ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, Octomber 15, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 20

Across the river the elephants came!

By Cecil Dharmasena

The three of us lay huddled under the large Kumbuk tree while the Mahaweli waters gently flowed just below us. The trumpeting and roaring came from both sides and all we had by way of consolation was just one lantern that cast a sooty glow at the base of the tree, under which we had spread our ground sheet. Two lines of elephants were crossing the wide Mahaweli on either side of us.

It was about nine o’clock and we had unknowingly selected this spot near the confluence of the Mahaweli ganga and Amban ganga for a night’s rest and had just finished a scrap dinner when the commotion began. It seemed like all the elephants in Sri Lanka had decided on an elephantine rendezvous across the river that night.

North of Manampitiya, the Mahaweli broadens out into a wide course, constantly overflowing its bare banks during the monsoons.

Just before dawn, we heard the splashing once again. The herds were returning but seemed more subdued this time. We only heard the splashing and squelch of mud as they waded out and then a few grunts as they pushed their massive torsos up the embankment and into the forest. There being no moon, we could see nothing which made it doubly terrifying.

This region is the flood plains of the Mahaweli which extends upto Trincomalee Koddiyar bay and when we drove through the area the previous day, we had observed a large number of tobacco growers lining the river. Today, this whole region comes under the Flood Plains National Park and the tobacco growers are, thankfully, gone.

The flood plains starts from about here where the ancient village of Yakkure lies and extends northwards along both sides of the river. It is a unique land of ancient history, of marshy plains, of the extraordinary “wilas’ or “villus” and the home of the giant swamp elephant.

Yakkure was then a tiny village, a hamlet steeped in history, lying along the river south of Manampitiya. A muddy jungle track would take us there and to the adjoining beautiful Handapan wila, the first of the large wilas of the Mahaweli flood plains. These wilas are huge basin like depressions on an otherwise flat landscape which fills up with water when the river floods over during the rains. During these floods, the entire region north of Yakkure becomes a vast extended lake, hence the term “flood plain”. Most of these wilas or villus are connected to the river through some sort of channel.

The newly reconstructed Somawathiya Chaitiya was just a mound of broken bricks in the jungle when we found it about 40 years ago

The wilas are unique water bodies, rich in plant life and in biodiversity. They harbour a high biomass per unit area. The Mahaweli which broadens out from about Kalinga Nuwara, a large island with ancient ruins, follows a convoluted course northwards with a network of branches and channels. Along this ancient winding course, a series of dagobas had been built by our Kings of yore, the most famous one today being the Somawathiya chitiya.

Exploring this fascinating area on foot many decades ago, we discovered smaller stupas which lay in ruins deep within the forest. They were barely recognizable mounds of brick. The river had altered course at some point in time (due to earthquakes, according to some geologists) after the dagobas had been built. Today, only a few of these lie along the present course of the river whereas the original course would have been on the western side of the line of dagobas built on the Ruhuna kingdom (eastern) side of the Mahaweli.

There are around 40 wilas, some of which like Handapan wila, Bendiya wila, Somawathiya wila (or Meen villu), Koyamala wila, Trikonamadu villu, Kompanachchi villu and so on are quite large, being several miles in circumference. Some have interesting names such as Gengalawila, Karapola wila, Velvette villu, Kombu villu etc.

This is the habitat of the Marsh Elephants or “Vil-Aliya”, a huge tuskless subspecies as classified by former Director of National Museums, Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala as Elephas maximus maximus vialiya.

One early morning, we decided to visit the Somawathiya chaitiya, which at that time lay in ruins in the jungle across the river some miles away. Walking down from the cattle farm, we crossed the fairly narrow but deep Kandakaduwa-ela in a rather frail looking dugout canoe designed for two persons. It sank to its brim due to the combined weight of eight of us. There were said to be many riverine crocodiles in the murky waters of this ela and we would have been easy meat if any one of them decided on an early breakfast.

Carefully alighting on the muddy opposite bank, we had to walk about a mile to the Mahaweli through marshy land. Small mounds of earth cover this wet area on which tussocks of villu grasses grow. These earth mounds are the handiwork of numerous earthworms which build these with their casts so as to catch some air in the usually submerged ground. It was heavy going in the mud but eventually we found ourselves by the broad Mahaweli running directly north on an extensively broad and flat landscape. Incidentally, the Mavil-aru which came into prominence recently, is the Mahaweli-oya, an extension of the Kandakaduwa-ela.

Another decrepit looking dug-out canoe used by cattle herders was lying drawn up on a sand bank and having gingerly scrambled in, we pushed off for the far side. This ride was equally hazardous and took longer, but thankfully, the water was clear and shallow. Dimbulagala rock or “Gunner’s Quoin” rose up from the far horizon, a lonely misty blue sentinel in the distant south. Unlike in the upper regions, the river banks were bereft of trees. Tall villu grasses lined the river and the eroded embankments indicated constant decrement of soil during flood time. This has led to a broadening of the river over the centuries. This is in stark contrast to the upper reaches where kumbuk and other trees line the banks with their masses of roots forming a protective net that effectively prevent erosion. Numerous muddy slides on each bank indicated the constant intrusion of herds of elephants that use these points to cross the river.

After almost an hour of hard paddling against the cross current, we were across and having carefully deposited our crude conveyance on high ground (we did not want it washed away) we marched in single file onto the vast Somawathiya wila. Since the wila had some water we had to take a circuitious route and in any case, it was more comfortable walking around the edge of the wila under the shade of the large trees. The sun was up now and it beat down upon us from a cloudless blue sky and the going was hot and sweaty. We had totally forgotten to bring any water or food, but being young and adventurous then, this lapse did not worry us overmuch.

In the distance, we espied “Eric Swan rock” which we soon reached. This long, low, prominent extrusion of granite on an otherwise flat landscape, had an unfortunate history. Eric Swan was one of our best known wildlife photographers at the time and in September 1957, he and his party including famous film cameraman Willie Blake, came here to film marsh elephants. Game Ranger Stanley Silva had also joined the group. While filming a large cow elephant just below this rock, they had moved upto 15 yards for close ups. Suddenly, the animal scented the group and had charged, knocking down Swan while Blake and Silva managed to jump clear. Swan died before reaching their camp. It is said that the rest of the group on the rock had witnessed this gruesome scene. It was headline news at the time.

Passing the rock which also carries some archaelogical inscriptions on the far side, we walked another mile and then, through the scattered large trees espied a large mound of bricks, much of it strewn on the ground around the area. This was Somawathiya dagoba as we found it almost 40 years ago.

Fallen granite pillars and stone slabs and a few small, broken Buddha statues, lay all over, partly buried and undisturbed for two thousand years.

Piles of elephant dung littered the whole area and we also noticed the flood water mark that had reached the wall of the “maluwa” around the stupa. The whole scene looked forlorn, the jungle tide having taken over a once pristine kingdom, a place where large ships had docked after sailing up the Mahaweli and where international trading had taken place and a massive ship building industry had flourished.

Somawathiya was then a busy trading post with ship building yards which supplied huge sailing vessels to the international market. I remember a little stone pond where a single white lotus bloomed, a thing of lonesome beauty in this stark landscape. And the large tree with masses of the Ceylon Grey Orchid in the recesses of its branches, provided us with some much needed shade and rest under its cool branches, while a few painted storks and spoonbills strutted about in a muddy part of the sunbaked villu.

Some years later, a small bridge had been constructed across the Sungawila oya and this enabled us to drive all the way from Polonnaruwa to Somawathiya where a small temple had been built. The Archaeological Department had already started excavations and the Dagoba was being gradually built-up. The lone resident monk was glad to see us and we decided on staying the night before moving on.

Today, the whole area is built up and the chaitiya is a huge white edifice rising into the blue sky. A broad road through once undisturbed jungle, takes bus-loads of pilgrims right up to the chaitiya. It is a far cry from the silence that greeted us when we sat under that tree full of orchids and watched a decayed, holy, ancient monument from the distant past against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky and a hushed forest with countless birds circling overhead.

Some decades ago, we decided to drive through the villu forests north of Trikonamaduwa onto Trincomalee. Hardly anyone had been through before but some of the farm labourers insisted there was a jeepable track to Verugal. Starting off from Trikonamaduwa with my family and a few friends after an early breakfast, we soon found ourselves lost in the jungle. There were numerous cattle tracks and timber trails leading to dead ends.

Finally we saw a cattle “wadiya’ and the cattle herders were most helpful, detailing out the road we should take. On the way, we managed to follow a small tractor with some wood cutters who pointed out the way to Verugal anicut. From there, the main road from Batticaloa to Trinco was reached without difficulty. It was one of the most interesting unchartered jungle trips I had undertaken with enough thrills for the children in the party.

Later, the first of the ferries, Kiliveddi, was crossed without mishap and at the next (Mutur), we were accompanied by a large herd of goats which surrounded our jeep on the ferry boat. The next, the Ganga ferry, is at the main exit of the Mahaweli into Koddiyar bay. The water here flows deep and fast.

The last ferry before Trinco is Kinniya and this is a broad and deep crossing with the deep blue water of the Koddiyar bay rushing into the Tampalagama bay. A very interesting drive through Sampur brought us to the Foul Point lighthouse. Although I have nostalgically yearned to make that exciting expedition once again, it never materialized and probably never will.

Today, Trikonamaduwa, Verugal, Mawil-aru ( a branch of the Kandakadu-ela which we crossed by canoe 40 years ago), Sampur, Foul Point and all those ferries are battle scarred areas and I am thankful I was able to traverse these fascinatingly beautiful spots in those peaceful days. Sadly, all those nostalgic thoughts must remain just memories, deeply cherished ones, at the back of my consciousness.

(The writer is Former Director, Mahaweli Environment & Forestry)

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.