25th January 1998


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Save the Lake

Originating from an architect's creation of a city floating in the heavens, in the reign of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe,the Kandy lake is very much a part of the beauty of Kandy. But in its history of a little less than two centuries it has undergone many a misfortune.

By A.G.S.Kariyawasam

The last royal seat of the Sinhala Kings, the historic city of Kandy, presently clas- sified as one of the key world heritage cities, would lose much of its beauty if it were without its Lake, which adds lustre to the City. Its blue waters and the Udawattakele's lush greenery with the Sri Dalada Maligawa in the centre constitute an inexhaustible feast to the eye.

The Kandy Lake is a creation of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last Sinhala Monarch who reigned there from 1798 up to 1815, in which year Sri Lanka lost its sovereignty to the British. Nothwithstanding his many weaknesses, we must, of necessity, pay a tribute to this King's aesthetic sense, which singularly illustrated by the Lake and the Octagon.

The origins of the Lake date back somewhere to the 13th year of this King's reign - between 1810 and 1812. At this time there was a vast paddy-field by the name Hingula-wela to the South of the royal residence separating it from the Malwatte Monastery complex. The idea of constructing a roadway across the paddy-field connecting the palace and the monastery, so that his visits there would become easier, was on the King's mind. Royal architect Devendra Mulacariya was requested to think of a plan to transform Kandy into a heavenly city. The architect was a creative artist with a fertile imagination and accordingly he created before the King's eyes the picture of such a city by painting the Udawattakelle as a collection of blue clouds while the cloud-parapet-walls (valakul-bemma, which itself was a creation of this very same artist) of the palace as the white clouds of the sky and when a lake is created out of the Hingula-wela the reflection of the aforesaid blue and white clouds and the Palace in the Lake waters would present the picture of a city floating in the heavens.

The King at once seized on the idea and the construction work was immediately begun somewhere in 1810. Initially the King is said to have got a dam built across the paddy field. This bund served as a roadway for the King to visit the Malwatte Temple. The white expanse of water thus collected appeared like the Milky Ocean and hence it came to be designated as the Kiri Muhuda. Fascinated the king lost no time in getting earth removed from either side of the bund and extending the water-area on both sides, thereby creating the Kandy Lake in 1812.

But in its history of a little less than two centuries it has undergone many a misfortune as well. The bad side of the Lake's fortunes has been as regards its size and maintenance. The most recent instance of this happened a few decades ago when a good portion of its dimensions on the Ampitiya side was filled up and converted into a so-called "playground". From the edge of this playground the silting process continues as usual resulting in the accumulated silt stabilising itself into a few acres of grassland.

The Lake's misfortunes have not ended here. It is not an uncommon sight near the main sluice as well as at several other places to find floating collections of garbage spoiling the scenery. Amidst the garbage one can very often see several large dead fish floating on the waters, which is a dangerous sign indicative of water becoming badly contaminated.

This floating garbage has become a common problem now. On rainy days the accumulation is quite extensive. Almost every morning Municipal workers are seen removing them. But this is hardly a solution to this recurrent problem.

It remains a tribute to the ancient Sinhala engineers who constructed this Lake that they had instituted a perfect system of silt-prevention and maintenance which has been neglected to such an extent that its restoration to its full functional level has become a monumental task.

In the maintenance and preservation of the Lake the first and foremost concern should be regarding what are called silt-traps, known in popular Sinhala parlance as vali-bokka, of which there are five major ones around the Lake, presently fallen into utter disuse. This is a very fine ancient Sinhala engineering system whereby all the silt that comes washing down from the surrounding hills is trapped and only the water is allowed to flow into the Lake. At strategic points around the Lake where heavy rain-water is bound to flow from the hills such water is directed along a waterway and before it enters the Lake the flow is trapped in a large well-like enclosure deep enough to trap the silt allowing the water alone to overflow the well into the Lake.

This had been the original system employed from the time the Lake was constructed and is also the one that has preserved the Lake for nearly two centuries. Due to some reason however, it started malfunctioning at some stage and for want of anyone intervening and restoring it, it gradually fell into disuse. At present even the traces of its existence are disappearing.

The first silt-trap is near the turn-off to the Hillwood College, between the Hillwood Mawatha and the exit gate of the Malwatte Temple. This enclosure well, about 50" x 20" feet in size, has been fully silted and not cleared for ages. The result of this neglect is the formation of an island in the Lake with the untrapped silt accumulation.

The second silt-trap is at the turn-off to Saranankara Mawatha close to the official residence of the Mahanayake Thera. In addition to the filled up silt-well being overgrown with scrub jungle, a strange feature here is that a major part of the silt-well has been filled up and a private firm in Kandy has been allowed to put up its yard on the filled up ground! A high wall has been put up across the filled up well leaving only a small portion of it and even this portion is being used by the neighbours ,and most probably by the Municipal Workers as well, as a dumping ground for sweepings and garbage.

Proceeding further towards the Ampitiya side one can notice another island being formed opposite the Suisse Hotel. Here a tree had fallen a few years ago breaking the flight of steps put up here for visitors to enjoy the fascinating scenery across the Lake. Authorities have so far failed to clear the place and rebuild the steps. Even the tree stump is still there.

The third silt-trap is opposite the Lakeside Hospital. This is larger than both the previous ones and has been fully silted for years. Scrub jungle covers the full area of the filled up well, a good portion of which has been filled up and turned into a park-like area.

In discussing the fourth and the most important silt-trap, we have to refer to the sad tale about the filled up playground mentioned earlier.

That silting process culminating in the so-called playground is the result of the neglect of this trap-well. This has been the biggest land-loss to the Lake. This is popularly known as the Ratubokkuwa trap at the end of the Ratu-ela which was originally meant to control and trap all the silt that came flowing from the area called the Nuwara-wela. This had the biggest trap-well as the silt coming from that side was very heavy. Now it is overgrown with scrub jungle.

The "playground", running into several acres, referred to earlier has been the result of the disuse of this silt-trap. Ironically enough, the "playground" is named Glory of the Lake. Considering the loss caused by it to the Lake it should in reality be called the Lake's graveyard. Sometime back this land had been rented out to run a carnival and at the end of this fiesta all the rubbish-filled waste-paper bags, bottles and even conservancy bags were to be seen thrown into the Lake!

The fifth trap is near the Buddhist Publication Society gate, which too has undergone the same fate with an island already formed growing in size with the passage of time.

Thus the once peaceful Lake is today struggling against the throttling silt which keeps on increasing with innumerable building sites,work-places, factories etc. coming up all around.

The brief survey above clearly shows that this Lake, the pride of Kandy, cannot be properly maintained unless and until it is fully desilted and the five silt-traps are restored to their full working capacity.

The authorities should remember that desilting the Lake alone is not enough and that work should be coupled with the restoration and the proper maintenance of these traps.

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