THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF TRAVEL SKETCHES ON THE SOUTH OF SRI LANKA
Photos by Uditha Devapriya
- In Beruwala and Aluthgama there is hardly anything by way of cultural sites to spot out and write on
- That is why Karandeniya is closer at heart to Ambalangoda than most other places in Ambalangoda
- ON the E01 there’s nothing to look forward to: No people to look at and talk with, no photographs to take and savour
- Fusion of newness and oldness can be spotted out even in the road leading to the Karandeniya Raja Maha Viharaya
From Piliyandala (where I live) to Matara, there is about 130 kilometres, the fastest route to take being the Southern Expressway (which will take you about two hours, or even less).
But the Expressway has its limits: it hasn’t been built beyond Matara, not properly anyway, and in those two hours, the only sights you’re exposed to on either side are newly refurbished homes, impersonal hills, and banal buildings.
There’s nothing to look forward to: No people to look at and talk with, no photographs to take and savour. Nothing beats the exhilaration of a ride through Galle Road.
When you pass the Kalutara Bodhiya, and then cross the much celebrated Benthara Paalama, remembering that famous saying about not trusting anyone who resides beyond it, you feel as though you’re entering a different world. That’s because the South is exactly that: a different world.
In Beruwala and Aluthgama there is hardly anything by way of cultural sites to spot out and write on, but you are overwhelmed by the architectural diversity, including that most Muslim of all architectural motifs, the trellis. (Tilak Samarawickrema, when I talked with him about the presence of the trellis in many of Lester James Peries’s movies, including Gamperaliya and Golu Hadawatha, contended that it was alien to Sinhala culture.)
It is when you go beyond Benthota that the tourist sites crop up: one by one, hotels and restaurants fill up both sides of the road until you reach a point where you can’t escape them.
Because of Benthota, perhaps, Induruwa, Ahungalle, and Balapitiya too are covered with resorts and spas, eateries, and whatnot, until you reach Ambalangoda, which is where the people, the sights, the sounds, and the flavours take on a distinctly Southern character. It is in Ambalangoda, I feel, that the South becomes the South.
The new has cohabited with the old in Ambalangoda. Especially away from Galle Road, towards Karandeniya, where the roads become more constricted the further you drive inward, you feel that the people you talk with to ask for directions have accepted the inevitability of the new without foregoing on the old.
Even in the way they speak, with their regard for emphasis and their drawn-out dialect, they are SPECIFIC. But those who associate Ambalangoda with the mask (and Ambalangoda still houses a veritable design culture) often forget that masks are hardly endemic to Sri Lanka and that the cultural roots of these places go deeper and are to be found more in the temples and the people who reside near them. It has been said of the people of Karandeniya, especially, that they are not afraid of talking straight if they feel they have to. But even with this, they are not afraid of encountering the new.
The fact is that the people of Karandeniya, who are more characteristic, I think, of Ambalangoda than city dwellers, produce one of the largest percentages of migrant workers from any region in the country. It is a statistic that has been forgotten, but that statistic has been all but completely acknowledged through the years.
That is why Karandeniya is closer at heart to Ambalangoda than most other places in Ambalangoda.
This fusion of newness and oldness can be spotted out even in the road leading to the Karandeniya Raja Maha Viharaya. Recently refurbished, the temple is graced by a long road that goes uphill and is flanked on both sides by a long stretch of one of the most Sri Lankan of all universally consumed exports, cinnamon trees.
The Galagoda Shailatharama Viharaya, as it’s referred to in travel books, houses the largest reclining Buddhist statue in South Asia. While my mother tells me that she counted 109 one foot tiles from one corner to the other, in reality, it runs up to 115 feet or 35 metres, not much until you consider the fact that the reclining statue at the Gal Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is about 45 feet or 15 metres. The temple, reflecting the Ambalangoda which exists outside Karandeniya, is both old and new.
Now more than 800 years old, it is a little older than, say, the Thotagamuwa Raja Maha Viharaya in Telwatte, Galle, and it traces its origins to the Dambadeniya Period, though the statue looks like it is made of cement.
The person responsible for much of the temple would have been the then Chief Minister of the King, Devapathiraja, who was responsible also for many of the temples which exist along the coastal belt of the South and after whom a school was named in Rathgama (the school my grandfather attended).
Incidentally, the road leading to the temple hadn’t been there before; what had existed were 208 arduous steps, which had proved to be too much of a hardship for the people in the area. The road had been a brainchild of a former Chief Incumbent, the Venerable Somananda Thera, while the chamber had been refurbished under his stewardship as well.
(Though the record of its being the largest such in South Asia has been confirmed by local scholars, there is another reclining statue which boasts of being the largest such in the low country, which includes Ambalangoda, and that is to be found in the Indrasararamaya, near the Sabaragamuwa region, around 30 kilometres from Colombo in Aruggoda.)
Around the statue are various other excerpts and snapshots from the life, not only of the Gautama Buddha but also the other Buddhas, who have been carefully marked and labelled in a long tableau on the other side of the shrine room. In one corner of the outer chamber of the room you come across Elara and his soldiers, and on the other, you come across Dutugemunu; it’s like they are about to meet each other, for their final encounter, and the Buddhas in-between are onlookers, overtly confirming a fusion of Sinhalese culture and Buddhist legends and iconography which is so often to be found in a Sri Lankan temple, though not quite so graphically.
And if these statues appear to be new, and not in need of being refurbished, that has a lot to do with the fact that about a century ago, a well-off villager in Karandeniya named Lyonis oversaw the renovation of them all.
There are obviously more stories which the ardent traveller can associate with the temple at Karandeniya, but for reasons I’ve touched on before, they tend to be missed. In that sense, we have to be grateful to Somananda Thera, who was dispatched to the Viharaya in 2000.
Someone told me that it was a recently built temple, but that’s because Somananda Thera transformed it over the years into a modern place of worship, renovating those parts most susceptible to decay, while also compromising on the archaic-ness of the budu medura. (At one point, the builders, misunderstanding the Thera’s instructions, covered the floor in cement.)
The “newness” of the structure is in one sense the “newness” of Karandeniya and its residents. Moreover, before Somananda Thera’s arrival, the entire place had reeked of bat droppings and, worse, wanton neglect.
The Archaeological Department, owing to certain understandable reasons, had not checked into preserving it properly. Thanks to the Thera’s efforts, however, it flourished, and its historical importance, particularly its association with the Dambadeniya Period (The reign of the Parakramabahu the Second) and Devapathiraja, began to merit more than a cursory mention.
It is from 2004 and 2005, right after the tsunami, that interest in it seems to have soared. Today, travel writers and even bloggers have written on the Shailatharama Viharaya when they visit Ambalangoda, once they are done with the masks and the puppets.
With hardly any habitation around the temple, Karandeniya nevertheless seems to have graduated from being in the outskirts of Ambalangoda to a veritable all-but-in-name tourist spot.
And though there’s nothing much by way of accommodations outside the city, as travel bloggers have made it clear, there are enough and more residents around these outskirts who are more than willing to take in tourists and visitors for a reasonable fee.
The people of Ambalangoda, rather like the people of the South and also of much of Sri Lanka in general, are friendly, but they are also straight talkers, and I witnessed this kind of straight talking while chatting with common everyday folk in the area.
On route to Matara, the quintessential cultural hub of the South after Galle, I was taken aback by the vocal distinctness which still exists in this region; although we have been assailed and continue to be assailed by modernity, we still speak in the dialect of the region we hail from, even if we hide that dialect when we’re in another region and especially when we’re in Colombo. In that sense the most “characteristic” characteristic of the resident of Ambalangoda is his dialect; he tends to drag what he’s saying, preferring to speak slowly, almost lazily, even when he’s loud or when the situation calls for quickness of speech.
As for the masks and puppets and the artefacts of cultural commercialisation, well, they deserve to be written on too, even though they have been written on by others. But I leave that for a later essay. For now, my travelogue in Ambalangoda ends in Karandeniya.