Leonard Woolf’s Weliwewa Terrain: Gerald Peiris’s Profound Expertise 

Michael Roberts

I have sustained a friendship and interacted with Gerald Peiris from Ramanathan Hall days at Peradeniya University beginning in July 1957. The formal discussions organised at the Ceylon Studies Seminar from 1968-1975 on the one hand and, on the other, casual, but occasionally dynamic, conversations at the Senior Common Room or the Campus Pub in those halcyon years deepened our cooperation …. and continually sharpened my brains.

However, it was only quite recently that I became fully alive to (A) Gerry’s wide-ranging and profound knowledge of the island’s highly differentiated landscapes; (B) his eye for detail and (C) his remarkable pneumonic memory. When a discussion developed recently around the figure of a British district officer of the late 19th century known as Le Mesurier [1855-1932], whose reputation included tales of his philandering,[1] Gerry stunned me by remarking that he had occasionally come across children and damsels in dirt-poor villages in Uva District who were quite fair and clearly progeny of British or Burgher personnel. Again, quite recently, when presenting an item re the delivery of solar power by  Chandra Fernando’s wonderful charity outfit to a village named Udagaldebokka, I discovered that Gerry Peiris had visited this distinctly inaccessible area within the Central Province[2] and retained lucid word-pictures of its circumstances and its people.

unmacademized road leading to Udagaldebokka –Pix provided by Peiris …

Wattle & Daub hut  …. one from those discovered on web to serve as illustrations of the life-circumstances in parts of Sri Lanka 

Given these assets, it is fortunate that Peiris has recently responded[3] to a Tamil playwright friend’s description of a play devoted to the story in Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle by presenting a comment on the terrain encompassed in that book, inclusive of the village of Weliwewa central to the observations presented by Woolf.  Woolf, I believe, served in the outlying and poorly developed corner of the island from circa 19o4 to 1910 [check]. Peiris’s visit was in 1983 when that area was still relatively undeveloped and poorly serviced.[4]

Thus: we have an useful analysis of the dry zone landscape and its poorer villages/villagers from a skilled observer. One aspect of such observations is the type and quality of the main living abodes: the huts and/or houses and/or shacks. Another criterion would be the number of children per household and their appearance.

A chena plot in the northern Dry Zone plains – Pix supplied by Peiris

It is because these aspects of rural life are unfamiliar to most of the Thuppahi readership that I have presented a  short ESSAY from Peiris and thumped the table with his comments; ……… while also providing some glimpses of the abodes we are referring to. Such pragmatic steps are vital for a readership that is mostly urban, urbane and/or Western foreign. Hopefully, these type of reports and illustrations will become part of their learning curve.

scene of commercialized farming provided by Peiris

Pix of  huts discovered on web in order to drive the argument home….

... further underlined by the hut built by Museum authorities beside the Museum in Polonnaruwa to display the typical ‘ingredients’ and character of old-time village living  [enhanced now by the  manifest degeneration of the construction]


….  all these PIX taken by Roberts in July 2020

PPS: Peiris refers in passing to the recent impact of the Colombo-Hambantota highway, Mattala airport, and the development of Hambantota harbour. He is,  thus, pointing to the potential for changes in the life world of villagers and villages since he visited that region in 1983. Having visited the area in 2009 (to watch cricket at Sooriyawewa) and 2018 (to visit Yala, Kirinde and Buttala), I am able to confirm the imprint of accelerated changes. As one illustration I note that Suranga Lakmal and Dhananjaya de Silva are from these areas and began their schooling at Debarawewa Central School[5] before proceeding to other schools and breaking into the ranks of Sri Lanka’s top cricketing fifteens — thereby providing yet another signpost of change in this ‘corner’ of Sri Lanka.


Brow, James 1978 Vedda Villages of Anuradhapura, Seattle, University of Washington Press.

Brow, James 1990 “Nationalist Rhetoric and Local Practice: The Fate of the Village Community in Kukulewa,” London, Routledge, pp 125-44.” in J. Spencer (ed.) Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of the Conflict, London, pp. 125-44.

De Silva, Prabath 2016 Leonard Woolf as a Judge in Ceylon: A British Civil Servant as a Judge in the Hambantota District of Colonial Sri Lanka, 1904-1910 Pelwatte, Neptune Publications.

De Silva, Prabath 2020 “Leonard Woolf as a Judge in Ceylon,” 20 November 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2016/11/20/leonard-woolf-as-a-judge-in-ceylon/

BH Farmer 1957 Pioneer Peasant Colonization in Ceylon. A Study in Asian Agrarian Problems,Oxford University Press …. now also at Majestic Books, London

Fernando, Chandra 2019 “When Solar Light reaches the Disadvantaged Udagaldebokka Hasalaka,” 28 September 2019 https://thuppahis.com/2019/09/28/when-solar-light-reaches-the-disadvantaged-udagaldebokka-hasalaka/

Edmund R. Leach 1961 Pul Eliya. A Village in Ceylon. A Study of Land Tenure and Kinship,  CUP.

Le Mesurier, ClR 1893 Manual of the Nuwara Eliya District of the Central Province, Colombo, Govt Printer.

Le Mesurier, CLR n. d. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Le_Mesurier-49

MacIntyre, Ernest 2021 “Ernest Macintyre’s Silindu of Baddegama,” 27 June 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/06/27/ernest-macintyres-silindu-of-baddegama/

Moore, Mick P. 1985 The State and Peasant Politics in Sri Lanka, Cambridge University Press.

Peiris, Gerald H. 2021 “Leonard Woolf’s WELIWEWA and Its Terrain,” 7 July 2021, https://thuppahis.com/2021/07/07/leonard-woolfs-weliwewa-and-its-terrain/#more-52909

Roberts, Michael 2018 “Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s,” 2 October 2018, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/nationalist-studies-and-the-ceylon-studies-seminar-at-peradeniya-1968-1970s/

Roberts, Michael 2020 “Under Scrutiny: Edmund Leach’s PUL ELIYA,” 31 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/31/under-scrutiny-edmund-leachs-pul-eliy

Roberts,Michael  2020 “The ROHP in Ceylon, 1966-70: Interviews and Select Transcriptions,” 11 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/11/the-rohp-in-ceylon-1966-70-interviews-and-select-transcriptions/

Michael Roberts 2020 “Introducing PUL ELIYA by Edmund R. Leach,” 21 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/21/introducing-pul-eliya-by-edmund-r-leach/

Russell, Jane & Ruth Allaun 2014 “Leonard Woolf: His Political Vision – From Innocent Imperialist to Pragmatic Internationalist,” 28 May 2014,  http://thuppahis.com/2014/05/28/leonard-woolf-his-political-vision-from-innocent-imperialist-to-pragmatic-internationalist-2/

Thuppahi 2020 “Introoducing Pul Eliya by Edemund R. Leach,” 21 December 2020, https://thuppahis.com/2020/12/21/introducing-pul-eliya-by-edmund-r-leach/

Woolf, Leonard 1961 The Village in the Jungle, London, Hogarth Press.


[1] That Le Mesurier deployed a Muslim loophole to wed his second wife indicates a broken marriage and a flexible mind.

[2] Take in the unpaved roadway leading to this village lying between two escarpments: those who have experienced the tropical rains in Sri Lanak would realise how difficult it would be to traverse this path in the periods of heavy rainfall.

[3] See Ernest Macintyre 2021 and Peiris 2021.

[4] As indicated by Peiris himself, but also from my own obervations in 2009 and then again in January 2019 when holidaying in thatarea.

[5] DEBARAWEWA is 11km from Bundala and 3.5km from Weerawila and 15km from Mattala.

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One response to “Leonard Woolf’s Weliwewa Terrain: Gerald Peiris’s Profound Expertise 

  1. A SET of COMMENTS sent by EMAIL by EDWaRD UPALI in Canada, 17 July 2021:

    Hi Michael, ………………….
    1. Dr. Gerald Peiris (GP) has indicated that fair skinned children in some ofthe poor villages in Uva could be” the offspring of British or Burgher planters.” The reason given by GP as given there is quite plausible.

    “Gerry stunned me by remarking that he had occasionally come across children and damsels in dirt-poor villages in Uva District who were quite fair and clearly progeny of British or Burgher personnel. ”

    2. However, there is another well known reason — backed by folklore and a Catholic church & a Catholic parish still in existence (1980). In the Uva Province, almost NNW of Matale and West of a small town called Naula, there is a village called Wahakotte. It is almost a village of “chena cultivators” surrounded by jungle, which has a Catholic Church. It is well established that the village has been there from the time of King Rajasinghe of Kandy, – this is the King before the last king of Kandy.

    The story is that when the Dutch took over Portugese territories they continued the persecution of Catholics, mostly Portugese settlers and their offspring. It is said that the Portugese and other Catholics appealed to the Kandyan King -Rajasinghe – who magnanimously granted them land at Wahakotte and gave them protection to carry on the practise of their religion as Catholics. I worked as an Engineer (1975-80) at Bowatenna- an irrigation and power project near Whakotte – [and] have been told that still there are many fair skinned residents in the Wahakotte area.

    Hope this helps, Regards, Ed.”

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