Tuesday, 10 August 2004  
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51st Death Anniversary :

D. J. Wimalasurendra - The architect of hydro-power in Sri Lanka

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

D. J. Wimalasurendra (1874-1953), the architect of hydro power in Sri Lanka, was born on September 17, 1874 and was the eldest son of Mudliyar Don Juan Wimalasurendra of Galle, a master craftsman of repute. He was an old boy of Ananda College, Colombo and showed his talents as bright star in the galaxy of engineers.

Having obtained Corporate Membership of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, as well as Civil Engineers (UK), he joined the Public Works Department (PWD), as a head overseer and later worked as a junior engineer, attached to the Engineering Association of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), under British administration.

The Association was lukewarm towards elevating native engineers and Wimalasurendra's proposal for a hydro power project was side-tracked.

During the Boer War (1899-1902), the Dutch Engineer Ian Van Geyzel from Transvaal, had the occasion to meet Wimalasurendra, when he was working as a District Engineer at Diyatalawa, assigned with the task of building camps for Boer prisoners of World War I (1914-1918).

Their intimacy soon developed into useful discussions. Having seen the Maskelioya and the Kirivaneliya (later Laxapana) water fall running waste to feed the Kelani-ganga, serving no useful purpose, an idea was given to Wimalasurendra by the Dutch engineer, to harness the water potential to generate hydro electricity in Sri Lanka.

In 1913, Wimalasurendra gave his thoughts in the construction of a small hydro power station at Blackpool, between Nanu Oya and Nuwara Eliya, to supply electricity to the Nuwara Eliya town. It proved successful and, in 1918, he submitted a project report (Economics of Hydro Power Utilization in Ceylon), to the Engineering Association, to make his dream come true.

He estimated that the water potential, combined with Maskelioya and Kehelgamuoya, could be diverted to produce electricity to light 100,000 lamps (Hence the name 'Laksa-pahana', for brevity sake 'Laxapana'). The idea was to feed power to the national grid.

The Wimalasurendra power house at Laxapana stands as a monument to the great engineering feat of the national hero, who battled against the then European dominated Engineering Association of Ceylon, to push through his proposal. It did not materialised as expected.

However, in 1923, the colonial Government decided to go ahead with the production of hydro energy, and the PWD was entrusted with the work, but Wimalasurendra was kept aloof from any participation in the project.

Wimalasurendra, frustrated over the bitter treatment, left for England on a long furlough. He came back to Sri Lanka, at the request of the Colonial Secretary in England, who knew his capabilities and expertise in the development of hydro power.

In 1924, he became the Chief Engineer, PWD. His first action was to separate the electrical section of the PWD., and nationalised the Colombo Electric Scheme (established in 1918), to supply power to the Colombo city and the tramways run by Bousteads Ltd. With the establishment of the Department of Government Electrical Undertakings (DGEU) in 1927, a thermal power station was opened in Pettah, in 1929, known as Stanley Power House.

The Maskelioya rises from the hills of Upcot (Samymalay), and the Kehelgamuoya from the hills of Bogawantalawa, and the waters of these two were combined to form the Laxapana-Aberdeen Hydro Project, and it was inaugurated on February 18, 1940, making Wimalasurendra's dream a reality.

When Sir John Kotalawala became the Minister of Power and Highways, under the Donoughmore Constitution, Wimalasurendra was given the incentive to go ahead with the project. This brainchild of Wimalasurendra was originally known as Watawala-Norton Bridge Hydro Scheme.

The present Laxapana Falls, watered by the Maskelioya, has a drop of 115m. (337 ft.). The Aberdeen Falls (sister of Laxapana), watered by the Kehelgamuoya, has a drop of 91m. (296 ft.).

Waters of both these courses flow towards Ginigathhena, then run parallel to each other, and join at Weralu-eliya (Kitulgala), to form the Kelani river, which discharges its confluence into the sea near Colombo.

The historic Laxapana Falls is situated in the village Kiriwan-eliya (near Norton Bridge), within the Ambagamuwa Korale. The power house is located at the old Waggama village. In the midst of high-grown green gold (tea) stands Therberton Group.

A serious tragedy occurred in 1947, during the major flood, when a good number of workmen trapped inside the tunnel conveying water, died. A monument to mark this unfortunate incident, stands near the Norton Bridge Police Station.

In order to prevent any such mishap in the future, a vow was made to god Saman, the tutelary deity of the Sri Pada wilderness, beseeching divine help, and agreeing to illuminate the path to the summit of the Mount, after successful completion of the project, without any damage or loss of lives.

Accordingly the path was lit on March 4, 1950, at an impressive ceremony, in the presence of more than 70,000 devout pilgrims.

Legend has it that when there is less water due to prolonged drought, a golden receptacle appears beneath the bed of the water when it is shallow. When this phenomenon happens, rain comes down in torrents, through divine providence, inundating the lowland areas.

Wimalasurendra retired from public service in 1930, and took to politics. He successfully contested the State Council seat for Ratnapura. Now, he, with courage and conviction, took steps to implement the hydro electric power project, which he earnestly began in 1923, at the age of 49 years.

He later wrote "I am happy that I have lived to see my ambition brought to fruition, and I am able to see, in the sunset of my life, that all my efforts have not proved futile".

He died on August 10, 1953, having lived for 79 years. In regard to progress made in the utilisation of hydro power, credit must go to Wimalasurendra, who pioneered to achieve the objective. With the rural electrification projects, electricity lights many a home in the interior of the island. Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) distributes the power fed into the national grid.

The Sinharaja forest block, the Seven Virgin Hills (Saptakanya or Anchimalay), Bena-samanalagala, Kunudiyaparvata, Laxapana-kanda, are some of the noted mountains in the Laxapana range. The distance by road from Colombo to Norton, via Ginigathhena, is 117 km. (73 miles). Hatton is the terminus for railway traffic.

Had Wimalasurendra lived for some more years, he would be happy to see the progress made in generating hydro power with a high megawatt output.

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