Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The construction

I have owned the acre on which this Lodge is built since about 2002. It took me a while after I returned to Sri Lanka to decide how and what I should build. I had already purchased Kumbuk Thuduwa in Raja Ela near Hingurakgoda, which is 14 kilometers away. This was at the end of July 2006, and during this hot dry period of the year in this area, Rupe a local farmer's son Vasantha asked me when I was going to build. I told him that I was waiting for him to be ready and have the time to oversee the construction.

So within weeks of having sealed the purchase of that remarkable agricultural property a short distance away and having commenced the construction of a small cabin thereon, we began the formal ground breaking ceremony, taking into account the auspicious time of 7am on August 4th 2006. The ground had been cleared by burning out the dry brush, so that an area was opened up, from which we could get a better idea of the land, which we were not able to with thick under growth.

The lamps were lit facing the right direction. The incense sticks put and the prayers said before the work commenced. One goal was to build this house without having recourse to cutting any trees, either in this district or on my property in Godagama. I wanted to use as much recycled material as I was able to lay my hands on. Fallen trees were fair game.

We had to make some compromises on the ecological front however. The main one being the use of rock from a quarry to build a foundation 5 ft high so the house could be built on a platform. The goal was two fold, one being the height from ground level, which if heavy rains persist will not result in flooding. The other being a point from which the whole area can be surveyed at a height which will make the view from the verandah pleasing and the blowing wind, less dusty.

The amount of tractor trailer loads of the rock required to build the foundation was staggering as it required the wall around the perimeter and another splitting the perimetere for the inside wall to sit on.It took 30 loads of rock for the foundation and 20 loads for the well.

Once the foundation was built an excavator and back-hoe was used to dig the swimming pool size pond in front and the soil then used to fill the foundation. Once the soil was filled it had to be watered to let the earth subside and settle. In the settling process it drops a further foot when it is compacted.

The well, which is more than 20 foot deep, also required a tremendous amount of work which in the end produced a fine deep well that has good clear water. The quality of water is better than any water in any well in the immediate vicinity. The well hit a vein in the rock sub-surface resulting in spring water which is not the same as the lake water nearby.

The idea was to build the lodge with brick that was not going to be plastered. So I designed the size of the brick I wanted. It was manufactured in a kiln not too far from the property and the man who made them said it was not at all simple as each brick weighed over 2 kilos and was many times larger than the regular brick they make. However the square brick definitely adds charm to the place. It is unique in shape and can be mistaken for an ancient style.

I had not used a drawing or any set of plans. I had to therefore advise the builders all the way through as to what I wanted them to do, where the doors and windows should be placed etc. In keeping with village customs the front and rear doors had to be placed contrary to my preferred position, but that as it should, I did not want an element of doubt on the part of the masons and carpenters in case something happened.

Along the way a concrete skirt was made to raise the platform further and the brick therefore would be on this concrete strip rather than directly on the rock. Then when the lintel level was reached another concrete skirt had to be put around the house to ensure strength of the walls.

Four pillars and concrete cross beams with extra strength steel rods were also built on site. These beams had to extend out as the large verandah only has 4 pillars for the whole roof to rest on with support of the beams. It was a feat of engineering without the engineers for the local artisans. Local labour was used throughout.

Once the structure was complete the plaster was put into the inside room only so that the inside can be painted, the floor had to be concreted too. A white cement floor was laid on the concrete floor. This has to be carefully sanded with water sandpaper and using mechanical means smoothening the floor before waxing with colorless wax.

The doors and windows were inspired from a book of Gaudi's designs in Spain. It was not how I envisioned them to be, but the end product has the ancient style look, that goes hand in glove, with the brickwork of the period.The doors and windows in solid wood are extremely heavy and are held by heavy extra strength hinges to hold the weight. All doors and windows ar style e in the two pane style with no middle support. All doors and windows can be opened and fully extended so both the inside and outside look can be seen and appreciated.

Part of the floor inside the closed room is covered in Kumbuk hard wood, which as a bedroom will be unique as the only wood pannelled floor of any room in the area. No mechanical tools were used to plane the wood floor, so it definitely has a old look, which adds to the claim of the building that would be more like one in the 11th century.

No ducting was put for future electricity supply, as the intention is to lay the wiring on piping that will make it easy to maintain in preference to wires buried by cutting into the walls.

The toilet block is seperate with a unique design allowing two sets of toilets to be used at one time but which has a unifying look with the two wash basins at the front of the block at either end. The allows one to look at the sky as it is open on the top.

The roof tiling used was primarily from my father's house in Colombo, and many of these tiles were manufactured in India over 80 years previously. My father's house has now been laid with asbestos sheets instead and I retrieved the tiles which otherwise would have been thrown.

The elephant human conflict

In order to appreciate the surroundings in which this retreat is located, one has to understand some of the issues facing the village today and the historical events that have led to this.

This village is one of only six that existed in this whole district 150 years ago when there were more elephants in the area than humans. One must therefore assume that the community was able to live in harmony with these majestic beasts and the weapons available to them made the killing of elephants or harming them impossible.

Over the last hundred and fifty years, lands in the district were cleared for agriculture, elephants were either captured or killed, and the space available for them to forage for food and roam, drastically reduced.

In order to preserve what little wildlife that remained, the Minneriya National Park was created. This allowed herds of elephants to move into this reservation which was off limits to poachers and farmers. When the water level of the Minneriya tank falls in the months of July through September, the reulting increase in the playground of a couple of thousand acres allows them to gather in the plains to feed on the fresh grass. These are awesome sights, when over 300 elephants gather in one place. This is now being publicized the world over as the gathering of elephants, something unique that one must experience at least once in life.

It was also a well known fact that if the elephants were not in Minneriya they were most likely in the Kaudulla tank, which at that time was not designated as a National Park. There appeared to be elephant corridors where they could move from one to another tank without encroaching on human settlements, namely that of Ratmale and its neighboring village of Rotawewa, which were sandwiched between these two large tanks. Both villages have irrigation tanks which supply water to their rice fields and they appeared to manage the elephant threat by keeping watch over them at night during the growing season and chasing away herds that appeared to encroach. The elephants had sufficient sources of food and at the sound of shouts and the light from fires, kept their distance.

Within the past 5 years after the establishment of the Kaudulla National Park, the incidents of elephants brazenly coming to cultivations of the local farmers has increased by leaps and bounds. They are not herds that do the damage, as herds move along tradional corridors that they are used to. They are instead mainly lone elephants or some who come in twos or threes. It appears from talking to the villagers that these elephants may have been moved from other parts of the country where they may have caused damage to agricultural settlements. This would explain their behaviour. They are following what they have done in the past. If they had got used to raiding crops, and breaking houses where paddy is stored, then they have resorted to the same behaviour. In the past year over 6 homes have been badly damaged in this village when the elephants, with an excellent scent for rice paddy, would break the walls of the side of the house where the bags of paddy are stored.

Many people in the village are now able to grow only enough rice paddy to feed their families. They feel as farmers they must grow their staple food and not been seen to be buying it. They therefore store the paddy in their homes. The farmer's wife parboils and mills to get the rice for the next few weeks of consumption. These farmers eat rice for all three meals of the day and invariably par boil the paddy in large urns prior to milling as a traditional way of eating rice. They believe this essential staple adds more taste and fills their stomachs.

My weekly interaction with the neighbors has resulted in a constant litany of woe of what the elephants did last night. It just never ends. A papaya tree that grows very healthily due to the rich soil in the area, can yield 3,000 rupees ($30) worth of fruit a year to the farmer. When elephants seems needlessly to just knock 10 trees down in a matter of minutes, months of effort in watering and fertilizing these prescious trees comes to naught. The frustration and anger directed at this seemingly mindless act of an elephant drives them to despair.

In many instances the people have resorted to making crude guns where gunpowder is stuffed into the barrel and intruding elephants are fired on. In most instances this does not kill but hurts the elephant skin sufficiently to make them retreat. There are instances however, where they result in wounds that do not heal ending with their painful death over a period of time. These gunshots can also lead to angry, infuriated and hungry elephants bent on further destroying cultivations and property.

This conflict has not been adequately resolved, locally or nationally, except for newspaper articles reporting incidents and sometimes promoting some provocative thought. The locals have had meetings with National Park officials who are responsible for protecting all wild animals, whether they are inside the park boundaries or outside. There are proposals to build an electric fence surrounding the village so elephants do not get in. However despite talk that funds have been passed for construction and maintenance, the people are convinced the funds have been purloined for private use by these same officials. So a general level of despondancy results, and no further action is taken.

In light of the above issues, my desire to see elephants dropping in for a drink of water and some grub on my propertly and my neighbors need to chase them away, are in direct conflict. The local populace must feel that both the establishment of the National Park next door and the resulting visitors are a benefit to them which can in some way compensate them for the harm that is being done to them from the presence of these animals. It is a delicate path that we have to tread and one should not make rash statements in favour of the elephant in the presence of local people, without due consideration given to their feelings.

This place is a great place to get a bird's eye view of this issue and anyone serious enough about proposing a solution can get some invaluable insights into how best to resolve it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The alternative resort

In order to give a better understanding about this curious place, I will attempt to show what one could expect from a stay here. There are no rules except to respect the sanctity of a fast disappearing patch of the wild and that is my primary objective. Getting the local people to appreciate that this goal is in their best interest too is a challenge, but worth trying.

The preferred music is that of the forest, always new and different, with never a repeat of the same sequence.No power generation or electricty is required to hear the sound. There is human activity, as this is an integral part of the village. The tank and the nearby temple also being an essential prerequisite for completeness, of a traditional village. There is even a monk who is at an isolated spot or cave in a patch of forest within earshot in the temple grounds living a life of complete isolation and meditation. The nights especially are full of sounds of the wild with the chatter of natures bounty going about their business unhindered by man.

The objective is to get inspiration to occasionally take a road less travelled in life and the courage to take that journey. This place is for those who want something different to what is usual. City types who live in air-conditioned apartments, used to sounds of gadgetry, music from elaborate sound systems, may prefer none of that in a retreat or vacation. Don't crowd your day; even better have no agenda and go with the flow. The flow will be unexpected. That is its beauty, especially in new events. For instance one can feel helpless if one is always dependant, not necessarily on others, but on say a switch to turn a fan on. When there are none, what do you do?. Just turn to your inner self to find a solution and if that does not help just a ring of the bell and a makeshift compromise.

For those who seek pleasure from observation don't bring noisy children or teenagers. However infants will find future inspiration hard wired into their brains from the unique sounds of the forest, much like having Mozart's music being played, when they are in their mother's womb. Its a place to sleep at anytime in the largest beds in the country. Its a place you can wander in all directions with no gates and fences to keep you in or out. Its everyones property so we don't prevent people from coming in or going out. You can go anywhere, but just be sensitive enough to announce your arrival if you intend to walk in to someone's house as they are invariably unlocked. Front doors are usually left open. Please know what is cultivated and what is a useless weed as both seem alike to one not used to these surroundings. So don't destroy plants that have been carefully tendered for food or medicine.

All the people you encounter are more frightened of elephants than their own kind. So you know who you should worry about at all times. This has been and still is the land of the elephant. They have roamed this land earlier than man, so their right to exist has to be respected. I would not be here, this place would not have been built and you would not have come if not for them. Don't forget they are the largest living species on land in this fragile earth of ours and are endangered.

The creative mind finds inspiration in all places, but this place will provide that spontaneity of thought that is not easily replicated elsewhere, to photograph, paint, write or just think. If you cannot stop talking you will certainly shut up here. Just being able to hear you talk making statements that sound so silly will surely shame you into silence. That is what this place does to you.

You maybe inspired to write or draw, so bring a paper and pencil and create something from nothing!

There are places one goes where one looks forward to curling up with a good book for relaxation. Books are not advisable here as it takes ones eyes away from a constantly changing scene seated on the verandah. Not a moment will pass by without you observing some change. A change that makes you curious to continue looking and do nothing else. When you get tired of looking you will just close your eyes and fall asleep, perhaps dreaming of what paradise might look and sound like. You are in paradise.

Monday, June 4, 2007

11th Century Royal Hunting Lodge

Deep in the forests of North Eastern Sri Lanka. surrounded by jungle, in an elephant corridor between two National Wildlife Parks one comes across this little retreat at the foot of a bund of a large man made irrigation tank akin to a lake.

It is very simply, but elegantly constructed in a minimalist style in what would be natural to believe a Hunting Lodge of the ancient kingdom of the Polonnaruwa period a thousand years ago was like. It is also appropriate to surmise that Kings of Polonnaruwa would have come to a place like this on the banks of a water source to set-up camp and possibly construct a more permanant structure for their habitual retreats into the forest, to hunt, fish and meditate or generally relax and unwind from tedious official duties.

In the recent history of the area, the village where the Lodge is located was one of the few, in fact one of only six villages in 1900 that existed in this district which was then covered in virgin forest. The land on which this Lodge lies was the heart of the village back then as it was by the village Tank, or lake and was the most appropriate place for the villagers to live. This area would have had many houses and home gardens with coconut trees and other fruit trees and also would have had home kitchen gardens. Being at the foot of the tank, all wells would have had sufficient water year round giving the locals all the basics for a comfortable life. They would have had an organized society with obstacles to protect the village from encroachment by wild animals.

The village temple is the closest neighbor to the property. It is out of sight but within earshot when the priest chants pirith to coax the heathen into his fold reminding the village of their obligations.

It must be remembered that Ratmale which is the name of the village was very isolated in the not too distant past. This is further evident as the people have a dialect of the Sinhala that is quite unique to them. However with the advent of the building of roads through the forest to cut timber and open up lands for agriculture, followed by the advent over the recent past of electricity, the village has moved to where the road was as electricity was only provided along the road. This area near the lake therefore was abandoned and became shrub jungle with the elephants uprooting all planted fruit trees. The general passage of time has led to the forest taking over to what we see today.

During the dry period of the year when wells run dry and other canals have no water going through them, the village folk trek a few kilometers to walk past this property to go to the tank for their daily bath and to wash their clothes. This quaint pilgrimage is made daily and the ladies cover themselves from the sun and wind on their journey. Do not mistake this covering for a burkha, it is just a practical way of shielding their skin from the hot dry sun.It is interesting to note that everyone tries to get home before it gets dark, in case they are confronted by a wild elephants who roam the area after dusk.

Talking of elephants, this property is a frequentl path through which elephants come, after a dip in the water or after a refreshing drink, and make their way to the paddy fields of the village to see if they can pick a delicious thatch of paddy evading the farmers who guard them.

The pond right in front of the main verandah has seen the occasional elephant take a dip and more often eat the grass around it. If one looks around one finds elephant dung, (droppings) showing what the elephant has been eating at that time. Some items do not digest and are simply passed out.

It is always advisable to be completely aware of your sorroundings. If you decide to take a walk after dusk, you are advised to go with a companion and have a fairly powerful flashlight with which to ward of an elephant. Elephants in the wild are usually harmless, if they are surprised at a close distance it is possible they could attack out of fright on their part, so please be careful and do not take unnecessary risks. A flash of a light however is usually enough for an elephant to change direction and avoid the light source.

Every effort has been taken to minimize the damage to the surrounding area. We have taken many steps to enhance the ecological balance of the area by assisting the growth of flora that has established itself on the land. We have also by keeping an eye on the water level helped the indigenous rush and reeds to grow, which in the past was extensive but which have now become extinct. These rush and reeds were used by the village to make all their mats that they slept on as well as for making their baskets and other items used in their daily lives.

This art of weaving has almost disappeared. We are attempting first to save and grow these plants now extinct from the area, and once established, to rebuild this skill and industry, by ensuring that those, who follow undergo training and make these mats, are paid a fair price for their effort. Do try and understand why these mats are far superior to the cheap ones currently available in the mass market. This project is analagous to the woven baskets and mats done by the Native American tribes of North America, which now command very high prices at the souvenir stores at their tribal homelands or at the National Parks in the US, which are close to those tribal homelands. This is an effort to preserve the past and encourage unique skills in people so that they are adequately remunerated. They will be encouraged to make relevant products that are useful to the buyer to decorate their homes, or proudly show off to their friends as momentos from their visit.

This Lodge is my home and I intend keeping it that way. It is the only property I have designed and built and it gives me incredible pleasure to live in it. It is by no means perfect, I intend to make improvements in time. I want to share this pleasure with those who can appreciate my philosophy and gain an insight into the area, its people and surroundings and not just be another place to stay when visiting the area. I would encourage people to stay a minium of three nights to get a feel for the area.

A great benefit of staying at Kumbuk Pokuna Lodge is that it is close to 3 major National Parks. It is 4 km from the entrance to the Kaudulla National Park, and the property borders the park. It is 16km from the entrance to the Minneriya National Park and is 20km from the entrance to the newly established Horoluwewa National Park. All these parks offer the possibility of seeing elephants in the wild and during the months of July, August and September, one can see as many as 300 at any one time at these parks, making it unique worldwide. A resident jeep can be arranged to take one to any of these parks at a moments notice to suit the whims of the visitor. It is best to see bird life at dawn and elephants in the early evening. It is important to note that one must leave the National Parks by 6pm and therefore it is important to leave early to maximize the chance of seeing elephants.

If one is an ornithologist, there is no limit the number of birds that one will see at these parks but they are certainly not restricted to the parks. Sitting on the verandah or lying in bed on the verandah there is a good chance of seeing numerous species both of migratory and resident birds at the lodge. With the water sources all around, it is not unusual to see 30 species of birds within a space of an hour in the mornings or later in the evenings. Look out for the birds who perch on the logs in front, a natural place for them, especially the kingfishers who follow the fish in the pond and swoop for their meal.

It must be mentioned that the tap water is pure and from the well on the property that is fed from a spring. This well has the best water in the village. The property currently has no electricity, though the experience of living in such a place will make one forget the need for electric power. Additionally as the whole area does not have artificial light, the stars at night are quite spectacular.