Mid-19th century travellers to Ceylon came upon Bentota by design. At the time Colombo was the capital, yet faraway Galle the port. Passengers therefore made their way to Colombo by stagecoach. The 11-hour journey was punctuated by a short stop at Bentota around 10 a.m. to change horses and allow passengers to have breakfast - consisting of the famous Bentota oysters - at the picturesque rest-house . . .
In the middle of the 19th century, Bentota was a village typical of the west coast of the island in that it manufactured considerable quantities of coir and arrack, mainly for export to South India.
In terms of grand architecture, the village consisted of little else other than the rest-house, which was of Dutch rather than British construction. James Emerson Tennent describes it thus in Ceylon (1859): “The rest-house at Bentotte is one of the coolest and most agreeable in Ceylon. It is situated within a little park, deeply shaded by lofty tamarind-trees on the point of the beach where the river forms its junction with the sea.”
|Bridge over Bentota River 1894. Courtesy mailbox.lk
Little wonder that the mixture of oysters, with their supposed aphrodisiac qualities, and the romantic surroundings, resulted in the Bentota rest-house becoming a favourite haunt of honeymooning couples.
Opinions varied as to the quality of Bentota oysters. James Cordiner enthuses in A Description of Ceylon (1807): “These oysters are exactly of the same form as those which are common in England, and are frequently sent to Colombo, where they are esteemed a great luxury.”
However, Constance Gordon-Cumming describes them in Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892) as, “Poor little mis-shapen things, somewhat bitter in flavour, as well they may be, from a hereditary intuition of how successive generations of white men persist in tearing them from their homes.” Nevertheless, she does concede: “They are allowed to be good when roasted on the shore in the manner so familiar to Australian seaside picnics.”
The oysters were collected by divers at mid-tide on rocks in the adjoining estuary. Having reached the bottom a few fathoms down, the divers began to knock the oysters off the rocks with a mallet, an operation that could be heard by those above the water. Once they had filled a small net with oysters, the divers returned to the surface, handed the net over to a helper, took another lungful of air, and disappeared below the water again.
It was the nearest comparison to the Gulf of Mannar’s pearl fishery, the essential difference being that in Bentota the divers were Sinhalese, whereas at Mannar they were mostly Arabs. One common factor, though, is that according to J.W. Bennett in Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843), “Sharks have occasionally been seen in this river”.
“Upon a cursory view of the Bentotte oyster, it has the appearance of a lump of uneven rock,” Bennett continues. “Oysters should never be taken at low water, but at mid tide; because, in the former case, they are not edible until after a day or two’s purging in very salt water.”
Bennett then proceeds to make some observations concerning the villagers, who “are entirely ignorant of the method of feeding oysters, although their river supplies Colombo, Galle, and the intermediate places. Oysters are so little esteemed by the natives, who are extremely simple in their diet, that they never trouble themselves about luxuries, when the least extra cost attends their acquirement.”
One 19th-century visitor who - unusually - describes the village of Bentota as well as the rest-house and the oysters, is the mercurial German zoologist, Ernst Haeckel. He writes in A Visit to Ceylon (1882): “Another delightful spot is the rest-house at Bentotte, where the Royal Mail stops for an hour to allow the passengers to rest, and recruit their powers of endurance by breakfast. A particular delicacy here are the oysters, for which the place is famous. They are served raw, or baked, or pickled in vinegar. The rest-house is beautifully situated on a hill among tall tamarind trees and has a splendid view over the sunlit sea and the bridge which spans the river-mouth.
“After breakfast I watched the oyster-fishery below this bridge, and then spent a quarter of an hour in lounging through the picturesque bazaar of this straggling town. The wares and traffic in this bazaar are in keeping with the idyllic character of the surroundings, with the primitive furniture of the native huts, and the elementary character of their owners’ dress. By far the most important articles of commerce are rice and curry, the staples of food, and betel and areca, the favourite luxury. These and other matters for sale lie temptingly spread on wide green banana leaves in simple booths, with an open front, serving at once as door and window. Between these are heaps of coconuts, monstrous bunches of bananas, and piles of scented pineapples; enormous breadfruit and the nearly allied jack-fruit; and then, as delicacies, the noble mango and the dainty anona, or custard-apple.”
The greatest natural wonder of Bentota is the river, the Bentara-ganga, which separates the Southern from the Western Province. “As at Matara the river makes a last-moment change of course, leaving a spit of land about two miles long (3.2km), often only 20 yards (18m) wide or less”, Roland Raven-Hart remarks in Ceylon: History in Stone (1964).
“Bentotte is on the side of a very beautiful river,” writes Maria Graham in Journal of a Residence in India (1812). “Captain ----- and I walked round the neighbouring fields, and were delighted with the beauty of the scenery. There is a little promontory jutting out into the sea, covered with flowers and shrubs, and charmingly shaded (now part of the Bentota Beach Hotel grounds) where we sat and watched two small vessels as they sailed in the distance, while the murmurs of the ocean were but now and then hushed enough to allow us to hear the songs of the fishermen on the breach.
“The low rocks on the shore, which cause a continual boiling of water around them, and the stupendous clouds that roll over the main, changing its hue to every various tint as they roll, I have always admired as among the most interesting circumstances of a sea-view; but my companion, though fully sensible of their beauty, feels at the sight of these objects the secret horror that the forerunners of storms and shipwrecks are calculated to inspire.”
From Bentota’s earliest days as a tourist destination, boating on this river has provided the prime recreational attraction. Bennett writes: “The scenery up this river is beautiful, the sides covered with the curious Mangove. And a variety of magnificent timber trees, among which, innumerable monkies play their destructive gambols. If the tourist leaves Bentota in a Pardie or covered boat overnight, he will be in the midst of fine country, abounding in game and intersected by small streams where there is just room enough for the boat to pass clear of the overhanging trees and under wood, by daylight.”
A trip up the river usually took in a visit to the 12th-century Galapatha Vihara, “which,” Bennett comments, “is approached by a wide avenue of fruit trees, and by several flights of granitic stone steps. At noon, the avenue is delightfully shaded from the sun, and the rills of pure water which flow to the right of the road render it a charming rendezvous for a picnic, after a day’s excursion in the neighbourhood.
“Whilst the table is spread under the luxuriant foliage, and enjoyment enhanced by good appetite is the order of the day, the neatly dressed village girls may be seen ascending the temple steps, and, with the awe and humility prescribed by their harmless superstition, bearing the choices of their native odiferous flowers as a votive offering to their deity.”
By the early 20th century river excursions had become highly organized, as is evident from the following passage from a contemporary guidebook: “Boats may be hired quite close to the rest-house. It is best to engage a double-canoe with platform. On this deck, comfortable seats, or even chairs, can be placed, and if an early start is made, before the sun’s rays become very powerful, a trip of some three or four miles up the river will be found to be a delightful experience.”
Today, the colonial honeymooners and picnickers are long gone; as is the iconic rest-house, which was replaced by the Geoffrey Bawa-designed Bentota Beach Hotel. Bentota’s wide beach and surrounding sea is used for swimming and diving and for all types of beach sport. As in earlier times, the Bentara-ganga (which is navigable upstream for light craft for 30km) provides the other main recreational attraction. Cruises up the river provide an ideal opportunity to observe a variety of fauna associated with such an environment, as well as to visit the Galapatha Vihara.