Hambantota, Sri Lanka(Sinhala: හම්බන්තොට, Tamil: அம்பாந்தோட்டை) town is often considered the heart of the “Deep South” of Sri Lanka. Located nearly 170 km south of Colombo, Hambantota is the main town of the district by the same name, in the Southern Province. It’s a coastal town which has seen rapid development in recent years and promoted as a second commercial hub of the country after Colombo.
The history of Hambantota can be traced back many centuries when Sri Lanka was a lucrative stop over for trade routes. Sailors and traders from as far away as China, Siam (present-day Thailand) and Indonesia traveled here on “sampans” (boats) and “sampan-thota” soon became Hambantota.
It was an important location in the Southern Kingdom of Ruhuna, which was established by King Mahanaga around 200 BC. It was primarily an agricultural area, and an extensive network of irrigation canals, fed by rainwater-collecting reservoirs, were built by ancient Kings to support the growing of rice and other crops in the dry climate of Hambantota.
Hambantota and its environs became well-known in ancient Lanka as a place that guarded the culture of the Sinhala people as well as serving as custodians of Buddhism. Even today, Hambantota is a stopover for tours of pilgrims who travel to the shrine at Kataragama or the Tissamaharama Raja Maha Viharaya which was built in the 2nd Century BC by King Kavantissa.
The city was an important administrative hub during Colonial times, and architecture from the Dutch and British periods are scattered throughout the district, with better examples seen as you travel into the interior where old “walawwas” or ancestral homes dating from this era are still lived in. Life and times in this area during colonial times are brought to life in the novel “The Village in the Jungle” by Leonard Woolf, husband of writer Virginia Woolf, who served for three years as the Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota in the early 20th century.
Today, Hambantota is a bustling town that has a newly built international port, the Magampura Mahinda Rajapakse Sea Port as well as the country’s newest international airport, the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, located around 43 km away. The country’s first ever dry-zone botanical gardens is also being developed here, in a 300-acre site located in Mirijjawila and when completed will be the country’s largest botanical garden. The Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium was a venue for the 2011 Cricket world cup. Hambantota is the host city for the 2017 Asian Youth Games. This is the first Multi-sport event hosted by Sri Lanka to be staged outside of Colombo.
The Hambantota area has long been known in Sri Lanka as the best source of salt in the land. And the acres of salt pans can be easily seen on a tour of the coastal areas of Hambantota, a shimmering white expanse where workers scrape the salt as the sea water dries in the hot sun. The salt pans have also become favorite places for many varieties of birds and a walk along the salt pans will make an interesting stop on your journey through the area.
With sweeping sandy beaches on either side, it is also a convenient base for exploring the nearby Bundala National Park and, somewhat further away, the Ruhuna National Park and the temples at Kataragama.
Points of Interest in and around Hambantota
Kataragama is a popular pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka and is visited by followers of all religions in the country. There are many statues and shrines of Gods and Goddesses to whom people pay their respects. Some even request the Gods for special needs and go for praying before major examinations or house building. The request must be “paid back” to the Gods, or it is believed that they will be punished with bad luck. The history of the Kataragama shrines dates back to 2nd century BC. Kataragama is also famous for the rituals of walking on fire and the perahara (processions) that are held annually during the months of July and August. This is an extremely colorful and energetic event and one you cannot miss! Grab a snack and make your way through the crowds to witness the talent and fusion.
Mulkirigala Rock Monastery, Tangalle
Located in the town of Tangalle Mulkirigala is a striking naturally structure rock with amazing temples within caves. The temple dates back to the 3rd century BC and received royal patronage as is established as a Raja Maha Vihara. The rocky steps lead you to a sequence of natural caves and a unique wall of paintings and Buddha statues guide you along to the peak. Some of the latest murals show men in Portuguese and Dutch uniforms depicting the arrival and departure of European immigration of Sri Lanka.
Magul Maha Viharaya is located in the midst of the Yala National Park, to the south of Sithulpauwa (Don’t confuse with Magul Maha Viharaya at Lahugala in Ampara district ). Legend details this spot where King Kavantissa and Queen Vihara Maha Dev spent time after their marriage – which took place at the Magul Maha Vihara in Lahugala.
The Yudaganawa Kinkini Vehera is situated close to Buttala. Prince Tissa and his brother Gamini (later the Great King Dutugemunu) is said to have had a great encounter following their father, King Kavantissa’s death. The Vehera is one of the largest Stupas in the country which was established in the 2nd Century BC. This notable site is a few kilometers from the Buttala town.
Maligawila is known among proud Sri Lankans for its Buddha statue. Known as the Maligawila Buddha statue, it is considered the tallest free standing Buddha statue in Sri Lanka. It is known to have been erected in the 7th century AD. The statue is said to be carved out of a single limestone rock which stands at about 14.5 meters high. The “height” of delight to one of the most archaeological sites would be mesmerizing!
Activities in and around Hambantota
Safari of Yala National Park
Yala National Park is the second largest in the country and located to the South East of the island. It’s the most visited park and home to the largest concentration of leopard in the world.
Safari of Bundala National Park
A Jeep Safari scheduled for the afternoon or early morning on a day between December and May would be the best way to experience the wild life in the Bundala National Park, which is located along the coat to the east of Hambantota. Bundala is a wintering ground for a wide variety of birds, the most famous being Flamingo, Stork, Pelican, Lapwing, Egret, Spoon Bill and several others. This has earned the park a reputation as a bird watcher’s paradise. Several animal species have also made it their home – Elephants, Monkeys, Turtles, Crocodiles, Deer, Wild Pig and even Leopards.
Safari of Kumana National Park
Kumana National Park, also known as Yala East, is one of Sri Lanka’s foremost bird sanctuaries that include a natural swamp lake (Kumana Villu) covering 200 hectares. During May and June, this swamp is full of nesting water birds such as Painted Storks, Pelicans, Herons and Egrets as well as the rare Black-necked Stork. The inhabitants of the Park are not limited to birds, it is home to a variety of mammals including Leopards and Elephants.
A jeep safari into the Park will provide you with an opportunity to enjoy watching the birds and animals roaming free in their natural environment.
Snorkeling off Kirinda
Shoals of colorful tropical fish, beautiful coral reefs, old ship wrecks – you can witness all this and more on a snorkeling expedition to one of Sri Lanka’s numerous locations. With thousands of miles of beach surrounding the island it is no wonder that this is a world famous snorkeling location. The south-western coastal towns of Kirinda, Hikkaduwa and Weligama are some recommended destinations. You can also head for Bar Reef, which is the country’s largest, and can be reached from Kalpitiya, and of course, the snorkeling paradise of Pigeon Island, in the east.