The Walawe Ganga flows into the sea at Godawaya
Our boat slowly glided on the waters of the Walawe Ganga as we searched for the ancient port of Godawaya in the deep south.
Words: Udeshi Amarasinghe | Photography: Menaka Aravinda
We embarked on our journey from the 'Pattiya Waraya', a small fisheries harbour in Ambalanthota.
The banks of the Walawe Ganga were immersed with lush greenery that is home to a variety of avian life. As we ventured forward ensuring that we did not make a noise except for the hum of the boat, we felt like explorers on an adventure.
Birds twittered and the wilderness surroundings engulfed us. A haven for birds, the best time to navigate along the Walawe is in the late afternoon or evening when the birds start to gather on large trees and foliage.
A flock of rain birds created a pretty setting. Purple herons perched on trees suddenly took flight with the approaching boat. We were told that the journey to and back would take about two hours and we would travel a length of 135km. Slowly but steadily we moved peering inquisitively into the thickets. The boat engine was switched off and we started paddling. The swishing of the flowing water and rhythmic sounds of the birds and insects gave a relaxing feel. Though the evening sun was shining brightly, the cooling breeze engulfed our senses.
Soon we came across blue tailed bee-eaters posing in the sun and Brahminy kites soaring in the sky to finally skillfully perch high up on a branch. Darters swished into the water and fluttered out, at times staying for a short time in the water before taking flight. Various types of egrets shone bright white against the lush green backdrop. A pheasant-tailed jacana camouflaged perfectly with the floating lotus leaves.
The river widened as we steadily progressed, wet cormorants glistened in the sunlight and black winged stilts tiptoed across the water with a purple heron following suit. A lone majestic eagle surveyed the surrounding while perched high on a dry leafless tree. The trunk of the tree was speckled with holes that were home to parrots.
Suddenly our boatman gestured that a crocodile had slithered into the water. While we saw the water moving, the only hint of its presence was the mud tracks that had been made on the banks, indicating the crocodile's quick departure into the murky waters of the Walawe. We were told that as the sun goes down, more crocodiles come out and the best time to see them is at night.
A tree full of bats was an interesting sight to see, and as the boat moved, a sudden screech and flutter was the only movement from this colony of bats.
Bird life, the occasional buffalo and shy monitor lizards captured our attention as we progressed farther towards Godawaya. A tree full of bats was an interesting sight to see, and as the boat moved, a sudden screech and flutter was the only movement from this colony of bats.
Suddenly the Walawe widened and we could see the vast blue ocean beyond a sand dune. One side was quite rocky and cacti grew across. When we had reached Godawaya (also spelt as Godawaya). We had actually reached the old river mouth of the Walawe Ganga, which with time had got covered by sand but at times with the changing tide reveals the opening to the sea.
The ancient port of Godawaya was located near the old river mouth of the Walawe Ganga. The pristine white Stupa of the Gota Pabbatha Raja Maha Viharaya stood tall in the evening light and was undoubtedly a beacon of strength to the sailors of yore. As our attempt to approach the temple from the Walawe Ganga was deemed too precarious, we journeyed back to the port to visit by road. The ancient temple was tranquil and quiet as if contemplating its rich history.
A large Nuga tree was at the centre, shading the rock outcrops. Ancient stone pillars lay scattered, clues of its past, while the stone balustrade of a staircase lay hidden in the jungle green. Remnants of a limestone Buddha statue belonging to the 2nd - 3rd Century AD lay in the cover of the Nuga tree. Furthermore, a large rock boulder with a stone inscription protected by a permanent structure is said to provide information about King Gota Pabbatha. There are many stories that are said about this area and some narrate to the ten giant warriors of King Dutugemunu.
Yet, Godawaya was supposed to have been a thriving port during ancient times and was a significant stop on the Silk Maritime Route. The Stupa of the temple is atop a rock massif and can be reached by climbing a flight of steady stairs.The view from here is breathtaking and splendid. What remains today of Godawaya is a small fisheries harbour, a cove, which can be seen from this point. It is said that when the ocean waters recede remnants of Godawaya can be seen. Furthermore, shipwrecks are believed to be present underwater and are yet to be explored. This port had been prominent in transporting elephants from Sri Lanka to Egypt.
While the glory days of Godawaya may be in the past, our journey had taken us along the waters of the great Walawe Ganga to experience avian splendour and finally, to instil in us pride in our ancient heritage.