Over the years it’s one of the few places which had been maintained extremely well. That is how it was referred to as “the most beautiful gardens in the world” and “The Garden of Eden” by early travellers.
State visitors to the island invariably made a visit to the Gardens on their way. Heads of State had the privilege of planting a tree to mark their visits.
The Gardens are at an elevation of about 1,600 feet above sea level, according to Curator H.F. Macmillan (1895). Writing in 1906 he states that the area is nearly 150 acres beautifully undulated.
“The climate is moist, hot, and very equable, the mean annul temperature being about 76° F, though as low as 55°F is sometimes recorded in the early mornings in January and February. Rain falls at frequent intervals, and on an average of about 70 days in the year, with a total yearly average of 89 inches. February and March are the driest, and April and May the hottest months.”
He describes the flora: “The vegetation is purely tropical, being characterised by an abundance of climbing plants or lianas, palms, bamboos, pandanus or screw-pines, epiphytes (orchids, ferns, etc.) and lofty trees, the latter often having buttressed roots. The leaves are generally large, thick and leathery; the flowers usually brilliant and considerable in size, and the fruits often of immense proportions and borne on the trunks of trees and older branches.”
Referring to other striking tropical features, he mentions the great variety of bird, insect, and reptile life. “Lizards or chameleons of diversified forms are everywhere, and snakes of numerous species abound, from the venomous cobra and repulsive polanga, to the harmless, beautiful green whip-snake, which live mostly in trees and shrubs. With reasonable precautions, however, the snakes do not constitute an appreciable source of danger.”
He advised visitors that although there are well laid out roads one should explore the beauty and treasures on foot. Macmillan’s ‘Illustrated Guide to the Gardens’ is exhaustive and is a fine record of the early days of the Gardens when visitors to the Gardens numbers around just 3,000 in a year.
Although we are used to talk about the Peradeniya Royal Botanic Gardens established by the British in 1821 six years after the capture of the Kandyan kingdom, its history goes back to the 14th century. When King Wickremabahu III ascended the throne and Gampola was the capital, he kept court at Peradeniya at this venue.
No mention is made after that until the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-80) who made it a Royal Garden. By then the capital had been shifted to Senkadagala. His successor, King Rajadhi Rajasinghe (1780-98) had resided here in a temporary residence built for him. King Wimala Dharma (1592-1604) who started ruling from Senkadagala after Sitawaka king Rajasinghe I, had erected a vihare and dagoba at the location. The British had destroyed them when they occupied Kandy in 1915. It is on record that a Buddhist monk had been residing till the Gardens were established by Alexandar Moon in 1821.
Prior to the British, the Dutch had maintained a continuous interest in plants and had established the first botanic garden in Colombo. Well-known botanists had collected plants from here in 1777/78. A name mentioned is Professor C.P. Thumberg of Uppsala University in Sweden. The peculiarity of Sri Lankan flora had been widely known in Europe and D.T. Ekanayake, a former Director of Peradeniya Gardens feels that this may have been one of the major reasons for the British to show such a keen interest in establishing a botanic garden.
Prior to Peradeniya, in 1812 a botanic garden had been established under the name ‘Kew’ in Slave Island (the road is still known as Kew Road) on the advice of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. After three years it had been moved to Kalutara. A neglected 600-acre sugarcane plantation at Uggalboda had been the location. The colonial administration had then decided to look for a location around Kandy where the climate was more suitable for a botanic garden. Thus Peradeniya was selected by Alexander Moon, who was the superintendent of the Kalutara garden.
Moon continued to be the superintendent and was responsible for the clearing up of the area that was mostly planted with cinnamon and coffee. He published the ‘Catalogue of the Indigenous and Exotic Plants Growing in Ceylon’ in 1824 with the botanical and native names of 1,127 plants in the country. He also established a National Herbarium.
A number of inefficient superintendents had followed Moon who had died in 1825 until 1844 George Gardner, a well-known traveller had taken over in 1844 who had improved the place. Only 40 acres of the 147 acres were in cultivation when Gardner took charge and he soon used land to grow jak, coconuts and vegetables for sale by the Government Agent in Kandy. While improving the condition of the Gardens, he made a valuable contribution by exploring the country to collect flora. His untimely death at the age of 37 in Nuwara Eliya was a blow to the forward march of the Gardens.
However, the effort put in by his successors Dr. G.H.K. Thwaites, a scientist (1849-80) and Henry Trimen (1880-96) had brought much fame to the Gardens. They took a keen interest and introduced plants in a systematic way culminating in the publication of a monumental work by Trimen titled ‘The Handbook to the Flora of Ceylon’ in five volumes.
I was fascinated by what I observed during my last visit on how the ageing trees have become artistic objects. They are very tall. The roots form a distinctive design. So are the trunks. Some stand erect. Some give shelter to others. Each has a short explanatory note with the botanic term, origin and the uses.
Here are a few trees I