"Where have all the flowers gone?"

Musings on the Malwathu Oya


By Somasiri Devendra

What’s in a name?

Someone asks me: "Where were all the flower gardens the river flowed through?" and gets me thinking. The very name conjures up colourful gardens, the fragrance of flowers, the hum of busy bees and honey combs. One assumes that, like "Alf, the sacred river" which "ran through caverns measureless to Man, Down to a sunless sea", this river, too, ran – through flower gardens measureless to Man – down to a sun-drenched sea. But that is sheer fantasy.

So I begin again: what do we know of his river? It is the second longest river in the country, its headwaters in Dambulla and Ritigala, winding through the heartland of ancient Sri Lanka, flowing through sacred city of Anuradhapura, across the north-western plains to the ancient shore where Vijaya may have landed. It’s full of History, Legend and, of course, contradictions. It is long, but carries little water: a seasonal river, dependent on the none-too-abundant north-east monsoon, unlike the perennial rivers of the south and south-west. More akin, on more modest scale, to the seasonal rivers of India, with sandbanks home to nomadic communities. It’s a river without the abundant flow that, alone, can encourage the growth of riverside communities, river traffic and lively interaction.

Yet it is the oldest river mentioned in the ancient chronicles. When Vijaya and his men – (there were no women on board: they were on another ship which made a landfall on another land) – set foot on the copper-hued sands somewhere between of Mannar and Kudiramalai, it was along the course of this river that they trekked to find the flat, fertile tracts which became the homeland of the Sinhalese. Lands fit for extensive rice-fields.

But flower gardens? There are no references to them. Where have they gone? Or… were they never there? Or… is the name an invention of a 19th century Surveyor? Or…is there another meaning to the name?

The problem is the name. Malwathu Oya, the name, has been recorded as being in use over 400 years ago. Robert Knox, making his escape from the clutches of the King of Kandy through the "jungle tide" covering the ancient Anudhapura kingdom, says:

"…..we came up with a small River, which ran thro the Woods, called by the Chingulayes Malwat oyah: the which we viewed well, and judged it might be a probable guide to carry us down to the Sea…".

"Running through the woods", and forgotten, it may have been in Knox’s time, but the name was in use. But, did the old Sinhalese who had lived there use that name? Tennant has this to say:

"From Anarajapoora, I returned to the west coast, following the line of the Malwatte-oya, the ancient Kadamba, which flows into the Gulf of Manaar, north of Aripo."

So Malwathu Oya is the Kadamba nadi of the Mahawamsa. This was the river along the banks of which Vijaya’s men accessed the interior to where of them, Anuradha, built a colony which, in time, became Anuradhapura.

But what does "Kadamba" mean? It does not mean "flower garden". I tapped Vini Vitharna who said it could be a reference to the Kon tree, but that it generally would refer to "a heap of"… (paddy?)

A Google search (https://www.wisdomlib.org/definition/kadamba) threw up several alternatives:

"Kadamba" is a Sanskrit word that could mean

= a kind of tree (Nauclea cadamba,Neolamarckia cadamba)

= or a bird ("grey goose", "whistling teal", Anser indicus or Anser anse),

=a goddess (Saumyā, one of the twenty-four goddesses of the Sūryamaṇḍala)

= or a mountain, near Himava, where Seven Pacceka Buddhas once lived

which gives us a choice: Tree, Bird, Goddess or Mountain.

But…may we go a bit further into this mystery?

Vijaya’s men,(no women: only Vijaya had one?) having founded a kingdom, wanted a King: so the Mahavamsa tells us:

"When they had founded settlements in the land the ministers all… spoke thus to the prince: `Sire, consent to be consecrated as king.' But,… the prince refused the consecration, unless a maiden of a noble house were consecrated as queen (at the same time).

[This, notwithstanding his marriage to Kuveni and his two children]

"But the ministers, whose minds were eagerly bent upon the consecrating of their lord, … sent people…. to the city of Madhura…to woo the daughter of the Pandu king for their lord…When the messengers … come by ship to the city of Madhura they laid the gifts and letter before the king. The king took counsel with his ministers, and …he was minded to send his daughter (to Lanka)… (and) he sent his daughter,… entrusted with a letter to the conqueror VIJAYA. All this multitude of men disembarked at Mahatittha; for that very reason is that landing-place known as Mahatittha."

So Vijaya’s queen came from Madura. And where was Madura?

"Maddur, (was)earlier known as Marudur…and also as as Arjunapuri, as Arjuna, of the Pandavas…was also called ‘Kadamba Nadi Kshetra’ as Kadamba rishi supposedly worshipped the waters and performed penance here."

So, (says the Mahavamsa), the Princess, herself came from "Kadambi nadi" (Madura) to reside on the bank of the "Kadamba nadi" (Lanka).

But how did "Kadamba nadi" become the Malwathu oya. No solution yet in sight.

The River and the City

The river linked the City to the sea: it was its coronary artery, so to speak. The Google reference above gives us one more definition, which gives us the river-city-heritage nexus which can hardly be improved on without sacrificing its brevity, viz.

Kadamba, Kadambaka - The river that flows past Anuradhapura, on the eastern side, now called the Malvatu Oya (Mhv.vii.43; and Trs.58, n.3). Near the river was the Nivatta cetiya (Mhv.xv.10). The river ford, the Gangalatittha (MT.361), formed the beginning of the boundary line of the sima of the Mahavihara, and this line also ended at the river bank (Mhv.xv.191). The road from Anuradhapura to Cetiyagiri lay across the Kadamba nadi, and pious kings, such as Maha Dathika Maha Naga, spread carpets from the river up to the mountain so that pilgrims could wash their feet in the river and approach the mountain shrines with clean feet (Mhv.xxxiv.78).

The road from the Kadamba river to Thuparama passed through the Rajamatudvara (SA.i.173). Moggallana II. dammed up the river among the mountains and thus formed three tanks, the Pattapasanavapi, the Dhanavapi, and the Garitara (Cv.xli.61), and Udaya II. built a weir for the overflow of the river (Cv.li.130).

In the time of Kakusandha Buddha, the capital of Ceylon, Abhayanagara, lay to the east of Kadambanadi (Mhv.xv.59; Dpv.xv.39; xvii.12; see also Mbv.120, 134f).

The many stone bridges across the river – some yet extant – within the city and environs, show the City as one: a living, throbbing, worshipful community.


From the City to the sea-shore

The City that Knox saw was but its bones, shrouded in forest. Striking through the forest to the coast he was reversing the route that Vijaya’s men must have taken two thousand after years before, and Tennant three hundred years after him. He saw the City’s bones along the course of the river:

"Here and there by the side of this River is a World of Ruins…hewn Stone Pillars, standing upright, and other heaps of hewn Stones, which I suppose formerly were Buildings. And in three or four places are the ruins of Bridges built of Stone; some Remains of them yet standing upon Stone Pillars. In many places are Points built out into the River like Wharfs, all of hewnStone; which I suppose have been built for Kings to sit upon for Pleasure."

"The lower we came down this River, the less Water, so that sometimes we could go a Mile or two upon the Sand, and in some places three or four Rivers would all meet together. When it happened so, and was Noon, the Sun over our head, and the Water not running, we could not tell which to follow, but were forced to stay till the Sun was fallen, thereby to judge of our course. We often met with Bears, Hogs, Deer, and wild Buffaloes, but all ran no soon as they saw us. But Elephants we met with no more than that I mentioned before. The River is exceeding full of Alligators all along as we went; the upper part of it nothing but Rocks."

"The Woods were so bad, that we could not possibly Travel in them for Thorns; and to Travel by Night was impossible, it being a dark Moon…Nights so full of Elephants and other wild Beasts coming to drink; as we did both hear and see laying upon the Banks with a Fire by us. They came in such Numbers because there was Water for them nowhere else to be had, the Ponds and holes of Water, nay the River itself in many places being dry."

"There was therefore no other way to be taken but to Travel on in the River. So down we went into the Sand, and put on as fast as we could set our Legs to the ground."

Seaman that he was, Knox observes the number of bridges and other "Points built out into the River " which had been pavilions for the Kings:

"For I cannot think they ever were employed for Traffick by Water; the River being so full of Rocks that Boats could never come up into it."

And so Knox reached the end of the river where it flowed into the sea at Arippu, and there he found the industrious and warlike mercantile Dutch who had built a little fort. Here he sought asylum, and so found his way home.

The Shores of Sinhale

Knox reached the mouth of the river at Arippu, between Mahatittha and Kudiramalai: between the places Vijaya landed and where his Queen-to-be landed. He came down the Malwathu Oya but, unknown to him, it was now the "Aruvi Aru" river. And what does that mean? It means a river made up of several tributaries: and that is quite an accurate description of the river. As Knox noted,"The lower we came down this River,….in some places three or four Rivers would all meet together." And so he, who was trying to quit this land came upon the very strand where Vijaya set foot on: "Tambapanni", the copper-coloured strand, now identified as Kudiramalai, and met the redoubtable Queen Kuveni.

Somewhere on that legend-heavy shore had lived another female ruler, not unlike Kuveni, "Allirani" by name. Who she was and when she lived we do not know, because she lives only in legend? Only? Legends don’t die so easily. She had a Palace, somewhere, some say its ruins are found in Wilpattu, but some say that it was her palace that we call the ruins of "The Doric" at Arippu. Who was she? Says: https://allirani.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/who-is-allirani-a-quick-lesson-in-tamil-folklore/

"Driving through Mannar… my aunt pointed out Kudiramalai in the distance…. According to her, Princess Alli had stormed off from her home in Madurai and set up fort in Mannar after having a tantrum with her father, a Pandyan king…so of course I went about doing my research… I didn’t find a single mention of Alli having fought with her father. What I found instead was that she was in fact ‘the indomitable empress of the Tamil folk tradition’, who had protected her father’s kingdom with her ‘martial prowess, intellect and strength’. All of this is told in ‘Alliyarasanimalai’ which is a sort of Tamil folk spin-off of the Mahabharatha. I was impressed that the concept even existed, especially in Tamil folk tradition. I had discovered our very own Amazonian queen."

Such a character would live in legend. And, in fact, a Buddhist monk of a jungle temple off Puttalam claims that ruins of wells and buildings in that area were those of "Allirani, the sister of Kuveni". And Wikipedia comes close to this: "… the legend says that area was her palace, and Queen Alli ruled where subsequently ruled." This area seems to have much to do with exceptional women – Allirani, Kuveni, Vijaya’s queen – were they one or several? And to their number, add Dona Catherina who was schooled by the Portuguese in Arippu before she was sent to Goa. Good stories should be kept alive!

In the footsteps of Anuradha

One goes inland again, to nail the mystery of the name. Upriver, one encounters the Giant’s tank: fed by the Malwathu oya but re-emerging as Aruvi Aru. Tennant, following the river’s course:

"Within a few miles of the coast our party passed… the immense causeway of cut granite, two hundred and fifty yards in length, and upwards of fifteen feet high, by which it was attempted to divert the waters of the river into the canal, that was designed to supply the Giants’ Tank. None of the great reservoirs of Ceylon have attracted so much attention as this stupendous work."

A tank of magnificent proportions built by – whom? Wikipedia says:

"Some historians have speculated that Giant's Tank is the same as the Mahanama Matha Vapi tank built by in the fifth century and restored by in the twelfth century. On the other hand, Mudaliyar C. Rajanayagam… suggests that the tank was probably constructed by the (and it was) the Megisba lake mentioned by Pliny "

Again, we have a choice: a king with a tank-building background, or the work of a legendary race.

Why are the Chronicles silent about the builder? Tennant had a theory:

"A recent discovery has, however, served to damp alike historical and utilitarian speculations; for it has been ascertained that, owing to an error in the original levels, the canal from the river, instead of feeding the tank, returned its unavailing waters to the channel of the Malwatte river. Hence the costly embankment was an utter waste of labour, and the Singhalese historians, disheartened by the failure of the attempt, appeared to have made no record of the persons or the period at which the abortive enterprise was undertaken."

But he is contradicted by Guruge in strident authority:

"Many a modern engineer has been baffled by the sophisticated designs on which these reservoirs and channel systems were constructed. It is known that the Dutch engineers of the eighteenth century and their British counterparts in the nineteenth failed to understand the design of the Giant Tank near Mannar on the northwestern coast. Only in recent years, when the tank was restored in conformity with the original design, was it found that leveling by the unknown engineer of the past was vastly superior to that attempted by modern engineers."

When pundits disagree, it’s best for us to slip silently away!

But the Giant’s Tank may give us a clue to the name "Malwathu oya".

Suppose we turn it on its head: NOT a river that flows through flower gardens, BUT a river that turns an arid land into a blooming Paradise? This river, many lesser rivers and the many irrigation works that were constructed along its course made the Nuwarakalaviya region one great rice-bowl. It was not just flowers in an ornamental garden, but the flowering of a civilization.

Let us look at this again.

Sri Lanka’s hydraulic civilization was based upon the "cascade" system of water management.

"A cascade is a connected series of tanks organized within micro-catchments of the dry zone landscape, storing, conveying and utilizing water from ephemeral rivulets."(Madduma Banda) It resulted from the unpredictability of rainfall and the characteristics of the landscape. "Rivers flowing for long distance through flat to undulating landscape especially Malwathu Oya, Kala Oya, Yan Oya, and Deduru Oya replenish groundwater… These four rivers collectively contributed to evolve the spatial base for the ancient hydraulic civilization of Sri Lanka." (emphasis mine) "…in the above mentioned river basins characterized by flat to undulating landscape…. with distinctly different soil drainage conditions, and highly impervious underlying hard rock basement favoured the development of small tank cascade systems…." (Dharmasena:)

With the growth of organized communities and technology naturally occurring ponds, water-holes and ‘villus’ (still seen in the area) tank-centered local communities, began to network between tanks and, finally, to the large, centrally located major tanks. Central control, even though devolved, led to irrigation becoming the most important of a king’s duties.

And, a stable economy based upon successful hydraulic works, saw the state sponsored flowering of Buddhist art, architecture, literature, and scholarship that characterized Sri Lanka’s classical period.

So, maybe – just maybe – the "Mal-watta" was the whole of that land watered and nurtured by the unpredictable, seasonal Malwathu oya, with its countless bodies of stored water covered by blooming water lilies. If so, the whole of the Auradhapura kingdom would have been, metaphorically, a garden in full bloom.

Fanciful? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And Truth, in the musings of an idle mind.

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