A Journey to the Heart of Our Civilization

By Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda

In Search of the Malwatu Oya

” We kept travelling every day, from morning till night, still along by the river side, which turned and winded… Here and there, by the side of this river is a world of stone pillars, standing upright and other heaps of hewn stones, which I suppose formerly were buildings: and in three or four places are the ruins of bridges, built of stone: some remains of them yet standing upon stone pillars. In many places are points built into the river like wharves, all of hewn stone… ”


An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon (1681) – Robert Knox


The second longest river in Sri Lanka (102 miles), the Malwatu River is also the most historic. Connecting the northwest coast with the city of Anuradhapura, the capital of the country for over 15 centuries, it is of enormous significance to the story of civilization in Lanka.


Starting from the holy mountain of Ritigala, the Malwatu Oya flows across the face of the Raja Rata to enter the Bay of Mannar, near Arippu. As it nears the sea, it becomes the Aruvi Aru. The second largest river basin in Sri Lanka, it lies at the very heart of Sri Lanka’s ancient past.


The historical and archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlers followed the course of the Malwatu Oya, before finally reaching Anurudhapura. The Mahavamsa tells us that most of the early villages, Upatissagama, Anuradhagama, took root on the banks of the river. The waters of the Malwatu Oya nourished the Bassawakulame, the first great tank of Anurudhapura. Built by King Pandukabhaya (474 BC – 367 BC),


the Bassawakulame marked the beginnings of ancient Lanka’s great irrigation civilization. In 5th century CE, the Malwatu Oya was dammed and diverted by King Dhatusena (459-477) to feed the Yodha Wewa or Giant’s Tank, one of the great wonders of ancient engineering. The canal which carried water from the river to the tank was 8 miles long and still exists today.


It is also believed that the Malvatu Oya also provided a direct water route from the port of Mantai or Mantota to the ancient capital, Anuradhapura. Situated near the mouth of the Malwatu Oya, in ancient times Mantota was the largest and most important port in the Indian Ocean. Traders from Greece, Rome, Persia, Egypt, China and East Asia were regular visitors to this great port, which was the hub of the trade between the East and the West.


Despite its importance very little is known about this historic river. The last person to explore the Malwatu River was the Englishman Robert Knox in 1679, who followed its path to escape the power of King of Kandy, Rajasimha II (1629 – 1687 CE).


Knox and his companion followed the course of the river from Anuradhapura to Arippu, often walking backwards, so that they could not be tracked. Starting where Knox’s journey ended, at Arippu where the river flows into the sea, the aim is to row up the Malwatu Oya in canoes and over the next year, trace its course by boat, possibly all the way to Anuradhapura.


Each canoe will carry a photographer, Tharindu Amunugama and Hiranya Malwatta, who will record the sights of the journey. The objective is to discover the surrounding areas and document the beginnings of Ancient Lanka in words and pictures – its History, its Environment, its Irrigation Systems and its Ancient Village Life. It is hoped that this will lead to a Nationwide Exhibition of Photographs which will Explore the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Civilization.


Although so many of Sri Lanka’s ancient ruins have been extensively documented, its rivers, the lifeblood of its fabled irrigation culture, have never really been explored. The intention is to draw attention to the importance of Sri Lanka’s rivers as the foundation of its civilization, and in doing so, to promote its history, culture and environment on the national and international stage.


This is a Journey which has never been attempted in the modern era. The Malwatu Oya has never been explored or studied in its own right. Without it, the civilization of Anuradhapura may never have come into being.


A Journey in Search of the Malwatu Oya is a Journey to the Heart of Our Civilization.




This journey will be done in stages by canoe, depending on the navigability of the river & the nature of the terrain.


I) Arippu to Madhu II) Madhu-Tantrimale III) Tantrimale to Anuradhpura


It will begin with the 1st and easiest stage of the journey, from Arippu to Madhu. This will commence in the 1st week of April. Stage II and Stage III will be done over the course of the year once all the administrative arrangements have been made.




Nationwide Exhibition of Photographs:


With Accompanying Text in National Languages to Explore the Malwatu Oya – History, Environment, Irrigation Civilization and Ancient Village Life of Surrounding Area. Sri Lanka has never had a Photographic Exhibition seen from the Water and No Photographic Exhibition has ever had an accompanying narrative in more than One Language.




Historian, Art Historian & Academic Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda.


Photographers will include Mr. Tharindu Amunugama and Ms. Hiranya Malwatta.





Canoes & Transport provided by Mr. Eduard Hempel of Tamba Villas and Hempel Holdings.

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