WildlifeRoams Free Within the Remains of a Lost Civilization

A place that was home to an ancient, flourishing civilization suddenly disappears from history, only to re-emerge as a jungle, now a home to diverse species of wildlife.

The territory of the Yala National Park once belonged to the Ruhuna Kingdom, a flourishing civilization which encompassed Southern and Eastern Sri Lanka from approximately the 3rd century BC to the 13th century AD. The kingdom was a breakaway from the main seat of power in Anuradhapura, and was set up by Prince Mahanaga, the brother of the great King Devanampiya Tissa, following a family dispute.

King Kavantissa and the Kingdom of Ruhuna

The kingdom is believed to have developed well under Mahanaga and its subsequent kings, who not only built tanks and irrigation systems to support agriculture, but also built temples and monasteries to encourage the spread of Buddhism in the country. One of the most prominent kings of the period was Kavan Tissa, the father of the great Sri Lankan warrior and king – Dutugemunu.

King Kelani Tissa was ruling Maya Rata in the western part of the island, while Kavan Tissa was king of Ruhuna. Legend states that Kelani Tissa angered the gods during his reign, leading to the ocean rushing inland, flooding the land. The wisemen of the court informed the king that a young princess had to be sacrificed to the ocean in order to appease the gods and stop the raging waves. The king’s daughter volunteered for the act, courageously coming forward to right the wrongs of her father. She boarded an ornately decorated boat and set adrift on the ocean. It is believed that the seas immediately calmed and the waters receded, saving the people of the kingdom. The boat carrying the princess sailed on and finally reached the shores of Kirinda, located in the Kingdom of Ruhuna. She was presented to King Kavan Tissa, who upon hearing her tale of bravery, was immediately smitten with the princess. The two were married and the princess was given the name Viharamahadevi, because she reached the shore at a spot close to a viharaya (temple). She is celebrated to this day for her selfless act of valour.

Symbols of Culture and Civilization

One of the greatest legacies of Kavan Tissa’s commitment to Buddhism is the Sithulpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya built in the 2nd century BC. Situated deep inside the Yala National Park atop a 400ft rock, the rock temple functioned as a monastery, a place of worship for Buddhist devotees and as a centre of Buddhist education for apprentice monks. A trip to the location could offer you a glimpse of a meditating monk perched on top of the rock and a herd of elephants passing by below.

As a monastery, the temple appears to have housed 12,000 Arahants (monks of the highest ranks) during the height of the Ruhuna Kingdom. The name Sithulpawwa is derived from the word ‘Chiththala Pabbatha’, meaning ‘hill of the quiet mind’. The temple contains a large number of stupas, cave temples, Buddha statues, circular relic houses, image houses, as well as remnants of the monks’ living quarters. It is hard to fathom how men with hammers and chisels built such an elaborate edifice so long ago, using a massive natural rock as a foundation. Bodhisattva statues chiselled out of the rock, adorned with royal garbs are just some of the original features that baffle many an archaeologist due to their intricate nature. One of the cave temples in the vicinity displays ancient paintings believed to date back to the 3rd century BC.

A number of artefacts have been discovered through excavations carried out in the surrounding area, while many rock inscriptions have been found throughout the temple complex. Some of the inscriptions mention two prominent figures from Sri Lankan history. The Dasa Maha Yodhayo (ten giant warriors) were significant members of King Dutugemunu’s army. Two of the Dasa Maha Yodayo – Nandimithra and Welusumana are mentioned in the inscriptions, and are believed to have made offerings to the temple. Another place of worship, Akasa Chaithya is believed to have been constructed in the 2nd century BC. In keeping with the Buddhist tradition, all the monks and arahants living in these temples would have been tended to by devotees, people living in well-established communities.

The presence of a large number of ancient, although now derelict, tanks dating back to the 5th century, suggests that the Yala territory had a functioning hydraulic and irrigation system to support agriculture. Some of the watering holes that nourish the Yala National Park are believed to be remnants of these tanks of old.

A Thriving Community Disappears and a Jungle Appears

The decline of the Kingdom of Ruhuna is believed to have begun in the 13th century AD. The territory of Yala seems to disappear from the annals of history for the next few hundred years. The 16th century Spanish cartographer Cipriano Sanchez charted the region in his maps in 1560, making a note that Yala was deserted and uninhabited for 300 years due to unsuitable conditions.

Why this once flourishing land became unsuitable and uninhabitable remains a great mystery to this day. What happened long ago to drive out the communities that called the territory home and left the area to be consumed by jungle and become the home of such a diverse array of wildlife?

The next official record of the terrain is from 1806, when Chief Justice Sir Alexander Johnston wrote about Yala after travelling through it. In 1900, the British colonial government declared the area a designated wildlife sanctuary and then a national park in 1938. Ironically, the park was used as a hunting ground for the British elite during colonial rule.

Today, the Yala Park has a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares of land. It is a distinctive place that contains a wide array of ecosystems including dry grasslands, freshwater wetlands, marine wetlands and lush forests. It is home to 44 varieties of mammals and 215 bird species. Some of the famous inhabitants of Yala are leopards, elephants, sloth bears, sambar, spotted deer, jackals, peacocks and crocodiles. Yala is a wonderful place of interest for both wildlife enthusiasts and history buffs.

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