Tissamaharama is located 270km south of Colombo.
Though Tissamaharama is visited mainly in view of it being the gateway to the Yala National Park, “Tissa” as it is affectionately called, in its own right, is a major cultural and nature attraction.
Three ancient stupas and two ancient irrigation reservoirs make Tissamaharama worth touring. On the northern side, the town is bounded by lovely expanses of paddy fields.
In the middle of the paddy fields is the Santagiri or Sandagiri dagoba, the largest stupa in Tissamaharama.
Tissamaharama, also known by the name of Mahagama in the ancient times was founded by Prince Mahanaga, brother of King Devanampiyatissa in the third century BC. The settlement rose to prominence during the reign of King Kavantissa, father of King Dutugamunu. It was during this period that Tissamaharama’s three stupas and the two ancient irrigation reservoirs were built. According to the chronicles, around 12,000 Arahats (Buddhist monks) had lived in Tissamaharama and its surroundings during the era of King Kavantissa.
During the era in which the monasteries flourished in the ancient Rajarata of the north central plains, many similar monasteries and dagobas were built in Mahagama, the capital of the southern region of Sri Lanka.
Just a kilometre north of the Tissamaharama town spreads the vast ancient irrigation reservoir called Tissa wewa. The shore of the lake nearest to the town of Tissamaharama is regularly crowded with villagers and tourists. The massive embankment that bounds the southern shore of the reservoir is lined by trees. To the east of the far end of the Tissa wewa reservoir is another man-made irrigation reservoir called Debera Weva. Both reservoirs are havens for bird life.
Sandagiri Stupa was built by the regional ruler Prince Mahanaga in the third century B.C. Sandagiri Stupa is 55m in height and 165m in circumference. According to the chronicles, around 12,000 Arahats have lived in the Tissa area during the life and times of King Kavantissa, who deposited the forehead relic of the Buddha in the Sandagiri stupa.
Historical chronicles narrates that some of the various relics and gifts sent by Emperor Asoka to King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC) of Sri Lanka were enshrined in the Sandagiri Stupa of Ruhuna. However, the first provincial ruler to have begun the construction of sacred places of Buddhist worship in Ruhuna was Mahanaga. Historical chronicles also narrate that Buddha, in his third visit to Sri Lanka arrived at Tissamaharama and hence the ancient settlement is considered to contain sixteen sacred locations of the island.
A short stroll along the road from the southwest corner of Tissa weva is the Yatala dagoba and further down about half a kilometre is the Menik Dagoba. The small cluster of pillars located in the midway are the ruins of an ancient monastery called Galkanumandiya. Yatala Dagoba that has been identified as Mani Chethiya and Yattalaya in various historical documents was built by Prince Mahanaga in the 3rd century BC.