January 2013


Madol Duwa: The Mystery of The Mangrove Island
January 2013




The rocky side of Madol Duwa

Words and Photography Kurt Rolfes


"We spent two days repairing the canoe, turning it over and stopping up the leaks with fibre, gum and melted resin. We replaced the poles joining the outrigger to the canoe and overhauled the outrigger. On Sunday morning we set off, going very slowly and headed for the southern tip of the island. This time we hit on a better place for going ashore. There were outcrops of rock and hardly any mud. The Kadol (Mangrove) stilt roots were like a bridge girdling the island. We disembarked, carried our things ashore and beached the canoe".


Thus began the island adventure of two mischievous teenage Sri Lankan village boys in one of the best known novels written about early 20th Century Sri Lanka. Martin Wickramasinghe, 
Sri Lanka's best known author of novels and short stories first published the fictional short novel "Madol Duwa" in 1947. Literally translated it means Mangrove Island and has been translated into nine languages and sold over a million copies.


The two teenagers featured in Madol Duwa, Upali and his distant cousin Jinna, in the spirit of youthful mischief are more interested in teasing the local girls gathering water from the village well and raiding a neighbour's mango tree than attending the village school.


In a series of neatly shaped episodes, Wickramasinghe draws a very human picture of growing up in the rural South of Sri Lanka nearly a century ago.


When the boys are convinced that they will be reported to the local police for misappropriating the neighbour's mangoes, they decide to escape the confines of their middle class village environment for a life of adventure. 
Their love of being independent and living in the great outdoors, ultimately 
led them to the deserted, but supposedly haunted, island of Madol Duwa.

We Were seeking the location of a famous Sri Lankan adventure that happened almost a hundred years ago!
I first heard of Madol Duwa and Martin Wickramasinghe the author several years ago while staying with a friend in Unawatuna, a beach town a few kilometres south of Galle. I bought an English translation of the book at a local book store and enjoyed it immensely but other assignments at the time prevented me from visiting the island.


Koggala, the Wickramasinghe home town and the large freshwater lagoon in which Madol Duwa is located is just 30 minutes south of Galle and the story of the island adventure surfaced once more while researching in Koggala. It turned out that the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture and his house of birth were located just about half a kilometre down the road from the hotel and the lagoon was just a little farther down the road.


My respect for the author and my curiosity got the best of me and I decided that a trip to the island was in order. I booked a room in a guest house in Mirissa, a small town 20 minutes down the road from Koggala.


The guest house was owned and run by a Sri Lankan named Upul and his wife Ramya. They have a young daughter Chethmi, who is fluent in English, and a younger son Thenupa.


They all knew the story of Madol Duwa Island, as the book is required reading in all Sri Lankan schools, but none had ever been to the island. It was early Sunday and I needed a translator and a guide. What better than to bring the whole family with me in the boat? Upul could negotiate the booking of the boat, and Chethmi could translate for me! And after the trip we could all claim that we had been to Madol Duwa and visited the places where Upali and Jinna had their adventures.


So, away we went. The whole family and one writer/photographer, seeking the location of a famous Sri Lankan adventure that happened almost a hundred years ago!


Koggala Lagoon is a very large fresh water lagoon which contains quite a few historical and interesting islands.


As we circled Madol Duwa in the boat, the story suddenly came to life! There were the mangrove roots that girded the island, the thick mud along the shore and an opening in the rocks that guarded a beach that was almost clear of mud and had a tiny wooden dock!


We made our way over reasonably well kept trails through the heavy undergrowth. I could easily imagine the difficulty Upali and Jinna had cutting out a clearing to plant their garden of vegetables and fruits. Then later in the story, their attempt to cut their way through this thick mass of jungle to get to the other side of the island where they had seen a mysterious light moving through the undergrowth at night.

Cinnamon Island, where four generations of the same family have cultivated and processed the famous Sri Lankan spice.
After Madol Duwa we visited another island which was home to a small but impressive Buddhist Temple over 300 years old. And then over to Cinnamon Island, where four generations of the same family have cultivated and processed the famous Sri Lankan spice. The father gladly demonstrated the entire process of peeling, stripping, rolling and drying the Cinnamon.


The following day I spent an entire morning visiting the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture. It is a showplace that not only highlights the literary achievements of the author, but the grounds are covered by a lush arboretum of common Sri Lankan trees, flowers and shrubs, all identified by their common and Latin names.

A display of both ancient and historical Sri Lankan cultural artefacts are laid out in a well maintained museum
The museum grounds also contain the house where he was born and did most of his writing. A display of both ancient and historical Sri Lankan cultural artefacts are laid out in a well maintained museum and various modes of transportation, used on both land and water during and before the days of Madol Duwa, were also showcased and labelled.


You can buy a copy of Madol Duwa in most local bookshops. And if Galle is in your travel plans, consider heading a little farther south to Koggala. There you can learn a lot more about Martin Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka's most revered writer. Then take a boat to Madol Duwa and have an adventure of your own!

 

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    One of the trails on Madol Duwa

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    The small boat docking area on Madol Duwa seen on the right. It is the only easy entrance to the island and probably the same one mentioned in the book which was created by the two teens

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    Some of the mangrove roots surrounding Madol Duwa

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    The main Buddha statue on the island in the Koggala Lagoon where the temple was located

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    Traditional fishermen off the island of Madol Duwa

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    An immature cinnamon tree

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    The father on "Cinnamon Island" with a branch of cinnamon which he will scrape, peel off the inner bark and dry

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    The various products produced by the family on "Cinnamon Island"

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    Display of Wickramasinghe's various book covers in English, Sinhala and Tamil just inside the entrance to the museum

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    Martin Wickramasinghe's house of birth and where he did most of his writing. One of the few houses left standing when the British administration tore down over 200 houses in the village of Koggala in 1942 to build the airstrip

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    The living room of the Wickramasinghe home where he was born and did most of his writing

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    various horse, buffalo and elephant carts on display at the museum

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    Turn of the century artefacts and tools on display in the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum

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    The sekkuwa, an instrument used for extracting coconut oil. Dried coconut is placed in the sekkuwa stone and two bulls are tied to the pole. As the bulls wind around the stone the dried coconut is crushed and the oil is extracted. What's left is called poonac

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