The Gal Oya Legacy – Past and Present

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Gal Oya

As a prelude to relating the inspiring story of Gal Oya, it is befitting to brief the reader with some historical facts relating to magnificent irrigation works of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka symbolizes one of the most complex ‘hydraulic civilizations’ in the world. The management of water and land was considered a primary aspect of governance by Sri Lankan kings since the very ancient times. They toiled tirelessly to store and redistribute every drop of rainwater that fell upon the land for agricultural purposes, particularly to facilitate cultivation during the island’s inter-monsoonal dry seasons in the Northeast.

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It is the sheer splendour of the cultivable land and the irrigation works that would draw one to the Gal Oya region; especially the dominating presence of the largest man-made reservoir in Sri Lanka. The Gal Oya landscape boasts of relics of ancient irrigational brilliance, majestic free-roaming elephants and an alluring forest with abundant natural treasures. Being somewhat out of the way from the popularly traversed tourist routes is one factor that adds to its charm and unspoiled beauty. The environs of Gal Oya are now a protected nature reserve.

The vast Gal Oya valley that lies across the Uva and Eastern provinces, spreading mostly over the Monaragala district, with its Eastern boundary overlapping the Ampara district, is home to the Senanayake Samudraya (Senanayake Sea). The lush valley that combines Gal Oya National Park, Senanayake Samudraya Sanctuary, Gal Oya Valley Northeast Sanctuary and Gal Oya Valley South East Sanctuary offers a promising haunt for wildlife enthusiasts. The Senanayake Samudraya is scattered with many small islets that are thriving with wildlife. Kurulu Doopatha (Bird Island) is one such example, being a favourite nesting place for birds. Gal Oya is one of the places where you would witness the aquatic skills of the Sri Lankan Elephant as they show off their swimming prowess. Overall, 32 species of mammals, over 150 species of birds, reptiles and insects are recorded within the area. The vegetation is a combination of Evergreen forests, Savannah grasslands (known as thalawa, a mixture of mana and iluk), Mountainous grasslands (known as pathana) and some chena cultivation (slash-and-burn agriculture). Water bodies make up the rest of the valley.

Senanayake Samudraya

The Senanayake Samudraya came into being in 1950 when the Gal Oya River was dammed at Inginiyagala, supporting a massive expanse of 60,000 hectares of land for cultivation. At a capacity of 7680 hectares (ha), the reservoir is principally fed by the Gal Oya River, which originates from the cool and misty hills Northeast of Badulla. The river flows through the Gal Oya basin, passing Inginiyagala and the Ampara district, to reach the Indian Ocean at Oluvil, in the island’s Eastern coast. The Gal Oya region was declared as protected in 1954 primarily to secure the catchment area and prevent chena cultivation. However this step also ensured a sanctuary for the local fauna and flora, and in addition proved to be an important step in protecting the valley from soil erosion. The two other noteworthy watery giants of the Gal Oya reservation are the Namal Oya Reservoir (650 ha) fed by the Namal Oya and the Jayanthi Wewa Reservoir (1016 ha) fed by the Pallan Oya. The northeast monsoon from December to March is mainly responsible for bringing forth the seasonal rains that feed the Gal Oya reservoir.

History Of The Gal Oya Project

“It is not fitting that persons in our situation live enjoying our own ease, and unmindful of the interests of the people. And ye all, be ye not discouraged, when a necessary but a difficult work is on hand. Regard it not indeed as a work of difficulty, but following my advice accomplish it, without opposing my instructions.”

- Parakramabahu I, the Great King of Polonnaruwa from 1153-1186 AD, The Mahawamsa Chronicle.

The Gal Oya development project is one of the largest irrigation projects of modern times in Sri Lanka. The project was managed by The Gal Oya Development Board, which incidentally is also the first statutory body to have been set up in independent Ceylon. The Inginiyagala Hydroelectric Power Station project was also a part of the same scheme. Since 1954 the Gal Oya Development Board administrated the park until 1965, when the Department of Wildlife Conservation was handed over its administration.

“Gal Oya has become almost a household word. It is symbolic of the new Lanka, may it obtain fulfilment speedily and herald the progress of our march towards self sufficiency”

- Rt. Hon. D. S. Senanayake, the Father of Modern Ceylon.

Gal Oya was a pet project of first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon (1947–52) the Right Honorable Don Stephan Senanayake, while he was the Minister of Agriculture under the British rule. D.S. (as he is affectionately known by Sri Lankans) was no doubt inspired by King Parakramabahu I (The Great), during whose reign Sri Lanka came to be known as the ‘Granary of the Orient’. The monarch’s famous quote states , “not even a little drop of water that comes from the rain must flow into the ocean without being made useful to man”. Considered one of the greatest kings in the history of Sri Lanka, he unified the country and made great strides in developing administration, economic rehabilitation, reviving religion and uplifting arts & culture of the Island. His vast achievements in irrigation include the construction or restoration of 165 dams, 3910 canals, 163 major tanks and about 2376 minor tanks during his 33-year reign.

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The topology at Gal Oya was studied using the most sophisticated equipment available at the time. However, when experts finally picked the ideal location for the dam and sluice gates, they were in no small way amazed to find ruins of an ancient dam and sluice gates in the exact same places they chose. Some believe that these ruins are over 2000 years old. It remains a mystery as to how this feat was accomplished by the ancients, but the findings demonstrate in no small way the technical prowess of ancient Sri Lanka. It is tempting to imagine how many more engineering feats of this nature lie buried deep in our hidden past.

Accommodation And Touristic Activity

If you are thinking of visiting Gal Oya, March to July is the best period to spot elephants roaming the banks of the Senanayake Samudraya. Camping is the only choice of accommodation for overnight stay within the Gal Oya National Park, so one has to come prepared. Catching the sunset in the banks of the sea-like reservoir is guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience. There are two campsites within the Gal Oya National Park and they need to be reserved in advance, through the Wildlife Department Offices situated either in Colombo or at Inginiyagala. If you want to catch a nice view of the park from the reservoir, the boat safari is an option to take. As with any mode of travel, safety precautions are a must during the boat safari. Jeep safaris offer a charming ride through the vegetation of Gal Oya. For those who want more creature comforts during their stay, there is a Rest House run by the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority at Inginiyagala.  Other private bungalows are also available in the vicinity.

Local Attractions

Govinda Hela, also historically known as Govindamala or Govindisela, is the highest point in the Gal Oya region, standing at 573m. It is believed to have been used as a fortress by the Rohana (one of the three main kingdoms of ancient Sri Lanka) chieftain named Bhuvanekabaahu somewhere during 1215 – 1236 AD. This dominating monolith lies somewhat beyond the protected area, towards the South East in the Siyambalanduwa region directly overlooking the Jayanthi Wewa reservoir.  The British later referred to the mount as Westminster Abbey due to its resemblance to the iconic abbey in London. From its apex you have the benefit of a magnificent view of the Gal Oya basin.

Wadinagala is a popular attraction to Buddhist pilgrims who believe that the Buddha considered this rock for his third and final visit to Sri Lanka before finally choosing Adam’s Peak (Samanalakanda). It lies towards the East of the Gal Oya scheme and is often frequented by wild elephants. Dighavapi stupa is about 38 km from Inginiyagla towards the east. It was built in the 2nd century BC on the site where the Buddha is believed to have meditated during his third visit to Sri Lanka.

Danigala, Nilgala, and Ulpotha are mountains within the Gal Oya National Park. Danigala is of historical significance as it was the home to the Henebadde Veddas, the ancient natives of the island who are anthropologically a mix of the Australoid and Negrito races. Ancient Brahmi inscriptions have been found in nearby caves. You could still find descendants of the Henebadde Veddas in the vicinity.

Buddhangala Sanctuary was declared as a protected nature reserve in 1974. It enshrines an ancient monastery in its thick jungles. The monastery is believed to date back to the Digamadulla Kingdom founded by Prince Dighayu in the 4th Century BC.

Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photographs | Aruna Seneviartne

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