Today MATARA is a busy commercial town, with its origins in ancient times when it was a busy port exporting elephants and spices such as sweet smelling citronella and lemon grass. Then, too, it was the ancient kingdom of Ruhunu and gave refuge to Sinhalese princes seeking to gather armies to get back their own kingdoms. The revered King Vijayabahu 1 spent his boyhood here, later taking the Kingdom of Anuradhapura but finally calling Polonnaruwa home.
When the Portuguese invaded they razed all the temples and, as usual, built one of their trade-mark forts. They were followed by the Dutch, who deemed it insufficient and added another fort – the smaller Star Fort, a unique six pointed star shaped edifice which was surrounded by a moat and had room for twelve canons. The arch at the main entrance is embossed with the year 1765. It’s an interesting place to explore, especially before 5pm in the evening before a sunset walk on the wide ramparts of the main fort.
For something different how about a visit to the enigmatic WEHERAHENA TEMPLE about 6km from Matara town. This is a temple like no other in the country! While the Buddha statue is tall at 39m, the temple itself is in six layers behind it and that and the 600ft tunnel, its walls adorned with 23,000 murals of the Buddhist teachings, including those depicting hell, make it unique for Sri Lanka. Even with these scary depictions of hell, it is a calm and spiritual place. You can climb through the tunnel as high as the statue’s shoulder to get fabulous views of the area.
Another interesting place is the PAREVI DUPATHA TEMPLE on the Parey Dewa Rock – a small island linked by a bridge from Matara city. This bridge is a new one, replacing the one that was lost in the 2004 tsunami. The temple has many Buddhist statues as well as a replica of the Adam’s Peak gold footprint and is set in some lovely gardens.
The imposing and gleaming white building on the banks of the Niwala River in Matara is not a Portuguese construction but the MUHIYIDDENIL JEELANI MOSQUE ! Another religious building of note that you might like to explore is St Mary’s church in the old town, built in 1769.
What use is a coastline without surf spots, many might think. Well, the many surf spots along this part of the coast include the previously mentioned Mirissa, Midigama, Weligama, Ahangama, Polhena, Meddawatta, Dikwella, and Tangalle. Goyambokka, Marakoliya and Rekawa are particularly beautiful. The season along this part of the coast is from January to April and November – December.
There are several yoga and ayruvedic spas along this part of the coast. As these have been set up for tourists – Sri Lankans don’t generally practise yoga and any massage treatments are given in the home by family members so you won’t be surprised at the tourist type costs.
The beautiful LIGHTOUSE standing tall on DONDRA HEAD marks the most southern point of the country. It was built by the Dutch and is the oldest lightouse in Sri Lanka.
While DIKWELA has the largest sitting Buddha statue about 50m tall it is the HUMMANAYA BLOWHOLE that tourists come to see. When the waves smack through the fracture down the centre of a massive rock it creates a “Whoo Whoo-shsh”, however if the sea is rough waves rush through the crack and shoot a spout of water up to 90 metres above the rock. Choose a rough sea day to visit!
If you are still looking for a quiet palm fringed beach then head to TANGALLE where the paddy fields almost meet the sea. While there are now a few hotels and guesthouses on this remote coast the beaches are largely deserted. The true turtle conservation project at REKAWA nearby protects the nesting turtles from predators and humans alike. Well worth a visit.
A visit to the MULKIRIGALA TEMPLES, 16km from TANGALLE makes a great excursion. These cave temples, which are nestled in the craggy rocks and secluded by a forest of coconut trees, conceal a number of reclining Buddha statues. The cave walls are adorned with paintings showing the sins of temptation and consequent damnation to hell. Wear comfortable shoes and take water for the climb up to this peaceful temple.