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Must Visit Locations

Matara, Sri Lanka

Dutch Forts, River Nilwala boat trips, Dutch Reformed Church, University of Ruhuna, Polhena Beach, Dondra head lighthouse, Vishnu shrine

Matara, 160km (100miles) from Colombo with a population of around 40,000 the eighth largest town on the island provides a taste of every day life of Sri Lanka. The bustling city, standing at the terminus of the country's southern railway line & close to the southernmost point of the island is a major transport hub. The lively town, a major center of commerce is given a youthful touch by the presence of students from Ruhunu University, 3 km east of town.

River Nilwala (Blue clouds river)
The large & important River Nilwala, which runs through the district, is instrumental in irrigating land on its way from the hill country, such as paddy fields, tea & rubber estates. A three hour boat ride along this broad swathe of unspoilt water takes us past leafy trees, thick strands of palm, & little riverside houses, with glimpses of the agricultural landscape beyond. The log like appearance of the crocodiles floating down the side of the river with raised beady eyes & plenty of bird life too make the boat ride interesting. Swimming in the River Nilwala is not recommended; crocodiles are known to drag the children into the water.

Colonial History
Matara itself is an ancient settlement, though no traces of anything older than the colonial era survive. The Portuguese used the town intermittently, but it was the Dutch, attracted by the deep & sheltered estuary of the River Nilwala, who established a lasting presence here, fortifying the town with two Forts (Main Fort & Star Fort) & making it an important Dutch possession that controlled the trade in cinnamon & elephants.

The Main Fort located south of the river, in the narrow peninsula with Indian Ocean to the south, consists of a single rampart on which the Dutch cannons were mounted. The Dutch having battered during the "Matara rebellion" of 1762 lost the Fort to the Sinhalese. Undaunted, the Dutch recaptured the town in the following year & built the Star Fort, across the river to compensate for deficiencies in the Main Fort. Star Fort is the last major defensive construction by the Dutch East India Co (VOC) in Sri Lanka,

Modern Town & Old Town
Separated by the River Nilwala are the two main areas of Matara: Modern Town & Old Town. A bridge now connects the two side of the expansive River Nilwala, replacing the boats & floating barges of the old. To the north is the bustling modern town full of high-rise buildings, shops & banks lining the busy main street, Anagarika Dharmapala Road. To the south is the quieter & old colonial district alongside the coast consisting of the ancient Matara Fort. (Main Fort).

While the Star Fort is located in Modern Town which consists of the Train station, the Main Fort is located in the Old Town (Dutch Colonial District) which consists of the enormous well organized bus station of Matara.

Matara Fort (Main Fort) in the Old Town
The natural defences afforded to the Main Fort, by way of the river & sea, were complemented by the Dutch, by means of a line of ramparts built on a promontory. The 13-meter thick, five-meter high rampart, built around 1640, is a Dutch fortification of an existing Portuguese garrison. The clock tower was built by the British in1883. As in Galle, the fort is a quiet refuge from the bustling Modern Town. The best small guest houses are located in its Mediterranean-style, peaceful back streets. It's a captivating district of lush, tree-filed streets dotted with fine old colonial houses. Some are surprisingly palatial, with big colonnaded facades & sweeping verandahs. Sadly, some of the colonial buildings are in various stages of disrepair. At the far west end of the fort, the peninsula tapers off to a narrow spit of land at the confluence of the River Nilwala & the sea, where dozens of colourful fishing boats are usually lined up on the sand.

Muhiyiddenil Jeelani mosque of the Old Town
On the southern bank of River Nilwala, right next to the bridge is gleaming & impressive Muhiyiddenil Jeelani mosque. A striking white building looks far more like a Portuguese Baroque church than an Islamic mosque.

Dutch Reformed Church in Main Fort, Old Town
Immediately behind the ramparts stands the Dutch Reformed Church. This is one of the earliest Dutch churches on the island. It has a tall gabled roof, pillared veranda & a decorated interior. Over the doorway is a stone plaque that marks the date of 1769. However the memorial tablets inside go back to 1686. The date of 1769 carved over the doorway apparently refers to the reconstruction of the church by the Dutch following recapture of the fort lost to the Sinhalese (1762) in the Matara Rebellion.

St Mary's Church of the Old Town
On the Beach Road, is St Mary's Church. As in Dutch Reformed Church, the date on the doorway (1769) refers to the reconstruction following the 'Matara Rebellion'. Close by is St Servatius College, one of Matara's two exclusive public schools, whose most famous son is Sri Lanka's explosive batsman, the master blaster, illustrious Sanath Jayasuriya, who rose to stardom following Sri Lanka winning the Cricket World Cup in the year 1996.

Dutch Star Fort across the River Nilwala (in Modern Town)
On the north bank of the River Nilwala, about 350 m from the gate of the Main Fort is the Star Fort. The diminutive Fort, intended to guard the river crossing to the Main Dutch Fort was designed in a shape of five-pointed star to mount 12 large canons & designated to house ammunition, provisions a small garrison. The whole structure is surrounded by a moat in which the Dutch once kept crocodiles. The date of construction (1765) is embossed over the main gate with the VOC company insignia & the coat of arms of the governor. The entrance gate of the Star Fort, which is faced with coral, is also emblazoned "Redoubte Van Eck 1763", commemorating the Dutch governor. A keen eye would also locate the slots that once secured the drawbridge beams. Near the main bastion is the British clock tower (1883).

As in Galle, the Dutch government has recently invested money in restoring the Fort. At the center of the fort is a large well & low roofed circular building that once held ammunition housed a small Dutch garrison. These buildings are now home to a museum that illustrates the ancient arts of Sri Lanka. As well as copies of original frescoes, paintings & writings, it displays the stone-layered tablets, wooden panels & all the natural dyes used in these ancient drawings. Opposite the Star Fort is a temple & to the other side a cricket ground. formerly a library & a museum.

Modern Town

Traditional Drums, Batik
Matara is also famous for its musical instruments, especially drums. In a factory nearby, on Dharmapala Mawatha, we can see traditional drums being made.

At the western edge of town, the new Ruhuna Cultural Center is built in the Dutch style next to the old market. Performances of music & dancing are held in the auditorium here.

Ruhuna University Campus
3 kilometers east of Matara, at Medawatte, is the Ruhunu University which can be reached by the new Tangalle Road, or the more scenic Sea Beach Road along the coast.
The impressive university campus with buildings of traditional Kandyan style roofs, in a nature setting was designed by illustrious Geoffrey Bawa.

Dewi Nuwara (meaning the city of the gods) Dondra Head
Another large roadside Buddha statue, a copy of ancient Aukana Buddha Statue, announces the small town of Dondra, 5 km southeast of Matara. Dondra's sleepy present-day character belies its medieval magnificence.

Maha Vishnu Devala (Hindu Temple dedicated to god Vishnu) at Dewi Nuwara
Devi Nuwara was formerly home to a great temple dedicated to Vishnu. In the year 1588, the Portuguese, in a brutal assault on the city, ravaged the magnificent Maha Vishnu Devala, a 7th century shrine with a roof of gilt copper that once shone like a beacon. One ancient shrine of the temple complex, the Galge, survived. It's a small, plain structure is thought to date back to the seventh century AD, making it the oldest stone building in Sri Lanka, & it has now been incorporated into the town's principal temple, an unusual blue pagoda-style construction dating from the early twentieth century.

One of the south's major festivals, the "Devi Nuwara Perahera", is held at the temple every year on the Esala poya day (early August) at the same time as the Kandy Esala Perahera pageant.

Lighthouse at Dewi Nuwara
Just over a kilometer south of Dondra town, a British built octagonal lighthouse (1889) marks the southernmost point in Sri Lanka. Standing 54 meters tall, the light house presents sweeping views of up & down the coast. To the south from this tropical coast here, beyond the view of local fishing boats riding the indigo waves there is nothing until Antarctica.

Polhena Beach
Although Matara sits beside a long stretch of coastline & some sandy beaches, the best place to swim, snorkel & soak up the sun is at low-key Polhena Beach a few kilometers west of Matara. The attractive beach, protected by a reef here is quite wide with soft white sand, flanked on either side by rocks.

The good coral beach protected by a reef which offers year round swimming & some excellent snorkeling opportunities. Polhena is best for swimming & snorkeling as there is semi-circle of reef, home to a colourful variety of fish & plant life, with some live corals that protects the bay, the water is very calm & safe. There's good snorkeling here straight off the beach, with lots of colourful fish & a small section of live coral. Snorkeling is best outside the monsoon periods, though there are sometimes periods of good visibility at other times too.

The next main coast town of Dikwella (meaning Long beach) 22km from Matara. There are some established resort hotels at the village of Dickwella offering Diving & water sports in the bay.

Matara to Tangalla
The marvelous bays & beaches continue across to Tangalla.

Sri Lanka Hotel Guide - Hotel Information, Special Offers, News and Trends and much more

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Photo Gallery

click on photo to enlarge

Matara Landscape

Views of Matara Town

River Nilwala

Ruhuna University Campus

Maha Vishnu Devala

Buddha Statue at Dewi Nuwara

Dikwella Temple

Lighthouse at Dewi Nuwara

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