Ruhuna Putra, in Island. 22 July 2020, with this title “Galle’s famous Fibber’s Tree”
It was a giant tree of the Banyan family (Ficus altissima), fairly tall, most of its branches canopied and dotted with many a rookery, while some branches bent downwards to the ground and propagated. It also had several subsidiaries. It was centrally located within the town of Galle in a small section of the large cattle pen of the mighty King Ravana covering vast acres, opposite the present police station and close to the war memorial roundabout.
It was also on the most convenient route to the Galle Fort where the Kachcheri, the Court Complex and other offices were located. It has been in existence from time immemorial and there was nobody in Galle who did not know about it.
It has been in existence from time immemorial and there was nobody in Galle who did not know about it. It was called the Pacha Gaha or Fibber’s Tree owing to the dishonest means adopted by some of those who traded there and also due to the false utterances of some, at its speakers’ corner.
It had occasional, casual and regular visitors who were free to come and go at anytime, provided they did not disturb the fabric. There also were a few who lived there. The Kavi Kola Karayas (metrical leaflet verse reciters), magicians, astrologers and itinerant vendors of instant cures for everything from the common cold to snake-bites, would also extol the virtues of their wares here. Those who wanted to get something off their chests were also there at the speakers’ corner.
The astrologer who was there, generally painted a rosy picture for his clients, to swindle money off them. The people came to him to get their horoscopes or palms read. Casting horoscopes for their new borns or providing auspicious times for their special family events, were some of his other duties.
A worried mother of a no-good, incorrigible teenage son consulted this astrologer. Studying the horoscope of the fellow, the astrologer told her that her son was destined to have a life of ‘ups and downs’ adding encouragingly that ‘when he is up, he will be really up’. A highly elated mother gave the astrologer much more money than he asked for. And the prediction came true, for dropping out of school in grade nine, the fellow was ineligible for any good job and so he became a coconut plucker.
Charmed oil was also available there for sale in vials. They were meant for the litigants to win their cases and for the others to get their desired wishes fulfilled or to get cured of all sorts of ailments.
Once a charmed oil seller came there with a tiger cub. In the midst of his sales talk, he would hold a charmed oil vial to the face of the cub who would jump back in fear. It was trained to do so. Then he would raise his voice and say, “ladies! and gentlemen! you have just seen the efficacy of this oil yourselves.” The unsuspecting people would then rush in to buy this miracle oil.
A friend of mine told me that one of his neighbours was such a charmed oil seller. He would go to this village boutique in the morning and buy a quarter bottle of coconut oil and then he would fill many vials with this oil and take them to this tree and sell them as charmed oil, adding that there was no charm in the oil save his charming sales talk. In the evening he would come home ‘well-oiled’.
The inevitable petition drawer was also there. He had an improvised table on which was a small book, called ‘podi potha’, and a bigger book, called ‘loku potha’. One day an illiterate villager came to see him to get a petition drawn up to be sent to the local police office. It was about the theft of his cow. Showing the podi potha the petition drawer quoted a small fee and a bigger fee if it was from the loku potha.
To impress the villager he flipped some pages of the loku potha which was an illustrated English dictionary, showing the villager a cow and a thief. The highly elated villager said that the cow in the loku potha was exactly like his lost cow and wanted the petition drawn from the loku potha.
And another petition saw the light of day with worshipping hands on bended knees.
There were also touts of briefless lawyers. They recommend these lawyers to the litigants who were on their way to the courts complex, for a fee.
There was also a money lender. Most of his clients were government servants, some of whom were unable to pay even the interest. So they absented themselves on pay day, lest they would have to face the long arm tactics of the money lender.
The photographer too was there. He had his camera mounted on a tripod. Some visitors were delighted to pose for photographs. In the then non-permissive society some young lovers too preferred to do so. In later years some of these photographs taken, were produced in courts of law as evidence in Breach of Promise and Maintenance Cases.
She was a pleasant young woman in her mid-twenties. Rumour had it that she was the fallen daughter of very wealthy parents. She found too late that the man betrayed her. Disowned by parents, relations and friends, she resigned herself to her fate and went to live at this tree and engaged in the oldest profession, for a living.
She was a buxom woman in the roaring forties, dressed in a scanty muslin jacket and a chintz cloth. Her “Galley Saara Bulath Vita” (Galle’s special quid), was known widely for the way it was attractively packed and for the variety of ingredients used. She was also a standby in the oldest profession.
During the season, the Maldivians arrived at the Galle Harbour in their boats and came ashore for their trading activities and to set up a trade outlet under this tree, which was not far from the harbour. There they sold Maldive fish and delicacies like Bondahaluwa, Aros and Diyahakuru (a rice puller) all of which had a ready sale.
The villagers in turn brought their betel leaves, arecanuts, bamboos and other items to this outlet for exchange. The Maldivians were called ‘Kallu’ or ‘Yalu Muniyala’, by the villagers while their boat was called ‘Hodiya’.
Some street urchins who were there to while away the time or for some unexpected food, would provoke these Maldivian traders by asking them, “Yalu! thamage hodiyata kalu ballan dakkanne?” (Friend! are you taking black dogs to your boat?)
This reference to black dogs infuriated the Maldivian traders who ran after the fleeing urchins. (Ruhunu Puthra believe that there are no dogs in Maldives even today.)
A beedi seller was a stilt performer masquerading as a woman. Sometimes, he would distribute beedis free, as a publicity stunt.
Women basket sellers
For those who were home bound in the evening, after a hard day’s work, a marketing basket called a ‘pirivessa’ made of green coconut leaves was sold here, at a nominal price.
The Kadalay man or gram seller had a basin full of boiled kadalay (chickpea) with fried chillies, tiny pieces of coconut kernal and salt. With the tipplers joining in, he had a brisk sale.
The tree was replete with visitors most of the time, with the pickpockets joining in. Constant warnings of their presence were made by those engaged in sales talk.
A snake charmer was also there. When he played his flute tunefully, the cobra emerged from the rattan basket in a sprightly dance. Snake-bite stones as an instant cure, were also available for sale here. The seller had a python around his neck, muffler-wise, to attract the crowd.
The show entertained the elders and children. It was full of tricks that seem impossible, followed by a hat collection.
The barber was called ‘gasyata barber’ who cut men’s hair or shaved beards. On the sideline he also posed as an astrologer.
The gossip corner was club-like. The ‘members’ gathered there after a hard day’s work and indulged in idle gossip or discussions of current events. Some were draught players. The tipplers enjoyed their cup, some with kadalay, away from the long arm of the law.
The saruwath kade (sherbet cafe) quenched the thirst of the visitors.
There were itinerant haberdashery peddlers, occasional ornamental fish, crab and lobster outlets, a cobbler cum umbrella repairman, a cycle repairman and some others were also there. A rickshaw was also at hand.
The speakers’ corner, under this tree was also akin to the world famous Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park, London. Minor politicos, political aspirants and agitators were there. In addition to them, there were those who wanted to get something off their chests.
Ruhunu Puthra remembers the time when an elderly friend of his, Gerald Nanayakkara, then a political aspirant and a dashing young man, waxed eloquent here.
It was here that W. Dahanayake, the most flamboyant son of Galle, first met his idols; John Aiyyas and Alice Akkas with whom he rubbed shoulders with easy familiarity and much affection.
The Kavi Koka Karayas were conspicuous in their presence. Their leaflets were based on popular topics and sold for a few cents. People enjoyed reading them. They were recited rhythmically to attract the attention of those in attendance. Some of their popular topics were:
The Molamure – Asserappa Case, the abdication of King Edward VIII, a Galle District politician’s sex scandal and the Galle Municipal Council elections.
A topic of much interest was the love story of the convent educated comely Muslim lass from the Galle Fort who fell in love with the handsome Sinhala postal delivery peon in her area. The girl’s party vehemently opposed her decision to marry him. One fine day she eloped to his home in Unawatuna.
Her relations who were aghast, forcibly brought her back home. The saddened young man started a fast unto death, till such time she was brought back.
SWRD Bandaranaike who was on a visit to Galle at the time, when informed of this, consoled him and offered him a glass of orange juice. (Across the abyss of years, Ruhunu Puthra still remembers the names of the two parties, but are withheld by him). The verse leaflet printed, based on this story was an instant hit.
Most of the villagers who came to the Galle town, made it a point to visit this tree for a short stay and to take home a verse leaflet.
These verse leaflets formed an integral part of W. Dahanayake’s election campaign in 1947, against HW Amarasuriya. The verse leaflets were rhythmically recited over again to attract the attention of the voters.
There was also a one man theatre. ‘Saliya Asokamala’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and some other plays were his forte. He was his own ticket seller and theatre manager too.
The veterans of Galle, sigh with pity that the Pacha Gaha, honoured of yore, is no more, bowing to the Law of Impermanence.
For the benefit of those readers who have not read any verse leaflets, one such verse from a leaflet is given below. It is about the Municipal Elections held at Galle, at the time.
Sakala sirin piri siri lankawe
Dakunu palathe aga nagare
Nagara sabha chandaya langa hinda
Maha jaramarayayi harima pore
Aththada yukthiya yata karamin maha
Kumanthranada siduwana athare
Bala inna bari hinda kavikama
Pitaragalamin yayi dore
(In the Southern Province of copious Sri Lanka
Due to the impending municipal council election
There is much hullabaloo
While conspiracy overpowers truth and justice
Poetry unable to standby, overflows)