Between Colombo and Galle there exists a beautiful river called Madu Ganga in Balapitiya which offers a glimpse of how it has become a part of the life of the people in the area .
In the outset Madu Ganga is considered as Sri Lanka’s second largest wetland consisting of 28 islands including two main islands providing shelter to 215 families.
Over the past generations Madu Ganga has played an important role in providing food and shelter and of course providing easy access to the main land via small wooden boats.
During the pre colonization period Madu ganga was used as one of the main water ways connecting cities and ancient Sinhala Kingdoms.
The main treasure of Madu Ganga is its mangroves that act as a bio-lock to the area in giving protection to the variety of aquatic plants and animal life. They provide a home for different kinds of aquatic plants, crabs, shrimps, fish, various invertebrates and other animal life including crocodiles .
According to villagers the main secret of the Madu Ganga is the tide. On any given day during the low tide the sea water comes inland and mixes with fresh water and in the evening it is the other way around – the magic of nature .
Villagers say that many generations ago, the Madu Ganga flowed by peaceful villages . People had a very basic life style and everything was fulfilled through Madu Ganga by means of agriculture and fishing. Strangely despite the rapid development in the country most people living in and around the Madu Ganga still engage in traditional methods of catching fish such as use of yoth and other small nets. Shrimp farming is popular here. For that they make use of the traditional method of laying separators made out of bamboo. In the night the fishermen light kerosene lamps and place it in a trap box. According to fishermen the shrimp follow the light of the lamp and get trapped in the box. Today shrimp farming has become a good source of income, but is a dying profession in Madu Ganga.
Shrimp farmer David Silva has been engaged in this trade for the past 30 years and sees an end to this after his death.
” I have been engaged in shrimp farming over the past 30 years and there were many people doing this to earn money. But today there are only 10 people like me actually doing this job- others have either passed away or switched to another profession due to the factors threatening the existence of shrimp farming or ‘Ja- kotu'” he said.
According to David the influx of motorized boats has gravely affected the growth and continuation of the traditional way of shrimp farming. “These motor boats drive fast damaging our bamboo separators. On the other hand Shrimps lay their eggs in the mangroves and they are disturbed by the fast moving boats.” he said.
Taking tourists on boat rides is a growing business in the Madu Ganga. Everyday local and foreign tourists come there to go on boat rides which take a couple of hours. Traveling by boat is a good way for tourists to witness and discover the real beauty of Madu Ganga.
key : Madu Ganga River Safari,Mangrove Safari, Madu Ganga Boar Ride
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Map of Mangroves of Madu Ganga
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Traveling Directions to Mangroves of Madu Ganga
Route from Colombo to Mangroves of Madu Ganga
|On : Southern Highway – Kurundugahahathakma Exit – Balapitiya Road|
distance : 101 km
Travel time : 2 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
Cruising down Madu Ganga
Struck by wanderlust, in March this year I explored the Madu Ganga (off Balapitiya) and its enchanting islets. My base was Kurunduwatta, a mile from Gintota, where I was hosted by my old friend-Lakshman Edirisinghe (Surveyor and Court Commissioner) and his charming wife, Lalitha. Lakshman’s friend, Justin de Silva from Unawatuna (also a Surveyor and Court Commissioner), took us on our expedition in his car.
From Galle Road, near the Pategamgoda junction, we took a road going past the railway station and came upon the serene waters of the Madu Ganga nestling amidst the mangroves.
A concrete bridge, 1200 feet long (used by push bikes, motorcycles, hand-tractors and three wheelers) spanned the river at Talduwa connecting Gonduwa and Maduwa.
At the Talduwa boatyard we met Mr. H. Gunadasa de Silva of Maduwa who was to accompany us on our trip. A social worker and environmentalist, he is the founder President of the Saviya Development Foundation of Balapitiya.
This Galle-based NGO has undertaken a mangrove rehabilitation project in Madu Ganga and works with the Central Environmental Authority and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
History and legend
The Madu Ganga is rich in history and legend and many were the fascinating stories Mr. de Silva told us during our trip. What is today known as Madu Ganga was in years past called Welitota.
It is said that the Madu Ganga had 64 islets but only 23 are to be found today. The largest of these was called Maha Duwa which is currently Maduwa.
Many are the references to Welitota in verse and prose. The epic Sinhala-Sandeshas (message poems) such as the ‘Tissara Sandeshaya’ (lines 67-68), ‘Gira Sandeshaya’ (lines 109-110)and ‘Paravi Sandeshaya’ (77th line) of the Dambadeniya period of King Parakrama Bahu II (13th century A.D.) all extol its beauty.
What we know as Balapitiya and its environs up to Thotagamuwa were known as Welitota. The other ancient landmark is the Welitota Ambalama which is mentioned in the ‘Gira Sandeshaya’ and ‘Sidath Sangarawa’. It was considered a seat of Buddhist philosophy, so much so that monks from Burma and Siam are said to have visited it.
There is also an account of a brave and chivalrous prime minister called Deva Pathiraja in the reign of king Parakrama Bahu II (Dambadeniya 13th century A.D.) who by reinforcing an army garrison around Welitota was able to repel foreign invasions.
As this place was reinforced by an army, (bala senavak), it came to be known as Balapitiya (a plain reinforced by an army). Interestingly in ancient times the Madu Ganga was known as the Veli Ganga (sandy river).
Islets of lustre
As we continued our cruise, we came upon several islets, some large, others small. Mr. Gunadasa de Silva pointed out ‘Digaduwa’,’Periyaduwa’, a large, lush stretch of land, second in size only to ‘Kothduwa’.
Poet Ananda Rajakaruna extolling the attractions of Madu Ganga and her beautiful islets wrote thus:
” Nil Mal Bisau diya kelina Madu gange
Dupath hethathara maleka Menik wage,
Atharin pathara then thenwala Ivure dige,
Dagab Pelen Athivunu Lassanak Age.”
“Queens like blue-hued flowers bathe and frolic in Madu ganga,
The 64 islets glitter like a necklace studded with gems,
Here and there on the fringes of her bank,
Graces a line of dagabas adding lustre and beauty.”
Today, of the 64 islets the poet mentions only 23 remain. Among them are ‘Maduwa’, ‘Nahaduwa’, ‘Vadaduwa’, ‘Pathamulla’, ‘Galmaduwa’, ‘Thihaduwa’, ‘Katuduwa’, ‘Gonaduwa’, ‘Miraladuwa’, ‘Appaladuwa’, ‘Periya’/Digaduwa’, ‘Marakkaladuwa’, ‘Naiduwa’, ‘Dimaduwa’, ‘Sathapaheduwa’, ‘Waladuwa’ and ‘Kothduwa’.
Going past a tiny, wooded isle called Sathapaheduwa, we saw a tiny shrine dedicated to God Kataragama. The name Sathapaheduwa is apparently a reference to the island’s size which is likened to a five-cent coin. Each islet’s name, we were told, has its own legend connected to it.
The Kadapawunaduwa, for instance, was once part of a larger island, while another isle that was once infested with snakes is called Naiduwa (Isle of Snakes). During World War II (1939-45), a German prisoner had lived here and is said to have collected many species of poisonous snakes for research he was conducting in the extraction of their venom. The poison was kept in sealed bottles and later sent abroad.
Boer prisoner ?
Dr. R.L. Brohier in his book “Seeing Ceylon” mentions the Boer prisoners of World War I. They were kept in Jaffna and Hambantota as they refused to sign the oath of allegiance to the British monarch. Among them was Henry Engelbrecht who opted to live out his life in Hambantota. He was later made the first Game Ranger of the Yala National Park, then known as the Yala Sportmen’s Reserve.
Engelbrecht died in Hambantota and his remains were interred in the Hambantota cemetery by the seashore. Dr. Brohier mentions that some of the Boer prisoners were given asylum in Uragasmanhandiya off Elpitiya. Uragasmanhandiya lies close to the cluster of islands of the Madu Ganga near Bagula Ela. Could it be that Naiduwa’s German prisoner was one of those Boers?
We also visited ‘Gonaduwa’, the isle where once sambar roamed. Its vegetation is dense and we saw several trees of medicinal value such as the Rukaththana (Astonia schoaris). Mr. Gunadasa said that over 50 years ago he had come across a kebellawa (ant-eater – Pangolin) here. The island is also the abode of the jungle cat – walbalala, he said.
Our next stop was the wooded isle of ‘Polathuduwa’ which was once a park and herbarium. From there we saw ‘Meemalaguduwa’ -Buffaloe island and ‘Galmaduwa’.
Madu Ganga islets as mangrove nurseries
In earlier years Madu Ganga and its islets were known for their mangroves, but these are now increasingly under threat. The exploitation of the Kadola Groves (Rhizophora apiculata) is one of the reasons for this decline. The bark is removed to obtain a dye and then the tree withers away. The dead trees are collected by villagers for use as fuelwood, charcoal and even fodder.
In view of the alarming decline in mangrove habitats, the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the Department of Forests, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Government of Netherlands have been taking steps to conserve not only the threatened areas of the Madu Ganga but also those in Kalutara, Galle, Gampaha and Puttalam.
Kirala trees (Sonneratia caseolaris), also abound in the mangrove habitats. Their juicy fruit can be eaten raw or made into a delicious, nutritious beverage. The other mangrove species thriving there are the Karan Koku – (Acrostichum aureum) which can be cooked as a curry or mallun.
At Digaduwa (Long Island), we were able to identify several herbal plants. Our guide Mr. Gunadasa de Silva showed us Agamul Nethiwel (Custuda) which he said is used in native medicine for the treatment of arthritis.
We came across another valuable herbal plant Kothala Hibatuvel (Salcia reticulata), the roots of which are used in ayurvedic medicine as a cure for diabetes. Another common plant that thrives along the fringes of the Madu Ganga and its islets is Wal Beli. Its flowers are yellow and bear tiny fruits, which however, are not edible. Still another rare tree we were shown was called Rath Milla which bears tiny but alluring red flowers. Its botanical name is ‘Lumnitzera Litterea’.
Also on the banks of the Madu Ganga and its islets are a few groves of Gin Pol (Nypa fruiticans) which is a mangrove species, with leaves in the shape of the coconut palm. Its fronds are used for thatching roofs. In the days of yore, the banks of the Gin Ganga were filled with groves of Gin Pol. The name ‘Gintota’ was apparently derived from these Gin Pol trees that lined the river bank.
The Saviya Development Foundation of Balapitiya, Galle under its mangrove rehabilitation project launched last year seeks to establish mangrove nurseries, re-plant the decaying Kadol trees and ensure their growth.
Re-planting has since been completed at nine sites along the Madu Ganga and its islets covering a 25-km strip on both river banks. One can only hope the project is successful in conserving the mangroves that are so much a part of the Madu Ganga.
Mangroves apart, the most alluring aquatic plants that greeted us on our river journey were the beautiful manel and olu – of varied hues. The rathu manel, nil manel and sudu olu were in full bloom and carpets of these flowers created an aura of a fairyland as the river wound its way through the mangroves. The nil manel is our national flower. The nelum, olu and manel belong to the species of Nelumbium speciosum, Nymphae Lotus, and Nymphae stellat a respectively. All these species are used in ayurvedic medicine for ailments like gonorrhoea and for bowel haemorrhage. The leaves, flowers and yams are all used.