The South Central Plains encompass a large swath of land extending from the foothills of the central hills to the Southern lowlands and is renowned for its proliferation of wildlife. The landscape in the southernmost parts comprises a mix of scrub jungle and grassland, with ancient manmade lakes dotting the scenery and the foothills of the highlands present dense green vegetation and are home to the island’s only virgin tropical rainforest. Although the South of this region can appear barren to a first timer, looks can be deceiving as this impression belies the wealth of flora and fauna concealed in the environment. The wetter and lusher regions of the foothills host a large percentage of the island’s endemic bird, amphibian and plant species. With the highest number of National Parks in the country, the region is also home to the biggest leopard population in the island. Truly a region of astounding natural beauty and abundance, the South Central Plains are a veritable paradise for nature lovers.
Must Do List
- Leopards at Yala
- Elephant herds at Uda Walawe
- Wild elephant orphanage at Uda Walawe
- Birdwatching at Kumana
- The sacred city of Kataragama
- Tissamaharama temple and dagoba
- Maligawila Buddha statues
- Buduruwagala’s ancient rock sculptures
South Central Plains – In Focus
The region was part of the Ruhuna Kingdom more than two millennia ago and was the domain of the legendary King Dutugemunu in 2 BC. Buttala, close to Kataragama was used as a base by him to defend the territory from invading Indian armies from the North, and it was from here that he began his military campaign to defeat and force the Dravidian King Elara from the country. King Saddha Tissa was Dutugemunu’s brother and succeeded him to throne, and being a great engineer and agriculturist, built the Weliara Wewa, a large irrigation reservoir which fed the region’s rice fields. This earned Buttala the title of “rice bowl of the country” at the time, as it supplied food to the impoverished Kingdom of Anuradhapura whose agricultural industry was laid to ruin by invading armies from the North. King Dutugemunu also established the sacred shrine at Kataragama dedicated to God Kataragama during his short reign here before moving back to Anuradhapura after his victory over King Elara.
The South-Central Plains of Sri Lanka have two distinct climatic regions which can be broadly defined as Western region and the South Eastern region. The climate of the Western region is warm and humid with an average temperature of 28°C and high relative humidity of 80%, and receives most of its rainfall during the South-West monsoon from May to August. The South Eastern region is predominantly hot and dry with average temperatures of 31°C and an average relative humidity of 65%, receiving the bulk of its rainfall during the North-East monsoon between November and February.
Travelling to the Uda Walawe and Yala National Parks the best route to be taken is via Ratnapura, although they could also be approached from the Southern coastal road through Galle, which is slower and a far more uncomfortable journey. The Singharaja region too can be reached through Ratnapura with the possibility of also arriving there through Bentota. Train travel is not possible as the area is does not have a rail network but the option exists of using an air taxi which lands at Weerawila which is close to Kataragama.
Colombo to Uda Walalwe – 4.5 hours
Colombo to Yala – 7 hours
Dickoya to Yala – 5 hours
Dickoya to Uda Walawe – 4 hours
Bandarawela to Yala – 3 hours
Bandarawela to Uda Walawe – 3 hours
Galle to Yala – 3.5 hours
Options are a bit limited when it comes to accommodation in this region, but new properties are being created constantly in good locations with the general theme being rustic and simple in keeping with the areas rich wildlife background. In the sacred city of Kataragama Mandara Rosen offers 4 Star facilities and as a budget option Priyankara Hotel would be the way to go. For excursions into Yala, Elephant Reach and Yala Village are popular choices offering good service and facilities. Galapita Eco Lodge offers a rustic experience to those who want to be close to nature. Near Uda Walawe the Centauria Hotel, is a 2 Star property widely used by package tour operators and Kalu’s Hideaway is an option located just outside the National Park. To the West in the wetland area, the best accommodation is presented by Boulder Gardens in Kalawana and is the ideal place to explore the Singharaja Rainforest. Cheaper options of accommodation in this area include Rainforest Edge, Paradise Farm and Martins Lodge.
The Sacred city of Kataragama has a wide range of Hindu and Buddhist statues, brightly coloured strings of beads and other religious ceremonial items for sale at the many stalls lining the streets all over the town. Flower and fruit baskets may also be picked up at these stalls to present offerings to the God’s in the temple premises. Unique to Kataragama are the tradesman on bicycles who always have a fascinating collection of trinkets at very cheap prices to pore over. This is also the land of milk and honey – literally! Residents setup small tables on the dusty roadside where they sell homemade buffalo curd and honey, which is guaranteed to be fresh as refrigeration facilities are few and far between in these rural areas.
Attractions & Events
Located in the deep south of the country, Kataragama is a shrine dedicated to God Skanda (Murugan) the God of Love and War and the original temple is believed to have been built in the 2 BC by King Dutugemunu (167-137 BC). Today Kataragama is a place of worship for Buddhists, Hindus and some Muslims. The site is a very popular place of pilgrimage for South Indian Hindus as God Kataragama from India came here and married a jungle girl and went on to live here. When his wife from India came in search of him he refused to go back and they all lived here together after that. Kataragama has separate shrines for the both his wives – the Tevani Amman Kovil for his Indian wife and the Valli Amman Kovil for his Sri Lankan wife. In July a spectacular 10-day festival is held here with a Perahera, fire walking and a variety of acts of penance which include the subject being suspended on hooks in their skin. The best time to be in the Devala is at the time of the pooja (offerings) to see the rituals and the Virgin Dancing girls offering light and dancing in the Devala.
Tissamaharamaya is the ancient capital of the Province of Ruhuna where Sinhalese patriots rallied in support when Indian invaders fled. No excavations have been undertaken here yet, but there are a number of exposed monuments such as the Menik, Yatala, Tissamaharama and Sandagiriya dagobas. The large pillared hall close to the Yatala Dagoba is believed to be the Temple where the Sacred Forhead Relics of the Buddha was kept until it was enshrined at the Tissamaharama dagoba.
This group of statues dates back to the 8th Century and is located in Buduruvagala off the Wirawila-Wellawaya road and comprises a group of Mahayana figures sculpted on the face of a rock. The central figure is a Buddha statue standing 51 feet high, flanked on each side by three Bodhisatva figures including the female Tara figure. The figures are in high relief and had originally been finished in stucco.
Maligawila is a village 15km from Moneragala which has one of the world’s tallest free standing Buddha statues carved out of limestone and standing 34 feet high and 10 feet across at the shoulders. Said to have been sculpted in the 7th Century it had toppled over at some point in time and remained in this position until it was raised recently to stand in its original position. 300 yards away at the same site is another beautiful Mahayana Statue 25 feet in height called Dambegoda Avalokitesvara Bodhisattava statue which dates back to approximately the 8th Century.
Sithulpahuwa Vihare is situated inside the Yala National Park, 28 miles from Tissamaharamaya and about 16 miles from Kataragama. Sithulpahuwa is a monastery complex perched on a rock spreading over a large area and has the remains of ten dagobas on ten surrounding hills, with more than 65 caves dating back to 2 BC. In these caves ancient inscriptions can be seen and it is believed that thousands of Buddhist Bhikkhus practiced meditation here. Many ruins of buildings are found in the surrounding jungle and two dagobas have now been renovated, and a Buddha Statue has been constructed in a large cave recently.
Ramba Viharaya is located 8km from Ambalantota on the Embilipiya-Ambalantota road and was the capital of “Dolosdahasrata” or the District of 12,000 Villages. When Parakramabahu became King of Polonnaruwa, Queen Sugala carried the Sacred Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relics and kept them in hiding here. The site is now being excavated and many
buildings, statues, and shrine rooms have been uncovered.
Maduwanwela Walauwwa is a magnificent ancestral home situated in Kolonna on the Embilipitiya-Suriyakanda road. The first Walauwa or ancestral home at the site was constructed by Maduwanwala Maha Mohattala in the 17th Century during the period of King Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707). The present Walauwa was constructed by Sir James William Maduwanwala Maha Dissawa (1877- 1905) and consisted of 121 rooms, 21 central courtyards (Meda Midula) and a unique room with views in all directions. What remains today of this stately building is 21 rooms, 4 central courtyards and the room with the panoramic view.
Yala (Ruhuna) National Park
Yala National Park is located in the South East of Sri Lanka covering 126,786 hectares and was established in 1938. It is the country’s most popular National Park and best known for its large number of elephants and it also has the highest concentration of leopards in a given area in the world. The Park is teeming with spotted deer, sambhur, crocodiles, mongoose, wild boar, wild buffalo, and many other animals, with more than 130 bird species also recorded which include the resident and winter visitors.
Udawalawe National Park
Uda Walawe National Park is located 80km from Ratnapura of the Ratnapura-Embilipitiya road and covers an area of 230,821 hectares. Consisting mainly of open grasslands around the Uda Walawe reservoir, it has one of the biggest elephant populations in the country, and many other species of wildlife such as wild buffalo, spotted deer, barking deer, wild boar, sambhur, hare, mongoose and crocodile can be sighted. It also has 30 recorded species of snakes, 50 species of butterflies and many species of birds. Three circuit bungalows and two campsites are available within the Park.
Lunugamvehera National Park
Lunugamvehera National Park is 23,498.8 hectares in extent and lies between the Yala and Uda Walawe National Parks acting as the elephant corridor between them. Declared a National Park in 1995, it was opened to visitors in December 2004. The Park is renowned for large herds of elephants, spotted deer, barking deer, wild boar, wild buffalo, leopard, sloth bear and many species of birds.
Sinharaja Rainforest Reserve
Sinharaja is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site rainforest in Sri Lanka, covering an extent of 11,187 hectares and is located close to Ratnapura. Its vegetation is tropical wet evergreen, and it has a very high bio-diversity. Out of the 331 woody trees and lianas identified 192 are endemic to the Sinharaja region. Teeming with flora and fauna, the Singharaja Rainforest Reserve has 141 bird species recorded of which 28 are endemic, 65 species of butterflies of which one species is endemic, ten species of fish with seven being endemic, 19 amphibian species including the eight endemic species, 29 species of reptiles and snakes of which 14 are endemic and 40 species of mammals which include seven Endemic species. Sinharaja is the only relatively undisturbed rainforest in Sri Lanka and many of its plants are extremely rare being most often represented by only one individual of its kind in a large area. The best periods to visit is between December to early April and from August to September.
Kumana National Park
Kumana National Park is primarily a bird watching destination lying just to the East of Yala National Park and is 18,149 hectares in extent. Comprising several marshes and lakes where a large number of water birds build their nests, visitors can see them at close range during the breeding season. The most common birds found here are spot-billed pelicans, cormorants, egrets, spoonbills, herons, storks, ibis, bitterns, Indian moorhens, white-breasted waterhen and painted storks, but during the winter season a large number of migratory birds can also be sighted.
Bundala National Park
Bundala is a wetland reserve of 6216 hectares and is one of only three RAMSAR Wetlands that hosts over 20,000 shorebirds between August and April. The Park consists of lagoons and inter-tidal mud flats where wintering birds rest and feed, golden sandy beaches and sand dunes where sea turtles nest and the thorny scrub-land where elephant, spotted deer, wild buffalo, wild boar, crocodiles and peacocks roam. Over 150 species (including 45 species of waders) of resident and migrant birds can be sighted in this Park, and it is home to the Greater and Lesser Flamingoes, Spot-billed Pelicans, Spoonbills, Ducks, Indian Shags, Cormorants, Stone Plover and various species of Herons amongst others. Pathirajawela, within the Bundala National Park, is a site where the earliest evidence of the pre-historic man was found in Sri Lanka.
Wasgamuwa National Park
Declared a National Park in 1984 for the purpose of bio-diversity conservation, Wasgomuwa covers an area of 39,322 hectares. It is home to approximately 250 elephants, wild buffalo, spotted deer, wild boar, sambhur, crocodiles, leopard, sloth bear and 23 other species of mammals. 143 species of birds (8 endemic), 17 species of reptiles (5 endemic), 17 species of Fishes (2 endemic), 50 species of butterflies (9 endemic) are also recorded here. Wasgomuwa National Park has three bungalows within the Park, two outside and seven camp sites.
Flood plains National Park
This is the only flood plain National Park in the country and it lies along the Mahaweli River. The bio-diversity found here is unique and a sub-species of the Sri Lankan Elephant (Elephas maximus), the Vil Aliya or Marsh Elephant (Elephas maximus Vil Aliya) which has adapted to the marshy environment of the flood plains is the best example of this. The Flood Plains National Park has a large number of marshes and waterholes that fill up during the rains and retain water over the dry season which providing a habitat for a large number of water birds and birds of prey.
Galoya National Park
Gal Oya National Park lies in the East of Sri Lanka just West of Ampara on the Mahiyangana-Ampara road. Declared a National Park in 1954, it is 25,900 hectares in extent and covers most of the catchment area of the Senanayake Samudra. The areas that can be explored by vehicle are limited, and the main method of travel is by boat to observe wild animals and birds in the open areas along the shore. Elephants, buffalo, wild boar, spotted deer, barking deer and sambhur are the most commonly seen animals, with leopard and sloth bear being rare. Numerous species of birds nest in the dead trees that were submerged when the reservoir was filled.
Lahugala-kitulana National Park
The Lahugala-Kitulana National Park is located 16km inland from Pottuvil off the Moneragala-Pottuvil road, and is 1554 hectares in extent making it one of the smallest National Parks in the country. It gets its name from two of the three irrigation tanks (Lahugala, Kitulana and Sengamuwa) that lie within its boundaries, which are covered with Beru grass (Opilismanus compositus) which is a favorite food of the Elephants. Lahugala is connected to Yala East National Park and Galoya National Park and is designated an elephant corridor making it a very popular attraction to elephant watchers. Other wildlife sightings include spotted deer, wild boar, sambhur, leopards and sloth bear, with birdlife also being plentiful, namely birds of prey.
Maduruoya National Park
Located near Mahiyangana, the Maduru Oya Natioanl Park is 58,850 hectares in extent and has large herds of elephants. Other wildlife that could be sighted include spotted deer, barking deer, wild boar, wild buffalo, leopard, sloth bear and many species of birds.