The ancient civilisation of Sri Lanka was built upon the irrigation technology which was developed by the ancient engineers. Along with the development of the methods and techniques in managing massive water bodies, the rulers also developed intrinsic and networks and techniques to distribute the water to maximum possible areas.
Based on the historical evidence, Elahera Amuna (Elahera Anicut) across Amban Ganga (River) built by king Vasabha (65-109 AD) is part of the very first large scale irrigation project on ancient Sri Lanka. This is also the largest amuna out of the current ruins of ancient Sri Lanka .
Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, records that king Vasabha had built ‘Mucela Viharaya‘ in ‘Tissavaddhamanaka’ and donated part of the water of the canal ‘Alisara‘ (35:84-85). This Mucela temple is thought to be the ruined temple close to the ‘Kaudulla Wewa‘ in Polonnaruwa. ‘Alisara‘ was the ancient name used for Elahera.
King Vasabha was the first king to transform the smaller irrigation systems to large scale in irrigation networks. To donate the income of the ‘Elahera Ela’ to a temple 50 kilometers way from the anicut, this cannal must have reached the ‘Kaudulla Wewa‘ and Minneriya area, traveling for over 50 kilometers even during the 1st century.
‘Pujawaliya‘ records that king Mahasen (276-303) had built a dam across “Karaganga” (කරාගඟ) and built the ‘Thalawathu Ela” (තලවතු ඇළ) to divert water to his newly built ‘Minihiri Wewa‘ (මිනිහිරි වැව) Wewa.
ඔහු මල් මහසෙන් රජ රජ ව යකුන් අහිතින් ද මෙහෙ ගෙන මිනිහිරි වැව බඳවා, කරාගඟැ මිනිහිරි වැවට ෆිය යන ලෙස අමුණු බඳවා, දෙවියන් පෑ සලකුණෙන් තලවතු ඇළ බිඳුවා, දිය පාවා, විසි දහසක් කුඹුරු කරවා ……පූජාවලිය
By cross referencing information on Karaganga in the Mahavamsa, you find that this refers to current Amban Ganga. Mihihiri is the Minneriya. Therefore we can see that king Mahasen had increased the height of Elalera Amuna and built an canal called ‘Thalawathu Ela‘ to bring the water to Minneriya Wewa. Currently this canal is called ‘Thalwathura Oya‘ and we can see that this canal has been built using the natural contours of the land.
Culavamsa (the latter part of Mahavamsa) credits king Agbo II (608-618) for the large reservoirs of ‘Ganthala Wewa‘, ‘Walas Wewa‘ and ‘Girithalawa (Giritale) Wewa‘. Giritale Wewa is fed by an seperate canal originating from a point close to the start of Thalawathu Oya at Elahera Canal and the Kanthale Wewa has been fed by a canal dug from the Minneriya Wewa. Therefore it can assumed that while building the new canal from Elahera Ela, king Agbo II would have repaired and strengthened the Elahera Amuna too.
He also built the Gangatata, Valahassa and Giritata tanks. He enlarged the Mahapali Hall and set up a canoe for the gifts of rice …..Culavamsa (42:67)
Culavamsa then records that Vijayabahu I (1070-1110) repaired the damaged Thalawathu Oya (Tilavattuka Oya) and Filled the Minneriya reservoir again. He too would have repaired the Elahara Dam while rebuilding the Thalawathu Oya.
By building dams here and there on brooks, rivers and streams the Sovereign made his kingdom fruitful. While damming (anew) the damaged Tilavatthuka canal he filled the Manihira tank with water.Culavamsa (60:52)
The new Sinhala Mahavamsa, records the list of major irrigation schemes repaired by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186) which includes the Minneriya Wewa and the Giritale Wewa. Therefore its possible that he too would have repaired this anicut while restoring the above two reservoirs.
හේ තෙමේ මින්නේරිය නම් මහ වැවද, වහාදාර ගල්ල නම් වැවද, සුවන්තිස් නම් වූ ද, දුරතිස්ස නම් වූ ද, කළා වැව නම් වූ ද, බමුණුගම නම් වූ ද, නෙරළු මහටැම් නම් වූ ද, රෙහෙර නම් වූ ද, එසේම ගිරිතළා නම් වූ ද යන මේ වැව් ද, කිඹුල්හෙබ් වැවය, කණු වැවය, මහනම්මත නම් වැවය, වඩුන්නා නම් වැවය, මා දැත්තා නම් වැවය, කනගම් වැවය, වීර වැවය, වලස් වැවය යන නම් වූ ද, සුරමාන පහන්ගම නම් වූ වැව්ද, කළුවැල් නම් වැවද, කාහල්ලි නම් වූ වැවද, අඟගම් නම් වැවද, ගිලිපත්කඩ නම් වැවද, මදගු නම් වැවද, යන මේ ජීර්ණ වූ වැවක් පෘථීවීශවරතෙම ප්රකෘතිමත් කරවුයේය.මහාවංශය සිංහල (79:31-38)
Currently this ancient marval is located at the same location where the new dam is built. The current remains are found on the right bank of Amban Ganga river inside the jungle. It can be assumed that the dam would have extended up to the current dam, which is 122.5 meters along. The remaining part of the dam is about 62 meters long. This is approximately about 45% of its original length. Based on the calculations this dam would have been about 185 meters long. This is the only large scale ancient stone dam which has reasonably survived destruction over time.
The dam is built over a natural rock across the Amban Ganga river. You can see the rock bed has been cut to fit in the first layer of large blocks of rocks. Large square holes indicate that vertical stone pillars have been used at regular intervals along the structure to provide additional strength. Elahera Amuna is not built across the river at a right angle. The sam starts from the right bank and travels through the water perpendicular the the river for 62 meters and then curves upstream. This could be due to the way the bed rock had spread or to manage the pressure from the waterflow of the river. At the highest point of the remains today, this dam is 4.6 meters high from the base. The dam rises in height as it travels towards the center of the river and the highest point is found at this end. This is the tallest ancient stone dam found so far and its possible the lost section of the dam may have even be taller. The inner wall of the dam has been completed as in steps to minimize the pressure of the water damaging the dam. The bottom is the widest. This stepwise stone construction has been further protected by a clay brick wall, 4-5 bricks thick.
The two banks connecting the ancient dam has been re-enforced with a stone wall known as Sadapanawa which plays a similar role to Ralapanawa of a bunt of the ancient reservoirs. The Sadapanawa is built out of blocks of rock along the river bank slowly slanting inwards towards the bottom. The purpose of this wall is to protect the river banks from erosion thus weakening the dam. The corners of the dam is solidly connected to the Sadapanawa structure. The Sadapanawa of the right river bank can be clearly seen today. This stone structure has been built to a length of 200 meters upstream from the dam. The Sadapanawa has been built above the natural height of the river bank and it has been observed that earth bough from elsewhere has been used to fill the river banks to the height of Sadapanawa and to enable to increase the height of the dam.
2 kilometers above this amuna a large gravity dam has been built and a reservoir created. Named Moragahakanda Reservoir, this was completed in 2018.
The Visit to Elahera Amuna
We met Vijitha Dissanayake of the Road Development Authority as we stopped to ask the way back to Elahera from Bakamuna. He was with a group of persons engaged in the construction of the road. It so happened that he was known to Aloy and Daya Ranasinghe who had initiated our drive to Elahera. It was a wonderful coincidence to meet a known party in an unfamiliar area.
We invited him to join us for a cup of tea in the nearby tea shop. The men got busy talking of politics in the area. But my mind was on the ‘Gal amuna’ (stone anicut) or the ancient irrigation wonder at Elahera. I asked him if he knew of the ‘Gal amuna’ across the Amban Ganga of king Mahasena’s time. “Yes, it is about half a kilometre inside the Wasgamuwa park”. Dissananyake was more than willing to show us the way.
The new Aban Ganga anicut at Elahera was on the road side, just within the elephant fence separating the Wasgamuwa Park from the main road. The gate to the premises was locked. But as we stopped our vehicle, the guard whose quarters were on the opposite side of the road came out. We asked him if we could go to see the old Gal amuna. He told us that a footpath, discernible enough leads to it. Would we be safe from elephants? we asked. It was approximately 12 noon. “Usually at this time there are no elephants, but you can never say,” he said, confirming our fears. “Mahaththayo, kohomath pravesan wenna” (gentleman any way take care) he warned.
Historical evidence records that the Amban Ganga, a tributary of the Mahaweli Ganga was diverted by the construction of a stone weir across it and water channeled to paddy fields through the Elahara Ela by the reign of king Vasaba (65-109). Later king Mahasen (276-303) extended the Elahara canal to carry water to Minneriya and and the Kaudulla reservoirs. King Vijayabahu (1070-1110) and King Parakramabahu (1153-1186) too had carried out renovations to this irrigation system. Elahera Ela (canal) is sometimes referred to as Yodha Ela .
The British too had carried renovations and built a new weir near the ancient weir. 20 km away from this weir the canal branches off carrying water to Minneriya and Giritale reservoirs at a place called Diyabeduma.
The incredible relic of this original off take where the river was diverted is still to be seen. R.L. Brohier, scholar on our irrigation works says, “This remarkable relic of ancient irrigation is generally assumed to have diverted the waters of the Amban Ganga and to have conducted it ultimately to Thambalagam Bay, linking amongst others the major tanks of Minneriya, Kaudulla and Kantalai.” He further says, “It is today known that mingling its waters with those from other drainage lines tapped on the way, the Elahera canal provided a continuous lifeline to irrigation up to Tambalagam near Trincomalee, 85 miles from the intake.”
Brohier also writes how around 1845, the enthusiasm of three gentleman, Adams, Churchill and Bailey who literally cut their way through a wilderness to discover these abandoned remains of inspiring human skill and human industry.
Now we were on the same quest more than one-and-a-half centuries after, on a terrain much changed and in a time when infrastructure had gained better foothold.
We crossed the new anicut with its well defined concrete walls and boisterous water-rush and walked into the jungle. Very soon we were within the thick twilight of the jungle, with towering trees completely obliterating the brightness of the day. Here and there giant white tree trunks rose to great heights like ghosts in the dark.
Dissanayake stopped at a tree to break a small branch and hang it up on a bough, mumbling a prayer to the gods of the jungle for protection. The bundle of dry branches that already hung there told us that it was a custom of the area that was not taken lightly. Following jungle lore, we took care not to mention words like ‘elephant’ referring to the jungle giants, but instead as ‘our friends’. At one point I accidentally crushed a dry stick under my foot, which made those who were walking a little ahead turn back in terror. Then only I realized the tension that was within us.
From that moment I was almost paranoid, looking all around me at the thick jungle that surrounded us.
Suddenly right in the middle of the path was an inscribed stone column. Slender and a little over the height of a man, the inscription ran throughout on one side. This may be the pillar inscription relating to the diversion of the river by king Mahasena.
At last we came to an abandoned watch-hut which was perched on the bund of the dry river bed. A thick concrete wall was built across the width of the river. It was only further down stream that a dark pool of water could be seen hemmed in by boulders. We crossed along the top of the concrete wall to the other side.
The muddy banks held ample signs of recent elephant crossings. Beyond, the jungle grew thicker and blended into a motley mess of creepers, tall grass, scrub and trees.
From here onwards, there was no pathway. We walked along another portion of concrete wall that continued further into the jungle, and quite by accident discovered parts of a giant stone-dressed wall, well hidden in the scrub wilderness. It was the ancient stone embankment – part of the famed Gal amuna of yore, where stone bricks, dressed perfectly one over the other, still witnessed to its past.
Dissananyake was quite excited. There was no stopping him from creeping into the scrub and from time to time proclaiming ‘mayka balannako!’ (Look at this!). The wall made of perfectly cut gigantic stone bricks fitted flawlessly one on top of another and seemed to stretch to a considerable length and height. At some places huge trees growing close by had their manacle-like roots firmly rooted into its crevices and completely swallowing parts of the wall.
At other points the stones lay fallen in a humongous mess, buried in the jungle.
The exact situation of the stone bund was difficult to make out due to the thick wilderness around. Or maybe, I was disoriented to concentrate, as I saw again the fresh droppings and marks of elephants all around us. As we clambered down one rock wall and another to see a third wall, it made me wonder how the elephants negotiated these embankments, which today seemed to belong to them.
It was a sad scene to observe what remained of the great Gal amuna or rock wall seemingly choking and struggling to survive the jungle tide. A wall and a scheme which once had diverted a large river from its profitless course and thus diffusing wealth and prosperity through a previously barren waste. Many would have been its beneficiaries, sustained by its life giving waters. Generations would have sung its praises.
In fact, this was just one of the many schemes that caused Bailey, (who was Assistant Government Agent of the District of Badulla) to record in one of the ablest reports on irrigation published by order of the Ceylon Government in 1885.
“It is possible, that in no other part of the world are there to be found within the same space, the remains of so many works of irrigation, which are at the same time of such great antiquity and of such vast magnitude as in Ceylon. Probably no other country can exhibit works so numerous and at the same time so ancient and extensive, within the same limited area, as in this Island”.
- Withanachchi, C., 2009. පුරාණ ඇළහැර අමුණ. සමෝධන – සමාජීයවිද්යා මානවශාස්ත්ර පීඨ ශාස්ත්රීය සංග්රහය, pp.103-109.
- Geiger, W., 1912. The Mahavamsa or the Great Chronical of Ceylon Translated in to English. 1st ed. London: Oxford University Press.
- පණ්ඩිත කිරිඇල්ලේ ඤාණවිමල නාහිමි, 1951. මයුරපාද පරිවේණාධිපති බුද්ධ පුත්රයන් වහන්සේ විසින් රචිත පූජාවලිය.
- මහාවංශය (සිංහල), 2010. , 1. Buddhist Cultural Center.
- GEIGER, W., 1928. Culavamsa Being the More Recent Part of Mahavamsa : Volume 1. London: Pali text Society.
- Brohier, R., 1980. Ancient irrigation works in Ceylon. 1st ed. Colombo: Ministry of Mahaweli Development.
- Hydro Heritage of Sri Lanka
- Ancient Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka
- Other Places of Interest Within Close Proximity
Map of Gal Amuna (Stone anicut) in Elahera
The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites
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Driving Directions to Elahera Gal Amuna and Parakrama Inscription
|Route from Colombo to Elahera||Route from Habarana to Elahera|
|Via : Ambepussa – Kurunegala – Dambulla – Galewela – Meewalapatana – Panampitiya – Naula|
distance : 180 km
Travel time : 4-4.5 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
|Via : Dambulla – Lendora – Naula|
distance : 62 km
Travel time : 1 hour
Driving directions : see on google map
|Route from Polonnaruwa to Elahara||Route from Kandy to Elahara|
|Via : Girithale – Bakamuna|
distance : 60 km
Travel time : 1 hour
Driving directions : see on google map
|Via : Matale – Naula|
distance : 76 km
Travel time : 1.5 hour
Driving directions : see on google map