A Lesson in History and an Encounter with a Croc. Boating on the Madhu Ganga.
Set in the middle of the Madhu Ganga and surrounded by a wetland ecosystem is a tiny isolated island where kings and queens, secrecy in seclusion, relics and religion played a small part in shaping the history of this country.
Today, visitors, curious to see and hear a part of this narrative, constantly visit the Kotdoowa Raja Maha Viharaya located in this tiny island. The storyteller is its Chief Monk, Ven. Omanthte Punnyasara, who, having being ordained at the age of ten, has spent the past five decades at this temple.
Our journey begins at the banks of the river at Ampe, a few kilometers before the Balapitiya town and an hour’s drive from Colombo. A signboard informs us that the Madhu Ganga Sanctuary was declared a wetland in 2003 under the Ramsar Convention and is home to 303 species of plants belonging to 95 families as well as 248 species of vertebrate animals.
After ‘hiring’ one of the many boatmen who make a living out of this tour, we take a short boat ride across the river to the steps of the Kotdoowa Rajamaha temple. It’s quiet and tranquil. A large frangipani tree in full bloom beautifies the entrance to the temple. A couple of Giant Squirrels (ratufa macroura) look down curiously at us whilst others scramble busily above. A massive statue of Lord Buddha sits under the sprawling branches of a Bo tree. Could this be the same Dethis Maha Bodhi, supposedly one of 32 sacred buds of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi planted by Deva Pathiraja, minister to the court of King Parakkramabahu IV who reigned in the 14th century? According to history, centuries after this little island was separated from the mainland, it was rediscovered by Deva Pathiraja who tried to restore this neglected island.
We are greeted by the Ven. Punnyasara and he patiently narrates the history of this temple… in the 4th century, King Guhasiva of Kalinga, who was in possession of the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha was facing severe political upheaval. The tooth relic was believed to impart a divine right to rule for whoever possessed it and the King fearing for its safety, secretly sent it away with his niece, Princess Hemamali and her husband Prince Danthakumara. Disguised as Brahmins and hiding the tooth in her hair, they sailed to Sri Lanka where, according to sketchy legend, they landed either in Trincomalee or Welitota, now known as Balapitiya. The account of their landing in Balapitiya, at the mouth of the Madhu Ganga estuary, is recorded in the Chronicle of the Tooth Relic, where they temporarily hid the tooth in a sand shelter at Kotdoowa before finally handing it over to King Sirimeghavanna, the ruler of Sri Lanka at the time.
In the 16th century, when the Sitawaka and Kotte kingdoms were being threatened by the Portuguese, a hot-headed Prince Veediya Bandara, in charge of the relic, returned it for safekeeping to Kotdoowa for a short period of time.
According to the Ven. Punnyasara, centuries later, a rich businessman, Samson Rajapakse was canoeing past this neglected and overgrown island when he alighted to make an offering, chant the stanzas and light the lamp. Upon returning to his canoe, he was amazed to see a myriad lights illuminating the whole island and to commemorate this miraculous incident, he vowed to build a temple on this island. Today, this temple attracts hundreds of devotees and visitors alike.
After a moment of reflection, we board the boat and set off to our next stop, the 2.5 acre cinnamon island. The inhabitants of this island are adept at cinnamon peeling and weaving of coconut husks. We are shown how cinnamon is peeled, rolled and dried. The deft presentation can only be possible after years of practice and we leave with our purchases of pure cinnamon oil, cinnamon powder and loads of photographs.
Back in our boat, we gently float across the river, ducking under low hanging thick mangrove vegetation. The rare and threatened Lumnitzera littorea, commonly known as the Rathamilla dot the banks along the way. As Sri Lanka’s second largest body of water, the Madhu Ganga encompasses 915 hectares of which 770 hectares is all water whilst the balance 145 hectares comprises 32 islands. Our boatman informs us that there are 82 temples in and around this area.
Finally we arrive at the Madhu Queen Fish Farm, situated in the middle of this river. Narrow wooden suspended platforms separate the ‘tanks’ where hundreds of Tilapia’s are bred for business. The highlight of this visit is to dip ones feet into this swirling mass of fish. I gingerly dip my toes into the water and immediately, my feet are covered with hundreds of slimy nibbling fish.
A baby crocodile is brought out and put into my hands. As I gingerly hold him, he stares into my eyes as if to ask, “wanna hear you scream?” Most certainly not…and I quickly hand over the creature and leave.
Back at the pier, we thank our boatman and pay him his fare of Rs. 3000. This, we believe is well worth the entertainment and enjoyment we had this morning.