Kelani Ganga: The Sacred River

The Kelani Ganga is not just a river. He has a holiness beyond humanity. The river is closely linked to Sinhalese Buddhist culture and religion, especially to the people of the area known as the Kelani Valley.

This stems mainly from the fact that the Kelani Ganga is associated with two of the most revered Buddhist shrines, Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) and the Kelani Raja Maha Vihara, trodden by the Buddha on his third visit to the country. It is said that he bathed in the Kelani Ganga before stepping on the ground where the temple of Kelaniya now stands. He also left his mark on the top of the Sri Pada mountain where the river gushes out, at the invitation of the god Sumana Saman.

People consider it a sacred river and its water is revered by them. When we look at the river today, holiness cannot be seen. The water is blanketed in toxic foam caused by industrial waste and sewage from Colombo and other cities, chemical waste from manufacturing plants, and plastic waste. The purified water from this sacred river provides three quarters of Colombo’s water needs.

river water

The most wonderful thing is that even today many people wade through the polluted waters and bathe in the river. The women wash their bundle of laundry by the river while the children bathe in the water, which threatens their health.

Although the 145 km long Kelani Ganga is not the longest river on the island, it is important as the main river flowing through Colombo to the Indian Ocean. The Kelani Ganga begins its journey to the sea in the cloud forests of the Sri Pada mountain range and flows east through Maskeliya, Laxapana, Kitulgala, Karawanella, Hanwella, Kaduwela, Kelaniya and out to the ocean just north of Colombo.

At Maskeliya it starts as a small stream and widens to create a magnificent waterfall at Laxapana – the eighth highest in the country. In the upper reaches, several large hydro projects dam the river and supply hydroelectricity to the Ceylon Electricity Board.


Kitulgala, the wettest, most forested and most beautiful region of the Kelani Ganga, rose to worldwide fame in 1956 when it was used as a filming location for the Oscar-winning film, Bridge on the River Kwai. The film set included a real steam engine exploding above a life-size bridge straddling the Kelani Ganga just east of the town of Kitulgala. Some remnants of the concrete foundation and iron rods of the old bridge are still visible at the foot of the river bed.

Today, this section of the river in Kitulgala is a popular destination for foreign and local tourists for adventure and ecotourism such as rafting, hiking, nature trails and bird watching. The village community earns its living through tourism.

Karawenella is another point that gives attraction to the Kelani Basin. A bridge was built over the Kelani Ganga connecting the Hatton-Avissawella highway. From this bridge, the eastern part of the Kelani Valley can be seen as far as Kitulgala.

As it descends towards Hanwella, the river widens and flows in a flat plain clearing the way for many bridges and ferries used by villagers to cross the river. Most of the villagers who live around the banks of the Kelani Ganga revere the Ranwala Deviyo, a human who had attained divine status in the minds of the villagers. Legend has it that he is supposed to protect the villagers around the Kelani Ganga of Ranwala in Kelaniya.

Sand mining

When I traveled along the banks of the Kelani Ganga from Hanwella to Kaduwela in 1998, I got a glimpse of sand mining being done exclusively by hand. From a moored barge, people dive into the riverbed, from where the sand is lifted up to the barge in a bucket. When the barge is full, it is brought to shore and the sand is unloaded by a separate team. Today, problems arise as the saline intrusion is enhanced by the deepening of the river caused by sand mining.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a temporary dam built with sandbags on the Kelani Ganga adjoining the Ambatale sewage treatment plant to prevent seawater from infiltrating upstream of River.

I have traveled the length of this great river several times from the central highlands to Colombo, capturing the beauty and life of the people who live in the valley, who depend on it for food and shelter. In fact, these photographs tell the diverse story of the river.

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