Matara fifty years ago:
Matara located in the Southern region of this paradise island is
undoubtedly one of the most important cities. Matara in the South of Sri
Lanka owes its name to its position.
It was originally known as Maha Thota. It is a sanskrit word derived
from Maha Theertha commonly used to indicate a Ferry. Many called it so,
meaning the great Ferry.
Matara's main claim to fame is river Nilwala which meets the sea at
this point. Hence the name Maha Thota which later came to be known as
Matara. Being a coastal city, it was an easy victim of the foreigners
who gained control of the Maritime provinces.
Portuguese, Dutch and the British had set their feet here at one time
or the other. Archaeological remains show that Matara has been one of
their attractions. Matara Fort, the Star Fort and the Nupe Market are
the famous landmarks.
They are a part of the colonial heritage. The archway into the Fort
which house many official, mostly judicial buildings, the surrounding
ramparts, the clock tower which still remains gives a picture of the
history of foreign occupation.
U. L. A. Gunasekera in his story "The Croc which saved his friend
from the Jaws of death," giving a vivid description of the Fort states
that it was made so by the Dutch colonial Masters who built a high
granite rampart extending from the sea shore to the Nilwala river.
The Dutch fortified it further by building a moat to prevent Sinhala
soldiers entering the Fort." Then the Star Fort on this side of the
river is a fabulous piece of architecture reflecting their wonderful
strategy, in maintaining their position. Nupe Market believed to be the
oldest surviving Dutch building at the other end was a great bazaar full
of trade and business activity.
Still another proud landmark of olden times, the colonial era was the
Matara railway station, which terminates the Southern bound railway
It reminds a by-gone era you can never forget with all the old
vehicles, cars, buggy carts, hackeries etc. parked there, was waiting
the arrival of the commuters to be dropped at their destinations - a
sight very interesting and joyful. I have a pleasant recollection of the
buggy cart, it being the popular mode of transport to school which we
enjoyed very much.
Matara was the most visited city in the South. It had become the
chief city of the Southern born proud people of the region.
As you proceed along Colombo-Matara road to this glorious city you
reach the town limits from where this highway is known as the Broadway
road, leading towards Kotuwegoda across the bridge with the famous bus
stand, the post office, theatre halls, Mosque and the playground at
present named after the person who made his motherland known in the
world with his tremendous sacrifice for sports.
It speaks volumes of an illuminating cricket personality gifted to
Matara, the whole of Sri Lanka and the universe. To journey back on time
before you reach the bridge right opposite the Bodhiya there was the
urban council, police station and the Bank of Ceylon which was
originally the residence of Dr. Lionel Silva.
This road leading to Nupe, Thotamuna, known as the Main street had
rows of shops specialising in textiles and general goods.
On to your left from the Bodhiya was Uyanwatta grounds utilised for
sports activities of the area, the hospital and at the entrance to the
hospital, the famous Star Fort. Near the turn to the hospital there were
fresh fruits in abundance with the fruit-sellers enjoying their
hard-earned money while rendering a service to the passers-by.
Matara was the home to so many races and religions. Town's population
was a mixed one with wide majority, Buddhists. There was a fair number
of non Buddhists who followed their religions in the most peaceful and
There were Buddhist temples, churches and mosques in close proximity
to one another. There were many temples scattered in and around Matara,
rich in cultural tradition.
St. Mary’s Church, Matara
Matara Bodhiya in the heart of the city was a very popular one among
the residents as well as those who go past the sacred place. It is still
fresh in my memory how the father of my friend Shiva, the most near and
dear to me visited the Bodhiya daily taking a cool evening walk in the
evening of his life.
Away from the busy city life was Weherahena - a unique example of
Buddhist culture. There was yet another equally great one at Dondra
which is said to house the Vishnu Devalaya. The devotees in the suburbs
did enjoy the festive season.
Maha Manthreenda was a prestigious centre for religious education
with its concept of Dhamma. The service rendered by these temples for
the propagation of Buddhism was marvellous.
It is with pride that I recall my student days of Matara. My mind
goes back to the flourishing glory of the few leading schools all
situated within the city limits.
To name them - Rahula College, St. Thomas' Girls' and Boys', St.
Servatius, St. Mary's Convent and Sujatha Vidyalaya. Some of them were
fee levying schools, with English as the medium of instruction.
Leading heads such as D. J. Kumarage, Solomensz, Rev. Fr. Joseph
Rajapaksha, Soma Samarasinghe, Regina Balasuriya played a vital role in
making their contribution in the sphere of education having produced
outstanding students who figured prominently in every sphere. Theirs was
hard work filled with devotion. They are remembered with deep gratitude.
Matara had also been blessed with medical personnel of high calibre
performing an enormous service. They were doctors of repute sought after
by patients within the city and the suburbs.
Their establishments, Nursing homes and dispensaries were located
close to one another. Drs. Conderlag Bultgens, S. A. Wikremasinghe,
Mohotty and Karunaratne were a few of them.
There were famous Ayurvedic physicians like Pinidiya, Rupasinghe,
Kirigoris of Nupe, Wijegunawardena of Godagama, famous
Kaluvedamahatmaya, popularly known so, for those who were interested in
traditional Ayurvedic treatment. They deserve to be honoured for their
Matara was in the proud possession of certain distinguished families
and eminent personalities who have left a rich history of their valuable
contribution to society. C. A. Ariyatilleka, Dharmapala, Harischandra,
Justin Wijayawardena, Gunasekaras - Wilfred and Albert, Wijetungas and
Wickremasinghes of Hataramanhandiya did perform a superior service with
their different political ideologies. With the welfare of people
uppermost in their minds, dedicated Ministers Mahanama Samaraweera, B.
Y. Thudawe worked hard towards prosperity.
They left behind a legacy that cannot be erased. In Matara which I
saw 50 years ago - a top achiever in the field of industry in this elite
group was Harischandra who spread it islandwide and beyond too.
They all have left a memory so valuable which will not fade away with
the passage of time. Matara also inherits a magnificent historical
background with regard to langauge and literature. Munidasa Kumarantunga
a world renowned writer born in the vicinity of Matara, with his
passionate devotion brought about a Renaissance in truly "Hela Spirit."
It was kept up by professional patriots like Amarasiri Gunawardena,
Gamini Thilakawardena, C. Coporahewa, D. V. Richerd Silva and K. W.
Pagnapala. Their (Hela Haula) contribution to keep the torch burning
should be admired and appreciated.
Now back to Nilwala - Nilwala is one of the biggest rivers winding
its way through the outskirts providing irrigation to a countless number
of paddy fields as the villages mostly depended on agriculture. It had
some bathing spots encircled by wooden fences where people used to enjoy
bathing, go on boat trips watching beautiful scenery.
It is only in Nilwala that you find the grateful crocodiles of the
type that miraculously rescued Upali Gunasekera - a wonderful
personality brave and courageous who entertained them from "Lands End
his home steeped in legend.
Matara was surrounded by beautiful villages located in the calm,
quiet suburbs with mixed crops, paddy lands, hills and green woods. In
some places along side the road there were structures known as bunds
(dams) built to regulate the flow of water to benefit the farmer - a
notable feature of the colonial era.
Little more detail about a village close by - Nadugala since I was
fortunate to spend a couple of years of my childhood there. Nadugala was
famous for its Kirala trees and it's foliage.
Most beautiful rare birds could be seen there. It was blessed with a
cool climate with well water for daily use. Next to Nadugala was
Watagedara with it's historic temple said to be the oldest, built by
early royalty, was frequently visited by my family.
Sweet fragrance of the days gone by still linger on the glory and the
pride of place that Matara occupied may go on forever.
St. Mary's church of Matara enshrining the miraculous statue of the
Blessed Virgin. Many with child, statue lost in the sea thrice and
miraculously found safe and sound, specially during tsunami 2004 is of
great religious significance drawing devotees in thousands from all over
the island for the annual feast held in September.
It takes me back to the time I was serving St. Servatius College
under the late Reverend Father Joseph Rajapaksha under whom we were
showered with love and kindness. I remember so well how this dedicated
personality made arrangements for the annual feast with utmost devotion.
Let this be a tribute to him for the great service rendered.