Saturday, April 11, 2015

Rare landscape of Ussangoda

Dhanesh Wisumperuma
The Nation, 11-04-2015 (Insight, p. i 10)

Pics by Bushana Kalhara

After turning off a small road to the right near Nonagama Junction on Colombo-Hambantota (A2) road, we proceeded few hundred meters and then turned to the right hand side again and there was our destination. We were in the middle of a rare and unusual landscape of the country, known as Ussangoda.

Anyone would be able to see the difference of the open landscape in front of us in contrast to the surrounding area, which comprised mostly of dry zone vegetation. The soil of the area was deep red in color and quite an extensive area was almost devoid of any tall vegetation, except in few small patches that contained small shrubs. We were amazed by the scenery, while walking across the flat landscape in a southerly direction. The area is a rock outcrop significantly higher from the sea level, which is evident from the southern end where a narrow path taperes down towards the sea shore. This landmass was unusual and unique in the southern coastal belt of the country, a fact that is apparent to any visitor to the place. The Ussangoda rock outcrop is situated within the Ambalantota Divisional Secretariat Division in the Hambantota district in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. To the west of it was the Lunawa Kalapuwa, a lagoon, and Kalametiya Sanctuary. Lunawa, Kalametiya, Nonagama and Welipatanwila are among the villages situated close by.

Usangoda or Ussangoda

The name of the area was pronounced as ‘Usangoda’, as evident in Nila Kobo Sandesaya, a 18th century sandeshakawya(messenger poem). This poem was written with the objective of carrying a message to the god Kataragama and the messenger bird flew across this area. It mentioned the place as Usangoda, which could be the original name which changed to the easily pronounceable from Ussangoda better known today. The poet instructed the bird to look at the soil which was in red color resembling the flesh of humans that was piled up by a group of non-humans or demons that came from the ocean to encroach the land. The poet also likened the color of the soil to a type of red colored flower, rakthakusuma, which could be the rathmal. It is worthy to note that the poet who lived two centuries ago was aware of the color of the soil of this place. However, he didn’t want to comment how the red color originated.

The rock outcrop is a high rising ground from the sea shore and the name may have been originated from that sense – the higher ground area. The recorded name ‘Usangoda’ supports this. It is still used by many.

As we were aware, there are many folk stories coined to explain the origin of the color and the lack of vegetation on the landscape, some of which are undoubtedly of very recent origin. One story mentions that this was the place where betel was first brought to Sri Lanka and the color of the soil was a result of deposition of masticated betel! Another story goes on to say that it was a ground of the local deity Mangara. A third story links this place to Ravana, a character of the Indian epic poem of Valmiki, considered as a mythical one by the learned people. There will be such folk stories generated in future too, due to the creativity of the people, and not based on facts. There is a suggestion that this is where a meteor knocked the earth in the past.
However this unusual nature of Ussangoda rock outcrop is explained by science.

Serpentine rock

Ussangoda is an outcrop of a rock type known as ‘serpentine rocks’, which is a rare formation in Sri Lanka. According to geologists, serpentine bodies are naturally found in the vicinity of the boundary of Highland and Vijayan Complex, two geological plates that make the country. Availability of serpentine rocks in Sri Lanka was not known to science until 1970s, when geological explorations revealed the availability of such sites along the boundary of the two plates. There are six serpentine rock formations found in the country–other sites being Yudhaganawa (in Wasgomuwa), Indikilapelessa, Ginigalpelessa, Katupotha and Rupaha, all of which are situated along the boundary of the plates.

These serpentine bodies and soils associated with them contain high concentrations of heavy metals such as nickel, cobalt, iron and magnesium. There are iron oxide and silicon dioxide as major components of the soil. It is these heavy metals that limit the growth of vegetation on the surface of these bodies as it alters the physical and chemical nature of soil. Plants that can tolerate the heavy metal concentration are able to establish themselves in this extreme environment. Researchers have found high concentrations of heavy metals in the few species of plants which grow on such places. This vegetation is often known as serpentine flora and includes a few dozens of species that fascinate many scientists by their remarkable ability to thrive on this type of soils.

The vegetation of the serpentine Ussangoda area contains of two distinct forms of vegetation - dominant prostrate species (plants that grow lying along the ground) and few patches of thorny shrubs. There is a number of research papers conducted on the vegetation of Ussangoda and other serpentine rocks.

Due to this particular ecological significance, and due the proximity to the other important habitats in the surrounding area, an area comprising 349 hectares (i.e. 862 acres) was declared as the Ussangoda National Park under the Flora and Fauna Ordinance in May 2010. We noticed the possible tracks of driving vehicles through this landscape, which can cause degradation of the site.

Time has passed and the evening sun was going down the western sky. It was time to say goodbye to this extraordinary place. On our return we had a locally made fruit drink made of the fruits of kadol, a mangrove plant, and sold by the villagers in the small thatched huts – they are receiving some income from the tourists that visit the area. We left the place while keeping this in mind - it is our duty to protect this place, even from misinterpretations.

The unusual landscape of reddish earth

Small rock found on the flat land

A low-lying plant that flourish on the landscape

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