Beyond Bundala National Park the main highway turns away from the coast towards the pleasant town of TISSAMAHARAMA (usually abbreviated to Tissa). Tissa’s main attraction is as a base for trips to the nearby national parks of Yala and Bundala or the temple town of Kataragama, but it’s an agreeable place in its own right, with a handful of monuments testifying to the town’s important place in early Sri Lankan history when, under the name of Mahagama, it was one of the principal settlements of the southern province of Ruhunu. Mahagama is said to have been founded in the third century BC by a brother of the great Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura, and later rose to prominence under Kavan Tissa, father of the legendary Dutugemunu. A cluster of dagobas and an expansive tank dating from this era lend parts of Tissa a certain distinction and a sense of history which makes a pleasant change from the run-of-the-mill towns which dot much of the southern coast.
Modern Tissa is a bustling but unremarkable local commercial centre – essentially a single thoroughfare, Main Street, lined with banks, shops and little cafés. Refreshingly compact, the town is bounded on its northern side by a lush expanse of paddy fields, in the middle of which stands the most impressive of Tissa’s various dagobas, the Tissamaharama dagoba, allegedly built by Kavan Tissa in the second century BC and now restored to its original glory, with a “bubble”-shaped dome topped by an unusually large and lavishly decorated harmika and broad spire – a strangely squat and top-heavy-looking construction quite unlike any other dagoba in the island.
A second, much more obviously ancient dagoba, the Sandagiri dagoba, stands close by (currently covered in scaffolding) comprising a big, square, high brick base and a slope-shouldered dagoba in the “heap-of-paddy” shape (see Structure and shape), although the harmika has completely vanished. The scant remains of the monastery which formerly stood here can be seen scattered hereabouts.Read More
Queen Vihara Maha Devi
Queen Vihara Maha Devi
Early Sinhalese history has many heroes but very few heroines – with the notable exception of the legendary Queen Vihara Maha Devi. According to tradition, Vihara Maha Devi’s father – a certain King Tissa of Kelaniya – unjustly put to death a Buddhist monk, whereupon the waters of the ocean rose up and threatened to submerge his kingdom. The waters abated only when he sacrificed his pious and beautiful young daughter to the sea, placing her in a fragile boat and casting her off into the waves. The brave young princess, who had patiently submitted to this ordeal for the sake of her father’s kingdom, was carried away around the coast and finally washed ashore in Kirinda, near Tissa. The local king, the powerful Kavan Tissa, came upon the delectable princess as she lay asleep in her boat, fell in love with her, and promptly married her. Their first son, Dutugemunu, became one of the great heroes of early Sinhalese history.
Quite what the story of Vihara Maha Devi’s sea journey symbolizes is anyone’s guess (although since the 2004 tsunami the part of the story describing the catastrophic flooding of Kelaniya – which was previously regarded as a piece of colourful but entirely fanciful story-telling – has acquired a new significance and credibility). Whatever the legend’s basis, it provided the Sinhalese’s greatest warrior-king with a suitably auspicious parentage, and created Sri Lanka’s first great matriarch in the process.
Tours from Tissa
Tours from Tissa
A horde of local operators offer a wide range of trips from Tissa. Easily the most popular are the half- and full-day trips to Yala and Bundala national parks, and some operators also offer overnight camping trips. Camping trips don’t come cheap, although staying the night in the park gives you the chance to see nocturnal animals, including snakes, crocs, owls, wild pigs, porcupines (rare) and nocturnal birds. .
Another popular option is the half-day excursion to the rock temple at Situlpahuwa followed by a visit to Kataragama for the evening puja. The journey to Situlpahuwa passes through the fringes of Yala (though you don’t have to pay the entrance fee), so you might spot some wildlife en route, but this is much less interesting than a proper trip to the main portion of the park. There’s also a third national park nearby, Lunugamwehera (entered off the Wellawaya—Tissa road close to the km282 post) although this lacks the appeal of both Yala and Bundala and sees very few visitors.