Sri Lanka’s reservoir building technology was at its peak during the mid Anuradhapura Kingdom era to Polonnaruwa Kingdom Era ( 1017-1236) and most of the largest reservoirs in the country was built during this period. The Parakrama Samudraya, is the the largest, constructed with a 14 kilometer dam encompassing 5 reservoirs within it was built by King Parakramabahu the Great during the 12th century. But some other gigantic reservoirs such as Minnerya Wewa and Kaudulla Wewa are some of the earlier work belong to the 3rd Century.
The Minneriya Wewa was built by the great reservoir builder, King Mahasen (276-303) who ruled in Anuradhapura. This reservoir occupied 4670 acres and it’s strong 13 meter tall dam running along a distance of 2km held over 20 billion gallons of water. The water arrived from Mahaveli River, 48 kms away, along the Elahara canal built by the King Vasabha (65-109) before his time.
This, along with other reservoirs created an irrigation paradise in the east. It was this growth in agriculture that opened up the massive trade with South East Asia through the Trincomalee harbour. From then onwards, Trincomalee harbour became one of the busiest in the region.
In 1820 AD, British Inland Revenue Officer Ralf Bachaus recorded that the whole area can be irrigated if this reservoir is restored. In 1856, British Governor Henry Ward recorded that it must have been an amazing reservoir which had been built very strong. They recorded the beauty of the vegetation, the wildlife which surrounded the reservoir.
The Mahavamsa, The great chronicle of Sri Lanka, states that Mahasen constructed sixteen large reservoirs and two irrigation canals. The largest among these is the Minneriya Wewa about which Henry Ward, a governor of Sri Lanka when it was a British crown colony, had stated
No wisdom and no power in the ruler can have forced such efforts even upon the most passive oriental nations, without general persuasion that the work was one of paramount necessity and that all would participate in its benefits…….
The waters from this reservoir changed the landscape of Minneriya so much, when Mahasen passed away, he was deified by people in Minneriya popularly know as ‘Minneri Deviyo’ or ‘Manasen Deviyo’ and a Devale dedicated to him still survives on the dam of Minneriya Wewa .
Minneriya Wewa is also set deep in the folklore and legends. One of the traditional tales suggests that after King Mahasens’s death, when a prolonged drought took toll of the country and unfavorable seasons for cultivation produced famine and disease, the people of Minneriya turned to their great leader who was said have supernatural powers to carry out such mammoth tasks and made offerings to Mahasen Deviyo begging for his protection.
King Mahsen was a controversial figure in the history of Sri Lanka. Misguided by his teacher, he destroyed the Maha Viharaya of Anuradhapura, the center of of Theravada Buddhism. He used the material from this temple to build a competing temple Jethavanaramaya where the Mahayana Buddhism was practiced.
As told by an villager in Polonnaruwa, according to legend, Mahasen had a sister call Princess Bisobandara. She fell in love with a common man and Mahasen, enraged by this affair chased away princess Bisobandara from the palace to live in exile with the husband.
Seven years after Mahasen stared work on the Minneriya Wewa which was to be his greatest achievement of all, he was still unable complete it with the massive bund breaching at the same place every time the work was nearing completion. Then one of the sooth Sayers in palace informed him that this breaching was due to a evil spirit who was angered for not offering him a sacrifice and this could only be avoided by making a human sacrifice. This was no normal sacrifice which had be done, but he had to sacrifice a prince.
Mahasen was horrified of the thought of sacrificing one of his sons, but then he remembered that the princess Bisobandara now had a son who was living in exile with his mother. The king ordered his chief minister to bring the prince and carry out the sacrifice. The minister who was fond of this child, instead killed a wild bore wrapped it with a cloth and dropped it to the pit where the bund was breached. The workers soon covered this body with earth and started building the dam with the body buried inside.
Finally the dam was completed without a further incident and when the day of the ceremonial opening approached, the king was grieved by the act he had done to satisfy the daemon. When the chief minister realized this he disclosed his secret and informed that the son of Princess Bisobandara was well and alive. Thrilled by this news, he decided to forgive his sister and invited her for the grand opening ceremony of of his most proud achievement in his life.
It is said that Bisobandara attended this ceremony and the Mahasen showed her his achievement with great pride, she told him, My King, I too have not been idling while in exile. I have built a greater reservoir than this with the help of people and took him to show her achievement, the Great Kaudulla Wewa.
Although the history gives credit of building the Kaudulla Wewa to King Mahasen, even today one of the roads leading the Kaudulla Bund from Habarana – Minneriya Road carries the name of this forgotten princess, Bisobandara.
- Ancient Reservoirs of Sri Lanka
- Ancient Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka
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Map of the Minneriya Wewa
The marker points to approximate location. See travel directions above.
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Traveling to Minneriya Wewa
Route from Habarana to Minneriya Wewa
|Through : habarana – minneriya road|
Distance : 25 km
Travel time : 35 minutes
Driving directions : see on google map