Ian Lockwood


Ticket to Jaffna

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The Nallur kovil is one of the most important landmarks in the Jaffna peninsula. Jaffna Fort, started by the Portuguese, strengthened by the Dutch and utilized by the British never saw conflict until modern times when it was severely damaged during fighting between the LTTE and government forces. It has now been partly restored and is an important point of interest for visitors and Jaffna residents. Tickets are required…

The northern part of Sri Lanka offers visitors an opportunity to see, taste and experience a distinctly unique, yet undoubtedly Sri Lankan, part of Serendip. At the end of January Raina and I took a modest-sized group of OSC students on a five-day exploration of the area’s landscape, culture and natural history. The land sits on a limestone bed devoid of hills and just a few fragile meters above sea level. Expansive lagoons are interwoven between human settlements, palmyra forest patches and fields of paddy. The climate is dry for much of the year with the North East monsoon (October to January) accounting for most of the rainfall. The culture of the Jaffna peninsula is influenced by the Tamil community with their rich history, Tamil language, links to southern India and minority faiths (Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism). In the mid-1950s the politicization of the choice of an official language for the newly independent nation of Ceylon created a communal rift that eventually cascaded into a fearsome civil war and the displacement of large numbers of people in the north. Nearly 30 years of armed struggle and war that ended in 2009 have left a mark on the Jaffna peninsula: empty, overgrown art deco houses are interwoven with vividly repainted gopurams and new storefronts. Most of the once ubiquitous military checkpoints have been removed, schools are thriving, business is vibrant and the roads are repaved signaling a new page in the area’s story.

OSC groups have visited Jaffna before-we sent the first Week Without Walls (WWW) group up with Amanda Lenk and Suren Rajadurai in 2013 when things were still quite raw. COVID interrupted these visits and our other experiential education programs so it was good to renew our association with a new batch of students ten years later. During this time while coordinating the program, I have worked on developing ecology and hiking-oriented experiences in the south. This year Raina and I got a chance to revive the Jaffna trip. Our family has visited Jaffna several times (see my 2011 post for the first account). Of course, we have a special connection to this part of our island home thanks to my paternal grandparents Edson and Dorothy Lockwood who taught at Jaffna College for 30 years.


Last year, in order to plan our learning experience, Raina and I visited the Jaffna area with the aid of a school van. We were accompanied by OSC’s driver Nishanta. This gave us an opportunity to visit places that we would stay at and the sites that we would visit to build the learning around. We packed in a number of places to our busy schedule, Mihintale (on the way up), Jaffna Fort, Point Pedro, Kankesanthurai,Keerilmalai springs, Kayts, Nainativu docks, the baobab tree on Pungudutivu, and Hammenhiel fort. On the way back we overnighted in Anuradhapura and visited the remote Sesseruwa hermitage. There were many critical visits for our WWW experience (one was discovering Lavin’s a south Indian restaurant with first-class dosas and filter coffee).

Getting down at Anuradhapura station-the furthest north that we could go by train (there was major track work going on just north of the city). We weren’t the only tourists in the area.


The most challenging aspect of our trip was the distance and trying to squeeze in as much as possible in the five days that were allocated to the learning experience. We planned to go straight from Colombo to Kankesanthurai (KKS), the northmost train station. Riding Sri Lankan railways was an important part of this but we could only get as far north as Anuradhapura as there was maintenance work going on just north of the station. Our groups of 13 students and three adults assembled at the school campus at the rather un-holy hour of 4:00. Raina and I were supported by our colleague Gayani Bentotage who handled key negotiations, kept track of accounts and was crucial to the success of the trip. While we went to the station in a borrowed bus our own vehicles (led by Anthony a tri-lingual, multi-talented driver) went ahead to meet us in Anuradhapura. The train ride was enjoyed and the transition back to the road was smooth. At Elephant Pass we stopped to see the bulldozer-converted war memorial that commemorates the Sri Lankan army’s achievements in this once-contested spit of land connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island. My highlight was spotting a large flock of Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) across the tracks just north of Elephant Pass. There is no way to predict when you can see these majestic migratory birds and seeing them in the Jaffna area is a rare treat. Sri Lankan birders (not unlike the author) go to all kinds of logistical gymnastics to see and photograph them (usually in Mannar). So we stopped and the students had a chance to see the birds through our scope. Interestingly it was the same area that our family had stayed over at in December 1977. The Rest House where we stayed, with its verandah overlooking the lagoon, was regrettably lost during the years of fighting.

Memorials celebrating the Sri Lankan government’s victory over the LTTE are a key feature of the built landscape in once-contested areas. These images are from the Elephant Pass memorial.

Watching Greater flamingos near Elephant Pass. There is no way to predict when you can see these majestic migratory birds and encountering them in the Jaffna area is a rare treat.

Our drivers took us through short, intense monsoon showers to Point Pedro, the northernmost Point in Sri Lanka. Raina and I had brought postcards and stamps and all the kids wrote and sent cards home from the northernmost mailbox. We did an obligatory stop at the Unity in Diversity sign in the same area as the lighthouse and then drove westwards to KKS for our first night, spent at the army-run Thalsevana Resort across from KKS station.

Point Pedro snapshots: We sent postcards from the northernmost post box in Sri Lanka and then appreciated the “Unity in Diversity” sign. Some of the postcards reached parents before we returned five days later.

Words of wisdom at the spanking new Kankesanthurai (KKS) railway station.

Sri Lanka’s northernmost train station is at Kankesanthurai (KKS). It adjoins a harbor and the airport (now with international flights to Chennai) at Palali. The station and all the railway connections north of Vavuniya were rebuilt after the war with support from India and China.


On our 2nd day, we left the coast and did the short drive south into the city of Jaffna where we were based for the majority of our trip. On the way, we visited Keerimalai and the next-door Kovil. The seaside spring is well known for its therapeutic water. Our group was prepared and after a tour of the Kovil we bathed at Keerimalai in the designated parts for males and females). We shared the space with pilgrims and visitors from all over Sri Lanka. A Buddhist monk and Catholic priest were recording a message of unity for a TV program. Kids from a nearby school had cycled up to swim. There was a family of Sri Lankans from the diaspora settled in Toronto. By the time we resumed our ride, we were refreshed at all levels. Before reaching Jaffna center we stopped to see the Kadurugoda Viharaya, a mysterious Buddhist site set amongst houses and towering palmyra trees.

Snapshots from a bathing ritual at Keerimalai and the visit to Keerimalai Naguleswara Kovil.

Pilgrims Rest at Keerimalai, an important architectural treasure in the process of being restored.

Kadurugoda Viharaya, a mysterious Buddhist site set amongst houses and towering palmyra trees near the Jaffna suburb of Chunnakam.


At KKS we had stayed in barracks-style rooms with no complaints. In Jaffna city, the group was treated to the more upmarket Thinnai Hotel. That gave us good access to a number of sites and we also relished their fine Jaffna-style cooking. Visiting Jaffna Fort, the Jaffna Public Library and Nallur temple were all key features of our stay. We spent our first afternoon exploring the ramparts and interiors of Jaffna Fort. On the 2nd full day, we visited the Jaffna Public Library. Raina had established a good connection through our student Chirath who had just completed an internship at the Asia Foundation in Colombo. That relationship helped pave the way for a meaningful exchange and tour of the site. Raina and her Room to Read service group had collected reference books to donate to the library so these were delivered when we visited. In the evening Raina and I took the group to Lavin’s for dosas. That was a major hit with all the kids. It worked so well that we ate a second meal there on Wednesday. There were other short trips to Nallur, to the dry fish market and the minister’s crumbling mansion (Manthri Mannai).

This staged picture from the lobby of the Thinnai Hotel sums up the good-natured, playful and open-minded approaches of our wonderful cohort of OSC students.

Details and sweeping views at Jaffna’s historic fort.

OSC students & teachers visiting the Jaffna Public Library.


Our longest visit outside of Jaffna involved traversing several lagoons, to Kayts,  and Pungudutivu before taking the ferry to Nainativu (see attached map). This small island is an important pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus. It seems that all good visitors to Jaffna make the visit (luckily we went on a non-poya weekday). The boat ride is short-sitting on top was refreshing and probably safer than the interiors (Amanda Lenk had warned me about this years ago). Both shrines have been redone and repainted in recent years. Next time we hope to make the longer ferry ride to Delft. A select group of our team returned to Kayts on the last day to look for birds. The sheer abundance of ducks, waders, egrets, ibises, storks and other waterbirds was extraordinary. We saw another group of flamingos on the way to Pungudutivu but they were very far off.

Approach to the Nainativu ferry on Pungudutivu.

Boat ride to Nainativu-a service of the SL Navy.

OSC group at Nainativu in front of the Kovil.

Twelve of sixteen: Portraits by the author of the Jaffna Northern Narratives group (most of it) in action in various parts of the experience.


On Thursday we started our journey south to Pidurangala where we broke the journey and spent a night in tree houses. Anthony took our bus via the Sangupiddi bridge and Pooneryn. The road is in excellent condition (compared to our 2011 visit) and the scenery is still stark and spectacular. The vast lagoon, a veritable sea, stretches in all directions. A few sail-powered boats were out checking crab traps but otherwise, the shallow water was devoid of human activity (and flamingos, unfortunately). A series of giant wind turbines now tower alongside the south bank of the peninsula. Near Omanthai we visited with a local Tamil-medium school. Raina had set up a meeting with a principal so that we could deliver boxes of books to five different schools. These had been collected in a community drive and were going to be distributed to schools identified by our parent members working at the ILO. It was a good visit and we left wanting to return to spend more time to develop a meaningful relationship.

Dropping off donated books from OSC’s Room to Read service group to the Omanthai schools.

At Mihintale, the place where Buddhist teachings were first introduced to the island, we took a rest to explore the exquisite Kaludiya Pokuna. This is one of my favorite, off-the-beaten track sacred places and is ideal for introspection and exploration. No one in the student group-including the Sri Lankans had been there previously and it was our privilege to share the worn boulders, mad-made lake, caves and other structures with the group.

OSC students at a monastic cave near Kaludiya Pokuna in Mihintale.

OSC students at Kaludiya Pokuna-a special sacred place that is ideal for exploration, introspection and reflection.

We pulled into Pidurangala in the very last light of the day. As usual with any Back of Beyond property, I always have a feeling of coming home. They had ensured that all of our team got to sleep in tree houses. Most of us were thrilled with this arrangement though a few had doubts. My treat from the BoB team was special: A small Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) had been found and it had been left alone so that I could catch and photograph it. Unfortunately, it was lodged in a rafter outside Gayani’s room (later, I discovered that she has a fear of snakes and didn’t get much sleep that night). Working with Anaanda (of BoB) I fashioned a crude snake stick, climbed a ladder, and got it into a basket. The dry zone individuals have green eyes which I had not seen before so I was thrilled. I released it near their pond.

No Week Without Walls experience is complete without some natural history. This gorgeous Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) fulfilled our need to experience some of Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity. Special thanks to the team at Back of Beyond Pidurangala, including Ananda and Vajira, for locating the individual.

In the morning we got the whole group up early and did the trek up to Pidurangala to watch the sunrise on Sigiriya. The weather was muggy so there really wasn’t a sunrise but we had a good time and it was a fitting way to complete our experience. We coasted home via Dambulla, Kurunegala and the new Central Expressway (not quite complete but it helps cut some stressful driving). Along with all the other WWW teams, the Jaffna Northern Narratives will be sharing its learning at the annual Experience Sri Lanka Exhibition on February 17th.


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Fabry, Philip. The Essential Guide For Jaffna And Its Region. Colombo: Perera Hussein Publishing House, 2012. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Windows on the Long Road to Jaffna” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2023-02-13 at 10:17 pm

ES&S Field Study in Malé, Maldives

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OSC’s ES&S class learning about coral reef restoration at Maafushi Island superimposed on the gorgeous Embudu Village dock.

Sustainability -the idea of meeting our needs and maintaining ecological balance while not depriving future generations of opportunities to do so- is a core concept to the interdisciplinary DP Environmental Systems & Societies (ES&S) class. OSC’s ES&S students look at current challenges- issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, pollution etc.- at both a global and local scale. The class has a Sri Lankan/South Asian focus and field work outside of the traditional classroom is vital to learning. Nearby urban wetlands, scrap dealers, recycling enterprises, UN project offices and tropical rainforests all serve as learning venues. Over the Vesak weekend the Class of 2023’s ES&S class extended its field work deep into the Indian Ocean where we had a unique opportunity to explore concepts of sustainability across a diverse selection of coral islands near the Maldivian capital of Malé.

The approach into Malé’s airport gave us a tantalizing overview of a string of coral atolls to the north of the capital. The right images shows Kudabandos and Bandos where we spent our last afternoon.

The South West monsoon was just becoming active during our time in the Maldives.

The field study was generously planned and supported by his excellency Omar Abdul Razzak, the Maldivian ambassador to Sri Lanka and father to DP1 student Eleez. He organized a diverse array of learning events that took us to different islands, project sites and resorts near to Malé. Our focus was learning about freshwater access, energy production, solid waste management and coral reef restoration. The very real issue of climate change and efforts to adapt to its impacts was a part of all of our conversations with experts. We started on Maafushi island and then moved to Embudu and finally Malé for our last night. The class had a chance to interact with island council planners, coral restoration experts and solid waste managers. The monsoon was active but we had several excellent underwater sessions where the class was snorkeling amidst a dazzling diversity of marine life. We appreciated the role that tourism has played in propelling the country’s development-visitation was booming and most places that we visited were at capacity. Staying at Embudu Village resort and spending an afternoon at Bandos courtesy of Nik Olegard’s parents were highlights for the eight students and their two teachers.

Embudu Village dock during our morning of snorkelling.

The study of coral reef ecology and restoration was a key learning objective of the field study. On our final day Beybé, from the NGO Save the Beach, gave us an onsite lecture at Villingili island and then took us on a snorkeling tour through the coral gardens that his organization is restoring. The water clarity was excellent and the fish life abundant. The recovery of a variety of corals placed on submerged metal frames was impressive. The older the restoration, the more abundant and diverse the other marine life.

OSC’s DP1 ES&S students underwater to better understand the ecology and restoration of coral reef systems.

(GoPro) Snapshots from our reef explorations at Maafushi & Embudu.

Perhaps the most unusual part of our trip was getting an informative tour of the solid waste dump on the island of Thilafushi. In past years this was a notorious site with smoldering waste. It is now a landfill and there are future plans to build a waste to energy incinerator on the island. Like Sri Lanka, the Maldives struggles with the high consumption and production of non-biodegradable waste. The limited options for managing this waste and that fact that tourist associate the Maldives with pristine environments provides motivation to make changes that more sustainably address resource use.

Snapshots from tours of Maafushi, Embudu and Thalafushi where we learnt about energy generation, freshwater provisions and solid waste management.

Satellite map of Male and environs showing my Strava heat map of a 7.77 km walk around the city and across part of the new bridge to the airport and Hulhumalé on our final morning.

Our last night was spent in Malé – a place that most tourists don’t see it. That gave us an opportunity to walk its compact streets and peek into Maldivian urban life. Mr and Mrs. Razzak hosted us for a meal on the nearby Hulhumalé where we got to see the expanded urban area on this reclaimed land. At the end of our fourth day we flew back to Colombo impressed by the biodiversity and atoll landscapes of the Maldives and curious about their ongoing efforts at sustainability. The class came away with a new appreciation for the Maldivian approach in using tourism as a strategy of development.

We had a brief but happy reunion with OSC alum (and veteran of the Class of 2017 ES&S class) Ahnaf Ibrahim in Malé on our last night. The photo was taken by Liz Harrison, OSC Science head and Biology teacher who accompanied us on the field study.

Just as we were leaving Bandos to go to the airport a group of Spotted Eagle Rays (Aetobatus narinari) came to feed at the resort’s beach area.


Coleman, Neville. Marine Life of the Maldives & Indian Ocean. UK: Atoll Editions, 2019. Print.

CNA. “Overhauling Trash Island, the Maldives’ mountain of waste.” YouTube. April 2022. Web.

European Space Agency. Copernicus Sentinel-6 over the Maldives. October 2020. Web.

European Space Agency. Maldives from Space. 30 July 2021. Web.

European Space Agency. Haa Alif Atoll, Maldives. 5 June 2014. Web.

European Space Agency. Earth from Space: Malé, the Maldives. Web.

Godfrey, Tim. Dive Maldives: A Guide to the Maldivian Archipelago, 3rd Edition.  UK: Atoll Editions, 2018. Print.

Høyland, Elin. “Maldives ‘rubbish island’ turns paradise into dump.”  Guardian. 3 January 2009. Web.

Kuiter, Rudie H.  & Tim Godfrey. Fishes of the Maldives & Indian Ocean. UK: Atoll Editions, 2020. Print. Web Link.

Mulhern, Owen. “Satellite Imagery: How the Maldives are Adapting to Sea Level Rise.” Earth.org. 23 April 2021. Web.

“Preparing for Rising Seas in the Maldives.” NASA Earth Observatory. 9 April 2021. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-05-30 at 10:03 pm

Defying the Odds (again ) in Sinharaja

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OSC’s annual DP Geography field study in Sinharaja investigates patterns of land use, home garden agriculture and the impact of tourism in the shadow of a critical Sri Lankan protected area.

In the DP geography class, current patterns and cases studies play a vital role in helping students understand broad concepts such as power, change, globalization and economic development. The ongoing political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka has been an unfortunately clear case study that provides multiple teachable moments. During recent field work students from OSC’s Class of 2023 witnessed these issues in real life, as seen in surveys of a rural settlement near Sinharaja rainforest.

At the end of April OSC’s IB DP2 Geography class spent four days conducting field research in village areas next to Sinharaja rainforest. This UNESCO-designated World Heritage site located the south-western “wet zone” of the country is well known for its rich biodiversity. OSC classes have been conducting field work in Sinharaja since 2005 and we have established a positive relationship with the community. The location offers ideal conditions for student learning, inquiry and field work on socio-economic, tourist and land-use themes. As usual, we were privileged to stay at Martin’s Wijesinghe’s Jungle Lodge. He sadly passed away last November but his daughters are continuing to provide a fine, basic guest house for people interested in learning about the area.

Kudawa fieldwork and SInharaja explorations are accomplished on foot in a variety of settings.

The Class of 2023 geography class is composed of seven young men and women from six different countries. The class embraced the learning opportunities, didn’t complain about the leeches and seemed to relish the village meals and local vegetables. Thevuni and Thisathma, as Sinhala speaking individuals, played a key role. The other team members including Huirong, Josh, Lucca Sam and Sara all played important supporting roles. OSC’s logistic coordinator Desline Attanayake provided support in the interviews and took part in all aspects of the study. We hired three Sinharaja guides each day and they were essential in leading us through home gardens and helping the students to get a better understanding of the area. The surveys were gathered on foot in rain or shine. We also interacted with two different groups of university professors and students that were in Sinharaja at the same time. It was intriguing to learn about their studies and see how others conduct academic research in this unique rainforest ecosystem.

OSC’s DP Geography students conducting field work in the Kudawa village area in April 2022. Each of the students had an individual research question that could be answered through a face-to-face survey. Their questions were combined into a common 50 question survey that was loaded onto the Survey 123 app. Responses were also collected on paper as a backup. Over the course of two full days of house to house visits 48 responses were collected in the Kudawa area.

Each of the students explored an individual geographic research question but pooled all of their sub-questions into a single survey that small groups could run. The survey of 50 questions could take up to 20-30 minutes with introductions and a look around their properties. The respondents were gracious with their time and several teams were invited to have refreshments. With three different teams going in different directions we collected 48 different interviews. Responses were collected using Survey 123 a GIS-enabled data gathering app that all the students could run off their phones (we also recorded every response on paper). This allows students to map their results and do basic spatial analysis on the findings using ArcGIS, the GIS software package that they are learning to operate.

It’s amazing how much you can see on a relatively short visits to Sinharaja. This collage features amphibians and reptiles from the IA trip that were photographed while on our walks or in the evening near Martin’s.

Sri Lanka Green Pit Viper (Trimeresurus trigonocephalus) that we found on a night walk looking for frogs. It was not as docile as the individual that we had seen during the day.

Long-snout(ed) Tree Frogs (Taruga longinasus) photographed in Sinharaja during the IA visit. Female on the left and two different males in the center and right. This is an endemic species closely associated with the lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka’s wet zone. I hear it every time I visit Sinharaja but they are usually in the canopy and are tricky to find. On this trip with my geography students pre-monsoon showers had dampened conditions and a few were at eye level. I’ve posted images of the other two Taruga sp. in earlier posts.

In addition to conducting the surveys, students got a flavor of being ecotourists in a tropical forest. They walked the different forest trails, encountered birds, snakes and spiders, and soaked their feet in jungle streams. Just before returning to Colombo on Saturday we hiked up Moulawella peak to take in the full extent of Sinharaja. It was a challenging adventure but all members of the team made it up and down safely. The sky was exceptionally clear and we could see the Indian Ocean in the south and east and Sri Pada in the north. It helped round off an exhilarating adventure in geographic learning. The students are now working on processing their data and writing up their IA reports.

On our last day the class and I did the traditional Moulawella hike before heading back to Colombo. It a short but tough climb up through secondary and then primary forest to the ride and peak with its panoramic view over the western part of Sinharaja rainforest. The experience gives hikers a sense and appreciation of Sinharaja and its conservation value. We were blessed with clear weather such that we could see the seas in the south and Sri Pada looking to the north.

Moulawella south panoramic view (April 2022)-a view that I was eager to share with Professors Nimal & Savitri Gunatilleke.

Here is a new way of looking at the same image-through a Panoramic viewer.

OSC’s Class of 2023 IBDP Geography class- continuing a tradition of learning about the rainforest and its hinterlands through the support of Martin Wijesinghe’s family.


Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

Geography IA Trip 2015

Geography IA Trip 2016

Geography IA Trip 2017

Geography IA Trip 2018

Geography IA Trip 2019

Geography IA Trip 2020

Geography IA Trip 2021 (Cancelled because of COVID)

General Sinharaja Reflections



De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela & Dilan Chathuranga. A Photographic Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2021. Print.

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site.Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.

Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print & Web.

Liyanage, L. P. K. et al. “Assessment of Tourist and Community Perception with Regard to Tourism Sustainability Indicators: A Case Study of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, Sri Lanka.” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Social and Business Sciences. Vol 12 No. 7. 2018. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Sinharaja: The Heart of South Asian Biodiversity.” Sanctuary Asia. April 2020. PDF

Singhalage Darshani, Nadeera Weerasinghe and Gehan de Silva Wijeratne. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Flowers of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2018. Print.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000) 2nd Edition. Colombo: 2017. Maps & Spatial Data.

Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva.  Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007. Print.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-05-29 at 4:38 pm

Remembering Martin Wijesinghe (a Personal Narrative)

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Poster of Martin Wijesinghe. The picture captures a rare mischievous smile taken in 2015 during an OSC DP Geography IA visit. The three endemic species were all photographed within sight of his guest house while he was alive. (all photos by the author).

In November last year Martin Wijesinghe passed away at the advanced age of 82. He was and continues to be intimately associated with the remarkable story of the protection of a logged forest that became the resplendent Sinharaja Man & Biosphere reserve. This large area of lowland and montane tropical rainforest in the Rakwana hills of south western Sri Lanka was a bleak and unappreciated landscape five decades ago. The forest was the site of industrial logging before a hard fought non-violent citizen’s campaign in the 1970s put a stop to that plan. Nearly 50 years later, Sinharaja has made an astounding recovery, illustrating the resilience of nature to recover after harmful human activities. Martin lived through this period of transition serving in the agency that sought to profit from timber and then becoming a guardian and voice for its conservation.

In Sri Lanka, Martin’s story is the stuff of legends. He worked in the Forest Department serving in a variety of roles. He started as a cook but when his sharp naturalist skills were recognized he extended himself into guiding and supporting researchers who were studying forest dynamics and species in the early 1980s. He had interactions with leading scientists such as Professor Balasubramaniyam, P.B. Karunarathne, Nimal and Savitri Gunatilleke, Peter Ashton and Sarath Kotagama. My understanding is that it was Professor Kotagama that encouraged Martin to set up a guest house for bird watchers in the early 1990s. Uditha Wijesena’s blog post from 2016 on Martin details these facets of his beginnings as a conservationist. By the turn of the century Martin was known as the man to go to if you wanted to know about Sinharaja.

Snapshots from my first visit to Sinharaja with Anna Lockwood in March 2000. From top: catching a ride to Sinhagala with a researcher (note the open roads that are now under the forest canopy), Ian with Martin after one of the long hikes, with the two Finnish birdwatchers on the veranda at Martin’s place. (photos taken by Anna Lockwood)

Early Personal Forays

I first heard about Martin through publications from the Oriental Bird Club (OBC). In the mid-1990s I was dipping my toes in the world of serious birdwatching and become a member of the OBC. Birding complimented my interest in natural history, landscapes and efforts to document their changes in key South Asian habitats. I had just started working as a teacher in Bangladesh and one of my first steps was to invest in a pair of Leica Trinovid binoculars (a purchase that took a good year of saving to afford). On weekends I started going on birding expeditions with the towering pioneers of the field in Bangladesh including Dave Johnson, Paul Thompson, Ronnie Halder and Enam Ul Haque. Their stories and articles from the OBC’s journals led me to Thailand and also helped me better understand the unique birds of the southern Western Ghats. In 1997 the OBC published a thin but enormously valuable supplement entitled A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (part of OBC Bulletin). The pamphlet written by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne emphasized the importance of Sinharaja as the key site to visit for most Sri Lankan endemics and notable species. In those days there was only one place to stay at in Sinharaja and it was run by a man named Martin.

In April 2000 my cousin Anna and I found ourselves negotiating rough, monsoon-gouged roads in an uncertain direction towards the Kudawa entrance of Sinharaja. Sri Lanka, its food, culture and people were familiar because of our family’s long connections in the northern areas of the island. Our grandfather Edson had been a birder accompanying Sid Bunker on many an outing in the wetlands and coastal areas around Vaddukkodai in the 1940-60s. Now a half century later the grandkids were on their own adventure in a very different part of this diverse island.

The route to Martin’s was not clear and our van driver was new to the area. At the time, Sinharaja was far off the beaten path for most tourists. The driver became quite agitated in the final few kilometers as the old logging road wound its way up through small home gardens and tea plantations from Kudawa to Martin’s place. It took 4-5 hours from Colombo (today we can do the trip in 2.5 hours thanks to the vastly improved roads). Upon arrival we were greeted by Martin and his family. His place was simple with 3-5 rooms that were grouped around his family home and a plot of tea on the edge of the forest. There was no power or solar-heated water but we were in a superb birding location. A partially covered verandah with a dining table was where we spent most of the time when we weren’t walking. It overlooked the edge of secondary forest that had been logged three decades earlier. Across the valley towering emergent trees created a wall of undisturbed rainforest vegetation. We sipped tea and waited for different feathered delights to fly over. Anna and I dedicated four days to Sinharaja and had a chance to explore the key trails to the Research Center, Sinhagala and Moulawella peaks. In the evenings we spoke with Martin, enjoyed the company of two very serious Finnish birdwatchers and tallied our lists of species seen.

In 2005, married to Raina and with our son Lenny aged 18 months, I returned to Sri Lanka to teach IB Diploma Geography and Environmental Systems at the Overseas School of Colombo. Previous to my arrival, there was low enthusiasm for conducting the required IA field work. It was an anxious time as the war was raging in the north of the island. In my job interviews I proposed conducting the field work using the safe and homey location of Martin’s as a base. Laurie McLellan, the Head of the School, seemed interested and perhaps my enthusiasm for both Sinharaja and Sri Lanka helped secure my contract. On my first visit with students in October 2005 I was lucky to be able to request Professor Kotagama and his PhD student Chaminda Pradeep Ratnayake to accompany us. That really helped as I started to establish learning and data collection routines for the students in the forest. Over the years the focus of the data collection has gone from ecology-oriented studies to looking at human interactions in the landscape outside of the protected area boundaries. The learning experiences were successful (we recently completed the 17th IA study) and we continue to come back for annual studies-usually in May at the end of the DP1 academic year.

Martin’s Forest Lodge played host to OSC classes over the final 16 years of his life. The place grew in a somewhat haphazard manner; new rooms were added and the verandah area was enlarged. Around 2018 grid electricity was extended to Kudawa. Sadly the home-made dynamos that Martin had rigged up went into disrepair. Meanwhile the secondary forest grew and today there are virtually no signs of the ravages of the logging in the 1970s. When you stay at Martin’s it is a true home stay and after a few nights you are part of the family. That family is now global and includes most serious birders and naturalists who have visited Sri Lanka as well as the many Sri Lankans who visit regularly. I always enjoy interacting with other visitors who have come to Martin’s with a similar approach to escaping the city in search of Sinharaja’s serenity and enormous diversity. I’ve crossed paths with Deepal Warakagoda, Sarinda Unamboowe, Michal & Nancy van der Poorten, Vimukthi Weeratunga, Uditha Hettige, Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana, Mevan Piyasena and many others while at Martin’s.

Martin has left us with a legacy of love and respect for Sinharaja and Sri Lanka’s rainforests. Through his life and efforts so many of us have learnt to love what previous generations might have dismissed as a leech-infested, jungle only worth its weight in timber.

Over the years OSC geography students have had a chance to speak with Martin and learn more about his experiences in Sinharaja.

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OSC students from the class of 2020 speaking with Martin. Luca asking questions next to Rashmi and Anouk. Josh and Arnav are also seen while Savi, Seth and Neha are out of the frame. Taken on the delayed IA study that happened in September 2019.


de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan, Lester Perera, Jeevan William, Deepal Warakagoda and Nirma de Silva Wijeyeratne. “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka.” OBC Bulletin Supplement. 1997. Link.

de Silva Wijeyeratne Gehan. Birds of Sri Lanka: A Pictorial Guide and Checklist. Colombo: Jetwings, 2010. Web.

Gunatilleke, Nadidra. “Martin Wijesinghe: Unofficial ‘caretaker’ of Sinharaja.” Daily News. 1 April 2019. Web.

Raṇasiṃha, Ḍaglas Bī. The Faithful Foreigner: Thilo Hoffmann, the Man who Saved Sinharaja. 2015. Colombo: A. Baur & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd , 2015.  Print.

Wijesena, Uditha.  “Martin Wijesinghe ……of Sinharaja Fame.” Uditha Wijesena Blog.  2016. Web.

Wijesinghe, Martin. “Nesting of Green-billed Coucals Centropus chlororhynchos in Sinharaja, Sri Lanka.” Forktail 1999. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2022-03-01 at 8:20 am

Down South Musings

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Room with an exquisite view at the Rainforest Ecolodge

The last three years have seen a series of unexpected events disrupt life, the economic bedrock and learning activities here in Sri Lanka. The Easter bombing on April 21, 2019 caused an initial body blow to the country. We were just getting our feet back on the ground when the COVID pandemic swept the world and caused the first lockdown in March 2020. Now in the spring of 2022, as the COVID problem has receded a political and economic mess of unprecedented scale has engulfed the country. The Overseas School of Colombo, where I teach and lead key experiential education programs, has managed these challenges with wisdom, creativity and fortitude. A casualty of the initial response was the cancellation of most sports and field trips for the better part of a year. That was hard on students and as well as teachers like me who based learning activities on getting students outside of the traditional classroom. In January this year, in the face of lingering doubts, we were able to defy odds and run our annual secondary Week Without Walls program Explore Sri Lanka!. One of the trips, affectionately entitled Down South, encapsulated the challenge and joy of running these learning experiences during such challenging times.

I designed the Down South learning experience to expose students to the culture and natural history of southern  Sri Lanka off the tourist beaten path. It joins a host of other Microtrips that are designed to get small groups of OSC students and teachers into the different corners of Sri Lanka where they can learn about the rich history, culture and ecology of our island home. In past years we had sent groups to the Hambantota area with a service focus. The new Down South  itinerary was designed to build on the geographic focus while incorporating some of the kinds of learning experiences (hiking, bird watching, natural history etc.) that have made the Sri Lanka Highlands microtrip so successful. Our team included 17 DP1 and MYP5 students, Desline Attanayake (OSC’s logistics coordinator), Melinda Tondeur (our new French teacher) and myself.

A collage of species as seen by the Down South Experience Sri Lanka team in southern Sri Lanka. From upper left clockwise wrapped around the leech sock image: Pseudophilautus poppiae at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area), Sri Lanka Woodshrike (Tephrodornis affinis) at Kahandamodara, a different Pseudophilautus sp. also at Enasalwaththa and a Blue-Tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) at Bundala NP.

Dry Zone Component

We spent the first three days based out of Back of Beyond’s Kahandamodara wellness center and then transitioned into the south-eastern Rakwana hills at the Rainforest Ecolodge. Few OSC students have stayed at a Back of Beyond property before their WWW experiences (OSC families are more likely to patronize the fabulous large hotels and resorts on the island). I appreciate Back of Beyond for their sublime locations, minimalistic yet tasteful approach, ecological design ethic, exceptional Sri Lankan cuisine and hardworking staff. Kahandamodara has a spacious campus with good dry zone vegetation and access to a relatively lonely stretch of beach on the southernmost coast near Tangalle. There are several bungalows, a pool and common area/yoga studio which makes it ideal for medium-size (under 20) school groups.

The significant day trip to us to the 2nd Century BCE Buddhist ruins and hermitage at Situlpawwa and then Bundala National Park. Situlpawwa is one of my favorite sites and had been a destination for an early WWW trip (with the Class of 2013). It is located within the protective boundaries of Yala but few visitors, other than religious pilgrims, go to Situlpawwa. In its sprawling area you can explore low hills, dagobas, monastic caves and pathways on foot. From the granite hillocks you get sweeping views over Yala’s forested interiors. Wildlife sightings are good-our class was astonished by the elephants, wild boar and sambar deer begging for food at the parking lot. My favorite sighting was a fly over by dozens of Malabar Pied Hornbills when our family visited Situlpawwa last year. We were standing at the Dagoba and they flew by at eye level, one wave after another heading east. The Down South group spent the second half of the day doing a jeep safari around Bundala. As is usually the case, we were the only jeeps in the protected area and enjoyed excellent sightings of birds including several rarities.

Down South group members climbing a hillock at Situlpawwa.

Bundala National Park is an excellent place to get non-birders excited about the joys of observing, photographing and identifying feathered creatures.

An osprey (Pandion haliaetus) at Bundala National Park. Though these birds are common in many areas around the world they are quite rare in this part of Sri Lanka. We were thrilled to observe it in excellent afternoon light.

Rainforest Component

Mid-week we boarded our buses and moved north west up to Deniyaya and the edges of Sinharaja Rainforest at Enasalwaththa. The vegetation in the rolling hills and home gardens changed as we entered the wet zone and transitioned to the 1,000 meter plateau in this edge of the rainforest. Our two night say was a reminder that the Rainforest Ecolodge is a spell-binding and activity-rich area to bring our students too. We did a series of morning, daytime and nocturnal hikes looking to see as much of the biodiversity that Sinharaja is so well known for. Bird life was quite good. Flock activity seemed to be less than my earlier visit but we had a good encounter with a relatively rare Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti). Blue Magpies (Urocissa ornata) fly right through the property in the morning and they are sometimes followed by Red Face Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus) and other endemics . I found the frog watching to be especially rewarding. After quite a bit of hard looking with JagathJayawardana, the capable guide at the hotel, we found Pseudophilautus poppiae one of the critically endangered green frogs that has a narrow range in these hills and Morningside. Another interesting find was a Tarantula (Poecilotheria sp. of some sort) that lives in a dead log near the Ecolodge and regularly come out to awe guests.

OSC students birding at the Rainforest Ecolodge (right, both images)  and Situlpawwa (left).

OSC students and teachers on the trail near the Rainforest Ecolodge. Left: DP1 students Huirong, Eleez & Thevuni Center: Desline & Melinda warding off leeches with a homebrew spray and socks. Right: MYP5 students Chirath, Yali, Leonie and Vansh at the stream (our destination on the waterfall hike).

Arboreal biodiversity near the Rainforest Ecolodge: The stunningly glorious endemic creeper Kenrikcia walkeri flanked by Legge’s Hawk Eagle (Nisaetus kelaarti).

The endemic Sri lanka Blue Magpie (Urocissa ornata) in forest near the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Amphibians and arachnid at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area). From top to bottom: Pseudophilautus sp. (perhaps poppiae) in forest /tea plantation edge. Unidentified tarantula (Poecilotheria sp. of some sort) at the hotel gate. Nannophrys ceylonensis from a wet rock face to the west of the Rainforest Ecolodge.

Montane forest canopy at Enasalwaththa (Rainforest Ecolodge area). Taken in 2020 during a flowering of the principal canopy species Shorea trapezifolia. This was printed as a 20″20″ fine art print in a series of given to departing OSC faculty members in 2021.

The weather was good to us-cool and relatively dry as it usually is during the short dry season in January/February. A rain shower on our last day at the Ecolodge helped bring out the amphibians and I was happy about that. The clouds and blue sky (opening photo) were spectacular as we packed up to leave. The whole group would have gladly extended our stay. Nevertheless, we had a good sense of accomplishment returning to campus free of sickness and incident after so many rich experiences. The other WWW groups came in with a similar sense of elation, having beaten the odds to pull off this experience of learning across our island home.

2022 OSC Down South group at the waterfall near to the Rainforest Ecolodge.


Route map of the Down South WWW learning experience.

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De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2017. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela & Dilan Chathuranga. A Photographic Guide to the Amphibians of Sri Lanka. Oxford: John Beaufoy Publishing, 2021. Print.

Somaweera, Ruchira & Nilusha. Lizards of Sri Lanka: A Colour Guide With Field Keys. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira 2009. Print.

Warakagoda. Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

This post was started in February but the final draft of this post was published on 7 May 2022 and then backdated as I catch up on happenings.


Written by ianlockwood

2022-02-01 at 10:20 pm

In Rāvana’s Throne Room: A Journey into the Knuckles Range

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Dumbara Falls, a stunning site located deep in the Knuckles Range that was our home for two nights.

In the great Hindu epic the Ramayana the principle antagonist is Rāvana, king of Lanka. He is an intelligent and sophisticated deity who, through complicated circumstances involving key siblings, is cast in opposition to the hero Rama. I first encountered and read the Ramayana in Sally Noorullah’s South Asian Studies class at AIS/Dhaka. It was a bold move to incorporate an Indian epic in its entirety at a school that was otherwise quite American. At the time, we used a dense translation of Valmiki’s work that was challenging to get through (luckily the library had the visually-rich Amar Chitra Katha comic version to support our understanding). Ms. Noorullah, who later mentored me in my first year of teaching at AIS/D, brought passion and insight to the way she taught the themes of good/evil, dharma and the hero’s adventure. We capped off the learning with a week-long field trip to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where the class looked for evidence of the epic in museums, on the streets, at various temples, on the Hooghly river and in the delicious food of a myriad restaurants. The sections of the epic involving Lanka, the monkey king Hanuman and the penultimate battle were fixtures in my imagination. Now, many years later, I find myself living in Sri Lanka, a place where Ramayana tourism is developing into a niche market alongside beach, tea and heritage tourism. At the same time, there has been a revival of interest in Rāvana’s legacy and rethinking his traditional role as the villain of the story.

Stories of this mythic king filtered through my thoughts and dreams as a small group of us  trekked deep into a wilderness that is closely associated with the legend of Rāvana. In August my family and I had just returned to Colombo from a restful summer holiday in the Pacific Northwest. All of us had been vaccinated and there was a window of time before OSC started the new school year. We didn’t know it then but Sri Lanka was on the verge of entering another prolonged lockdown. With help from Nadeera Weerasinghe at Sir John’s Bungalow I was able to plan and set up a three day backpacking trek that would take us deeper and further into the heart of the Knuckles (Dumbara) Range than any previous trip. I recruited veterans from last year’s Sinhagala trek including my son Lenny, former student Rashmi Bopitiya and colleague Andry Dejong. Crucially we were able to get the expert services of KC, the talented guide and herpetologist that has assisted my field visits to the Knuckles on previous visits.

Our destination was Duwili Eli (Falls), a location that is spoken of in whispers amongst hiking fraternities but is rarely visited by others because of the difficult and tiring access. Andry had visited the area soon after she arrived in Sri Lanka and our friend Mangala Karunaratne had camped at several locations near the falls. The series of falls that is associated with Duwili Eli and the idea of a long trek in a primeval forest in the Western Ghats/Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspots were enticing. In February on a long weekend visit to Sir John’s, KC had taken a different group of us towards the abandoned agricultural settlement of Walpolamulla, a stop about 4 km from the road head on the way to Duwili Eli. It was evident from that hike that this part of the Knuckles offered rich opportunities to experience forest wilderness and biodiversity. It was just a matter of having enough time and in August 2021 all the pieces came together serendipitously.

Beginning parts of the trail to Walpolamulla and beyond. The Forest Department maintains the trail.

Hikers in the Knuckles: (from left) Rashmi, Andry, KC and Lenny

Strava heat maps from our three days of hiking in the Dumbara Falls and Duwili Ella/Eli area.

Day 1

With the goal of reaching Duwili Eli, it works to plan a multi-day hike with different stages and a base camp. KC had done the hike numerous times and we followed his guidance. Our group took a prep day to drive from Colombo to Riverston and Sir John’s bungalow. That gave us a chance to start our first full day of hiking refreshed.

We did the 13 km hike to Dumbara Falls on the first leg of our trek . The path starts out at Pitawala and crosses the Telgamu Oya  before climbing up to the Manigala ridge. I had first been here with a group of OSC WWW students but torrential rains had forced us to retreat. The weather this time was relatively cool with a breeze and overcast skies-perfect for hiking. The path was surprising free of other trekkers-a consequence of the COVID situation and looming lock down. In the end, over the whole three day period we would meet only two other people on the trail.

At Walpolamulla we paused at the old terraced fields to take in a panoramic view of our paths ahead. The building at the former village have mostly been abandoned and it site now mainly used for grazing and a trekking campsite. From the terraces you get fine view over the Kalu Ganga valley towards Duwili Eli. On the opposite (eastern) slope several slivers of water in the forest were visible to the naked eye. The waterfalls were enclosed in dense forest and seemed rather far away. Above them loomed the distinctivly shaped Thunhisgala. This three summited mountain (1627 m) is also named Kalupahana for its tallest point. It is visible in the Meemure valley, especially on the route to the Nitrox Cave (see my Duke of Edinburgh blog post from last year).

View eastwards across the valley from Walpolamulla’s terraced slopes. Dumbara Falls, Duwili Eli and Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak are all visible. Note the clearing in the, otherwise dense, forest-a patch of grassland that may have been a chena (slash & burn) plot in years past.

The path descends into the valley on a forested path that is still used by buffalo herders during the wet season. The area is very wild but every once in a while we would see piles of stones and tile chards that indicated a human presence at some point in the past. At one stream, a slab of lichen-covered granite once must have served as an altar (there was no evidence of modern iconography and I wondered if it was pre-Buddhist). We had timed our trek during a relatively dry spell. The South Western monsoon was hammering the windward side of the Knuckles and the summits were usually incased in mist, as the name Dumbara (misty mountains) hints at. There were few leeches on the trail but we did discover ticks and chiggers later. For the rest of the hike there were few opportunities to see where we were and the trail was entirely under the forest canopy.

In the late afternoon the path wound through a gallery of tall trees and enormous boulders before taking us to Dumbara Falls, the site of our basecamp. Here, the water from upper tributaries break through ramparts of a granite canyon to cascade 20 or so meters into a dark, elliptical pool. Over millions of years the force of the water has ripped away chunks of rock in large, slab fragments. Several of those slabs provide ideal camping spots-above the torrent of water at a level gradient with a sweet view of the thundering falls.

Forest vignettes from the trail to Duwili Eli featuring a mix of native, cultivated and invasive species.

Day 2

After a camp breakfast we zipped up our tents, put away food and left our campsite on the 2nd day to explore upstream to Duwili Eli with light packs. It is a steep but relatively short 4-7 kilometers of walking (my Strava heat does not seem to be accurate because of the tree cover). The highlight this day was the exquisite forest and different streams. I was curious to explore out to a patch of pantana (grasslands) on the edge of the forest. It seems to have been a chena (slash & burn) plot from some time ago but KC was unsure of its origin. The grass was so high that I was not able to get my bearings or a decent picture of the surrounding hills.

Duwili Eli is the top-most in the series of waterfalls. It includes a cave that is part of a ledge that the water falls over. A Ficus tree has colonized the face and its roots provide a natural protective grate. We reached the area just as a midday shower blew down across the high Knuckles ridge. When it cleared, we took in the views back towards Walpolamulla and Riverston. The cave is a popular camping spot and there is ample dry space. There was a small inscription in a script that was not obvious and it looked as if the cave had been visited for many years. I wondered about it and what links to Rāvana’s legend it might hold.

The view looking westwards back to Walpolamulla from the ledge at Duwili Eli. On the opposite side of the valley (on the center left) is the small terraced clearing at Walpolamulla. The Manigala ridge is on the top right and Pitawala Pantana is a hazy line on the horizon. Dumbara Falls is located deep in the forested valley below.

I was prepared for macro photography on this trip but I found that much my energy was expended on just getting around and I came back with few exiting images. Rashmi was using her new pair of binoculars and we were on the lookout for birds on all days. On the path returning to camp I caught a glimpse of a female Malabar trogon and then a pair of Sri Lankan Grey Hornbills. The drone of the Yellow Fronted Barbet was our constant companion when we were away from the thunder of the stream. When we got back to camp we swam in the pool below Dumbara Falls-a great way to wash away the sweat and strain of the day.

Campsite at Dumbara Falls.

Day 3

For a 2nd morning in a row we awoke to the thunder of the falls and beams of sunlight streaming through the high forested ridge. KC’s cooking did wonders for our morale and Lenny and I certainly needed it. Though Dumbara Falls offers one the finest campsites that we have been in, our tent was pitched on bare rock and we had neglected to bring sleeping mats! KC cooked up fried eggs on a well-used frying pan and added them to our vat of Maggie noodles for our nightly meals. For breakfast we had cereal and hot chocolate -the simple things always make such a difference in the wilderness.

The trail back followed the same route.The major stream crossing at the Kalu Ganga gave us a chance to refreshed and rehydrated and to look for creatures. There were dozens of emerald winged dragonflies-most likely Shining Gossamerwings (Euphaea splendens) – filtering above the water. Moving away from the stream, KC found a Brown Vine Snake (Ahaetulla pulverulenta) consuming a (still alive) Dry Zone Lowland Kangaroo Lizard (Otocryptis nigristigma). Both of these are not commonly seen. The toughest part was climbing back up to Walpolamulla in the middle (and heat) of the day. Crossing the saddle near Manigala we encountered a brief, rather refreshing rain shower. We were back at the trailhead at Pitawala around 2:00. After dropping off KC our group of four returned to Sir John’s to have a night of rest before returning to Colombo. All of us were a bit sore from carrying the packs but when the lockdown set in 24 hours after returning we realized that we had been very fortunate to get away. As for Rāvana’s secrets, we need a few more lifetimes to explore the Dumbara Hills…

Life on the forest floor and in the canopy.

A mosaic of diversity from the Knuckles take on the August trek and February 2021 visit. From the top to bottom: Male Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii), Knuckles Pygmy Lizard (Caphotis dumbara), Frog (not yet identified), Chalky Percher(Diplacodes trivialis),  Spotted Locust (Aularches miliaris), Female Leaf Nosed Lizard (Ceratophora tennentii).



Bambaradeniya Channa and S P Ekanayake. A Guide to the Biodiversity of the Knuckles Forest Range. Colombo: IUCN. 2003. Print.

De Silva, Anslem, Ed.  The Diversity of the Dumbara Mountains. (Lyriocephalus Special Issue). November 2005. Amphibia and Reptile Research Organization of Sri Lanka. Print.

Harinda. “Knuckles Duwili Eli through Walpolamulla – The Most Wanted trip of the year.”  Lakdasun Trips. April 24.  Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Knuckles Explorations.” Ian Lockwood Blog. January 2019. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Qualifying in the Time of the Pandemic: A DofE QAJ in Meemure.” CAS Pathways. 12 May 2020. Web.

Jayewardene, Sunela. The Line of Lanka: Myths & Memoires of an Island. Colombo: Sail Fish, 2017. Print.

Sanmugeswaran, Pathmanesan. “Reclaiming Ravana in Sri Lanka: Ravana’s Sinhala Buddhist Apotheosis and Tamil Responses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 2019. Web.

A panorama of the Knuckles Range looking south from Riverston. Thunhisgala/Kalupahana peak is visible in the far right. Sri Pada can be seen on the horizon to the right of the center. Panoramic image from February 2021 visit.

Written by ianlockwood

2021-11-06 at 10:40 pm

Sri Lankan Rainforest Forays in the Time of the Pandemic

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Collage of Sri Lankan (mostly) endemic birds seen in eastern and western Sinharaja. Clockwise from left: Layard’s Parakeet (Psittacula calthrapae), Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata), Sri Lanka Frogmouth (Batrachostomus moniliger) and Sri Lanka Blue magpie (Urocissa ornata). The Frogmouth, of course, is also found in the Western Ghats of southern India.

Aside from the IA field study last September (described in the previous post) I have had the opportunity to take several other short visits to Sinharaja. Two of these were to the Kudawa side and the third was a visit to the Rainforest Ecolodge in south-eastern Sinharaja. These trips were mainly designed for my mind and spirit to get a break from city life. One was a solo trip while two involved time with Lenny and our friends Nirosha and Rashmi Bopitiya. Of course, there were opportunities to look for and photograph birds, amphibians, reptiles and plants in the rainforest landscape.

Eastern Sinharaja sub-montane forest with flowering canopy.

South-Eastern Sinharaja

The south-eastern side of Sinharaja is far less visited and in my personal case it had been several years since I has last been (see WWW blog post from 2012 and  2013). Lenny and I took a father and son trip at the beginning of our winter holidays. The drive is longer than the Kudawa entrance (about four vs 2 hours) but the site and situation of the Rainforest Ecolodge makes it worthwhile. We had three nights at a time when visitation was relatively low and there were reasonable deals to make it an attractive place to stay. We did a few short hikes abut mostly enjoyed simply walking on the access roads through healthy montane rainforest. I am drawn to the exquisite sub montane forest in this area and there are numerous places to get canopy level perspectives. During our stay several key trees including  Shorea trapezifolia were in flower. We had several good walks with the Rainforest Ecolodge naturalist who helped in the discovery of several key frog species seen in this post. Otherwise Lenny and I wandered on the access roads where we encountered several mixed-species flocks. The same flocks flew right through the hotel area and one didn’t have to go too far to see many of Sri Lanka’s spectacular endemic birds.

Scenes from the Rainforest Ecolodge in south-eastern Sinharaja. Set on the edge of a tea garden at 1000 meters, the hotel utilizes recycled containers and minimalist steel structures to give visitors a unique and intimate sense of the sub-montane rainforest.

Selected frogs from Sinharaja (From top): Reticulate Tree Frog (Pseudophilautus reticulatus) and the Cheeky shrub frog (Pseudophilautus procax) from the Rainforest ecolodge area. Common Hourglass Tree-frogs (Polypedates cruciger) laying eggs near Kudawa. Sri Lanka rock frog (Nannophrys ceylonensis) at a stream near the Rainforest Ecolodge. Help with identification and lighting thanks to Vasanth at the Rainforest Ecolodge. Dulan Ranga Vidanapathirana helped confirm species for me and I have loaded these up on iNaturalist.

Clockwise from left: Sri Lankan Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura) in south-eastern Sinharaja, Purple-faced langur (Semnopithecus vetulus) also near the rainforest ecolodge. Strobilanthes lupulina on the road east of Kudawa village.

Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides), a rare winter migrant visitor. This one was hanging around the kitchen drain at Martin’s Forest Lodge. This was my first sighting in Sinharaja, but apparently they are seen in many of home gardens during the winter season.

North-Western Sinharaja

The Kudawa entrance has been, of course, much quieter because of the COVID situation. On two trips there in December and March I focused on looking for birds and reptiles. On my solo trip in late December I walked with my assigned guide, Ratna and explored out to the research station and then up to Moulawella peak. The hikes were good but my best sightings came from Martin’s where I spotted several rarities while having tea and appreciating the space and solitude. A rather shy Slaty-legged Crake (Rallina eurizonoides) stepped out in the afternoon to look for something to eat in the drain outlet. My camera was set up and ready to go such that I got a few brief shots without my tea getting cold. Another highlight was spending time at Ratnasiri’s hide. This neighbor of Martin is building a small cottage on the road above Kudawa and has set up a simple hide where visitors can observe Sri Lanka Spurfowl and other difficult to see endemics. I had an early morning spurfowl encounter that produced dark photos and an exhilarating sound recording (click below).

Village & forest scenes on the edge of Sinharaja (from upper left): Pepper (Piper nigrum) from a home garden drying, a gourd for tapping Kithul, Raja (Anoectochilus regalis) orchid, road passing through Morapitiya, vine (Coscinium fenestratum) and leeches on my sock.

Collage of Sri Lankan endemic birds seen in eastern and western Sinharaja on the three visits. Red faced Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus pyrrhocephalus), Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni), Green-billed coucal (Centropus chlororhynchos), Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus melanurus), Sri Lanka Gray hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis) and Sri Lanka Green Pigeon (Treron pompadora).

In March Lenny and I came back to Kudawa and Martin’s with our friend Nirosha and her daughter Rashmi (from OSC’s Class of 2021). We enjoyed a morning of birding with Thilak, the superb independent guide who has established himself as one of the most knowledgeable birders in the area. Sure enough, we had fine sightings of a nesting SL Gray hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis) and Chestnut-backed Owlet (Glaucidium castanotum) and mixed-species flock. On our return Thilak found a roosting Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni) which we quietly observed and then photographed. Once again it was found in mixed Pinus caribaea and secondary forest. I find it intriguing that this rare bird species, so new to science, is found in a habitat that has been a monoculture plantation and is now recovering on its way back to being healthy rainforest. This observations seems to support the idea that Pinus caribaea are good intermediate species to establish rainforest in retorsion efforts (see Ashton et al).

Otus thilohoffmanni strip  with a 600mm lens in RAW.

Final choice of the 200-500mm lens series Serendib Scops Owl (Otus thilohoffmanni)

A male Lyre-head (or Hump-nosed) Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus) in Sinharaja rainforest. This large species is surely one of the most resplendent of Sri Lanka’s many endemic lizards. It is also completely unique (it has its own genus) and there is nothing else in South Asia that looks like it. I’m always on the look out for them when in the rainforest and it has been nearly 10 years since I last saw a male (on the epic Kudawa-Sinhagala-Deniyaya trek in 2012 see https://ianlockwood.wordpress.com/…/a-path-less…/ ).
This individual was found by the sharp-eyed genius guide Thilak Ellawelage at the end of a day with many great bird sightings. He spotted it in the forest above Martin’s and I was able to photograph it both that afternoon and then next morning. Help with holding the strobes was provided by Nirosha Bopitiya (afternoon) and Ranjith (morning), the FD guide working with us. This is a morning shot taken with a 105 mm lens and two Godox strobes (one in a cumbersome but quite effective studio diffuser).

For the last several trips I have been on the lookout for the endemic Hump(or Lyre) Nosed Lizard (Lyriocephalus scutatus). I have had good sightings in past years but I’m working on better lighting with multiple flash units and a diffuser. Thilak spotted a mature male near to Martin’s and alerted us to it as he was on his way down in the evening. With the help of Nirosha I was able to get a few images that evening and then I came back and found it on my won the next day for another session. Earlier in the year I had bought a Beetle Diffuser from Varun  GB in India and this was my first attempt at putting into action in the field. The results are good but later experiments showed that I need to have the flash unit closer to the subject.

Sri Lanka Spurfowl (Galloperdix bicalcarata) at Ratnasiri’s hide. For many years this has been one of the most difficult endemic birds to photographs. That all changed when guides realized that spurfowl were regular visitors to home gardens drains on the edge of the forest.

On our final morning we walked down to Ratnasiri’s to look for the spurfowl. There was another group of Sri Lankan photographers led by Chintika De Silva so we gave them a chance and then spent time in the hide later. While we were waiting Rashmi spotted two large frogs climbing up a tree. These turned out to be part of a group of Common Hourglass Tree-frogs (Polypedates cruciger). Although its name suggests that it easy to see (its conservation status is “least concern”) we enjoyed a really unique gathering. A total of six individuals put on a show of courtship and then mating in broad daylight. The smaller males, clinging to the back of the females whipped up and fertilized the eggs being laid over a small spring. That evening, fulfilled by our many sightings and interactions with the people of Kudawa, we returned to Colombo. On our drive out we passed under dark cumulonimbus clouds and, soon enough, a torrential downpour brought relief to the hills. It was the kind of heavy rains that kicks off the life cycle for the tree-frogs we had been observing that morning.

Selected heat maps from three different visit to Sinharaja (two in December 2020 and the final trip in March 2021)

Snapshots from the March 2021 visit to Sinharaja. From Left: Rashmi, Martin, Chandralatha, Nirosha, Lenny & Ian at the forest lodge. Martin on his verandah. Lenny, Ratnasiri and Rashmi at his new cottage.


Ashton, P.M.S and  S. Gamage, I. A. U. N. Gunatilleke and C. V. S. Gunatilleke. “Restoration of a Sri Lankan Rainforest: Using Caribbean Pine Pinus caribaea as a Nurse for Establishing Late-Successional Tree Species.” Journal of Applied Ecology. 1997, 34 . Web via JSTOR.

De Silva, Anslem. Amphibians of Sri Lanka: A Photographic Guide to Common Frogs, Toad Caecilians. Published by author, 2009. Print.

De Silva, Anslem and Kanishka Ukuwela. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Reptiles of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishing, 2017. Print.

DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Gunatilleke, C.V.S, et al. Ecology of Sinharaja Rain Forest and the Forest Dynamics Plot in Sri Lanka’s Natural World Heritage Site. Colombo: WHT Publications, 2004. Print.

Harrison, John. A Field Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka. UK: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Kotagama, Sarath W and Eben Goodale. “The composition and spatial organization of mixed-species flocks in a Sri Lankan rainforest.” Forktail. 2004. Print & Web.

Liyanage, L. P. K. et al. “Assessment of Tourist and Community Perception with Regard to Tourism Sustainability Indicators: A Case Study of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, Sri Lanka.” World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Social and Business Sciences. Vol 12 No. 7. 2018. Web.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Lockwood, Ian. “Montane Biodiversity in the Land of Serendipity.” Sanctuary Asia. July 2010. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Preliminary Analysis of Land Cover in the Sinharaja Adiviya using Planet Dove Imagery.”  Ian Lockwood Blog. September 2019. Web.

Singhalage Darshani, Nadeera Weerasinghe and Gehan de Silva Wijeratne. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Flowers of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2018. Print.

Sri Lanka Survey Department. Sheets 80_x & 81_x (1:10,000) 2nd Edition. Colombo: 2017. Maps & Spatial Data.

Warakagoda, Deepal et. al.  Birds of Sri Lanka (Helm Field Guides). London: Helms Guides, 2012. Print.

Wikramanayake, Eric. “Sri Lankan Moist Forests Ecoregion: An Imperiled Island Rainforest.” The Encyclopedia of Conservation. 2020. Web.

Wijeyeratne, Gehan de Silva.  Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Guides). Bucks, England: Bradt Travel Ltd. 2007. Print.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Sinharaja: The IA Must Go On

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OSC’s class of 2021 DP Geography class. Standing from left: Kevin, Satwik, Imandi, Talia, Ashvini, Rukshi and Rika. Kneeling: the author and Rashmi (Class of 2020). Photograph courtesy of Desline Attanayake

In Sri Lanka we have been living through an age of disruption-first with senseless bombing in April 2019 and then with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The impact to the island’s tourism industry has been profound. Flights were cancelled in the spring of 2020 and the country went into lock down. At the time of writing the country was experiencing being called a 2nd wave of the virus. This all had an impact on Sinharaja, the resplendent rainforest that has a thriving, low-impact model of ecotourism at its two major entrances. It has served as a place for exploration and learning both at a personal level and for my students of the Overseas School of Colombo.

The IA Must Go On

In hindsight, the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year experienced a relative lull from the pandemic storm and we ran face-to-face classes. During that time I was able to take my small cohort of seven Class of 2021 DP Geography students to Sinharaja to complete their field work for their Internal Assessment (IA). The final report they produce is an important milestone along the 18-month journey of the course. It normally counts for between 20-25 % of their overall grade but because exams have been cancelled two years in a row, the IA is the only piece of work that the IB has to assess students. This school year it is slated to count for 35% of overall grades but it is likely that it will have a greater impact on how grades are allocated. Many schools have been forced to cancel field work and we were fortunate to be able to squeeze our trip in when the COVID situation was relatively stable. 

We had four days based out of Martin’s Forest Lodge. Desline was able to support the trip and we were supported by Rashmi who had just graduated and knew the data collection routines really well. Both of them enjoy birds and other creatures and we were a strong team. During our time the students were able to conduct 59 separate interviews in four teams of two. They used Survey 123 again and were able to explore the impact of COVID on lives and tourism. Over the next few months they processed and analyzed the data, mapped their sites and then produced final internal assessments (IA) reports. The GIS maps that students use to support their data and analysis had to be created in January during a relatively brief period of face to face teaching. Given that IB exams were cancelled this year it is gratifying that they had such rich experiences to build their internal assessments on.

Captions for Above Images

(Upper left) Satwik & Ashvini interviewing a tuk-tuk driver in western Kudawa.

(Upper right) Talia & Imandi interviewing Sunil, one of the most senior guides working at the Kudawa entrance.

(Lower right) Ashvini & Rukshi on the Sinhagala trail as we retreated back to the research station in the rain.

(Lower center) We got caught in a downpour looking for pit-vipers on the trail leading to Sinhagala. Talia & Imandi are prepared with an umbrella and jacket.

(Lower left) Talia & Imandi interviewing a family on the road to the west of Kudawa. They make a living growing tea on a small parcel of land.

(Center left) Thilak, Sinharaja’s talented and well known private guide, clears a tree that had fallen across the road leading to Martin’s lodge.


(Top Left Image) Home Garden near Kudawa village showing a mix of  tea, coconut and other crops. The ridge above has a mix of Pinus sp. plantation and secondary forest with Alstonia macrophylla.

(Upper right image) Tea fields in a home garden in the area west of Kudawa village. Typically a field of tea is supplemented with a variety of other fruit and vegetable-bearing plant like this papaya tree. The shade tree is Gliricidia sepium, which is nitrogen fixing and used as an organic nutrient supplement.

(Middle right image) Forest Department Map of the Sinharaja Rainforest Complex showing the updated boundaries from 2019. This and several other maps are on display at the Kudawa entrance.

(Lower image) Scrub areas on the Sinharaja buffer near Kudawa being prepared for a new generation of tea plants.


The recently painted bus stand shelter pays artistic tribute to the denizens of Sinharaja. The COVID pandemic has forced a steep drop in visitor numbers.

Past Blog Posts on Sinharaja

Geography IA Trip 2007

Geography IA Trip 2008

Geography IA Trip 2009

Geography IA Trip 2012

Geography IA Trip 2013

Geography IA Trip 2014

Geography IA Trip 2015

Geography IA Trip 2016

Geography IA Trip 2017

Geography IA Trip 2018

Geography IA Trip 2019

General Sinharaja Reflections



DeZoysa, Neela and Rhyana Raheem. Sinharaja: A Rainforest in Sri Lanka. Colombo: March for Conservation, 1990. Print.

Lockwood, Ian. “Into the Wet: Field Notes From Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone.” Sanctuary Asia. August/September 2007. 3-11. Print. PDF.

Vigallon, S. The Sinharaja Guidebook for Eco-Tourists. Colombo: Stamford Lake Publications, 2007. Print.

Written by ianlockwood

2021-01-01 at 12:00 pm

Palani Hills Sky Islands

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A collage of Sky Island species and landscapes from the upper Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu.

Every so often new terminology is coined to propel and lift our understanding of concepts that we had previously observed but not fully understood. In the broad field of environmentalism the notion of “sustainability” is an example first articulated in the 1972 book Blueprint for Survival (Kidd). The concept changed how the public viewed large processes like economic development and the human relationship with the biosphere. “Biological diversity” coined by Thomas Lovejoy in 1980 and the notion of the “biodiversity hotspot” proposed by Norman Myers in 1988 radically changed the way conservation efforts approached notions of “wildlife” and “wilderness” (WWF, Myers). The idea of  the “sky island” is one such term that is helping us to rethink the uniqueness of the tropical montane ecosystems. In India’s southern Western Ghats, Sky Islands are now recognized as places unique on a global scale while at the same time being under enormous anthropogenic pressure.


The term “sky Island” was first used in 1940s in the south western United States to describe the Madrean range of mountains (Dodge). Sky Islands are defined as “isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments” (US Forest Service). The term is widely used for ranges in Central America, Eastern Africa and South East Asia, to name a few examples. People familiar with India’s hill stations will quickly understand the utility of the idea of sky islands. For places like the Palanis Hills with summits and plateaus, lofty and cool, so far removed from the sweltering plains below the term “sky islands” is most fitting.

I was first introduced to the idea of sky islands by the evolutionary biologist V.V. Robin. In 2006 we bumped into each other in Cairn Hill Shola in the Nilgiri hills looking for endemic shola birds. More than any other individual, Robin has worked to identify the upper reaches of the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot as sky islands. His research has focused on the evolution of bird species specific to the sky islands of the southern Western Ghats. Now as an assistant professor at IISER Tirupati, Robin has nurtured an expanding group of young researchers to examine and broaden our understanding of the ecology of Sky Islands (see his website Shola Sky Islands). Kodaikanal International School has developed an important link with the IISER teams and has supported their work by providing accommodation and a study site on the edge of Bombay Shola.

Prasenjeet Yadav in his work with Robin on a National Geographic explorer’s grant incorporated themes of sky islands into his August 2017 National Geographic article and photo essay. Prasen is a talented, hardworking, rock star photographer who deeply understands the science of his subjects. We’ve had the joy of taking several hikes and small expeditions together where I was able to show him some of my favorite places in the Palanis. In the article the author Shaena Montanari highlights the role of sky islands in distribution and evolution of species in the southern Western Ghats. This is almost entirely based on the field work of Robin, his students and colleagues at IISER.

The idea of the sky islands seems to say so much about the uniqueness of Kodai and the Palani Hills- a story that for a long time has been difficult to tell. Those of us who have lived and walked in the upper reaches of the Palani Hills know that there is a very special nature to the landscape and life of the hills. It is a realization tinged with grief and foreboding as the very landscape has dramatically changed in our short lifetimes. Areas that were once a mosaic of grasslands and shola pockets have been replaced by a carpet of dense wood from other continents. Urban (built up) and agricultural areas have also expanded significantly in recent decades. The realization that satellite imagery could help us better tell the story of ecological change in the Palani Hills was first articulated in my 2014 blog post. The images showed that changes were not that old; in fact they happened in our lifetimes as our subsequent  study of land cover changes using satellite image published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One (2018) demonstrated.

The story of the ecological change in the Palani Hills is complicated and rather messy. During the last few decades citizens, scientists and the forest department have engaged in observations, field studies and vigorous discussions on these changes. In the 1980s and 90s the Palani Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) helped citizens develop an appreciation for the hydrology of the hills and the importance of sholas. The observation of the revival of shola species under non-native plantations by Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar surprised many in academic and conservation circles. There are ongoing debates about the origins of large montane grasslands (are they human or natural  in origin?). There are voices that supported this idea while other scientists consider the shola/grassland mosaic to be the climax stage of a complicated process in the upper hills. The role of fire has been debated. It clearly has a damaging impact on the lower slopes but is it possible that fire had a role in maintaining montane grasslands?  Some areas of Kerala still use fires as an effective management strategy to support healthy montane grasslands.  The recovery of large herbivore populations-namely gaur (Bos gaurus)- in semi-urban areas near Kodaikanal has become a challenge that citizens and wildlife managers are perplexed by. To what extent the issue climate change plays a role in the ecological changes in the Palanis has not yet been investigated. In summary, there are plenty of vexing issues to keep ecologists and other interested parties engaged in the Palani Hills sky islands for many years to come.

A mosaic of ridge lines (from multiple images and places) advertises Kodaikanal as an “island in the sky” at the Madurai airport.


In the last three years the idea of a learning center to explore the ecology of the Palani Hills has taken shape in KIS’s Center for Environment & Humanity. The idea of a learning center grew out of the school’s efforts to promote environmental and experiential education at a time of great in Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills. The growing human footprint in Kodai, the challenge of solid waste management and regular water scarcity issues have given energy to the need to direct teaching and learning to solving real world problems. The goal has been to harness learning themes of ecology, place-based learning, sustainability and environmental awareness as a key part of the “Kodai experience.” The center also recognizes the importance of learning about and from the human communities that inhabit the Palani Hills. Thus, human ecology is an important theme alongside biodiversity and conservation.

The origins of the center dates back to the tenure of principal Dr. Paul Wiebe (1987-2001). Initially land was acquired near the remote village of Poondy to set up a program of environmental education. This has provided a wonderful retreat center for KIS student, staff and alumni but there was still a need to have a learning center closer to the school’s campus in Kodai itself. During these decades and in the wake of the 1992 Rio Earth summit there was a growing realization about the importance of environmental education. More specifically, environmental and experiential education, with a focus on addressing local challenges and solutions within a global framework, could potentially be the factor that distinguishes KIS from the other IB world schools that have sprouted across India. The school’s values-based approach and vision to be the “school that the world needs” provides a framework to put ecological teaching and learning at the heart of what KIS in the coming century.

Two year ago the energy of alum Clarence Maloney coupled with the vision of principal Corey Stixrud and support of Kodai Friends International (KFI) helped kickstart what would be called the KIS Center for Environment & Humanity (CEH). During that time I was in and out of Kodai for visits and had a chance to see the site located at the former Swedish mission dormitory. In June 2018 Robin, his colleagues and I met with the school to promote the idea of university collaborations and the idea of the “Sky Island” for the nascent center. KIS’s Commander Ashwin Fernandes (Retd), the maintenance team and the housing office were in the process of refurbishing the site. By the time the KIS board met in September 2019 the Center for Humanity and Environment was ready for formal inauguration. The center is now staffed by Drs. Lekshmi Raveendran and R. Rajamanikam- a husband and wife team that bring energy, grassroot connections and dedication to their jobs. My personal hope is that the center will grow into a world class institution that supports learning and conservation initiatives in the Palani Hills. There are still opportunities to focus the efforts of CEH on the idea, novelty and challenges of sky islands.

The Kodai lake basin with Perumal Malai in the distance serves as a dramatic reminder of the Palani Hills as a sky island. This image (and the landscape in the collage at the top) was taken at the end of 2013 on a morning when temperatures had dropped close to freezing. At 10° degrees north of the equator it is hard to associate frigid conditions with southern India. But the Palani Hills sky islands are high above the warm plains and frequently have frost from December-February. I had left my gloves at home on the short motorcycle ride up to Swedish Hill to see the view with Val Sloan, our friend and the wife of my classmate John Miller. It was so cold on the next stretch from Lake view to Pillar Rocks that I nearly fainted when we stopped (no exaggeration here, as people who know me well will verify). A warm cup of tea and vigorous rubbing finally revived me and I got some decent images of an extraordinary morning!


This post has been written in advance of a Zoom talk that I am preparing for KIS alumni and other friends entitled Palani Hills Sky Islands: A Personal Journey Rethinking Landscape, Ecology and Change in the Hills we Love.



Lockwood, Ian. “Kodaikanal: Vanishing Heritage of an Island in the Sky.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2015. Web.

          ”          “Metamorphosis of a Landscape.” Nature In Focus. 2017. Web.

          ”          “A Song of the Sholicola.” Ian Lockwood Blog. April 2018. Web.

          ”          “Landcover Changes in the Palani Hills-A Spatial Study.” Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2018. Web.

          ”          “Aerial & Terrestrial Snapshots of the Southern Western Ghats.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2020. February 2019. Web.

          ”          “Palani Hills Sky Island Landcover Changes at the ATBC Asia Pacific.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2020. Web.



Arsumani, M. et al. “Not seeing the grass for the trees: Timber plantations and agriculture shrink tropical montane grassland by two-thirds over four decades in the Palani Hills, a Western Ghats Sky Island.”  PLOS One. January 2018. Web.

Dodge, Natt. “Monument in the Mountain”. Arizona Highways. Phoenix, Arizona: Arizona Highway Department. March 1943. (Wikipedia Link)(Sky Islands Alliance link)

Kidd , Charles V. “The evolution of sustainability.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. March 1992. Web.

Montanari, Shaena (& Prasenjeet Yadav). “Breathtaking Sky Islands Showcase Evolution In Action.” National Geographic. 11 August 2017. Web.

Myers, Norman. “Threatened biotas: “hot spots” in tropical forests.” The Environmentalist. 1988. Web.

Myers, Norman et al. “Biodiversity Hotspots for Conservation Priorities.” Nature. February 200. Web.

WWF. Leadership: Thomas Lovejoy. ND. Web

Written by ianlockwood

2020-12-03 at 8:11 pm

Moonstone Wanderings in Anuradhapura

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Moonstone in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura. A mosaic of several images.

In the waning days of the summer holidays I took a short pilgrimage to Anuradhapura where its ruins, old stones and living traditions drew me back. My days previous to this outing had been spent with friends and our daughter Amy looking for wildlife in Wilpattu National Park. The road to Anuradhapura  was a relatively short detour and helped me complete a summer of Sri Lankan dry zone exploration.

It was the summer of the pandemic and the sacred city was relatively empty-perfect for some solitary explorations and wandering with my camera. Our family has visited several times during our stay in Sri Lanka (see my October 2014 post). Half a century before our time, my father Merrick recalls visiting Anuradhapura on the journey from Colombo to Jaffna. In the 1940s and 50s when they visited, there large areas were overgrown and unexcavated. The town itself had a relatively small population and was not an urban center. The irrigation reservoirs (tanks or wewas) were being restored and rich agricultural areas revived. Now, in 2020 after 72 years of independence and more than a decade after the end of the civil war, Anuradhapura has a new town while its sacred precinct has been preserved for its historical and religious significance.


Panels from the Amarāvatī Stupa housed in the Chennai (Madras) Museum. These 2nd/ and 3rd Century BCE Buddhist limestone carvings were once part of a large complex that was abandoned and only rediscovered in the early 19th Century. Most of the pieces of surviving art are located at the British Museum in London and the Government (Madras) Museum in Chennai. They are exquisite works of art. The stylistic similarity between Sri Lanka’s moonstones and the semi-circular parts of the vertical columns that encircled the stupa (dagoba) are uncanny.

Echoes from Amarāvatī

Two years ago, while preparing the Hills of Murugan exhibition in Chennai, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the Madras Museum, now renamed the Government Museum, Chennai. This repository has priceless collections of ancient Indian heritage and art. The gallery of bronzes is, perhaps, the most famous space but the museum also hosts a gallery dedicated to the once colossal Buddhist stupa at Amarāvatī. This site on the banks of the Krishna river in Guntur district was an early center of Buddhist learning and worship. Its story is well known: from being one of the earliest stupas/dagobas (3rd-2nd  Century BCE) to being abandoned and then broken up for construction material before being rediscovered by Colin Mackenzie in the early 19th Century. Amarāvatī’s most valuable limestone carvings now sit in two museums: the British Museum in London and the Madras Museum in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai.

There was a great deal to appreciate and observe in the museum. In fact far too much for a single visit. One thing that struck me were the semicircular designs carved in relief that are found at the bottom of the columns below a set of discs or wheels (see image below). These columns originally provided a circular protective wall around the stupa. The wheel or dharmachakra, of course, is an important Buddhist, Hindu and Jain symbol associated with the cyclical nature of life. Some of the images in the gallery have intricate scenes from the Buddha’s life (these are mostly encased in glass that make them difficult to photograph). The majority of disks/wheels (or “lotus medallions”) are relatively plain with concentric patterns radiating out from the center. Some of these would have been a part of a “crossbar” that linked pillars together (see Akira Shimanda’s articles below). James Fergusson and James Burgess refer to these objects as “disks” decorating ornamental pillars (in Sanchi) in their book The Cave Temples of India (1890). In the Madras Museum there are dozens of wheels/discs that seem largely decorative. Some are parts of pillars while others are solid pieces of limestone carved to be a piece of a complex puzzle. However at the bottom of several pillars is a semicircular relief that looks like a proto-moonstone propped upwards. I’m not sure to what extent this striking similarity has been investigated but I assume that others have noticed it before. Amarāvatī’s stupa predates the estimated dates of Anuradhapura moonstones by nearly a millennium and in their day there would have been considerable interaction between these two important Buddhist centers.


Moonstone mirror study in the fields to the south of Thuparama, Anuradhapura.

Anuradhapura’s Moonstone Gardens

Back in Anuradhapura this summer, I marveled at the connections between Buddhist sites across South Asia. The most famous moonstone (or Sandakada pahana as moonstones are known in Sinhala) in Anuradhapura is located in a complex to the west of the colossal Abhayagiri Stupa. Like all moonstones, it provides an ornate and visually dazzling entrance way to a scared space carved on a large (and deep slap of granite). The concentric layers symbolically progress inwards from outer states of consciousness to the final inner core of nirbana (nirvana). The elephants, horses, lions and bulls, marching across the outer layer are carved with startling likeness.

I appreciate this most famous moonstone but what I enjoy even more is wandering through the less visited parts of Anuradhapura and stumbling across neglected examples of this uniquely Sri Lankan art form. There are at least a dozen or more intricately carved moonstones lying in the shadows of more famous monuments. There are many more plain slab moonstones scattered across excavated sites and hidden amongst overgrowth sites. The Sri Maha Bodhi shrine has several large moonstones at its entranceways. Of course, further away the Vaṭadāge at Polonnaruwa has several outstanding  moonstones (see the March 2017 post).

The classic moonstone is almost never found without accompanying guard stones and balustrades (railings). The guard stones in Anuradhapura are most frequently a guardian male figure with a multi-headed cobra hood. He holds up a vessel (of scared water?) and a wisp while there are often small dwarf characters at his feet. In a few cases, the guard stones are dwarfs. The balustrades are ornate railings on the side of the steps. They usually depict a dragon or fierce creature who’s tongue rolls out to form the railing. Elephants are also depicted as the creature in some balustrades (as seen in Thanjavur).

Though my only claim of expertise is my curiosity in South Asia’s sacred architecture, I’m not aware of moonstone being used in ancient temple architecture in India. The moonstone appears to be a uniquely Sri Lankan art form. From the Amarāvatī pillars there are hints that ideas freely flowed across the shallow seas in the hundreds and thousands of years before the present time. These crosscurrents of people and sophisticated ideas being interchanged across the South Asian landscape reminds us that we still have a great deal to learn from the past.

A Note on the Photography in this Post

More than a century ago the pioneering photographer Joseph Lewton documented Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon’s)  cultural triangle with a large format, glass plate camera that needed its own darkroom on site. The sepia toned images that are left with us provide a stunning first view of sites before they were restored (see Ismeth Raheem’s publications below).

In between efforts to document landscapes and ecosystems in the Sri Lanka Biodiversity Hotspot, I wanted to explore the island’s sacred sites and document theses scared spaces  with high resolution images. I originally photographed moonstones and elements of Sri Lanka’s scared architecture with medium format cameras using black & white film. This was not that long ago (2005-2010) and I developed the film and printed the images at home myself. About 12 years ago, the whole world of photography was undergoing a dramatic technological change and it became clear that digital imagery offered powerful tools that were superior to the film gear that I had available to me. Obtaining film and chemicals was difficult and the digital workflow could be done on a personal computer without a darkroom and wet chemicals. My work on the sacred sites has since evolved to utilize these digital tools but I still aspire to create images that do justice to the magnificent art and architecture of these sites



Lockwood, Ian. “Portrait & Panorama in Anuradhapura.”  Ian Lockwood Blog. May 2010. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part I).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Slowly Through Past Pallava and Chola Kingdoms (Part II).” Ian Lockwood Blog. July 2011. Web.

“            “Amongst the Sacred and the Sublime in the Dry Zone.” Ian Lockwood Blog. February 2012. Web.

“            “In Hanuman’s Flight Path.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2013. Web.

“            “Elephanta: A Pilgrimage” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2014. Web.

“            “Early Pathways at Mihintale & Anuradhapura.” Ian Lockwood Blog. October 2014. Web.

“            “Glimpses of Polonnaruwa.” Ian Lockwood Blog. March 2017. Web.


“Amaravati Stupa.” Wikipedia. accessed 10 September 2020.  Web.

Daniel, Shannine. “The Moonstones Of Ancient Sri Lanka: Religion, Art, And Architecture.” Roar. 16 Feb 2018 Web.

Dhammika, Ven S. “Anuradhapura.” Sacred Island: A Buddhist Pilgrim’s Guide to Sri Lanka. 2007. Web.

Falconer, John and Ismeth Raheem. Regeneration: A Reprisal of Photography in Ceylon 1850-1900. London: The British Council, 2000. Print.

Fernando, Nihal et al. Stones of Eloquence: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka. Colombo: Studio Times, 2008. Print.

Images of Ceylon. Web.

Moonstones, Guardstones, Balustrades of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Postal Service, 12 December 2012. Print.

Raheem, Ismeth. Archaeology and Photography: The Early Years 1868-1880. Colombo: The National Trust Sri Lanka, 2009. Print.

Shimanda, Akira and Michael Willis Ed. Amaravati: the Art of an Early Buddhist Monument in context. London: The British Museum, 2016. Web.

Stambler, Benita.  “Maintaining the Photographic Legacy of Ceylon.” Trans Asia Photography Review. Fall 2013. Web.

Written by ianlockwood

2020-09-14 at 9:16 pm

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