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Vahalkada Tank: ‘Gateway to the Palace’

Vahalkada is located in the North-Central Province about 20 kilometres North-East of Kabetigollewa. The region is accessible by a seven kilometre long road through Kahatagollawa, a village on the nineteenth kilometre post on the Kebetigollewa-Padaviya road. Vahalkada can also be reached through a longer route from Horowpothana.

The beautiful reservoir at Vahalkada which is of great antiquity is little known. It has not been identified previously with any ancient reservoir but its construction, is generally attributed to King Mahasena. The attribution is correct and it can be identified with Ciravapi or Siri Valahassa Vapi of the chronicles, one of the 16 great reservoirs built by Mahasena (274-301). The Mahavamsa refers to it as Valahassa Vapi. After the original construction, it was enlarged by Aggabodhi II (604-614) and renovated later on several occasions.

The name Vahalkada, means 'Gateway to the Palace'. The reservoir is unique because there are quite a few high mountains on several of its sides. The mountain ranges in almost all other reservoirs are fairly low in height.

Topographical survey

The reservoir was initially re-discovered by H.C.P. Bell in 1891 but Henry Parker has made an allusion to it as 'not a tank of great size'. The initial topographical survey was done by Wickwar in 1898. In 1934, a detailed description of the dilapidated and dysfunctional tank was provided by R.L. Brohier in his seminal work 'Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon'.

The reservoir has been constructed by erecting embankments in between the hilly region known as Mahinna, which runs North-East and South-West at a point known as Yakini Kanda, and the low Sandy ridge known as Godahinna. The length of the artificial embankment is about three miles and thousand feet.

The main supply source of the reservoir is Tavalam Halmllava Oya, a tributary of the Yan Oya. Traces of a fairly wide ancient canal and a diversion weir across the Mora Oya (feeder stream of the Padaviya tank) seem to indicate that a part of the water of the Mora Oya was also diverted to the Vahalkada catchment.

The ancient sluice consisted of two outlets and a tower of brickwork. There had been no man-made spill or Vana at Vahalkada. The excess water had passed through natural rock formations. The topography of the area indicates that the purpose of the reservoir was agricultural irrigation as well as domestic utilization.

Commercial centre

Just as Padaviya, Vahalkada also was a centre of long-distance and regional trade from about the eighth century A.D. to the thirteenth century. Incoming and outgoing commodities to and from the ports in the North, North-West and East passed through Vahalkada. The Vahalkada Tamil inscription datable to the first half of the twelfth century indicates that the town was a centre of commerce where South Indian mercantile communities were active. It refers to the Nanadesi Virapattinum, the ancient Tamil name for Vahalkada. According to the inscription, Nanadesi Virapattinam, established by the Ainnurruvar of the 'thousand directions' declined due to some heavy indemnity or ransom payment made to a certain Kuttiperuman. Kuttiperuman may have been a military chief who ransacked the town. The state of anarchy and uncertainty which prevailed in between the reigns of Vijayabahu I (1070-1111) and Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) of Polonnaruwa provided the setting for chiefs in various regions to exercise their authority through military force.

The inscription also refers to the actions taken by the governing council of the town to uplift the conditions of the commercial centre. The council had decided to waive the taxes on shops in the streets of the town in order to promote trade. From the titles and epithets of the members of the governing council of the Pattinam, it can be gleaned that the three most important professional categories of the town were merchants, warriors and the administrative officers.

The term ‘akkacalai’ mentioned in the inscription is important. It could designate a mint, an artisan manufactory, a community of artisans or a locality occupied by artisans. Whatever the connotation is, it is clear that Vahalkada apart from being a centre of agriculture and trade was also a centre of craft production. The inscription further indicates that there was a customs post set up within the limits of Vahalkada.


Vahalkada Tank. Picture courtesy: Panoramio.com

Restoration work

Along with almost all other reservoirs in Rajarata, the Vahalkada tank had been abandoned after the middle of the thirteenth century. The decline of population and the expansion of the jungle hid this beautiful reservoir from the eyes of civilization. In the course of centuries the bund had been breached at the Mahinna ridge in the Eastern section and the water passed through Tavalam Halmillava Oya to the Yan Oya. By the time Bell, Parker, Wickwar and Brohier re-discovered the reservoir it was covered with jungle and was in a state of disuse.

According to records available at the irrigation engineer’s office at Padaviya, the Vahalkada reservoir had been restored only in 1973 at an estimated cost of Rupees five million three hundred thousand. A further five million one thousand three hundred and thirty three rupees had been spent for providing amenities such as roads and settlement of colonists. The restored reservoir covers an area of two thousand two hundred and fifty seven acres and has a capacity of forty three thousand acre feet. The height of the earth bund ranges from 35 feet to 50 feet. The ancient sluice in the left embankment had been ignored in the restoration work as there had been a leak in the sluice. A new sluice and a distributory canal system has been constructed. After the restoration, one thousand families from nearby Kunchuttu Korale have been settled in the Vahalkada colonization scheme. Each of the families has been allocated two acres of paddy land and one acre of highland.

Archaeological sites

The colonists have been provided with only agricultural implements and planting material. The settlers have been accommodated in eight plots; D (Distributory Canal) 1 to D8. D7 and D8 plots were allocated only in 1993. In addition to paddy and chena cultivation, inland fishing is a source of income in the area.

Several archaeological sites in and around Vahalkada testify to the antiquity of the region. A village called Puhu Divula contains an ancient ritual centre. Below the tank bund, there are traces of ancient buildings.

A relocated sculptured figure of Bahirava and a Tamil slab inscription can be seen near the plaque commemorating the inauguration of the restored reservoir in 1973.Vahalkada sheds light not only on irrigation and agriculture in ancient Sri Lanka, but also on the urbanization process associated with large reservoirs. Places such as these are also important localities for a study of the Dry Zone colonization schemes in the post-independence Sri Lanka.

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