26 June, 2022


The Story Of Mahaweli: An Unending Cascade From One Generation To Another

By Vishwamithra

“The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.” ~Joseph Conrad

Photo – 1985.04.11-13 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher inaugurating Victoria Dam

The mighty Mahaweli River begins its history-laden journey from the zenith of Sri Paada. The pinnacle of Buddhist belief that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha laid his footprint, long before Devanampiyatissa ruled Lanka. With this belief held in earnest, many Buddhists, men and women of all walks of life, of all ages, some with hardly any breath left in their lungs but a monumental expanse of faith in their hearts, year in and year out go on pilgrimage to pay homage to the Great Teacher. All main Gangás in Sri Lanka, Mahaweli, Kelani, Kalu and Walawé which commence their respective passage from Sri Paada, command the gratitude of an immensely grateful people. Among these rivers Mahaweli is foremost. Its storied expedition through the picturesque hill country into the vast plains of Mahiyangana and Bintenna, carving the ground of an arid and thirsty zone all the way up to the North Central valley and eventually exhausting itself into a resplendent Indian Ocean at Trincomalee, has enriched not only the daily lives of a population but also has ornamented the culture and tradition of an ancient people in Ceylon. With its melodious cascading of water, is brought forth a whisper of arrival of good times.

In ancient times, this great river was first diverted, to send its waters to the North Central province. According to the official records of the Irrigation Department: ‘Minipe Yoda Ela: the Trans basin canal from Minipe diversion carried water from Mahaweli Ganga to Amban Ganga. King Dasankeliya (459 AD) constructed this and it had irrigated the left bank of Mahaweli. This gigantic work, which excites the wonder of the modern engineers, consists of a scheme, which turns the river at a bend where a large body of water enters the narrow canal formed by an island contiguous to the bank, partially closed by two rocks, which intercept the water on its return to the main stream. These rocks, when united by the masonry, became a dam raising the waters in the natural channel to great height. Sir Henry Ward in his observations on legend, describes this canal could have been used for irrigation as well as navigation. The length of this canal is 50 miles and it merged with Amban Ganga below Angemedilla anicut. It is important to note that this canal had followed a trace, which has minimized deep cutting’.

History’s homage apart, the Mahaweli River, despite the various decrees issued by the governors during the British colonial rule to destroy the irrigation structures that had sustained a Sinhalese-Buddhist culture for two and half millennia, continued to flow in her usual haste, stirring many a thick foliage and many a hump of sand. Her montage of varied profiles, in times of crisis, has enabled the people of the land to turn to her as a last refuge; whether to water the thirsty land they possessed to cultivate the ever-in-demand rice or for a refreshing bath at the end of the day. They turned to her treasure ever so gratefully.

Ever since the ancient Kings of Lanka, the Mahaweli’s tireless stretch to enrich the land took a brand new turn in the seventh decade of the twentieth century. In 1977, the government of JR Jayewardene took a momentous decision. Without a cent in their coffers to finance the undertaking of diverting the Mahaweli River at more than five locations, constructing six large reservoirs with the capacity to produce hydropower of more than 700 MW and irrigate the water-starved land and settle more than one hundred and fifty thousand families in the downstream zones. Such a transmigration of humanity from one area to another region that was from thick jungle to mild-forests was, under any circumstances, no stress-free task. Galvanizing a bureaucracy from a passive government service to a vibrant, proactive and forward-thinking force needs foresight, determination, meticulous planning and above all unbending leadership at all levels, from a junior engineer to senior management to Minister and President of the country. During those days, that much of dedication and commitment was forthcoming. A Golden Era of the twentieth century had dawned. And it spread its luster to all corners of the developing regions.

No labor was imported from the countries that donated money for the projects. Meals, basic rice and curry, that were prepared and sold to those local labor forces was the responsibility of the locals. All subcontractors were locals; those who were engaged in planning, designing, constructing and monitoring, barring some handful of senior staff that belonged to the companies that won the main contracts from the donating countries, were all local. The story of Mahaweli was one hundred percent local. Amazing!

From the time JR decided to launch an accelerated program to develop and complete a thirty-year program in merely six years, the tensions were many and even disagreements much more among a dedicated and determined work force from Chairman to junior engineers, yet the grit and single-mindedness of Gamini Dissanayake, the young (35-year young) Minister of Mahaweli Development and Lands and Land Development, pursued the program to successful completion. A disturbing pattern of incoherent thinking that was the order of the day during the previous regime of ’70 to ’77 was transformed into a logical and balanced pursuit of realistic engineering targets and community-progressive goals. The resurgence of a rustic culture and reawakening of rural inhabitants in the remote corners in the land was visible to any visitor, more to the locals in Colombo and urban habitats than to those who came from beyond our shores. The pulse of a thousand plus-year of history was being accentuated to a different harmony and it was felt all over the program whose vast implications were at times unfathomable even to a discriminating intellect.

Without the hydropower of the Mahaweli Program, our country would have crossed the threshold of the twenty first century in darkness. Countermanding a treacherous weather and gracing the soil that cultivates the staple grain that feeds millions of the population with her magnificent presence, the Mahaweli is cascading through an unkind terrain and unforgiving landscape. Order was brought to her unruly surge. Manmade dams and anicuts were constructed in order to store up the abundance of her gush in mighty tanks and reservoirs and served to release the waters. Along her joyous journey emerged new townships and settlement villages with the attendant social infrastructure such as schools, banks, hospitals, post offices and community centers. A novelty of these habitats may have been outlived by the neglect of the present-day bureaucracy. Townships such as Galnewa, Bulnewa, Thambuttegama, Nochchiyagama. Dehiattakandiya, Welikanda and Girandurukotte were not heard of before the Mahaweli Program was inaugurated. Now they are bustling commercial centers, serving a community whose day-to-day living is made easier by the flow of the Mahaweli. Bursting asunder of traditional irregularities, burying of conventional hostilities and embracing new realities of abundance and plenty, the Mahaweli will glide along, revealing concealed treasures and bringing forth joy and smile to many a profile. Many a damsel silhouetted on the banks of the Mahaweli, with the setting of the sun and with the initiation of twilight will ponder her future; she will be sinking into the joyous dream of her amour. Before her eyes is the eternal flow of the river that has been rendering service to a nation that is more often ungrateful than otherwise. But it shall glide along for the waters not only are the saga of how a nation could be fed and nourished. It is a beautiful story of a civilization.

The river has served the soil of the land. She lies at the roots of a proud nation whose granaries fed not only the locals but, according to the Great Chronicle, the Mahawansa, enabled rice to be exported to neighboring countries in the glory days. A flow of nourishing water, in addition to helping an already-progressing population towards greater heights, also sprinkled a land with a misty environ in the parched zones, making a sleeping vegetation wake up and blossoming and nourishing a civilization. A stupendous gallery of architectural wonders emerged whose profound magnificence is still bewildering modern scholars. Along its course were erected historic structures, depicting a graceful life of a civilization. Mahaweli represents not only a giant irrigation scheme; it’s not a mere human settlement endeavor; it is not a long and winding stream. It is indeed a civilization.

Sorrow and joy, shall this river endure, and glide its way to eternity!

*The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com


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Latest comments

  • 3

    The Mahaweli Project is a success story. The reason may be because there was lots of input from local engineers, planners etc. The local expertise learned even more and made possible the next generation of technocrats.
    On the other hand look at Noratcholai power plant – hardly any input from locals and no wonder it turned out to be a white elephant. We have several other white elephants to feed.
    The Uma Oya project hardly had local input.
    Look at the photo. Today’s ministers will be Italian suits, Saville Row tie!
    Mahaweli project had the welfare of people as priority. The technocrats considered achievement as the reward.
    Wonder whether Mother Mahaweli ever thought that she will one day generate power, provide food through irrigation, onion, chilli, mangoes etc. etc.
    Vishwamithra starts the article with a Joseph Conrad quote
    The mighty Mahaweli brings to mind Alfred Tennyson’s “The Brook”
    I chatter, chatter, as I flow
    To join the brimming river,
    For men may come and men may go,
    But I go on for ever.

    • 2

      Damming rivers for irrigating agricultural lands were first undertaken by Dravidians such as those who lived in Mesopotamia and Indus valley and Tamil Nadu. It is this technology that ancient Sinhala kings followed and not by themselves. Kings only commission the project but it is the engineers who build. So to say that Sinhala kings built them without saying who the engineers were, most probably from Tamil Nadu is dishonesty. The rock filled dam across Kauveri in Tamil Nadu, the first of its kind has been declared a world heritage. Were Mahaveli dams built by Srilanka heads of state.

  • 8

    This author is becoming embarrassing. Your green slip is showing again.
    For all her faults (and there are many) it was Sirimavo who got the whole project started. Give credit where it is due.

    Also, stop raising Gamini. We all know about him and the Mahaweli project.

    And in the week we commemorate the pogrom of 83, let us not forget him with relation to this event either. Will the author write about that ?

  • 4

    Many facets to his continuing glorification of the man responsible for Black July(it was still going on as of July 26th, 1983). Everyone knows how he made money too. Gamini D was a visionary but no one was asked to declare assets back then. As for Mahaweli, yes it was planned long before JRJ won. But they did get the funding Mrs. B could not get; perhaps that is why a certain person and his drunken goons abused her in Nuwara Eliya at Grand Hotel later? Vishwamithra what do you think? It was a success because of long term plannig, EIAs etc. Uma Oya was a vainglorious project that has left Uva dry and dying. Bowsers needs to carry water to Ella etc. That is why Uva voted massively to elect the UNP in 2015. But as for corruption we all had a great time with Mahaweli Jeeps, bribes, kickbacks. Vishy, do you want to go back to those days?

  • 3

    They should have used the plan SLFP had in 70s to have a smaller Dam for Victoria. Now we have a dam 90% of the year dry . And it has ruined most fertile land in central srilanka. Breeding mosquitoes.
    If not for mahavali . We will would have LTTE coming all the way up to . Mahyanganaya . So good and bad . Nothing is worse than Uma oya .project . Big bribes taken and ruined many lives

  • 1

    ” according to the Great Chronicle, the Mahawansa, enabled rice to be exported to neighboring countries in the glory days.”

    now they are repaying the favour by exporting to us.

    we all know the mahawansa is a great chronicle though some sinhalese say it is a fake story because they dont like to think that their earliest ancestor was an animal mating with its sister..The author does not need to tell that it is great chronicle to us because we already know it is great because we are not modayas,but everything is given as great,great and great in the article.

    Thank you for this article from a great author.

  • 0

    Mahaweli scheme was the first commissioned based government development plan. We all know about Gamini and his Trinity class mates. The whole project was based on misleading the people. Where is the self sufficiency in Electricity, why was the environmental effect on the lands beyond victoria dam, The effect of fertiliser from Tea estates causing CKD being carried by water to NCP etc and poisoning of the rest of the population. JRJ was a liar who misled the people. Malawi is one of the projects to fool the people and allows some of his supporters to get commissions at the expense of the country.

    • 1


      Where is the loot from the project?

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