By 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%.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org