Mesmerizing Matara | Sunday Observer

Mesmerizing Matara

Dondra Lighthouse
Dondra Lighthouse

 When we desire to explore the heritage and culture of the South of our island we often become fixated on Galle, owing to the fame of her colossal Fort. Yet, this time I was determined to appreciate and explore Matara, and I was indeed rewarded with some wonderful travel memories. I set off with Eranda on Friday morning, avoiding the rush hour traffic. Driving along the Expressway around 7.30 am itself is a serene experience, and without realizing that we had almost covered 160 kilometers we were in Matara in 2 hours. Thus, the Expressway becomes a vital link in connecting destinations. My first stop was Paravi Dupatha (Island) located near the main bus stand area. It is connected to the main road by an iron bridge. Walking on the bridge we encountered some strong sea breeze. The small temple on the island was full of devotees as this was the day after Poson Poya. Buddhist flags were fluttering. The view of the ocean is amazing. Some marine birds fly above us.

Mysterious statue

Eranda told me about another religious legend in Matara, centered on a statue. I had to check this out, so we drove another 400 meters and parked at St.Marys Shrine, which is also venerated as the Catholic bastion of Matara. The morning sunlight penetrating through the stained glass windows increased the spiritual aura within this sanctum. At the rear of the church there is a side entrance and I spotted the grotto where the statue of blessed Mary was kept. According to ancient church records the image was made in the 17th century using ash wood.

Around 500 years ago the statue suddenly washed ashore and the people brought it to the parish priest. It is recorded, the same year there was a cholera epidemic that claimed many lives but when the people had prayed and taken the statue on procession the disease ceased. In 1911 the Bishop of Galle Rev.Dr. Van Reeth wanted the minor damage on the statue repaired and transported it by ship to Europe. After the repairs the image was sent in a wooden crate in the ship MV Beachy.

The ship encountered a raging storm and crashed somewhere in England and the statue was lost. Rev. Van Reeth subsequently visited Belgium and the statue was traced there. The elated Bishop parcelled the statue and sent it on board the vessel Princess Alice. To everyone’s surprise the ship caught fire, and the statue was lost again. Finally, on November 12, 1912 the blessed image was returned to the Matara Shrine, to the joy of thousands. The final saga of this statue culminated with the 2004 Tsunami. As turbulent waves crashed onto the church the Parish priest saw the statue being uprooted and cast into the sea. A few weeks later after prayers he was walking on the beach when a messenger told him that the image was found close to Browns Hill. Again the congregation was overjoyed. So this statue was lost at sea four times and found her way back to her faithful parish.

From here we drove about 2 kilometers to find our accommodation. The first impression of Amaloh by Jetwing is stunning. The main building of this boutique hotel opens out to the blue sea. The architecture resonates with influences from the Dutch era, with six large white columns and a high wooden ceiling. The property has 20 deluxe and standard rooms that redefine luxury. Eranda suggested we drive to see the Matara Fort, before the noon sun becomes too hot. So by 11.20 am we were within this fortified garrison, which was once the administrative hub of the Dutch. One of the first buildings that captivate you on Esplanade Road is the Old Dutch church built in 1706 incorporating Doric designs. The church was closed, I was a bit disappointed.

Dutch fortifications

From here we proceeded outside the main Fort and drove a short distance to the Star Fort, built in 1763, which is the smallest Dutch Fort in Sri Lanka. Shaped like a star the Fort was built as a forward defence post to the larger Fort.

The Star Fort is guarded by a wooden draw bridge. Above its entrance there is a coat of arms and the words Redoute.

Van.Eck. I stood on the bridge and looked into the green waters of the moat. I spotted some black turtles. Inside the Fort there is a small museum. It was interesting to see two ancient rifles that had to be filled with gunpowder.

The Fort has an inner defence wall that covers 360 degrees with cannon mounts opening outward. We pass the Nupe Market, which is an Old Dutch building with a massive courtyard in the centre.

It was time to head back to the hotel for lunch. When you are in Matara you must eat fish, and Jetwing offers a succulent ambul thiyal (fish marinated and cooked in goraka).

After a brief rest we ventured out to see one of the famous devales in Matara. The province has many ancient Buddhist temples including Umangala Raja Maha Vihara (3rd century), Athkanda Temple (5th century), Devundara Devale (8th century) and Galgane Devale (8th century). The Devundara or Vishnu Devale is set amid a large garden.

There is a majestic stupa and another shrine painted in bright blue. The place is a riot of colour. Pilgrims have journeyed from every part of Sri Lanka. They offer trays laden with fruits to the kapu mahathmaya- a temple custodian who invokes prayers and chants, clad in white sarong and shirt. To the right of this temple are 7 mini shrines dedicated to various gods. Vishnu devale has 2 resident elephants: Kalana and Lasandha. The elephants remind us of the regal splendour of these bygone kingdoms. A third elephant named Abaya had passed away some years ago. From here we navigate to the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka, the point of Dondra.

We are keen to see the famous lighthouse built in 1890. The massive white tower stands like a sentinel to the southern coast. Thankfully, the gates are open and we are greeted by the lighthouse keeper Harischandra who has served faithfully for more than two decades. The Dondra Lighthouse at 160 feet (with 8 floors) is the tallest in Asia and still fully operational. Her main light empowered with 40 bulbs can illuminate the night with a visual range of 25 kilometers. There is rotating radar that is at the top. This is manned by Navy personnel. The lighthouse crew have been instrumental in identifying ships in distress. They have also helped many stranded local fishing vessels guiding them to safety. The last venue for the day was a visit to Polhena beach, where the shore remains clean.

The next morning I was presented a mild challenge. About 500 meters from Jetwing hotel is a small island. I set off on a plastic kayak, with the lifeguard. The sea around this lovely island is about 5 feet in depth. The island has total privacy and is ideal for a picnic. It felt awesome to be in the middle of the ocean, yet so close to the shore.

I did not have time to go whale watching. I hear this is another fun adventure and you have to set off around 5 am. Matara is a destination full of history. As I stood on the island I reflected on the beautiful words I remember seeing at St. Mary’s Church which said, ‘There are no endings, only pauses when we look for new beginnings”.