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The historic tale of Matara

by Gamini G. Punchihewa

The old Nupe Dutch Market built in 1784 which is now a part of the Ruhunu Cultural Centre.

In the dim past when ancient Lanka was ruled by kings and queens, what is today known as Matara, the southern most capital of Sri Lanka was known by many epithets. Among them were Mahathitha, Nilwalathitha and Mahithitha. The Dutch named it Mature.

The pages of the ancient chronicle like the 'Culavamsa' tells us how Parakarama Bahu The Great of the 12th century AD led an expedition to Matara to subdue a revolt there in 1153 AD under his warrior like General Rakha. Matara means Maha Ethera meaning the Great Ford. this is because of the mighty but meandering river - the Nilwala ganga which flows through the heart of this ancient citadel to join her estuary at Thotamune.

Tragic episodes of two poets

The Matara Clock Tower amidst the ancient Citadel.

Delving still into the depths of deeper history and oral traditions, we come across the well known story spun around King Kumara Dharmasena (512-522 AD), the scholar but poet king and of his amiable friend, equally a poet and scholar-Kalidasa. Around these two literary giants are woven a tragic tale that is known not only around Matara but even through the whole island.

According to this sad but romantic story, it is unfolded thus. While king Kumara Dharmasena was in the amorous company of a courtesan, he espied a bee entangled in the petals of a lotus flower. While in this orgy of his love tryst in the alms of his concubine, the king was lured into writing two poetic lines, thus comparing himself as involved similarly in the very amorous alms of his courtesan. The good king offered a reward to anybody who could complete the other two poetic stanzaas of these two lines.

The cunning courtesan seized the opportunity. She took the two lines of poetry to the king's friend-Kalidasa himself and got the two lines of the verse completed. In order to get the reward for herself she murdered Kalidasa, concealing the body and took with her those two lines of poetry to the king himself. On seeing these two poetic lines, he instantly recognised his bosom friend - Kalidasa's handwriting which brought the whole murderous ruse to light.

According to yet another chronicle, the 'Rajavaliya', it says that when poet Kalidasa's dead body was taken to the funeral pyre for cremation, the grieving king unable to control the bereavement of his beloved friend - Kalidasa, threw himself into the burning flames and immolated himself. When the five queens witnessed this harrowing scene of tragedy, all the five of them also leapt into the flames and immolated themselves.

The new buildings of the Ruhunu Cultural Centre built in Dutch style.

It is believed according to local traditions around Matara environs that seven Bo trees were planted over these seven tombs. When the Dutch ruled over Matara, a Dutch General in 1783, is said to have ruthlessly cut down those seven Bo trees and had used its timber for building construction purposes.

But yet another popular story unfolds that seven Bo trees were later planted. These particular seven Bo trees are locally and popularly known as the 'hath Bodhis' and are said to be still surviving at six different places around Matara within the town limits.

In the past and in recent times for my feature writing to amass suitable material, I have been used to go rambling around Matara in quest of these identical sites where these hath Bodhis stand.

In the past wanderings to meet authoritative and distinguished persons, I was fortunate to meet one of them. He was the late Mr. Justin Wijewardene of Matara, a retired teacher (Rahula College) prolific writer, a versatile translator of some of the books of H.G. Wells into Sinhala and an ex-member of Parliament for the Matara district. He poured forth to me as if he was narrating a chronicle about the historic city of Matara.

According to him only six such Bodhis are supposed to be still in existence. All of them are still held in reverence. Two are located in the heart of the Matara town overlooking the Police station. These two Bo trees are being venerated not only by the people of Matara, but also those persons and motorists who go past them and offer Bodhi poojas, flowers, and fulfil vows.

A creamy white dagaba stands in all its sanctity besides these two Bo trees lying opposite the Matara Police Station.

The third Bodhi-Bo tree is found at the cemetery junction (called as Gabada Veediya) the fourth one at Veliveriya junction (Hunukotuwa junction) the fifth down main street close to Mr. Edmund Samarasekera's land and finally the sixth down Kotuwagoda old road.

Legacies of the Dutch

During the ruthless rule of the Portuguese over Matara, in the 16th century AD they plundered many buildings, store-houses, shrines and ransacked them. The Dutch captured Matara from the Portuguese in Circa 1640 AD the monumental but the living legacy of the Dutch is the Dutch Star Fort overlooking the main street which is a star attraction in Matara. Over its entrance is prominently engraved the VOC ensign of the United East India Company (Verenigade Osst Indiachie Comapignic'. The name of its builder is inscribed on it as Dutch Governor Redout Van Eck.

This Dutch Star Fort is a protected monument under the care of the Department of Archaeology. Its interior is under three arches, leaving an aisle. Inside it contains two rooms separated by another one. There are also two apartments which had served as prison cells. The moat had been around the fort having a stone embankment which could still be seen. In the middle of the terrace lies a deep well paved with stone including its inner walls. In its premises lies a standing stone Buddha statue with one arm decapitated. Frills of the robe are well incised. This stone Buddha statue had been recovered from the premises of the Rahula College in 1991.

The old entrance to the main Dutch Fort lies overlooking the bus-stand and the highway. Its glowing ramparts lie sentinel like, guarding this ancient citadel. Inside the Dutch Fort lies a Dutch Church which bears the date inscribed on it as 1769. As the Dutch had been proficient canal builders which provided a system of water carriage, relics of these decrepit canals are yet to be seen, some of which had been rehabilitated. At the termination of the fort lies the sea and the estuary in its backdrop throwing a scenic view of the river in and the roaring sea.

Another antiquatedDutch fabric is its market built by the Dutch in 1784, in Nupe about two miles away fromthe town.

Its main purpose was never met with. As the years grew on from the British times and till many years thereafter, this spacious Dutch Nupe edifice fell into disuse. It ultimately was in desolation and became the refuge of the roaming stray cattle. In the 1980s a portion of its building collapsed, when the department of Archaeology took over its functions of restoring the building. Still later its further restorations came under the Urban Development Authority which completed its restoration work in 1989, when it was handed over to the Hunupitiya Gangarama Temple which ran a cottage industry.

Ruhuna Cultural Centre

In the year 1997, came the red letter day for Matara as pride of place was given to this antiquated Dutch Nupe Market, when it became a part of the Ruhuna Cultural Complex Centre. Just a stone's throw away from this old Dutch market edifice were also built a network of three new buildings to house the entire Ruhuna Cultural Centre having the very architectural replica of the old Dutch Nupe market. All these constructions were the making of the Central Cultural Fund (CCF).

This Ruhuna Cultural Centre is a nascent of nine such Cultural Centres to be opened in the nine Provincial Councils in due course.

These new buildings were magnanimously gifted by two reputed Telecommunication Companies-Suntel and Ericsson courtesy of the Swedish Embassy in Colombo.

Recently on a familiarisation tour around I happened to visit this old Dutch Market in Nupe and the network of new buildings built on real Dutch style architecture of the very replica of this old Dutch Market there.

At the time of my visit recently, Mr. N. E. D. Nimal Rexcy, the Central Cultural Officer attached to this complex centre, took me around the newly constructed buildings. The ground floor houses the marketing facilities, publications, reception and office. Its upstairs caters to the training of youths in art, and other cultural aspects, while the third building graces the auditorium.

The old Nupe Dutch market has an unique architectural design in the form of the letter 'T' standing on stone pillars. It is fascinatingly adorned with three prominent gables, one being in its frontage, while the other two are in the sides. The roof is paved with flat tiles (typical of Kandyan type) thus giving a blend of the Kandyan style to the roof complex and the Dutch type structures. The new buildings too carry the same type of Dutch style architecture, decor and design as portrayed vividly in the old Dutch Nupe Market building, as well.