At first glance, the sights, the sounds, the flavours, and even the people appear like a poor reflection of their counterparts from Galle. First you come across the Star Fort, which resembles a bared down version of the more famous Fort from that other part of the South. Then you come across the beaches, which resemble and remind you of Unawatuna and Koggala. Then you walk around and realize that, yes, while these are sites you have seen elsewhere along the coastal belt, they are not all there is to see here and probably not the main sites to come across, record, and write about. The real Matara, in that sense, lies beyond the beaches, the rest houses, the sights, sounds, and flavours. Less packed in than Galle, and less urbanized than most places leading up to it, it is a veritable tourist hub and destination – if you know which spots to patronize and which people to talk with.
Matara is, I have come to feel, a paradox. While less urbanized than Galle, and by default less packed in, it concentrates its streak of opulence alongside the coast and within the town. Symbols of conspicuous consumption adorn both sides of the road, as you travel along the beaches to the Rest House. A huge cavalcade of Cargills, Perera & Sons, and several big name fashion houses and dress points is what you come across here. It seems as though Matara is a repository of big spending, given these. But then the statistics tell a different story.
Galle “stands out” in terms of tourist destinations is not really the city, but rather the surrounding hamlets: Unawatuna, Koggala, and even further beyond
According to the census data from 2016, the inhabitants of Matara spend less relative to their income (75%) compared with the people of Galle (84%). However, this apparent spendthrift habit conceals another reality: in terms of bank loans, the people of Matara tend to borrow more (around Rs. 320,000 per household) and spend proportionately more on food (36%) when compared with Galle (Rs. 290,000 and 34% respectively). That opulent streak is limited to the town, yes, but the habit of spending, and spending on food at that, runs riot in other parts of this region. This has not come about at the cost of equality, by the way; as the statistics make it quite clear, Matara ranks as one of the least unequal places in the South, with a Gini coefficient of 0.39.
What makes Galle “stand out” in terms of tourist destinations is not really the city, but rather the surrounding hamlets: Unawatuna, Koggala, and even further beyond. That tourist line ends, I rather think, in Weligama and Mirissa, at least in terms of beaches, seafood restaurants, and various other exotic sites. In Matara you are limited for the most when it comes to beaches to Polhena, and if you travel further on, to Hiriketiya and Medawatta. But these are packed in, smaller than Unawatuna, and they predictably attract so many crowds that solace and contemplation, as a traveller that is, is simply not possible.
So if you’re in Matara, you might in all good faith have to tear yourself away from those beaches, and though they exude a clear, lucid sheen against the sun, they are secondary to the other sites you can traverse through here. But even those sites – to name a few, the Weherahena Temple, Dondra Point, the lighthouse at Dondra, and the famous, world renowned Hummanaya – are not enough. They are more than adequate to fill your diary and travel notebooks. That, however, is not all there is to travelling in Matara.
No matter how culturally archaic Ambalangoda and Galle may be, they have come to resemble their more commercialized suburbs in Colombo
First and foremost, there are the people. As with Ambalangoda, a linguistic hotspot its own right, the most distinctive characteristic of the inhabitants of Matara is the way they speak. And it’s not just the dialect or their mode of speech; it’s also their lexicon. In this part of the country you come across one of the most localized variants of Sinhala, and you encounter an entire dictionary of terms denoting things, emotions, and gestures, both tangible and intangible, which you might at times find bizarre. Perhaps because of this bizarreness, people from here, once they choose to leave their hometown and reside at least temporarily in Colombo, drop that mode of talking. At one level, I think this is a sign of how inferior they feel, and at another level, I think it’s also an inevitability, given the development spate and the drive towards eradicating local cultures that we’ve necessitated in the name of progress and efficiency. Sinhala, unlike English (the variants of which evolved out of class hierarchies), retains its diglossia and distinction between the written and the spoken variety owing to the fact that the people of those days, who talked in a particular way, were restricted from visiting other regions. In other words, immobility, not progress, was what preserved these dialects. If this is so, then the only real solution I can see is to stop visiting other neighbourhoods and be where you are.
Piyasena Kahandagamage, in his seminal but somewhat overlooked book Pradeshiya Vivaharaya, has recorded many of those terms which form various regional dialects and variants of the mawbasa. It’s fascinating to see how many of them have entered everyday usage, and from the South and Matara in particular: thunapaha, hapana, hamine, iyum piyum, and that most endearing of all terms tossed between loved ones and spouses, eyi. But then there are those lesser encountered terms, which in one sense sound almost exotic to us: goiya for a person, makkayi for what, bin allanawa for planting a seed, and perhaps the most bizarre of them all, dodanna for talk. As Kahandagamage astutely notes, the speech patterns of the South are more or less spread along Giruwa Pattuwa, Magam Pattuwa, and last but not least, Matara Wellabada and Kandabada Pattuwa. (Beyond these, one must visit Galle: Rathgama, Balapitiya, and Ambalangoda. But with the spate of urbanization and Westernization in these areas, those patterns are being wiped out.) The true, authentic Matara, moreover, exists away from the coastline, and is to be found most acutely in Walasmulla, Akuressa, and Dickwella, among various other hamlets.
The unwary tourist, bombarded with brochures and guides telling him or her what to do and what to visit, tends to miss these places because what sells in the tourism industry is what everyone knows about. Near Walasmulla and bordering Hambantota, for instance, there is Mulkirigala, named Adam’s Berg by the Dutch once they conquered this part of the island (they got it confused with Adam’s Peak). Constructed in the third century, Mulkirigala is culturally significant, not least owing to the historical record that one of the 32 Bo saplings brought to Sri Lanka by Sangamitta Thera was planted there. Away from Walasmulla, and closer to the coastline, there is then Dickwella, which houses the sprawling and at times controversial Wewurukannala Raja Maha Viharaya: home to the largest seated Buddha statue in Sri Lanka (at 160 feet). Is it any wonder, I thought to myself as I gazed at this statue, that it is almost as forgotten by outsiders as that other temple in Ambalangoda, the Galagoda Viharaya, which happens to house the largest reclining statue in not just Sri Lanka, but also South Asia? These records have escaped the eye of the unwary traveller, a pity because they needn’t have escaped him at all.
Matara is less urbanized than Galle, and by default less packed in. It concentrates its streak of opulence alongside the coast and within the town
Visiting Matara, or for that matter Galle or Ambalangoda, with the intention of talking with the natives is probably the most Orientalist project you, as a traveller, can commit on this island. No one wants to be seen as a member of his town or village if he or she is seen purely in terms of the parameters of that town and village. At another level, this can almost be seen as condescending, and Sri Lankans, particularly from the South, are too proud (and rightly so) to let the outsider judge them on the yardsticks of hometowns and origins such outsiders create by, and for, themselves. Getting into the roots of a place requires getting into the skins of its inhabitants, but not with the intention of seeing the “natives” for who you or someone else thinks they are. (E. M.Forster, in ‘A Passage to India’, depicts this side of Anglo-India, through the imperialists who wish to see the real India. Coming to Sri Lanka to see the real Matara, the real Galle, etc, is no different.)
No matter how culturally archaic Ambalangoda and Galle may be, they have come to resemble their more commercialized suburbs in Colombo. Compare that with the unevenness of the economic development in Matara, you can understand how the people of this region, and beyond (Tangalle and Hambantota), tend to be uneven in their dealings with the outside world. They do talk straight, but they also talk at cross purposes, leaping from one topic to another, rarely curt or short. In that sense, the inhabitants are far more deserving representatives of this region than the beaches, or even the religious sites.