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Ruined pillars of Kuveni Palace in the heart of the Wilpattu jungle

Wilpattu…… in the times of Kuveni

Wide publicity is being given to Wilpattu National Park by print and electronic media these days. Admired by local and foreign wildlife lovers, the largest and oldest national park in Sri Lanka, Wilpattu, is unique amongst national parks and significant because its rich bio-diversity.

Spread across Anuradhapura, Puttalam and Mannar districts, this huge 131,667.1 hectare national park lies along the North-Western coast, between the rivers Modaragam Aru and Kala Oya.

It was established as a National Park in February 25, 1938. The eastern boundary of the Park located on villages such as Hunuvilagama, Wilachchiya and Thantrimale in the Anuradhapura district.

Natural lakes

Wilpattu means ‘the land of the villus’ and derives its name from the abundant natural lakes (Vila in Sinhala, Villu in Tamil). There are about 40 magnificent villus within the Wilpattu National Parks, with Kokkari Villu, being the largest, reaching a maximum depth of 10 feet. The villu however contains salt water.

Maila Villu is the second largest at the park, but the most interesting is the Kali Villu, historic because of its association with the legend of Princess Kuveni. It is believed she obtained her water requirements from this Villu

I was drawn here by my life-long love of archaeological sites. There are historical sites in various states of ruin in every corner of the jungle of Wilpattu.

Some of the ‘palaces’ have become home to wild animals. The beautiful water-filled villus, once used by queens, are now bathing ponds for crocodiles. Built by kings, they speak of a glorious past, when they were once the capital of a dynasty. Mostly ignored and dilapidated, they lie crumbling, waiting to tell their story. These sites have been central to much of my work as photographer and explorer.

I felt fortunate to travel with my team of friends to Wilpattu on a two-day tour to explore the several historical sites. Leaving Kokmotey bungalow, we drove 16 kilometers on the sandy track in the heart of the jungle, on a trail to the Kuveni Palace and Kudiramalai point, which is our first destination. This was where princes and queens had left the marks of their reign in their palaces, most of which are crumbling today.

We were in the ancient site of Kuveni Palace. As the magnificent ruins emerged into view in the jungle, an ensemble of stone pillars among them greeted us.


Ochappu Kallu ‘leaning stone’ a deserted archaeological site in Wilpattu jungle

I could see the basic structure of the palace buried in the soil, yet imposing, an example of Sri Lanka’s priceless and rich heritage. There they were, exquisite stone pillars glisteringin the morning sun. Lying in ruins were stone pillars believed to have been part of an edifice that belonged to Queen Kuveni, some of them standing, some leaning on others or buried in the earth among the huge trees dotting the jungle.

Kuveni, a demon princess of the Yakka tribe is said to have lived here when Prince Vijaya landed in Thambapanni or Kudiramale. It is believed that Kuveni and Prince Vijaya got married and started their reign from this region of Wilpattu and associated legend of Prince Vijaya.

After visiting Kuveni Palace, we snaked through the jungle crossing many villus until we reached the Kudiramalai point on western coast of the Wilpattu National Park. Legend has it that Prince Vijaya landed in Lanka in the region called Thambapanni.

Standing on the edge of the cliff of Kudiramalai, I looked out and enjoyed the panoramic view of the mighty Indian Ocean, where a steep slope formed about 50 feet to the sea.

The geological origins of Kudiramalai are shrouded in mystery, but general belief is that it is the site of an ancient meteor strike. The reason behind this belief has been the unique red soil and burnt rocks in the area. The soil contains high levels of iron and other minerals that give it a unique reddish hue.

Kudiramalai is known as the Horse Mountain and is associated with many historical theories. Walking further on the Kudiramalai cliff, we could see the remains of an ancient temple which is believed to be devoted to a horse. Some believe these as the ruins of a huge figure of a horse that had given the region its name. It had stood 35 feet tall, its front legs raised in the air and its rider clinging to the reins.


Remains of sculptured horse in the Kudiramalai cliff.

Although most of it has disappeared, part of its rear leg with bricks is still visible. A lantern that hung from statue was believed to have guided ships into the port. However, today, Kudiramalai or Thambapanni stands in memory of Prince Vijaya, who is believed to be the founder of the Sinhala race.

Next destination

Our next destination was an archeological site called Ochappu Kallu, which was located 59 kilometers from the park entrance. Although this site is not well known, it is famous for its 2nd Century BC monastery and the majestic rock carvings.

The vast stretch of land bore many caves and rock outcrops around Ochappu Kallu archeological site filled with rocky terrain and was known as being home to sloth bear.

A huge rock boulder lies on the top of the hill, separating it into two. The upper rock is occupied by a vast area with a steep slope, overgrown with trees and bushes with a brick foundation of a stupa on the top, while the lower part has extensive remains of a temple and another stupa, including many pillars, some still erect, others lying on the ground. On the rock surface, there were many inscriptions in which letters are beyond recognition due to weather elements.

The most interesting feature on the summit of the rock boulder were two remarkable rocks called Ochappu Kallu, the ‘leaning stone’ from where the site derived its Tamil name. These rocks appeared to be originally perpendicular, but had by accident fallen one over the other, and their descent arrested half-way by smaller fragments of rock beneath and between them.

Around the vicinity of the Ochappu Kallu were a number of rock-cut ruins, some upright, some lying flat, with other stones of various shapes roughly hewn or simply carved, denoting the place as being an extensive monastic edifice in the past.

The fate of two majestic stupas which adorned the landscape of the site in the glories past, mercilessly destroyed by treasure hunters. What caught my attention on the hilltop were the heap of rubble of two stupas with bricks and stone scattered across extensive areas of the rock boulder.


Unique red soil and burnt rock in Kudiramalai cliff.

Looking at these ruins, what could clearly be observed was the lack of protection and the constant threat faced by archaeological sites and the wildlife in many areas of the park. Obviously, these spots have become a heaven for poachers and treasure hunters.

I lost myself in the beauty of the ruins, wondering how these structures were destroyed. Perhaps, they met their end when the human settlements and kingdom shifted to Anuradhapura and unknown invaders pulled the monuments down.

Another look

As I left, I took another look at ruins of Ochappu Kallu, which were testimony to the glorious past of the island and I wondered how much of the history lay lost in the rubble.

Another fascinating historic site is Thantrimale, which is located on a rocky boulder in the edge of eastern border of the Wilpattu National Park. Unlike other places we visited, Thantrimale is well known and easily accessible from Anuradhapura via Vilachchiya. Thantirimale was first civilised by a minister of King Vijaya called Upatissa who chosen this site surrounded by Malwatu Oya to build his settlement then named Upatissa Grama.

The small but beautiful Dagaba lies majestically on top of the rocky boulder of Thantrimale. The most unique feature of this place is the two Buddha statues carved out of living rock.

Wilpattu National Park remains beautiful and un-spoilt today despite the gruesome and tragic events recorded in recent past.

The LTTE destroyed several bungalows and killed several wildlife officers as well as visitors to the park during the heights of the terror. With the dawn of peace, the park reopened on February 10, 2010.

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