Sunday, August 20, 2017

Kotmale…a legend submerged underwater forever……?

The planet earth that we live in has had drastic changes to its profile and its climate from time to time due to natural disasters, changing weather patterns and very recently by acts of man. Development related to Civil Engineering activities for economic growth, housing and energy use have impacted the earth very much in the past century than from natural calamities during the past millennium. This effect is significant in the developing countries with the advancement of technology and the over exploitation of natural resources in the manufacture of cement, steel and other building materials needed for development. 

Apart from these developments it is also noted that some of man’s greatest monumental creations, where his individual skills and craftsmanship of ethnic groupings have also had to be abandoned or destroyed for overriding priorities of his energy needs and communication requirements of the 21st century.

When the ancient Roman city of Pompii was destroyed through natural disaster due to the irruption of the volcano Vesuvius in A.D. 79, much of its brilliant Roman architecture and sculptures were destroyed beyond redemption. The Kingdom of Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt is found settled beneath the waters of the Mediterranean close to Alexandria; again due to a result of volcanic activity and tidal waves that shaped that part of the world differently.  Some classical Hindu and Buddhist dynasties have also been swallowed by the sea due to sinking land areas in the South-East Asian archipelago near Bali.

In comparison numerous are the locations in the world that have been reshaped due to both natural and man involved activity. Landscapes have been sunken in reservoirs or destroyed completely to make way for new communication and roadways. Again there has been concerns of economic benefits and historical value in them resulting in restoration and relocation of some of his greatest creations for preservation. The multipurpose Aswan Dam built in Egypt for power and agricultural needs inundate the famous Abu Simbel Temple in Nubia in Southern Egypt. This temple built by Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh is iconic with its huge external rock relief figures. This temple was relocated in its entirety in 1968 after much debate on the subject even after it was drowned in the Aswan reservoir.

Pic Curtsey Google images                   The original Abu Simbel Temple 1927

Pic Curtsey Google images                                                                  Abu Simbel after relocation

Video Curtesy Youtube

Here at home a similar activity was undertaken by the Department of Archeology in rebuilding the Nalanda Gedige at its original footprint but on a built up mound within the reservoir created by the Bowatenne Dam. This stone structure was dismantled after carefully numbering and sketching each unit of stone for reference in the rebuilding. Today in this digital era these are not difficult undertakings but was not so in 1981 when Sri Lanka lacked such technology.

Pic Uditha Wijesena                                                                Nalanda Gedige rebuilt after dismantling                                                                                                                                                                                              

Pic Uditha Wijesena                                                                                                                                                                            

Pic Uditha Wijesena         Nalanda Gedige a Hindu influenced structure of  ancient Sri Lanka is said to be located at almost the mid center of the island
However there are other treasured artifacts that have been lost forever in these man made reservoirs.  Sri Lanka in the mid-20th century had no option but to venture into hydroelectric power generation taking advantage of its topography in the central massif and the abundant precipitation received from the South-West monsoon on the South-West slopes. The first such project was commissioned in 1950. The Norton-bridge project or the Old Laxapana Reservoir scheme. This dam became significant when the people of the tea estate community was relocated as result of the township of Maskeliya being inundated. People were relocated but they had to leave behind some precious places of religious importance that was submerged in the rising waters behind the dam. The Hindi Kovils and Buddhist Temples that submerged in these waters did surface from time to time during prolonged droughts. This initially created a nostalgia among the people and they visited these shrines for veneration as a special privilege which was considered incidental and rare.  But today it is not so significant due to the generation gap with those who venerated in these shrines are not living anymore.

Subsequently the accelerated Mahaveli Multipurpose Scheme saw much more of such hydroelectric power generation reservoirs coming up around the ancient city of Kandy. These reservoirs needed to relocate the communities living in the locality which did destroy much of the monumental sites and townships in the vicinity.

Pic Uditha Wijesena                                                                                                                                                                         

Pic Uditha Wijesena                                                                           Victoria Dam
The Victoria Dam closer to Kandy City submerged the total township of Teldeniya and its suburbs not sparing the famous Victoria Falls either. But the falls did substitute the new reservoir created by adapting its name. The people of these suburban villages had a very high cultural lineage to the Kandian ethos and Architecture. These people did contribute immensely both traditionally and loyally to the Temple of the Tooth and its customs. The authorities resettled them as community units in the new lands in the dry zone of Sri Lanka expecting the continuity of their ethnic and cultural links. This was not to be so, and found themselves scattered from their initial ways of life and the common bondage they had had with religious links to the Temple of the Tooth. The impact in adjusting to these new homesteads in a faraway land with a different climate in a new habitat was a very complicated task.

Pic Uditha Wijesena                                                                     The Randingala Dam the largest in the Mahaveli river
The largest man made hydroelectric waterbody in this land was created with the damming of the Mahaveli River downstream of the Victoria Reservoir, creating the Randenigala Reservoir. Even though this dam and the reservoir came up in an area not inhabited by people, it too did submerge a unique cave formation located in Isthripura,  Sarasuntenna. Though there is another set of caves by the namesake close to Welimada linked to the epic Ramayana, this cave is said to be linked with King Rajasinghe II, the famous concupiscent king of Kandy who preferred to relax with his concubines in these caves while on his numerous state visits in the hill kingdom. The river flowing over the limestone formation leached into the cave to form a wondrous series of breathtaking stalagmite and stalactite that would have taken millions of years to form.

Alas… This was in no way possible to be relocate of restore but was made to be hidden in the backwater never to be seen again. The authorities took no action to photo record these caves before inundation. Either to avoid the opposition from the masses or through shear ignorance of its existence. People were not in the habit of adventurous travel then and the existence of the caves were known only to a few.

Pic Curtsey Google images                                  Rantambe waters that submerged the Minipe Anicut and the Rantambe gorge
The smaller reservoir that was created lower to Randenigala again for power generation is the Rantambe Reservoir. This did inundate the famous ancient Minipe Anicut which diverted the Mahaveli water to Pollonnaruwa via Amban Ganga from the Minipe Yoda Ela irrigating the left bank of the Mahaveli. Built in AD 459 by King Dasankeliya, today there is a new Minipe Diversion Weir irrigating both the right and the left banks of the Mahaveli.   Also this small reservoir did inundate a unique land formation called the Rantambe Gorge the only of its kind in the country. A narrow gap in a granite wall measuring over 50 feet in depth and around 20 feet wide sitting across the path of the river. The river was forced to rush through this throat emanating a thunderous roar that disturbed the otherwise quiet wilderness when the river ran its banks to the full. Again it is said that King Rajasinghe II who possessed great riding skills had been in the habit of clearing this gorge on horseback.

Kotmale Reservoir located as the most elevated reservoir in this series of reservoirs on the Mahaveli River is said to have inundated one of the most ancient civilizations in this country. It was a picturesque valley with a community living even when the civilization was primarily restricted to the dry flat lower areas when the central massif was in a thick forest cover. It has a recorded history extending to King Panduwasdeva (504-474 BC). The chronicles also narrate to the famous story of the worrier king Gamini Abaya reaching this valley when he decided to live in exile against the royal family denouncing his warring intentions to unify the country. He is said to have lived here with Kalu-Menika the daughter of a nobleman. She bore his child and he lived a life of a peasant tending to their paddies and other, all in disguise of his lineage to the southern royalty. 

The valley flourished with a rich culture and Kotmale is renowned with its scholarly monks and links to the ancient hill capital of Kandy centuries later when the kingdom shifted to the hills. Strangely though not even lands with such ancient historical value are spared in the name of development. This valley and its ancient people too were relocated with its riches and other historical landmarks all made to inundate in a watery grave. Today only about forty percent of the valley is outside the reservoir and much of the antiquity is never to be seen.

The location Kadadora; then known as Dehadu Kadulla meaning one of an entry point to the valley where a unique Buddhist temple was located with much similar ancient monuments and abodes of valuable medieval architecture had been periodically emerging from the reservoir when the water levels  receded during dry spells.

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe                       Its only the Kadarora shrine room that has survived among all that was submerged for 33 years to date

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe                                                                                                                                                                           

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe                                                                              They come in numbers through compassion 
This Kadadora Temple is one significant Buddhist Temple that has existed even when Gamini Abaya was in Kotmale and has a very unique statue of the meditating Buddha showing very humane features. This shrine room building of the temple that did submerge complete with its celestial figurines have survived for over 30 years eversince it’s impounding in 1985. Nothing else around have survived the  pressures of the water but it is in the verge of being buried in the reservoir bed due to very heavy siltation.

The Kadadora temple is now in the habit of rousing the nostalgia of those who still live in Kotmale and have had worshiped here before it was submerged. They make it a point to offer a flower to this unique statue that is no match to any such anywhere in the country as it appears when the water recede.  

Today the roof structure is no more and the plaster of the walls have perished exposing the broad granite wall structure within. The mythical heavenly figurines looking down from the high walls have survived the pressures of water through some supper natural means not to fall down from the otherwise fragile structure.

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe      

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe       

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe      

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe      
Pic Wickum Wijesinghe      The beauty of craftsmanship and skill 
Its emergence from the water when the people in the whole country is threatened with darkness from impending power cuts and drought bringing both man and beast to fear is like admonishing them of the consequences for destroying a unique civilization that had lasted from time this land was inhabited.

It is ironic to note that the authority of the Mahaveli Development Scheme and especially its founder Minister the late Gamini Dissanayake was a son of Kotmale and he had had to spearhead the erasing of his ancient ancestries from the Kotmale Valley for the betterment of the country but on a political agenda. He sure would have been aware of the gravity that he was shouldering and his own conscience would have questioned him on the smudging off of a historical chapter from the chronicle.

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe                                                Symbolic of the heavenly protection to the enlighten one

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe                                Generations would still come over to venerate but for how long?

Pic Wickum Wijesinghe                   A lady in pensive mood with child - she had seen all that took place in these years

Pic Vikum Wijesinghe                                                Amid the falling rubble

Pic Vikum Wijesinghe      The Meditating Buddha across the entrance to the shrine room

Pic Vikum Wijesinghe                                               The Makara Thorana entrance to the shrine room

The temple going back to hiding with the reservoir filling 
In an allowance for compensation and to commemorate over fifty  Buddhist Temples and some Hindu Temples that was drowned in these waters, the Mahaveli Authority was to undertake the construction of a significant monument. A Stupa by the name "Mahaveli Seya" which would turn out to be the largest such in the land was to be located on a high ground overlooking the Kotmale reservoir.

Unfortunately the Hon:Minister Gamini Dissanayake could not sustain his political future within the party ranks and became a victim of a human bomb that destroyed him and his supporters when his new ambitions to be the Leader of this Land was shattered to smithereens. And moreover he was unable to fulfill his conscience to see the completion of the Mahaveli Seya.

Pic Uditha Wijesena                                           The Kotmale Reservoir in full capacity with the valley in total submerge

 Pic - Uditha Wijesena                                           Mahaveli Seya [Stupa] in its finishing stages                                              
The construction of this Stupa which was started on March 20th 1983 was also stalled with his demise. However it was constructed to a complete and declared open on  20th June 2016 after 33 years. It’s a pity to think of such a strong character as Gamini Dissanayake to have ruined his illustrious political carrier and his aspiration to lead the country in such tragic way. 

No doubt the religious minded and the one engulfed in superstition would prefer to highlight his sudden fall to the spells and an omen cast upon him for smudging the once beautiful valley named Kotmale that was also called  'The Sunset Valley'… 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Taking Wing to Scale Great Heights - The Saga of the Kotagama Family

I was requested to contribute on the history of the Kotagama family of Yalkumbura Bibile to a booklet that the University of Colombo, Zoology Department published on Professor Sarath Wimala Bandara Kotagama Titled "Kota's Nature" on the eve of his retirement from the University of Colombo.
I would like to thank Dr. Nihal Dayawansa for extending me an invitation to contribute to this felicitation volume and to Dr. Hemasiri Bandara Kotagama and Ms. Aditha Dissanayake for providing information and advice that was needed to compile this article
The article is uploaded for your reading pleasure only as the University of Colombo Zoology Department has a copyright  on the book "Kota's Nature."

Prof. Sarath Kotagama is credited with introducing the birds of Sri Lanka to the non-English speaking masses, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest environmentalist of our times.  There is no doubt that most of us have met him already in some form or another. But do any of us know the story behind the successes of this renowned personality? How, where, when did he take wing to scale such great heights?
It is 1817. The inhabitants of the entire Badulla region are writhing in anger. They are dissatisfied over the British rulers who promised to uphold and foster the Buddhist religion and observe the traditions and norms that had prevailed in the Kandyan Kingdom prior to the signing of the Kandyan Convention. The appointment of a Malay Muhandiram named Hadji to the Uva Wellassa territory by Major Wilson, the Resident Agent in Badulla, is also against the wishes and displeasure of the Sinhalese.
By October 1817 a rebellion brakes out and on October 12th, Major Wilson himself marches to Uva with a Malay troop under his command and is killed 4 miles off the village of Kotagama, at Unagolle near the present town of Bibile when an arrow aimed by the Sinhalese rebels pierces his chest. The difficult terrain makes the forward march difficult and slow.
The situation prevailing in Uva and Wellassa becomes more precarious with the major's death promoting the British to remove the ailing elderly Millawe the Disawa of Wellassa, and appoint Keppetipola as Disawa of Wellassa.
Keppetipola who remained in Kandy until October 17, 1817 is sent to Uva to bring the situation under control. When Keppetipola arrives in Wellassa he finds the Sinhalese engaged in a fierce battle with the British soldiers. In a breath-stopping turn of events, Keppetipola sends back all his arms and ammunitions to the British Agent and joins the Sinhalese rebels to lead the battle. With this dramatic change, other Sinhalese leaders including Pilamatalawe Disawa of Sathkorale, Madugalla, Uda Gabada Nilame, Ellepola (the leader of Viyaluwa), Ehelepola (a brother of Maha Adikaram Ihagama), Godagedara Adikaram, Badalkumbure Rala also join the rebels.
When events get totally out of control a worried Governor Robert Brownrigg orders troops from India to quell the rebellion. When British troops finally arrest most of the leaders, properties of 18 rebel leaders are confiscated. Pilimatalawe, who was ailing at the time of arrest, is exiled to the islands of Mauritius. A fate more cruel await Keppetipola and Madugalla. Both are beheaded in Bogambara after a trial on November 18, 1818.
The rebellion is suppressed and remains the last uprising of this kind against the British in the country. The brutality of the massacre of the rebels comes as a warning to the rest of the Sri Lankan community and annexed the Kingdom of Kandy to British Ceylon in 1817.
Uva-Wellassa now remains uninhabited. Those who survive the brutality of the British take with them whatever valuables they possess and escape into the deep jungles, some even to the eastern coast. The area known as Wellassa meaning a hundred thousand paddy fields is charred down. The irrigation tank system and the aqueducts and the network of canals feeding the paddy fields are destroyed beyond redemption. Dwellings and livestock, anything and everything that moves are destroyed. The message driven home is simple and tragic. Those who manage to escape would die of starvation. No one should survive.
Time goes by till the jungle swallows up the once productive paddy lands and the villages of Uva -Wellassa. Towards the mid-19th century the British become stable in the country and are busy opening land in the hills for plantations. Those who fled Wellassa during the rebellion now trickle back from hiding and start rebuilding life from scrap. They battle with the thick jungle on every direction infested with wild beasts. The only source of water in the region is the Gal Oya which springs at Dorapoda Mountains above the village Kotagama, continues to flow on its usual path not diverted for cultivation anymore. People open up land and settle alongside Gal Oya to start life anew.
The Village called Kotagama in Bibile
It goes without saying that the survivors of the 1817 rebellion who returned to these areas were true patriotic Sinhalese, persevering, courageous and the decedents of a special bloodline. Among them were a group of people known by the name, Kotagama. The earliest record of the surname Kotagama in the village of Kotagama, Bibile, is discussed in a record of Sinhala folktales by D P Wickramasinghe. It was common for people to be named by the village then and was the preferred surname of the aristocracy. Many are the Sinhala surnames related to their birth places.
According to Wickramasinghe, the village Millawa (now Mallahewa) was the central location then in the region of Bibile today. This was the same locality of the Millawe Dissawe who was succeeded by Keppitipola Dissawe, as discussed before. The Village Kotagama is to the south of Millawa. Kotagama was a very prosperous ancient village and home to many a noblemen with riches. The Gal Oya which commenced in the Dehiyagal hills [Dorapoda – the small world’s end today] flowed down gently irrigating the lands in Millawa and Kotagama and was the common border separating the two villages. Wickramasinghe discusses a person by the name ‘Kotagama Sitano’ who lived in Kotagama - a philanthropic nobleman with riches, owning large extents of land in Kotagama. He had a single daughter who inherited all his wealth and who, through wedlock gave birth to three sons. The folk tale centers around the lady’s final wish to worship “Sri Paada” [Adams peak]. The two elder sons dismiss the request as she was too feeble for the strenuous journey. However, the youngest son replicated a Sri Paada in a location close to Ravana Elle in today’s Ella area and took the mother on a false pilgrimage fulfilling her wish and becomes the sole heir of all the land and riches. However, he later splits them equally with his two brothers.
My schoolboy friend Hemasiri Kotagama [a sibling of Sarath Kotagama] touching on the finer details that Wickramasinghe discusses in his book, feels that their ancestral home in Madawal-kumbura, Kotagama, Bibile, has great similarities to the description in the story. The ancientness of the structure and the short walled low roof structure of Sinhala clay tiles in the ‘Kotagama Wallawwa’ is a common characteristic of the simple dwellings that came up with mud walls after the rebellion.
Fascinated by this story Hemasiri wonders if their family hailed from this sitano [nobleman] even though there is no definitive evidence of proof! However, the family possessed some treasured items that had been passed down the line that might prove their links to this nobleman. Until recent times the family had possessed and treasured several artifacts that were said to have been used during the rebellion.
The insignia of the Uva –Wellassa region that was carried during the rebellion with some other items used in the war including clothing of the leaders were treasured and preserved safely in the Kotagama family till the present generation decided to hand over this flag and the rest to the Colombo museum where they are now on display to everyone. The only replica of the flag produced before it was given to the museum is retained in the family and is currently with Professor Sarath Kotagama.
The Kotagamas’ of Bibile
I recall here what my friend Hemasiri had been told by his paternal grandfather or Lokuaththa.
Our Lokuaththa lived in Madawala-kumbura in Kotagama. The house in Madawala-kumbura had existed until recent times. It had been in the midst of paddies and the Lokuaththa carried the title of Athanayake Sri Rajakaruna Anawlangu Mudiyanselage which all of us also carry but hardly use. Thereby the full name would be as Athanayake Sri Rajakaruna Anawlangu Mudiyanselage Sarath Wimalabandara Kotagama. “Wimala” comes from our mother; ‘Bandaranayaka Herath Mudiyaanselage Wimalawathi Katugaha Manike,’ says my friend Hemasiri.
Lokuaththa’s elder brother was then the Chief Prelate or the Mahanayake Thero of the Malwaththa chapter in Kandy. The Malwaththa Chapter had a strong link with Kotagama in Bibile and with the influence of the Mahanayaka Thero, Lokuaththa was appointed as the Lekam [Headman] of the Vasama [Region] and had been the recipient of or Nindagam [Manor] land by the British rulers. The metallic script of the offering is preserved with historic value and is currently retained with Professor Sarath Kotagama.
Hemasiri continues to say that, Lokuaththa had three sons and three daughters. The eldest son was educated at Trinity College Kandy and his brother [Hemasiri’s father] was educated at the Dharmadutha College in Badulla. The other son was not educated as he opted not to. The general norm then was to have an heir to the land and property that needed to be protected and retained within the family and this person was expected to remain unexposed to a western education as this might mean an exodus from the village. The eldest son George Kotagama the Trinitian, was appointed the Ratemhattaya for the Uva-Wellassa region. This appointment he says as heard over family gossip was competing alongside the applicant of the famous family by the surname Bibile. The Bibile family is the other aristocratic bloodline in the region from which hails the eminent Professor Dr. Senaka Bibile.
This again was with the strong influence of the Mahanayaka Thero says Hemasiri who goes on to say that they had a photograph of the Mahanayaka Thero hung high up on the wall of the Issthoppuwa [front verandah] and if they were ever to leave home they had to get on their knees and pray before the photograph.
Athanayake Sri Rajakaruna Anawlangu Mudiyanselage Madduma Bandara Kotagama or M.B Kotagama for short their father; married Bandaranayaka Herath Mudiyaanselage Wimalawathi Katugaha Manike from Katugaha village Bandarawela. She was the daughter of the Lekam of Katugaha Walawwe in Bandarawela.
Madduma Bandara Kotagama
M.B Kotagama's affection for social work incited him into politics. He contested the Aluthnuwara Electorate in the General Elections of 1952 under the UNP-elephant symbol and was defeated by J.A. Rambukpotha who challenged him under the Key symbol. That was his first and the last attempt at taking up politics. From then on he devoted his time to social service.
He joined the cooperative movement and establishes the Kotagama-Bibile Cooperative Union and was always elected to the village council and hence was referred to as the Sabapathi Nilame. A much respected social worker he improved the roads to Kotagama to a motorable state. The road across Kotagama village connecting to the Badulla road and to the Mahiyangana roads were completed with tar macadamizing.
In fact he had got the village road done up in order to drive his Kumarihami to the Kotagama home on his wedding day. Unfortunately the inclement weather on that day did not permit the car to negotiate the steep hill and she had had to walk the distance all the way to the home under a parasol. The author was fortunate enough to get to know this very dignified lady while working with Professor Sarath Kotagama. Sadly, she passed away on 22nd April 2007. The villagers called her Kumarihamy with respect and some did say she was a look-alike of Madam Sirimavo.
Hemasiri describes their father to be the simplest person that he ever knew; a man who possessed the least requisites and needs. He led a simple lifestyle and owned only two Khaki trousers and cotton shirts turned out at home by the seamstress mother. An umbrella would always go with him as did the rubber flip-flops. A special occasion would be grazed by the cloth and baniyama which again was home made. Professor Sarath Kotagama’s official suite today is similar to what his father used to wear then.
As for habits, he went early to bed and was up early as well and would never let his children sleep beyond sunrise. Only Sarath who had a fortunate symptom of sneezing continuously if up too early before the sun came up was excluded from this strict rule.
Madduma Banda Kotagama and Wimalawathi Katugaha Manike had six children through wedlock. Four boys and two girls. The eldest was Sarath Wimalabandara followed by Pushpasiri, Hemasiri, Indrani, Kalyani and Keerthi all had the Kotagama surname and the boys all had the Bandara name.
The sole objective of the father was to give the boys and girls the best of the education that was available in the country then. So they all went to the best schools available. All the boys were sent to S Thomas’ Collages as boarders while the two girls also had their schooling in Bandarawela, Badulla and Colombo again as boarders. Private education was not affordable to everyone even during that time and to have six children educated this way with no fixed income or a salary was definitely a mystery.

The income for the family was from whatever that was harvested from the lands; paddy, coconut, areca-nut, betel leaf, black peppers etc. Even with these commodities it is hard to understand how he financed their education. He did have to mortgage and even sell off some unproductive land at times in order to meet deadlines.
Hemasiri recollects his father seated in the arm chair in deep thought, probably planning out the payment of the coming month’s school fees of the three boys at St Thomas’ which will be due very soon. He saved carefully….he would turn the envelopes around and re-use them. Today we are passionately preaching its recycled usage….. His sacrifices and determination to educate the children did payoff. Of the six children five are graduates; among the boys, two are University Professors, one is an engineer while the youngest a very successful business professional. Both the girls are teachers. No doubt he breathed his last on 21st September 1987, a happy man.
Of all the children one turned out to be special and different in thought. Sudu Aiya the fairer one of the lot, Pushpasiri the Engineer was different from the rest even during school days. He broke the line while in Mt Lavinia and came home saying he needs to change school and insisted admission to Ananda College. This been fulfilled he excelled in the mathematics stream, entered the Peradeniya University, passed out as a full-fledged Mechanical Engineer and joined the state run National Milk Board. When the legislators decided to privatize the National Milk Board he was the Chief Engineer.  Just as Keppetipola gave up his rank to join the Sinhalese, he too simply left his profession with a paltry sum of Rupees 35,000 as compensation.
Today Sudu Aiya lives in the ancestral home educating his children in schools in Bibile living the same simplistic lifestyle that his father had practiced tending the same lands that had once given them the income to succeed in life.

Once at the annual Dhaana Pinkama [Alms giving] now held for the 75th year or so the monk in the sermon said “Of all the children of this family whatever their professions are and whatever positions they may hold in society, the most to be appreciated out of them all is ‘Sudu Nilame.” The monk went on to say that even he too could learn from Sudu Nilame of how to practice and live an “Alpeachcha” life. [A form of moderate asceticism]. One cannot understand Sudu Aiya, and he could only be compared to Aravinda in Viragaya says Hemasiri concluding his part of this story.

Sarath Kotagama of Bibile in Colombo
The author has followed Sarath Kotagama at school with his brother Hemasiri Kotagama. Sarath however was never in any of the schools with us for he was five years our senior and was always ahead of us at all S Thomas’ Collages then. The schools were for different levels at Bandarawela, Gurutalawa, and Mt Lavinia split for the primary, secondary and senior school education respectively.
St. Thomas’ College Gurutalawa, the first ever outbound school in this country paved the way to nurture his interest with birds and his favorite sport; basketball and swimming. An average student in academic activities, but an enthusiastic founder member of the Birdwatching club formed by the school chaplain Rev. Father Canon A J Foster in 1960. He played basketball for the school as a member of the school team but treated swimming as a pastime but represented his house at the school swimming meets. It is no secret any Thomian is quite alive and comfortable when in water, for swimming was in the school curriculum even during the late 1950’s in this country.
Having completed his secondary education and passed his General Certificate of Education [Ordinary Level] he proceeded to Mount Lavinia for senior school education. He sits for the university entrance examination from St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia in 1969 and gains admission to the University of Ceylon – Colombo campus as it was known then, where he graduated with honors in Zoology in 1974.
In the year 1977, he proceeded to the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, for his post graduate studies, and in 1982 he was awarded the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy for his thesis on the “behaviour and feeding ecology of the Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula kramerii) in Polonnaruwa”. He returned home to serve as a lecturer in the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo, in the Faculty of Natural Sciences.
His Doctoral research at the University of Aberdeen, in association with Professor George Mackenzie Dunnet ensured his childhood dream had come true; to be a professional ornithologist in this country.
Having achieved his childhood dream and being appointed an academic in higher education as a profession he wanted to do more with regard to bird studies and bird conservation in the country. And so, together with his longtime friend Rex I de Silva a proficient naturalist and an expert on seabirds, he applied to be members of the Ceylon Bird Club in 1975. However due to the restrictive membership policy of the Ceylon Bird Club they were denied membership in keeping to the colonial attitudes of the club and the need to qualify on a standard of bird knowledge that was to be tested by a selection committee.
This led to the forming of the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka [FOGSL] in 1976, with a few other academics. Thus, the founding members of FOGSL are Dr Sarath Kotagama, Dr. S U K Ekaratne, Mr. P B Karunaratne, Mr. Rex I De Silva, Mr. L B Ranasinghe and Mr. G L de Silva.
The FOGSL which reached the masses had a much broader social base than the Bird Club. He was now free to go ahead with his conservation work through his own organization and enhanced the interest of bird lovers by publishing a number of field guides in Sinhala and Tamil. This made birding accessible to a larger population who was not conversant in English. The Field Ornithology Group today is the largest birding organization in Sri Lanka, a major conservation NGO and the national affiliate of Bird life International and has truly displaced the Ceylon Bird Club as the authority for birds in the country.
For all his successes, life had not been rosy for him as the eldest in a family of six siblings when the resources at home were dwindling, when his father had to be assisted for the higher education of his brothers and sisters.
I remember an incident where he recalled the constraints he underwent as an undergraduate. The day was the launch of his first Sinhala Bird Book the “Sirilaka Kurullo” at the Mahaveli Center in Colombo. The Chief Guest was his Botany Professor and the then Vice Chancellor of the Colombo Campus (1969 - 1974), Professor B. A. Abeywickrama. It was a strict requirement that an array of lead pencils that are categorized and coded for softness and thickness be used for sketching and shading techniques for drawing botanical subjects under the microscope. Sarath was humble enough to tell his audience that day that he could not afford to own such a set of pencils due to the difficulty and responsibility that he had to shoulder due to the difficulties at home bringing up and educating his siblings. He was not embarrassed to explain this to his professor who understood and had been very generously considerate. In gratitude and with due respect for this gentleness he selected Professor B A Abeywickrama as the first person to be presented with his book as a mark of respect for his consideration that day which did not go waste.
The mid-seventies and early eighties finds him a very busy man in the University as an academic, deep in the humid forests in Sinharaja absorbed in research work, in the Accelerated Mahaveli Development Scheme a member of the EIA team and with all this penning a series of articles to the then famous science based newspaper the ‘Vidusara” on Conservation, Environment and the Fauna of the country. These were very popular among the advance level students and these articles became collector’s items that were passed down the line to the siblings pursuing education in the science stream. Young Dr Sarath Kotagama sporting long hair something that was strictly restricted in schools then was a special person in the leading schools in Colombo; especially among the girls’ schools in the city. He was the most sort after resource person to address the school’s science societies.
My friend Dr (Mrs) Jayantha Dayasena once narrated of an incident to me when on a birding trip in Akuressa to see a solitary Comb Duck that preferred to hang on a full winter migration in the Maramba tank.  
They were university entrance students in Visakha Vidyalaya Colombo then and had gone to the Colombo University to invite the young long haired Doctor for a lecture at school. Directed to his office room the girls found the room empty and started looking for him inquiring of his ware about when someone pointed them to where he was last seen. The girls followed in the direction and ended up in the rat house of the Zoology Department. Being girls they were nervous and was offended with the reedy odor of the vermin. A person in a ponytail and trousers rolled up to the knee clad in a worn out ‘T ‘shirt was attending to the cages and washing off the rat droppings from the floor was the only one around. The girls asked him if Dr Kotagama had come this way. The man looked over his shoulder, smiled broadly and said ‘I am Kotagama …please be at my office I will come over after finishing this work.” The girls were petrified. They had never expected a University Don to be doing such work.
This snippet summarizes the simplicity of this man from Bibile who came to Colombo, but never forgot his roots. This fact alone is proof enough that the decedents of his generation that rose from the ashes of the Uva-Wellassa rebellion in 1817 do have a concern for the country and they are of a special breed. I have never asked him why he grows his hair and beard long and I have never heard him explain why either, but I have a strange feeling that the true identity and the tradition of the Sinhala folk was to sport long hair and beard and he knows he is a true Sinhalese. He is delighted to say that he is a descendant from the Uva –Wellassa, as for the English language he says one should master it to win the world of knowledge but should only be used as a tool. Linguistic priority should be to one’s own mother tongue.
His brother Hemasiri narrates thus of the elder one, “him being the Loku Aiya [Big brother] had set a grand personal and social image that we brothers and sisters had to follow by having to excel in higher education, become professors, or be ideals in persona as much as possible. In all his books documents etc. from school to university he wrote as Sarath DOD Kotagama. DOD meant ‘Do or Die’. Such was his character in pursuance of what he wanted to be. I believe we too followed his motto apart from growing long hair. We had to always be simple in life following him.” Hemasiri continues to say ….. He was an extreme workaholic and was committed to his passion.
He has also had a very limited involvement in swimming as well during his undergraduate days. This being mainly through his association with Ananda Ranasinghe his undergraduate friend whose family dominated the sport of swimming that was limited to the Colombo schools then challenged only by the Ambalangoda sea swimmers. Ananda Ranasinghe was a scientist at Southern California Coastal Water Research Project in the USA. Both Ananda and Sarath held office in the Amateur Swimming Association in the country. I do remember once at the Annual 2 Mile Sea Swim that the Association conducted from Mt Lavinia to Dehiwala and back in the early seventies in which I too participated. When Sarath Kotagama was ready to give the start off after registering the participants an officio wanted the registration be done differently to what has been in practice before, he vehemently objected to change. However, in the end he walked off the beach with his clip board and I know he relinquished his position in the association and that I feel was his last engagement in the sport.
Time goes by and he is now well known in the whole country. The people in Bibile are contended and proud of his achievements as a man from Wellassa. There was also this hilarious encounter when I was once with him on conservation work and was traveling from Ampara to Colombo via Bibile. Our driver was a Malay by the name ‘Mathin’, the official transport provider to FOGSL then. It was the height of the unrest in the country in early 2000 when we were stopped at the Pitakumbura police checkpoint at the turn off to Nilgala. The police constable approached the vehicle and instructed the driver to go over to the desk and sign the registration book when he recognized the long haired person sitting on the adjoining seat. The constable went round and wished him and said “Sir we have heard of you but it is only today that I saw you in person, we are very proud of you to be one of us” meaning a man from Bibile. He then called back Mathin who was almost at the desk and waved him to proceed through. Mathin now curious of what happed turned towards Sarath Kotagama inquiring if the constable was a school friend. Sarath Kotagama stared far into the cloudless clear blue sky and is still to answer Mathin.
Being a man of principles he would not hesitate to express his feelings at any forum. However, being outspoken in most cases is not that favourable. In the mid-eighties there was a bitter disagreement on policy within the Zoology Department in the university and Dr Sarath Kotagama walked out of the Colombo Campus and joined the Open University and took over a consultancy post at the Council of the Central Environment Authority [CEA].
But not everything ends with drastic results. It was here in the CEA that he met his fiancĂ©e. The Administrative Secretary of the Director General of the CEA was a regular contact point on council meetings. These contacts developed into a lifelong contact and in 1988 he decided to tie the knot with Miss Namalee Perera the DG’s Secretary, only she was not the DG’s sectary any longer. Things got back to normal and he soon was back at the University of Colombo, as the new Professor of Environmental Sciences.
Today, they are a family blessed with a daughter and son…Tharani and Odatha. When they took a decision to start a living in a house of their own things once again started to defy conventions. They bought land that was affordable in Akuregoda but things did not go as panned from the beginning. The land being a triangle in shape was not favoured by traditional vastu etc. A decision was made to make the land a square, letting an arrowhead shape end to sit out of the premises by doing a gate structure. This was accepted and the house building commenced.
Being a practicing environmentalist he planned to build the house primarily with reused material. This led to problems with the artisans as most were superstitious and did not want to handle material from broken down buildings for fear of bad omen and spells. Finally, a professional Architect Kapila Sugathadasa was consulted and the house came up with almost seventy percent of reuse material.   A twin level abode is their home built primarily of discarded hardwood railway sleepers and hewed cabook stones salvaged from broken down houses. The doors and windows are also units salvaged in total.

Being a man with bare necessities the house only has a refrigerator, washing machine and a gas stove to be called modern-day utilities. All the other furniture is basically what was brought from the ancestral home in Bibile. This decision to use the old family furniture was a blessing to the mother who was delighted to give them away. They are the “Lanu Endha” [timber framed bed with no bed head and woven with coconut fibre rope] that the visitor sits on. The four poster bed the parents slept on and some old pottery and utensils. The traditional ‘koraha’ the ubiquitous item then in any Sinhala home the large rimed bowl in the kitchen in which the rice was washed was also the bath tub for the babies. This bath tub in which almost all the siblings took the baptism is now installed as a hand wash basin and is around 70 years in usage.
The old Kotagama Walawwa in Bibile, occupied by his brother Pushpasiri and the one which Sarath Kotagama built in Akuregoda both have the bare necessities that a Sinhala household consisted of in the past. Only the space usage and land use have changed with time requiring the latter house to go for twin levels.
I was fascinated with this building and the theme used by Architect Kapila Saparamadu and introduced my niece Aditha Dissanayake; the one time features editor of the Sunday Observer for a write up on the house. Aditha published a brilliant photo write up under the heading “Ecstasy of Railway Sleepers” to the paper on Sunday, May 27th 2007 also with a catchy sub heading “Refuse has never looked so good.”
This is all about a unique story of a family that came out of the remote locality in Kotagama, Bibile in Uva Wellassa where even to this day people fear to discuss of the turmoil and perils that the innocent in the year 1817 had to undergo during the suppression of a revolt against an unseen queen that lived many seas away.  Just as it is said the winner takes it all; there is a monument to mark the victory of the British in Wellassa but none for the one who was defeated.
A lone marble monument sits by the side of the road to Kotagama from Bibile about three miles to the Kotagama Wallawwa where Major Wilson was arrowed down by a Sinhala rebel. This valley was later named Wilson's Valley by the British. But was never in usage as there was hardly any survivors to identify the valley by that name.
The Kotagama siblings have excelled in academia… a consolation for the parents, and the return of Pushpasiri back home to live a life as their ancestors did, leave behind all the riches in the city would have also been a pleasure in a different form for the parents. The third generation may only know that their grandparents were from Bibile and they still have an uncle living a different life in that grand old house in Bibile.
But Sarath Kotagama must be a happier man today. His son Odatha Kotagama too sat for his university entrance from S Thomas Collage in Mt Lavinia like the father, but revealing how fate comes in all forms when the father was selected to the University in Colombo, Odatha is selected to the Uva Wellassa University in Badulla. A contrasting coincidence of the third generation going in the opposite direction from Colombo to Uva Wellassa.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Conventional Birdwatching & the Science in Birdwatching

The conventional birdwatching is related to a science of identifying unknown birds in the field. Most books on the techniques of bird watching to beginners did convey this scientific approach to identify birds in the field. However with the advancement of the digital camera the theme for identifying new or unknown birds in the field is no longer in practice. Today a digital photograph is compared with an image in the internet or with an illustration in a field guide and the bird is described.

The system of scientific identification however is still practiced in the study of Ornithology and could be described as a methodology for identifying a bird species in the wild through a systematically developed comparison and elimination approach on six criteria. It could be further classified as fitting the observed bird into six predefined modules developed for the country. They are classified as Silhouette…Field markings…Posture…Size…Flight pattern the Habitatin which it is seen with the date and time included.


The silhouette in general is the back lit image of a bird viewed in black or very dark grey. This lets you to identify a general group of birds as hawks, owls, parrots, flycatchers, shrikes, storks, etc. whose members all share a similarity. Birds in the same general group often have the same body shape and proportions, although they may vary in size. Therefore the silhouette alone gives many clues to a bird's identity, allowing you to assign a bird to the correct group or even the exact species.



Field markings and characters

In order to describe a bird, ornithologists divide its body into topographical regions; the beak or bill, head, back, wings, tail, and legs. These regions are further divided as in the diagram giving with commonly used descriptive terms.

Birds display a huge variety of patterns and colors, which they have evolved in order to recognize other members of their own species. Birdwatchers also use these features that are known as field markings to help distinguish different bird species.

An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka 26-38n-5



Beak and Legs

The shape and size of a beak indicates the nature of its food and manner of feeding. Different beak structures have enabled birds to exploit different habitats and fit into a wide range of niches. Distinct beak shapes help identify some bird species, and some shapes help identify some common groups.

The legs though not very visible without a visual aid also relate to posture and habitat. This also could be grouped as branch grasping feet, predatory feet, swimming feet or wading feet. The length, colour and structure of the legs can assist in identification and is a very useful feature in identifying wetland birds.

An Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka 26-38n-6


Posture or the stance of the bird when on the perch or on ground gives a clue to help place the bird in its correct group. Members of the thrush family would stride across the yard, take several steps then adopt to an alert upright stance with its breast held forward. All thrushes have similar postures, as do larks and shorebirds. This way one could short list the bird to a possible group from the other groupings.

Distant perched crows and hawks may look alike, but paying attention to their different postures will help one to differentiate one from the other

BRD_IDPosture_Robin copy copyID_Posture_hz_1ID_Posture_v_1

BRD_IDPosture_hawkcrow copy copy


By now the bird is assigned a group based on the silhouette, some field markings and its postural stance. The next step is to do a size comparison of the bird. However the sizing could be complicated at times with poor lighting or the distance to the bird. Size comparisons are most useful when an unknown bird is seen side-by-side with a familiar species. In the case of an isolated bird the sizes is compared with a commonly known bird species such as the House Sparrow, Common Myna, the Jungle Crow, as references.

BRD_IDSizeRef_Woodpeckers copy copy copy copy

Equal in Sizes:

A crow-sized pigeon would be a Green Imperial Pigeon and a woodpecker of the size of a sparrow might be a Brown-capped Woodpecker.

BRD_IDSizeRef_ConfuseColor copy copy

BRD_IDSizeRef_InBetween_1 copy copy copy copy

In-between Sizes:

Sometimes you need two reference birds for comparison. An Ashy crowned Sparrow Lark bigger than a sparrow but smaller than the Myna. A cuckoo is larger than a Myna but smaller than a crow.

Flight Pattern

Most birds fly in straight lines flapping in a constant rhythm, but certain bird groups have characteristic flight patterns that can help identify them. Birds of prey may be identified by the characteristic way they hold their wings when flying toward you. A flying accipiter such as the Shikra or Goshawks would typically make several wing flaps followed by a glide. The eagles and kites soar up in circular motion with the thermal currents and are generally not seen flying until mid-day. Barbets and Woodpeckers generally fly in a pattern of moderate rises and falls. The woodpecker flap wings at the fall while the barbet flaps wings at the rise.


In general, each bird species occurs only within certain types of habitat. It could be a dense forest as the Sinharaja, the scrub jungles in the low country dry zone, montane cloud forests in the central massif, and the rolling lands of the lower Uva Patna or freshwater marsh. For instance a given habitat will contain its own predictable assortment of birds and with time one can learn which bird to expect in a particular habitat.

It should also be noted that it is always possible to encounter an unfamiliar bird in a location considered outside its usual habitat. Migrating birds in flight often settle down when they are tired and hungry regardless of the habitat.

This is the general scientific methodology derived to identify a bird species in the field. However the notes taken in the field should be compared with a good descriptive bird guide to confirm the sightings. Viewing distant birds would be assisted by viewing aids; a suitable pair of binoculars or spotting scope. Nevertheless the general grouping of birds could be achieved even without viewing aids.

The other very important rule in the field is that the welfare of the bird comes first and not that of the birdwatcher. World birdwatching bodies have developed birdwatching ethics that are universally accepted and birders need to be self-disciplined in this aspect.

The general factsheet on ethical birdwatching is as below:

Promote the welfare of birds and their environment

• Support the protection of birds and their habitat
• Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger
• Avoid using methods such as flushing, spotlighting and call playback, particularly during nesting season when birds may be called off incubation duties, or even abandon the nest altogether
• Be aware of the impact photography can have on birds - avoid lingering around nests or core territories for long periods and limit the use of artificial light
• Avoid handling birds
• Report rare bird sightings to conservation authorities and consider the wellbeing of the bird before making this knowledge more publicly available
• Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist- avoid leaving litter along a birding trail and otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum

Respect the law and the rights of others

• Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission
• Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas
• Consider and respect the rights of landholders
• Practice common courtesy in interactions with other people

Group Birding Ethics

• Lead by example and know your audience – encourage others to employ ethical birding practices
• Report bird sightings – all data are useful to bird conservation and wherever possible, should be reported to ornithological databases in the country example Universities, Natural History Museums, etc. [in Sri Lanka, FOGSL ]
• Impart knowledge – share what you know about birds and their habitats
• Get involved – encourage birders to engage local communities and get involved in conservation initiatives at their favourite birding locations
• Consider the birds – always put the health and well being of birds first- consider the impact you as an individual and the group are having on birds and their environment