Matara: Digging Legends


Scratch the surface of any town in Sri Lanka, and out will pop amazing tales, and legends that keep you digging deeper and deeper, taking you off the track of your initial story writing. And, if you possess that gift of seeing with your eyes wide shut, you can enter a wonderful world, of romantic poets, intrigue, courtesans, all complete with clever handsome kings with a trailing of beautiful queens and tragedy as in Greek or Shakespearean dramas. So it was with Matara and my wanting to write a simple piece for my website after a days romp through the staid Dutch built Church, Fort and other monuments.

Śakuntalā Looking Back to Glimpse Dushyanta". Scene from Kālidāsa's The Recognition of Śakuntalā as painted by Raja Ravi Varma. Image in the public domain.

The legend that emerged is of the scholar poet King Kumaradasa or Kumaradhatusena son of King Kasyapa of Sigiriya fame and the poet and dramatist, Kalidasa who is supposed to have lived sometime between, 170BCE and 634CE. Kalidasa's second play "Shakuntala" written in the 5th century is generally considered to be his masterpiece. It is an epic love story about young lovers who meet in innocence, fall in love, are cruelly separated and eventually reunited in eternity.

Matara in 2014, a far cry from the ancient settlement.

Matara likes to claim Kalidasa as a son of theirs but our big neighbhour India thinks otherwise. Doubts do exist about Matara being the birthplace of Kalidasa. However, it has been a fascinating exercise connecting different pieces of the legend, on this side of Lanka-in Matara to be precise. Apparently, King Kumaradasa's, epic Janakiharana was read and lavishly appreciated by Kalidasa and he was in Lanka as a royal guest. The salacious bit of the legend is that the handsome King in flagrante delicto with a courtesan, spied a bee entangled in the petals of a lotus flower, and was inspired to write two lines of poetry. The king then offered a reward for anyone who could complete these two lines.

No bees on these lotus flowers for sale at the entrance to the Pigeon Island. ©Chulie de Silva

This version of the legend surfaced as I searched for early history of Matara and this landed me on the Historic Tale of Matara, by Gamini G. Punchihewa who in his version says that the cunning courtesan seized the opportunity and took the two lines of poetry to the king's friend the poet Kalidasa who completed the two lines of the verse". But by doing that Kalidasa signed his death warrant as the courtesan poisoned and killed him to get the reward for herself. The king on seeing the completed two poetic lines instantly recognized Kalidasa's handwriting, which exposed the courtesan's vile plan. Punchihewa quotes from the chronicle, "The 'Rajavaliya', and says "as Kalidasa was being cremated, the king unable to control his grief threw himself into the pyre." Apparently, the King's 5 official Queens had also leapt in to the flames, completing this tragedy.

 According to local lore, seven Bo trees were planted over these seven tombs. Then came the Dutch to rule Matara and one of these Generals circa 1783, is said to have ruthlessly cut down those seven Bo trees and had used its timber for building construction purposes. The seven Bo trees are popularly known as the 'hath Bodhies' and one is supposed to have survived the Dutch axe. 


Matara, meant Maha Ethera, the grate ford of the river Nilwala Ganga, that made this an early settlement. It was also known as Mahathitha, Nilwalathitha and Mahithitha and was the pivotal centre for the cinnamon production and the southern elephant trading. The Muslims were the masters of the gem cutting and trading business and not at all difficult to imagine it as a bustling city with many international traders. 

One of the houses built by C A Lorensz in Matara.©Chulie de Silva


 The Matara Maha Waluwa, now the Cooperative Hospital of Matara. ©Chulie de Silva

Thus, Matara grew and many of the wealthy Sri Lankan merchants built palatial Dutch influenced houses with wide verandah's and high ceilings as the "Matara Maha Waluwa," now a Cooperative Hospital. The garden of this once magnificent house slopes down to the famed Nilwala, and this was where I met the boatman Saman, checking his crab traps. He had 6 traps set out and says on a good day he can make about LKR 1500 – 25000. Dangers of course lurks below the placid looking blue water and Saman points up the river and says there is a 25 foot crocodile somewhere skulking and marking time beneath the waters.

For me Matara, was the pit stop town on the way to Kataragma where we would lean out of the car and peer into the Nilwala river to see if we could spot a crocodile. The most famous of these crocs were the female "Kimbuli" immortalized in the children's ditty:

"Matara gange sitina kimbuli ge patiya

Thalla sudai, belley gomara katiya

Yana ena oru paru nawathagena hitiya

Mini nokai matara kimbuli ge patiya."

The verse is about the lady croc's daughter – "petiya," – meaning offspring, whose palette was white and the neck had freckles. She would stop the boats that plied the Matara River, but she wouldn't eat human flesh. It is a simple enough ditty that the boatmen would have sung among others in the olden days as they ferried people along the river. The new disconcerting interpretation I heard is that hidden in it is a different story. The Kimbuli was another name for a prostitute, but her daughter, did not take up to earn a living as her mother!


 Read the English Translation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala  translated by Arthur W. Ryder, Cambridge, Ontario 1999.  http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/shakuntala_ryder.pdf