Kitulgala: Fading away from the tourist map | Sunday Observer

Kitulgala: Fading away from the tourist map

24 November, 2019
HAZARDOUS: The dumping site of the left-over boulders of the tunnel piled up on the banks of Maskeli Oya
HAZARDOUS: The dumping site of the left-over boulders of the tunnel piled up on the banks of Maskeli Oya

Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, was not where producer Sam Spiegel or director David Lean initially wanted to shoot their World War II epic, The Bridge On The River Kwai. Never having visited the island neither knew of its photogenic qualities or its practical advantages as a filming location.

The movie, which depicts British Prisoners of War (POWs) forced by the Japanese to build a bridge on the Thailand –Burma (now Myanmar) railway, was filmed in Sri Lanka. The film, directed by Lean, received widespread critical acclaim and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and had a stellar cast including renowned actors Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins. (The film is available on 4K Blu Ray disc and all the streaming services).

One of its main actors, Jack Hawkins who played Major Warden, an ex-university don who ran a commando training camp, took this as his cue to press Sri Lanka’s case as a cinematic stand in. Hawkins had spent a good deal of the war in Ceylon, which both he and his wife, loved.

He remembered one of their favourite haunts, a scenic inn set on a forested riverfront about 90 kilometres north-east of Colombo, and told Spiegel that it would be an ideal location. When location scouts reported favourably, Spiegel decided to make the film there.

And so Kitulgala, an obscure but picturesque village on the banks of the moody and turbulent Maskeli Oya, a tributary of the Kelani Ganga, became the site of the infamous bridge of the film where a wooden bridge was built as a set in 1957. Even after 71 years, Kitulgala is still a magnet for movie buffs and tourists.

In recent years, Kitulgala and a stretch of 6km on the Maskeli Oya including the site of the film location has become a tourist attraction for its whitewater rapids. Rafting is the main attraction in Kitulgala which generates foreign exchange to the country. Around 500 families, especially, youth of Kitulgala make their livelihood from water sports.

Semual Perera, 62, who was an extra in the movie, lives in the village with his wife Chandralatha and earns their livelihood by guiding foreigners and film buffs along the treacherous mountain slope to the river bed to show what is left of the blown-up bridge – a few pieces of concrete and iron rods fixed to the rock.

Meanwhile, a small hydroelectric power plant with a 35-megawatt generating capacity is being built by a Chinese company in the village of Kalubothenna on the banks of the Maskeli Oya. The white-water rafting circles say this section of the river that will be affected has the best rapids and the best location for them. However, it is said that the authorities are proposing to release water from 8 am to 4 pm during the day so that water sports could continue, but at night a section of the river will go dry.

“I don’t think they will stop flowing water in the river because they may not build such a large dam to collect water since a vast amount of water continually flows in the Maskeli Oya,” says Ajith Samantha Perera, 42, an agriculturist who owns an eco-friendly guest house at the site.

The construction site of the power house is located on the banks of the Maskeli Oya near Kalubothenna. When I visited the site for the first time in 2017, the two tunnels were being dug and during my visit last week I saw a big structure of the power house. Actually, the construction is causing damage to the Kelani basin, destroying the scenic beauty of the area.

At the site I observed that the construction work has completely destroyed the foliage of the river banks by dumping large boulders which are seen piled up without any regard for the environmental damage caused on the river banks.

During my visit in 2017, I could walk into the river bed of the scenic location of the film. At present, the route to the river bed has disappeared with large boulders being piled up on both banks of the river. The tourists and film buffs that come to visit could not reach the spot due to the dumping of left-over boulders of the tunnel, paying scant heed to tourism or to environment –friendly measures.

The villagers claim since Kitulgala is a tourist hotspot, the Tourism Authority of Sri Lanka should pay attention to develop the film location to attract more foreign tourists to the site so that it would help bring in foreign exchange to the country.

Samuel Perera is no longer able to earn his living taking tourists to the river bed of the scenic location of the film. Now tourists view it from a distance. Eventually the beauty of the location would vanish with the development that is taking place.