By AN OCTOGENERIAN
Even though Ambalangoda is a little known sea side town, located approximately 54 miles south of Colombo it can claim to have a history which is not only interesting and significant but in many ways is unique. For these reasons especially its ‘uniqueness’, it is relevant to begin by describing the manner by which this ‘little known’ town derived its name.
One of the best is by referring to the celebrated historian D. W . Ferguson’s book ‘Ceylon in 1913’, in which he mentions that Ambalangoda had from earliest times been referred to as ‘The Rest House Village.’ The closest, if not the best translation of the words ‘Rest House’ into Sinhala is ‘ambalama.’ Hence ‘ambalama’ was transliterated to Ambalangoda.
Another oft repeated version is that a group of fishermen whose boat had been caught up in a violent storm which wrecked their sails as a result of which they were left drifting helplessly in the sea when suddenly they sighted in the near distance what appeared to be a plot of land located very near to a sandy beach. Whereupon in their joy and great relief they shouted to one another ‘ Aan Balan Goda.’ Which would mean Ambalangoda. This story though exciting can be dismissed as being a mythical.
At this point it is necessary to introduce the role of the Dutch in this town. Those readers familiar with the history of pre- colonial Ceylon would recall that the Dutch expelled the Portuguese from the island in 1658. However what is perhaps lesser known is that the first contact between the people of Ceylon and the Dutch was in 1602 when Admiral Joris van Spilbergen arrived in the port of Batticaloa and later proceeded to the Kandyan Kingdom to meet the reigning monarch Vimala Dharma Suriya the First and to have an audience with His Majesty in order to negotiate the terms by which the Dutch could conduct their trade in cinnamon.
As a result of the successful and cordial negotiations the Dutch as was traditional during that period delegated their authority to the Dutch East India Company from 1656 onwards till the British ousted the Dutch in 1796. It is a matter of interest to know that this company which was established on March 20, 1602 in the Netherlands has rightfully been recorded as being the first joint- stock company in the world.
This company is also referred to by its Dutch name as Vereenigde Oost -Indische Compagnie, and had its logo – VOC inscribed in many Dutch buildings scattered across the island. One prominent building being the Dutch Fort in Galle. A more prominent and certainly a more popular example is the DBU (Dutch Burgher Union) Club with its VOC Café in Colombo.
Many readers would be surprised to know that there was a time when cinnamon grew in abundance in the area around Ambalangoda. It was from the peeled bark of the evergreen branches of these trees that cinnamon was peeled. Ambalangoda by then had earned a reputation of having the best cinnamon in the world and had been referred to as the ‘Cinnamon Town’ which in Sinhala was ‘Kurundu Nagaraya.’ Furthermore, eight miles inland at the turn-off from the Southern Expressway there is a town referred to as ‘ ‘Kurundugahathepma ’which provides further proof regarding the prolific growth of cinnamon in the region.
It was the intention of the Dutch East India Company, to gain the sole monopoly of the cinnamon trade and consolidate their position against any foreigners specially the Arabian traders for which purpose they constructed an outpost in the town of Ambalangoda, consisting of a Court House which has since been identified as a protected historical monument by the Department of Archaeology.
Adjacent to the Court House there had been a remand cell for convicted prisoners and a stable for horses. On the front wall of the stable there can be seen even to this day a cemented plaque on which is inscribed the year of its construction which was in 1750 and also the name of the person who constructed it namely Adriaan Oustdyk, who was a high ranking official in the Dutch East India Company.
It is recorded that the stable was once used as the village church with a school master conducting the services in Sinhala. The floor of the church had been paved with tombstones taken from a nearby cemetery. In addition the Dutch also built a Rest House which served as the residence of the local Dutch magistrate. The Rest House was also a convenient and comfortable stop- over for Dutch dignitaries. During the British period it is claimed that the first British Governor of Colonial Ceylon, Sir Fredrick North ( 1798- 1805 ) spent a night at this Rest House during his tour around the island.
One of the attractions of this Rest House is that it is located on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea and because of the protective rocks around it is safe for bathing. In fact it is very similar to that of a salt water swimming pool. However it is sad to mention that this Rest House was wantonly destroyed sometime between 2008 and 2009 on the instructions of a local politician, who wanted to sell the land to an entrepreneur for the construction of a hotel school. But for reasons best known to the parties concerned it was never built.
However a stone slab was erected mentioning the intended construction of the controversial hotel school. This was smashed and removed by residents of the town who were annoyed and angry by the chicanery of the local authorities. Sadly, the remnants of this once popular Rest House is now used by drug addicts and other undesirable elements.
Located 200 meters or 218 yards east from the railway station is the large and imposing Sunandarama Maha Viharaya, built in 1750 on five acres of sacred land. Planted within these premises is the sacred Bodhi. According to reliable sources the Viharaya was once occupied by bhikkhunis. These same sources claim that in 1970 the Viharaya was ‘systematically started.’ Regrettably the writer is unable to explain the significance of this term. Irrespective of these dates, the Viharaya is reputed to contain some of the best known frescoes in the island, vividly depicting numerous Jathaka stories.
Synonymous with Ambalangoda to both tourists local residents are the intricate, eerie looking masks which have bulging eyes, protruding tongues painted in red to signify blood and fanged teeth. These are worn by those conducting specific rituals, the best known are the Kolam which has a tinge of humor since it ridicules the island’s former colonial life. Sanni – which is a form of exorcism performed to hopefully heal a person’s persistent illness. Raksha which is used in popular local festivals also involves the use of these masks.
It is claimed that the history of the crafting of these masks dates back to the 15th century and are hand painted and lacquered and made out of a type of a light strong wood similar to Balsa which grows in the rain forests of South America. Within the precincts of the town is a Mask Museum in which master craftsmen demonstrate the method of making these masks and if one so desires these can be purchased if for no other reason then just as souvenirs. Ambalangoda is also well known for the creation of string puppetry (readers of an early vintage may remember the hilarious movie – ‘Puppet on a String’ featuring the popular Hollywood actor Danny Kaye)
To get back to our own Ambalangoda string puppetry which had originated in 1830. The pioneer in this art form was Kandegoda Master Podisirina. When the former Prince of Wales – Edward VIII visited the island in 1922, Podisirina made a presentation which was based on the historical episode of the life of Ehelepola Nilame. The Prince was so impressed that he presented Podisirina with Rs. 500/- which at that time was a handsome reward and a gold medal. This was undoubtedly the very first gold medal won by a Ceylonese/Sri Lankan !! This presentation was conducted in a spacious house referred to as Bagatelle Walawwa, which as its name indicates would have been located in Colombo most probably along Bagatelle Road.
The writer is now reluctantly compelled to refer to a rather disreputable characteristic of many of the people of Ambalangoda by quoting Sir James Emerson Tennent who in 1845 was appointed by the British Government as Colonial Secretary of Ceylon in which capacity he travelled around the island.
In his Reminiscences he refers to the people of Ambalangoda many of whom he describes as being ‘ porawakarayo.’or ‘axe-weiIders.’ Paul E. Pieris the eminent scholar and historian has added his comments to that of Sir James Emerson Tennent by mentioning that the ‘porawakarayo’ were so proud of their ‘reputations’ that they would rather lay down their lives than abandon their stocks of ammunition!
Despite the notoriety of the ‘porawakarayo’ the people of Ambalangoda have gained a reputation for the preparation of a delectable cuisine consisting of mouth-watering Billing Achcharu, Ambul Thiyal and Jaadi. If none of the other attractions of this town and there are many- cannot tempt a visitor to this town these spicy preparations most certainly would.
The history of Ambalangoda does not end here. A list of alumni of one of the leading schools in Ambalangoda namely Dharmasoka College makes interesting reading. In this list can be read that Sisira de Abrew was a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, Dinesh Chandimal was captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team in Test cricket, Upul Tharanga captained the Limited Overs cricket team, Saman Jayantha played in 17 One Day International cricket matches., Ajit de Silva who represented the country in Test cricket, but was most unfortunately debarred from all formats of the game for having played in the controversial AROSA matches in South Africa. Mahinda Deshapriya who was the former Chairman of the Election Commission, J.E. Jayasuriya who was the Professor of Education in the University of Ceylon.
Lest we forget it is essential to mention that Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka who was the 18th Commander of the Sri Lanka Army and the first army officer to be promoted to that rank received his early education at Dharmasoka College. Two other high ranking officers of the services are mentioned namely Air Chief Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody, former Commander of the Sri Lankan Airforce, Admiral Piyal de Silva, former Commander of the Sri Lankan Navy and Osmund de Silva who was a former Inspector General of Police , .
Moving on to politics we come across the name of C. P. de Siva who first distinguished himself as a member of the elite Ceylon Civil Service and later became a leading politician who was an Honorable ( this term is used to precisely mean what it is meant to mean ) Minister of different Cabinets in which he held several portfolios. To write more about C.P.de Silva will take an entire page of this journal. Suffice it to mention that he was described as being the ‘Prince Amongst Politicians’. Alas! when will our country ever have persons like this! And finally and fittingly mention must be made of yet another Dharmasokian – Rohana Wijeweera who led the Janatka Vimukthi Peramuna.
May we end this article by exclaiming ‘Jayawewa’