Hambantota has been in the news in recent weeks. The
filling of sea water to the newly built port drew massive crowds to Hambantota. Several other
development projects are
underway in this town in the deep South. These include an
international cricket stadium and an international airport.
A cine-village with facilities to make films on location has been
completed already with the
objective of attracting foreign film producers to Sri Lanka, while
providing easy access for local
Until recently Hambantota was famous for its salterns and a
picturesque bay. "Its calm blue waters confined by a gigantic sickle of glittering sand, tapers away endlessly into the distant horizon where blue sea meets an even bluer sky. The beached outrigger canoes, their sails gently flapping-dry; the brightly painted deep-sea boats anchored out in the bay and the busy fishermen make this a
stunning scene which will remain deep-etched in your memory." This is how the 'Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller' introduces Hambantota.
Records refer to the days of the Dutch who occupied the coastal area in the 17th century when salt was transported on the back of pack bulls ('thavalam') when a
procession of carts would tag along the lonely road through the
territory of elephants and leopards.
Bulk of the salt needed for
consumption used to be produced at Hambantota which provided the ideal setting with its dry climate. To produce salt, sea water is let into squared areas (these can be compared to huge pans) and left to be dried in the scorching sun. The water evaporates leaving behind a harvest of salt.
The origin of the word Hambantota is related to the
ancestors of Malays from Indonesia who were supposed to have been encouraged to come to Sri Lanka. The Dutch, it is said, promised them permission to trap two wild elephants for the price of a single coin. So they came in 'sampans' - the term used for their boats - to the 'tota' - the harbour. 'Sambantota' - the harbour of the sampans - over the centuries became Hambantota.
Reference is also made to Greek navigators of Alexander the Great (around 300 BC) knowing this safe anchorage. From this information, the famous geographer Ptolemy named it 'Port of Dionysii' in his map of Sri Lanka titled 'Taprobane'.
In the days of the Ruhuna
kingdom the region in and around Hambantota was the centre of a flourishing civilization. It was
precious agricultural country.
In the Anuradhapura era, Rohana (Ruhuna) comprised all the area to east of the Mahaveli Ganga together with the Batticaloa, Monaragala, Hambantota, Matara and Galle districts. Its capital was Mahagama (Tissamaharama).
At different times the area was ruled by princes who were
independent or semi-independent of the Anuradhapura king. Revolts and uprisings generally started in this area. It was always the
stronghold of freedom and
resistance when foreign invasions took place.
Ruhuna became famous when Gamani Abhaya, the elder son of the Ruhuna King Kavan Tissa decided to oust the Tamil King Elara ruling in Anuradhapura and re-establish the Sinhalese royal
family. After meticulous
planning, the prince then known as Duttugemunu or Dutugemunu, marched to Anuradhapura, ended the reign of forty-four years by Elara and restored the sovereignty of the island to the Sinhalese. He became the national hero of the Sinhalese.
In the time of the British,
reference is made to a Martello Tower that had been built around 1801 - 1803 on the tip of the rocky headland alongside the lighthouse overlooking the sea at Hambantota. The builder was a Captain Goper, who built the tower on the site of an earlier Dutch earthen fort.
Hambantota was also where the young British civil servant Leonard Woolf spent three years around 1909 as Assistant Government Agent - the chief administrative and judicial officer. He was
responsible for a large area which was sparsely populated, most of it in malarial jungle. He had covered the entire district walking and
riding his pony and his bicycle.
He made a name for himself as the author of the much talked-about 'The Village in the Jungle' based on his experiences in Hambantota.