New series
'It's a hoo cry away'
The concise guide to the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon
By Richard Boyle
Traditional Measurements of Distance
There are nearly 250 words of Sri Lankan origin or association featured in English glossaries and dictionaries such as the second editions of Hobson-Jobson (H-J2) and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2). Some are derived from Sinhala and Tamil, some from regional languages, and some from English and other European languages. For the most part they fall into certain well-defined categories like flora and fauna, gemstones and minerals, and Buddhism and Hinduism. Over the coming weeks I intend to use such categorizations to cover a selection of the more interesting words from the Anglo-Sri Lankan lexicon. This week, for example, I look at two beguiling traditional measurements of distance included in H-J2 but omitted from the OED2.

hoowa. "A peculiar call used by the Singhalese, and thence applied to the distance over which this call can be heard," the entry in H-J2 states. "Compare the Australian coo-ee." No illustrative quotations from literature, which are used to chart the history of words in both HJ-2 and OED2, are given. This is probably because these local terms are seldom to be found in English literature pertaining to the island.

Edward Sullivan, in The Bungalow and the Tent: A Visit to Ceylon (1854:169), describes the hoowa (or more correctly hoo) but fails to name it: "We witnessed, to-day, a very primitive method adopted by the Cingalese in computing distances. When asked how far it is to such and such a place? they say, two or three calls, meaning thereby, two or three times the distance at which one man can hear another call; of course this would vary considerably with the direction of the wind, and the strength of the individual's lungs, but on an average, I fancy a call is heard about half a mile off."'
Frederick Lewis, in Sixty Four Years in Ceylon (1926[1993]:233), calls it hoo cry: "In the matter of distance, the uncivilized native has curious ideas, and expresses himself accordingly. For example, to indicate a short distance, he will describe it as being as far as a 'hoo cry.' This may be anything from 50 yards to a mile.

"I have had a man tell me that the distance from one place to another was two hoo cries - that is to say, after you had uttered one hoo cry, you went to the end of it, and gave another hoo cry, and it was the end of that that the place was."

Ralph Pieris, in Sinhalese Social Organization (1956:87), does supply the name, however: "The 'hoo,' an onomatopoeic expression for a loud cry, was a measure in common use: it was, moreover, the 'natural' basis of larger units, although much depends on whose 'hoo' it was. Two 'hoos' were supposed to equal a hatakma, roughly equivalent to a mile, or the distance a man carrying a pingo-load could travel without putting down his burden for a breather. Four hatakmas made a gavva and five gav a day's journey. Four gav equaled a yoduna, estimated to be about 16 miles."

Which brings us to gow or gaou. "An ancient measure of distance preserved in South India and Ceylon," is how H-J2 defines the word. "In the latter island," the entry continues, "where the term is still in use, the gawwa is a measure of about four English miles. It is Pali gavuta, one quarter of a yojana, and that again is the Sanskrit gavyuti with the same meaning. The yojana with which the gau is correlated, appears etymologically to be 'a yoking,' viz. 'the stage, or distance to be gone in one harnessing without unyoking;' and the lengths attributed to it are very various, oscillating from two-and-a-half to nine miles."

The first mention of the gow in connection with the island appears to be by Cosmas Indicopleustes (circa 545): "The great Island (Taprobane), according to what the natives say, has a length of 300 gaudia, and a breadth of the same, i.e. 900 miles."

Apart from this foreign illustrative quotation, H-J2 provides the following reference from English literature pertaining to the island by James Emerson Tennent in Ceylon (1859[1977]:I.480n): "It is very remarkable that this singular word gaou, in which Cosmas gives the dimensions of the island, is in use to the present day in Ceylon, and means the distance a man can walk in an hour. Vincent, in his Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients, has noticed this passage (vol.ii.506), and says, somewhat loosely, that the Singhalese gaou, which he spells 'ghadia,' is the same as the naligiae of the Tamils, and equal to three-eights of a French league, or nearly one mile and a quarter English. This is incorrect: a gaou in Ceylon expresses a somewhat indeterminate length, according to the nature of the ground to be traversed, a gaou across mountainous country being less than one measured on level ground, and a gaou for a loaded cooley is also permitted to be shorter than for one unburdened, but on the whole the average may be taken under four miles."

However, there is an earlier such reference by J. W. Bennett in Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843:363): "A span, Viyata, or twelve fingers' breadth, make one Riyana, (or cubit, 18 inches); seven Riyanas, one Yate; twenty-one Yate, one Assumba; eighty Assumbas, one Kosa; four Kosas, one Gowa; and 7 1/2 Gowas, one Anta Kalpa."

Other references to gow I have come across include one from fiction, contained in the following dialogue from William Dalton's Lost in Ceylon (1861:42): "'Sar Excellency, Dissauva at village half a gow through cocoa-nut trees.'

"'Half a cow! That's a queer measure," said Bob, who mistook the sound of the g for c.

"It was some time, however, before I learned that a Singhalese gow means about three miles, and that the natives calculate distances by the sound of the voice."
Alan Walters quotes an ancient author on the glory of Anuradhapura in Palms and Pearls, or Scenes in Ceylon (1892:88): "The gates of the city are far asunder; the distance of the principal gate to the southern entrance is four gaws, and from the northern to the southern gate is it not also four gaws?" In a footnote, four gaws are said to be the equivalent of sixteen miles. Finally, Frederick Lewis recounts the following conversation in Sixty Four Years in Ceylon (1926[1993]:206): "'How far is it to Ratgama? was my next question. 'Two gow, (eight miles) and only a jungle path,' she replied."

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