Tissa & Kataragama can be reached travelling from the hill country via the Buttala Foothills, as well as along the south coast. Another travel option to Hambantota is via the Mattala International Airport which opened in 2012. There are daily transfers from Colombo’s International Airport to Mattala on Sri Lankan Airlines.
The serene and tranquil town of Tissa, short for Tissamaharama, was the capital of the ancient Ruhunu Kingdom in the 2nd century BC. Tissa is named after King Kavantissa who built the Tissa Weva and Deberawewa reservoirs. The sacred jungle shrine of Kataragama was built by the warrior king Dutugemunu, father of Kavantissa, to pay homage to God Kataragama. The Kirivehera, a Buddhist dagoba dating back to the 1st century, as well as several Hindu shrines, a mosque, and church are housed within the complex. The Mahavamsa describes how Buddhist warrior kings used Buttala as a base to defend the Ruhunu Kingdom against the invading Indians from the north. Evidence of an ancient Buddhist civilisation can be seen in caves and excavated jungle ruins in the Buttala Foothills.
Those looking for something out of the ordinary to adorn their homes will delight at Kataragama’s colourful small boutiques and wayside stalls. Interesting statues and colourful pictures of Hindu Gods, Buddha statues, meditation beads, incense, and brass oil lamps are on offer. These stalls also sell the `pooja vatti’ - small baskets of devotional offerings to the gods filled with fresh fruit, lotus, and incense. Traditionally, each pilgrim takes a vatti and presents it to the sacred shrines of Kataragama in the hope of making their wishes and aspirations come true.
The most significant and spectacular event of the year is undoubtedly Kataragama’s two-week Perehara (cultural pageant) which takes place late July or early August. This colourful festival is held in honour of Skandha, the warrior God of Kataragama. The Perehara depicts Hindu folklore, music and dance forms, as well as fire walking in sacrifice and devotion to God Kataragama.
Traditionally, the best time to visit the south coast is from December to April, with similar weather patterns to the Galle Coast. Between May and September, however, travel east beyond Galle along the south coast and you can be rewarded with more settled weather than further west. Sri Lanka is affected by two monsoons which generally means that there is good weather somewhere. October to mid-December can see heavy rain brought in by the north-east monsoon, with the south-west monsoon bringing heaviest downpours from mid-April to mid-June. There is also an unsettled inter-monsoonal period in October.
The ancient Buddhist temples of Tissa including the Maha Stupa, Sandagiri dagoba and monastery complex, Yatala and the Menik Dagobas are all in close proximity. An archeological museum provides a glimpse into the ancient Ruhunu kingdom. A scenic backdrop to Tissamaharama town is provided by the sprawling Tissa Weva built by King Kavantissa 2,300 years ago. These lakes attract water birds including cormorant, purple heron, Caspian tern and the painted stork.
Kataragama: This ancient, multi-faith pilgrimage site –originated from 2C BC when King Dutugemunu, a warrior king and Sinhala folk hero, built a shrine here for the worship of the Kataragama God. Each day, at specific times, Kataragama’s Hindu shrines come alive when poojas are presented to the Gods – baskets filled with fruit and flowers, burning incense and oil lamps, dashing of coconuts, clanging of bells, and the continuous chanting – a mesmerizing experience.
Uda Walawe National Park, further north, is home to over 500 Asian elephants. The Elephant Transit Camp at Uda Walawe, run by Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Department, provides protection to more than 20 young elephants, mostly babies that have been orphaned or recovering from injuries prior to releasing them back to the wild. The Yala National Park, in the far south east, is home to the greatest variety of Sri Lanka’s wildlife, including leopard, elephant, sloth bear, buffalo, monkey, sambar, deer and crocodiles. The Lunugamvehera National Park acts as a corridor for elephants migrating from Yala to Uda Walawe.
The most significant historical sites in the Buttala Foothills are the Maligawila statues and the gigantic rock carvings of Buduruwagala. The Maligavila Buddha statue dates back to the 7th century BC and is the largest freestanding image of Lord Buddha in Sri Lanka, reaching a height of about 14 metres. Carved out of a single piece block of limestone, this statue was discovered in fragments. In 1980 the statue was restored. The ancient rock sculptures at Buduruwagala are carved into a 70ft granite cliff. The sculptures are said to date back to the 8th century.
Bundala & Tissa wetlands combine 20km of beach, lagoons and scrub bordering the sea and hosting more than 150 bird species including winter migratory birds and large flocks of flamingos. The lagoons are also popular with crocodiles. From October to January the park also receives visits from the endangered marine turtles that lay their eggs on the shore.