Malwatu Oya Where civilisation was born
If rain is nature’s way of gifting and preserving life, a river must compare to paradise itself for all living things. Naturally, great civilisations around the world were born and nourished alongside great rivers. The ancient civilisation of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is no exception. It is believed that settlers from the Indian sub-continent first entered the country from its North-Western shores and settled alongside the river Malwatu Oya in 5th century B.C.
Malwatu Oya is the second longest river in Sri Lanka. A direct translation of the name would be ‘the river of flower gardens’. It is true that this river in certain areas is dotted with flowers fallen from trees and is quite fit for its poetic name. The river is truly a magnificent sight to behold with varying terrains and even varying levels of water. Starting from the holy mountain of Ritigala, this historic river flows for 102 miles across some of the driest parts of the country, the ‘Dry Zone’, and ends its journey close to Mannar in the North-Western coast.
According to ancient chronicles as well as archaeological evidence, the earliest Sinhalese settlements have been established near and around the mouth of the Malwatu Oya, and over time, have gradually moved upstream and stretched into the inner parts of the country. Since this was the dry zone of the island, water was scarce farther away from the river. People needed to stay close to the river waters for their day-to-day living.
Eventually, the settlements expanded and there were more and more mouths to feed on the river banks. The increase in the number of people meant that they had to move away from the river and into new territory, but water was always a necessity. The new lands needed to be cultivated, but for this purpose, the ancient Sinhalese learned to build lakes. The manmade lakes at first were very small in size, but were sufficient for their agricultural requirements at the time. Over time, these manmade lakes, or Wewa as the Sinhalese call them, became larger and larger in size.
The first great capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura, was established by King Pandukabhaya in 4th century B.C. The geographical location of the capital was such that the river Malwatu Oya flowed right through the new great city. By this time the Sinhalese had become advanced in their knowledge and ability to build lakes and created the first large-scale lake of the country. Abhaya Wewa, also known today as Basawakkulama, was built by King Pandukabhaya using the waters of the Malwatu Oya.
After this point in history, for centuries, many of the ruling kings of the Anuradhapura kingdom built even more lakes for the use of the growing population in Anuradhapura and the kingdom as a whole. Malwatu Oya was central to all irrigation work and to the agricultural activities going on during this period. As the kingdom became wealthier, the great kings devoted their time, energy and riches to build great stupas and colossal monuments to uplift Buddhism in the country. There came into existence numerous Buddhist temples for the use of the many thousands of Buddhist monks that lived in Anuradhapura. The great capital that was born alongside and nourished from the Malwatu Oya lasted for 14 centuries and was truly glorious during its time.
Giants’ Tank (Yodha Wewa in Sinhalese) in what is now Mannar district, is the second largest manmade lake in the country. This technological marvel of a wewa was built by King Dhatusena of the Anuradhapura kingdom in 5th century A.D., using the waters of the Malwatu Oya. Irrigation techniques of the ancient Sinhalese are quite different from modern day ones. A remarkable difference is that any manmade lake, canal or other system was engineered so that it could be an asset to, and part of the natural environment, instead of existing separately and taking much needed natural resources away from the environment solely for the use of mankind. Ancient irrigation systems were not selfishly made and would give a lot to the natural world.
Dhatusena built a winding canal to carry the waters of the Malwatu Oya for 17 miles to the Giants’ Tank, when the direct distance was a mere 7 miles. As a result, the water flows extremely slowly without harming the surrounding environment and acts like a natural rivulet that nourishes a whole expanse of land in its passing.
Mannar region is one of the driest and most arid places in Sri Lanka, but the ancient irrigation systems of the Malwatu Oya had transformed the surrounding areas into lush green forests with their own ecosystems. Giants’ Tank had given birth to a sprawling wilderness next to it and is named ‘Giants’ Tank Sanctuary’ today. Agriculture in the region thrived in this period. Even now, Mannar boasts of rice cultivation that can be seen for miles. Thanks to the ancient irrigation works that are still functioning, Malwatu Oya lies in the heart of all this prosperity.
During the glorious days of the Anuradhapura kingdom, there was a busy sea port called Mantai near the mouth of the Malwatu Oya. Traders from around the world came to this port on business. The river route was used for travel to and from the capital, Anuradhapura. The commercial activities made the kingdom richer and Malwatu Oya made it all possible.
Sri Lanka is an agricultural society even today and its culture is tied to rivers and lakes. The river bank or the lake shore is where people gather in the evenings to chitchat. That is where children play while swimming and bathing. Drive along any part of the country and you will see rivers, canals, manmade lakes and rice fields everywhere. Sri Lankans are known to take a dip in a river or a lake whenever they go on road trips within the country. As in ancient times, they are drawn to water today. Rivers are irresistible for them. But one river, the Malwatu Oya, will always stand out as the place where civilisation was birthed and nourished best in Sri Lanka. This is the place where Sri Lankan history began.
Hiranya Malwatta studied Physical Sciences at University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and then obtained a Master’s degree in Computer Science from University of Colombo School of Computing. In the early days of her career, she worked as a software engineer. She then changed careers and is now a full-time photographer and a film director.
If rain is nature’s way of gifting and preserving life, a river must compare to paradise itself for all living things. Naturally, great civilisations around the world were born and nourished alongside great rivers. The ancient civilisation of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka is no exception. It is believed that settlers from the Indian sub-continent…