Photographs by Manusha Lakshan
Recalling his travels across the country, James Emerson Tennent reflects on Ambalangoda only cursorily after passing through Hikkaduwa. He writes that upon entering the area he saw, of all things, a rock python, which upon seeing the visitor uncoiled its fold and passes through the fence into the neighbouring enclosure.
Tennent recounts how, in 1587, the Portuguese, “hoping to create a diversion”, attacked several villages in this part of the coast and then shipped the peasants as slaves to India. History tells us that the residents of these areas of the country did not easily acquiesce to such treatment; so formidable were the residents of Ambalangoda that they formed the bulk of the porowakarayo or axe-wielders under the King. Paul E. Pieris tells us that these axe-wielders were so proud of their reputation that they would rather lay down their lives than abandon their stores of ammunition to the enemy.
At the turn of the 19th century, what is known today as the Galle District was made up of six divisions: Bentota-Wallawiti, Wellaboda Pattuwa, Four Gravets, Talpe Pattuwa, Gangaboda Pattuwa, and Hinidum Pattuwa. Ambalangoda belonged to the Wellaboda Pattuwa. Its reputation, as the name suggests, was for its set of ambalamas, or rest-houses: Ferguson’s Ceylon in 1913 translated this as “Rest-house village.” An alternative account relates how several fishermen, drifting in the sea after a violent storm had wrecked their sails, spotted land and shouted, “Aan balan goda!” Of course, this is highly apocryphal.
The colonial powers, especially the British, served to seal Ambalangoda’s reputation for rest-houses, so much so that every other writer from that period passing through referred to its hospitality, “excellent meals”, or “sea-bathing.” Even today, that is more or less what makes up Ambalangoda today: the people, the food, and the coast.
Though located in the South, certain accounts tell us that Ambalangoda was linked to the Kandyan kingdom. Again, these are highly apocryphal. Godwin Witane, for instance, has written of Kuda Adikaram, who during the Dutch era fell out with the Kandyan king and defected to the Maritime Provinces. Baptised as Costa Lapnot by the Dutch, he was put in charge of the development of these provinces, and wound up building roads, bridges, and buildings. Moving from one village to the other, he finally settled in Ambalangoda, where he devoted his career to the development of the Wellaboda Pattuwa.
Kuda Adikaram set about his task initially by turning the region into a centre for the salt trade and later by constructing canals and roads to Colombo. So prosperous did this part of Galle become with his efforts that by 1911 many centuries later, it had recorded the largest population growth over 10 years from any of the six divisions, at 15 percent.
E. B. Denham refers to Ambalangoda, by then converted into a Sanitary Board Town, as “a place of considerable wealth and growing importance.” At the end of the 19th century, with the Colombo Harbour replacing the Galle Harbour as the chief port in the country – a shift which led to the fall in the population growth rate from 7.9 percent in 1871-1881 to 6.3 percent in 1881-1891 – a great number of people began to leave their homes, making their way to other districts. “A comparative large number of persons from Ambalangoda” figured in this exodus, brought about by the demand for labour elsewhere, the segmentation of land in the region, and the outward migration of educated Southern youth.
It was this search for greener pastures that Martin Wickramasinghe epitomised in the character of Piyal in Gamperaliya, and it followed, as Kumari Jayawardena notes, a decline in primordial attachments to caste-based hierarchies. The South was, in other words, breaking apart, and this process of breaking apart was felt acutely in the more urbanised sections of Galle: Bentota, Balapitiya, and Ambalangoda.
Not everyone welcomed these developments. Some viewed then with alarm, since the province had by the 20th century gained a notorious reputation for lawlessness: “The growing independence of the villagers… has been accompanied by a steady decline in the power and influence of the headman” (Wright 1907: 753).
Four years later, however, the region was making a more favourable impression on outsiders, and eventually the “spirit of lawlessness” that had reigned until then all but completely disappeared. In that scheme of things the native of Galle was singled out for praise, “for his enterprise and spirit of adventure” (Denham 1912: 81).
Moreover, by now Wellaboda Pattuwa was recording a very high outward migration from any part of the Galle district. To an extent this had to do with the socioeconomic changes making themselves felt across the island. Not surprisingly, it led to the inhabitants of the Deep South to be singled out and characterised as cunning, unyielding, dubious, wherever they travelled. That reputation has a history of its own going back to the 16th century, when the southwest was turned by the Portuguese and Dutch into a cinnamon outpost, leading to some of the most aggressive rebellions ever recorded in the region.
Today the six divisions have given way to 19, with the result that what almost were constituent parts of Ambalangoda have become autonomous. Consequently, Elpitiya and Karandeniya, which are as much a part of Ambalangoda as Ambalangoda is a part of Galle, have turned into separate electoral divisions, and though they can’t be separated, they have formed an identity of their own. Four things, however, bring them together: the people, the food, the cinnamon, and of course the cultural and religious rituals.
Taking its people into consideration, the Ambalangoda identity has been, and is, caste-based. While caste is a non-entity in these regions, it is also not to be invoked or spoken of casually. In that sense, what otherwise would have unified Ambalangoda and its neighbour, Balapitiya, instead fragmented it: that is what bewildered Bryce Ryan when he observed in 1953 that while Ambalangoda-Balapitiya remained a single electoral district, it elected two people to Parliament: from Ambalangoda a karava member, from Balapitiya a salagama member (both strong leftists, since the UNP was considered to be a “Govigama club”). While Balapitiya remained the outpost of the de Zoysas, de Abrews, and Rajapakses, Ambalangoda remained a home to the Arachchiges, Hettiges, and Patabendiges.
In terms of food and cinnamon and rituals, of course, nothing much needs to be said, except that they are popular even now. The rituals continue to be as unique to the region as the rituals of the interior are to the former Kandyan provinces: with their mishmash of South Indian and folk cultures, kolam, rukada natum, and ves muhunu are the most profound and acute testament to the influence of cultural fusion in the island.
“Conspicuous by its absence in the Kandyan hill country”, kolam was associated so much with Ambalangoda that it “virtually ceased to exist” elsewhere (Raghavan 1961: 125). I have come across a kolam item once. I can’t say I understood it, but it mesmerised me: with its strongly emotional undercurrents, it is a truly rural entertainment. What, then, explains the differences between such art forms and those found higher up in Kandy?
We can only guess.
Perhaps the relatively serene life in the interior contributed to a culture of aristocratic art aimed at the invocation of beauty and prosperity, while in the Maritime Provinces, particularly in areas like Ambalangoda, the people’s harrowing encounters with colonialism turned art into a tool, not for invoking beauty, but for appeasing evil. Thus, as opposed to the daha ata vannama, the low country bred the daha ata sanniya: the one full of regal splendour, the other full of scatological farce.
All this distinguishes the people of the South from the people of Kandy: crude at one level, brutally honest at another. Perhaps this was what repelled the writers of the 20th century, and made them come up with the stereotype of the Southerner as cunning and deceitful. That in turn may have spurred officials to attribute to them a rebellious and violent streak. Whatever the reasons for it may be, the stereotype has endured to this day.
Today, of course, there are a great many people hailing from Ambalangoda and Balapitiya who have made a name for themselves. Norah Roberts writes about them in her beautiful account of the region, Galle: As Quiet As Sleep. We can add to her list. But it’s not just those famous people we know about who have found a second home among us: it’s also every other person you come across every other day, who has migrated from these corners of the South. Scratch these people and you can trace them to Galle; scratch them even harder and you can trace them to Ambalangoda and Balapitiya, well beyond Bentara.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]