Thoppigala: A land of many wonders

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By Upali Salgado

The fall of Thoppigala, the citadel of the Tamil “Tigers” is imminent. A raging battle by land supported by effective air strikes ferreted out the terrorist group which stood firm in pockets for several months.

Where is Thoppigala? The huge rock, 1753 feet tall, clothed with virgin jungle and rough stony terrain close to Manampitiya has had the military spotlight for sometime now. In times of yore, this “Tiger” fortress with several natural caves (recently used to house food and artillery) was Veddah country. The plains below extending upto the well-known Dimbulagala Hills, better known as “Gunner’s Quoin” about 10 miles south east of Polonnaruwa and about 8 miles from Manampitiya were irrigated and developed under the Mahaweli scheme.

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The huge rock, 1753 feet tall, clothed with virgin jungle and rough stony terrain.

Dimbulagala has an ancient Buddhist monastery which was the home of a well-known pious monk, the Ven. Kitalagama Seelaratana Maha Thera until he was killed by the Tigers. This monk was the godfather to the poor villagers and established 23 other Buddhist temples in the Eastern Province.

Dimbulagala has ruins from 300 BC to 1200 AD. It is known for its Brahmi rock inscriptions seen over drip ledges of caves in the vicinity of the temple. This forest hermitage is perched up on the hill from where one gets a beautiful bird’s eye view of the irrigated plains and water spots below. The entire region was once Veddah territory where leopard, deer and elephants roamed.
The whole of the Eastern Province is rich in archaeological ruins and rock inscriptions of Buddhist interest. Besides these, there is the historic Mahiyangana stupa which legend says was a place visited by Gautama Buddha. There is the Digavapi stupa, south-east of Amparai, Magul Maha Vihara near Pottuvil and the Kudimbigala forest hermitage on the west bordering the Yala sanctuary. There are several lakes and ponds and small tanks that supported agriculture – the Divulana lake, Rukam tank, Maduru Oya reservoir, the Irrakkamam lake and Sorabora Wewa that attract beautiful migratory birds – the teal and heron who come there to nest during the season, from May to September each year.

Moving further south in the picturesque Eastern Province is yet another geographically interesting rock outcrop, south of Inginiyagala and not far from the largest tank of Sri Lanka, the Senanayake Samudra. This majestic-looking rock had been indicated in the Survey Department topographical sheet of Pottuvil as Westminster Abbey (Native: “Govindahella”) rising 1831 ft. over a flat plain.

During the time of the Sinhala Kings it had been a fortress – an outpost for the Rohana Province. Over 100 years ago, it was the home of the Veddah community who lived hunting and gathering bees’ honey. Prof. Seligman and later Dr. Richard L. Spittel, surgeon and anthropologist visited the Veddahs quite often to care for their needs.

Dr. Spittel in his first book on Ceylon and the Veddahs, “Wild Ceylon” says interestingly – “I have had a small share – into a narrative (in the Preface) primarily designed to describe the homely aspects of jungle life, especially as it concerns the Veddahs – the last remnant of Ceylon’s aboriginal race.

“In the dim waste lands of the Orient stands the wreck of a race, so old and vast that the greyest legend cannot lay hands on the single fact of its tongueless past.”

Dr. Spittel was a crusader of the backward communities – the Veddahs who lived at Sorabora Wewa, at Pallebedde, at Gunner’s Quoin and close to Westminster Abbey. He was always there to see to the needs of the Baiyas who lived near Chenakaladi; the Rodiyas and the Kinnarayas who engaged themselves in mat weaving. They all led a sad meagre existence and were a rare indigenous cultural entity, who braved living with the Malaria mosquito. Their folklore was interesting, their witchcraft age-old, and their unity was an example to those who loved and lived in the jungle.

A note on the picturesque and rich East will not be complete without a brief reference to a few better known personalities, who in diverse ways took an abiding interest to introduce to us, over the years, the beauty and richness of the province. Prof. Seligman and Dr. Spittel were anthropologists who were friends of the Veddahs and the backward community there. Ven. Kitalagama Seelaratana Maha Thera was besides being a religious leader, a great social worker.

Dudley Senanayake as a Minister of Agriculture set up the Gal Oya Valley scheme and saw that the Senanayake Samudra was constructed and named after his father who for decades did much to improve agriculture. S.V.O. Somanader, an educationist and journalist of Batticaloa and Nihal Fernando of “Studio Times” are great travellers and writers who introduced the area to the outside world.

Then there was D.B. Ellepola who handled work of the “Backward Communities Board” set up by D.S. Senanayake, and Dr. R.L. Brohier, a geographer, historian and cartographer of the Survey Department, who with his devoted band of surveyors travelled to all parts of the province to unearth and record for posterity the treasures there to be seen. Ven Ellawala Medhananda Thera, (MP) an epigraphist too has travelled widely in the Eastern Province to read for us, under difficult conditions, a large number of rock inscriptions discovered by him over cave drip ledges. This galaxy of people with diverse interests were a perfect mix of educated sons who did much for Lanka.


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