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.