Marvel of ancient hydraulic heritage | Sunday Observer

Marvel of ancient hydraulic heritage

15 January, 2017
The breathtaking view of sunrise over Urusitana Wewa.

It was dawn and we were in the Mahagama Wewa (popularly known as Urusitana Wewa) at Hathporuwa in Embilipitiya. At sunrise we headed towards the tank to witness the mesmerizing sunrise over the tank. The scene that met our eyes was most alluring as the sun emerged over the far end of the eastern horizon casting its rays over the shadow of golden light on waters.

At 4 a.m. we started our journey from Ratnapura which is my home town, to reach Hathporuwa where the Urusitana Wewa is located. It was an almost two-hour journey and our intention was to reach the site as early as possible to witness the enchanting sunrise over the tank, to photograph and watch the movements of a large number of water birds who flock to the tank at dawn for their breakfast.

The cries of birds and laughing thrushes filled the morning air. Hearing our approach, a huge hawk-eagle, on a dead branch of a tree flew away. We noticed a huge bird in flight. Looking with much excitement, we realized we were looking at a huge Pelican. Soon, we observed another, and mesmerized by the beauty of this bird of prey, we watched them for nearly an hour.

We were fortunate to be in Mahagama, a farming hamlet lying on the boundary of two districts, Hambantota and Moneragala. It is here that the ancient Urusitana Wewa is located, against the backdrop of lush greenery of banana and sugar cane cultivations. At present, villagers call it Mahagama Wewa because it lies in the village of Mahagama between Embilipitiya and Suriyawewa.

Urusitana Wewa can be reached by travelling four kilometres off Mahagama on the Hambantota-Suriyawewa-Mahagama Road. If one travels from Embilipitiya, an alternative route would be via Moraketiya on the Suriyawewa Road, which covers about 12 kilometres.

The sprawling Walawe Basin, nestling in the cradle of our ancient civilization in Ruhuna has turned into one of the most bountiful rice bowls of the island, teeming with farming communities and a host of industries. It could aptly boast of a past hydraulic heritage.


Urusitana Wewa is believed to have been built during the reign of King Mahanaga of Ruhuna Kingdom. Although we cannot ascertain more facts about the history of Urusitana Wewa, an interesting legend is associated with the name of the tank.

It seems, a man had been found living among wild boars in the royal park at Magama of King Mahanag who ruled Ruhuna. The man was rescued and brought up to the King who ordered officials to give him human food and later he was able to speak. The King had ordered the officials to train him to get used to humans.

Later, under the King’s guidance the ‘pig man’ known as, ‘Urusitana’, built a tank called Urusitana Wewa. Before long Urusitana became a ruler of the area and thousands of villagers became his subjects. Owing to his cleverness, the whole province became self-sufficient. As time passed, the King became jealous of Urusitana. He destroyed Urusitana Wewa. Urusitana became mad and committed suicide, by jumping into the tank. Having heard that, his wife too committed suicide in the same manner. The Urusitana Wewa was thus ruined and the paddy fields destroyed. According to legend, this is how the name of Urusitana Wewa came into being.

Not far from the tank bund, lies an ancient sluice gate of the tank which we visited next. Among these priceless treasures of our heritage is the well-preserved monolithic seven headed cobra which stands over its ancient sluice in the Urusitana Wewa. The Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka (Walawe area), has preserved this ancient site. When we visited the site last Sunday, the area was cleared and a well secured wire fence was being erected with concrete posts. It is one place where an ancient Valve-Pit (Bisokotuwa) is preserved along with the sluice gate.

King Cobra

Archaeologists firmly believe the seven headed cobra (Naga) is a mythical King Cobra guarding water bodies and places of sacred devotions. Such stone carved cobras date back to the Anuradhapura period dating from 3rd Century BC to 3rd Century AD. It is a very important monument which reflects the ancient hydraulic engineering heritage in Sri Lanka.

However, in the early days there were two cobra figures, but at present we see only one figure. At the site, we met an elderly woman in the village who told us that she had seen the two cobra figures when they were young and later noticed that one was missing.

There are some peculiar features attached to this particular sculptured seven headed cobra, alien to other such cobra stones found elsewhere.


Around its neck is a ribbon. Carved figures of lions can also be seen on the pedestal where the tail of the cobra terminates. In the middle of the hood is a Punkalasa (full vase) with flowers denoting a symbol of prosperity.

Associated with some ancient tanks provided with stone anicuts is the time honoured device of a Biso-Kotuwa. This ancient irrigation artefact is rectangular in shape and has served as a marvellous invention of the past.

We proceeded further under the shade of a huge tree, towards its ancient Biso-Kotuwa, an enclosure made of stone-slabs, found in a well preserved state. The long stone-slabs and ancient bricks scattered here and there indicate that there were many more structures in the site. This Biso-Kotuwa is scientifically named as Valve-pit. The Sinhala engineers, building these Biso-Kutuwas established a claim to be considered as the first inventors of the ‘Valve-Pit’ more than 2,100 years ago.

This unique monolithic figure of a cobra with seven hoods and a well-preserved Biso-Kutuwa of Urusitana Wewa is an example of expert stone carving, rich in workmanship, not found anywhere else in Sri Lanka.

Urusita Wewa originally covered an area of over 700 acres (280 hectares) but siltation has led to its shrinking to about 400 acres (160 ha). In the morning, Urusitana Wewa presents a breathtaking view. Dead trees provide nestling ground for various birds such as, pelicans, egrets, painted storks, spoonbills, eagles and cormorants. These birds are seen sun-bathing on tree tops.

Freshwater fishing provides an ample income for the fisher folk and food to the villagers. A small fish market is conducted in the morning near the tank where the fishing community of Urusitana Wewa gathers to sell their fresh harvest. It is also an ideal place for bird watching enthusiasts and photographers.

Apart from that, hundreds of farmers in the Walawa Basin have benefited from the waters of UrusitanaWewa to

cultivate paddy, banana and other crops under the Mahaweli Authority of the Walawe region.