February 2011


Dondra: The Southernmost Point Of Sri Lanka
February 2011




The calm turquoise waters of an idyllic cove behind the lighthouse

Dondra, the southernmost point on the Island, is a quiet fishing village. In stark contrast to the adjacent and overtly manic city of Matara, Dondra as a location is commercially insignificant, yet it is rich in historical and cultural importance. The Dondra Lighthouse is the most celebrated structure in the area, while the Devundara Devalaya has links to the 7th Century when Dondra was emerging as a key trade hub in the south.

Words and Photography: Shehan Ramanayake

In 1989, the British built the Dondra Lighthouse during their colonial rule of the Island. The lighthouse itself is the tallest in the country, standing over 150 feet tall. It is an impressive piece of architecture made entirely out of blocks of stone (the structure survived the effects of the tsunami in 2004 with barely any damage). According to the affable and well informed curator of the lighthouse for many years, each stone weighs over two tons and was shipped from Scotland.

The lighthouse premises are maintained by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority – an impeccably manicured grove of coconut palms and lawn fringe the lighthouse, giving the premises a charming and tasteful sense of tranquillity. The lighthouse is open to public viewing however permission is required for any visitor to climb to the top of the lighthouse.

Climbing the spiral staircase of a 160-foot tall lighthouse is arduous work, and it was particularly embarrassing that the curator, several years my senior, nimbly dances up and down these steps several times a day to operate and maintain the lighthouse. However, the view from the top of the lighthouse is simply stunning. A guarded deck at the top offers a breathtaking 360-degree view. If the view doesn’t sweep you off your feet, the wind up there just might. The coastline on either side of the lighthouse is a vista of bays, beaches, cliffs and coves while ships and fishing boats dot the Indian Ocean to the south. Directly behind the lighthouse is a particularly beautiful cove whose calm emerald waters are guarded by a reef. The adjoining bay is slightly larger, and equally beautiful as shades of turquoise in the shallows dip into a deeper royal blue towards the mouth of the bay. Commercial tourism is yet to find its way to these beaches, which, while leaving them underappreciated, has preserved a sense of pristineness. Instead of a vibrant leisure industry that can be expected in such an idyllic location, Dondra is home to quiet fishing villages, as fishing is – and has been for centuries – the primary industry of its people.

Matara was an old port town that was one of the key points of trade in the south of the Island centuries ago. The region has been under the rule of numerous kings and then changed hands again during colonial times. Dondra is the English adaptation of “Devundara” derived from its old name “Devi Nuwara” which translates to “City of Gods”. The Devundara Devalaya, found in Dondra along the main A2 highway, is dedicated to God Visnu (also known as Upulvan)– who is said to be the guardian god of Buddhism – is a popular spot for pilgrims year round. The colour blue is said to be associated with God Visnu (‘upulvan’ is said to translate to ‘blue lotus coloured’) and hence, the kovil is painted in lotus-blue in his honour.

The roots of the Devundara Devalaya date back to “Tondeswaram Temple” which is said to be one of the five temples on the Island that were dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is documented that Ibn Batuta visited the temple in the 14th Century during his travels.

The Portuguese apparently destroyed the old town and the temple during the 16th Century. Some of the ruins of what was a sprawling and impressive complex of worship can be found at the Devundara Devalaya a short distance away. The latter was constructed during British rule (as the Visnu Devalaya).

The focus now is more to a Buddhist-centric God Visnu as opposed to a Hindu-centric Lord Shiva.

Dondra is the closest point in the country to a major shipping lane. Over 250 ships pass everyday and the lighthouse serves as both a marker for ships as well as a surveillance point for the Navy.  It is also close to a migratory path for both whales and dolphins.
The deep waters off the point are said to offer rich feeding grounds. Although commercial operations for whale and dolphin watching are scarce in Dondra itself, it is a short drive from Mirissa, which has recently become the southern hub for this activity.

While the waves ceaselessly pound the beautiful coastline and the winds have swept in traders, explorers, gods, kings and rulers through Dondra in the past, the lighthouse stands strong, linking us to recent colonial times, with the Devundara Devayala linking us to centuries prior. Although it is not the most celebrated stop in the typical tourist itinerary, it is definitely a rewarding visit for any traveller passing through the south of the Island.

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    A storm approaching the beach by Dondra Lighthouse

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    The Dondra Lighthouse and its manicured premises

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    A statue of Lord Buddha at the Devundara Devalaya complex

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    The Devundara Devalaya stands out in striking lotus blue

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    Beautifully jagged coastline of Matara

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    An elderly lady seeking divine intervention at the Devundara Devalaya

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    The Survey Department’s fundamental benchmark to mark the southernmost point on the island

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    The lights at the top of Dondra Lighthouse

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