Sunken Town of Maskeliya (දිය යටින් මතුවන පැරණි මස්කෙලිය නගරය)

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Once every few years during extreme droughts, the old town of Maskeliya which has been lying under the waters of Moussekelle Reservoir since 1968 reemerges from the bottom of the lake like a ghost town. Temples,  kovils, churches and remains of old infrastructure attract large crowds to this area to witness this strange scene.

The Rise of Old Maskeliya

Story and pictures by Mahil Wijesinghe
Source : Sunday Observer 05 March 2017

After a four-hour drive on the Avissawella-Hatton A-7 Road, we reached Ginigathena town early in the morning with mist-laden mountain ranges visible in the distance. We drove a little further on the Hatton Road, turned right and again along the picturesque Norton Bridge Road to the Central Province town of Maskeliya. The effects of the long drought could be seen and felt everywhere. Waterfalls as well as Kelani Ganga had dropped to less than a trickle in various places.

On the right side of the road to Maskeliya, we glimpsed the forest-clad Seven Virgin hills (Sapthakanya) mountain range looming in the distance. Shrouded in many mysterious legends, the most famous and sorrowful being the 1974 crash of Martinair Flight 138, the worst aircraft disaster in Sri Lanka which killed 191 passengers and crew.

The Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) could be seen in the background across the hauntingly beautiful Moussekelle reservoir. Maskeliya is one of Sri Lanka’s little-known towns and thousands of pilgrims, both, local and foreign, travel through it every year on their way to climb Adam’s Peak. Since the climbing season lasts only six months, Maskeliya is forgotten by visitors for the rest of the year.

Sunken Town of Maskeliya

Ruined Glory

The drop of water levels at many reservoirs, due to the severe drought compelled me to revisit the Moussekelle reservoir in Maskeliya for a glimpse of the ruins of the Buddhist temple, kovils, mosque and the old bridge that went underwater when the Moussekelle reservoir was built.

The diminishing water levels mean the temples are visible in all their ruined glory once a year during drought. The reservoir has become a tourist magnet, especially, with large groups of pilgrims en route to Sri Pada thronging the reservoir bed to pay homage to the spectacular ruins of religious monuments submerged, as the reservoir was built.

Sunken Town of Maskeliya

As the water levels of the major man-made hydro reservoirs in the central highland receded due to the prevailing drought in the area, the villagers sacrificed their ancestral lands and properties for the sake of the development of the Moussekelle project. The reservoir was built five decades ago, inundating the old town of Maskeliya in 1968. The new town was relocated just uphill.

The seated Buddha statue of the temple, Bodhigaraya (Bo-tree enshrine), Sri Kadireshan Hindu Kovil, mosque and Ganesh Kovil, located close to each other in the old town of Maskeliya have reappeared after the water levels dropped drastically. The magnificent stone bridge that nestled across the old town which led to Sri Pada via Nallathanniya has emerged as the water level has receded.

In 1964, the government had planned to build a reservoir at Moussekelle damming the Maskeliya Oya at an elevation of 2,200 feet above sea level. Maskeli Oya is the main tributary of the Kelani Ganga originating from the hills of Saamimale and Sithagangula Oya from the Peak Wilderness sanctuary of Sri Pada which nourished the reservoir of Moussekelle.

Along with the Castlereigh dam, the Moussekelle reservoir supplies water to the Laxapana Hydropower Complex, involving a number of dams and hydroelectric power stations, such as, Nawa Laxapana, Polpitiya, Canyon and the Wimalasurendra power stations.

The Moussekelle reservoir is the biggest reservoir nestling in the slope of the present Maskeliya town and spreads across a land area of 93, 000 ha, which embraces lands from the Nuwara Eliya District.

With the construction of the Moussekelle reservoir, the people of Maskeliya town and the suburbs faced drastic changes in their daily lives. This resulted in the displacement of 155 ancestral homelands with business properties, and the submerging of the Maskeliya town and Gagewatta, after the dam was constructed. Although many buildings in the old town, such as, schools, the Police Station, Post Office and three tea factories had been dismantled to make way for the reservoir, no one had come forward to remove the religious edifices in the inundating old town.

As a result, the villagers venerated them until the water filling ceremony took place in May 1968. While many of these structures do not exist at present, some of them still do, even though fully submerged.

Most of the businessmen got new lands uphill the new Maskeliya town and Nallathanniya, and settled down in the new places.

Before the reservoir was built the road to Sri Pada lay across Maskeliya and Gagewatta towns and the pilgrims travelling in buses from Hatton to Nallathanniya stopped at Gagewatta. Since the bridge is narrow at Gagewatta for big buses, the pilgrims used to take small buses from Gagewatta to Nallatanniya and then to Sri Pada. It had been a lucrative business for traders in Gagewatte during the Sri Pada season.

Floral Motifs

Sunken Town of Maskeliya

The ruins of the Sri Kadireshan Hindu Kovil are spectacular, especially, the stone-sculptured statue of Skandalie inside the stone-covered chamber and other stone-sculptured pillars with various floral motifs and mythical figures adorning the pillars of the ruined Kovil. The stone structure remains intact even after 50 years under water. I realized that these sculptured pillars resemble the pillars at Gadaladeniya Vihara in Kandy.

At the ruined Kovil, I met a middle-aged Hindu, known as Kengan, who officiated as a priest of the Kovil and held Poojas at the Kovil daily. According to him, the Kovil is said to have been built in 1917, under the guidance of Indian sculptors and it had belonged to a Hindu devotee in India.

Coming out of the Kovil, we next visited the ruins of a mosque located just a few yards from the Kovil. Only two ruined concrete pillars remained at the site, while the structure was heavily damaged.

Walking on the old road, we reached the arched stone bridge, believed to have been built by British tea planters. It also stood intact though there is some damage.

The ruined Buddhist temple with a heap of rubble and a decayed seated Buddha statue was our next stop. A decayed log of a Bo-tree still stands in front of the temple ruins.

The statue and Bo-tree have been wrapped by saffron robes by the devotees who visited the site. Walking around a kilometre further down on the edge of the reservoir, we saw another stone-built Kovil that had just re-appeared from the water. It was a Ganesh Kovil, we were told by Kengan and contained stone-sculptured floral motif slabs scattered here and there. We saw some of the pillars half buried in the water.

We leisurely walked on the dried-up reservoir bed for miles, witnessing the monuments of yore. We saw a group of young boys play cricket on the edge of the reservoir bed, while little Hindu girls from nearby villages strolled and relaxed in the dried-up reservoir bed taking selfies with friends.

These ruins, which lay under water for more than 50 years, are a nostalgic reminder of past life in the Maskeliya town.

They make a rare reappearance during a severe drought, in what is a bittersweet reminder of days gone by and the sacrifices that an entire village made for the country’s uplift.

No one knows how long the calm splendour of the old town of Maskeliya will remain as we pray for rain. However, the ruins are a rare sight and can be witnessed only according to the whims of the weather gods.

Also See

Map of Sunken Town of Maskeliya

Please click on the button below to load the Dynamic Google Map (ගූගල් සිතියම් පහලින්)

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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Travel Directions to the Sunken Town of Maskeliya

Route from Colombo to the Sunken Town of Maskeliya
Through : Kaduwela – Awissawella – Ginigathena – Norton Bridge
Time to spend : 1 – 2 hours
Distance : 135 km
Travel time : 4 hours
Driving directions : see on google map


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