Bentota & Beruwala
Along the bustling Galle road, having barely left the helter skelter of Colombo, one is first greeted by the quaint fishing town of Beruwala and then the more ‘touristy’ Bentota. Taken together, these two towns encapsulate the contrasts of a country; from the rugged lives of fishermen who set out in the wee hours of the morning, braving the furies of the Indian Ocean, to plush hotels where every comfort is at your fingertips. Though the sparkle of tourism often outshines everything else, there is more to these ancient coastal towns if you know where to look.
Places and Activities in Bentota/Beruwala
The Brief Garden, situated 10km inland from Bentota, is in the truest sense a world away from the sun, surf and sand that Bentota is famous for. The home of landscape artist Bevis Bawa (the brother of legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa), Brief Garden is an entrancing mix of the garden designs of the world infused with sculptures by the likes of Donald Friend along with eclectic pieces of art. Replete with history, it hosted Vivian Leigh and Sir Lawrence Olivier while they filmed Elephant Walk in 1953.
This sanctuary for endangered sea turtles does more than just provide a safe haven for hatchlings. Carefully collected turtle eggs are allowed to hatch safely, away from predators. The baby turtles are then released back to their rightful home—the ocean. The baby turtles are released to the sea around 6 pm. Visitors are offered an up-close viewing of the entire nurturing process of these cutest of critters. If interested, you can volunteer to help save these endangered animals and contribute to developing the community as well.
The making of wooden masks, which were originally used for curative rituals and demon propitiation, is a specialised craft of the Southern Province. These traditional masks are very much a part of Sri Lanka’s culture and folklore. The masks are used for entertainment and dancing and are especially used during theatrical performances and rituals, with each mask having a specific purpose. It is believed that masks provide curative benefits for physiological problems.
Sri Lankan masks are made of ‘Kaduru’ (nux vomica or blazar), and are believed to be as old as the Sinhala nation itself. The reason for using Kaduru is for its lightness, durability and the ease with which a mask can be carved out of it. This specific wood is hand carved into various characters. These traditional masks come in various types such as the Sanni mask, Kolam mask and Raksha mask. The Sanni mask represents 18 sicknesses while the Kolam mask is used more in dramas and is commonly seen in the Southern Province. Aatha kolama, Arachchi kolama, Police kolama, Jasaya and lenchina are some of the popular southern dramas that use the Kolam mask. The Raksha mask is used in many functions and has different varieties such as the Gurula mask (a mythical bird), Cobra mask, Peacock mask etc. The specific methods and techniques of carving these masks are passed from generation to generation, and this inherent knowledge is restricted only to a particular community of people who also form their own caste.
It is believed that there are three kinds of masked dances. Kolam masks are used in storytelling performances. Raksha (Demon) masks are used in processions and festivals while Sanni (Devil Dance) masks are used during ‘curing ceremonies’.
The Kolam mask is worn during the performance of a ‘tantri tale’ (folktale) in which a treacherous princess gives up her husband for a rival king, who then rejects her. The moral of the story is that the princess is like a greedy fox that drops a piece of meat to grab a fish, but loses both the meat and the fish in the process.
Situated about 30km south of Bentota, Madu River forms part of the second largest wetland in Sri Lanka, spreading over 800 hectares.
If you are too pressed for time to take a trip down to Madu River, Bentota River will be a close alternative. Though the area is not as vast as the wetlands around Madu River, a boat ride through the thick growth of mangroves is a fascinating experience.
Bentota is undoubtedly the centre of the Sri Lanka’s water-sports world; from the rush of jet skiing to the laid-back paddling of a banana boat. Importantly, for beginners there are instructors who will assist you. Be sure to enlist for help only from instructors employed by hotels or those who are licensed professionals to avoid being a victim of con artists who prowl the beach.
Apart from being steeped in history, the pristine white minarets of this grand old mosque perfectly silhouette the vast blue eternity of the Indian Ocean, offering storybook scenery. Adding to the spectacle, the Beruwala bay and lighthouse are both clearly visible from the rocky headland where the mosque is located.
Make a well worthwhile early start and the see the tireless fishermen of Beruwala coming back to shore at around six in the morning. After a night spent at the mercy of the fickle ocean, they dock their brightly coloured canoes and unload their fresh catch to the backdrop of the rising tropical sun. The harbour smells of fresh fish, prawns and lobster (as you might expect), thereby adding to the authenticity of your early morning ‘fishy’ experience.
Located on the Barberyn Island, a ten-minute boat ride from Beruwala beach, this charming old lighthouse which is nestled among a lush thicket of swaying coconut palms, offers stunning unrivalled panoramas of the town of Beruwala and its quaint surroundings. Hence, a short climb to its peak is a must.
Despite the strong influence of the Arab traders and Islam, Beruwala is also a commendable example of inter-religious and inter-communal harmony. Testament to this is that the Galapatha Temple, built in the 12th Century during the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great (AD 1153 -86), still remains a central point of Buddhist veneration. Known for its ornate frescoes and the remains of a maze of subterranean tunnels, it offers an almost mystical glimpse into a bygone age of religious splendour.
Beruwala was the first settlement of the sea-faring Arabs who landed around the 8th Century AD. Its name, according to some historians, marks this very event since ‘be’ in Sinhala means sail and ‘ruwala’ means lower; thus the place where the Arab’s lowered their sail. The Kechimalai mosque, believed to be the first mosque in Sri Lanka, was built by subsequent Arab settlers, and their culture, especially in terms of Islamic art and medicine, resounds to this day across the town.
The origins of the name Bentota lie shrouded in mythology, for it is believed that in ancient times a demon called ‘Bem’ ruled the river on the banks where Bentota (‘tota’ meaning river bank in Sinhala) is situated. In colonial times Bentota was the scene for many bloody battles between the Portuguese and their would-be usurpers, the Dutch. Remains of a Dutch Fort can still be found near the modern-day Bentota Beach Hotel. In British times a railway and a bridge were built across the river to transport coconut produce to Colombo, both of which are in good use to this day. The Galapatha Viharaya, which forms one of a cluster of five temples in the region, stands aloft as the repository of Bentota’s Buddhist heritage.
Travel Tips and Planning Information
The climate of both Bentota and Beruwala is typical of most of the island’s lowlands: it is hot and very humid with highs of 350C and lows of 250C. The hottest and most humid months are April and May, but of course being coastal towns, the sea breeze offers some respite from the heat. The two monsoons are in late May and October. During the ‘monsoon season’ the rain pours for days on end, spoiling the fun in the sun.