SERUWILA AND ELEPHANTS
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2002). Seruwila and Elephants. Serendipity. November 2002. Page 8.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne sees temples and elephants on an East Coast visit.
I navigated slowly through the ruts on the un-surfaced road. A shower of rain had left the road in a deep ochre colour. On either side were green paddy fields. I paused to allow some cattle to cross. They stomped through the mud puddles. A kilometer post reminded me that this was not a jeep track for off-road enthusiasts. I was driving on the A15 . Years of strife had left this section, albeit a short section, of the A15 un-attended.
We were hoping to visit the river mouth of the Mahaveli Ganga near Muttur. We reached Muttur after passing a few derelict villages where houses had been damaged by shelling. There were also a few thriving villages and small towns, with Muslims being in the majority. Muttur was quiet but tense. The soldiers were pleasant but advised us not to go off road to the river mouth as the LTTE still controlled these forested stretches. We wandered onto the pier. The recently resumed ferry service to Trincomalee had already left. We were advised that it could not yet ferry vehicles. The ferry ride can save a long drive back.
A long line of wooden columns stretched out beside the pier out towards an emerald sea. A large white bird was perched on one. A look through a telephoto lens confirmed its identification as a White-bellied Sea Eagle. I found a small crowd had gathered around me, curious as to what I was up to. The children and then the adults took it in turn to look the lens which was doubling up as a telescope.
Bird life I had found was relatively sparse. Trincomalee in particular was especially poor. We stayed at the Nilaveli Beach Hotel which had a well wooded beach front. The highlight was an Indian Scops Owl which appeared briefly one night. During the day, except for a few White-browed Bulbuls, hardly any birds were present. A few kilometers away was an unsightly rubbish dump, visible from the road and polluting a wetland. Over a dozen Brahminy Kites circled overhead, but I failed to pick out any Pariah Kites. At Swami Rock, a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles had soared on their broad, slightly up held wings. A Peregrine Falcon joined in. I suspected this was a bird of the local race, but did not want to pull out any optics for a closer examination.
The area around the famous Seruwila Temple was well wooded. Palu and Maliththan trees dominated the scrub jungle. Green Pigeons, Prinias and other typical dry zone forest birds were present. To reach Seruwila we turned off Kantalai (note Kantalai and Trincomalee are on the 155 and 196 km posts on the A6 respectively) and traveled down the B10. This road cuts through a beautifully remote and forested stretch of the Flood Plains National Park. 40 km on, one turns off to a dirt track and travels the remaining 6 kilometers to the Seruwila Temple.
Green paddy fields stretch like a giant carpet on both sides as you approach Seruwila. From a distance, the Vihara Mandiraya becomes visible. It is unmistakeable with four sloping roof tiers topped with a conical roof. The Maha Seya, a stupa of significance in both religious and physical dimensions, is not visible until you are almost in the temple premises. The stupa and the temple attributed to King Kavantissa had succumbed to the jungle tide. Eight centuries of neglect began to be rolled back in the 1930s when a program of re-construction began. Seruwila is now both an important contemporary religious site as well as an important archaeological site for the ancient remains which have been excavated.
A familiar twittering call drew my attention skyward. I was surprised to see a party of around five Blue-tailed Bee-eaters flying past. These birds are migrants which arrive around September and spread around the country. Even in busy cities like Colombo, they will take up residence often using TV antennas as a vantage point for their sallies after insects on the wing. As it was July, this small flock was probably a group which had stayed behind. We were hoping for bigger things on the return journey through the jungles of the Flood Plains National Park.
We were not disappointed. A lone elephant came down to a stream for a drink of water. It was not used to vehicles and people. Its long trunk snaked out into a sinuous S shape as it carefully smelt the odors around it, for any hint of danger. It drank and retreated rapidly, nervous of the gathering of vehicles. Seruwila was attracting a lot of traffic on that long week end. The B10 is so narrow that one vehicle pulling up to observe elephants could obstruct the passage of vehicles on both lanes. A single White-necked Stork kept some Pond Herons company at a roadside pond. We paused to admire the Stork and irked the motorists behind. They were more accommodating when we paused to watch a few lone elephants which were on the grassland fringes of the scrub. I wondered whether these elephants participate in the annual Elephant Migration in September and October to the receded shores of the Minneriya National Park.
The wildlife in the Flood Plains National Park is probably undervalued. With good management, the park has the potential to be developed as superb eco-tourism destination. Parks such as this will contribute to the east coast developing as a new Mecca for eco-tourism.
The writer is the CEO of a wildlife and adventure travel company. He is the lead author of A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Sri Lanka (OBC) and A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka (New Holland). To subscribe to his free, wildlife e-newsletter, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with “subscribe wildlife news” in the message header.