21 May, 2024


The Ambalangoda That Once Was

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

James Emerson Tennent, writing of his travels throughout the country from Galle, visits Ambalangoda only cursorily after passing through Hikkaduwa. Upon entering he sees, of all things, a rock python, which upon seeing the visitor uncoils its fold and passes through the fence into the neighbouring enclosure.

Returning to his travels, Tennent recounts how, in 1587, the Portuguese, “hoping to create a diversion”, attacked several villages in this part of the coast and then shipped the peasants as slaves to India. History tells us that the residents of these areas of the country did not easily acquiesce to such treatment; so formidable were the residents of Ambalangoda that they formed the bulk of the porowakarayo under the King. Paul Pieris tells us that they were so proud of their reputation that they would rather lay down their lives than abandon their stores of ammunition to the enemy.

Galle district, at the turn of the 19th century, was made up of six divisions: Bentota-Wallawiti, Wellaboda Pattuwa, Four Gravets, Talpe Pattuwa, Gangaboda Pattuwa, and Hinidum Pattuwa. Ambalangoda belonged to the Wellaboda Pattuwa. Its reputation, as the name suggests, was for its set of ambalamas, or rest-houses: Ferguson’s Ceylon in 1913 translated this as “Rest-house village.” An alternative account relates how a group of fishermen, drifting in the sea after a violent storm had wrecked their sails, finally spotted land and shouted, “Aan balan goda!”

The colonial powers, in particular the British, served to compound its reputation for rest-houses, so much so that every other writer from that period passing through refer either to its hospitality, “excellent meals”, or “sea-bathing.” Even today, that is what makes up Ambalangoda: the people, the food, and the coast.

Though located in the South, Ambalangoda was developed by a Kandyan. Godwin Witane tells us of Kuda Adikaram, who during the Dutch era fell out with the King of Kandy and defected to the Maritime Provinces. Baptised Costa Lapnot by the Dutch, he was put in charge of the development of these provinces and wound up building roads, bridges, and buildings. Moving from one village to the other, so the story goes, he finally settled in Ambalangoda, where he devoted his career to the development of the Wellaboda Pattuwa. He did this firstly by turning it into a centre for the salt trade and later by constructing canals and roads to Colombo. So prosperous did this part of Galle become thanks to his efforts that by 1911 centuries later, it had recorded the largest population growth over 10 years from any of the six divisions, at 15%.

Photograph by Manusha Lakshan

Denham refers to Ambalangoda (a Sanitary Board Town) as “a place of considerable wealth and growing importance.” At the end of the 19th century, despite the Colombo Harbour replacing the Galle Harbour as the chief port in the country (a shift which led to the fall in the rate of population growth from 7.9% in 1871-1881 to 6.3% in 1881-1891), a great number of people were leaving their homes, making their way to other districts and provinces. “A comparative large number of persons from Ambalangoda” figured in this massive exodus brought about by the demand for labour in other areas, the segmentation of land in the district, and the desire of educated Southern youth to discover better prospects elsewhere.

It was this search for greener pastures that Martin Wickramasinghe epitomised in the character of Piyal in Gamperaliya, and it followed, as Kumari Jayawardena noted, a decline in primordial attachments to caste-based hierarchies. The South was, in other words, breaking apart, and this process of breaking apart was felt acutely in the more urbanised sections of Galle: Bentota, Balapitiya, and Ambalangoda.

Not that the writers at the time welcomed this; some viewed it with alarm, since the province had by the 20th century gained a notorious reputation for lawlessness: “The growing independence of the villagers… has been accompanied by a steady decline in the power and influence of the headman” (Wright 1907: 753). Four years later though, the region was making a favourable enough impression on the outsider, and the “spirit of lawlessness” that had reigned until then had all but completely disappeared. In this scheme of things the native of Galle was singled out for praise, “for his enterprise and spirit of adventure” (Denham 1912: 81).

By now Wellaboda Pattuwa was recording a very high outward migration from any part of the Galle district. To an extent this had to do with the socioeconomic changes which were making themselves felt throughout the island, especially in the Western, Southern, and Northern provinces. It led to the inhabitants of the South to be singled out and regarded as cunning, unyielding, dubious; that reputation, hard-earned, has a history of its own going back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when the southwest was turned by the Portuguese and Dutch into a cinnamon outpost, leading to some of the most aggressive rebellions ever recorded here. That spirit of rebellion (not to mention obstinacy) has persisted until now; I have found people from these parts of the country to be among the friendliest from anywhere, but at times they have warned me against trusting their own kind, owing to their obstinacy.

Today the six divisions have given way to 19, with the result that what almost were constituent parts of Ambalangoda have become autonomous. Consequently, Elpitiya and Karandeniya, which are as much a part of Ambalangoda as Ambalangoda is a part of Galle, have turned into electoral divisions, and though they can’t be separated, they have formed an identity of their own. Three things, however, bring them together: the people, the food, and the rituals. To these we can add a fourth: the cinnamon.

In terms of people the Ambalangoda identity has been, and is, largely caste-based. While caste is a non-entity in these regions, it is at the same time not to be invoked or spoken of casually. In that sense, what otherwise would have unified Ambalangoda and its neighbour, Balapitiya, instead fragmented it: it is what bewildered Bryce Ryan when he observed in 1953 that while Ambalangoda-Balapitiya was a single electoral district, it elected two people to parliament: from Ambalangoda a karava member, and from Balapitiya a salagama member (both leftists, since the UNP was considered to be a “Govigama club” and hence a common enemy). While Balapitiya was the outpost of the de Zoysas, de Abrews, and Rajapakses, Ambalangoda thus remained the home of the Arachchiges, Hettiges, and Patabendiges.

In terms of food and rituals and cinnamon, of course, nothing much needs to be said, except that they are popular even now. The rituals in particular continue to entrance outsiders in a way very different from the rituals of the interior: with their mishmash of South Indian and folk cultures, kolam, rukada natum, and ves muhunu are, in this respect, a testament to the power of cultural fusion.

“Conspicuous by its absence in the Kandyan hill country”, kolam was so firmly associated with Ambalangoda that it “virtually ceased to exist” elsewhere (Raghavan 1961: 125). I have seen a kolam item once, and I can’t say I understood it, but I was mesmerised nevertheless: with its strongly emotional undercurrents, it is truly a rural entertainment, as opposed to the regal entertainments dished out in the form of the vannams and ves natum in the hill country. Perhaps (and this is guesswork on my part) the serenity of life in the interior would have led to a culture of aristocratic art aimed at the celebration of beauty, while in the Maritime Provinces, particularly in areas like Ambalangoda, with its harrowing encounters with colonial powers that the Kandyan Kingdom would not get a taste of until much later, art was rarely if at all aristocratic, and was instead aimed at the appeasement of evil.

As opposed to the daha ata vannama, the low country bred the daha ata sanniya. The one was full of regal splendour, the other full of scatological farce. That distinguishes the people of these regions from their neighbours further up: coarse at one level, and brutally honest at another. Perhaps this was what repelled the writers of the early 20th centuries. It was the stereotype of the Southerner, the resident of Galle and beyond, as cunning and deceitful that may have spurred officials to attribute to them a rebellious and violent streak. In any case, the stereotype has endured to this day.

Today, of course, there are a great many people hailing from Ambalangoda and Balapitiya who have made a mark for themselves. Norah Roberts writes about them in her beautiful account of the region, Galle: As Quiet As Sleep. We can add to her list, the many cricketers, lawyers, educationists, and politicians who made their way here from these two hometowns. But it’s not just those cricketers and politicians who have found a second home among us: it’s also the Average Abilin you come across every other day, who has migrated from these corners of the South. Scratch these people and you might trace them to Galle; scratch them even more and you might trace them to Ambalangoda and Balapitiya and Bentota, well beyond Bentara.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 4

    apply it to whole of Sri Lanka

    Ceylon -that-once-was
    now morphed in to corrupt racist bankrupt Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka

    • 9

      I am glad the Ceylon-that-once was is gone forever. It was the one where few Tamils, Bughers and Muslims had enormous clout at the expense of the hapless masses.

      It was a time where the generosity of the Sinhalese in sharing their country was taken for granted.

      It was a time where mainly the Tamils got beat the education system by cheating with the help of their own, succeed and help their next generation cheat their way through. The repetition of a vicious cycle would continue for decades.

      It was a time where drunkard burghers and their bawdy women would prosper through land expropriation using the judicial processes to their advantage.

      It was a time where the Muslims would thrive in business taking advantage of their trade mafia where Sinhalese businessmen would be driven bankruptcy in no time.

      As if all this was not enough, the Tamil scoundrel still unsatisfied, would scream for separation.

      Modern Sri Lanka started with the weakest. The drunkard burgher and their bawdy women. Madam Sirimavo kicked them out of the island and off they went to Australia in droves. The remaining were subdued. Although a few stubborn ones fell through the cracks as one can see right here in this forum.

      Then it was time to teach the Tamil scoundrel a lesson they will never forget for generations.

      And finally we are onto the Muslims. What we need is a government that will pander to the Muslims so much allowing them deforestation and the construction of an Arabia to the extent that it will frustrate the Sinhalese so much that even moderate Sinhalese would eventually drop their liberal bogus ideas and turn against them. That is the kind of government we have now. One that allows Zayeed Cities and Meccas everywhere that the next Sinhalese uprising is imminent.

      • 1

        Rtd. Lt. Reginald Shamal Perera..”I am glad the Ceylon-that-once was is gone forever”

        absolutely man…..

        Ceylon -that-once was handed over to Sinhala politicians ….

        70 years on what you have is Sri Lanka full of sewage Sinhala politicians.

        while Singapore , a tine country , 70 years on is a world economic power house

        All you Sinhala guys can do is sit and sulk and blame the Tamils and Muslims ….a typical behavior of Majority with a minority complex.

        …..while the Sinhala politicians are swindling the country and making entry in the Forbes list of Rich .

        So shameless Perera and fellow hangers on sit ans sulk for another 70 years !

        • 6


          Don’t ever compare any country with Singapore. It is like comparing your hardworking parents to the next door brothel house madam. The Madam may have more money than your parents, but while your parents earned it all through hard work, the Madam’s fortunes are all ill gotten.

          The same with Singapore. Any country can prostitute itself and become prosperous. There is nothing creditable or praiseworthy in that.

          Besides, should there be another world war or even a regional war. Singapore cannot defend itself. Where as SL has got one of the best armies in the world.

          Don’t ever forget, while the Americans lost to Vietnam in Guerilla warfare, what we have is a winning unit, that beat one of the most ruthless.

          • 1

            Rtd. Lt. Reginald Shamal Perera “Any country can prostitute itself and become prosperous. “…sour grapes?

            Sri Lanka opened itself and was trying hard to lure clients ……but who would want to sleep with ugly Sri Lanka when beautiful and more seductive Singapore is only few hours flight away.?

            Where as SL has got one of the best armies in the world. – dream on

            I dismiss your comment on if there be another war…..
            but again there is reason for countries to want to capture Singapore…..
            what has Sri Lanka got to offer?

        • 3


          During the early years of Lee Kwan’s rule of Singapore, he summarily jailed a number of Tamils who were opposing him. In fact the leader of the opposition, A Ceylon Tamil lawyer, was jailed for long years. Lee did not like their negative, self centered opposition to him and their demands. Sri Lanka should do the same with Sampanthan and his crew of LTTE supporters.

          • 0

            Edward : “Sri Lanka should do the same with Sampanthan and his crew of LTTE supporters….(and jail them)”….

            MY3 should have done that before he made Mahinda the fake PM.
            Mahinda would be still fake PM today
            ..and democracy/judiciary etc etc would have been dead and buried in Sri Lanka today.

            as I stated in my post to Retarded Perera…..you guys will sit and sulk for another 70 years and blame everything on Tamils and Muslims…


    • 5

      The corruption was mostly caused by the crooked Tamils who controlled the trade and government services by sucking up to the British , and the leftists who controlled the GCSU, clerical and harbour and early trade unions, with their attack on law and order to usher in revolutions.
      The Tamils (led by a bunch of upper caste Colombo Tamil lawyers) undermined peace with their anti-Sinhala hartals because of their wish to carve out a piece of the country as “exclusive Tamil land” that contained their ancestral properties where the lower castes worked as slaves. This was already proclaimed in the 1949 Ilanaki Thamil Arasu kadji, – (the Tamil Raajya party), cunningly translated into English as the “Federal Party”.

      • 4


        We set the upper caste Tamils and the low caste Tamils against each other, sat back and had a good laugh. And the Thiruchelvams and the Amirthalingams and all the other Sinna lingams paid with their lives. LOL!

    • 5

      It used to be a corrupt racist bankrupt British Ceylon. So very little has changed.

      You think it was not corrupt? When the occupiers bring thousands of foreigners and dump them on our country, when you have to become a Christian to get a Government job, when the school system is controlled by the Churches, is that not corruption on a huge scale? When a Tamil is given preference over a Sinhalese is that not racist?

      And as for bankrupt, the war profits made on rubber sales were for the Occupiers and those who replaced them. They were not for the poor masses.

      So it was always corrupt, racist and bankrupt. Of course we now have the morally bankrupt Tamils as well, deprived of their colonial privileges and incessantly playing the victim.

      • 4


        Well said indeed. The Tamil hypocrites do not find anything wrong with colonialism. In fact, colonialism to them is a god send.

      • 2


        You can find facts from
        List of the oldest schools in Sri Lanka

        Don’t make a fool of yourself.
        You can be a racist yet remain a factual racist.

        You have a cheerleader who does not know whether he is coming or going.

  • 2

    RAJASH: Sri Lanka is not Sinhala buddhist. but Sinhala is Sinhala buddhist
    Why you can not say AMblan godak is ambalangoda.

    • 4

      Hey Jadaya,

      If you have nothing to say, go and do something useful.

      Your comments show you don’t have a brain woth two cents. My god, what can a country like Sri Lanka do with brain-less pricks like you?

    • 2

      JD..”Why you can not say AMblan godak is ambalangoda.
      OK if you insist

      Modaya Godak is Sri Lanka

  • 6

    Oh! CT, Whn are you going to put an end to this idiotic ‘articles’?
    They are more like particles (smelly at that).

  • 2

    Mrs B was under the spell of Badhurudin Mohomad, her Ratwatte ancestors signed the treaty of betrayal in Tamil and her Mahawelatenne ones supplied cattle and transport for the Kandyan invasion. She is a big cause for the negative plight of the Sinhalese (and Tamils).

    That ‘Southerner’ reputation has deeper roots to Duttu-Gemunu. Stereotypes about Tamils and Muslims also exist and even about Kandyans (back-stabbers, etc…). The Nayakar kings and South Indian artisans influenced Kandyan dancing and art forms too.

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