March 2010

From the City to Serenity
March 2010

In a place where stress meets tranquility, composure is in exchange for bustle and where solitude is never uninspiring, Thalangama Tank, just minutes away from the city of Colombo, is an escape from the everyday.

Words: Sonali Kadurugamuwa | Photography: Dhammika Heenpella

Thalangama Tank

A few ripples loomed in the quiet waters and the clamour of night was seemingly subsiding, as I arrived at the bund of Thalangama Tank, minutes before the break of dawn. Although the chirping birds gestured the waking of early morning, patches of peach blush tinting the water informed me that sunrise was well on its way. Above, the sky was streaked with light pink clouds, and as I breathed in the pleasures of this tranquil moment, I felt something cold and wet making its way up my right ankle. Startled in frenzy, I coiled back in a nervous shriek, afraid to peek at what it was. With its elastic tongue stretched far over its bottom jaw and a beaming look that would brighten the darkest of spaces, a street dog had addressed me with a surprise party. I found myself, very quickly, backing away to where small empty boats lined the edge of the bund as several more wagging tails and drooling grins were headed in my direction.

Sunrise had caught up with me by the time I had reached the boat-park and so had my friendly followers, the street dogs. The boatman was ready and waiting by the park. He suggested some ‘must see' areas of Thalangama Tank and then proceeded to talk about the Tank's thriving biodiversity. Although a new and fascinating experience for me, to the boatman, this was an everyday routine and he never faltered. 

A man-made wetland of 50 acres and a so-called basin for storing water, Thalangama Tank originated during the time of King Parakramabahu VI (1551-1547 AD) of the Kotte Kingdom. The Tank still appeared true to its roots, "supplying water to bordering paddy fields," according to the boatman. Its surrounding features may have developed of course, however the Tank itself seemed undisturbed from where I stood. Quite suddenly an army of white Egrets, settling into split stream, rode the wind currents towards the boat-park. In awe, I shouted to the boatman, "look, look, look..." He smiled confidently, with an, "... there's more to come," expression.

Home to a variety of plant and animal species including birds, reptiles, mammals, fresh water fish and insects, the Tank had begun its irresistible display of morning activity and I had to be a part of it. As the boatman assisted my wobbly stance off the boardwalk, into the boat, I glanced upon a busy pool of small fish caught in a little pocket of water, formed between the floating boardwalk and the embankment. With my sights set on breaking the silence of the surfacing water hyacinth, before me, we paddled forth.

Pond Herons and Jacanas walked on what seemed like water, at a distance, which I later realised were lily pads being used as safe footing. Up close, the lily pads reminded me of the ones in fairy tales, and I couldn't but help myself from imagining a frog perched comfortably on one, and puckering up. Not quite the frog prince, however, a large water monitor revealed itself through a thicket of lily pads and hyacinth. On seeing the approaching boat, the lizard submerged itself into the murky depths, as nimbly as it had surfaced. We waited patiently for it to show itself again, and our curious apprehension was broken by the squawking of a hefty Purple Heron, flying overhead. It swerved away from over the water and landed clumsily on the tops of some mangrove trees or "Welaatta," as referred to by the boatman.

The small clusters of advancing mangrove islands were a refuge to another species of heron, the Night Heron. Unlike its cousin, the Night Heron was less vocal and its placid yet nervous disposition took immediate response to our presence. It gently moved further into the cover of rough darkness within the heavily branched mangrove swamp. It appeared to be waiting for nightfall to transform its, now, delicate form into one of prominence.

A narrow passage through the mangroves channeled our venture from the exposed area of the Tank into one of secrecy and seclusion. The enclave within felt as mysterious as my thoughts of a very large territorial monitor emerging out of the gloom. In the attempt to find relief through anxiety, I chatted with the boatman about the plant species that grew among the mangroves. It was surprising to hear of the many plant varieties growing in this small space. Kaduru, Kohila, Bovitiya, were a few of the plant names I recognised of the several that were mentioned.

The mangrove forest canopied thickly over and around us, and sunlight twinkled in between the tiny flexible spaces, like stars. Pasi or swamp moss blanketed the water way in front of us and our boat disturbed their unity as we rowed through. Ahead, sunlight was crisp and dominant as it lit up the velvet like skin on the pasi and also the end of the mangrove.

Our exit was met with a cold soothing breeze and a swift fly by of an agile, red-wattled lapwing that seemed oblivious to the meaning of personal space. Another water monitor, like the one we had seen earlier, sped across from our boat. I was ecstatic on observing it from outside of the mangrove confinement, considering the sizeable space for an escape route, incase it became defensive. Nonetheless, just like us, it was curious, but even more cautious, and went on its way. Among the flourish, a few pieces of polythene littered the Tank and the boatman was quick to fish them out with his oar. The boatmen saw to keeping the Tank and surrounding area clean. This was their livelihood and they were dedicated to maintaining the environment. Although refuse floating around, in this protected location was not a sight that I had expected to see, the boatman's actions kept my distress at bay. We moved on, undeterred and I was, subsequently, made aware of hasty movement, amid several trees rimming the bank.

A rare sighting of the elusive Pied Kingfisher, fairly larger in size than its cousin, the White-throated Kingfisher, perched itself on a low hanging tree. With a careful and precise eye on the water below, it lingered, patiently. As we watched it, the same way that it watched the water, our attention was diverted to the sound of loud barking. A street dog, on the bund, greeted joggers and cyclists as they went by, on their early morning exercise route. By this time we were making our way back to the boat park and came upon a man bathing his goats on the embankment. Two baby goats huddle together while bleating to their mother, who seemed, not too happy about her morning shower.

As we neared the park a Cormorant was roosted on one of the stilts with its wings stretched open as if to salute the end of my expedition. It flew away abruptly and as my eyes followed its flight over the wetland, I was mesmerised by the summary of the Tank that came into view. A lush green of hyacinth, lily pads and swamp moss topped with islands of mangrove forest and the grooves of rich water that encircled them... "There's more, " the boatman interrupted, bringing me out of captivation.

After we had come ashore, I followed the boatman to a marsh neighbouring the Tank. The green was dappled with, what looked like funky white teapots with black spouts... at least that's how I would describe them, or Black-headed Ibis. They slyly approached a small pond, surrounded by the marsh. These birds and numerous other species of migratory birds, brought by varying seasons, make Thalangama Tank and its wetland their temporary home.

Although the opportunity to see every species didn't present itself completely, today, I was more than just enthusiastic, about returning to the Tank, as it was only a few minutes drive from Colombo and where I lived. I would say that Thalangama Tank had acquired an even newer species... me.