Tissa, Kataragama & Uda Walawe | Regions of Sri Lanka | Red Dot

Tissa & Kataragama

The historical towns of Tissa and Kataragama are located South East in the Hambantota district. Tissa is dominated by lotus filled lakes, lush green paddyfields and gigantic Dagobas (Buddhist temples) that dates back to the 2nd century B.C. The jungle shrine of Kataragama located an hours drive away from Tissa and has great religious and historical significance that cuts across race and religion that brings together Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians each day to worship at its numerous temples of all faiths located within the sacred city.

En route to Tissa and Kataragama from the southern highlands you pass through the Buttala foothills, known for its savanna-like plains and home to some of the best National Parks in the country, including Uda Walawe. To the north Buttala is dominated by the green foothills of the central highlands and to the south the land is flat and dry, filled with dry zone forest, scrub jungle, paddy fields and sugar cane plantations. The Buttala Foothills has much to offer for those interested in wildlife and heritage.
Don’t Miss
Tissa’s ancient Dagobas set amidst lush green paddyfileds
Tissa’s water birds and lotus filled lakes
Kataragama’s mix of ancient shrines and temples
Pooja time at the Hindu shrines at Kataragama
Poya full-moon day at the Kirivehera in Kataragama
Kataragama Perehara in July or August
Leopards in Yala National Park
Bird watching in Bundala National Park
Wild elephants in Uda Walawe
Elephant orphanage near Uda Walawe
Maligawila Buddha statues
Buduruwagala’s ancient rock sculptures
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Getting There
Situated in the south east of Sri Lanka in the Hambantota District, Tissa & Kataragama can be reached travelling from the hill country via the Buttala Foothills, as well as along the south coast. If travelling through the Buttala Foothills coming from the hill country, we recommend spending a few days in the area to get a real taste of rural Sri Lanka as well as to enjoy the untouched wilderness of the National Parks. Buttala Foothills, Tissa and Kataragama are best reached by road or the Air Taxi. 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. Useful drive times include: Colombo to Galle (one hour); Colombo to Uda Walawe (4.5 hours); Colombo to Yala (4 hours); Galle to Hambantota (3 hours); Bandarawela to Tissa (4 hours); Bandarawela to Uda Walawe (3 hours); Dickoya to Tissa (4.5 hours); Dickoya to Uda Walawe (4 hours).

Historical Background
The serene and tranquil town of Tissa, short for Tissamaharama, was the capital of the ancient Ruhunu Kingdom in the 2nd century B.C. Tissa, named after King Kavantissa who did much to develop this sacred town also built the sprawling Tissa Weva (lake) as well as the Debarawewa Lake located near by. These lakes still serve as a valuable resource to the surrounding villages. The sacred jungle shrine of Kataragama, built by the warrior king Dutugemunu, father of Kavantissa to pay homage to God Kataragama, is an intriguing mix of temples and shrines that cuts across race and religion. The Kirivehera, a Buddhist Dagoba dating back to the 1st century, as well as several Hindu shrines, a mosque, and church are all housed within the large Kataragama complex.

The Mahavamsa (ancient Buddhist Chronicles) describes how Buddhist warrior kings used Buttala which is north of Tissa and Kataragama, as a base to defend the Ruhunu Kingdom against the invading Indians from the north. They did much to develop this arid region -- the Weliara reservoir, constructed more than 2,000 years ago, is still used today to irrigate the paddy fields of the South. Evidence of an ancient Buddhist civilisation can be seen in caves and excavated jungle ruins in the Buttala Foothills.

The ancient Buddhist temples of Tissa including the Maha Stupa, Sandagiri dagoba and monastery complex, Yatala and the Menik Dagobas are all located in close proximity. There is also an archeological Museum that provides a glimpse into the ancient Ruhunu kingdom. A scenic backdrop to Tissamaharama town is provided by the sprawling Tissa Weva (lake) built by King Kavantissa 2,300 years ago as well as the Debarawewa Lake located near by. These lakes provide life to the surrounding villages as well as attracting many species of water birds including cormorant, purple heron, Caspian tern and the painted stork. The sites at Kataragama includes the Kirivehera, a Buddhist Dagoba dating back to the 1st century, as well as several other Hindu and Buddhist shrines are all housed within the large Kataragama complex.

Further north is Buttala which is famous for its untouched wilderness and protected National Parks. The Uda Walawe National Park 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 located further south 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 sights in the Buttala Foothills are the Maligawila statues and the gigantic rock carvings of Buduruwagala.

Try a camping safari in Uda Walawe or Yala National Parks hosted by our carefully recommended specialist wildlife companies. All have individual strengths. However, camping can be expensive. Uda Walawe’s accommodation options include the Grand Uda Walawe Safari Hotel, a modern four-star hotel which lies just 10 minutes away from the Uda Walawe National Park entrance or Kalu’s Hideaway – a. mid-ranged hotel located just outside the National Park.

In Tissamaharama, The Safari is easily the best hotel and offers a tranquil lakeside setting. Priyankara and Hibiscus Garden are guesthouse options in Tissa. Close to Kataragama, Cadjan Wild – a rustic-chic eco lodge offers comfortable accommodation. Cadjan Wild is also close to the Katagamuva entrance to the Yala National Park. There are several mobile camping operators that are also located close to the Katagamuva entrance and do wild life safaris in Yala. These include Leopard Trails, Leopard Safaris, Kulu Safaris and Master Campers. Yala’s other accommodation options include the popular Chaaya Wild situated in Kirinda bordering the Yala National Park and the beautiful beaches of the south east coast; Back of Beyond Yala and Yala Villa – a tastefully designed villa with a swimming pool just 15 minutes from the Yala entrance gates.

Food & Drink
The Ceylon Hotels Corporation properties are popular for their tasty rice and curries at a reasonable price. The Safari keeps up this reputation, but watchout for the spicy coconut sambals. Priyankara Hotel near Tissa also offers good rice and curries for travellers. The Buttala region lacks Western-style restaurants, and you should instead focus on the local Sri Lankan food, which can be outstanding. Kalu’s Hideaway near Uda Walawe is recommended for traditional curries.

This Hambantota region is known for its delicious homemade buffalo curd and Kitul treacle, both of which are sold in traditional clay pots by small vendors on the roadsides. Ask your hotel for it at breakfast or as a dessert after dinner. Thambilli (king coconut) is a favourite thirst-quencher in the rural areas.

For 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 including Lord Ganesh; Buddha statues, meditation beads, incense, and brass oil lamps are on offer. These small wayside 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.
Sri Lanka’s ancient Dagobas (stupas or dome shaped Buddhist temples) are significant architectural marvels of the ancient world. Constructed to strict specifications as far back as the 2nd century B.C. by the Kings that ruled the country, these Dagobas were built to enshrine sacred relics. The largest Dagoba in Sri Lanka – the Jetavanarama stupa in Anuradhapura has a diameter of about 365 feet and is over 120 meteres in height. The pristine white stupas in Tissamaharama and Kataragama are perfect examples of this typical architectural style of Buddhist Dagobas known to have been built during Kings Kavantissa and Dutugemunu’s reign in the 2nd century B.C.
Art Galleries & Museums
The government’s Department of Archeology maintains museums in the archeological sites of Yatala (Tissamaharama), and Kataragama (within the sacred city). Antiquities displayed in these archeological museums include stone, metal, timber and terracotta findings including pottery and statues. These museums are open daily from 8:30 a.m to 5:00 p.m except on Tuesdays.
Tissa is located in the Hambantota district and was the capital of the ancient Ruhunu Kingdom in the 2nd century B.C. A scenic backdrop to Tissamaharama town is provided by the sprawling Tissa Weva (lake) built by King Kavantissa 2,300 years ago. The town's landscape is dominated by gigantic semi-circle shaped ancient Buddhist Dagobas (temples). Several ancient Buddhist temples including the Maha Stupa, Sandagiri dagoba and monastery complex, Yatala and the Menik dagobas are all located nearby as well as an archeological Museum that provides a glimpse into the ancient Ruhunu kingdom.
An ancient pilgrimage site where all religions are worshipped. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians visit this ancient holy site. It is believed that King Dutugemunu the warrior king and Sinhala folk hero built a shrine here for the worship of the Kataragama God in the 2nd century BC. There is also a first century BC Buddhist Dagoba - 'Kirivehera' at this site. There is also the 'Maha Devala' – main Hindu shrine of God Skanda, the Hindu war God, and several other adjoining Hindu shrines. Each day, at specific times, Kataragama’s Hindu shrines come alive when poojas (devotions) 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.
Maligawila Buddha statues
Situated south of Monaragala, 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 and raised back into its original upright position. This huge pinkish white Maligavila Buddha statue glistens in the tropical sun. A second statue depicting Bodhisattva in princely attire is located a short walk away. Much time can be spent here taking in the beautiful statues and the peaceful wilderness setting filled with birds and plenty of monkeys.
Buduruwagala’s rock sculptures
The ancient rock sculptures at Buduruwagala are fascinating and are carved into a 70ft granite cliff. The sculptures are said to date back to the 8th century and consists of seven gigantic Buddhist figures from the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine. A grouping of six sculptures are situated on either side of a colossal image of Lord Buddha spanning a height of about 50ft. A short walk passed the Buduruwagala temple takes you to this awe inspiring, ancient rock sculptures set amidst the tranquil wilderness.
Uda Walawe National Park
Uda Walawe situated between the highlands and the south coast, most resembles an African game park and is the best place in Sri Lanka to see wild Asian Elephants throughout the year. Unlike other National Parks, Uda Walawe does not have a seasonal variation in elephant numbers and it is easy to encounter a few of them at any time of the year. Wildboar, spotted deer, sambar, the endemic Toque Macaque and Grey Langur, and mugger crocodiles can also be seen here. Bird watching is best during October to March when the migrant birds can be spotted. A wildlife safari into Uda Walawe is best done at dawn and late afternoon when the animals are easily spotted. Late evenings give the best lighting for photography with amazing sun sets over the Uda Walawe Reservoir.
Elephant Transit Home
Run by Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Department, the Elephant Transit Home at Uda Walawe is a valiant effort at conserving the dwindling elephant population of Sri Lanka. Here about 22 young elephants, mostly babies, who have been orphaned or are recovering from injuries, are being rehabilitated before their release into the wild. The orphaned baby elephants reside at the Transit Home for about four years until they are old enough to be weaned off milk and learn to eat grass and other vegetation from the bush. Elephants at the Transit Home can be observed only during feeding times. The rest of the time they roam freely within the National Park close to the Transit Home. Watch the mischievous baby jumbos being bottle fed. A thrilling experience for children and adults alike. Feeding times are daily at 9.00am, 12 noon, 3pm and 6pm.
Lunugamvehera National Park
Situated along the banks of the Lunugamvehera Reservoir, this small park was set up in 1995 by the Department of Wildlife Conservation to protect the dwindling elephant population by protecting the elephant corridor between Yala and Uda Walawe. The main entrance to the Park is via Thanamalwila.
Yala National Park
Yala, situated in the south east corner of the island, is home to the greatest variety of Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Its varying habitats which consists of scrub plains, jungles, rocky outcrops, fresh water lakes, rivers and beaches are home to many species of animals including sloth bear, herds of elephants, sambar, deer, crocodiles and the endangered leopard subspecies - Panthera Pardus Kotiya, which is only found in Sri Lanka. The elusive leopard and sloth bear are difficult to spot. Early-morning or dusk safaris with an expert guide are the ideal times to visit the park when the animals come out to the waterholes. Red Dot recommends at least two game drives into the park. Transport around the park is provided by jeep, complete with driver and expert guide/tracker. Yala closes in the dry season, usually in early September.
Bundala & Tissa Wetlands
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. It’s also the first Ramsar wetland site in Sri Lanka and consists of salt marsh, mangroves, brackish water lagoons, seashore, streams and salterns. About 380 species of plants have been recorded in Bundala. 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.
Kalamatiya Bird Sanctuary and Ussangoda
Kalamatiya Bird Sanctuary in the Deep South is located east of Tangalle off the main road to Hambantota. This is one of Sri Lanka’s oldest bird sanctuaries, extensive wetlands that extend over 600 hectares of mangrove swamps and lagoons. Kalamatiya is home to over 150 species of resident and migratory shore birds, from kingfishers to flamingoes. Best time to visit is from November to April. Located nearby is Ussangoda – a 20-acre barren site of archeological interest edged by the sea. The unusual landscape here consisting of red earth with hardly any vegetation, has been studied by many an anthropologist and is linked to pre-historic times. According to ancient legend, Ussangoda is also linked to the epic Ramayana tales and is said to have been the landing site of King Ravana’s peacock chariot. Walk across Ussangoda’s headland and take in the panoramic sea views. The site ends at a sheer cliff which drops down about 60 ft to the sea.
Turtle watch in Rakuwa
Globally, all seven species of marine turtles are endangered. Of these, five species – the Hawksbill, Leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley, Olive Ridley, and Greenback all come ashore to nest in Sri Lanka. These marine turtles are best observed on the coast of Rakuwa located in the Deep South near Tangalle. This strip of beach is a traditional nesting site for marine turtles and is protected by Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Department offices that stays vigil all night on Rakuwa beach to protect the turtle eggs from poaches and other animals. Set off late at night to Rakuwa beach and watch quietly as these giant turtles make their way ever so slowly out of the ocean and on to the beach where the nesting process happens. Up to about 150 eggs are layed in a nest that is methodically dug into the sand. After several hours, the exhausted turtle heads back to sea only to return time and again. A phenomenal ritual that is fascinating to observe.

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