Beruwala, a coastal fishing village in a long-forgotten Beru Forest

Chandre Dharmawardana, of Ottawa,Canada 11 June 2011

A recent news items states that the “Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development Ministry will develop the Beruwala Fisheries harbour, establish museums, ornamental fish stalls, fish farms, fish plants and exhibition centres.” Perhaps the planners should use the opportunity to plant a few Beru trees (Agrostistachys Indica, and Agrostistachys hookeri), a highly threatened native plant ofSri Lanka, in an around the gardens of the proposed museums. It is  not widely known that the name of this ancient village most likely came from this medicinal shrub, Beru, known in Tamil as Mancherai.

Nineteenth century European writers like Henry Yule had referred to the town as Perivil, a corruption of the name Beruwala where B has been substituted by P, a common phonetic mutation. Note that the sign boards in Beruwala use the standard Sinhala form in English and Sinhala, while the Tamilized form Peruvalai is used in Tamil.

The mutation of B to P is very common in the Tamil usage.

A number of popular articles have given a folksy analysis of the name of the town, where an attempt is made to give a sea-faring touch to the place name. Here it is claimed that the name comes from  “Be -ruvala”, i.e., “drop the sail”, where “Be” is said to be a part of the sinhala word “baanava”, and “ruvala” is “sail”. If this etymology is to be consistent, the name should be “Baeruvala”.

Further more,  sails are lowered long before the boat reaches land, and no such name is found in any other fishing harbour in Sri Lanka. Hence we strongly discount this etymology.

According to Prof. A. W. Suraweera (Sunday Observer, August 2nd, 1998), this fishing village has been one of the earliest Arab-trader settlements inSri Lanka. Thus, from John de Marignolli’s account (14th century) it may be inferred that Beruwala had accepted Moor settlers. He states that the administrator at Perivills was Coya Jhan, apparently the name of a Moor chief. From the Sandesa poems it can be ascertained that Beruwala was a Moor trading centre in the fifteenth century with many mansions and large shops. Although thevillage ofBeruwala has been used by Moor traders for many centuries, there has been no Arabic place name. The ancient Beruwala mosque and the village were destroyed by the Portuguese. Many of the local people were forced to accept Catholicism.

Today the area has a population of Muslims, Sinhalese Catholics and Buddhists.  More recently, in 2009, feuding erupted between the more traditional Muslims and the more fundamentalist Thawheed group.  The latter are a newly emergent group, with links to the  middle east, and  strongly opposed to Muslim shrines and the conduct of feasts in mosques. The emergent group has also built new mosques in the  “Dhargatown”  of Beruwala.

These more recent human pressures are no cause for us to ignore the earliest settler of Beruwala — the Beru tree itself.

At one time, the leaves of the tree are said to have been used for thatching roofs.Sri Lankais supposed to have Beru trees with three slightly different variants in the shape of the Beru leaf. However,  the shrub is essentially extinct inSri Lanka, and made  the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2006.

Some more details and links to images etc., may be found at our place-names and botany website: While the tree is threatened inSri Lankathe pharmaceutical value of the drugs that may be extracted from the tree is being extensively researched in other countries. A cytotoxic constituent of this plant has been characterized as a rare diterpinoid of the casbane class. Anti-tumour agents, ellagic acid derivatives etc., are being investigated from the extracts of this plant.

Variants of Agrostistachys are being grown inMalaysia and other countries for further study, while we have driven the local species to extinction.

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